Trip Dates: Monday, July 13, 2009 to Saturday, July 18, 2009
Total Trip Distance (km): 102
Difficulty Notes: Woodland Caribou is well off the grid. You should assume that you are completely on your own and must have the requisite survival skills and experience to live as such. Bringing a satellite phone or other emergency beacon is a good idea.
Lakes Traveled: Leano, Bunny, East Lunch, Landing Crane, Burnt Rock, Jake, Mexican Hat, Nutria, Amber, Aegean, South Aegean, Talon, Boomerang, Kilburn, Leano
Preamble & Planning
The summer of 2009 was a special summer for me. I needed a break from the drudgery and politics of the office and decided that a summer off was what I needed. Part of the 12 weeks off would be spent on a canoe trip in my favorite canoeing park – Woodland Caribou Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. On previous trips we have accessed this largely pristine wilderness via routes out of Manitoba. This was largely due to time constraints (6 day trips) and the fact that we rent our gear and drive from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Driving to Red Lake and accessing the park via Leano Lake was a dream for many years and 2009 seemed like the perfect time to fulfill this dream.
Harold and I planned out a route that would take us from Leano Lake, up through Bunny and East Lunch Lakes before camping on Monday. On Tuesday we would go through Lunch, Jake and Burnt Rock Lakes before setting up camp in Mexican Hat. Wednesday would have us going through Nutria, Amber, Streak and Aegean before setting up camp somewhere between Aegean and Talon Lakes. Thursday we would have the option of either paddling only 12km and camping on Talon Lake or pushing through Boomerang and Dragon Lakes possibly all the way to Middle Kilburn Lake. Friday would either be a super casual day if we pushed things on Thursday or we would work our way from Talon to Kilburn Lake. On Saturday we would only have around an 8km paddle up Kilburn Lake to the Leano Lake put-in.
After the emails went out with invites to previous canoe trip attendees the responses were tallied and we ended up with 4 canoes. Out of the 8 members there would be 2 new canoe trip members (Mike and Josh). The canoe teams would be:
- Harold and Bill
- Vern and Rod
- Mike and Josh
- Clarence and Greg
Each team was mainly responsible for it’s own gear and we split into two food teams, team 1 and 4 and team 2 and 3 would share camp stoves and supper meals. Cars were organized and Canoes were rented from Wilderness Supply in Winnipeg. Because we rented our gear in Winnipeg we needed a trailer and truck to pull it all the way to Leano Lake. On hindsight we should have rented in Red Lake but this is a “lesson learned” for next time. We agreed that with an 8 hour drive on Monday to Leano Lake we should leave around 4:30 AM.
Trip Report – Photo Album
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Trip Report – Video
Note: Please excuse the overlay music – I was in a certain place back in 2009. If you don’t like it simply turn down the volume. 🙂
Day 1, Mon Jul 13 – Winnipeg –> Red Lake –> Leano Lake
After a restless night’s sleep at Rod’s house in Winnipeg (Josh, Mike and I just crashed in his basement to various degrees of comfort) we groggily woke up at 03:45 on July 13 2009 and struggled our gear up the stairs and out the door to the waiting trucks, trying not to waken the entire neighborhood in the process! With only 3 hours of sleep I almost felt a bit ‘drunk’ – not the best feeling in the world but the excitement of finally starting this dream trip overrode any of the negative feelings.
Harold, Bill, Greg and Clarence showed up right on time and we piled into the vehicles and drove off towards Ontario. When you’re excited about something, it’s amazing how fast the time flies by. Before long we were cruising over the border and turning north onto highway 105 to Red Lake. Highway 105 is typical Canadian Shield driving. Trees. Bedrock. Gravel. More trees. More bedrock. More gravel… you get the point! After hours of driving through this terrain you really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere – which is precisely where you are.
Since our first trip to WCPP I’ve had dreams of driving through Red Lake and to the Leano Lake entry point. I don’t know why but the thought of driving down that logging road in the middle of nowhere had my imagination doing over time. Like most things unknown, it isn’t nearly as exciting or ‘bad’ as I was imagining either. After a brief stop in Red Lake to confirm our route and notify the park staff of our intentions we set off for Leano Lake, continuing out of Red Lake on hwy 105 heading west. Something quite funny happened at this point.
