In north-central Saskatchewan there is a town called Missinipe which is the base for a paddler's paradise of rivers and lakes nestled in the gorgeous geology that is the Canadian Shield which is the backbone of Canada and among the oldest surface rock on the planet. Long used by the Native Peoples of Canada and by the fur traders that paddled her waters for trade, the Canadian Shield is characterized by countless square kilometers of 3.96 billion year old Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rock, covered in a thin layer of soil which supports incredible numbers of spruce and trees and water ways. The rivers and lakes are teeming with fish and support wildlife of many types from moose to bear to ducks and birds.
The authority on Canoe trips in the Churchill River area around Missinipe, Saskatchewan is Churchill River Canoe Outfitters. Ric Driediger has been wandering the Canadian wilds for a long time - most of it around Missinipe. For any details on the area, contact him - he's friendly and very quick to respond to email, something that a lot of northern outfitters don't do. I've bought several of his outstanding maps as well. They are a no-brainer for planning and executing trips in the area.
Planning the Trip
Earlier this year I bought my first canoe - a beautiful carbon / Kevlar Quetico 16 footer from Souris River Canoe. It's inaugural voyage was a 6 day trip into my favorite canoe paradise of all time (so far!) in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park in north-central Ontario - also in Canadian Shield country. Part of my motivation for purchasing my own boat rather than renting one, was to increase the number of canoe trips that I do. I love climbing and hiking, but canoe trips have their own charms, including the ability to take a lot more gear along. :) You also get to fish and take a lot of different photographs than mountains. I seem to find more time to relax on canoe trips than while suffering up giant heaps of scree and ice in the Rockies... My 13 year old son expressed interest in a father-son canoe trip and I thought this was a great new tradition we could start so I began planning our trip for late summer 2014.
After emailing with Ric, I settled on a pretty easy first trip for Niko and myself. We chose the French-Ducker route that starts in Otter Lake and moves through French and Ducker before ending up back in Otter Lake. We decided to go in late August so that the water levels would be low and the bugs at a minimum. My secret plan was to get Niko hooked on canoe trips so that we can do longer ones as he gets older. This was to be a 4 day trip with driving days at either end. As with any new area, there were excellent things I didn't expect and not-so-excellent things I would do differently next time. We'll get to those in a minute but first I want to emphasize something.
[Our route as recorded by my GPS. We stayed at Camps 3, 9 and 21. ++]
Canada is HUGE. Like freaking HUGE. I don't think most of us realize just how large our country is. Obviously I am interested in the Missinipe area because it's much closer to me than Woodland Caribou P.P. I live in Calgary, Alberta and the drive to WCPP is at least 18-20 hours! Driving to Missinipe should be much less, considering it's two provinces closer right? Well... Not as much closer as you'd think. Google said the trip was around 1000km. That didn't sound far until we drove it! Holy crap. We left on Thursday afternoon with the intent of driving to Prince Albert and hotelling it one night before getting up early enough to complete the drive to Missinipe and canoe to our first camp in French Lake. We left at 1pm and drove for 7 hours before finally arriving in Prince Albert! We drove from Calgary across rolling farm land before motoring through interesting hoodoos and badlands around Drumheller. From here we drove through more endless, rolling farm land around towns like Kindersley, Rosetown and Saskatoon. I must say that the roads were in excellent condition - I could clearly see the positive impact oil and gas growth has had on Saskatchewan's infrastructure.
Friday we drove and drove and drove north of Prince Albert. The road slowly started deteriorating as we drove further north. We passed Prince Albert National Park along the way - this is a park I'd like to visit some day. I'd never heard of it before we passed it on highway 2. The terrain was slowly changing as we drove northwards. More and more pine trees dotted the landscape until they were thick along the road. Along with the trees came tons of lakes, rivers and the odd outcropping of distinct Canadian Shield underneath. We drove past old burn areas where hundreds of acres were destroyed by wildfires. We even passed a mushroom picker's temporary camp! Eventually we rolled through La Ronge, a small northern town sitting on the massive Lac La Ronge, a lake that should be feared by canoeists thanks to it's immense area and potential for dangerous waves. There are many canoe trips starting in this area and all of them contain warnings about canoeing anywhere on this huge body of fresh water. One of the main reasons we were going even further north to Missinipe for our trip was to avoid the huge waters of Lac La Ronge.
