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A Walk up the Wanipigow
Canoe Tripping Through
Ontario's Woodland Caribou Provincial Park
By Grant Pastuck

We drove from Winnipeg to Nopiming Park and then turned north past the turnoff to Bird Lake. It was perhaps the worst road with a number attached to it I have ever been on. There were hairpin turns posted as 15KM/Hour. I can walk faster than that. But as ever, we made it. It was Commander & Otter back at it with a new idea. We were going to put in at Wallace Lake and paddle into Woodland Caribou Park, by paddling east up the Wanipigow River. Previously we had only approached this park from the Bird River and actually didnít know we were in the park.

Woodland Caribou Park is mostly accessed either by water from Red Lake or by air from wherever; Bissett, Kenora, Red Lake. Now I know why, but on this trip, it was all new to us. So with much spirit, etherial and liquid, we set forth. An hour across Wallace Lake, which has a lot of cottages and fisher guys and motor boats, took us to a windey, windey, stupid little windey creek that goes back and forth and takes forever and gets to Siderock Lake. From here you can go two ways; through the DREADED OBUKUWIN PORTAGES or up the Wanipigow. We chose the latter.

"So buckoes", as the Comm said, "How bad can it get?"

Beaver Dam on the WanipigouThe Wanipigow River is small here but narrowed down quite soon to a little shallow rocky creek with frequent beaver dams and carry overs. But we learned a great lesson. In these conditions you get out of the boat and pull it in the shallows by wading in the water. Itís faster than paddling or poling and the footing was good; sand and gravel. You get wet so itís not so good in cold weather, but that day it was 30 degrees C. Running into rocks is hard on the canoe but we were paddling the Alumicraft and it could take a lot of abuse.

Four hours of this dragging and carrying, with almost no paddling and we were spent. The Comm collapsed from heat and despair. We had consumed all our water and werenít about to drink this muck (it was here that I decided to buy a water filter before our next trip.) We pushed on. We arrived at the first normal portage on the trip, it being long and dry. At the other end we saw a sign which announced our arrival in Woodland Caribou Park. We immediately found a camp site, had a beer and set up camp. Too hot for a fire, we had supper and chilled. We had this great Beef Stoganoff that the Commís lady makes for us the first day, but it was so hot, we could hardly eat.

It was a funny little lake we were in, which we found out later was called Crystal Lake, which it was anything but. It was shallow and narrow, and in high summer, pretty green with algae. There was a waterfall behind our spot that was one of the entrances to the next lake.

The next lake was called Tee Lake or Arrow Lake depending on which map you had, and you could get to it by paddling up a windy river, which I was leery of after the last day, or by portaging for 950 meters to the lake. The Comm liked the river route idea but I pressed for the long single portage route , which is how we went.

There were two things I didnít understand. The Comm was still pretty messed up from the heat , dehydration, and intense work the day before and he was probably right about the other route, but he didnít press for it because he wasnít in great shape. So we set up across the portage which was about twenty minutes one way and we were triple portaging and it really was hot. So we walked for over two hours. But what the hell, the Voyagers used to trudge the same portage twenty times so "How bad could it be". As it turned out, it wasnít so bad; the Comm collapsed again, but with dignity, and the Otter carried everything; a sign of times to come, and we made it to the lake of several names.

"... it was full of islets and inlets"This was a very sweet lake. It was full of islands and inlets. It was hard to navigate because you couldnít see that far, so we compassed and mapped. We paddled around for a long time looking for a campsite, but there wasnít much. We finally stopped at a little island that had an old unused fire ring, set up, had a beer, swam in somewhat slimy water with somewhat slimy leaches, had another uneaten supper, and chilled, until the bugs drove us to the tent.

We have this great tent that, if you donít use the fly, has a screen that is mostly mesh, so you can sit inside and see outside. It is usually covered in frustrated mosquitoes, which is good because weíre inside and they are outside. There are so many mosquitoes that they literally cover the tent. If you put your hand up to the wall, a dark cloud appears. This is a little camping game we like to play. But if you go out for a pee at night, youíd better be careful or in the morning, the tent is full of big red mosquitoes hardly able to fly and unable to escape. Sometimes we let them go and sometimes not. This is my favourite tent.

Back to Tee / Arrow Lake. This lake is split in three parts; a small northern part followed by a short portage, followed by a larger lake full of islands where we camped and swam with the leaches, followed by a narrows so narrow we thought it was the end of the lake. A note about leaches. Donít pull. Use salt. The salt destroys the skin of the leach, killing them and thus getting them off your body; bad for them but good for you. There are a lot of them and only one of you, as far as we can tell, so we win.

