The Shebeshekong River is a little known and seldom paddled river route located just north of Parry Sound, Ontario. Winding past towering pines and an ever changing landscape of marshes, rocky outcrops and sandy banks, the river lazily snakes its way to Georgian Bay. Where the channel narrows, the Shebeshekong picks up speed and tumbles past several rapids and falls. Roughly a dozen sections of moving water require navigation and as many of the adjacent portages are rough or hard to follow, expect to line or wade, especially during periods of low water and later in the season.
It was an early June morning as we set out from the Shebeshekong Lake public boat launch. The hot, muggy conditions catered to the hordes of hungry mosquitoes and blackflies who descended upon our group in a relentless pursuit of fresh blood. Swatting at the clouds, we passed under a low bridge and quickly entered a vast wetland. As we canoed past a shoreline of lush grasses and shrubs, we encountered a handful of beaver dams, including one under a low bridge which required careful footing to ensure we didn’t take a muddy bath! After an hour of paddling we had reached scenic Mazur Lake. A gentle breeze drifted across the small lake and granted us a brief period of relief from the bloodthirsty insects. The far western shores of Mazur Lake are flanked by crown land and would make a perfect stopover for an early break or for those who don’t wish to continue downriver.
Grey skies flank the Shebeshekong River
From Mazur, the Shebeshekong begins to tumble over a series of spaced out rapids and chutes. The first set, an easy CI can be found at the western outlet of the lake. A short 5m portage on river left can avoid the brief rapid. Opting to run the set, our group was dismayed at how boney the rapid had become, especially considering it was early June. Despite some bumping and grinding, the run was a success and we continued downriver.
After a gentle 5km stretch of river, we reached our next set of rapids, a CII with two ledges best run in the center. Our paddling partners opted to line the boney rapid, but feeling adventurous and banking on enough flow, we opted to make a run of it. The first ledge was deftly handled, but the second drop ground us to a standstill as we bottomed out on the precipice. Getting out of the canoe we lined the remainder of the rapid. The next set, a quick moving CI can be bypassed by a rough 25m portage on river right. We mustered a successful run, but were forced to wade the boney swift immediately downstream of the rapids’ pool.
Further downstream, the Shebeshekong meanders through a thick marshland teeming with wildlife. Beaver activity is plentiful through this stretch and we lifted over numerous dams. Forward progress was slow and steady as we inched our way toward the open expanse of Little Shebeshekong Lake. Located roughly midway to the Bay, Little Shebeshekong is the largest body of water on the river. The lake contains a few scattered bush sites but we settled on a well used spot located on the northeast shore that even had a kitchen sink! Talk about glamping!
Campsite view on Little Shebeshekong Lake
Continuing downstream from Little Shebeshekong, the river once again picks up the pace and flows over several rapids and chutes. The first, a small ledge, can be bypassed by a short 5m portage on river left that crosses over the exposed bedrock. Noting ample flow, we prepared to run the rapid but halted progress as a canoe came into view. We were shocked and surprised to meet a local cottager who was traveling upriver. He was also taken aback, stating he has seen few paddlers attempt the route. After exchanging pleasantries and discussing what lay ahead, we ran the ledge and continued downstream to the next rapid.
The next set consists of a short CII rapid which can be avoided by a 50m portage on river right. While the entrance is obstructed by the bush, the trail is marked by yellow markers. The takeout can be found in a small gully leading up from the exposed bedrock of the riverbank. Shortly after a small pool, the river constricts through a narrow channel where a small swift requires careful navigation to avoid smashing into hidden rocks. After a few hundred meters of calmer waters, the Shebeshekong tumbles over a small falls. The portage avoiding this obstacle can be hard to find and its best to walk across the exposed river rocks, putting in below the base of the falls. The next few rapids can easily be lined, waded or run depending on water levels.
David and Marie France line up for a whitewater run on the Shebeshekong
After a small canyon, the river enters a meandering wetland where several dam blowouts have resulted in a shallow channel. Our group clambered over several logjams and weaved in and out of numerous strainers and deadheads. One jam in particular had a rise of roughly half a meter and required some serious balancing to avoid ending up in the muddy, leach infested waters below.
Soon the trees close back in and the river winds around an S-bend swift before tumbling over another chute. The low water levels we encountered created an impassable run, so opting to portage, we carried 25m across the open rock on river left. Avoid carrying river right as a private cottage is located here!
As the river nears the small settlement of Dillion, it tumbles over its final set of cascades before emptying into the bay. A small chute funnels under the Dillon Road bridge. The take out can be found on river right and a short 40m carry leads to a large grassy area on the south side of the road. Opting to run the chute, both canoes promptly ground out, bumping and grinding along as they slowly descended the rapid at a seemingly glacial pace, earning it the moniker of ‘Glacial Falls’.
Running the bottom stretch of Glacial Falls
Following the remaining course of the Shebeshekong, we soon encountered a light breeze which seemingly increased in strength with every forward stroke. The breeze continued to strengthen and as we rounded Fairfield Island, we were buffeted by a sizable headwind blowing in from the open Bay. Opting to play it safe, we paddled a sheltered route, avoiding the wind by darting in amongst the leeward side of many small islands. Among the larger, Narrows Island, was more of a peninsula as we faced a short lift-over at its southern terminus to connect to the open waters of Cormican Bay. Shortly after, our group was paddling the sheltered passage of Shebeshekong Channel, protected from the wind by the expansive Franklin Island to our west.
Relaxing on the Bay
Preserved as a Provincial Conservation Reserve, Franklin Island is a large knob of rock, pine and sandy beaches protruding from the coastal waters of Georgian Bay. A popular backcountry destination for sea kayakers, the island offers countless campsites. Most sites are unmarked, open, flat areas, though a few have been maintained by the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Association and White Squall Paddling Centre, who have installed pit privies.
The western side of the island is renowned for its wild landscape and windswept pines, but high winds can leave an unprepared paddler windbound and stranded for days at a time. With a heavy wind already blowing, we opted to find a site on the busier, but sheltered eastern side. After a brief search, we settled on a prime point of land offering a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.
Fireside on Franklin Island
As our final day dawned, the strong winds had yet to subside. Pushing off from our rocky peninsula, we paddled through the breakers, taking shelter behind islands when possible. The headwind slowed our progress, but the surrounding bay side scenery was enough of a distraction to keep our minds off of the forward struggle. Eventually, we reached the sandy shores of Killbear Provincial Park where our shuttled vehicle was waiting, concluding a successful run of a wild and scenic river and an unforgettable trip.
Brad Jennings in a canoeist and blogger at ExploretheBackcountry.com.