Ontario Canoe & Fly-In Trips: Wabakimi Park & Kopka River - Armstrong, Ontario
We were first introducted to Wabakimi Wilderness Provincial Park at Madison's big canoeing expo - Canoeacopia. Bill Smith of Wabakimi Wilderness Outfitters presented a slide show and presentation on the park. Having had recent bad experiences with competition for camp sites in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, I was ready to paddle some less traveled routes. The next year at Canoeacopia, I met Bruce Hyer, owner of the outfitting service and one of the prime movers creating Wabakimi Park. After learning more about our interests, Bruce gave us a recommended route and we made arrangements to meet him in June to start the first of what would become many trips into Wabakimi and its adjacent canoeing park, Kopka River Provincial Park. Journals of this trip and subsequent adventures are covered here > > >
The park is located about 240 kilometers north of Thunder Bay, Ontario. There are very few access points that you can drive to; the most common access is by plane or train. It is possible to paddle in to a few points of access in the park, but this involves a day or two of hard paddling through areas outside the park boundaries that are neither attractive nor wilderness. Most often this route is used at the conclusion of a trip where after experiencing true wilderness and (hopefully) a thoroughly enjoyable trip, one doesn't mind the fact that the last day is esthetically mediocre.
For shorter trips of 3 to 5 days, your route options are limited unless you are willing to fly at least one leg of your trip. For longer trips of one to three weeks, many more route options open up that do not require plane transportation.The park is simply so huge and is so remote, you need either time or money (fly-in/fly-out) to get a good taste of the interior of the park.
If you are used to the kind of services received from BWCA Forest Service or their counterparts in Quetico, you'll find little. BWCA gets about 250,000 visitors a year; Wabakimi gets about 8000. And of that 8000 official count, a good share of those are customers of the fly-in remote resort operations that exist in some areas of the park (a small number exist in the park under a grandfather clause). So the overnight camping fees from a few thousand canoe trippers doesn't fund much in the way of Park Service amenities or staffers. And this service and manpower is spread over a huge area. One result is that portage trails are largely maintained by outfitters and their volunteers. And if you are traveling a route not maintained by one of these outfitters, you may find the trail overgrown or blocked by blow-downs. . . . so make sure you have a saw among your gear and have alloted extra time for portages. Another result of low traffic and low funding is that many impressive bodies of water may have no portage trails to them.
By doing lots of research, including visiting sites on the Internet like this one, contacting people who have taken trips in Wabakimi, writing for maps, and putting in a lot of pre-trip planning time, it is possible to run your trip without using an outfitter. However, unless you are running on a slim budget, I'd recommend using one. It is the price you pay to get remoteness, outstanding canoeing, great fishing and some degree of assurance against some of the risks involved in a wilderness adventure.
Basically the Wabakimi system is a wilderness park that has been created by the Province in cooperation with local and native communities, but the network of services for those desiring to use the park is left to private enterprise. If you've got the time, the ambition, and the risk tolerance then "do it yourself" is feasible.
However in my trips, I've always opted for some degree of partial outfitting. Trip planning & maps, shuttle service, pre and post trip lodging, and float plane/train service are among the services I usually purchase. Along with this comes someone who will notice if you don't come out of the wilderness and will take action to find you. In my youth, I might have been tempted to get by as cheap as possible, but now I figure an exceptional adventure like Wabakimi is not the place to pinch pennies.
If you are contemplating a trip, I'd be happy to pass along whatever help or advise I have to offer. And if you've done a trip, I'd be most happy to hear about your adventures and advice that you would pass along to others.