Burntwood River 2

Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Don Archer
Trip Date : 
Additional Route Information
110 km
10 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
1070 m
Longest Portage: 
400 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Technical Guide: 

Air drop into File Lake and paddle down the File River Through Loonhead L., Fairwind L. Threepoint L., Craik L., Burntwood L.,Burntwood River, Threepoint L. to Nelson House on Footprint L.

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Burntwood River trip Log

Aug 3/2012

Sally and I left camp at Paint Lake at 8:00 AM and drove to Snow Lake for the air lift to File Lake by Burntwood Lodge, GoGal Air Service. Brad, the pilot and a real congenial fellow dropped me off without incident about noon near the outlet of the File River. Liz didn’t like the plane ride much and pressed forward into the area between me and the pilot. I began paddling down the File R, a serpentine channel that was quite wide and deep with dense weeds along the shore but rarely filling the channel. It doubled back on itself constantly. There was very little current but plenty of depth and no beaver dams. As it turned out I paddled approximately 12 miles to travel 4 air miles to get to Loonhead Lake. As informed by Brad, there was a cabin located at the mouth of Loonhead occupied by an 82 year old hermit by the name of Billy (don’t recall what his last name was). Brad suggested I stop by and say hello and that Billy would undoubtedly invite me in for tea and a biscuit. The lake at the mouth of the File River supports the densest wild rice stand I have seen anywhere. I pushed through that and saw Billy’s place off to the right. As I approached at a few yards off shore I hooted for Billy several times without a response. Since there was a gaggle of huge huskies that set up a commotion, I wasn’t about to go ashore but I was concerned as I didn’t see any sign of Billy and feared something had happened to him. I pushed on around a point of land but decided I should at least take a picture of Billy’s camp. Turning around bringing Billy’s place back into view, I saw Billy rounding the corner of his camp. I pulled into a rather rickety wharf and Billy came down to its outer end with a huge husky. We chatted a bit during which he chastised me for wearing my high top boots that he said I wouldn’t be able to swim in and also said my wanigan was too big. After chatting a bit he invited me in for tea and bannock which I accepted. First he tied up the two free running huskies and encouraged me to leash Liz for which he provided a short rope tether. He led me up to his shack and through a door which was open at the top half. Inside was quite roomy open interior with a stove of an odd configuration with a large drum like affair extension to the fire box. He gathered up a handful of old newspaper out of box under the table along with a handful of moss of the old man’s beard variety and lit a fire. He filled a blackened can with water and I suppose some tea grounds and suspended the can in the stove in the opening top where the lid is by a rod passed through two holes in the top of the can. He produced two porcelain cups when the tea was hot and a loaf of bannock which he sliced into quarters or so and slid the plate to me. I took a slice but made the mistake of trying to swallow the first bite without chasing it with the tea and nearly choked as it stuck in my throat half way down being so dry. It was quite bland of a dark color. He explained that it was made up of a complexity of ground meals he pointed out on a shelf that I cannot now recollect. We had a nice chat about politics believe it or not, bears and bear incidents he had had at camp, his net catch of the day which included an especially large whitefish. He showed me his bear gun hung next to his insect shrouded bed, a set of powerful binoculars, a small caliber rifle that he picked off big ducks with which I presume meant mallards, and a satellite phone. He told me that he needed to store up to 2 tons of dried fish to carry his dogs through the winter. He had a large fiberglass square stern canoe with a small outboard motor for cruising around the lake and he showed me an old 20 ft or so Peterborough canoe that the gunnels had rotted out of. In parting, he directed me to Cadzow Island not far away where there was a good beach and camping area where he had been getting some of his firewood. There was another building that may have been a smokehouse and a log food cache suspended on close to 20 ft poles armored with metal sheathing. As I left a light rain started and I paddled the short distance to Billy’s suggested camp site where I set up camp for the night, a little early but I was satisfied with my progress of about 12 miles though only four as the crow flies. Loonhead L is only about 6 feet lower in elevation than File L. The shower increased substantially as I set up the tarp. When the shower pretty much passed, I bucked up some dead willow and lit a fire to grill my rib eye and potato supplemented with some rehydrated peas. This was a pleasant camp site, with only a modest number of mosquitoes.

