Trip Dates: Saturday, May 27, 2023 to Thursday June 08, 2023
Total Trip Distance (km): 200
Difficulty Notes: Wilderness canoeing with limited options for returning early. Bushcraft and wilderness survival experience is necessary to travel through Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, especially after the 2021 burns.
Lakes Traveled: Johnson, Stan, Douglas, Hatchet, Peterson, Page, Bell, Crystal, Indian House, North Prairie, Joey, Lightning, Constellation, Royd, Kennedy, Donald, Hammerhead, Rostoul, Hansen, Wrist, Streak, Amber, Nutria, Mexican Hat, Glenn, Optic, Telescope, Hjalmar, Onnie, Spider
Creeks / Rivers Traveled: Douglas Creek, Royd Creek, Gammon River, Aegean Creek, Rostoul River
GPS Track: Download
Forest Fire Update (2021): Forest Fire Impacts in WCPP
After completing a 5-day canoe trip in 2022 and enduring a long winter back in Alberta, I was busy planning a 2-week canoe trip for 2023. Originally I thought I might have to do a solo venture but then Hanneke indicated that she’d be willing to do another canoe trip with me this year. Excellent! I’m still not sure I’m the solo canoeist that I wish I was. Having a partner is preferable for me and if that partner is my favorite person in the world that makes it even better. Our first canoe trip together in 2021 proved that we make a good team and I was excited to show her my favorite canoeing destination in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park.
And then I broke my back.
Yup. I seem to have a habit of hurting myself just before big canoe trips. In 2016 I injured my foot just before heading into the bush for 15 days with my son and now this year I could barely tie my own shoes just before leaving. I have had nerve issues in my back before but this was a core issue caused by too much early season golf and an ill-advised attempt to ignore it. After seriously considering a trip delay or even cancellation we decided that with enough meds I could likely at the very least do a smaller version of the trip. Worse case we would set up camp on an island in Kilburn Lake and spend a week doing day trips out of a base camp. We had options and I simply wasn’t willing to give up on this trip without attempting something.
Planning & Preamble
Thanks to the huge wildfire impacts in the park over the past decade and especially since 2018, I wasn’t sure where to plan the 2023 trip. Originally I planned a Wallace Lake entry with Aikens Lake to the Wanipigow River as an exit. It’s been 20 years since I did a route out of Wallace Lake and there are routes through Carroll Lake and down the Gammon River that avoid a lot of the recent burns. Even before my back issues however, I decided that I would be back in Woodland Caribou from the Red Lake side for 2023. I’m not 100% sure why I changed my mind away from a Wallace Lake entry, but in the end it worked out for the best considering my injury.
After struggling with wildfire damage to the Royd Creek area in 2019 with KC, I was interested to see that not only was that route maintained by parks staff in 2019 (mere days after we bashed our way through!) but again in 2022 after the 2021 conflagrations. The following map is from the parks blog at https://www.ontarioparks.com/parksblog/woodland-caribou-planner/.
What remained to be seen was how “cleared” the trails remained after a winter season but the original outlay was very encouraging for me to give the route from Hatchet Lake to Donald Lake another try. The part I liked about this route was that we could end our trip with a cleared passage from Glenn to Onnie Lake, taking advantage of two lengthy, cleaned up routes in one trip. Even the north portages between Hansen and Wrist Lake looked cleared, if we found ourselves with time and energy to try it. Before the back injury I had grand plans to travel a route from Donald to Bulging and Haggart, returning back through Adventure and Haven to the Rostoul River but this plan wasn’t going to happen anymore with the injury. To be perfectly honest, a week before the trip I was 80% expecting to set up a camp on Kilburn Lake and simply spend a week fishing.
We left Calgary on Thursday night and drove to Swift Current before crashing for the night. On Friday we completed the lengthy 1800 kilometer drive to Red Lake, getting to our hotel as darkness settled in over the northern gold mining town. We had very strong winds all the way from Alberta and we wondered if this was a pattern. The forecast for the first week looked more like August than late May with temperatures in the high 20’s. All that remained to be seen was how smokey our skies might be – Canada’s north once again seemed to be on fire with a very dry spring.
I was amused to see signs on all the doors of the hotel warning of a bear in the area – dismissing it as precaution rather than fact. As I was in the dark and quiet parking lot sorting some gear in the back of the truck I sensed something behind me and spun around. A huge black bear was sulking behind me – only a few meters away! Dang! I encouraged it to move on and thankfully they listened. I wasn’t really in the mood to fight off a grumpy bear before even starting our trip. I told the hotel attendant about my encounter and he seemed just as surprised as I was. I guess the signs were indeed more “fact” than “precaution” after all.
After the parking lot bear incident we turned in for the night, excited and nervous to finally be starting our trip after months of planning. It felt strange to be heading off into the backcountry for two weeks after living in the concrete jungle for another year. Unlike folks who live in small towns and remote places like Red Lake, for people like us there is always a certain shock factor to consider when heading into remote areas like Woodland Caribou. We don’t do trips like this regularly and even most of my mountain adventures back home are no more than 2 or 3 nights in the wild. Going from a hectic city dweller life straight into absolute wilderness where we might not see another human for days always produces some anxiety and a bit of shock to the system. Of course we both LOVE the break from humanity and our regular over-connected lives but this doesn’t mean there’s zero nerves and trepidation before a big trip. Put it this way – we didn’t get that much sleep on Friday night.
Saturday, May 27 2023 – Johnson Lake to Hatchet Lake
We awoke early on Saturday morning to a clear blue sky, light winds and zero smoke in the sky. After grabbing a Tim’s we drove through the quiet town of Red Lake and proceeded along hwy 618 past the hamlet of Madsen. I chuckled as I relayed the memory of my first time along this road to Hann, way back in 2009 when we ended up getting lost looking for the Iriam / Suffel Lake road. Thankfully the gravel road was in much better shape than the year before and soon we were on the much rougher road past the turnoff to Black Bear Lodge. A short, bouncy ride later and we were pulling into the Johnson Lake parking spot where another couple were just packing the last of their gear towards the portage.
