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The Churchill River - One of Canada's and North America's Premier Canoeing Destinations
By Michael Snook
From a distance, the Churchill looks like any other big northern river. It is anything but.
To really see a river, you need to get out and paddle its waters in a canoe. When the riverís waters support you, carry you along, cool your skin, satisfy your thirst for something cold on a hot day, and boil up for tea on a chilly night, youíre beginning to be on more familiar terms with it.
There are not many rivers that permit this intimacy. Some are so settled, so busy with human activity, that a dayís paddling on them feels more like a walk in an urban park than a trip on a wilderness river.
There are other rivers so remote, so swift and filled with white water, that only the most skilled might travel there, and even then, not without considerable risk.
Some rivers have just the right combination of distance from the greatest concentrations of civilized society, long sections of relatively smooth water and enough wildness to make them a delight for canoeist at all levels of experience.
The Churchill River, running through northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba on its way to Hudson Bay, is such a river. Itís as much a chain of lakes linked by channels of fast water as it is a river, with the occasional fall or rapid to make it truly interesting. The Churchillís many lakes are dotted with islands, some so tiny they barely support a couple of spruce trees, some so large they might as well be the mainland itself.
All those islands provide yet another ingredient that makes the Churchill such an ideal canoeing destination - exquisite campsites.
Many parts of the Churchill River are accessible to novice canoeists. Long stretches of flat water, connected by short runs of moderate current, offer opportunities for relaxed, uncomplicated paddling.
Basic camping and canoeing gear is sufficient for short trips -canoes and paddles, including a spare; painter ropes, lifejackets, bailers, throwing rope and a signaling whistle complete your paddling gear. Take along enough food for your group, packed so that it can be strung up in trees in case there are black bears in the neighbourhood, a cookstove, cooking and eating utensils, a portable water filter, and youíre ready to set up a camp kitchen. A tent with a good rainfly, a couple of tarps, sleeping bags and pads, and personal clothing and gear complete your outfit. Donít forget a good quality first aid kit and any personal medications.
If outfitting your own trip seems a bit complicated, one of Saskatchewanís finest outfitters, Horizons Unlimited/Churchill River Canoe Outfitters, www.churchillrivercanoe.com, operated by Ric Driediger and family, is located right in Missinipe on Otter Lake, less than two hours drive north of La Ronge. Ric provides everything from equipment rentals, to guide services, to fully outfitted custom guided trips. (For more information on other canoe outfitters in Saskatchewan, click here.)
Even the simplest of trips, a two-day journey between Otter Rapids and Stanley Mission, some 35 kilometers or so downstream, reveals a rich variety of habitat, from marshy flats to steep-sided, fast water channels.
Paddling out of Walker Bay, youíll pass by the settlement of Missinipe, with its fishing lodges, float plane base, and its buzz of fishing boats. Turn the corner to the east and head down Otter Lake, past Grandmotherís Bay Reserve, and within a half -hourís paddle you have entered a quiet, wilderness world that has not changed much since the first Voyageurs passed this way centuries ago.
Follow a winding course heading roughly southeast, and in less than a day you will reach a place where the distant rumble and roar of a waterfall can be heard. This is Robertson Falls, the first portage on this trip, the first major drop in this stretch of the river - about 4 meters. The falls empty from a large bay, and the wise paddler gives them a wide berth, paddling to the eastern shore then turning south to the portage, a wide trail clearly visible from the river.
The short portage has a well used but very nice campsite halfway across it, and if youíre fortunate enough to find it empty, you can camp overnight and drift off to sleep to the music of tumbling water. You may have to forage for firewood, but the view of the falls is worth the inconvenience. A short distance - 10 minutes paddle across a small nameless lake Ė takes you to a second, longer portage, around Twin Falls, a larger 10-meter drop into the channel leading to Cow Narrows and Mountain Lake. This part of the Churchill is littered with small rocky islands, reefs, and larger islands with steep cliff-like faces falling straight into the water.
Several of these rock faces were used by the first inhabitants of this land as canvasses for their unique art - painting upon rock faces with red ochre pigment. There are rock paintings at a number of points between Twin Falls and Stanley Mission, and several more just a short paddle downstream from Stanley Mission.
These paintings are faint, faded by sun and weather and age. All of them take a bit of time and care to find, the kind of time that only paddlers, with their intimate contact with the river, can afford.
A final run down Mountain Lake to Stanley Mission finishes a short couple of days on the river. Mountain Lake shows many more of the faces of the Churchill River. A small breeze can build to a raging wind in a matter of minutes, so wise paddlers keep one eye on the sky, and another on potential landing places while paddling this section of the river. With its many islands and channels, Mountain Lake offers plenty of places to safely tuck in out of the wind.
For most of your journey, you will paddle in the company of eagles. Along the way ravens and crows, blue jays and great blue herons will observe, and sometimes comment on your passing.
Black bear and moose are found all along the Churchill, and sightings of these large mammals provides us with a rare glimpse of true wilderness inhabitants.
Much more common are the squirrels that come looking for a handout at your campsite.
And in the waters beneath your canoe, northern pike and walleye wait for just the right cast in just the right place.
When you arrive at Stanley Mission, stop at the old white church on the opposite bank of the river from the settlement. It is the oldest European structure in Saskatchewan, still functions as a community church, and a delightful way to end a short visit to the Churchill River.
Two days on the Churchill is barely enough to get a sense of the beauty and majesty of this river. There are mapped canoe routes that take anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks to complete, and that range from novice to expert in the demands they place on paddlers.
Rich in fur-trade and First Nations history, untouched wilderness for most of its length in Saskatchewan, the Churchill is one of Canadaís, and North Americaís, premier canoeing destinations.
Photos courtesy of Tourism Saskatchewan