The Cold and the Miserable

Wednesday morning at Big Eddy Camp started early. Very early, because no curtains means I’m up with the dawn. Cas wasn’t impressed when I went to make tea at 4.30…but was happier when I came back with it. 

We had a big day planned anyway, as Solomon and Renee had offered to put us up at their place in Cumberland House. An offer we couldn’t refuse, but we knew meant a long day, with 8km of upstream paddling at the end, on a forecast of wind and rain. And boy did it rain. With wind. Without wind. After a pleasant initial couple of hours it just poured. The river passes through the Saskatchewan River Delta, one of the largest inland deltas in the world. Which means miles of flat, marshy land with side-streams leaving and re-joining the main river, making navigation more challenging than usual and limiting stopping points. We eventually did find some cabins to stop at and dry out, after around eight hours of constant soaking. 

After chasing off an over-inquisitive mink who was after our lunch we continued on to Cumberland House to meet Renee, but first Solomon’s 93 year old mother, Josephine. The granddaughter of a Scottish immigrant from the islands, she was keen to chat and passed on some of the sort of advice you can only acquire after that many years. She was justifiably proud of her family, whose achievements include Solomon’s canoeing (4x world C2 champion), along with world champion dog-sledders and an Olympic boxer. Renee then threw us in the shower, fed us, washed our clothes and provided pyjamas. Cas’s picture of me in the Rudolph ones is not going on here… Huge thanks to the Carrieres for their hospitality, it made a memorable and relaxing end to a pretty tough day. 

The river after Cumberland House really gets wild. This is the most remote we have felt so far, with no sign of human habitation for miles. The lack of campsites continues with thick bush right up to the banks, and flooded islands in this unusually high water. The odd unoccupied cabin in the woods provided the only cleared space to pitch a tent, and we celebrated two months of married life on the lawn of one of these under a Canadian flag. A long day from here (11 hours straight in the boat), crossing into Manitoba en route, had us just short of The Pas. A second province crossed! Saskatchewan was pretty, peaceful and unbelievably friendly, and we have many fond memories both on and off the river. 

The Pas is our last re-supply point before the lakes, and Cas is despatched to the supermarket the next morning whilst I look after the boat at the town boat launch. Now we were told back in Alberta that Manitoba folk like a chat, but I barely stopped chatting for two hours straight. I guess the site of a fully loaded canoe on the bank turns heads. First a friendly cabbie, then a chap waiting for a hospital appointment. Of particular note were Chris and Percy who were filleting their catch of walleye from the morning, who not only gave us half their fish for dinner that night but went away to buy us coffee and returned with a cut of moose from Chris’s freezer! We now know that moose is delicious. Huge thanks also to Sharon, who kept me entertained with stories of her early life in South Africa and time living in Melrose whilst her partner was working at the BGH!! Small world. She gave us two rolls of toilet roll, which is like giving us gold. Buying anything less than a years supply doesn’t seem possible in supermarkets here and we were about to donate the surplus to the local community. 

From here we head to the lakes. Cedar first, about two days downstream, then the larger challenges of Winnipegosis and Manitoba. We’re definitely ready for a change from the river, we’ve been on it a month after all, but I think we might change our tune when we’ve spent some time on the lakes. 

What we’ve learnt:

  • Mike’s jacket is not as waterproof as he would like. 
  • Paddling upstream into a headwind is only possible with Haribo. 

Favourite piece of kit:

  • MSR Windburner stove. Has saved us now on numerous occasions. 

The kindness of strangers

You will have seen that most of our posts finish with a list of thanks owed to people we know or have met along the way. Well, this entire chapter is an ode of thanks. I’ve been writing it for almost 2 weeks now but people keep on being so bloody kind I haven’t got the thing published! 

We left our stunning camp at the forks and continued on the Saskatchewan to Wapiti camp – devoid of people but full of ticks. As campgrounds go though it was perfect – easy boat access, fire pits, a picnic table to eat at and even, we were told, downhill skiing when the snow allowed (we resisted the urge to say ‘and the hills … or lack of…?!).

From there we were onto Codette lake – the first of a series of man made lakes ending in dams and portages. The dams are all hydro electric power stations and the only way round is through the station land which we had been told had locked gates. We’d been sent contact details for the hydro station manager by Ron (Of The Paddles) and tried calling and messaging but without actually getting hold of him. After a fairly tough paddle along the lake (tiny detour into an entirely unwelcoming and awkward little bay for emergency coffee and chocolate due to headwind rage) we approached the dam without high hopes of getting through. Queue Preston and Curtis who happened to be out in their truck and were presumably looking forward to knocking off soon (4pm on a Friday…). They drove over to where we were pulling in and without hesitation helped unload our kit from the boat, load the boat into the truck, drive around to the put in and load us up again. Did Wade tell you we were coming? We asked. Nope, just thought you’d probably need a hand. 

