Backcountry Camping and Fishing in Canada’s Obatanga Provincial Park

Making Plans – Canada’s Obatanga Provincial Park Part 1

The fish attacked with a ferocity only matched by those of the black flies.  A wake, followed by an explosive splash, led to my reel ripping out line with a steady hum.  Let me explain.

Two year’s ago my younger son and I got invited on a late-spring fishing trip to Ontario, Canada with one of his football buddies and father.  The trip took us to a spot that they had fished regularly with a lot of success.  They knew the area and they knew the backcountry logging roads and the mazes of hidden lakes and rivers that held big fish.  Pike specifically.  That year had been incredible, bringing hundreds of fish to the boat, some smaller but a few well over the 40” mark.  After that first trip, we were eager to go back. 

Last year we made plans for a return, but a variety of unfortunate circumstances converged that prevented our friends from going. I was left with a dilemma, in the form of a 13-year old fishing savant who was about to have his dreams crushed.  And I won’t lie, I wanted to go too.  Trouble was that I was lacking an appropriate boat and honestly lacking the confidence that I could find, and then safely navigate the boulder-strewn maze of waters that were virgin ground to me just the year before.

I made a quick call to my dad, who was recently retired, always up for adventure and just so happened to have an appropriate boat.  The conversation lasted all of two minutes – he took far less convincing than I had secretly hoped for.  We were committed.  I was excited and more than a little nervous.

Our drive took us up through the heart of lower Michigan, across the Mackinaw Bridge and through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where we would cross into Canada via the International Bridge in Sault Ste. Marie.  From there we had another three hours, following the scenic Trans-Canada Highway (ON-17) over rivers and along Lake Superior up to a simple cabin we had rented between the towns of Wawa and White River.

I wanted to camp overnight at least once on an island I had spotted on one of the more difficult-to-get-to and highly-productive lakes from the first year’s lineup.  This would allow more time for fishing, ensure we only had to run the water maze, which included shooting rapids and wrong-turn waterfalls, once, and be another adventure for the journal.  This is fairly wild country; loaded with moose, bear and wolves.  Before I went too far, I needed to make sure my dad and son were both cool with the plan.  Once again, both agreed more quickly than I had, perhaps, hoped for.

After deciphering the water and a few unplanned adventures, we ended the trip last year having again landed hundreds of pike, with several pushing past the 40” mark.

Fast forward to this year  – our friends were unable to make the trip again, so it would be my dad, my son and me – but this time with a year’s worth of knowledge and more confidence under our belts – the start of an annual tradition. 

Trapper Cabin – Canada’s Obatanga Provincial Park Part 2 

We met up and left home in the wee hours of the morning and arrived at camp around 2 PM. 

Despite the lack of sleep, we were fully charged with anticipation and, after quickly unpacking, headed out to explore a smaller lake we fished before known simply as “Trapper Cabin” for the old, element weathered cabin that sat high on the Southwest shoreline. 

This lake is tucked way back into the wilderness, accessible only through a dizzying spider web of logging roads, which lead to smaller, water-covered two-tracks, which lead to what can be best described as fold-in-the-mirrors trails and then a long haul from where you can “park” down to the lake. 

As the weather took a turn for the worse, with cooler temps and the rain starting to fall as we arrived at the lake (somehow managing to find it again), we wrangled the boat trailer (now sans one strap and one taillight) back deep into the woods. From there we had to get the boat off the trailer, unload it, carry it down the hill to the “channel”  – which is essentially a knee deep mud trail leading to the lake – reload the boat and drag it through the channel to the lake.  It was exhausting, wet and messy work.  I hoped it would be worth it.  When we finally launched the boat I was muddy, sweating, scratched, bug-bitten, nearly soaked from the rain and damn ready to get after some fish. 

My first cast with the Redington Vapen fly rod landed a small, but fun, pike on a streamer.  This was going to be good, or so I thought.  The weather continued to worsen and after a couple hours we finally decided we had had enough – Mother Nature had taken this round. While we only had landed 8 fish for our efforts – we had officially kicked off our Canada fishing adventure.  Now it was back to the cabin for a warm dinner and our last shower and a real bed for a few days. The lights went out early; we were exhausted and knew that tomorrow would bring the real test.

