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Written by Andy Goodson Photography by Goodson, Kendall Latimer, Mitch Doll and Sean Hootz

Four days before our first canoe trip of the year, Sean and I stopped at Red Deer Lake to survey our exit point. Our plan was to canoe the Red Deer River (not to be confused with the river of the same name in southern Alberta) from the town of Hudson Bay in Saskatchewan across the border into Manitoba, roughly 120 kilometres in total.

The trip was to be a step up from our first river paddle, which was only 35 kilometres on the Assiniboine River after ending early due to rocks stripping some important bits of wood and fiberglass off my canoe. Still, I was determined to take the next challenge. That's why my guts twisted into knots as we rolled up to the shores of Red Deer Lake with wind blustering at 80 kilometres per hour:

The Red Deer River's exit channels are located 1.2 - 1.7km from the boat launch across open water.

We continued our pre-trip survey and visited the river entry point at Hudson Bay Regional Park and saw a long stretch of boiling rapids. They seethed, practically foaming at the mouth: "DIDN'T YOU LEARN YOUR LESSON THE FIRST TIME!? YOU DON'T KNOW CRAP ABOUT CANOEING RIVERS."

Sean and I were feeling discouraged. We talked to some locals and only got more conflicting information:

"A group just did the trip to Red Deer Lake a little over a week ago and made it in two days. The river was higher, though..."

"Skip the rapids and spend more time in the wild sections. The river flattens out near the lake; you'll be paddling hard."

"You're definitely going to want to start at Hudson Bay. That's the best rapids halfway to Erwood. You'll make good time."

 

After much deliberation, we figured we might as well dive in and do the whole river—rapids and all.

But I spent that night wide awake, thinking about flipping a canoe on a lake churning with oceanic waves (by prairie standards) and me and my bumbling crew, spinning down rapids in overloaded canoes. I read nearly every post on riskmanagementinscouting.com, scrounging last-minute bits of Internet wisdom and praying fervently for leadership from the almighty Boy Scouts of America. The red flags were piling up.

Our friends were relying on us for sound judgment. We rushed and underestimated our last river trip; we would not do it again.

View canoe route on Google Maps

Manitoba maples reaching into the river near Erwood, Sask. (Goodson)

 

Day One: Bill's Cabin

Thursday, May 17, 2018  Our trip began at Erwood, Saskatchewan, ten minutes east of Hudson Bay. The light rain that accompanied us all morning was gone leaving the air cool and damp.

Sean, David and I had returned from dropping off the exit vehicle at Red Deer Lake and were anxious but eager to get on the water. It was already past 2 pm, true to our M.O., which was fine considering the logistics of organizing a canoe trip for seven people who live all over the province and refuse to respond to texts on time.

David and Andrew practice-punched eachother's life jackets while I looked for anyone willing to take my case of beer to lighten our jam-packed canoe. The three of us would be sardined in there for the next four-to-five days. The rest of the group, Mitch and Kendall, Nate and Gill, and Sean, were crowded around their canoes discussing the day's plan.

Taking our time to enjoy the river was our objective. But we still had a deadline to make, which was to get to Bill's cabin by 7 pm.

'We have twenty-seven kilometres to paddle today, so we should get going,' Sean said. 'The river current should help, but let's not keep Bill waiting.'

I had only met Bill Lozinski through email after he heard me on the radio talking about the Pasquia and Porcupine Hills a year ago. He was very knowledgeable about the area and its history, so he was the first person I went to when researching a trip on the Red Deer River. He was instantly prepared to give us the shirt off his back to make it happen, offering us the use of his cabin on the riverside for the night and sending us updates on water conditions leading up to the trip. 

He also invited a local reporter to meet us at his cabin – the reason we didn't want to show up late looking like complete rookies.

'We are heavy,' Andrew said apprehensively as we pushed the canoe into the water. I stepped between the yoke and rear thwart and sat wobbly in a borrowed Helinox chair. David sat at the bow, Andrew at the stern. The canoe dipped deep into the river as the current took us ready or not.

Gill, Oats and Nate on their brand new vessel (Goodson)

The high water mark, trees and grass stripped bare by spring ice and meltwater (Goodson)

Get ready for a lot of shots of David's back (Goodson)

There will also be lots of 'shore profile' photos  (Goodson)

We passed fluidly through the first set of rapids, boosting our confidence and untying stomach knots. Except for the semi-industrial agricultural landscape, the river was unlike the Assiniboine which had caused us grief a year ago.

The wind picked up and the river felt bleak and dreary. This, compounded with the bare flat-topped river ledges, made photos appear less than idyllic and more like paddling through oil spillage. It felt great to be back on the water and anticipation for what was to come was more than propellent.

Paddling through purgatory near Erwood (Goodson)

Flag of the Flatlands (Goodson)

Blue means 'social cohesiveness' (Goodson)

Spotlight (Goodson)

'There's something about concrete, blue-trimmed bridges. It leaves a man inspired,' Andrew said pontificating about social cohesiveness and public works projects of the late 80s to early 90s.

I settled into the middle seat and had long given up pretending to help by throwing a limp paddle in the water now and then. So I proceeded to drink several beers. Call it confidence in the efficacy of friends.

The river carried us like a conveyor belt and we were making good time. There were several Class I-II rapids that were worth a cheap thrill and useful for learning how to paddle on moving water.

River dressings (Goodson)

The war of species: Manitoba maples on the left, birch on the right (Goodson)

Forests gradually filled the shorelines the further we progressed. An enduring feature of the Red Deer River appeared to be the war of species among trees on either shore. One side would be composed almost entirely of aspen or birch stands, while the other was predominantly Manitoba maple with the odd elm and green ash.

Soon after the clouds cleared, the temperature chilled and we rounded the corner to Bill's cabin.

We boarded the shore half-cut and slightly windburned, where Bill and the reporter, Gene, were ready to greet us. After standing up I got a case of the "mal de debarquement" and took a moment to hold back the urge to puke before introductions.

Bill was visibly beaming. 

'Wow, you guys look like a motley crew!' 

Pabst and Patio Lights (Latimer)

 

Day Two: "There's No Rapids Past Erwood"

Friday, May 18, 2018 — The cabin was beautiful. Bill had already stopped by early in the morning to drop off a newspaper and an anthropology journal that detailed archaeological finds at the Red Deer River. With the coffee already brewing, I forgot we were still on a camping trip. 

We cleaned the cabin and rehashed the previous night, wondering if we had offloaded enough "potent quotables" to make for a decent story in the local newspaper. But by the time we packed the canoes, our thoughts were on the trip again.

'I'm looking forward to getting into the backcountry mindset,' Sean said. There was a grumble of agreement. 'We've got twenty-five kilometres to do today and the rapids should be pretty much over. We can take a leisurely pace.'

I took my spot scrunched in the middle of the canoe and relaxed while Andrew and David pushed off from shore. The river was placid in the morning sun. I could feel the day's heat eagre to toast my skin, waiting for the ambient temperature to rise and make it happen.

'Would His Highness like a beer to start the morning?' Andrew asked. Yes, His would. 

Leaving Bill's cabin (Goodson)

Cool morning paddle into the wilder reaches of the Red Deer River (Goodson)

The river was still moving at conveyor belt-speed taking us past forests of increasing density. My assumption was that there would be a dramatic shift from maples to conifers, but I was wrong. A quote from the cartoon Bojack Horseman repeated in my head: "You know what they say about assuming – it makes an ass out of you and ming."

Before Sean and I had surveyed the river, we made guesses on behalf of our friends and the river itself. A part of me wanted to do the rapids from Hudson Bay forward to prove something: that we were bad ass risk taking sons-n'-daughters-of-bitches who always came out ahead. But it didn't sit well.

I learned that a group is only as strong as its weakest link. We have gear deficiencies. Experience deficiencies. Uncertainty. It takes surprisingly few missteps to be in trouble. Misjudge your distances or bank on perfect conditions and you could find yourself being pressured to make a potentially fatal crossing over a freezing-cold lake because so-and-so needs to get to work on time.

Having the space to relax on this trip left me with few regrets. That's why, when we turned a river corner and heard the low-level hiss of rumbling water, I felt excitement and not defecation.

Somewhere on the Red Deer, a switch had been flipped.

David, Carpenter and Spiritual Guide, Master of the Laconic Phrase

Light-grey sedimentary rock outcrops along the edges of the Red Deer River (Goodson)

Weathered sandstone below dirt, clay and a stand of coniferous forest uncommon at the Red Deer (Goodson)

Outcrops like exposed bone (Goodson)

Weathered by ice and moving water (Goodson)

The riverbends became tighter. The modest banks with maples turned to eroded cliffsides topped..

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Written by Andy Goodson Photography by Andy Goodson and Sean Hootz

In early September, Sean, Andrew, Adam and I had the perfect window to attempt a trip we had planned a year before: backpacking the Armit River Canyon.

Armit River is fed by the Porcupine Hills' largest waterbody, Armit Lake. Flowing north along the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border, the stream cut deep valleys through the escarpment regarded as canyons by those who explored them. Armit River was not only topographically interesting, but ecologically important as a home for rare plant species and the most northern and isolated fescue meadows in Manitoba. The only problem for us was how to get there.

Sean and I had spent hours poring over maps trying to strategize how to reach the canyon, which was roughly 20 kilometres upstream from where we would enter the river in Saskatchewan and hike across the border into Manitoba. Knowing that hiking the river would get us nowhere slowly, we searched for trails that could bypass the meanders and get us as far as possible.

The path to Armit River Canyon was uncertain as the trails could easily be defunct, flooded or overgrown. All we could do was try and hope for the best.

Old-growth forest near the Armit River Canyon. (Goodson)

 Part One — Armit River, Porcupine Hills, Saskatchewan

"Just hold it still," Sean said as he sawed back and forth. A fallen aspen was blocking the road, only metres away from where we would leave the vehicle for the next three days.

Adam and Andrew took turns cutting through branches and clearing the road while I observed, pretending not to be completely useless. At least we were on the right side of the road block; I never thought to bring a saw.

After removing the debris, we drove through and reached the end of the road where we packed and prepared for the longest hike we had ever faced.

Sean took the navigator role for the trip and, according to him, we had to hike roughly three kilometres before we would even see water. There was a path straight south from us where we would eventually cut east through the bush and find the river. From there, we would walk upstream until finding another path Sean had located.

