Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

1990 Expeditionary Canuck
by 4Lakes

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 07/01/1990
Entry & Exit Point: Other
Number of Days: 50
Group Size: 9
Trip Introduction:
In 1990, I participated in a 50 day canoe trip that started in Northern Saskatchewan, clipped Northern Manitoba, and traveled into the Northwest Territories to Hudson Bay. This trip and its predecessor have impacted who I am to my very foundation. I'll see if I can get some of my old pictures scanned to be included at a later time.
Part 1 of 10
Day 1

Woke at 5:30am to a moderately heavy rain. My rain gear was in the van and at first, I could not find my rain pants. The prospect of no rain pants was not a good one! But the morning’s problem was not forgetfulness, just disorganization! As a result, it just took us a bit longer to get going!

The various groups (including ours) would all be getting underway today. The first groups to be dropped off were the two Canucks being led by Brian and Janice. The drop off point for those trips was South End, at the bottom of Reindeer Lake where my Canuck last summer was picked up.

Before leaving South End to head up to Wollaston Lake, we stopped over at the gas station to fill the vehicles up. We had to wait about 15 minutes for the attendant to show up. Up here, there is no urgency to anything. Things will just get done when they get done. When the attendant showed up, he was probably 5 feet tall and appeared to be made out of solid rock! His dog looked like some cross between a malamute, a husky and a wolf! It was an absolutely HUGE dog!

Leaving South End, it was another 240 kilometers to Wollaston Lake. As we headed north, the rain continued, the temperature dropped and the terrain became increasingly rugged. The ground was poor, sandy and rocky, and the trees became smaller and smaller as we headed north.

We arrived at Wollaston Lake to no rain, but a heavy wind out of the north, the direction we were headed. The canoes were a mess from the vehicles kicking up gravel and mud from the “highway.” We cleaned the boats up the best we could, put on the painter lines and got everything ready to go. Before we left, we had our first Trail Lunch (TL), which consisted of the rest of the Roadshow lunch food! We stuffed ourselves with the last sandwiches any of would see for a long time!

After lunch we loaded up the boats, said goodbye to the women’s trip, and headed out on Hidden Bay. Not more than 20minutes after we had set out, the wind died and the clouds broke up. Paddling was very pleasant and enjoyable. I paddled with Matt this afternoon. As we paddled, we passed many fishermen who said the fishing had been great.

We paddled for a while and then stopped for a break on a nice little rocky island. That’s when the guys pulled out a couple bottles of hydrogen peroxide. Ah, a first bonding moment! We doused our hair with the peroxide and let the sun help bleach it to blond! It was fun, and heck, it’ll be over 7 weeks before we see anyone we know! It was rather amusing to see everyone with blond hair! Only Chris decided to pass on the hair bleaching.

We passed one island just as we entered the main portion of Wollaston Lake; there was a simple wooden cross that stood as an omen or a warning to those that pass. It was a poignant reminder that we were heading into a remote wilderness and would not be able to call on assistance from anyone other than those within our group.

Once we started looking for a campsite, it took several miles before finding a suitable location, which brought back many memories of last year. We finally found a site that would do, but it was pretty mediocre and really buggy! On with the head nets!

I was still so full from lunch that I skipped dinner, as did Dave! We all sat around the fire for a bit and had a few puffs on the pipes as a kind of opening ceremony for our trip. It is Day 1; I wonder what the next 49 days will bring? I find myself in a rather pensive mood tonight, the first of what is surely to be a monumental event of my life.

I did not get a chance to do any fishing today and retired to the tent early. The bugs are unbelievable out there and surely will only get worse!

Day 2

Woke to a glorious, clear, and rather chilly morning. With the cold, all of the mosquitoes had retreated to the forest floor which made being out and about the campsite a pleasant thing without bug nets! Breakfast this morning was fresh potatoes with eggs and cheese. These first few days we will still have the pleasure of some fresh food. Our first portages are a few days away so the extra weight of the fresh food is not a problem.

