Early in January 2014, a group of us started throwing around the idea of another canoe trip into Woodland Caribou Provincial Park (WCPP) near Red Lake in North-Central Ontario against the Manitoba border.
We've done many trips into the southern part of the park, accessing it from Garner Lake, Wallace Lake and even from the southwest, through the Eagle-Snowshoe Nature Reserve. This trip would be no different, considering a time constraint of around 5.5 days. Due to holiday / family schedules, I think the only way we will ever experience the northern part of WCPP will be via a one way North-South fly-in canoe trip or a much longer excursion in a loop from the south.
In 2009 we made our first trip through Red Lake and into the park via the Leano Lake access. While that trip was very memorable, it was also a disappointment, with terrible weather for 3/5 days and not enough time to savor the environment and relax. In 2011 we were back, this time armed with more days (10), more time and a better understanding of which circuit we wanted to do. This was probably my all time favorite canoe trip with plenty of time to take photos, catch fish and relax. It is not the last time I'll spend more time than a week in WCPP! The weather in 2011 made up for the crap-fest in 2009 - we had 10 days of the most perfect weather possible. The one day we got rain was a planned rest day on Talon Lake. The fishing was sublime for most of that trip and we navigated through some amazing terrain including burnt out areas of the park around Welkin Lake.
Unfortunately we were back down to a 5 day trip this year. Even though I swore I wouldn't do all the driving / expense of such a short excursion through Red Lake again, I found myself pulled into another trip - they're hard to resist after 3 years and sitting in an office tower in Calgary during a January snow storm! I also found myself realizing that since I love canoeing so much I should probably own my own boat and start taking my kids on some trips too. I've also had dreams of doing a much longer, possibly solo, trip into WCPP or the Lac La Ronge area (Saskatchewan) some day sooner rather than later and would need my own boat for that. After researching, I decided to go with an excellent Canadian canoe manufacturer, Souris River Canoes. Originally I wanted their Quetico 17 Red Le Tigre but after researching some more and keeping my future solo trips in mind, I went with the more exotic Quetico 16 CarbonTec instead. Rather than ship the canoe all the way to Alberta, I decided to buy it through our outfitter for the 2014 trip, Harlan Shwartz of Red Lake Outfitters.
A flurry of emails went out and once the dust settled we had a group of 6 canoeists - Bill and Harold Slaa, Hentie Jordaan and myself and Rod Dewit with Tim Vanbeek. Rod coordinated the gear rentals with Harlan and we sat out the remainder of a long, cold winter looking forward to the trip.
Monday, July 7 2014
After a restless night's sleep I awoke at around 02:20 and packed up the truck with a final few bits of gear before driving into the humid Manitoba night to meet Hentie and Harold at Mom and Dad's place nearby. After picking up Rod, Tim and Bill in Winnipeg we continued the long drive to Red Lake. We saw a pair of wolves near the Kenora turnoff, but thankfully moose and deer stayed off the highway while we drove past. Our usual breakfast stop was no longer open for breakfast (only lunch and supper now) so we simply kept driving up hwy 105 through Ear Falls and on to Red Lake. A brand new Tim Hortons quenched our hunger and thirst for coffee (!!) before we pulled up to Red Lake Outfitter's at 09:45. There was a hand written note on the door, letting us know that "we will be returning at 10am" - so we started getting our packs prepared with the group gear and getting ourselves organized to save time at the Leano Lake trailhead.
Just after 10, Harlan showed up and we organized the rentals. I also got to pick up my brand new canoe - still unscratched and a "black beauty" for another few hours before it would finally make contact with the hard granite of the Canadian Shield... :) It's slightly shocking how much such a simple thing as a canoe can cost - but the boat was so light when we packed it on my truck that I couldn't quite believe that either! It is a superbly built craft - I can not recommend Souris River canoes highly enough. They are a Canadian company who knows their stuff. They make some darn good canoes. Every moment I paddled that canoe was a good moment - put it that way ;-).
Harlan understood that we were in a hurry to get on the water and graciously accommodated us in this effort. He also supplied us with new WCPP maps - apparently some of the portages have been updated and changed from the original (we verified this first-hand on our trip). Some of my distances will be slightly off because I used the old map to plan and GPS our route.
Soon we were barreling down the Suffel Lake road in a cloud of dust. Red Lake had been getting quite a bit of rain over the past few weeks and the road wasn't in very good shape - especially once we passed the first Red Lake boat launch turnoff. Here the road narrows significantly and for the next 10-20km it was extremely rough. Especially on uphill or downhill sections, the rain had washed any gravel fill off the road and only big gravel and stone remained, along with some good run outs from the running water. I had to slow down to 5km/h on many stretches, especially considering my brand new canoe was on the roof! It's a good testament to the cinch straps I was using that the canoe stayed on the truck! Ironically enough, when we passed a sign warning us that the road was "not maintained after this point", the road improved noticeably... ;) This part of the ride always takes a long time. It's 'only' around 70km from Red Lake to the Leano Lake put-in, but it's a rough and long ride. Count on at least an hour in reasonable conditions and longer in ones like we had. It was noon when we finally turned off the Mile 51 road and into the Leano Lake parking area. After 3 years, we were finally back...
[Ah yes! There's nothing quite like a CarbonTec SR 16' Quetico on top of my truck... ;)]
[I knew that it would never look like this again so I'd better document it.]
