small, slow rivers of Woodland Caribou Park are
places of mystery and imagination.
Hidden in the
bland ink of a topographical map are places of
flat, swampy land where rivers meander, winding
back and forth, sometimes wide and deep, but
often narrow and shallow. Late in the season
plants grow tall. The domain of the canoe
traveler shrinks down and presses close. People
become small, like mice making their way through
a field of tall grass.
And just as mice,
people become alert and alive, smelling the heavy
air, their eyes darting back and forth, straining
to see beyond the next curving loop. Every small
detail is observed and explored and savored. As
eyes strain, the mind also strains, making
pictures of what may be, grasping at each smell
and sound, remembering all other wilderness
rivers it has seen, and imagined and dreamed.
In some places
topographical contour lines come close to a
river. In these small valleys, rocky shores stand
against a narrow horizon, a metropolis of granite
not bustling and noisy, but still and quiet and
serene. Trees cling to these shores, sometimes
tall and grand, sometimes twisted and gnarled and
toughened and old. Gardens of moss may soften and
color this city of boreal life, soaking up water
as it trickles from above and soaking up the
whispers of passing canoe travelers.
When moving with
the current, paddlers may find plenty of water to
fill their trail. The canoe may even glide along
the water as people relax and enjoy the river.
But the deep water does not belong to people, it
belongs to the beaver. Soon canoe travelers may
hear the faint sound of rushing water ahead. And
soon they find the beaver dam that made their
travel so easy. If the dam is small and shallow a
few quick strokes of the paddle might let them
glide across. Some dams are huge and tall. The
canoe must be unloaded on the top and dragged to
the bottom. Now travel might be hard with little
water. The paddlers are now walkers, their feet
sink into the soft river bed as they struggle and
stumble and pull the canoe into deeper water.
Gradually the water deepens and travel is easy,
until they again hear the faint sound of rushing
I wake up to the
soothing sound of water flowing in the rocky
channel behind our camp. My eyes open to a warm
green glow as sunlight touches the top of our
tent. It's a great morning for sitting on a
wilderness shore with a cup of coffee and a map
and a plan for traveling. Within a few minutes
I'm doing just that, tracing out our route along
the Wanipigow River. Other travelers have been
through this winding stream. Their journals tell
me that we may have a long day making our way to
Siderock Lake. Our trip on the Wanipigow will be
quite different today, but now, our day is
unknown as I sit and trace the lines, as I lift
my eyes to watch the sun as it lights up the
we're on the 925 meter portage into Crystal Lake.
Throughout our trip, Mike and I have single
portaged whenever possible. Doing a portage in
one trip takes some planning and dicipline, and
I've only been able to pull it off when traveling
with Mike. Since we're both carrying over 36
kilograms of gear (about eighty pounds), it helps
to be in shape. Our dicipline in packing and
visits to the YMCA are paying off, although at
times I miss the return trip where I can stop and
look around and enjoy the woods. On this portage,
one small place is so beautiful that I put down
the canoe and ask Mike to wait for a few
pictures. Closed in from the sky by tall pines
and covered in ferns and moss, it's a place taken
right out of a children's storybook, a small
world that stops you and tells you its story as
you stand and relax and forget how old you are.
Mike walks ahead as I don my pack and pick up the
canoe. Soon he's stopped again. Something is
moving through the woods, cracking branches and
brushing against the trees. A moose?
Our single portage
puts us into Crystal Lake by nine-thirty.
Crystal Lake has a
spattering of islands on it's western end that
reminds me of a place in Quetico Park, a pleasant
spotted shore I found years ago in McKenzie bay
in Kawnipi Lake. There's a tent up on one of the
tall islands and we go by quietly, looking for
people. We see no one. Although we saw signs of
people and heard their generator on Caroll Lake,
we've actually seen no people on this trip since
we left Siderock Lake. Now we'll follow the
Wanipigow River back to Wallace Lake. After
reading Martin Kehoe's journal of a trip through
this country, I'm expecting a seven hour pull to
make it to Siderock. I'm hoping that we'll pull
into camp around five o'clock.
first offers us a nice channel and we paddle into
it. The channel ends on a boulder field and it
doesn't look like we can get through. I realize
that we must have passed the first portage. We
soon find it on the north side of the river and
it delivers us to a wide, grassy portage landing.
