Harricana River September 2015

The Harricana (aka Harricanaw) River headwaters are located in Western Quebec just east of the Quebec/Ontario border. The last 30km of the river is within Ontario.

This is the latest installment of our quest to paddle all the rivers flowing into James Bay (number 7 for me).

We (my frequent paddling partner Sam & his companion Ichabod) will paddle the last 180km of the river from the bridge north of the town of Joutel QC to Washow Lodge just upstream from the river mouth. From the lodge we will either paddle across James Bay or be picked up by motorboat if the weather is not appropriate for paddling (high winds).

We completed our trip successfully after spending 11 days on the river, 2 days waiting at Washow Lodge for the wind to calm down, a cold and bumpy 3 hour ride in a freighter canoe across James Bay to Moosonee, a 5 hour train ride to Cochrane and a final 11 hour drive home.

The Harricana was far and away the biggest river we have paddled in the James Bay area. Although water levels were low there were a number of immense rapids that were impossible to paddle, these required portages that were fortunately not too long. We also had the opportunity to run some very nice Class II/III rapids and take advantage of the low water to do short lift/drag overs across open rock.

Harricana River Journal

September 15th - 28th 2015

Text By Sam82

Images By Recped

Google Photo Gallery

You Tube Video

Day 0:

Today Ben and I drove up to Cochrane from Fenelon Falls. We stopped in Sudbury for our usual dinner at a 24 hour truck stop, liver and onions. We pushed on from there and camped 20 min south of Cochrane at a dead end road. The sky was full of stars. We each slept out in the open. We had to be up bright and early to meet Terry at 6:00am at the train station.

Day 1:

5.3 km - 1 Hour 15 Minutes

The heavy dew that morning soaked my winter down top quilt but fortunately for me I had brought that just for that night and had a dry quilt already packed for the trip. We were late meeting Terry by about 45min. He was eager to make it to the put in early enough so that he could drive home in the light. After meeting Terry (still dark out) we began our drive to the Harricana put in. The morning made way for a beautiful sunny day. The road all the way to the put in was paved although it had numerous sink holes and dips making it necessary to drive slow and cautious. At the put in we threw the truck into 4 wheel drive and drove down very close to the water...Terry became agitated that we were taking too long and also showed concern about getting the truck stuck on his drive back out. After we unloaded I drove the truck out for Terry and ran over one of my 4 Nalgene bottles in the process.

We waved goodbye to Terry and decided to hike out to the bridge going over the Harricana on the access road. I have seen this image a few times while researching the river. Under the bridge we saw a chocolate milk coloured river speed through a small class 3 canyon...actually it looked like a fun run but Ben and I put in below the final drop. Once the canoes were packed we pushed off from shore. The day was hot and sunny with a small breeze coming from the north east. I was paddling a red Mad River Caption and Ben was in his yellow Mohawk XL 14. The wind threw my rockered boat off course a few times and memories of the Kattawagami resurfaced....had I chosen the wrong boat to paddle again?! 

I had spent much of the paddling year practicing in my new Caption and I remained positive and would let my training get me down the river...hopefully upright the whole way!! The river was chocolate milk and my imagination reminded me of the scary beasts that lurked beneath the muddy waters. Falling in was not an appealing idea! After a short flatwater paddle of about 5km we stopped on River left were a clear stream flowed in and a hunt camp was perched on a grassy hill. We spent an enjoyable night there. Ichy (my short black haired canoe companion) enjoyed exploring the camp and running around on the short grass. Our trip down the "Scaricannaw" had begun.

Day 2:

24.8 km - 6 Hours 25 Minutes

We awoke this morning to a warm day with clouds in the sky. It rained a little but more or less stayed pretty nice. After a quick breakfast of coffee and tea I packed my canoe and Ichy and I headed out before Ben agreeing to stop at the beginning of the class 3 canyon and first whitewater of the trip. I was eager to see what this rapid looked like because I felt it would set the mood for the rest of the trip...I was both right and wrong. After an easy 10km paddle down flat slow water we came to a class 3 ledge. We pulled off on river right to scout. The water was clearly on the low side which proved accurate for the remainder of the trip. The water was also a swirling brown mess of weird undercurrents and eddies. This would not prove to be the character of the river again until the last 10km before Goose camp. The water would actually get clearer and less murky not too far down from this first drop...that would prove a nice surprise for this river. 

