Trip Dates: Saturday, July 31, 2021 to Saturday, August 14, 2021
Total Trip Distance (km): 190
Total Portage Count: 23
Total Portage Distance (m): 4575 (x3)
Difficulty Notes: A wonderful, moderately difficult canoe trip traveling through 3 distinct landscapes including the Churchill River, Drinking River and McLennan Lake areas.
Lakes Traveled: Otter, Mountain, Drope, Nistowiak, Drinking, Boland, Pitching, Malchow, Rink, Soroski, Irving, Dirks, Wapassini, Solymos, Settee, Colin, Versailles, Minuhik, Davis, McLennan
Creeks / Rivers Traveled: Churchill River, Drinking River
In 2014, after buying my 16′ Carbon-Tec Souris River canoe I took my son on his first canoe trip. We decided that rather than drive all the way to my usual go-to canoeing destination in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park in Ontario we’d give a new area a try. We drove the ~11 hours from Calgary Alberta to Missinipe Saskatchewan and on the advice of the local outfitter from Churchill River Canoe Outfitters, Ric Dreiger, we enjoyed 3 wonderful days on the French – Ducker loop. I remember thinking a few things after this trip including that I’d be back to do a much longer trip sometime and that although this area is just as far north as WCPP it seemed much more travelled and populated thanks to settlements and reservations nearby. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing but gave the area a somewhat less “remote” feel than I’m used to in WCPP. At the time I didn’t realize how many folks travel the Churchill River, especially between Missinipe, Stanley Mission and La Ronge. After a planned trip to WCPP had to be cancelled due to massive wildfires and a complete park shutdown I once again turned my attention to the Churchill River and Missinipe area for a trip in early August 2021.
The authority on Canoe trips in the Churchill River area around Missinipe, Saskatchewan is Churchill River Canoe Outfitters (CRCO). Ric and Dan Driediger are very knowledgeable on a great many north Saskatchewan canoe routes. For any details on the area, contact them – they’re friendly and very quick to respond to email, something that a lot of northern outfitters don’t do. I’ve bought several of their outstanding maps as well. They are a no-brainer for planning and executing trips in many remote Canadian wilderness areas.
Please click the header below to launch the photo album of the trip.
Planning the Trip
As Covid-19 continued to destroy vacation plans, even within Canada for the 2020 tripping season, I realized that any big canoe trip would have to wait for 2021. Already in late 2020 and early 2021 I planned out a nice 230km circle route in my favorite canoeing destination – Woodland Caribou in northern Ontario. This would be my wife’s first canoe trip and we were both excited and somewhat nervous as the summer approached and the dates got closer and closer. I knew that Hanneke could do the trip from a physical perspective. She works out almost daily and one of her favorite workouts is rowing so that was directly applicable to canoe tripping. She also enjoys hiking which translates well to the many portages we’d have to do. What made me slightly nervous was whether or not she’d enjoy the hardships of tripping including weather, mud, bugs and storms. There was only one way to find out! Alas, as August approached (and even much earlier in June and July), WCPP was once again on fire. After the 2016 fires I didn’t think there was much left to burn but of course the areas that didn’t burn were now on fire and the park was completely closed to canoeists for the first time that I can remember. It was July and I was left to scramble and figure out another canoe destination which was obviously going to be the Churchill River around Missinipe since that was an area I was familiar with.
I contacted Ric Driedger from CRCO and asked about several routes. We settled pretty quickly on one of his favorite local loops which had us going down the Churchill River from Missinipe, past Stanley Mission and into Drinking Lake. From there we’d go up the Drinking River to Robertson Lake and from there back to Missinipe via the Stewart River. It was a good route, just over 200 kms and reasonable for Hann’s first canoeing expedition. The portages were travelled already in 2021 so we knew they’d go and Ric mailed me the relevant maps (and his book) so I could start planning our day-to-day adventures along the route. And then northern Saskatchewan also lit up – specifically around Missinipi! 🙁 Wildfires closed the road between La Ronge and Missinipe and things looked very grim for both the locals and anyone planning trips anywhere in the area for August. As the end of July approached we realized that there was a very good chance our trip would be cancelled or changed due to fires. Bears Camp on McLennan Lake nearly lost some buildings to a local fire and over two dozen cabins and a mining operation were burned in the area in the weeks before our trip! Despite all the bad reports coming down, we decided to take a big chance and make the drive, agreeing that we’d have to be more flexible than usual once we arrived in Missinipe.
Canada is HUGE. Like freaking HUGE. I don’t think most of us realize just how large this beautiful country of ours is. I am interested in the Missinipe area because it’s much closer to me than Woodland Caribou is. I live in Calgary, Alberta and the drive to WCPP is at least 18-20 hours. Driving to Missinipe should be much less, considering it’s two provinces closer right? Well… Not as much closer as you’d think. Google says the trip is just over 1000 km which doesn’t sound that far until you drive it! We left on Thursday afternoon after work with the intent of driving to Kindersley SK and hotelling it one night before getting up early enough to complete the drive to Missinipe on Friday. We arranged a stay in “Ravens Loft” in Missinipe Friday night with plans to start our trip early on Saturday morning from the CRCO dock. We drove from Calgary through parched farmland before cruising through the interesting hoodoos and badlands around Drumheller. From here we drove through more endless, rolling farmland through towns like Kindersley, Rosetown and Saskatoon. Everything was bone dry this time around and the landscape looked tired and desperate for moisture. We even thought the people in the communities we drove through looked worn out – likely from the combined effects of unrelenting heat, Covid-19 and a depressed economy.
