Part 5 Woodland Caribou

Ohhhhhh Day 9. Anyone reading this who’s had even limited portaging experience has suffered through a day like this. The terrain, distances and/or environment may vary, but the common factor is that times like these push you to your limits and beyond. Tempers run short, and while the physical toll is typically exhausting, it’s the mental drain on such days that really make you question your choice of masochistic hobby.

It was overcast and threatening to rain. A strong wind had kicked up by the time we broke camp on Lightning. We’d gone over the day’s route several times before leaving the site, with the words “…and then some creek,” muttered in a low, foreboding tone by each of us. At this point we knew it would be a difficult day of travel, but we settled into a business-like mentality to begin the push: little talk, paddle through it, get the job done. Surprisingly, the wind didn’t end up being much of a challenge for the first part of the day, and what ended up being the most physically rigorous portage of the entire trip also ended up being the most enjoyable. It was a very steep ascent and decline, with a maze-like plateau of boulders and brush on top. We were all reminded of the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail from the summer before. A beautiful landscape, and a testament to the truly varied terrain of Woodland Caribou. Following our relatively successful morning, we were perhaps a little overconfident when reaching our next portage. It had started to drizzle, but we had rain gear and we were making good time. We stopped for a quick snack while looking directly through the path labelled “NP” on the map, which represented “No Portage”. Piece of cake. Needless to say, this is where the day turned.

Our “No Portage” ended up being a few dozen meters of trail leading into a marsh. In higher water this may have been quite passable, but we stared out over at least a half kilometre of boggy weeds between us and open water. We thought it was simply a case of finding a hidden route through the tall growth, but each attempt to navigate an imaginary path ended with the same result: waist deep in marsh after only a few dozen steps. It was basically a reverse minefield. Instead of being blown upwards when taking the wrong step, you had to blindly fumble along until you were inevitably sucked down with the weight of your gear to hold you there. The frustration of making little to no progress over such small stretches of ground proved too much for an unnamed member of our party (RIP Dan), and a mid-bog break was needed to regain our composure after the better part of an hour through the swampy mess. F-bombs aplenty, I tells ya. Not for children’s ears.

We eventually slogged our way through. The rain was coming down harder now, and we soldiered along saying little. Several more portages and lakes brought us to the last leg of our day: We’d travel northeast towards North Prairie Lake via 300m portage and creek travel, instead of southeast into Prairie Lake with a 1900m into North Prairie. Harlan had advised us that the 1900m was an endless tangle of blowdown, so we took his word and entered the creek following the quick 300m. Appropriately, the thunder began to boom in the distance not long after we had our boats in the water. The sides of the creek were so high that pulling off to the side was out of the question. The water level was surprisingly high though, so we decided to dig in and paddle as fast as we could. The rain came down harder, and the sickening question of why the water levels were so high lingered in the back of my mind. It had to be one or several beaver dams keeping the creek full. We’d come across a few that we needed to pull over, but none of a size that would account for the water depth we were paddling. There had to be something we hadn’t seen yet.

We found the dam. The Hoover Dam of beaver dams. More importantly, we found what wasn’t beyond the dam: water. Our stomachs sank as we looked at what we had in front of us. Several kilometres of winding mud twisted into the horizon, forcing us to remember some of the potential downfalls that we all signed up for with this trip. There was literally no way that we could feasibly drag our canoes the length of what remained. Right on cue, a massive crack of lightning touched down just beyond the treeline to the north of us and the skies opened right up in a torrential downpour. We were completely exposed in the wide open creek, with the only possibility of shelter sitting hundreds of yards away from us on either side. Kids: Don’t try this at home. We had to make a spur of the moment call in the name of safety, so Fulton and I leapt from the canoes and began dismantling the top of the beaver dam to flood the rest of the creek. This wasn’t my proudest moment; I’d never advocate altering animal habitat for ease of travel, but we were in an increasingly dangerous situation and needed to get moving. Surprisingly, it didn’t take much dam deconstruction (maybe an afternoon’s worth of beaver rebuilding) to release enough water downstream for us to get back in the boats and continue the trek towards North Prairie. (Harlan informed us later that someone camping a few km’s away from us that afternoon had been struck by lightning at their campsite and had to radio in to be flown out of the park.)