Because our imaginations were running high on the trip to Leano Lake, we ended up on some tiny back road heading off randomly into the bush! It was amusing and humbling when we finally had to admit that we were completely off route. The road we ended up on was so tight to the trees that we couldn’t even turn the trucks around without backing up first. OOPS. We weren’t even at the first portage and we were getting way off route already! Good thing that cooler heads prevailed and soon we were back on Hwy 105. It turns out that we went too far when the paved road past Madsen junctions with the gravel road (105) at coordinates N50 57 26, W93 55 39. We kept going straight here (618) and missed the turn to the right. We were somewhere in the bush around N50 56 60, W93 56 2 before we noticed and turned back. If you encounter signs for ‘Starratt-Olsen” you’ve also gone too far and should head back up the road to the 105 junction. The sign for the turn off will say “Suffel Lake Road”.
Hwy 105 becomes a gravel road after the turn-off, but it’s a surprisingly well traveled and graded road for the first while. We traveled quite a ways (past the actual ‘Red Lake’) before the road started to deteriorate a bit. Soon we were driving through 12-18 inches of water on the road – courtesy a recent rainfall and eager beaver. This felt more like we were expecting on this road. The trucks / trailer had no issues, although the rocks were pretty loose and things were banging around pretty good. With a low clearance car you could have issues on this road. A van should be no problem in most conditions other than spring thaw and after heavy rain. We passed a couple of alternate places for canoe entry to Woodland Caribou along the way to Leano – these were clearly marked in July 2009.
The road was much better than I was expecting, but you should treat it with respect. There are dips and turns and water flowing across it in places. We had two 4×4 trucks which helped the confidence levels. If I wasn’t in a 4×4 I wouldn’t have been nearly as happy with this drive. Along the way we startled a HUGE black moose that trotted down the middle of the road in front of us. Mike tried to take a photo but since he didn’t realize the lens cap was still on, all he got was black! We’ll just pretend we were that close to the moose.
At N50 47 55, W94 22 13 after passing the Johnson Lake entry point we came to the turn-off to Leano Lake – mile 51 road. This road was definitely a bush road! No room for two vehicles here. The mirrors on the trucks were touching the bushes as we entered further into “no-mans land”. It felt great. The sun was shining and puffy white clouds were floating lazily above us. We rolled the windows down and started to feel the stresses of regular life melt away. We pulled into the parking lot to see 2 or 3 other vehicles but when the engines shut off all we could hear was the delicious sound of mosquitoes, the ticking of hot engines and birds – nothing else. It took us roughly 8 hours to drive from Winnipeg to the Leano entry parking lot, including all stops.
Leano –> Bunny –> East Lunch Lake Camp
Since we knew we had around 15 km to go before setting up camp on Monday, we wasted no time getting the gear organized and setting off on our first portage. Yep! When you start at Leano Lake you start with a 350 meter portage just to get you all warmed up. With the afternoon sun beating down on us and zillions of bugs giving a hearty welcome we certainly warmed up quickly.
It’s amazing how heavy the pack feels on the first few portages and the canoe never feels as light as it should either but soon we were finished locking up the trucks and were throwing gear into empty canoes in Leano Lake. I can still feel the excitement as I type this report. There is nothing quite like paddling into the unknown on a lake where very few people manage to get to. After months of planning my paddle took its first of many dips into the cool waters of WCPP.
The first afternoon we had originally planned on paddling all the way into Lunch Lake. In the end we decided to camp at East Lunch Lake instead – the day was long enough with 8 hours driving, 15 km of paddling and 920 meters of portaging over 6 portages!
