They say that in life you should find what you are passionate about and do it. For me, that’s canoe tripping. My interest in this great Canadian tradition began as a kid in the 1970s when I stumbled upon a photo of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The heroic image shows him clad in a buckskin jacket while paddling a cedar-strip canoe down a river. I remember thinking, “That looks cool—I want to do exactly that.”
As an adult, I had the privilege of having lunch with Mr. Trudeau, just a few years before he died. The setting for our meal was simple—souvlaki eaten off plastic trays in the cafeteria of the IBM building in Montreal, where he had his law office. Any mention of politics during that meal and his eyes would glaze over—but just the whisper of “canoe tripping” and his whole being lit up. I will always remember his tale of a canoe trip he did in the 1940s from Montreal to Hudson’s Bay, a more-than 1,600-kilometre journey. He was an iconic PM, indeed, but I admire him most as a canoe tripper.
With Trudeau as inspiration, I have logged my own canoe expeditions. Of all, the epic on my resume was a 171-day, 8,000-km paddle from Saint John, N.B. to Vancouver. That was in 1995, and since then I’ve continued to lay down canoe lines across this country and around the world. Of all the zones I’ve paddled, my favourite is a region nicknamed The Little North (or Le Petit Nord). The name was coined by the early fur traders for a region of Northern Ontario and Manitoba framed by Lake Superior to the south, James Bay to the east, Hudson Bay to the north and Lake Winnipeg to the west.
Located in Thunder Bay’s backyard, the area covers almost 1.3 million square kilometres and is only “little” when compared to what the traders referred to as Le Grand Nord—which, frankly, was the rest of the country. Today, more than 20 major lake and river systems within the Little North allow for thousands of canoe routes.
Last summer’s plan was to team up with my buddy Todd McGowan and pierce the geographical heart of this zone by paddling 1,120 km due north from Pakashkan Lake (a few hours drive from Thunder Bay) to Peawanuck, a small Cree community located near the mouth of the Winisk River along the southwest shore of Hudson Bay. The first half would involve paddling the length of expansive Wabakimi Provincial Park, while the second would follow the remote course of the Winisk.
Don’t get me wrong—I love the ease of all-inclusive holidays as much as the next person, but sometimes I need to disappear into the Little North in order to satisfy a basic need for an unprescribed adventure. The simplicity of moving under the power of only two people in a canoe is immensely satisfying to me. I miss very little of city life when I’m in the Little North—in fact, it’s the only place I feel truly at home.
Through Fire and Water
Todd and I are good companions—which is crucial when you’re spending 21 days together. A week into the trip, communication turns primal. A grunt and a nod replace the spoken word. When this happens, you know you’re in the groove.
We rarely argued; too absorbed were we in the daily rhythm of paddling through an ever-shifting landscape. Most difficulties, from rapids to wind-battered lakes and portages, were solved with skills and experience.
But some were completely out of one’s control, such as the 500,000 hectares of forest fires that licked through these boreal forests last summer.
As our paddles sliced through the waters of Wabakimi, the second-largest provincial park in Ontario, there was fear in the back of my mind—the fear of being cooked alive by a rogue fire while asleep in our tent.
Though visually devastating, forest fires are part of Mother Nature’s calendar and most flare-ups in parks are left to run their course. That thought didn’t make me sleep any better.
Early on our expedition, we found ourselves paddling down the Ogoki River with the fire burning just 100 metres inland from our canoe. The blaze appeared as neatly spaced columns of smoke, reminiscent of the pattern left by a stream train in an old western flick. Behind the blaze lay a seemingly endless charred landscape. Soon enough, the current carried us away from this black and white setting, down rapids and around a bend into the sweet embrace of a green, old-growth forest. The following day, a 48-hour cycle of torrential rain drenched the landscape, dropping the temperature by 15 degrees. My fears subsided, evaporating in the cold, soaked embers of a fire season now past.
Walking with the Ancients
For days, we’d been working our way up the Eabamet system—a chain of small lakes and rivers that would get us to the Winisk River, eventually spilling us into Hudson Bay.
Before the advent of bush planes, this was a major thoroughfare for Cree and Ojibway hunters and trappers who used these waters for more than 4,000 years. Now these routes have fallen into disuse, with only a small handful of people traversing them in a given season.
Pulling up to a barricade of large boulders, I looked for signs of a portage. Trying to put myself in the shoes of those who passed before me, I searched for the most direct route. Pushing through the shoreline alders, I found a deep depression in the earth and an old log draped in fungus. This was it. Years of snow and wind had dropped debris over our path, but it was still the best route to take.
Using the canoe as a battering ram, I pushed through the encroaching saplings along the mossy furrow. Branches whipped my arms and gouged my legs as I hobbled over them with my 90-pound load. Blood trickled from my small wounds—an offering to the Ancients, I thought—as I followed the path they created. I paused at an old firepit with a tree growing out of the hearth and hunched down and placed my hand in the cool moss that filled the circle of stones. The only sound was a light breeze hissing through birch leaves. Who sat here before me … where were they going? I felt an instant connection to these canoe trippers of yore.
It was one of many moments gained on the journey that I will hold forever.
Dip, Dip and Finish
The last 80 km of the Winisk River drops through whitewashed limestone walls that look as if they were constructed by a skilled Mediterranean mason. Gentle rapids snake around treeless islands of rubble as the mighty river lunges for the finish line at Hudson Bay.
The sun was strong and our shirts came off as we soaked up the last rays of our journey. We were lean and lank, our bronzed skin seemingly painted over muscle and bone.
The Cree village of Peawanuck came into view on the left bank. I was suddenly sad that the trip was ending—but I knew I’d be back again next year. Founded by our First Nations and enhanced by trippers like Pierre Trudeau, the canoeing tradition in the Little North will ripple on.