Many people I know would never attempt a wilderness canoe trip, sadly some of them wouldnít attempt the trip merely because a canoe trip lacks the "luxuries of civilization." Thankfully my wife does not share the same position, and she agreed to come with me. What follows is my account of our nine day trip in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park.
Getting There - July 21st and 22nd:
With great anticipation and a little apprehension, my wife and I left our home in Newmarket, Ontario at 8:30pm on June 21st, and began our 1900km journey to the town of Red Lake. To gain an extra day in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park we decided to leave Newmarket as soon as my wife came home from work. I had taken the afternoon off to sleep before driving through the night. Our goal was to reach Sault Ste. Marie by dawn the morning of June 22nd. With little traffic, and a full moon illuminating our route most of the night, we reached Sault Ste. Marie sooner than expected. As day broke between Sault Ste Marie and Wawa, we experienced our first glimpses of the great lake, Superior. From Marathon to Thunder Bay, Superior revealed its splendor. The lake is not all that makes this stretch of highway so spectacular. Some of the oldest rock formations on the continent, eroded over time, compliment Superiorís beauty. Between Thunder Bay and Dryden, we saw two bears, each was sitting on their rump, eating vegetation just off the highway. We reached our outfitter, Goldseekers, in Red Lake at 7pm on the 22nd of June. We finished making our final preparations with Albert and Kelly, the owners of Goldseekers, and then went out for dinner at the Red Lake Inn. Shortly after we ensured our gear was ready, and went to bed.
Day 1 Ė June 23rd:
We decided last night that we would not leave Goldseekers until 7am. After a 22 Ĺ hour drive to Red Lake, with only a couple of hours worth of breaks, we needed a good night sleep. As we loaded Albertís truck, I wondered what the next nine days would bring. I had been on shorter trips with larger groups, and my wife had never been on a wilderness canoe trip. As we drove to the Johnson Lake put in, Albert and I discussed the blowdown along Suffel Lake Road, and the governmentís decision to allow logging of the blowdown areas. We reached the put in around 8am. The temperature was already into the 20ís, and there wasnít much of a breeze. Albert dropped us off and continued up the road to check on a beaver dam that was threatening the stability of the road.
And so, it began.
The portage to Johnson was short, all downhill, and the trail was dry. As a result of this we didnít bother following our plan for portaging all our gear. We quickly had all our gear at the lake, and loaded in the canoe. We took our main camera and a disposable out of the camera case, and I placed them in the pockets of my PDF. They were in Ziploc bags to keep them safe from the water. I positioned my duct tape and Ziploc bag map case on top of the backpack in front of me and walked the canoe away from the shore. With my wife seated at the bow, I took my stern seat.
After a short paddle, I took a picture of my wife looking towards our adventure ahead. I handed her the camera and she took one of me. We quickly rounded the point and entered the bay where our first full portage would begin. A yellow sign indicated the beginning of the portage. I thought there wouldnít be any of these to guide us; I was a little disappointed as I had hoped I would have to use my map reading skills to find each portage.
The first portage started on a floating bog, but turned out to be mostly dry; approximately halfway through the portage crosses an old logging road. We spotted moose tracks on the trail; we would see moose tracks on many of the trails. It was on this first real portage that I realized my initial plan of two tripping each portage was unrealistic. I had not accounted for needing two food barrels to fit all our food, and my plan to store our baja bags under the canoe seats while carrying the canoe was hopelessly optimistic. At the end of the 400 metres I realized we would have to carry the baja bags rather than keeping them under the canoe seats. Oh well, Iíll consider this our first lesson learned. I was out of breath and hot, and the day was still young. As the afternoon approached the day just became hotter and hotter; it turns out the high recorded in Red Lake was 31 degrees C (88 degrees F), and there was high humidity making it even hotter.
Stan Lake was a short paddle, less than 500 metres in length. A cached boat marked the beginning of the portage. I could see by the map that our second portage was much shorter in length, and foolishly, I decided to attempt carrying the canoe with the baja bags attached. I was able to lift the canoe to my shoulders, but was unable to balance the canoe properly. I lowered the canoe, unlatched the bags from the seats, removed them, and started my first comfortable trip.
The heat was getting to me and I was sweating a fair bit. Working at a desk job all week does little to prepare someone for a trip like this. By the time we each finished carrying our third load, I was a mess. My wife looked fine, and when I asked how she felt, she replied she was OK. Iím pretty sure she could tell I wasnít. Not wanting to stop long, we pushed of into the small pond that feeds the creek flowing into Douglas. We could hear fast moving water as we entered the creek; the sound was coming from upstream, and I made a mental note to remember to be careful as we paddled through that section of the creek at the end of our trip. Our path took us downstream, and we reached our final portage before Douglas in a short amount of time.
I was still feeling lousy so I was glad the portage wasnít long. The hardest part of the portage was lifting our gear over the ropes securing the two cached boats above rapids. Without much effort we finished the portage.
