Head River Canoe Route:
In this piece (reprinted from The Prairie Smoke 3.3) Harry describes one of his favourite canoe routes. The Head River runs roughly parallel to the Monck Road, traversing the southern reaches of the Canadian Shield from east to west. For the most part the there is no evidence of human activity along much of the length of the river.
The vistas are frequently stunning and an abundance of wildlife will be in evidence. Please note that parts of the Head river will require fairly high skill levels, and are not for the inexperienced canoeist. We have added a road map and a few topographical maps to let you get a better idea of the terrain and vegetation.
Wildlife is abundant and it is virtually guaranteed that you will see some, especially if you have learned to paddle soundlessly. The many picturesque falls and rapids make excellent photographic opportunities as well. If you go there with the idea of taking your time and letting your senses absorb what is available you will enjoy it despite some areas that take a little effort.
We will look at the river in sections as if we were to start in Head lake and paddle downstream. To enter the Head River from Head Lake you must start further down the lake and paddle up to the river because the road is private where it crosses the bridge and the locals are vigilant and they mean private. As a matter of courtesy one should avoid parking on the Digby Laxton Line.
Note: There is a proper boat launch and lots of parking, off the road in a dedicated parking lot at the south end at Head Lake at Suter and Dewberry or another launch on the east side of Head Lake just north of the Head Lake General Store.
The first half of the trip from the lake to 503 (Monck road about 2 km east of Uphill) is wide, flat and generally swampy along the sides. There is a small dam and then life gets much more interesting. There are multiple rapids and small falls. Only a few of these are runable and some require 50- 200 metre portages. The only difficulty is that there are no portages so bushwhacking with a canoe on your head really describes it better. Several of the rapids and falls are very picturesque. Fallen logs are plentiful so lift outs or scraping under are common also. You can expect turtles, ducks, warblers, beavers, otters and muskrats and a good chance of spotting some larger mammals. Including lunch by a pretty little swift, it takes about 5-6 hrs.
From the Monck Road to County Rd 35 south of Uphill takes 2-3hrs. You start by ducking your head to get under the culvert and then wishing you had a saw to cut some of the branches and tangles that confront you. Before long you emerge into what I have called the Uphill swamp which is most of this part. The river takes a tortuous course and the vegetation is extremely green. There are lots of ducks including some eared grebes (which are supposed to be out west). They had nested and had young. River mammals are common and we saw some deer when we were there. Before you reach 35 there is a slightly faster little swift (not enough to call a rapid.) If you take out there you will find poison ivy on the downstream side of the bridge and an owner on the upstream side who is not a believer that the road allowance belongs to the County. –Take your choice.
From 35 to McKenzie Rd is a beautiful stretch. In June the wildflowers are out, the water is warm, the sky is azure and beside the periodic gurgling of the water and the territorial birds there is a great silence, broken only occasionally by a gust of wind in the tree tops This section is virtually uninhabited so if you have problems you are along way from help. There are multiple sets of delightful rapids and a few falls over limestone ridges. Cross river deadfalls are common also. Only experienced white water people should tackle this piece of river. There are no recognizable portages. I had a couple of different events happen. In one place I could see a fish struggling under water. On closer scrutiny a snapping turtle had bitten into its belly and was not going to let go. In another place I could see something white as I approached a small swift. As I passed over it I could see that it was a deer skeleton with the head impaled on a snag and the rest of the bones and ligaments still intact waving in the current –ghostly! Presumably it had fallen through the ice in the winter and all the flesh had been devoured since then. Time accumulated to this point is about 6 hours.
From Mckenzie Rd to Lake Dalrymple Rd. for many years was more or less my own private white-water domain. The last few years a number of white water canoe groups have started to use it for the spring runoff. Its hard to keep a secret that good. Again there are several rapids of different grades The largest is a grade 3-4 depending on the volume of water. It is 150-200 meters long with a 3-4 ft falls in the middle and curves around 2 corners. The total drop would be 20-25 ft -fun and a challenge too. Incidentally there is a place along the way that comes close to the road where you can stop for a butter tart. This is the prime white water area so be aware. 2 hours
After lake Dalrymple Road quiet water for the most part with one exception to get your attention. The creek from Lake Dalrymple comes in from the left before you get to the Monck Road again. It might be an interesting diversion to paddle up there a bit. Expect wildlife. 2-3hours
The Monck Rd (at Young’s lake) to Sadowa Rd north of Sebright has some gentle rapids but nothing worrisome. The creek from Young’s lake which enters from the left is full of fish if you are lucky enough to be there in the spring. On the right Cranberry River enters. It is generally full of logs and bush and is not recommended. It is a long, long way to Cranberry Lake and besides it is privately owned.
The most commonly used part of the river is from the Sadowa Road. bridge to Hwy 69 near the wilderness campground southeast of Washago. This is the Black river by then, the Head having joined several km’s upstream. Most paddlers with some experience can enjoy this section. The first 2 rapids are the most difficult and there are easy portages on the left side of both. They are quite close together so portage both at once if you are not going to run them. There is some good fishing in this section. Strangely enough if you do this section just after the ice goes out you may be able to take a shortcut through the trees for about a ½ Km and avoid the junction Its a lot like skiing the glades. It comes out into a little pond off the left side of the Black that is usually full of ducks. Be aware that in the spring runoff the Black is powerful with lots of boils and eddies so watch those eddy lines. 3 hours - The most important thing of all is to go prepared, give yourself lots of time and relate to the wilderness. The rewards are immense.