If you’re a fan of wild places, plan a canoe trip in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park in northwest Ontario.
The park, Ontario’s fourth largest, is one of the premium places to paddle in Canada that no one seems to know about. Annual visitation is under 750 people per year yet there are over 2,000 kilometres of canoe routes along with hundreds of unmarked backcountry campsites in over 4,000 square kilometres of unspoiled wilderness.
You’re more likely to see a black bear or a moose than you are a human, even if you’re out for weeks. With no roads in the park, access is either by paddling or float plane.
Woodland Caribou Provincial Park is also part of Pimachiowin Aki (‘The Land That Gives Life’) Canada’s first mixed cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is significant for its diverse landscapes, intact boreal forest, pristine lakes, and rivers including the Bloodvein and Gammon, and the ancestral and current home of the Anishinaabeg who live from fishing, hunting, and gathering.
Woodland Caribou Provincial Park takes its name from the animals that call this park home. Though elusive, the largest herd of woodland caribou south of Hudson Bay is found here. Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones to see a caribou. We unfortunately did not.
There are many places in Woodland Caribou where you will find pictographs – if you know where to look. They’re a reminder of the people that traveled here thousands of years ago.
Check out my Instagram reel to give you an idea of what the canoeing in Woodland Caribou looks like.
Where is Woodland Caribou Provincial Park?
The park sits about 30 km west of the town of Red Lake, the main entry way to the park. Woodland Caribou Provincial Park covers 4,000 square kilometres than includes an extensive area west to the Manitoba border and north and south from Red Lake.
It’s a day’s drive from Thunder Bay and about a three-hour drive north of Kenora to reach Red Lake. From Red Lake you need to either fly into the park or drive one of the rough access roads. (Shuttles are available.)
Red Lake is about a 4.5-hour drive from International Falls, Minnesota. Because of the proximity to the US, you’ll find more Americans on a Woodland Caribou canoe trip than Canadians.
Planning a wilderness canoe trip in Woodland Caribou
A canoe trip in Woodland Caribou is not for novice campers or paddlers. The park is remote, there are few services, and help can be a long time coming.
The canoe trip in Woodland Caribou we did wasn’t difficult per se – but there was plenty of wind, several thunderstorms, and 35+ portages, some of which were tough. We found it to be a very physical trip with so much lifting and multiple portages every day.
If you’re not comfortable with solitude and a total lack of people, then you might find the first few days unnerving, but I bet you get used to it quickly – and come to appreciate the sense of space and quiet the park offers.
Check out this online map of backcountry campsites put out by Ontario Parks, appreciating that a major fire occurred a year after the map was made. Still, it’s a useful tool for trip planning.
We used Goldseekers Canoe Outfitting for lightweight canoes, PFD’s, paddles, shuttles – and importantly – advice from years of offering canoe outfitting in the park.
Albert, one of the founders of the company, knows this part of the world incredibly well – and he is super organized. Albert can suggest paddling routes geared to the amount of time you have, your canoeing ability and how big your budget is. If you can afford to fly in and paddle out, you’ll have more options.
Another good way to start the trip planning process is to call the Red Lake District office at 807-727-2253 and have a chat with one of the staff. Many of them intimately know the park and can be very helpful.
The portages and the distances are all marked and there’s lots of other information. You can purchase topographical maps with more detail (Albert from Goldseekers has them for sale) but the portages are not marked on them.
How long should a canoe trip in Woodland Caribou be?
You can enjoy a canoe trip in Woodland Caribou that lasts just a few days to trips that last many weeks, and occasionally even months.
With a vast network of lakes, rivers, and portages you’ll have to decide what the right amount of time is for you.
One of the famous paddles in the park is the historic Bloodvein River – the largest river running through the park that ultimately travels across the Manitoba border to end on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. There are several outfitters that run guided tours for this one.
