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The Churchill River System

With the Methy Portage now behind me, I was pretty happy to get back on the water. From last nights camp near the put-in at the end of the portage it was just a short walk down to Portage Creek, a very narrow stream, tight with numerous hairpin turns as it twisted its way to Lac La Louche, one of the headwaters of the Churchill River.

Once in the water I paddled for all of about 50 meters before having to stop once again and lift over a beaver dam stretching across the stream. Near the mouth of the stream is a small grassy clearing on river left where a stone cairn & plaque was erected to commemorate the historical significance of the Methy Portage.

After a couple of quick photos I was back in the canoe again and a couple minutes later I was out on the lake. The first community along the Churchill portion of my route is the northern village of La Louche, a northern village of just over a thousand people, mostly aboriginal. Here, I landed the canoe on a small sandy beach just behind the local grocery store, the “Northern Store”. I went up to buy a few groceries and when I returned, about a half hour later, I noticed one of my drybags standing upright in the middle of the canoe… open! I remembered stowing the bag in the front of the canoe underneath the spray cover so I knew right away that this was trouble!

Sure enough, my bag had been gone through, the cables for my computer were gone. Also missing was my Pelican case (belonging to Brandon and Heather Nelson actually ), my new digital camera, the cables for uploading to my laptop, numerous computer disks and my small camera tripod. Also missing was my GPS unit! Yeah, I felt pretty sick just about now!

I was not at all impressed as I ran to the nearest phone where I phoned the local detachment of the RCMP to report the theft. Already however I had pretty much written off any chance of ever getting my things back. Soon the RCMP officer arrived in a 4-wheel drive and listened as I told him what had happened, taking notes as he listened. Soon the officer asked me if I’d ever been to this town before or even heard of it. I told him this was my first time here and I knew little about the place other than what I’d read recently about the Churchill River portion of my canoe route. He then told me that this place has by the highest crime rates in the province, some of the locals even steal from the RCMP! Sounds like a lovely place doesn’t it?! I started hearing similar comments about the place from a variety of people over the next couple of weeks!

To my amazement, as we were talking, 3 little girls came down from a house just a short distance away and told us they had found a small blue case in the bushes nearby which they took home. They ran back to get it and brought it down and I could not believe my eyes when I saw what it was…it was the padded case I used inside of the Pelican case! Inside was my digital camera and my GPS!

We all searched the area, going through the bushes and the field of waist high grass, searching in vain for the rest of my belongings. Eventually I gave up the search, still upset at my loss and also the invasion of privacy so to speak at the fact of having somebody going through my belongings. I was however very glad to at least have the GPS and camera back! Too bad I won’t be able to actually continue using the camera though until I can buy new cables for uploading photos to my computer. I’ll probably have to get these in Winnipeg next month!

When I paddled out of La Louche, I could not get out of there fast enough, I just wanted this place behind me at this point. A few minutes later I passed a group of children swimming and playing in the water, all laughing and having a great time. Some of them would take turns holding onto the end of my boat as I’d pull them along through the water, we talked and joked around a bit and my spirits came back up immeasurably. If not for this instance, I’d have left La Louche with a very bad opinion of the entire place even though there are obviously some very good people here as there are everywhere. You just have to keep it all in perspective I guess, hard as that is at times.

I ended up camping on a sandy beach with some impressive sand dunes just a few kilometers from town. It was a great spot although it was somewhat spoiled by a lot of trash and beer bottle littered firepits from some of the locals, that and 4-wheeler tracks all over the place. Still, it was not a bad place to camp for the night. I went to bed still feeling depressed about having been robbed although I knew there was nothing I could do about it. Might as well try to forget about it and make the best of things tomorrow as I paddle down the La Louche river, roughly 60 kilometers down a narrow, shallow river with mainly low banks lined with willows and alders.

The river paddle the next day seemed to take forever, there were so many tight turns along this narrow river and the current did not add much speed either. There were some fun little minor rapids here and there however to break up the monotony at least. That night I camped on a tiny sandy beach on Peter Pond Lake, right at the mouth of the river. I’m still very worn out from the Methy portage and yesterdays stressful events so I called it a night pretty early this evening, hoping for a better day tomorrow.

The lake was calm when I got up the following morning and I hit the water quickly, after a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. Peter Pond is a big lake and can be subject to good sized wind driven waves. I chose to paddle down the more exposed, windswept side of the lake today, hoping for a windy campsite tonight to keep the bugs away. Also, some nice waves to play in during the paddle would be fun too! The wind picked up a bit but not enough to result in any real wave action though. There was enough breeze however to keep the bus at bay for the most part though. My campsite tonight was awesome, I camped on a beautiful, long sandy beach at Birch Point, great little campsite, with an awesome sandy beach for swimming. I only paddled about 40 kilometers or so today but I had a more relaxing & enjoyable day than I’ve had in awhile so it was worthwhile to have stopped early.

Setting off again the next morning, I felt much better and was hoping for a big day today. I paddled along another very impressive section of sandy beach and dunes that stretched for miles along the Thompson peninsula. As I rounded the point though, the other side was all low ground with willowy banks, I should have stopped for lunch earlier on the sandy beach! An hour and a half or so later though I came to another sandy beach at the narrows leading from Peter Pond Lake to Churchill Lake and the town of Buffalo Narrows. I had my lunch and a swim here before continuing on. I did not get far though! I’d planned on paddling another 4 hours or so but before long I found myself in the middle of a major thunder and lightning storm which forced me ashore early for the day. I made camp on another sandy beach, just opposite the Buffalo Narrows airstrip. It was so windy that my tent blew over even though it was well staked out! I had to pile a few drybags in it to help stabilize it until I was ready to go inside for the night, talk about windy!

