Whitewater Trail of the Voyageurs – August, 2001
A resident of B.C’s Saltspring Island, Kathryn finds this Paull River northern Saskatchewan canoe trip lives up to the famous lines of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau: “…if you paddle 100 miles by canoe, you will be a child of nature and a true Canadian.” For Kathryn the trip is also a nostalgic sense of homecoming as she reconnects with her childhood roots and rediscovers a landscape in her words “as beautiful and pristine as ever I remembered.” Enjoy her intriguing and beautifully written account of rapids and falls, osprey and eagles, cranberry cornbread and fresh walleye, and beach bonfires and tall tales!
By Kathryn Landry
“One of the best places you can go in a canoe is the wilderness. And what you may ask is so great about it? The silence, for one thing. In real wilderness, silence is not just quiet, which is the absence of noise. Here you are surrounded by the voices of silence, the voice of the living earth, unmuddied by aural chatter and this is a great treasure.” — Robert Kimber, A Canoeist’s Sketch Book
A Sense of Homecoming
A canoe trip on the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, puts one in the Precambrian Shield. This is the land of boreal forest and smooth granite hills, sloping down to waters untamed and untainted by the march of modern civilization. Here also one is retracing part of the historic water route of the voyageurs of Canada’s fur trading past. Such a trip helps to instill an awareness of the importance of preserving our homeland, wild and free.
We were three canoes on a trip with Cliff Speer — guide and owner of CanoeSki Discovery Company of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. This trip was an idea come to reality for my cousin, David Gehl, and I who had talked of canoeing together for years. For me, there was also a nostalgic sense of homecoming, as I had grown up in far northern Saskatchewan, near Lake Athabaska, but hadn’t been “up this way” for over 20 years. And I wasn’t disappointed, as it was as beautiful and pristine as ever I remembered.
We six met in Saskatoon and drove north to Missinipe, where under clear August skies, a Twin Otter flew us and our gear to our starting point. Our pilot, Frank backed the plane’s pontoons up to the beach shoreline, we unloaded the gear, and then he was gone. With a spray of water and a final roar, the plane was a distant speck in minutes and we were left in this silent wilderness — a poignant moment!
Here on the shores of Paull Lake we camped for the first night. There was a beautiful sandy beach — just great for swimming in the clear warm water — a campfire, good food and fellowship. Our journey had begun.
Rapids, Falls, and Portages
The paddling part of the journey started the next day with easy going calm lake canoeing. This gave us all time to settle in with each other and to hone up on basic paddling techniques. After portaging the first set of low water rapids, we had a chance to practice and play in the current below the drop. Here in this safe zone even an unexpected “dump” was an opportunity to experience and learn from. Now with keen anticipation we paddled on into a good mix of flat water, runable rapids and portages.
On Day 3 we awoke to clear skies and at a campsite with an eastern exposure we had my favorite — morning sun! I walked up to explore a rock ridge behind us. This world is so familiar to me, deep-rooted in my soul since childhood. I am seeing plants, flowers and berries that I have known for all these years, but some I haven’t seen or even brought to mind since my young rambling days. One is a fragile, lacy plant with tiny pink and orange nectar-filled flowers, which we called honeysuckle. This one, and others, are quite specific to this northern clime. Great to have a mug of pungent Labrador tea again!
After a swim, and a good breakfast, we packed up and pushed off into our world of water travel. Today we portaged the Gorge and also ran sets of smallish rapids. These were good for learning and getting a feel for fast moving water. We passed a bald eagle sitting high up in a snag along the shoreline, surveying his kingdom and scouting for a fish dinner. I’m hoping that David, our fisherman, will catch us a fish for dinner. These lakes and rivers are teeming with Walleye and Northern Pike. Three Western Grebe speed by, running upright across the water on webbed feet, their open wings pushing and swooping to give them even more momentum.
We camped this evening on a point beside the rock ledges where the water breaks over Tuck Falls. A fair wind had blown up, sending the gathered cloud cover scuttling along the skyway to the north. The wind died on a clear sky and beautiful sunset, with great flashes of lightning over the northern hills. Quite a panoramic backdrop as we comfortably sat talking of the day and eating a delicious dinner of mulligatawny stew, local wild rice, mixed salad and homemade carrot cake.
Fishing and Berry Picking
We woke early to clear skies which quickly clouded over. Even though the water had turned a leaden grey, I could not resist a dip in Tuck Falls. It was fun to swim hard close up to the falls and then ride the turbulent current back out. And great! — I looked up and there was David with four Walleye caught at the base of the falls. After a delicious breakfast of freshly fried fish, we headed out in a fair rain. This didn’t dampen our spirits as it was just another experience in traveling through this awesome land. This was another great day of running rapids and I felt like a competent bow person efficiently following instructions from my stern paddler and doing the strokes well.
We portaged over to McIntosh Lake. The portages are great for stretching one’s legs and getting an energy boost from gorging on the wild berries growing prolifically along the trail. Here we stopped for lunch and also picked enough blueberries and bog cranberries for future pancake and cornbread breakfasts.
