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#PaddleThePath2022: Atikokan Dispatch

Updated: Jul 25

Nestled into a cedar grove on Gawjewiagwa Lake with a dense canopy of green forest above and the incessant hum of bugs all around, the flash of lightning wouldn’t stop. In our tents we all sweat in the stale humidity hoping for it soon to break. As the lights flashed brighter, the booms grew closer until the bang and flash were synchronized. The wind began in an instant, breaking the heat, chasing the bugs to their dens and sending me running from the tent to double check the battening job we had done of our precious canoes and gear, this storm would surely hit with a roar and to lose essential tools would be disastrous. From the shelter of the trees I could hear Branwen and Leah talking over the roar between tents, and in the cooled air and the fury of a storm seconds before it hit, I had to smile. For days we had been a blur of motion, four bodies moving themselves and gear across a benevolent land, and this storm marked the beginning of a pattern that would rock our worlds for the week to come.

The Maukinak Trail stretches from Dryden to Atikokan, and for us, we would be joining it just below Ingall Falls as we left Eagle Lake and began up Kekekwa Creek. From Vermillion Bay, we had to cover 270km in nine days to keep our schedule. The Maukinak Trail is perhaps the most difficult section for in it the route jumps through a dizzying amounts of lakes, ascends two creeks, goes down one river and up another, all the while with the giant lakes northwest of Atikokan to guard the sections ending. We knew we would unload and carry our gear no less than 60 times, each time tumping our loads twice over the trail. On the portage we have two loads to carry and if the trail is one kilometre, we walk it three times, the trail becoming, step after step, three kilometres of precarious ground. Everyday we need to cover thirty kilometres of our route to stay on schedule, and for days we knew we would carry over ten times, totalling to over three kilometres of portaging, meaning we would walk no less than 9km’s per day while covering the required daily distance. In short, we would be working hard every day to just get by.

The winding marsh of Kekekwa Creek distanced us from the enormity of Eagle Lake, and in the dense heat we laboured on, unloading our boats at the trails marked by a Path of the Paddle and Trans Canada Trail Sign. We would apply a fresh sticker to the sign and sweat our way under heavy loads, or canoes, in the bugs, mud and grit of the trail until we arrived in camp on Kekekwa Lake. The camp routine goes much the same every evening, boil the kettle, tents go up, grimy clothes are rinsed and bathing suits dawned, the water a refreshment on our spirits as we cooled our minds and body in the lake. Dinner’s soon to follow, perhaps a pasta, perhaps fish, but always hearty to fuel the next day, and we would sit around the fire to laugh about the trials of the day as the sun faded, until a storm of bugs would chase us to our zippered haven under the thin, dry walls of our tents. Kekekwa Lake had a way of soothing our tired bodies that evening, a haven for weary travellers. The next morning, we were greeted by the daunting view down lake from us of Harper Ridge, where an 1,100m mountainous portage, followed by a hilly 700m trail, separated us from Upper Manitou Lake. In the middle of the ridge, under the weight of his tump line, Bruce declared that this would be a lovely hiking trail. In my head, I couldn’t help but think that it was even better that we had our gear, canoes, and the lure of distant waters to bring us through here for the simple reason that this lovely hiking trail has no parking lot and to get here, you have to come the hard way. Leah and I detoured for a moment to take in the view of the lakes ahead, munching blueberries in the heat and bugs. By late afternoon, we began an ascent up Rattlesnake Creek and the storms began swirling, though always missing us north or south, much to our relief.

The following stormy evening on Gawjewiagwa Lake in the tight cedar grove, our relief at passing storms came to an end, and from there, hard days only became more challenging. We began waking at 4:30am, hitting the water a few hours later after breakfast, and travelled all day and into the evening to make our distance. The blur of travel became a matter of fact and each night we found ourselves up against new storms, in an unfamiliar campsite, a little further along the path, happy to see another day on. As the days passed, Branwen, Leah, and I all felt the tug of familiar country. Crossing the 622 Highway between Three Mile Lake and Bending Lake on the Turtle River felt like returning to a region we are all intimately familiar with, Branwen having learned the joy of paddling on the waters we neared, Leah and I learning the beauty of region marked by abundant bedrock, lovely pines, and crystal clear lakes on past canoe trips. For Bruce, it was all new, and his willingness to take it all in was a reminder of the ability for this region to absorb a person for he too felt the pull.

It’s hard to describe the instincts that keep us moving on the long trail, there’s a sense beyond recognition that tells us when to sit down, when to push on, and most importantly of all, lets us have trust in the journey and where it has delivered us. As we moved through the Turtle River system, our feeling was to move on. A horrendous head wind slowed us, torrential rains dampened our spirits, but we all were in a silent agreement that there was a reason to creep a little further against the elements. We snacked on blueberries and steeled ourselves with the comforts of camp to come. That evening, we carried into the north end of Whiteotter Lake knowing full well these powerful winds would sit us down for an unknown duration. While Branwen and Bruce caught a few fish to supplement our dinner, Leah and I listened through the grey mist as a storm rumbled from the south towards us. By the time they returned, a powerful weather event descended and for hours a furious storm battered us. We stood in the deluge cloaked in our rain gear on the outcrop of rock watching for tree’s that might come down, laughing through the gale, dry under our gear. When the storm was over, the south east wind we had fought abruptly changed, and a proper north wind began, a blessing we didn’t want to jinx. Early in the morning we woke to the same wind and moody clouds blowing fast to the south, in 3 hours we covered a distance that twelve hours earlier we thought would take us days, and for another day the same wind blew us all the way through the big Atikokan lakes that had given us pause.

All so quickly we were entranced by the Eye River, to which none of us had any knowledge of but all were amazed by. We ran easy rapids and caught walleye in the pools below, eating lunch below Eye Falls and marvelling at this little gem of the trail. After so much weather, hard trails, sweat and grime, we were almost in Atikokan, just a half day behind, trusting full well in the rhythm that had become our life on the land. That’s the miracle of immersion, we can’t understand the reasons why we end up in a buggy cedar grove, yet we feel so much rejoice when it shelters us from the storms we knew not of. If all the trail is a blur of motion, as it sometimes feels, then there would be no moments to relive in the stories we tell around the teapot, or fire, or on the trail, and these stories forever lure us on to the trails we love to call home for the summer.

Atikokan arrived in a flurry of resupply and then we were gone, like the storms that brought us, bound for Lake Superior.


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