We departed our rock with mixed feelings: excitement to see the terrain start to change and embark on the next section of our journey mingled with apprehension at the thought of another big industrial river which we would be paddling upstream no less, and multiple portages around dams. Well.
Day one on the Winnipeg we reached: Pine falls which we ‘lined’ the boat up; Powerview dam which we portaged; Silver falls which we paddled up; Mud falls which we slightly ungracefully slid and slipped the boat up, and finally Great Falls dam which we again portaged. We didn’t know or care how far we’d paddled because we were loving every minute: the river is stunning with great slabs of grey and pink granite overhung with pines and cedars; sometimes wide and lake-like, sometimes high and fast.
We were fairly shattered when we got to the other side of Great falls dam and decided to just camp right there in the car park. Minutes after we’d pitched the tent Dan and Shayna arrived to go for a swim in a nearby flooded quarry. We were too tired and hungry to investigate but on hearing of our trip Dan said ‘We have a market garden – I’ll be back in half an hour with fresh stuff for you guys!’. And he was with, to my utter delight, bags full of freshly picked salad and vegetables, and to Mike’s unbridled joy a pack of homemade venison smokies (sausages!). We seriously considered a second dinner…
Day 2 on the Winnipeg dawned fair and bright and we made an early start, not really knowing how tough the current may be nor how tricky the portages. Within minutes we were watching an otter and her 3 pups playing in the eddies just metres in front of the boat. They scurried over a headland and then back out into the middle of the very current we were struggling against. It set us up for the day ahead – another dam to portage and Lac du Bonnet to cross. We were now in prime cottaging (totally legitimate phrase, stop snickering at home) country and it was easy to see why. We made a stop in Lac du Bonnet town for some emergency supplies (read: ice cream) and by great good fortune met up with Bev and Rolly – Wayne’s sister and brother in law. Once again they invited us to stay and once again we decided regretfully to push on, but not before Bev had given us a huge blueberry cheesecake. ‘We can’t possibly eat it all!’ We cried: ‘It’ll go bad in the heat and be wasted!’ It turned out we could, it didn’t and it wasn’t…
Day 3 started with a portage up Seven Sisters dam via a steep track. Mike had warned me that in this area there are stone sculptures or what appear to be piles of rocks which we should leave untouched as they could be aboriginal. Imagine my delight when he kicked over a little stone man we had been carefully avoiding on the slipway… (I estimate the slipway concrete was poured in the 70s so I’m thinking he didn’t wreck too much history…). We paddled on towards Pinawa and into island hopping territory through some fairly fast water (easy ‘drop and pool’ everyone said! ‘Virtually no flow’…) sadly receiving an invitation to meet the mayor too late. Through Margaret lake, Dorothy lake and onto Nutimik lake the headwind picked up but we were determinedly aiming for a provincial park near Sturgeon falls – the next portage. Barring the wind it was a fairly glorious evening and plenty of folks were out on their decks and pontoons drinking sundowners (I may have suggested paddling closer on the off chance of an invitation up for gin but Mike will take a direct line). Arriving at the park I headed up to find the office and see what else could be had there. I returned frazzled an hour later: suffice it to say, these parks aren’t really geared up for people arriving in anything other than a car. It was going to be quite a hike with the boat to any pitches so instead we paddled on around the headland and camped on a beach right next to the falls.
Day 4 started with a short portage around Sturgeon falls and a brisk paddle to Slave falls hydro dam. We hadn’t managed to find much online about this portage since early 2000s and we hoped the track had improved since then. After a bit of searching we found the marker and after a steep narrow section through the woods the trail became a wide grassy track up to the ‘high side’. Phew. We left a small token taped to the marker for our friends and comrades-in-boats Mike and David who have been utterly beset by winds and storms on lake Winnipeg. We hope it’s still there when they arrive!
The next hurdle was 8 foot falls which we reckoned we’d need to portage (it’s all in the name…) and immediately afterwards Pointe du Bois dam. We got closer and closer to where the falls were marked on the map and the water got faster and faster but no obvious get-out, nor actual ‘falls’ could be seen so we carried on. Paddling our socks off we suddenly arrived just below the dam so apparently had come up 8 foot falls! This portage was supposed to be clearly signed so we carried on until we dared not go any closer. We ended up hauling the boat through someone’s garden and found the road. Turning back a short way up we saw the portage signs – clearly marked if you were heading downstream!! It was quite a walk to the high side but greatly improved by the presence of many wild raspberries. We had lunch on the boat pontoon and chatted to some locals – apparently the wild blueberries out ripe too, in abundance! The dam sign said flow rates were currently high which could be good or bad depending on their effect on the rapids ahead, but for now we were essentially on a lake and we had a fine paddle up to Lamprey falls where we made an early camp. We even had time for a quick dip before dinner which will come as a relief to anyone who has met us recently.