This is a journal of our exhilarating trip into the backcountry of Atikaki Wilderness Park in north central Manitoba in June of 2000. We are:
Canoe 1: Harold and Bill Slaa
Canoe 2: Dad (Fred) Dewit and Ron Vanderswaag
Canoe 3: Ryan Veldman and myself (Vern Dewit)
This is the way I remember it. This means that some of the details will be completely wrong according to whoever is reading them. This doesn't matter, because it only shows that for each of us this was a unique adventure even though we all went through the same action. I think that this was a wonderful trip and we did admirably. Nobody complained and we all got along fantastically even though the going got rough. Let's get into things!
Tuesday June 13 | 22:48
First thought: "no rain"! I got up this morning with feelings of apprehension and excitement. The rain was pouring down. I wondered as we drove the 4.5 hours what we were getting ourselves into. Ditches were over flowing into fields, creating lakes and rivers where none should be. If fields and ditches were sporting class I rapids what was awaiting us? We got to Bill's place around 10:30 and after loading up his canoe continued on our drive.
Everyone kept spotting clear sky ahead, but we were always wrong, either that or the clear skies were avoiding us intentionally. Nothing could dampen our spirits though! We were going to Atikaki and the mighty Obukowin Portage and the bottom line? We weren't at work! After a bunch of Woody's burgers with side orders of onion rings and lots of coffee we continued on our journey. An old guy at Woody's told me that our trip would be awesome and the rain would end within 24 hours. We finally reached the last 80-km of wet, muddy road. In true character Dad drove at his constant 90 km/h, skidding all over the place making us all very nervous as Bill tried desperately to keep up. Harry kept reminding us that the new canoe trailer was very stable but I couldn't help thinking that a junior welder had put the extension on the hitch... ;)
At about 15:30 we pulled into the government campground on the Wanipigow River, our pullout at the end of the trip. We were leaving Bill's van here so we could pick up the truck from our starting point when we finished (this is reflected in the purple line on the maps). One look around in the pouring rain confirmed that this was probably a very convenient party location for all the local youth - there was every manner of Friday night detritus scattered around old fire rings. After we transferred all the gear to Dad's truck we piled in and headed off to Wallace Lake, Bill glancing back nervously at his abandoned vehicle. We got to Wallace shortly and began to unload the canoes and pack our gear. Then we noticed it - the rain had stopped! With renewed energy we paddled across Wallace and entered the Wanipigow River in short order. The river was much bigger than we expected because of the high water conditions. The size of the river, combined with our newfound dry conditions prompted us to set a good pace. The smell of pine, water and the great outdoors was like a powerful drug to our senses filling us with a sense of adventure and excitement.
[Getting ready to launch at Wallace Lake - the rain has finally stopped.]
[The launch point at Wallace Lake]
After what seemed like no time at all we were stopping at the halfway point for lunch in the canoes. The smell of nature gave way to the sharp draft of cigarettes and gummy bears. We pushed off again and continued our aimless wandering down the twisting, writhing path of the Wanipigow River. In a burst of rushing water we came out in Siderock lake and 30 minutes later were busily setting up our first camp on a prime location. The namesake of the lake, a huge wall of granite glared down at us from across the lake and the shrill call of the loon bouncing off of it reminded us why we were here.
[Our first two days were spent on this part of the map going from Wallace to Siderock on the first day (but via the Wanipigow rather than the portage) and doing the Obukowin Portage the second day to Obukowin Lake. ++]
[Checking out the route on the swollen Wanipigow River from Wallace to Siderock Lakes.]
[Camp on a small island on Siderock Lake - a very well used site.]
After setting up camp we explored for the Obukowin portage trail but couldn't find it. We were all desperate to fish so we will get up early tomorrow to find it instead. The stream we hoped to paddle is hopelessly choked with growth a little way up so we will be walking. Ryan Dad and Ron each nabbed a small Pike. I didn't land anything but had a few on. Harry and Bill each caught a couple of Walleye. I am laying in my sleeping bag; it's warm. My feet are a little damp; hopefully my sleeping bag stays dry. Harry and Bill can't get comfortable and I can hear them muttering. There is a bird chirping constantly, there is no wind and I can hear the sound of the creek gushing into the lake. It s a beautiful night and I'm very thankful that I have the freedom to enjoy it.
