Winisk River

CanadaOntarioHudson Bay, James Bay north
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Paul Elson
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370 km
14 days
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0 m
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Winisk River
August 1999

The Group

Rob and I have been serious canoe partners for about three years. I have learned a lot from him, particularly when it comes to correcting ourselves in rapids. We never make mistakes - only corrections J. We practice our white water skills on every outing and have been getting better. Both of us are comfortable living out of a pack. We have set up camp so many times together that there is not much communication needed; it just comes together automatically.

Bob and Jim would be partners in the other canoe. They will use Jim’s Swift by Dumoine. A bit more capacity than the Mad River but less manoeuvrable in the rapids. I have known Jim through work for quite a few years but have never canoed with him; Bob is a complete stranger.
The four of us did get together for a three-day trip on the Spanish River, just to test our compatibility. No problems were encountered so we were on our way.

The Gear

The Canoe

Rob and I would use my Mad River Freedom sixteen foot. After many trips together, Rob will finally agree that it is a better white water boat than his Swift Dumoine. Besides, Jim and Bob would be using their Dumoine and we needed one slightly smaller for “nesting”. The Dumoine measures sixteen foot four inches, the Mad River fifteen foot eleven inches. When the seats, thwart, yoke and decks were removed from the Dumoine, the Mad River fit inside like a glove. Flying in the Beaver from Canoe Frontier, the canoes would be nested and tied to one pontoon.
The one drawback with the Mad River is the seating position. To take full advantage of its white water handling characteristics, the seats are close to the center yoke. It can make for cramped seating in the rear, especially with a large pack crammed in.
The boat has been modified since I bought it six years ago. Kevlar skid plates have been added to both ends and the seats have been changed a few times, the latest with extra width front seats in both positions.
I also drilled the hull of the boat to add nylon straps and quick release buckles to keep gear in place. Brass bolts, with a large diameter stainless fender washer to prevent it pulling through the ABS, attach to swivels and a “D” at eight points inside, about two inches above the loaded water line. Two sets of nylon webbing, crossed in an X, secure the pack and barrels.
Both Rob and I are creatures of habit - everytime a pack is removed, after every portage no matter how calm the water; the straps go back on. We know that in a light rollover with up to medium wave action, all the gear will remain in the overturned boat. We also know from experience that folded or pinned to a rock in violent water, not even the strapping will be enough. Everything has a breaking point.
The bow and stern have been drilled through, about four inches below the decks, and nylon rope loops attached for a carrying handle that doubles as an attachment point for the lining ropes. Both decks are drilled and have elastic shock cord attached for storage of these ropes. The ropes are half inch polypropylene, a loop spliced in one end, a snap ring spiced into the other.
All these modifications have a price - weight. Factory weight for a Mad River Freedom sixteen foot is seventy-two pounds, not pleasant for a long portage. My canoe is now at a hefty eighty-two pounds. As it turns out, weight did not matter for this trip.
At the last minute, Rob decided to remove the quick release buckles and straps from the barrel area. If we dumped, they would just float free. Only the pack would get tied in on this trip.

The Maps

A set of maps, one inch to the mile, was ordered from the Geraldton office of the Ministry of Natural Resources. For the cost of these maps and the details they provided, they were a great investment. These covered the whole river from start to finish and comprised seven blueprint-sized maps. A quick trip to the blueprint machine and we had another two good sets. The originals went back in the mailing tube for future use, if required. Maps the size of blueprints are cumbersome and would not last very long in a canoe. Too many days of water, then folding and unfolding.
A cardboard template was used to cut the maps into pieces that would fit into an eleven inch by seventeen-inch laminating pouch. A half-inch overlap was left on the continuing edges in the series so a person would not be left wondering about the river when he came to the end of one map. A second set was copied so Jim and Bob could have their own.
The detail on the maps is quite good. All the islands, channels, the route in the river and some campsites were all shown. Some rapids even had blow-ups with better details and portages marked.
The only drawback was that the maps were totally white with black lines. It was sometimes difficult to tell if you were looking at the river or shore. A week spent with pencil crayons colouring the land and water made all the difference in the world. For some reason, orange water and green land made a contrast that was easily discernable, even in the dark.
The coloured maps were taped back to back and laminated in pairs. With holes punched and rings inserted, it was easy to flip from map one to two to three all the way up to map fourteen. Eventually, we had two sets of waterproof, coloured maps sized to fit in the map flap of a canoe pack.

The Tent

My Swallow by Marmot was made for this type of trip. It is a three plus season tent that has proved many times to be worth its outrageous price. Only a two-man size, it has a small footprint, full fly to ground level, a low profile for those windy nights and is the recommended yellow colour for easy spotting from the air. It has loops for pegs but can also be set up as free standing. The repair kit that came with it was added to the gear - miles from nowhere is not the place to learn how to mend nylon or repair a bent aluminum pole with duct tape.
Jim and Bob would sleep in Jim’s relic from K-Mart, sometimes disguised as a blue haystack.

