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Canoeing the Churchill: notes and musings

by Helen Solmes


It’s only mid-April. The ice is still on the reservoir north of town but already I’ve been surfing the internet, indulging in everyone else’s memoirs from recent canoe trips. Sunday, I put the canoe in at the dam and paddled the 300 meters of open water through slush to watch the painted turtles.Why the rush? Well, this year I will finally canoe the Churchill River and I am finding it hard to concentrate on anything else.

Three weeks ago, I volunteered for two days at the TransCanda Trail booth at the Yorkton Farm and Leisure Show. On the first day, I chatted with an enthusiastic canoeist and conservation officer from La Ronge. He told me of his endless days of canoeing on the Churchill River. “Some day” is all I could say, time after time. With each of his stories, I appeased myself with : “I will too, someday.”

On day two, a couple of school teachers from Lemberg approached the booth and one thing led to other, we started talking canoe routes. They told me about a group of high school students who canoe the Churchill every June and asked if I would go along as a chaperone. “Would I ?” My dream was about to come true.

April 23, 1997

A Lemberg student phoned today to ask if she could be my partner. Her name is Leigh Hiechert and she has canoed before. A very good start, indeed.

April 25, 1997

I’ve re-read Allison Muri’s dairy of her trip on the Churchill River with four friends in June of last year. They paddled two canoes from Paul Lake to Otter Lake. Allison was a self-proclaimed greenhorn who would prefer to curl up with a good book, chocolate, and Beaujolais than to spend seven days with four “adventurous rapids-seeking and increasingly- smelly fisherman-hunters”.

I’ve made a mental note to buy a rain suit, something more covering than the canvas poncho that I use as a ground sheet, awning, and sometimes rain gear. I noted her hint to always take your very own paddle. Sounds like the daytime temperatures in mid -June are only 15C and lows, 8C; mosquitoes thick in places; and no need for a swimsuit -the water will be frigid. The ice didn’t go off until May 31st last year.

May 3, 1997

I’m re-reading Sigurd Olson’s The Lonely Land. Sometime in the 1950’s, Olson and five other men canoed the historic route of the Voyageurs of the 1700-1800’s along the MacKenzie and Churchill Rivers. Olson’s group traveled 500 miles from Ile-a-la-Crosse to Cumberland House in Peterborough canoes and admittedly many more luxuries than their pre-decessors. They, however, had a true sense of the vastness, adventure, and solitude of the great Canadian Shield.

Olson wrote:

The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, and the shores. A man is part of his canoe and therefore part of all it knows. The instant he dips his paddle, he flows as it flows, the canoe yielding to his slightest touch and responsive to his every whim and thought.

There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions.

Each of the six men played a unique part in the expedition, characteristic of their unique personalities. Olson was granted the title of “bourgois”, commander of the expedition and fearless leader whose judgement was respected and word final. Eric was responsible for all the planning and historical research. He would rouse the voyageurs each morning with the traditional call: “Levi Levi Levi, nos gens.” Omond was the canteen master, Tony the “catcher of fish”, and Elliot the second-cook. Denis kept a diary.

I particularly enjoy reading the words to long cherished French Canadian songs that I learned as a child growing up in a French community in southern Ontario, songs like:

En roulant ma boule roulant,
En roulant ma boule
En roulant ma boule roulant
En roulant ma boule.

and :
A la claire fontaine
M’en allant promener
J’ai trouve l’eau si belle
Que je m’y suis baingne
Lui ya longtemps que je t’aime,
Jamais je ne t’oublierai.

May 7th

Things to remember to bring along:
  • rain gear
  • repellent
  • coffee
  • binoculars
  • paddle
  • diary
  • cards
  • compass
  • topo
  • socks,socks,socks
  • biodegradable detergent for dishes, clothes, and hair
  • gloves
  • wool toque and cotton hat
  • wooden matches
  • extra camp fuel
  • single burner stove
The trip organizer, Brian Lansford, has recommended that I waterproof the tent with a liquid silicone that is painted on. Where to find such a thing?

I have abandoned Sigmund’s book in favor of Kamil Pecher’s Lonely Voyage. Mr Pecher set out from Waterhen, Sk., alone in a kayak to canoe the historical fur trade route including the Churchill River to Cumberland House. He writes about the biteless mosquitoes called midges that swarm in black clouds and pepper his tea and porridge, get into his nostrils and ears, and make life intolerable. However, they do not bite. The adults go without food for their entire adult stage, simply producing larva which is deposited on the water’s surface, feeding off algae in between storms, and vanishing after a brief adult stage. I experience something similar at McKay’s Harbour on the Bruce Trail ( Bruce Peninsula, Ontario). I was confined to either a rock 10 meters out from shore or directly in a smoke smudge to avoid the pests.