We chatted with the couple for a few minutes – they were from Wisconsin and were planning to spend a week out of a base camp in Embryo Lake fishing and canoeing the area. I was surprised to see other canoeists so early in the season and on our first day before even leaving the parking lot! It turns out they were the only humans we’d be talking to for many days to come and soon they were on their way and we were in the silence only the deep woods can produce. My back was already protesting as we carried our gear down the short portage to the south shore of Johnson Lake. I had to chuckle as Hanneke pointed out the nice trailhead signage. I warned her that it would rapidly get more obscure as we took successive portages into the park. Technically Johnson Lake isn’t even part of WCPP which only begins in Douglas Creek.
I was nervous about paddling with my busted back. I don’t live around any lakes and didn’t try paddling before the trip. As we dipped our blades into Johnson Lake my fears were confirmed as I immediately felt deep discomfort in my core back from the unique exercise. I was wearing a back brace which certainly helped but especially paddling on my right side was going to be an issue. Oh well. The day was perfect as we approached the first real portage of the trip between Johnson and Stan Lake and started prepping for the 600 meter walk.
Already before the trip we’d come up with a compromise to ensure we could possibly do it in my condition. We agreed that despite sucking BIG TIME, we’d do three gear carries on the portages for at least the first week before our gear would lighten considerably. This may not sound like a big deal but three carries is a grandiose P.I.T.A. Consider this, normally we do two carries per portage which means we walk it a total of three times – twice with gear and once without. Three carries means walking every portage five times – three with gear and twice without. This adds up! On a 500 meter portage we would be traveling a total of 2.5 kilometers instead of 1.5. With dozens and dozens of portages on our trip this would add much time and distance. If it meant the difference between completing a trip or going home early there really wasn’t a choice and so we simply got into it and didn’t overthink things.
The portage was in great condition as we made our carries followed by long walks back to the waiting gear, empty handed. The first few days of any canoe trip are always spent getting into patterns that rapidly dominate the rest of the trip. Everyone figures out what they like to carry in what order and what works and doesn’t work. The packing of the canoe has to be sorted out and who does what always takes a few days to settle. Quickly it became apparent that all the bending over that a canoe trip requires would be more of an issue for my back than actually carrying gear would be. Hanneke assisted me with the boat carry by lifting the front end and allowing me to simply walk under it before hoisting onto my shoulders for the solo carry. I hate tandem carrying my canoe – it’s clumsy and injury prone and my boat is 39 lbs for a reason. Hann took some of the heavier food packs for her carries – the barrels poked into my back so I carried the more traditional Hyperlite packs. Our gear was roughly sorted and carried as follows:
- First Carry
- Hyperlite 4400 – large (70l) waterproof pack with tent gear, clothing and extra fuel canisters. (Vern)
- MEC 35 liter duffel, “Scully” – waterproof with day items, fillet knife, water bottles, fire gear, hatchet, various items, paddle, fishing rods (Vern)
- Large Black Diamond pack with food barrel and various camp items such as chairs, paddle, fishing rods (Hann)
- Second Carry
- Hyperlite 2400 – medium (55l) waterproof pack with repair gear, fuel canisters, extra camera gear, first aid, tarp. (Vern)
- Pelican 1200 – waterproof hard case with camera, lens and telephoto lens, extra camera batteries (Vern)
- Smaller food barrel pack, spare paddle, tackle bag (Hann)
- Third Carry
- Canoe (Vern)
- Day pack and Seal Line pack with sleeping bags (Hann)
It’s always surprising how much gear is required to live comfortably in the bush but with my extensive lightweight backpacking experience we carry a LOT less gear than most folks on canoe trips. For some reason tripping gear still leans towards the heavy end but I think it’s slowly changing.
We paddled quickly across Stan Lake before tackling another easy portage – this one was around 170 meters. I could tell as soon as we started paddling Douglas Creek that it was going to be a low water trip. We managed to paddle most of the creek to the lake but did have to get out a few times to gently nudge the boat over rocks. We paddled across the south end of Douglas Lake in fairly gentle water before completing the last portage of the day up to Hatchet Lake. Seeing a mama Otter with little ones along the shore was pretty special. The 147m portage between Douglas and Hatchet is always tricky due to the elevation change and slick rocks it presents but we took our time and were soon paddling the lovely and still unburned Hatchet Lake to its far NW end.
As we paddled up the lake something caught my eye about 500 meters to the right along the shoreline. I peered intently at a lighter colored object that seemed slightly out of place. I stopped paddling, grabbed my camera and fitted my 500mm lens on it as quickly as possible. I had a hunch what this object was and as I excitedly peered through the viewfinder I was proved correct. This was a Woodland Caribou – one of the most elusive species of wildlife in the park! In 20 years of tripping various parts of Woodland Caribou I have never seen one before this moment! Unfortunately just as I was getting some photos a bush plane flew overhead and spooked it into the bush. I was very happy to experience this rare sighting already on day 1 of the trip. It felt like a great omen.
We arrived at the campsite at 2 pm with plenty of time left in our day. Despite feeling a bit early we were ready to set up our first camp and relax. We could already spot the burn from here and were looking forward to camping in unburned forest. The campsite was very nice and protected. The only downside was a sloped tent site but this was a minor issue. After enjoying a late lunch we went paddling around in the evening – fishing and exploring this little corner of the lake. We caught some nice sized pike and spotted another first for me – baby beavers crying and rolling into the lake from shore. I’ve never seen this before either. I guess early season trips provide more wildlife sightings than later in the year when everything is more skittish.
The sun setting over the boreal along with the haunting call of loons was the perfect way to end the perfect start to our trip. It was surreal to finally be out in the wilderness after months of planning and wondering what it would feel like to finally be there. It felt pretty darn good.
Sunday, May 28 2023 – Hatchet Lake to Crystal Lake
The 2nd day of our trip dawned sunny and hot. It felt more like July or August than late May. We paddled out of Hatchet at 08:00 and were soon beaching at the start of the 250m portage into Peterson. Compared to my last time here in 2019 the area looked pretty torched! I remembered a lovely forested walk but this is no longer the case. The portages from here to Indian House were not marked as “maintained” on the parks map and we wondered what we were in for. Thankfully the trail had some clearing and flagging done and it ended up being a rather nice carry, especially compared with how bad it could have been without the maintenance.