The Food

With the arrangements for both pairs proceeding in different cities, we decided that the food planning and preparation would be better left with the individual boats.
Rob had the challenge of feeding us for sixteen days. This might not seem like much but we would be burning many calories, we wanted some kind of variety and were limited by the plane to a specific weight. Baked bread with peanut butter for lunch, soup and Kraft dinner for the nighttime meal, oatmeal with muffins for breakfast, then high energy mid morning and afternoon snacks all added up. We would be counting on a few meals of fish to supplement our resources.
A 1500-ml Nalgene bottle of some kind of flavoured water was the mandatory daily minimum ration for each of us. Liquids were decanted into Nalgene bottles of various sizes. A canoeist cannot have too many Nalgene bottles!
When the bread mix was divided and individually packaged, the meals counted out and double-checked; we had the big weigh in. Our total allowable weight for the four of us was three hundred pounds of gear, not including canoes. Our food weighed in at one ninety-five, Jim and Bob’s at one ninety, both parties grossly overweight. This is when the extras got tossed. Food and clothing, bits of kit and anything else we figured could be spared ended up in a separate pile on the floor. Alcohol was exempt from being reduced; we would carry more in our pockets if required. Down to the bare wire with only a few hours before train time, the weight was a more reasonable one hundred and sixty five pounds per twosome, but still slightly overweight. No more could be done.

The Packs

Rob’s big 120-liter canoe pack was stuffed with most of our shared gear. Not only a 20- liter olive barrel with food but the tarp, saw, hatchet, stove, extra fuel, tent, cookset and whatever odds and ends would fit in the corners.
A 50-liter mushroom barrel complete with harness carried the majority of the food. For the first few days, Big Bertha as we called it, was a real back breaker to get off the ground. My 55-liter Black Feather canoe barrel held all our spare clothes with the sleeping pads and bags. Rob and I both believe in barrels for flotation and to keep gear dry. Between the two of us we have fourteen (only three went on this trip). A canoeist cannot have too many barrels!
The only other packs in the boat were our personal daypacks that held raingear, a fleece jacket, and articles for use during the day. As my pack was larger, I also carried that day’s lunch. This was supposed to eliminate the need to get out “Big Bertha” at mid day.

The Clothing

I had kept in touch with the crew from Canoe Frontier and Sam Hunter on an irregular basis, trying to get a feel for the weather and water levels. We had a very dry spring and the local rivers were just a mass of boulders and gravel bars.
Rob and I wanted to run as much white water as possible, but it looked like a low water year all over. In actuality, the Winisk was unusually high, but we did not realize this until only a week prior to departure.
The weather was another unknown. Neither of us had been paddling this far north before, but we have paddled the local rivers around here when they are jammed with ice floes, so we were prepared for cold weather. With the cooling effect of Hudson Bay so close, snow has been reported during every month of the year. Both of us would wear and take the same basic outfits. For the day in the canoe:
full set of polypropylene long underwear (bottom and top)
nylon pants
nylon shirt
neoprene paddling boots
fleece jacket in day pack
rain gear in day pack
wide brimmed hat
Spare clothes included long flannel underwear, wool track pants, wool or synthetic sweater, a toque, gloves and spare fleece sweater. And hiking boots for dry land use.

The Rest

Detailing every article would be very time consuming and boring. Much more gear is necessary but may only receive mention in this list. The final word on gear: be prepared for any situation.
Canoe repair kit, first aid kit, reflector oven, paddles and spares, bailer, sponge, lining ropes, tarp ropes, bungee cords, personal locator beacon (borrowed), compass, bug dope, sunscreen, camera and film, binoculars, lip balm, matches, spare lighters, toilet kit, journal, PFD’s and of course the one indispensable article: toilet paper.

The Trip

The Plan

As it worked out, this was the final plan:
Via Rail from Sudbury to Savant Lake
Truck from Savant Lake to Pickle Lake
Flight with Canoe Frontier, Pickle Lake to Webequie
Paddle 245 miles from Webequie to Peawanuck
Flight with Canoe Frontier, Peawanuck to Pickle Lake
Truck from Pickle Lake to Savant Lake
Via Rail from Savant Lake to Sudbury
We would be leaving Sudbury on August 5th and returning August 23rd. With the train and shuttle to Pickle, this would still leave fifteen days for the river portion of the trip. An outing to look for polar bears and whales was arranged with Sam Hunter, a native guide from Peawanuck. I was not going all that way and miss out on that. Who knows, I might never be back.
A year’s worth of planning and preparation was finally coming to an end.

Day 01 August 05

Jim and Bob drove up from Orillia and we all met at Rob’s house. Last minute preparations, last minute items added or subtracted, last minute purchases seemed to be driving us all to exasperation. Finally the truck was loaded with all our gear and we drove to the train station.
A stop for fast food, which we ate at the station, and we were done. I was exhausted.
We manhandled our gear and canoes into the baggage car, made sure they were all tagged and then waited to be seated. And received our first surprise about Via’s wonderful Trans Canada service - the train was oversold and seats were not available! That the tickets were purchased a month previously did not matter; whoever got on the train first got the seats. We were out of luck, sort of. The conductor brought us up to the observation car (this is not considered purchased seating) and evicted four hapless travelers so we could take their seats. The train was scheduled for 7:10 pm but did not leave until 7:35 pm.
The conductor must have had some pity on us because she brought us to her employee’s area so we could have a beer or two from the bar. Drinking is not permitted in the observation car.
We settled down for the fourteen-hour trip to Savant Lake. Many people came to ask for the canoeists - where are you going? what river? that far north?
Regular seats became available about 1:30 am and we could get out of the cramped conditions in the observation car. Tired as we were, it was almost impossible to get a good rest twisted into various shapes in the railroad seats.