June 7th

Just 10 days before the trip. I have canoed some and want to do as much as possible this coming week to build up some strength. If I were perfectly organized, I would sew bags for cooking utensils, bags for sundry camping equipment, a bag for the sleeping bag. I’ll be lucky to remember all I should bring, let alone have it properly bagged.

Pecher’s writings have me worried about the difficulty of this trip. The topographical maps are no more re-assuring. Pecher, however, seems to be a doomed type of writer who dwells on the misery of the trip and skims through the good days, the favorable weather, and upbeat spiritual moments. He admits to rushing through the first part of the trip almost as if he was running from someone, possibly himself, for being alone on this journey was one of the biggest trials he faced. He did not allow himself the luxury of sitting out storms. He didn’t take time to dry out between soakings. He pushed on until blood in his stool and severe pain forced him to seek help and eventually he was hospitalized for a stomach ulcer. He resumed his trip despite his doctor’s advise and pushed on.

Some menu ideas are:

  • pouches of pasta
  • canned salmon on days when we are camped near garbage pick-up
  • pancakes
  • bannock
  • granola
  • cup-of-soup
  • rice cakes and peanut butter
  • ice tea mix
  • porridge and brown sugar
  • raisins or currants
  • gorp

JOURNAL: Churchill River Canoe Trip, June 1997

It’s Day 5 of the Churchill River Canoe Trip and I am just now getting down to writing a journal. The rain, mud, wind, and dampness are unrelenting. However, the people, the happenings, the trip itself have made for an exhilarating experience. Inspired by chaperone Roberts and aided by his generous donation of paper and pencil, I will back track a few days and recount the highlights of the trip to-date.

Day 1:

We arrived at Four Portage Bay in the rain mid-afternoon. Our launch was simply an opening in the reeds along side a dirt road. Half of the rented canoes were there, the other half to be fetched from an outfitter 20km further along. We waited, in the rain, until everyone was loaded and settled in to their canoes. We pushed off one canoe at a time and waited, in the rain, further out on the bay for Bourgois Lansford. He, an avid fisherman, chose to cast a while. Tempers flared. The longer we waited, the angrier we felt and talked of mutiny. I reminded myself of the meaning of the title ‘Bourgois” and struggled to find the submissiveness needed to honor the title.

We paddled some 12km onto Lac La Ronge, and were forced to a point of land. The wind blew hard from the east, the whitecaps looked menacing. Bourgois decided to sit out the wind and try again later in the evening. I hear myself say that no way was I going out into those waves, and once again I struggled to find the submissiveness I would need to do as Bourgois ordered. It is one thing to submit to someone whose judgement and abilities you know and trust but quite another to submit to someone you met on land just hours ago and who now is deciding your fate in treacherous waters.

We took refuge on a point of land. That’s when my canoe partner, Leigh, and I discovered the leak in our canoe. All our gear had been sloshing around inside the tarp in water. Leigh’s clothes and sleeping bag were soaked. Some of my clothes were wet but thank goodness my sleeping bag was wrapped in double garbage bags and still dry.

Bourgois and Gerry patched the canoe with shoe goo and duct tape and wished us well. Leigh’s bag dried somewhat over the fire. The wind never did die down se we made camp there, in a boggy, cramped space, and hoped for the best next day.

Day 2:

Bourgeois and Gerry woke early at daybreak and checked the weather and chose to go back to bed for awhile. I lay in my bag wondering what the day would bring. I had visions of starting the day in pouring rain and more wind but, in fact, by 5 a.m. when we hit the water, we were able to cross lac La Ronge with minimal struggle. We canoed the lee side of Kenderdine Island into a beautiful bay. The air was calm, the water like a mirror. With the wind now gentle and from the west, we surfed along in a fine misty rain into Diefenbaker Bay. I began to feel the camaderie build as all fifteen canoes kept pace gleefully paddling along deep into Diefenbaker Bay. In time, we reached the marine railway between Diefenbaker and Hall Lakes. One at a time, we worked the fifteen canoes over land. Some of the students were careless on one of the hauls and lost control of the rail cart, letting it crash into canoes and canoeists at the end of the railine. Two canoes were damaged-thank goodness not the canoeists.