We paddled up Peterson with the wind before tackling the 195m portage into Page Lake. This portage was less forested and even easier than the previous one. Page Lake used to be a really nice little spot but it was pretty barren as we paddled through it. There were a few unburned islands but the nice little camping island was completely destroyed. One thing I’ve noticed about burned areas is the number of birds they seem to attract. It lessens the feeling of melancholy as one paddles along burnt shorelines when you’re being serenaded by beautiful song birds. As we paddled the north end of Page Lake we startled a very dark colored moose.
The so-called 451m portage out of Page Lake towards Bell isn’t nearly that long. The trick with this portage is to paddle a lot further up the shallow creek entering Page Lake than you think you should. Thanks to low water we couldn’t even stay in the boat the whole time here! Eventually we ran up against the beaver / tree dam that marks the start of the portage. There were ribbons and some clearing through the burn but this portage was definitely trickier to follow than the previous two. We exited into a small shallow lake and quickly crossed it to the long narrow section of water that is part of Bell Lake.
As we paddled towards a very shallow choke point along this narrow channel, we spotted a very cute family of otters bobbing on the far side of it. They kept checking us out before dipping back underwater. It was hilarious as they looked like synchronized swimmers, timing their head bobs perfectly with each other. Unfortunately we had to exit the boat here and do a short carry over a muddy impasse that wasn’t there the last 3 times I’ve paddled this section! Things were not looking great for a still-distant Royd Creek at this point. Water levels were very low. We spotted some gorgeous Swallowtail Butterflies here too.
After sneaking across large waves at the north end of Bell Lake we arrived at the 191m portage towards Crystal Lake – our destination for the day. This portage was also flagged but was a bit more challenging to follow than others we’d been on. I did some maintenance here with the bucksaw. It was very hot and windy as we finished our 3rd carry and donned life jackets for a wavy ride to the only stand of unburned trees on the island with our campsite for the night. This site used to be very protected with a lovely tent site. Thankfully there were about 40 unburned trees providing us with much needed shade but the rest of the island was a tangled mess of burned and fallen trees, including the tent spot.
We spent the rest of the day reading in the shade, enjoying the warm sunny day and clearing a tent site in the burn nearby. I could see where folks had pitched their tent in the trees but this was a very tilted spot and I wasn’t in the mood for another night of this. I spent about an hour with the saw and my hatchet, clearing a nice spot for the tent. The only downside was there was no protection from wind or rain here – but my tent is water and windproof so that wasn’t a huge concern. We enjoyed another perfect evening with a small fire and calming winds before turning in for the night. Thanks to the strong winds all day, fishing was limited.
Monday, May 29 2023 – Crystal Lake to Indian House Lake
I woke up on Monday morning and knew almost right away that something was “off” with my back. Canoe tripping involves an inordinate amount of bending over. It’s something you never really think about until your back hurts and then you think about it all the time! And you hate it. As I was puttering around camp, packing up gear and bending over the whole time, my back was shooting spasms. It’s hard to explain back pain to someone who hasn’t had it but it felt like someone was pushing pins into my lower spine. I had a few very low moments as I told Hann we might have to change plans later in the trip to make it slightly shorter than originally planned. After popping some back medication things calmed down enough to load the canoe but I realized that I would have to wear my back brace almost full time the rest of the trip and get used to taking way more meds than I wanted to.
The funny part about Monday is that it was also the toughest day of our first 3 – by a good margin! The first portage was marked as only around 100m on our WCPP map but was actually closer to 200. It was much drier than when I did it in 2019. Almost immediately after this portage, we found ourselves navigating a very small creek that I didn’t remember from 2019. Thank goodness we managed to get through without having to bail out of the boat – it was very shallow and very small. Shortly after the tiny creek we arrived at the “350m” portage towards Indian House. Except it’s 600 meters now! And of course, totally fried. We managed to follow ribbons and cairns for the most part but navigation was tricky through the burn. We added a few ribbons and I cut some trees where needed. It was very hot as we finished the 3 kms of walking (remember – 3 carries is 5 trips of 600 meters each). We were both feeling a bit wiped already at this point but I knew we had a long way to go yet and so off we went.
After crossing small unnamed lake (high winds from the south at this point) we arrived at our last portage of the day. Marked at “375” on our map, it measured at 450 meters but was less manky than the previous two. (Or we were just getting used to “manky” at this point…) From this portage we still had a ways to go, navigating a small lake and then a medium sized creek into the south end of Indian House Lake. Thankfully the creek was navigable albeit very shallow and muddy in places. Put it this way, it felt really really good to finally break free from weeds and mud into the clear open south end of our destination lake! I was tempted to stay at campsite “8R” but as always it seemed like a better idea to take advantage of the south winds and paddle right to the sandy beach marking the start of the 975m portage between Indian House and North Prairie Lake. So that’s what we did.
It was a little jarring to see an abandoned fishing boat at the beach site and an aluminium canoe in the forest there. Disappointingly there was also garbage strewn everywhere in the forest, including pop cans and food packages. And folks wonder why bears become an issue around fishing camps?! We set up camp, once again happy to have shade on this scorching hot day. The sandy beach was a bonus and provided a great swimming opportunity. I couldn’t believe how much bathing and swimming we were doing so early in the season already. A few weeks ago these lakes still had ice on them.
After supper we decided to do our first carry of the 975m portage towards Indian House. Why not? It would give us a headstart the following day and save us 2km of walking on Tuesday morning. We were feeling well rested at this point and had a full tummy from supper and lots of energy again. Well – some energy again. I carried the canoe and Hann carried one of the food barrels that we didn’t need for breakfast. There was a part of me that wondered about leaving a food barrel in the middle of nowhere overnight but that’s kind of what we do around camp too. It’s not like I’m hoisting 40lb food barrels into a tree every night! It was a delightful walk through unburned forest in evening lighting. Sure! It is a long walk with a canoe or heavy pack but in good conditions like we had, it was a pleasure.
Another small fire on the beach closed off another perfect day. Despite not traveling very far every day, they were feeling plenty big. KC and I traveled quite a bit further back in 2019 but I had a healthy back and we didn’t have the burned portages and low water to contend with. Hanneke admitted that this trip was feeling a lot bigger than our 2021 trip along the Churchill and Drinking Rivers. I reminded her that we only had a few portages and stayed on islands for multiple nights on end for the first week on that trip due to wildfires. We were much more active in the first week this time around.
