Day three - mid afternoon
The campsite was nowhere to be found. And now, here at the northwest point of Crabclaw lake, there was no portage to be found, either. It was getting late in the day already, 15km of paddling behind us and we’d reached a dead end.
We’d left our campsite on Teggau earlier that morning amidst a gale that was kicking up whitecaps all along the surface of the lake. Sharon had warned about getting land-locked here where it was not unusual for a fierce wind to build up over the large, open, flat-water surface of the lake. At least the wind was blowing in the direction we were travelling.
We launched into the swell, with crests easily twelve to fourteen inches tall; enough that Adventure’s decks received a few dunkings en route. We persevered and continued towards the channel and the sheltered bay leading to the portage. The channel narrows considerably, leaving an opening that’s maybe twenty feet across, making the paddle back deceiving. Are we going the right way? Did we miss the entrance?
The cliff face that borders the channel is flat and sheer, 400 metres up, and some metres below too. The swell was driving directly towards the cliffs, and as we approached, it morphed into a chop from the waves reverberating off the cliff wall while also driving towards us from the other side. It was dicey go as the canoe rocked every which way, throwing us off balance and making it difficult to keep Adventure on a constant heading.
We made it through, and the channel appeared. We carefully navigated the chop and steered the canoe through the entrance, avoiding the shallow rock outcroppings. And then the wind just died. The surrounding rock faces and trees created a lee from the bluster, and it seemed that the storm ended all of a sudden.
When we’d passed through this channel in the opposite direction a day earlier, we’d missed the infamous petroglyphs while we rushed to beat the oncoming rain to our campsite. Now we were free to meander to the portage and put more effort into locating them. Shortly we came across the “red stains” we’d seen yesterday from afar, now recognizing the distinct drawings and hand prints along the cliff face.
Petroglyphs on Teggau - dots, canoe, turtle
Petroglyphs on Teggau - haunting handprints
With the harsh conditions firmly behind us, we settled into a comfortable paddle across Eagle Lake. A few hours in we stopped for a break on a small island with a fire ring, a spot likely conceived by fishermen looking for a shore lunch. We passed four fishing boats along our way, and two were anchored here, fishing 20 metres or so off the point.
By mid-afternoon, we were staring out across the calm, glassy expanse of Crabclaw Lake – today’s camp destination. Our map had the campsite marked directly across from us on the opposite shore. Fifteen minutes later we couldn’t find any sign of it. For forty-five minutes more, we paddled up and down the shoreline, getting out of the canoe along the sandy beach near where the campsite should be, but no luck. Our next best option for the evening was to find the campsite on an island on Winnange Lake just after the portage.
This morning’s wind seemed to catch up to us again as we slogged our way to the west most point of Crabclaw. Just as with the campsite, there was no sign of a portage. No boats, no flags, no markers of any kind. There was a massive beaver dam at this end that must’ve been higher than normal. Water was flowing over its brim down into the lake three feet below, and the leafy trees that once blanketed the shoreline were now sitting in water three or four feet up their trunks. There was a path along the shore near the beaver dam, and a man-made box hung in a tree. Éveline and I disembarked from Adventure and tried following the path up the hillside. To no avail. Every trail up the slope simply ended at a rocky outcropping that seemed insurmountable. Éveline (who's much less likely to get lost) ventured out to explore for a route around the outcropping. She returned, defeated, after half an hour or so.
A couple of weeks earlier
Éveline put the kibosh on my plans to take us down the Nopiming Park Rabbit River to Cole Lake route. We had tripped out to Kilvert Lake near Rushing River area earlier in the summer, where we purchased Ontario fishing licenses. Fishing was dismal and, since we hadn’t eked out the minimum value of those licenses, Adventure’s first overnight trip was going to be in Ontario so that we could try again.
