Story and photos by Sarah Vance
The York River is a watershed that begins at Baptiste and extends through Bancroft, along New Carlow, into the Ottawa River and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean.
When connecting people, trades and tourism, the river’s vibrant forces have come to be as respected, as they are, at times, feared. For the cultures who share the shoreline, the river puts food on the table. Morels and fiddleheads are harvested in the Spring; cranberries and wild rice harvested in the Summer; and beavers trapped in the Fall. Today, the mighty York is also a gateway for outdoor adventurers and ghost-town travelers.
There are several launching points, which scaffold the river’s vastness and provide manageable routes for even an amateur canoeist. That said, it’s the many raging rapids and miles of magnificent chutes that make the river a kayaker’s dream.
Scenic rural roads run adjacent to the water in many places, allowing for discovery day-trips to shoreline parks. There are also 10 rural bridges situated over the York and many of these are single-lane structures. Extensive trail systems allow hikers to get out and walk and swimmers to jump in and experience the York in all its splendor. So it's best to bring a bathing suit.
The River surges out of the East end of Baptiste Lake, at the High Falls Dam. This semi-maintained park provides a spectacular show as crashing waves create mist in the air and the water scoffs at man’s efforts to contain it.
If travelling on the Baptiste waterway, the dam is reached past Blueberry Island, near Lavallee and Dog Bay. Once a marshland, Baptiste was dammed in the 1960’s in order for it to become the system it is today. Ghost-town travelers will find the footings of the original dam, still in place, a quarter of a mile north of the current site. The concrete footings can still be found in the water.
High Falls offers magnificent natural whirlpools, formed as waves crash against the precambrian boulders below the dam, where mini-rainbows are reflected as water pools against granite. There are also rocky trails along the shoreline that fill up with people, who take off their shoes and put their toes into the rushing waves below the dam. To find this dam by car, follow the High Falls Trail at the intersection of South Baptiste and Y-Road. This semi-maintained dirt road runs approximately 2km long, and while there are potholes, even a mini car is able to make the trip in. There is a bay at the base of the falls, where swimmers congregate in the summer.
On South Baptiste Lake Road visitors will find the first bridge, downriver from the dam. This is also a launching point for boaters, offering over 7km of secluded travel, downriver into Bancroft. Along this route there is an abandoned pressure lumber mill, in Birds Creek, for ghost town hunters, in an area known for its bass fishing. Muskie, pike, and pickerel are also frequent catches. And as you travel along the marshy route, canoeists will find patches of wild rice growing and lily along the shoreline. This uniquely pink coloured York River flower figures prominently in the stories passed down from generation to generation by the Algonquin Madaouskarini community.
The Eagle’s Nest cliffs are the first indicator that you have arrived in Bancroft. Some say that it is only by river that the elegant splendor of this famous landmark can be truly experienced. Eagle’s Nest provides good composition for photographers and the town has positioned lights to illuminate the river and reflect the colourful red granite and marble cliffs at dark.
There are two important access points as the river continues alongside Highway 62, towards Bancroft. Sparrow Park offers picnic tables and a boat launch, with some trailer parking, near Foodland. Trips and Trails, just downriver, is an outfitting and rental shop with spaces for docking and guided tours available. Both of these access points allow for a manageable excursion by water that is just 1km from the Town of Bancroft.
By canoe you will see otters, mallard ducks and also herons known to nest near the Tim Horton’s drive-through, where boats are tied-off and hot coffee is served. A painted turtle is a common sight, and is estimated by locals to be at least a century old. But who's counting? The river’s sand dunes are fiery red, as a result of the granite in the soil. And there are also many clay deposits that local kids sculpt into natural water slides, and then use, to slip into the river.
The scenic Millennium foot bridge is made from a railroad bridge and connects the river to a gateways of trails used for sledding and all-terrain sports. On Wednesday nights, from July to August, Mineral Capital Concerts brings musical talent to the stage and spectators tie their boats and watch performers from the river.
Millennium Park is a good place to get out and explore the shoreline from two different vantage points, along both shorelines. If you follow the Heritage trail into town you will find Heart of The Park, a boat rental and cafe, at Riverside Park. The Waddle and Daub Cafe offers canoe and kayak rentals, along with a casual menu, on this shoreline, where there is also a beach for swimming and a play structure, adjacent to the Post Office and the Heritage Museum. Here the Constable Thomas Kehoe Memorial Bridge, at Station St., attracts hundreds of pigeons that roost under the bridge and can make for spectacularly eerie photos.
Farmers would once water their livestock and miners would wash coal bins, while basins of water for the train were refilled, along this area of the river. Today, Bancroft’s shoreline appeals to the Pokemon Go crowd. A mineral pile, on the Heritage trail, allows recreational rockhounders to prospect for Feldspar, Mica tailings and, of course, to find Pikachu.
