Physician chill thyself…

After just over a week in Thunder Bay we finally got back on the water and paddled away from Joan’s cabin. We cannot thank her enough for her kindness in allowing us to stay, giving us the chance to rest and the hope that we might be able to carry on. The combination of rest, anti-inflammatories and a steroid injection by the fantastic Dr Wark at her sports medicine clinic settled the shoulder pain down for now. The diagnosis: supraspinatus and biceps tendonitis due to the many and prolonged portages. Another injury for my quite extensive collection. 

Beautiful Lake Superior

Our first day back in the boat could not have been better – sunshine, very light winds and flat calm. I was nervous, hyper-aware and not exactly brimming with confidence, but we had to try. Thirty kilometres later, sat on the opposite side of Thunder Bay looking back and having noticed only a few small twinges, all seemed well. But we both had an unsettled night, in part due to the shoulder, but largely due to the novelty of being back out again, listening all night for noises around the tent. I sat on the beach the next morning tired, dejected and about ready to give up. I proclaimed, with tears welling up in my eyes, that I thought I might be done. I pretty much was and thought this might be the trip’s end. But we knew this would be hard. We had spoken about the loss of momentum and how difficult it would be to get that back. How we needed to give it time to make paddling a boat all day, every day, normal again. Yes there’s the delight of waking up to birdsong and splashing clear lake water on our faces; the simplicity of 2 mugs, 2 plates, 2 bowls; the joy of watching otters playing whilst the sound of the Loons echoes across the lake. But then there’s the discomfort of being in the boat for hours; the monotony of the endless paddle strokes; the constant eye on the weather and the uncertainty of finding somewhere to camp. Good or bad, over the last 3 1/2 months these things have become our world. Our enforced break had taken us away from these and plunged us back into the real world. But we weren’t ready for that again yet. After much discussion, more tears, and another cup of tea, we decided I wasn’t done. My wife’s words: “I’ll tell you when you’re done”. Welcome to married life.

The Sleeping Giant
The paddling that day was brief. We managed 10km before a storm forced us into the shore. We eventually found a campsite after first nearly losing a paddle and potentially the boat by not pulling her high enough up the bank in a swell. We were definitely out of practice. The sort of storm after which the bay must be named crackled around us all night with the ground shaking from the proximity the strikes, and the next morning dawned, just, giving us our first taste of Superior fog. Rounding the cape we pulled in to the bird observatory at the end of the Sleeping Giant peninsula and were warmly welcome by Rinchen, the resident ornithologist. Amongst many other things we finally learned who has been singing the first few notes of the Snowman to us since Alberta – a white throated sparrow. We also learned that Rinchen used to live in Cannonmills, Edinburgh. Small world indeed. Continuing on we passed the small village of Silver Islet, once home to the largest silver mine in the world, and camped in a calm bay waiting for the wind to fall.

The Giant’s lover…?
Early the next morning we set out to leave the Giant behind us. This was a significant moment, as for the next 150km there would be no opportunity to quit. There are few habitations and no roads until Rossport. This was us saying the shoulder was good for now, we were going to carry on. We celebrated with over 40km of stunning paddling. Lake Superior celebrated with a full day of wind, but we managed to pick our way through the islands and battled across the gaps to find a suitable spot for the next 3 nights – two days of 20+ knot southerlies were forecast and we were going into hiding.

We walked the line…

We pulled in and unceremoniously dumped everything in the nearest tent pitch before walking down to the marina desk and checking in. We were just thinking about going for a beer when I stupidly said something like ‘oh yes, we’re in the USA now’ and the clerk asked ‘have you cleared customs?’ Erm, well, no. We hadn’t. And we’d always been a little nervous about this part of the trip. 

