Solo canoe trip in the Indian House Lake area of Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada, July 26-31, 2016
TRIP LOG: Submitted by Keasley Jones, September 2016
My canoeing experience is rather thin, comprised of just a few dozen days as a young teenager on lakes at a Boy Scout camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, a few days of bumping along in a well-dented aluminum canoe on the Russian River in Northern California with a cooler full of beer, and a five or six-day venture in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota with five friends, several decades ago. I expect canoe veterans will recognize this log for what it is, the naive ramblings of a greenhorn. I do have a fair amount of experience with kayaks, of both the river and ocean variety, on whitewater, flatwater, surf, ocean coastline, and San Francisco Bay. And I’ve done a good bit of wilderness backpacking. That experience served me well on this Woodland Caribou canoe trip.
Here’s a shout-out to Albert and Kelly Rogalinski of Goldseekers Canoe Outfitting & Wilderness Expeditions, based in Red Lake, Ontario. Albert provided excellent advice and guidance as I planned my trip and great service with gear and shuttles to and from the park. Heartfelt thanks, as well, to Tim Eaton of canoeing.com and to Claire Quewezence, Assistant Park Superintendent of Woodland Caribou Provincial Park. All these folks, and others, went well out of their way to provide very useful information that was instrumental in making my trip a success. Thank you!
Conditions for my trip were about as clement as I could imagine; no rain, minimal wind, pleasantly warm temperatures, few insects. Portages had fewer boggy stretches than expected and only a couple spots where downed trees required some finagling. I was steeled and prepared for much more of an onslaught, so in contrast to my expectations, circumstances were idyllic. Six days, five nights, 22 lakes, 63 water kilometers and 6 km in portages.
Albert set me up with a 32 lb. solo canoe, the Souris River Tranquility, a kayak paddle, and a bear barrel. The canoe was fabulous; lightweight and easy to maneuver on the water and land. My Whisperlite stove made it through TSA without a problem and my pack, which I crammed into a duffel, came through baggage claim with minimal damage. I tried to pack light but now see I could get by with less, without compromising safety or comfort. Portages, with my pack on my back and bear barrel in front, were not too strenuous or cumbersome.
Tuesday, July 26 – First day enthusiasm with a tinge of apprehension, and a mindset of going from here to there.
Put-in, Johnson Lake, off Iriam Rd., about 30 km west of Red Lake…
From Johnson Lake, easy portage to Stan Lake, then over to something small, then a meander in a creek with a few minor beaver snags here and there, then into Douglas lake. Here I hit wind, coming straight at me the length of my 3km paddle across the southern end of Douglas lake, the 5km length of Hatchet lake, and 3km across Peterson Lake. Water was choppy, progress slow, and I worried a bit about how things would go if the wind was continuously like this or much stronger for the days ahead. Camp on Page Lake was luxurious, on a stubby peninsula with a spectacular view out to the water. Bald eagle in the evening, mist rising off the water in the morning.
Wednesday, July 27 – Grey day. Intimate landscapes. Mindset of slow driftiness, quietude, and traveling through
Now I’m settling in. Much less about moving from here to there and more a feeling of moving through. Yesterday’s landscapes felt open and long, with skies extending out to the far distance. Today feels close, intimate, quiet, and eerie. The long, meandering waterway leading to Indian House Lake was like a delta, with a broad expanse of swampy terrain on either side, ducks, a pair of large, brown herons (?), a few small swarms of stable flies but they weren’t really bothersome.
From my camp at the southern end of Indian House lake, where I stayed two nights…
Thursday, July 28 – Hot, calm, with slow, melty cloud reflections. Mindset is much less of here-to-there or through, much more in.
Today I wandered all about the eastern side of Indian House lake. Lots of drifting in little coves and pockets, with a refreshing swim off a peninsula way up near the end of the eastern arm. Alone here opens the possibility of deep immersion in what I came to think of as infusive beauty. With no other humans in the picture, social mind can fall back. And with very little need to do anything, cognitive mind can also drift away, replaced with long stretches of open, emotional vulnerability and extended presence in now. The exquisite beauty of being alive in this place soaks in, like tea into warm water. This is a very rich and dynamic landscape. My focus moves from visual to auditory to tactile, back to visual, pausing here or there as things catch my attention, everything constantly changing. Much of this is subtle things that would ordinarily go unnoticed or be quickly categorized and dropped.
My parents died a couple years ago, six months apart. Unexpectedly, I find additional, healthy mourning, here.
Three of five nights I’m too busy doing nothing to bother with cooking dinner. Instead, I forage in the bear barrel for cheese, bread, dried fruit, or trail mix, and nibble as I watch and listen, sort of like sneaking a snack during an orchestra performance.
Friday, July 29 – Departure from Indian House lake, an exquisite little stream, a bit of dicey wind, and a camp on a crisp, slow, no-name lake.
Each lake is an enormous musical instrument, which the loons play. They know what they’re doing and they’re masterful.
The common tern makes a sound like a green-wood dowel being twisted into a freshly drilled hole. They hang out in pairs, threes, fives and mostly occupy the airspace several tree-lengths above the water, sometimes moving quickly and noisily as though they’re going somewhere, sometimes just working an area, fishing. They seem to have their nests on the tiny islets that hold just a few tufts of grass.
