Monday, April 25, 2011

Sun, spring flowers, and a bunch of laughs

On Thursday April 21st a small group of paddlers and I opened the canoeing season on Eagle Creek. It was a fantastic day for a paddle, the sun was warm, there was very little breeze and best of all the creek was the highest that I've ever seen it.

Grant sitting in an eddy

The creek was the highest in years. Steve and Jeff skirt the edge of 2 foot standing waves

I counted many barbed wire fences like this one. One fence actually spanned the entire creek and was just inches under water. These are very dangerous places.

We stopped for lunch on a hill side that was protected from the breeze and warmed by the spring sun. We found lots of crocuses blooming, a sure sign that spring is here to stay.

Our lunch spot on the hill side.

The creek claimed it's first casualties. Steve is emptying his canoe after an unintentional swim. The banks were made of ankle deep mud.

Jeff is scooping up the last bit of carnage after their swim.

We took out at the final bridge before the creek dumps into the North Saskatchewan River. It was just a short walk to our waiting vehicle. Which happened to be hung up in a ditch. Way to go Jeff.

The truck is out of the ditch and loaded with all three canoes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Solo Expedition 2006 Wood Lake to Cumberland House

When the winds died down and the water sat motionless, that was my time. After all my camp duties were finished, the gathering of wood, making the fire and cleaning up after supper, I was free to explore my surroundings and soak in the natural environment.

On many evenings, I was treated to the best light show nature had to offer. I never got tired of watching and photographing the sun as it slipped below the horizon.

Fantastic sunset over Wood Lake

I had just been driven off the water by a thunder and electrical storm that had chased me all day. At this stage of the trip, the wind and rain was starting to wear on me. I had never experienced a year with some many intense storms. The constant battle to make progress was relentless and exhausting.

Traveling alone, I had only myself to encourage and pick up my spirits so I got a little funny sometimes. A lot of the rapids were swollen and so were the portage trails. Over a particular trail was a boat ladder that spanned a large gap between two large outcroppings of rock. Where it was normally dry, water filled the gap to with in inches of the ladder, which was wet from the rain. Had I slipped, I could have easily broken a leg or been trapped under the ladder, under water. This was a very dangerous portage.

The constant fight against the wind and rain is enough to drive anyone a bit nuts

Mirond Lake is a huge lake with shorelines of rugged cliffs. Lingon Berries grow on many of the granite rocks, which I picked by the handfuls. In camp, I would reduce the berries over the fire to make a great sauce for my bannock. As I made my way along the shore, I spotted a group of otters swimming near a small island, but they spotted me at the same time and dove out of sight before I could get my camera ready. Late that evening, the winds came up again bringing with them rain that continued all night.

Now I'm not going to say it was the best decision I had ever made but the following morning the wind seemed to have calmed somewhat. So I quickly broke camp after eating a cold breakfast, packed my boat and hit the water. One thing that I failed to remember was that the waves always look smaller from shore. So when I got out of the protection of my peninsula I was exposed to the full force of the waves. More accurately, they were four foot swells that tossed my small canoe up and forward before rolling under me. I would then slide down the backside of the huge wave only to have the next pick me up again. What made things even worse was the fact that I couldn't keep the waves at a forty five-degree angle to the boat. I had to keep them at a much shallower angle or risk being swept into a large bay at the south end of the lake. I can't express my relief when I made it across the lake unharmed.

A typical shoreline on Mirond Lake

Scoop Rapids is an amazing place to visit. The Sturgeon-weir River is forced into a narrow gorge and drops over a number of large ledges. Standing next to the rapids and feeling it's power was a very humbling experience. The more time I spent on this trip, traveling through the wilderness, the more insignificant I felt. I was but a little man; how could I possibly fight against or conquer this land, not that I wanted to or was trying. I wasn't out here to conquer anything. But why was I doing this and alone to boot. Many people had asked me that very question and now here I was asking myself. Maybe I had come all this way to find some answers. Maybe I was looking for something.

I think it is vitally important for myself to head off into the woods, on my own. I find, over time, that I start to know myself and become a little more grounded.

Scoop rapids is famous for the many pelicans that sit in the eddies

Of course the wind came up as I was crossing Amisk Lake. The waves seemed to be spaced too close together. One would pick the boat up and toss it forward, while still on the crest of the first wave, another would come from behind and push the boat again. This would cause my canoe to do a little bunny hop while still on top of the first wave. It was a very strange feeling.

Amisk Lake is a neat transition stage in the geology of the area. To the north, is the granite that the Boreal Shield is famous for, and to the south is limestone. Many fossils can be found in the limestone outcroppings.