Aug 4

I woke to a clear cool morning. Cool enough to produce a fog bank at the mouth of the File River. Had a pleasant flat water paddle down Loonhead Lake to the outlet and soon encountered a shallow rocky rapid that didn’t appear navigable so landed on the right shore to scout a portage route as the river was bending to the right and that seemed to be the shortest route. Liz got very agitated suggesting that she smelled something threatening so I got out the bear spray and bangers. Had no idea what her fears were but suspected wolf spoor as I had not seen her react that way in the presence of known bear spoor. Later encounters with clearly fresh bear sign showed that to be a possibility. An exploratory investigation found a reasonable 300 yd portage route through quite open mature forest with few impediments to flat water below the rapid. It required four trips in addition to the scouting trip to portage the gear. This was an unexpected challenge as none of the reports mentioned this challenge nor two others downstream. The downstream shoals about 3 and 4.75 miles downstream were more navigable, the first by wading and cutting a fallen tree out of the way and the second by easing through by the pole. There is a 20 ft elevation change between Loonhead and Fairwind Lakes. Fairwind is a long (3.25 mi), weedy lake with lots of wild rice. There’s a lone cabin at the South end. I hit Granite Point Lake in the late PM and crossed a large bay to a narrows. Wasn’t sure just where the narrows I wanted was so activated the GPS for the way point for the outlet river which was in line with the narrows and that lent me some confidence in the direction I needed to go. Started looking for a campsite at the narrows but nothing looked attractive as the forest was a stand of mixed hardwood and conifers with a very dense understory. I ended up paddling another 2.5 miles further than intended to an island close to the outlet. Found a good campsite. The weather looked good at bedtime but it showered pretty good in the night.

Aug 5

The day dawned promising but high NW winds came up quickly which stopped my progress down the File River after about 3 miles. Laid up about 9-10 hours waiting out the wind. Very hot day requiring Liz and me to hunt shade all day. There was a huge cloud bank to the West which I eventually decided was a smoke cloud from a forest fire. Cooked dinner mid day and resumed paddling as the sun went down. Made about 6 miles before darkness set in. Found a very marginal campsite in the brush. I gashed my shin on a pointed beaver cut stump when I stepped into a hole. No room or time to set up the tarp or arrange much of a camp. Liz and I rolled up in the tarp under a big spruce. Fortunately, no rain this night.

Aug 6

Up at dawn and on the water without breakfast to get across an open expanse of water into what I thought was the channel. Nothing was looking right according to the map. It turned out that what I thought was the channel was a passage into Craik Lake which didn’t show on the map. I was bothered some by the trend of the lake chain heading NW rather than NE as I was thinking it should. Paddled down Craik rather confused due to the seemingly misdirection and the vastness of the lake and river making it difficult to perceive significant features of the landscape. Still rather confused, I stopped and made breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. A strong headwind was making up with a threat of rain. Pushed on NW and began to see features that corresponded with the map. Managed to stay in the general river course but it was challenging due to the many side bays and narrow fingers leading off the main channel. Faced a stiff breeze all day and navigated a couple of open water crossings cautiously on upper Burntwood Lake. Set up a camp at a narrows just before the big branch of the lake coming out of the north due to the strong NW winds that were churning up the open water. The site appeared to have been used some by fishermen and hunters as there were signs of occupation by cuttings and what probably was a game pole. As I approached the site a motor boat appeared with four natives headed for the “landing” which I didn’t know existed. They appeared to be grandparents with two grandchildren. They were from The Pas and had a cabin somewhere on the lake. They were cordial, acknowledged the rough water ahead and the gentleman humorously (I think) offered to ask the spirits to calm the water to which I expressed appreciation. It was a good camp site and since I was windblown early I broke out the fishing tackle and fished off the bluffs just S of camp. Caught two small pike then had my line cut by another toothy critter and quit. Made dinner and another boat came by with a native couple who pulled ashore. They had a rather strange demeanor, neither friendly nor unfriendly. The man stepped to the bow and seemed to be expecting something but I couldn’t ascertain what. I have since wondered if they were waiting to be invited ashore for a cup of coffee or something. I explained what I was up to, asked a few questions to which I got very short answers. They were headed to the “landing” to get some lumber for their camp that was somewhere down the southern arm of the lake. They came back by after I had retired to the tent for the night. I planned to start before breakfast in the morning to get across as much big water as possible before the wind came up.