The next few days went extremely well with a combination of lake and river paddling. I had some awesome campsites most every night as well. I bought supplies again in the village of I’le A’ La’ Crosse, a Metis community of about 1300 people or so. What a difference from La Louche! Everybody here seemed so upbeat and friendly, the place just felt “Better” and I met and talked to some really great people.

Once onto the white-water sections of the Churchill, I was in for a blast! There were numerous rapids, mostly all with good portage trails going around them. The guidebook I have on the river describes them all in great detail. Once I saw them up close though, I ended up paddling many that I thought I’d portage. One of the two portages I did was actually nothing but fun! It was a 375 meter portage around the Class 4 Dipper Rapids…very impressive white-water! The local people here have built a portage railway. Built of railroad ties with rails running the length of the portage, I simply loaded the canoe onto a cart and wheeled it along the tracks. A couple minutes later, I was back on the water. Nothing but fun! Earlier I’d done another portage, around Drum Rapids, which was 400 meters or so and I had to do this one the old fashioned way. The rapids looked pretty easy from the bottom end but I did the portage anyways just to be safe. The upper rapids were bigger but they too had looked pretty runnable at this water lever, straight down river right. Looking back now, I wish I’d run this one too!

Gradually the landscape has been changing from flat with low, willowy riverbanks to more rugged with outcrops of Canadian Shield…lots of granite and beautiful scenery. This would just get better and better for the rest of my time along the Churchill. I paddled several more lakes such as Dipper Lake, Primeau Lake, Knee Lake, Dreger Lake etc. Connecting these were sections of river with a few nice rapids thrown in here and there. Crooked Rapids was particularly fun with its huge waves running down the channel…glad I missed that big ugly hole just to my left! I’d planned to do the 1200 meter portage around this 3 part set of rapids but in the end I decided to run it instead. I’m glad I did, this one was a blast! There were numerous rapids over the next few days, mostly Class 2 and 3, some of these had some pretty impressive standing waves and were just so much fun to paddle!

By now however, things had taken a turn for the worse as I had begun feeling sick over the last couple of days, just stomach cramps and nausea at first. It proceeded to get progressively worse and worse everyday. Soon my appetite was pretty much gone, what I did eat, I could rarely keep down. My energy levels were dropping fast as were my spirits. My paddling was gradually being reduced to just a few hours a day, short paddling sections with longer and longer breaks in the hopes of feeling better. The paddling however, what paddling I was ABLE to do, was great! Some lake paddling with 3-4 foot waves and plenty more rapids, all of which I managed to run without incident. I only wish I’d been feeling better! Soon though, things became so bad….combination of food poisoning AND giarrdia…that I was at the point where I was starting to think that things could become very serious if my condition did not improve soon. I was heading into a section of water with about 15 rapids, portages of over a kilometres, no road access or people for about 130 kilometers, my energy was gone and I was running out of food. I stopped for a lunch break, made some soup and was barely able to eat at all. Between constantly running to the bushes and laying on the rock, trying to ease my stomach, I had a feeling that the trip may be over for now. There was a small community just a short ways back on Pinehouse Lake and I was thinking about turning around!

I did Attempt paddling again after lunch, still moving forward. This lasted all of 45 minutes before I stopped, drifting on the lake for a half hour thinking about what to do. At this point I think I knew I had to turn around but I was still fighting the decision, wanting so badly to continue on! In the end though, I did turn around and start paddling back, I’ll tell you, it was one of the toughest calls of my life. Luckily, partway back towards Pinehouse Lake, some people, Richard and Laura, stopped to see if I was okay when they saw me stretched out on the rocks……someone else I’d talked to on the water earlier told them I was sick. They gave me a boat ride to town and generously put me up for the next couple of days while awaited the arrival of my Dad who was visiting in Winnipeg.

The plan had been that I’d hook up with my Dad in Winnipeg and we’d paddle together for a few days after I take a break for a few days at my sister’s place. Instead though, it turned out that Dad drove into Saskatchewan to pick me up and shuttle me into Winnipeg instead. Once in Winnipeg, I took the next week and half to recover and I’m happy to say that I’m now feeling well enough to be able to resume the trip. The “New Plan” now is to resume the trip in Thunder Bay Ontario, skipping the section from where I left off in Saskatchewan to Thunder Bay. I’ll return next summer to paddle this section and will likely throw in a circumnavigation of Lake Winnipeg, the 8th largest lake on earth! The trip will now be a 2 year endeavour instead of the planned 1 year trip. Sometimes things change and work out better in the end anyways. This will allow me to slow down the pace considerably, get to take in more along the way, meet more people and just enjoy the “camping” part of the tripping so much more.

I’m disappointed somewhat but at the same time, excited about the new plan and the fact that I have another fairly big trip in the works for next year! As I write this, I’m about to pack up and head for Ontario and I’m really looking forward to finally getting this canoe out onto the waters of the world’s biggest lake, Lake Superior!

My next update will come from someplace in Ontario, not sure yet exactly when or where but I’ll do what I can to keep you all posted. I’ll try and post more photos later today before leaving as well if time permits.

Cheers…Joe O’