Path of the paddle (Page 2 of 2)
Inspired by age-old travelways, a new canoe route knits together the Trans Canada Trail
Story and photography by Hap Wilson
|A wharf spider appears trapped in the palm of an ancient pictograph. (Photo: Hap Wilson)
The Path of the Paddle Trans Canada Trail follows
one of the best displays of Precambrian-era geological
activity in Canada. Examples abound: the 2.7-billionyear-
old massive cliff along the north shore of Saganaga
Lake; the two-billion-year-old microfossils along
Gunflint and North lakes; the height of land of the
continental divide that separates the Hudson Bay and
Great Lakes watersheds.
Social history is no less impressive. The trail has been
used for almost 10,000 years by Paleo-Indian, Archaic,
Laurel and late Woodland cultures and their Ojibwa and
Cree descendants. It was also used, to a lesser degree, by the
Sioux, Blackfoot, Bear and Slave peoples. Archaeological
surveys along the route have uncovered more than 200
pictograph sites, dolmen stones (used at grave and ceremonial
sites), way markers and pottery shards.
In an effort to break up the trail into manageable pieces,
the Path of the Paddle is divided into five sections (some of
the trails have yet to be finalized). The Anishnabe Trail
starts at Falcon Lake, Manitoba, passes through Shoal Lake
No. 40 First Nation Reserve at the Manitoba border and
continues east to Kenora. Part of the route near Shoal Lake
follows the meandering Falcon River, once used by fur
traders as an alternate route to Lake Winnipeg to avoid the
strong current on the Winnipeg River.
The Eagle-Dogtooth Trail — at 251 kilometres, the
longest portion of the Trans Canada corridor — connects
the towns of Kenora and Dryden. Passing through two
provincial parks, it boasts some of the most scenic stretches
of the Path of the Paddle. Not that you would be able to
linger: the trail features several ďgreen zonesĒ established by
the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) that
disallow non-residents camping privileges over much of the
route. (Trans Canada Trail Ontario is negotiating with
MNR for a solution to this restriction.)
The Maukinak Trail runs southeast from Dryden to
Atikokan, the canoe capital of Canada. Quetico Trail takes
a less travelled easterly trek through Quetico Provincial Park
as far as Northern Light Lake. Finally, the easternmost
section, the Omimi Trail, touches the international boundary
along the historic Boundary Waters canoe route on its
way to Lake Superior.
For those who can persevere, this is a challenging slice
I lie there on the warm rock, eyes closed to the hot
July sun, stripped naked as a jaybird, sucking in the piney
air and thinking, Itís not so bad. The canoe is tied up and
bobs offshore, waiting patiently like a sled dog eager to get
back to work.
I am still a little shaky after being hit by lightning the day
before — it knocked me about one metre into the air and I
couldnít hear anything for at least five minutes — and it is
hard getting into the usual easy rhythm of pathfinding. I
know full well that I could be lying on the shore of Saganagons
Lake, fried like a piece of bacon, had I been a few metres one
way or the other. But thatís the immutable truth about wilderness
travel — the more time you spend out here, the
greater the chance of being struck by lightning.
I am no expert in any field and remain a student of
nature. I can find ancient trails and locate the best routes,
read rapids and gauge water levels. But I acquiesce to the
vagaries and conditions of the wilderness as my teacher.
There are obvious and often perilous gaffes in the national
topographic charts and seriously outdated canoeing information
in this country, or no information at all.
But after working on this project for a year and a half, I am starting to know these trails like the back of my callused
hands. Some sections of the water trail are much more
difficult than others. This is not intended to be an easy
paddle for the casual cottager. There are long, arduous
portages, violent whitewater rapids, windswept lakes and
seemingly endless swamps to contend with. The Anishnabe
Trail along the Falcon River, crossing the Manitoba border
into Ontario, can be easily kayaked in four days, with only
one 10-metre portage. In contrast, the Omimi Trail along
the border with the United States, the route used by the
voyageurs, is choked with more than 15 kilometres of
portages. It also happens to be the most aesthetically spectacular
stretch of all.
Of course, there is always a price to pay for the privilege
of experiencing wilderness in its raw form. That point was
driven home once when I was looking for an alternate
Canadian take-out point that eliminates the gruelling
14-kilometre Grand Portage. I had to use my mountain
bike because my four-by-four truck was stuck in the clay
mud on a logging road paralleling the Pigeon River. After
some time pedalling, I came upon a rather large black bear
some 50 metres away, the third bear I had seen along this bush track. The other two hadnít minded my presence;
this one, however, charged me with its head lowered. I hurriedly
got off the bike, picked it up and waved it madly in
the air, throwing out some choice expletives for good
measure. It did the trick.
In the end, that excursion to create a new trail involved
a 28-kilometre round-trip bike trek in 30ļC heat and a
two-hour flagging mission. The frenzied vehicle extrication
from life-sucking mud amid a cloud of blackflies prompted
a much-needed bug- and bear-free dinner in Thunder Bay.
The day ended with a $300 parking ticket.
In canoe or on foot or bicycle, I figure I have another three
months of fieldwork left (target completion is October
2012): researching some stretches to gauge river dynamics
during low and high water, calculating Global Positioning System coordinates for campsites and portage trails, scouting
alternate routes and networking with local outfitters. Usually,
itís solitary work. Having to continually deviate, stop to pace
portage trails, map rapids, climb ridges and zigzag down lakes
looking for campsite locations would drive most companions
crazy. Once this work is done, I will spend several months
more drawing and illustrating maps of each trail by hand.
Although there is still work ahead, I can already say that
the decision by the Trans Canada Trail planners to opt
for a water route over the lakehead was inspired. There are
traces of Canadaís past everywhere along the Path of the
Paddle. Pictographs contain the teachings of shaman artists.
Stone circles speak to gatherings long ago. These ancient
water trails can lead todayís paddlers not only to an understanding
of our shared history but also to a realization of
what these waterways can mean for our shared future.