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Woodland Caribou Park
via the
Bird River..

By Grant Pastuck  "the Otter"

After spending the winter of 2002 pouring over maps of our favourite places, Otter and the Commander decided that the absolute best route into Woodland Caribou Park was up the Bird River from Tulibe and north to Eagle where there were options. Either that or east from Garner Lake. The Bird we knew, the other route we didnít, and if we were turned back on the Bird, we were still in prime camping country.

So up the Bird it was, six and a half hours of paddling and carrying into Snowshoe Lake. On the way we saw many remarkable things, some too Gothic to mention. The paddle takes you through Elbow Lake, which we agreed was probably the most heavily used wilderness canoe route in Manitoba. We passed so many parties going in and coming out. We saw people camped on islands the size of a River Heights lot. We saw people camping on cliffs. We saw people everywhere. But in the large body of the lake, where all the open spots were, no one. We were once again flummoxed. Why were they camping back there? But itís not our problem. We are only a finger pointing at the moon; not the moon.

So double tripping the portages, itís six and a half hours to Snowshoe no matter how you slice it. We used to camp at Bannock Point, but it is pretty beat up from hard use (fisherpeople, theyíre different from us), so we camp around the corner on a flat bit of mainland that has seen lots of use, but is pretty good. For a lake the size of Snowshoe, there are very few camping spots, and because of the two fly-in fishing camps, the camping spots have seen quite alot of trash. Sad, actually.

Out of Snowshoe and into the river again, Itís pristine. It is impassable to motorboats, windey and reedy; turtles, ducks, otters, and deer stop to say hello. A zesty series of portages and carry-overs end in Chase Lake. We stopped short of Chase in a big bulb of the river only to find that our island, the beloved Lantern Lookout was the victim a of a violent wind storm and lots of big trees were down all over the camp site. Itís too bad. Weíd had lots of great nights on this spot over the years and it was one of our favourites. The Comm has a picture taken from it in his office, over his door. He relies on it to remind him of yesterday, today and tomorrow, and what is really real.

Next day, we cruised into Chase. At the narrows to Midway there is a Fly-in-Fishing lodge where we took refuge once, during a troubled trip. There was a family vacationing here this time. Theyíre always so surprised, if not somewhat alarmed to see us paddle by, as if there shouldnít be anyone around except those who fly in to fish. You see, they are from the U.S.A., they drive to Kenora and fly in, passing nothing but forest and lake, with no roads or settlements until they land, so they think there is no one out here. We come along, they canít believe it. One time we were approaching Lantern Lookout and we saw a motorboat with fisherpeople going behind our island. So we hustled over to our spot, unloaded and set up a snack of liver pate, crackers and red wine, Burgundy to be precise. They came back around and nearly died when they saw us.

"Where did you come from?" one asked. Remember, there was no one there when they went behind the island.

"From down the lake" , we said.

"Would you like a beer?" they asked.

"No thanks ", said the Comm , ( I hated him for this),  " Weíve drinking Burgundy".

The Comm is Fracophone; rather Patrician. They were from Chicago. They were astonished that we paddled there in two days in complete comfort.  With Burgundy and pate!  The moral of this story?  Never turn down a cold beer in the bush in summer.

This time as we passed the lodge, there were two women sunbathing au natural, (I guess the guys were out killing fish). They looked dangerous so we kept our distance and spoke French. We often speak French when encountering American fisherpeople, to heighten their Canadian wilderness experience.

Once you get to Chase, itís all paddling to Eagle. These are three big lakes with huge reaches and lots of island and bays. We headed for an island we knew that featured flat rocks on three sides, a good tent spot, breezy points to keep down the bugs and a great view. All in all, a Grade A camping spot. We are so lucky.

We swam, drank beer, watched the sky, ate curry. On this trip we made a giant step, for a man, a small step for mankind, in our food trip. A friend of mine told me about these amazing vacuum packed Indian curries and dhal dishes, really tasty and spicy, so we bought a bunch. They were light to carry and easy to prepare. We would cook Basmati Rice and set two foil packs of curry on the lid and cover them with another lid. By the time the rice was done, the curry was hot. We had three types of Chutney to eat this with. Fantastic. The Comm tried this another time in cold weather camping with good results. I must say, I think we get more clever all the time.

