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Kevin Callan Paddles the Thames River

Our friend Kevin Callan, also known as the Happy Camper, is used to tripping in rugged and remote locations. Kevin’s is a familiar name in the world of canoe tripping; he is an author and instructor who is featured regularly on CBC radio, morning talk shows, at canoe symposiums and tradeshows as well as in publications like Explore and Canoeroots magazine. He is probably best known for his series of guidebooks, which cover canoe routes in regions all over Ontario and Quebec. He is also a Nova Craft ambassador and is partial to our Prospector canoe.


hen Kevin told us that he would be paddling the Thames River as part of a partnership with the southern Ontario tourism board, we were pretty excited about it. We manufacture in London, Ontario and the Thames River runs right through our little city and through a couple of other towns in Southwestern Ontario. Rugged and remote it is not. The river is generally underused in its recreational capacity, and although day paddlers can be found on it in spring and early summer (while water levels allow for paddling), paddling the entire length of the river is pretty much unheard of. Here’s what Kevin had to say about his adventures on the Thames River:

I survived my eight days paddling down southwestern Ontario’s Thames River – from Woodstock to Lighthouse Cove on Lake St. Clair. There was a heat wave and I had some guy wander into my campsite one night and try to convince me that the Ku Klux Klan was a good organization to join. But overall it was an amazing trip. My video series about my time spent on the Thames is up on my KCHappyCamper You Tube channel.

It was a slightly different journey for me. The Thames is an urban river with farms, cities and small hamlets found along the way. So I packed a bike-lock to secure my canoe (Nova Craft 14ft. Fox Solo) if I had to wander away from the riverbank. I also carried my own water due to agricultural runoff making the river undrinkable. I had to think outside the box on where to camp most nights. But I managed: a stranger’s backyard, a roadside pull-over, a farmer’s field, and a couple of fancy hotels, all made great places to pitch my tent.

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The trip had a bit of Huck Finn flavour to it. The Thames is definitely comparable to the Mississippi River. It runs a full 300 plus kilometres and is the most southern watercourse in Canada. I’m more acclimatized to canoeing rivers in the far north where it’s rare to see another paddler, let alone any sign of development along the banks. Surprisingly, the river is mostly wild; except for brief encounters with golf courses and road bridges.

Each day the river changes character. The upper stretch was more creek like, remote, and alive with song birds. I saw little of the city of London. If it wasn’t for the odd shopping cart littering the bank or seeing families enjoying a bicycle ride along the river trail, you wouldn’t even know suburbia existed all around you. The section where I paddled through the First Nations Reserves was a wilder part of the river with no development around me. After spotting 12 bald eagles, I gave up counting. The lower half is the stretch of river the Voyageurs called a “respectable ditch.” The clay banks rose up all around me and the river twisted and turned.There were wider banks and less moving water. And I started to see houses. The river still has a subtle charm to it all, however. Massive cottonwood trees hung their branches over the distorted  banks. There were less eagles but lots of herons, ducks and kingfishers. The lower reaches of the river is also rich in history, from epic War of 1812 battles to the most northerly Underground Railroad where slaves escaped from the U.S.

The last portion was more like an elongated pond than a river. Big boats cruised by and the wind coming off Lake Saint Claire made the last hour of paddling a bit of an ordeal. But over all, the Thames was an amazing river to journey down. It doesn’t seem to get the credit it deserves. Some fellow paddlers snubbed their noses up at me when I told them I was going to paddle the Thames, from tributary to it’s mouth. They labelled it polluted, boring, and uneventful. I disagree. This is one amazing river to paddle, whether you do it in sections as a series of day trips or as one full journey, you won’t be disappointed.

By the time I pushed out into the waves of Lake St. Clair I had connected to one of the best paddles southwestern Ontario has to offer. The Thames is an amazing river that’s rich in history, alive in biodiversity, and full of ever changing character.