Tuesday, May 30 2023 – Indian House Lake to Unnamed Lake
If Monday was a pretty tiring day, Tuesday promised much more of the same! We woke up early in anticipation of a big day and the possibility of tstorms that our son warned us about on the satellite text. Unlike trips in the past where I obsessed about getting daily weather reports on my InReach, this time around we only asked for a general forecast every 2 or 3 days. The weather in this area is not stable or particularly predictable so “general” is about as good as it gets anyway. I bring a solar watch that tracks atmospheric pressure and use that to predict possible storms with much more accuracy. So far the pressure was only rising – a good sign of stable weather although likely windy.
The first portage was literally out of the tent door – walking the familiar 975m from the evening before. Thankfully the canoe and food pack were untouched at the far end. A pair of beautiful swans on North Prairie Lake gave positive vibes as we made our way to the creek running into the lake about halfway up the west shore. We were planning a rather unknown and undocumented route into the creek system towards Royd Lake from North Prairie.
Most folks who do this route (and there aren’t many) take a 1900m portage from North Prairie to Prairie Lake and another 1000m portage from there to an unnamed lake at the east end of this creek system. We were planning to try another route that’s been marked on the WCPP route map for some time now. This route looks very attractive because it “simply” avoids the 1900m portage by exiting a creek directly from North Prairie to the small unnamed lake. There are only 2 portages on this route, a 500 and 37 meter – much shorter than the total 3,000 meters the other access requires! But. I wasn’t entirely convinced. Why was there so little beta on this alternate route if it was so good? Why was the only beta I could find very dubious as well? There was only one way to find out for sure and after the WCPP superintendent indicated the route was recommended by a former park warden I decided to try it.
Given the low water we’d already experienced I likely should have abandoned the creek option but I’m not easily distracted from a new exploration. It didn’t take long and we were seriously “in it”. The creek was indeed, very shallow and very small. It was also annoyingly winding and twisted, almost going back on itself and never traveling in a straight line. But that wasn’t even the worst part! The worst part were the alders and bushes choking our passage. Despite showing as “maintained” on the parks map, it certainly didn’t travel that way. The next few hours were exhausting to be frank. Anyone in a longer canoe would have turned back. My 16′ Souris River just fit and even it was very tight in spots. It seemed to take forever to reach the side stream leading to the 500m portage and that stream was no picnic either! We ended up out of the boat, pulling it over beaver dams and mud. Just before the portage there were fallen trees in the creek, forcing me into waist deep water with my bucksaw. Yikes! True wilderness travel and adventurous but not easy. I scouted ahead for the portage at this point, ensuring we were in the right creek! Thankfully it was coming up soon so we paddled towards it.
A 3 foot high mud bank greeted us at the portage. Nothing was going to be easy about this route! We were covered in mud, scratches and fly bites by the time we shrugged into our first carry, desperately hoping for a decent portage trail. Thankfully we got our wish and managed the 478m carry with no major issues. This area was unburned somehow, making the walk much more pleasant. Unfortunately the “pleasant” didn’t last long… A well deserved breakfast break and we continued to the next portage – a 39m hop and skip that promised to be extremely easy.
Of course. It wasn’t.
Once again we ran into low water issues before even sighting the portage. The boat grounded on floating bog and we were hooped. There was no way we were going back so I told Hann that we’d start carrying gear over the bog towards the actual portage. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Firstly, we didn’t know 100% how far we’d have to go or if the creek might open up enough to paddle it again. Secondly, with heavy loads it was very hard not to sink to our knees or further on the bog. The 39 meters became more like 150 but eventually we did make it to the actual portage – which was very nice BTW. All of this messing around with difficult travel in unrelenting heat and humidity was starting to take its toll as we finished up the “short” portage and continued to another 750m carry. Yes – this route is more about portaging than canoeing!
We were feeling tired by the time we completed the 750m portage – over 3.5 kms of walking with 3 carries. The day was hot and humid and clouds were starting to build as we paddled to the next portage across another small, unnamed lake. At first we were horrified to find ourselves in another impassible swamp but after looking around we spotted the portage, thankfully avoiding that whole mess! This portage was easy to follow but was quite a bit longer than the 350 indicated on our map – more like 450 meters. We weren’t complaining about the extra 100 meters considering what it avoided! My maps indicated one campsite in the next small, unnamed lake. As clouds built rapidly overhead, we paddled desperately to find it in order to set up camp before the storms hit. Alas. We could NOT find the site where indicated! Thunder was peeling off in the distance as we paddled furiously around the lake, hoping desperately to find something. Sure enough. There was an old site about 500 meters from the one marked on the GPS – it was just marked wrong. Phew.
I managed to get the tarps and tent set up in a nice, protected site before we got hammered by the inevitable storms. This goes to show that while GPS and maps are very handy, you still need to use your head in the wilderness as things aren’t always exactly where they “should” be. This was one of our most tiring days with over 12 kms of total walking and dealing with a small, shallow, winding creek out of North Prairie. We fell asleep early to the sound of light rain on the tent.
Wednesday, May 31 2023 – Unnamed Lake to Joey Lake
We slept in on Wednesday, not in any hurry to travel after a night of tstorms and rain on the small unnamed lake we found ourselves on. We didn’t have to travel at all this particular day, but we decided that we should do the one 438 meter portage into Joey Lake and set up camp there – essentially having a rest day. I knew from 2019 and from research that Joey Lake had Walleye in it – the only lake on our route between Hatchet and Donald with Walleye.
After packing up camp we paddled to the portage, decked out in rain gear from head to toe to avoid getting soaked on the carry. This was a big mistake! It was a very humid morning and by the time we were half way along the first carry we regretted our decision to wear the rain gear. The gear came off as soon as possibly – it was like portaging in a sauna and took a LOT of our energy away. It didn’t help that this particular portage was very hilly. The rocks were slick from rain and our sandals made things very tricky. Put it this way – we were very happy to be done our one and only portage for the day.