The 2021 Woodland Caribou Provincial Park fire
In the summer of 2021, roughly 55% of Woodland Caribou Provincial Park was burned as you can see on the fire boundary map.
If you look at the burn severity map you might be dissuaded from paddling here. But the on the ground reality is very different. About two thirds of our canoe trip in Woodland Caribou was in the burn – and I can honestly say that I found it more interesting to paddle through charred trees than green trees.
In the two years since the fire there has already been tremendous regrowth. Pink fireweed and many other types of wildflowers are everywhere. Some conifers are already six feet tall.
Great swaths of granite outcrop have been exposed – so you now enjoy blasts of red, pink and white rock visible where none could be seen before. You can see much further too – so birds and wildlife are easier to spot.
One downside to the burn is that some of the portages are hard to navigate. The park is doing the best it can with limited resources marking the portages in the burn with flagging tape and cutting trees that are hazards at campsites and along the portages. But this is a huge park, so if you go off the main routes, you need to be prepared for route finding through burned areas. And don’t put your tent beside a tree that could come down in a windstorm.
Before you go to Woodland Caribou, check the status of forest fires in Ontario in case there are travel restrictions in place. Should there be a fire ban, pack fuel and a stove for your backcountry meals. If you make a campfire, be sure it is 100% out before continuing on your canoe trip.
Camping in Woodland Caribou
It didn’t take long to figure out what a backcountry campsite looked like. Every one of the ones we stayed at sported a stone fire ring that you could usually see from the canoe. Some had benches set up – though that isn’t allowed.
All campsites save for one on Telescope Lake were in great shape.
Someone there had defecated and left a big pile of poop with massive amounts of toilet paper. Please, do not be that person. Dig a hole and bury your poop. Pack out what you pack in – and leave no trace. Better yet, pick up anything you find, so the campsite is in even better shape than you found it.
The climate in Woodland Caribou
One of the notable features about Woodland Caribou Provincial Park is that it’s got a drier climate than eastern areas of Ontario – largely because of its proximity to the prairies. The park is also well drained.
What that means for you the canoeist is that by early August the bugs are almost all gone. We enjoyed bug free meals for the entire week. The only time mosquitoes were an issue was on the second night after a thunderstorm. I never touched my head net and nor did I ever use bug spray.
Route for our 6-day canoe trip in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park
We took the advice of Albert from Goldseekers Canoe Outfitters and planned a trip that started at Leano Lake and ended at Onnie Lake – so shuttles were easy to do from Red Lake.
Described below is a day-to-day breakdown of our Woodland Caribou canoe trip.
Day 1: Leano Lake parking lot to Upper Kilburn Lake campsite
Distance: 13.2 km including the portages.
Portages: Six totalling 2,025 m one way for a total walking distance of 6,075 m.
The first day out on a canoe trip is all about getting into the rhythm of being out on the water, checking the wind, making the call on when to stop – and picking a campsite.
From the Leano Lake parking lot you start with an easy 350 m portage that puts you on Leano Lake. It was here we ran into a father and son just coming off a trip to Mexican Hat Lake – a popular destination, despite the number of portages to get there.
The dad warned us about two things – wildly slippery rocks and bees/wasps. We did see bees every day – but they never bothered us. I gave the wasps a wide berth and after the first campsite we never saw them again.
The paddle on Leano Lake was perfect – blue sky, sunshine and no one around once we left the beach. In short order we had a 400 m, 125 m and 50 m portage all of which slow you down.
Next was an unnamed lake, another 100 m portage and finally we were into Kilburn Lake. The last portage was the longest of the entire canoe trip in Woodland Caribou – coming in at a kilometre. But we wanted it behind us. We found a beautiful campsite on Upper Kilburn Lake in an area that hadn’t been burned – but looked across to one that had.
The highlight here was waking up to 16 loons singing their heart out. I was told by Claire from Goldseekers that when loons congregate, it’s a sign that they are getting ready to leave for the winter.