Friday we drove out of Kindersley and north of Saskatoon and Prince Albert under a smokey sky. The road slowly started deteriorating as we drove further north. We passed Prince Albert National Park along the way – this is a park I’d like to visit some day. The landscape was slowly changing as we drove northwards. More and more pine trees dotted the landscape until they were thick along the road. Along with the trees came tons of lakes, rivers and the odd outcropping of distinct Canadian Shield underneath. We drove past old burn areas where hundreds of acres were destroyed by wildfires. We drove through a very recent burn along the road from only a week or two previous – the smell of smoke still thick in the air. Eventually we rolled through La Ronge, a small northern town sitting on the massive Lac La Ronge, a lake that should be feared by canoeists thanks to its immense area and potential for dangerous waves. There are many canoe trips starting in this area and all of them contain warnings about canoeing anywhere on this huge body of freshwater. One of the main reasons we were going even further north to Missinipe for our trip was to avoid the huge waters of Lac La Ronge. We stopped at a food truck in Air Ronge, a small settlement just north of La Ronge and enjoyed some very tasty pulled pork and fries. From Air Ronge we started the gravel road (102) which leads to Missinipe and much further north to Stony Rapids, 600 kms further up the road from Missinipe! As we drove towards Missinipe we were shocked to see a dark column of ominous smoke rising into the hot afternoon air just beyond the tiny hamlet – this was the Devil Lake wildfire.
The Devil Lake fire was so fresh that when we started chatting with Ric he didn’t even realize it had kicked off! It was nice to introduce Hann to Ric and talk and plan our trip with him for an hour or so at CRCO’s headquarters. We decided that even with the increased wildfire risks we would start our trip as planned and make changes as necessary once underway. The main area of concern for us was a series of fires and hotspots along the Stewart River – our exit route. With a hot forecast we expected the fires to get worse before they improved and were thankful that at least the winds were forecast to be extremely light to non existent for the next 2-3 days. On hindsight we could have easily paddled 4-10kms on Otter Lake on Friday afternoon and kicked off our trip a bit earlier but we enjoyed a night at the Raven’s Loft cabin instead. Ric’s parents used to own this comfortable if somewhat dated cabin and we enjoyed an afternoon and evening of wandering the empty streets of Missinipe (less than 2 dozen full-time residents) and preparing for our trip. From the CRCO dock on Otter Lake we watched a heli and water bomber fight the Devil Lake fire – the only firefighting activity we would see the whole time we were in northern Saskatchewan. Apparently there’s a “wait and see” attitude when it comes to fighting fires in SK right now and it’s pretty obvious from the damage that’s been done and the lack of activity we saw with many active fires.
Day 1 – Otter Lake – Robertson Falls – Twin Falls – Mountain Lake
Day 1 started bright and early and by 05:45 we were loading the canoe at CRCO’s dock on Otter Lake. The lake was a mirror as paddled past the Otter Lake Water Aerodrome (airport on the water) and turned around a nice campsite where we might stay next time rather than a cabin for our first night. Hanneke was treated to a perfect morning and within the first hour she was singing the praises of canoe tripping and wondering why she waited so long to do one! Conditions couldn’t have been better on this first day of our trip. We witnessed flirting loons, flying eagles and jumping fish all in the first few hours. The lake was still a mirror 3.5 hours later as we pulled up to the first portage of the trip around Robertson Falls.
The portage around Robertson Falls was a highway and very easy to navigate. There was a large youth group camped there, just rolling out of bed and sitting around a morning fire. Their group leader was super friendly and offered to help carry gear but we politely turned him down, wanting to do the carry ourselves. As with KC a few years previous, I would be solo carrying the canoe instead of tandem carrying like we used to. I have discovered that with a 39lb canoe it’s actually much easier and safer to solo carry where I can put my feet where I want and when I want rather than the familiar push and pull of a tandem carry.
As we put in at the bottom of Robertson Falls I was reminded that canoeists along the Churchill River are more used to fast water than flat water canoists like myself who grew up canoeing lakes rather than rivers and streams. The water just downstream of the portage was full of strong currents but as usual my boat floated effortlessly over most of the turmoil below. You don’t want to capsize here but why would you? We put on our life jackets just in case. So far it was pretty easy going as we paddled in the strong current towards Twin Falls and Twin Falls Lodge. We knew the next portage went right through the lodge grounds but weren’t sure where. The youth group leader assured us that we’d also be invited in for coffee which sounded pretty darn good to me.
Sure enough! As we pulled into the dock under the lodge buildings, Randy Nelson came to greet us. We shook hands and he made the offer of a tour and fresh coffee. We weren’t going to say no the offer. Twin Falls Lodge is a beautifully renovated fishing camp that is worth much more attention than it gets. They even have a “glamping tent” option for canoeists which includes meals and a private tent site just off the main resort. I can’t imagine a better way to start or end a trip than to take advantage of their canoeist options. Lorraine put on a fresh pot of coffee while Randy showed us around, including some rooms that had yet to be slept in, they were that new. Randy was full of interesting stories both from his career as a fisheries enforcement officer and his stints as the lodge steward and handyman. He was also one bad weather marathon from being Canada’s fastest man over 50 (it must drive him nuts as a runner to be stuck on an island for weeks on end). We chatted and visited for over an hour, taking advantage of the lodge’s wi-fi to check the fire and weather forecasts and let our kids know we were still alive. It was a bit strange to be so comfortable on a canoe trip and soon I was getting the itch to get back out onto the water and away from civilization.
Randy showed us the way along a very nice boardwalk he’d constructed taking us across the point of land where the lodge sits and down to Mountain Lake at the bottom of Twin Falls. Originally we were thinking of camping on Cow Island (named for some modern pictographs found there) but Ric convinced me to go a bit further just south of Edwards Island instead. At first I wasn’t sure there was a site where indicated on the map, but there was and it was a very fine site.
As we set up camp, thick smoke settled in over us. I was quite nervous about the fire situation and a story that Randy told us from a week previous in this same area didn’t help! He mentioned a group of canoeists who were awakened in the middle of the night by a wall of flames and escaped upriver in the dark. This wasn’t something I was interested in trying for myself. When I tried jigging near camp along a fast channel of water between our island and another just to the NE, I was delighted to hook a nice fat walleye on my very first cast. The next three casts also produced fish and we were guaranteed all we could eat for our first cooked meal of the trip. We spent our first night along the Churchill River enjoying a (very) small campfire and fiery sunset. I caught over a dozen walleye after supper, barely even trying.