Joey Lake was paradise. There’s no other way to put it. As we paddled up to our campsite I was gobsmacked at how nice it looked. And it was nice. A long sloping rock led down to the water and up to a gorgeous overlook to the small, unburned lake. The elevated kitchen and fire area not only gave wonderful views but also was exposed to the breeze, keeping the bugs at bay. There were 3 tent sites cleared in the forest. All were very protected and flat on forest mosses. What a wonderful site! We set up camp before relaxing in the warm sunshine that was now drying everything off. I cast a jig alongside the overlook and quickly caught a 3 lb walleye for lunch. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Except it did get even better than that. After a relaxing afternoon reading, doing laundry and bathing, we headed out for an evening paddle to see for ourselves just how good the fishing on Joey could be. It turns out that the fishing can be VERY good indeed. Trolling spoons up and down a bay near camp provided us with a highlight few hours of the entire trip. As the sun slowly sank to the west over a calm lake, we hauled in fish after fish after fish – and all of them good size too. My biggest catch was a 7 pound Walleye – the biggest of my life. The walleye in Joey reminded me of lake trout they fought so hard. It was amazing to experience this in such perfect conditions on such a perfect evening. I told Hann that my trip was complete after this night. When I’m back in the office my thoughts will often turn back to these 2 hours of pure bliss and I’m sure I’ll plan more trips based on it. We returned to camp as darkness settled over our corner of paradise and enjoyed a small fire overlooking the lake. (Little did we realize that this was the last legal fire we’d have on our trip.) Dragonflies swooped overhead, feasting on the mosquitoes we were attracting and loons serenaded us as we turned in for the night.
On reflection I think Joey could be the new “Haven Lake” of WCPP. When I started canoe tripping about 20 years ago, Haven was a mythical lake supposedly stuffed with huge and hungry Walleye. Over the years I’ve spent many days fishing Haven and although it’s undeniably a pretty good Walleye lake, it’s never quite lived up to my expectations due to overuse. Unfortunately a local outfitter started flying groups into Adventure Lake to fish for Lake Trout and then they’d migrate to Haven Lake for the Walleye. This was a great 4 or 6 day fly-in, paddle out option and many folks took advantage of it – even I did this trip once in 2018 – of course we went unguided. This wilderness is so sensitive that even only a few dozen parties a year is more than it can handle and Haven started feeling a little overused. I’m hoping with the 2021 wildfires and no more outfitter doing the guided trips it will eventually settle down again. I’m also really hoping that nobody starts flying into Joey Lake. Joey is very difficult to get into by land and this should guarantee its quality for years to come.
Thursday, June 1 2023 – Joey Lake to Constellation Lake
We followed up the best day of the trip with one of worst. Or at least one of the toughest days. When planning this day I warned Hann that it would involve 9 portages and some difficult travel down Royd Creek to get us from Joey to Constellation Lake. Naturally, it took 10.
Our day started well with a bunch of large walleye in both Joey and the next small, unnamed lake. From there we portaged into Lightning Lake which offered some great scenery and paddling. While fishing on Lightning I caught a large 8 pound Northern Pike. After taking the hook out of its mouth with my Leatherman multitool, I was horrified to drop it in the lake! Watching that silver tool arc into the dark waters of Lightning Lake was a low moment – only matched by snapping my main pike rod the morning of day 2 already. Releasing fish just got a LOT harder and so did many other menial camp activities. I always carry a spare needle nose pliers but not this year for some reason. After Lightning things got a little rough.
The first portage out of Lightning was no issue. The next 50m portage started great and ended with barely a trickle of water flowing into the so-called “Nile section” of upper Royd Creek. I was shocked when I saw how little water was flowing – only enough to be from the recent overnight tstorms. It’s moments like these when you question what you’re doing. I wasn’t entirely sure how the heck we were going to proceed but we didn’t have much choice did we?!
My back hurt like crazy as I rigged up a haul line to the front of the boat and we started pulling / pushing / swearing our way through the floating bog and trickle of water in upper Royd Creek. It took awhile but eventually there was just enough flow to actually sit in the boat but it was still a tough go, pushing with our paddles to get anywhere. Slowly we inched (literally) our way down the “creek”, following its twists and turns towards one of the mankiest portages of the trip – the infamous 400 meter “swamp portage”.
Sure enough! The swamp portage didn’t disappoint with pure unhappiness. It started out OK with a trail through forest along the edge of the wetlands but soon it deviated along the edge of the swamp and was very difficult to find and to walk. The “trail” disappeared in new growth and deviating even a little to the wrong side would result in sinking up to knee deep in bog. Arg. It wasn’t an impossible walk but with us still doing 3 carries it took a lot of energy to finally complete. We were delighted to find a much wider and somewhat deeper stream running out from the end of the swamp into a small unnamed lake.
The next few hours weren’t much easier than the first few. We navigated multiple portages and small unnamed lakes towards Constellation Lake as thunderstorms grew bigger and bigger behind us. Some of the trails were well maintained and easy to walk while others required the bucksaw to make things passable. Anything wandering through a recent burn had some issues in the form of fallen trees. The best portage avoided the forest and stayed in a fairly dry swampy area – hence no trees and no forest detritus to bother us. In a surprise twist the water was so low that we had an extra 30m carry through one section of very boney creek.
As we finally paddled into Constellation Lake I was a little concerned about our planned site. I remembered this lake being pretty burned back in 2019 already. I was very relieved to realize that the corner of lake with our campsite on it was not burned and once again we got very lucky with a fantastic site that reminded me a bit of the site on Joey Lake. We set up a good camp as the tstorms continued to build huge to the east. As I watched the sun set over the boreal I was again reminded how lucky we were to be out here enjoying this amazing landscape by ourselves. I fell asleep to peels of thunder and rain on the tarp over our tent.
Friday, June 2 2023 – Constellation Lake to Kennedy Lake
We paddled out of a calm Constellation on Friday morning to the sounds of birds on the shore as we slipped past quietly in the “black beauty”. We were feeling good despite the long struggle along Royd Creek the day previous. It was hard not to! The day was dawning another perfect summer day despite being only the 2nd day of June. The first portage out of Constellation into the east end of the huge Royd Lake was easy and pleasant compared to most of what we’d dealt with the day before.
Royd Lake was already showing some teeth in the form of waves as we snuck quickly across it, headed for Royd Creek towards Kennedy Lake. The pressure was once again way up and a strong south wind was keeping us feeling more like July or August than early June. The series of portages from Royd to Donald Lake had me a little bit nervous as I knew these were not part of the recently maintained list from the park. Back in 2019, ironically, these were the only maintained portages on our route!