Wednesday June 14 2000 | 22:30
22:30 Happy birthday Ryan! First though today: "rain"! Ryan woke up at 06:00 and figured he'd sleep 'til it stopped. Well it still hasn't given up, and I'm pretty sure Ryan's awake, although it's kind of hard to tell after today, as we are all behaving like walking zombies. Sheets of cold water pounded us today as we exercised one of the most difficult physical endeavors of our lives: the torturous 5-km of the Obukowin portage in brutal conditions including driving, relentless rain, mud, cold winds, flooded trails and raging currents up to waist deep where we tripped over submerged trees and stumbled into hidden potholes.
[Editor Note: since the year 2000 the Obukowin Portage route has been detailed by both GPS and written accounts so that it's no longer such a beast and no longer so hard to find. When we did it initially in 2000 it was more of a route than a trail in places.]
The day started out with Harry reminding us every 2 minutes why we don t go fishing when there is a portage trail to be found. (For some cheap irony, please refer back to Walleye section from yesterday night.) Once we realized there was no "log cabin" to mark the start of the portage we expanded our search to where it "couldn't be". Dad and Ron finally found the orange marker an hour or so later and we were on our way. Ryan and I surged ahead, splashing noisily down the trail in ankle-deep water with firm ground beneath. We talked loudly to discourage wildlife and the mood stayed fairly light. The rain came down in bursts of moisture from the low gray clouds above us.
My hat kept the water off my face and promptly dumped it down my back. Within 30 minutes I was soaked, and only then realized that the hat should be worn over the rain jacket hood, NOT underneath it. We tramped back to our canoe after emerging on a flood plain where the small creek that we couldn't paddle up from Siderock should have been. Bill was a little pissed about his feet getting wet but we were all in good spirits at this point. The canoe carried quite well, although a bone in my neck seemed determined to carry the full weight whenever I wasn't paying attention. The first section of portage was 2500 paces and on the map it looked like we had already come half of that to the creek. Ryan emphatically declared that "it can't get much worse", so we piled our canoes full of gear, paddled across the raging creek and picked up the trail on the opposite side.
Grabbing a couple of extra packs I charged ahead on my own. Only then did I realize that we were in for it. Big time. The trail soon devolved into submerged trees and foot-eating bog. I struggled on and on in the relentless deluge, over rocks, through puddles, through little ponds over the trail and rivers 'til I thought I must be getting close to the end. I came to a section of trail where a boardwalk had been constructed. The walk was a jumble of logs and debris, buried in water up to my waist. Since I was already soaked and there was no room to go around the structure I simply charged right through it. My pack was getting unbalanced and carrying a 30 pound pack of food in one hand and a 15 pound in the other made for tricky navigating. The logs from the boardwalk threatened to snap an ankle or trap a leg. I made it through the mess to a sandy path on the far side, dotted with fresh moose tracks. I nervously glanced around as I leaned over, gasping for breath. The short shrubs and bushes that surrounded me seemed ideal shelter for a moose that might be a little perturbed at the weather, not to mention the stumbling purple and yellow apparition invading his territory, muttering and heaving for air!
[Yep! That's supposed to be a portage trail and it's now a flowing stream! This typifies the day we had on Tuesday...]
Since I thought the end of the trail had to be near at this point, I gave one last visual scan around me and charged on. Three hundred feet later I was stopped for another break. My pack was really becoming quite heavy; the rain was saturating everything adding unwanted pounds. I heard thrashing noises and Harry, Ryan and Bill came around the corner. I told them to pass me and continued on behind them. The end never seemed to come. By the time we finally stumbled out on the small lake at the end we were exhausted and I for one, was soaked right through, my raincoat keeping as much moisture in as out. After dumping our gear we had to repeat the whole exercise one more time to bring over the boats!
