The West Branch is known as the more difficult one beginning at Biscotasi Lake. It can be accessed by VIA passenger train which you can hop on in Sudbury or Cartier, Ontario. To avoid a full day of flatwater paddling, we chose to start our trip at Sinker Creek and paddle through to Agnew Lake. You can also choose to take out at the the Elbow but I would recommend continuing down past as you would miss a great section of river. Train tickets can be purchased online through the VIA rail website.
Maps: Please purchase a Spanish River map before planning your trip through Chrismar Mapping.
Day 0: Home to Agnew Lake Lodge
After a 6 hour drive to Agnew Lake Lodge, we set up a camp at a campsite along the lake. Note that the lodge offers a grassy spot with picnic table for camping or small cabins for paddlers. For camping, amenities like tap water, garbage, a firepit and outhouses are the facilities.
The Agnew Lake Lodge offers shuttles for paddlers. Rates can be found here. We drove to the train station in Sudbury and the drivers drove our vehicles back to the Lodge for us. The Lodge also arranges camping permits for the river (~$10/night/adult). Fee information can be found here.
Day 1:Saturday July 13th, 2019 Agnew Lake Lodge to LeBell Rapids
Our group left the Agnew Lake Lodge at 6:50AM and drove about an hour to arrive at the Sudbury train station at 8:00AM. We unloaded our gear and boats and handed the keys to the drivers. One of our cars stayed at the train station (make sure to pay for a parking pass).
We had to pay $50 + tax cash for each canoe that got on the train. At 8:25 the train arrived and the loading began. There were 14 canoes being loaded on the day we left so you can imagine it takes some time. The train did leave exactly at 9:00AM, enjoying the air conditioned seats.
The train passes through several small communities before the first views of the river. It's apparent that the train track follows the river for several kilometres passing through old logging communities that have now been converted to fishing cabins and hunt camps. We got off at our destination Sinker Creek at 11:20 which was about 20 minutes late after having to wait for a freight train to pass us on the tracks. Our group of 11 and 7 boats were unloaded, and we quickly ate lunch and started our paddle.
Sinker creek meanders for about 1.5km. We had been told the river was running at a medium-high level and the members of our group who had paddled this river before agreed that it was higher than normal. The first rapid we came too had to be portaged. We hoped that this wasn't going to be the case for the entire river. The next two rapids (Hook and Tourville) were lovely class 2 rapids that empties into Lebell Lake. The Lebell rapid was runnable by the solo canoes in our group but not by the tandems. When scouting this rapid look closely at the very bottom as 3 of our light boats got temporarily stalled on rocks here.
We found our first campsite between the Lebell and Breadner rapids. This campsite is too small for a larger group but we made it work. The late spring and floodwaters of 2019 imposed a harsh July bug season full of vicious black flies, mosquitos, deerflies and horseflies. Good fishing (mainly bass) was found at the bottom of the LeBell rapids.
Day 2: Sunday July 14th, 2019 Lebell Rapids to Pogomasing
Temperatures dropped into the single digits overnight and the morning hours were chilly. Not wanting to get out of our sleeping bags we lingered inside until 7AM despite some group members being up for an hour by that point. After a quick breakfast we were on the water at 9AM headed to the Breakner Rapids. We paddled the top half and then portaged around the mandatory falls section of this rapid. Below the Breakner falls is long scoutable rapid that our group chose to run with empty boats after portaging gear through.
After the rapids, the river eases off as it enters the Inch Worm section with it's windy twisting flows and high sand riverbanks. This is a great section to observe wildlife be it beavers, otters, kingfishers, various ducks, and sandpipers. This slow moving section took us 1.5 hours to complete. We stopped at an island campsite at the Forks where the two river channels converge.
The river changes it's character at the Forks with many swifts and easy rapids. The train follows the river here and it is fun to paddle alongside a whistling freight train. The sun on this day was intense and the river offered little to no shade for any relief. Make sure to pack sun hats and sunscreen - many of our group got sunburned. A total of 27km for the day.
We made it just past the Pogomasing train drop off and camped at a large site on river left. This site had a brand new privy in July 2019. Only 150m from the train tracks, we were awokened a couple times to hear the trains roar through feeling more like we were in a city than on the side of a remote river. We were in the tent at 8:40 seeking refuge from the hoards of biting insects.
