7–Into the wild

or, The river goes nuts!

4 August

Once again, the big crossing is a non-event. Tobin Lake is glassy and we row shift-and-shift for three hours to the old river valley, down which we see the dam’s gate towers. Sylvia’s phone calls have brought out Dan, along with his enormous flatbed truck, to help us over this nine-km portage. Dan is the living example of job satisfaction. He tells us about the last people he hauled around the dam, almost two months ago: four long-haul canoeists headed from Northern Alberta to Ottawa. Wow!

The “disappearing river” is flowing pretty high, but Dan warns us that it can shut down to a trickle very quickly if they turn the power generation off. We waste no time in packing the boat and getting on the water. There are eagles galore here, and a few deer at river’s edge. The water goes right up to the trees, so there’s nowhere to land — a problem as suppertime comes on. We finally pull ashore on a sandbar for supper and a snooze. We’ve hauled the boat well up onto the sand, but unknown to us the river is rising further. Ambrose Jane makes a break for freedom, and we have to wade in thigh-deep to bring her back. From now on we tie her to something solid!

The rising water makes this sandbar a dicey spot to camp. We set off again, reluctantly, and finally find a level spot on river right, but just as we’re heading in a furry black shape ambles out of the woods to browse for berries. No stopping here, and it’s going to be a long day! At last we find a big, sparsely vegetated sandbar that looks like it hasn’t been flooded for a while. It’s a beautiful night, cool, clear, and black, with lots of heavy dreams.

5 August

We spook two more bear cubs into the trees early in the morning. It couldn’t have been the smell; maybe it was the singing? Later we see our first family of wolves, playing at water’s edge. We’re entering the infamous “Old Channel” or Angling River portion of the Saskatchewan River. In 1875 an ice jam blocked part of the river causing the river to back up and cut the “New Channel.” This section is so braided that the canoeing guide declares that “the canoeist will probably find it impossible to accurately plot his progress in the many shifting channels of the Angling River complex,” and suggests by way of navigation by “following the main branches with the most noticeable volume and velocity of water, one is certain to eventually emerge on the southwest shore of Cumberland Lake.” Anal-retentive navigators that we are, we have no trouble keeping exact track of our position. The river flows past several hunting and fishing lodges, most shut down until hunting season starts up, and we frequently hear and see local people motoring to and fro in their skiffs. We go ashore only once, and the mosquitoes are so ferocious it’s only for a minute. Besides, the banks are getting steeper and muddier, and there are fewer places to stop.

On the steps of the Catholic Church at Cumberland House

On the steps of the Catholic Church at Cumberland House

Keeping track of all the islands and narrow channels is taxing, but makes the day go fast. Before we know it we’ve arrived at the Cumberland House, the oldest permanent settlement in Saskatchewan and an important fur trade post in its heyday. Town proper is a few km away, so we leave Ambrose Jane at the boat ramp and hitch a ride in. It’s a pretty typical reserve town, with big houses, a couple of competing churches, a small grocery store, and an interesting graveyard. The town seemed almost deserted until someone mentions that a big wedding is going on at the community centre.

On the way back to the boat we take Greg’s “shortcut,” which turns into a protracted amble across miles of hayfield. Reaching the boat at dusk, a local fellow pronounces dire warnings about post-wedding parties at the boat launch. We suggest perhaps setting up the tent in the hayfield, and the fellow shakes his head. “Might get run over” by joyriding locals! So in falling darkness we examine and reject every conceivable campsite in the vicinity. Finally in utter desperation we tie the boat to a snag hanging down off a three-metre bank and and crawl up the trunk to bash out a horrific campsite in the woods. Truly awful. Next time we’ll brave the teenage partiers and join them for a beer!

6 August

As if last night’s misadventure wasn’t enough, this morning we take to the woods again, bushwhacking through bear country to take a look at the Class III rapids above Pemmican Portage ? reportedly the worst on the river. They’re nasty ones, all right, only fifty metres long but in that space they could swallow us whole. So it looks like there are three options: portage around the rapids, which based on our morning’s bushwhack is unthinkable. Row all the way around Cumberland Island and down the Tearing River, a day-long detour at least. Or row back upstream a bit, portage overland a hundred metres or so to the Old Channel, and row back down that to the Saskatchewan River. None are terribly appealing.