If you are a Canadian or US resident you can apply for permits (RABC and i68) which allow you to cross the border remotely without question, simply phoning and notifying customs of your crossing when you are able. If you are from elsewhere, you cannot get these permits, and we had received conflicting advice on what we should do, being told by one Canadian border official that we’d get a $1000 fine each for not crossing at a land border. Not helpful when we were taking a route that crosses continuously for around 300km, and leaves us in the US. The border services at Fort Frances were most helpful, phoning both the US customs in International Falls (just across the bridge) and the Canadian guys at Pigeon River. Their advice was basically go and do it, and go to the US post at Pigeon River when you arrive or, though they didn’t say it directly, keep your heads down and paddle straight back into Canada when you get to Grand Portage. Until I opened my mouth, this is what we thought we might do…

Anyway, this was no longer an option, so we phoned the US border from the marina, who sent someone down to check our paperwork. Or lack of it. Now, this is a sentence you will not hear very often: thank you to the friendly and fantastically helpful guys at the US border for helping us out and making our arrival in the US legal. And so, 30 minutes after our arrival at the marina, a well marked border services car arrived and whisked us off, much to the amusement of the other campers. We sorted our paperwork at the land border, laughing that my fingers were too grubby for the fingerprint machine to recognise them. Lucky for us, but perhaps not those around us, we have completely lost insight into how wild we look or how bad we smell. They then gave us a lift back to our tent before we completely contaminated the place.

So, for any non-North Americans planning on doing a similar trip in the future, here’s what you should do:

  • Make sure you have an ESTA (or visa if required for your country). We had one, but might have been screwed without it.
  • Walk over the border at International Falls, with or without your gear. You will be issued with an i94, which allows you to cross as many times as you like for 90 days. Not strictly a remote areas pass, but it looks better than having nothing at all and will probably satisfy any US Border Patrol en route. You can then go back to Fort Francis and commence your trip from there or paddle from the US if you prefer.
  • When you reach Grand Portage, phone from the marina. US customs will come down and meet you, and the existence of your i94 should be enough to ensure it is a straightforward process.
  • Paddle up to Thunder Bay and phone the CBSA from the Marina there. We didn’t test this bit, but it’s what the Fort Francis guys told us to do. Or cross back at the land border and continue your trip from Thunder Bay.

Essentially, it’s all a bit of a grey area and the border guys know it. So smile, keep your fingers crossed, don’t make too many jokes, and maybe have a few thousand dollars in your bank account in case it all goes to shit.

The Portage Pilgrim’s Progress

We left Gunflint filled up and stretched out but, like the first day of the holidays, with the added realisation of just how tired we were. Good job there was a nice easy stretch ahead… 

Gunflint dock, site of breakfast yoga shocker

After an early morning yoga session on the dock (during ‘happy baby pose’ I imagined the view for the breakfasting onlookers and got uncontrollable giggles) we set off down the lake with a gentle tail wind. We stopped in at the next campground store to pick up as many Ibuprofen as they would let us buy (this being the US, ‘many’ was the answer): Mike’s shoulder – which was injured a few years ago when he was knocked off his bike on his way to work, subsequently arriving at his place of work in an ambulance – has been causing him some grief, most notably since we started this section of heavy portaging. Skype advice from a top physio, and also from Mike’s best man, was rest (they know Mike well enough to know this won’t happen), excercises, and a course of anti inflammatories. Paddling doesn’t seem to aggravate it so we continued on through Little Gunflint lake and Little North lake onto North lake. From here we took the excitingly but slightly misleadingly named ‘Height of land’ portage, figuring everything beyond should be downstream…right?

Portaging injuries…

We paddled very definitely into the current on South lake to find the Rat Lake portage: by now we are accustomed to looking intently for dark holes in the forest which might indicate a trail, and as we get closer the shiny exposed roots and smoothed rocks that tell of several hundred years’ worth of use (and on arrival see the confirmatory grazes of aluminium from other canoes to which we add a dash of bright pink gel coat. Good old Bertha). 

