Molly’s Story – Northern Waterways Canoe Trips

Legends of the Shield – August, 2008

In the summer of 2008, the Legends of the Shield canoe tour took on Molly Penrose, a plucky young woman looking for wilderness adventure. Luckily for her, Nature rose to the occasion with a few challenges on the trip. The wind was one. In her words, “we would brave the wind like the mighty voyageurs!…As we set out through large rollers, our bows dipping into the valleys of water, hoots and hollers rippled excitedly over the wind, but we paddled on with a wild and rare enthusiasm!”

She described the first portage on the canoe trip as “rough around the edges”…but “fantastic”!

Over the years I’ve heard many epithets applied to portages, but never fantastic! This is a small indication of Molly’s super gung-ho approach to her wilderness adventures on the August 2008 canoe trip in northern Saskatchewan.

Here is her account of the trip in her own enthusiastic and inimitable style!

Molly Penrose

Getting into the Spirit of an Untamed Wilderness

By Molly Penrose

Adventure Awaits

After a four hour drive in Cliff’s van, departing from Saskatoon, we arrived at the Lac La Ronge campground in late afternoon. With excitement, we set up our tents for the first time, ate a quick meal, and then off in the canoes to practice! This was my first canoeing experience, so I teamed up with Cliff, who went over all of the strokes with everyone, giving each individual personal assistance with improving our strokes…the very strokes that would soon carry us through some mighty winds and even rain; through large expanses of lake and small winding streams of towering grasses and water lilies; through areas so teeming with life, yet so in balance. Each added a new dimension to the trip where nature’s peaceful variety gave us the strength to power through whatever adventure awaited us. And what an adventure it turned out to be!

Early the next morning, we enjoyed a nice hearty breakfast of fruit salad with yogurt, granola, bagels, and coffee or tea. All of the meals throughout the trip were well-balanced and high in nutrition; no one ever had moments of even minor hunger!

An Ancient Church and a Magical Moment

Stanley Mission Church on the Churchill River

The stately Stanley Mission Church on the Churchill River

After packing up all of our equipment, we hopped into the van and drove to the town of Stanley Mission, where we prepared to launch our canoe trip on the Churchill River. We tied our packs into the canoes, said our goodbyes to civilization, and launched into the river without one look back. First stop was Stanley Mission’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church – a great historic landmark to start the trip. A national historic site, the church stands so delicately, yet strongly on the water’s edge, the interior cheerfully coloured. The graveyard behind the church overlooks the river, grasses growing wild and long…it was the first magical moment of many to come, standing in the midst of these brightly-coloured, yet simple wooden grave markers that so joyfully welcomed us to be among them.

Before leaving the church to continue the trip, we pulled out our maps and adjusted our sense of direction to the route we would be following – something we began doing on a regular basis during the trip. (Part of our trip orientation at the campground the night before was drawing out the 60 km (37 mi.) route on each of our topo maps – a really important aspect of any canoeing trip).

Leaving the church, with me antsy to meet this untamed wilderness I had never before encountered, we cruised around the bend with bated breath into what was, for me, a new horizon of limitless possibility and adventure.

The First Portage – Rough but Fantastic!

After a meal of tasty sandwiches with fruit and cookies, we made a quick stop to see one of many Aboriginal rock paintings in the area, and then continued on to our first portage, which lead us into scenic Hunt Lake. The portage was fantastic! Quite rough around the edges (we had to pull out the hand-saw quite early into the hike), but nonetheless an exciting addition to all the paddling…who knew that carrying a 42-pound kevlar canoe on your shoulders could be so thrilling?

Venturing through Hunt Lake was spectacular, with its narrow bays and rocky, tree-studded islands in every direction surrounding us, the sky colourful with signs of an approaching thunder shower. We arrived at camp about 6:00 pm, a couple of hours off schedule, as we had been battling gusty head winds down the length of the lake and taking shelter from the storm squall. However, we still had lots of daylight left to set up camp, prepare our delicious supper, then rest and relax, enjoying each other’s company and the spectacular view from our open air kitchen.

Portaging Gets Rougher and More Exciting

Molly portaging on the Legends of the Shield canoe trip

Molly’s first portage – “an exciting addition to all the paddling”

Day 3, we followed the same routine as Day 2; pack up, eat a big breakfast, then into the water with low winds and a whole day ahead of us! This day we travelled from Hunt Lake to Four Portages Bay on Lac La Ronge, on the way trekking through 3 portages that proved even more exciting than the first one! These portages slowed us down considerably, as there was a lot of deadfall blocking the pathways. On one portage, where the forest is slowly being killed by spruce budworms, a wind storm had blown large trees down on the trail. On the next portage, a forest fire had brought down more trees. Out with the trusty axe and saw once again!