We noticed on this trip that the intensity of the mosquitoes at night was not always the same. The weather up to this point had been hot and dry, and some nights the mosquitoes were terrible and sometimes they were just awful. We conjectured that smaller islands had fewer mosquitoes than mainland because there was less wet area for the nymphs to grow (they donít live in the lake) and as adults, they donít travel that far from where they are. On this island we stayed up well into the night without being sent to the tent by the bugs. The next night on Talon Lake, we camped on mainland, near a reedy river and the mosquitoes were unbelievable.

Otterís Talon Lake Mosquito Research

From Eagle Lake there are several options into Woodland Caribou Park. Iíll only tell you what I know. We once traveled from Wrist (we flew in) to Eagle and the route we took was very difficult, but it was May, it was cold and wet, and the water was so high, we couldnít get to the portages. But thatís another story, and a woeful one at that! This time we went up the Talon River to Talon Lake: easy moving. It is a narrow river, but passable, with well marked portages and lots of interesting sites. There is a high climb just before Talon that has a great view down onto the land below. Coming from the prairies, we are used to everything being flat. Vertical terrain is refreshing.

We intended to stay at an old trappers cabin at the north end of Talon. Well folks, Talon is burned and not very welcoming. It always makes me sad to paddle through burned territory. I mean, the forest grows back and it is a natural cycle, but it is uninviting. There are no good camp spots; the forest grows right down to the shore and is impenetrable. But Otter should remember, the forest is not there for him and the Commander, or even the Chief. The forest is the forest.

So when we got to the far end of Talon, and it is far and remote and no one should be here, we encountered some people swimming off an island near our destination. Similarly to the guys from Chicago, we couldnít believe it. But we just acted normal and made for our spot, which was the cabin with the sand beach. Well, the Natural Resources people had burned the cabin down because it was in a park and the owner wasnít a trapper. I suppose there were rules and regulations and liability issues, as there always are when governments are involved, but if you can canoe here in one piece, how dangerous can a trappers cabin be?

Anyway, we set up the tent and hung out on the beach.

Sand beaches are rare and fun where we camp. This is the Canadian Shield and I donít even know how sand comes to be here. Glaciers, maybe. Well, we swam, ate curry, sipped Malt and water, and walked along the beach. Most campsites donít offer much of a walk so whenever we camp at a sand beach, the next day itís covered in footprints.

At sunset, they emerged. Mosquitoes. Millions of them. The Commander left for the tent. I did my mosquito research. I put on my rain gear and rubber boots. I put Deep Woods Off on my hands and face, put on my hat, did up my hood and laid down on the sand, gazing at the full moon and the Northern Lights. The bugs were so thick, I almost inhaled them. The only place on me without repellant were my eyes and they tried to land there. I could feel the breeze from their wings on my face. And... Deep Woods Off lasted about 30 minutes before they broke through. Thatís it! I ran the experiment with Muskol too. It was no better. I went to bed.

If you are swarmed by mosquitoes and you want to go to bed, you have to run to the tent , leaving them behind. You need at least 30 meters. Get into the tent quickly before new ones can find you. If you get up at night to go pee, be careful and quick. The last thing you want is mosquitoes in your tent. Just a few can keep you up all night. This is the kind of stuff good campers know. The next day, we left.

Same Trip Backwards

Up to this point, the weather had been consistently hot and sunny, with pleasant breezes. That was over. The first day of our return trip, we started having thunderstorms that went on and on. We paddled down the Talon River with big dark clouds rumbling ominously over head. We portaged out of Talon Lake and wended our way down a windey creek for about twenty minutes, until the next portage. We carried our gear across and realized we had left our extra paddle back at the last portage. We carry a cheap plastic and aluminum paddle for situations when the kayak paddle isnít suitable, such as really narrow or shallow water, or guiding through rapids. The Comm suggested that we just leave it but we went back anyway. "You never know," I said. "Yeah, youíre right" replied the Comm.

So eventually we got to the last portage before Eagle. We were contemplating lining the boat down the rapids when the thunderstorm hit. So we carried everything over and set off into the storm. Paddling on a lake in a thunderstorm is scary. The wind was strong from the north, but we had some shelter staying close to the shore.