[One more shot of a pristine hull]
We were surprised to see activity in the parking lot already. Normally there aren't many folks in WCPP (only 1000 or so paddlers each year with 20 access points including fly-in points) so seeing others already in the parking lot felt different. Soon we realized that the three were all solo paddlers with their own vehicles, so really it was just 3 them and us! They were all from Wisconsin and looked pretty experienced with barrels of gear and an experienced outdoor "look" to them. Since they were soloing their gear and boats, we easily managed to pass them on the 350 meter portage to Leano Lake and once we were paddling we never saw them or anyone else on the remainder of our trip.
Looking out over Leano Lake as my paddle dipped into the cool, clear waters once again, I was reminded yet again how short life is and how much of it we waste on doing things we really don't like doing. As a society we put way too much emphasis on things that don't matter and consume way too much time and resources. I wonder why that is? The canoe moved effortlessly through the water and the mood was light amongst the group, the way it always is when the weather is cooperating and the trip is just starting. The forecast had some rain for the first few days so even a little shower on the ride in hadn't worried us too much. We were very concerned about the bug situation, but after camping with our families the previous week in the Whiteshell (Manitoba), we knew that even the bugs were toning down a few notches compared to a few weeks previous. The bugs certainly didn't seem ferocious yet anyway.
[Bill hasn't been on a canoe trip for 5 years]
[Completed the first portage, paddling down the stream to the second one (120m)]
The first few portages to Kilburn Lake are always more involved than we expect. They are fairly well marked and traveled, but it's still wilderness in WCPP and there are boggy sections, trees on the path and bugs flying in your face. They felt long, especially with very full and heavy back packs. We can never find the first portage out of Leano and many people mistake the same "path" for a trail. It's quite funny actually, there's a distinct trail forming that goes nowhere due to people like us always taking it first. The portage trail is located against a small rock wall, tucked away to paddler's left from the "obvious" (and incorrect) one. Thanks to the recent rain, the trails were soaked and muddy and even the foliage soaked us pretty good. It sure felt good to be back though. I soon caught and released some nice fat walleye - the trip was officially underway after that.
[The first set of lakes / portages kept us busy the first afternoon in WCPP. Combined with getting up at 02:30 and driving 9 hours this was plenty of work for day 1! ++]
[At the bottom of the falls after the 100m portage into Upper Kilburn Lake - I caught a couple of fat walleye here.]
Initially I had mapped out doing the 1000 meter portage from Kilburn to Upper Kilburn, rather than paddle all the way down Kilburn and through Middle Kilburn before portaging into Upper. We've never camped in Upper Kilburn before, only doing a day trip there in 2011 from a camp in Middle. Upper Kilburn doesn't have native walleye (although there are some in there - Hentie caught a huge one in 2011) but is on the way to Paull Lake, our destination on day 2. Harold would rather paddle than walk, so he managed to convince us to paddle all the way around but as we approached Kilburn, two factors changed our minds back to the original plan. Firstly, the sky was darkening and there were even peels of thunder in the distance. Harold wisely pointed out that it would be better to be nailed with a t-storm on portage rather than while paddling. Secondly, on a close inspection of the map, we realized how much further it was to paddle around the portage. Add in 3 shorter portages (which still take time and energy) and all of a sudden the 1000 meters didn't seem so unreasonable anymore.
The park staff have advertised this relatively new portage fairly aggressively to us in the past - I guess they want people to start using it now that they've built it! It was a bloody long portage, but to be perfectly honest I enjoyed it. Walking through the Boreal forest is a pleasure for me since I'm used to hiking in the Rockies out west. The granite rock is colorful and hard, the forest floor is covered in a layer of spongy moss and there are different smells and flowers than I'm used to. I was surprised by the cacophony from the local bird population too. My pack was heavy but carried well. Going 1000 meters with a canoe on your head is never going to be easy, but thanks to my carbon fiber purchase, it was about as easy as it's ever going to be! Hentie and I are about the same height and walk the same pace so that made it easier too.
As we neared the end of the first carry (we do 2 carries, the first is usually the packs / paddles / fishing rods and the second is the boat) we saw black clouds racing across Upper Kilburn straight at us. We went back for the canoe with the sky rumbling threats all around. Just as we finished our 2nd carry the rain started and within 5 minutes it was a full-on down pour. The timing was perfect, we managed to get our rain gear on and spent 30 minutes huddled on the west end of the portage until the storm passed before loading up the boats and looking for a camp for the night. We paddled past the first two candidate sites before settling on what I'd labeled as "UK-C3" on the planning map.
[Looking at the impending storm from the end of the 1000m portage. Note how quiet the water is? That didn't last long! ++]
[Hentie walks back for our 2nd carry and meets the other guys carrying their canoe.]
[Back in the boats with the t-storm just passed over us. At least the lake is calm again...]
[We stayed on UK-C3 on the first night - a delightful camp with good fishing nearby thanks to the islands / structure. ++]
[At least we're dry!]
After setting up camp, including tarps for the impending rain that looked imminent and laughing at Rod and Tim's tiny "play" tent, Hentie and I headed out for some fishing. We didn't catch much but a few Lake Trout did get released which was another great way to start the trip. After circling the island a few times we docked the canoe for the night and enjoyed a cheery bonfire with rain peppering the tarp above.
[Hentie was the master of starting fires, even with wet wood]
[Ready for anything]
[A beautiful evening - it started raining again a bit later]
[A cozy camp]
Tuesday, July 8 2014
It rained significantly our first night in WCPP - we even stayed in bed an extra hour thanks to the down pours. I wasn't too keen to start the day after waking up to the patter of rain on the tent (remember - 2009!) but we were expecting some rain at the beginning of the week and had to deal with it so we eventually rolled out of bed. The rain stopped while we ate breakfast and cleaned up camp and we set off under a cloudy sky for the nearby 100 meter portage out of Upper Kilburn. Hentie and I tossed out spoons and trolled out of camp, each of us catching a sizable northern pike. Hentie's got off but I managed to land mine - probably around 10 lbs. A great way to start the day!