We started unpacking when another canoe arrived: people! We yelled them to pull up as there was plenty of room at the get out, and started our first run up the trail. We were halfway back when we passed one of the paddlers: ‘where are you camping?’ Said he, apropos of nothing. ‘We’re going to try and get to Rose lake and…’ he didn’t stay for the rest but broke into a run. Ah, our first taste of competitive canoeing: the campsites in Boundary being limited we had been told that there could sometimes be a race for the best spots. Well, it’s a very serious business, holidaying…! 

View from the portage trail

We made it onto Rose lake in time to see a storm gathering behind us and the other canoe pull into the first campsite on the lake. Knowing we had the (entirely appropriately named) Long Portage at the end of the lake sometime the next day we paddled as far as the storm allowed before diving for cover and setting up the tarp. Also in deference to the Long Portage we ate a huge dinner which consisted of ‘whatever’s heaviest’ (rice and daal, one of our favourites).

At 4km the Long Portage was to be our biggest ‘trail’ (as opposed to highway) portage to date – good preparation for the Grand Portage then!? Although these trails are quite obvious they’re by no means easy, with stretches of rooty hill and rocky steps and soggy marsh and fallen trees and occasionally narrow, sometimes rotten, gangways across bog. Breaking it down into 1km sections where we’d depot the first bags and return for the rest seemed to go ok, if not quickly. Many Clif bars were consumed. But the wine gums were being rationed for what lay ahead… 

With the Long Portage completed in time for coffee the remaining 4 short portages for the day looked a breeze. Little did we know the muddy, wet ‘portages’ would be barely distinguishable from the muddy shallow ‘lily lakes’. Some pole-ing was required… finally we arrived onto lovely Mountain lake where we sat and watched a timber wolf whilst it stood intently watching us from the far shore. We camped on Moose lake, which didn’t live up to its name in spite of much evidence on the trails. 

Moose Lake

Our last day in Boundary involved a portage onto the Fowl lakes and then a foul portage onto the Pigeon river – another landmark moment on the trip and name from the list! Foul in part due to us taking a wrong turn and heading up a steep path onto a high escarpment – returning to the junction we saw that the fallen wood that appeared to lay across the other path was, in fact, quite clearly an arrow. Doh! But also this was another 2km portage through dense woodland with many fallen trees to climb over and a twisting meandering hilly track, clearly now rarely used. We did it in 3 stages with coffee at the start (whilst Mike picked a record 5 leeches off his feet) and lunch at the finish on the Pigeon river. In the middle I snagged my prized bug shirt on a branch and tore a hole in the mesh – our second portage disaster!

We both had ideas what this legendary waterway would be like and I think  it’s fair to say it was neither. Bigger than Mike thought, reedier than I had expected and with less flow and more headwind than either of us had hoped for we still enjoyed our paddle down to the English rapids which were bumpy and fun, and then the dramatic and stunning Partridge falls before we arrived to camp at the old site of Fort Charlotte. The Grand Portage is, in fact, a national monument, with permit controlled camping, a fire pit, a long drop and some signposts about the history of the trail. We thought this boded well for a clear route. 

With the light fading fast we made a hasty fire (for cooking and as a mosquito deterrent), pitched the tent on one of the plinths (it didn’t fit), sewed up my bug shirt and set up the bear hang. Then we scrambled into the tent and tried to convince ourselves we were ready for the next day…

And so it was that the day after our 4 month anniversary, and one day short of being 3 months out, we woke at 530am to walk our canoe and all the rest of our kit 14km to Lake Superior. 

