Trip Dates: Monday, July 11 to Saturday July 16 2022
Total Trip Distance (km): 80
Difficulty Notes: Wilderness canoeing with limited options for bailing out. Good bushcraft and wilderness survival experience is necessary to travel through Woodland Caribou Provincial Park.
Lakes Traveled: Leano, Bunny, East Lunch, Lunch, Jake, Mexican Hat, Burnt Rock, Paull, South Paull, Upper Kilburn, Kilburn
Creeks / Rivers Traveled: Leano Creek, Bird River, Sturgeon River
GPS Track: Download
Forest Fire Update (2021): Forest Fire Impacts in WCPP
I wasn’t going to do a canoe trip in 2022. There were many reasons for it. I’d done a 15 day trip with my daughter in 2019 and another 15 day trip with my wife in 2021 and I was thinking this would be a “gap” year for canoe trips. It’s not that I don’t love canoe tripping, it’s just that usually it involves a lot of planning and a LOT of driving and I wanted a break from that for a year. There was also the issue of wildfire impacts to my favorite park that put a damper on my mood despite there being many other options in this great country of ours. Then brother-in-law Harold sent an email in the depths of winter asking a bunch of brothers and brothers-in-law if we were interested in a 5 day trip out of Leano Lake in mid July 2022. My initial reaction was a firm “no”. A week later I was busy planning it out. 😉
Planning & Preamble
As we started planning the trip we quickly realized that our preferred option of flying in and paddling out wasn’t going to happen this time. There were too many other variables at play, including the fact that the park was in a very unmaintained state after two years of Covid and a year of wildfires. We decided to do a simple trip (in WCPP terms) with a short loop out of Leano Lake, travelling to Bunny, Lunch, Mexican Hat, Burnt Rock, Paull and Kilburn lakes. I knew from my experience with Royd Creek in 2019 that portaging and camping in recent burn areas is a lot tougher than people realize – and even somewhat dangerous. I warned the group that travel could be a bit slower than we might be used to from our many previous trips. When the dust settled it was a group of 6 with 3 canoes. Harold and his son Dylan would be in his brand new Souris River Quetico 17′ kevlar canoe in the brilliant red LeTigre layup while Bill and his brother Chuck would be in the green version of the exact same boat (also brand new). Brother Rod and I were in my Quetico 16′ carbon tec. Bill and Chuck would pick up the two new canoes in Atikokan on their way to Red Lake from southern Ontario while the rest of us would drive up in Harold’s truck from southern Manitoba and meet Bill and Chuck in Vermilion Bay, ON. From there we’d drive to Red Lake and the Leano parking lot with two vehicles.
Making things slightly more interesting as the trip neared, hwy 105 from Vermilion Bay to Red Lake was closed due to flooding! How typical that only one year after devastating drought and wildfire the area was now affected by floods and high water. Thankfully the road was fixed just before our trip but the Suffel / Iriam Lake road remained officially closed about 20 kilometers in from hwy 618 west of Red Lake. We weren’t too concerned about this obstacle as we were driving two 4×4’s and had assurances from a local outfitter that the road was passable.
Monday July 11 2022 – Drive – Leano Lake to Bunny Lake
Monday morning started on a familiar – but slightly depressing – theme. Rain. Lots of it. As we drove hwy 1 from southern Manitoba we joked that we were literally driving along with the storm as it moved west to east. When we stopped to meet Bill and Chuck in Vermilion Bay they were surprised by the rain we’d brought – they’d had nothing but sunshine. After fueling up in the tired-looking Vermilion Bay (all restaurants here have now closed) we started up hwy 105 to Red Lake. The rain finally slowed and stopped as we toddled along at 80 km/h – a low speed limit due to the copious numbers of moose in the area. As we drove through very familiar Canadian Shield country we slowly settled back into “canoe trip mode”. It had been 4 years since Rod and Harold were last here while Bill and Dylan were at the end of a 6 year gap. This was Chucks first canoe trip in WCPP.
Rod, Harold, Bill and I have done many canoe trips together over the years. Harold and Bill grew up in Winnipeg and did many canoe trips starting in their teens already. For me it started with those guys and my dad way back in the year 1999 with trips into Nopiming and Atikaki Provincial Park. We all had young families at the time and other priorities. Organizing and carrying out week long canoe trips was tough and we were lucky to get out every few years. Slowly we branched into more remote areas such as Eagle / Snowshoe and venturing into Woodland Caribou from the Manitoba side. As our kids (and disposable income) grew, we started driving all the way to Red Lake and doing canoe trips into Woodland Caribou from the east side of the park – even doing a fly-in trip in 2018. Of course as the years tick by we haven’t gotten any younger. Funny how that works… Our hunger for tripping was still strong as we drove the last few kilometers of paved road through Red Lake and west on hwy 618 out of town.