At times these unusual challenges on the trail simply meant we had to improvise, using the skills we had with the resources at hand to get through the hikes, canoes and all. I found it exhilarating, and was grateful for the budworms, as we were really creating our own way a lot of the time. At a tiny stream that had swollen with rainfall, we built a small bridge of birch wood which we crossed carefully. Canoes on shoulders, we stepped over and ducked under logs, sometimes at the same time! Finally, portage number 3 was nearing an end – across the Stanley Mission road, then back into the woods through to the water’s edge, where we pushed our canoes through the tall water grasses of wild rice and out into the bay.

Magical Canoeing & Awe-Inspiring Evenings!

But the canoeing between portages was magical, as we gently paddled through lily-filled creeks, winding carefully through tall reeds, dead standing trees, beaver dams, and sending the odd duck fluttering through the marsh grasses. This day also saw our first dip into the refreshing waters of northern Saskatchewan from our island lunch site on Stroud Lake, a small scenic interlude between portages. From our rocky island perch we screamed “COWABUNGA” at the top of our vocal chords and cannon-balled into the ‘chilly’ lake, our laughter almost frantic in such invigorating company!

Swimming in a northern Saskatchewan lake

Francine, Matt and Molly enjoying some invigorating hijinks!

We arrived at our evening home around 7 pm, having to bunk into a new campsite that Cliff and Matt had gone ahead to scout out, as slow going on the portages had kept us from moving further down the bay that day. Still, there was enough daylight to set up our tents, prepare supper, and experience another wonderful evening around the campfire. This night especially, the stars shone brighter than I had ever witnessed, like white dust scattered on a clean, dark blanket…one of the most memorable, awe-inspiring moments I have lived in. We went to our mossy-rock beds clear-minded and receptive, lulled into sleep by the gentle lapping of water on the island’s rocky shore, loons calling far off in the distance…

A Wild and Rare Enthusiasm to Match the Wind

Waking up a little later than usual, day 4 brought us some more intense company …blustery winds! Cliff had located a cranberry and blueberry patch near his tent and thought he would jazz up the morning menu with local fruit! Guess who got to pick wild berries for the whole wheat cornmeal pancakes? Well, actually Matt volunteered to help as well. Breakfast was very tasty and filling; important for a day of rigorous paddling!

Our morning routine completed, we hopped into our canoes with our new partners (we switched daily), and off we went. This day was all paddling, no portages, which took us further down the north end of Lac La Ronge from Four Portages Bay. GORP breaks gave us a chance to dig into our stashes of energy snacks, handy this day to counter the effect of the strong headwinds.

Every time the sun managed to radiate through the clouds, we took a moment to tuck ourselves behind an island for a short but lovely rest. At one point in the late morning, we snuck into a little ‘nook’ in a tiny island to escape the wind, where we ended up resting for a while until we decided our plan of action for crossing an exposed part of the lake…Decision made: we would brave the wind like the mighty voyageurs we were becoming! As we set out through large rollers, our bows dipping into the valleys of water, hoots and hollers rippled excitedly over the wind, and we paddled on with a wild and rare enthusiasm!

Canoeing on Lac La Ronge in northern Saskatchewan

Matt and Molly at the end of a day bucking headwinds on Lac La Ronge

We spent our last evening on an island campsite around the fire, enjoying a delicious meal of pasta and spicy, dehydrated homemade sauce with parmesan cheese and mixed veggie salad, finishing with homemade chocolate-iced brownies! Supper finished and dishes done, a warm glow appeared on the rocky outlines of the neighbouring islands giving us a sense of peace as twilight descended. Talk was quiet, enjoying together the simple majesty and natural beauty of this great wilderness.

Conquering the Challenges & Making Connections

Day 5 carried us into Ore Bay, and then a longer portage brought us into a large bay of Lac La Ronge. This last portage was 750 m, quite the trek for our small but mighty group! Our longest portage of the four so far (remember we had just come from Four Portages Bay the previous day) was 350 m, so we were doing almost double duty on this one! But our muscles were conditioned by now and we were practised too. So, we easily took it in stride! In fact, when Cliff offered to carry the canoe after one of the deadfall detours, I was so falling in love with portaging that I insisted on carrying it to the finish!

The portage trail led through lush, spirited forest, and fortunately for us a previous party had cleared much of the deadfall, so we were able to follow their short detours. Back on the water, we were even more exposed to the power of the wind, as fewer islands spotted the area, offering protection, as was the case in the previous days. From then on it was head down into the wind to the finish line at the Wadin Bay dock.

Although in the beginning we may have doubted our paddling skills, as we bumped into the buoys in our first night’s practice at the campground, we had proved ourselves: we could conquer the wind, overcome rugged portages and successfully navigate our way in the wilderness.

Ultimately, we had all embarked on this adventure with enthusiasm, and came out inspired and joyous at such a wonderful opportunity to connect with Something greater than ourselves!

The Legends of the Shield canoe trippers

A motley crew of voyageurs at trip’s end after 5 days of battling headwinds L to R – Molly, Francine, Joanne, Cliff, Lawrie, Matt.