Day 02 August 06

Arrival in Savant was one hour late, but Jenn was waiting with the Canoe Frontier truck. After loading up we ate take out sandwiches in the truck on the drive to Pickle.
The plane was not ready when we arrived at the terminal but we did not mind. We changed into paddling clothes, paid the remainder of the bill, had a beer or three from our cooler and posed for the obligatory departure picture by the pontoon. A change made in the last day was the substitution of the turbo Otter for our flight. Winisk Lake Camps had ordered twenty cases of beer and we would be riding with it to Webequie. No complaints on our part, we did not have to nest the canoes.
Finally we were in the air and could see what kind of a landscape we were getting into. One word describes it best - barren. Trees, water, bog, and swamp. Totally isolated.
The flight itself was uneventful, right down to the smooth landing on the water. We pulled into a dock and were met by the local police constable and some helpers. The beer would spend the night locked in the jail and then be transported by freighter canoe to the camp.
When I hopped off the pontoon onto the dock, a native man asked how far we were going, and was told all the way to the bay, he said it was an awful small boat to be trying that in. I didn’t know how much faith to put in his opinion.
When the loaded police truck drove away, we were visited by about a dozen young native kids. They seemed either to speak only Cree or did not want to speak English. They were into everything, sitting in the canoes, looking at our gear, even making it plain that some would come with us.
After packing up we were on the water at 4:30 pm. The nearest campsite was all we wanted; we were hungry and tired.
Winisk Lake is BIG. With a brisk northwest wind the water chopped up quickly. The sun was still out but I considered it quite cool. This didn’t last long though, I was sweating shortly, and putting everything I had into making some kind of campsite as soon as possible. After four hard miles we spotted an old campsite, left of Lynx Skin Channel, and pulled in. Camp was set, supper cooked and eaten in a frenzy.
We had time to explore a bit on the trails around the campsite. It was filthy. Garbage was strewn around, plastic bags were in the trees, and more junk scattered as far as we walked. It was surprising as well as disappointing.
Cool and overcast as darkness approached. A good possibility of rain. We all retired early, tired from the activity and poor sleep on the train.

Day 03 August 07

Up early. Cool and overcast, single digit temperature could be about seven or eight degrees. Heavy crackers and peanut butter for a quick breakfast. On water at 8 am into a brisk headwind and slight rain. Saw our first bald eagle within ten minutes. During a rest break, we were pulled into shore, lying back in the canoe, when a large freighter canoe came into sight. We surmised it was the beer boat as there was a large pile of something in the center, covered with a tarp. The three natives in the boat waved as they went by.
We still fought the headwind, pushing hard to get off the big water. No campsites could be seen on the lake.
First fast water at Mile 9.5. Portage on river left was just as shown on the map along with the large campsite above it. Scouted and decided to run the channel on river left. We were a little leery about this rapid; it being the first one and the canoes heavily loaded. We decided to portage the food barrel to bring us up a bit in the water.
Came in slow close to shore and caught on a flat rock just a few inches below surface. We did a quick three hundred and sixty degree spin and slid off. Entered the rapid and down and to the left, following the current. Hard backpaddle to slow down before entering large standing wave. Very powerful current, surprised how we accelerated. Took some water in the turbulence near the bottom. Jim and Bob run same route OK, take water same as we did.
Spotted a campsite on north end of island at Mile 10, looked good, high and dry.
High Rock Rapid, about Mile 11, had big waves but no real action.
Now we are making good time, fast water everywhere.
Stop at small island north of Muskeg for a lunch of fresh bread and peanut butter. Sun is out, very bright, stripped down to waist, soaking in rays. Huge dragonflies are buzzing around, about four to five inches long. Poor campsite north end of island. Clouded over and rain after lunch, wind and whitecaps.
Muskeg Rapid, Mile 13, was more waves, no real challenge.
There was fast water south of Muskeg Rapid, not marked on map. Lots of it. We could not get to river left in time and went down the middle, right was impassable with ledge. VERY big waves from all directions, taking water over right side, some bad moments. Bob and Jim go bow under and fill boat to gunwales. Both boats stop to bail.
Large waves, two to three feet when river is open. Stick to left shore.
Bear Head Lake is all large waves, headwind terrible. We pull in at Bear Head Camp to inspect and rest. The cabins are open and have bunks, tables and benches. We’re leaving and see a heavy wall of rain approaching up the lake. Change our mind and run for cover in the nearest cabin, decide to stay and freeload. We sit on porch, drink two pots of spiked coffee and shoot the breeze. Maybe a dozen eagles during day, ducks, loons, whiskey jacks, a groundhog comes to visit, then two eagles roost in a tree about fifty feet from cabin. Still amazed by garbage along shore and at campsites.
Rain stops and sun comes out, nice sunset. Will be cold tonight, clear upper skies, and a few clouds lower. Big sky, many, many stars. Still light in western sky at 11:30 pm. Persiades are out, watch comets.