The Suffel Lake Road was a surprise. Usually we can drive 60-70 kph on this wide gravel road, but not today! Thanks to water damage the road was very rough with deep runnels and felt abandoned. We slowed down and settled into the drive – you have to expect a 2 hour drive from Red Lake to the Leano parking lot despite what the numbers might say. If the Suffel Road was a surprise, the Iriam Lake Road which extends past the Black Bear Lodge turnoff and narrows considerably was an even bigger one. We knew from Clair Q that the Iriam Road had been vastly widened into a massive fire break during the June 2021 wildfires but seeing it in person was still a surprise. What a ton of work that must have been – all in sweltering heat and thick smoke. The feel of the road is totally different now, changing from a narrow winding path through thick forest to an open ribbon of gravel and rock with some nice views. Unfortunately for us these views included a thunderstorm building over the Leano Lake area, complete with lightning strikes forking straight down to the forest below! The washout at km 20 was a complete non issue for our vehicles – the road should not have been closed for this minor issue IMHO. There was a bypass around the washout that was rough but easily drivable in any vehicle with clearance.
As we exited the Red Lake Forestry district and entered the Packwash Forestry Management zone a sign warned us that we were continuing on an “unmaintained road”. Ironically the road improved dramatically here – all the way to the Mile 51 junction. The Mile 51 road was also much wider than in the past and the last 5kms of the long drive ended in a buggy parking lot with 4 other trucks already there. Thankfully the tstorms had mostly moved on and there was no rain falling as we prepared our gear for the first 375 meter portage to Leano Lake. The bugs in the humid parking lot were terrible and moved us along extra quick. Before long I found myself tramping along with a backpack and gear, walking through familiar forest with birds chirping around me and the smell of the Boreal permeating the air. It felt good to be back.
A light rain began falling as we paddled away from the Leano Lake put-in. There was no thunder so we felt safe continuing with the trip despite gray clouds overhead. The long-term forecast looked plenty sunny so we weren’t feeling very anxious about a bit of rain at the start of our trip. After many years of tripping we have come to realize that nature doesn’t guarantee clear skies for every trip and that part of the adventure is dealing with whatever drops down on you from above. Our plans for Monday were pretty conservative considering all the driving and messing around we had to do before hitting the water. Way back in 2011 we’d completed a 10 day trip exiting from Mexican Hat through Jake, Lunch, East Lunch and Three Bears Lake to Bunny and Leano. This time we’d be going in the opposite direction, up through Bunny Lake to a “new” square horseshoe route into the NE end of East Lunch Lake.
We completed the 300m “Roots & Rocks” portage into Bunny Lake with no issues other than the usual early trip cobwebs that every boat has to work out such as who carries what, how much and how painful. 😉 Rod and I quickly worked out a system where we were each responsible for our own large packs, paddles and fishing gear. On the 2nd trip Rod carried the spare paddle, my camera case and my duffle pack while I took the canoe and the food barrel. I packed light for such a short trip and never felt like my carries were that tough weight-wise. I also carried the stove, cookware and fuel which wasn’t very heavy for a 5-day trip. My Hyperlite Ultamid II is a very light as a tenting solution that works perfect on canoe trips. I’ve adopted many of the light and ultralight hiking and backpacking techniques from my mountain ventures for canoeing and found that this saves a lot of time and energy. After paddling a calm Bunny Lake we found the same site we stayed on over a decade previous, still a great site and still treed. (This is the “KU” site on Paddle Planner.)
Just as we set up camp the rain started again, soaking us pretty good before finally tapering off for the rest of the evening. Rod and I set up the group tarp – I very highly recommend bringing a large tarp on group canoe trips. When dry they pack up pretty small and don’t weigh much but the pleasure they bring is almost incalculable – offering protection from wind, rain and sun. I wouldn’t bother with a fancy, expensive tarp either. Go with the cheap blue ones – they don’t leak, are super strong and light and last forever. Plus when they rip you won’t cry.
With camp set up we settled in for the evening, even managing to get a cheery fire going despite all the rain. It always surprises me how easy it is to light a fire in WCPP! We stayed up until after midnight, there was lots to talk about after many years of no trips for most of the group.