[We're starting in rain gear but the bugs aren't bad and it stopped raining for breakfast]
[A nice fat pike to start the day on Tuesday - caught trolling a spoon]
The portages were fairly easy to find on Tuesday but many were rather swampy and wet thanks to high water and the over night rainfall. It was obvious pretty early in this trip that maintaining dry feet throughout the day was a losing proposition. Hentie and Tim were the smart ones as they didn't even bother with boots / shoes but wore sandals or less. Tim does a lot of hiking in bare feet and as crazy as it seemed to me at first, he did many of the portages without even sandals on! I have to admit that I still think he was a bit crazy - one sharp object from disaster - but he made it and enjoyed it. In a first, even Bill took extra boots along and didn't even try very hard to keep his feet dry.
[A grey morning to start our day but perfect paddling conditions and the wind wasn't a factor either]
[Gorgeous Canadian Shield country on our way through Paull Lakes]
I found Paull Lake to be one of the nicer lakes in south WCPP. Along with South Aegean I think it's my favorite for scenery with sharp, rocky cliffs and plenty of gentler rock leading to excellent camp sites. If there's one downside it's that there's no walleye in Paull - but there's plenty of pike and the odd Lake Trout too. As Hentie and I paddled ahead of the group past a nice cliffy area, Hentie spotted a black object that looked a little too black to be rock. Sure enough! It was a black bear foraging for food out in the open. We negotiated the canoe closer and I managed to put my 600mm lens to good use. Getting a sharp photo out of a canoe at 600mm is almost impossible, but I did manage a few decent shots before the big bruin noticed us an shuffled off into the forest.
[A very nice (and large) black bear was the reward for being in front of the group for a while]
[Some rustic portages]
The sky started to clear around 11am and soon we were paddling in warm, sunny temps. We found a delightful spot for lunch around PA-C2 (on my map) that was also a great campsite. The tent pads were perfectly flat and soft and the fire area was elevated and subject to wind from almost any direction - key for keeping bugs at bay when you're eating. After enjoying a wonderfully relaxing lunch we continued on our way, hoping to spot our first pictographs in the park.
Previously we've been near pictographs (we paddled right past some on Welkin) but we didn't know how to find them. Harlan supplied us a map with some locations marked on it - not exact locations but at least areas and cliff bands. I've also found a great web site since our trip which shows almost exact locations. Now I'm bummed at how close we've been to other sites without realizing it. I guess we'll have to go back! :)
[The sun comes out as we take lunch on Paull Lake]
[A sublime lunch spot - a good camp site too! ++]
[This is what it's all about]
[The paddling through Paull Lake was extremely scenic. One could easily spend a few days in this area exploring it's many nice shorelines.]
[Light play on the rock]
As we neared the channel leading to the 80m portage near the NW end of Paull Lake we started looking for the pictograph that was rumored (and shown on the map) to exist on the south side of the north cliffs in the channel leading to the portage. We had never looked for a pictograph before, but I'd read of people spending an hour or so searching before finding them so I knew they can be pretty obscure. We went up and down the entire length of cliffs for at least 45 minutes with two boats, to no avail. There were lots of spots that looked perfect for a pictograph but we simply could not find them! One mistake we made (on hindsight) was looking at dark rock and light rock. The pictographs are only on light rock. We also found a photo on-line showing the pictograph in Paull and it is indeed very slight, although I'm still surprised we didn't find it. The water levels were high, but even then they should have been visible. I think I'd be able to find them now that we know what we're looking for.
[We spent quite some time looking for the pictograph on Paull.]
[Tucked in near the pictograph cliffs]
[This line of cliffs has a pictograph somewhere. We couldn't find it though... ++]
[Heading into Aegean Lake]
After a ending our pictograph hunt we were slightly bummed but still had a ways to paddle for the day. It was feeling like a long day, but the further we got on Tuesday, the more fishing / relaxation we could do on lakes that we knew would have kick ass fishing - namely Wrist, Glenn, Hansen and Mexican Hat.
I have to admit, I was feeling a bit bagged already on starting the 300 meter portage out of Paull. Knowing that we also had to do a 400 meter and then find a camp site was pushing it but we didn't really have a choice once we left Paull behind. On hindsight, a camp around PA-C6 would have been pretty good too. As it was, once Hentie and I portaged into Aegean it soon became obvious that my "AG-C1" site wasn't going to work (it's a tiny island with no room for camp sites) so we pushed on. Radios would have been handy at this point, because in our determination to reach camp we got quite a bit ahead of the others and they didn't realize what we were up to. I think Harold and Bill started worrying that I was trying to finish the whole trip on Tuesday already! After pushing on for a bit we waited for the others to catch up and proceeded to look for camp site "AG-C3" which was also marked on an island. Again, we were rebuffed. Reluctantly we paddled across the channel and to our surprise found an excellent site at "AG-C2". This site hadn't been used for years, indicated by plants growing in the fire ring, but was an excellent spot with plenty of room for our 3 tents and a kitchen area.
In the evening I went out for a short paddle on the dead-calm lake to check out the fishing and how my new canoe paddled solo. The paddling and scenery were great, the fishing was not. I managed to get some decent sized pike but the sight of a huge beaver waddling around on shore stole the evening experience for me. I've seen very few of these creatures out of water and in the open - he obviously didn't know I was there. Once again the 600mm lens came in handy.