Hanneke couldn’t have picked a better day for her first canoe expedition. There were NO bugs, NO wind, we had a great campsite, caught lots of fish and had a great evening at camp. Without the fires burning nearby this would have been a 10/10 start, and it was a 9.8/10 one anyway. After thinking about it and discussing it most of the day we decided already on day 1 that we would NOT be going up the Drinking River due to the wildfire dangers and the dry weather forecasts I was getting from our daughter Kaycie via my InReach satellite communicator. I planned out an alternate trip sticking around the Mountain Lake and Otter Lake area. It sucked compared to our original plans but it was better than nothing. It didn’t help our comfort levels that ash from nearby fires was starting to coat our tent and the lake surface around us. The situation seemed quite dire at this early stage and I was very nervous about needing a rescue. Something people don’t consider is that even if the rescue is covered by insurance (not a guarantee) what about all our gear and my $4k canoe? A rescue would not only be irresponsible but a giant PITA and I was keen to avoid it even if it meant pretty much cancelling our trip. 🙁
Day 2 – Mountain Lake – Stanley Mission – Drope Lake
We awoke to pretty thick smoke on August 1, the 2nd day of our trip on Mountain Lake along the Churchill River. My main concern the first week of the trip was going down the Churchill River and having to turn back upstream due to wildfires blocking our route up the Drinking River. The Churchill is a big enough river that paddling upstream in certain sections is not a guaranteed success. Even though water levels were pretty low in early August, Ric wasn’t 100% sure we’d get back up spots like Frog Narrows or the downstream section of Potter Rapids. Even the fast water just past Stanley Mission can be an issue to paddle up in higher water and we didn’t know what to expect at this point. After a fresh night’s sleep, we made the decision to continue paddling past Stanley Mission and through the fast water to Drope Lake before deciding on our next steps rather than kibosh our original plans too quickly.
The first order of the day was to paddle down Mountain Lake (a large lake where a stiff north or south wind would be an issue) and find some pictographs rumored to be somewhere on a skinny peninsula of land along our route. Once again we found ourselves paddling on glass away from our site. It took a bit to find the pictographs but once we spotted them they were obvious. The map isn’t clear, but they’re located on the main lake side of the peninsula about half way down on an obvious cliff face above the water.
After viewing the pictographs we were excited to paddle down the lake and past the settlement of Stanley Mission (est. 1851) towards Saskatchewan’s oldest standing building – the Holy Trinity Anglican Church built by Cree craftsmen between the years of 1854 and 1860.
The main dock had yellow tape blocking it off and we weren’t sure about viewing the site thinking maybe it was a Covid-19 restriction. There was nobody around on this perfect, warm Sunday morning so we docked at another spot slightly north of the main one and entered the grounds through an old cemetary at the back of the church. The yellow tape was due to a fresh paint job being done on the church’s exterior so we didn’t feel as bad walking around. It was too bad we couldn’t see inside the church but even the grounds were fascinating. Reading the headstones on many of the graves along the walk was sad – many were very young when they died including a 3 day old infant from 1901. More recent burials were also evident indicating that the cemetery is still used today.
We wanted to be respectful so we didn’t wander the grounds too long and soon were ready to get back on the river. But wait a minute! In a brilliant flash I realized that with the settlement of Stanley Mission right across the Churchill River from the historic site, I probably had cellular service. We decided to sit in the shade (it was bloody hot) and see if we could get some updated fire / weather conditions on my phone. It worked brilliantly. It took over an hour thanks to intermittent cell service but eventually I sussed out recent fire activity and hotspots that could impact our route. The news wasn’t great, unfortunately. We’d already noticed two fires starting just south of Stanley Mission on our morning paddle down Mountain Lake and now we realized that there were also hotspots east of the Stewart River fires that could easily spread out to impact our route up the Drinking River too! The weather forecast was for hot, dry conditions for at least two more days. I texted Ric and he agreed that things were looking a little dire. I suggested a possible escape exit through either McLennan or Hailstone Lake at the end of our trip and he agreed this could work rather than trying to get down the Stewart River. The only issue, of course, was that who knew what the conditions would be like 8 or 9 days in the future?! Ric confirmed that we could paddle up the fast water just past Stanley Mission so we decided to camp in Drope Lake and determine next steps from there.
After departing the historic site our first thoughts were getting through the section of the Churchill River with a “fast water” designation on the map just past the mission. I was nervous since I’m not a huge river paddling guy and didn’t know what to expect. As we started through the fast water however, we spotted a solo paddler coming upriver. And she wasn’t very big either! Our fears of not being able to reverse course if needed were assuaged and we cheerfully continued on our way towards the set of Stanley Rapids where our next obstacle awaited. There are two sets of Stanley Rapids. The more southerly rapids are class III and don’t have a portage nearby. The smaller, more northerly set are class II and present the canoeist with 3 options. You can run them, line them or portage them. The lining option includes a strange “bumper boardwalk” that I’ve never seen before but is common along the Churchill apparently. Rubber bumpers on a very slick, half submerged boardwalk help folks avoid the portages by pulling or pushing their loaded boats along it. Personally I think they present more risks than they’re worth in the form of a damaged boat or bodily injury but we witnessed a group use this set the following day and it does work. We portaged instead, past a standing campsite and environmentally friendly biffy that we gratefully used.