Back at the boat ramp, an old-timer is launching his powerboat. He tells us about how he used to travel up and down that section of the river in a canoe with his dad. He says the portage is possible but the four-metre-high banks on the Old Channel are troublesome, and that lining the rapids (one person holds a rope tied to the boat while the other keeps the boat off the rocks) would “save us money.” We’re dubious, but based on his assurances we try it. Surprisingly it comes off quite well, with no swearing or yelling. We head off confident as ever, happy that our worst rapids are behind us.

Lining the scary Class IIIs at Pemmican Portage

Pulling, wading and lining the boat down the scary Class III rapids at Pemmican Portage.

Camping has become a problem. The riverbanks are practically vertical walls of mud, and the sandbars are untrustworthy, swampy affairs. We’re starting to think about sleeping in the boat again when we see what looks like a volleyball net set up on the shore far ahead. This would be is a likely campsite, but before we get there we spot a staircase going up the steep bank of an island. Even better! At the top of the stairs are a couple of cabins, a tarp kitchen, a great view, and (of all things) a homemade mini-golf course. And nobody home! Later, a motorboat from Cumberland House stops by. The natives suggest in their characteristically gentle way that “Fantasy Island’s” owner might be a bit chagrined to find trespassers, and they invite us downstream to their camp, “just around the corner.” But we’re afraid “around the corner” for a motorboat might be two hours for the Ambrose Jane, and after last night’s scramble to find a spot we decide to stay put. Later, Jesse and Julian return for tea, and we have a delightful conversation. After dark, whip-poor-wills sing us to sleep, and we sleep undisturbed.

7 August

We find Jesse’s camp and it indeed is just around the corner as they said. We stop in for cowboy coffee and conversation. What great folks! They spend most of the summer out here, fishing sturgeon and hunting. We wish we could stay with them for the rest of the summer. But we set off again, rowing through (as the canoeing guide says) “somewhat monotonous scenery” — mainly three- to five-metre mudbanks, willow mudbars, and islands of mud. There are lots of snags for the eagles to perch on, though, and the jumping sturgeon keep us entertained. We aim for an island marked on the chart to camp on, but it turns out to be an island no more. Lots of fresh tracks: moose, deer, coyote, and the inevitable bear with cub. We sleep lightly.

Jesse's fish camp at the confluence of the Tearing River

Jesse’s fish camp at the confluence of the Tearing River.

8 August

Rain at night, rain off and on all day. We have wet bottoms and a very muddy boat. Starting to regret painting the inside white! Really starting to feel dirty, as well. But the river’s flowing fast, and soon we cross the border into Manitoba. As we drift for lunch we startle a trio of river otters on the banks, who tumble into the water and chase us for a while, cursing us out. By late afternoon The Pas is only a few km away, but we don’t want to arrive there tired and have to run around finding a campsite. So when we happen upon a nice clearing, complete with a pair of kitchen chairs, we take it. A lone coyote watches us set up camp.

9-11 August

We aren’t sure what to expect at The Pas, but the first thing we see coming into town is the campground! As we register, the attendant tells us about all the modern conveniences available just a short walk away, including library (with Internet access), food stores, laundromat, and even (Sylvia’s in heaven) a masseur! We spend three days here reprovisioning and mentally preparing ourselves for the final leg of the trip — the long-dreaded open waters of Cedar Lake and Lake Winnipeg.

One chore is to repair the crack that we put in Ambrose Jane‘s bottom six weeks ago, on our first day out of Medicine Hat. Duct tape has been holding the fort so far, but now by diligent scouring of every store in town we have found an epoxy repair kit! We sand and scrape, preparing the bottom, only to open the can of epoxy and find it has gone off during its ten-year wait on the shelf! Back to the duct tape for now, but we get the number of a supplier in Winnipeg and arrange to have a fresh kit bussed to Grand Rapids, our next stop.


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