Onward across Hale Lake and Stewart Bay to Nistowiak Falls. We paddled some 25 km that day. The rain was intermittent all day, the winds calm and considering the gloomy prospects when we woke at daybreak. I felt like I had spent the day in 30 C weather drinking dacquiris in the sun. Nistowiak Falls, I had imagined, would be the scenic highlight of the trip but that night I was too tired to walk the trail to view the falls, too tired to cook or eat for that matter. Bourgois cooked fish and I managed a few mouthfuls. Stories of the miserable portage ahead of us started to circulate. Coupled with the “third day syndrome “ ahead, the wet boots which just would not dry, and the sore muscles, I was feeling rather glum, despite the soothing sound of waterfalls surrounding the campsite. All the stress of the last month, of the new job, of getting ready for the trip, the lack of sleep, my sudden weight loss of late-all seemed to come to a head that night as I slipped away from the group early and crawled into my bag.

Day 3:

I slept soundly last night and woke feeling physically and mentally refreshed like I would never have believed possible. The portage was a nightmare. The trail was mud. The two bridges were either slimy or completely under water with missing rungs. My canoe partner struggled to help me carry the canoe. Halfway, she felt faint and weakened. No amount of prodding could get her to move more than ten steps at a time. Bourgois came along and marshalled two young males to carry the canoe the rest of the way.

A short side trail let me to Nistowiak Falls, very impressive! The water was a crystal clear and swelled maybe four feet before plunging some 60 feet. The falls itself was a beautiful mint green color. Above the falls there was a wire strung from one bank to the other- a last ditch safety line, I’m told, for some cool-headed sort who was not already crazed at the prospects of barreling over this falls.

Finally, mid-morning, we set out in overcast skies toward the rapids in Purmal Bay. We were given the option of paddling upstream against the current or walking the canoe along the shoreline. I learned just how strong my partner could be. We had to paddle upstream briefly and swing hard into a sheltered bay. Leigh was scared and paddled for all she was worth.

We paddled only 12 km on Day 3 and made camp in the rain at Stanley Rapids. The students seemed to be changing attitude. Their clothes were wet, their sleeping gear wet, their muscles sore. They were not as cocky as on Day 1. They seemed to search out the chaperones taking what little comfort we could give.

Day 4:

It was a very wet start but with only 7km to Stanley Mission and a promise of a laundromat, everyone paddled with a light heart.

At Stanley Mission, there was a mad dash to the laundromat only to find that the building had been condemned and the business shutdown. We waited for the store to open. Some bought subs, junk food, socks. Some phoned home.

The church at Stanley Mission is one of the largest mission churches in Saskatchewan and the oldest standing building, built in the 1850’s by the Church of England. It stands on a point of land on an island. Its tall white steeple would be spectacular on a clear day. However, the inside of the church was dirty and littered. Bourgois tells me that the church was immaculately clean to receive Andrew and Fergie who, by the way, contrary to popular belief, did not experience any of the rigours of northern bush life. Even in this remote, rugged terrain, royalty was accommodated royally at great expense.

From Stanley Mission, we paddled long and hard into strong north winds up Mountain Lake, taking shelter behind and between islands until we reached Neufield Bay. I expected Day 4 to be, energy wise, a turning point, but sad to admit, I burned out. We fell behind, second from the last canoe. I certainly wasn’t prepared to face the last portage, this one at Twin Falls, muddier and more grueling than Nistowiak Falls. The portage had a platform of logs to slide the canoe up hill 100 meters or so. The trail was mud. The end of the portage was another series of logs to slide the canoe into the water downhill but no one could get their footing. Its late afternoon. We have paddled 30 km in rain and in strong winds and now this!

I vowed that in my journal I would not dwell on the inclement conditions like Pecher did, but somehow, when weather- induced gloom sets in, it is overwhelming.

That evening while camped high above Otter Lake with Robertson Falls wrapping around us, the skies cleared just in time for a spectacular, most mellow, soothing sunset.

Day 5 :

We are camped here for the day, a free day. No paddling today. By high noon, the skies are clear and the sun feels so healing. Yesterday, I wondered if I would ever venture out with this group again. Today, I wish we could keep going for another week. It’s northwest to Missinipe tomorrow, 17km away, and home the following day. I have learned so much on this trip. I am in awe of Bourgois and Gerry. Bourgois is a seasoned teacher who is not thrown by anything and truly believes that environment dictates. Rather than nag constantly about garbage being thrown about, he would choose an effective moment to order a mass clean-up. Like the day a bear was rumored to be in the area. The time was right to make the guilty parties retrieve the pork chop bones carelessly thrown and the leftover macaroni strewn about. Somehow, Bourgois knew exactly who to assign to clean-up. Out here in these rough elements, there is little room for mistakes and most every student will shape up.

