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Clearwater River and the Methy Portage

I left off on my last update at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers in northeastern Alberta. This next update will cover the 140 kilometer or so paddle up the Clearwater River along with it’s numerous portages around rapids of up to Class 6! Finally, it will also include my trip along the legendary Methy Portage, a gruelling overland trek crossing from the Arctic watershed to the Hudson’s Bay watershed and the headwaters of the mighty Churchill River or in it’s original aboriginal name, the Missinipe (Biig Water) River.

ClearwaterRiverRapidsWhile in Fort McMurray I made a quick trip to the Superstore to stock up on my dwindling food supplies, I seem to be eating enormous amounts of food these days as my metabolism as just continued to skyrocket during the first months of the expedition. Since beginning the upriver paddling portion of the trip in particular I have found myself to be eating almost constantly in an attempt to fuel the old body for my daily efforts against the constant currents of first the Athabasca and now the Clearwater rivers.

After stocking up on groceries and the indispensable bug repellant, can’t risk running out of THAT with major portages coming up, I packed the canoe and began heading up the Clearwater river. By now it is already 7:00 PM and the plan was to merely paddle far enough upriver to get outside of town and then find a place to set up camp for the evening. Just a few kilometers upriver I came across a small but nice sandbar that would suffice for tonights camp. After setting up the tent and rolling out my sleeping bag and my Pacific Outdoor sleeping pad I was just about ready to call it a day, relaxing first on the edge of the sandbar while eating a couple of sandwiches, reading a book and looking up now and then to admire the scenery of the lower Clearwater river.

WhitemudFalls (1)The following morning, Monday, I awoke to yet another beautiful sunny day, anxious to pack up and get on the river. An hour and a half or so after starting out the next morning I met up with another canoe, this one heading downriver. It was a beautiful cedarstrip Prospector design and belonged a young couple from Saskatchewan who were on the second year of their own Cross Canada canoeing expedition. They left off last year on the Winnipeg River and were hoping to make it to Vancouver by September. We talked for about 45 minutes before we wished each other well and both continued on. they heading downriver towards Fort MacMurray and myself, paddling along in the shallows working my way upriver.

The Clearwater river is faster flowing than the Athabasca and the water itself, as the name implies, is very clear…a welcome change from the siltiness of both the Athabasca and the Peace rivers upon which I spent most of the last month. Late in the afternoon, tired from working my way through a very fast running section of river, I pulled ashore at the “”Christina River Remore Recreation” site at the confluence of the Clearwater and Christina rivers. This is one of several recreation/ campsites set up along the Alberta portion of the Clearwater river. there were a couple of picnic tables, a fire-pit and a sandy beach…perfect I thought! As I pulled up on the riverbank I began talking to some people from town who were picnicking for the afternoon and told them about my trip. Soon a jet boat arrived with Evan, the husband of the woman I was talking to, and we struck up a conversation. Evan was asking me about the trip and I was asking him about the river further upstream. Evan walked over to his boat and came back with a guidebook for the Clearwater that he bought years ago when he first began boating on this river himself. It was very informative and full of his own personal notes of the river. In the end, he insisted that I take it with me. I thanked him and promised to mail it back to him from further east.Before leaving they gathered up all of their remaining picnic food and beverages and gave it to me, asking if there was anything else they could do for me. Evan gave me his phone number and said if at any point in the trip I have any major problems to phone him and he’d do whatever he could to assist me. I was very touched by this offer, another example of all the amazing people that i’ve encountered since beginning this trip back in northern BC 2 months ago.

Two more good days of upriver paddling brought me to Cascade Rapids and the Cascade Rapids campsite, located at the start of the portage trail. After setting up camp here in a high clearing I began readying my gear for tomorrow’s series of portages. Yesterdays paddle was a tough 39 kilometers and was a great workout. I’m afraid the real work starts now though with the portages!

The Cascade Rapids portage runs about 1260 meters, likely closer to 1400+ from where I was camped. I did this portage first thing in the morning after breakfast, shuttling my gear along in 2 loads. The portage trail was in great shape, making me wish I still had my portage cart. It went well enough anyways though, the worst part being the ravenous hordes of pesky mosquitoes along the way! Soon tough I was back on the river after repacking the canoe at the upstream end of the portage. After a short paddle it was time to unpack and begin the second portage of the day, the Le Bon (Long) Portage, a 2 kilometer hike around a series of Class 2 and 3 rapids. The length made this one a bit tougher, I certainly have too much weight with me on this trip! The third portage was shorter at about 200 meters or so. The Gros roche Portage at 400 meters was the 4th portage of the day, by now I was getting pretty tired and this one seemed more difficult than it should have. Not long after getting back on the water I came across a small sandbar in the middle of the island with a good supply of wood along the sides. I decided to set up camp here for the night. My timing was good to as the on and off rain of much of the last few hours had just ended and the rest of the night was just beautiful. As I ate a load of pasta beside a small campfire I watched a very pretty sunset. There was just enough breeze to keep the mosquitoes away as well…a definite bonus!