I returned to a cheery camp fire which Harold quickly built BIG. The night was going to be clear and cold (for July). Amazingly the bugs stayed away (probably due to the cool weather) and we enjoyed laughs until late into the night. Sleep came quickly after a long day on the water.
[The end of our day on Tuesday saw us pushing to AG-C2 - the first viable camp site after Paull. ++]
[A view from our camp at "AG-C2" on Aegean ++]
[Rod and Tim try to waterproof their tiny tent after getting a bit wet in the rain on the first night. It's hard to believe that two guys over 6ft tall fit in that thing... ;)]
[Evening calm descends on Aegean ++]
[It's pretty rare to see these creatures out of the water - they are instinctively very shy of humans - probably thanks to a booming trade in their fur 100 years ago!! :)]
[The sun casts some last rays before disappearing]
[A cheery fire and cool evening - the best combo for bugs / sleeping.]
Wednesday, July 09 2014
The third day of our trip would be a relatively short tripping day. Whereas Tuesday was over 21km of the paddling and over 2,000 meters of portaging, Wednesday was lining up to be a measly 13km with a maximum of 3 portages, possibly only 2 (due to a possible pull-through). The longest portage on Wednesday would be the 100 meters from Streak to Wrist Lake! Our destination would be the deluxe camp from 2011 - "WR-C1", situated on a delightful island near our first portage on the north end of Wrist on Thursday.
The plan was to get to our camp by noon and then spend a full afternoon / evening fishing for the famous Wrist Lake Trout, followed by a nice fish fry - assuming we were successful of course.
[The tripping on Wed would be minimal, thanks to a long day on Tues. The two 20m portages could be pull throughs and the 100m wasn't much either]
The day started out warm and sunny. We were in no hurry but still managed to be on the water by around 08:00 thanks to the beautiful (dry!) morning conditions. We fished our way slowly up Aegean, which is another gorgeous lake in WCPP. The wind was once again cooperative and light. It seemed like every time we turned a corner we were either with it or it wasn't a factor at all. This is why you need to do more than one canoe trip - the bad weather trips fade into memory when you get a few good ones.
Despite warnings about the worst mosquito and black fly outbreak in years, we were experiencing very low bug counts. Sure, there were clouds of mosquitoes in the obvious places (swamps, wet forest etc) but in the canoes we were pretty much bug-free and even at camp so far, there were minimal biting insects. Bug spray was working, unlike many trips in the past where even spray wasn't enough to keep them at bay.
As we paddled towards the first 20 meter portage we witnessed something I've never seen before. A brilliant flash of light burst across the blue sky above, ending in a fire ball!! We all looked at each other, speechless! "Did you guys see that?!" Apparently we saw a pretty large meteor during the day - a pretty special moment and another great memory.
The 2nd 20m portage ended up being a rock garden that we paddled carefully through. We didn't lose much paint but if the water was lower it would have been a pull-through rather than a "paddle over". As expected, the 100 meter portage from Streak to Wrist was easy and quick and soon we were paddling north up Wrist Lake - headed for camp. Rod and Tim nailed a couple of lake trout coming out of the small bay near the portage but didn't land them. This was good news as at least the fish were biting. Wrist Lake was just as calm as it was in 2011 when we paddled across glass at noon. We arrived at camp to find it empty and just as awesome as we remembered it with one disappointment - the excellent, mossy camp sites in the bush were under a few inches of water! Oh well. We found good spots on the rock above and proceeded to set up camp.
[Hentie and I were ready a bit early, so we started fishing while the others cleaned up camp. ;)]
[A gorgeous morning for paddling - note the quiet water. This is right after we spotted the meteor.]
[The 2nd 20 meter "portage" was actually a careful paddle over submerged rocks - a benefit to the water being a bit high for July]
[At the Wrist camp - she's getting scratches but still looks gorgeous IMHO... ;)]
[Lunch time on Wrist under the cool shade of our kitchen trees]
Just because we were at camp already by noon, didn't mean we were going to sit around the rest of the day! We were here to FISH. ;) And fish we did! The various canoes scattered across Wrist, most trolling Rapalas in an effort to land some Lake Trout for supper. Sure enough. It didn't take long to start nailing them, especially around structure such as islands or channels on the west end of the lake. We caught them a bit too early in the afternoon and ended up releasing quite a few before we started worrying that we wouldn't catch enough for supper.
It was a beautiful day. There were zero biting insects to bother us. A cool wind kept us from over heating although the sun was warm and quite intense out on the water. We witnessed some birds fighting and enjoyed the incredible fighting power of Lake Trout - a fish that seems to be made entirely of muscle. Compared to lake trout, walleye are wimpy and pike are predictable. A lake trout half the size of my big pike from Tuesday morning would put up almost twice the fight, especially once they're close to the boat. As usual, a deep diving Rapala in the 15 to 30' depth range was the way to catch the trout. Spoons worked well for pike, which we also caught fairly regularly on Wrist. By around 17:30 we were ready for supper, tired from the wind and sun and with a stringer full of lake trout. (We caught close to 20 lake trout between the 6 of us so they are definitely quite numerous in Wrist Lake.)
Supper was, as expected, delightful. Even though the day was rapidly cooling, most of us took advantage of the nice weather and went for a refreshing swim after supper. I went for a solo paddle again in the evening, on a calm lake. Fishing had slowed considerably but the canoe handled great and was a pleasure to command with my paddle. Once again we were treated to a delightful camp fire and lack of evening bugs. We all stayed up 'til midnight again, enjoying cigars, fine whiskey and many good laughs.