We paddled the small lake, which is simply a temporary distraction from the 5km long portage, and proceeded to look for the trail on the far side. I thought I saw a small orange ribbon off to the right in the back of a bog-choked bay but dismissed it as my frozen imagination. An hour later my image was proven reality, much to everyone's annoyance. As Ron was busy practicing his bog ballet he slipped and fell right in to the lake! I'm sure that from this point on he was the most wet and the coldest all of us.
From here on my memories of the Obukowin Portage are a haze of swamp, rain, cold, wind, mud, trees and little flowers growing everywhere beside each section of so-called "trail". By the time we finally stumbled into Obukowin Lake we were almost too dogged to cheer, but cheer we did! Psyched up about finally finishing some of us started talking about making Caroll Lake before dark (it was 17:00). Caroll Lake is an 8km paddle from the outlet of the portage into Obukowin Lake, and we were bucking a very stiff and cold Northwest wind, still driving sheets of rain into our faces. To our credit we tried. We only managed just over 1 km, pushing ourselves within an inch of hypothermia. We coaxed each other to keep moving as we started to set up camp on barren rock, teeth chattering, rain pouring and wind howling. Once our tents were set up we quickly put on dry clothes and made a warm meal. No late night party tonight! We all turned in fairly early with a hard days paddling ahead of us tomorrow. We had conquered the Obukowin in the most brutal conditions imaginable. I thankful that nobody got hurt and for the privilege of experiencing the beauty around us. Hopefully the rain stops tomorrow. We are all on a limited supply of dry clothing. We have a lot of work ahead, but surely the worst is over?
[Camp was miserable on Tuesday night.]
[Setting up a wet camp - always a great time!]
Thursday June 15 | 22:08
[Some sunshine at camp in the morning on Obukowin Lake.]
[Our fire was warm Wednesday morning after a freezing and wet Tuesday!]
Fire! All six of us are sitting around a blazing fire drying out our stuff. We're on a point just in the entrance to Aikens Lake with a howling north wind buffeting our tents. We paddled a rough 23-km against the wind today.
[Wednesday / Thursday and part of Friday's route from Obukowin to the Gammon River, through Aikens and down the Broadleaf River. You can clearly see that Aikens Lake is huge and that northerly winds would impact our route big time! ++]
We woke up fairly tired and a bit stiff, with our drenched equipment laying all around on the rock beneath our tarps. The rain finally stopped and to our amazement the sun actually peaked through a few breaks in the low cloud cover. We snapped a few pictures to prove that the sun actually did shine on our trip and once again we were on our way. Pushing against a stiff wind we made our way up the lake and to the park boundary between Atikaki and Woodland Caribou in Ontario. We finally got to the falls delineating the boundary and fished for a few minutes. I caught a nice fat walleye.
[Dad and Ron enjoy some moment of NOT raining on Obukowin Lake.]
[Entering Woodland Caribou Provincial Park between Obukowin and Carroll Lakes.]
We pushed on into Carroll Lake and passed our previous nights intended camping location at around 10:00. No time to use that 18-dollar Ontario fishing license! We took a quick break around 11:00, relinquishing Ryan's gummy bear cravings. Always battling a stiff wind we entered into the Gammon River and exited Ontario. Ryan calculated that each cast he made in Ontario cost him about 4 bucks, but was totally worth it! My day was fairly rough; I couldn't eat and was in the bush at every portage. There is nothing quite like being crouched in the bush with the wind gusting around you, feet soaking wet from a leaking canoe (!!), rain coming down, stomach on fire - you get the idea! I took 6 charcoal pills from Dad and some rice from Harry so we'll see what happens. Apparently mixing pancakes in unboiled water isn't a great idea... ;) We went around some thundering falls today, including 30 ft Carlson falls where we got some nice pictures.
[Thundering Carlson Falls along the Gammon River between Carroll and Aikens Lake.]
[At the bottom of a set of rapids on the Gammon River - lots of Walleye at these spots!]
Most of the portages were short, allowing us to muscle the canoes over a steep hill of rock to the foaming tail-out of the rapid or falls. We saw a number of bald eagles, majestic and stately with their huge wingspan and white crowns. By the time we wandered into Aikens it was nearing 20:30 and we had a decision to make. The wind was churning Aikens up pretty bad and we were all cold, wet and tired from a very long day of paddling. We decided to camp on a point just inside the lake, once again not making our planned daily camping location, this time missing the mark by 3 km of 2 ft waves. We set up a cozy camp and proceeded to make supper and dry out our clothes as best we could. A storm slithered past us leaving a beautiful rainbow in its wake. Harry commented that this was a sure sign that the rain would stop eventually!