Ben caught up with me and we ran a small sneak route river right. We collided in the washout of the drop were strange currents played with our boats...thoughts of the Kattawagami resurfaced but this would be the last of the "freaky" currents for the remainder if the trip...thank goodness. This initial class 3 drop gave way to an easy class 1 rapid that entered a class 3 canyon. Ben and I agreed to stop and scout before the canyon. Ben was ahead of me and I silently (or not) cursed as his bow dropped out of sight into...lord only new. I followed his lead and Ichy and I enjoyed a wonderful class 3 drop. We eddied out river right at the bottom and both Ben and I had to pump water from our canoes. This landing was a huge rock with some nice cedars higher up...it was a beautiful campsite and I highly recommend future canoeists stop here for the night. It was still early and due to our previous short day we decided to paddle on. We paddled down to the confluence of the Turgeon River and made camp on a rocky island mid river. There were no trees and we had to peg our tents down well to avoid the wind tossing them into the water. It showered a little that night but it was a nice campsite with a good view of the Turgeon. From here the water would get clearer.

Day 3:

12.6 km – 2 Hours 30 Minutes

Today we paddled mostly flatwater. It was wet, cold, and windy. We made good progress but after paddling a very wide class 2 rapid I told Ben we needed to find a camp if he was ok with that. Ben is excellent to paddle with. He is easy going and agreed that with the poor weather, a campsite was a good idea. With nothing appearing to look too promising we got out part way down a rocky rapid on river left and scouted the shore. Things looked bad. Thick black spruce forest with a wet mossy carpet covered in rotting logs...typical James Bay forest. I then stumbled out of the forest and onto a small flatish rock outcrop that overlooked the rapid. It was small, sloping, and our 3rd campsite of the trip. We paddled our canoes below the campsite just down river and lashed them to the shore. It proved to be a very cold and rainy night. 

We set up a group shelter with Bens "bug hut" and I pitched my 2p Eureka for Ichy and I to retire in later that evening. Ben, Ichy, and I huddled together shivering while we drank warm drinks and ate some dehydrated food. Spirits were not exactly high as we have been in this situation before....cold, wet, behind schedule, and with the knowledge that if it continued to downpour, our river may raise to uncomfortable levels. Times like these when things seem tough and borderline scary sometimes present with surprises. That night the rain eased off, the stars came out, and we watched the northern lights ripple across the sky. I went to bed, dry in my warm down quilt with my dog nestled into my side with a big smile across my face as I gazed out at the beautiful northern sky. Funny how things work out right?

Day 4:

9.1 km – 4 Hours 52 Minutes

I'd like to say we awoke to sunny skies and made excellent progress today. We did not. It was another cold wet and rainy day. We paddled less km's then the day before. We had hoped to make it to 1 mile island today. A thick fog had risen across the river and it was very wet. We approached a large waterfall in the river and portages on river left. The portage actually had a trail something rare on a James Bay River. Our 4 carry portage took a fair amount of time and despite the relatively easy trail we felt tired after it was done. 

We paddled a short ways down river before calling it a day and camping on a sloping gravel shoreline on river left. Ichy was very happy to not have to sit soaking wet in the canoe any longer. Poor dog was shivering and looked miserable! More dehydrated food for dinner and a long sit and reflect period before bed...normally that is a delightful experience on a canoe trip...getting to camp early and relaxing...but Ben and I were both anxious to see what the notorious 7 mile island looked like...each taking turns analyzing the map and stating what we felt we would find. "Big water" was the general consensus.

Day 5:

28.3 km – 5 Hours 25 Minutes

Today things would take a turn for the better. We broke camp after a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee/tea (and dog chow for Ichy). I might add that it has become commonplace for Ichy to take the role of camp dish washer...despite Bens reluctance many trips ago. After Ben and I eat it is expected that all pots, fry pans, plates, bowls, and utensils are laid out on the ground before us so that Ichy can lick them clean...it's serious business and Ichy takes his job very seriously. He is quick to let us know when we forget. I think Ben is skeptical about the cleanliness of Ichy's washing. 

