travel / adventure / guides / summer 2004

Travel & Adventure Guides
Out of the breadbasket and into Saskatchewan's northern woods

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When I moved from Quebec to northern Saskatchewan more than 15 years ago, I thought my canoeing days were over. I imagined the landscape surrounding my new home would be a seamless extension of the breadbasket to the south, a place where a curve in the road was an adventure. So my backpack and canoe remained back East with the Laurentian Mountains and Gatineau Hills. What I didn't realize was that the Churchill River Upland still lay ahead.

The Churchill River Upland occupies the southern edge of the Precambrian Shield in northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The region is a vast, unspoiled wilderness of expansive sloping highlands and lowlands, whose rocky depressions are filled with water. The Saskatchewan portion of the Churchill River Upland occupies 113,000 square kilometres and is covered with thousands of peaceful lakes, many of which are connected by whitewater rivers and bordered by wetlands. More than 10 times the combined size of Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park, the region offers some of the finest canoeing in North America.


Like many wilderness areas, the Churchill River Upland is bear country. Generally, the bears won't bother you if you don't invade their space or tempt them with careless camp habits.

Store food roughly 100 metres away from your tent and your cooking area, and never eat in your tent. Never feed wild animals or approach or separate a mother from her young. It's safest to appreciate wildlife from a distance.

If mist-shrouded mornings and haunting loon calls stir your soul, then McLennan Lake, located approximately 130 kilometres north of La Ronge, Sask., is an excellent jumping-off point for a canoe trip. Putting in at McLennan Lake offers paddlers loads of choices: you can enjoy afternoon paddle around the lake or tackle a six-day excursion 58 kilometres south to Otter Lake. The glacial retreat selectively scoured the northern Saskatchewan landscape, leaving ribbons of crystal-clear lakes laced together by short channels and streams. As you paddle amidst craggy overhangs rising 30 metres above the lake surface, you can see 6 to 10 metres down through the clear water. The mix of forest and rocky shore is perfect for camping.

The Churchill River Upland is part of the mixed coniferous and deciduous boreal forest that runs across Canada like a green sash, from the Yukon to Newfoundland. Trembling aspen, balsam poplar, white and black spruce and balsam fir make sparse forest cover but allow for excellent backwoods hiking, with spectacular clifftop vistas and great photographic opportunities.Although there are few humans in the region, you'll still have lots of company. A diverse range of mammals, including moose, black bears, lynx, wolves, mink and marten, call this area home. You'll see, and hear, plenty of bald eagles, grey jays, hawk owls, waterfowl and ravens. Be sure you observe wilderness safety precautions (see "Bear Facts").

The summers are spectacular but short in northern Saskatchewan, and timing is crucial in planning a backcountry trip. Nearly 40 percent of the Upland region is covered in water, and half of that is low-lying wetlands. From May to early July, insects make it impossible to venture comfortably into the region. My favourite time of year to paddle this country is mid-July to late August, when the lakes are often enveloped by early-morning mist. The days are warm and the nights always cooler.


If you follow the multi-day route, you'll be stepping back into Canadian history. Voyageurs and coureurs de bois followed this same network of watercourses en route to the famous Churchill River, which supported the early fur trade. The Hudson's Bay Company controlled nearly 40 percent of Canada, and the backwoods highways are rife with tales of murder, intrigue and adventure. Hard-working voyageurs averaged a gruelling 45 paddle strokes a minute during the day and spent their nights sleeping along the shores.


While Otter Lake is a destination in itself, paddlers in search of whitewater adventure can carry on another two hours from the hamlet of Missinipe (Cree for "big water") to Otter Rapids. At this point, a bridge crosses the Churchill River, and campgrounds on the north side of the river offer accommodations if you choose to stay. For those who love waves and river running, this section is paradise. Intricate webs of Class II rapids challenge canoeists of all skill levels. Keep in mind that rapids are dependent on water levels and are generally higher in the spring and midsummer, tapering off until fall. When necessary, you will find portages around many of the rapids, but they are not marked.

The recreational area near McLennan Lake is a nine-hour drive north of Regina and six hours by car from Saskatoon. Air Canada and WestJet fly into Saskatoon, and regional carriers can shuttle you on to La Ronge. Arrangements can be made with an outfitter to drive you the 80 kilometres to Missinipe, where accommodations and a host of services are available.
The McLennan Lake-to-Otter Lake route is an intermediate paddling adventure that travels over peaceful flatwater areas. Only one of the streams poses a challenge with currents. You can obtain route maps from a local outfitter, so you'll need to brush up on your map-reading and orienteering skills if you are self-guiding. And it never hurts to spruce up your paddling technique. Canoeing associations sponsor a variety of single and multi-day workshops that will refresh your memory of flatwater and whitewater paddling. Many guides offer shakedown trips that will allow you to hone your wilderness skills before you depart on a longer adventure. In each case, expert input is excellent insurance and a great confidence builder.

Regional outfitters and guides also provide a variety of services. For self-guided trips, these local experts can play a support role by putting you in at McLennan Lake and taking your vehicle to your destination. If you want a savvy leader but plan to stock and haul your own gear, guides are available for about $200 per day for groups of three, with a slight increase for each additional member. A six-day, fully outfitted guided trip for a party of four costs up to $1,000 per person.

Each spring, the voyageurs of the Hudson's Bay Company left Montréal to paddle westward into Saskatchewan's fur country. Their unofficial anthem, la claire fontaine ("the pure fountain"), echoed across the lakes as they made their way from depot to depot before beginning their long, end-of-season trip back East. But the spectacular beauty of the region always enticed a few to remain ... just as it did me.

Author David Smallwood lives in Air Ronge, Saskatchewan. This is his first feature for Travel & Adventure.


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