The 2013 wildness canoe trip was our fourth long distance canoe adventure in Northern Saskatchewan. Having gained both confidence and experience during the past three trips we planned that this would be the first half of our biggest venture yet; to canoe from La Ronge, our home base in Saskatchewan, to Baker Lake in Nunavut, a distance of almost 2000 km. This trip would take place over two summer canoe seasons. The plan was to leave La Ronge in early June 2013 arriving at the Black Lake Dene Community towards the end of July. We would then store our canoe and camping gear at Stony Rapids, just south of the NWT border and return to complete the journey via the Dubawnt River through Nunavut in June/July 2014.
We planned to leave Lac La Ronge via Diefenbaker Bay and enter the Churchill River system through Iskwatikan Lake. The Churchill would then take us in an easterly direction through Keg and Trade lakes to the confluence of the Reindeer River. Turning north on the Reindeer we would paddle against the current for several days to the First Nations Community at Southend on Reindeer Lake. Visiting Southend would give us the opportunity to obtain some fresh food before travelling up Reindeer Lake and then heading west on the Swan and Blondeau Rivers. From the Blondeau we would make our way through the historic Muskeg Portage into Wollaston Lake. Reindeer and Wollaston are two of Saskatchewan’s largest lakes with long stretches of open water where sudden changes in weather can be dangerous. Leaving the open water of Wollaston the next section of our journey would involve 222km of twists and turns on the wild Fond du Lac River as it heads northwest to Black Lake. The Fond du Lac is a river with many long shallow rapids and a number of famous waterfalls, including, Manitou and Burr Falls, both requiring mandatory portages.
History and Significance of the Route
Northern Saskatchewan remains a sparsely populated wildness with a rich history. It has been the home of the First Nations people for thousands of years. Today the Dene, Cree and Metis people live in communities along the shores of major lakes and rivers but once they travelled these waterways on foot and in birch bark canoes, moving their seasonal settlements, foraging, hunting and socialising to realign family and group ties. The coming of the fur trade not only opened up much of the wildness but changed the lives of the First Nations people forever. The discovery of a portage over the height of land from the Saskatchewan to the Churchill drainage systems brought an influx of Montreal and European traders and with them came the building of inland trading posts and reliance on the fur-trade economy for the native peoples. This resulted in a change in traditional travelling patterns, areas with high fur yields and viable canoe routes took on greater importance and permanent communities grew up around the trading posts. Louis Primeau, Joseph and Thomas Frobisher, Samuel Hearne, Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson, Simon Fraser, John Franklin and Joseph Tyrrell all famous fur traders or explorers travelled northern Saskatchewan rivers using native guides to show them the ancient routes.
Many of the journals kept by these men on their trips have been published and are available to the canoeist. Reading these journals gives us an awareness of the countless hundreds who have walked the portages and paddled the waterways before us. During the 18th and 19th centuries it is unlikely that you could have spent much time on the well used portages or paddled rivers like the Montreal, Churchill, Clearwater, Cree or Fond du Lac without meeting explorers, Hudson Bay or Northwest Company men, and Dene or Cree trappers either taking furs south or returning north with trade goods. During the 1940’s commercial fisherman joined the hunters and trappers in the wilderness of Northern Saskatchewan, however by the mid 20th century the traffic was down to a few native hunters on snow mobiles or motor boats, wilderness canoeists seeking adventure, and sports fishermen. Wilderness canoeing was at its peak at this time and we were able to use descriptions of the canoe trips of P.G. Downes in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Sigurd Olson in 1957, Peter Kazaks in 1981 and Bill Laymen 2002 for information on our proposed trip.
Click here for daily journal entries and photos.