Photo: Ishpatina aerial of fire tower



Highpointing? No, it’s not some kind of needlework. It’s a new sport. You won’t see it at the Olympics, but you will in Temagami. Call it a variation on the mountaineers’ Seven Summits quest to every continent’s highest peak. A Canadian highpointer is drooling to stand on the rooftop of the every province and territory. One of these is Temagami’s Ishpatina — Ontario’s highest elevation.

Highpointing began in the US in the 1930s, but it was slow progress. The first completion of the 50 state highpoints took 30 years. Jack Bennett did the twelfth in 1990. The challenge was completely unknown in Canada when, hungry for another, he turned his sights northward.

In 1998, he became the first person, and the only one to date, to breath the air on all 13 Canadian highpoints.

Bennett was not the first to climb Ishpatina. There had been a fire tower at the summit since 1930 and fire crews had hauled up water as early as 1901 to douse lightning-ignited fires. Canoeists, particularly Temagami-based youth camps, had been doing it since the tower went up (though it was never as popular as Maple Mountain). Toss in a few prospectors and the odd timber cruiser, and, of course, the Anishnabai who pre-dated everyone.

But only in the last three decades might anyone have known they were standing on the highest point in Ontario. It wasn’t even recognized as particularly high until 1970. That year the federal government published the 1:50,000-scale Smoothwater Lake (41 P/7) topographical map, which led to the discovery. Prior to that the rooftop title had bounced around between peaks north of Lake Superior.

The Department of Lands and Forests (predecessor to MNR) transferred the crown to Ishpatina. But no one called a press conference. It’s top-dog status wasn’t even published until the release of a new map in a new series by the department in 1974, 1:126,720-scale Maple Mountain (41P/SE). Few people beyond the most experienced backcountry travelers and the MNR staff saw this map because the federal topo was the standard, and it was, well, redundant.

Locals believed that Maple Mountain was the highpoint. During the controversial Maple Mountain Project (Ontario Place North proposal, 1972-75) the error had been drilled into them by local boosters, ad nauseum. And it couldn’t be shaken loose. The Temiskaming Speaker still called it the highest as late as 1989.

Ishpatina doesn’t compare to the cold vistas of a snow-capped peak, but it is firmly embedded in Bennett’s memory. “For no other highpoint that I know,” he wrote in an email, “do you have to canoe two days. It was also memorable for me since I first did it alone, at one with the beauty of the lovely crystalline waters and wilderness of the Canadian Shield.”

He did it in 1997, travelling to the base of the Tower Trail by the canoe route from Montreal River and Smoothwater Lake to the north. In his book, Not Won In A Day, Bennett suggested a second, all-overland route from the south by taking the old Portelance logging road from Capreol to the Sturgeon River, fording it, then hiking along former logging roads to the southwest end of Ishpatina Ridge, and bushwhacking the rest of the way to the Tower Trail.

Inspired by Bennett's book, Canadian Ken Takabe made Ishpatina his first destination when he kicked off his challenge in 2001. (To date, Takabe has done five national highpoints.)  Instead of taking the canoe route, he chose to follow Bennett’s overland suggestion.

Seeking more information, he called the park office for Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Wilderness Park. "How do you expect to get to the ridge without a canoe or kayak?" the superintendent asked. After Takabe described his plan, he was told, "That is a serious outing. I wouldn't recommend it." 

Undaunted, Takabe headed up the Portelance Road, forded the river, and biked the former logging roads to the bridge over Scarecrow Creek. Here’s where Bennett’s road knowledge ended. Takabe explored the remnant gravel threads. He went as far north as he could and bushwhacked along the ridge’s spine to the tower. After an overnight stay, he returned by hiking down the old towerman’s trail. From here he bushwhacked along the shore of Scarecrow and inland to his bike. On the way, he found a convenient east-west road west of Woods Lake. The shoreline bushwhack and the old roads back to Scarecrow Creek would become the primary overland route.

Takabe sent me an email that fall and I immediately realized the possibilities for non-canoeists to explore a piece of Temagami. I published his humorous log on Ottertooth and added a route map. I suspected a few others would join the highpointing challenge and follow this new route, as it required less gear, time and skills than a canoe trip.