So far the sites we’d seen along the Churchill were pretty used but also quite clean. The site located just downstream of the class III rapids on a small island was an exception to this rule. We had just finished offloading our gear at this site when two motorboats came down the rapids and straight for the island we were planning to camp on. Firstly I was shocked to see motorboats come down a class III rapid like it was nothing. Secondly we were not expecting to have a group of 8 people on “our” site. They were obviously very nice people but we realized pretty quickly that this site was not only overused but quite busy. The boats were dropping people off so they could run back UP the rapids (!!) and pick up more people who were left behind to make the boats lighter to avoid hitting shallow rocks in the rapids. As soon as the group moved on downriver (going to Nistowiak Falls for a day trip) we packed up our canoe and moved further down Drope Lake to find a quieter island. We were tired and very hot at this point but it was totally worth it when we found a nice island site. This site was also heavily used with lots of toilet paper laying around but other than that it was a great spot. We were too tired to look for another so we cleaned up some of the mess and pitched camp.
It was scorching hot at our island camp on Drope Lake. We took a bath to cool down but even that was temporary relief at best. We could see smoke from wildfires rising in thick columns just south of our position and honestly we thought our plans to head up the Drinking River were kaput at this point. Ash was falling like snow from the hot air and coating our tent and gear. Since there was no guarantee we’d get up the fast water at Frog Narrows just before Nistowiak Lake, we decided to spend at least 1 extra rest day on Drope Lake to see what the fires would do. Our 2nd evening of the trip was just as sublime as the first – except we didn’t dare light a fire due to the dry nature of our island camp. It’s hard to explain just how touchy the fire situation felt at this point. Every little spark was a threat – even my stove lit a bit of grass on fire when I tried boiling some water!
As dusk fell over the lake we were shocked to see small outboard motorboats still heading up the class III rapids with almost zero visibility! I guess for the locals it’s a pretty routine run but there’s gotta be some risks with doing so in the dark.
Day 3 – Drope Lake
Day 3 dawned very smokey with ash falling constantly onto our site and coating everything. After getting some dew overnight the previous two days, day 3 dawned dry as a dusty old bone without any moisture whatsoever. I was getting antsy sitting around waiting for the fire situation to calm down and knew that if we couldn’t move on in the next few days our trip up the Drinking River wasn’t happening.
We canoed over to the class II rapids where we caught numerous walleye and put a few on the stringer for lunch. We met the group who had their camp set up there and once again were happy to use the biffy set up along the portage – it beat using the bush! We explored another island just to the north of our island and were surprised to find a LOT of trash lying around some dilapidated shelters. I’ve noticed this trend along the Churchill over a couple of canoe trips now. I don’t think I’m in a position to speculate too much on the “why’s” or the “how’s” of this trend but I do know that if there’s bear issues in certain places exactly why this is! I didn’t photograph or video any of the horrendous mess because honestly it was pretty depressing. We spotted one of the fires south of the lake flare up during the hot afternoon and spent the rest of the day reading, relaxing and trying not to stress out about the wildfires flaring up all around us and the ash that continued to fall like snowflakes.
Later in the afternoon a young couple in a bright yellow Clipper canoe set up camp just SE of ours on a neighboring island. I wandered over to the SE end of our island and yelled back and forth with them for a few moments, determining that they came from “the falls” (assume they meant Nistowiak) and were paddling back to Stanley Mission where they’d started from. It was their first canoe trip together and it was good to know they managed to paddle up Frog Narrows so we’d be able to do the same.
Day 4 – Drope Lake
Our plans for day 4 included a visit to some rumored ruins of a uranium mine from the 1950’s on the south shores of Drope Lake. I couldn’t find any more information on this mine so if anyone knows anything please let me know. It was extremely humid and the air felt like it could explode into tstorms at some point but we needed to get off our island for a bit. We paddled down the lake from our site, somewhat cautiously since we knew there was an active fire to the south and couldn’t really see anything in the thick smoke. I spotted an orange ribbon on a fallen tree and headed over to it where a trail leading into thick bush appeared. For the next hour or so we explored the mine site. Interestingly, the trail that the ribbon marked wasn’t actually leading to the mine site at all – I think it was a trappers trail or something. I knew from my canadian base map approximately where the mine buildings were supposed to be so we bushwhacked towards them and found them pretty easily. There was evidence that more people visit these ruins with trails around most of the ruins.
With smoke drifting through the forest and tons of mosquitoes (the only bug event of the trip) we felt like explorers stumbling on an old ruin. Orange fencing looked fairly recent and towards the end of our exploration we found a bright orange sign telling us to “stay out” – a bit too late for that!
After getting too many mosquito bites for our liking we bailed from the mine site and canoed back to Little Stanley Rapids to catch more lunch. The falls delivered once again with dozens of walleye caught in less than an hour. I went on a 10 fish in 10 casts run at one point. We saw a group of 4 experienced looking canoeists with 2 canoes approach the portage and I paddled us over to chat with them. It turns out that one of the canoeists is a pretty accomplished Canadian – Jason Shoonover, a self-described “writer, adventurer, expedition leader, ethnologist, archaeologist, paleontologist, canoeist, naturalist, photographer” and more! We chatted about the conditions and their trip to Nistowiak Lake where they spent 6 days enjoying the area. Jason has done many canoe trips over the years and I was super jealous of his gorgeous carbon fusion, 36lb Swift canoe. We swapped purple cabbage for some pink jig heads and white tails and I watched them use the slick canoe ramp beside the rapids – they made it look pretty easy but I’m still not convinced this is any better than simply portaging. Jason gave me some pointers on running Frog Narrows – basically head straight into the upstream “V” and don’t mess around with trying to sneak into the sides of the strong current. Him and his partner got into trouble a few years previous when doing that in much higher water, ending up in a whirlpool and taking on water. I am convinced that I should run more small rapids even in my carbon boat. Jason wasn’t at all concerned about it with his boat and mine is arguably a bit stronger than his albeit two lbs heavier!
When we got back to camp I texted Ric (we still had spotty cell reception) and he indicated that most of our planned route was still OK to travel but we’d need some rain in order to pull off a successful exit on the north end. Hmmm. At around 19:30 rain finally started to fall on Drope Lake and we finalized plans to head for the Drinking River the following day, hoping that moisture would continue to fall for the entire night.
