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The Wilds of the West Spanish Forest

I’m not quite sure how I got myself into this predicament. One leg was wedged between a rock while the other was submerged waist deep in the river. The canoe was precariously balanced on my shoulders, slowly slipping while the weight of my laden pack threatened to pull man, boat and gear into the adjacent waters. It was mid-July and we were somewhere on the Shakwa River, deep in the wilds of the West Spanish Forest.

Just days before, we had embarked on an extensive 130km expedition through a series of seldom travelled interconnecting lakes and rivers. Located 100km North-West of Sudbury Ontario, the West Spanish Forest is renowned for its sprawling wilderness capped by rocky knolls and flanked with towering old growth pines. The gateway to this vast backcounty, Rushbrook Lake, can only be reached after hours of driving down dusty logging roads. However, the reward for enduring the lengthy drive and dodging speeding logging trucks is immediately apparent the minute you arrive at the launch. The lake is encircled by towering old growth red and white pine and its crystal clear waters shimmer brilliantly under the midday sun. Launching the canoe, we found ourselves gliding across the placid waters of Rushbrook. Shortly afterwards we would enter the Shakwa system, and head deep into the unknown of the West Spanish Forest.

Lining our TuffStuff Expedition Prospector upstream against the minuscule and boney Shakwa River, we would soon reach the Shakwa Lakes. A 100ft fire tower stands guard over Upper Shakwa Lake. Once a strategic outpost in the Ontario forest fire protection network, the tower, like many others across the Province, was abandoned in the 1970’s as aerial fire spotting and fire fighting crews took over. Today, the fire tower stands as a lone sentinel, standing guard over the rugged beauty of the Shakwa Lakes.

Continuing northward, we canoed through a series of tiny picturesque lakes before embarking on a lengthy paddle across the expansive and windy Mozhabong and Indian Lakes. After a partial bushwhack portage over the watersheds’ height of land, our journey soon has us paddling the Sinaminda Creek system. From its headwaters at Winnie Lake, the creek meanders through dense northern bogs before opening up in a chain of small lakes. Tumbling over shallow rapids and washing over remnant logging sluices, the creek shortly empties into the vastness of Sinaminda Lake.

Leaving Sinaminda Lake, we faced two route options; return the way we had come via Shakwa to Rushbrook, or paddle the rarely travelled Agnes River and portage overland to Tee Lake and the Shakwa River. As far as we know, this route hasn’t been attempted by any modern day adventurer, and probably for good reason. There were a couple of unknowns with the second option, namely the 3.8km portage was a series of abandoned logging roads whose existence could not be verified and the water levels on the Agnes were a complete mystery. Further, the connecting section of the Shakwa existed only as a tiny blue line on our topographical maps and the condition of its watercourse was a topic of pure speculation. Thus far, the majority of the ‘established’ portion appeared as if it hadn’t been traversed in decades, with overgrown to non-existent portages and bush sites that hadn’t seen a tent in eons. So really, how much rougher could the unknown segment be?

Feeling adventurous, and seeking the added thrill of a potential whitewater run, we chose the exploratory option and soon found ourselves at the base of the Sinaminda Lake dam, where the Anges River begins its southward descent towards the mighty Spanish River. Almost immediately, we were greeted with a fast flowing stretch with just enough water to funnel our canoe through a narrow channel enclosed by a dense canopy of overhanging conifers. The experience was akin to paddling through a giant covered water slide.

Ecstatic with the results of the initial set, we paddled on, eager to meet what awaited us beyond the next bend. Unfortunately, we were only met with disappointment as the next set was incredibly boney and the deepest channel was riddled with numerous strainers, sweepers and logjams. Picking our way along, we quickly concluded that the Agnes was a river of despair as the realization that the remaining 10km of travel would be an arduous slog set in. With the day wearing on, we still hadn’t come across the supposed logging road and our escape route from the Agnes’ torturous grasp. Grey skies turned to drizzle, and drizzle turned to rain as we pushed, pulled, waded and lined our way downstream.

Finally after what seemed to be the hundredth boney swift, we spied an old bridge abutment and the location of the much sought after logging road portage! Loading up, we set off down the trail, eager to reach the Shakwa. Initially, the going was good, but after half a kilometre we encountered the first in a long series of blow downs. Jack Pine as far as the eye could see lay scattered across the road, cast astrewn like matchsticks from a broken box. Pushing our way through the wall of green, we made slow progress as the now heavy rains pelted down. The deluge soaked us to the core and when we finally made it to the banks of the Shakwa we resembled a pair of drowned rats. Unfortunately for these soggy explorers, the logging road had led us to a boney rapid. Dismayed, we continued to portage in stream until we reached the shores of Tee Lake. By now a heavy fog had settled in, but we were relived the challenging sections were behind us. Or so we thought…

This is where I found myself between a rock and a hard place on the Shakwa. Leaving Tee Lake behind, we were certain only smooth paddling lay between our current location and the takeout at Rushbrook Lake. Instead, we found ourselves portaging in stream through a lengthy section of chutes and riffles. Now wedged in the river and slowly slipping, I took one fatal step and ended up tumbling  ng into the river. The canoe, now free of my shoulders slowly drifted downstream as I attempted to recover myself. Cursing at my misfortunate, I shouldered a now sodden pack, retrieved the runaway canoe and soldiered on with the only injury being my bruised ego.

By the time we eventually reached Rushbrook, the daylight was quickly fading. In silence, we swiftly paddled across the foggy shroud that engulfed the lake. A ten hour drive home still awaited but despite the struggles, both of us did not want to leave this magical wilderness. The breathtaking scenery, fantastic fishing, wildlife encounters, majestic stands of old growth and an incredible sense of solitude made every struggle worth it!! Journeying through the wilds of the West Spanish Forest was a mesmerizing experience and you can be certain that we will return to once again explore its vast unknown..