Today we paddle mostly flatwater but the current is very fast and we make great time. We come to a a rapid that starts out as swifts. It builds. We start the rapid close together, talking casually both sitting upright in our canoes. We notice the current is stronger. We glide past a few holes. And the rapid gets bigger. I look farther downstream and what looks like "not much" in such a wide river soon looks like "much". I kneel in my canoe. Ichy assumes his sitting position to the right of the canoe...I'm a left handed paddler and him on the right side of the boat balances us out perfectly. "Stay", "Stay", "Easy boy", "Easy", I speak to Ichy, comforting him. I tell him he is a good boy as we dive into a class 3 hole. The flotation bags in the canoe keep most of the water out. Even still Ichy is soaked with a big wave necessitating a quick shake. We continue on down the rapid. I aim for the smoothest of waves but even so sometimes the big stuff is just more fun. We have plenty of fun. We eddy out River right at the bottom of the rapid. The canoe is full of water. I hug Ichy and he licks my face happily. Ben is still upright too. We spend a few moments bailing our boats and continue on downstream. 

It had been a long day of paddling. We are both tired and would like nothing more than to find a picture perfect campsite to end the day. This is a James Bay River though, said campsites don't exist. Sometimes when things are tough the unexpected happens. We are reminded of why we paddle such rivers. We come to a large outcropping of rock with a gentle rapid. Eddying out river left we come to IMO a 5 star campsite complete with a swimming pool high up in the smooth rock. Ben rates it a 4. I cannot remember why he didn't give it a 5. If Ben rates a campsite with 5 stars you best believe it is something special. We camped here for the night. Wet clothes are placed all over the rocks to finally dry out. Down river we can see the river snake downwards around a bend with more rock outcroppings and ragged pine trees stretching toward the sky...it is beautiful. Ichy scouts the site out thoroughly. Ben places his tent in a pine canopy with a flat tent pad towards the top of the smooth rocks. I place my tent on the wide open rocks with a clear view of the sky. We both sleep well that night. Ichy snores.

Day 6:

9.9 km – 5 Hours 11 Minutes

Today we rise late, the sun is out. Our clothes that were lying on the rocks are soaked but will be dry shortly. We take our time and Ben cooks eggs for breakfast. On the river again the excitement starts almost immediately. We paddle numerous long rapids today, usually creeping down the shoreline, eddying out when necessary to lift over any rough sections. We portage a few times over moon like landscapes. This river is big, rugged, and beautiful. The day is warm. The wind blows from the northeast but it is manageable. 

As we approach the scary 7 mile island we come to a very long class 3/4 rapid. Ben as usual takes the lead. I follow carefully behind him until he disappears. I continue on only to realize I may have bitten off more than I can chew. I drop through voluminous chutes and up ahead I see there is a diagonal ledge and what looks like big waves at the bottom but there is a rock outcrop on my side of the river blocking my view. I know this is rated a class 4 ledge rapid from the maps. Wondering where Ben is and nervous about what is around the rock outcrop I make a quick eddy out River right and pull into some smooth rocky shore. I get out of the boat with Ichy and walk up the smooth rocks. I see Ben is on shore a few hundred metres behind me. We wave to each other, a sign we are both ok. Ben walks down the shoreline and we scout the remaining rapid. After the weird diagonal ledge there are a series of 3-4 big haystacks. They look amazing in the sun, bright white and inviting. Ben gives it a go and makes a perfect run down them. His canoe bobbed up and down in the haystacks and nearly disappeared a few times. I don't think Ben even had to bail his canoe! I look at my position on the water and realize by eddying out I have cut off the better route of running the rapid. I drag my boat over the smooth rocks and out in below the rapid. I believe this is called "wussying out". 

We continue on down river. There are 3 falls requiring portaging before 7 mile island. We run one of these through a sneak route. Portage another river right and the last one is a centre portage over smooth open rock in the middle of the rapid. The wind picks up and we are paddling hard to reach river right and the safe entrance to 7 mile island. We reach the first small island. I go river right and almost dump my canoe broaching on a rock...the wind whipped my rockered boat around...foolish. We continue on to another small island. The portage shows to go to the right around the island and the overland portage starts there somewhere. There is almost no water river right but I choose to drag my boat over the boulders and into the channel on river right. Ben braves the unknown and paddled to the left of the island, a solid class 2 drop. Easy enough but one mistake and you could end up going down some very bad falls. Ben makes it down safely. I feel like a "wussy" but I'm safe and we have made it to 7 mile island and are on the recommended river right side. 

We pull up river right before a chute/waterfall and make camp on the flattish rocks. It is a nice site but acts as a wind tunnel. Later that night while we are sitting enjoying a small fire I get up to poke around. "Ben your tent is gone". He barely blinks and slowly gets up to investigate. Ben is one cool cat. Not much flusters him. I find his tent in a small pool of water just before the river. Fortunately he had tied his tent to his canoe with his throw bag. We settle in for the night and sleep with the roar of wind and rapids in the background.