We got in the canoes. We paddled for a few yards. We got out of the canoes. We dragged for a few yards. This continued endlessly for longer than I’d like to remember. We would have just stayed out of the canoes and dragged for the remainder of the creek, but the tiny sections of water that punctuated the shallow weed beds and thick mud were beyond chest height in depth. The creek was flooded now, but not flooded enough. We persevered through several hours and kilometres of this in&out/drag&paddle monotony, accompanied by an impressive symphony of profanity (courtesy of Dan). Oh, and the leeches. Yes, the creek was full of leeches.

Nick and I reached North Prairie a few minutes before Fulton, Dan, and Crispy; barely able to muster enough enthusiasm for any sort of celebration or congratulations. This was because we knew we had a choice to make. Our initial plan was to camp on either North Prairie or Indian House (a 975m portage to the east). We were soaked and exhausted. North Prairie didn’t have any campsites, and we’d have to find/make our own. Indian House had campsites littering the south shore right off the end of the portage. We managed to convince a VERY RELUCTANT group of guys to push on to Indian House, with the promise of a comfortable campsite waiting for us.

The 975m was relievingly flat (albeit inhabited by finger leeches, as Fulton discovered) and after a short paddle we found our campsite for the night in the continuing downpour as we were quickly losing light. We did our best to get the tarps up quickly and change into some dry clothes. I hadn’t been bothered that much by being wet for most of the day, but began to shiver as soon as we stopped at camp. People took turns setting up their tents under the tarp to keep them dry, and we did a reasonable job of making camp in the approaching darkness. I’d remained fairly calm in the midst of the day’s miserable events, but lost my temper for a few minutes when I knocked the tarp while setting up my tent under it, flooding the interior with the rainwater that had pooled on top of the shelter. Tantrum aside, we gathered under the tarp to warm ourselves with food and booze. Crispy had been changing into a dry sweatshirt, when an audible *crunch* and an ear-piercing scream broke the silence under the tarp. “PUT IT BACK IN!!! PUT IT BACK IN!!!” came from underneath the sweatshirt over Crispy’s head. Fulton, standing right beside him, alarmingly replied, “PUT WHAT BACK IN?!?!” Before the words left Fulton’s mouth, we all knew what had happened: Crispy had dislocated his shoulder. Again.

The next few hours were spent sipping whisky, constructing an arm sling, and trying to absorb everything that had transpired over the last 10-12 hours. We went to sleep early, wet, and completely drained.

Day 10. Waking up to sunshine after the previous day’s ordeal was a massive relief. The rain had tapered off just before we went to sleep, but we hadn’t seen a weather forecast in over a week and had no idea what to expect in the morning. We were regaining our sense of humour after some breakfast, and used the already blazing sun and flat rocks on our site to begin drying out our gear and clothes. One of the mental approaches that helps greatly during rough patches of a lengthier canoe trip is the ability to look beyond the current problem and see it as only temporary. If you’re out in the bush for weeks at a time, you’ll get bad weather and you’ll definitely get wet at some point. The sun will inevitably come out, and eventually you’ll be dry and warm again; always keep this in mind. Discomfort is 99% mental, which is what I kept telling myself now that the chafing on my inner thighs had reached the point of bleeding (gross, I know). It had been tolerable for the time leading up to Indian House, but the full day spent trudging through swampy creek in the pouring rain had only made matters worse. Some loaned baby powder helped significantly, and my minor issue paled in comparison to Crispy’s lingering shoulder problem. After nine days in the park, we’d only had two days of rain, and just one with any wind to speak of. As far as paddling conditions for a dislocated shoulder go, we were getting pretty lucky, all things considered.

The day’s travel would begin with leaving the south end of Indian House by way of – you guessed it – more creek travel. We could see on the map that it appeared to be much wider than what we’d been slogging through previously, so we sheepishly approached the creek mouth that morning praying that there would be enough water to pass through with ease. We were in luck. This stretch of the park ended up being another one of the highlights of the trip, with more than enough water to paddle, loads of waterfowl around every corner (including A LOT of aggressive trumpeter swans), and all of the sunshine we could possibly ask for.