Tuesday July 12 2022 – Bunny Lake to Jake Lake
Tuesday dawned warm, clear and calm. This wasn’t expected with a forecast calling for morning rain and tstorms but we took it with no complaints! After a very leisurely breakfast and slowly packing up our still-wet tents and tarps we slowly paddled away from the island site towards the north end of Bunny Lake. I was reminded how different canoe trips are from mountain trips where I’m usually up at 05:00 or even much earlier to catch cool and stable weather to the summit. When I do trips by myself or with one other person we usually continue this pattern which has upsides and downsides. The big upside to leaving camp earlier than 09:00 is that you usually get calmer water and beat afternoon tstorms to your chosen campsite. The downside is that often we spend hours at camp since we’re tired of paddling and we’re there so early – this is also an upside for most people… 😉 I realized on this trip that not all canoe trips are just about tripping – they’re also about the camping, visiting and relaxing moments. This was totally fine with me – I just had to adjust to it a bit.
Originally we had a pretty aggressive plan for Tuesday. We were hoping to get all the way to Mexican Hat Lake but we were going to get there via a “new” route. I put the new in quotes because it became obvious while portaging this route that although it was only recently added to canoe maps, it’s been around for a very long time. Blazes along the trails were a mix of newer and older – some of them at least decades old. Rod and I weren’t 100% convinced that this route would be very quick but we agreed with the two other groups that it was a worthwhile exploration. We quickly found the first 100m portage out of Bunny and into the square horseshoe. Once over this first trail, which was fairly obvious and maintained, we entered the scenic channel that makes up most of the route. Something I didn’t realize was that the first channel out of Bunny Lake is part of Leano Creek. I also realized for the first time as Rod pointed it out, that we were outside the official boundaries of Woodland Caribou Park on most of the horseshoe.
The next 400 meter portage was definitely more work than anything we’d done so far on the trip. The trail started to feel a little unused but was obvious enough to follow despite some blowdowns and crowded growth. On this portage we started to notice that Chuck and Bill were lagging a bit behind. These guys hadn’t done a WCPP canoe trip in many years, or in Chuck’s case ever, and despite them being in pretty good physical shape I think the primitive conditions were a bit of a surprise. This observation proved true when Chuck started talking about a tweaked knee – something I understand 100% having my own knee issues over the years. I’m not going to lie though – I was a little concerned with injuries happening so soon already in the trip. It’s nobody’s fault but sometimes we forget how tough WCPP is compared to more mainstream areas. Chuck has done enough tripping in his life that I wasn’t concerned about him throwing in the towel on us but sometimes our bodies disagree with our minds and there’s not much we can do about it! We’ve been very lucky on all our many trips throughout the years that we’ve never had to end one early due to injury or sickness.
The landscape continued to impress as we paddled and portaged our way to the northernmost end of the horseshoe where we’d turn 90 degrees back down towards East Lunch Lake. As Rod and I completed a 150 meter portage we noticed low, dark clouds racing towards us. Having paddled in rain the day previous, we weren’t too worried about it other than hearing some distant rumbles. Just as we started paddling away, lightning split the morning air right in front of us sending us quickly back to the safety of land! We weren’t messing around with that crap! Despite knowing much better we all decided to don rain gear and simply wait out the impending storm without bothering with a tarp. As cold rain started pelting down on our rainsuits I knew we were making a mistake.
It’s surprising in the backcountry how quickly conditions change. One minute we were paddling without shirts and the next we were shivering in cold rain. I convinced Rod that we should get the tarp and soon everyone was helping set it up. For the next hour or so heavy rains soaked our little spot but thankfully we smartened up and made some warm lunch and bevvies to help our bodies regulate heat again. By the time the thunder once again became distant and the rain let up we were more than ready to keep going.
The channels continued to be very scenic and the portages continued to be obvious and easy to follow – even if a bit rustic. By the time we finally exited the last portage into East Lunch Lake Chuck summarized the day so far with, “this trip is a portaging trip with some canoeing in between”! He wasn’t entirely wrong but this is the way WCPP trips are – especially when you’re navigating the smaller lakes and waterways. Spotting a distant moose was a highlight of our short paddle on East Lunch Lake towards the 150 meter portage towards Lunch.
The East Lunch and Lunch Lake area was hit by the 85,000+ ha May 2016 “Red 003” wildfire and it showed. (Our trip was much more affected by this fire than the 2021 fires.) As we started the 150m portage out of East Lunch we were quickly introduced to what a 6 year old burn does to portage trails.
To be honest, the 150m portage wasn’t that bad. Once we figured out the obvious fallen tree hazards and the rock cairns guiding our path it was actually quite scenic. I’m always impressed hiking on the ancient Canadian Shield with shrubs, grasses and plants eagerly trying to cover it all up again.