[The west side of Wrist is burnt out - this is where we paddled out from Welkin in 2011]
[Bill was our fish-cook and did a wonderful job]
[A gorgeous evening in WCPP at our camp]
[Looking back at camp as I go for an evening paddle]
[The sun sets as I paddle near the place where Rod landed his monster pike in 2011]
Thursday, July 10 2014
After a fairly leisure day on Wednesday we were headed into more unknown territory on Thursday. After paddling through Nutria and Amber lakes to Mexican Hat the previous two trips, we were deviating north into Hansen and back to Mexican Hat through Glenn on this one. Hansen is known for it's walleye and lake trout fishing (there's a lodge on this lake) and we knew from a day trip out of our Mexican Hat camp back in 2011 that Glenn has some of the best walleye fishing you can get. Naturally this meant camping on Glenn this time around... ;)
The only issue? The portages from Wrist to Hansen aren't done that often and we read some stories of boggy conditions. We could only find a few trip reports on this section online and it didn't sound that easy, but we don't do these trip because they're easy right? So, off we went on Thursday morning, under a burning hot sun.
[Our planned route for Thursday included 4 portages from Wrist to Hansen that we weren't sure about... ++]
The 625 meter portage out of Wrist was an absolute delight for the first 620 meters. We found ourselves in an open forest of aspen trees (quite rare for WCPP) and walking on a path of pine needles and soft moss that wound it's way through small glades and patches of dappled sun light. As we walked our first carry I mentioned to Hentie that there simply had to be a "sting in the tail" of this delightful portage. I was right! The last 5 meters were down a steep, loose washout that ended in water - there was no way our feet were staying dry here! Oh well. The first 620 meters were worth the hard ending. After awkwardly shuffling the canoes down the washout we managed to load them up and continued through the small lake beyond. Hentie and I both commented that this would be the perfect place for a private, fly-in cabin. I'm sure very few people go through this lake each year and it is a very scenic place with towering rock cliffs and old growth jack pine on all shores.
[The last 5 meters were interesting... At least the sand was soft enough to walk down safely.]
[Hentie and I both agreed that we would love to build a private cabin on this lake!]
[Hmmm. This next portage looks interesting...]
After a very pleasant paddle through the small lake after Wrist and the short 90 meter portage afterwards, things got interesting. Hentie and I led the way down the 275 meter portage that seemed to cross a stream. NOTE: On the new map this is marked as a longer portage and does NOT cross the stream.
I'm already making it sound too easy. We didn't do the typical portage thing where we pull up to a marked tree and start off loading gear right away. In this case the portage was marked by a small rock cairn on an outcrop of rock, but when we went to investigate there was no obvious trail anywhere. We've learned over the years that even very rarely traveled portage trails are obvious compared to game trails and if nothing else they should have tree blazes along the way, so when we find a "portage" that isn't marked pr obvious we know we're not on one and should look again.
We looked around a bit and I noticed a faint track and an orange flag along the base of the rock, submerged in swampy water (input to the marked stream) on the left. The path disappeared into low bush flanking the left (west) side of the stream and was obviously our route. This was starting to look like an adventure already and we hadn't set foot on it yet. Some of the group was pushing for a paddle down the stream, which seemed tempting at first. Again, experience paid off when we realized that even the new map didn't mention anything about "navigable in high water" or "pole through" or anything of the sort. We've learned that in WCPP, if people bother building a portage trail, it's for good reason. There had to be falls, beaver dams and other obstacles in this stream or nobody would bother building a trail around it. So we did the prudent thing and started down the trail with our packs to see what we were in for.
Well. We earned this route - that's for sure. A wind storm must have hit this part of WCPP quite hard, because trees were felled all over like match sticks. The trail started pretty innocently after a bit of a swampy start. After descending back to the creek (where the old map and my route planning shows the trail crossing the stream) we lost the trail for a bit. I decided that rather than wade the stream, I'd check a bit further along it and sure enough! On the west side, about 100 meters further north I found a ribbon hidden off in the bush (not visible from where the trail came out into the marsh). At this point the trail was ribboned and obvious, but affected very heavily by blow down. We should have taken the packs off and the axes and saws out, but instead we began to wade through the debris with heavy packs. This was dangerous and I almost broke an ankle while stepping off a particularly large tree into a gnarly pit of dead branches and tangled debris. Various members of our party started abandoning gear at certain points, just to try to bash through to the other side!
Eventually we did get through to the other side, which ended at the next lake. Phew!! What a slog that was! I took the ax off my pack and did a rudimentary clearing job over the debris field - knocking off top and side branches and clearing a bare minimum of a path through so that we could get back with the canoes without injury. I also cleared some of the overhanging trees and branches from the first section and we moved the ribbons at the swamp so that they were more obvious. This section needs a chainsaw before I would say it's navigable again. Other than some bleeding legs and sore ankles we did make it through OK in the end.
After a short paddle we came on the 500 meter portage into Hansen. This portage started out rather well but quickly deteriorated into one tangled mess of trees after another. Thankfully these were mostly overhead (affecting a canoe carry) and not the ankle / leg breaking mess we dealt with on the previous portage. There was no way a canoe could be carried through though - so out came the ax again! This time we spent well over an hour clearing the trail properly. Blood blisters quickly appeared on my hands and the blistering heat / bugs made the job even more pleasant. I was actually having a lot of fun - finally some real work to do! I guess I'm still a farm boy at heart. Rod and Harold helped out and cleared trees as I chopped through them. Most of the dead fall was small diameter stuff and most of it was fairly fresh so it chopped easily. There's no feeling like carrying your canoe through a freshly cleared portage that you just spent a lot of hard work clearing. It felt great.
[This is the only shot I have from our trail clearing efforts since we were too busy to take photos.]