Day 04 August 08

Up at 6:20 am, clear and cool like yesterday, about seven or eight degrees. Oatmeal, crackers, peanut butter with coffee for breakfast. Clouds moving in, no wind yet. On water at 8 am, headwind starts immediately.
Bear Head Rapids is first fast water today. It will be a rapid to remember for the rest of my life. Rocks and waves all over, with a few large islands thrown in to make things interesting. The river spread out in this area, like a small lake except it was all moving water. We stop at large island in center to scout and cannot see other side. Water is so high and fast we cannot wade around. Bob and Jim run right side of island (first mistake, should have gone left), some medium wave action. Rob and I watch for them to reappear but we cannot see them. We think they are in trouble and go for right shore, they are actually OK and follow us thinking we know the route (second mistake). After regrouping on rocks in middle of river, we set out again. Maps are in pack (third mistake). I see what I think is an opening on river left and head for it. Jim and Bob follow (fourth mistake) slightly behind. The opening is actually most of the river water squeezing between two points on either shore. Approaching the opening we see the large waves ahead of us and finally realize we are heading for a monster rapid. We try a backferry to get to shore, still go forward. Then a quick spin and frontferry, straining at the paddles, all to no use. We are now in the tongue, backwards, accelerating beyond belief. We swing around at the last possible second. Nothing to do but brace and keep front of boat into waves. Difficult because there’re coming from all directions. We go down the tongue and up the first wave, I have good view of far shore and nothing but row after row of huge waves between. I lay back so far I’m almost under the barrel. Down into the trough and white water all around, over my head, all sides. Can’t see anything except water and some sky above. Crest to trough about six feet. We take water but not as bad as I expected. Up again and another view of the far shore. Back down, surrounded by water. More water in boat. Up and down, up and down. Struggle to keep bow forward, bracing to keep upright, bouncing like a cork. Do not now how we made it through without turning over or swamping. Any rocks, even small ones, would have done us in. Wildest ride of my canoeing life.
Jim and Bob follow, fill to gunwales.
We all make it to island and bail. From island we can see a log portage, on another channel more to river right, the one we should have taken.
Someone suggests portaging back up the river and we’ll run it again, this time with the others on shore taking pictures. We figure no one will believe us when we tell them the size of the waves. It didn’t take much to talk us out of a second attempt; it would be pushing fate and luck too far.
Rob catches seventeen-inch speckled trout in bay between Axe Hand and Round Stone Lakes, then a nice pickerel by small island in rapids, north end of Round Stone.
We eat a late lunch, fish and soup on rocky island, good and stuffed. Finished at 2 pm. The beer canoe passed as we were having lunch, going back up river.
Wind is bad after lunch; we hug left shore of Hole and Goose Hunting Lakes.
Stop at Winisk River Camp, no one home so we decide to stay and freeload again. Coffee before supper, talk about Bear Head Rapid - HOLY SHIT!!!.
Chilli and biscuits for supper. Lay on backs at fire pit and watch northern lights. No mosquitoes, have not used repellent yet.
Bed at 11:30pm.

Day 05 August 09

Up at 6:40 am, coffee, oatmeal and muffins for breakfast. Warm, no wind, sunny. On water at 8:30 am. We seem to be slow this morning, feel tired. Hoping for a good day. Few swifts or mirror water to Mile 40. Jim finds out he forgot his fishing rod at Winisk River Camp; they turn back and battle current to go and get it. Rob and I say we’ll drift, only paddle for control in the big waves. We kick back and catch some sun, eat trail mix and watch the eagles and hawks.
Drift to First Big Rapid, about Mile 43, look for portage, can’t find it. Struggle through bush and scout complete rapid from top to bottom. Paddle back up Rough Moss Lake and meet Jim and Bob at 11:45 am - two hours for fishing rod.
We run rapid OK. Follow tongue into center, left at bend and then more left by boulder size of small car, right of grass island, catch the current on river left around bend to right.
Fast water for two to three miles.
Lunch on large flat rock above Portage Rapid at Mile 48.5, river left. Good portage begins at large rock. Fall asleep in sun. Despite its name, we decide to run as much as possible.
Very powerful rapid, sweeping bend to left, substantial drop. River right is impassable - rocks and large waves five to six feet for quarter mile. Big diagonal wave on river left. We line down first ledge, river left, past diagonal and push off from rocks. Large three-foot waves, take a little water over sides.
Fast water constant for next few miles. Carryover at Mile 49. Hang left, then out to center, past island. Rocks and four-foot waves, backferry right to miss rocks, take some more water. Stop to bail, river left.
More fast water, first part OK, rocks on river left, big waves across most, might be ledge, looks like an opening river right. We backferry hard to get right, have to cross complete river, don’t quite make it all the way. Enter in big souse hole, I take water to chin and four inches in boat. Stop to bail again.
Pull in, river right, above Tashka Rapids, Mile 51. HUGE! Tongue about two hundred feet, five to six foot waves, boulders and second shelf out of sight around bend to right. Impossible to run. Portage trail river right.
Second Winisk River Camp is right at Tashka. We stay in guest cabin. Rob and Jim fish, no luck.
Everyone bathes - feels great. We all have colour, hot and sunny all day. Cooling off now and clouds moving in. No bugs yet. Only about twelve miles today. Plan for early breakfast and quick getaway in morning.
Kraft Dinner and biscuits for supper. Rob makes muffins for breakfast.
Cloudy tonight, no stars. Small fire and in bed early, 10 pm.

