iPhone in Muskoka: The Big East River
In the first installment of the Discovering Muskoka series, our intrepid contributor and resident Muskokan Nate floats down the iconic Big East River that flows from Algonquin Park into Hunstville Ontario and shares his trip with only an iPhone.
The Big East River in Hunstville, Ontario is a true local’s hidden gem. Why am I writing about it then? Because considering the amount of locals that actually use & appreciate it, it definitely has room for more love.
Why the Big East? It’s an idyllic, meandering little river with a lazy current, warm water temps & classic northern forest scenery on all sides. Pristine white sand corners & banks are interspersed throughout just enough crown land & provincial park property that there are more than enough spots for beer breaks, fishing stops & picnic spots (but mostly beer breaks).
What else? You’re fairly close to civilization the whole time, but it won’t feel like it. Yep, 3 to 4 bars of cell service the whole time you’re drifting on what looks and feels like Muskoka’s version of The Amazon (cell service has its pros & cons). Due to its width & current, this also means, if done on the right day, you and your posse will be the only ones on the river. No ski boats. No jet skis. No middle aged parents in Tilley gear and $3000 kevlar canoes munching granola while judging you on the amount of empties in the bottom of your river vessel.
Fishing? Small & large-mouth bass plus stashes of speckled trout in the right corners.
There are cottages, homes & trailers along a good portion of the river, the density of which are towards the end near Lake Vernon. You won’t find million dollar boathouses anywhere, and if you actually see anyone on shore they’re there for the same reason you are – good times on the river. Basic respect & common sense will go a long way here.
The Big East River stretches from the eastern tip of Algonquin Park and curves and twists all the way to Lake Vernon in Huntsville. Since Wikipedia won’t tell me how far that distance is, I can’t tell you how many km’s it covers but if you were to paddle the whole distance, factoring in portages, it would take a few days at least. And since I neither have the time nor will to portage the requisite river vehicle/adequate amount of beer that far, the portion in this article is the “easy” part.
This chunk of the river can be done a couple ways, depending on how much time you’ve got for the water. My usual method is to put in at Williamsport Rd in Huntsville, where there’s actually a spot you can stash a vehicle right at the bridge that crosses the river. Once you see the parking spot, the very short trail to the access point is clear. After negotiating a couple turns of either gentle rapids or rocky shallows, depending on what time of year you go, you’ve got a couple of distance options.
Either float and/or paddle all the way to Lake Vernon and then Hutcheson Beach for your exit, which if you’re paddling at a decent rate, will take you around 6 hours or about 8 if you’re doing it lazy river style. For a slightly abridged version with all the good stuff, float/paddle at a leisurely rate with lots of lounge time and wind up under the bridge at the entrance to Arrowhead Provincial Park, just meters from Hwy. 11 on Arrowhead Park Rd. Even if you’re in a ten dollar inflatable & just being dragged along by the current, this usually takes about 6hrs. The Arrowhead Park bridge is a sweet spot to get out as it’s easy to access for whoever is meeting you to help drag your wet gear and drunk asses out of the river before it gets dark.
For a sure thing that involves no shallows but a bit less scenery, dump yourself in at the Arrowhead bridge and float out to Lake Vernon. The fishing gets better but the giant white sand banks the Big East is known for are back in the previous length of river. At the mouth of the river on Lake Vernon, head left and Hutcheson Beach (a public beach w/ primitive boat launch & plenty of parking) will be visible. Be prepared for a bit of a paddle to get to it, and pray it’s not windy.
– Have all day? By all means, do the full deal – Williamsport to Lake Vernon – it truly is an epic day trip with almost a zero chance of getting lost & wicked photo ops.
– Plan it out – since this is a boozy river, figure out a way to get off the river without someone having to score a DUI or worse.
– Tunes: If you must, at least keep the volume reasonable. No one on that river likes dub step. I mean NO ONE.
– Pack a lunch – a roll of TP isn’t a terrible idea either. Plenty of Crown Land to practice your, ummm, bushcraft on.
– Cans cans cans. Save the glass for your dinner table.
– Don’t be a complete Muppet – pack out what you take in, or don’t bother floating.
– I know I mentioned $10 inflatables, but horror stories are plenty involving holes in floaties & stranded floaters. Use a canoe, kayak, raft, whatever – just make sure that your average beaver chewed branch can’t render it useless by poking a hole in it.
– Get off by dark. Unless you’ve scoped out some crown land to spend a night on, you do NOT want to be wasted, sunburnt and paddling in the pitch dark on a twisty river. One couple decided to ditch their canoe on shore and wandered in search of road, mostly in circles, for about 8 hours on provincial park land before stumbling half naked and still drunk into a family’s camp site at 4am.
Fun Fact: There used to be a giant annual Big East Float held every Saturday of the July long weekend. Depending on the year, 50 to 200 or so people would gather from all over to drift, float and get generally pretty hippy.
Do yourself a favour – grab a couple friends & boats, and plan a day on the Big East before it gets too cold. The fall colours arriving shortly only make it even more stunningly photogenic. Clog your Instagram feed.
It is without exaggeration one of the best day trips you can possibly do in Muskoka.