The Churchill River, Saskatchewan        

Like our trip down Yukon's Teslin River, this Churchill River trip was another one that came to Carol and I pre-organized. John Havens of Quesnel, BC had been planning the trip for some time and, luckily for us, all we had to do was show up. The plan was to spend seven or eight glorious days basking in the sun on the Canadian Shield's (northern Saskatchewan is shield country) warm pink granite outcrops and lazily paddling the 170 km portion of the Churchill River from Pinehouse to Missinipie. The members of the group were John and Dorie Havens, Holly and Doug Nelson and Carol and I.

Seven cold, wet, windy and long days of paddling were what awaited us! We only had two 12 hour periods of sun and, even then, day time highs were low. Nights hung around 4 C with one night dipping to -1 C! The wind was often out of the north (making progress up the NE/SW running lakes difficult), very strong, cold and always working to blow in various forms of precipitation. Three times it forced us off the water to take shelter. The first of these sent us scurrying as hail swept down on us, the second was to wait out a rain squall, while the third time had us island bound for approximately three hours as large, white crested waves swept across the big and open Sandfly Lake. The hail, being the first event, caught us off guard and most of us ended up wet and shivering. In the days that followed, we smartened up and managed to stay remarkably dry as winds blew in one form of cloud cover after another and temperatures remained seasonally low. It could have been worse though - despite near continuous cloud cover it didn't really rain on us that much.

One reason the winds proved a hassle was because of the amount of open water on this stretch of the Churchill River. When Carol and I had initially considered the trip, we had looked at a Saskatchewan road map and remarked, "Where is the river"? Our intuition proved correct for, although it is called the Churchill River, it is more a collection of lakes than a river... large and windy lakes! This meant that we were often battling the wind and waves - something we weren't used to and I suppose not expecting. Even without having to battle upwind, days tended to be long. On our two sunny days, we kept paddling in case we got wind bound the next day; on the gray, overcast days we kept paddling because we were too wet and cold to camp anyway; on the windy days, we simply kept paddling because you had to make progress! There wasn't much time to relax.

Canadian Shield campsites are often extremely beautiful: warm granite, sheltering trees, log seats, loons calling, the moon reflecting on still water and the warm glow of the fire on people's faces. It was perhaps here we were most bitterly disappointed as what we found instead were batteries, boat propellers, broken lawn chairs, litter of all sorts and fish guts everywhere. While not all members of a group can be considered guilty it was pretty clear that this junk came from two sources. The first of these was the local native population with their flimsy, lashed together wooden structures and everything from old tarps to oil drums to broken chairs and broken pails thrown amongst heaps of brush. The second of these groups was the fly-in-fishermen with their beer cans, fish guts, wrappers and the ubiquitous white, red and blue Wonderbread bags. Not that canoeists are perfect, but it was bad enough that we became experts on differentiating between the different kind of camps by the kind of waste left behind. We later learned that the natives will live in a camp for weeks at a time and typically throw everything "just outside the camp" (much as we do in our cities and towns). The fish guts were left on shore by the fishing guides in hopes of attracting bears so that the quides had something to show the fly-in-fishermen. Because most of the fish guts were left at the camps, it created in my opinion a dangerous situation.

The collective experience of the group was a great strength and allowed us to cover decent distances in inclement weather and in relative comfort. All strong paddlers, everyone was also well versed in tripping, had the right gear and knew how to pack it. Doug and Holly had brought an old tent (thankfully given the weather) which we used as a community hall. It is surprising how warm it got with 6 people eating inside of it at once. John and Dorie had an excellent tarp and kitchen table setup which worked really well. Everyone had chairs except for Carol and I, as we were expecting more typical shield campsites with the normal log or two around the rock pit campfire - we learned our lesson! We picked up a few other tricks as well like assembling/disassembling your tent under a tarp, leaving a rope/tarp bag handy in inclement weather and using a cutlery holder for the barrel.

Food is the hardest part of a trip to organize and the most work. It always amazes me how people can cook better meals four days into a rainy canoe trip than I can cook at home and this trip was no exception. It was truly excellent. This is however, likely the first canoe trip I have done where I have lost weight. Dorie kept us all in line and food was very deliberately distributed in exacting proportions of 1/6 regardless of age or body size. Carol and I are used to a pretty hearty breakfast and lunch, so we were often hungry by the time the evening rolled around. Suppers were a good size though, and usually allowed us to fill up our gas tanks for the next day. There was always an excellent dessert too! It was actually good to eat less than we normally do... now if I could only keep it up for the winter months!