Random emails of various adventures started as a trickle. Some trekkers turned back after damaging their oil pans or were frustrated by the long bushwhack, but I did not appreciate how many would succeed. I received a few journals for publication (and Ottertooth published a winter attempt) and links to personal websites recounting the experience. Some were national highpointers, but most just wanted to stand on Ontario’s highpoint. Some canoed, others followed the Bennett-Takabe route. Some camped on the summit, others at the Sturgeon.

In 2005, I compiled the first complete list of Ontario’s highest elevations. That, in part, inspired Derek Standen’s passion for Ontario’s highpoints and his

In late June, 2008, while doing a solo canoe trip, I hiked to the tower. On the way down, I ran into three hikers heading up. With hip-bearing backpacks, mosquito nets, hiking boots and handheld GPS units, they did not look like canoeists.

“Is that your canoe we passed?” one asked. “Did you paddle here?” That cleared up any doubt.

One of them was Californian Rob Broeren who had done 49.5 of the American highpoints (bad weather forced him back on his Denali ascent). He had read Takabe’s story and was working on the Canadian highpoints. Ishpatina was his first (he has since completed four).

They were actually two groups that had run into each other on the logging road, joined up and pushed through the lakeshore bushwhack.

Broeren believed that there was a least one group every weekend in the summer overlanding to Ishpatina. Google searches show that the number of feet tramping into the clouds is rising. One of the best documented websites is Andrew Lavigne’s. Summits of Canada has completed half of Canada's highpoints. Group size varies from soloists to the 26 people led by Ralph Schuessele in October 2008.

Changes in the route are easing the burden for adventurers. The new Gervais Road, which replaced the single-lane, degraded northern portion of the Portelance, probably shaved an hour off the drive. A logging bridge is scheduled to cross the Sturgeon, possibly as early as the fall of 2010. The bridge will be closed to public motorized vehicles, but will be open to hikers and bikers. I expect a trail will, at some point, replace the bushwhack. 

For everyone who has trekked to the top, it is a journey that leaves its mark. As Bennett wrote in an email, To highpointers, every highpoint is a special, almost sacred place.”


  MAPS:   Routes to Ishpatina

  Cover photo: Not Won In A Day

  Photo: fording the Sturgeon River

Ken Hammond fording the Sturgeon River on July 4, 2008 during that summer's high water.


   Photo: highpointers on Ishpatina trail

Highpointers Rob Broeren (Los Angeles), Dan, and Ken Hammond (Toronto) ascending the Tower Trail, July 4, 2008. 



JACK BENNETT: Canada's highpointing trailblazer

Jack Bennett, after completing the 50 American state highpoints went looking for another challenge. Canada, where he had canoed in his youth, caught his attention. No one had ever done all the Canadian highpoints. And for good reason.

Though there are only 13, they are much harder to complete than the US counterparts. Only three are easy to reach by road. Four summits are difficult world-class mountain climbs and one of those, Mt Logan in the Yukon, is technically more difficult than any of the Seven Summits (continental highpoints). Barbeau Peak at the north end of Ellesmere Island in Nunavut is one of the remotest places on Earth.

Two people died in 2003 on the Quebec-Labrador border, on dually named Mont d’Iberville/Mount Caubvick, in the rugged Torngat Mountains. (Bennett co-led the recovery effort.) And there is the greater expense: a flight to Ellesmere Island is at least $10,000.

Bennett, 66, completed the Canadian highpoints in 1998. It took him six years. He is still the only person to hold the title and is recognized by Guinness World Records. His son Tom is preparing to be the second in June, 2010.*

Jack is an American hiker, climber, marathon runner, and research engineer. He financed his hiking and climbing adventures with his patent royalties. Dream Hikes Coast to Coast, a guide to the 50 best American trails, his second book, will be released shortly.

As he wrote in Not Won In A Day: “To a highpointer, the summit is the tangible, undeniable measure of success in a world where success is all too often subjective and ill-defined.”

* Tom became the second person to complete Canada's highpoints in June, 2010. He, too, is not a Canadian.



On August 1, 2010, Derek Standen of GPS'd his way to the South Peak, and became the first known trailblazer to do all three of Ishpatina's highest elevations.

He did the Tower Peak in 2007 and the North Peak in May, 2010.

His South Peak trek, accompanied by Darcy Chapin, was the simplest: bushwhacking from the Tower Trail.




POSTED 05.10.2010  UPDATED 09.22.2010


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