So, why head into the great white north?
Where to start? As avid wilderness tripping brothers since 1977, the main attraction for these types of trips has been the sense of adventure and realization that wilderness areas are shrinking at an alarming rate in our lifetime alone.
It is shocking to see how many of the remote rivers we paddled in our earlier years, today are easily accessible by road. We continue to try and find rivers that are untouched, some with little to no evidence of humans. It’s a search that takes us far up into the north.
Once on the river, we abandon our watches and try to get in tune with nature. The likelihood of seeing anyone else on a trip like ours is slim to none. This was the case on our most recent trip on the MacFarlane River.
Due to the lack of outside communication capability in the earlier years we had to be truly self-reliant. One memorable trip with my wife and another couple, we underestimated a thirty kilometre upstream section of river. Luckily, we were at the end of a 200 kilometre trip. Between the current and the winds we were forced to travel with all our gear across country thirty kilometres to the nearest community. We hopped from one little pond to the next. The muskeg and bugs were horrendous.
Modern technology has reduced a number of the risks associated with wilderness tripping. The ability to call for assistance is now possible no matter how remote you are.
Using a device called In-Reach gives us the ability to send out text messages and to receive replies to those messages. Even if we are comfortable in the great outdoors, it can be very comforting for family members to receive daily updates on progress and location. What amazing advancement in technology compared to our early adventures, given that each text includes with it a map showing co-ordinates!
Now, what about the food? We enjoy trying to supplement our food supply from the wilderness around us. This often includes things like chives, herbs for tea, blueberries, raspberries and plenty of fish.
For some of us, trip planning and finding your next big adventures is a big part of the fun! I always find you learn so much perusing maps and reading previous reports about the area and its history.
Although we always have a wish list of rivers to paddle, we select the river that best suits the skill level and objectives of the group. Too much white water can be stressful if the skill level is not adequate taking away the enjoyment of the trip. It’s important that during the planning, trip members spend time sharing their objectives to avoid potential conflict. For example, a combination of highly competitive individuals who have a goal to complete the trip at a record setting pace compared to more passive individuals who have the main objective of relaxing and enjoying the scenery can lead to some tough group dynamics.
Once we find the river that matches the group’s goal and ability, we begin planning the logistics of the trip. This includes identifying start and finishing points and how exactly we’ll get to and from these areas.
One of the realities of planning a remote paddling trip is the fact that accessing these remote areas can be financially challenging. Most airline companies now do not allow tying canoes on to the pontoons of the plane. That usually forces paddlers to rent a Twin Otter which is far more expensive. With this in mind, I’ve switched from a hard shelled canoe to a folding canoe which allows for more travelling flexibility. It’s hard to believe but when this canoe is dismantled, it fits into a large gym bag. This allows flying in a small plane as well as potentially taking advantage of scheduled flights.
The Pakboat has proven to be a very versatile vessel. It tracks well and is fast on flat water. It was also very manoeuvrable in white water. The flexibility of the frame is an added bonus – allowing the canoe to ride up over large waves compared to diving which is common with hard shelled canoes. This reduces the risk of taking on water when paddling longer stretches of white water. The bottom of the boat is very tough and tends to slide over rocks rather than sticking to them.
Our food planning skills have improved from years of practice. Outside of what we can find in the wild, we rely heavily on dehydrated meals which we have prepared. This allows us to have nutritional meals that are good tasting too! We dry the meat portion in advance and supplement with carbohydrates and spices once on the river. On our most recent trip we were fortunate that the fishing on the MacFarlane was very reliable so we were able to feast on fish several times!
Paddling the MacFarlane River…and the Wildlife Highlights
During the hour and a half long flight from Stoney Rapids to Brudell Lake, we kept our eyes peeled for signs of wildlife. We did not see a single sign. Little did we know, that would change…
Choosing a nice small sandy beach to land, we began putting our canoe together.
Soon after exiting the lake we were faced with our first of many class II rapids. When travelling with only one canoe we tend to scout most rapids from shore before descending to avoid surprises. The MacFarlane had so many class II rapids, that we were forced to run all them without scouting. This was exhilarating as most of the rapids consisted of huge boulder gardens or ledges which required quick manoeuvring.
The MacFarlane River it turns out is full of wildlife. Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles and Osprey were spotted daily. Some of these were massive in size. On one beach we spotted several huge skeletons of pike which were likely taken by these birds.