Even short portages take time since we do 3 trips over the length of the portage each time. First we carry as much gear as humanely possibly (pun intended). Then you walk all the way back to the canoe and carry that over the portage. Sometimes we got lucky with very short ones and could essentially carry the loaded canoe over with 4-6 guys but this is usually not worth the risk of injury that comes from 4 guys carrying a unwieldy and very heavy canoe over slippery rocks with trees and roots trying to trip you every step. It’s best to take portages slow and steady. With 4 groups vying for spots it’s usually worth either going ahead of the others or hanging back. Rod and I like to hang back and fish while the others scope out the route for us. 😉
The first night of a wilderness canoe trip is always a little weird. Only hours earlier we were in the middle of civilization and now we felt very much alone under an immense prairie sky. The weather was fantastic on Monday and the evening was very pleasant.
We didn’t catch very many fish, although Harold and Bill claimed that they hit a hot spot and got 17 pike out of some fast moving water after supper somewhere on East Lunch. We’re not sure we believe them but I guess we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt this time! With such a pleasant night we didn’t turn in to our tents until almost midnight.
Day 2, Tue July 14 – East Lunch – Jake – Burnt Rock- Mexican Hat Lake
Tuesday, July 14 2009 was probably the best day of the trip. The weather held up for us very nicely throughout most of the day. We started with a leisurely breakfast and soon were breaking camp and heading out of East Lunch Lake and through the upper reaches of Lunch Lake towards Jake Lake. Fishing wasn’t great through here and we kept paddling pretty good under a sky that was gradually darkening.
After a few portages we found ourselves in Burnt Rock Lake. Rod managed to nail a couple of Lake Trout here and Mike also caught one. We didn’t catch much of anything else though. As we ate a late lunch on Tuesday afternoon we noticed that the blue sky was gone and we were left under a light gray sky with clouds slowly moving towards us. After lunch we noticed the wind starting to pick up.
The 800 meter portage from Burnt Rock Lake to Mexican Hat Lake was a bit rushed. This portage was also a bit rustic. Nothing terrible, but not the open ‘highway’ of the first few either. We were getting further away from weekend travelers and you could tell. The sky was getting more and more threatening and sure enough! By the time we loaded into the canoes on Mexican Hat Lake we were being hit with wind and rain.
We didn’t linger around on Mexican Hat but rather rushed to find a suitable camp for 4 tents. This was one of the biggest challenges of such a large group. We did manage to find something though (right after the portage at N50 51 49, W94 38 20) and after setting up a good tarp system and our tents we settled in to eat supper and stare out at the wind and rain. I was getting an uneasy feeling of deja vu. We’ve spent canoe trips in bad weather before and it’s not nearly as much fun as ‘normal’ weather. A few rain storms are not an issue but when the cold fronts of June / July move in for a week at a time it can be down right BRUTAL. We’ve even been stranded for a day before due to bad weather on our way through Atikaki. I tried not to get despondent about things and without the benefit of hindsight, we always had high hopes that the weather would “clear soon”. Rod and I defied the weather and set off in our canoe after supper to try to bag some of Mexican Hat’s famous walleye. It wasn’t raining very hard and with a stiff breeze from the east, we decided it would be best to paddle into the wind so that we’d have an easy ride back to camp later that evening. As we paddled we trailed lures behind the boat – something Rod and I always do! It’s a bit of a pain but we do catch a lot of extra fish this way. We caught a few pike and then we perked our ears a bit. Could that be the sound of a waterfall in the distance? Or was it just wind? As we progressed further east we started to get excited. A waterfall was definitely out there somewhere and if experience has taught us anything it’s that waterfalls in WCPP mean walleye – and in the evening hours when they are feeding in the shallows it usually means a TON of walleye!
As we rounded a corner of the lake, we both got huge smiles. There was a gorgeous falls coming into a small cove with fast flowing water. I have never seen a more perfect walleye feeding area. And boy did we hammer walleye! Interestingly enough, there’s a perfect camp site right off this cove at coordinates N50 51 46, W94 37 0. Next time we come through here, this will be our camping spot for sure! After catching more than 30 fish we were joined by Clarence and Greg who also caught a bunch of fish.
