Bryan’s Story – Northern Waterways Canoe Trips

Nistoyãhk Odyssey – July 2002

Swimming in Lac La Ronge, northern Saskatchewan

Ross (L) & Bryan taking a dip in Lac La Ronge

Listen to the loons, watch bald eagles soar and feel the spray of mighty Nistowiak Falls, says the tour description. Bryan did that and a lot more on the 8-day Nistoyahk Odyssey canoe tour in Lac La Ronge Provincial Park. He teamed up with his 14-year-old grandson for a vacation of a lifetime.

During his winter stay in Mexico, he got his pen working and turned his trip diary into a fine story of his experiences. “The bonding that took place between Grandfather and Grandson was remarkable,” he says, “as we journeyed into what, for us city-dwellers, was the unknown world.”


By Bryan St. George

Preparing for Adventure

Although I was raised on a farm and hunted in many places across Western Canada, I had never paddled a canoe. I was raised a flatlander without rivers or streams worth navigating. When I happened upon Cliff Speer’s CanoeSki website it struck me that this would be an experience I should enjoy before I got too much older. When I shared this with my 14-year-old grandson, Ross, and his Dad, we all agreed that this would be a great way for Ross and me to get to know each other better. What a wonderful decision that turned out to be!

Within an hour of our plane arriving in Saskatoon, the adventure began after we repacked our personal items into the proper waterproof packs supplied by CanoeSki. With the canoes loaded onto the trailer, the five Adventurers, our Guide, Cliff himself, and all our gear skillfully packed into the van, we headed for the Churchill River country in northern Saskatchewan.

Our first night was spent at the Provincial campground on Lac La Ronge in order to give us all some briefing and training for the events to come. On the way, we checked in and registered with the La Ronge Tourism office to record our canoe route and the length of our trip as a safety precaution. The evening was spent learning canoeing and camping skills. Ross and I learned a little about canoeing by upsetting and I discovered not to wear glasses, or better still, have them tied on! For the rest of the trip I used the “spares” that I had fortunately taken along.

Sand spit beach on Lac La Ronge, northern Saskatchewan

Breakfast on a Lac La Ronge sand spit beach

The next morning we had a briefing on the trip route, did a map study and were given a map kit so we could follow the route on our own map. Cliff also reviewed the safety guidelines for the trip. With the foundation for a safe trip laid, we departed for Stanley Mission where we loaded and launched our canoes on the Churchill River. The other three Adventurers had some canoe experience, so Cliff split us up to allow Ross and me to paddle with more experienced members in the party.

Travelling & Camping on the Canadian Shield

After paddling upstream on the Churchill for a while, we did our first portage that took us into Hunt Lake, a clean, clear body of water with many islands. Being our first portage, Ross and I stuck to hauling backpacks and the others handled the canoes. Our first wilderness campsite was on the 3-billion year old Precambrian Shield rock that is so prevalent in that area and readily visible along the shorelines of the lake. Off the rock shelf at our campsite we enjoyed a swim in the late afternoon sun, feeling refreshed and invigorated after the day’s paddle.

The next morning when we left the lake, we portaged around a beaver dam to get onto a narrow winding creek that tested our steering skills while we paddled through a maze of lovely yellow water lilies. Another portage took us over the Stanley Mission road and onto Four Portages Bay where we saw wild rice in bloom. (The same northern Saskatchewan wild rice turned out to be part of our excellent menu). Here is where we also saw Bald Eagles that were nesting near the bay and Great Blue Herons cruising over the water.

The immensity of Lac La Ronge is partly concealed by islands, but when we ventured out onto the lake the next morning, it was evident from the strong winds and high waves that had built up across the expanse of the lake. For safety sake, Cliff guided us behind a finger of land for protection from the wind and waves. As we waited there, he took advantage of the time to give us a lesson on the use of our compasses. After lunch and a swim we decided to brave the weather that had abated slightly, and struck off, zigzagging across the bay in order to maintain our course without danger of being swamped by high waves hitting us from the side. That evening, for a change we camped on an island beach instead of the usual campsite perched on Canadian Shield bedrock. The beach provided another excellent place to wade into the lake and take a swim before supper.

Marine railway portage on the Rapid River, Lac La Ronge

An easy portage via the marine rail cart

The following day we practiced using our maps and compasses to wend our way through the maze of islands to the outlet of Lac La Ronge. Along the way we greeted some of Cliff’s American friends who spend the summer in the area. After a lunch stop along Diefenbaker Bay, we took advantage of a wind in our backs and sped along at about 7 kilometres per hour to the “railway” portage. This is an interesting contrivance actually consisting of light rail track upon which a trolley is pushed with canoes and gear on board. We set up camp for the night above the Rapid River, which is a lovely, scenic location overlooking rapids and the lake. There we swam, watched pelicans fishing, and a mother duck herding her brood upstream against the current.

