We’ve been dreaming about pancakes, and the Esso gas-station/ restaurant/ bus depot doesn’t disappoint. This is a good place to evaluate our next step. After our thrashing on Cedar Lake, do we dare continue on Lake Winnipeg? Our ultimate destination is Gimli, to the south, where Greg’s parents have a cottage. All along we have been thinking it’s about 250 kilometres away, but now, upon taking a closer look at the maps, we discover it’s closer to 500. Yikes! Cedar Lake was barely a hundred kilometres long, and it just about did us in.
We start mining everyone we meet for local advice. We meet Colin McKay, a Metis fisherman and lifelong area resident, who takes an interest in our trip. He tells us about the long stretches of cliff to the south, where landing is difficult or impossible. He adds that it’s been an unusual year for wind: Usually it dies down at night, giving a travelling window, but this year it’s been blowing hard all night. Our trip might be possible in the calmer months of June and July, he thinks, but September is the windy season. And it’s a long way, even to the next tiny lakeside settlement. This is heavy food for thought, especially as it’s blowing about 40 knots as we walk around town.
We stock up as best we can and row out onto Lake Winnipeg to grapple with the fearsome beast. In the morning, with the wind down, it’s beautiful. We cruise north to a deserted cove for a little exploration. Calm water, sandy beaches galore, bright sunshine. But soon the wind comes up, and soon we’re cursing as the Ambrose Jane slaps and pounds. We spend the afternoon ashore, grumpily reading.
We can’t figure it out. Gramma Ida, who made the trip with Ambrose and Jane in 1908, had one short sentence to say about Lake Winnipeg: “The lake was calm and lovely.” She might have done it in early summer, when there was less wind. But we assumed they would have needed wind, to sail their heavy, ungainly craft south to Snake Island? And where was “Snake Island” anyway? It wasn’t marked on any of our topo maps, and nobody we asked had ever heard of it. Could they have rowed the whole way? Mystery upon mystery.
When the wind dies in the evening we head out once more, rowing into the dark toward a narrow bay south of town. It’s pitch black when we get there, and the sand beaches have all turned into low rock bluffs. For the first time we decide to sleep in the boat. We pitch the tent and squirm into our bags. It’s a tight fit, but it’ll work if the clear sky doesn’t turn to rain. After midnight the water is mirror-calm, and we wake to a fantastic display of northern lights wafting across the sky. Magic!
We row back to town before the wind comes up, and explore the Saskatchewan as far up the old riverbed as we can get. It’s a bare trickle, most of the water now diverted through the power dam’s spillway — a sad end for such a mighty river.
And a sad end for our journey, too. Back in town, we reluctantly decide to end it here. It feels bad, but it’s clear to both of us that Ambrose Jane is not the boat for Lake Winnipeg. Even as we mull over our options for getting the boat south, the wind picks up and rattles the treetops.
Sylvia calls her brother Bill (who began the trip with us) to tell him of our decision. To our surprise, he offers to drive here from Regina with his van and take us and Ambrose Jane to Gimli. It’s a lot of driving for him, but he’s game and it solves our problem of what to do with the boat. We accept, and go seek out Colin to say goodbye.
We’re linked back to civilization now, and the easy pace of river life slips away quickly. We spend the morning packing up. Bill arrives at two p.m. By three, the Ambrose Jane is atop the van, our gear’s inside, and we’re rocketing south. One hour driving gives us more distance than two days of rowing on the river. By eight we pull into Greg’s parents’ driveway, just north of Gimli. We’ve arrived, though not the way we had hoped. We talk about coming back with a canoe or sea kayak to finish the Lake Winnipeg leg of the trip. But who knows?
We stay in Gimli for a week. Bill and Sylvia take a day-trip to the First Nations reserve of Fisher River, where Jane was born so long ago. There they discover that Snake Island has since been renamed Matheson Island, and that it lies a ways north of Fisher River.
A few days later Sylvia and Greg drive there. Matheson Island is a remarkable place, with a ton of history and very friendly inhabitants to tell us about it. One fellow takes us on a boat ride out to Black Bear Island, telling stories about the fishing and logging that has gone on here for over a hundred years. And only now, as we look on the very bay where Ambrose and Jane likely came ashore and spent the winter of 1908-09, does it feel like the summer’s adventure has come to a proper end.
Thanks for sharing it!