After about 1.5 hours of fun we reluctantly headed back to camp with our boat smelling like fresh walleye and the rain starting up again too. We brought some walleye back to camp and enjoyed a very nice snack by a roaring fire that Josh and Mike built. It rained steadily all night. This was not good! The steady rain, cold temperature and wind from the east indicated that a strong (and long) cold front was settling over top of us. Our worst fears were being confirmed that this was not a temporary situation. It seemed that for once the forecasts were true and we were in for a bit of an ‘epic’ week, weather-wise.
Day 3, Wed July 15 – Mexican Hat – Nutria – Amber – Streak – Aegean Lake
July 15 2009 we woke up to pouring rain and a very strong west wind on Mexican Hat Lake. The west wind was not a good thing since we were going to be paddling west all day! We bundled up camp after a huddled and quiet breakfast. We were trying to stay positive but already our moods were a bit down. It’s always an adventure but it’s so much more pleasant when the adventure is spent under a lazy, warm sun than horizontal sheets of rain.
I’m not exaggerating about the horizontal rain! The wind and rain were so bad on Wednesday that all we did was paddle and portage. There was very minimal fishing or relaxing. We could only think of getting through a section of lake and then completing the next portage. This is why my next trip to WCPP will be longer than 5.5 days. I would like to do 9.5 days next time so that we can just sit in camp during nasty weather and relax instead of fight it.
There was one section where Rod and I were on the lee side of a small island, taking a paddling break when Mike, Josh, Harold and Bill passed us in their canoes. I told Rod to watch them as they came out of the protection of the island and straight into the wind. It honestly looked like they weren’t paddling at all! Their canoes were barely inching forward into the gale but their paddles were bending with the effort of straining forward. It was nuts.
The strangest and funniest moment of the day came on our portage from Amber to Streak Lake. As we approached the muddy start to the portage we could see a couple of people moving around with a dog. They looked positively wretched! It was an older couple in their late 50’s or 60’s. The women looked reasonably OK in a rain coat and pants but the man was looking pretty tired. He was just finishing a solo carry of their canoe and was slipping and sliding around in the muck in sandals. He beamed out at us from behind a large hat and we exchanged some pleasantries. They were spending a few weeks in the area so I told them about the great walleye camp on Mexican Hat Lake. I was very jealous of them knowing that they could paddle with the wind to a great camp and spend the next few days hunkered down in the storm while we’d be fighting onward. The portage was very rustic with bog, mud, mosquitoes and the ever-constant, pouring rain and wind.
By 17:00 we were getting tired of fighting wind, waves and rain and began looking for a suitable camping spot. We eventually found one that was a bit tight for 4 tents but after Rod and I found a spot off in the bush somewhere it was just perfect. We built a massive, warm fire and set up a good wind break / shelter with the tarps. Thank goodness for cheap blue tarps!! Rod and I had the perfect little spot for our tent, on about 4″ of moss.
I slept like a baby all night, waking up to pouring rain a few times. I would just give my head a little shake and go back to sleep. I used to get nervous while sleeping in a tent off in the bush but I think I’ve spent so much time doing it that now I’m almost immune to the night noises. I don’t freak out now until I hear grunting noises close by. Thankfully it’s only been Rod so far. 😉
Another reason for our remote tent location, relative to the others’ was the night sounds drifting from Mike and Josh’s location over the past few evenings already. I don’t know who was worse but I don’t know how those guys are still married! They put out enough sound to be annoying in the middle of a wind / rain storm and that says something. Ear plugs would not be out of line if you’re ever camping close to either of those two locomotives. I’m not kidding. Seriously. No, really – I’m serious.
Day 4, Thu July 16 – Aegean – Talon – Boomerang Lake
July 16 2009 was no better than the day before. As a matter of fact, it was even worse! Don’t get me wrong. The adventure was great on hindsight – I really wish I was back there – but at the time it was a bit of a struggle. The country we were passing through was absolutely gorgeous. The best canoeing country I’ve been in, and we’ve seen some mighty fine country over the years.