[A very long drive from Calgary to Missinipe! ++]
Shortly after La Ronge our paved road turned to gravel. This is always a good sign that you're in the middle of nowhere. ;) My truck has seen it's share of gravel roads this year, including a brutal one to Leano Lake in Ontario and a couple of long forestry roads in the Rockies. The road was in decent shape as long as I slowed down every time a pink ribbon showed up tied to the trees alongside it. Pink ribbons mean the road could be anything from perfect to almost nonexistent just ahead. Those dang pink ribbons kept me very alert! The worst part is that most of them are marking road hazards that have already been fixed so you start ignoring them until one is legitimate. Then your truck almost snaps in half on a huge pot hole. Not to mention the carbon canoe perched on top... :(
At the very northwest end of Lac La Ronge Provincial Park lays the tiny community of Missinipe. It didn't take us long to find the headquarters of Churchill River Canoe Outfitters and soon we were chatting pleasantly with the two ladies who were tending shop while Ric enjoyed time at the back country retreat that he operates. It took some time (nothing moves quickly once you leave pavement...) but eventually I got my Saskatchewan fishing license and we had permission to use CRCO's dock to launch our adventure. Thankfully Otter Lake was calm at midday - something that we couldn't count on as we found out later.
Day 1 - Missinipe to Grandmother Bay to French Lake
We were both more than ready to leave the stuffy confines of the truck for the open water and soon we were off on our father-son adventure! Niko was a natural paddler (he takes up every sport he tries very quickly) and as we paddled out of the bay, dodging float planes landing and taking off from the local air base, he told me that he "loved paddling" already. This was a good sign. ;)
[Ready to launch!]
As we rounded out of the bay and started across a pretty big expanse of Otter Lake, I realized two things. First of all, Otter Lake doesn't look big when you compare it to Lac La Ronge, but it's a big lake nonetheless. There are kilometers of open water, depending where you're canoeing, and obviously the potential for big, dangerous waves. We were pushing a fairly mild wind and had to work hard to cross the lake into Grandmother Narrows and Bay. As we approached Grandmother Bay I noticed something else. The whole area on the northeast end and side of Otter Lake is a native reservation, coincidentally known as Grandmother Bay 219. The natives living here are apparently part of the Lac La Ronge band. It amazes me how remote this settlement is and was pleasantly surprised to realize that we were obviously not only allowed to cross the reserve but would even be camping overnight in it. In my experiences with native reservations (limited, I'll admit), I usually haven't found them to be very tolerant of outsiders. I don't blame them.
[On Otter Lake, near the Grandmother Bay reserve.]
I didn't realize when planning our trip, that we'd be paddling so close to a settlement. It's not a big deal and it didn't really hurt our experience, but it did make it feel less remote somehow. A huge radio tower near one of the houses, seeing cars driving around and hearing dogs barking somehow made me wonder if I'd really driven over 1000km just to camp in someone else's back yard. I guess in way this was exactly what we were doing - but remember, this is still a very remote back yard. This was the only disappointment I had on this particular route - it doesn't feel as remote as it should. There is also a fishing lodge on Otter Lake so this contributes to motorized boat traffic. (To be fair, Ric did tell me we'd see motor boats on Otter Lake and I should have realized about the reservation by looking closer at the map.)
As we paddled through Grandmother Narrows and into Grandmother Bay the wind had much less affect on the lake. It was time to pull out the fishing rods. I'd made the foolish mistake of promising Niko great fishing and now it was time to back up the promise that I couldn't possibly have any influence on. ;) Thankfully Ric was right when he said we'd have great fishing on this route (another motivating factor for choosing it) and within 50 minutes Niko landed his 6th fish, outdoing his goal of 5 fish for the entire trip within the first hour! I was delighted and extremely relieved.