The rain stopped, but the wind came up as we started crossing this expansive lake. With large swells and a tail wind out of the north, we surfed along at record speed into our campsite on a beautiful half moon beach on Goose Island. After this exhilarating day, we decided this was the night for a bonfire on the beach and tall tales!
It took another day to cross McIntosh Lake, then through Trout Portage to another beautiful campsite overlooking the rapids and a quiet pool below. On the lake, the silence was broken only by the tremolo of a vigilant loon sending out messages of our presence to his feathered fellows.
The Churchill’s Power and Magic
The next day was a mix of flat water and rapids as we headed down the greater water flow of the Churchill River System. The wind blew up as we traversed Nipew Lake — again at a swift clip with a good tail wind. Nipew means Lake of the Dead, and as we stopped to explore a mysterious mounded island of tall waving grasses growing in rich loamy soil, we wondered if we had found an Indian burial ground, which is purported to be on one of the islands in this lake!
At the end of day we stopped on Boyes Island and set up camp inside the forest, out of the wind. A squirrel chattered his territorial presence, beckoning me into an “enchanted forest” — trees dripping with old man’s beard, a soft living carpet of emerald moss (that must have been a foot deep) — reminded me of Paul Rezendes words from The Wild Within (Adventures in Nature and Animal Teachings): “The place had an ancient silence, a depth, stillness and magic that held me transfixed. It was a forest in its primeval state, untouched by man.” And next morning felt like we were eating off “the fat of the land”: fresh Walleye and blueberry-cranberry cornbread on the breakfast menu. Yummm! Great start to a promising day!
We stopped for lunch after portaging Sluice Falls — a plunging mass of water where one senses the driving force of the mighty Churchill River. Sluice Falls Portage — “A bloody long walk!!” — one of fellow companion Basil’s infamous quotes, which was actually a kilometer plus of well-trod trail. These portage trails have been walked for centuries by travelers in this rugged country. I loved sitting on a rock perched over these tumbling waters, losing myself in their thundering, awesome presence. Dragon flies lunched here too, darting out over the water to catch flying ants and landing on our shirts to devour their prey.
Another opportunity awaited us in the deep powerful currents of Corner Rapids where we camped downstream from Sluice Falls. This was the chance to have fun and practice swimming in the current under Melanie’s tutorship, our trusty whitewater guide. After donning life jackets, it was quite a rush to head out into the moving water and be drawn over the ledge into a series of standing waves. It dawned on me that this is why I learned the elementary backstroke in swimming lessons as a child, as this is what one does in rapids, swimming on one’s back, feet pointed downstream into the current, and then doing a strong frog kick when trying to head to shore. It can be a wild ride having to time your breaths between plunges into the next wave. Of course, we all survived and felt we had learned a valuable rescue skill as well as enjoying the adrenaline rush. As it turned out, the swimming exercise turned out to be preparation for the next day when we ran the rapids empty and two canoes dumped, throwing us into a real scenario.
That evening was beautiful — dining with a front seat view looking out over the river life: Walleye jumping; birds fishing. Cliff related episodes of the arduous yet colorful life of a voyageur. As a sense of quiet and peace came over us, an osprey flew past down Corner Rapids and did an about turn, flying back past us and away. It was really just checking us out. This is nature’s way — when we are quiet and observant, wild creatures sense our presence as part of the natural order.
Otter Rapids Grande Finale
Day 8, which I call the Grand Finale, dawned bright and warm with blue skies overhead. That morning, we danced through many easy runable rapids, the riffles sparkling in the sunlight. This was a warm-up for our encounter with Murray Rapids, three sets of Class 2 water. Each rapid narrows into a fast moving current of high standing waves and a few boulders to miss before spilling into beautiful, calm pools in which to catch one’s breath and scout the next set.
After a short paddle down Devil Lake, we came to the final climax — running Otter Rapids! This is a long stretch of swift Class 3 turbulent water with a series of metre high standing waves. All three canoes had to eddy out part way through this roller coaster ride to bail before continuing on to the calm water below the rapids. Now it was a leisurely paddle across Otter Lake and back to the floatplane base and our van at Missinipe.
The Paull River trip has inspired both my partner Craig and me to continue paddling and improving our whitewater skills on the rivers near our home on Salt Spring Island, B.C. We would also like to continue exploring this wonderful canoe country in northern Saskatchewan. Our experience with CanoeSki was extremely positive and our guides, Cliff and Melanie were experienced, knowledgeable and competent at river skills, camp life and cooking. They were also very easy going and friendly. This made for a relaxed trip with time to enjoy each other’s company and to reconnect with Nature.
As a final reflection on the trip, I am reminded of Pierre Trudeau’s words: “You can travel 500 miles by train and still be a brute. You can pedal 100 miles on a bicycle and still be trendy. But if you paddle 100 miles by canoe, you will be a child of nature and a true Canadian.”