The 4km section of river just below our campsite was super enjoyable with several swifts and and stellar scenery. The river was alive with singing birds and wildlife and if the river continued like this everyone would have had a smile on their face a mile wide. That said, the river mellowed temporarily through a flatwater section until it hit the very beautiful Cliff Rapids. Here a tall cliff on river left which towers over a few good-looking campsites below. We stopped here for a quick break before the real work began. We headed into a 8km flatwater section that unfortunately for us had a difficult headwind that lasted all day. This section was a slog and we got through it. The only highlight was the large Osprey that flew overhead of us. Just before Spanish lake and after we had paddled 22km, we stopped at a sandbar for lunch with the group. We had split into two pods at this point - the faster tandem boats and the slower solo boats.
Crossing the Spanish Lake took some time despite hugging the shoreline. We were relieved finally when gravity took over again and we hit some current. We ran Zig Zag Rapids and found a home at the campsite along the portage there. For some reason (maybe the warm wind) the bugs weren't as bad here which made this site enjoyable. We had stopped after 26.5km day at 2PM. Our group split up onto two sites as tentspots were sparse on these sites.
Day 4: Tuesday July 16th Zig Zag to Graveyard Rapids
This short 11km half day of paddling started out with some fun small rapids and swifts. The river makes three sharp 90 degree bends nicknames the Knuckle, the Wrist and the Elbow. The Elbow is a popular take out for many who want to do a shortened version of the river.
We continued down to the section known as the Graveyard Rapids. We paddled to top of the Little Graveyard rapid and took out just before the falls at the bottom. The portage was shortened to about 80m but was tricky as the rocky nature of this portage became slippery with some light rain.
We ran the next short rapid and then hit the Big Graveyard Rapid which we portaged on river left. A kayaker in our group ran it an swam, another solo canoer ran it and barely made it down at this water level.
The final rapid in this series is the Cascades which you can lift over on the rocks on river right. We chose this as our campspot for the night. This site is nice and open and has many rocky outcroppings with small pools good for swimming and fishing. The relaxing afternoon here was spent fishing, swimming and hiding in the shade. The heat of the day was absorbed into the rocks making them feel like an oven at some points forcing us to take multiple swims.
We found some unripe blueberries at this site and deeply hidden in one patch was a small ground nest from an unknown with 5 blue eggs in it. The anglers of the group caught pike and walleye at this site which made for good eating.
We headed off at 9AM with a Bald Eagle family (mother, father and young) riding the thermals overhead. Just downstream from the Graveyard rapids was Agnes rapid which is a technical rocky rapid that I would classify a 3-. We successfully ran this one without scouting and might have been my favourite of the trip. Just downstream is a long class 2 rapid called the Cedar Rapids which was also very enjoyable.
Our plan for the day was to paddle out to Agnew Lake, following the 'conveyor belt' of current from Cedar Rapids out. Unfortunately my husband and canoeing partner came down with a bout of heat exhaustion when the sun started to heat up at 10:30AM (most likely dehydrated from the oven day the day before) that included vomiting and nausea making canoeing impossible. After a two hour stop in the shade of a riverbank we were able to move him 6km downriver (unable to paddle and motion sick). A group effort included wet towels and cloths, filtering fluids, first aid meds, gathering salty foods, and planning our evacuation strategy. We had to stop at the Reynold's creek campsite (sidenote: this is a beautiful spot) so that he could spend the afternoon recovering in the shade, drink, and eat salty foods. He did feel much better around dinnertime and the group didn't mind staying at this beautiful site with Old Growth trees, a creek and virtually no bugs! This put us about 20km behind schedule for the day but we made up the time by getting on the water early the next day. As we were paddling in the middle of the 7 boats, the first 3 boats went on without knowing what was going on. The stopped for lunch and waited for us but in hindsight we figured out that with 3 InReach satellite communication devices on the trip we could have communicated between devices in this emergency. We set that up that evening in case that was to ever happen again.
Day 6 Thursday July 18th Reynold's to Agnew Lake Lodge
Up at 6AM and on the water by 7:20AM we whipped through the conveyor belt for the first 10km. At around the 12km to go mark on the map the river breathes a sigh of relief an relaxes into a delta of islands and flatwater. Here we saw our first sign of civilization: a motorboat! Just at the end of the river a tall cliff is noticeable on river left. Here we saw a family of red tailed hawks on a ledge with young flapping and squawking loudly. The two campsites nearest the lake look good. The wind gods were on our side from this point onward and we crossed Agnew Lake quickly. Our 4 hour paddle covered 26km from the Reynold's campsite, landing us at the lodge at 11:30AM.
We settled up with the lodge for all of our campsite, shuttle and permit fees and headed home.
Post trip: The Spanish is an excellent canoe tripping river for the intermediate canoeist. It's easy accessibility, scenery, and manageable whitewater make this river an instant classic.