Only it’s not 14km when you have to cover the route 3 times to get everything from point one to point 2… and that was with us both very much maximising our carrying capabilities: on the first portage run we both carry huge packs and clip on additional bags or carry paddles, and on the second run Mike has to lift the bag onto my back before balancing various other bits of kit and the canoe trolley etc on me before he lifts the canoe. I felt a strong empathy for mules… 

Typical of the Grand Portage trail

The trail was quite obvious but not always in great shape and after over 6 hours and 21km walking we’d made 7km of progress. So about 1km an hour then. It was at this stage we arrived at a junction with the old highway 61 – a gravel road. We stopped for lunch to discuss… it was twice the distance by the ‘highway’, but if we could use the trolley then actually it was 2/3rds the distance we’d have to do on the trail… we could do 1km an hour on the trail, and about 5km/hr by road. and our wine gums were running low…

So we loaded up the boat with all our gear and let our shoulders breathe a sigh of relief as we hauled the remaining 18km to Grand Portage. Taking a last diversion off the actual proper highway to get into town we thought we might be able to get back onto the last section of the trail and feel like we finished properly. After a protracted battle with some muddy ditches we got back onto the road and, nearing the bottom of the wine gums and the end of our tethers, finally saw the unmistakable gleam of RVs through the woods – a campsite!!! 

Grand Portage Marina and campground – that’s Lake Superior right there!

What we’ve learnt: 

Canadian cheese is so synthetic it lasts, virtually unchanged, for weeks unrefridgerated! Win!

We have a slow leak in our mattress. 

Canoe Heaven?

Calm, crystal clear lakes; miles upon miles of unspoiled shoreline; no motorboats, and over two million acres of virtually canoe-only accessible wilderness. Sound like canoe paradise? It’s probably pretty close. This is the area covered by Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks to the north of the border and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the US. It’s pretty amazing, stretches for 240km, and it’s what we’ve been paddling through for the last 10 days.

Having managed to obtain our Quetico permit, and get a last minute BWCAW one to enable us to use the US campsites too (more on the legality of this from US customs viewpoint in another blog…), we headed out across the remainder of Lac la Croix to Bottle Lake, and the first of over 40 portages that navigating along the border through this region entails. Unlike the mechanised portages of the previous days or the wide open trolley friendly trips along the highway, these are all canoe-on-head, multiple trip affairs. Lightweight outfits on short trips portage through in one go, but with all the gear for 5 months on the water we were delighted to get this down to two trips each. That of course means walking three times the portage distance, which ranged from a short 5m hop between lakes, to up to 700m in this section. It also introduced us to a new unit of measurement, the Rod – 16.5 feet, or roughly the length of a canoe. All the portages are listed in this unit on maps, so we soon became accustomed to it. Fortunately the portage trails through this bit of the boundary waters are well trodden and in pretty good nick, meaning they mostly weren’t too challenging, yet.

Pictographs on the cliffs of Lac la Croix 

Our original plan was to stay on the Canadian side through as much of these lakes as possible, acknowledging that the portages run on both sides and therefore necessitate crossing into the US. However, with the reassuring words from the Canadian customs guys in Fort Frances, and our BWCAW permit, we spent the first, and every subsequent night, in US campsites. These are pre-cleared spots with a fire pit, toilet of sorts, and tent spaces. In contrast to the the difficult to find Canadian sites they are marked on certain boundary waters maps. Which we didn’t have. But soon overcame this by taking photos of those carried by willing folk we met along the way. The Canadian side also allows wild-camping, which the US does not, so we were never too worried about finding a place to stay. We became quite used to seeing otter pups playing in the early morning and late afternoon, and listening to the haunting and comical loons, which have replaced the pelicans as our favourite bird.

First US camp

We also started to hang our food more in this section, whereas we haven’t really bothered before. Any bear that has shown any interest in us has been rapidly scared away, and we haven’t been using regular camp spots. But with the volume of traffic in this region and the tendency for bears to return to anywhere they’ve found a quick snack, we wanted to avoid any temptation. And it’s a park rule, or recommendation. The variety of “hangs” we saw was amazing, but the amount of food hanging from each suggested either not everything makes it into the hang or that people here survive on very very little… Most of the hangs did not look like they would deter Paddington if he was hungry, but seemed pretty effective at keeping chipmunks at bay. Anyway, lobbing a throw bag up into a tree each night to try and get the best branch is pretty good fun.