For non-locals, this trip would be impossible without decent maps and a compass. The large lakes filled with peninsulas and islands of every shape and size continually presented us with a wall of green no matter which direction we looked. There were no high points to reference from. It took great care to discern one island from the next peninsula and one channel from another. Distances posed another challenge. At times we were wrapping our head (and eyes) around huge islands and several kilometers of open water and the next around small points of land and weed filled channels only 50 feet across. Black Bear Island Lake was the worst with all its convoluted islands, channels, points of land and the like. At least it kept us sheltered from the wind! We all took turns navigating, rafting up now and again to confer with each other. Although we headed for the wrong point or island once or twice, we never got lost and never had to use the GPS to save ourselves.

Wildlife viewing was not the greatest. I suspect everything with a brain was holed up in a little den somewhere waiting for the cold and wet to pass. Bear signs were everywhere - from scat to diggings - but thankfully we never did see one cruising around our camp. Pelicans were the neatest thing for me. They are huge white birds and when they hang out together on a rock point in the distance, they create an illusion and looked like huge oil tanks on the shore. They never let us get too close and motored around pretty quickly with huge orange-webbed feet.

This trip was one of the harder trips Carol and I have done, with the biggest challenges being all the lakes on the river and the cold, wet and windy weather. But we simply picked away and before long it was another trip happily completed and one that will keep us coming back for more! For Carol and I, one of the biggest joys was being back in the shield. I guess where you are born and raised has a lot to do with where it feels like home and for us, it is the shield. We had no idea we missed it so much. The interconnected rivers and lakes, the warm pink granite, the blueberries, the trees, the Labrador tea and the rock outcrops on every island and lake... so beautiful... even though it was all so wet and cold!

Daily Log Notes:

Day 1: Pinehouse Lake, west side of McDonald Bay to narrows on east side of McDonald Bay (73O/9 766099)
Weather: sunny, strong westerly wind, building in the evening
This was only a half days paddle with Holly, Doug and Stephen spending the morning shuttling the cars 3.5 hours to Missinipie and then taking a Cessna 185 back. We crossed McDonald Bay on Pinehouse Lake and camped on an underused, narrow, semi-sandy and somewhat rough site on the north side of a narrows.

Day 2: To the tip of a boot on the NW corner of Sandfly Lake (73O/16 282792)
Weather: rain, hail, strong winds
We set up a semi-successful canoe sail and sailed northish to Cowpack Island. This produced the benefit of less paddling but also caused me to loose our place on the map due to the large tarp/sail in front of me. Rounding Cowpack Island and heading up the NE side of McDonald Lake we watched as a white wall of hail rolled down on us. By the time we got off the lake, most of us were fairly wet. A tarp was hastily set up and Doug and Holly did an admirable job of cooking up a hot and hearty soup. Just across from the mouth of the Belanger River, we were forced to land a second time as a rain squall moved through. Holly, Doug, Carol and Dorie huddled under a green tarp. Although it might have looked like four cold and wet people under a tarp, John and I knew it was a rare sighting of the Lesser Known Green Shield Caterpillar. As it moved over the terrain it ate blueberries as it went. Today was our first lesson on the Churchill's garbage ridden campsites so we passed a few before settling (ironically) for the one with the most garbage. At least it didn't have any rotting fish or bear scat. The wind howled all night.

Day 3: To Needle Falls (73P/12 371720)
Weather: cloudy, strong winds, large waves
Sandfly Lake was a bit intimidating due to its large size and we picked our way across it using islands to block the wind and waves. This worked for the morning but the building wind turned the final 1 kilometer stretch of open water into a wind swept field of white crested waves. The canoes started to surf, threatening to broach at the wave's bottom, so we headed off the water for the third time. We spent the next three hours staring across one short kilometer of open water waiting for our break. Only Doug made efficient use of the time catching numerable Pike. We kept three to eat (I know, I know, true fishermen say they don't eat Pike, but they were good). John spotted a small window of opportunity and we quickly made our crossing with the wind regaining strength just as we made the most easterly shore. We quickly portaged Needle Rapids 1 and 2 and set up camp at the third portage at Needle Falls. This was to be one of the nicest campsites of our journey, though the wind howled all night and the clouds continually threatened.

Day 4: To mainland, just north of Hadley Island, Black Bear Island Lake (73P/12 515704)
Weather: sunny, cool with high clouds in the evening
We woke to sun, cloud and cold temperatures as we started out on what was to be a long day. We worked our way up Kinosaskaw Lake on a NE course, turned east crossing just south of Hicks Island then turned south running through Silent Rapids (no rapids, just current) and into Black Bear Island Lake. It was a beautiful paddle. The incredible number of islands sheltered us from the wind (and put our navigation skills to the test) and the sun had come out, warming the shield's rock outcrops. We camped on the mainland on the north side of channel above Hadley Island. Although it was a beautiful spot, it was really only suitable for one tent - we squeezed in three but with progressively less comfort. We were happy though: the sun, a garbage free campsite and the beautiful shield rocks made for a nice evening.

