With a unique wilderness touch, fun, and accessible enough to make it happen; a Missinaibi River canoe trip from the Canadian Shield into the Hudson Bay Lowlands is an unmissable outdoor adventure in the Ontario province.
We paddle towards the rapid, the current increasing as each stroke draws us closer. The canoe crests over the ledge and we are thrown into the whitewater. We both paddle strong and plow through the standing waves; my bow mate does a hard cross-bow-draw to move us to the right, narrowly avoiding a menacing rock. A few more strikes return us to calm water again.
It’s just another rapid on the Missinaibi River.
Those outside the Canadian canoeing community have probably never heard of the Missinaibi River. But to us, the Missinaibi represents one of the top bucket-list wilderness canoe experiences in the country. And it’s an experience even the novice or intermediate canoe camping enthusiast could enjoy by joining a guided group.
In this post, I’ll introduce you to the Missinaibi River and all her glory. I’ll go over possible route options depending on what you’re interested in, and I’ll provide some recommendations on how to prepare, what to pack, and what guiding company to go with.
Welcome to the Missinaibi River
The Missinaibi River is a Canadian Heritage River in northern Ontario. Offering exceptional wilderness, beautiful scenery, and exciting whitewater, it is one of the most iconic destinations for canoe camping in Canada. However, the challenging rapids, long portages, and distance from major cities mean that relatively few canoeists paddle the Missinaibi each summer. If you’re looking for a wilderness adventure away from the crowds, you’ve come to the right place.
Geography of the Missinaibi River
The source of the Missinaibi is the mighty Lake Superior. However, the river really gets flowing slightly north at Missinaibi Lake.
From there, the Missinaibi travels to meet the Mattagami River. It is here, at the confluence of the Mattagami and Missinaibi rivers, that the Moose River is formed. The Moose River empties into the salty seawater of James Bay. When all is said and done, the water from the Missinaibi River will flow nearly 800 km uninterrupted.
What I love about the Missinaibi is its transitions. The first section of the Missinaibi is part of the Canadian Shield, a geography characterized by rocky granite shores and tall pine trees. The river is winding and rapids are plentiful.
Further downstream, however, a transition occurs. The Missinaibi leaves the Canadian Shield and joins the geography of the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Here the river is smooth and calm and straight as an arrow. If the wind is right you can use a tarp as a sail and relax while being pushed along.
Along the river, it is common to see Bald Eagles and Osprey, and occasionally Black Bears or Moose. Less common, though still possible, are sightings of Canada Lynx.
The History of the Missinaibi River
The area surrounding the Missinaibi River has long been home to First Nations, specifically Cree and Anishinabe. For thousands of years, they have navigated the rushing waters of the Missinaibi and walked its shorelines.
Post-European contact, the Missinaibi River was of vital importance to the Canadian Fur Trade because it offered the shortest route between Lake Superior and James Bay.
At the end of the Moose River, lie the towns of Moosonee and Moose Factory (a First Nation). In the 1800s, the English set up trading posts along the shores of James Bay and Hudson Bay and gradually moved south. Such posts were constructed along the Missinaibi.
At the end of their paddle, canoeists can take a tour of the well-preserved Hudson Bay Buildings in Moose Factory and learn more about the recent history of the fur trade.
Canoeing the Missinaibi River
The Missinaibi River is a premium destination for wilderness canoeing. Unless you have the time to paddle the entire river (which requires about 24 days), you’ll need to choose a portion of the river to paddle. Read through the following descriptions and take note of what most appeals to you.
Here are descriptions of the two sections, plus some information on the Moose River which the Missinaibi flows into.
The Upper Missinaibi stretches from the Missinaibi Lake to Mattice, a town located halfway down the river. This section of the river is characterized by frequent sets of rapids and rugged Canadian Shield geography. This is a great section of the river to paddle if you are interested in whitewater paddling, but are comfortable doing some portaging.
The Lower Missinaibi starts at Mattice and runs to the end of the Missinaibi. The first part of the lower Missinaibi is still part of the Canadian Shield and is home to Thunderhouse Falls and Hell’s Gate, which require two long portages. There will still be rapids to paddle, but not as many as the Upper Missinaibi. Following Hell’s Gate, the river is part of the Hudson Bay Lowlands and has no (literally zero) portages, and doesn’t have any whitewater.
Despite having less whitewater, this is my favorite section of the river. Thunderhouse Falls is beautiful and I love how expansive the sky is on the lower section of the river.
The Moose River is typically included whenever people talk about a trip on the Lower Missinaibi because the Missinaibi flows directly into the Moose and there’s nowhere to leave the river at this time. You’ll want to do this section if you want to camp on sprawling sandbanks, potentially see the northern lights, visit the town of Moosonee and return home via the famous Polar Bear Express.
Here are some of the destinations along a Missinaibi River canoe trip.
