Tom’s Story – Otter Lake

Churchill River Canoe Tours by Request – August 2003

Tom Rogers at Robertson Falls on Otter Lake, Churchill River

Tom Rogers at Robertson Falls on Otter Lake, Churchill River

Tom offered to take his extended family on a 5-day canoe trip as a Christmas gift. But, as he notes, he wisely turned over the outfitting and guiding to the CanoeSki team. The ecotour gave him a new appreciation of nature and its beneficial influence on human relationships. He remarks,

“My family and I did not realize how close to nature we would be on this amazing eco canoe tour on Otter Lake, part of the Churchill River System… We soon found out that an ecotour speaks quietly but firmly, like nature, requiring acceptance, open mindedness, ingenuity and everyone’s cooperation and team work.”

Tales of a Churchill River Eco Canoe Tour

By Tom Rogers

Eco Touring in Jurassic Park North

Imagine Jurassic Park North, without the dinosaurs, vehicles, and animated action scenes; but with a green, larger than life balanced eco-system which has developed over thousands of years. Trees, forest, water, fresh and warm for swimming, and rocks of the Canadian Precambrian Shield are ubiquitous in this Park North. Bedrock, sculpted smooth by centuries of water and ice gently rolls out of the water, slipping under the moss and disappearing into the forest, creating inviting landing spots for our canoes, and clean ‘beaches’ for the swimmers in our group of 13 “voyageurs”.

Canadian Shield rock shoreline of Otter Lake, Churchill River

Canadian Shield rock, water and forest: a paddler's paradise

In this Park there are also fish (making our fishermen happy), herons, eagles, pelicans, squirrels, a plethora of other birds and even a black bear, wandering along the shore of a nearby island. Moss provides a deep carpet everywhere under the spruce, pine and deciduous forest, including those trees dying and giving life to new plants. Lichens, wild cranberries and raspberries, ferns, mint and a host of other plants provide colour and a resource for the teaming life of nature.

My family and I did not realize how close to nature we would be on this amazing eco canoe tour on Otter Lake, part of the Churchill River System, a 6-hour drive north of Saskatoon in northern Saskatchewan. Perhaps we had the initial impression that it would be an easy vacation for our proud egos, honed by urban air-conditioned homes, dishwashers, high-speed Internet access, and being a few minutes away from almost anything we could want in our materialistic world. We soon found out that an ecotour speaks quietly but firmly, like nature, requiring acceptance, open mindedness, ingenuity and everyone’s cooperation and team work.

The food menu was more grain, fruit and vegetable oriented than our meat-at-every-meal diet was used to, and this was a little hard for a few to swallow! I personally was delighted to experience another way to feast. Our tour guide, Cliff Speer, owner of CanoeSki Discovery Company, an accredited Saskatchewan ecotour provider, had carefully prepared wild cranberry/chokecherry jam, vegetables from his garden, and organic meat stews.

What was remarkable was that a group of 13, several of whom were novices at canoeing and living in the Canadian wilderness, spent 5 days without any incidents or health problems. I can imagine the difficulties we would have had organizing the trip on our own. First, we would not have known enough to be serious about researching and being prepared for nature confronting us with all types of weather and situations. Cliff saved us the aggravation by preparing us well.  Second, having no knowledge of the area we would have had disagreements about where to go and would have certainly become lost in the confusing maze of islands and bays on our route. Thanks to Cliff and his staff of two delightful helpers, Elizabeth, a biologist and Bonnie, an Aboriginal naturalist, for leading us on successful paddling adventures each day to see new sites on the Churchill River. Third, we would have filled up on foods that would have sapped our energy and left us exhausted. Once again, we were spared that potential problem by Cliff’s healthy menu. And finally, we would not have had the resources to round up all the top of the line canoes, tents, gear and food, pack it properly, and transport everything including ourselves to our destination. A professionally guided tour was our best choice for a family event that would prove valuable for our relationships and provide lasting memories.

Launching the Ecotour

Our 5-day ecotour started with a 5-hour drive from Saskatoon to a provincial campground on Lac La Ronge. There we received training on setting up camp, canoe strokes and safety; made a small trip around a nearby island after supper, and did a little swimming and fishing.

Misty morning on Otter Lake, Churchill River

Relaxing on a misty morning on the Churchill River

Day 2, we packed up, ate a tasty meal of granola and fruit salad with yogurt, and continued north to Missinipe. We unloaded the canoes, packed the food and gear, organized our paddling partners and launched our canoes on the Churchill River. Paddling for a few hours through narrows and open spaces, via islands, peninsulas and isthmuses of the mainland, we arrived at our chosen campsite on Otter Lake. The scene was water everywhere and Precambrian Shield landscape consisting of rock and trees, proof that those topographical maps of northern Saskatchewan tell the truth when they show so much blue. The entire North seemed like a huge lake interspersed with islands of forest.