My backpack felt light, there were few bugs and it was a refreshing change of scenery to be surrounded by quiet woods instead of running water. Tracks of hardened mud were spotted with animal prints, most of which I couldn't identify, except for the obvious black bear.

"You're going the wrong way, dipshit." (Hootz)

Hiking a trail south of Armit River Road (Goodson)

Animal tracks (Goodson)

At an indistinct juncture, Sean checked his maps and said it was time to head through the woods.

Entering the forest was like walking into a greenhouse compared to the dry heat of open sunlight. It was lush and humid as we stepped through patches of waist-high ostrich ferns until reaching a large thicket of alder and maple. This was, as usual, a maze with no clear direction that rewarded passage with whips, scratches and hornet stings.

Being a slow walker, I fell behind. I heard a rustling in the bush ahead, followed by the echo of Andrew yelling, "Are you okay?" But he wasn't talking to me.

Finding water (Goodson)

Jean-Paul, Sean and Andrew reaching the Armit River valley (Goodson)

We found water, apparently. Sean had walked straight out of the bush, then fell down a dirt cliff into the stony riverbed. Other than a scraped knee, he was fine.

The ground disappeared over the steep drop-off and I saw the river for the first time. Adam and I decided to find another way down.

Once in the riverbed, I took off my backpack and got some much needed water. Even with a filter it was gritty to drink and somewhat unsatisfying. Sean said that it must be due to the rainstorm that hit the area the night before our arrival, so there was a chance it would clear up over the next few days.

We marked the location with some trail tape, then proceeded to walk upstream. Stepping on invisible rocks beneath turbid water made our progress extremely slow compared to the trail and even bushwhacking the forest at times.

Mullet Man Adam (Hootz)

Hiking the Armit River after a rainstorm (Goodson)

Rubes (Hootz)

Before the trip, I had read an article about indigenous trails that existed in the Porcupine and Pasquia Hills for over a thousand years. They were used for hunting and as a shortcut between major river systems, such as the Saskatchewan, Red Deer, Swan and Assiniboine Rivers. However, their exact locations were unclear, and I assumed most had either been converted to roads or were virtually unrecognizable. Still, it was fun to imagine that we had somehow stumbled on one of these important pathways, which sometimes led to camps in distinct sections of forest or spiritually charged places.

Not long after we started hiking the river, Sean directed us back into the woods on the east side of the valley. The next trail was only a few metres in just like he said it would be, but we were still several kilometres away from being remotely near the canyon.

We hiked for what felt like a long time on that trail, climbing higher into the hills. There were subtle changes in the forest that caught my eye, particularly the dominance of large stands of old-growth spruce and balsam fir. When we got another glimpse of the river, I couldn't believe it was still Armit; it was shallow, narrow and crystal-clear. I didn't think it could change so drastically in only a few hours.

While the river improved, the trail did not. It was becoming overgrown and degraded by wash-outs and fallen trees. The group was silent and focused on getting as far as possible. Sean unknowingly crossed paths with two moose, cow and calf, which huffed loud and deep in our direction before trotting off into the woods.

Further into the hills, the woods were dominated by large stands of spruce (Goodson)

You are now leaving Saskatchewan. (Hootz)

Hiking through a forestry cutblock, the path was somewhat difficult to trace (Goodson)

By mid-afternoon we crossed the border into Manitoba and the trail broke away into a large cutblock. There was no forest canopy, only stubby brush and a few standing but long-dead tree trunks. We managed to spot an opening in the woods where the trail was likely to continue.

We needed to take advantage of the easy hiking, but even through forest the path was becoming poorly defined. Most of us wanted to keep hiking until dusk, while Sean reluctantly agreed after spotting an entry point to the river where we could have searched for a place to camp.

The sun was past the treeline and making it difficult to judge how much useful light we had left. Then, the trail split into two directions: one veered into thick bush that was virtually impassable, the other went up a steep hill that was washed-out by floods and littered with wood debris.

Sean checked his GPS, and for the first time he wasn't sure where we should go. We decided to take the hill, but made it only halfway up before running out of breath and collapsing in a pit.

We were moving farther away from the river and wondered if the trail was leading us in the wrong direction. Andrew offered to scout ahead and see if it was worth continuing, while Adam, Sean and I discussed another issue: whether we would have multiple campsites over the next three nights or just one. 

Andrew returned and said the trail was completely flooded, but there was something we should see. 

There was a plateau on the hill where a multi-level complex of beaver dams and ponds was built. While not much to look at from ground-level, it was a bizarre sight with large, still ponds descending into the forest like a giant staircase.

A flooded pathway (Hootz)

The Multi-level Beaver Dam Complex (Goodson)

I crossed the dam on the upper level to see if it was promising, but it seemed to continue out of the valley. We were running out of time to take chances on mysterious trails. The sun was about to set and we had reached our limit of exhaustion.

We agreed to backtrack to where the trail was close to the river and start looking for a place to camp. Through the bush, we reached an opening in the woods where we could see upstream.

Spotting a high beach of gravel and sand, a perfect place to camp when the weather is right (Goodson)

The end of a long day's hike (Goodson)

The perfect campsite was only a few metres away. It was a high, flat beach with access to water and a sheltered patch of spruce trees if the wind or rain kicked up. 

The forest coughed us up onto the riverbed of gravel and sand, where I peeled my backpack off like a shoe stuck to a bathroom floor. According to Sean's GPS, we had hiked roughly 12 kilometres and climbed an elevation of over 1,500 feet. I felt completely weightless and floated around the beach like a marionette.

After setting up tents, we decided that it would be our only site for the trip. We needed an extra night to make multiple camps practical and not be in a rush to get home, so we would attempt to reach the canyon the following day, by river, without trail.

◈◈◈Part Two — Armit River, Porcupine Hills, Manitoba

When I finally slunked out of my tent, I was not as sore as I imagined. The morning was bright and sunny and the cards appeared to be playing in our favour again.

The rest of the group came alive and joined me for breakfast shortly before starting our off-trail journey upriver. It seemed unlikely that we would make it to the canyon, while the fescue meadows were still impossibly out of reach. We agreed to simply enjoy the hike, keep a moderate pace and see what we find.

View of our camp from the ridge of the river valley (Hootz)

A completely different river than what we started with (Goodson)

Rock-hopping (Hootz)

I immediately began snapping photos. Something about everyone walking upstream together seemed quaintly spiritual, like a postcard in a Mormon giftshop.

"It feels as if we're walking toward something important," Andrew said.

"Like we have information to return to the Federation, or we're returning an artifact to the..

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Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson and Sean Hootz

The summer of 2017 was an uncertain time for me, but unlike last year it wasn't spent flipping canoes or wading through flash floods. It was spent in an office scrambling to finish a large project, while at home Teisha and I packed boxes and sold half our belongings before moving to Saskatoon.

We had planned a canoe trip for August with some friends to paddle down the Sturgeon-Weir, our first shield river. But the area had received record-breaking rainfalls causing the Churchill River to overflow into the Sturgeon-Weir. The 430-square-kilometre Amisk Lake, which both drains and feeds major sections of the Sturgeon-Weir, had risen by nearly four feet.

Being inexperienced in paddling rivers, we lost confidence in the original plan. I suggested we return to Amisk Lake, same as our first canoe trip, where we would paddle the 50-kilometre route around Missi Island instead. See Map

Water levels on Amisk (Beaver) Lake had risen by around four feet due to heavy rainfall in 2017. (Goodson)

 

Sunday August 13, 2017, Denare Beach, Saskatchewan

We were parked outside the resort office when we saw the owner, Gerry, driving a side-by-side through the water where his boat launch used to be.

He pulled up next to us. "You guys lost?" he said. People always seem to ask us that. 

We told Gerry about our plan to canoe around Missi Island, while helicopters carrying large buckets flew overhead. The air was dry and smoky with a pleasant incense of spruce needles, coupled with the troubling uncertainty of where it was coming from.

"Hope you guys brought stoves 'cause you won't be having any fires. It's real crispy out there," he said. All I knew about was the high water and I did not think to check for fire bans. Most of us had brought food that was better cooked over a campfire.

I asked about the rain we had seen in the forecast, but Gerry said there hadn't been a drop in over a week and he only seemed concern about lightning strikes and the potential for more wildfires. The ban was not ending anytime soon.

We let him know that we would still require three canoes for departure early the next morning. He said "okay," then drove off, shirtless into the sunset, leaving us to the same cabin we had rented two years before.

Leaving the boat launch (Hootz)

Monday August 14, 2017, Denare Beach — Day One around Missi Island

I was rattled out of my sleep by the sound of more helicopters flying over the cabin. Whether it was because of the smoke or stress, I did not much feel like leaving bed, let alone dry land.

Sean and a few others left for Flin Flon to pick up some last minute supplies and a hibachi stove to cook on instead of an open fire. We needed to paddle an exceptional amount of kilometres that day if we were to stay on schedule. Still, I went back to bed with fatigue and a scratchy throat, hoping everyone else was taking their sweet time.

By noon, we were packed and ready to leave. Teisha and I were sharing a canoe though neither of us were skilled at paddling, and I had virtually destroyed my canoe earlier in the year. I wondered how long I could fake my steering skills as we fishtailed our way out of the sheltered channels of Denare Beach.

Nearing the south end of Missi Island, we found open water accompanied by wind and waves. A haze of wildfire smoke descended over the lake and whitecaps emerged as far as we could see—which was only a few hundred feet, give or take.

All smoke and no scenery (Goodson)

Choppy water (Goodson)

Taking a break from the waves on a crispy island (Goodson)

I struggled to correct our direction as Teisha wasted her energy on my bad steering. After a challenging section, we docked at an island to stretch our legs where I walked on a carpet of dry lichens crunching like potato chips. The mosses and leaves appeared pale, faint and uncomfortably stiff as the woods crackled in the heat.

Teisha remarked how the lake was not as breathtaking as she remembered, unless we accounted for smoke inhalation. I wondered if it was less spectacular only because we had seen it before, with or without the haze.

We returned to the water focused on recovering lost time rather than sightseeing. Strong gusts coming off the lake were becoming difficult and we needed to reach the west side of Missi Island to avoid being trapped if the water became impassable. We had paddled for hours and still had ways to go.

My strokes became automatic functions I had little to do with, and soreness was less pain than robotic defect. Matt, who had become somewhat seasick and dehydrated, led his canoe in a haggard chanty of Rob Zombie’s Dragula. This was about it for conversation.

We made it to the west end of Missi Island with only a couple hours of sunlight left.