During the first couple of days we saw few canoes, and were able to stop and chat occasionally. We found a great bunch of guys out fishing (Simon et al – there is so much potential for canoe fishing trips in Scotland I’m sure) who, seeing us paddling towards them and thinking we might be rangers (both wearing matching bug shirts), knocked a fish off the line, paddled back into US waters from Canada where they may not have had the appropriate permits for, and scoped us with binoculars until they were satisfied we weren’t going to arrest them. Sorry guys, we hope you caught plenty more fish! As we continued further into the park we saw more and more canoes, so a friendly wave is all you can manage or you’d be chatting all day! The peace from motor boats was bliss though, and we dreaded reaching the few mixed use lakes.

Four days out from the ranger station, with many more portages to go, we suffered our first major kit failure. Both straps on big yellow, one of our 100L Ortleib dry bags, failed on a single portage, leaving us carrying the heavy pack on our heads. We managed to rearrange things to still get through in two trips, but with a lot less comfort and for how long we didn’t know. We also now feared big red might go the same way, and with the grand portage to come we were pretty depressed. However, paddling through Knife Lake and on into Ottertack re-kindled our spirits. Despite the storms and now familiar biblical rain, Ottertrack was probably the prettiest lake we’ve paddled. Steep shores with trees tumbling into the glassy calm water made a truly memorable evening as we battled with the weather to make camp. Tarp happily fluttering over the fire (yes, we know…), we survived 2 inches of rain over not very many hours and found the tent pitch least likely to leave us floating. 

The broken pack, and sling repair

Ottertrack Lake, in the rain

Leaving Ottertrack the following morning we headed for monument portage, where we were caught by an amiable Russian out for a few days solo paddling. He was headed to the ranger station on Lake Saganaga, as were we, so we chased him through some brutal headwinds to meet the ranger of over 30 years, Janice Matichuk. Chatting over a cup of tea, Janice is a wealth of information about Quetico, living with the land, and all things canoeing having lived and breathed it her entire life. She also knows everyone in the local (!) area, so upon hearing of our broken pack set about finding us a replacement. Whilst we made coffee, and introduced her to the Aeropress, she sourced us a portage pack and had it delivered to an old island lodge by an outfitter on the south side of the lake. We paid her, she’ll pay them, we just had to paddle into the wind for two hours to get it. A true star and a real inspiration, showing how living a modern life is possible in such a remote outpost. We collected our pack from the Powells, were grateful for more tea and great company, and finally made our camp for the night amongst towering red pines. Truly a day to remember. 

The irrepressible Janice

Red pine camp

The next day we headed to Gunflint Lodge on the Minnesota side of Gunflint Lake, via a stunning 9 portages! Gunflint is a bit of an institution, having been there since 1927, and runs fishing and canoe outfitting through the summer and skiing and snow-mobiling in the winter. Whilst they have some nice plush lodges, we were grateful for space in the canoer cabins. Feeling pretty broken from all the portaging we decided to take a rest day and both had massages from Carly, whilst Brandon and his outfitting team sorted us out with some kit resupplies. Kit mended and dried, bodies partially revived, we felt ready for the push to Superior. 


Firstly – photos now uploaded to last post if you want to take a look…

We left Fort Francis well fed and rested, despite not actually having a full day off. Retracing our steps initially to avoid the lee shore on the south of the lake, we avoided passing into the US and looked for an easy day and a Canadian campsite. As the wind swung from northerly to an easterly headwind in the early evening we found an island big enough to squeeze a tent in, with a large resident pike in the bay which I soon pulled out on the end of a line. With this safely returned (we’ve gone off pike a bit since Lake Manitoba) we set about dinner, whilst watching a large and remarkably inquisitive snapper turtle eye us repeatedly from the lake. We think we were probably on its island. We continued the next day to the end of Rainy Lake, our last large lake until Superior, and headed onto Lake Namakan via Soldiers Portage. On the way we waved good bye to our long serving pee bottle, as it rolled off the boat post-use without the lid on and promptly filled with water, sinking beneath the waves before we could manoeuvre to grab it. It seemed a fitting end, and it was probably about time this bottle was retired anyway…