After the 500 meter portage we were finally on Hansen Lake. It had taken us 4 hours to go from Wrist to Hansen - a short distance on the map - thanks to the portage clearing and conditions. This is where doing some research ahead of time pays off. We knew that the Wrist to Hansen portages weren't done often and we gave ourselves lots of time to do them early in the day when we'd have the energy. Worst case scenario would be more fishing if we completed them faster than expected.
Rod had informed us earlier that there was supposed to be more pictographs on Hansen. Still disappointed that we didn't find the Paull Lake ones we were determined to find these. Hansen is a gorgeous lake with old growth pines on shore and colorful rock faces dipping steeply into the cool water below. We slowly trolled our Rapalas next to the line of steep cliffs that the pictographs were supposedly on. Harold and Bill were slightly ahead of us and soon Bill was yelling that they'd found them! Sure enough - there was no doubt when we saw them that we were looking at a relic made by human hands. I was delighted to discover these stunted and dimmed paintings on rock and I think I've found a 2nd favorite thing to do on canoe trips behind fishing. ;) After taking photos we continued drifting and paddling lazily down Hansen, past the seemingly empty lodge and toward the "Hansen Chute" marked on our maps. We stopped for a late lunch on a outcrop of rock directly across from the lodge and enjoyed a much deserved rest under the shade of a well placed tree and a nap in the sun for most of us.
[Bill and Harold at the pictograph site on Hansen Lake (lower left)]
[This was a canoe with people in it - they were faded and worn.]
[Hard to see from a distance - if you didn't know they were there I'm not sure you'd spot them. Note how light the rock is that they're found on.]
[A slightly wider perspective on the site]
[Blowing down Hansen on a gorgeous Thursday afternoon!]
[The lodge looked very quiet, we saw no boats on the lake and no movement on shore. This was a relief because I was slightly concerned that we wouldn't have the "Hansen Chute" all to ourselves for fishing. ;)]
[The start of the "Hansen Chute"]
The fishing was, as expected, out of this world at the base of the Hansen Chute. We hammered large Walleye and the occasional Pike - I lost count somewhere around 18. The only trick to fishing the falls in WCPP is not getting too many snags on the bottom. When you're busy retying your line after breaking it on a snag, your boat buddy is hauling in fish - a very frustrating experience.
We decided to keep some of the walleye for supper since we weren't guaranteed enough time to fish on Glenn after setting up camp there. We were catching so many fish that only Harold and Bill kept about 15 minutes worth - and only the bigger ones. The reason this section of the park is called a "chute" is due to a series of falls that comes down between Glenn and Hansen. Originally I figured this would all be very well traveled from lodge traffic between Hansen and Glenn but this was an incorrect assumption. This was also the first time that the new WCPP map varied considerably from the old one (that I had used in planning). Harold and Bill bullied their canoe up the lower falls, bypassing what I thought I had marked as the first 350 meter portage. The new map had a 50 meter followed by a 300 meter portage with a break in between... It turns out that the first portage was only about 200 meters and even though it was obvious and well marked, it was MUCH more rustic than I was expecting. Due to the nature of the chutes, Rod pointed out that the lodge would have to boat cache at several intermittent ponds (that we portaged around later) between Hansen and Glenn, meaning that lodge guests do not fish in Glenn and these portages aren't traveled nearly as often as I thought they'd be.
So, the first 200 meters weren't on either map (I guess more people do what Bill and Harold did - when the water is lower it's probably much easier. I think the first 50 meters is pulling around the small falls they bullied up. The next portage was the full 300 meters and was pretty decent, although much less traveled than I was expecting - lodge guests cannot make it to this trail either (unless they swim or portage there).
A short portage after this brought us finally into Glenn Lake - our destination for Thursday evening's camp. The site marked "GL-C2" proved to be a gem of a camp site and we proceeded to set up after arriving around 5 in the afternoon. The weather was changing from the previous few days. On Thursday it was hot and windy, like a storm might blow in any time. Thankfully we got lucky with wind direction and paddled with it most of the way. When we got to camp the wind picked up considerably and buffeted our point from the south, threatening to blow our tents away if we didn't anchor them properly.
At around 18:30, with camp set up and just before fish cleaning time, Rod and Tim decided to check out a bird behind camp that had been diving at Rod as he explored a small game trail behind our tents. Apparently Rod was trying his hardest to sneak up on the bird to get a photograph and Tim was sneaking up on Rod to see what all the fuss was about. Initially Rod heard Tim stepping on the branches behind him and had a brief panic moment - thinking there may be wildlife in the area. When he saw it was Tim, they resumed bird watching together. The bird fell strangely silent as they followed it further into the forest. It was only then that the two guys heard rustling and the snapping of branches in thicker bush, just ahead of them. Tim began feeling a bit nervous about being in the forest, without making any noise and started clapping his hands. That's when a very large black bear reared onto its hind legs from behind a fallen tree about 20 meters in front of them and looked them both straight in the eyes!!
After (nearly?) soiling themselves Rod and Tim thankfully watched the bear fall onto all fours and jog away, further from our camp and into even thicker bush.
Tim had a previous experience with bears on a solo hike which resulted in a man being attacked by one and air lifted out of a back country campground that Tim had stayed in the night before (solo), so he was understandably a little bit shaken up by the close encounter. Rod was a bit more nonchalant about the whole affair since he's done a lot of hiking with me in grizzly territory in the Rockies and has run through bear encounter scenarios in his head many times before. This was his first time face-to-face with one though. Our camp was on the tip of a long peninsula - I was surprised we even ran into a bear on such a small piece of land! The wind had picked up considerably and the waves were crashing against the shoreline, which was why our setting up camp didn't chase the bear off earlier. The wind was also blowing our scent north - directly away from the area behind our tents.
