White tufts from Poplar Tree’s swirled in the hot Manitoba air while campers unloaded boats and kids splashed in the refreshing water. A sign for Whiteshell Provincial Park sat beside idle trailers and in a flurry of gear and sweat we all gave a big hug to our shuttle driver, Linda, from Quetico North Outfitters, who we had dubbed the road warrior for her willingness to tackle a 1,000km day to get us to the beginning of a dream. As her van pulled away, we busied ourselves packing loose items into giant Ostrom Portage packs and we unfurled large stickers that would adorn one canoe. As we removed the paper and draped on the adhesive surface, peeling back the final layer, we smiled at what remained on the bow and stern in lovely letters, Path of the Paddle, the namesake of our existence for the month ahead.
No matter how you go about, it isn’t easy to go anywhere in the lake and river country that is quintessentially the Canadian landscape and paddle 1,000km’s. Rivers are rough, lakes are sprawling, and the vital links between the two, which we refer to as portages, are seldom a friendly place to dream upon. If you want to go far by your own power, you’re going to have to work really hard, and in this we find the joy of a canoe trip. Northwestern Ontario is a hub for launching big, or small, trips into variably wild country, and where some regions see heavy use, others fall into the vagaries of wind, time, and weather. The simple reason four of us and two canoes wound up in Manitoba, on a tributary mid way down the big Winnipeg River, is for exactly what paddlers try so hard to find, a long, challenging canoe route that is maintained, has resupply points, and travels through the best that canoe country can offer. For 1,000km, Path of the Paddle, a segment of the Trans Canada Trail, runs from Whiteshell, MB, to Fort William Historical Park in Thunder Bay, On. In between is a network of rivers, creeks, lakes, and best of all, 152 maintained portages.
With our canoes loaded and nine days of food, we took the first strokes of a trip that surely would give us something to remember. The first stretch of trails for us were the Iinoo Oowan, which travels up the Winnipeg River, into Kenora and Lake of the Woods, where it becomes the Migizi, or Eagle, trail and continues into the region of the Experimental Lakes Area. From our start point, we needed to travel 225km to Vermillion Bay, nestled in the north end of the labyrinth Eagle Lake, where we had deposited our first resupply bag and where we could visit a grocery store. The trail breaks up really lovely into two points of resupply, both 225km apart, in Vermillion Bay and Atikokan, before embarking on the last long stretch into Lake Superior and Thunder Bay.
In our yellow canoe, Leah and I felt comfortable with the usual smattering of gear and necessities to travel by our own power. Every summer we love to disappear into the northern bush on 1,000+km canoe trips, usually in places where trails are long gone, but this summer had us buzzing. In the other canoe, a red 18’ Souris River now beaming with new stickers, our friends Bruce and Branwen, fresh in from the United Kingdom, were taking powerful strokes, moving them fast into the lake, and trip. Branwen knows canoes inside and out, she grew up divided between winters on the Welsch coast on her family’s sheep farm and summers on the water locked town of Atikokan, dubbed the Canoeing Capital of Canada, where she had spent years working inside Quetico Park from a canoe. Bruce was more fresh, so green in fact that he had never sat in a canoe, but his life had been spent on the ocean or in the mountains, and in a matter of minutes it was clear that he was catching on. As we moved on, the lure of distant waters tugged at our minds and danced in our hearts. It was late afternoon on July 5th, 2022, and with a late start, we just hoped to get a short ways, find a lovely campsite, and take a swim to feel the first rhythms of travel enter our spirits. In the fading light on Crowduck Lake, just minutes before the witching hour descended in a fury of mosquitoes, we all sat quietly with a spot of tea and watched the miasma of colours fade to the evening glow of summer in the place we all dream about, finally on the trail, embarking on a canoe trip once again.
The days ahead were a challenge we knew to expect, but they hit with a stiff reminder that we were to not be whimsical, or unassuming, of what lay ahead. We may be on a maintained water trail, but the places in between are tough, and going up the Winnipeg River on a year marked by record floods was a constant puzzle to solve in order to find our way up the swollen, boiling eddies and powerful currents bearing down upon us. Bruce and Branwen would follow as Leah and I found the upstream water near shore and manipulated our boats in such a way that we could attain strong current lines. In places, there was no option but to wade, use ropes, and take short portages around too heavy of currents. Once we found ourselves on the opposite side of the river from a portage around the Whitedog Dam, and as we ferried across the rapid, Bruce and Branwen caught an upstream edge and filled their boat with water, a symphony of laughter marking the moment in a place where no danger loomed. With their boat bailed out and floating high once again, we all found a different way to the opposite shore and carefully picked our way up to the portage. Above the dam, a series of rapids that aren’t marked on maps, instead products of extremely high water, slowed us down into Roughrock Lake, but soon we found our way onto Lake of the Woods, grateful for the first major obstacle of the trip to be in the rear view. We transitioned seamlessly from Iinoo Oowan trail into Migizi, through the maze of boat traffic and islands, racing to Rushing River and Blindfold Lake to avoid becoming trapped on what I’ve always referred to as Lake of the Waves.
Going from a big river to an enormous lake, suddenly to be deposited into the intimate waterways that would bring us to Vermillion Bay was a major shift in our mindset. In an evening of heavy storms that rose in thunderous waves from behind the tree’s, we sat by the fire on a lovely island of Blindfold Lake, surrounded by giant Red Pines and beautiful daisies, immersed in the world we were becoming apart of. That is how long trips work, we spend so much time preparing, planning, packing, and departing, that it takes time to slow down and fall into the rhythm of the landscape we read by canoe. Leah and I always like to say that if we go there slow, we will get there fast, and that if we go there fast, we won’t get there at all, and on that island, with storms swirling, I believe that we were all finally there. In the morning we carried through Rushing River Provincial Park, and began the network of cliff bound and hilly lakes that guarded us from our first resupply. The countryside ahead was a place to not rush through, yet the weather kept us moving, with steady rain and frequent storms marking the unsettled wether patterns that lended well to covering distance as we crossed lakes, unloaded our gear, portaged two carries over the trails, and reloaded to carry on. As we went, we stopped to apply new stickers to the signs on portages that read The Great Trail, instead covering them with new, or old, branding that reads The Trans Canada Trail. We would update these signs for 1,000kms, as well testing new maps that Path of the Paddle Association is producing of the routes entirety, but really, we were just out here to live life a little slower and see what memories we would make along the way.
Running her hand down the rough surface of a towering cliff on Winnange Lake, Leah looked up at the water dripping down from a spring seeping out of the rock, amazed at the geography that shrouded crystal clear lakes. Bruce and Branwen spied climbing lines up the same cliffs, making notes in their mind to someday return with ropes and gear, a pass time they enjoy in a different world far from the lakes we traversed, and now, 200km’s in, they were looking like a veteran team of endurance paddlers, their strokes fast and easy, their laughter booming across quiet lakes between the storms that wouldn’t let off. Eight days and one province from where we started, we moved fast to cover the last 25km to Vermillion Bay. We were greeted by Tim McKillop, a board member for Path of the Paddle, and he handed us our resupply and drove me to the best burger truck in town, Bobby’s Bites, for a needed greasy recharge that the crew was looking forward to. That evening, the mayor stopped by our small semi urban campsite and shared some of his memories from a lifetime in the region. In the morning, we would shop for fresh produce and cheese, some salted meats and tasty snacks to supplement our dry food meals, and then slip into the next 225km’s to Atikokan, disappearing back into the landscape that lures us on.