Aug 7

I was on the water at early light without breakfast. There was a brilliant red sunrise. I didn’t need to worry about the wind as a nice tailing breeze held all day which created an interesting chop on a couple of wide crossings. There was an almost suffocating forest fire smoke during the first half of the day. I stopped for a brunch about 11:00 AM on a big flat ledge. Brewed coffee and ate a granola bar and some Oreos. Proceeded down lake another 4 miles to the river outlet. Soon a light rain set in which intensified enough a couple of times to bring out the rain coat and I covered Liz with the tarp but most of the time it was not enough to require protection. I resolved to paddle till around 8 PM and figured I would make about 25 mi. Was surprised when I approached what I assumed was Carrot rapids that would have meant I would have traveled 36 miles. The confusion was due to the guide I was referencing that mentioned two small rapids just before the major one. If these were them, they were about 10 miles from Carrot as it turned out. But I pulled up, not wanting to deal with a major rapid that late in the day. There was a nice open grassy area for a camp site. Filtered some water for a toddy and called Sally. Heard some rumbling to the N so hustled to get up the tarp and just in time as high winds and heavy rain hit about the time I got it secured. Didn’t care to get out in the wet to cook so went to bed without dinner. The tarp was a little leaky at one or two seams.

Aug 8

I woke to a dense fog on the river so laid up for a while to get the courage to get out in the dampness. The fog began to lift in an hour or two and I rousted out to build a fire and got the coffee pot on. Cooked the previous night’s dinner of pasta and peas. Threatened rain so I held off breaking camp. Still waiting and watching while Liz became so bored she began chewing up some rotten sticks lying around camp. Got off mid morning and found that I was sorely mistaken about being close to Carrot rapids as I paddled much of the day getting to them. Had a fairly stiff E breeze much of the day. Carrot rapids were aptly named as there was a heavy stand along the shore of what appeared to me to be wild carrot. The rapids were plenty daunting. Tough wading down a portion and portaged through heavy brush around one chute, crossed to better wading at one interlude in the rapid for better wading conditions but still had to push the canoe out into the swift water to get around a boulder which took some courage. Shipped some water after which I decided to camp after that ordeal and sought a camp immediately below the rapid. This was a heavily burned over area some years back and the foliage was dense. Found a decent landing spot with space for the camp equipage etc. on shore but had to swamp out a tight space in the foliage for the tarp. Filtered the usual toddy water and called Sally.

Aug 9

A bright clear day with the wind still out of the east. Looks like a lot of smoke to the West. A heavy dew so all is wet. Headed out about 8:00 (no watch so all times are a guess). Looking to get to Eagle rapids inside of an hour, another wader. Don’t like those much. It was a tough day negotiating two very demanding rapids. Lots of wading, some lining down through some serious chutes. An unnamed rapid below Eagle was the worst but both were tough. Almost made a serious misstep following the guide that reported that the lower rapid was runable. Looked easy from above, a straight shot – no rocks. What I didn’t perceive were some big (really moderate for most canoes) standing waves at the bottom that nearly swamped the canoe. Took two sizeable waves over the bow and Liz filling the canoe with about 3 inches of water making the canoe very unstable but managed to eddy out and bail the canoe. Made for a decent looking campsite on the right bank just a bit downstream of the eddy. Mosquitoes were wicked. Laid in my bag in the AM and smacked them till my palms were black. An interesting occurrence at Eagle rapid that could be interpreted as a good omen but clarified the name was a beautiful bald eagle that came flying up the gorge at eye level as I was scouting the rapid.]

Aug 10

It was a short run to Moose rapid, reportedly an easy class 1+ but I didn’t dare chance it after yesterday’s near swamping so I lined down but nearly had another incident when a strong cross current around a large boulder caught the stern of the canoe and nearly flipped it because I had secured the tow line to the hand grip at the top of the stern. I resolved to rig a harness that would pull from the keel for future linings. I’m quickly getting some lessons imprinted that could serve me well for the remainder of the trip. [as it turned out they weren’t nearly as important as succeeding rapids and falls were more manageable due to convenient portage paths to avoid treacherous situations.] Found a pretty nice campsite between Clay and Driftwood rapids. The mosquitoes continued to be annoying. Clay rapids had a very nice portage path of 400 m which I took some time improving with the axe. There was no prospect of running that one. Saw my first indication of other humans having been in the area due to foot prints in the mud at the lower end of the portage. I wasn’t certain how recent as their freshness would have been influenced by the amount of precipitation had occurred since they were made but they appeared to fairly recent. Paddled several hours but not sure how many miles I covered [about 17]. Liz is getting fed up with paddling all day. Day nine should see me through at least a couple more rapids.

