Third times the charm...
It was a tough spring of trying to plan for a canoe trip. For the past 18 months we have been planning to paddle the Seal River in northern Manitoba.
At a length of 260 kilometres the Seal River is one of the four major rivers in Northern Manitoba, and it is the northernmost and only one that contains no dams. Its drainage basin is 50,000 square kilometres (19,000 sq mi) in area. The river is far removed from any human populations in the isolated wilderness. The nearest settlements are Churchill and the small community on Tadoule Lake. Churchill is about 45 kilometres (28 mi) south of the mouth of the river along the coast of Hudson Bay, while Tadoule Lake is much further inland near the source of the river. There are no actual settlements or permanent human inhabitants along the Seal River. While the source of the Seal River is Shethanei Lake, that water comes from the North Seal River and South Seal River, which empty into the lake. Those two rivers are actually much longer and contain more water than the Seal River. The river flows through a mix of boreal forests at the southernmost edge of Canada's tundra. Because it travels through this transition zone, the river travels through dense forests, as well as portions of the barren and rocky subarctic wilderness. The course of the river is inconsistent and very dangerous to navigate. The river has no human uses, except for the very few skilled travellers on rafts or canoes who brave the treacherous waters each year. Not only is this an amazing canoe trip, it allows us to spend a few days at the end of the trip in Churchill Manitoba, a definite bucket list item for any adventurer.
A few things would make this trip a little different than other canoe adventures, most notably polar bears that we would encounter as we reach Hudson Bay. Polar bears have been reported as far inland as Shethanei Lake so we would have to be careful and on the lookout every night. The river trip is documented in Hap Wilson’s book Wilderness Rivers of Manitoba, and luckily we know the source of some of the notes he used so we had plenty of information to go on.
We had a confirmed group of 4 and a possible group of 6 to make the trip. All very experienced canoe trippers with advanced moving water skills. One of the participants, Colin Frey has local knowledge of the area and experience guiding, paddling, and dog mushing with work stints based out of Churchill. With Colin’s camp ability and my canoe skills we were confident, yet respectful of the journey. Our travel plans were confirmed with some flexibility built in for the starting point for distance and some weather days built in at the end. Our plan was a float plane trip in from Thomson, MB, paddle the river, arrange a jet-boat pick up at the mouth in Hudson Bay, then a couple days in Churchill taking in the sights. Our plan fell through because of our plan to travel back to Thomson to pick up our vehicle, via the rail line from Churchill to Thomson. The rail line incurred some flood damage from the Spring run off; 19 different spots, according to sources. The rail line is owned by a company out of Denver, CO, USA called Omnitrax. They also operate the Port in Churchill, which is now closed. With the port being closed, they have no motivation to repair the line, and as of today still have not made any efforts to have the rail line repaired. Without the train trip out of Churchill back to Thomson with our canoes, the other options were just WAY too costly. Our trip will have to be put on hold for another year.
The paddling crew had the vacation time already booked off so it was time to find another trip to paddle. Our group was now a confirmed size of 6 and our requirements were a white water river that we have never paddled, or in the case of our fifth member Kevin S., one that he hasn’t travelled “that much”.
With the high water level in the north, far different then the drought in the southern part of Saskatchewan, we looked to the Geikie River for some adventure. Starting in Highrock Lake, connecting to the Geikie via Highrock River and finishing at the highway north of La Ronge where the river drains into Wolleston Lake. The description of the rapids had me sold instantly and with the polar bears no longer being a concern, our shot guns could stay at home. With the majority of my canoe tripping experience being in SK, the logistics were easier to put together using a familiar float plane company and pilots at Osprey Wings. A quick shuttle (or more accurately described as a long arduous drive) from Missinippi and we are good to go. Or so we thought. Luckily the Geikie River has a water station on it and we had some notes from Laurel Archer’s book about what flow to NOT paddle the river at. Monitoring showed that in only a week the flow rate on the Geikie was dropping significantly. It seemed odd that the Churchill had record flows, the far north had high water, yet this middle section of the north was running out of water. We questioned the accuracy of the water station but concluded that August was late in the season and there were not a lot of feeders into the Geikie River. The Geikie River is a little unique in that it flows east, and then north into Wollaston Lake, which shows the variation between where the high & low water is located. Hence it was time to find yet another river to paddle.
