“Very little canoeing; five years of kayaking experience”, it said on Robbie Gamble’s canoe trip registration…, and she wanted to paddle her own kayak. The trip however, turned out to be a combo canoeing and kayaking trip for Robbie, but not in her kayak! She learned a lot about canoeing, got a taste of kayaking in a real sea kayak and experienced the best that northern Saskatchewan canoe country has to offer – fabulous scenery, pristine waters, stunning sunsets, and of course, ancient rock art and if the camp cook is on the ball, some tasty bannock! It’s a dreamland she shares in this story…
Paddling the Churchill River – a Dream Come True!
By Robbie Gamble
Dreaming of Northern Saskatchewan
I had been dreaming about paddling in Northern Saskatchewan for a long time. Having grown up near Moose Jaw’s Wakamow River valley you would think I’d had the opportunity to spend a lot of time around water. Not so. I couldn’t swim and was forbidden to even think about venturing anywhere near water. So, naturally I embraced every opportunity to spend time near a lake, a river or even a stream!
I began searching and researching river trips and outfitter/guides, and often found myself on the CanoeSki website. The time had come to get serious about realizing my dream. John Barrymore, famous 1930’s actor, said that we “are not old until regrets take the place of dreams”. I decided this summer of my 60th birthday – I would not have any regrets!
First, call my dear friend and kayaking buddy, Joni – yup, she can get the time off! Second, call Cliff Speer at CanoeSki – yes, we were confirmed for the Rock Art and Bannock Canoe Trip in mid-August – we were going paddling on the Churchill River! Woohoo!
Kayaks or Canoes – That is the Question!
Finally the day arrived and we were off! We met Cliff in Saskatoon, unloaded our kayaks, which we had trucked up from Moose Jaw, and headed out to find spray skirts for our kayaks (no such luck). No skirts meant we had to revisit our plan to take the kayaks. A discussion ensued: “It’s a big river and likely to have big waves and we don’t have skirts, and Cliff is the guide and the expert, and his advice is to leave the kayaks and use one of his canoes.” We decided to go with Cliff’s advice. I was disappointed, but this was a safety issue – our kayaks were flat water recreational designs and not suited for the Churchill River System. The canoes, apparently, were at home on these waters.
Lightweight kevlar canoes at home on the Churchill River, en route on the Rock Art and Bannock Trip.
Arriving at our departure point next morning there was a bit more discussion with Cliff and consensus on parking our “flat water fun boats” (a.k.a. kayaks). Ok, ok – load the canoes! Everyone pitched in to load the van and trailer. You can imagine my surprise when I saw they were loading two beautiful bright kayaks. These kayaks were fully equipped for the Churchill River. Yup – I had kayak envy! I helped load a very nice light canoe (I thought most canoes were much heavier). Turned out it was a fabulous Kevlar canoe and probably weighed less than my kayak!
There were seven in our group – Cliff our guide, and fearless leader with over 20 years as an outfitter; Lori M, Cliff’s assistant and an energetic, experienced paddler familiar with the north; Lori J, an outdoors young woman from Saskatoon; Marie and Bob, a wonderful adventurous Regina couple, well prepared for land or water; and finally Joni and me – first time on the Churchill! All the rest were experienced paddlers and educators, and happy to share their skills and expertise. This promised to be everything I dreamed it would be. I was sure we were going to learn a lot on this trip!
Time to leave the city behind and head into the northern wilderness. On our way to the Churchill River we stopped for a quick lunch at a secluded campsite on Lac La Ronge that I would like to revisit some time. Shortly after, we landed at our launching point at the small resort village of Missinipe. Then it was the busy task of unloading and reloading our new vehicles, trading wheels for paddles!
Marie and Bob setting sail with a little westerly breeze out of Missinipe (photo: Robbie Gamble)
It may have been a long paddle on OtterLake (part of the Churchill River System) to our base camp, but I really didn’t notice. What I did notice was the fresh air, the open sky, and islands big and small, each one a land mark guiding us to our destination. And so we arrived to a small untouched corner of a world that was to be home for the next four days. It didn’t take long to get unloaded and by the time we had each secured a level spot to pitch our tents, Cliff and Lori had a fire going and supper cooking. Honestly I don’t remember what was cooking, but I was starved and do remember it was delicious (and I wasn’t the only one stepping up for a second helping!).