“I feel like I’m gonna puke,” Matt said. “Can we please find a place to camp?”

Nate, whose canoe had led the group for most of the trip, was annoyed. “Look around,” he said, “the shores are all flooded. We’ve gone this far, we might as well keep going.”

I could feel Matt’s frustration, but Nate was right. After a day of intense paddling we needed to reach somewhere worthwhile.

The group split up as some investigated islands on the opposite side of the kilometre-wide channel using radios to communicate if a suitable camp was found. Everything was either too steep or too wet until we found our place to stay for the night, much further than we had hoped.

We were sitting around a sad little fire in the hibachi stove when Sean announced the day’s trip total from his GPS: 26 kilometres in eight hours. This was an accomplishment for us, though I assume it was an average day for people who know what they’re doing and wake up on time.

“We’ve nearly done half the trip,” Sean said. “Huh.”

Relaxing at camp after paddling 26 kilometres (Hootz)

Sunset on the western shore of Missi Island (Goodson)

 

Tuesday, August 15, Amisk Lake — Day Two around Missi Island

Everyone had turned in early after an onslaught of mosquitoes made life without a real campfire unbearable. On the bright side I was well rested–a complete turnaround from the day before.

I unzipped the tent, letting in a cool draft and blinding myself in the overcast light. This was the day it was supposed to rain, though only a few millimetres. It started to come down minutes before we left our camping spot and set forward.

The previous day's efforts paid off as most of the southeast winds blew overhead, blocked by Missi Island. However we did not consider what we would do if it stormed. The sky rumbled just as we were paddling out of the bay. 

"We shouldn’t stay on the water if there’s any more thunder," Sean said. I agreed, being paranoid of lightning ever since Killdeer.

"We can't canoe within five kilometres of any cloud," Kyle said, imitating Sean’s voice. He gave us a sour face. "I hope you guys are kidding." I felt embarrassed. At some point, I had forgotten how to be outdoors.

The wind was at our backs and we were able to cross choppy sections without taking on much water. Still, Teisha and I were struggling to keep up with Nate and Gill who were setting a faster pace than my shitty J-stroke could match.

Nate, Oats and Gill paddling by a steep island (Goodson)

Sean mentioned that we were getting close to an abandoned mine site. It was no challenge to find, spotted by a clear opening in the woods next to an old building.

The site appeared to be used recently, though most likely for reasons other than mining. There was not much to see except a few old trailers, a tree infested with carpenter ants and hordes of mosquitoes. I left with nickel-sized welts all over my neck and face from whatever mutant breed lived there.

Happy to be back on the water, we set forth toward a long, sheltered channel that was a perfect oasis to remember why we came out in the first place.

I stopped paddling and refreshed my beer supply. 

"Why are they going so fast," Sean said. "This is the best water we've had all day and we're rushing right through it." Teisha and I were getting frustrated with the pace as well, so I tied on a lure and threw out some line.

After about a dozen casts that day, I hooked into something. It took off with my lure like a log down a river, so I suspected a northern pike. I saw the iridescent flash of its sleek body before it snapped my line and was gone forever—the most fishing action I had all year.

"Are you getting your fishing bug back?" Teisha smiled. I didn't want to jinx it.

Carpenter ants removing sawdust from an opening in a spruce tree (Goodson)

Overgrown mine site on Missi Island (Hootz)

Paddling through a calm channel (Hootz)

Fishing for northern pike (Hootz)

Jean-Paul, tired old sea dog (Hootz)

By the time we broke for lunch, the sky had cleared and the heat returned. Nate and Sean were comparing their GPS maps. We were not only ahead of schedule, but had blown through most of the trip and would only be a day's paddle away from familiar water.

"There's a bunch of islands coming up where we can shop for a camp and set up early," Sean said. But just as we reached the turning point on the northwest corner of Missi Island, the channel became a wind tunnel blowing directly against us. There would be no shopping. Thankfully a perfectly good campsite was within reach.

Approaching the northern edge of Missi Island—which quickly became our second camp (Hootz)

View from our second camp on the northern tip of Missi Island (Hootz)

Strong winds - just on the other side of the peninsula where we camped - prevented us from going further. (Hootz)

The wind didn't calm down, but we spent the rest of the afternoon fishing from shore and exploring the woods nearby. It turned out to be a better campsite than we could have asked for. 

By evening, storm clouds rolled in once again and showered us with rain that lasted throughout most of the night.

Raindrops falling on Amisk (Goodson)

Rejuvenating rain (Goodson)

 

Wednesday August 15, 2017, Missi island — The End of the Trip

The weather had cleared up nicely, giving us an opportunity to finish the trip around Missi Island and ride out the rest of our vacation. We had..

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Stories and photography by Mitch Doll, Nate Sawkiw and Andy Goodson

A few months ago, some friends and I discussed going solo camping in the backcountry for the first time. The problem was that we had camped together for so long, we began to question our self-reliance. We could always rely on eachother, whether for setting up the rain tarp or lending that 'thing' someone forgot to pack.  

We agreed to go solo camping—but we would do it together at a river in the Manitoba Duck Mountains. I'll explain: we each chose different tributaries of the river to hike, at least two kilometres apart, then camped alone in the wilderness for two nights before rejoining to compare our experiences.

The goal was to challenge ourselves and demystify the solo camping experience. Here's what happened...

 

  MITCH'S STORY

Mitch: Last seen June 24, 2017

Mature trees along the abandoned road hung overhead and blocked the intense sunlight. A neglected bridge came into sight as we neared the end of the flat section of gravel. 

I took my pack off at the bridge and rested for a moment with Andy and Nate. Recent rainfall had made the river vigorous, mirroring the anxiety and anticipation within me. I had to keep moving forward and cut the break short. Leaving my friends behind at the bridge, I pressed south into the treeline.

My time alone consisted of periodically barking like a dog in all directions. I also imitated animals such as apes. Eventually I would find my own sound: a low neandethalic grunt. These were the noises that would keep the bears away I thought.

The mid-afternoon was spent exploring the wet, old-growth forest before settling in. My camp was close to the river, near a tiny stream of rainwater that pooled on the ground before escaping into the river.

Aquatic plants (Doll)

The stream water was clear and perfect for drinking. I felled a looming dead tree that threatened my tent location, and used it as firewood. The tree was mighty and my saw, small. It was a harrowing task, but I was ready for the stay by sunset. I drank Scotch whisky late into the night, watching the water pass by and the flames dance about. 

Everyone had planned to shoot off bear bangers before going asleep to signal that all was well or three consecutive shots if there was an emergency. I did not hear anything of the sort. Either I had scared the bears toward their camps and would emerge alone in two days, or we were all too far away and the river was too loud to hear anything. Regardless, I was alone.

I poked the fire until it danced again, stoking subtle flames on par with the warmth of instant camp coffee in the morning. I took out a few rolls of 35mm film and my LomoKino camera. I sought inspiration from the location, wanting to create footage for an ongoing film project, however the filming was laboured. There was nothing but forest to fill the frame.

It was fun and I got what I needed, but I still wasn’t inspired. By mid-afternoon, I had used nearly all of my film.

I returned to camp, laid in the sun and read Breakfast of Champions. My bluetooth speaker ran out of battery power. That was disappointing. It had created a good level of comfort and was especially enjoyable around the slow-burning fire at night. I had no distractions anymore.

The sun was setting. It was golden hour.

I stalked the light through the forest with my digital camera. There was nothing else to focus on but the light. I studied it intently. I watched and waited as it crawled down the trees. 

There was nothing but forest to fill the frame. (Doll)

Experimenting with light (Doll)

Breakthrough (Doll)

My camera was no longer getting in the way of creating the images I had envisioned. I perceived how it captured light, rather than how my eye saw it—a personal breakthrough. The sun was set.

  NATE'S STORY

Nate: Last seen June 24, 2017

In the anecdotes I’ve read from people that spent time in the forest alone, usually at some point, they wind up stressing the notion that they were elated by the experience. Having come to terms with themselves and having felt spiritually embraced by their surroundings, they head back to their homes well-rounded, more understanding individuals. What we choose to remember is subjective. I felt more like a brash house guest who had just tromped across the living room carpet in muddy boots.

After having my photo taken and waving goodbye to Andy I headed south-west and downhill into the bush, which got thicker and thicker the further I walked. It didn’t take long for my dog Oats and I to find the river. We hiked upstream through the gnarled tangle of brush and eventually found a nice dry spot underneath two old spruce trees where I set up camp. I felt claustrophobic staring into the fire, like a small bubble had surrounded me – inflated by my possessions and presence – that could pop at any time.

The rain eventually subsided and the harsh edge painted by my mood had begun to dull. I could see raindrops sparkling on the leaves for diamonds rather than little balls of hypothermia.

Having lightened up considerably, both in weather and demeanor, it felt like the right time to find a spot to hang our food and have a bite to eat. I felt strange cooking the meat. Watching the blood rise up out of the top and fat ooze out onto the pan made me feel vulnerable, like when a cop parks beside you at a red light and glares through you with polarized lenses. I gave Oats half the steak, as I had lost my appetite. I threw the clothes I cooked in into the food bag, strung a line up a tree and hoisted it up for the night. We played fetch on the way back, boiled water for the morning and sat around the fire until dark. I smudged moss, leaves and pine needles in an attempt to keep the insect hoard at bay. We fell asleep.

Mossy boulders (Sawkiw)

Sleeping Oats (Sawkiw)

I woke up. I could hear a crashing through the trees uphill about twenty feet from my tent. Oats went ballistic. There was a sound, like a mid-register whine—if it was mad or in pain, I didn’t know. I started yelling, the thing kept howling. I managed to find my headlamp and the bear bangers. I had to hit the dog fairly hard to keep him from bolting out of the tent after this thing. I zipped the door down and fired a banger straight out into the clearing. The thing kept grunting. I clutched the mace, and Oats, waiting for it to go away or attack me. In that moment I decided that if it didn’t respond to being hosed down with mace by running away, as advertised, I was going to have to try and kill it, whatever it was. Never before in my life had I truly felt like an animal. A few minutes later it sauntered off. I zipped the tent shut and went back to sleep.

I woke up the next morning figuring it had all been a bad dream. Getting out of the tent, I saw the banger shell and lighter on the ground. I shared a nervous laugh with myself. I felt more relaxed that morning than I had in the entirety of the first day. I lit a fire and laid in the sun with a book. Things were peachy.

