(Circa) November 2015
“Dwayne, would you be interested in joining me and two fellows from Germany on a canoe trip in northern NW Ontario? We’d be working our way into the Gods River system?”
I was delighted to have been presented this opportunity. It was a complete surprise and gave me something to look forward to. Mucking along through November’s freeze-up has always tested my mettle, something my wife Darlene would gladly attest to.
Having hoped to participate in a remote wilderness canoe trip the following year, this would save me the hassle of attracting others and determining a locale – both, typically, rather time-consuming though enjoyable. I passed the particulars by Darlene, and my most avid fan quickly supported the idea. Though not typically stressed during our annual Moving Water canoe courses, the presence of an avid supporter in one’s paddling life is not to be taken for granted nor underestimated.
Quickly seizing the opportunity, I hastened to reply Yes to Ivan Holloway’s query.
Goods in hand I proceed to Ivan’s home for an introduction to my newest paddling partners and to ensure we’re prepared for the flight which leaves mid-afternoon. I’ve the pleasure to be introduced to Michael Hammerschtadt and Peter Simon both of Bavaria. For Peter, this would be his initiation into wilderness canoe tripping. Michael had taken time to introduce him to canoeing and, in particular, to paddling whitewater.
Michael, on the other hand, has gained experience by joining his father on canoe trips in the Yukon, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Later he also brought his wife Alaina along on the Hayes.
Geared up and good to go the 4 of us arrived at Perimeter Airline’s Winnipeg terminal for our trip to Sachigo Lake Ontario – our plan, have our party portaged west from Sachigo Lake to Ponask Lake and to follow this system down the Ponask, Stull, Red Sucker and Gods Rivers to Shamattawa Manitoba; board another Perimeter flight in Shamattawa and fly back to Winnipeg. Time allotted 16 days, craft of choice: inflatable canoes, distance/day = approx 25km’s.
Arriving in Sachigo, we were met at the airport by the son and daughter in law of Delphin. Stopping at the local Nothern Store, we were introduced to Charlie, one of the band councillors amongst many others to whom we were glad to make acquaintance. Our reception was first rate, and we departed amazed @ the welcome we’d received. Sachigo Lake is a GREAT place to begin your canoe journey! If paddling through be sure to stop in and introduce yourself at the band office.
Kenny and Delphin, our portage crew, ensured that we stopped to enjoy the local berry patch en route to Ponask Lake. Know that the road to this lake isn’t maintained and may be impassable in the not too distant future.
After being dropped off on the shores of Ponask, Kenny suggested the closest campsite and, after hugs all around, we paddled off on our journey. Our hope - that the glorious, warm, bug-free weather would follow along.
We’d noted during our planning process that we would face crossings on five lakes of note. These would be the Ponask, where we’d head due west for 22kms, McHenry (due North), Stull (due North), Little Stull (West and North) and lastly, Kistigan (North by West). Ivan and I both harboured concerns of being windbound on any or all of the four larger lakes. Despite fabulous weather, no bugs until late evenings and favourable winds we pushed our crew only taking a ½ days rest between McHenry and Stull anxious lest we have a forced rest on a big lake due to wind. This eventuality would, in turn, force us to make up the lost time to remain on schedule to catch our plane in Shamattawa.
As fortune or providence would have it, we lost only 2 hours to wind and, in fact, gained ground due to following wind on most lakes. We turned our delay on Little Stull into a berry picking expedition on the West shore. On Kistigan Lake we were forced to shore under heavy seas as an intense storm system swept through. We otherwise made great time and sailed down Stull Lake in our improvised catamaran under full sail. We copied this effort again Northbound out of Little Stull and ½ way across Kistigan.
One of the challenges faced on unknown or seldom paddled rivers is anticipating your next campsite. The epitome of this dilemma occurred during our descent of the Stull River below Kistigan Lake. Although the flavour of the river had changed to Pre-cambrian shield, we were initially in a burn area. As we departed that we fought a heavy headwind across a small unnamed lake and took the narrower fork where the river split. Being late in the day, we chose to camp on the only exposed spit of rock in sight and “made the best of it” in a chill wind. The following morning we awoke to a light rain, and after a difficult breakfast fire, the skies cleared just in time for our departure. With a light tailwind, we headed off and had only gone about ½ km when the first good campsite came into view. This followed by another and another in a seemingly endless stream of flat rock and widely spaced shade trees amidst Class 2 and three whitewater in what is one of the most picturesque stretches of river these old eyes have seen in Manitoba.
This stretch culminates with a Class ¾ drop – our only forced lift over (in this case) or portage of the entire trip.
To this point in time we’d had some excellent campsites, and some mediocre ones, experienced great fishing and poor fishing, enjoyed sightings of 6 moose and a juvenile black bear. The latter, within 3 metres of the lead canoe as we negotiated a light bend on a narrow, fast stretch of the Stull. It sat eating from shoreline bushes with its back to the river. In the rapids downstream of McHenry Lake we were given a lengthy once-over by an inquisitive family of otters.
I must add that this river system is home to several species of berries which I’d not seen previously in my travels despite having spent 14 years in Northeastern Manitoba. Our German friends immediately recognized them as “Johannas” berries. This provoked consideration of whom may have been trapping along this river system in the heydays of the fur trade. There were also at least four types of Blueberries all different shapes and sizes but with similar leaves and coloration. A later discussion with an acquaintance in Shamattawa informed me that they pick and eat five different types of blueberry in the area.
(Above: a type of purple gooseberry? I’d had these before and knew them to be sweet and mellow tasting. You can’t see the berries cause I ate ‘em)
Continuing on down the Stull, the shoreline flattened, and the current dropped off until we came to the confluence of the Red Sucker River. At this point, our partial subsistence diet had left us at our weakest, and I was glad that the weather and warm water had been on our side or our calorie count would’ve been too low. This was my first major trip without a stove/fuel and in which we were partially dependant on local food sources (i.e. fish/berries/herbs). Although fish were, at times, in great abundance, they weren’t consistent. We were able to cook and store for the following day occasionally but couldn’t risk storing such supplies for over 24 hrs. It was, though, a great and humbling experience proving the difficulties faced over millennia by those relying solely on a subsistence diet. We, of course, were not born into such a society further to our detriment.
The stretch of the Red Sucker River between the Stull and God’s rivers is awesome! Campsites and class 2/3/4 whitewater are almost always within sight. Alas, we easily completed this stretch in a day and camped early RR on a flat rocky shore a few km’s downstream on the God’s.
As is to be expected, our introduction to the Hudson Bay lowlands was abrupt, cool and rainy with a “bit of a breeze”! A breeze which was actually a lot like a hurricane. If you partook of it long enough, you could consider which was more annoying – the cold blasting air or the pelting rain. Always nice to have variety, I suppose.
Our warm nights turned to frost, and the river chilled as we spent our final three nights on the God’s. All that changed quickly as we approached Shamattawa on our last paddle day. The day was as warm as the welcome we received! Ivan and I introduced ourselves to the band council and efforts were immediately made to find us accommodations and to include us in their Treaty Days which were just ending. The day included target shooting, clay pigeons, face painting and jigging – it was a Hoot! Thank you to everyone in Shamattawa.
Our trip home was uneventful – just the sort of plane ride you hope for, and we were on schedule.....