Our crew was taking the revolving door of rivers well and being quite patient and understanding. The task was to find another trip 3 weeks in advance of our travel dates and figure out the logistics. Rivers in Northern SK seem to go in waves of popularity, excuse the pun. Some years the Clearwater seems to be the trip, other years the Fond Du Lac seems to be popular. Last fall the staff at Churchill River Outfitters paddled the Hawkrock River which starts from Forsyth Lake some 65 km up the road from Points North and drains into the end stretch of the Fond Du Lac River at Hawkrock Rapids. They were recommending it as a great river trip, plus it would be a trip that Kevin S. has never paddled, yet paddled past it too many times to count. So I head out for a third trip to ISC (Information Services Corp) in Regina, or the “map store” as I call it, to take a look at the topographic maps for the river. The staff familiar with me from this and previous years were super accommodating pulling maps for me to quickly study. With Kevin already away on a 10 day paddling trip and Colin away instructing courses, I made the executive decision that this was the trip and the planning could finally firm up. A quick call to Osprey Wings to explain the situation and they were able to change my already booked flights departing from the Missinippi Office, to now depart from Points North. They were also surprised to hear of the water level situation on the Geikie. A couple phone calls and texts to Ric’s staff at CRCO and we had a few plans in place.
Perhaps it was the fact that this was my 3rd river to plan, or that there were no portages or un-runnable rapids on this trip, but I arrived at the put-in with 2 marks on my map and a possible take out point where the float plane would pick us up. My 2 markings were the Put-in and a bridge that we would paddle under on day 2. As for the rest, I would wing it and make notes each night after our travels. Colin had picked up the map that Ric’s staff produced, and now sell, so he was informed on some campsites, rapids, but instructed to not to spoil my blank map. My canoe partner was my wife Regan, Colin was paired up with Dean aka “Deanerino” from Saskatoon, and Kevin and Paulette made 6. Kevin was map-less, and only informed about the river from his long time friend and paddler Bill Jefferies. For those that know Kevin S, they know he is the Sidney Crosby of canoe guides for lack of a better description. Now retired from guiding and paddling his own canoe, you could see Kevin thoroughly enjoyed taking the river in one bend at a time.
The Hawkrock is a fantastic river with very few lakes, lots of runnable rapids Classed less than 2, and gorgeous limestone canyons. Perhaps it's the fact that the river is less frequently travelled but the wildlife was very plentiful with 10 bear sightings, 4 moose, 2 wolves, otters, and a lot of Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, and Osprey. The camping worked out pretty great but caution is advised that there are a few stretches where you would not be able to camp. Exactly the opposite of Hap Wilson’s book where he has artist renditions of the rapids and the features, current, and obstacles in them, it was so much fun to scout from the canoe and run them on the fly. The super cautious might get out and scout a couple but it would call for a lot of bushwakking and not much more information to go on would be obtained. Canoeists with previous white water experience should have no trouble navigating and there are enough rapids that by the end of day 2 you should be well practiced up.
For our trip we nicknamed Colin and Dean’s boat the “probe boat” and sent them down first most of the time for Colin to gain some valuable experience. The huge smiles on his face were super rewarding as both an instructor and friend. The nervousness at the start of the decent was also a little fun to watch too. There was a seemingly endless supply of blueberries on the trip, which was probably the main reason the Black Bears were looking beautiful and healthy. They were also a yummy treat to add to our breakfasts and I even added some to my apple turnover dessert one night. Campfire time was wonderful as we regaled numerous paddling, camping, and guiding stories. I am pretty sure we solved most of the world’s issues too but darn it we forgot to write it down. It was a great lesson in Leave No Trace camping principals as there were very few established campsites, just areas to camp. There were some signs of human activity as we neared a camp on an adjoining unnamed lake where someone must bring hunting parties up. The true sense of wilderness was great throughout the trip. Some side hikes on the eskers, or hiking up for a sky high view from the eskers would be highly recommended. The Hawkrock River flows into the Fond Du Lac just below Hawkrock Rapids. If you did not want to paddle any further, then this could be your pick up point, or you could continue on the Fond Du Lac for a couple days and get picked up where we did, at the confluence of the Porcupine River. (Pilots love sandy beaches for landing & loading the planes.) It was pretty cool to watch Kevin once we started on the Fond Du Lac as this is SUPER familiar territory for him and Colin and I put our navigation skills on cruise control, and let him guide the way from memory.
This trip was fantastic for so many reasons. Paddling with my wife in white-water as she continues to improve her skills via Madawaska Paddling courses is great fun. Paddling and camping with Colin is always a treat as he is such a phenomenally skilled camper. It was great to continue to help him develop his canoe skills as well. Paddling with Kevin, my canoe mentor, on a recreational trip was a bucket list item for sure. I still continued to learn from him on the trip and found myself the eager student absorbing as much as I could. I enjoyed making trip notes and marvelled at the huge amount of work it would take to write a canoe-guiding book for a river.
As I said at the beginning, this third river was the Charm.
Happy Paddling, Geoff Horn