Part Four Woodland Caribou
Day 5 began earlier than I expected due to my choice of sleep shelter. Even though the open setup provided loads of crisp Northern air that knocked me out cold for the night, the site’s wildlife didn’t agree with my plan to sleep in the next morning. Not long after dawn, a red squirrel bolted over the midsection of my sleeping bag, jerking me right out of my deep sleep and into fight-or-flight mode with the thought that I was being attacked. You’re definitely not falling asleep after that, especially when the sun starts to penetrate the tree canopy and heat the morning air. I grabbed my fishing rod and went down to the water for a few early morning casts before breakfast. Dan must’ve had the same idea, since he arrived rod-in-hand at the shoreline just in time to see me reel in two consecutive 28-30 inch pike. I kept and cleaned the second one, and we shared the ample fillets for part of our breakfast.
The rest of the day could only be described as complete and absolute sloth. Swim, eat, drink, nap. Repeat. I don’t know if we’d gotten too much sun the day before, but none of us could find the motivation to leave the campsite that day for much more than a quick paddle out from the site to take a few casts. Granted, it was our “rest day”, but in retrospect we really should have taken more advantage of the fishing that Wanda has to offer. Oh well, next trip to WCPP maybe? In the midst of the utter laziness that defined our full day on the lake, there was a minor incident that occurred that afternoon: Crispy dislocated his shoulder. That’s right – one of our group members, who also happened to be the only solo paddler on the trip, DISLOCATED HIS SHOULDER in the middle of a 12 day canoe trip. I know you’re all hoping for an emergency helicopter airlift and/or Mel Gibson-esque, Lethal Weapon shoulder relocation story, but I’ll disappoint you on both fronts. Crispy went for a swim, and the simple motion of raising his arms out to dive in the lake had popped the shoulder out. Yep, he’s one of those guys. He’d already put it back in by the time he got back to our campsite, but from his description, the crawl out of the water along a sloping, slippery underwater rock face was somewhat of a challenge. Thankfully, Crispy had opted for the solo canoe/kayak paddle method for the trip, so there was a little less concern with how he’d fare for the rest of our time in WCPP. The fact that he’d dislocated it many times before (thanks for the heads-up, Crispy) also helped with knowing what he’d be physically capable of following the injury. I had my SPOT messenger with me as well, so there was always the airlift option as a last resort. I’d also been sending daily “OK” GPS check-ins to our group’s email list on a daily basis….or so we thought (more on that later). I’d like to say that the injury snapped us out of our lazy ways for the remainder of our stay on Wanda, but the lounging and napping continued into a night of star-gazing and drinks around the fire.
DAY 6 would give us our first real taste of late-season Woodland Caribou “creek” travel, after receiving a hefty dose of overconfidence from the wildly fortunistic conditions along Simeon Creek a few days prior. That stretch has been marked on the maps as “seasonally low” but we’d made it through without too much of a struggle. A little more “seasonally low” creek to the east couldn’t be THAT much more challenging, right? Wrong. We had to leave Wanda via the same portage we entered it, then hook east at where the creek forked towards a long series of thin, unnamed lakes that would lead us down into Royd Lake and our next campsite. We had the impression that it would be similar to the conditions we experienced on the way into Wanda, but we quickly realized after turning at the fork that there was significantly more sawgrass than there was water to paddle in the direction we were heading. The creek bends in this section were incredibly tight as well, so it quickly became an excruciating game of ram the creek edge with the bow… back up… squeeze through the turn… pry off the creek bottom slop for a few yards… ram the creek edge with the bow… You get the idea. This continued for longer than any of us expected, and the creek became so thin at points that we ditched the canoes several times, and trudged through the marshy grass to scout ahead for open water.
We questioned ourselves repeatedly, but knew we were headed in the right direction and simply had to push through this ungodly section of creek. Our “glass half full” was that we had at least eight km of unfettered paddling after clearing the creek and a tiny 90m portage. Following that, a 40m, 150m, and 800m portage were all that stood in the way of us and Royd Lake. We struggled… good lord, we struggled. Eventually we made it to the 90m portage, having to pull a good 50m over nothing but grass and mud as we approached it. It was that dry.