It had been a long day. We were full and tired, but determined to stay awake long enough to watch the sunset. Maybe we were just lucky, but it seemed that each evening the sunset was more beautiful than the night before. Even more remarkable was the lack of bugs in camp after sundown when they normally get active, according to Cliff. Looking back, we must have lucked out on a lot of things. The weather was as perfect as any paddler could desire – sunny, warm and calm winds every day! Could it be that we had just landed in canoeing paradise!
Fabulous northern colors at the close of day on the Churchill River (canoeski)
A Day of Falls
The next day, we set our sights on Robertson Falls. The lake was calm and the sun was shining. We stopped occasionally to check our compasses and take a bearing on our route. It was a perfect day to navigate our way down the Churchill River through pristine channels and untouched islands.
Lori & Lori using their old-fashioned GPS units to take a route bearing! (Robbie Gamble).
The inescapable group shot! L to R – Robbie, Lori J, Joan, Cliff, Marie, Bob at Robertson Falls minus Lori M taking the photo (Lori Johnstone)
We could hear the thunder of the spectacular falls before we could see them. After lunch we perched ourselves on the rocks and contemplated the speed at which that water must have been moving through the channel. It was a perfect place for a group photo, so we took a few pictures, and then after a bit of discussion, we decided to portage our boats over to get a better view of Twin Falls a short distance downstream.
Bob & Marie enjoying a cool one at Twin Falls Lodge (Bob Davies)
Our kayaking friends, Bob and Marie, were first in the water, and first to arrive at Twin Falls Lodge and enjoy a cool beverage on the deck. Our canoes cut through the water at a pretty good pace, (as long as 2 were paddling!). There was, of course, lots of comments on the speed and agility of kayaks!
Twin Falls Lodge has been a well-known fishing lodge for many years. It had a nice open beach to land our boats, a few cottages and an inviting deck with a distant upstream view of Robertson Falls. We decided to do a hike down and around to Twin Falls first and then return later to the lodge for refreshments. The path was narrow with lots of twists and turns. We could hear the falls as we approached them.
Scenic side stream at Twin Falls (Lori Johnstone)
But this turned out to be just a side stream tumbling over the rocks, a scenic spot for taking photos, nonetheless. The big Twin Falls were still some distance away and not accessible by our winding path! We picked fresh blueberries on the way back, thinking they would be a nice addition to next day’s breakfast but they were so delicious, we ate everything we picked. But the highlight of our day occurred when Ron, the lodge owner, offered to take us to visit Twin Falls via his pontoon boat! We got a close-up view of the falls seen by few canoeists.
Mountains of water pouring through powerful Twin Falls viewed from the safety of the pontoon boat ( canoeski)
More Falls & Kodak Moments
Liquid refreshment at North Falls! (canoeski)
Day 3 turned out to be a perfect day for a swim and North Falls, the perfect place. It was located to the east of Robertson Falls and so a bit longer paddle. And worth every stroke! We pulled the boats up at the portage, and headed for the swimming spot. It was a short hike and before we knew it we were deep in the refreshing northern waters. Yikes, that was cool! A gigantic rock outcrop overlooking the falls served as a diving board, a sunning rock, a casting spot, and perfect table for lunch! It also came in handy for capturing great shots of the stunning scenery surrounding the falls. We were about half way “home” and Bob and Marie were doing a bit of fishing, when we spotted eagles soaring effortlessly above us. Quick – get out the cameras! One of the wonderful things about canoeing with a partner is that one paddler can stop to take pictures whenever a Kodak moment occurs. And those moments kept coming – all the way back to camp, and until the sun set itself behind a neighboring island. Sleep came easy after such a full day.
Beautiful North Falls (canoeski)
Finally, Bannock & Rock Art on the Menu!
Bannock for breakfast and Rock Art in the afternoon! It was going to be another fabulous day! The bannock was a taste-tempting delight that Lori had baked in her Outback Oven. Along with a bit of Cliff’s homemade Nanking cherry jam, it had a gourmet touch!