WCPP is another level of canoe trip experience. From soaring cliffs to small waterfalls and orange rocks to gliding eagles and the cries of vultures there is no doubt that this place will call me back again and again if I’m given the opportunity to go back. The problem with our trip in 2009 wasn’t the lack of beauty around us, it was the distraction of the brutal weather conditions that didn’t allow us the proper time to soak it all in that dulled the experience a bit.
Once we finished the wet 160 meter portage into Talon Lake we settled into the canoes for a nice long paddle. The wind and rain were still constant but there were breaks between squalls and we tried to do some fishing during them. The odd fish decided to make us happy and we actually caught more than I though we would, given that cold fronts and fish do not generally mix very well. We weren’t catching very many walleye or lake trout but the Northern Pike were keeping us happy enough. After a lunch break on Talon Lake on a sublime rock outcrop (too bad it was so windy that we had to bail into the tight spruce trees) we pointed the canoes southeast for Boomerang Lake.
Boomerang Lake was pleasant enough to paddle through – it was small enough to protect from most of the wind and fish were biting. Eventually we found ourselves at the east end of the lake, looking for the two drops that would take us into Dragon Lake and our camp for the night. We’d already had a long day of paddling and portaging (20 km paddle and 1.5 km portaging) and were feeling the effects of fighting the weather for another day when we entered the marshes at the northeast corner of Boomerang Lake at coordinates N50 43 21, W94 42 26. This is where things got a little ‘interesting’…
From the northwest corner of Boomerang Lake we were supposed to negotiate a small stream (the maps indicated a ‘drop’ here) before coming on a 375 meter long portage into Dragon Lake. We started up the small (and I mean small) stream. We worked our way very slowly against the current and up the stream. We were looking forward to setting up camp and getting out of the wind and cold rain so when the water way opened up a bit the race for the far end was on! Sometimes on these canoe trips you’ll suddenly find men acting like children and in this case it probably contributed to our temporary demise… After the race for the stream on the opposite side of the clearing was over, we continued to push on, further and further into a smaller and tighter stream.
After pushing over a final beaver dam we were in a small lake. Hurrah! We made it. NOT. Our 375 meter portage was NOWHERE to be found out of this small lake. Even the small lake itself wasn’t on the map near where our portage was supposed to be. Since the beaver dams had obviously changed the landscape we weren’t too concerned at first and we began tramping up and down hills, just off the lake, looking for a trail. After about 1 hour we started to get worried. The cloudy sky was contributing to earlier-than-normal dusk and our afternoon was quickly and steadily slipping away to early evening. And we were in the middle of a swampy mess with no idea where we were and definitely no trail and no portage anywhere around. Experience caught up with us and eventually we agreed that we should back track to where we knew we were on the map. From there we would take things very slowly and find that darn portage trail!
After going back and forth (not easy to do when you have to go over 2-3 beaver dams on a stream that you can NOT turn a canoe around on) a few times we were getting seriously distressed. Finally Harold (our map expert) basically declared in no uncertain terms that the portage “has to be right around here somewhere”. It wasn’t – but it HAD to be. Rod and I took off, ahead of the other boats, to enter the area we had raced through on our first pass. This was now our third time in this small pond / opening and we gave things a very close look. I stood up in the boat and mentioned to Rod that there was actually another stream entering this area – an even smaller one than the obvious one that got us lost after the boat race. This is around N50 43 14, W94 38 12 and was no longer open water like the map (and Google) showed. It was tight reeds with a tiny trickle of water coming through. Rod and I literally pulled our canoe up this small trickle of water and after about 150 meters, sure enough! There on the left was a ribbon tied to a tree marking an obvious portage trail! What a relief.
Suddenly we were no longer forced with the thought of being completely lost and possibly having to turn around on our trip or take an alternate (less traveled) route but we could finish the day with a portage and grab a camp site on Dragon Lake. We yelled for the rest of the group and they pulled their boats through as well. Our analysis after-the-fact was that we ended up in a small pond – and a dead end – at roughly N50 43 26, W94 38 14 after racing through the open area and not paying enough attention to the map. This cost us almost 3 hours and a lot of extra energy / sweat! This is one case where the GPS would have been very handy but since my GPS doesn’t work with my MAC computer I didn’t bring it. (Update 2019 – A decade later and I’m now canoeing with my cell phone in my pocket with all routes preloaded. This saves me from these sorts of desperate adventures…)
It turns out that our troubles for Thursday weren’t completely over yet. We still had to find a camp site and it was getting dark now. The rain was still coming down too. Again – experience paid off. We ended up bailing onto an impossibly steep rock face that had no room for 4 tents, much less an eating area. But somehow it worked. We really didn’t have a choice and sometimes that’s when you make the tough ones and just live with it.