Oats and I went for a walk down to where I had stashed the food the previous day. When we got to the clearing underneath the tree the food was hanging in, I noticed Oats had not followed me. He stayed back at the edge of the bush. I tried to call him but all he would do is whimper, jolting his eyes in every direction. I looked down at where we had cooked the steak and something had been digging in the ashes.

I looked up and Oats bolted back down the path towards camp. I followed him. I grabbed a few bear bangers from the tent and headed back to our food. Once we got there I yelled a few times but heard nothing. So I fired a banger off above the dense patch of young poplars, surrounding the clearing our food was hung in. I heard rustling head off in three different directions as soon the thing exploded. I didn’t go back there again that day as I assumed something may have been stalking us.

Oats watches the woods (Sawkiw)

The rest of the day went well. We found an old dilapidated tree stand not far off from where we were camping, a rusted oil barrel and a few old two-sixes. Oats chased a deer that stumbled across our camp, which set him on patrol for the rest of the day. I watched a woodpecker attack the tree above me, and let the birds serenade me until dark. I felt numb, totally content in doing nothing at all. I thought a lot about my life and relationships, where I was headed in life and where I wanted to go. How strange it is that in our modern times, so many people withdraw from society, cloistered in their own little hovels, forlorn, in a world that grows more disconnected, yet more interwoven every day.

Ever since the trip I haven’t exactly been myself, which was jumpy and on-edge, worried and overwhelmed. I think I spat out whatever strange Kool-Aid I had been drinking and learned that unless I make things happen, nothing will. It was something I’ve known for a long time, but have never truly accepted. But after I got back home, I watched a few videos online and learned that our unwanted guest was a bear. Next time I would bring a gun.

  ANDY'S STORY

Andy: Last seen June 24, 2017

I was only a few steps into the woods when I started to shrink. Rain fell through cracks in a lush green ceiling held up by trunks of monumental grandeur, and I was a wet rat scrambling underneath its cover. I ducked under branches and rushed through ferns, going deeper into the river valley where I could find a proper burrow for a rodent like myself.

I stopped for a while under a large fir while the rain intensified. Before the trip, I was concerned I would react poorly to bad weather. But I was responsible for my own enjoyment and my nerves would have to deal.

There were game trails that provided easy pathways through the forest and eventually led to a perfect camping spot. It was a mossy flat next to the creek, shaded by fir, spruce and birch. I had almost settled at a spot only a few dozen metres away that would have been pure disappointment by comparison.

I lit up a ceremonious cigarette and got to work. 

The first thing I noticed about solo camping is that a lot less time is spent bumbling around. I was focused entirely on the tasks, which became a mental checklist:

  • Find and clear camping spot
  • Set up tent and sleeping gear
  • Tie rain tarp
  • Find a tree to hang food
  • Filter water
  • Collect dry firewood
  • Have another ceremonious cigarette

As soon as I had a free moment to relax, there was something else I could do to alleviate my discomforts. Eat. Drink. Change into dry clothes. Fix the crap-job I did tying the tarp. The process was exhausting.

Hours passed quickly and the forest fell pitch-dark. I had spent most of the day in complete silence and for the first time it started to bother me. Several shots of rum later and the campfire still felt lonely.

What turned everything around was music. I was too lazy to play the guitar I had brought out, so I listened to Bowie's Scary Monsters on my phone, then made it halfway through Act I of Zappa's Joe's Garage before getting paranoid and going to bed.

The next morning, I woke up blind in my left eye. I did not remember getting poked and thought I must have slept funny. I worried about it a bit, then got back to work.

The day was balmy and slightly humid which brought insects in to play. I was about to leave on a hike when I heard a muffled bang echoing through the river valley. I smiled remembering that my friends were still out there somewhere, then cursed them for breaking the immersion.

I hiked nearly five kilometres through the bush, following upstream to a river fork I had marked on my map and back. I set my own relaxed pace for most of the journey. As the day went on, I became increasingly anxious with the distance I had travelled. My eyesight had not improved much and the thought of a serious emergency crept up on me with each turn in the river. 

Spruce-dominated forest (Goodson)

Common hair-cap moss (polytrichum commune) (Goodson)

Big boulders (Goodson)

Even the river's tributaries are high for this time of year. (Goodson)

I freakin' love fungi. (Goodson)

Northern bluebells aka tall lungwort (Mertensia paniculata) - Flowers may change colour from white to blue or pink to attract insects and other pollinators. (Goodson)

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Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson and Sean Hootz

Saturday, May 20, 2017, near Fort Pelly, Saskatchewan — Well past noon, we gathered at a dusty crossroad where our plans had just come undone.

"Guys," Sean said with his hands on the back of his neck, "this one's my fault. I should've checked the road out last week."

I kicked up a cloud of dust while flailing to get rid of a dozen woodticks crawling up my pant legs. Sean and Nate looked over maps on a cellphone. I barely noticed the large black pickup truck that pulled in beside us. 

The driver rolled down his window. "You guys can't be lost if you made it out all the way here," he said. 

Sean explained that we had planned to canoe the Assiniboine River, but the end-point he chose was an impassible turkey trail. We needed to find another location to leave our vehicles and trailer that was out of the way without shortening our trip too much.

The man in the truck seemed surprised by the length of our journey, which was 70 kilometres of river, meanders and all. "You guys better have a few days set aside," he said. "It'll surprise you." Garth was his name. He told us he had paddled the river before and that parts of it "make you feel like you're in the Geographic Society." Much of the upper Assiniboine River was inaccessible without crossing private land. It was uncharted territory for us and we wanted to be surprised.

Garth warmed up and offered to escort us to a relative's farm where there would be secure access to the river in a place he called the Mossy Forest. He led us on a grass road over hills, through fields and finally a forested river valley that seemed out-of-place among uninterrupted farmland.

We thanked him for saving our trip and, before he left, he imparted some last-minute advice:

"Don't underestimate that river. It'll wind and bend—you'll think that the end is just around the next corner, but you'll be far from it, maybe even hours away. It's about five miles on the river for each mile as the crow flies."

We had never paddled a river before, but were convinced we had this trip in the bag. From road crossings the river looked lazy, perfect for beginners.

Being a few hours behind schedule, Sean, Adam, Andrew, Nate and I took back to the grid roads immediately. David, Ann and Gill, who we had left at the put-in point near Tadmore, were no doubt wondering why we were taking so long. 

We returned by mid-afternoon. David was wearing a cowboy hat; Ann and Gill were relaxing in the shade of the overhanging maples. Something about the scene felt Old West, in a budget brand kind of way.

Pushing off on the Assiniboine River near Tadmore, southeast of Preeceville. (Goodson)

Grassy banks (Goodson)

Adam and I stepped inside my cedar stripped canoe, a gift from a co-worker and one of the few pretty things I owned. I wanted to learn how to steer properly, so I took the stern. The middle was loaded with all the unnecessary gear one brings when extra space is available.

Adam asked for a beer so I pulled a can out of the cooler and threw it over, missing him entirely. It took us a while to retrieve while scrambling with paddles and being pushed around by the current. But we did not put in much effort and had already gone past the first few bends.

The rest of the group caught up as we drifted downstream. The banks were grassy with clean, sandy beaches on lower flats, and the maple trees had young light-green leaves that reached far over the water. We were low relative to the banks on the edge of the river, which hid any sign that a world existed beyond the Assiniboine. I would not have guessed that there was farm or pasture just beyond the trees. 

"We're on the bayou now," Andrew said, "Who wants to eat some crayfish?"

Paddling through the meandering sections of the upper Assiniboine (Goodson)

Maple groves (Hootz)

The surrounding, flat prairie gave the impression there was nothing beyond the river. (Goodson)

Shade (Hootz)

Geese followed us through the green corridors as songbirds called from the maple groves. It was a slice of paradise—for the most part. 

On slower sections, we would be hung up on sandbars. In faster currents, we spun out of control trying to correct ourselves. Before Adam and I got the hang of basic paddling techniques, we were sucked into a fast section that dragged us beneath boughs and branches, flattening Adam on his back and brushing our only paper map into the river.

I was getting less confident in our skill. Even with a wide river to work around, it demanded a lot of attention.

"What happened back there?" Adam said exasperated. "Can't keep your eyes off the river for even a second. It's nothing like paddling a lake."

I didn't know much about the Assiniboine, but had done some research out of curiosity. I knew that it fed Lake of the Prairies and eventually emptied into the Red River in Manitoba. The Assiniboine was also a historic fur trade route, and the sparse written accounts described shallow, difficult passages. I thought the water would be higher in May.

I found it difficult to take photos while steering the canoe as well, but the breaks in paddling were rewarding. There were few bugs, lots of freshwater mussel shells and scenery that conjured images of Huckleberry Finn on the lam.

"I can hear the road," Sean said. But we were many corners away from seeing the bridge. We expected to cross it an hour before. Gill, who was the only one with experience paddling rivers, said something akin to "I told you so."

We took a short break just after the bridge and the matter of where to camp was brought up. We agreed that we had underestimated the amount of time required to travel and would need to paddle until dark.

Adam passing beneath the first bridge (Goodson)

Before the river changed (Goodson)

After the river changed (Hootz)

Perk about shallow water: you can get out and walk (Hootz)

Stuck (Hootz)

Gill, Oats and Nate navigating riffle sections with shallow water and exposed rocks (Hootz)

The Assiniboine River became more 'boreal' as we progressed (Hootz)

The river meandered for a long time as we veered further and further into something more closely resembling wilderness, though I was getting impatient with the constant turns. The river's surroundings transformed with tall patches of spruce, ideal for camping, and eroded riverbanks. This was accompanied by a change in elevation, and substantially faster water.

"Do you hear that?" Adam said, "It sounds like waterfalls." My stomach dropped.

We floated around the bend and I heard Nate shout before passing through a wall of noise. I saw rocks, splashes and rumbling water. I would not call them rapids, but they were far more than we were ready to deal with at the time.

I tried to back-paddle, but it was too late. The current pulled us in and the underside of our canoe scraped over a large exposed rock. It made a crunching noise that shivered through my spine.

"Shit, shit, shit..." I tried pushing us off the rock, but we were hung up on the very middle and there was a substantial amount of weight. The canoe screeched and moaned. Adam and I stepped out to slide it off then got back inside, shaking, waiting for water to fill the bottom. But it never came. Maybe it sounded worse than it really was.

The look on everyone's faces was grim. I wondered what we had gotten into. This was not the last section of fast water, nor the worst ahead.