Day 06 August 10

Up at 7 am. Packing boat by 8 am. Line and lift at rapid, river right. Paddle one hundred yards to native log portage, river right. Slide loaded boats up and over, about one hundred yards, easy on logs.
After Tashka Rapid, land changes. Gravel shore, sand, and more exposed rock. We are able to see some shore, but water still goes up to branches in most places.
Fast water to Baskineig Rapid. Rob catches four pickerel in five minutes, Jim one. Another short log portage at Mile 55.1, river right. At Mile 55.2 we line to lip then lift over, river left. Mile 57, line and lift river right. Fast water, we make three miles in fifteen minutes.
Sea Shell Rapid, Mile 60, not much, we run OK on left of islands and wait on left shore by large clay cliff. Jim and Bob take water at drop in center.
Lunch at Sea Shell Lake, sand point. We eat all the fish - great. Mist and rain comes in while we’re eating. Time for rain gear.
Good current, some action, make good time. Rain steady since lunch, driving wind, cold.
Run Gneiss Rapid, Mile 73, river right, camp just below rapids on river left.
Set up tarps and set good fire, sit around in poly-pro. Rain till late afternoon, then sun comes out and blue skies at 7 pm.
Rob goes fishing to rock island but catches only one pickerel, too small to keep. Kraft Dinner for supper.
Everyone pleased with day; we make about twenty-three miles.
Rain during night, tent warm and dry.

Day 07 August 11

Up at 6:30 am, dull grey and cool. No wind yet. Oatmeal for breakfast. On water at 8:35 am, wind up at 9 am.
Brutal day today. Headwinds steady at thirty KPH, gusting to fifty, two-foot whitecaps going upriver. Have to hug left bank all day, ten feet or less from shore. Current still fast, no rapids.
Rob catches pike at Meggisi Creek. We eat it and soup at island one mile past. Rain and heavy mist started at lunch.
Next five miles very tough. We want Winiskisis Channel and take water over bow in the big waves when crossing river.
Campsite just up the channel one hundred and fifty yards, channel left, about Mile 91. Steep access but good flat spot on top of bank. Rain stops when we do.
Lining ropes up to dry clothes. North wind, cool, clouds coming in, maybe rain. Jim and Bob tarp their tent to keep dry. It looks like blue haystack.
Rob makes muffins for breakfast; we’ll have soup and crackers for supper, save bread for lunch tomorrow.
This spot must have been a native camp at one time. Fire pit in back with tepee style frame around it, six to seven feet high. Many large blowdowns and what looks like moose tracks all over.
Black clouds encircle camp but leave us alone; I’m still in underwear at 6:30 pm. Fantastic sunset, pink and purple clouds.

Day 08 August 12

Up at 6:30 am, blue skies, clear, no wind yet. Coffee with muffins, on water at 8:40 am. Bright and warm, slight headwind but we make good time.
Take break on sandy point, can see what a vast river this is.
Trees are spindly, water still high, no real shore with some growth twelve inches underwater. Old burn areas both sides of river, dead trees sticking up, tangled mess of roots and trunks. Impassable to us.
We take Rabbit Channel to get out of headwind. It’s about fifty feet wide, like a mirror, only two or three feet deep. Few bugs, no repellent yet.
We frighten a family of osprey, parents circle and call to young in nest only thirty feet from our canoe. He gets out, ungainly, can hardly fly. They circle and screech at us as we drift by.
Can’t figure out where we are, no landmarks visible, just the same burn and bush on both banks. Map shows channel splitting but we never see it, maybe grown over now.
Eat lunch in the boats, can’t light stove. No shore to get out at.
Sun out all afternoon, strip down to waist and soak up sun.
Push to Ashewig River and Winisk. Rob catches pickerel in Ashewig. Check out old square timbered log cabin river left. Read all the messages left by other parties. Native camp river right, read notes on those walls too. Garbage all over.
Next island, about Mile 113, we find remains of small fire and stacked wood. Peake and HACC maybe? Campsite on top of bank, not bad. Set up tarp in rain. Cook fish and soup right away, I’m starved. We all bathe, water is frigid. Good fire, rain again, probably all night, we sit around under tarp and have a few drinks. Totem face carved in large tree at back of camp. Some bugs come out, can’t believe that no one has used insect repellent yet on the entire trip.

Day 09 August 13

Dull and dreary morning. Cool, grey and wet. Oatmeal and muffins for breakfast. Everyone tired this morning. Water and wind fairly calm for a change.
We make ten miles by 11:30 am, stop for snack gravel shore. Lunch at another spot of gravel, 1:00 pm, soup, crackers, hot chocolate. We were in fleece and rain jackets during lunch, lay down to nap and fell asleep until 4:00 pm. Woke up and sun was out, wind down, very warm, sweating. Feel groggy.
We paddle one hour, drift and cast but no fish. Stone and gravel shores more common. Seem to be more brooks running into river or maybe we can just hear them now without the headwind. Still stunted black spruce but more poplar appearing as regrowth in old burn areas. Shrubs are down to water except where there are sand and gravel shores. River very wide with strong current.
Stop for camp at Mile 134. Rob goes fishing across river; I gather wood for baking bread. Rob gets one pickerel, we eat with Kraft Dinner and biscuits. Bread on baking, rain off and on for a while. We throw all remaining wood on fire and finish bread, then into tent.
Sore muscles all over, fingers drying out, cracked and split. Slept well.