I spent one night at T&D Cabins. There I met a group of fishermen from Iowa who have been coming to Amisk Lake for the last twenty years. They were very friendly people and even invited me to their cabin for a visit. The following day, as I was loading my canoe, they all stopped by to say goodbye and to do the typical tourist thing, take pictures. They all lined up in a row and pointed their cameras at me all at once. As the flashes went off, I felt a little self-conscious. I'd never been the center of attention before, but I could get used to it.

Limestone cliffs of Amisk Lake

Namew Lake is a large and exposed lake. I was lucky that it was calm on the day that I had to cross it. It was one of the few calms days I had so I took advantage of it and paddled many kilometers. There were only days left to the end of my journey. Every paddle stroke took me closer to my goal, yet the end still seemed far off.

The south shore of the lake is lined with lime stone cliffs and perfectly level shelves; perfect for camping on. In areas like these I felt alone, not lonely, but just alone. I felt as if I was the only person for hundreds of kilometers and it was a very satisfying feeling.

Looking out over Namew Lake from inside one of the many large crevasses in the limestone cliffs

Throughout the entire trip, locals, fishermen and other canoeists had asked me if I'd seen any bears. I had no bear sightings to report, which kind of surprised and disappointed me. On the second last day of the trip, I was sitting in camp resting with a bag of granola, after a tough day of fighting the wind. I was relaxing when a medium sized black bear appeared at the edge of the trees. I was sitting down wind and could tell that he was just as startled to see me, as I was to see him. My bear spray and camera were in the tent so all I was left with was the bag of granola and it didn't make a whole lot of noise. I didn't want him to get too comfortable around my camp because I had to sleep there that night so I stood up and yelled at him. He turned and took off into the forest like a canon ball. I could hear him breaking branches as he fled. The interesting thing about bears is that they are silent, you can't hear them coming.

My final day on the water was windy again! I was, of course, sad that it was all coming to an end but to tell the truth, I wasn't going to miss the wind. Cumberland House is on a island which is surrounded by reeds. Finding the open channel through the reeds was no problem.

My journey ended as unceremoniously as it had begun. There were no cheering crowds or fan fair. There weren't even any locals at the boat launch where I was to meet my ride home. I guess it was a fitting way to end the trip; I started alone, traveled alone and finished alone. There was just the dirt boatlaunch and me. After an hour of waiting, my mother finally arrived to pick me up. It was nice to see a friendly face again.

After the slow pace of canoeing all summer, the drive home felt like reckless abandonment. I kept asking her to slow down.

Self portrait with the Cumberland House boat launch in the background

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Solo Expedition 2006 Sandfly Lake to Frog Portage

On calm and clear evenings, I enjoyed spending all evening cooking various dishes over the open fire. After a feed of fish I'd cook an apple crisp or possibly a mango crisp. Then I'd stoke the fire once more to bake a loaf of bannock.

Some of the campsites were very small and had a limited amount of level ground to set up the tent. At this particular site there was just enough of a grassy spot to set the tent. As I was lying in my sleeping bag, I could hear something rustling under the tent. I grabbed my headlamp and sat up to see a small lump under the floor of the tent moving. I'm not sure what exactly it was but a light smack sent it scurrying away not to return.

Campsite on Kavanugh Lake

One month earlier, in June, large forest fires ragged through the east end of Black Bear Island Lake and the west shore of Trout Lake. Great tracts of the forest were burnt. As I paddled close to shore and smelled the charred remains of once lush green trees, I could only imagine what it would have been like to live off the land and to have your cabin and your livelihood in danger of going up in smoke. This is exactly the story that a long time trapper in the area told me. He told me a great tale of how he had single handedly fought the fires back and how he had triumphed.

East Shore of Black Bear Island Lake

I had traveled through the Rock Trout area twice in the past with other groups. Both of those times, there were many people around, not only the group I was with, but also other groups passing through. This time, however, the land felt very lonely. There were many camp sites spread out on the level rocks but none were occupied. The only sounds were the constant roar of the rapids that I slept next to.

Throughout the trip I kept in touch via satellite phone with CBC radio, I was glad to have the chance to talk to someone even if it was only for 5 minutes and they were hundreds of miles away. The host on the noon edition asked the usual questions about loneliness and fear but I also had the opportunity to tell the listeners about some of the great places we have in northern Saskatchewan.

On the phone with CBC Radio next to Rock Trout Falls

Missinipe was to be my re-supply point, rest stop and a place to get cleaned up. After bathing in cold lakes and rivers for over month, a hot shower felt great! I met up with Jo Ann Johnston who had done me a big favor by bringing my food boxes to Missinipe. It was nice to see a familiar face again.