In times like this, I just paddle like hell. Iím in the bow with the powerhouse, aka, the kayak paddle. These are the times that it really makes a difference. Two reasons. By paddling aggressively with a kayak paddle, you get a lot of forward momentum, but you also free up the stern person, (The Comm. was quite stern), who has to steer, and can paddle on whatever side he likes. He paddles on whatever side is best, under the wind conditions. So I power the boat and he drives it. Good deal, right? Actually, I much prefer the kayak paddle. Paddling it is a balanced movement ,right and left, and on flat water, a slow steady stroke gets the boat moving at a good clip. Paddling hard is not always an advantage. Pushing the water instead of the boat is the result of paddling too hard. Good kayak paddles are designed to maximize the forward propulsion of the boat without churning up the water; more bang for...

Anyway , the wind was on our starboard side so we kept in the lee of the north shore until we came to our left turn and then we had a tail wind that shot us down the lake. The further we got from shore, the larger the waves got until we were really rockiní. Of course the whole time, thunder and lightening is smashing all around us. Iíve never seen lightening strike a lake in all my years of canoeing so I canít tell if it ever does, but itís still scary. There were lots of hits on the forest but it was raining so hard, we didn't see any fire or smoke. But we were making good time. I was tired and I wanted to be have a beer, a smoke and be dry.

We roared down the lake for about thirty minutes in a big wind, took a hard left, and were in calm, in a sheltered bay. We found the spot we once stayed at when we got wind-stayed in Eagle many years ago. There were a lot of leaches here as I recall, but there wasnít much chance that we were going swimming, windy, and rainy and all. With a strong north wind we tarped up on the south shore . Nice and calm. Opened a beer, rolled a smoke, and the wind shifted ninety degrees and we were in horizontal rain again. Rather than move, we adjusted the tarp to cut the wind and it was adequate. Friday night and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were playing, so we cranked up the radio and listened to the game. This is a windup radio that lasts fifteen minutes on a two minute crank. It seemed every time it went dead, after we cranked it up and got back to the game, they had scored on us. We lost, but the rain finally stopped and we had a post game party that made up for the loss.

Weíd camped this same spot several years earlier, at the same time of the year, and it was so hot then that weíd had to keep jumping in the lake to cool off. This time we were cool and under a tarp. Fewer leaches though. How it can change!

The next morning greeted us with a crash of thunder. Good start. We rode down the lake with a fine tail wind, got across Midway into Chase, where we passed the Fly-in Fishing camp, where the inhabitants scowled at us, as if we were threatening or something, I mean what gives, this is our home; they fly in. We travel through here at will, effortlessly; they shouldnít scowl, they should rejoice that someone is still so at ease in the bush. We are so lucky. They should come with us.... forget it.

Huge thunder clouds gathered as we entered Pre-Chase, enroute to the Bird River. Itís a long drag down a narrow channel before we get to the lake and by that time the wind is up. We check out two spots on the lake to camp, concerned about the potential wind coming on the heals of the thunder clouds and decide it is best to head down the river. About ten minutes from Magic Island ( it has rapids on both sides), one of the most beautiful places Iíve been on Earth, BAM! With a clap of thunder right overhead, the heavens opened and as Van the Man said," Oh the Water, Let it fall all over me."

Well it fell, and we got to Magic Island, not too wet because of diligent attention to rain gear, The first job, upon landing was to set up the tarp. We poured a W & W for the crew, I rolled a smoke and we smiled. I love this spot.

This is an island on the Bird that splits the river, with long multiple rapids on both sides. It is magical. The sound of the water drowns everything into a hush. I couldnít hear the Comm from ten meters away, which was nice, for a change, and the mist rose from the rapids and drifted over the landscape. When the rain stopped, we explored the entire island and just hung out all over this beautiful spot . This is objective beauty. No critical analysis is required. You just feel the beauty in your depth. Every time I am there, it affirms my belief in the divine. We are so lucky to be here.