We got underway this morning into a moderate headwind. We passed a couple of other canoe campers headed to Black Lake.

After about 10 miles, the wind really started to intensify just before a large open water crossing. The wind was out of the northwest and hit us on the front left quarter of our boats. This was our first big open water crossing and the wind kept everyone very alert and concentrated.

We made the crossing safely and found a nice large outcropping of rock for TL. We’d paddled 12 miles this morning. We took a long break for TL, a kind of siesta almost with a period of rest after the meal (such as it is being TL!). While we were taking a break, I got out Dave’s fishing rod and began making a few casts. I got several hits from some lake trout, but only hooked one and he managed to get free. Then Dave comes down and manages to catch a lake trout and Chris does as well.

After a nice rest and a pipe, we loaded the boats back up and headed out. This afternoon we headed into a strong wind. I saw a few common loons, two arctic loons and one bald eagle. We paddle about 10 miles this afternoon and that included one 5 mile open water crossing.

We were getting tired after a long day and our bodies not yet accustomed to the endless hours of paddling. Once again we ended up paddling a couple of extra miles in our search to find a campsite. Tonight however, we managed to find a nice site on a good-looking rocky point.

I got out my personal bag and started digging around for my fishing reel. But I could not find it. I rummaged around quite a bit but still could not come up with it and was getting a bit worried! Eventually I found it, on the outside of the plastic liner of my bag! So I rigged up my rod and reel but immediately realized something was wrong with the reel. Some how the drag was not working and the problem occurred only when a fish was on the line! I lost four lake trout to whatever was wrong with the reel. When I had hooked a fish, it was as though the drag would slip, not allowing me to reel in any line. I did manage to land two nice little lakers even with the fouled drag, but I decided to sit down and take the reel apart. I put some oil here and there, but not knowing what was really wrong with the drag, I am not sure if what I did will be of any help.

Tonight’s dinner was a big pot of spaghetti. Afterwards we all got our pipes and relaxed around the fire. It is possible that we could reach the Cochrane River tomorrow and leave the cold waters of Wollaston Lake behind.

Day 3

Woke this morning to a partly sunny day with strong winds. We cooked up a big pot of Malt-o-Meal and set off into the winds. I was paddling with Chris this morning who is a pretty weak paddler.

This morning we made a 1.5 mile open water crossing and a 2.5 mile crossing before we decided to head to shore and wait out the wind. It was just too strong to make any decent headway so we decided that rather than beat ourselves to exhaustion battling the wind, we’d sit it out and wait for the wind to die in the evening and then head out for a night paddle where we would be able to make worthwhile progress.

So, we looked for a place to wait out the wind and headed for two small islands that had some good-looking rock on them. We approached the first one and a bald eagle flew out over us. We figured that there must be a nest there somewhere so we headed over to the second island. We had a hard time getting the packs up a steep, rocky shoreline, but we did manage it eventually!

I took out my rod and reel to do some fishing and immediately the reel’s drag system was slipping and just generally being a disaster. So, I sat down and started taking it apart, again. I must have “worked” on it for over two hours trying to figure out what might be wrong with it. Of course, while I was working on it, Chris came over and asked to use one of my lures, and then promptly managed to lose it. Argh.

Big John cooked up some great bannock bread with cheese, onions and sunflower seeds. Bannock bread is an unleavened bread that is pan fried. It is a staple out on the trail as the dried ingredients are light to carry, and it packs a bunch of really useful calories. After the bannock bread, Matt cooked up some mashed potatoes also with onions and cheese.

With bellies full, people dug out their therma-rests and looked about to find a sheltered spot to nap. I too rested for a while in the shelter of a large rock. With the cool temperature and strong north wind, it was downright cold and I had a bunch of layers of clothes on in an effort to stay warm.

Later, I got up to take a few pictures with my perpetually stuck in self-timer mode camera and as I got up, I noticed the women’s trip heading up the lake. We all scrambled down to the lakeshore with our therma-rests and waved to the ladies as they went by! We thought we were so clever avoiding paddling in the wind!