The paddling over the next section of a chain of long, narrow, unnamed lakes was some of my favourite canoeing of the whole trip. We had a slight tailwind, and the sun was beginning to hang low in the afternoon sky after the ridiculous amount of time we spent “creek” travelling. Sparse treelines to the southwest and towering rock faces to the northeast were found through almost the entirety of this stretch. Finally hitting the north end of Royd as dusk was approaching, we bounced around several potential sites before making camp on top of a sloping piece of Canadian Shield as the sun set. The aforementioned slope also happened to drop off a good 15-20 feet straight into the lake, so a fair amount of nimble footwork was required around the campfire that night.
Day 7 promised to be one of our shorter travel days, but began with a great deal of concern. We launched fairly early from our site on Royd in search of the 80m portage that would take us into the lake’s east arm, and eventually towards Constellation Lake where we would be staying that night. We’d only seen one canoe on the lake, right before we reached our site the night before (probably from the fly-in lodge at the south end of Royd – these were the first people we’d seen since Larus), but I commented shortly into our paddle about smelling a campfire. The smell became stronger as we paddled south along Royd, but we still couldn’t see any evidence of another group camping on the shoreline. Earlier we’d noticed (what we thought was) either a lingering morning fog, or the impending haze of a humid day when looking across the expanse of the lake. It was now late enough in the morning that the sun should have burned off the fog, and if it was developing into a humid day, the temperature should have started to climb. Noting that there was still a bit of a chill in the air, the wheels began to spin. It wasn’t haze or fog. It was a forest fire.
We didn’t panic. We could tell by the wind direction that once we started travelling northeast, we’d be moving away from any spreading fire (temporarily, at least). We learned later from Harlan that the annual forest fires in northern Manitoba pour so much smoke into the air that the entire Red Lake area is often is often blanketed with ash in the summer months. This would’ve been handy information heading into the trip, but it didn’t bother us much by the time we reached Constellation Lake. The haze was still there, but we didn’t seem to be in any immediate danger, and shrugged it off for the remainder of our time in that section of the park.
Constellation is another beautiful lake, located in the centre of the park. The site we chose had a perfect rock ledge embedded just under the water offshore, and straight out into deep water. Perfect for swimming. We did some camp laundry after getting our shelters set up, and easily gathered enough wood for several days’ stay on the lake if we needed to. I should say at this point, that coming from southern Ontario and frequenting parks such as Algonquin and Killarney, the firewood situation in Woodland Caribou was a dream. Everything is bone dry (hence the forest fires) and you only need to step a few feet into the forest to find an unlimited supply of deadfall. Another afternoon was spent swimming and lounging, capped off with a massive White Man fire that night.
Day 8 turned out to be a fairly routine day in terms of strenuous travel, but it marked our entry into a recently opened canoe route. This was another big draw for me while planning the trip; being some of the first people to recreationally portage a remote canoe route in northwestern Ontario was impossible to pass up. We’d be making our own campsites for this section of the trip, as none were even marked on the topographic maps provided by the outfitters. We made fairly decent time to Lightning Lake that afternoon by way of smaller unnamed lakes, and a series of 300m, 100m, 150m, 125m, 50m, and 100m portages along the new route. I spotted what looked to be somewhat of a rocky clearing across the lake as we finished our final portage of the day, and we agreed that it was worthy of investigating. The wind was fairly strong at this point, so we had a tough paddle directly into it, towards what would be our campsite for the evening. The skies were gloomy, but we were fortunate enough for the rain to hold off that afternoon. The clouds parted shortly after we pulled our boats ashore, offering us some late afternoon sun. This makeshift site of ours really required a decent amount of work. There were a few rocks laying together that looked like they may have been used for a fire at some point, but the grass growing throughout the cluster indicated that it would’ve been quite some time since this spot had last been visited. Beyond the rocks, there was no evidence it had been camped on. Some deadfall clearing was required to accommodate our shelters, but the bulk of the work put in was to the sloping rock face where I’d set up my tent, and we’d build our new fire pit. Massive hunks of lichen had to be stripped off of the rock to ensure that it wouldn’t catch fire, and Nick spent a considerable amount of time scavenging rocks to build a new pit. It didn’t look like much when we arrived, but we hoped that someone would have the opportunity to use our newly forged campsite after we vacated it.
We were treated to a hazy sunset that evening, with the effects of the forest fire smoke still evident on the horizon. We could all sense that the weather was about to turn and none of us were remotely prepared for what lay ahead of us the next day.
To be continued..