Northern pike on Otter Lake, Churchill River

Avid fisherman Brad with a northern pike

Our campsite was just an island landing spot; no prepared campsites, running water or toilets here, although the lake water was surprisingly warm and inviting. We settled ourselves in, setting up our tents on the thick moss covering the Precambrian rock and avoiding the ample deadwood strewn all around. Dinner consisted of an organic meat stew, fresh vegetable salad, and fish caught by our avid fishermen. Later, Bonnie, our naturalist began to relate stories about Aboriginal ways in the north. At the same time she showed us how to make ornamental goose decoys, similar to those made by her ancestors. We created the miniature decoys out of aromatic tamarack twigs that Bonnie had collected throughout the winter and spring. With so much happening, I was later sorry that we declined Cliff’s earlier offer to practice canoe over canoe rescues.

Water Falls, Black Bears, Rock Paintings and Voyageur Vagaries
Day 3 provided our first excursion from our camp to Robertson Falls and Twin Falls about 10km away. We headed into the wind, battling whitecaps, and testing our mettle and skills. We felt so small in our canoes moving slowly on this massive quilt work of lake and forest. The only reminders of humanity were the occasional unmarked small white crosses on islands we passed; causing us to wonder what tragedies might have befallen ancient or more recent voyageurs. Robertson Falls was small for a waterfall but nonetheless interesting. Otter Lake seemed to be damned up by a ridge of Precambrian rock, which lowered itself to allow the water to spill into the narrower part of Churchill River and on to nearby Twin Falls.

Portage at Robertson Falls, Churchill River

Tom and Brett (carrying canoe) on the Robertson Falls portage (photo: John Hignet)t

We swam, fished, rested and had lunch. Later, several of us carried our canoes over the Robertson Falls portage and went to see Twin Falls. We discovered the Twin Falls Lodge, empty of the usual American tourists, but with plenty of beer for us thirsting Saskatchewan urbanites. Returning to base camp, we were all ready for a swim. A couple swam across to a nearby point, and while sitting on a rock face they spotted a black bear, cooling off in the water. Later we noticed it again, wading through the reeds on a nearby island. The fish were jumping and the fishers had a great time reeling them in and adding an extra course to Cliff’s supper menu. One of our group, Ray, turned out to be expert at filleting and created several fledgling ‘experts’ in one demonstration.

Day 4, Cliff provided us with an option of a 14 km canoe trip up a winding tributary of the Churchill River to see Aboriginal rock paintings and nearby rapids. Alternatively, we could continue on beyond the rock paintings for a 22 km voyage through the next couple of lakes and portages, where we would visit an ecolodge under construction. Most of us chose the shorter trip, our muscles being sore from the challenging white caps the day before. There was no wind and the trip up the serene Stewart River, through reeds swayed by the current, was like being part of nature.

Photographing the rock paintings

Photographing the rock paintings

Canoeists at Rattler Creek rock paintings

A bevy of paddlers admiring and photographing the rock painting cliffs

We had lunch at the top of the rapids, surrounded by tall trees, and a beautiful swimming hole. Paradise at last! Several of us chose the time to rest and lay in the sun, while others tried fishing at the lower end of the rapids, and four “real voyageurs” continued on through the lakes and portages on a longer circular route back to camp. After returning to camp, we learned that our voyageurs had tasted cold beer at the new ecolodge and experienced the vagaries of true voyageurs. Their final portage turned out to be a beaver swamp they waded through, towing their canoes!

That evening Cliff put on his voyageur outfit and related a few remarkable stories on the life of a voyageur from a Canadian fur trade handbook. Then, we convinced the modest and quiet Ray, who had joined the tour by sheer serendipity, to tell us about his cross-Canada voyageur canoe race to celebrate Canada’s centenary in 1967. As night closed in, the mosquitoes turned out forcing us to turn in and take refuge in our bug-screened tents.

Celebration & Reflection

Day 5 began with lightly spitting rain early in the morning.  We got up and packed our wet tents, set up a tarpaulin over the breakfast area, and had breakfast.  Then we headed back to Missinipe, getting wet and singing canoe songs as we paddled through the light rain. Cliff had lunch available, but it was raining steadily as we approached our destination. Not looking forward to an outdoor lunch in damp conditions and wanting to celebrate the end of our trip, I offered to treat the group to lunch at Thompson’s Lodge in Missinipe. It was a great lodge; clean, warm, dry, well built, beautifully decorated, and with a great view of the lake. There was one item on the menu — burgers: big thick juicy beef or veggie “Famous Thompson’s Lodge Burgers”!  I thought the boys would cry when they heard burgers and beer! It was a great celebration.

Sunset on Otter Lake, Churchill River

Early evening color over the Churchill River

After lunch we loaded into the vans and returned home, stopping for a Pizza supper in Prince Albert. We arrived back at Cliff’s place in Saskatoon late evening to our waiting families. An experience of a lifetime had come to a close.

Lifetime memories for us will include: understanding avid fishermen, appreciating Aboriginal culture, experiencing ecotourism, learning to paddle many kilometers a day, marvelling at vivid wilderness sunsets, and valuing the importance of sunscreen in the hot northern Saskatchewan summer. Somehow the minor inconvenience of a wilderness campsite became more like home each day. Luckily, we had beautiful sunny weather most of the time. We returned home to our egos and urban lifestyle, tempered by a better understanding of each other and of nature. Hopefully, this will enable each of to become more supportive and respectful of others, creating a better life for all. Finally, our trip was a marvelous encounter with nature’s creation and ultimately with the Creator!