In 1970, Ishpatina got no respect. It was the remote location of an abandoned fire tower. End of story.
That year the federal government published the first topographical map of the ridge, Smoothwater Lake (NTS 41P/7, 1:50,000). Someone did a count of the 50-foot contour lines and discovered that it was taller than the recorded highest point in Ontario, Ogidaki Mountain. The first recorded highest point, Tip Top Mt, was crowned in 1899 before Ogidaki replaced it. For 70 years, Ishpatina had been robbed of its title.
Two other high peaks were found on the ridge during the contour count. The highest pair of the trio had identical contours. Ontario's Department of Lands and Forests (predecessor to MNR) must have sent a surveyor to the top because it would shortly publish the elevation of the highest at 2,275 feet, which could not have been determined from the map.
The ridge had no official name and local staff at the Elk Lake office learned that the Anishnabai called it “highest hill.” (Fortunately, the department did not, as it had considered doing, name it Mt. Coleman, after the geologist who surveyed Tip Top.) An Ojibway speaker translated this to Ishpatina and it acquired an official name.
In 1974, Ontario first made notice of the new champion when it published the location and height of the new highpoint on a new non-topo map (Maple Mountain 41P/SE, 1:126,720). Almost no one saw this map series. Backcountry travelers preferred the federal topographical map that had more information and wide distribution.
Nor did anyone know that the highpoint was marked on the wrong peak, North Peak, the second highest. Let me repeat: it was the wrong peak.
What was going on? Bureaucratic incompetent? A grotesque joke? Or was the mountain itself playing a spectral game?
Anyone wanting to stand on top of Ontario would head for the North Peak. Without a trail, the false summit was no easy climb. It meant up to a four-kilometre bushwhack with a 1,000-foot ascent through the worst entanglement of shin-thumping deadfalls and skin-slashing branches northern Ontario offered. All that after 90 kilometres of secondary highways and 25 kilometres of logging roads to get to the put-in for a 20-kilometre paddle to the base of Smoothwater Lake. There was no stampede. It was an unknown, unloved giant.
Backcountry ranger Hap Wilson did feel the love, and probably was the first. He had access to the 1:126,720 map at the MNR office in Temagami where he worked. He decided to make a side trip while in the area clearing portages in 1978. He made a return bushwhack from McCulloch Lake, along with fellow rangers Dan Gibson Jr. and Trudy Wilson, his wife. Then they pushed on by canoe to Scarecrow Lake and ascended to the summit on the nearly overgrown towerman’s trail while clearing it. He got his wish to stand on the highpoint — but bagged it by accident.
In the fall of 1987, in the midst of the battle over logging, local environmentalist Terry Graves had been giving airborne tours to media and politicians. He was using the Maple Mountain map so the false peak was always winking at him. He decided he’d had enough of sitting in a metal box holding overflowing vomit bags. With local residents Willy Deubelbeiss and Jeremy Schultz, he paddled to Smoothwater and bushwhacked to the North Peak.
Thinking they’d bagged the top of Ontario, the group bushwhacked on to the Tower Summit to climb the tower. Another accidental accomplishment.
In the early 1990s Ontario published a topographic series, the first by the province, known as the Ontario Base Maps (OBM). With a more precise contour interval of ten metres, it would have revealed the greater height of Tower Peak, if anyone looked at it. However, few people used the series because it meant carrying around more maps and it was only available at a single outlet in Toronto. Everyone did -– and still does – stick to the federal maps. So no one noticed.
Anyone from outside of the area who heard that Ishpatina was the highest point would look at the federal maps and assume it was the spot where the tower stood. A safe assumption since they were typically erected on the highest elevations in their vicinity. With the Smoothwater Lake map in hand, people were making the assumption correctly for the wrong reason.
The first of those was highpoint-trailblazer, American climber Jack Bennett. He climbed the Tower Peak in 1997.
But his experienced eye fell on the North Peak. It looked like it could be higher, and the contours on the Smoothwater Lake map were indeterminate. He couldn’t shake off his doubt that he might have climbed the wrong peak. When he got home, he tried to find out from Ontario Parks which was higher, but no one could tell him.
In September 2005, he came back with his sons, who were working on their Canadian highpoints, and he decided to confirm for himself which was the real summit. He brought a homemade rig that mountaineers use.
“Imagine a flexible long, clear tube,” he wrote in an email. “At the site you uncoil it, fasten one end to a tree, and form it into a long shallow ‘U’. When it is mostly filled with water, it essentially becomes an eight-foot-long level. You then sight across the meniscus, formed at the two ends, toward the point in question. A surveyor would probably cringe, but it works and is quite accurate.”
The North Peak is tree covered so it does not have a dramatic view of the summit. However, he was able to find a spot from which to take a sighting. The Tower Peak was higher.
This second trip they did by repeating his paddle to the bottom of Smoothwater Lake, but instead of continuing down to Scarecrow Lake, they dragged up a small creek on the ridge as far as they could. From there they bushwhacked over three kilometres, the same route as Graves. From North Peak they continued the bushwhack to the summit across Ishpatina Canyon.
I, too, concluded that year that the Tower Peak was the highpoint, but for a different reason and by a different path. For years, I had been frustrated listening to people refer to Maple Mountain as the highest peak in Ontario, which I knew it wasn’t because I possessed a copy of the Maple Mountain map. Some called it the second highest, and others the third. What was its rank after Ishpatina? Inquiries to the Ontario and federal governments produced no resolution. One thing was clear: neither government had a complete ranking of Ontario’s highest elevations.
To rank Maple Mountain, I needed to compile a list of all elevations above it. But first I had to find them. Along the way, I enlisted help from Paul Harker of the Atlas of Canada at Natural Resources Canada, and Greg Slayden of Peakbagger.com. They came up with their own lists by using different methods from mine. No one method found them all, though the OBMs were the best source, so it was truly a complementary effort. I compiled the results. Through that effort in the summer and fall of 2005, I put the final touches on the first complete list.
It could have been done sooner by others, but no one took the time. Certainly not the budget-constrained Ministry of Natural Resources that had been spiraling downward in size since at least 1990.
In doing a complete provincial ranking, I discovered the erroneous tagging of the North Peak. And that the three peaks on Ishpatina ranked in the highest five in Ontario. The South Peak is the fifth highest. The North Peak is the third.
The correct elevation of the Tower Summit also came out at 2,275 feet (693 metres). Remember it? That’s the same elevation marked on the North Peak in 1974. That error stood for 31 years.
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