Spanish River - Elbow to Agnew Lake

CanadaOntarioNorth Channel
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Additional Route Information
52 km
2 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
1100 m
Longest Portage: 
500 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Technical Guide: 

Access from Hwy 144 north of Sudbury - poor road into the Elbow (follow Fox Lake Lodge signs)
Northwest for about 2 km
The Graveyard Rapids, including
P 500 m R around first rapid (or CBR first section and P 150 m L around second)
P 150 m L around falls
P 100 m R or liftover at ledge
P 350 m L around bouldery rapid at Agnes River or line left
West on Spanish River
Sharp right turn brings you right into Cedar Rapid
No portage - line left or CBR (large standing waves, rock in middle)
Camp night one at one of the sites in the 8 km stretch following Cedar Rapids
South on Spanish River (fast water, no major rapids)
South through Agnew Lake to finish at Agnew Lake Lodge

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

See trip log for Duke Lake to Agnew Lake
- or -
trip log for Pogamasing to Agnew Lake.

Near Miss on the Spanish

By: Peter B. Irvine

This article originally appeared in Vol. 21 No. 1 (Spring 1994) of "Nastawgan - Quarterly Journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association"

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Board of Directors of the Wilderness Canoe Association

We all learn from our mistakes. The mark of true wisdom, however, is to learn from the experiences of others. Perhaps you can learn from ours.

After a long car ride from Pittsburgh, PA, the eight of us with four canoes and lots of gear got on the train in Sudbury. A pleasant ride on the "bud car" from Sudbury to Pogamasing, and unscheduled stop on the railway maps showing nothing but the river and the track right next to it, marked the beginning of our late June 1989 trip down the Spanish River. We had to ask the conductor to stop at Pogamasing as the train does not do so without a special request. On the way we saw a beautiful waterfall, several lakes, and a deer bounding into the woods.

On the train we met an older couple who were going back to the river after canoeing the Spanish the previous year, when they cracked their fiberglass canoe in a rapid they called The Wall. They were travelling alone, and when the accident occurred they lost everything and had to hike back to the train track for help. Unfortunately the train only runs three times a week, and so they had to wait some time before being picked up. After an experience like that, it was incredible to us that they had decided to return. We had an ominous feeling about our own trip. What would happen when we encountered The Wall? Were we in over our heads?

The most difficult rapids on the Spanish River are contained in the Graveyard set, a series of seven rapids (by our count) some of which may be run after scouting, and some of which must be portaged. Our advance information on these rapids was gleaned from the book “Canoeing Ontario`s Rivers,” by Ron Reid and Janet Grand, which proved quite reliable.

We determined to tackle the entire Graveyard set in one day, camping at the Elbow the night before, running as many of the rapids as possible, portaging the rest, and stopping that evening in the old lumber camp at the base of the last rapid. As it turned out, we were able to accomplish our objective, but not without a major mishap.

We got on the river at 11 in the morning in good spirits, ready for a long day of paddling and portaging. We passed two small islands and found the first portage without difficulty. Walking down the trail, we could see that the first part of the rapid was runnable. Then we reached a point in the trail where someone had tied an old glove to a sapling. This marked a second entrance to the trail from the river and the beginning of more formidable rapids. We agreed not to run this second set.

Running the first would save us a 350 m portage, but we would be in trouble if we were to miss the portage marked by that old glove on the sapling. We walked back to get the others and made fairly quick work of the rapid and then the first portage. We took pictures of each other in front of the rapid at the foot of the next 150 m long portage on the right.

We shortly came to the subsequent portage on the left, scouted the rapid, and pronounced it unrunnable. The trail was rough over many rocks. We passed a campsite right over a beautiful fall, and one of us said that we should have camped there the night before. She like the idea of camping next to the fall. The portage was 100 m long, and we were all tired at the end. As we were resting, our friend turned to me and said “Peter, I just want you to know that I`m having a good time.” After all the complaints about the voracious black flies in camp the day before, and the threats never to return to Canada because of the pesky little creatures, that remark did me a lot of good.

