View topic - Travels on the Abitau, Whirlwind, and Tazin Rivers

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PostPosted: October 31st, 2009, 3:37 pm 
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I thought I would post a short report of my travels this past summer on the Abitau, Whirlwind, and Tazin rivers, along the Saskatchewan / NWT border.

I flew from Ft. Smith on the Alberta / NWT border to Abitau Bay on Tazin Lake in northern Saskatchewan. From there, Plan “A” called for me to go up the Abitau and Whirlwind Rivers, portage into the large lakes in the Whirlwind’s headwaters, and bushwhack north from them to reach the Marten River, a tributary of the Thoa, which would take me to my takeout in Hill Island Lake.
This plan unravelled, however, due to weather and difficult travel up the Whirlwind. While I had thought this could have been a traditional route to the Thoa, there were no signs at all of travel on the Whirlwind, although I had found old portage trails on the Abitau. It seemed unlikely that I would be able to complete the trip in the time available to me.

Fortunately, this route had a built in Plan “B”: by going back down the Whirlwind and Abitau to Tazin Lake, I could follow the Tazin River west and then north to Hill Island Lake and my intended destination. This is what I elected to do.

The route from Tazin Lake to Hill Island Lake had been explored for the Geological Survey of Canada by Charles Camsell in 1914. But the Tazin River I would follow would be much different: it has been the victim of one of northern Canada’s least publicized water diversion schemes. When the mines were operating at Uranium City, on the north shore of Lake Athabasca, Sask Power had dammed the outlet of Tazin Lake, raising its level and inducing it to flow south to Lake Athabasca through a couple of hydro dams to power the mines. The mines are gone, but the dam remains. The river is much diminished, but still navigable if you are willing to wade and pull your boat for a while. After a day or so you are paddling almost all the time, although on a much diminished river. Except for a steep and awkward portage at Teseljiri Falls, travel on the Tazin is easy, west to Thainka Lake and then north to Hill Island.

After spending a day chatting with a friend I unexpectedly encountered on Hill Island, I flew back to Fort Smith. Trip totals were about 300 km, with 19 portages and considerable wading and dragging. I was out 17 days, with 14 travel days.

October 2013 edit: nothing new, but I have restored the photos. They were originally in the “SoloTripping” gallery, which, though it outlived the forums, eventually died.

A map of the area:

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Beginning on Tazin Lake:

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The Abitau meanders through a sand plain in its lower reaches near Tazin lake.
Near the NWT border, it is incised into the plain and follows a more direct route:

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In this sandy world, Stratton Falls (~40’) is a striking sight:

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A few more rapids are encountered where the Abitau flows along the NWT / Saskatchewan border:

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First chute on the Whirlwind - no signs of previous travel here, or further upstream:

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My furthest point of advance on the Whirlwind, about 82 km above Tazin Lake. It will start raining again in about 5 minutes, as my retreat begins:

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The Abitau and Whirlwind did offer lots of fine campsites in open jack pine parkland:

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Tazin Lake offered a rocky, “Shield country” contrast to the sandy plains to the north:

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It was not without good beaches, however:

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The outlet dam on Tazin Lake:

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And its consequences: the algae on the rocks wasn’t very aesthetic, but it sure let the canoe side easily.

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Soon the river was paddleable again:

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Teseljiri Falls – beautiful even at these reduced flows:

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Back to the sand, where the Tazin turns north at Thainka Lake:

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Fine camping, and easy travelling (except for the weather) heading north to Hill Island Lake:

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Hill Island Lake, at trip’s end. “Hill Island” – on the left – was a landmark for travellers in the times of Hearne and Camsell.

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Hope you enjoyed this. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about the area.

-jmc


Last edited by jmc on October 5th, 2013, 6:50 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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PostPosted: October 31st, 2009, 4:23 pm 
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Quote:
The mines are gone, but the dam remains.


John,

Another group of great photos...the land always dominates.

It sounds like someone/thing stopped you on the Whirlwind, so you would see what was left of the maligned Tazin River. Can you describe the height, width and length of the rubble dam at the outlet from Tazin Lake, in order to determine what kind of demolition explosion might be required to return the rock to the riverbed so the river can run free again.

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PostPosted: October 31st, 2009, 4:26 pm 
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Great scenery. I am jealous !!!!! :clap: :clap: :clap:

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PostPosted: October 31st, 2009, 5:54 pm 
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Now where's that "jaw on the floor" smiley when you need it.

Thanks for the pic's. :wink:


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PostPosted: October 31st, 2009, 6:33 pm 
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Really great photos JMC!

