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When you plan a trip and try to anticipate every possible thing that can go wrong, you always factor in a delay, or two. Usually nothing happens, but sometimes an occasional event occurs that changes everything. In the years that I have been wilderness tripping, proper planning has always prevented poor performance. This time I would have the most unexpected circumstances thrown at me on the Bloodvein River in Manitoba, Canada.
Most of the guidebooks, and route descriptions, end the trip with information about the ferry that you need to catch to get back to Pine Dock on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg. The village of Bloodvein is not accessible by vehicles during the summer and a boat or airplane is the only way in or out. The information basically suggests to camp just upstream of the village and paddle out in the morning to catch the noon ferry. I even found a trip log on the ‘net detailing this strategy to get back to your starting point. I never knew much about Bloodvein Village prior to the trip and had focused all of my attention on the river.
So off we went with plans to paddle the river. After many months of anticipation we were flown into Artery Lake and our adventure began. The next ten days in the wilderness went by far too quickly, and soon we were paddling our canoes up to the ferry dock. Two days later I was still there, and still waiting for the ferry. High winds on Lake Winnipeg had halted the ferry service, and only runway-based aircraft could come or go. Finally, on day thirteen of the trip, the ferry arrived and even though my journey was ending, I had discovered during this time that the village of Bloodvein’s journey was still going on.
When I had first learned that the ferry was not running, I was a little perturbed. Always flexible and adaptable when I am in the wilderness, the return to civilization had already restored my taking for granted the schedules and routines that dominate most of our lives. Some members in our group had even more rigid itineraries and they required an air charter to get them back to Pine Dock. That left us to sit on all the canoes and gear until the ferry arrived tomorrow. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do, or so I had first thought.
The Saulteaux Ojibway that the village is home to do not operate casinos or tourist attractions. Many hunt, fish and trap for a living, whereas others work away from the village during the week, sometimes as far away as Winnipeg. Other than a few small food stores, there are no retail operations or entertainments that we take so much for granted in our own cities and towns. What they did have, and in large abundance, were kindness and a real concern for other people.
While some walked away from the empty ferry dock in calm acceptance of its absence, we gradually became acquainted with the people standing around us. Curious children were crawling in and out of the canoes and waving the paddles around in joy at the new visitors. Soon we were in the back yard of a nearby resident sorting our gear and using her telephone to make arrangements for the air charter. The rest of us were trying to decide exactly what to do, and for a couple of hours the situation was very fluid. Throughout this time the local children handed our paddles and our fishing poles back and forth with equal preference. I was discovering that the stress in this situation was my own, and not shared by everyone present.
After the air charter departed, we learned that our local benefactor was a missionary with a small church next to her house. She opened the church up for us to stay in, and we soon had converted the pews into boat racks and Bloodvein Base Camp was created. I suppose we could have paddled back up the river until the next day, but this was far more interesting. After giving us a meal to assure us that we would be taken care of, we then asked if there were any chores we could do for her. Soon we were chopping and stacking firewood, hauling water, and mowing her lawn. It felt like a scene out of history where the travelers stay in the farmhouse and do chores for the night. It settled my mood, and I looked closer at the village.
I had heard from my friends that had just left that the tribal leaders were leaving in their own boats to go to Winnipeg. They had been unable to carry us, or our gear, due to already having full vessels, but what we learned was fascinating. Chief William Young and his cousin, Counselor Louie Young, have been working on developing various activities that would allow canoeists coming down the river to interact with the village and learn more about the culture. Upon returning to the United States, I contacted them when they returned to Bloodvein.
Chief William said that when he knows of arriving canoeists, he goes down to the ferry dock to meet them. He has been working with local outfitters to let him know, and make the paddlers aware, of what opportunities are available. The paddlers along with the villagers construct a traditional sweat lodge, and they all participate in this ceremony. It is followed by a traditional meal prepared for them, and culminates in a group conversation around a fire. He is hoping that information on a web page will be available by Fall 2002, but right now to phone ahead to make plans. What began, as a spontaneous idea with some paddlers from Germany, several years ago on the island across from the village has become a regular practice.
Chief William said it is exciting to meet so many different people from around the world coming to the Bloodvein River. He said most of the paddlers are enthusiastic when they learn of it, but many did not know about it prior to arriving to catch the ferry and had left no time to add it to their trip. Counselor Louie described the event as beginning in the afternoon and lasting well into the night. Stones would be gathered for the sweat lodge, as well as firewood. The lodge would be constructed, and the rocks would be heated over the fire. After the traditional meal and the meeting around the fire to discuss cultural issues and concerns, the entire site would be disassembled.
Counselor Louie shared some of the issues they face today. Presently, the village is not accessible by vehicles except in the wintertime when the winter road brings the annual shipment of supplies. There is a proposal to build a road on the eastern side of Lake Winnipeg that would change many things. The Atikaki Provincial Wilderness Park in Manitoba, as well as the adjacent Woodland Caribou Provincial Wilderness Park in Ontario would be immediately affected. However, all of the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg would be impacted. Look at any highway map and you will immediately notice the road less eastern side of the lake and the inherent wilderness that occupies it. There is so little wilderness left anymore that it is amazing to still see relatively pristine areas like this. Only 200 or so paddlers come down the Bloodvein River each year, as the Boundary Waters and Quetico garner the majority of use, due in part to their road accessibility.
