This truly wilderness river experience started from a list of “must paddle” rivers and with the aid of Laurel Archer‘s book “Northern Saskatchewan Canoe Trips”. A trip like this takes months to plan, from mapping a route to organizing the gear and dehydrating our meals. When considering the timing for this trip, we opted for late July to avoid high water levels from the previous heavy snow year.
With my older brother Dave as my paddling partner, we headed out on this epic adventure…and here is our tale.
Our trip began with a 1750km drive (including 850kms of gravel roads) from Edmonton airport (picking up Dave) to Prince Albert, and then on through to Points North ending up at Stony Rapids. The driving conditions deteriorated between Points North and Stony Rapids, often we were traveling at only 25kms an hour.
Our trip began on Selwyn Lake in the North West Territories. To get there we were flown in a Twin Otter (owned by Transwest Air).
From the moment we put our canoe in the water to the end of the trip, navigation was a priority. With the large lakes and islands, a person could get turned around fairly easily and with only one canoe (and no backup), we always had to be cognizant of our location.
Our paddle began in the middle of Porcupine Bay of Selwyn Lake, launching off the pontoons of the plane. And then we were on our way!
This river is not for novices. The Porcupine is a large volume river with numerous challenging rapids at times requiring being able to maneuver around large standing waves, hydraulics, ledges and boulders.
The journey began in Glacial Till which gradually made its way into Precambrian Shield country and finished in Sandstone Basin country at Black Lake. The variance in the terrain is truly awe inspiring.
The example above is from a recent burn, but the regeneration on the older burn areas is phenomenal. In these burn areas, the blueberries were plentiful. Unfortunately, we were a bit early and most were not ripe enough to eat.
The unique terrain combined with the large water volume presented some very challenging and extensive rapids. There were several sets of waterfalls, class 4-6 rapids and numerous class 2-3 rapids.
With the number of rapids that were beyond the limits of an open canoe, along with the multiple waterfalls encountered, several portages were required. Most of the portages on the Porcupine River are short and relatively easy, however, there was one memorable one. In that situation we found ourselves carrying the canoe in tandem to allow us get through rock crevices and over vertical cliffs. The only rain we received during the trip occurred just before this portage. With moisture, the lichen growing on the rock became extremely slick.
The last portage of the trip was around Burr Falls where the Fond Du Lac River dumps into Black Lake. We had anticipated that the location of the portage would be close to the start of the falls. WRONG ! After scrambling through rock cliffs and shrubbery, I finally ended up at Black Lake. To my surprise there was a native guide with some clients fishing at the base of the falls. The noise of the falls prevented verbal communication so I climbed up onto a rocky outcrop and frantically waved my arms. This motion was seen by people in the boat. Their initial reaction was that of shock. I had not given any thought to what their reaction may be. I must of appeared like a wild man coming out of the wilderness. After playing charades for a few minutes, the guide understood my request and motioned down the coastline and drew a “U”. From this I interpreted that the portage was further down the lake and in a valley. Hiking for another half hour brought me to the portage. I then hiked back to find its location above the falls. This was at least a full kilometer above where we originally had taken out.
It had taken one and one half hours to determine the exact location of this portage out. Thankfully, Dave had the wisdom to stay put with the canoe, otherwise, we may have lost more time trying to locate one another. As we untied the canoe to begin our paddle upstream, we disrupted a wasp nest resulting in both of us getting stung several times. The one sting for me was right between the the eyes. Ouch that hurt.
In hindsight, it became clear to us how we had misjudged the location of this portage. This portage would have been built for the major fur trading that took place on the Fond Du Lac river. They would not have selected the shortest portage but rather the easiest to allow them to pull their voyageur canoes over the portage on carts.
The Porcupine River is a bit of a ‘hidden gem’ and does not see regular travelers (i.e. the last documented travelers through were in 2009), so some of the portages were in neglect. Adding to the limited use (caused by remoteness and being technically challenging) a lot of the burnt trees have blown down, making a few of the original portages impassable. In two instances we were forced to either clear out the portage or create a new trail bypassing the tangle of trees. Often times it would take us three trips to complete a portage.
At an abandoned Water Survey Station we discovered a canoe diary. The last entry in the diary was done in 2009. This was a father and son duo out of California. Reading through the diary, we were surprised to discover that a good portion of the paddlers were from the USA.
The natives that traveled this area often bypassed the lower canyons of the Porcupine due the difficulty of the rapids. We did however, find signs of previous inhabitants. The picture above shows evidence of some type of previous habitation. It appeared to either be a simple building site or perhaps, a grave site. We located a short board which was made from a single small tree. An axe had been used to shape it. All that remained of the logs around the perimeter was brown dust. The relatively arid climate indicated that for the logs to be deteriorated to dust, meant the site was quite old.
As you can see by the photos, we were very fortunate with the weather. Every day the temperature reached the high twenties, with the nights only getting down to the low teens. The long (sunrise 0430hr, sunset 2330hr) warm days made for temperate water. Each evening we camped on sandy beaches and swimming became part of our daily routine. Most people dream of the sandy tropical beaches. Obviously, they have not been introduced to some of this north country. Mind you, it requires sharing it with just a few pesky insects.
We have both done extensive remote northerly trips in the past and this one was no different in regards to insects. The mosquitoes were bothersome in the cool of early mornings and late evenings. We did put on our bug netting twice, however, we did not have to use bug repellent. To our surprise, the black fly population was much lower than anticipated. The only time we were bothered by them was when we were portaging through wet muskeg areas. Selecting campsites wisely (such as on knolls and away from muskeg areas) helped us to avoid most of the pesky critters.
It is difficult to put into words the beauty of this country. There were several days where there was hardly a wisp of wind.
The first question most people asked about the trip was “did you see any wildlife?” quickly followed by “how big was the biggest fish you caught?”. In terms of the wildlife, while we saw signs of wolves, bear, moose, caribou, eagles and waterfowl, we did get an up close encounter with a bull moose. While feeding in the middle of the river, we were able to sneak up within 50 meters of him. Every time he put his head in the water to feed, we’d paddle a bit closer. When he came up for air, we would stop paddling. He didn’t find this game as much fun as we did once he caught wind of us.
In terms of fishing, we did very little. Dave caught a couple of fish (and there were plenty to be had) for meals, but besides that, I didn’t take my fishing gear out once.
Another neat experience during our trip occurred early one morning at the confluence of the Porcupine and Fond Du Lac rivers. We were awakened by wolf calls. I started mimicking the howls and soon there were two packs of wolves responding. How surreal is that?
The one thing we had agreed to before the trip started was that we would not rush the trip but rather try to stop and enjoy our surroundings. Every day we went for a hike or two. On one occasion we spotted an eagle’s nest so we took the time to hike up to it. Surprisingly, we discovered two quite mature eaglets.
During one early morning hike we walked through a mature Jack Pine forest carpeted with lichen. We saw numerous signs of caribou (bones) as this area is obviously a major migration route. The caribou paw through the snow to feed on the lichen.
The extreme heat and lack of moisture since May had elevated the forest fire hazard. There were a couple of fires burning south and west of the Porcupine during this time. We were fortunate in that we did not encounter any smoke, however, this particular evening provided us with a beautiful sunset.
Although the above picture shows the peacefulness of the area we passed through, it was only a kilometer away from where the lower canyon of the Porcupine begins to display its true raw power.
The distance across Black Lake to the community of Black Lake is 35 kilometers as the crow flies. We had looked forward with some anticipation of what adventure that might bring. To our surprise the lake was calm and the crossing was completed in six hours. Thank goodness for the carbon fiber paddle I had purchased for this trip!