Namakan lake passed smoothly the next morning and saw us dodging rented house boats though the Namakan Narrows into Sand Point Lake. These monstrosities are hideous and barely faster than our canoe, there’s no way anyone would ever buy one themselves. On this basis we reasoned they were all driven by complete muppets, evidenced by us often seeing both sides of the boat several times as they steered a supposedly straight line past us. With this menace avoided we raced a building storm down the lake and came around a headland to find Sand Point Lodge advertising ice, minnows, gas and confectionary. Turns out they did pizza too, so lunch was sorted. With the storm passed we smugly paddled off an hour later, only to see another one approaching as we rounded the next headland. We dived for the dock of an apparently unoccupied cabin, waved at the occupants of the next one, who promptly waved back and invited us over to sit out the storm, informing us they owned our dock too… So an hour was spend with Chuck his lovely family from the Twin Cities as storm two broke. Looking at the sky again we paddled out, narrowly missed being in the landing zone of an incoming float plane, and got completely, totally and utterly soaked by storm three. Ok weather, you win.

We soon dried out in the evening sun and headed up the Loon River searching for a place to camp, passing the start of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as we went. On the map we’d found a nice looking lake with an island, but were dismayed to find it made completely of reed, with a bear doing widths in the sunshine as we approached. We carried on up to the next portage, hoping it wasn’t too taxing at the end of the day. Well, it wasn’t. In the early 1900’s walleye and ice was taken out by boat from Lac la Croix towards Winnipeg, through two portages at each end of Loon Lake. In 1916 the US companies decided to ease this process by putting in rails and an engine to transport the boats over the land. The engine (and operator, Charlie was keen to point out) having been slightly updated, but the rails remain the same, and made for the most pleasant portage thus far. After a delightful chat with Charlie, whose speech suggests he may have been too close to the engine for too many years, we headed to a campsite he’d pointed out and arrived just as the light faded. 

Charlie and his engine

The next morning saw us at Beatty Portage, the second set of rails, and paddling on to Lac la Croix where we were to collect our permit for Quetico Park. Around lunchtime we arrived at Campbell’s Cabins where we’d been told there was a little shop where we might get a few snacks, and discovered they would also fit us in for lunch. So two cooked lunches in two days…we could get to this “wilderness” experience. After discovering the ranger station closed at 3.30pm and we were not going to make it today we found another terrible private island campspot and dodged yet another storm.

How every portage should be!

The following morning we eventually found the well hidden Quetico ranger station, collected our permit allowing access to the park, and paddled on east looking forward to motorboat free waters.

The long not winding road…

Cedar Lake marks the end of the Saskatchewan river. It is a man-made lake about 90km downstream from The Pas, dammed at Grand Rapids where it falls into Lake Winnipeg. It has a rather unfriendly reputation for paddlers owing to the large amount of deadwood choking the edges making landing and camping very difficult. To cross directly from the river mouth is around 50km of open water and island hopping. Not something for us in our little canoe, so we were planning on taking two days to get around the edge.

On our second day out from The Pas we reached the lake. It was clear that the higher than usual water levels extended here also, with all the potential island campsites at the entrance completely water logged. Fortunately the day was stunning with bright skies and mirror calm water giving a feeling of paddling in the sky. After marvelling at the sheer size of the place (this is still a small lake by Canadian standards…) we set out across the first 4km of open water to an attractive patch of green opposite where we thought we might camp. Not a log in site along the lush green shoreline…that turned out to be reeds. Miles of them. So not only can you not get onto the bank due to wood, it seems you can’t actually get to the bank at all due to the reeds. After another 15km, three hours, a cup of tea and much motivational talking we found a way through the barricades onto a thin spit of land covered in trees. Hacking through the undergrowth like a Tasmanian devil with a machete, Cas fought her way into the brush and pronounced it fit for a camp, with a little work. After a few minutes work we had a space large enough for a tent, the beginnings of a fire, and moose ready to fry. Thanks again to Chris, it was amazing. We hoped the local population didn’t recognise the smell, as there was plenty of evidence of its brethren around us. 