From the dam it was an easy but wet few km to Nipawin where we knew there was another provincial park with a campground and even a marina. As we pulled into the boat launch a red truck did a 180 and came back towards us. An old fella leaned out of the window and called ‘This all looks pretty serious – where you headed?’. We’d been a bit reticent at the start about declaring where we were hoping to end up but after 1500km it was beginning to sound plausible so we shouted back ‘Quebec!’. ‘Ha! You’ll have some muckels [muscles] by then! Here, let me help you’. 

And so it was we met Frenchie, who gave us, our kit and the boat a lift up to the park entrance to check in, a lift to our campsite, and a promise to see us later on back at the marina restaurant. We set up the tent in haste partly due to threatening rain but mostly in the hope of getting a hot meal and a cold beer back at the marina. Lucky we did though as the rain was biblical (…and the beer was cold and the food was delicious – I think some folk may have been slightly alarmed by how much we ate…). It sheeted down huge warm drops all night in a way we just don’t seem to get at home. And then it continued on Saturday. So we headed back to the marina for breakfast, whereupon we met Frenchie again. ‘You’ll be needing to head to town to resupply I suppose? Take my truck – just out there, keys are in it, I don’t need it anytime soon.’ Just like that. So we did! It’s a pretty distinctive truck so we drove in slight fear someone would recognise it but not us and think we’d pinched it (we look like the sort who might). Luckily no one stopped us even when Mike ran several stop signs (sorry Frenchie!). Resupply done – mostly food, some fishing tackle, some bits for tent repairs, but sadly no book for me – we headed back to the marina. The weather was clearing a little and Ray (the owner) suggested Frenchie could take Mike and I out on one of the jet boats for a bit of fishing. Several hours and two big pike later we headed back in for hot chocolate (amazing to think that a week previously we’d considered sending some of our warmer stuff back with jess and jake and now we were wearing all of it again – along with the t-shirts Ray had just given us – thanks Ray!). We had dinner at the marina again and chatted to some of the regulars. We discovered this: Nipawin is fishing mad. 

We were picked up again at 7 on Sunday morning. We set off with a good forecast and our fish carefully filleted and frozen by Frenchie, (who’d also thrown in some extra lures) to start the crossing of Tobin lake – our first big-ish lake. We had a pretty nice paddle to about halfway where there was supposed to be a good spot to camp. We found a lovely shingle beach with tons of driftwood for a fire and set up there. The next morning we packed up and passed the ‘proper’ campground about 100 metres around the headland. This happens quite a lot.

It was glassy and miraging all over the lake such that we couldn’t see the edges or judge any distances but we made great progress and even had time to catch a fish. 

Approaching the dam we were filled with the same fear that we might not get through and have to camp early and wait; we needn’t have worried. As we got closer we saw a hydro truck driving out to a boat launch. And then another. And then another. ‘They won’t have sent three just for us but at least we can ask the way through’. They had. And so we met Wade and 3 of his team all of whom had come to help us across the dam. Easiest portage ever! 

We were deposited below the dam in the middle of one of the biggest fish fly hatches I’ve ever seen so we hustled to get back onto the water and head downstream. 

We’d been contacted by Renee and Solomon Carriere (who’d been given a heads up by Ron OTP that we were coming) to say that they had a camp just down from the dam and a home in Cumberland house if we would like to drop in. Solomon has done a bit of paddling in his time so we knew who was coming towards us on the river when we spotted a flash of hands and a fast moving canoe. ‘Keep going!’ he yelled as we slowed to say hello. ‘Don’t lose your speed!’. We didn’t think we had much but we carried on paddling regardless. ‘Follow me!’ He called and then promptly disappeared around the bend. He led us to ‘Big Eddy’ – the Camp where he had grown up and then taken over from his parents: an unbelievably green and stunning clearing in the midst of dense scrubby forest. They had a cabin for us to use, the sauna was stoked and ready to go, but would we like a bit of advice on paddling first? What followed was probably some of the most useful and valuable advice we’ve received on the trip: a half hour lesson in efficient and effective paddling avoiding steering strokes and maintaining momentum. We were pretty excited to try it out. But we got distracted by the sauna… and possibly the dogs.

What we learnt:

  • How to paddle a canoe. It’s only taken 1500km, but at least we’ve got 3500 more to perfect it. 
  • Cas paddles better than Mike, according to the pro. 

In lieu of thanks this post has a dedication: to Ami Jones, MBE for services to military and civilian trauma care. We are totally chuffed and delighted for you – truly well deserved.