canoeing, serene, peaceful, camping, rivers

No Road to Churchill: When the Tides Turned

In 2014, my friend Matt Cairns & I canoed from Winnipeg to Churchill. It took us 64 days. This trip is too epic to summarize in a single story, so I like to break it up into manageable sizes. Enjoy!

July 2014

Day 11 

There is no substitute for good gear.  I was waking up & relaxing in my tent.  Between thoughts, a stream developed underneath me.  It was early July & still warm at night, but I was thankful to be dry.  Years ago, I had the foresight to get myself a good tent when I had a government job & spending money.  If I hadn’t, I’d be using a beaten tent designed for warmer climates, like Matt’s, & I would be wet.

I woke up to a stream running beneath my tent. Long live the MSR Hubba!

We had to learn quickly on Lake Winnipeg.  Also known as the Inland Sea, it is the 12th largest freshwater lake in the world.  It’s shallowness – absurd for its size – allows 6ft waves to kick up with little warning.  Our collective sailing experience saved us, as we learned effective coursing with the winds – which often meant waiting for them to change.  We developed an understanding of the conditions around us, & were able to adapt before they gave us a swift slap to the backside.

A windy day on Lake Winnipeg

There had been some rough activity the day before.  Our eyes were sharpened, keeping a close eye both towards the waves, to avoid whitecaps that could flood us & turn us off course, and scanning for rocks that would jut out in the troughs of the waves.  Progress was negligible; our minds were silently focused on dodging the elements.  After a couple of very close calls, Matt was the voice of reason to say “This is stupid; let’s find a place to land.”  There was a landeable beach nearby, and dark clouds approaching.  Within seconds of setting up our tents, it rained so hard we couldn’t hear each other 3 feet away.

The storm had blown over, but headwinds insisted we were to stay there overnight.

After dinner, we were doing dishes when a black bear decided to come share our snacks.  We’d had bears on the brain, since we hadn’t seen any large animals yet.  Our combined surprise & admiration (‘this is so cool!’) gave him enough time to decide to stick around & become a feature in our adventure.  I’ve since been told that apples are like honey to bears.  Sure enough, he was persistently trying to steal our picnic baskets.  Bear protection was high on the preparation list, & although we were venturing into polar bear territory, we decided on bear bangers, flares & bear spray over a gun.

Photo by Matt Cairns

This guy seemed fairly harmless.  He wasn’t a full-grown adult, but old enough to be away from his mother.  As we tried to scare him away, he would feign running off, then stick to the perimeter & try again from another angle.  He was non-threatening, but delicious snacks are enough of an incentive for him to become a pain in the neck.  We tried bear bangers, which are supposed to replicate a gunshot, to no effect.  We had the same issue with the flare – how do you hold a bear’s attention long enough to frighten him away?  He finally disappeared when I ran towards him holding a stick over my head.  Matt laughed; all the ‘recommended’ defenses were no match to the threat of an old-fashioned hiding.

Lake Winnipeg is so big, it has a tide.  It is a fake tide, but when the wind blows from the North, the Southern basin’s water level rises, and visa versa.  After the emergence of the stream beneath me, I heard expletives coming from the direction of the canoe.  I held my breath.  The only thing that makes me lose sleep is the possibility of something happening to the boat.  We were less than 2 weeks into a 60-day trip.

A storm brewing over Lake Winnipeg & high winds

Nothing major; when the water level rose, the canoe had been pulled into the water, flipped, then pushed back onshore.  Incredibly lucky! We were at the edge of a swamp, where there weren’t any strong trees to tie up to, but we had pulled her all the way up onto the beach.  This was not a great situation, especially because we left our olive oil in the boat & it covered everything. This was still the best-case scenario.  If the boat had gone adrift during the night, I would have lost my shit.

The Great Oil Spill of ’14

Although we’d recognized our position near the swamp when we decided not to tie up the boat, this didn’t seem of consequence until the water level rose.  On the one hand, we were directing streams from the odd wave that would break over the beach, and on the other, we had to start constructing a dam from the rising waters of the swamp.  What is the water equivalent to “between a rock & a hard place?”

A dam to direct incoming flow from the right, & rising water on the left

After a few hours of futility, fighting back one of the biggest lakes in the world on a spit of sand, the winds had died down enough that we could take our ark to higher ground.

Navigable conditions, taking our chances with the weather

It was already late in the day & we could only paddle 10km before we hunkered down for the eve.  Our new camp wasn’t ideal; it was overgrown & jungly – we planted our tents on top of a few saplings – but it was high ground.  We definitely had pasta for dinner (our comfort food.)

During another wet evening with no dry firewood, while replenishing in silence, I laughed at something Matt had said earlier:
“I don’t know anyone who would do a trip like this, except you.”
“Look at what we’ve just been through & you wonder why no one would do this!”

Matt’s response makes me a hypocrite.
The only better thing than good gear is a great travel partner:
“This is what makes it fun.”

Sunset after a rough day on Lake Winnipeg

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1 Comment

  1. Hmm it seems like your blog ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any points for newbie blog writers? I’d really appreciate it.

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