Rapids of the Upper Missinaibi
There are some 30+ rapids on this section of the Missinaibi, some of which must be portaged. One such example is Split Rock Falls which is a small but beautiful waterfall. Others can be paddled, but you may get a little wet, like on Wavy Ride.
This French town is the only settlement on the entire Missinaibi and marks the halfway point of the river. It’s a common starting or ending point for canoeists (though for my group we used this as a refueling stop and place to get ice cream sandwiches!).
Part of the Upper Missinaibi, this is perhaps my favorite part along the entire Missinaibi river canoe trip is Thunderhouse Falls. Here the river constricts to flow through a gorge and descend 181 m. Initially, the portage had been marked on the wrong side of the river and more than a dozen canoeists have been swept into the falls before the maps were corrected.
Since the correction, there haven’t been any deaths at Thunderhouse Falls. Instead, canoeists find their way to the portage and spend the night at a campsite located adjacent to the falls. The campsite is spacious and offers beautiful views of the roaring falls below.
As I described above, the Upper Missinaibi is part of the Canadian Shield, while the Lower Missinaibi is part of the Hudson Bay Lowlands. The transition occurs over a 3 km section where the river loses considerable elevation and weaves through Hell’s Gate canyon. After completing the 3 km portage, canoeists are quickly introduced to the Missinaibi in a completely new form. Gone are the rocky shorelines and rolling rapids, leaving a straight and lazy current surrounded by pointy spruce trees.
Portage Island is at the confluence of the Missinaibi and Mattagami rivers, which together flow to become the Moose River. The campsite on the island is a gorgeous place to watch the sunrise or sunset.
Moosonee & Moose Factory
Moosonee and Moose Factory are the two communities at the end of the Moose River. This is the last possible stop on any Missinaibi adventure. Here you’ll find the Hudson Bay Buildings if you’re interested in visiting them, and you’ll be able to catch the Polar Bear Express back to Cochrane. It’s such a Canadian thing to load canoes onto a train car!
How to Prepare for Canoeing the Missinaibi River
If you’ll be paddling the Upper Missinaibi, you’ll want to improve your paddling skills and fitness level prior to the trip.
You should have some experience paddling a canoe and preferably some experience paddling whitewater. I recommend taking a weekend whitewater paddling course where you’ll be introduced to the different strokes and feel comfortable swimming in rapids.
Honestly, the hardest part about learning whitewater paddling initially is getting over the fear of tipping your canoe. We only paddle down rapids that we would be safe swimming down. So although the thought of swimming in rapids can be scary, it’s really safe when you know how to do it. Taking a course will give you this comfort.
In addition to the paddling, I recommend doing a little cardio and strength training prior to the trip so you will be able to do the portages. Some day hiking would be good as well because it’ll familiarize you with walking over uneven terrain.
If you’ll be paddling the Lower Missinaibi, the paddling skills are not as important as there are fewer rapids. However, I’d still suggest taking a whitewater paddling course. For this section of the river, I definitely recommend doing some hikes and improving your fitness, as there are two long portages.
If you’ll only be paddling the Moose River, none of the above is required because there is no whitewater and no portaging!
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What to Pack for a Missinaibi River Canoe Trip
Since you’ll be going with a guided group, a lot of the equipment is taken care of for you. The guides will pack the group equipment, the food and provide tents and sleeping pads (though I recommend you bring your own sleeping pad so you know you’ll be comfortable). The outfitter will also provide you with a list of specific items to bring with you, but here is a rough overview of what you’ll need.
What to wear while canoeing:
- Quick-dry shirt
- Quick-dry / Hiking pants
- Bathing Suit
- Rain jacket & rain pants
- Closed-toed shoes
- Hat + Sunglasses
What to wear while at the campsite:
- Fleece sweater or puffy jacket
- Non-cotton shirt
- Non-cotton pants
- Dry shoes
What to wear/have with you in your tent:
- Merino wool base layers (top + bottoms)
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Wool socks
- Sports bras
- Books, journal, pen
- Camera equipment (as you may have noticed, I love disposable cameras for canoe camping)
- Bug spray, bug jacket, sunscreen
How to Canoe the Missinaibi River
Unless you are an experienced wilderness canoeist, you’ll need to join a guided trip to paddle the Missinaibi River, part of Ontario Parks. Thankfully, there are outfitters who run trips on the river of varying lengths. The one I recommend going with, however, is MHO Adventures.
The “MHO” actually stands for “Missinaibi Headwaters Outfitters”, so you know these guys know the Missinaibi. I have a few friends who guide with MHO and I’ve been a client on one of their trips. They are extremely professional, high-quality trips that take care of absolutely every part of the Missinaibi River canoe trip.
There are a few options for length, ranging from 6 days to 24 days.
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Mikaela is the voice behind Voyageur Tripper, a blog dedicated to outdoor adventure travel. Previously a wilderness guide in Canada, Mikaela can usually be found paddling, hiking or free camping, and shares tips and resources on her blog and Instagram to help others get outside more.