A system of routes I know little about. I love that open taiga landscape!

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PostPosted: October 31st, 2009, 7:16 pm 
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Well, now that I've picked myself up off the floor.... :o

:clap:

Excellent report, and beautiful photos. Nothing less than I expected. :wink:

I am interested in this:

Quote:
The mines are gone, but the dam remains.


Would it be possible to restore the waterway to its pre-mineing days flow, or a reasonable facsimile?

Thanks for the report, J. It was worth the wait. :thumbup:


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PostPosted: October 31st, 2009, 8:39 pm 
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Thanks to all for the kind words.

Kingfisher, these shots may give a better idea of the dam’s size. I would say it is about 100 yards long, quite broad, and maybe 15-20 feet high. It’s a sturdy structure. I think the cart came from Gringott’s.

Attachment:
IMG_0151.JPG


Attachment:
IMG_0152.JPG


Attachment:
IMG_0157.JPG


Its purpose was to raise the level of Tazin Lake so that rather than draining west via the Tazin River it would spill over in its southeast corner and drain via the Charlot River into Lake Athabasca. There are now three hydro installations there, for a total of some 23 MW. The system is described here:

http://www.saskpower.com/aboutus/corpin ... ions.shtml

The first installation was in 1939, the last in 1980 – just 2 years before the last mine (Eldorado) closed and Uranium City became a ghost town. This article, though a couple of years old now, has some good background on the town and its present prospects:

http://www.thestar.com/News/Ontario/article/249912

Could they restore the flow? Sure. But I doubt they ever will. With uranium in fashion again, and gold at $1000 an ounce, it’s not impossible that mining will return to the area – and the availability of hydro power would be a big help in attracting it.

I think we’ll have to settle for imagining what the Tazin system once was. Camsell’s 1914 GSC report is available on line, if anyone is interested:

http://www.archive.org/details/explorat ... 00camsuoft

- jmc


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PostPosted: November 1st, 2009, 8:28 am 
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The level of research that few of us can accomplish, the level of dedication that few of us possess.
jmc's reports are something very special.

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PostPosted: November 1st, 2009, 9:31 pm 
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I may be in the area next summer. One thing that I not clear on is' were you aware the dam was there? I have known about it for years and it seems that every couple of years we see a report that mentions the damn dam with some surprise. The trips being conteplated right now are a solo trip starting at Thianka lake going to Nonacho lake (tazin, thekulthili, Taltson or farther and a group trip starting at Alcanterra lake and ending on nonacho lake or farther (Thoa, Tazin, Taltson).

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PostPosted: November 1st, 2009, 11:20 pm 
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Hi Doug -

Yes, I knew of the dam's existence and had seen a couple of reports indicating that the river was still navigable with some wading and dragging immediately below it.

I remember that the dam surprised the Peake brothers at the start of their trip from Camsell Portage to the Back River in the mid-90s - see

http://www.canoe.ca/che-mun/arcticland.html

I may be back in that area next year as well - perhaps our paths will cross.

When I was planning the trip I talked to a fellow who had paddled the Thoa from its headwaters to Hill Island and then gone up the Tazin and out to Uranium City a few years ago. If you are looking for information on the Thoa, send me a PM and I can give you his e-mail.

Regards,

jmc


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PostPosted: January 10th, 2020, 4:32 pm 
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Hey JMC,

Currently looking at planning a trip on the Abitau, I was wondering what information you found on it. Looking at going in at roughly 60.085381 -108.582368. Any information would be muchly appreciated.


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PostPosted: January 11th, 2020, 2:54 pm 
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Actionjack -

By your coordinates it looks like you are planning on starting in that small lake just above the Whirlwind junction. The map shows one rapid between it and the Whirlwind junction, which I did not see, as I turned up the Whirlwind. Below the Whirlwind junction there are no rapids as the river flows south through a sandy area - easy going. Where it turns west to flow along the border there are 4 rapids before Stratton falls. Portage trails were vestigial, but the portages were not long or particularly difficult. Stratton falls is attractive, the portage short but down a steep sand bank on RL. Below the falls there are no more rapids as the Abitau flows through a sandy plain all the way to Tazin Lake. The oxbows can be a little confusing in places, as can the flooded area just above Tazin Lake.

Not a long trip, mostly very easy travel with a modest but helpful current. About 80 km to Tazin Lake from your start, 3days not hurrying.

I know the Abitau has been paddled from Abitau Lake. I have not done so. From the air, the upper reaches look a little bony, but I'm sure could be paddled if you are looking for a longer trip. I am between computers at the moment, but once I'm over that issue, I can send more details if you like.

-jmc


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