The remainder of the creek was passed through quickly, and we entered Douglas into the open expanse of the southern section of Douglas. In the distance a small motor boat was traveling in our direction, likely coming from Viking Lodge, located on an island in the northern section of Douglas. The boat stopped along the eastern shore off a point, and the occupants began fishing. A moderate breeze was blowing from the west, and our inexperience, hidden on the smaller lakes, was exposed. Our path was not straight, but we continued moving forward slowly. As we approached the southwest corner of the lake the sound of falling water could be heard; along the southern shore a short distance from the stream falling into Hatchet, we came across the first obvious campsite. We decided to paddle directly under the falls, hoping to catch a glimpse of fish. Not seeing any we paddled back to the campsite, and had lunch; it was already noon. A path leading towards the falls made me believe this would be the portage; while my wife started cooking the sausages, I walked up the path towards the falls. The path petered out close to the base of the falls, and I was pretty sure this would not be the portage. While filling our collapsible water container, I decided to search along the shore for other possible portage landings; feet away from where the stream entered Douglas I spotted an unmistakable landing.
With food in our stomachs, and a short rest reinvigorating us, we loaded the canoe and paddled to the beginning of the portage into Hatchet. Having read numerous stories of Woodland Caribou, and reading the contour lines on my topographic map, I knew we were in for an uphill climb to Hatchet. A little winded, we reached Hatchet; a short distance from the portage a cabin could be seen on an island. The wind was up a bit which helped to keep the bugs down, but I didnít think it would hinder our progress. Hatchet Lake is aptly named, the southern end takes the shape of the head of a hatchet; we quickly passed the cabin and paddled into the handle portion of the lake. We stayed close to the western shore to keep out of the wind.
While paddling along the western shore of Hatchet, Tuch spotted an endangered Woodland Caribou. Oblivious to our presence, the caribou continued to forage while standing in the shallows along the western shore. From the bow, Tuch continued to paddle us slowly closer, careful not to touch the canoe with her paddle. Moving slowly and deliberately to minimize any sound I gently placed my paddle across the gunnels of the canoe and reached for the camera. All my efforts to limit noise were wasted as I pulled apart a velcro strip at the top of the pocket on my life jacket that held our camera. With a great deal of luck, the caribou still stood unalarmed as I took the camera out of the ziploc bag and its soft protective case. I zoomed in as much as the camera would allow, and was able to take a first picture before the Caribou noticed our presence. After the first shot the caribou looked our way. It still was not yet fully alarmed. A second shot was taken of the caribou as it started to move. As our canoe moved even closer the Caribou became alarmed and began running along the shore in the shallows, approaching a trail leading to the waters edge. As it ran, I was able to snap one more shot. It turned out to be the closest, most in focus, and best wildlife picture taken for the entire trip. Water was splashing up as its legs pumped through the shallows; droplets were running off its coat back into the water. A lush green backdrop was supplied by the predominantly deciduous growth bordering the water's edge. Protected from the wind by the forest, the near mirror-like surface of the water reflected beautifully the shades of the forest and caribou. Using only a hundred dollar camera with 400 film, I realize I may never get a better shot the rest of my life, especially of an endangered species such as the Woodland Caribou.
Excited by our sighting, we continued paddling north towards our next portage into Peterson; the weather was quite hot and humid, and my glasses started fogging up. The fog on my glasses prevented me from clearly seeing the moose my wife spotted along the western shore a little past the bay leading to the portage into Embryo. We could hear what sounded like thunder in the distance, and the sky had clouded over. Once again we had to decide if we wanted to go on or stop for the night. The beginning of the portage into Peterson was obvious, and a decent camp site presented itself. Rather than stop, we decided to push on to Page, and a campsite near the narrows.
The portage between Hatchet and Peterson started dry, and remained dry for its duration; it seemed a little further than 300 metres in length, but we easily covered its distance. As we pulled away from the shore of Peterson a fish jumped in the reeds to our left. We didnít stop though, we were both getting a little worried. The sky was much darker now, and the thunder was getting louder. The wind was light but working against us. The air was still very humid. We only had one portage of approximately 200 metres and four kilometers of paddling left. Although we were both tired, we pushed on as quickly as possible. As we neared the northern end of Peterson we scanned the shore for the beginning of the portage; it was not difficult to find.
This portage was shorter than the last, and was muddy at the Peterson end. The sky was darker still, and under the forest canopy, it appeared closer to night than it actually was. The thunder sounded closer still, and we only had around two kilometers left to paddle. As we reached the Page end for the last time, and lowered our packs we contemplated heading out on the lake. We were standing next to an overturned aluminum boat; some of our packs were stored on the boat. At the same moment as we both were looking to the north, a single bolt of lightning stood out against the scenery of the northern section of Page. The bolt of lightning made our decision easy. As the storm raced towards us, we quickly moved away from the aluminum boat, piled our gear together, and placed one of our large tarps over it all. We took one last look out over Page, and as we did the wind whipped through the opening between the large island and the eastern shore guarding the bay in which the portage landing was located. The rain swept across the lake a short distance behind the initial wall of wind, and we hurried to take shelter under the tarp with our gear.
