canoeing, serene, peaceful, camping, rivers

Tag: Manitoba

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

Northern Air

Last night the Northern Lights danced in the sky, so I heard.
They were in my dreams.
Mine was a vision of sunset colours overlapping the dark night sky.
Leaping kilometres in a bound, as gracefully and purposefully as a fish swims.


I used to play this game that, wherever I was, I would try to convince myself that ‘I could be anywhere in the world.’  (Use your bed, or a strangers couch for full effect.)
New Zealand was a hamlet in the Rocky Mountains.
Mexico City was in a suburb in Florida.
The heat of Australia became familiar.
I’ve woken up in my bedroom, thinking I was in Uganda.
Whenever I woke up in my tent, I could be in Georgia, Newfoundland, or the Grand Canyon.
At the end of every car ride, I could have ended up in a place called home.

This is the kind of place that leaves an impression.

The job fell into my lap.  It was a perfect right-place-right-time Winnipeg fairy tale.  After a couple of phone interviews, I had convinced myself the whole deal was too good to be true several times before I boarded the train to bring me to Churchill Manitoba.

Everything I’ve done until now seems to have prepared me for this, yet I had never done anything like this before.

I am guiding beluga whale tours in the province that I grew up in.
How is this even possible??

Beluga whales in Hudson Bay
Beluga whales in Hudson Bay

Summer in the tundra means my commute to work has wildflowers everywhere.  I cannot believe how much purple there is up here!  The summer blooming season is so short that every few days I see a new flower I haven’t seen before.  It’s hard to keep up.

This year’s weather has been insane.  I had never thought Hudson Bay could ever be so calm as it was the first few weeks I was here.  Although we joke that “if we only ran tours in good weather, we’d only run 2 tours a year,” we only cancelled one tour in July, & every day was better than the last.

I get a lot of questions about what to expect during the tours: Will we see whales?  Will we see bears?  How cold is the water? At least once a day someone tells me “You must love your job.” 

Playing coy in these circumstances is tough.  I would try to say something about the ol’ 9-to-5 grind, & how finding the whales or hauling kayaks isn’t that easy.

(an example of the 9-to-5 grind.  Running shuttles across the Churchill River.)

There hasn’t been a single day I’ve been here that I haven’t seen a whale.  I’ve seen feeding frenzies over a kilometer long.  I’ve seen 7 polar bears in the wild in one day.  I’ve seen polar bears eating a whale carcass, & I’ve even seen them mating!  (Seeing bears at all at this time of year isn’t even an absolute!)

One of my favourite things in the world is paddling with the belugas.  They’ll swim alongside you & race you, while you pretend you even have a chance.  They’ll play with you & when you stop, they’ll blow bubbles underneath you & nudge you, as if to say “why’d you stop?  Why aren’t you swimming?”
I’d haul all the kayaks just to do it again tomorrow.

Not to mention:
– working outside all day
– the amazing cast of characters that make up the rest of our team
– tapping into wilderness lore on the water
– living next to a national heritage site & picking the brains of Parks Canada staff
– this community of oddballs that all seem to fit in
– how delicious is caribou!?!
– all the undiscovered places: trails, beaches, shipwrecks & beyond….

After 51 straight days of working, all I can do is give a big grin & say “It’s not bad.”
My reaction is becoming more genuine every day.


For the past few years I’ve realized that I need solace.  I have taken about 2 months of ‘alone time’ a year to reassess myself & what’s going on.

When I’m here, my to-do list is blank.
My job is to deliver lifelong dreams to people from all over the world.
Getting out of bed has never been so easy.

My time here counts – at least on my eternal hourglass, it does.

The North has a way of seeping in.  It touches the roots of the most primal emotions.
Experiencing these wonders gives people a joy they had forgotten they have.
The stark landscape gives people a reminder of the brutal reality in the strength of untouched nature & the beauty found in isolation.

Churchill demands presence.
It gives a sense of place.
It gives me peace.

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