Several hours later, after a lazy day on the island, the winds had still not died down. We cooked up a light dinner and hoped that the winds would die down, letting us go for our night paddle. This far north that means you can be waiting for a long time! Today is July 3rd, not long after the Summer Solstice so the days are long. This far north, the sun doesn’t set until 10:30 or so and there is always light on the horizon.

During dinner of Mac and Cheese, the clouds started to break up and the temperature started to drop. We’ve compensated by adding several layers of clothes and I am currently wearing my wool socks, pants, rain pants, fleece shirt, wool shirt, rain jacket, wool hat and thermax gloves! It’s cold, but I’m nice and warm!

After dinner we noticed a slight drop in the wind so we started packing up and getting the canoes ready. By the time we had everything packed up and in the canoes, the wind had completely died.

The sun dipped below the horizon after its agonizingly slow decent, but there was always that glow on the horizon and it was actually quite easy to see. The colors were beautiful with various shades of orange all the way to purple. The paddling was so serene with only the sound of an occasional, perhaps confused bird and the gurgling water from the bow of the canoe. We paddled probably about 9 miles before we stopped for a break sometime after midnight most likely. As we floated in the calm water we looked up and there were the Northern Lights! The Aurora tonight was simple, a basic line that moved across the sky. It looked like a cloud at first, but when it turned a bright green, it could only be the Aurora!

Dave had snuck a few sparklers along on the trip and figuring it had to be after midnight, pulled them out and lit them in celebration of the 4th of July! We let them burn in their glory, then cooled them with a quick dunk in the lake and then packed them out in our still very empty trash bag.

We paddled probably another 3 miles or so into the Cochrane River when Scott was so tired he just decided to go to shore and look to see if he could find a campsite. For once, the first place we look we find a campsite, and a great site at that! We set up the tents, dug out a little TL for our “dinner,” and crawled into the tents. We were asleep quickly.

Day 4

After a late night the group slept in a bit. Breaking down camp was at a bit slower pace this morning as the weariness of a night paddle was still present in everyone’s muscles. Breakfast was granola with dried apples and raisins. We set out on the Cochrane River with a slight tail wind. Today’s navigator was Greg, who took us in the wrong direction at one point but he caught the error quickly.

Progress was swift with a tail wind and our downstream direction. We covered 13 miles before we broke for TL on a nice little sandy beach. The standard TL was peanut butter and jelly on Rye Krisp crackers along with some cheese and summer sausage. Also we would have some dried fruit and either semi-sweet bakers chocolate or GORP (Good ‘ole Raisins and Peanuts) for dessert. We’d figured that we could ration one container of peanut butter for every two days and one block of cheese for every four days.

After lunch we paddled another 4 miles into a lake. This afternoon I was the “duffer.” Duffing means resting. As we had 9 guys on our trip, we had four boats with one extra person. The third person does not paddle as that would throw off the balance of the boat. The duffer on our trip also serves as the navigator. Having an extra person on a trip such as ours is very important for another reason: if someone gets injured, we will still be able to paddle all four boats. If we only had 8 people on our trip and still took four boats, if someone were to get injured, we’d face a serious predicament as to what to do about the fourth boat. Do we abandon it? Would we have enough room in the other three boats for the added gear plus two more passengers? On our trip, we are paddling the venerable Old Town “Tripper” canoes. These are large, durable canoes with a heavy payload capacity. These 17 foot canoes have a 1,100 pound listed capacity. With 7 weeks in the wilderness ahead of us and our only re-supply coming barely two weeks into the trip, we’d be pushing the limits of these boats’ capabilities.

Anyway, as the afternoon’s duffer, I was in charge of the navigation. But when I led the group into a small bay, the other three boats stopped and did not follow not having faith in the way I was leading them. Their error as my navigational skills proved sound.