Back to the lake of two names. Once through the narrows, this lake opens up a little and is stunningly beautiful in in understated way. It is small. The islands that dot it are small but have evidence of use. No forest fire has visited here in my life. We stopped on a gem of an island that had a fire pit with a three foot tree growing in the coal bed; thatís how long ago it had been used. Needless to say we did not have a fire that night. The Comm Commanded that this island was too small to poo on, so we had to paddle to mainland for this pleasure. Not a bad idea in the end.

In the morning on this island, the Comm read us an article about Amundson of the Antarctic trips, some place I will never camp. Stupid camping trip. No bugs through. The interviewer said something like: "That must have been quite an adventure." Amundson said something disdainful (he was a Scandinavian after all, and they are always disdainful, look at Igmar Bergman, go figure) anyway he said "We take great effort not to have an adventure!", which struck us both as quite profound, although we seemed to continue to have adventures nevertheless.

I canít understand this Scandinavian obsession with negativity. We live at the same latitude, we both play hockey, (we beat them last time), we both have wilderness and they pull all this angst stuff, and yet weíre having a great time summer and winter, but theyíre all on about existentialism like they invented existence, but we ,like the Dude, well we abide. It stems from having total unending wilderness from us all the way to the North Pole... no cities, no cars, no people, and nothing that wasnít here before we got there.

I digress. Anyway, I loved this little lake, The Comm and I speak of it often, with fondness but with no intention of ever visiting it again, because the only reason to be there is because you chose to enter Woodland Caribou Park from the Wanipigow River, which we wonít do again unless the water table rises by about three feet, as if. But some day I might go in from Haggard Lake , which becomes a major player later,  just to enjoy itís pristine beauty. Tee/ Arrow Lake? It was special.

Haggard Lake
When we entered Haggard Lake the first time, it was like a shock. We had been traveling for two days through small water and had gotten used to it. Haggard was big and deep. And crystal clear as far down as you could see. Sweet water to drink, too. Wow! The map showed two portages from Arrow but it was wrong, in a nice way, because we were in with one portage. What a lake. Big reaches. Islands.

We camped on a small island, another no poo island, that had a staircase rock descent into the cold clear water. The temperature was mid 30ís. Celsius for you tourists. You could sit in the water up to your neck on a flat rock with a beer in one hand and a cigar in the other, which I did, for hours. If you got up it was really hot and buggy. Good place. We swam all day, sipped beer, drank really good lake water, and just grooved on the bush.

I found out around this point in my life that there were people that canoed that DIDNíT DRINK THE LAKE!!? They carry water in!  Where do they canoe?  If you canít drink the water, donít paddle it either. We now carry a super water filter system for just such events, but they are rare.

A note about water filters. Get one. We have drunk swamp water after filtering it and it was as pure a deep lake water. I was impressed. But I digress again. Sorry.

Haggard Lake was one of the most amazing lakes that I had ever camped. It was so benign and beautiful that we stayed there for three days, delaying our departure back so that we pushed from Haggard back to Crystal Lake in one day, a trip that originally took three days to do.

Back Up the Wanipigow
In one days travel, we covered the same water in Tee/Arrow Lake as took three days going in. We got lost at the end because there were so many islands that the map was not much help. The Comm stated "Iím flummoxed." I said "What! Youíve got the maps. Youíve got the compass." This was when I started wondering about the Comm. You see, until then , he was the Commander. Now he was flummoxed. What next ?

On the bright side, in our relentless attempt to find our way, we paddled on the north shore of TEE/Arrow Lake looking for the portage out, we came upon a big bull Woodland Caribou standing on the shore looking at us, not at all shy.

When we finally got to the misnamed Crystal Lake, it was late and hot, and we were tired. We camped on a strange spot with a large rock off shore that you could leap to if you were able, and sit and have a beer and a pipe and look at the wonder of the forest. Birds calling, a beaver swimming to itís lodge, an eagle circling for dinner. Then you had to jump back.

It was so hot we only ate a cracker with peanut butter for supper. I lost ten pounds on this trip and Iím not very big.

Same trip out. We thought it might be easier on the Wanipgou, having less weight and since weíd done it once , but it wasnít. Same stupid drag down the mucky creak as is was up. This time only three and a half hours. Same stupid paddle up the windey river from Siderock Lake to Wallace Lake. Then Home.

One thing though. On the way out of the stupid river, we encountered a party of four; two canoes, nice cedar strip jobs, delicate boats, four people, going up the river into the rock garden.

I asked " Been up there before?"

One said "Yep, ten years ago".

"Have a nice trip !" I said.

I really pitied their canoes. They looked new!

Wanipigow River
Iím not sure what Wanipigow means, hollow water or big water or something like that. Apparently it gets a lot bigger as it leaves Wallace Lake enroute to Lake Winnipeg, but until such time, itís a long walk to the park. Iím never doing it again, I hope. We know
how bad it can get.

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Copyright 2003 by Grant Pastuck