The first portage was decent. Lots of elevation loss and loose soil made things interesting with overnight rain from tstorms slicking everything up. We made the carries and continued down Royd Creek towards the 2nd portage. This one was worse and was an indication of what was coming further downstream. Trees were blown over the route and flagging was missing where needed. I cut a few trees out of the way and we struggled through it in growing heat. Lots of elevation change didn’t make things easier.
The next few portages into Kennedy Lake were slightly better than the long one but also showed signs of damage from a few years with no maintenance in a recent burn. We were very happy to break free of the last portage and drift down a lovely Kennedy Lake to yet another wonderful, unburned campsite on its south end along the main route. We spent the afternoon bathing, reading books, setting up a nice camp and fishing offshore from camp. It was a great way to relax after a tough day the day before. Once again tstorms built up around us but nothing major came our way.
Saturday, June 3 2023 – Kennedy Lake to Rostoul Lake
Because of a half day the day before, we decided to wake up early on Kennedy Lake to beat south winds on the large Donald Lake. At 04:45 I heard splashing noises near camp and got up to investigate. A large moose was swimming and eating their way towards camp! I got some wonderful photos and video before it noticed me and turned around. A great way to start the day. We paddled out of camp before 06:00, continuing down Royd Creek. We wondered if we could soon start doing 2 carries rather than 3, considering our gear was starting to get lighter. I thought we could try at some point today.
The first 150m portage showed us what was to come. It was tough with many fallen trees and detours needed to get around them. We struggled through and were soon docking at the long 370 meter portage. As we started our first carry I knew almost right away that we were in trouble. Sure enough. This portage was the worst of the trip with many fallen trees, confusing new growth hiding the trail and an almost impassible exit downstream on Royd Creek. We spent at least 1.5 hours cutting a path through the mess and putting up some new flagging. Just when we thought our troubles were pretty much over I managed to get my bucksaw “bound” in a large 10″ tree that I foolishly tried to get rid of. Another 20 minutes later and I finally freed the saw. And remember – this is all before 09:00 in the morning!
The next portage was thankfully not as bad and after a long few days traveling from Joey Lake we finally exited Royd Creek into the always lovely Donald Lake. We whooped aloud at the accomplishment – it felt great to have open water all around us and a cool wind blowing in our faces across it. We realized at this point that we had yet to see another human on our trip – 8 days into it. I knew we’d spot fishermen on Donald and was hoping we would so I could purchase a pair of pliers off of one of them. Hanneke wasn’t convinced this plan would work but I know people that travel up north and I was fairly confident.
We paddled past a well maintained camp before turning up towards the Gammon River’s exit from Hammerhead Lake into Donald. After taking a break on a small rock we continued to the bottom of the falls where sure enough – two boats were bobbing in the current, hammering walleye. We surprised them a bit by paddling straight up to them but they were friendly enough. I didn’t mince words, offering $50 to anyone with a spare pair of pliers. They again seemed a bit surprised but right away the closest one asked if that was “all we needed”. They were impressed that we’d been out for 8 days and he insisted that a multi tool would be much more appropriate for our needs when I told him about losing my Leatherman in the lake. I told him there was no way I could take his multi tool but he insisted I take it, “I have another”, he said. When I asked him how much I owed he continued to insist, “nothing”. Wow. Thank you Scott Fink from Iowa! Scott made our day and greatly assisted the rest of our trip with his generosity. We thanked them again before heading for the next portage.
If the 370m portage down Royd was a low moment, we were feeling very high as we walked the wonderful 350m portage from Donald to Hammerhead Lake. First there was the shiny new multi tool in my pocket. Second, this trail was wonderfully maintained and an absolute pleasure to walk in a beautiful morning atmosphere. And third, we were officially transitioned to 2 carries instead of 3! My back was feeling good enough to carry a pack with the canoe and we consolidated extra bits of gear to eliminate 2/5 of our walking. This may not sound like much but on a 400m portage we would now be walking 1.2kms instead of 2. That adds up quickly in 30 degree heat.
We wanted to push a bit today and dug our paddles into Hammerhead Lake, heading towards the terminus of the Rostoul River and the next portage into Rostoul Lake. I wasn’t 100% sure if there were any viable (unburned) sites on the NW end of Rostoul Lake but I thought I remembered an island site halfway down if nothing else. A stretch goal was the same site Niko and I stayed on back in 2016 at the far south end but this was a long paddle considering the strengthening south winds. We paddled past the site KC and I used before heading up to the headwaters of the Gammon River to Gammon Lake in 2019 before bucking a stiff wind to the falls marking the end of the Rostoul River.
There were two fishing boats blocking the steep portage but we squeezed in beside them and proceeded with our carries. This area was absolutely torched by wildfires in 2021 and looked pretty desolate compared to 2019. The portage can be so muddy and is so steep that the lodge installed a handline up it to assist clients! We didn’t fish these falls, deciding to fish the next ones instead and hopefully keep a few walleye for supper. As we approached the next set of rapids we spotted another boat. Once again, the fishermen were surprised to see us. We were the only canoeists and only other people they’d seen all week. As we unloaded our gear they commented that it looked like a lot of work. What they didn’t realize was that walking these maintained trails was a cakewalk compared to what we’d struggled through much earlier in the day. We fished the bottom of the rapids and quickly hammered a few dozen walleye, keeping the first two reasonably sized ones before continuing on.
The sun was hot and the south wind was stiff into our faces as we dug paddles into Rostoul Lake. We paddled past a few burned sites before I realized that it was either going to be the island site or the far south end of the lake. We were tired, hungry and thirsty as we paddled the entire length of the lake in strong winds and decent sized waves. The only island we passed didn’t have a campsite on it. Very reluctantly we continued on our way, now headed to the site I’d used in 2016 and REALLY hoping it was still viable. As we finally paddled up to it we realized this was yet another beautiful campsite. The south end of Rostoul did not burn in 2021 and is still a gorgeous boreal landscape. The campsite (“DP”) deserves its 4 star rating – maybe even a coveted “5 star”.
We spent the rest of the afternoon eating walleye, relaxing, reading and bathing yet again. I was spending more time in the water on this trip than many of my others despite being early June. A bald eagle sat across from camp when he spotted me cleaning fish for supper.
Frogs serenaded us from a swamp nearby as we drifted off to sleep under a calm sky – of course the strong winds died down within an hour of us arriving at camp!