As we drifted to the end of the bay I scanned the shoreline for our 400 meter portage into French Lake. Movement in the bush caught my attention and sure enough - there was a large group of canoeists coming towards us down the portage trail. As we drifted into shore we realized they were a group of girls - at least a dozen of them. We briefly chatted as we crossed paths and found out they were on the tail end of a 19 day canoe trip. We were the first people they'd run into in 12 days. I was very impressed and once again reminded that people are amazing and do adventures every day that make my simple wanderings seem like nothing. I've done 10 days of canoeing - these teenage girls doubled that! And they looked it too! They were covered in mud and sweat but also had huge smiles. I really admire them for what must have been a heckuva adventure. A trip leader indicated that they had caught NO fish the entire time. When we told her that we'd just landed over a dozen fish in the bay in less than an hour, she was shocked. I'm not sure how they didn't catch fish - they either didn't try very hard or they really didn't know how to fish.
[Niko hauls in another fish in Grandmother Bay]
[At the portage into French Lake (looking back at Grandmother Bay)]
It was on this first portage that I realized something amazing. We didn't need bug spray! This is very unusual for canoe trips - usually bugs are the worst part of these adventures. We never used bug spray for the entire trip, a fact that has me considering many more late summer / early fall outings as opposed to buggy and stormy spring trips with high water and potentially cranky fish.
The 400 meter portage to French Lake was easy. Niko carried his gear and his share of the canoe without complaining and soon we were loaded up and paddling up French Lake to our camp. The wind was strong enough to impact us on the relatively small French Lake (still not small compared to a lot of northern lakes) and we were happy to see an obvious camp site where I'd marked "camp 3" on the GPS - located on a point of land separating Mason Bay and Allen Bay. Camp 4 was supposed to be really nice so we paddled an extra 500 meters to check it out but there was a hunter's shack sitting right near it so we decided to go back to the previous site - it felt more like wilderness without camping near an abandoned building. Camp 3 was awesome with lots of room. It was well used, but again - the French / Ducker canoe route is an oft-used one and I was expecting things to be a bit less bushy than I normally prefer on canoe trips. We were tired after a long couple of days of driving and now half a day of paddling but Niko was still game to try some more evening fishing in Allen Bay. We caught a bunch more pike (Niko was now officially addicted to canoe trips) and I even managed a Walleye before we got a nice camp fire going and settled in for the night. Loons serenaded us as our heads hit the pillows and we drifted off.
[Paddling Mason Bay in French Lake]
[Looking up French Lake (North) from our camp site. The next camp site (and old cabin) is located straight ahead on the visible bit of land across the bay. ++]
[More fish in Allen Bay!]
[Black Spruce on lichen and moss covered 3 billion y.o. granite - typical Canadian Shield country]
[Looking down into Allen Bay from camp. Note the fall colors in the foreground bush!]
[We even had two fire pits. This sheltered one and a more open one if the bugs got bad. We never even saw one fly or mosquito!]
[Casting from camp in the evening]
[Our tent fits almost anywhere.]
[Night settles in around us]
Day 2 - French Lake - Fair Lake - French Lake - Ducker Lake
The second day of our trip was to be an exploration day around French Lake before proceeding the relatively short distance to Ducker Lake. The basic French - Ducker canoe trip can be done in 1-2 days by competent parties. To make the trip last 4 days we planned some side trips and this was the first one. Fair Lake was rumored to have great fishing so that was an obvious candidate for this day. We woke up to a fall chill in the air - we were very glad to have our toques and warm jackets along. My sleeping bag was a bit too light for the cool nights (as low as 4 degrees) so I wore all my layers to bed. The sun gained warmth quickly and soon the morning chill was burned off.
[The waves are already starting before we leave camp in the morning. ++]
We packed up camp, loaded up the canoe and paddled up French Lake towards the bay leading to an unnamed lake before Fair Lake. The wind was already very stiff from the north and I secretly worried what this would mean later in the day when we had to go further north to the 100 meter portage into Ducker Lake. After ditching most of our camping gear at the start of the short portage (unmarked but easy to find) into the unnamed lake we carried the canoe and only some lunch and fishing gear to the other side. The wind was very strong as we paddled against it towards Fair Lake. This unnamed lake seemed shallow and weedy so we didn't even bother fishing it.