Of course the whole encounter could have been bad. Rod had already been back in the area once before, checking out the trail (when he first noticed the bird) and was intentionally sneaking around which could have resulted in a much closer and more surprising solo encounter (usually not good for the human). I had already taken a bathroom break back there too - and had heard snapping branches but assumed that was caused by the strong winds! I could easily have been caught literally with my pants down by the bear!! The lesson in this encounter is to always be ready for wildlife - no matter how slight they may seem or how unlikely. Murphy's rule of thumb applies - the least you expect to see something and the less likely you think it is, the more likely you will run into something.
What made the bear encounter a bit more humorous was the blue tarp that Tim decided to bring as a rain shelter for his pup tent. Apparently Tim decided that a tarp was an expensive item ($4.99?!) and he'd reuse one that his DOG DIED ON. We didn't want to be insensitive to Tim losing a childhood pet but boy did we get a few good laughs out the "dead dog tarp"! There was also a suspicious reddish / brown stain on the tarp that Tim insist was from varnishing furniture but we strongly suspected had something to do with the dog's death... LOL. This was not a good item to bring on a canoe trip if you're worried about bears sniffing around your tent at night. ;)
If I was solo and had this type of close encounter, I'd probably move my camp rather than risk another close call. The game trail was obviously used by the bear more often and Hentie and my tent was right near this trail and also a patch of berry bushes (not quite ripe - but close). The forest behind us was full of dead fall which the bear was tearing apart and eating insects from. Being with 6 guys and having camp all set up made us less inclined to leave. The bear had run off and didn't seem too aggressive. We were all tired and didn't feel like moving - plus the bear had LOTS of other places to roam - we weren't trapping it in the terrain. We decided to go into the bush with all 6 of us (hands on our bear spray and bangers) to make sure he was scared off and reassure ourselves that we weren't scared of one measly black bear (!). We found plenty of prints in the soft moss and evidence of foraging but there was no sign of the bear. With occasional glances back into the forest we continued prepping for supper and the evening. Harold and Bill went to a small rock just off the point to clean the walleye we'd kept. The wind would blow the smell away from camp and the local birds were already clamoring for a spot as soon as they left with the filets.
After a delicious supper of fresh walleye on wraps we started a cheery fire and enjoyed another late night under the stars in WCPP. The moon was very orange and fish flies were starting to accumulate in large numbers. (Fish flies are bad for fishing because the fish stop going for our jigs and start eating on the lake surfaces. Thankfully they only last for a week or so but we didn't like seeing them.) When bed time came we snuck a few last nervous glances into the darkness behind the tents before shrugging off our fears and going to sleep for the night. Once again, the bugs were almost nonexistent and the air was cooling off nicely as we turned in.
[Fireweed behind our tents near where Rod and Tim scared off a large black bear]
[A small island just across from our kitchen]
[Our tent was in the middle of a berry patch (unripe) and a game trail running right past it.]
[A great kitchen area beneath our elevated sleeping section.]
[Cleaning the walleye on a small rock across from camp - never clean fish in your camp! Especially when there's a hungry black bear roaming nearby. :)]
[Once again, Bill cooks to perfection]
[Another delightful WCPP evening bonfire.]
Friday, July 11 2014
After a very eventful day on Thursday, we had a pretty tame day planned for Friday. In order to avoid getting to the parking lot at Leano Lake too early on Saturday (in 2011 we were there at 08:00!!) we didn't want to paddle too far but rather take advantage of excellent walleye fishing opportunities in both Glenn Lake and Mexican Hat. We even planned a shore lunch at the prime Mexican Hat "fish factory" before we would push on to camp in Lunch Lake.
[Part of our route for Friday. Lots of portaging out of Mexican Hat but we did these in 2011 and they were pretty easy and quick back then.]
[Our goal was to make Lunch Lake, somewhere before the 150 meter portage to East Lunch]
Friday (my 17th wedding anniversary) dawned a humid day with the promise of potentially more severe weather moving in. In another omen of possible bad weather, the sky was very ominous and I caught 3 walleye just casting into the lake from camp - usually catching fish this easily in these weather conditions tells me that something is brewing.
As we packed up camp and ate breakfast I kept sneaking some glances at the shoreline just to the northwest of our camp. I had a feeling... And sure enough! Would you believe that I spotted a large black bear picking its way slowly along the shore?! Yep. That bear hung around all night near our camp and obviously wasn't that scared of 6 guys... I could see why too. I tried taking some photos (it was a long way away) and as I watched through my 600mm lens I saw the bear effortless grab a huge rock (hundreds of pounds) and flip it aside before snuffling around for insects underneath it. After that bit of excitement we continued to break down camp before canoeing off for the Glenn Lake walleye factory. Harold and Bill apparently thought they didn't need their tent fly but thankfully Rod and Tim were there to snag it for them... That's the thing with old guys - they start forgetting stuff! ;)
[Sure enough! It's the same (I'm assuming) bear from the evening before, casually eating his breakfast beside our camp. So what was he doing all night and more importantly, where was he?!]
As we paddled from camp a long peel of thunder echoed over the lake behind us. This was not great timing (since we were already on the water) but at least camp was cleaned up already. We decided to make a dash across the main part of the lake (2km or so) to at least get close to the more sheltered area around the falls where our portage and fish were waiting. We didn't quite make it. As the storm got closer we bailed onto shore in order to avoid the lightning that was becoming alarmingly close. The downpour that ensued was enough to make me wish I'd put my rain pants on - I quickly got them on once on shore. Around 20 minutes after it started, the rain slowed down and the lightning moved on so we piled back into the boats and resumed our morning paddle. At this point we were all expecting a long day of continual t-storms and slow travel, but at least the fishing should be excellent.