Aug 11

About a five mile paddle to Driftwood rapids. Got the courage to run the rapid into the big driftwood eddy and slipped neatly by some standing waves. The guide talks about portaging over a jumble of boulders on river left. Investigation showed it to be a tough route over big boulders and stranded logs so I explored for an alternative and found a very good path across the neck of the peninsula that formed the eddy. The difficulty was all the driftwood accumulated along the shore but I was able to work my way into the shore with some axe work and pushing over some of the logs. I left my push pole that had served me well for years and several trips at the initial landing and forgot to get it. Had a nice tail breeze all day but very warm. Grindstone rapid was a caldron but a very easy portage on RR, however nearly lost the canoe when a gust of wind pushed the canoe off its mooring as I headed back for the final load. Fortunately I glanced back just in time to see it break lose and made a mad dash back and across a shallow pool to a line of rocks where I was able to intercept it. Lost my sandals in the mud that took a while to recover one of them. The next 7 or so miles went quickly with a strong tail wind pushed by a pending storm. Made Leaf rapids just in time to get the tarp up before the storm hit. Rained steadily for a while. Cooked up the Waddell’s last portion of tortellini. A very strong breeze and gusty winds kept the mosquitoes at bay and cool temperatures in the AM suppressed their activity also. A light overhead cloud cover in the AM was not threatening, we’ll see. I estimate another 21/2 days with favorable weather to Nelson House. A big day of rapids ahead: 5 miles, 3 rapids and a falls to negotiate.

Aug 12

A strenuous day with 4 portages, one extra rapid it appears from the guide. All very doable but lots of work loading and unloading. Favorable winds helped along till the last couple of hours when strong headwinds came up. Hope they don’t prevail tomorrow. Found a very good camp site in the timber. A heavy rain set in early in the evening. Had come into the impounded lake level’s influence. A welcome surprise that Rattlesnake and Jackpine rapids were little more than ripples. Made about 10 miles. Lots of mosquitoes in evidence.

Aug 13

About 30 miles to go, one more night in the woods, probable. Hoping for favorable winds but early morning breeze would suggest not so. Headwinds stiffened to perhaps 6 mph requiring me to lay on the paddle pretty hard to make headway. Persevered as I didn’t want to lose a day of travel. Made 10-12 miles to Threepoint Lake and faced a strong N. headwind across some big water. Held up an hour or so and lunched on peanut butter and jam. There were short intervals of abated winds so I decided to capitalize on those interludes to make progress so resumed paddling. Winds seemed to subside some as the afternoon went on and I continued up lake. Pushed across one open area without any serious challenge and continued amongst several islands towards Nelson House. Began to realize that there was a possibility of reaching Nelson House that day and as the afternoon waned decided to go for it and call Sally for a pickup about an hour out. Approaching Nelson House, I couldn’t see much sign of a take out site. I approached three girls fishing off a dock and asked about a landing and got no help. They were not at all communicative. They were fishing with some unusual equipment: a coke can with the line wound on and attached to a lure which they flung out like a sling shot with the line feeding out like off the spool of a spin casting reel. They had one small jack (N. pike). I continued up the shore and saw a couple of teenage boys up the bank whom I hailed and asked about an opportunity to land. They told me of a landing around the point where a fishing derby was underway. Around the point I found a dock and a sizable crowd with tables and grills set up and a good number of boats scattered around the immediate bay. Upon inquiry, I was cordially invited ashore. They were in fact conducting a fishing derby for the biggest jack, and walleye. I milled around amongst the crowd chatting with various members of the group. They asked a number of questions, many by the kids such as did I have a map, did I sleep in my canoe, wasn’t I afraid of Big Foot and bears. The children seemed to have fears of the wild like the more urban kids often have which surprised me. I was invited to have a hotdog and chips but declined since I had no money to pay for them. There was one pretty wild looking fellow with long black hair and beard who introduced himself as Animal and seemed to have the bearing of a leader. A lady was the recorder and coordinator and anglers would come in periodically with a fish to measure. I chatted with a school teacher that said that impounding the lake for power generation (some 40ft) had destroyed their way of life. She also revealed that the town had all the modern internet, computer, cell phone and radio and TV services of any 21st century town. I have since read that the tribe was one of the most affluent due to the fact that they held a 30% right in the power plant revenues. I also chatted with one member of the governing Council who showed a lot of interest in my trip. Apparently the winning jack was about 26 in long and the walleye was 18. There was a couple hours left in the contest when I arrived which was ended about 8 pm at which time a very nice Lund boat pulled up with several occupants to bring in the winning jack and walleye. The skipper was clearly much more affluent than most of the rest of the party. His Lund had the most unusual paint scheme of battleship gray. I believe his boat collected the prize money for both species which I understood to be $1000. They also had a raffle costing $20 which I would have loved to have contributed to so I contributed my rod and reel which they did not include in the raffle but held it for a later occasion planned for the weekend. I did get to draw the winning name which was for $140 and won by young female with no Caucasian features at all.