Day 5 – Drope Lake – Nistowiak Lake (Falls) – Drinking Lake – Boland Lake
August 4th and the 5th day of our trip dawned gray and smokey and unfortunately rain free. Hann convinced me that we should still “go for it” and I agreed. The WX was consistently showing a pretty drastic weather shift with northerly winds, cool daytime temperatures and spotty rain for the next few days at least. After sitting on Drope Lake for 3 nights we were more than ready for a change of pace and scenery – not that we could see very much in all the smoke! We left camp at around 06:30 and ran the Frog Narrows with no issues whatsoever. We laughed at ourselves for getting nervous, it was basically a complete non-event with some fast water that we simply bobbed and canoed straight over. I could see it being much harder with higher water, especially going upstream.
Originally we decided to give Nistowiak Falls a miss on our way past and visit it another time (Nistowiak is a Cree word referring to the convergence of waters). Winds were forecast to increase from the NE which would be directly into our faces and we wanted to get to the northern part of Drinking Lake and possibly as far as Boland Lake. As we paddled into Nistowiak Lake we changed our minds. The falls are a major attraction in the area and when would we realistically be back and this close by? We were plenty early and had lots of time so we headed slightly off course towards Rapid River and the trail to the falls. We paddled past a few tired looking cabins before arriving at the base of Fisher Rapids and Jim’s Fishing Camp at the tail of the Rapid River that runs down between Iskwatikan Lake and Nistowiak Lake.
The trail to the falls was easy to follow along Rapid River and the morning lighting was mysterious and gloomy as we approached the thundering sound of the falls. They did not disappoint! Nistowiak Falls are some of the more impressive falls I’ve seen on a canoe trip with incredible power and atmosphere. I was humbled as I sat there watching the thundering mass of water and we spent a few minutes soaking it in – glad to be the only humans around at this early hour.
After letting the atmosphere of the falls soak in for a few minutes it was time for us to move on. We hiked back down the trail to the dock and our canoe, waving at some residents on their front porch as we paddled off onto the lake. I would have loved to visit with them for a bit but the NE winds were increasing and we had some stretches of large water to navigate so we pushed on. Potter Rapids was another interesting section of the Churchill River. Firstly, there was a system of rubber bumpers along a boardwalk for the entire 100+ meter portage (presumably to drag a loaded boat over). Secondly, the camp on RR along the portage boardwalk was in a pretty bad state of repair. The impressive Voyageur Lodge on RL has much newer buildings so maybe the ruined buildings are from a previous lodge or something?
After being underwhelmed at the marked fast water sections of the Churchill River so far, including near Stanley Mission and through the Frog Narrows we slightly underestimated the “riffles and boils” section downstream of Potter Rapids. As with most portages along the Churchill, this one is as tight as humanly possible to the rapids and our put-in and paddle out of the base of the rapids was in turbulent water. As I said to Hann at one point – “why do they put the portage in half way down the f’ing rapids?!”. 😉 We survived but there were a few aggressive strokes needed to counter some of the more turbulent flows. Paddling up this section would be problematic, especially in high water.
From the base of Potter Rapids we paddled into Drinking Lake before pivoting to the NE against strong winds. To be honest it felt great to work out after two rest days on Drope Lake and I relished the feeling of a tough paddle. My canoe handles waves very well and we made progress up to the NE end of the lake past a group of people gathered at a set of cabins along the west shore of Wium Bay. We watched a float plane land near the cabins, presumably offloading supplies or people and reminding us that we were getting more remote now that we’d turned off the Churchill towards the Drinking River. We were getting tired from battling against stiff winds as we searched for a campsite on the many small islands dotting Wium Bay at the NE end of Drinking Lake. Alas, we could find nothing! I was quite surprised by this but after checking out a few possibilities it became apparent that none of the islands would work very well for a camp. We had to move on to Boland Lake.
With some reluctance we dug the paddles in again and continued a few kms to Boland Lake, crossing our fingers that the one tiny island on the lake would work for a camp. This was a risky move considering that there were no sites marked on our map and there was no reason to believe this island would work when the 4 or 5 back in Drinking Lake hadn’t! Wouldn’t you know it, however, the island worked perfectly. I could find no sign of a previous camp, therefore it was a “bush” camp but it worked about as well as could be expected.
We enjoyed a small fire near the water (so we couldn’t start an accidental one) and the winds died down nicely by the time the sun sank to the west of our camp. The smoke also pretty much vanished for the first time on our trip and we wore toques in the chilly evening air. We proved once again on this day that we both enjoy paddling, going almost 27 kms and still arriving at camp fairly early. I think if we wanted to we could easily do a trip where we averaged 25-30 kms per day even on flat lakes (i.e. no current).
Day 6 – Boland Lake – Pitching – Malchow – Soroski Lake
August 5th, our sixth day of the trip, had us up and at ‘er early once again. We tended towards early bedtimes and early wakeups on this trip simply due to cool nights and cautious campfires. Originally our plans for today were fairly mild, only a 14km paddle to a campsite that Ric marked on my map in Malchow Lake on the only island in that lake at the south end. By my tone you can infer that we did not end up staying here – more on that later.
As we approached the first portage on the Drinking River up Hunter Falls I wondered what it would be like. We caught our last few walleye of the trip at the base of the falls (still on the Churchill River side) before starting up the obvious wide portage on river left (RL) as indicated on our map. What was quite different from our maps was a nonexistent 200m portage on RR and the fact that our RL portage wasn’t nearly 500m long. Apparently we were on a winter trapline trail but the portage cuts off the trail early at the top of the rapids to the falls making the 200m RL portage a no-brainer. We also discovered the remains of an old gold mine / sluice box along the trial in the woods next to it. Hunter Falls were also accessible from the main trail via an obvious side trail.