Along the way, I met some of the nicest people, locals as well as other canoeists. They continually invited me to sit with them around their campfires, if we happened to camp at the same location. One such group was Cliff Kienlen's group, which was staying at Robertson Falls. Jens and Sybille van Vliet, from France and Duane Stroeder, from Calgary made up the rest of his group. Because of rain no one felt like traveling so we spent a day and a half together sharing stories and having a good laugh.

Even though this trip was to be a solo endeavor it was nice to have people to visit with now and then. Inevitably, I had to be on my way again and loneliness would slowly creep in again. But I would take with me good memories.

Cliff Kienlen's group in the rain at Roberston Falls.

After leaving Robertson Falls, I stopped at Twin Falls Lodge and spoke to the owner. He told me that there were large bits of land that had burnt around Stanley Mission. He also told me that the lake level had risen two inches from the rain the day before.

Nearing Little Stanley Rapids, I ran into a father and daughter on the water in their canoe. As usual, I was questioning them about the rapids ahead (Little Stanley Rapids). The water was high this year, which completely changes the rapids. The father said that is was a bit pushy and that they had ran it once or twice and got worked over. When I got there, I watched a group of not-so-experienced paddlers run it. I really didn't feel like portaging, and I was planning on staying at the bottom of the rapid for the night, so I ran it loaded with no troubles at all.

The sunset over Little Stanley was one of the best I had seen in a while.

Sunset over Little Stanley Rapids

Portaging, the pain in every canoeists neck, literally and figuratively. To tell the truth I enjoy portaging. As canoeists we pass through the land and see it from water level, but it's nice to get out of the boat and get up close to the trees and possibly see something you would have otherwise missed. Like a pair of three toed woodpeckers working their way up an old spruce looking for grubs.

On every trip there comes a time when I realize that I am truly enjoying myself, and that I'm at ease with everything. That time usually comes at the end of a long portage, after having hauled all my gear in the rain.

While portaging my canoe around Grand Rapids the carrying yolk broke and the boat fell to my head. It didn't feel good! I spent the next half hour searching for a suitable tree branch and used the rest of my duct tape to securely brace the yolk. I only hoped it would hold for the rest of the trip.

To haul all my gear across I had to make about 4 trips for each portage

Frog portage is an important historic site. It is here that a small bit of land only a few hundred meters across separates two major watersheds. The Churchill River and the Sturgeon-weir River. It got it's name from an event which took place years ago. When the Cree entered the land, they had great contempt for local natives. They thought the locals couldn't prepare beaver skins and, as a sign of their dislike, they stretched a frog skin an hung it on a post.

For weeks I had a reoccurring dream of rain flooding my campsite and tent. At Frog Portage that dream came true. That night there was a terrible thunder and electrical storm. It produced a lot of rain and soaked the ground I was camped on. In the morning could hear the water squishing around under the tent. It rained so much that the lake level rose two inches over night!

Too bad about the vandalism on the monument

To be continued

Monday, April 4, 2011

Solo Expedition 2006 Ile a la Crosse to Sandfly Lake

Map, Ile a la crosse to Sandfly Lake

Good camping sites are limited on Ile a la Crosse Lake; they are few and far between. I had just paddled over 40 kms into a strong head wind and arrived at a small island near Sandy Point. I was extremely exhausted and could hardly stand. On the island was a beautiful, level, manicured lawn which would have made a great place to spend the night. The only problem was a mangy dog, which inhabits the island, looked like he would have bit a chunk out of my leg the minute my back was turned. I opted not to become puppy chow and moved on to sandy point.

The next day, leaving Sandy Point was not a smart thing to do. There were gale force winds coming down the lake from the north. I paddled hard and only made 4 km's before I decided it wasn't worth busting my ass. I was lucky to come across a long sandy beach, which I set up camp at the edge of the trees. I was stuck there for the day and spent my time walking along the beach and snacking on gingersnap cookies.

Wind bound on Ile a la crosse

The waves on Lac Ile a la Crosse were large again, only this time they were in my favor. I was able to ride white-capped waves half way up the lake to an island, which sports the same name, Halfway Lake. This island marks the unofficial boundary between the fishing territories of the Dene and Cree. There happened to be a native summer cabin that I stayed in for the night rather than be battered by the wind in my tent. I stayed comfortable while the wind blew outside. There was a table and a few cots, which had mouse droppings on them. After doing my map work, I lifted the musty smelling mattress and dumped the droppings onto the floor, set out my sleeping bag on the mattress and fell into a deep sleep. Some time in the night, I could hear mice scurrying around the cabin, even on the bed with me.