Sean, who was in a one-man canoe, offered to go ahead of the group and find the best course. He would shout instructions, but it was usually too loud to hear and too late. Adam and I were still figuring out how to navigate the current while boulders thumped and cracked beneath us. Nate and Gill were on the verge of tipping at any given moment.

By dusk, we were eager to set up camp and wind down for the night. We found a grassy clearing in the forest with an old fire pit at its centre where we decided to unpack. Sean was concerned that we might have visitors, but was promptly ignored. We were still close to the river and would leave the site cleaner than we found it anyway.

I had promised to cook a pot of chilli with deer meat for the group, so I put some of the excess cargo to work. The cast-iron Dutch oven and tripod was impractical anywhere but my backyard.

"How'd your canoe hold up?" Sean asked me. I didn't know. I didn't want to look.

Chilli with venison courtesy of Teisha's dad. (Hootz)

I promised my mom a shot of the "Dutch oven in action." (Hootz)

 

❖Day Two: Farmland to Forest

I sweated while sleeping, thanks to the chilli. It cooled me down considerably and made for a lousy morning in the hammock. Howling coyotes kept me awake so I was particularly grouchy. 

I realized that our trip was not going to work out as planned. I had spent enough time studying the maps – before they fell in the river – to know that the end-point we set was too far. The last section, which we would not reach after a full day of paddling, would take at least an extra day to complete.

Persuading the group to change plans was difficult as everyone was feeling ambitious. But those who were most reluctant to give up were those who did not plan the trip.

"Let's just see how far we get today," Sean said. "There's two bridges left. If we messed up we can call to get my brother to pick us up at the last road crossing." We had no cell service on the river but hoped to get lucky.

Before Adam and I repacked our canoe, I turned it over to check the damage. It was not good. There were small cracks in the fibreglass coating running along both sides of the vessel. The floor of the canoe must have flexed inward when we were teetering on the rocks.

"Are we gonna make it?" Adam asked.

The sky was clear, and the sun was soon to warm my bones that chilled from the previous night. There was no option but to keep paddling. Getting nervous would not fix my canoe.

We got to the next rapid and riffle section quickly. More brazen than the day before, Adam and I paddled into the current and slipped by the rocks expertly. "That felt right," Adam said. "Let's do more of that."

It was only during calm stretches that we could tune-in to the scenery. Old-growth forest surrounded the river as I began missing the lazy ebbs and flows of the bayou. But I couldn't discount what I was seeing, which was dream-like and instilled a strong sense of déjà vu. Even the image of Bob Saget's face on the back of Nate's shirt felt plucked from an important memory.

There were baby geese diving alongside the canoe through clear, red water. They swam funny, like kids pedalling on bicycles they've outgrown. The water would press their gosling fuzz close to their body, giving them a skeletal appearance I could only describe as creepy-cute.

Occasionally the forest would break and reveal households, pastures and dilapidated shacks on the riverside. We passed by one onlooker standing on the manicured grass of their backyard leading down to the river. Nate waved to her. These vignettes would pass as quickly as they appeared between theatre curtains of poplar and spruce.

Spruce corridor (Goodson)

David, Ann and Andrew (Goodson)

Anxious paddling (Hootz)

Tunnel vision (Hootz)

..
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Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson, Mitch Doll and Sean Hootz

April 20, 2017, Saskatchewan — It was morning when we pulled up to the Mountain Cabin Recreation Site on the northeast tip of the Pasquia Hills. Down the road, the Bainbridge River sloshed and spattered with water so brown, it was easier to imagine chocolate milk. 

There were four of us including myself, Sean, Mitch and Steve, a new friend who had reached out to us last year about coming along for a trip. Steve had a wealth of knowledge and experience acquired through a lifetime of camping, and working as an outdoor educator and President of SaskOutdoors. Despite the qualifications, he was a humble guy that operated on a level of peaceful acceptance I wanted to steal by osmosis. 

What brought us to Bainbridge River was the history of fossil discoveries and likelihood of dramatic topography. I read reports of massive shale outcrops and the existence of a Late Cretaceous bonebed — a layer of rock that was the presumed source of fossilized shark teeth, fish bones and bird remains found downstream. Sean had pored over satellite imagery and identified what appeared to be a mass wasting nine kilometres upriver, which would be a collapsed riverbank larger than we've ever seen. He was also in contact with a local source who informed him of an old mining prospector's cabin somewhere in the area.

We stepped out of the vehicle to make use of the outhouse before foregoing the luxury. The sky was grey and the air chill. While the southern prairie showed springtime revival, the northern forest was still a drab mess shaking off a thin layer of snow mold. 

Mountain Cabin Recreation Site is located off Highway 9 at the northeast edge of the Pasquia Hills. (Goodson)

The "real" Mountain Cabin is reputedly an old mining prospector's shack built into the hillside at Bainbridge River. (Goodson)

"Oh, there it is," Sean said, pointing across the valley to its western slope where there was a small dilapidated shack. The way it was described to him had given the impression of a greater challenge. This was a bit of a letdown since we were prepared for adventure à la Goonies.

With time to spare, we decided to check out the area and, of course, make our way to the cabin.

There were bright cloths wrapped around aspen trees surrounding the recreation site. Steve explained that they were left by First Nations groups who've come to pray. Unknown to me, I photographed the Ribbon Trees, which was forbidden due to their spiritual significance. I later deleted the photos, but was interested to learn that the cloths were meant to decay naturally over time.

There were ATV trails that led us up to the old shack where we saw a glimpse of what was to come on our hike. The immense valley had snowy peaks giving off a mountainous appearance in contrast to the low-lying Saskatchewan River delta behind us. 

High ridges at the Bainbridge River valley in north-east Pasquia Hills. (Goodson)

Closeup of the cabin — a bit more modern than expected. (Goodson)

View from Mountain Cabin (Goodson)

Moldy roof (Goodson)

Moss balls (Goodson)

The shack was embedded into the face of a steep hillside just off the trail. Plexiglass windows, a furnace and some old beer cans meant that it was still used in some capacity. The roof, on the other hand, was returning to the earth quite nicely. After a short time we returned to the vehicles and began packing for a much longer hike. 

Mitch was waiting at the treeline. "I guess here's as good a start as anywhere," he said before walking through a wall of tangled branches. The rest of us followed suit. 

A bridge over Bainbridge (Goodson)

Sean experiencing the joys of bushwhacking (Doll)

Mitch – hard to miss with the red toque (Hootz)

Steve following behind on a bank of river debris (Hootz)

Branches whipped and cracked; the forest floor squished and snapped. The sweet scent of moss mixed with the pungency of balsam fir was more invigorating than a million gas station coffees.

We only got to the first riverbend before taking a short break—a half-kilometre in at best.

"Doesn't take long to remember why we don't bushwhack anymore," Sean said. Mitch and I joined in the complaining while Steve remained silent, checking out rocks and branches. I asked him if it was cool to take a break so soon. He seemed unfazed.

The river section ahead was covered in a thick sheet of ice that almost looked like a retreating glacier. There was clear meltwater trickling through large cracks and we could hear it percolating beneath our steps.

We took every chance we could to avoid bushwhacking, but fallen trees and riverbanks made it inevitable. Typically, we would walk through water. However, the weather forecast predicted rain and temperatures below zero for the weekend. Falling into cold spring runoff was not a risk worth entertaining. 

"Bracket mushrooms" growing on a decomposing birch tree. (Goodson)

Large, round rocks such as this were found at Bainbridge River. We assume they are septarian concretions. (Goodson)

Frozen river section (Goodson)

Steve and I walking on a frozen river section (Hootz)

Steve had a more leisurely pace than Mitch and Sean hiking through the forest. He examined the buds on trees, listened for bird calls and tuned-in to the environment I passed over while keeping up with the group. I would try to hang back, but always found myself rushing to the next twig in the face.

By the time I caught up to Sean and Mitch, they were taking another break. "We've barely gone two kilometres," Sean said with a lackluster exhale. "Only, like, eight more to go," Mitch said, his words hanging in the air like a stale fart. Nothing reminds you of how out-of-shape you really are than hiking the woods in springtime.

"We don't have to make it to the mass wasting," Sean said. "We're here to enjoy it, not torture ourselves." I thought his surrender came too easily, but he was right. Survival sports are for masochists and TV celebrities.

The mud, ice and snow was not conducive to finding fossils, so I was determined to make it to the first major landslide before we gave up any more objectives. I hoped to find at least some evidence of the ancient bonebed upstream, if anything at all. 

The next riverbend was much steeper than the last. We side-stepped over a muddy riverbank sending chunks of soil and rock into the water. No matter how sure the footing, the ground slid like butter.

"You guys are gonna like this," Sean shouted over the muddy river. 

Crumbling ground and frozen cascades (Goodson)

Outcrops expose the Ashville Formation, Favel Formation and Morden Shale that lie beneath the Manitoba Escarpment. (Hootz)

The Bainbridge River outcrop is the largest shale cliff we've seen to date. (Goodson)

The ivory-coloured layer is presumably bentonite, formed by volcanic ash that settled in stagnant water during the Late Cretaceous period. 

The land of landslides (Hootz)

The ground was crumbled oil shale, soft and springy to walk on. Water trickled down from the top of the cliff beneath icy cascades. Sean, who had led us to the site, was standing beneath the largest shale cliff we've seen to date.

"You smell that?" he said. "It's like walking in a tire shop."

There was an ivory-coloured strip embedded between the layers of shale. It was most likely bentonite, a rock formed by volcanic ash that settled in stagnant water during the Late Cretaceous. 

We looked at the sizable cliff, while bits and pieces of shale crumbled before us and rolled downhill. "This makes me nervous," Sean said. 

We descended the bank and Mitch sank into the ground to his thighs. We were walking on a thin layer of crumbled shale over two feet of snow. If the cliff weathered so quickly, I wondered how stable the ground could be elsewhere. We were in the land of landslides, after all.

The clouds revealed a clear, blue sky, and we felt good about making it at least halfway to our goal with our current pace. We decided to take lunch when I was hit with a wave of nausea. I choked down a Cliff Bar. The wrapper said nut butter with a picture of some guy on a bicycle. 

We reached the next obstacle sooner than hoped — a hundred-foot vertical cliff composed of the same soft, lousy soil. It wrapped around a horseshoe bend in the river and appeared to continue farther than we could see. There was no easy way to cross the river, so I thought it would be best to bushwhack up the slope and walk the high ridge through the forest. 