Rapids, Falls & Voyageur Tales

Nistowiak Falls on the Churchill River

Spectacular Nistowiak Falls

After a short paddle in the morning, we hiked up to a cave and sacred site that are special in Cree mythology, and where we had a “birds-eye” view of the Rapid River both up and down stream. From there we entered the only rapids we ran, which much to Ross’s disappointment were not life threatening, but only skill testing. They were active enough for me; I did not crave white water! The fast water took us onto Iskwatikan Lake and we eventually arrived at the 1100-metre portage around Nistowiak Falls. We stopped midway in the portage and visited the falls, which tumble wildly over the highly polished Precambrian granite to drop about 40 feet. They present a beautiful sight with plenty of foam and spray. This was definitely a photo-op.

At the end of the portage we stopped at Jim’s Fishing Camp for cool drinks and to inspect a 34-inch Pike that a fisherman was proudly cleaning. The camp staff assured us this was not a record, but it was pleasing enough to the fisherman. That evening Ross was given the opportunity to set up and light the fire, which he proudly did with one match. In the bush, we spotted four unique looking critters that appeared to be babies of something like a ground hog, which none of us could identify.

Purple sand beach on the Churchill River

Grandfather and grandson on the purple sand beach

After breakfast of fresh baked corn bread with raisins, which Cliff made on his reflector oven, we moved on to a unique purple sand beach to do some wading and to cool off. Camp was set up that afternoon on an island overlooking Stanley Rapids. From here we took a side trip and hiked about 200 meters up to an abandoned mine that was closed in 1954, leaving the buildings and machinery mostly intact. There were fully grown trees in the open pit and buildings which had their roofs missing. On this portion of the trip, Ross and I were together, and at the mine he indicated he did not like my handling of the stern, so we switched and he did a fine job of steering.

After the evening meal we set up a small campfire on a rock plateau overlooking the Rapids. Then Cliff, dressed in Voyageur regalia, treated us to a history lesson on those who traveled this waterway in fur trading days hauling trade goods west and furs east. With prose and verse he brought to life the days of yore.

Lessons in Archaeology & History

Stanley Mission Church on the Churchill River

Stately Stanley Mission Church on the Churchill River

On our last morning we were treated to an exciting electrical storm after which we departed in light rain — the only serious rain during our entire trip. Shortly, we took the “roller” portage, which is a row of rollers along a wooden walkway around Stanley Rapids. Soon we came to the ancient Aboriginal rock paintings alongside the river. Although no one is certain of their origin, it is believed they have symbolic significance arising out of a visionary or spiritual quest. They depict animals and humans in various poses and activities.

Our last stop was the Holy Trinity Anglican Church, the oldest in Canada west of the Red River, and a Saskatchewan Provincial Historic Site. The church, located across the river from Stanley Mission, is surrounded by a well-kept graveyard. The building has been restored and is in use on a regular basis.

Throughout the trip we saw a great variety of interesting flora and fauna. I’ve referred to some of the wildlife we saw, but the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan is a study in itself. All told, there are eight species of trees, including white and black spruce, jack pine, trembling aspen, balsam poplar, balsam fir, paper birch and small amounts of tamarack. We were able to observe and identify each of these with Cliff’s help as we paddled along.

Good Enough to Go Again

Finally, and of utmost importance, I want to tell about the quality of guiding and food we enjoyed throughout. Cliff constantly pointed out features of interest as we traveled. When our “city water” ran out, he produced a filter that purified the lake water. Most used this, but I did not think this was necessary and drank the water straight out of the lake, with no adverse effects. Cliff worked tirelessly to provide us with the most nutritious meals, but did get us involved with kitchen tasks such as chopping greens for salads, grating cheese and, of course, washing dishes. This was not a requirement of the trip, but rather it added to the appreciation of the experience. The food was varied and tasty, including such treats as fruit salad, fresh vegetables, pastrami, pita bread, peanut butter cookies, a variety of cheeses, burritos, bagels, stew, Saskatchewan wild rice, homemade carrot cake, and organic 7-grain cereal.

Although I have tried, I know my words cannot adequately describe the experience Ross and I enjoyed. The bonding that took place between Grandfather and Grandson was remarkable as we journeyed into what, for us city-dwellers, was the unknown world. Ross’s comment, “Let’s go again next summer, Grandpa”…for me, says it all!