Sunday, June 4 2023 – Rostoul Lake to Wrist Lake
Sunday dawned grey and humid as we paddled east out of the south end of Rostoul Lake on glass. There looked to be another pretty good unburned site along the south shore as we paddled past it. Less good was the sound of distant thunder and the sight of storm clouds moving towards us from the NE as we docked at the portage leading up to Hansel Lake. We wanted to fish the falls anyway, so I proposed we take some time as the storms rolled over and even set up the tarp on the upstream end of the well maintained and traveled portage.
As we fished the downstream rapids and hauled in predictable numbers of small walleye we were surprised to see the only other canoeists we would run into on our trip approaching. They were two solo paddlers from South Arkansas in 22lb carbon fiber boats that resembled kayaks more than canoes! The idea was pretty cool but they were soaked from sitting in the bottom of their tiny boats and they looked fairly unstable. When you compare both boats (2 people) to mine, my 16′ Carbon-Tec is still lighter per person (19.5lbs x 2) and much more stable. Not to mention you don’t sit in water at the bottom of the boat all day! They were nice and the older gentlemen really wanted to talk while the younger one seemed eager to keep going.
We packed up the tarp as the storms seemed to be moving on either side of Hansen Lake and got out of the way of the two other canoeists. Hansen Lake was pretty calm as we paddled down its long western arm towards the pictographs that I’d first seen in 2014. After taking in the special artform we continued towards the first portage towards Wrist Lake.
I was a little apprehensive about the next 3 or 4 portages. I remembered some of them being OK and others being pretty manky but they were marked as “cleared” in 2022. I knew that for sure the 600+ meter portage into Wrist was burned at least once since I’d last walked it but was unsure about the others. In a complete opposite of our experience in 2014, the first two carries were in excellent shape and easy to portage. They were also unburned. Now that we were only doing a double carry, we were much more efficient and it felt good to move through the landscape at something more than a shuffle.
As we approached the short 100m portage we could see that it was heavily impacted by wildfires. It took some looking to even find the start of the steep uphill trail but eventually I did find where it went. It didn’t go easily but we managed. Things were looking a bit grim for the final 600 meters into Wrist. It was scorching hot and very humid as we apprehensively pulled up to where I assumed the 600 meter portage started. There were a few ribbons which was great, but there was no trail! There couldn’t be a trail because everything was burned to the ground here. There were few standing trees and the old forest floor was a black mess of debris, ashes and dirt.
There wasn’t much to do but start up (literally, “UP”) so that’s what we did. The first 150 meters or so weren’t horrid. The next 350 certainly were! Eventually we lost the ribbons and things got interesting. Thank goodness for my GPS, I managed to suss out the route and eventually we found ribbons again. Needless to say we put up a bunch of our own flagging to assist on our return walk and carry. Not helping the situation was looming thunderstorms and the incredible heat. Burn areas are obviously black and have no shade making them brutal on hot, humid days. We very happily finished up the portage as the storms grew close and raced them to the deluxe island camp that I’ve stayed on many times.
Hanneke was suitably impressed by the camp and I was delighted to note that the tent site in the forest was dry enough to use. Way back in 2011 when we first stayed at this site we could put our tents in the forest but ever since then it’s been too swampy to repeat that setup. When the tent can’t go on the soft, level forest floor it has to be setup on an exposed rocky point which is not level and not ideal.
We hunkered down for the evening, ducking under the tarp as a fierce thunderstorm slid past dumping copious amounts of rain but thankfully avoiding the main storm. Lightning bolts split the air in the distance, going straight down to ground every 5 or 10 minutes. The storm moved very slowly and I was very relieved that we avoided the main brunt. Evening settled in over WCPP as we sat around a cozy little fire (again – not realizing there was a ban) and enjoyed the call of loons.
Monday, June 5 2023 – Wrist Lake to Mexican Hat Lake
After a great night’s sleep on mossy forest floor on Wrist Lake, we paddled south on calm water towards the torched portage into Streak Lake. I remembered a simple forest walk but this isn’t what greeted us today! The portage is short enough that it wasn’t horrible to travel but the fires of 2021 were fierce enough to burn trees completely to ash. This was a good thing as at least there was very little debris to prevent progress through the route. Once again – we were not following a maintained route from Streak to Mexican Hat Lake and I was wondering what it would be like.
It wasn’t great.
After paddling past chirping birds through a torched Streak Lake we tackled the portage towards Amber Lake. The route was a mix of new growth choking the trail and fallen, burnt trees over it. I actually ended up walking around much of the old trail in more open terrain where the intense fire had destroyed most of the forest. It wasn’t horrible but this was a sign of what waited for us at the much longer portage between Amber and Nutria Lake.
We paddled more calm waters under a clear blue sky the length of Amber Lake before finding the always-hard-to-find-for-some-reason start of the 600 meter portage towards Nutria. I had to walk the first few meters of the portage just to convince myself that it was actually the right route – it was choked with new growth and deadfall. Uh oh. We started up the trail, only going by feel since we couldn’t actually see most of it. About 150 meters up the route we completely lost the trail before I spotted it running steeply up a hill to our right. We struggled up the steep hill before completely losing the route in undergrowth and deadfall. Arg. For the next 20 minutes we struggled to find the route. Finally I used my “mountain sense” and managed to suss something out but it took awhile before we finally assured ourselves that we were indeed back on the route. I took out my ax and bucksaw for the return trip and we spent some time maintaining the trail for our 2nd carry. This portage definitely needs some trail maintenance work.
Our struggles weren’t completely over yet. We still had to deal with the “seasonably shallow” creek and swamp between Nutria and Mexican Hat Lake. I’ve gotten lucky here before, paddling straight through this section. But this doesn’t happen often and it certainly wasn’t going to happen this year with the low water situation! Sure enough. It took about 3.4 seconds and we realized it was going to be back to a haul-line situation, walking alongside the boat over floating bog. Double Arg. It wasn’t as bad as the Nile section of Royd Creek as the boat actually floated in the creek for the most part. Eventually we got back in the boat and whooped with joy as we exited the swamp. The best part of the exit was taking a break on a sandy beach before continuing our paddle east.