A fourth bridge is accentuated by a mural painted by Arne Roosman and a boardwalk path in Bancroft’s Theatre District. Established Canadian artist David Milne also made this section of the river his muse and lived his last days on the river shoreline in Bancroft.
If you are travelling by water, Bancroft is the final post for getting supplies or to have an ice cream or a locally crafted beer before striking out into the wilderness. For ghost town travelers, this part of the river offers a snapshot into local history.
A multi-unit apartment building, near the corner of Bridge St. and Highway 62, was once a Mill powered by a 40-foot wooden flume. The business produced more than 30,000 pounds of sheep’s wool a year, processed from local farms. The York’s rushing water was vital to this operation, as it was used to remove lanolin from the wool. Here a dam and rapids begin a 2km portage for water travelers. This dam was once a locally owned hydro-electric power source that actually kept the town off the grid until the 1970’s by generating hydro-electric power for approximately 2700 residents.
In the 1950’s many medicinal plants were marketed, with a great deal of success, along the river. Entrepreneur Jack Brown operated Dominion Essential oils, where Jan Woodlands is situated today. Brown would run balsam and cedar brush into his mill and these local medicines would then be sold and processed into cosmetic products, such as Noxema.
Travelers by car might choose to follow the river to a fifth bridge at the Bronson Road. This is a single-lane bridge and a launching point for people travelling by water. This bridge also signals the Lavallee Bay portage, approximately 2km further down river. This portage is about a quarter of a mile in length, along semi-maintained crown trails.
Ghost town travelers will find the dilapidated crumblings of Egan’s farm, once owned by lumber baron J.R. Booth himself. Booth invested in the property, which provided oats, carrots and potatoes, to feed the work-horses and labourers who manned the area’s sawmills and maintained the train tracks. Today, a Fish Hatchery can be found near this location, on Hysert Rd.
The sixth bridge crosses under Highway 28, at Egan Chutes Provincial Park. It is worth bringing your bathing suit to Egan Chutes, where Kings Marsh offers a spectacular sand bar and hundreds of sunfish sparkle like jewels in the swirling river. The chutes are a mile long and the path runs along several kilometres of cliffs. Deep sand dunes run contrast to rocky ledges and natural whirlpools swirl in the river against granite cliffs. The trails are secluded and it is not unusual to find couples in the natural whirlpools or bathers at King’s Marsh.
For mineral enthusiasts, Egan’s Chutes is a rockhound's paradise where blue sodalite, a locally grown tectosilicate mineral, is readily found along the shoreline. The Princess of Wales is known to have ordered 130 tons of sodalite from the mine on Highway 28 in the early 1900’s.
Following Egan Chutes, the river circles and snakes another 3km, tangling deeper into the valleys of the New Carlow basin. It is a winding and sinewy route comprised of narrow gullies and vegetation, such as wild rice and cranberries.
In Slabtown there is a public docking area at Trails End, off Boulter Rd. This access route is landlocked by the Slabtown rapids, but you can still access Egan Chutes by travelling up-river from this point. For ghost town enthusiasts, stories passed down from generation to generation tell of men who drowned in logging accidents near this boat launch. And there are rocks along the shoreline where the names of deceased log drivers have been etched in rough.
The Trails End portage extends 0.5km into Slabtown, ending at the iron bridge on Boulter Road. Slabtown once boasted an iron bridge, with high symmetrical railings, that fortified the structure. This new seventh bridge is a single-lane bridge, like those at New Carlow and the Little Mississippi, both surrounding tributaries that intersect with the York and Madawaska Rivers.
Conroy’s Marsh is approximately 10km, down river from Slabtown and it is the little known jewel of the York, described by some as a “Northern Bayou” because of its marshy bogs and lush vegetation.
Historically Conroy’s Marsh was a booming shanty town and an Alligator Boat brought tourists and prospectors to a hotel that once thrived there. The dilapidated remains of this Octogonal hotel provides a ghost town destination and an old roof can still be found on this property. These and other aging structures offer insights into the activities of a community that is long gone, but not forgotten.
As it turns out, bullfrogs also thrived in the Marsh and many years ago locals would trap and harvest them, putting their legs on ice before exporting them to posh urban eateries as far away as New York City.
Conroy’s Marsh is now a registered walleye spawning site and thick, pulsing schools of this fish literally overtake the water in April and May annually. In the fall the wild cranberries are so plentiful that you need only to strike the branches up against the boat to find your canoe 4 inches deep in the berries. Arts connoisseurs will recognize Conroy’s Marsh in A.J. Casson’s paintings titled by this same name.
The river continues adjacent to Highway 515 through Combermere, where it hits the Ottawa River at Arnprior, but this is where our story stops. But the river doesn’t stop, and if you are so inclined, it's just a matter of time before your canoe will reach the Atlantic.