The next rapid, known as The Wall, was a disaster. Characterized by our guide book as having a liftover on the right, the rapid`s nature was somewhat unclear to us. We did not recall whether a liftover referred to a rapid suitable for lining or merely a short portage. In retrospect, it turned out to be the latter. It may help to note here that when we find a portage marked on a map in Canada, it indicates to us that the rapid is absolutely unrunnable, no ifs, ands or buts. The problem was, there were several questionable rapids marked “check before running,” and it was tricky keeping the classifications straight.

In any case, two of our party got way ahead of us. As we approached the rapid, we saw that their canoe had capsized and their gear was floating all over the river below the rapid.

We spotted the portage trail on the right, pulled over and jumped out to go after the people in the capsized canoe. We ran to the end of the portage, but there was no sign of our friends.

My partner shouted we unload our canoe and try to find them. We called for someone to bring a throw rope, then unloaded our canoe and double carried it down the path. Our friend with the throw rope was nowhere to be seen. We ran back for the paddles, returned to the canoe, and paddled downriver.

It seemed an interminable time before we reached the floating gear. The canoe was on the right-hand side of the river. The bow had been bent at right angles to the stern. In desperation, we shouted to our missing companions. To our great relief, one of them answered that they had both survived, miraculously unhurt. They were hidden from our view on the left side of the river. One had been washing-machined in a hydraulic below the rapid and was badly shaken. We quickly paddled across the river to pick them up.

My female partner got out of our canoe to stay with the other woman, and the second survivor and I began picking up the floating debris, paddling across the river to the damaged canoe. It looked like a total loss. We were worried about getting all of us out of there with one less canoe.

We dragged the boat over to the shore and pulled it out of the water. The canoe being made of aluminum, we were able to bend it back straight. One of the thwarts was broken, but the canoe appeared salvageable. We need the hatchet-sized maul (which we brought for splitting wood and pounding tent pegs) to complete the job, so we went back up to the portage to fetch it. Our friend with the throw rope was waiting for us. He had run down the right bank through thick underbrush after our lost companions. When he found they were all right, he returned to the portage.

Two of our group took our canoe to go down and fix the damaged one. The rest of us began portaging the gear and remaining canoes.

After a long time, the shaken couple came back with my partner. One person was still with the broken canoe. Three of us paddled down to get him and the repaired canoe back to the portage. They had done an admirable job repairing a puncture in the hull caused by the broken thwart with duct tape and replacing the thwart with a strong tree branch.

After this three hour ordeal, we sat down to eat lunch. No one was hungry, but we ate anyway. There was some discussion of staying there for the night, but we decided that we should push on and do the last portage in the Graveyard set. This portage was 350 m long, on the left side of the river; it was muddy, swampy and buggy. We did it fast, barely pausing for breath. We then ran two rapids before finding a campsite. Some Canadians we had seen earlier were kind enough to invite us to share their camp, which had two sites, and we gratefully accepted.

Over dinner that night, the post-mortem discussion revealed that our companions who had gotten so far ahead had tried to scout The Wall from the river, but by the time they got close enough to take a look, it was too late to turn back. They had missed the take-out. The canoe hit a wall of water, the force of which catapulted the bowperson back over the stern and bent the canoe at an angle. To our great surprise we discovered that the canoe had not been wrapped around a rock as we supposed, but rather had been wrecked by the sheer force of the water in the Wall`s hydraulic.

The lesson we learned from this terrible experience, in which, after all, the fates were with us, is this: do not overestimate your abilities. Even an expert is capable of making a mistake, and wildern4ess rivers can be very unforgiving. If in doubt, scout, and do it from the shore.

Our trip on the Spanish was a delightful one in many ways, but were we to attempt it again, we would do it differently. One, we do it in August rather that in late June, as the black flies were horrendous when we were there. Two, we might break up the Graveyard set into two days instead of trying to run it all in one. Haste is the mother of grave errors.

Finally, we recommend that anyone running the Spanish River have confidence running Class III whitewater, as there is much to challenge even the experienced canoeist. The most essential ingredient for any trip, however, is sound judgement, and that is hard-won as often as not, through many mistakes and learning experiences.

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:50,000): 
41 I/12 Cartier 41 I/5 Espanola
Other Maps: 
Chrismar Adventure Series map - Spanish River