We were surprised to see that there were well worn paths on both sides of the river. These appeared to be shared by the various carnivores. We spotted both wolves and bear on these paths.
We followed one lone wolf which was scouting the shoreline for food. It was moving downstream and the wind was towards us. This allowed us to approach quite close before she realized we were there. On a second encounter after coming through a fast set of rapids we came upon a pack of wolves. Unfortunately, they disappeared quickly into the forest once they spied us.
One real treat on this trip was the number of bear sightings. Altogether, we encountered fifteen bears. The regularity of forest fires provides for a healthy blue berry crop which bears love. All the bears encountered were very curious of us. Most would never have had any exposure to humans.
At our final campsite we had the only negative close up encounter. A large black bear sow was very determined to get into our camp. We had just caught a fish and the odour was likely too appealing to turn it down. She was within twenty yards of the camp before we saw her. Luckily the cayenne pepper was close by. With each of us carrying a canister plus my trusty axe at my side, my brother suggested we needed to be aggressive with this particular bear.
Initially with a lot of hollering and both of us approaching, she backed off but suddenly reversed course as I had lagged behind while cutting a dead tree into a long handled club. My brother used his cayenne pepper when she came within ten feet of him. She only got a slight sniff of it as the wind was blowing in the wrong direction (poor Dave!). With both of us back in the offensive position again, we pushed her back. This standoff lasted until we finally pushed her towards the river where we threw a rock at her. She finally decided the fish just was not worth the risk of injury.
One would think the story would end there but upon returning to camp I was shocked to discover a bear heading into camp again from a different direction! I could not believe the bear could have circled around us so quickly and gone unnoticed. We went into aggressive mode again and soon discovered that this was actually a different bear who was not nearly as bold and was easily chased away. Two bears in a matter of minutes of each other led us to believe the second one was likely a two-year-old cub still trailing its mother.
The shores of the MacFarlane are lined with shrubs which provide a great wildlife habitat. It did not surprise us that within the first five kilometres of the trip we came upon our first bull moose. In total we were able to photograph seventeen moose.
What came as a huge surprise to us was when we encountered a cow and calf caribou. We can only surmise that the reason they were not in their usual barren ground location at this time of year was that the cow calved early and could not keep up with the Beverly Herd in their migration north.
The MacFarlane River provides for some spectacular camping in open Jack Pine forests.
When I tell folks about these trips, I often get queried on the abundance of mosquitoes and black flies. It has likely been forty years since I last used bug repellent. The boreal forest in this area of Saskatchewan does not have the hordes of bugs that are common in some areas of the Barren lands. Careful camp selection helps. We always try to camp with the prevailing winds blowing into camp. Selecting drier sites also helps. We also tend to time our trips when the bug population is beginning to dwindle (late July and August).
The scenery along the lakes that the MacFarlane passes through is nothing short of breath taking.
This particular beach was likely six kilometres in length. There wasn’t a single stone present, nothing but sand. It was almost like our own personal Hawaiian beach! A person can walk out a hundred yards and still only have the water come up to knee level and the water temperature is most often very comfortable. We walked the length of this beach and the only evidence of previous human activity was a axe mark on a tree.
The MacFarlane passes through two major canyons. We were surprised when we arrived at the upper canyon to find that the old portage trail was completely grown in since the last forest fire. There was no sign of human passage in years. After climbing the forty-foot embankment, we were exposed to a violent thunderstorm. It became pretty intimidating trying to cut the portage with lightning and strong winds present. Finally, after three hours of hard labour we had all our gear at the bottom end of the canyon. The final descent to the river required that we drop the canoe over a forty-foot shear rock wall. The only energy we had left was to crawl into our bags and sleep.
The MacFarlane River is one river which I would repeat. Although, it does have more challenges than most and is not recommended for beginners. The rapids are very continuous and the portages around the two canyons are very long and have disappeared from lack of use.
A lot of the hills along the river are eskers left behind by glaciers. Of course, that is the reason why there is a lot of glacial till.
In areas where the glacial till has been eroded to the bedrock you find sandstone. Where the river runs over these rock outcrops, you find ledges or water falls.
Previous Human Activity
There is one pictograph site located just downstream from Brudell Lake. The native people likely spent extended time in the area. On our time on the river, we came across some evidence of hunters and trappers as well. It is sure interesting to stumble upon the rare traces of humans.
Another Adventures in the Books!
As with most remote trips I have completed, the MacFarlane River has left me with some very fond memories. “I miss the MacFarlane River”.