Day 7:

3.9 km – 4 Hours 17 Minutes

We awoke to an overcast day, we are eager to see what 7 mile island had to offer. I have heard many scary stories of equipment lost, paddlers stranded, portages non-existent etc. we slowly make our way down river. The long km portage circumventing a series of scenic falls is actually very well marked, flat, and really quite easy. We even stop and eat blueberries along the way. Ichy sits patiently while I pick them and eats a few handfuls too. We continue paddling eventually coming to a marked class 5 rapid. We head river left and find that the water runs out. It goes to a trickle and we lift over/drag our boats down a dry waterfall. We camp river left high up on a smooth rock clearing. It is just before the marked class 3 canyon. The sky clears and we enjoy a peaceful night.

Day 8:

10.2 km – 6 Hours 16 Minutes

We awake to sunshine and warm temperatures. The canyon rapid looks "meaty". We opt to portage river left, we portage too far before realizing we could have put in earlier and paddled the last third of the rapid. From here we continue on down 7 mile island, mostly staying to the left shore. We come to another waterfall. The portage is on river right around this impressive cataract that makes a sweeping turn to the right downriver. There is a clear portage trail down to a small pond. Ben manages to lose his bearings momentarily (an easy thing to do in the thick boreal forest) and trudges around for 15-20 min before finding his way back to the put in. We then paddle across the pond and bushwhack about 50m before going down a steep hill and finding the river again. 

From here we ferry across the river to the left hand shore and paddle through the next drop. From there we manage to paddle the marked class 4 rapids by sneaking down the left side and lining when necessary. These rapids have large elevation drops but we are still able to paddle most of it. We camp after the last marked class 4 rapid on river right. We can see high cliff bluffs far down river that light up with the late evening sun. Our campsite is on wide open rock. My clothing has been damp from all the whitewater and my skin is sweaty. I have managed to develop a tender rash on the inside of my legs. Ben comes to my rescue supplying a soothing ointment...I apply the ointment. We retire early that night, exhausted from the day’s whitewater.

Day 9:

33.3 km – 5 Hours 59 Minutes

Today we wake to warm sunshine. We are a stones throw away from reaching the end of 7 Mile Island. We or rather "I'm" even more aware of the red warnings marked in the maps. Ben reassures me that it will likely be just big waves to negotiate through. Ok...so if the previous big rapids didn't warrant a red annotation in the map, then just how big are these ones going to be?!!! I follow Bens lead but eventually veer off to find my own way down...Ben dives his canoe through the meat of a ledge while I manage to skirt it. Let me say, this grand exit to 7 Mile Island is a pleasure to paddle. 

We continued on past 7 Mile Island and while the majority of marked whitewater was behind us we made very quick time and paddled many km's. The current even on the flat sections moved at a steady pace. We passed by large limestone cliffs and paddled through many km's of class 1, borderline class 2 rapids...just steering enough to miss the boulders. Towards the end of the day the sky grew cloudy and the temperature dropped. We paddled perhaps too long and even though the end of the day had us paddling km's on end of continuous whitewater I was ready to find a suitable campsite. 

We stopped on river left at a hunt camp and called it home for the night. The sky even cleared and made way for a beautiful pink sunset. The camp itself was typical. A lopsided shack with junk lying outside and an adjacent building that had collapsed. The floor of the main shack was slopping but it was dry inside and provided relief from the wind. Ichy was on mouse duty and spent the night perched on my bed staring into the dark, occasional jumping down to investigate the hidden scampering.

Day 10:

21.4 km – 3 Hours 45 Minutes

Today we woke to sunshine and a cool but pleasant temperature. We paddled mostly flatwater but again the current was strong and despite being able to see many km's down river and the river being very wide, the paddle was a pleasure. Towards the end of the day we paddled down shallow gravel bars and eventually pulled over on a river right island. It was an easy slopping gravel beach and we camped early enough to gather some firewood and enjoy a calm clear evening. Ichy and I walked down the shoreline and searched for fossils. Ben prepared a camp fire. This was our last campsite before Goose Camp.

Day 11:

22.7 km – 3 Hours 53 Minutes

Today we woke very early. The game plan was to arrive early enough at Goose Camp so that we could meet our shuttle driver and get our boat shuttle across James Bay to Moosonee. We woke when it was still dark. I set out before Ben not sure if I would be able to keep up with him with being so tired. Waving to Ben I paddled off with Ichy into the early morning sunlight. We paddled through many km's of gravel bars. I had to get out a few times to drag the canoe but it wasn't so bad. I felt as though the river was giving one final push before plunging into the tidal zone. It actually was. The final gravel strewn rapid was a lot of fun and we took water over the bow a few times even. 