Day 10 August 14

Up at 6:10 am, foggy and wet. Sun coming up over trees, clear skies and warming fast. Oatmeal, biscuits and coffee for breakfast.
Jim and Bob on water at 8:00 am, us at 8:10 am. We catch them and tie canoes together to drift. Everybody lazy today. We’re on vacation! Sun is hot, we drift, talk, fish, sleep, and write in journal.
Scare up eagle from his roost as we drift by, only fifty feet away. Stop to fish at the little brooks; catch a few pike and release. We keep this up all day, only one handed paddling to get into current, if needed. Even have lunch in the boats. Pass some large burned areas, some look very old, others only a few years. We stop to inspect native campsite marked on map, it doesn’t exist. There is evidence, some rubber boots, but nothing else. More and more sand/clay banks, some thirty feet high. Start looking for a “Round Hill” marked on the map, cannot pick it out or we passed it unknowingly. Caribou crossing river in front of us, he makes bank and is gone in two bounds. Quite large, brown with large rack.
We paddle twenty minutes near end of day, make camp at small brook river right Mile 161. River now runs east - west. Make twenty-seven miles today - drifting!
Sun all day, wind from southwest, we have colour and are a bit dehydrated. Make juice right away and drink most in ten minutes. Rob goes up river, trolling. Two pickerel and Kraft Dinner for supper.
Bath time for me again tonight. Gear and clothing showing wear and dirt. Small fire tonight, not much wood available, just small sticks and roots. Cooling off, cloudy, slight drizzle on and off.

Day 11 August 15

Up late this morning, can’t figure out why, we didn’t paddle much yesterday. Cloudy and warm, slight south wind. Lazy breakfast of oatmeal and coffee.
Lay around and talk before we pack up. Make fun of Rob’s shirt. Sun out, we’re going to drift again today. Nowhere to get to anyway, the only schedule we have now is how to slow down.
Rob and Jim go exploring up the creek, Bob and I do dishes and pack gear. Jim comes back with pike, he throws back, and Rob scares up caribou just past mouth of creek.
On water late, almost 10 am. More drifting, less wind today. Burn areas common. The wind in the burnt out trees is eerie, sound like a freeway. I fall asleep for an hour, laying back on PFD and barrel, feet stretched out on deck.
Clouds move in, cools off, mist and drizzle start.
Make Winino Creek, Mile 169, at 12:30 pm. Rain picks up while soup is cooking. Rob catches speckled and large pike at creek. Jim and Rob clean while soup cooks, rain hard now, we eat soup and pack fish for supper.
We head for nearest campsite. While paddling, I see a large wolf (timber wolf maybe, it was huge) on the bank and raise my voice to tell the others. The wolf stops and turns, stares at us for a while, then disappears into the bush.
Can’t find Indian site on next island as marked on map. Find good site on small island, west end of very large island, about Mile 179.5. Hard rain for last two hours, we’re all soaked. Camp is at top of thirty-foot clay and gravel bank, scarred by ice.
Carry gear, set tarps, make fire, gather firewood, set up tents. Rain stops as we set up. Jim and Bob decide to share some of their canned delicacies with us since Rob seems to be catching most of the fish. We have trout and pike fillets, canned potatoes with green and yellow canned beans.
After supper its dry clothes and sit around the fire. I take out the Nalgene bottle of Drambuie and pass it around, and then take a picture as we fasten the plaque.
Rob starts bread for tomorrow and we all comment about how good it smells, then start with remarks about bread for dessert. Bob does us in when he pulls out the jar of homemade berry jam. We eat all the bread even though its lunch tomorrow for Rob and I. After the bread, Rob makes muffins for breakfast, which we don’t share.
We stay up late, pass around the Drambuie till it’s gone and have a night of stimulating conversation.
In bed at 11:30 pm.

Day 12 August 16

Up late at 7:30 am. Oatmeal, muffins and coffee for breakfast. Lazy with no schedule. On water at 10:30 am. Slight headwind this morning so we have to paddle. No one feels like drifting anyway. Headwind turns strong, have to paddle hard. Lunch in the boats, pita bread, peanut butter and juice. Paddle hard in afternoon. Stop to fish at the creeks and brooks, Jim gets pike, Rob a pickerel.
From distance, shore sometimes looks like rock under bushes, it’s actually roots uncovered by ice. More gravel shores, signs of ice, piles of rocks and mud sometimes two hundred feet or more from the water.
We see a caribou on gravel bar; he wades and jumps onto shore, shakes and stares at us. We stop and stare back, probably five minutes. He is brown with white chest and tail and a large rack. Finally he turns and walks into bush.
Rob catches trout, Jim pickerel. They are afraid of fishing anymore, don’t want to harm them unless we are eating them. Will be fish and Kraft Dinner for supper.
Decide to make for next brook at Mile 195 and find a spot to camp. Very slow day. Large grassy plain at campsite. Gouges in soil from rocks pushed by ice. Now clear, cooling off, will be cold tonight. Arctic Terns fly in, white with swept back wings, black face and orange beaks. More arctic type landscape, trees smaller, more shrubs.
Have to put canoe on side as windbreak while cooking supper. Wind from north. Pike, pickerel, trout and Kraft Dinner for supper. Fire started and coffee on, Jim and Rob play at fishing, catch and release half a dozen pike. Rob breaks fishing rod on a bad cast.
Lay around fire; watch northern lights, large moon with binoculars. Temperature drops, first time I have to put big sweater on. In bed at 11:30 pm.
I get up during night, black sky, stars unbelievable, very cold, could be zero degrees.