Paddling Lunch Lake under a blue sky with puffy white clouds was a great mood booster but we were starting to realize that making Mexican Hat Lake wasn’t in the cards for us today. All the portaging was starting to take its toll – especially on Chuck with his bum knee. Thank goodness I remembered I had a knee brace in my med kit and for the rest of trip he gratefully used it. As we exited Lunch Lake towards Jake we agreed to look for a nice site to stay at in Jake – foregoing the 5 or 6 portages towards Mexican Hat for Wednesday. It was neat to do the “Rock Flake Falls” 200m portage out of Lunch Lake and remember it from a few previous trips including in 2014 when it looked much different!
After completing the short 80m portage into Jake Lake, Rod and I paddled past a few candidate campsites to the NW arm leading to Mexican Hat hoping to find a nice island site. Alas, this wasn’t to be and we had to settle for what turned out to be a pretty darn good alternate at site “HQ”. By some small miracle this site was large unaffected by the fires despite being surrounded on all sides. We set up a very cosy camp and settled in for the evening and night under a continuously clearing sky. It was becoming obvious at this point that we would have to tone down our trip plans a little bit and go with more realistic goals. At this point we were thinking we might make Burnt Rock Lake on Wednesday but we were OK with an early stop in Mexican Hat too.
Wednesday July 13 2022 – Jake Lake to Mexican Hat Lake
Wednesday dawned clear and calm – a theme for the trip so far and a darn nice one at that. Once again it took a while to abandon camp but by 10:00 we were tackling the set of portages out of Jake towards Mexican Hat Lake. This was always going to be one of the challenging sections of the trip – each time we’ve been through here it’s been more work than expected. Today was no different.
The regrowth in the 2016 burn area was becoming an issue on many of the portages. Very recent burns offer their own set of challenges with hard to find trails, but slightly older burns can be choked up with growth and fallen trees. Despite the challenges, the day was gorgeous with a deep blue sky and light winds and we settled into the work as the boat teams gelled and developed routines that worked most efficiently for them. The good news was that Chuck’s knee continued to hold up under the brace and Bill’s back also behaved despite having some fairly serious issues a month prior to the trip. Getting old really sux eh guys?! 😉 There was one moment on a manky portage when I had the boat balanced on my head while crossing a deep, fast flowing creek that I thought I might be done for. Dropping the boat here would have been really bad – it would have been carried downstream to pretty serious damage. I resolved not to do that again!
Originally when planning our Wednesday we thought we might be able to push on a bit further to Burnt Rock Lake but when we finally got through the final 325m portage into Mexican Hat Lake and start fishing the Walleye factory under the falls we realized that we were hot, tired and ready to set up camp. In order to make up for an early stop and make the following day more efficient, Rod, Harold, Dylan and I decided to ensure the viability of the long 750m portage out of Mexican Hat towards Burnt Rock Lake. The last time we took this portage was way back in 2009 and even pre-burn it was a bear. With recent impacts from the 2021 burn we weren’t sure what to expect. The start of the trail from Mexican Hat Lake was unburned but still challenging with some steep climbs, a slick creek crossing and some blowdowns. From the creek crossing the route became more challenging with recent burn and routefinding difficulties. We marked the route as best we could and cut some fallen trees out of the way. The good news was that the route would go and we knew what to expect on Thursday morning.
The rest of the day Wednesday was spent hammering Walleye at the falls and relaxing at camp. As we get older I think we’re realizing the importance of relaxing and slowing down a bit on our canoe trips. I filleted 9 Walleye at camp, becoming pretty efficient at it by the last one!
Thursday July 14 2022 – Mexican Hat to Paull Lake
Thursday dawned clear and calm. We made “short” work of the 750m portage using the beta from the day before to assist on the more challenging sections. The lake just north of Burnt Rock was charred and finding the so-called “OB” portage was challenging without any form of marking that we could see from the water. I was lucky to have a GPS track to the next lake and used it to navigate the ~75m up and through the burn. Burnt Rock Lake lived up to its name – most of its shoreline was blackened and apocalyptic. The north part of the lake was affected by the Red 010 2021 wildfires while the southern end was charred in 2016 by the Red 003 fire.
After a nice paddle through Burnt Rock, we portaged our way through the lower SW end of Jake Lake towards the NE end of Paull. Most of the portages were easily found and travelled, despite some challenges from the 2 years of no maintenance or travel.
As we cleared the 375m and 150m portages into Paull Lake we weren’t sure if we should tackle the 3 remained portages into South Paull or try to find a campsite on Paull for the night. As we rounded the corner for a long paddle down Paull we realized we were paddling into a moderate wind. We passed a group of campers on site “LH” looking bedraggled and very burnt (the site – not the campers). They didn’t seem to enthused to see us for some reason so we didn’t linger to chat. Paull Lake used to be one of the gems of WCPP. Even now it was very scenic despite the burns, but nowhere near as lush as I remembered from years earlier. As we neared the portages out of Paull we decided to check out the island campsite “MT”. If it was nonexistent or horrible we might have no choice but to continue to South Paull.