After the final drop the current stopped and the water became almost stagnant. The mighty Harricana was now more lake like. There were large open mud flats here and evidence of low tide could be seen. Ichy and I took our time here, sad to feel the current leave the river. We looked at large boulders on the mud flats. When one such boulder began to move a big grin spread across my face. Ichy noticed my new fascination and became very alert. A bearded seal lay about 200m away from us on the mud. I slowly edged the canoe forwards and the huge creature quickly lurched from the mud into the water. Ichy actually wagged his tail and snorted. Our neighbour appeared twice more surfacing his head before disappearing into the murky water. That was the other big difference here. The water was again the colour of chocolate milk. We continued on down river. The wind picked up fiercely and blew my rockered boat around. Realization sinking in I slowed my paddle strokes until the wind pushed the canoe backwards and I had to fight the rest of the way to Goose Camp despite there being no point. Our boat shuttle would not be going anywhere today. 

I arrived at Goose Camp. I grew slightly nervous remembering the last time I had been there with Ben and it being completely vacant. We had been assured that Mark our shuttle driver would be there waiting for us but the anxiousness remained until I spotted a group of natives sitting high up the bank near the cabins. Sure enough Mark was there. About an hour after my arrival, Ben showed up. I helped him drag his canoe up and we chatted with Mark and the Goose Camp workers. They were very friendly and asked us if we had fished at all or seen any Moose. We had not fished or seen any Moose. They set us up in individual rooms and we changed into warm dry clothes. They treated us to a roast chicken dinner that night. It was very good.

Day 12 and 13:

We spent two days at Goose Camp. The wind was blowing too strong to allow for safe passage to Moosonee. One of these nights Ben and I stayed up late to photograph the "Red Moon". Unfortunately by the time the red moon was in full effect the clouds moved in and covered it completely. It was still fun watching it develop.

Day 14:

84.5 km – 3 Hours 20 Minutes (motorboat)

300 km – 5 Hours 16 Minutes (train)

We awoke to grey skies but no wind! Mark said we would attempt the Bay today. We loaded up one freighter canoe with both of our boats and all of our gear. Ben and I each wore our dry suits and most of our warm clothing. Ichy wore his red life jacket. The shuttle across the Bay made me nervous. We were in complete mercy to Mark and the structural integrity of the much cracked freighter canoe. The water out in the Bay was choppy and I was very tense. It was also cold. Ichy behaved himself and nudged in between Ben and myself. Mark was the man for the job though and safely got us to Moosonee. He was a very warm and kind person. I hope to meet him again. At Moosonee we waited a few hours for the train.

I filled up a bottle of coke with some fire water to make the train ride was a little less daunting. Ichy was placed inside a dog crate for the journey. We arrived in Moosonee in the dark after our 5hr train ride. The truck was there waiting for us as Terry said it would be and we drove home that night. Ben did most of the driving. I was exhausted. We had planned on getting a motel room but all of the rooms in each motel we passed were either taken or not dog friendly. 9 hours later we arrived back in Fenelon Falls. Ben loaded up his truck and drove home to Toronto. I went right to bed.


I had been wanting to paddle this river for years. I had even thought of soloing it. After paddling it I can say that in my opinion the Harricana is not a good choice to solo. There are some long stretches of class 2-3 rapids that have potential for serious consequences if traveling alone. Even having just one other boat to retrieve a dumped canoe and lost gear would be a life saver. Can it be soloed? Sure but it would be stressful, you would have to portage a lot more, you would miss out paddling some excellent class 3 whitewater, and more importantly it just would not be enjoyable.

That being said, of all the rivers Ben and I have paddled in James Bay I thought our Harricana trip had the least amount of "drama". The river, at our low water levels was a pleasure to paddle. 7 Mile Island is very scenic. The campsites were generally very nice if including the cabins we stayed at. The water quality for the majority of the trip is actually very good. The mandatory portages are pretty easy and many can be carried on open rock. Our level was low but the water was still big. I would paddle it at medium levels but would avoid it at high levels. For maps, I highly recommend those found on cartespleinair.org.

The Scaricannaw, the river of chocolate milk...it has now become a river of good memories for me. I will be back only next time I would like to see what the left side of 7 Mile Island has to offer. Hopefully Ben does too.