In the spring the locals move to their cabins to fish, then abandon them for the summer. This cabin was on Half Way Island. Ile a la Crosse Lake

The first sign that you are entering the Boreal Shield is at Deer Rapids. Here you will find the first bit of granite on the upper Churchill River. After so many less than suitable campsites, I decided to stop early on this day and camp on the rocks. It was a warm and sunny day, which was exactly what I needed. All my batteries were running low and the sun would provide all the energy I needed to charge them using my solar panel.

Now I'm not sure, but in my opinion the locals have lost touch with the river. Sure they use the rivers as their roads, but along my travels, I've asked locals for information on the river ahead. The most common response I received was "you better portage, stay away from the rapids, those waves are too big". They may have been trying to get a rise out of me or maybe they were being serious but when I arrived at said rapids, I found them to be very tame. Possibly having given up canoes for modern fishing boats with outboard motors, they have lost the intimate knowledge of the water they once had.

Before leaving in the morning, I was able to catch a wave and do some surfing with my loaded canoe.

The first granite on the the Churchill River, Deer Rapids

Bear signs! There were way too many bear signs along the portage trail bypassing Crooked Rapids. I had thought about camping at one end of the trail but after walking the trail and seeing all the piles of scat, over turned logs and boulders, I decided there was no way I was going to spend the night there alone! And to top it off, the mosquitoes were horrible!

Crooked rapids are really a set of three separate rapids. The first is easily run without scouting. The guidebooks say that the second set is runnable down river center, between a small island on the right and large waves on the left. Yeah right! With this years high water levels, the large waves were monstrous! There was no way I was going any where near them. I opted to run down river left scouting as I went. The route I picked was a good clean run with a few large boulders to dodge. Just missing the monstrous waves by a matter of feet, I eddied out behind a bunch of willows to get a good look at the wave.

The force of the water and vastness of the wilderness was truly humbling and left me feeling like an insignificant speck in the great scheme of things.

Monstrous waves in Crooked Rapids. Missed this one by a matter of feet.

Here the Churchill River takes on a whole different feel and flattens out again into a wide, marshy valley. I stopped at a number of places in search of a place to camp. The hillside was covered with big juicy blue berries making it a good year for the bears. All the berries were early and there were lots of them. I spent a lot of time picking and eating Saskatoon Berries, Goose Berries, Raspberries, Strawberries, Lingon berries and Blueberries. I had blueberries in my hot cereal, in pancakes, with bannock, as blueberry crisp, reduced as a spread, and of course fresh by the hand full.

The days had become hot and the head seemed to radiate from everything, rocks, trees, soil

I hadn't seen or spoken to another person for over a week so when I got to a small boat launch near the outflow of Sandy Lake and met three men and one boy, I had a tough time keeping up with the conversation. The four of them reminded me of a bunch of hillbillies on vacation. They chattered back and forth with each other and fired off question after question at me. Now I'm not sure if it was because I had just spent so much time alone or if that was the way they always talked, but there was no way I could hold up my end of the conversation. Luckily they were camped at a different camp ground, so after they wandered off, I was left to my own devices again. The day was well over 30 degrees C with little shade to take refuge in. The designated camp sites were 100 meters up a hill, I was the only person in the recreation site and had my pick of sites but I couldn't bear to be that far from the water, so I decided to pitch camp in the parking lot only feet from the water's edge.

During long journeys on the water you become dependent on the water. It becomes your constant companion and your worst enemy. You long for it when you are apart and depend on it for your very survival. Later, when I returned home after the trip, I felt as though something was missing within me, I would feel empty. I had accomplished my goal and completed the journey, what was missing was the water and the forest. I missed them terribly.

A fantastic sunset over Sandy Lake

Entering Sandfly Lake, I met a small group of people from Pine House Lake, just out for a day cruise. As I paddled by them, a man called out to me. He asked, "where's your real boat"? He couldn't grasp the idea that I was traveling by canoe.

Sandfly Lake has long been in the back of my mind as a place to explore. The many rocky islands provide great fishing and there's also Alexander Mackenzie's Bear. When Mackenzie was passing through, he paused long enough to take note of a large boulder, perched alone, which is in the form of a black bear's head. In the past, sacrifices were offered here, but when I passed through, there were none. It was a great place to stop for lunch.

In the past, a bears face was painted on the bolder but there was no visible sign that it had been painted. Sandfly Lake