[Taking a break on Wednesday.]
[A rare peaceful moment in sunshine near a falls along the Gammon River.]
[Our fire at the camp on Aikens Lake. Note the rainbow from a storm that passed over in the evening.]
[Our camp on Aikens was nice.]
[A stormed passed us by on Aikens and left this nice reminder that the rain would end EVENTUALLY.]
[After the storm passed we got some nice lighting on the lake.]
[Aikens Lake is huge - this is a view from the west side of the island we camped on, looking north. You can see why any northerly winds would be uncool here...]
[Finally some clear skies as the sun sets over Aikens Lake on Wednesday night.]
[A nice warm fire on Wednesday night at the entrance to Aikens Lake near the mouth of the Gammon River.]
I can see the steam rising off the clothes of those standing by the fire. We are getting more cheerful as the night progresses because we are finally getting dry and warm. We have a very tough day ahead tomorrow but that s tomorrow. I caught 3 Pike and a Walleye today; at least the fishing is improving! Hopefully I can eat again tomorrow.
Friday June 16 | 11:25
Happy Birthday Hanneke! You're at home in a nice warm house sipping coffee and enjoying birthday treats while your hubby is 500 km away stranded on a rock in a large northern lake! We woke up to another day of rain and wind this morning on our rocky camp near the entry point of the Gammon River to Aikens Lake. After a hurried breakfast and breaking camp we loaded up the canoes and tarped everything in, glancing apprehensively at the very large waves crashing into the shore from across the lake. No one really mentioned that maybe the waves were too large, I think because we were already behind and didn't think we had any choice but to get in and paddle the 3 short kilometers across the bottom of Aikens.
Dad and Ron were the first to go. I watched as they pounded into the waves, bobbing off like a big green cork. Ryan shoved us off and we put our paddling into turbo mode. The waves were absolutely huge! They were so big that we actually crested them one at a time. Our canoe would ride up a wall of water, then crash down the other side. Since big waves tend to come in groups of three the canoe would bob over the first, crunch through the second and plow through the third, spraying us with ice cold water and threatening to swamp us. There was nothing we could do - once committed there was no safe way to turn around in the giant swells.
The wind howled, the rain drove into our faces, and our muscles burned and flexed in time to a panicked rhythm. I was so nervous after about 200 meters that I decided, "What the heck! If I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go hollering!" With that thought I started to yell like a wild cowboy on every wave, letting out some of the tension. I think that at this point Ryan was seriously doubting our success, but doggedly he slugged on, keeping us at a 30 degree angle into the waves so that we were kind of shuffling sideways to our destination which was a point that jutted into the lake, which we had to cut around before heading on to the SE side. Once we got close to the rocky point, it was supposed to shelter us for a quick break before pushing around it to the portage at the southern end of the lake. We passed Dad and Ron who were looking a bit rattled, and very concentrated on keeping their boat keel down. Harry and Bill were a good way back. Their tent takes a lot longer to fold; it's a lot smaller than any of the others. :) We finally hit shore and legs shaking we heaved the boat onto the rocks and waited for the others. All of a sudden I heard Dad shouting and one look confirmed that Dad and Ron were in deep trouble. Their canoe was half full of water and every paddle stroke made the water swish around inside the boat which made for a dicey situation; no stability; no steering; 400 extra pounds; all in waves that were hard enough to handle with a responsive craft. Sheer will power combined with lots of adrenaline saved them from ending up in the drink.
We helped a white-faced Dad and Ron onto shore. Dad s first comment, "I would like to see my wife again". Later he admitted that in all his adventures he had never feared for his life like on this occasion. Once Harry and Bill came in, it was already as good as decided. We were staying on this sheltered bit of land until the wind died down in a big way. We were all disappointed but more importantly we were alive and intended to stay that way. Sometimes you have to know when mother nature is too strong for you - especially if surviving is important to you. We set up a tarp for shelter and Bill proceeded to get a fire going. We made true scouts, lighting a roaring fire in the rain and wind. It helped that after a fruitless half-hour I remembered my emergency fire logs that started instantly!
