MIDDLE FALLS ON THE PIGEON RIVER

The name Middle Falls does not convey how impressive this feature is. Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by Edgar Lavoie.

Frequent rains and the snow melt runoff promised a spectacular view of the falls on Saturday, May 28, 2022.

This photo by Ontario’s Pigeon River Provincial Park shows a more normal flow over the falls.

Under the auspices of Thunder Bay Field Naturalists, ten of us gathered at the big mall on West Arthur Street, Thunder Bay. Five vehicles travelled about 53 km south on Hwy. 61. It was drizzling, and the drizzle kept up with only occasional respites. We reveled in flat farm fields and rolling forested hills and the first greens of summer.

The turnoff to the parking area.

At the junction of Hwy. 593, we travelled southwest 1.5 km on a tarred road through hilly terrain. A green sign announced Pigeon River Boundary, and we turned left into a gravelled parking area in Pigeon River Provincial Park. The whole area was new to myself and sister Susanne.

Trail map.
From left to right, Mike Childs and Susanne Lavoie stand in the front rank. In the rear are Kyla Moore, Joyce Carlson, Janine Reynolds, Cheryl Kivinen, Charles Moore and Marian Childs. Missing are Bruce Childs and photographer Edgar Lavoie. They all stand on the trail covered in silt from the recent flooding. Behind them is an enormous willow.

Trip leader Marian Childs cautioned everyone to pull socks over trouser cuffs to foil wood ticks.  An interpretive map on a wooden post showed the trail system running southeast and southwest. About 10 o’clock, our party started hiking the trail southwestward. The river paralleled a very muddy former park road. The Pigeon had earlier burst its banks and deposited silt and debris well into the bush. We admired ancient, gnarled willow trees and stately red pine and assorted jack pine, spruce, and larches dispersed among the ubiquitous alders and varieties of shrubs. All the while, different naturalists made short treks off the trail to examine barks and leaves and ground plants about to flower.

In 0.6 km we came upon the first evidence of the campground. From the beginning, Marian Childs had tantalized us with vignettes of the Middle Falls Campground. Marian had first visited the falls and store as a child. She recalled Americans crossing the river at the border just to visit the store, which sold lovely china. Today, a concrete pad, perhaps twenty by thirty feet, is the sole significant artifact of the campground. She said it had once covered a picnic shelter. The pad was covered in muddy silt.

A few metres farther and we encountered an historic plaque, THE GRAND PORTAGE. The nine-mile portage (14 km) was actually on the American side of the river. It avoided 21 miles (33 km) of rapids and waterfalls on the Pigeon. A French trader mentioned its use in 1722, and in 1732, the Canadian explorer La Vérendrye chose it over the Kaministiquia route to Lake of the Woods. At this point we could see the falls and hear the roar. The trail opened up into a clearing with patches of old pavement, and immediately to the northwest we spotted Hwy. 593.

I asked Bruce Childs to pose for a picture with the falls in the background. In 2013, on a field trip to Chippewa Ridge, I snapped him leaning on his staff. At that time, I dubbed him the incarnation of Chingachgook.

2013 Sep. 28 on Chippewa Ridge: “There stood Chingachgook, last of the Mohicans, leaning thoughtfully on his war axe, and limned on the forehead of McKay’s Mountain.”

Middle Falls was meanwhile heaving tons of water over its ledge. It plunged a depth of 20 feet (6 m). A little bit farther, the ground dipped and then leveled off at a bank. From the bank, one could take super shots of the falls. A couple of the naturalists ventured down the bank to the shingly shore to get a straight-on angle.

Marian gestured vaguely to the bank area and said somewhere in there was the old swimming area and wading pool. A boardwalk and wall had separated the swimming area from the main channel. At the end of this article, please examine some of the historic pictures of the Middle Falls Campground.

The party walked up a slope to the highway upon patches of old pavement, and proceeded southwestward uphill on the shoulder facing traffic. There was very little traffic, but an unwary pedestrian could be easily surprised. On the northwest side, a tall cliff of layered rock rose perhaps a hundred feet. Marian pointed out some projecting concretions which resembled bracket fungi. Sometime in the past, people had carted two huge pieces of this “fungi” to the campground and placed them in the store’s garden, where they remain.

Mike Childs overlooks the top of the falls.
Looking downriver.

At the top of the hill was an unpaved pullover for traffic. A well-travelled path descended to within a few metres of the very top of the falls. One could pause indefinitely to experience the full power and majesty of Middle Falls. Bruce Childs pointed out our next destination upriver  ̶  a rock point in a rapids.

Looking upriver to the rapids and rock point.
RCMP cautionary sign.