There was one 14 year old native boy who was very anxious to be helpful. He stepped up and pulled up my canoe and when the crowd was breaking up and I decided to unload and pull my canoe out of the water, he was quick to pitch in.

When the crowd started to dissipate, I walked about 300yds up to the paved highway and waited for Sal who had her own interesting tale on finding the town and locating me. The adventure was over, gratifying and relatively uneventful. The explorer Stefansson once said “Adventures are the result of incompetence,” so think perhaps it wasn’t an “adventure.” DLA

Daily Regimen

When a camp site was selected which was often a challenge because of dense growth in burned over areas, generally the headwaters, I unloaded the canoe, got a bucket of water and the water filter out and pumped enough water to dilute a jigger of whiskey, sat back and enjoyed the cocktail then I usually called Sally and related the days activities which she frequently conveyed to friends over the internet. The water was very clear at File Lake and progressively more turbid downstream, especially so below Burntwood Lake. Next came the selection and clearing of a tarp site often using the push pole as a tent pole. Many configurations were employed as dictated by the terrain and vegetation. It frequently rained in the early evening so that was a task that had to be tended to fairly soon. The canoe was always pulled up and turned over so that it would not continue to soak up water and increase in weight. I then filtered enough water for dinner which was usually two cups as I relied greatly on Mountain House dehydrated foods. They were generally pretty decent except the beef stew which was horrid. At the same time I usually pumped my drink bottle full for the following day and the coffee pot full for breakfast. It didn’t take but a few minutes to accomplish that chore. I put a pot on the stove to boil for dinner and soon had dinner steeping in the bag for 20 minutes. The dehydrated dinners were a real plus on this trip as I spent most of the day on the water and a quick and easy dinner was desirable. I usually eschew such conveniences in favor of tastier cuisine that involves a lot of prep cooking time and some skill. I often crawled into the sleeping bag after dinner to escape the mosquitoes. Generally I was up at early light, put the coffee pot on and brought to a boil then sat around camp for 2-3 cups and a granola bar for breakfast. Once I had an English muffin and peanut butter and jam. Started breaking camp, selecting items for lunch to place conveniently on the top of the wanigan. Most of the time I was probably underway by 8 o’clock. Sometime I stopped for lunch of bagels, pilot biscuits, or gorp, sometime not. It all depended on what I was dealing with for weather and water conditions. On Burntwood I broke camp at the break of dawn to make as much distance as possible before the wind put me ashore. As it turned out there was no need as winds were a moderate westerly breeze that assisted me in my progress most of the way and I made one of the most miles of the trip. Stopped later in the morning for coffee and breakfast when it became clear that winds weren’t an issue.

General Impressions

My emphasis (mind set) seemed to be to make as many miles each day as possible. That may have been a mistake but past experiences impressed on me the delays that strong winds and rain can impose on a trip and I had lots of areas where wind was a potential problem. I had built in 3 days for such conditions. As it was I was stalled only one day for 8-10 hours on the third day on the lower File River but made up some of that time by paddling 5-6 miles at sunset. The lower Burntwood River often had steep muddy banks caused by the downstream rapids depending on how restrictive the narrows were by holding back the high spring runoff. The upper rapids had to be waded, or lined because the relatively recent burns had obliterated old portage trails and regenerated dense sapling growth and a matchstick maze of fallen timber. I felt adequately challenged during the trip to feel accomplished but not excessively so. I paddled at a moderate rate that I could sustain without undue fatigued for long hours. Only my buttocks suffered as they would begin to ache after a few hours but I usually just endured that discomfort. My mode was to travel moderately and do things in a measured way without haste or wasted motion. Wading and lining were the most challenging but not particularly dangerous. I very early had a couple experiences that re instilled former understanding and experiences with fast water that served to heighten my level of caution the rest of the trip.

I checked out a couple of apparently unused trapping of fishing cabins that were in disrepair. I was struck by the fact that they had sheathed ceilings which I would suppose was to maintain the heat in the lower part of the buildings.

The food was adequate but not great. The Mountain House dehydrated foods were edible but not delectable. They were easy and quick to prepare requiring no dishes and provided adequate sustenance for my level of exercise. I supplemented the calorie intake with Oreo cookies and Jello puddings which were easy to make with a couple cups of water and a packet of Grandmothers Kitchen dry milk. I saw quite a lot of wildlife: a moose with a deformed antler submerged in the river to get away from the insects, an adult otter and pup, 3-4 ospreys, perhaps a dozen bald eagles, vast numbers of ducks, many of which I was unsure of their species but guess they were gadwalls. I didn’t see a lot of geese. Mallards became more prominent progressively downstream.