Day 13 August 17

Up at 6:30 am, cold, sunny, fleece this morning. Oatmeal and coffee. Rob repairs rod with duct tape (good as new). Bob checks map, we have to figure out how to slow down some more.
Lazy morning again. Rob does dishes, Bob packs tent, I write.
Two large cranes fly over site, very noisy, loud honks.
On water at 9:30 am. We drift again. Take small channel about Mile 204, river right. It is about seventy feet across. We just get into channel and a caribou comes out of bush and down to shore. He trots down stream with us for about three hundred yards, looking at us occasionally. Large furry rack on this one. A bit ahead of us, he steps into channel, drinks and walks across and into bush. We drift, paddle and drift. Hot and sunny. Stop for lunch on gravel bar, fall asleep in sun. Channel twists and turns every which way. Steep gravel banks.
After lunch we paddle a bit, we want to camp at Mile 210. There is nothing there, soggy, wet and rocky. We keep going, searching. Shoreline changing again. More clay/sand/gravel banks, bluffs up to fifty feet high.
Stop at gravel island Mile 214. Scare up a large Peregrine Falcon as we pull in. Set up tent then bathe. Water very cold.
I seem to have the night off as Rob is doing everything. Bob and Jim try and talk us into eating the bread for a snack again. Few bugs tonight, not enough for repellent.
Lay by fire and watch northern lights. Great show tonight.

Day 14 August 18

Up at 7:10 am. Blue skies, clear and sunny with cool south wind. Coffee and oatmeal. Today we will make Limestone Rapids. Nobody feels like drifting. We plan to get into camp early, wash up clothes and organize gear.
We paddle, hoping to make camp above Limestone Rapids. Nothing where marked on map. Native camp on island by creek, Mile 224 and we go and explore. A native in powerboat pulls up and we talk for a while. He is the first person we have seen on the river. He is out fishing or hunting for caribou. We tell him about caribou in channel yesterday and he goes looking. We have lunch on shore by creek. I’m laying on my back, watching river, and see a large osprey put on the brakes, plunge sixty feet into river to get a fish. Rob is walking on beach and pulls a rifle out of sand. It must be quite old, most of the wood is soft, the trigger mechanism is a mass of corroded steel and ice has bent the barrel. He is about to throw it back and I decide to keep it. This spot is not good for camp so we go from island to island looking for something half-decent. There isn’t anything. We end up at rapids and decide to go for creek near end, Mile 230.5, river left. As we are getting our canoes ready for first fast water in a week, a black bear comes out of bush opposite us, runs down bank and into river. It only gets in a few feet and is swept away by the current. We loose sight of him around the bend. I still wonder if we were saved from a close encounter by the river.
Rob is in a playful mood as we enter a few small waves. He rocks the boat from front to back, finally getting the bow under and gives me a lap full of water with four inches in the bottom. We round bend and see the real waves, can’t get out of them, by the time we are beside island, we are full. Its all we can do to move slowly to left, find a small spot of rock shore and pull in to bail. Only a little further and we are at the creek for our last campsite. High limestone cliffs surround this part of the river, thirty to fifty feet high. The tents are pitched on a flat rock, held down with stones rather than pegs. Our cooksite is upriver a bit, near a natural stone bench we can sit on.
The native we met earlier pulls in on his way downriver. He didn’t see any caribou. A freighter canoe comes up river and pulls in at mouth of creek to fish.
We all bathe, try and clean up for the town tomorrow.
Chili and pasta for supper, lots of it. Fire started, bread baking.
We get a visit from a black fox; he startles us when we notice him standing, staring at us, his eyes glowing red just outside the light from the fire. Pure black except some white on the tip of his tail.
We sit around the fire and reminisce; remember Bear Head?, remember the speckled?, remember this? Partly cloudy, few stars. In bed at 11:00 pm.

Day 15 August 19

Up at 7:10 am. Oatmeal, muffins, coffee. No hurry today, Peawanuck is only three hours away. Slight south wind, warming up quickly. Black bear comes for a visit while I am packing tent. Sits and watches for ten minutes then walks into bush.
A few waves as we complete Limestone Rapids, then drift some more. Many sand/gravel bars, have to paddle to pick route, lots of meandering.
Lunch in the boats.
Can hear generators somewhere. Pull in at large dock, explore up road. Back in water, another five minutes and we pull in with native boats, can see native houses at top of bank.
Jim and I go for a walk, ask for directions and eventually find Sam Hunter at band office. Back to the landing, another hundred yards through swift and we pull in at Sam’s place. Empty canoes and hump the gear to his back yard, make ourselves comfortable in his teepee. Lynne Cox from Canoe Frontier and her group show up within an hour. Large mound of gear from nine of us piled in yard. We set up tents in teepee (its not quite complete or waterproof), then supper at Sam’s house. Caribou stew, bannock, wild rice, and caribou tea from local plants.
Back to teepee and make fire. Meet our guides for tomorrow, Maurice Mack and Dominik Hunter. In bed early.

Day 16 August 20

Up early, supposed to leave at 8:00 am. Communal breakfast on table in yard. Walk to landing, leave at 9:10 am, three freighter canoes. Our group is with Maurice.
As we head down river, we see natives in small canoe shoot a caribou at waters edge. Can’t hear shot, just see muzzle flash and animal go down.
Stop somewhere on a rock beach and search for fossils.
Trees disappear shortly. River still moving fast, very broad. Winisk Village is only one house. A large cross marks the spot of the others before the ice.
Pull in on grassy plain, eat caribou stew, and get ready for walk.
Very hot. No pack, just water, camera and binoculars. We trudge west, half mile from shore. Changes to tundra and mud flats.
Climb stump and look for bear. Maurice spots one miles away, without binoculars, I can barely see it with them. Decide to swing west and come in downwind, try and find cover behind distant sand bar. It looks about thirty feet high. We slog around puddles and mud, generally keeping to our route. Sun out strong, start to sweat, take shirt off. Finally reach sand bar, its only three feet high, perception distorted. Crawl behind old logs; see three polar bears; a large sow and two cubs.
We watch until they disappear into shimmer at shoreline.
Long walk back to canoes. Very hot, could be thirty degrees. Sweat easily.
Rest at beach, more natives have appeared, duck and goose hunting to start soon. Three tents and perhaps twenty natives. A little village.
We take canoes into bay, dodge large rocks for three miles out. Large seals in river current. Run into large pod of Beluga’s, Sam estimates at two hundred. Whales all over, spouts, white backs as they crest. Can see perfectly, only a few feet from boats. Drift in salt water, whales swim around us, heading for open water.
We go past old Winisk station on way back. Huge buildings, still look in good shape from this distance. Our boat takes a different route back, we hit rock once. Stop to check black bear and then we’re back at the village for 9:00 pm. Late communal supper on table. Shower in Sam’s house. Fire and talk with the other party. Bernie Cox flies in and spends night; we’ll leave early.