After the creek widened into more open water and a chain of unnamed lakes, we completed a 525m portage with the plan of taking a break shortly after for a snack. We stopped on a steep, tiny island and enjoyed the view across the lake of another massive rock face that loomed over the small body of water. We were now entering the eastern half of the park and were still seeing a wide variety of terrain every day. I’d watched as many videos filmed in the park as I could in the months leading up to the trip, and most seemed to portray the area as an incredibly flat and homogeneous landscape. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, and it was a constant pleasure throughout the trip to be repeatedly surprised by so many different aspects of the park on a daily basis. We stopped for a full lunch on another island later on in the day, this time across 375m and 225m portages into Crystal Lake. The lake itself was aptly named, as the lake bottom was still visible at several dozen meters from the surface. We had been back onto a formal canoe route since hitting Indian House, and as we moved eastward towards our pick-up point, the float planes overhead became more frequent; people beginning their trips as ours was almost coming to an end. We crossed one final 175m portage for the day into Bell Lake where we would camp for the night.

Our choice of locations for a campsite were fairly limited on Bell. It boiled down to deciding between an exposed, scrubby point with bush garbage (rusted-out oil drums, etc) scattered at the back of the site, or a sheltered bay just around the corner with almost nowhere to set up a proper camp. We opted for the sheltered bay because the wind had begun to pick up a bit in the late afternoon (much to Nick’s dismay – he really liked the rusted-out oil drums for some reason). We all ended up fairly spread out over the woods in the bay, at various heights along a series of graduated platforms in the rock: Dan, Fulton and Crispy in their hammocks on the edge of the treeline, Nick much farther back on the hillside on a clearing, and myself almost right at the shoreline in a flat bed of lichen. The waves lapping against the rocks in the bay put me to sleep pretty quickly that evening.

At some point late in the night I was awakened by what I thought was a splash. I sat and listened for several minutes, still hearing the slight movement of water on rocks. I figured that I must have dreamt the splash, or that a larger rogue wave had come into the bay and made louder contact with the shore. I was on the verge of falling asleep again, when I heard what was definitely small rocks falling into the water about 20-30 yards away from my tent. This had me alert in a hurry. I always sleep with my buck knife beside my pillow, so my hands instinctively reached and had it out of the sheath in a flash. I sat straight up in the tent to get a better bearing of where the sounds were coming from in relation to where I was. I sat still for several minutes without hearing anything more, eventually considering that it may have been a raccoon or an otter combing the shore for freshwater mussels. Being as far away as I was from the rest of the group, I began to think that I was just being paranoid and sheathed my knife again… and that’s when a considerably large branch snapped, some 10 metres away from my tent. Whatever it was was moving closer, and after I unsheathed my knife again and listened closely, I could hear what sounded like sniffing and heavy breathing. I’d been in a similar scenario the previous fall on a solo trip in Algonquin, so immediately I reached for the day pack which contained my bear bangers. I let out a few HEY!!!!s and listened again for movement while I screwed a banger into the launching pen. Nothing for a minute or two, and then more sniffing/breathing. I quickly unzipped a small enough portion of the tent fly for my hand to stick through and released the banger up and away from the tent. The explosion caused whatever had shown interest in my tent to barrel off in the woods, and woke up the rest of the group in the process. I’m fairly certain it was a bear and not a moose, if only for the speed that it left the camp. We were getting closer to civilization as we neared the end of our trip, but we were still several days out in the bush… and bears really seem to like my tent.

Day 11 would be our last full day in Woodland Caribou. We’d be meeting Harlan with the ground shuttle at the Johnson Lake access point the following day, so the plan was to make camp on Douglas Lake that night to position ourselves nice and close to the pick-up point. We’d paddle through Page, Peterson and Hatchet lakes with back-to-back 200m portages, a 325m and finally a 150m before reaching where’d we stay for our last night. The temperature had dipped significantly overnight, and it was overcast when we broke camp and left Bell.