Pitching Lake was a gorgeous boreal lake – everything you expect from a pristine wilderness lake along the vast stretches of Canadian Shield. This was the start of the 2nd distinct area of our 2021 trip. The first was the historical Churchill River and now we were starting up the Drinking River – much less traveled and much more the wilderness that I’m used to paddling. After seeing dozens of people in motorboats, cabins and canoes on the Churchill, we didn’t see a single other human on our journey up the Drinking River! I caught the biggest fish of the trip (~36″ pike) on Pitching Lake while trolling a black and white Len Thompson spoon.
We paddled up Alexander Bay – a northern arm of Pitching Lake – before executing two portages in a row up Wick Rapids. We couldn’t find the 500m snowmobile trail on RL but the 75m and 150m portages closer to the rapids were easy to spot. The first (75m) portage was made much more complicated by some sort of makeshift canoe ramp – people up here REALLY hate portaging apparently! They need to get lighter gear! 😉
We paddled towards the small island with the marked campsite on it in south Malchow Lake but despite looking pretty closely (I think I even got out of the canoe) we didn’t find a good site here. We were a little disappointed but decided there wasn’t much to do but move on towards Sorosky Lake – giving us another 27km day. The paddling was gorgeous and the portages stayed reasonable.
This was one of my favorite days of the trip with little smoke, wild views, deep, clear lakes and wilderness portages including a wonderful 450m walk beside Brown Rapids and Hepburn Falls. The falls were shockingly low and a shallow rock garden after the 50m portage into Sorosky lake was a bit of a surprise but we enjoyed the variety of landscapes and the perfect paddling conditions.
As we paddled past a small island on Sorosky Lake just before the route turned to the SE we spotted a perfect camp and couldn’t resist stopping for the night. We enjoyed another perfect afternoon and evening with no bugs and loons serenading us. Butterflies flitted around us as we read our books, fished from shore and took a chilly bath in the clear waters of Sorosky Lake.
Smoke rolled in for the afternoon but calmed again in the evening as we prepared for another big day on Friday to Wapassini Lake. Once again the toques came on in the evening and we used most of our clothing layers to stay warm in the cooler evening air.
Day 7 – Sorosky Lake – Irving – Unnamed – Unnamed – Dirks – Wapassini Lake
Friday August 6 dawned bright and warm and we took full advantage of the perfect canoeing conditions leaving our delightful camp on Sorosky Lake by 08:00. We paddled against some stiff winds up the length of Irving Lake, inching our way past a huge cabin complex on its western shores before finding the off-river 150m portage back into an unnamed lake along the Drinking River. Once again the landscape was classic shield country with green trees, blue skies and deep clear lakes. We were surprised by another rock garden into Dirks Lake but on hindsight Ric marked this on the map for me as “line”. We just walked right up this section but in high water you’d have to be careful here, especially going downriver.
Dirks Lake was a very nice paddle despite some windy conditions and we caught fish any time we tried, including large Northern Pike with beautiful colors. The portages continued to be quite easy to spot despite no markings or flaggings thanks to the map and my experience. Often Hann was surprised how quickly I could spot the unnatural openings along the shoreline that is usually a good indication of a human trail of some sort.
We knew we wanted to camp on Wapassini and were planning on a rest day there. The issue was finding a good site. There were a TON of islands as we paddled north but most didn’t look to have any sort of campsite on them. I was getting concerned as we paddled past a marked site on the map, not spotting anything resembling a camp there. Despite having to paddle against the wind I encouraged Hann that we should paddle all the way around one of the last possible island sites to see if there was anything we’d missed. Sure enough. There was a perfect – albeit slightly exposed – site clearly visible from west side of a small submarine-shaped island that we’d missed while paddling past its east side. PHEW. We were pretty tuckered at this point after a 2nd day in a row with 28 kms of paddling against some strong winds.
The submarine island site was pretty ideal other than being a wee bit exposed to the wind. This is a blessing and a curse as the wind keeps any bugs away. On this trip bugs were basically nonexistent but that is very rare. As with most other sites we stayed at (off the Churchill River) on our trip this site only had room for one tent. I’m used to sites in WCPP that often fit 3 or even 4 tents. I’m not sure what large canoe parties do along this route but on most of the sites we stayed there wasn’t many flat tent spaces.
Day 8 – Wapassini Lake
The 8th day of the trip started off with very high humidity and peels of thunder at 06:30 in the distance. The possibility of rain excited us greatly, the reality of accompanying tstorms wasn’t so great. I woke Hann up so that we could get our morning routine (i.e. emptying our bladders) out of the way before the storm hit us. Sure enough! Soon after we were done our business we were hit with a short, intense tstorm that soaked the landscape nicely.
The rest of our Saturday was spent reading, journaling and relaxing in the hammock. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday! We both felt that this was the day we really settled into the trip. It usually takes me about a week to settle into a wilderness trip and get into the daily rhythm of a world consisting of open water, endless skies and deep forests. This is the point in the trip when I forget about things like social media, email, teams meetings and the news cycle. There are different ways of cleansing oneself and this one is my favorite. Once again we were surprised by how cool the evenings and nights were – the temperate often dipped below 11 degrees overnight.
Day 9 – Wapassini Lake – Robertson Lake
Sunday August 8th, the 9th day of our trip, was another great day. We paddled away from the submarine island site on Wapassini Lake in light rain before I nailed two large Lake Trout. I expected to start catching these beautiful fish in this area but I didn’t expect to catch one on a spoon in August! Usually deep dwellers as the water warms, I count on deep diving blue Rapalas to catch these fish while trolling. Thunder was peeling towards us rapidly as I hauled the 2nd fish into the boat and we quickly paddled to a marked site along the shores of Wapassini determined to stay as dry as possible. As we erected a tarp on the “site” (that wasn’t really a site at all) the thunder got louder and louder. Just as we put on all our layers (it was bloody cold) the storm hit hard.
