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.

Dam it all!

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. 

Lake Windypegosis

The most frustrating week thus far. 

Having arrived on the first of our large lakes in bright sunshine, we sat still. For 2 days. A brisk 20 knot northwesterly turned the lake into a seething mass of churning water. It’s a bit like watching the sea, but super shallow so the waves kick up fast and stay short and steep, rather than mellowing out as they tend to on the ocean. A classic prairie thunderstorm ensured we didn’t miss out on a soaking on land either. But in its first proper storm test our Exped Orien tent kept us nice and dry, though the guys were attached to the boat to stop us being blown away. 

After the storm had passed we thought we’d try and get moving again. The wind had swung around to northerly which we hoped might help us, but the storm had left a sizeable swell. We managed a short crossing in sketchy conditions, with a wind/wave combination I’m not sure a canoe is meant to be out in, and thanked our lucky stars we were still the right way up on the other side. Lesson learnt, we hid in the lee of an island until the wind dropped enough for us to escape, and found an empty outfitters lodge to camp by for another 2 days whilst the wind ramped up for a second time. A bear wandered through camp on the first night, saw/smelled Cas and legged it. We expected it to be back to check out our food at some point, but it was obviously too shaken by the experience…

Finally we managed to get away again. We realised a tactical portage would save about 10km of rough water paddling and allow us some shelter to get going in, but it was short lived and we were soon making tea on a lee shore waiting out another rough squall. A third short day ensued, with another frustrating two night stop and the winds only dropping late in the evening before getting up again in the early morning. Still less than a quarter of the way down, we wondered how long it was going to take to get off this lake.