As we carried our gear across another short portage (along the obvious stream) to Fair Lake I noticed the wind get even stronger. We were disappointed to find a very difficult and awkward launching spot into Fair Lake - made much more complicated by the large waves that were now crashing into the near shore. It wasn't worth getting soaked so we reluctantly turned around and carried the canoe back to the unnamed lake. As we drifted back with the wind we decided to throw out the spoons and see if there were any hammer handles (small Northern Pike) in the lake. To our great surprise there were TONS of pike and they were all very, very aggressive. Niko had one case where he pulled his lure out of the water and the fish literally jumped out of the water to grab it! That scared the crap out of us. ;)
After catching and releasing many fish we decided that it was time to portage back into French Lake and continue our journey to Ducker Lake for the night. The wind was still strong as it first blew us down the lake but when we turned the corner and started paddling for the NE corner to Ducker we encountered some pretty big rollers. Niko was a trooper and dug his paddle into the water. Thank goodness he's not afraid of water - he never once complained about big waves.
[A very large (and old) beaver lodge - must have been at least 10 feet high!]
[A gorgeous day to be paddling]
[Sitting at the portage looking back into the unnamed "Pike" lake]
[We hammered a ton of fish in this small, unnamed lake between French and Fair Lakes]
[Lunch on a warm rock as we paddle out of French Lake - this was a sheltered bay or there would be waves.]
[Paddling up the finger bay out of French Lake]
At the end of the finger bay out of French Lake we arrived at our next portage into Ducker Lake. I was excited to get to Ducker because I knew our camp was at the end of a waterfall - the one we were portaging around. This portage was also well traveled and the 100 meters went by pretty quickly. Sure enough, camp was situated right next to a beautiful set of gentle rapids coming down out of French Lake. We set up camp on the well used site (not much firewood left in the area, but the site was clean) and set off to fish for Walleye under the rapids. It took a while, but eventually we managed to start catching them, but not in the numbers I was expecting. I think this falls gets fished a lot. I was delighted that Niko even managed 2 or 3 fish - Walleye can be very tricky to catch with their light nibbles and fussy appetites, you have to have a certain fish sense to know when they are sampling your jig so you can set the hook in time. I managed to hook into a pretty large Northern Pike while jigging for Walleye. Niko's eyes got pretty big when he saw how large the fish could get and he was a bit nervous about latching onto one of these himself.
The evening was capped off with a nice warm fire and some warm drinks. We hit bed around 21:30 - another perk to fall canoe trips is cool (cold?!) nights and early darkness, which makes sleeping much more enjoyable than hot humid nights filled with mosquitoes and thunder storms.
[Checking out the rapids as we portage around them]
[The rapids running from French to Ducker Lake]
[The open forest around our camp site. It's open because everyone's used all the firewood up... ;)]
[Niko battles his first Walleye ever!]
[Looking west down Ducker Lake from our camp site]
[Enjoying a warm fire - note the toques]
[Evening settles in around camp]
Day 3 - Ducker Lake - Stewart River - Otter Lake
Sunday began early for us. Niko woke up at 05:00 and had to pee, so we just decided to get up. We had to paddle across some big water on Otter Lake and wanted to fish the rapids before leaving, so it made sense to get up early anyway. There was thick fog in the 4 degree temps and I built a nice cheery fire for breakfast first. After packing up camp we loaded the canoe and fished the falls while the morning sun burned off the fog layer (so we could see where we were paddling!).
[The tent sits in thick fog]
[More fog around camp]
[The rapids is pretty gentle, but produces enough current to congregate Walleye and Pike]
We had more success with the Walleye than the previous evening and had to tear ourselves away from the fishing when the fog finally lifted. (I had an enormous Pike grab onto a small Walleye that I caught and Niko was really freaked out that he'd catch it after that!) We paddled down Ducker on glass before our 200m portage into Stewart River. This portage was a bit more rugged than the previous two. It went steeply uphill before going steeply downhill on muddy ground. We managed to carry everything through with no incidents. Stewart River had just enough current to make us happy as we continued to paddle on glass until we arrived at the pictograph site on an isolated cliff where another stream merged into the river from our left.