[Making the best of a bad situation. At least we have shelter, fire and plenty of food. Too bad that I can't eat anything without getting diarrhea in the process... :(]
[It was tough to just sit there all day while the wind pounded us from the north.]
[At least we could dry some of our gear! This was by FAR the worst weather we've ever had on a canoe trip - before or since.]
Harry's wish: hot shower; Ryan's: steak and potatoes; Dad: quiet water; Bill: sunshine and pickerel; Ron: a kiss from his wife; Vern: peace in stomach-land. This is quite the adventure we have going. I think the guys are getting anxious and there's talk about getting home on Sunday. I think the wind will die down in 4 hours or so and we can get on our way. Slowly we're wearing down, a little mentally and a little physically every time we encounter rougher conditions than expected.
Friday June 16 | 15:35
Conditions have improved but only about 5%. We want to get a message to the girls, so we're trying to flag down a fishing boat. Ron's quote upon waking from a deep slumber: "I went to sleep a man and woke up with nipples!" ;) We aren't sure if he'll make it! We want to go but don't want to risk it. We have 4200 paces to portage yet and will need energy for this. On a positive note we are now almost dry and well rested and fed.
[One thing about Ron - he can sleep absolutely anywhere! ;)]
Friday June 16 | 20:39
We're setting up camp. The sky is clearing and hopefully tomorrow we can get under way. We will get up at 04:00 and put in a long day. The girl's fears should be alleviated, we flagged down a boat from the local fishing lodge on Aikens Lake and for 20 bucks he agreed to phone mom with our message. Sunday is now almost certainly our target date to get back to Wallace Lake. I'm hoping we can find the portage into the Broadleaf River system. Bill's infamous quote: "If it's on the map, it's gotta be there". Hmmm. Famous last words?
[Setting up camp on Aikens Lake for the 2nd evening in a row.]
This trip is tough but this land will certainly draw me back again - hopefully in much nicer weather!
Saturday June 17 | 15:25
I'm sitting on a large rock by a thundering falls, smoking my last cigar and enjoying a warm sun. We paddled on glass out of Aikens at 04:30 this morning and tackled the 2-km portage into the Broadleaf River system. The mist was hanging low over the water and only the silhouettes of the other canoeists were visible in the brilliance of a rising northern sun. We couldn't find the trailhead until Ryan and I scouted to the left of where "the trail should be" and found a cairn marking the portage.
[A gorgeous morning paddle out of Aikens Lake - conditions couldn't be more contrasting with the wild weather the day previous!]
The portage was very decent; a cakewalk compared to the Obukowin! No rain, no mud, warm temperatures and as always, beautiful scenery. We would clamber up a hill of rock and there off to the side would be a meadow, drowning in brilliantly colored flowers. Bill did a very nice vertical wipe out trying to avoid getting his Gore-Tex boots damp by balancing across a slick log! After the portage we fished for about 20 minutes and headed down into Kostec Lake, riding a wicked current. After seeing Dad and Ron nearly kill themselves yesterday it was amusing to see them charge fearlessly through a small rapid, without scouting or life jackets! They looked a little sheepish afterward. We saw a rainbow-ring around the sun this morning, very interesting sight.
[A gorgeous morning - finally!]
[Paddling the Broadleaf River.]
[Finally some time to enjoy paddling!]
I doubt anyone will match Harry and Bill's attempted reverse run on a class I or II rapid this morning. Harry's look of consternation and pure terror will remain with me for a long time! Thank you Ron for saving the day and leaping into the torrent to rescue our intrepid canoeing experts. We are rushing over many beaver dams, thanks to the high water. We must set an aggressive pace if we are going to make it back tonight, which we all hope to do now.
[Bypassing another portage thanks to the high water.]
[The Broadleaf was a raging torrent at each falls.]