As we paddled around the north side of the island our hopes weren’t very high. The 2021 fires had absolutely destroyed the forest here – we could still smell the burn. I’m not sure what made me get out of the canoe at the west side of the island and clamber up very steep rock but I had a hunch. My feeling proved accurate when I found a partially unburned site at the very top of the small, rocky island. It wasn’t perfect but it would do! We heaved our gear up the rock and set up a cozy camp, clearing trees and making 3 spots for the night.
Knowing how burnt Paull Lake was, we got really lucky with finding this site. As we sat down for supper something felt familiar. The view down the lake to the west was certainly different than years previous but I soon realized that we’d stopped at this very site in 2011 for a lunch break! I remember thinking how nice this site was back then. So strange to find ourselves back there over a decade later in much different circumstances and conditions.
Thursday night ended with a nice bonfire at our island site – complete with a billion mosquitoes which tended to get quite bad at sundown. I slept like a baby on several inches of grass under our tent.
Friday July 15 2022 – Paull to Kilburn Lake
Friday felt like it was going to be another hot day. We left camp a bit earlier than on previous days to give ourselves plenty of time to reach our planned camp for the night on Kilburn Lake. The only point of debate was how we would get there – either via a lengthy paddle through Middle Kilburn and up the lake from the south or a lengthy 1km portage from Upper Kilburn. It didn’t take long to make the decision for a slightly shorter route, given the amount of work required for the first three portages into South Paull Lake. The so-called “Three Teeth Portage” had quite the bite, that’s for sure! The first tooth was the worst one, in bad condition and totally fried. The second tooth was moderately difficult and the final one was nice and short at least. We did some minimal maintenance where necessary but until trail crews get to it you should expect some misery traveling between the two Paull lakes.
Paddling through South Paull to Upper Kilburn Lake was yet another gorgeous, windless affair. The sun was now high in the sky and we were cooking! There was plenty of green showing up along the scorched landscape and by the time we reached Upper Kilburn Lake we were back in full Boreal jungle. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to a sparse landscape – the thick forests along Kilburn felt very full and almost claustrophobic at first. Unfortunately these forests are ripe for burning, just as the rest of the park was before it lit up. Hopefully it is a few more years before this inevitability comes to pass.
After a lunch stop in Upper Kilburn we felt ready to tackle the longest portage of the trip – the 1000m between Upper Kilburn and Kilburn Lake. We’d done this portage in 2014 and remembered it as long but uncomplicated. Thankfully even with little maintenance over the past few years, the portage was still uncluttered albeit bloody long in the heat of the day. Biting flies and mosquitoes didn’t make carrying the canoe on my head for 1km any more pleasant but we got it done. Rod and I were so hot after the portage that we booked it straight for camp, choosing to stay at site “NT” which I remembered from 2009.
The rest of the group hammered Walleye near a small stream outlet into the lake before joining us at camp. We all enjoyed a bath in the lake and some great conversation around the fire for our last evening in the park. Rod and I went fishing after supper, hamming many more Walleye and even a large Perch. We were once again treated to calm skies and a beautiful sunset before retiring for the night to the sound of billions of biting insects outside of our tent.
Saturday July 16 2022 – Kilburn to Leano Lake
Our last day in Woodland Caribou was short and sweet. We paddled out of Kilburn Lake on glass before sighting an eagle and catching the last Walleye of the trip. I think this trip was one of the lightest winds I’ve had in the past 3 or 4 trips in WCPP. It was really nice not to worry about wind direction and waves for once! The final 400m portage into Leano Lake was a bit of a challenge but nothing we hadn’t dealt with before on the trip. Of course there was the final 375m carry to the parking lot once we were done paddling but for some reason this never feels like much when you know there’s clean clothes and A/C waiting at the end. 😉
Despite being a rather short trip at only 5 days, WCPP 2022 was memorable for many reasons. It’s always nice to paddle with the boys – especially with my younger brother whom I don’t see very often with our busy lives several provinces apart. This trip felt like a turning point from our more frenzied, busy trips of our youth to more thoughtful, relaxing trips as most of the core group makes the transition to our 50’s and 60’s. I’m really hoping that we don’t wait another 4 years for the next trip. Given the two new canoes that were purchased for this one, I am confident that another one will happen sooner than later. I can’t wait.
Please click the header below to launch the photo album of the trip.