They also have concerns over the economic benefits to the construction of the road. There may be some short-term employment by a few of the villagers during its construction, and if logging began it might also provide a few jobs, but everything is not justified by economics. There is a value to the spirituality of places and the connection to the land. First Nation people have long struggled with integrating into modern society, and this pushes that modern society even closer to their home. Most hunting and access issues could fall outside their control and the fish and game they eat to live could easily be depleted for sport and commercial sale.
Paddlers who run the river need to know the wilderness they just experienced is under the constant threat of being reduced or eliminated. When I was first frustrated at the absence of the ferry, a road would have sounded like a perfectly reasonable idea. When I got up from our camp inside the church the following day to wait for the ferry again, it was with a little more acceptance and calm. It wouldn’t be a wilderness if I could just come and go anytime I wanted, and somehow it began to feel a little romantic to be stranded the way that I was. After all, I was in a moment of geological time.
During the retreat of the glaciers, human occupation began in the region of Lake Winnipeg. Different tribes of Chipewyan, Cree, Saulteaux Ojibway, and Assiniboine peoples were living in the various geographical environments in the area. Around the Bloodvein River were the Saulteaux Ojibway, or Anishinabe as they call themselves today.
The Anishinabe moved up and down the Bloodvein using birch bark and dugout canoes. They traveled fair distances around the mouth of the river, and were familiar with the bison of the plains to the west. Pictographs can be seen on rocks in Artery Lake of deer and bison that are hundreds of years old. Most of the portage trails on the river are historical, and when Europeans arrived in the seventeenth century they used them, too. The Bloodvein was an alternate route for the lucrative fur trade, and it was during this time that the village at the mouth began to show permanence.
For the next two hundred years, the river and the lake dominated First Nation lifestyles and their watercraft. Rowboats and dories gradually replaced the canoe on the lake, and wood-strip canoes made their way upriver. In 1875 and 1876, the various tribes in the vicinity, including the Bloodvein, signed treaties. This treaty set aside the village of Bloodvein as a reserve for the people, and the twentieth century saw an increase in the use of the lake for commercial fishing by them. The river was still used as a conduit to the interior for trapping and hunting.
The location of the river on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg has long been its own defense against overuse and has helped sustain the traditional lifestyle of the Anishinabe. Although modern conveniences have found their way into the village in terms of electricity and powerboats, the view of the land and their relationship to it has not changed. The designation of the river in 1983 into the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, and the subsequent Provincial Park in 1985 has helped maintain this wonderful wilderness in the same condition that the Anishinabe have been using it for thousands of years.
Tomorrow turned out to be another very windy day, and the ferry did not come again. We had always prepared for the trip with additional food rations, and we ate heartily. The paperback novels I bring for when I’m stranded in my tents were read just as enjoyably sitting in the church or down by the water’s edge. We had gotten to know most of the children by name, and they were constantly around us. We ended up giving them all of our fishing poles and tackle as gifts, and a fish was almost immediately caught. The kindness of the residents made me feel guilty for wanting to leave so bad at first, for this was their home. Why would I want to leave it?
Eventually, the ferry did arrive, and now it was with a certain awkwardness that we carried the canoes down the aisle of the church and over to the ferry dock. Several kids showed up with wheelbarrows to move our packs. It was probably the easiest portage I’ve ever made. They laughed and chatted with us while the ferry pulled into view. On our last night in camp on the river we had traded opinions on what the best part of the trip had been. Little did we know that the best part had not yet begun. The two days I spent in Bloodvein stranded by the ferry were in many ways more enlightening than the ten days I spent on the river moving independently. I really couldn’t have asked for a better education.
THE BLOODVEIN RIVER
The Bloodvein River in southern Manitoba flows wild and unspoiled for over 340 kilometers, beginning in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park in Ontario, and ending in Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba. The Manitoba portion flows through Atikaki Provincial Park. The river is accessible by vehicle if you want to paddle the entire length, or a fly-in can be chartered from one of the several air services available in Manitoba. Some paddlers first access the Gammon River by vehicle, and then paddle that river down into the Bloodvein.
It usually takes over two weeks to do the entire river from Ontario to Lake Winnipeg, or about ten days by starting from the Ontario-Manitoba border on Artery Lake. Air service is required to start from Artery Lake, but it gives the paddler many options to explore the general area before starting downriver.
There are no services or contacts enroute, which is what you would expect on a wilderness river. The landscape is unrelentingly beautiful, with each bend of the river providing new vistas. Other than a handful of cabins scattered about the lakes, the land is virgin. Most of it was not logged due to it being so inaccessible, and the new growth is from past forest fires. When the Transcontinental Railroad went across Canada, it passed to the south to avoid Lake Winnipeg.
There are many rapids and falls on the river, and signs or flags do not mark them. Paddlers are relying on their own skills, although the guidebooks available on the route are extremely accurate. Many of the easier rapids are runnable even in touring canoes, but the heavier drops must be portaged.
Ice and snow usually leave the surrounding country by late May, but returns by October. Contact one of the local outfitters if you are pushing the seasons. The Bloodvein doesn’t get the volumes of people that rivers to the south get, and conversational estimates put the figure at about 200 paddlers a year. Most of the usage is in July and August, and even in the summer the river has good flow, although some shallow rapids may become unrunnable.
Campsites are usually found at the portages, and many have been used for centuries. The portage trails are well worn and are the only sign of past use. The Bloodvein is probably one of the most pristine river environments you will ever find that has been used for so many years by humans.