A previous Ripple Article "Solo to Teggau Lake" had inspired some interest in the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), and I found a promising link from a Kenora website for a route: http://www.kenora.ca/media/207611/stewart-lake-loop.pdf. I checked in with some Paddle Manitoba members, and I got a plethora of advice in return. ELA is beautiful, they said, but that route is shorter than advertised and would only take up two of the five days planned. Instead, they shared some old maps with me from past Paddle Manitoba trips that documented a much broader geography with considerably more portages and campsites throughout the lakes. Paired with a Wilderness Supply route map, I prepared a GPS file with everything on one map and planned out a route that made sense for us.
We hoped for a week of relative solitude with few other paddlers and outdoor enthusiasts around. It seemed a pretty safe bet given that it was early September, past the heady days of summer tripping, and we were setting out on a workday.
But lo and behold, just as we began untying Adventure from the roof racks on our little Jetta, a compact SUV carrying a Wenonah Kevlar 47 and transporting a small, three-generation family rumbled down Experimental Lake Road towards us.
Éveline and I got Adventure situated in the water in the shallows at the access point and loaded her up with our gear. We shoved off and began our paddle down the stream leading into Lower Stewart Lake. We struggled to track straight on Stewart Lake. This was our first trip out in Adventure while loaded up with gear. We would have to work to find a better way to balance our load going forward.
We paddled along Lower Stewart trailing behind our new paddling acquaintances and made it through to the first portage – heading to Geejay Lake. The portage from Lower Stewart to Geejay begins at shallow rapids, and it’s a pleasant meandering hike through the woods.
On Geejay we were able to reassess how to balance the load in our canoe, moving the heavier portage pack to the stern side. Afterward, we tracked easily for the rest of our paddle. The wind picked up during our portage, and we had a moderately high swell to contest with as we paddled towards the cabin in the distance marking the next portage.
By the time we put in on Manomin, it was already getting late in the day, and we were starting to think of campsites. The party ahead of us, paddling down the lake for camp, were making good time towards their destination with their paddle strokes emphasized by the sun flashing off their dripping paddles on each stroke. Éveline and I decided to set off for Winnange Lake where there was a campsite on the map shortly after the portage.
The portage to Winnange follows the Eagle River, which opens up along the rocky shore. Navigating to the take-out area was difficult. The shore is a sandy beach, pockmarked by jutting rocks that leave very narrow pathways to navigate safely through to access water shallow enough to disembark.
The portage here is quite possibly the most picturesque portage we’ve ever hiked. The trek through the forest here is beautiful, loaded with saturated colors, a dense forest of trees and vegetation. The temperature seems cooler among the trees and the sharp aroma of the boreal forest, spruce, pine, and fir, converges from all sides. About two-thirds of the way through the hike we stumbled upon a campsite situated right in the middle of the woods with space for two tents and an established fire ring.
There is a noticeable difference in when the sun sets, even in early September, and it was clear that we were now in a race to set-up camp before it was dark. Luckily our campsite was nearby. It is a fantastic site, situated along a beachy shore, with enough room for four tents to set up comfortably. There is a well built firepit of local stone centered in a sizeable clearing making for a great kitchen/hangout area. The trees here are tall, with many Jackpine offering good sites for a bear hang. Towards the southwest of the campsite, the foliage opens to a rolling clearing of moss-bearing loamy soil propped up on the tree roots that intertwine throughout.
Adventure resting at the edge of the campsite clearing on Winnange
We quickly unloaded Adventure and set about making camp for the night. The weather was indisputably cooling off at night, so we lit a fire in the fire pit to keep comfortable. We’d both been wearing our portage shoes all day, and while they performed quite well through our voyage, they were nonetheless wet and cold; it was time to change into our hikers to enjoy the rest of the evening.
We watched the stars come out as the fire died down and then turned in for the night.
Resting by the warm hearth
In the morning we awoke to mist and fog on the water. It had gotten quite cold overnight. Éveline’s feet were freezing. We were glad to have brought along our Costco packable-down blankets and vests to supplement our sleeping system. It did seem, though, that some tweaking of our layout would be required.