Day 5, Fri July 17 – Dragon – Middle Kilburn – Kilburn Lake
Originally we had considered going through a new 1000 meter portage from Upper Kilburn to Kilburn Lake to make a very short paddling day on Friday, July 17 2009. But with the dawn of a new day and with less rain and finally a chance to maybe do some fishing we decided instead to take advantage of a southerly wind and paddle down to the south before letting the wind take us up Kilburn Lake to our final camp site.
While drifting up Kilburn Lake (in a northerly direction) we started seeing some brief sun (‘sucker’) holes in the sky. These soon turned gray again but the rain largely stopped. We fished our way slowly towards camp. Along the way we met up with two park employees in a canoe heading south. They chatted with us a while before we parted ways.
The fishing was decent but not spectacular and by mid-afternoon we rolled into the most deluxe camp of the trip on a moderate sized island at around N50 44 9, W94 28 22. This was a great site! Next time we do this loop (probably in reverse) we will have to spend our first night here. We easily fit on the flat rock / dirt site that had just the right number of trees for tarps / shelter and open enough to allow a breeze to keep the bugs at bay – temporarily anyway! We laid out gear to dry, made supper and then headed off for some long overdue evening walleye fishing.
We found a bay at N50 44 29, W94 29 30 that had two streams running into it. Sure enough! The walleye were plentiful and eager to bite. The unique thing happened when the streams were fished out (we released all the walleye due to their small size) and we started trolling deep running Rapalas for lake trout in the same bay. Soon we were hauling in LARGE walleye – the largest we’ve caught on any recent canoe trips. This was fun! It sort of made up for the previous 2.5 days of bad weather, at least we’d end on a good note.
After hauling in a ton of fish we decided to head back to camp for a nice late night snack of fresh walleye filets. Nothing tastes as good as a shore lunch of fresh walleye. The bugs were horrible as we filleted the fish but soon the taste of pure walleye meat shut out a lot of the pain of the last 2.5 days.
We went to bed with full tummies and without the sound of wind and rain on the tent for once.
Day 6, Sat July 18 – Kilburn – Leano Lake
Saturday morning, July 18 2009, dawned a bit brighter than the previous 3 mornings but the sun had to fight to make it through! We reluctantly packed up camp one last time and headed out of Kilburn Lake with some lingering glances back at the ‘walleye factory’ bay as we paddled past it one last time.
As we completed the last portage into Leano Lake the sun broke through. It wasn’t hot but the warm sun felt so good we took a break on a large rock at the south end of Leano and everyone took their first swim / bath for the week. It was VERY cold but felt refreshing and clean. None of us bothered putting bug spray back on – it felt too good to have clean skin for a bit.
Paddling up Leano Lake was a bit surreal in the warming weather. It sucked to be leaving now that the weather was finally getting back to normal. I think it’s at this point that I swore to myself that next time I came on a canoe trip here I would give it more time. Because of the 2.5 days of ‘survival’ canoeing the trip seemed really short and compressed. There simply wasn’t enough time to relax and enjoy the amazing wilderness around us because we were too busy trying to simply survive it.
The final portage out of Leano Lake back to the parking lot was hot and very buggy. The only advantage of the rainy / cold weather was that the bugs didn’t like it either. Now that the sun was out they were back with a vengeance and tore chunks out of our unprotected skin without mercy.
The ride home went well. Other than a trailer that was ready to bust in half thanks to the rough roads. 🙂 The sections of road that were flooded on the way in were recently patched on the way out so it’s nice to know that the roads are maintained in this area – to a certain extent anyway!