Day 2: Upper Kilburn Lake campsite to the 425 m portage on the Paull Lake system
Distance: 18.7 km including the portages
Portages: Nine portages totaling 1,180 m one way for a total walking distance of 3,540 m.
We enjoyed a gorgeous start to the second day and made good time getting into the Paull Lake area.
I particularly liked this part of our canoe trip in Woodland Caribou as the paddling was more intimate and very pretty.
Day 3: Paull Lake System to Mexican Hat Lake
Distance: 20.9 km including portages
Portages: Six portages totaling 1,830 m for a total walking distance of 5,490 m.
The morning started off at 6AM with a thunderstorm directly overhead. At one point John said to me in the tent stay on your sleeping mat as it provides a minor amount of protection from a lightning strike.
At one point, I was literally shaking as the storm was very slow moving. It’s very sobering when Mother Nature is in charge. By 7:15 we were able to emerge from the tent, have breakfast and get moving.
We started off with a pretty portage through the burn pictured below. On a peaceful section in the narrows of Aegean Lake, we were forced to take cover again because of yet another thunderstorm overhead.
This time we crawled under a tarp on our camp chairs and sat peaking out every so often for 75 minutes – until we deemed it safe to continue.
The portage on Aegean Creek was very pretty as was the narrow section along Streak Lake. The portage to Amber Lake was particularly pretty with white birch, pink fireweed, and pink granite.
Then we got pounded by rain again before the overgrown Nutria Lake portage. Even without carrying anything, it took us almost 25 minutes to walk the portage – partly because we tried to clean it up a bit when there was nothing on our backs. We thought we were home free at the end of that portage, and we would simply paddle to a campsite on Mexican Hat Lake.
However, the seasonally shallow water forced us to portage about 750 m to finally reach the entrance to Mexican Hat Lake. With the wind at our back, we made good time getting down the lake to a campsite with a view.
One of the highlights of the day on our canoe trip in Woodland Caribou – apart from the beauty of the area we paddled were a family of kingfishers who flew after us, protecting their young. Today was also the first time we saw bear scat and fresh bear prints – all in the area that is seasonally shallow.
Day 4: Mexican Hat Lake to Glenn Lake on our canoe trip in Woodland Caribou
Distance: 15.4 km including portages
Portages: Three portages totaling 300 m for a total walking distance of 900 m.
Today we took it easy after yesterday’s long day starting with wild blueberry pancakes and coffee with a view. It was an easy paddle north out of Mexican Hat Lake – with a stop at a large beach at the northwest end of the lake. Then it was lovely paddling through quiet waters and burns to reach Glenn Lake – which had a mix of burned and unburned forest.
We paddled most of the length of the east – west lake listening for birds. Of course, we heard loons, but we also heard and saw quite a few float planes heading to fishing camps.
Day 5: Glenn Lake to Telescope Lake
Distance: 12.6 km including portages
Portages: Five totaling 730 m for a total walking distance of 2,190 m.
On the fifth day of our canoe trip in Woodland Caribou, we paddled under low cloud and skies that threatened rain.
It was to be a day of waterfalls and tiny toads on portages. We had two back-to-back 250 m portages with the second one beside a pretty waterfall near the southwest corner of Optic Lake.
Then we paddled north past a fishing camp and on through a narrows and a 70 m portage to a unnamed lake. Two more short portages put us on Telescope Lake.
The wind blew up at this point, so we aimed for the westerly campsite on the first large island you come to on Telescope Lake. We paddled hard the full time we were on the lake as the waves got bigger and the wind showed no signs of letting up.
Again, we saw no large animals but we did see many merlins, kingfishers, and warblers – and John watched a small squirrel fall about 15 feet out of a tree and take off running.
We knew there was another fishing camp close by, but we never saw a boat or a human.