Day 17 August 21

Up early, snacks and rough pack for flight. All nine in van to airport, on plane by 7:00 am. Two and a half-hour flight. Drive into Pickle for late breakfast at restaurant, back to Canoe Frontier to organize gear. We are a day early for train and will tent tonight by terminal. Hang around with Canoe Frontier all day, have a beer or ten under awning, then make camp and eat. Up late.

Day 18 August 22

Up late, walk to base and go to town for breakfast. Back to base, pack gear and kill time. Drive to Savant and have supper at hotel. Wait for train by tracks. Train in on time at 9:00 pm. Stow gear in baggage car, find seats and stay up for a while. Jim and Bob decide to stay on train to Orillia. Sudbury at 2:00 pm, August 23, then drive Rob home, finally pull in at home at 6:00 pm. Shower and in bed early, must go to work tomorrow.


The Rating

So, the trip itself was over but there were still things to do. After the gear was cleaned and stored there was the film to develop, distribute pictures, mount the rifle on a wall and plan the next adventure.
And reminisce. I don’t think that will ever stop. There is a lifetime worth of memories.
And transcribing this darn journal from my handwritten pages.
Are there things we would do differently in hindsight? You bet. Taking more time in the upper stretches of rapids and fast water is the major one. We could have spent more time fishing or even run some rapids twice or more. We did not expect the river to be as fast moving as it was in the lower part and were afraid of falling behind schedule. It may not always be like this; we had very high water levels helping us along.
The weight restriction for the flight also hindered our choice and amount of food. We did not need all we took but our resources were supplemented by lots of fish. Others may not be so lucky.
Would I recommend this trip? Absolutely. Most rapids would be runnable for most canoeists; the big ones for those experienced in white water only. Portages are available for those that cannot be run. The sights, the wildlife, the landscape were all more than I expected.
Everything considered, I would rate this trip as a ten out of ten.

The Plaque

Back on day eleven there was mention of a plaque. This was something I had made before leaving, sort of a memento of the trip. The plaque is a small piece of stainless steel plate; about three inches by four inches, with all our names and the date burned into it by laser.
It is fastened to a tree in the campsite so others who come after us can see that we were there. Our group shared all that this river had only for a short while. The memento of our journey is not permanent either.
The ice is powerful in this section of river, even at the top of thirty-foot banks; soil and trees have been pushed around in the spring thaw. Eventually, I suspect that the tree with the plaque will also be toppled and find its way down to the water. It will most likely rot or be crushed by ice over a few years, branches and the plaque detaching slowly, and they themselves will be pushed and swept down the river. Someday, it may reach the salt water of the bay.
And this would be appropriate. Paul Elson

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:250,000): 
43 D Landsdowne House 43 E Winiskis Channel 43 L Clendenning River 43 K Sutton River


Post date: Tue, 01/28/2014 - 15:30


Pipeston-Winisk River, 25 days

In July, 2013 my team of six completed a demanding one-month, self-organized, unsupported, 700-km canoe trip from north of Pickle Lake to Hudson's Bay. We ran dozens of big rapids, bushwhacked our own portage routes and camped where no campsites pre-existed. None of us had canoed this very remote river system before, but thanks to planning, self-discipline and team work, we achieved our goal. 

The rivers, wetlands and forests of the Pipestone-Winisk River system are a boreal paradise – a world-class wilderness in our own backyard, an ecological wonder, as yet virtually untouched by humans, where a vast array of species still live unmolested. We were thrilled to encounter boreal caribou, sturgeon, black and polar bears, a wolf, moose, bald eagles, sturgeon, belugas and many land and shorebirds.

We participated in the Big Wild (CPAWS) to raise awareness of Ontario's threatened ecosystems in light of the Ontario government recently exempting the logging industry from compliance with the Endangered Species Act for five years, and because of the impending ecological damage from the proposed Ring of Fire mines.

The Cree we spoke to in Wunnumin, Webequie and Peawanuck do not expect fair negotiations and believe the mines promise only low-level, temporary jobs. We felt the mines should not go ahead, that it would be better to compensate northern communities for developing sustainable products, eco-tourism, carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation on their territories.

Our amazing experience has inspired us to support organizations like CPAWs and to spread the word as widely as possible to government, friends, family, and colleagues that the Hudson's Bay and James Bay lowlands should be preserved in their entirety. 

Frank de Jong 416-559-6941

Post date: Sat, 01/01/2000 - 07:00


Great inspiring article. Gotta love the remote north. Educational.