The Glenn Lake fish factory did not disappoint. We hammered walleye in great numbers - sometimes 4 fish were on different lines at the same time! The walleye were also quite large with the occasional big fish caught. We spent almost 2 hours fishing the factory before deciding we should probably move on. While we were fishing the weather surprised us by starting to clear up. By the time we did the scenic portages (some minor blow down) from Glenn to Mexican Hat we were under a hot, sunny sky with clouds in the distance, but not affecting us. We spent another hour or so fishing the second falls on the way to Mexican Hat - this one was producing much bigger walleye than it did in 2011.
The wind picked up considerably as we paddled down Mexican Hat Lake towards the walleye factory and prime camp site on its southeast "brim". As we rounded the corner we could see that Mexican Hat Falls was about 4 or 5 times bigger than we'd ever seen it. The water was raging down in beautiful cascades before rushing around the corner into the small bay where we've always found walleye to be stacked up in great numbers. We pulled into the camp and set up for lunch. Bill and Harold pulled out their filet knives and the rest of us set off to catch our meal. There's nothing like catching a fish and fileting it within 5 minutes. The fishing wasn't the best we've seen at the falls, but we still caught 5 for lunch in no time.
Lunch was delicious. We spent almost 2 hours at the camp site, fishing, relaxing in the warm sunshine and marveling at the huge whitecaps that were now rolling past us on the lake - the wind was fierce. Eventually we decided it was probably time to move on and prepared for the 325 meter portage up the falls, directly across from the camp.
[The storm is long gone and we're still hammering Walleye in Glenn]
[It is amazing how the walleye in WCPP stack up under waterfalls]
[A beautiful waterfall along the route from Glenn to Mexican Hat lake - another place to hammer walleye.]
[Mexican Hat Falls are 3x bigger than in 2009 and 2011]
[Another gorgeous afternoon in WCPP]
We weren't too concerned with the remaining portages up MH Falls and into Jake and Lunch lakes, since these portages are traveled more frequently due to their proximity to the parking lot. Maybe we should have been more concerned... ;)
Due to the extremely high water around MH Lake and on the falls, the portage trail around the falls was diverted near the top. The diversion was a great idea (there was almost no safe way to cross the normally empty channel to the end of the portage) but it was also very messy. We ended up wading through a deep channel near the top of the falls to bypass the normal landing area.
Thankfully the next few portages went well, Hentie and I started a method of short-cutting the smaller portages by doing a single carry rather than 2. This cut them by 2/3 since we only had to walk once but put more strain on our bodies since we'd put the big packs on our backs and then just carry the canoe with all the other gear still in it. It's hard to say if it saved much energy in the end, but it certainly saved us a lot of time. We didn't get too far ahead of the others as we used the extra time we gained to have a quick nap in the canoe or a cigar (or both!). We also spent some time casting for pike, occasionally getting lucky and not caring too much if we didn't. It was a beautiful day and we knew our trip was coming to an end already so we just relaxed and enjoyed it.
[Wading the top of the portage around MH Falls]
[This channel is normally nearly empty in the summer and the trail crosses it on a ledge just above this shot... ;)]
[Gorgeous section of portage trail]
[Mexican Hat Falls was raging]
[Another messy ending to a portage - this one was after the MH falls]
[The "flake" falls was going over the rock flake, both times previous it's been behind it.]
By around 5 in the afternoon we finally made camp on Lunch Lake. It was our must rustic camp yet on the trip (LU-C3), but it worked well and was protected a bit from the gusty winds that were out of the west now. It was hot in the sun but soon much cooler weather started blowing it. We thought we were for sure in for more storms and set up an elaborate tarp over the fire - just in case. We were all fairly tired and fished out and after a good supper and camp fire we retired for the night - our last in WCPP for 2014.
[Hentie falls asleep at camp]
[This is a rustic camp - but it worked well and we had TONS of firewood just laying around]
[A gorgeous sunset just off camp]
Saturday, July 12 2014
Our last morning in WCPP for 2014 was a gorgeous one. Sunny and warm, just the way you want to end a trip like this. We still had a ways to go on our last day, not to mention the 9 or 10 hour trip back to Carman, MB where most of us were staying. We paddled out of Leano in a fairly fierce wind and ended the trip riding some nice big rollers to the final portage back to the parking lot.
[Another gorgeous morning in WCPP]
[A nice summary of the trip - colorful flowers, blue sky, Jack pine, calm water and Canadian Shield rock]
As usual for canoe trips into WCPP, I felt like 5 days was too short. I put over 4,200km on my truck driving out from Calgary, Alberta to WCPP and back again. There was a family camping trip involved too, but 5 days on the water for so much driving, expense and 6 months of dreaming and planning is just not long enough for me. We had the best weather we could have asked for, conditions were almost perfect in every way with lots of water (but not too much), great fishing, great camp sites, wildlife, great wind conditions, cool nights and almost no bugs (compared with how bad it can get). We didn't see another soul the whole time either.
The way I look at it, we should go canoeing one week for each year we are gone from WCPP. So in this case a 2 or 3 week trip would have been the perfect length. Like my kids always say, Y.O.L.O. You Only Live Once. ;)
Whatever the length of my next canoe trip here, there is one thing I have no doubt about. I will be back in my canoe in the waters of WCPP - hopefully sooner than 2017...