Today, our target was Teggau Lake and its petroglyphs.
We set out across Winnange Lake, paddling 10+ Kms in two-and-a-half hours, or so. Midway across the lake, some ways south of Jackfish Bay, and after turning into the inlet towards Buzzard falls, we came across two gentlemen fishing for lake trout in an aluminum fishing boat marked by “Stanley Resorts.” These boats dot the landscape throughout this ELA loop – we often came across piles of them marking the portages as boats reside on either side to allow fishermen to carry their fishing gear from one lake to another without the challenge of hauling a boat as well.
We made quick work of Eagle Lake and were entering Teggau Creek in short order.
The portage into Teggau was unpleasant. At the take-out we were sinking into mud past our ankles – a lignin infested mud that found its way into our shoes and was somehow wet and dry at the same time. And the rest of the portage was much of the same, either ankle deep in mud or in the icy flow of water running off the rapids over the trail and streaming towards the creek below. Now into our fifth portage in twenty-four hours it seems like the canoe is getting heavier with each carry.
The weather held out nicely for much of the day, despite a brief pouring during our recent hike. Then, moments after shoving off, dark, oppressive clouds began rolling in above the high cliff walls to our west. We started paddling in earnest towards the first campsite on the map.
All day, I was excited to see the towering, sheer cliffs that I’d read about lining the shoreline here. I was very disappointed by the state of the channel that was leading towards the main lake proper. The cliffs on Winnange and Manomin lakes were much more impressive than what was on exhibit here. However, as we approached the narrows that opened to the vast bays of Teggau Lake the cliffs that I’d read about came into view – and they were every bit as impressive as I’d hoped.
We tried to spot the petroglyphs in passing, but we were moving too quickly due to the impending rain. The rain caught us about halfway between the narrows and our campsite. Luckily, we received only a minor spitting and arrived at the campsite without getting too wet. We found the site unoccupied and made quick work of unloading Adventure so that we could set up shelter in case of more rain.
This campsite on Teggau is notable as some bush crafters have erected a canvas lean-to with a rusting woodstove. The canvas of the lean-to is in tatters, and its interior littered with garbage including pots, pans, Lysol containers and rusting utensils. Much more than Éveline and I were outfitted to pack out.
The sky cleared up for dinner. Afterward, we cooked up some popcorn over the fire, resting our camp pot on the flat rock shelf already perched above the fire pit. We spent the rest of the evening chilling out by the fire until we turned in for the night.
From the portage along Buzzard Falls
Day three - continued
When Éveline returned from searching for the portage at Crabclaw, it was clear that we were in a bit of a pickle. With no campsite available here and no access to Winnange, our plans needed reevaluation. We made one, last-ditch attempt to find the campsite again, but couldn’t spot anything that looked like one. We made the difficult decision to head back to Eagle Lake and search for a campsite there.
So we paddled. And paddled. And paddled some more. It took us two-and-a-half hours to find our way to the next-best campsite on the map only to find that the shoreline was now almost exclusively deadfall with some fire-recovery forest. En route to the campsite, I noticed a clearing on a point across the way. It was growing dark fast now. Having run out of time for finding a camp, we paddled over and decided to break a new camp there for the night.
The clearing was not ideal. Sparse deadfall covered the best site for a tent. It was easy enough to clear, but time-consuming. Éveline tripped while we were removing the brush and got a bad cut. We had to rifle through our gear to find the first-aid kit before we could continue. It was dark before long, and we still hadn’t set the tent up, hung the bear bag, or made dinner. We got to work under the soft glowing light of our solar lantern.
It’d been hours since we left Crabclaw lake, and we'd drunk the last of the water on the portage into Eagle. We definitely should’ve filtered more then, but we wanted to push through. I had finally started the stove for dinner when I noticed the first signs of dehydration. By the time our Cottage Pie dinner was ready to go, I was too nauseous to eat much of it.