It's sunny and warm with a little wind.
field appears and we walk through, dragging and
straining to lift the canoe into deeper water.
On one portage we
stumble through lowland grass, clumpy and full of
holes. We look for a landing with enough water to
float the canoe. I follow the "shore"
of this grassy area, keeping just a meter or so
uphill of the lowest area. The footing is better
here, although slightly slanted.
Just before the
no-name lake on the Manitoba side of the border,
we land in a place with hardly any water. The
river flattens here and we walk for about a
hundred and fifty meters, holding the canoe and
pulling it, then floating it beside us. It's
twelve-thirty now; we've been on the river about
three hours. the wind is up as we cross the
Past the no-name
lake the contour lines pull close and high rock
walls close us in. Another boulder field appears,
but travelers from days gone by have cleared a
path that allows us to float right through.
the river snakes through tall fields of cattails
that form a wall, closing in our small canoe as
we twist and scrape through loops and over
boulders. We hear water rushing ahead and expect
that a beaver dam might soon be blocking our way.
Instead, we're surprised by a small, high-falling
waterfall. Evidently our long, steady rain near
the start of our trip is paying off now, spilling
water into the river and giving us an easy float.
A small, grassy
valley leads us to the last portage. We're back
in the fire zone now, but the land still brings a
smile as we take a breather on a high smooth
By two o'clock
we're at Siderock Lake. The wind is really up now
and I'm concerned about the last leg of our trip
- crossing wallace lake from northeast to
southwest. We might end up with our gunwales
facing the wind, a bad way to ride across a large
lake. We might have to zig-zag our way across to
keep our canoe on top of the water. The wind
seems to be coming mostly from the west, and
we'll be heading right into it as we make our way
across Siderock. I want to stay close to shore in
this wind, but following the northeastern shore
would bring us close to rough water. The wind is
raising waves that even now are crashing against
the eastern shore.
journal mentioned a portage from Wallace to
Siderock but I'm not sure where it begins. If
Mike and I follow the southern shore, we can make
it to the west side of the lake and get out of
the wind. If the wind really is from the west, we
can take the portage, then follow the western
shore of Wallace back to our take-out point.
We tighten our
life jackets and head into the wind. The travel
is hard and we strain and pull. I'm not confident
that we'll make much progress, but then I never
had a paddling partner with as much strength and
stamina as my son. We do pretty well, fighting
for each meter, but the meters pass and become
kilometers and they too pass.
There are two
small bays on the far western shore of Wallace
Lake. After poking our nose into the southern
bay, we move north and Mike searches the shore
with a monocular. There's a flash of orange and
soon we're at a nice grassy landing and loading
up. This portage is a cake walk, smooth and flat
with a canopy of small trees to close around us.
Our easy paddle
along the western shore of Wallace is not to be.
Instead we face a stiff wind and big waves that
splash into our loaded canoe. We wait for our
moment then shove off and paddle hard into the
wind. Now the wind seems to come more northerly,
but we again ride well and a hard hour later we
find our take out point among the confusing
jumble of civilization. It's four-thirty.
Many hours later,
after again driving into the night, we find a
small motel in Kenora, Ontario. It's amazing to
me that we woke up on a portage landing in Broken
Arrow Lake, and now rest our heads on pillows,
having walked and paddled and driven our way
through Ontario and Manitoba. Cars and trucks
pass in the night, their faint roar drifting into
our Spartan room. But I don't hear them. Instead,
buried in my slumber, I hear the patter of rain
on our tent, the whistle of wind through high
shore pines, the crackle and pop of a campfire on
a wilderness shore and the gentle splash of water
as it tumbles across dams of sticks and mud...