Island Campsites and Big Pike – Canada’s Obatanga Provincial Park Part 3

We loaded the boat with the fishing gear, the Yeti, the tent, a duffel full of clothes and sleeping bags, a water filter, headlamps an ax and a small backpacking camp stove.  We were heading out to find my island and our small boat was loaded to the gills. I knew this was going to be a little tricky and this was the part of the trip that had me the most anxious.  

Last year we put in on Crawfish Lake and then navigated our way through the minefield of underwater rocks that rise up unexpectedly from the deep water and proved to be the demise of at least one outboard motor. From there we wound our way through the maze of outlets and connecting rivers, by memory, unloaded the boat and portaged up and around an 8 foot rapid, reloaded, made our way through a shallow channel and into Knife Lake in Obatanga Provincial Park where our island paradise resided.

This year, as we slowly and carefully navigated our way through Crawfish Lake finding our route, we noticed that water levels seemed much higher than the year before.  We entered the river route and began to navigate upstream against the current, dodging rocks, beaver dams and gravel bars and then we came to the hard turn and the whirlpool just below the large rapids that lay between us and Knife Lake.  Last year this is where we had to portage around the rocks and rapids – this year it was obvious that water levels were much higher, with less exposed rock. We decided to chance it and skip the portage.  We gunned the small outboard and our overly loaded boat struggled against the fast current until we slowly made it through.  Now through the river maze we were safely in Knife Lake. We continued on and soon the island came into sight. We pulled up and tied off to our tree as we hopped out to inspect what would be our home for the next three days.

After quickly dumping off the camping gear, we began to work the water that had delivered fish after fish the previous year, but we weren’t getting a lot of action.  I had to remind myself that day 1 is about finding the fish, but I was starting to feel a little discouraged and could feel the weight of my son’s silent frustration heavily on my shoulders.

As we probed various spots for fish, we managed to land several but none of the larger fish we had become accustomed to the previous two years.

We made our way back to camp, started a fire and got the stove going as I pumped and boiled water for our dinner.  Bodies sore and bug bitten, but bellies full and feeling warmed by the fire we watched the sun dip slowly over the horizon as the sky turned from yellow to orange and then a deep red before it winked out and we were left with only bright stars and the moon rising on the other side of the island.  We slept well that night and dreamt of the fishing the next day would hold, the challenges from earlier in the day a long forgotten memory.

After a quick camp breakfast, we headed out and began to work the water that we had begun to explore the day before.  The weather was improving and again we were having success but not nearly like last year.  We decided to work the shallows and our success rate increased, getting into more and bigger fish. 

We fished hard in the shifting winds until well after lunch; eating snacks in the boat and not wanting to stop.  We continued to work the shoreline and shallow flats. I made a cast and had a quick strike. This was a good fish and he was running.  I fought to bring him alongside the boat while my son scrambled for the net.  He was able to scoop the fish and fought to lift it into the boat.  It was a beautiful Pike that went nearly 40 inches. Finally.  We fished on and landed nearly 50 fish for the day.

The sun once again began to drop below the horizon and we reluctantly made our way back to camp.

As we finished our dinner and sat around the campfire laughing about the day’s adventures and planning our next, I realized that THIS moment was the reason we come to Canada.  The fire, the laughter, the quiet time together without interruptions in a beautiful and wild place.  These moments are what make a trip, what build traditions.  These memories last beyond those of the fish and I was grateful for that.

The next morning, I let the boy sleep in and I took my dad out for a few early morning casts, manning the boat so he could focus more on the fishing.  He landed two beauties and I was glad we had that time together.  We made our way back to camp, had breakfast together and fished until early evening before packing up and making the journey back to the cabin for the night where a warm dinner, a heated round of Yahtzee and a real bed waited for us.  Tomorrow we would head home.  As I closed my eyes for the night I smiled and realized that Canada had once again delivered.