[Paddling on glass out of Ducker Lake]
[Looking back up Stewart River from the start of the portage]
[Approaching the pictographs on the Stewart River]
This was probably our favorite memory of the trip. Niko was fascinated by the thought that some First Nations boy may have sat in a canoe with his father looking at the same paintings we were now looking at, hundreds of years later from our own canoe. Tim Jones has written extensively about the rock paintings on the Churchill River and believes they were painted by ancestors of the Wood Cree, Ojibwa and Algonquian peoples who still live in the Shield today. The reason the pictographs are still visible today is due to a substance called isinglass that was mixed into the red ochre mineral paste, made from the bladders of fish. Maybe I'm just a romantic at heart, but I am deeply attracted to the First Nation people's view of life and nature where man is at the bottom of the pile, rather than the top. Respecting the land and it's generous resources is something we could all put our cell phones down and think about (or more importantly- practice!) for a while.
We were especially lucky with our timing at the ancient site, thanks to a slight breeze and the angle of sunlight on the water, there was a shimmering reflection dancing on the rock wall around the paintings making them seem alive. We sat there for many silent moments thinking about stuff. A very special moment.
[The pictographs had shadows and light dancing over them]
[This is a beaver]
[Checking out the Caribou]
[Caribou - probably the clearest pictograph I've ever seen]
[Some of the drawings were faded almost beyond any recognition of what they were intended to represent]
[A very special place - protected by the overhang]
[Looking back at the pictograph cliff as we continue down the Stewart River]
With a stiffening breeze at our backs we continued down the Stewart River and into Rattler Bay on the NE end of Otter Lake. The waves were slowly growing in size as we continued to paddle into the larger Norris Bay. As we drifted with the wind and waves, we continued to catch large numbers of pike by casting into shoreline cover. We once again dug into the water with our paddles in an effort to beat the stronger afternoon winds as we had a ways to go to Robertson Falls at the east side of Otter Lake.
[The Stewart River was a wonderful place to paddle - especially as we were going with the current and had a breeze on our backs!]
[A small burn area to our right as we approach the exit of Stewart River and start of Rattler Bay on Otter Lake]
[There's a cross on the shoreline of this island - someone likely drowned nearby. A reminder that the lake is big enough to be dangerous.]
[An abandoned hunter's cabin sits on the shoreline as we enter Norris Bay]
We were surprised to find ourselves paddling in fast currents around some of the islands on Otter Lake. This is where you realize that you're on a river that just happens to widen to a lake for a stretch. As we approached Robertson Falls I was surprised to see that they were flowing away from us. For some reason I thought we'd be camping at the base of the falls, not the top! This was unfortunate because we'd paddled a long way in some stiff wind already and Niko was just about done paddling. I didn't want to negotiate anywhere close to the fast water and on hindsight I now realize I should have done a bit more research into this part of the trip. What I wish we'd done, now that we're back and I've done some research, is at the very least docked our canoe on the left side of the falls and walked to the base of them. This is where the fishing lodge is located and we could have hammered Walleye and got some great photos. At the time we didn't have the energy and were looking for a camp site.
(I'd highly recommend an extra day or even two days, paddling and portaging down North Falls, around to the lodge and back up Twin and Robertson Falls into Otter Lake if you're ever in this area. The fishing and scenery would be stunning. I regret not doing this on our trip but Niko simply didn't have the energy and I didn't prepare him for the extra portaging etc...)
Instead of exploring the falls, we once again paddled into the wind (backtracked) about 1km before zipping down a side channel past some more rapids (much smaller than Robertson with no trails that I could see) towards a campsite that was supposed to be pretty sweet on the southern tip of Naheyow Island. I smelled wood smoke as we came around the corner of the southern tip of the island. I thought we'd have to turn around and camp at a much bushier site just a ways back but amazingly the site was completely empty - save for some burning logs on the fire! Weird! When we looked off in the distance we noticed a motor boat fishing some narrow channel to the north and realized that they'd probably had shore lunch at this spot. This was confirmed when I noticed the remains of fish thrown into the clear water just off shore.