Back at the pullover, we walked a short distance to the next path. We emerged on a long rock ledge that projected into the current. The narrow channel was choked with churning rapids. Upriver, in flat water, I noticed a cable running from shore to shore. Bruce said that it supported a basket, now removed, that enabled passengers to reach either the American or the Canadian side of Pigeon River. That explained the cautionary signs posted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In low water, Bruce said, one could actually walk from shore to shore.

Cable strung from bank to bank.

The rock ledge exhibited two old artifacts. They were brass benchmarks planted in the bedrock. The inscription on one had the words “GEODETIC SURVEY”. The other’s inscription was not readable. Someone said it was connected to the survey of the American-Canadian boundary, which runs generally east and west midway between the shores.

Susanne and Bruce poised on the rock ledge. At their feet is one of the benchmarks.
Inscription GEODETIC SURVEY.
Other benchmark.

As we trekked up the path, we stragglers heard shouts from the river. A small group of trekkers was hailing us from the American shore. We returned the greetings. Smugglers or coyotes? As if.

Back at the highway, Marian gave a signal, and we all crossed over as a group to the lefthand shoulder. It was a leisurely hike to where we had left our vehicles.

Arriving back at the parking lot.

We were invited to view some marsh marigolds in flower, and we all leapt at the invitation. We proceeded southeastward on a short road to where the trail began to High Falls. We gathered that it was a rather arduous hike, involving some steep hills and some sections recently flooded by the high water.

Trailhead to High Falls.
Marsh marigolds.

We enjoyed the yellow beauties for a few minutes, and then tramped back to our vehicles. It was still drizzling. We removed our wet rain gear. Mike Childs found a wood tick on his camera equipment, and we all checked our socks and trousers for more of the little beasts. Everyone took a snack break before heading home. It was going on one o’clock.

High Falls is accessible from the Canada Customs area near the border. One follows the path behind the tourist bureau, which allows one to walk under the highway and follow either the high or low trails to get to the river.   Both are interesting.

Long ago, when Marian’s mother was young, there was a fishing lodge located there. All that remains is the fireplace. Marian recommends that you keep to the lower, lefthand path at the fork to find her dad’s fishing spot and perhaps spot an orchid or two as well as the old fireplace.

Susanne and I will check out that path soon.

Note: Thanks to Marian Childs for the edits in this article.

HISTORIC PHOTOS

Above – Department of Highways of Ontario (DHO) roadside park and campground on Hwy 61 at Middle Falls in 1939. The Middle Falls Roadside Park was located at a beautiful spot along the Pigeon River beside Hwy 61, about 5 miles north of the colourfully infamous “Outlaw Bridge” and the Canada-United States port-of-entry. The DHO initially built this small roadside park in 1937 for the convenience of motorists. The park offered motorists an opportunity to stop and enjoy the scenic view of Middle Falls, which can be seen straddling the Canada-United States Boundary in the background. The park’s campground was gradually expanded over the years as motor tourism along Hwy 61 continued to increase. Various new park amenities were added in the 1940s and 1950s. Eventually, the DHO’s Middle Falls Park was absorbed into the newly-established Pigeon River Provincial Park. See an Enlarged Photo Here. Photo taken on August 28, 1939.
Above – Circa 1950 postcard view of Hwy 61 near Pigeon River, showing the Middle Falls DHO Roadside Park. See an Enlarged Photo Here.
(Photo from Cameron Bevers’ historical photograph collection – Original photographer unknown)
Above – King’s Highway 61 sign and interpretive plaque for the Pigeon River at the DHO’s Middle Falls Roadside Park in 1953. In the early 1950s, a new elevated boardwalk was constructed along the Pigeon River which led from the picnic area to a viewing platform on the Canadian side of Middle Falls. A swimming area was created for adults between the boardwalk and Hwy 61 to complement a small children’s wading pool which was added to the park’s growing list of amenities during the 1940s. See an Enlarged Photo Here. Photo taken on August 20, 1953.
Above – View of the Middle Falls DHO Roadside Park from the side of Hwy 61 in 1953, showing the new boardwalk and swimming area beside the Pigeon River. The once-busy park at Middle Falls has since been abandoned. The park ceased operations in the early 2000s after nearly 65 years of continuous operation. Apart from the Pigeon River and the highway itself, almost everything else seen in this photo is now gone. The only notable remaining park feature still visible today is the children’s wading pool near the former park entrance. This small concrete structure was abandoned and left in place after the park closed. See an Enlarged Photo Here. Photo taken on August 20, 1953.
(Photo courtesy of Ontario Ministry of Transportation – © Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 1953)
1982 photo of large building at the campground by OAP Urban Index.
1982 photo of picnic pavilion by OAP Urban Index.

THAT’S ALL, FOLKS!

4 thoughts on “MIDDLE FALLS ON THE PIGEON RIVER

  1. Just above middle falls in a low water year and mid-summer I waded back and forth across the river. Never got my knees wet. I think I only did it was because it was illegal.

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