Orange - the way in; Blue - the way out; Pink - the original exit plan
We sat on the shore eating dinner (or trying to eat dinner, in my case) while the clouds began to roll in. We got a bit of a lightning show from the thunderheads that were over Winnange to our west. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we would have a lot more paddling than expected on day four.
We rose to the pitter-patter of rain on the tent fly. We had a lot of paddling ahead of us, so we made a quick, filling breakfast, and I ate some freeze-dried ice cream to replace the calories I lost out on the night before. After yesterday’s misadventures, we were now on a reverse course back to the first campsite of our trip.
We began our paddle against a strong wind that picked up while we were eating breakfast. It seemed particularly arduous to paddle against given our condition following yesterday’s paddle. Our day was punctuated by the call of “switch” every hundred strokes or so. Both Éveline and I were getting quite tired; evidenced each time we switched sides, and the canoe started to lurch forward, markedly faster than moments before.
Nearing the end of our day’s paddle, it started pouring on us. It had been spitting intermittently since the morning, but this was a downpour. We both had our rain gear on, and with about half-an-hour of paddling left ahead of us, we decided to go for it.
As we left the big channel on Winnange and turned to follow the shoreline to camp, the wind picked up considerably, and we now had a headwind and significant swell to maneuver in. The wind was blowing around 20-25 km/h, with strong gusts. The troughs of the swell were easily ten-to-twelve inches; a couple of them tall enough to break over the gunwales of the canoe.
We made it to camp, exhausted, just as the rain let up. We unloaded Adventure quickly and strung out our tarp in case it was just a break in the storm. It was now about 1:30 pm, and we were done for the day. We ate a quick lunch and then set about gathering and splitting wood for a fire to ward off the chill that was setting in now that we were no longer paddling.
By the time we set up camp, we’d had blue sky and sun for a couple of hours. The site was mainly dry (which was good news for pitching our tent). I went for a swim in the icy cold water of the bay off of our sandy beach. The wind was still strong and cold, but between it and the fire, I dried out quickly.
We prepared for a chilly night. My phone was actually getting a connection here, and the forecast was calling for 8° overnight.
Day five - out of the woods
Hanging the tarp the last night proved to be good planning. We woke to more wind and rain. In fact, the tarp was loaded full of water that we drained in the morning. Nonetheless, it gave us a dry spot to prepare breakfast and load up our bags.
Today we paddle for home.
The view across Teggau
We shoved off early and paddled the short haul to the Manomin portage. En route, the sky opened to a bright blue as the sun came up, although an abundance of clouds was billowing to fill the eastern horizon. A bald eagle came to scout us out, buzzing by closely overhead.
The trip across Manomin was uneventful followed by a quick portage to Geejay. We stopped for lunch on the rocks near the water’s edge during a patch of blue sky. The put-in here was going to be a challenge. It is right in the draw of current that feeds the rapids. We loaded the canoe carefully and shoved off, paddling hard away from the direction of the flow. We’d taken too long a lunch break, as once we’d cleared the small bay where the rapids originated, the wind rushed in – stronger than any we’d faced all week. And then it started pouring.
I took to counting each stroke out loud as we crept painfully slowly across the lake. Luckily the Geejay – Lower Stewart portage was nearby, but it took us no less than forty-five minutes to traverse the one or two kilometres towards the channel leading to the portage. Once we entered the channel, the wind promptly died.
From Lower Stewart, the trip to the takeout was uneventful. We loaded up the car and changed clothes for the drive home. Our Experimental Lakes adventure was over.
We were unable to find a campsite on Crabclaw lake. After our trip, I looked into it and discovered that I had not fully transcribed all of the campsite information onto my maps. The campsite that Éveline and I searched for was mapped correctly, but there was a second, preferred campsite marked on the map that Sharon shared with me that I had not transcribed. It was further east than Éveline, and I had looked, which is why we did not come upon it.