I slept great last night, sleeping in a bit in the morning. It was 10:15 when I made it back on the water today after a quick breakfast of oatmeal and steaming hot coffee. A brief paddle soon brought me to the first portage of the day, the Portage des Pins, a 980 meter portage around some major Class 3 rapids along a truly beautiful section of river and forest. There were impressive limestone formations along the trail as well as limestone hoodoos and small flowerpot islands along the river. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky and it was HOT!

There is another portage, the Pas Portage, about 500 meters upstream of the last portage which goes around a short rapid where the river is divided by a small island. For downriver travel it looked easily run on downriver right. Going up though the current would be too strong to paddle. On the other side of the island though, it looked like I could work my way up the narrow channel with only a few meters of wading to lift the canoe over a small ledge. This worked like a charm and I was through in no time! A few minutes later I was stopped for a lunch break on another sandbar. After lunch I paddled another few kilometers before arriving at Whitemud Falls and the 1000 meter portage around the Class 6 falls and the Class 2 and 3 rapids just above the falls themselves. The portage started out with a steep climb before levelling off for a ways before dropping back down, crossing a small stream and then returning to the river again 600 meters later. Along the way I surprised a black bear just meters off the trail. The bear was more surprised than I was actually, it must have seen me first because when I saw it, it was already at a full run, crashing through the bush away from me.

WhitemudFalls2Another 6 kilometers or so further upriver after the portage I crossed over the provincial border, ending my crossing of Alberta and entering into the province of Saskatchewan. I camped out within a couple kilometers or so of the provincial border on a small sandy beach. Tomorrow will take me to the start of the legendary Methy Portage, the most difficult portage of the old Fur Trade Route.

I arrived at the start of the portage the next afternoon and started readying my gear for the long trek. The Methy Portage is 19 kilometers long! The first kilometer is relatively flat and then it abruptly goes up, climbing roughly 700 feet over the next 3 kilometers! The climb ascends the valley wall in a long series of steep switchbacks, parts of the trail sunk down up to 4 feet from the years of regular use in the heyday of the fur trade.

I shuttled my gear along the first kilometer in 2 loads and then switched to a 3 load carry for the climb. As to be expected, the mosquitoes along the trail were absolutely brutal! Combine that with the heat and high humidity and you can just imagine how much fun this was! After finishing the climb, the trail levels off somewhat for the next couple kilometers to Rendezvous Lake. The lake is a welcome break with a 1 kilometer paddle to a sandy clearing where the portage trail resumes on foot for another 12 kilometers. I camped out the first evening about a kilometer from the lake, setting up camp in the dark along the middle of the trail, very, very tired!

The next morning, I packed up quickly, finishing off the section to Rendezvous Lake where I took my time paddling across, enjoying the respite from the insects and having a cold lunch while on the water. Once I reached the clearing on the far side of the lake, even though it was early in the morning still, I decided to set up camp right here for the day, rest & relax for awhile and then, in the late afternoon I would shuttle part of load along the first 4 or 5 kilometers of the trail, reducing the amount of work that would be left for tomorrow. The entire trail along the Methy Portage is in excellent condition and would be so much easier and faster with my portage cart, I wish I’d not decided to ship it out from Hudson’s Hope. I could have used it on most of the Clearwater River portages as well!

After shuttling some of my gear ahead…the canoe and whatever I would not need for camping tonight…I returned to camp, went for a dip in the lake and then had a big feed of pasta and spaghetti sauce. Before starting the trip, back in Kamloops BC, I made pot after pot of homemade pasta sauce which I then dehydrated for the trip. Well tonight it REALLY hit the spot I’ll tell you!

The portage the next day just seemed to last forever, it was a very hot day and the insects were just horrible! Why did I bring SO MUCH gear with me?! Eventually I made my way through it and made camp in a nice clearing a couple hundred meters from the swampy put-in where I’d resume paddling early the next morning. The portage, 19 kilometers one way, ended up being very tough and with the multiple loads I carried through, backtracking between loads, I ended up pretty much exhausted my the end of the day. As I went to sleep tonight, tired and with sore muscles and more blisters than I’ve ever had, I was just glad to know that early the next morning I would be back on the water again, ready to take on the waters of the Churchill River system. The Churchill River system comprises nearly 1000 kilometers of my route and will take me almost to Manitoba. It is good know that the Methy Portage is now behind me.

The next update will cover my trip along the Churchill River where I was robbed and later on became so sick I was unable to continue paddling! More coming soon!

Cheers…Joe O’