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The Badwater River is a remote canoe route in northern Saskatchewan, located northwest of Wollaston Lake. 

Guest story by Levi Kalinsky

My name is Levi; I am a 28-year-old geologist, working in northern Saskatchewan. My wife Michelle is also a geologist who has worked in the province's north. My love for exploration started with family ATV excursions and fishing trips to remote locations while growing up on a farm near Iron River in Alberta's Lakeland region. As a lover and promoter of my new home in Saskatchewan, I am happy to share my story of the Badwater River — a canoe trip in remote northern wilderness. 

My interest in the Badwater River area started when I read about the region's geology and learned that Pasfield Lake, the river's primary source, is a 220-metre-deep (720 ft.) meteorite crater. The lake is fed primarily by groundwater and run-off, and its clarity is truly astonishing. I discovered the Badwater River while researching a way to visit the lake, but I couldn't find anyone who had canoed the route. The more I read about the region, the more enticing it became. 

I managed to lure five others into a canoe trip on the river with an extremely detailed - and extremely nerdy - PowerPoint presentation. The team consisted of fellow geologists, Mikkel, Evan, Andrew and Michelle, and Chad, whose background is in biology. I had never done a fly-in canoe trip before, but most of the party worked and felt somewhat at-home in the wilderness. Chad was by far the most experienced in remote canoeing and provided us with a helpful, guide-like presence. The trip required six days on the water and two days for travel to and from the destination.

Group photo at Points North Landing. Left to right: Michelle, Evan, Andrew, Mikkel, Chad and myself

Our trip started at 6 am in Saskatoon, July 14th, 2016. The entire day was spent on the road traveling to Points North, commonly referred to as "Points." We spent the night camped at the edge of the airstrip where we would take off the following morning on a Turbo Otter to Green Bay at the northeast side of Pasfield Lake.

During the flight, I attempted to capture photos of the vast expanse of drumlins, eskers and rivers, but the plane windows were too scratched and dirty. The Pasfield Lake Plain was a relatively dry, flat and uplifted ecodistrict within the larger Athabasca Plain ecoregion. It was likely formed by the shattering and rebound of the Athabasca sandstone caused by the Pasfield Lake meteorite impact. Unlike much of northern Saskatchewan, it holds fewer lakes. 

On our first day of canoeing we attempted to catch some of the trophy-sized lake trout held in Pasfield Lake. We managed one respectable 28-inch trout, but the wind was strong and we were eager to start our journey downstream. As we paddled out of Pasfield, the origin of Green Bay's name was obvious. The blue-green waters and white silica-rich sands seemed more like a tropical destination than Saskatchewan.

Green Bay at Pasfield Lake

Approaching Pasfield Lake's outflow into the Badwater River

Paddling through blue-green water

Pike from the Badwater River

At the end of Green Bay, the outflow into Badwater River greeted us with trickling shallow rapids and abundant boulders. The first stretches of rapids were managed by walking our canoes through the deepest water we could find. The importance of good water shoes was apparent. 

Strong wind from the northwest persisted for the remainder of the day and made paddling difficult when crossing the Granger and Dubé Lakes. 

The stretch of river between the two lakes looked almost like a mangrove with deep, clear pools and bends undercutting the muskeg banks lined with overhanging shrubs. We found our first camping spot near the outflow of Dubé Lake. It was a sandy little bay, sheltered by a crescent-shaped esker. 

First night's camping spot on an esker near the outflow of Dubé Lake

 ◈◈◈Day Two

Our second day of paddling was pleasant with several outcrops and nice runs of rapids. The river had gently sloping banks and the surrounding vegetation consisted of burnt and stunted trees. We came upon four different waterfalls and some excellent fishing for Arctic grayling. The pace was relaxed leaving plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, fishing and even swimming in the smaller waterfalls. 

Michelle fishing the Badwater River

Andrew and Evan paddling rapids

Overhanging sandstone slabs

Sandstone crevasse

First grayling for Michelle

"Grayling City" 

Paddling through a windy stretch on the river

The first small waterfall

Swimming spot

As the end of the day drew near, the river took a sharp turn from the northeast to west. Its banks became steep and treed with old-growth jack pines. We struck gold looking for a camping spot, and pitched our tents on a moss-covered outcrop in a flat, sheltered area not far from the river. 

Drumlins and an outcrop

Bedrock camp

 ◈◈◈Day Three

The next morning, we packed our gear, crossed the river and started hiking to a canyon we had spotted the night before. As we neared the canyon, we knew we had made a great find. The cliffs were large (for Saskatchewan) and the Athabasca sandstone outcrops were extensive. There were many caves of varying size and we found one with several chambers that led to an opening on the side of a cliff. We could have easily spent and entire day hiking and exploring the small canyon and surrounding area. 

The remainder of the day was spent on a beautiful stretch of river with abundant outcrops. The river tiptoed to the west, flowing beside sandstone cliffs and toppling slabs of rock within an amphitheatre-like valley. 

Canyon country at the Badwater River

Spotting an eagle's nest

"The Amphitheatre" - layered sandstone beds that appear almost like benches

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Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson and Sean Hootz

November 19, 2016 — Woody River Recreation Site, Saskatchewan: Day One

Every year, I make the same mistake. I wait too long to go on my last open-water fishing trip. This is why it's no surprise that, when we pull up to the boat launch at Smallfish Lake in November, I know I've wasted my time again. 

"Told you it'd be frozen," Sean starts. "I'm starting to think you want to suck." 

We press a fresh set of tracks into untouched snow, browsing the campground for a place to stay the weekend. Four inches of undisturbed powder blankets the entire camping area. Aside from some light hunting traffic down the nearby Woody River Road, the place feels virtually abandoned.

Kyle saunters out of his truck, tracking sunflower seeds among his footsteps. "I'll be honest, I thought more people were coming out," he says, pulling a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka and two jugs of Clamato out of his truck box. Kyle usually only tags along on bigger trips, so I'm not sure what he's expecting. 

Jason remains silent, unravelling the canvas tent we'll all be sleeping in. Laziness could stifle tomorrow's mission to hike and find the famously out-of-reach Armit Lake, and Kyle has a way of bringing out my subconscious desires to sit back and eat smoked oysters around the campfire all day.

After setting up the tent, Sean suggests taking a hike up the nearby Woody River in the spirit of the grasslands. We use the residual mentality from last month's trip—just choose a direction and walk. The thrill for exploring land and water makes me forget that I've come here with any intention of catching fish. 

Wandering off (Goodson)

River lights (Goodson)

Spying water (Hootz)

"Coffee and mud pie topped with whipped cream" (Goodson)

"Triangles and Rhombuses" (Goodson)

Climbing a ridge (Goodson)

We follow the river upstream, where the woods are thick stands of trembling aspen and the ridges are much steeper. Kyle tries climbing a slope that sends him sliding back down with every attempt. He shouts a few choice curse words, then picks himself up and tries again.

"All I brought were these boots and they weren't made for this shit. Should be using them to dance all night at the bar," he moans in his blue, high-vis coveralls.

At the top of the ridge, we get a lovely view of the river bend and surrounding forest. Sean finds an old baiting barrel, along with a piece of jaw or maxillary bone.

Lower section of Woody River (Goodson)

Broken maxillary bone, possibly from a moose. (Goodson)

Land and Sky (Goodson)

Aspen forest (Hootz)

Not wanting to get too carried away with an afternoon hike, we visit a few more lookout points and cut through the forest back to the vehicle. We drive another 20 km north to the river's inflow on the south end of Woody Lake with an hour of sunlight to spare.

The number of spruce trees increases dramatically at Woody River's upper reaches, but the forest is thick and more challenging to hike. Sean and I snap a few photos and twigs in our faces before deciding we've had enough.

Spruce forest near the inflow of Woody River (Hootz)

River blues (Hootz)

"Jump in, the water's fine." (Hootz)

Strange pathways over thin ice at Smallfish Lake (Goodson)

We drive back to our site at Smallfish Lake Campground where the only tire tracks still belong to us.

Sean lights the propane heater inside the tent as a breeze picks up off the lake, plunging the 'feels like' temperature down to the Ninth Circle of Hell. I don't have a thermometer I can check to tone down the hyperbole.

"I will not be cold while car-camping," Jason states as a matter of fact. "There's no excuse for being uncomfortable." We repeat the mantra in unison: "I will not be cold, car-camping."

Birch bark ignites and the stack of frozen wood finally catches fire. "Who wants a Caesar?" Kyle asks. I take him up on the offer. Truth be told, it's a little strange to see him drink.

"Are you going to polish off that entire bottle? That's a lot of clam juice for one sitting," Sean inquires.

Kyle pours himself another cup, leaving a finger's width of vodka at the end of the bottle. "You're not my dad," he says. 

 ◈◈◈

November 19, 2016 — Woody River Recreation Site, Saskatchewan: Day Two

I'm not sure if I've slept much at all, which is par for the course on the first night. It's the thought of hiking an undetermined amount of kilometres that fails to get me out of bed. I can't be worse off than Kyle, who's been getting up every forty minutes to deal with the aftereffects of attempted vodka-suicide.

"Anyone else have weird dreams?" Sean asks in the dark, somewhere in the vicinity of his sleeping bag. "Thank carbon monoxide hallucinations for that, the white man's vision quest."

"Kyle, are you coming on this trip, or what?" I prod him, but there's no response. I ask again. He groans, says "No," then rolls over.

"Do you have any regrets?" 

"Never," he says.

Sean, Jason and I pack for the day and drive north again, this time, to Spirit Lake. There, we begin our hike down a system of back-roads and ATV trails in shaky attempt to reach the isolated Armit Lake.

Our knowledge of these trails is lacking and our navigation is based on rough satellite imagery and our own sense of direction. We know we might not make it to our destination, but the fun is in the process.

Spirit Lake, a section of the Woody River Recreation Site (Goodson)

The road to nowhere in particular. (Hootz)

"Where's your high-vis jacket?" (Goodson)

The sky is overcast and the cold is hardly noticeable as quiet breezes tumble snow off the forest canopy. Sean remarks that it's hunting season and we're not wearing bright colours, so I don my best garb in red plaid with trail-tape tassels. 

Wanting to avoid run-ins with hunters, we turn at a junction and head down an old ATV trail covered in fresh snow and fallen trees blocking the way for vehicles. The road transitions from a narrow corridor of young pines to a frozen bog. In a wetland of trickling water and mud, the path becomes indiscriminate and completely useless. 