We came across an old trapper’s cabin on this lake. The cabin was long-deserted and falling apart. There was junk all over the place. We ended up camping across the lake from this old cabin where we found a really nice campsite. With our first portage tomorrow around Bigstone Rapids, we needed to rid ourselves of our remaining fresh food so for dinner tonight, we had potatoes. Lots and lots of potatoes. 13 pounds of potatoes to be exact!

Looking at the map, Bigstone Rapids appears to be about 15 or 16 miles away. We will have to be careful about the rapids if folks are tired. Maybe we will portage all the equipment, camp at the base of the rapids, and run the rapids in the empty boats the following morning.

From our campsite we can see that there is a wildfire burning down at the end of the lake. I think we will be passing the fire tomorrow.

The weather so far has been very disorganized and definitely not in any stable summer pattern. The clouds build in during the day, but are very thick and gray, not light and puffy cumulous clouds one normally associates with summer. Maybe we are too far north for such regular cloud formation? Tonight the day’s clouds are again dissipating and the temperature is dropping.

Tonight during dinner Matt made some cornbread for tomorrow’s breakfast. That’ll be a nice treat!

I’m starting to get into the flow of the trip. I really enjoy the day’s paddling and peacefulness of our surroundings. This part of the world is undisturbed by man and is beautiful and rugged. I love going to bed at night listening to the waves lapping at the shore and the sound of the birds and the bugs! Also, the enormity of the trip ahead of us is starting to become a reality. We have a long way to travel with many obstacles and difficulties yet to be overcome. But I am looking forward to what will be a great adventure!

Today was the first day of our trip that we did not see anyone other than those of our own group.

Day 5

Woke early to an overcast, low gray sky. I rolled over in my sleeping bag and went back to sleep! When I woke later, the sky was clear as a bell! A beautiful day in paradise!

We ate the cornbread that Matt made last night and it was incredibly filling, sitting in our stomachs like a lead weight! We broke camp, loaded the canoes and headed downriver with a slight tailwind at our backs again. We came upon the wild fire that we had seen from our campsite the night before. The fire was close to the shore so we got some good pictures. Matt and Stew went ashore to get a closer look. While we watched from just off shore, we saw a tree catch fire. As the tree ignited, we could hear it out in the boats, it sounded like thunder! Amazing.

After a short stop to check out the fire, we continued on while our tailwind intensified. Progress was quick with the tailwind and current and we easily covered 11 miles before stopping for TL. We had TL on a big rock that faced a major flame of the wildfire. We were a good 1½ - 2 miles away from the fire but we could easily see the flames.

I went for a quick, cold swim in the chilly waters. It was quite refreshing and it felt good to get wet and clean up a bit.

At the end of our lunch siesta, a Chippewa family on the way to Lac Brochet came by. They told us about an alternate route to bypass Bigstone Rapids. The man said that instead of doing the two long, buggy and boggy portages at Bigstone, that we should do three short portages through a pair of small lakes. We heeded the man’s advice, which turned out to be excellent as the portages were quick and easy.

After completing the portages, we started looking for a campsite. However, the area was quite low, with very little rock that we prefer for our campsites. So we kept paddling until we came to another set of rapids. The rapids were long and fast with no exposed rocks and lots of standing waves, some of which were at angles to the flow of the water. I took the lead boat with Scott and we shot the rapids with no problems.

We paddled a little farther and found a rather meager campsite. It was fairly late when we made camp and the group was pretty tired from a long day. There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm around the camp but a few people were interested in cooking so I offered to cook up a stew that turned out to be really good!

The mosquitoes at this lowland campsite are horrible! By far the worst we’ve had yet. The hum from the collective beating of their wings is the loudest I’ve ever heard!

For our 700 mile trip, we do have a tentative schedule that includes regular “duff days” (rest days) as well as several extra days tacked on at the end incase we run into unforeseen delays such as prolonged weather problems or route obstacles. Even with these built in buffers, we’re still generally trying to stay on schedule. This morning, we started 5 or 6 miles behind on our tentative schedule, but with the distance we covered today, we’re now a little ahead.