The storm raged around us, and I feared our simple shelter would prove inadequate. But as the storm passed, we emerged mostly dry. Our canoe had half filled with water, and it took an effort to empty it. We decided to head out, we wanted to get to our chosen site, and set up camp. As we paddled out of the bay, the sound of thunder once again approached, and a light rain started to fall. We didnít want to turn back, but we didnít want to chance crossing the open lake. We hugged the western shore of Page all the way to where we set up camp; doing this added close to two kilometers to our paddle. As we unloaded the canoe, we decided to only have part of our planned dinner; we were both exhausted, and in the mood to go to bed. We found a relatively flat spot for our tent, and a short distance away a spot for our kitchen area. We set up our tent, and as Tuch set up our sleeping bags and air mattresses inside, I set up our tarps outside. After a bit of food was consumed, we went to bed exhausted. Sleep took a while to come to me though as the sounds of the forest at night played tricks with my mind. I hoped I would fair better tomorrow.
Sometime well after sunrise I woke up; exhausted from the first dayís journey, I decided to go back to bed. Around 10am we actually got out of bed. The sky was mostly cloudy, and the wind was up from the west. It didn't feel too cold out. Our site was on the western shore of Page just shy of a point, so the forest blocked the wind. Every once in a while a break in the clouds allowed the sun to shine through. As I packed up the tent and other gear my wife cooked up the steaks we should have had for supper. Rice and Brocolli rounded out our breakfast. At about 11:15 we were on our way, I hoped we could reach Indian House. When we rounded the point, we were hit by our first significant wind of the trip. Thankfully, the last portion of Page to be covered was less than 800m so the wind didn't have the opportunity to create large waves. We hugged the northern shore of the bulge of land that nearly separates the southern and northern portions of Page, and then pushed across the small open section to the western shore of the lake. We paddled up the western shore until we found the mouth of the creek flowing into Page.
As we entered the creek we were forced to struggle against its current and its turns; after what seemed to be ages we located what looked to be the most likely beginning to a portage. We unloaded part of the canoe, loaded ourselves up, pulled the canoe a bit up the shore, and began walking. While making our first trip my wife spotted a grouse that we startled; it fluttered its wings as it ran ahead for a short distance, and then made a quick flight to a nearby tree branch. We reached the end quickly, and I started hoping every 300m portage would be this easy. Either we had missed the start of the portage, or the normal end was actually further ahead; we had chosen to end the portage just above a beaver dam across the creek. The water seemed deep enough, and there was plenty of space to load a canoe. Nonetheless, our 300m portage was more likely less than 100m.
As we pulled out of the creek, a canoe stood guard up on the northern shore. It looked like it hadn't been used for some time. A little along the eastern shore of the unnamed lake, an unidentifiable metal object could be seen. As our route took us in a north-north-west direction, we didn't go closer to see what the object was. We crossed the small lake and entered the small channel leading towards Bell; the wind seemed to meet us head on no matter the orientation of the channel. The waves were rather small, but the wind was a bother. Closer to the end of the small channel we passed through a narrows; we had to navigate through the channel as large rocks made direct passage impossible. Once through we continued on our way into the open body of Bell; a couple of hundred metres ahead of us I could see a point; it appeared to be the one that would lie to the south of the portage. We pointed our bow slightly west of the point and skirted the western shore until we found what we thought would be the beginning of the portage.
There was a small clearing at the beginning of the portage, but the trail itself could not be seen. A large tree had succumbed to a previous wind storm. The tree had the markers of the portage on it, but since all a person could see from the lake was the upturned roots, the markers were not visible. After a quick inspection of the clearing, the trail to Crystal was found. The 200m portage that seperates Bell and Crystal is also a divide between two watersheds. Water from Bell flows through the Chukuni/English River/Winnipeg River system into Lake Winnipeg. Water from Crystal flows through the Bloodvein system into Lake Winnipeg.
As we reached Crystal the wind was blowing towards us across the open expanse of the lake; the waves were up to an uncomfortable level. There was no sheltered area to launch our canoe. Looking back the waves were no worse than what we encountered on the seventh day, but our confidence was lacking and we decided to see if the wind would let down. By this time it was mid afternoon; while eating lunch, a drizzle began to fall. My wife had already donned her raingear to keep warm; she looked like a child in a snowsuit going to school in the winter. With the rain falling I also decided to put on my raingear. The weather didn't look like it was going to let up so we decided to stay put for the night. We set up our tent a fair distance away from the shore to be sheltered by the full strength of the wind. It turned out to be a good decision as the wind remained strong throughout the night. Before we went to bed we made the decision to cut out the Knox Lake portion of our trip. The storm of the first day, plus todayís weather had placed us well behind schedule. Better safe than sorry.
copyright 2006 Chad Gallow http://www.canoestories.com/gallow/woodland/