After a latish start whilst waiting for the overnight wind to drop we set out for the portage track, around 45km round the shore on the south side of the lake. We didn’t really know how this would go but knew a long day was coming – we move at around 6 kmh on flat water. All started well, with light winds and easy nav, only interrupted by the presence of a causeway across an expected piece of open water. A corrugated tunnel provided a way through for Mike and the boat, almost canalboat style, but we both forgot about the GoPro, which was filming the escapade. We now have some rather gaulling footage of the camera first losing it’s lens cover, then getting badly scratched, then being snapped off its mount and taking a swim. Fortunately it was clipped on elsewhere and still actually works, but we’re both feeling pretty stupid. 

The final 10km of the day were some of the toughest so far. Cedar Lake is, like many of the lakes in this area, very shallow. A light breeze can kick up some steep waves in very little time, which can make for an unpleasant ride in a canoe. We surfed, spun and sweated our way to the portage across a series of bays and headlands, allowing us to really get to grips with how the boat handles in rougher water. We’re pretty impressed. 

Our reward was to arrive absolutely shattered but elated on an open, sandy beach with an empty cabin and a clear view of a very smooth, flat and straight track leading into the woods – the portage! 

We camped in the tent in the cabin just because we could, and because it kept the mossies and mice away. The tent really has become our little house, and staying anywhere else feels rather weird. 

With the canoe loaded on the trolley we set off up the track the next morning. Rather than follow the rest of Cedar Lake to Lake Winnipeg we’re heading south to Lake Winnepegosis. It has a less fearsome reputation than its bigger brother, though we suspect it’s going to be no pussycat. It is also over a watershed, which means the portage track is uphill. Predictable, obviously. But not something that had entered our minds until we were hauling 150kg of kit up it. 

The track was good however, and provided a nice assortment of black bear tracks and scat to remind us they do exist (we saw no evidence of them at all in Saskatchewan). We reached the highway in around 2 hours excited about seeing the next lake. We remained excited about it for the next two hours as we hauled along the highway trying to find a way through the narrow but completely impenetrable band of brush separating it from the road. The following two hours were less exciting, as I gently melted in the afternoon heat and Cas topped up her tan. But, once again, we met some great folk. 

First to stop was Roy, returning from Winnipeg to The Pas. A more enthusiastic, jovial and encouraging man you could not hope to meet whilst hauling a canoe along a highway in Manitoba. And he gave us oranges. A whole bag of them. Possibly the best present ever at that point in time, he clearly knew what was needed. And he gave us hope, telling us of some gravel tracks a few kilometres down the road. 

Next to stop was Felix, a provincial worker on his way to Winnepeg. He stopped to check we were ok, gave us a cereal bar and went on his way. Then he came back, with a plan to tow the canoe behind his hire car and save us a bit of walking. This we tried, though the simple bearing-less trolley couldn’t stand the speed and we soon bailed for fear of melting the wheels. So on he went. Only to return again with a series of directions and distances to the first track he had found for us that went to the lake! What a star. 

Finally, local man Dave stopped for a chat. He lived in Easterville on Cedar Lake, and so knew the area well. He told us of another track just down the road that we could take. And so, after around 6 hours of towing and pushing our boat, we stumbled and fell down a steep and overgrown forestry path to reach the shore of Lake Winnepegosis. 

What we’ve learnt:

  • Portaging isn’t so bad on a good surface. 
  • If we run out of food we should head to a road. 

Favourite piece of kit:

  • Western Canoe and Kayak expedition portage cart. Amazing trolley. 

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.