The plan for the day was to paddle up a Churchill River tributary, the Stewart River, to the Rattler Creek rock paintings, take a short portage to a swimming spot and have a hearty lunch on nature’s table. We had just filled our water bottles and buckled up our life jackets when asked if we wanted to trade boats for the day. Bob and Marie were offering Joni and me to try their kayaks today. Oh yah!! This day was getting better by the minute!
Joni photographing Robbie’s excitement about paddling “real” kayaks! (Bob Davies)
Admittedly, I was quite enjoying the canoeing, but a chance to paddle a “real” kayak for the day had me bursting. What a treat! These sea kayaks were at home gliding through the clear, cool northern waters.
As we neared the Rattler Creek rock paintings, the river narrowed, the waters calmed, and ponds of lilies welcomed us. The air was cool and still in the overhang of the prehistoric rock art. It was a perfect place for a break, so we rafted up to admire and learn more about pictographs and the history of our wondrous north.
Cameras are focused on the Aboriginal rock art at Rattler Creek (canoeski)
Calgary YWCA 16-year old girls finishing up their 17-day trip on the Churchill River (canoeski)
Leaving Rattler Creek, we headed upriver to the portage where a short hike over the steep rocky trail led to our lunch spot. It had been an amazing morning and we had worked up quite an appetite. Lunch over, we were relaxing on a sunny rock, thinking about a swim, when we heard voices. Looking north, we could see six canoes heading our way. In moments, twelve young women were pulling their canoes up on the rocks. They had been paddling for seventeen days! We stopped long enough to say hello and hear a bit of their adventures.
Eagle’s nest (Bob Davies)
On our way back we almost missed the eagle’s nest hidden high on the riverbank. It was incredibly huge! We had seen and heard lots of birds, the call of the loons, the drumming of the grouse, and the hoot of owls, and now the alarm call of the adult eagles!
From there it was a short paddle back to camp. Sliding through the water in the kayak I could paddle hard and fast, and then coast for a while to ponder life and catch my breath. I wondered if Bob and Marie had enjoyed the canoe as much as we had enjoyed the kayaks. Back at camp we returned the kayaks and thanked them for their kindness. It had been a warm day and our long-delayed lunch time swim turned into a pre-supper swim. How refreshing! What an amazing day it had been!
The reed-fringed Stewart River – a Churchill River tributary (Robbie Gamble)
Cranberry Cornbread & Leaving the Dreamland
The last day arrived way too soon. It was hard to believe it was time to break camp. No sleeping late this day. Coffee was on and so was Cliff’s cranberry cornbread, baked to perfection in a reflector oven. We had formed a berry picking crew the previous evening and under Cliff’s direction had located a patch of wild ground cranberries. They gave a rosy tinge and a nice tartness to the hot cornbread.
Wild cranberry cornbread baking in the reflector oven – local gourmet touch to breakfast! (canoeski)
All the meals had been wholesome, healthy and delicious, and provided all the energy needed to paddle some 65 kilometers during our 4-day trek. All efforts combined and we were ready to leave our camp as pristine as we found it. I took one last look back and one last photograph. I wanted to be able to share this dreamland.
I have to admit that getting back in that canoe felt pretty comfortable. I’m not stating a preference of canoeing over kayaking only that I am so glad to have had a chance to do both. We headed back across Otter Lake and the Churchill River into Walker Bay where we unpacked the boats and loaded the trailer and the van.
It might have been a long drive back to urban reality but the miles passed rapidly as we relived the adventures of the week. Paddling in Northern Saskatchewan, admiring ancient Rock Art and enjoying warm Bannock had been everything I dreamt it would be.
Robbie is feeling pretty good! Her dreams of paddling the Churchill River in a kayak have been fulfilled!
[Ed. note: The Rock Art & Bannock Trip itinerary was modified and the route on the Churchill River was re-located to operate out of Missinipe rather than Stanley Mission due to participants’ schedules and preferences.]
To read other fascinating trip stories go to Canoeing Tales of Discovery
For more info or to book this trip go to Rock Art & Bannock Canoe Trip