I sat up late that night on a rock down near the river, with rapids on both sides, and looked and listened, for hours. Unworldly voices whispered in the mist, speaking of those who had passed this way before and those who may come later.  I said a prayer and dropped some tobacco into the stream. "May all who pass this way be well and happy, and may they be respectful, for they are on sacred ground". It was late. Time for bed.

In the morning, everything in camp was absolutely soaked from the beautiful mist that rose and drifted from the sacred rapids. We packed up a soggy tent and headed out, putting our sleeping bags in garbage bags to keep them from touching the soggy tent. Off we go.

Rumbling skies, low and threatening followed us down the Bird, enroute to Snowshoe. This is a gorgeous stretch of the river, a few simple portages, a beaver dam pull-over, and a rapids to line down. We saw deer, river otters and a black bear sniffing along the shore. At the last set of rapids before the river to Snowshoe Lake, the Comm decided that we could line down this fast water. I wasnít so sure, but he was. We put long lines on the bow and stern; I took the bow and kept the boat from being swept out sideways, the Comm had the stern and held the boat back and we slowly lowered it down the rapids.

At the last corner, the Comm lost his footing and was washed into the river. I held the bow line but the boat was pulled into the rocks sideways. It filled up with water and cracked under the weight of 800 psi of rushing water. All our gear disappeared into the rapids and the Comm went with it. I clambered onto shore and looked out over the river. Our gear was bobbing up and down on the water. I took off my boots and swam out and recovered whatever I could; my small day pack, a twelve of beer, one food bag, that was it! I called out to the Comm. I watched and waited. Nothing. I waited an hour and pondered my options. Here I was on the Bird River with no boat, no paddle, no Comm (where was he?). I only had a bag of wet clothes, a food bag with some Indian food and coffee, and a twelve of beer. I had about six hours of daylight and it was threatening to rain.

There was a fly-in-fishing camp near the mouth of the Bird on Snowshoe Lake. I decided to walk. I loaded the remaining gear into my day pack, forded across the river, and using a compass, followed the ridges southeast towards the lake. I tried to keep the river insight but it went off to the west, so I just kept on the heights and after two hours of bushwhacking, there below me was Snowshoe Lake and off to the east was Snowshoe Fishing Lodge. Another hour of slogging and I stepped out of the bush and onto a groomed lawn, with a big lodge, motor boats, a dock and hope. I walked up to the lodge. There was no one around. I went into the main building. It was high summer and the fishing was not great. So there was no one. I was alone.

We were due back in Winnipeg in two days, so in three days, it would be noticed that we were missing and someone would send a plane. I ate a lonely meal, had a beer and a smoke, paced the beach, contemplated my options, and slept in the lodge, having a restless sleep. What if the plane didnít come? Could I walk out? Where was the Commander?

At first light, I had a bagel for breakfast and took my bearings. There were motorboats and a beat up canoe by the shore. I donít know to use motorboats and the river north was shallow so I took the canoe out and paddled across the lake and back up the river where we lost our way. Paddling solo in a bad canoe up a twisty river took a long time and I saw no signs of our stuff or the Comm along the river. I was tired when I turned the corner just before the rapids where we dumped, but there, on shore, was a tent, and bunch of wet gear hanging to dry, and the Comm smiling at me.

"What happened to you?" he asked. I filled him in.

"What about you"?

"I was swept down around the corner but I hung onto a Big Green Pack which really does float and got to a calm pool where everything slowed down and all the gear floated to shore. I spent the next four hours walking everything back here so whoever came by here next would find me. I knew youíd come back. I had enough food to last a week. Iíd get out eventually."

" Sorry I took the beer," I said.

" Thatís okay, I had the Scotch", said the smartass Comm.

"What now?í

"Letís borrow this boat and go home."

We loaded up this old beat up canoe and got on our way, in the teeth of another thunderstorm, back to Snowshoe, set up in the rain, and celebrated our good luck. Any canoe is great if the alternative is no canoe at all. Big party that night and the next day, home. Amazingly, we had rescued all our gear except for the canoe. But, the Comm remembered he had paid for the new Souris River Duralite 16 foot Canoe with American Express so it was insured, and we got a new one free. The commercials are true. God Bless American Express. We are so lucky.

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Copyright 2003 by Grant Pastuck