We bucked a stiff wind once again as we worked our way east across Mexican Hat Lake to the “walleye factory” campsite. As we paddled to the site I was delighted to see it was unoccupied. This is one of WCPP’s most popular campsites and I’m always a little nervous that someone else will be on it. Once again, we were all alone on the entire lake. The rest of the afternoon and evening were extremely pleasurable. We read books in the hammock, swam and of course FISHED. Lots and lots of walleye were caught and released at the base of the falls across from camp. The falls were the lowest I’ve ever seen them. We enjoyed a cozy fire before turning in for the night. On hindsight we should have stayed here for an extra day but that is always the benefit of looking back on things.
Tuesday, June 6 2023 – Mexican Hat Lake to Glenn Lake
It was starting to feel like we were going to be exiting one day earlier than planned as we started out of Mexican Hat Lake on Tuesday morning. It’s not that we weren’t having a wonderful time, it was that we were running out of tripping area! Again – on hindsight we could have ended with a loop through Embryo and Upper Hatchet but we didn’t. We paddled out of Mexican Hat and took the 60 and 170m portages into Beck’s Lake. The morning was once again, beautiful and the portages were in good shape. After a delightful paddle through Beck’s we took the 100 meter portage into Glenn Lake – it was also in good shape.
We caught walleye in the rapids coming into Glenn Lake (surprise, surprise right?!) and kept some for lunch before drifting nicely up the lake with the ever-present south wind pushing us. This was the last highlight moment of the trip for me. Drifting up Glenn without a care in the world, sipping a coffee and enjoying a cigar while clouds floated overhead and gulls screamed at each other the way they always do. The sound of water lapping against the boat and the complete lack of any other people complete the few moments of pure bliss.
Alas, the bliss didn’t last. Eventually we had to start paddling again, finding out pretty quickly that the wind was actually from the southeast, not just south. Why did this matter? Simply because the rest of our paddle on Glenn Lake was east and then south! Once again we found ourselves digging the paddles in as we fought stiff winds all the way to camp.
The Glenn Lake camp at its east end is a nice site but I’ve spent too many gloomy hours there over the years. Back in 2016 Niko and I spent almost 2 days there waiting out bad weather and trip partners. This time it was only an afternoon and evening but once again the south winds hammered our position and for once it was almost cool instead of sweltering. We didn’t even bother with a fire since it started raining at night. We turned in and read our books before drifting off to the sound of rain on the tent.
Wednesday, June 7 2023 – Glenn Lake to Telescope Lake
We had big goals for Wednesday. Unfortunately for us, once again strong easterly winds played a deciding factor in how much of them we actually accomplished. Our day started grey and cool with strong winds already in the AM. We paddled out of Glenn and started the series of portages up the lovely Rostoul River towards Optic Lake. The portages were all well maintained and the falls fished wonderfully, as usual.
Optic Lake was the easiest paddle of the day, thanks to the SE winds. We enjoyed some drifting on the lake and there was an amusing moment where I almost forgot where we were going! I was commenting on a lovely little cabin off to our left that I didn’t recall seeing before. It was perched on one of the only unburned islands on the lake. I was also commenting on the fact that we had to paddle right past a lovely little cabin before I realized THIS was that cabin! Ooops! Everything looked so different with the wildfire impacts.
We finished the final 100 meter portage into the large Telescope Lake before really digging the paddles in. Telescope almost always has wind issues for the flat water paddler. This day was no different. We were originally hoping to make it all the way to Telescope’s far eastern end to camp but we gave up. As we paddled past the two perfectly good island sites and straight into 2 foot rollers we asked ourselves what we were doing. What was the huge rush? We turned back and pitched our last camp on the large, well-used site on the island. Everything was soaked from the rain but we managed to get a fire going eventually. For the first time this trip we actually needed a fire to stay warm!
We capped a lovely evening with another small fire and enjoyed our books with water lapping at the nearby rocks offshore. It was bittersweet to realize we were almost certainly exiting the following day. These trips come and go so quickly!
Thursday, June 8 2023 – Telescope Lake to Johnson Lake and Exit
We got up early and were paddling before 07:00 to exit Telescope Lake before the wind picked up. Sure enough! By the time we finally got to the eastern end of the lake the wind was already picked up enough to make an impact. And of course, it was still from the east too! No matter. We were now done any large lakes and spend the rest of the morning paddling the lovely, unburned Hjalmar Lakes and executing their easy portages.
We entered Onnie Lake and had breakfast in the boat, floating against the small island that Niko and I camped on in 2016 when the other two islands were already occupied. What a different trip this was. We’d only come across two other paddlers while canoeing for almost 2 weeks. We made one final decision not to spend another night but rather to keep canoeing and exit today. Again, as I sit in the office a few weeks later I wonder why we didn’t just stay one more night. It was paid for. We were there. Why not? It’s hard to explain but the thought of a shower and hotel room has a strong pull at the end of a canoe trip. For some reason it can be hard to purposefully pitch the tent one more night when you know that you’re only 3 hours from the truck.
Needless to say the Douglas Creek exit was a bit manky (low water) but not too strenuous at this point anymore. After dealing with the creek out of North Prairie Lake and Royd Creek, most low water situations seem pretty easy. We drifted in the wind for a bit past Spider Lake before picking up the pace through Stan to Johnson Lake. The 500 meter portage between Stan and Johnson is actually 600 meters and doesn’t start on the Stan Lake side where the GPS says it does. This caused some consternation but I figured it out eventually. Next time I’ll likely forget again. I’m getting old.
We paddled out of Johnson Lake and were soon humping the gear uphill to the waiting truck, one last carry! Another trip, another year. We’ll be back.
Some final parting thoughts for WCPP 2023. You may have noticed that towards the end of the trip some of the “mojo” seemed to vanish a little. It did – for me at least. I’m not 100% sure why. Maybe it was the thought that the trip was almost done already. Maybe it was simply a mood thing. Whatever the case, I enjoyed this trip with Hanneke more than our 2021 Churchill River trip. It wasn’t the landscapes or the fishing (although WCPP wins there too), it was the fact that we traveled every day and didn’t have wildfires breathing down our necks. Despite having a very injured back we managed a 200 kilometer trip through Canadian wilderness with just the two of us. Hann is an amazing trip (and life) partner. She has a perfect attitude for suffering and never complains. She’s tough and does more than her share of work – even a bit extra for me with a busted back. This trip solidified that she’ll be joining me for more and that has me already planning the next one. Let’s just not break our back a few weeks before it even starts.