Day 5: To an island just SE of Birch Falls (73P/11 913728??)
Weather: sunny becoming cloudy
It was a cold morning but beautifully sunny. A gentle breeze out of the south west played among the shields worn granite islands and helped push us along. Birch rapids marked the end of convoluted Black Bear Island Lake and yet another disappointing campsite. We paddled SE a short distance to an island which, although covered in flour and potato/onion peels from recent fishermen and bear sign from recent bears, was a lot nicer than the Birch Falls site. It worked out to be a good spot although clouds and light rains rolled in again.

Day 6: To Rock Trout Rapids on the east end of Stack Lake (73P/11 913729??)
Weather: rain, strong winds and large waves
We awoke to rain, wind, clouds, and what proved to be one of the more challenging days. Day 6 was our day to run the 16 km up the northeast running Trout Lake. Of course, there was rain and a strong wind blowing in from the NE right down the lake. It could not have lined up any worse. After rounding the corner and entering Trout Lake proper, all we could do was stay within a few feet of the shore and pick our way up the NE shore. Although wet and cold, we did O.K., only having to cross a small section of big rolling waves once. For lunch, we found a semi-dry spot in the bush and Doug and John threw together a quick fire which proved to be a great spirit booster. After finally reaching the north end of the lake, we portaged into Stack Lake (halfway between Trout Lake and Mountney Lake) and camped beside a rapid with a set of huge standing waves.

Day 7: To NE corner of Donaldson Island, Hayman Lake (73P/10 112710)
Weather: sun and cloud
The sun came out to play, producing nice rows of puffy cumulous clouds and making for a great day of paddling. We hadn't run any rapids until this day's straight forward C1+ Chief Rapids (Fine Cloth Rapids) which we took turns running. Carol and Steve went first, crossing the tongue, eddying left, ferrying right and then S-turning back left only to take the final eddy high, hit a small rock and flip! Lots of fun. Steve and John went next and took a different approach, back paddling down to stay dry. It was a good run, we only took on water when we failed to start forward stokes soon enough, thus allowing ourselves to get pushed down into some bigger standing waves. Doug and Holly ran straight through, picking an excellent line and taking on virtually no water. We spent a large part of the day heading NE up the north shore of Nipew Lake and passed Boyes Island and Boyle Island on their north sides. As the shores narrow at the lake's north end, the river/lake pours south through numerous channels with fast current. Looking south through the islands, you can see the land drop away and you get the illusion that the lake has a north arm and a south arm that exist at two levels. All these channels lead to Hayman Lake and there we camped on the NE corner of Donaldson Island at the best campsite we had had to date. We were treated to a spectacular sun set with red light bouncing off high talon-like cirrus clouds. After everyone went to bed, I headed down to the water's edge and watched the very last of the daylight fade to blackness while listening as loons and owls called in the distance.

Day 8: To Missinipe, Otter Lake
Weather: cloudy
The previous night's red sky didn't lead to sun and we ended up paddling under gray skies but, as the wind was quiet, it made for decent paddling. From Hayman Lake down to Otter Lake, there were three possible routes, some of which offered innumerable rapids and play spots. We took the old Voyageur Highway, which was the most direct but the least exciting. Three portages awaited us and all were pretty typical of the shield with rocky, muddy landings and sections of muddy trial. Great Devil Rapids was 1.1 km long, Little Devil Rapids stood at 0.8 km and Otter Rapids was 0.6 km long. We knocked them off one after another, only stopping at the last one for lunch. We learned latter that Little Devil Rapids was an easy run but, because scouting from the portage was difficult, we had opted out... next time. Otter rapids could also be run but we weren't up to the challenge of the huge standing waves with all our gear. From Otter Rapids it was a short 1.5 hour paddle right into town. We carried our gear to the truck and that was that!

Views on shuttle

Attempts at sailing

"Teeter ass snipe"

Protection from the elements

Taking a break from the wind

Lesser Known Green Shield Caterpillar





Drying out

Dorie in the kitchen


Brilliant sunset

Stephen and John


Power against the wind

Hanging out in the group shelter

Classic shield country

Doug and Holly

Calm before the storm

Short cut

Oh the mud

Quick shelter

Doug's pike


Route to the portage




Churchill Salon

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