Saturday June 17 | 21:17
No go! We're finally in Leaf Lake. Typical for this particular trip, things didn't go at all as planned. After lunch we paddled furiously for about 200 meters before spending an exhausting 3 hours fighting to get another couple of hundred meters. The raging Broadleaf River was high enough to bury not only beaver dams, but also many of the established portage trails. :( We would spend a while just trying to find the trail, beating through the dense bush and walking up the steep rocks alongside the raging river. This is very tiring, especially when you've had the trip that we've had so far! Fun, but tiring! On this occasion we actually ended up hacking our own trail through the bush. It's a good thing that the trees are growing on solid rock as this allowed us to simply push a lot of them out of our way. Next year everyone is vowing to bring bucksaws!
[The trip starts feeling a bit desperate as we hack our own way around a raging section of the Broadleaf when the regular portage trail was nowhere to be found.]
On one occasion Harry ran out of gas trying a trail that I had christened. The trail ended up belonging to a creature substantially smaller than Harry, which eventually made him give up. (He wasn't too pleased but the way I see it he got his exercise!) This was also a very long day. 14.5 hours of paddling 24 km, doing a 2-km portage and fighting to get to Leaf Lake has us completely tuckered out. It was to our great surprise when all of a sudden upon entering Leaf Lake, after a very long tiring day, Dad and Ron took off, kicking our butts to the campsite. Apparently Ron "found his stroke"!! We didn't even have a fire tonight, some of us fished for a little bit but after a few follow-ups and nibbles the action pretty much died down. The bugs are finally starting to come out after the first warm day with no rain. I can hear the mosquitoes buzzing outside the tent; this makes me very happy to be where I am! We are on an Island where some folks must live when they come here to harvest wild rice in the fall. The lake is glass smooth, the birds are chirping and it s another wonderful Atikaki night.
[Another short portage section on the Broadleaf.]
[Canoeing a nice calm stretch of the river - you can still see the strong currents.]
Sunday June 18 | 08:56
I'm sitting on a rock beside a tumbling waterfall. Small Ladies Slippers are growing beside me with their soft pink petals glistening with the spray off the falls. I can feel the warm sun on my face and the cool mist of the falls on my bare back. It was the most beautiful morning yet with the canoes sliding through the early morning mist on a lake of polished water. We slipped into the Broadleaf River, our paddles making small splashes as we disturbed the surface film. Ryan and I were in the lead and a large animal crashing through the dense growth at the side of the river to our right suddenly shattered the still morning air. That's the closest we came to seeing a moose I think!
[Some serious falls demanded we do a bit of fishing - even though we're a day late...]
[Taking a much needed break while fighting our way out of the wild on Sunday.]
We made excellent headway, hitting no snags till now. We thought we were done but once again the high water and our eagerness did us in. This latest disappointment was a real blow to the gut. The talk is now focusing on what happens if we miss our put-out and continue merrily down the Wanipigow not an ideal situation! We need this break and I think we'll be fine after it. I took some time on an early morning portage to clear my camera lens and photograph a dew-drenched red flower.
I'm hoping that my next journal entry is from the truck on our ride home. This trip had a lot of firsts:
4000 paces of portage
An extra day
LOTS of rain and cold weather
Near drownings (not just Dad this time!)
Stranded for a day and hardly any fishing!
Sunday June 18 | 10:20
We just finished lunch and are stranded about 100 m downstream on a 300 pace portage that has proved very difficult to find. Ryan's quote of the day, "If everything was ok we still wouldn't have made it", oddly comforting but hard to interpret. One distinct memory from this little escapade is where I tell Harry where I think we are by pointing to a location on our map. His comment in true restrained fashion: "I don t give a CR_P. This map is F_____G useless!"
Sunday June 18 | 10:20
We're finally done!! Ryan: blank stare; Harry: "Most awesome canoe trip of my life"; Ron: "Give me a week and I'll tell ya what I think"; Vern: "Elation and regret, regret because it's all over and I have to go back to work soon. Elation because it's all over and I get to see my girls"; Dad: "Piece of cake, I did this every day when I was a kid!" (Authors note: that last one was made up).
[Wow! That was tough! The group celebrates arriving at the small campground on the Wanipigow at the end of our trip.]