[Paddling through the side channel just before getting to our third camp.]
[A delightful camp with some 'issues', thanks to inconsiderate humans.]
As we scoped out the site and set up camp I was disappointed to find bullet casings all over the ground. My disappointment deepened as I went into the bush a bit and discovered human waste all over the ground, complete with unburied toilet paper and other not-so-pleasant hygiene products. It was a reminder to me that we don't all appreciate how special wild places are and that for some of us, a bush is just a handy place to duck behind to relieve oneself before getting back to the party. I hope my son doesn't turn out this way - I think he was pretty shocked too. I briefly thought about cleaning some of the waste up myself, but honestly I wasn't prepared to handle human waste and didn't have a shovel along. I did burn some of the TP so at least it didn't look as bad, but having human waste so close to camp (where we got water out of the lake!!) wasn't very healthy. It's too bad because without the mess this would have been the best camp site, hands down.
After setting up camp and relaxing for a few hours, Niko somewhat reluctantly agreed to join me in exploring our bay and the narrow waters to the north. The boat was still there so I surmised there must be some fast water or something keeping them there. I agreed to do all the paddling - Niko just had to fish! :)
We did catch more Pike in our bay before paddling through the faster water in the narrows. We didn't want to crowd the boat that was already there so we paddled back to camp for the night. Once again we had a very pleasant evening with a warm, cheerful fire and no bugs.
[Looking back at our camp as we fish the small bay that surrounded it]
[Yet ANOTHER fish for dad to take off the hook!]
[Sunset from camp]
[This is why I love canoe trips...]
Day 4 - Otter Lake - Missinipe
Originally I had planned 5 days for our trip, considering how far the drive was and everything, but Niko was tired and wanted to head home so I wasn't going to push things too far. Remember, my master plan on this trip was to get a 13 year old city kid hooked on wilderness and canoe trips! :) So far my plan was working sublimely - Niko had almost 50 fish (his original goal was 5 for the trip) and was loving paddling and camping. The most important thing for me was spending quality time with my son doing something we BOTH loved - not pushing our physical and mental limits to the edge just yet. That can wait until he's a wee bit older. ;)
So, with that said, we decided to paddle all the way out to Missinipe on Day 4, rather than camp somewhere else on Otter Lake as originally planned. (Again - with the benefit of hindsight, I should have planned a route through the falls at the east end of Otter Lake instead of two days on the main lake.) Because we had to cross some big water, we got up early again and spent a few minutes fishing the fast water (I caught a couple of Walleye) before moving onto the main lake. We paddled around the north tip of Ball Island before passing the south ends of Paul and Bennett Island. We fished along the way and Niko was sitting at 54 fish for the trip! There was more fast water as we passed Taylor Island and the wind started picking up just as we started turning around the tip of land before heading back to Missinipe. We passed a group of four paddlers just leaving their camp site, heading up lake to Otter Rapids and Devil Lake. After a brief chat with them, we set off to catch Niko's 55th fish and then Missinipe.
[Another foggy morning]
[Otter Lake is pretty large. Plan your trip accordingly and be prepared for wind days, where you can't leave or get to camp. This is early morning - a great time to be paddling.]
Sure enough - soon Niko had landed his last Pike for the trip and we leaned into our paddles as the wind picked up considerably from the South. Good thing we left our camp early! We pulled up at CRCO's dock before noon, having paddled hard for almost 6 hours. We were tired but happy with a very successful trip and another father-son adventure. We drove many hours on Monday afternoon before stopping for the night and finishing our trip in Calgary on Tuesday around noon.
[Done! A great memory for Niko and I to share.]
I will be back, hopefully many times, to paddle, fish and relax on the waters of the Churchill River. This particular trip was about more than just wilderness and it was a huge success on every level. My son loved it and wants more. Our next trip will be longer and more remote and hopefully bit-by-bit we can spend many years exploring the vastness that is Canada's northern Shield country while deepening our bond with each other. After all - what point is there in any life adventure if it doesn't bring us closer to the people and land that we love?