We began to see more boat caches and the occasional piece of litter on the portages towards Douglas. We still hadn’t seen anyone since the lone canoe on Royd at the end of Day 6, but the signs of human activity were increasingly evident with the portages becoming more open and worn down. The skies threatened rain for most of the morning, and besides a brief period of drizzle on Hatchet Lake, we remained dry for the majority of the day. We stopped for lunch on a well-used point once we reached Douglas. An old barbecue and picnic table had been left there, probably from the fishing lodge at the north end of the lake. It was a nice place to stop for a meal, but compared to what we’d experienced over the past 10 days, something as simple as a picnic table felt like an intrusion on the rugged conditions that we’d become accustomed to.

Strong winds had begun to blow in from the west as we finished our meals, and with the winds came a wall of dark clouds on the horizon. We hadn’t found a campsite yet and we were in an increasingly vulnerable position. We’d spotted a beach to the east while having lunch, so we launched the boats and paddled hard with the wind at our backs, trying to beat the oncoming storm that would soon bear down on us. We’d barely beached the canoes when a violent downpour chased us back into the tree line for shelter.

Crispy, Dan and Fulton all looked for suitable hammock spots in the rain while Nick and I (the tent dwellers) waited out the rain hunkered down beneath the trees. The storm rolled by quickly, and within the hour we were on the beach drying out our rain gear and gathering the abundance of driftwood along the shore for our final night’s fire. Like our first beach experience in the park, this one also seemed to be highly travelled by the area’s wildlife. The game trails leading into either end of the beach were more well-worn than any portage we’d seen the entire trip. This, coupled with the previous night’s campsite visitor, inspired Nick to construct a virtually impenetrable bushcraft tent defence system (see below). No animal would dare risk its life in an attempt to a breach such a formidable structure.

We were treated to an incredible sunset on the beach, and witnessed the largest flying ‘V’ of geese that any of us had ever seen. Hundreds of them emerged high above the treeline behind us and we stared upwards to see the formation stretch clear across the width of the entire lake. We were obviously disappointed to not have seen a single caribou or moose throughout the trip, but our time in WCPP was not without an exceptional amount of memorable wildlife experiences.

As it was our last night in the park, we soon had a ridiculously large fire burning at the water’s edge. Any remaining snacks and desserts were divvied up after dinner, and the rest of the night was spent feeding our massive beach fire and watching the impressive show of stars in the sky. I fell asleep to the waves rushing up on the beach, and the certainty that Nick would somehow impale himself on his branch fence at some point during the night.

Day 12 ended up being the coldest day we spent in Woodland Caribou. The skies were clear that morning, but the temperature had definitely dropped to single digits overnight and it was evident that Autumn would soon arrive in northwestern Ontario. The strong winds from the west had resumed, but thankfully we’d camped only a brief paddle away from our first portage, and the wind would be at our backs once we rounded the corner from our site.

The journey from our final campsite back to the access point involved a stretch of (easy) creek travel and two portages: A 155m into Stan Lake, and a 525m into Johnson, the access point where Harlan would meet us later that morning. The prospect of hot showers, greasy food and cold beer (Harlan – you still owe us beers) was a welcoming thought, but a big part of me was extremely disappointed that the trip was coming to a close. However, we saw some fallen coloured leaves on the portage into Johnson, and those first real signs of autumn had me looking forward to upcoming canoe trips in my favourite season of the year. We’d only been sitting in the parking lot at the access point for about twenty minutes when we heard the Red Lake Outfitters shuttle rattle towards us with its large canoe trailer in tow. Rather than greeting us with congratulations or questions about our trip, the first words out of Harlan’s mouth were, “OK, whose mother was supposed to get SPOT messages sent to them?” It turns out that some of the email addresses I’d added to my SPOT list didn’t receive any GPS “OK” alerts for the entire duration of the trip, and Nick’s mother had been in touch with Harlan. We all had a good laugh at his expense, and everyone relayed back to home that we’d survived the trip once we were back in cell range.

I can’t say exactly when I’ll return to Woodland Caribou, but I couldn’t recommend both the Park or Red Lake Outfitters highly enough. To the novice paddler: I’d definitely get a few lengthy, remote trips under your belt before attempting something of this scale, but if you’re looking to get out of your comfort zone and experience a world-class wilderness adventure, you’re absolutely in for the trip of a lifetime.

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