Trail-tape Ninja (Hootz)

A small creek trickles underneath the snow. (Hootz)

"Yeah...starting to think this isn't the right way," Sean says, pulling his boot out of mud and cracked ice. We come across a metal tree stand and get paranoid about hunters again. "Let's go back to the main road and see where it takes us. As long as we're headed roughly northeast, we should get to Armit Lake."

Continuing our hike, Jason remarks the changing forest type as we progress. "There's a land feature I saw on the map called 'Spirit Mountain.' This must be it." 

Spirit Mountain's elevation is gradual and unspectacular, while the trees obscure any potential viewpoints. These are common themes among plains features that misappropriate the word, mountain. Spirit is interesting, however, because of the abrupt transition of forest from the skirt of the hill to the northern slopes. The change from a near monoculture of trembling aspen to old-growth spruce forest is like walking into another display room in a natural history museum. 

Up and down the ATV trail (Hootz)

White spruce forest (Goodson)

"What makes you think I won't cut you?" (Hootz)

Brushing snow off a large tree fungus. (Hootz)

An old, totally-still-safe, tree stand. (Hootz)

"Old Man's Beard" or whatever your local nomenclature dictates. (Goodson)

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Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson and Sean Hootz

October 28, 2016, Swift Current, Saskatchewan: Day One

"Just tell them we had to pull over in Moose Jaw. You had diarrhea or something," says Sean, spinning the steering wheel toward a gaggle of four degenerate youths standing in a liquor store parking lot, chumming-it-up and minding their own business. Before he has the chance to fully stop the vehicle, I spill onto the pavement and run to greet my friends like an overexcited Bichon Frise.

"Hey guys!"

They turn their backs in unison with arms crossed and shoulders cold as a northern front. I give my regrets: "We're only behind by an hour, what's the rush? It's a national park campground." No response. This must be Jason's work; the guy is an atomic clock with the unsympathetic discipline of a Siberian trapper. Thankfully, the rest of the group accepts my delivery of Sean's canned excuse without a grain of salt at the expense of my self-respect, I guess.

We pile back into our vehicles a short while later and head south down Highway 4 to Val Marie for another hour and a half of pastureland, dry ravines, and potholes of both terrain and asphalt.

Excitement for our first trip to the West Block of Grasslands National Park is mixed: Jason, Adam and Andrew have studied an extent of local geology and ecology and are anxious to witness the physical manifestation of dry textbook writings; Matt and Kyle are happy to be along for the ride without much faith in seeing anything of interest; and Sean flat-out denies there's anything worth seeing beyond the north-eastern forests. I've visited the East Block of the park for the first time this year, but the trip had been cut short by a severe lightning storm. I remain cautiously optimistic that late October is a more gentle time to explore the slopes of native prairie.  

Val Marie, the gateway to Grasslands National Park (Goodson)

Population: 98 (Goodson)

Sean pulls-over just outside Val Marie to give time for the others to catch up before we make our way to the park boundary. He looks outside the window with a twitch of discomfort in his face. "Can you imagine what it would be like to live here?" Overcast skies tend to accentuate the bleak and dreary, especially in a region early surveyors damned as "unfit for habitation." But I shouldn't pretend to know the details of its local history. I only know what I've been told by a few travellers, artists and storytellers who've found inspiration in the plains: there's more to the prairie than what meets the eye. I don't own this opinion as a dweller of the parkland and forests, but I want to understand the kind of person who does. 

Kyle and Andrew pull up beside. Sean rolls down his window. "It's been like fifteen minutes. What were you guys doing?" Kyle swings his head back, faking concern. "Oh, now you're in a big hurry to see some grass."

The gates to the park are by no means monumental. There is no climactic reveal, grand presentation or dramatic change in topography, just a cattle guard and endless acres of brown and grey. Matt is the first to point out a lone Plains bison in the distance, and the war-torn battlefield where black-tailed prairie dogs live. The gravel road winds through the Frenchman River Valley, a view soured by rain clouds and thoughts of setting up our tent. 

"We must be getting close," Sean mutters to himself. I wonder how we might escape to Cypress Hills, and whether it would be worthwhile to drive there today or tomorrow.

Just past the bridge crossing, the Frenchman River Campground sits in beige camouflage, enclosed by fences like pastureland for grazing tourists. There's a small building for visitor information, closed for the season. The campsites are flat, gravelled parking spaces void of privacy. We pull into an empty lot and step outside. 

Adam looks out into the treeless plain and smiles. "There's nothing here, hey? Like, really nothing. Oh my God." He sulks wide-eyed, as if he just paid seventy dollars for an unplayable video game.

Frenchman River Valley Campground (Hootz)

We haven't brought enough tent pegs, so we build stakes from what little firewood we have. Matt spills pop all over his fresh blue jeans. I try using the outhouse, but the toilet paper is coarse. Please have mercy on us, Parks Canada.

Our tent setup is sloppy at best. Jason waits for an instant when group-work succumbs to idle chitchat and asks if we're all ready to go, knowing damn-well that I've just opened a fresh can of Pilsner. "Where do we go, Dear Leader?" he asks. I have no idea.

Jason, Matt, Kyle and I dogpile into Sean's vehicle, taking to the 'Ecotour Scenic Drive' - a route that the visitor's guide says will 'impress your friends' - while Andrew and Adam follow behind in their over-packed coupe.

The lonely Plains bison (Hootz)

Shingles on an abandoned homestead stripped by weathering  - one of the interpretive stops on the 'Ecotour Scenic Drive.' (Goodson)

Ring-necked pheasant  a non-native game bird, found in Grasslands National Park. (Hootz)

The scenic part of the drive ends as soon as the road climbs out of the Frenchman River Valley and into the realm of private property once again. We traverse a sparse and featureless plain - save a few rocks, fences and telephone lines - as my own boredom triggers brief disappointment. I nod off at some point while listening to Kyle make the same jokes about "the Three Sisters" in a gap-toothed accent, and watching Jason's face gradually lose patience in the side-view mirror.

"Two Trees access. Let's go there," Jason commands Sean, reminding me that we've almost completed the tour without so much as a stop to urinate in the Great Wide-open.

We pull into the day-use area at the head of the Riverwalk Trail, a pale and barren land–starkly 'Old Testament.' The sharp rise in terrain on the opposite side of the valley contrasts with the flat multi-level plateaus near the muddy Frenchman River. A short trail skirts the washed-out riverbanks, crossing an expanse of grass prairie that reveals covered scars of a prairie wildfire.  

One of 'Two Trees' (Goodson)

The Frenchman River Valley (Hootz)

Great horned owl (Hootz)

Inspection (Hootz)

Crown of thorns (Goodson)

Remains of a grass fire (Goodson)

Exercise and fresh air lifts the mood, along with our surrender to the grassland and its limitations, as the sound of heavy machinery at work in the near distance provides the background music for our departure. We joke about our dashed expectations as we drive to the final 'must-see' so we can get a quick peek just to say we did. 

I want to say that standing at the foot of the iconic 70 Mile Butte trail is intimidating. But not wanting to oversell the feature, I call it: "The perfect destination for mountain climbers who hate mountains." The slopes are curt but frequent and the banks are impressive without being vertiginous. We decide to give it a halfway-test to see if it's worth spending the calories.

"Do we have to stick to the trail?" asks Matt, indirectly calling attention to the fact that, without trees, the trails are pretty much arbitrary. With no interpretive signage, we're left to guess whether we're seeing the cherry-picked scenery of someone who knows something we don't, or the path of least resistance taken by a trail grader.  

The path leads us up and around the first knoll whose slopes are dressed with a mixed bag of scattered glacial rocks, most of which are irregular in shape, round and smooth around the edges. At higher elevations, eroded banks reveal deeper ravines and walls of sandstone. The true scale of these features becomes more apparent as we veer farther uphill and take notice of the expansive, model-like farmland unveiling itself behind our backs.

Ascending 70 Mile Butte (Goodson)

Dimelaena oreina — "Golden moonglow lichen" (Goodson) 

The scale of these hills is put into perspective the higher you climb. (Goodson)

Taking a break (Goodson)

Rust-coloured needles on wild cacti (Goodson)

Colour oasis (Goodson)

'Jumpers' (Hootz)

Trails and boardwalks (Goodson)

We arrive at an intersection. One path goes in the direction of the parking area, and the other, appearing far more travelled, heads to the final crest. The last stretch is a switchback pathway up the face of a hillside that carves out the letter 'Z', the penultimate viewpoint that looks somewhat like the set where the crucifixion scene in Jesus Christ Superstar was filmed. 

Kyle slouches his shoulders, pale and red-faced all at once. "Please, remember those of us who aren't in shape," he wheezes, followed by Matt displaying similar colours, a combination of sunlight deficiency and windburn. The rest of us aren't doing much better, but the peaks are far too tempting and we've moved faster than anticipated. 

Most of us skip the zigzagging pathway and take an off-trail shortcut to the peak. The blades of grass brushing against my boots are immediately more satisfying than dusty footsteps on a plowed pathway. At the summit we take our prize in a cold, triumphant sweat: the centrepiece of 70 Mile Butte, a lookout point from one of the highest points in Grasslands National Park:

Lookout (Hootz)

A slice of the expansive grassland as seen from 70 Mile Butte (Goodson)

..
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Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson, Mitch Doll and Sean Hootz

Bad weather and poor emergency planning had stifled our first attempt to reach Snail Lake for a chance at catching a rare Arctic char in May. The incidental shoreline camp-out was fun, but flipping a canoe would not have overthrown our entire plan had we been adequately prepared. After three months of crap, I think we've learned enough to give it one more shot. 

Snail Lake is typically reached by snowmobile only and remains inaccessible during open water season. The nearest road is over 10 kilometres away through dense jack pine forests limiting travel to water and snowmobile trail. While summer access is possible, the terrain is treacherous and the lake conditions are wildly unpredictable.

A special thanks to Rick and Lorraine Zerr whose generosity made this trip possible.

 

See also: Overturned and out of Reach: Seeking Snail Lake, Part One and Part Two

Part Three: Home on Scat Island

August 19, 2016 - At the dock of North Steeprock Lake, the dogs, Jean-Paul and Oats, splash along the shore while fighting over a stick. Dark-grey clouds roll across the sky with fractured reflections of the coniferous treeline blotted on the windswept water.