Day 6: Telescope Lake to the Onnie Lake parking lot
Distance: 14.2 km including portages
Portages: 7 portages totaling 1,630 m for a total walking distance of 4,890 m
We woke to wind so wasted no time getting on the water before it blew up anymore. We had 6 or 7 km to paddle to get to the end of what was the biggest lake we’d been on.
It was heads down, dig in and go for it. This is not a lake where you want your canoe to get swamped. Once off Telescope Lake we could breathe a little easier – but then the rain started, and the temperature dropped. I ended up wearing five layers on top and two hats on the final day of our canoe trip in Woodland Caribou.
There are four portages on Hjalmar Lake to get to Onnie Lake. It wasn’t a burned area but in the grey of a rainy day, it didn’t seem as pretty as the rest of the route we paddled. I did have one highlight here – an otter sighting. I’d been hoping for one as I’d seen a lot of picked over crayfish skeletons on the trip.
Onnie Lake is a pretty one with a couple of campsites. It would be a good place to spend the night if you got a late start leaving the Onnie Lake parking lot.
As it was, we were in get ‘er done mode so we paddled hard to the 625 m portage at the south end of the lake. After we knocked that off, we still had a 30 m portage, one last stretch of water and then an easy 350 m portage that included a long section of boardwalk on the way to the parking lot.
When you finish at Onnie Lake, there is the option to walk across the road, turn left, and then right onto a sandy road that takes you to a lake where you can camp. There was a lot of trash so it’s not that appealing but it is a possibility.
From the Onnie Lake trailhead it takes about an hour to drive back to Red Lake.
The following are a few things we brought with us on our Woodland Caribou canoe trip that were very helpful.
The MEC Silicone Scout tarp is lightweight and packs into nothing. It ‘s one of the must have’s on a camping trip like this.
On our second day out we wrapped the Scout tarp over our heads while we sat on our camp chairs waiting out a thunderstorm for 75 minutes. It helped keep us warm. Another time we set it up over our tent in case it rained. And when John couldn’t find his rain pants on the last day, he put the tarp over his legs – again to help stay warm.
What I especially liked about the Scout tarp – the nickel plated solid brass grommets that prevented tearing and the grommet in the middle of the trap so you can suspend the tarp like a pyramid.
Permits for a canoe trip in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park
You do need a backcountry camping permit for a canoe trip in Woodland Caribou.
You can now book and pay for the permits online. Click on backcountry registration and choose Woodland Caribou from the dropdown menu. You can book a permit up to two weeks ahead of your planned trip. Don’t worry about rushing for campsites, as there is likely no one on the same lake. That is one of the benefits of a canoe trip in Woodland Caribou!
In Red Lake you can also go into the Ontario Parks office located at 227 Howey Street on a Monday to Friday basis or purchase from a self serve kiosk outside of business hours – which are 8:30 -4:30.
Some local canoe outfitters may also be able to provide permits.
The one canoeist we met on our trip had come up from the US to fish and canoe. His dream was to enjoy a canoe trip in Woodland Caribou and fish at the same time. In short order he discovered the winds weren’t working in his favour.
Woodland Caribou is a destination for avid fisherman with its pristine waters and the small amount of fishing that actually happens. You will need an Ontario fishing license.
The three fish to catch are lake trout, walleye and pike. We didn’t bother fishing on this trip, but if you’re going out for a long time, it would be a great way to supplement your diet.
Where to stay in Red Lake, Ontario
There aren’t a lot of choices in Red Lake, and what there is fills quickly in summer.
The Howey Bay Motel does the trick – rustic chic as Goldseekers Canoe Outfitters – says. And they have a dining rom so you can eat breakfast and dinner here.
Thank you to Ontario Parks, Goldseekers Canoe Outfitting, and Ontario Parks Northwest for making this trip possible.
We were supposed to do it in August 2022 but John had a detached retina a few days before we were to go. I am very happy we had the chance to do it this year. Do not let the burn put you off a canoe trip in Woodland Caribou!