Click to see the full picture

"Sunset, Whitefish Bay, Lake of the Woods", (1919) by Walter J. Phillips courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

Rainy River and Lake of the Woods

By paddle: 250km; By air: 150km.

Satellite photograph of the Rainy River and Lake of the Woods (courtesy NASA)

Scale: 1pixel=1km

Patriotic dock, Fort Frances.

Patriotic dock, Fort Frances.

At Fort Frances, at the end of Rainy Lake, everything changes. The Canadian shield, the crazy geological splatter of rock, lakes and rivers that makes it possible to canoe across Canada, temporarily gives way to flatter, mellower, gentler, farmable land. The difference is grass; you don't see grass in the shield.

Gliding down the Rainy River, assisted by a mild current, seems effortless, like walking on a travelator past meadows and cows herding down the well-trodden mud banks to their, and our, watering trough—the river. There are two small rapids, almost as sleepy as the quiet towns of Emo and Rainy River that you pass. In a headwind, paddling the river can be hard work, but with fields, barns and telegraph poles all around, plus an occasional tractor, there's still a sense of pastoral ease.

The watering hole, Rainy River.

The watering hole, Rainy River.

The Rainy River meets Lake of the Woods in an estuary-like marshland of reeds and sandy islands. Whether you choose to tackle Big Traverse Bay head on, or like most canoers, wiggle a safer route further east, you soon find yourself entering the maze of woodier islands for which the lake is famous. But this is still a big lake, and you can get windbound—we pulled in early to the aptly named Rough Island to camp in a tiny sand bay. That night we had our first bear encounter as a small black bear passed close to the tent to drink water from the lake. It humpfed with lethargic satisfaction, before returning into the bush.

Rounding the Auleau Peninsula leads you back into rockier shield terrain. Each shimmering vista seems disappointingly familiar after passing through Quetico and Rainy Lake, and it's not until you see the lake from the air, a twenty minute floatplane charter from Kenora, that you appreciate the incomprehensible intricacy of the island labyrinth that makes Lake of the Woods a millionaire's Mecca.

Our Itinerary

DateFromToDistance (paddle/air)
21 JulFort Frances
(15 472882E 5384498N)
Island near Emo, Rainy River
(15 438911E 5385174N)
51.5/34.0km
22 JulIsland near Emo, Rainy River
(15 438911E 5385174N)
Emo, Rainy River
(15 438589E 5386361N)
1.2/1.2km
23 JulEmo, Rainy River
(15 438589E 5386361N)
Riverbank near Central, Rainy River
(15 399851E 5395722N)
42.5/39.9km
24 JulRiverbank near Central, Rainy River
(15 399851E 5395722N)
Oak Grove Camp, Rainy River
(15 375273E 5409117N)
33.0/28.0km
25 JulOak Grove Camp, Rainy River
(15 375273E 5409117N)
Basil Island, Lake of the Woods
(15 392131E 5445599N)
42.5/40.2km
26 JulBasil Island, Lake of the Woods
(15 392131E 5445599N)
Rough Island, Lake of the Woods
(15 383508E 5458373N)
17.0/15.4km
27 JulRough Island, Lake of the Woods
(15 383508E 5458373N)
Whisky Island, Lake of the Woods
(15 389004E 5500594N)
48.5/42.6km
28 JulWhisky Island, Lake of the Woods
(15 389004E 5500594N)
Anicinabe campground, Kenora
(15 393283E 5511980N)
13.5/12.2km

All coordinates are UTM/NAD83.

Where wheeled aircraft fear to venture, Lake of the Woods.

Where wheeled aircraft fear to venture, Lake of the Woods.