It took about an hour for the storms to move over us and we enjoyed a hot cup of coffee as we waited it out under our blue camp tarp. I bailed the canoe a few times and there was a few inches of water in it each time. On a positive note the smoke we’d started smelling again that morning was now gone and I really hoped that this latest round of storms and heavy rain was enough to dampen any fires near our route. We chased the storm clouds out of the north end of Wapassini Lake, taking in more beautiful boreal landscapes along its steep shorelines. A fire went through here in the last decade or so and the rocky cliffs were colorful with sunshine on wet rock as we paddled beneath them. Robertson Lake was extremely scenic with lots of potential island sites but the one marked on our map was disappointingly devoid of a good tent area and the other campsite didn’t exist at all! We loved the fire area at the “sunrise camp” and decided to try to make it work.
I spent an hour clearing thick blowdown to make a perfect tent site at the sunrise camp and took the site from a “C” to an “A”. It became our favorite campsite of the entire trip with protection and great views of the lake and obviously the sunrise! The air was much clearer than any other point in the trip so far and much cooler too. We enjoyed a nice fire on the point and went to bed very satisfied with another perfect day behind us.
Day 10 – Robertson Lake – Solymos – Settee – Colin Lake
I woke up at 05:30 pretty darn chilly on Robertson Lake. It was August 9th and my light sleeping bag wasn’t quite up to the 8 degrees overnight! Despite wearing a toque and a down jacket to bed I was underdressed. I got up and started a small fire before noticing that this morning was going to be pretty special. I spent the next 30 minutes with the camera enjoying a gorgeous sunrise.
There was no smoke in the air as I continued to take photos of the incredible sunrise and mists swirling over the lake near our camp. These are the moments that justify bringing 7lbs and $7,000 of camera gear along on these trips. This was the first canoe trip in many years that I really used and enjoyed using my expensive camera gear for once. In both 2018 and 2019 I found myself shooting too many photos on my iPhone simply out of convenience. On this trip I constantly reached for the pelican case with my Nikon Z7 in it and found myself enjoying the experience much more.
We left our camp before 07:30 thanks to my early morning rising and paddled out of a glass-smooth Robertson Lake to the sounds of loons with bald eagles flying overhead. It was a magical morning paddle until we hit the longest and mankiest portage of the trip out of Robertson towards Solymos Lake. The portage was an unmarked length on the map but I measured it at 720 meters. It was also slightly south of where it was marked on the map on the Robertson end resulting in some confusion as I tramped through forest and bog looking for it. As usual, if you’re not on the portage you will know it! I put in a nice big blaze on a tree at the start of the portage so hopefully the next party will find it easier. Thank goodness someone came through here with a chainsaw at some point because between the blowdown and bog it was bad enough with a fairly decent trail!
After the long portage we enjoyed a nice paddle through Solymos Lake including catching lake trout between two landscape “gates” where there’s a nice camp nearby. This is the start of a route leading south towards Mountain Lake that I’d like to do someday. We continued on towards Settee Lake.
Once we completed the portage from Solymos to Settee we noticed a VERY fresh patch of burnt forest along the shores ahead. This was burning only days before we arrived and was the closest to an active burn that we came on our trip.
We had three more portages including a 420 meter before finally paddling into Colin Lake towards the giant Sandomirsky Island that takes up most of the lake. A deep blue sky with puffy white clouds and clear lakes made this another wonderful paddle. Sandomirsky Island was burnt along with the whole north shoreline of Coline Lake in a 2015 fire and this impacted the only marked campsite on the northern tip of the large island.
Thanks to the burn the campsite on Colin Lake was likely our least favorite of the trip. The tent pad was good but very exposed to the elements and the camp kitchen area was a bit manky. It wasn’t horrid by any means and in good weather it would suffice. I even found a good spot for the hammock but it was pretty exposed to a cool NW wind that was pretty strong already.
Day 11 – Colin Lake – Versailles – Minuhik Lake
From my journal at 08:00 on Tuesday, August 10th at our Colin Lake camp;
WOW! What a night! Firstly, it’s raining again (yeah!) and it’s only 11 degrees outside with a cold steady drizzle and no lightning. The timing couldn’t be better to hopefully put one final nail in the coffins of all the local fires. But the “WOW” isn’t for the rain on the tarp over my head but for what I experienced last night. I woke up around 01:30 and my first thought was “crap, I have pee really bad”. I haven’t had to get up at night yet this trip and I was annoyed. I reluctantly grabbed my headlamp and groggily exited the tent. YOWSERS. My foggy brain was instantly snapped wide awake. The night sky overhead was absolutely brilliant with no moon and no smoke or clouds to mar the Milky Way and aurora borealis clearly visible dancing over the lake to the north. I whispered loudly to Hann that there was a lightshow going on and that I was going to take a few photos before coming back to bed. At 03:00 I finally crawled back into my sleeping bag with my soul full and the trip officially complete. Colin Lake may be a “B” grade campsite but the views and the experience I got out of it during our night there deserves a solid “A+”.
Leftover Perseid meteors streaked overhead as I photographed the incredible night skies. At one point while taking shots of the northern lights they got so bright that my camera settings didn’t work anymore and I blew the highlights! I’ve experienced nights like this only a few times in my life and each one has been a transcendent experience. Some ancient wonder from a distant past comes bubbling to the surface of my consciousness as I look up and marvel at our tiny place in this vast universe that surrounds us.
As evidenced by these photos, bringing my Nikon Z7 with the incredible wide-angle 14-24mm f/2.8 S lens was a pretty darn great idea on hindsight! The night started off with a wide angle shot including the Milky Way and the planet of Mars reflecting in the lake and ended with some of the brightest aurora borealis I’ve ever seen. To think that without a full bladder I would have missed this highlight of my YEAR, nevermind the trip is humbling.