"Great. Here we go again," Matt says, tossing his backpack inside the canoe. "Where do I even sit in this thing?" Kyle pulls Matt's backpack out of the canoe and replaces it with his own. "If I were in the middle, I'd lay down on the floor and let you guys do all the work," he laughs. Rearranging gear, Kyle points to a narrow space between rod cases, fishing nets and dry bags. "Matthew would be steering though, so we'd probably wind up paddling in circles. Now take a seat." Matt abjectly steps between the thwarts. 

There's a marked difference in atmosphere from when we first left these shores in the spring—a calmness about the group moving at a leisurely pace. Maybe the stakes are lowered now that unexpected changes are decidedly 'inevitable' rather than 'slightly possible.' The wind is blowing in the opposite direction it had been in the spring. We won't rely on luck but we'll gladly take it. 

A gust from the northwest bends the treetops. I zip my jacket and double-check that I brought the toque I had hesitated to pack the night before. The cold front has brought autumn-like temperatures and the forecast isn't promising much improvement. It won't matter once we get moving as long as we stay dry. Besides, some unseasonal cold might keep the bugs at bay.

Leaving the dock at North Steeprock Lake. (Hootz)

Sean walks down the hill toward his one-man kayak, "Are we ready to go?" Nate and Gill paddle their way down the channel as Adam and Mitch follow behind. 

I take my place at the front of the canoe as Kyle shoves us off-shore from the stern and Matt sits stiffly in between. The water is calm despite the wind overhead. We make it out of the river channel unhurried.

Sean loads a fresh roll of 35mm film into his point-and-shoot camera before we hit turbulent waters. After damaging a paycheck's worth of gear on the last attempt at reaching Snail Lake, Mitch and Sean have both opted to shoot with film cameras. Whether it's cheaper overall is debatable. 

Party barge. (Hootz)

Crossing North Steeprock Lake aided by northwest winds. (Hootz)

We exit the channel and see the east end of the lake dotted in whitecaps—only a minor concern as the trees on the western shoreline protect us from the wind. Without breaking much of a sweat, we reach the meandering wetland channels that lead to the South Steeprock portage in record time.

Kyle, Matt and I have fallen behind, but there's no rush. On a languid paddle through the winding marshes, we collide with the rest of the group sitting in a clump of canoes at a dead-end, nowhere near the portage.

"I don't remember crossing anything like this. Are you sure we went the right way?" Sean says, freeing his paddle from the ridge of tangled grass.

"We couldn't have taken a wrong turn...It looks like the whole channel shifted," Nate remarks the moving landscape of earthy puzzle pieces. He steps out of his canoe and onto the grass as the ground beneath him slowly sinks.

"Maybe we can drag it through..." He tamps down the marsh, creating a shallow passage barely deep enough to drag the canoes to the opposite side. As soon as he re-enters his canoe, the mound of grass resurfaces forcing each of us to go through the same process. At the end of the line, I wait our turn while Matt and Kyle sing a debauched chantey about an incestuous outfitter to the tune of The Little Drummer Boy. 

A dead end. Floating marshes block the way to the South Steeprock portage. (Hootz)

Sean's kayak scrapes over shallow rocks as he charges the stony shoreline at the head of the portage. We unload the vessels and begin packing for the hike immediately. I look back at the marshes triggering a wave of déja-vu. I remember the desire to capture the scene in a photograph and decide it's not worth the effort a second time.  

Half the group has already left. Kyle and I throw the cedar strip canoe over our shoulders and make haste down the path, crossing patches of wild blueberry and Labrador tea spotted through the mossy forest. Wiser packing has made this task all the more enjoyable, but what I appreciate most is overlooking the final crest and finding South Steeprock Lake, calm and unmoving. The memory of trees violently swaying back and forth as waves lap onto the grass is still terribly vivid.

We allow ourselves a quick beer and smoke, feeling a bit like cheaters having had it too easy compared to last time. The lake changes hues from yellow and green to gray and blue while we watch from shore. Dark clouds muddy the sky, reminding us we still have a lot of work to do before reaching safety.

Entering South Steeprock Lake in rainy weather. (Hootz)

Two minutes after departing, we slow down as drops of water hiss and fizz on the lake.

"We're already wet. We might as well keep going," Nate suggests to all of us who have inexplicably stopped paddling.

Sean looks frazzled in his lonely kayak with a tired Jean-Paul. "Can we stick together? I keep spinning around in circles and no one would even notice if I flipped," he says. There's an unsympathetic expression on everyone's face giving away the futility of his request. While our group operates on a significant level of trust, we still fall short in many aspects. 

We continue across the lake, passing by the clearing where we had been stranded for two nights, and the open water that had caused all the fuss. I throw on the hood of my jacket as we reach unexplored waters for the first time.

Finding shelter is going to be tricky. We need to reach the other side of Steeprock's largest island if we're to be in a reasonable place for the portage to Snail Lake tomorrow morning. The island is shy of a kilometre in length, but the trouble is finding a section of land that isn't completely barred with thick stands of jack pine. Whether such a place exists is unknown to us. 

"Andy, you know where we're going?" Nate yells across the water. I unfold my topographic map and attempt to get a bearing on our location as light rain speckles across the paper. "I'm 99% sure I know where we're going." That lousy 1% sure likes to call the shots though. 

I lead the group into a dead-end arguing that my map must be out-of-date; Nate checks his GPS and puts us back on course. The rain might be cold, but I'll be warm as long as my friends keep roasting me for my mistake. 

Paddling through cold mist. (Hootz)

Looking for shelter among islands of impassible jack pine forest. (Hootz)

Debarking canoes on a new island. (Hootz)

We pass through a narrow channel on the southern side of the island, scanning the shores for a suitable place to debark. None of it looks overly appealing. Bursts of mist move across the surface as the wind wets my face. The group is silent.

"What about over there?" Mitch points to a small island with tall spruce trees in the distance. It might as well be under a spotlight with a heavenly chorus. Tall trees mean old-growth forest, and old-growth means thinner stands and less underbrush.

We approach a grassy opening on the island's shore and kiss God's green earth. The sombre weather can't encroach on this feeling of warmth and security. 

"Did anyone else notice the massive piles of crap on this island?" Nate remarks, pointing out notably fresh mounds of dung. Similar piles seem to pop-up everywhere among the unkempt grass since he mentioned it. Given that the nearest island is over 200 metres away, it's hard to imagine any animal but a moose plodding its way through the water. We're not scatologists, so I'll leave this one up for debate. 

"I suppose we'll be hanging our food then," Sean suggests as we continue investigating. At the top of an eastern hill, there's a ring of stones that had been used as a fire pit some time ago. There's a large field of grass enclosed by trees on either side at the middle of the island. Wandering further west, we come across a few pieces of decomposing plywood among an old spruce forest. The trees, well into their golden years, have laid a floor of needles where only the most resilient and shade-tolerant plant species are able to grow. 

Lady ferns in a dark spruce forest. (Goodson)

The Mushroom Kingdom. (Goodson)

Dew in moss. (Goodson)

"I don't know about you guys, but I want to stay in the forest. I love it here," MItch says, crouching to see the underside of a mushroom cap. It is quite beautiful. But we'd be sacrificing hours of possible sunlight for the sake of aesthetics. "People have obviously camped up here in the grass before, we might as well too and reduce our footprint," Sean suggests. Kyle lumbers around impatiently, "Camp in the meadow—poop in the Mushroom Kingdom."

While clearing a spot for cooking, Nate pulls on a blade of grass, slicing deep into the skin on the edge of his palm. I assume it's nothing more than a paper cut, until I see what appears to be deep tissue at the root of the gash. "Christ, man! Do you need stitches or what?", I ask expecting the worst. "No, I'll be fine. I just need to get some balsam sap on this," he says. 

Jean-Paul rests after a long day. (Doll)

Ending our first night on South Steeprock Lake. (Doll)

 Part Four: Let Down

August 20, 2016 - I put on my clothes and run downstairs following the scent of sausage and cheap butter-flavoured syrup. My mom stands beside the stove in the sunlight cast through the kitchen window. She tells me "Good morning" with a smile like moms do. I miss the part when she says that thing about how I shouldn't wander too far—breakfast is almost ready. I shove myself into a pair of beaten shoes. No time to tie the laces. The screen door slams twice behind me as I leap off the stoop and run to the pavement. Breathing the dust and freshly cut grass with delight, I bolt as fast as I can, just to see how far I can run with my eyes clenched shut. Lights and shadows flicker, the gift of second sight or a glimpse of my favourite cartoon. A shoelace catches beneath my step. The scent of rust and copper, then cement. 

Awake from dream-state anaesthesia, I turn on my back and see the gold and green sunlight covering the tent with shadows playing on the nylon walls. I watch for a few minutes before getting up and making my way to the water trying to remember the last time I've slept so well, let alone in the outdoors.

The morning air is warm and dry, a signal that we might have struck the jackpot for timing our trip to Snail Lake. Aside from a few flies, the mosquitoes are remarkably absent. Luck might be on our side today. 

Morning light. (Goodson)

Mist lifting off South Steeprock Lake. (Goodson)

I light my gas stove and trade the fresh pancakes and breakfast sausages in my imagination for a mug of instant coffee and a plastic bowl full of soggy oatmeal. Clinking pots and rustling grass summons the rest of the group out of their tents to fuel up for the day's mission. In an hour's time, the canoes are loaded up with gear as we lazily take to the water once again.

"It should be south from here tucked in a small bay," Mitch says, taking the leadership role for our search. "Keep an eye on the shoreline for anything that looks like it could be a snowmobile trail." About 20 feet from the edge of the lake, a break in the trees takes shape and reveals a small grass pathway climbing upwards and into the forested ridge. "This is it," Mitch exclaims. "The Snail Lake Portage." 

Approaching the snowmobile trail to Snail Lake. (Hootz)

Muddied water fills the boot prints I've left while jogging up the first hill to investigate, but the trail is certainly passable aside from a few fallen branches and waterlogged sections. Recalling the satellite imagery, there is at least one slough we'll need to cross. We take the lighter two canoes with us, figuring it will be easier to ferry the group across water than spend our energy bringing all three vessels on the long hike.

We catch our breaths at the peak of the ridge and continue trudging through the boggy path. With a canoe over the right shoulder, I sink to my thighs in mud and plod out on my knees. We take several impromptu breaks along the way, waiting for others to regain balance and retrieve missing boots. I try to imagine how we would handle this if there were an onslaught of flies. We probably would have turned back a long time ago. 

On a particularly high plateau, the pines appear short and stunted and the forest floor covered in red and orange peatland..

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