Gerry staked claims in the Sturgeon Weir area in his younger years. He looks like a weathered prospector. He is a quiet man but has many adventures to tell. He seems relaxed but is always watching, calculating the winds and the current. He knows better than anyone what to expect on water and in the bush but takes nothing for granted. I would follow these two men anywhere.

I’ve learned to pack for bad weather with tarps, ropes, and sealproof bags for clothes and sleeping bag. I’ve learned to best balance the load in the canoe to handle head winds and to always carry a big sponge to mop up water in the bottom of the canoe, always to have dry socks on hand, in ziplock bags, and wear plastic bags inside wet boots. Even Gerry’s waterproof boots, by Day 4, were wet through and through. This was Roberts' first canoe trip and he watched with great interest. He seemed to appreciate the mix of people and the know-how each lent to the group. I delighted to see him clean a fish for the first time, awkwardly at first, saving his best catch for last.

Considering the difficulty of the portages, I am surprised how much gear even Bourgois and Gerry bring. Heavy gear, like cast iron grills to cook fish and coolers full of food frozen into the cooler up to six days prior to leaving home. And those blasted fishing rods with hooks dangling where people can get snagged. The evening catch sure tasted good, though- walleye, perch and jack. My breakfast this morning was coffee and porridge. Theirs’-pancakes, bacon, eggs, orange slices, and coffee or tea. My supper tonight will probably be one package of “just add water and boil creamy garlic pasta”. Theirs-steak, pan fried potatoes and probably more fish. I made Poire Helene last night for dessert, much to everyone’s delight.

In fact, supper was a group effort. My sweet potato, potatoes, and onion soup mix became the base for a fabulous vegetable stew with a fresh onion, carrots and canned mushrooms added in.

Some good food ideas from the group are:

  • peanut butter/oat squares for a quick high energy breakfast
  • soft tortillas for quick sandwiches, better than squished bread

Today has been a pleasant repose. I feel completely at home here on the rocks, molded to them, one in essence. Breakfast on one rocky ledge, an afternoon nap on another, supper with the group, then back to the rocks. The water is calm and enticing but I have no desire to go anywhere near the canoe.

Day 6:

It was hard to leave the Robertson Falls campsite. Even though we have a fair paddle ahead of us, leaving here means the beginning of the end for, when we arrive at Missinipe later today, the trip will be over. The vans will arrive shortly after we do and we head home tomorrow. Bourgois first planned to paddle a few hours then stop for breakfast and then proceed into Missinipe. Hour after hour passed and we weren’t stopping. Then Bourgois announced that Missinipe was just around the bend. Leigh and I were the second last off the water. I, for one, was in no hurry to finish the trip. Moreover, Missinipe is at the end of Walker Bay and there was nowhere to go except back where we had come from. Besides it was raining harder more miserably than ever.

I set up the tent and wandered around the townsite ‘til I found an outfitter’s office with information on other canoe routes. Over the last few months, while planning for this canoe trip, I had surfed the internet and found a web site called Notes from Missinipe written by a woman who lived in the townsite year round. I inquired at the town’s only store and to my delight she lived three doors down. I found the house, knocked, introduced myself, and was invited in for coffee. I was drenched, dirty, and feeling lightheaded from the motion of the canoe, but Joann Layton and I had a fantastic visit. She told me how she and her family came to live permanently in Missinipe and how she did home study with her younger children because there was no school. Her children are grown and either recent university graduates or now attending university, none suffering any disadvantage from their mother’s tutorship. She pointed out that their home study took only two hours a day for seven months of the year. Which begs the question - how are our students passing the balance of the school year in our public schools. Socializing, sports, discipline, extra curricular activities seemingly outweigh core curriculum.

When Joann did not offer me a second cup of coffee, I became self-conscious of my scrubbiness and left, back into the downpour. I can’t believe that I actually met someone from the internet.

Day 7: The trip home was long and sobering. The Churchill River is so far away from Esterhazy and who knows when I may pass this way again. Bourgois has invited me along next year and circumstances permitting, I probably will go. One way or another, I will go back, someday.

Notes from Missinipe | Poetry | Confessions of a Greenhorn | Helen Solmes

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