Loons notify everyone when a bald eagle arrives, with a particular warning call. This evening, the eagle pauses at the top of a tall tree, then lifts off and spirals upwards in a large thermal, with only an occasional twitching-wing adjustment, rising higher and higher until it seems quite small, then turning to glide fast and purposefully eastward in a long, straight, gradual descent. I assume it’s headed home.
In the early, early morning, when the lake surface is still still, a tight cluster of flies zooms about, right at the edge, where the water meets the rock. They duck in for a quick feed on something that has grown there overnight, perhaps algae. A school of about 20 fingerling fish, six-inchers, comes close to feed, which they do by throwing themselves up onto the rock to catch a fly, then flopping themselves back into the water. I grab one to take a look. It’s colored a tawny brown, with six black stripes on the side that don’t quite wrap around the top.
My first evening on Indian House lake, as I was dropping off to sleep, I heard a large, flat rock drop into the water with a loud ker-splash! I came quickly awake, pondering what might have caused this sound. If it were a rock, dislodged by an animal, I’d have first heard the rock sliding or rattling off other rocks before going airborne out over a cliff and into the water. Was it a bird, fishing? No, too big, too loud, and a bird wouldn’t smack the water like that, and wouldn’t be out fishing this late in the day when the light’s nearly gone. Was it a giant fish, coming up and out of the water in pursuit of a flying insect, then flopping back down onto the surface? No, I’d have heard the sound of disrupted water as the fish came up, before the hard-slap splash. Was it a person tossing a rock? No, I can’t imagine anyone else is anywhere near here. I heard it again, at another spot, and a few minutes later, again. I concluded it must be a beaver, slapping the surface with its tail, though my recollection of this from far in my past had just the initial slap, without the low sound following. And these waters close to my camp didn’t seem like quite the right place for a beaver to be hanging out. Watching beavers, in the following days, definitively confirmed it for me. And I felt pretty silly not to have immediately known the cause.
I feel very naïve, not to know more about all these animals and plants and things.
Early one morning, from out on the island north of my camp, I hear what sounds like a pine cone falling onto the top of a metal storage drum. Once out on the water I go to investigate and find the remnants of what was once a wild rice harvesting operation. Two sunken canoes with a tangle of metal tubes straddling them, holding an engine. A small wooden hut sits up on the shore and I see a fuel can nearby, likely the source of the sound that drew my attention here.
When my boys and I were younger, we took turns reading books to each other. While reading Watership Down, we came across the word “coruscate,” which was unfamiliar to me. We looked it up and it immediately became one of my favorite words. It means: “to give off or reflect light in bright beams or flashes; sparkle.” One of my goals for this canoe trip was to see a lot of coruscating light on water, which I certainly did.
My fourth day brings me to a quiet lake dappled with many small islets and just a few, complimentary, small clouds in the sky. My camp has a large rock jutting into the water; perfect for a swim and for late night star gazing. I cook up a most delicious soup.
Berries everywhere; ripe, warm blueberries, snow berries that taste like spearmint, cranberries. How can these cranberries be so delicious?! They’re still only half ripe and yet they’re juicy and sweet/tart delicious in a way I’ve never thought of in a cranberry. Ironically, I brought dried cranberries with me from California as a snack food; I didn’t even open the bag.
With long, warm days like this it’s strange to think of how soon this land will be held in the grip of a winter more harsh than any I’ve experienced. The squirrels behave as though they know it. They move much more sharply and impatiently than the ones I know back home, which are fat and lazy. They seem wound up tight, as though they’re thinking “oh my god, are you kidding me?! we have just x more days until the cold, dark, icy, bitter winds, and we’ll have to hunker down for months!”
Saturday, July 30 – I feel a bit of the pull to the waning side of the trip. Today has some wind and calls up my familiarity with ferrying across broad stretches of wind-swept water. I find a spacious camp that could easily accommodate a group with more than one tent. I lounge about, swim, and take pictures.
Dawn, with crescent moon…
I’m at Latitude 50, which is just about even with the southern tip of Hudson’s bay, over to the east of here. The sun rises at a very low angle and climbs slowly up to a high point that is quite a bit lower than back home, then slowly glides back down for a very lengthy sunset and extended dusk. The angle between where the sun sets and where it next rises is noticeably narrower than what I’m used to. And even at midnight, when the sky is dark and also bright with more stars than I’ve ever seen before, I can still see a faint glow where the sun sits below the horizon, where the very last remnant of the evening glow slowly slides over to become the first light of dawn.
Walking along the shore of the island where I’m camped I come across a pair of otter (marten?, mink?). They look at me, then turn and galumph away, as though they are embarrassed to have been discovered and think that if they move slowly and quietly away they won’t be noticed.
Sunday, July 31 – Last day. Sad to be leaving. Light breeze, cool air.
I have no timepiece, so I get on the water early so as not to be late for my rendez-vous. I take the long way around the lake to check out an eagle’s nest and to explore the part of the lake that I imagine is less traveled. I then come into the last lake, which is Lund lake. Light pours in from the take-out and a large rabbit greets me there.