Unfortunately the day after a stunning night beneath the stars would be the toughest conditions and paddling of our trip. Strong NW winds relentlessly hammered our exposed site in Colin Lake and as the morning progressed we had a decision to make. Either stay hunkered down or brave the wind and waves and try to make it to Minuhik Lake. Obviously we decided to tackle the rough conditions head-on. And they were rough indeed! We desperately paddled off our site in two foot waves and strong winds before turning SW around the huge Sandomirsky Island. I thought we’d have some protection from the NW wind here and we did but it was still brutal.
As we turned straight west towards Gowrie Bay and Versailles Lake the conditions worsened dramatically to include driving sheets of cold rain and even stronger NW winds. For the first time in days we met another party just after the first 150m portage out of Gowrie Bay on Colin Lake. A family of 4 waited for us to load up our boat at the end of the portage and the two boys didn’t look impressed with the whole situation. One of them warned me about the next 150m portage into Versailles Lake. At this point Hann and I were decked out in our waders and full rain gear and weren’t worried about wading into the water. We were soaked from sweat but not from rain at this point.
I was growing a little concerned with the possibility of hypothermia as we completed a short, bushy 50m portage into Minuhik Lake and continued paddling in large waves and against a cold, unrelenting NW wind. I knew there was a well used site on a nearby island so we paddled furiously for it and were delighted to finally be done with the brutal conditions. It never felt so great to set up a camp and get into dry clothes! I was a bit concerned about how open the island was to the winds but at this point we weren’t going to be fussy. The rain stopped almost as soon as we arrived at our site so at least we weren’t setting up a soaking wet camp. We felt bad for the family of 4 despite the fact that they were with the wind almost all day, they didn’t have a very nice camp to look forward to on Colin Lake.
Despite the 12 degree weather and nasty winds and rain Hann kept a positive attitude and was a great canoe partner all day. I was really proud of her and this proved beyond doubt that she can do long, tough canoe trips with the best of ’em and kick ass while doing it.
Day 12 & 13 – Minuhik Lake (Windbound)
The next few days after a transcendent nighttime experience followed by a brutal paddle from Colin to Minuhik Lake were spent windbound on an exposed island with nothing to do. Ok, that sounded more depressing than I meant it. 😉 It wasn’t my first choice for the last few full days of our trip but with the Stewart River portages potentially impassible after the fires and an alternate exit from McLennan Lake we had the time and weren’t desperate enough to paddle in the strong NW winds that continued to relentlessly hammer us for at least 48 hours. We filled our time with long reading sessions in the tent and huddled by a smokey fire behind or under the tarp.
We also killed time by harvesting a bunch of wood from the island and cut it into appropriate lengths for other parties to use after us. The first full day was a bit boring but by the end of the 2nd full day I was done with it and really ready to move on. Hann was surprised at how annoying the neverending wind became – mostly the sound of it that just never went away. Again, on hindsight we could have found a more sheltered site from the NW winds but we were in no shape to be looking for it on the first day and also not in the mood to move camp on subsequent ones.
FINALLY as Thursday, August 12 came to a close the winds died down and a spooky calm settled over Minuhik Lake. We could hear loons and our own voices again. We could hear birds chirping and could almost feel the landscape around us breathe a sigh of relief. Fires were no longer a concern at this point with daytime highs of 14 degrees and intermittent rain for the past 3 days.
We were delighted going to bed on Thursday night, knowing that we’d finally be paddling again on Friday – the last full day of the trip already.
Day 14 – Minuhik Lake – Davis Lake
Friday, August 13 dawned clear and calm at our windbound camp on Minuhik Lake. We were eager to get paddling and were off by 07:30 for the relatively short 13km paddle to a camp on Davis Lake. We took our time, fishing and enjoying our last full day in the wilderness.
As expected we caught numerous pike and a lake trout as we slowly exited Minuhik and made our way over the easy portage into Davis Lake. Even though we were glad to be with the SW wind that picked up, we were surprised to have yet another strong windy day – much different than when we started our trip in hot, calm conditions. It felt like Fall was coming already as we searched for a campsite marked on a small island on the map.
It was somewhat disappointing that our last campsite was once again not very well used or built. I found a fire ring and there was some evidence that someone had stayed there before but the tent site wasn’t great. I spent a while trying to make it better and it worked, marginally. The camp felt more “bush” than we wanted but beggars couldn’t be choosers at this point in the trip and we decided to make do with it.
We enjoyed a wonderful evening at camp with a nice sunset over the burned area just east of our island presumably from a fire in 2015.
Day 15 – Davis Lake – McLennan Lake – Shuttle
August 14th presented us with a beautiful sunrise from our “bush” camp on Davis Lake. We had arranged a pickup from CRCO at the put-in along hwy 102 near Bear’s Camp on McLennan Lake for this day sometime between 10:00 and noon. We were in no hurry as we packed up camp for the last time and slowly paddled for the nearby highway portage into McLennan Lake.
These are always bittersweet moments both to experience and to write about afterwards. It’s easy to write about paddling in strong winds, viewing historic sites, witnessing powerful waterfalls and experiencing the numinous under a canopy of stars and meteors. It’s much harder to write about all these wonderful experiences coming to a pitiful end. 😉
This trip ended much differently than most with 2 full days stranded on an exposed island and exiting at a roadside pickup rather than paddling down the Stewart River and ending back where we started. The only way to look at this trip is that it’s a minor miracle that we did it at ALL considering the wildfire situation at the start. To finally go into the wild with the love of my life for 15 days and to have her come out of it with nothing but good things to say makes this one of my top canoe trips.
The fact that we experienced so many different landscapes and points of interest only adds to the positivity I feel about it. Zero bugs certainly adds another layer of satisfaction and apparently is normal for August up there and has me dreaming of many more trips. As we drove back to Missinipe with Dan he filled us in on many other trips along the vast expanse of Saskatchewan’s northern landscape up the hundreds of kms of hwy 102 between La Ronge and Stoney Rapids. I owe a huge thanks to CRCO for all the assistance on our trip, from putting together the excellent maps to the cabin, the advise and the last minute shuttle arrangement at the end of our trip.
I’ll be back.