Reasons not to paddle the Churchill River
by Ric Driediger
The Churchill River The Churchill River flows across northern Saskatchewan. It is a river of exceptional beauty. The river begins at Lac Ile a la Crosse in western Saskatchewan. The Churchill is formed by the joining of the Beaver River flowing from the Meadow Lake region and the La Loche River flowing from the Lac La Loche region to the northwest. After about 650 kilometers of dodging islands and tumbling over rapids and waterfalls the Churchill leaves Saskatchewan northeast of Sandy Bay. The Churchill drains nearly one third of Saskatchewan. The total drainage basin of the Churchill is within the Boreal Forest and much of it is within the Precambrian Shield. It is very much a wilderness river.
There are only several road access points. To the west a canoeist can access the river at Ile a la Crosse and Patuanak. To the east Sandy Bay is the major access point. However, most canoeists access the Churchill River along highway 102, up the middle of the province. Missinipe, with its float plane base and canoe outfitter, is definitely the major access point canoeists have for Churchill River. Along Highway 102 canoeists can also have access through Pinehouse Lake and Stanley Mission. Many canoeists fly into the river and paddle out. With so few road access points, the wilderness character of the Churchill River remains intact.
People for many centuries have enjoyed canoeing on the Churchill River. However, Ric Driediger lists 20 reasons why you should not go on a canoe trip on the Churchill River:
- It’s not a river. The Churchill is just a series of lakes.
- It’s hard to find a good view. There are just too many islands in the way to be able to see very far.
- There are no people around. It’s just wilderness. Sometimes you have had to paddle days without being able to see another group of canoeists.
- There are often rapids between the lakes. You just get into a good paddling rhythm and you come to the end of the lake and another set of rapids. Many of them you can shoot. This adds much too much excitement and adrenalin to the course of a canoe trip.
- The portages are much too short. For a decent canoe trip, portages need to be long – preferably more than 500 meters. On most Churchill River portages, you just get the canoe on your shoulders and it’s just beginning to hurt and you come to the end. Longer portages build character.
- The campsites! There is rarely garbage. You can’t ever tell what the last group had for breakfast before they left.
- Another complaint you may have about the campsites is that they are too nice. The fire pits are already made. You should have to hack your campsite out of the rugged forest, sleep on a ridiculous angle while your body curves around boulders. Your fire pit should be perched on the edge of a precipice, with you and your last meal in constant peril of falling over the edge. Where is the hardship that is supposed to be part of any foray into the wilderness?
- The moss at your tent site is too thick. You just purchased a new down filled air mattress. The moss is so soft you really don’t need the new mattress.
- The water is much too warm. In mid summer the water can actually reach temperatures of 24 or 25 C. On a real canoe trip the water must be cold. You should jump into the lake and immediately levitate back to the rock shore with your skin slightly blue in color. So to avoid this warm water, it’s best to go before mid June or after mid September.
- In the white water area near the road above Devil Lake, paddlers are having much too much fun. Canoe trips are serious business. Cavorting in the rapids along with laughter should not be permitted.
- It is worrying for many canoeists to have eagles circling overhead. They are always there! What are they looking for? They seem to be watching you.
- And the pelicans! They are often seen patrolling the bottom of the rapids you want to run. Are they there picking up the pieces from previous paddlers who didn’t make it? They are usually a sign that you should not run these rapids. You may end up portaging more than normal.
- Most people fish to relax. That’s not possible on a canoe trip on the Churchill River. How can you relax when you are constantly fighting a fish or taking a fish off your hook?
- It’s too quiet. Most are used to the constant background noise of a city. There’s no noise like that on the Churchill. You must camp near a rapid or waterfall – just to have some background noise so you won’t have to listen to the silence.
- On the other hand, the loons make too much noise. In the evening, sitting next to the campfire, you are just getting into a good conversation with someone – and the loons start calling. Well, that totally stops the conversation. Everyone stops to listen. It is difficult to get into a good conversation in the evening on the Churchill. Camping beside a rapid or water fall, also drowns out the cry of the loon.
- There is no development along the Churchill. There is nothing better than to paddle along and see the occasional mine and pulp mill to break the monotony. It is also very nice to be able to occasionally portage around a hydro dam. These don’t exist along most of the Saskatchewan portion of the Churchill River.
- It is much too easy to get lost on the Churchill. Rivers should be a channel where you put in at one bridge and take out at another with no possible way to get lost in between. The Churchill River is a complicated maze of islands and channels. It should be avoided.
- The water is just too clean. I’m sure you would like to use the filter you just purchased. You like being able to scrape the crud off your filter after each use. Most of the time on the Churchill, you don’t even use your filter. You are forced to drink the water right out of the river! It is important, on a canoe trip, too be able to see what you’re drinking.
- You want a river where you can stop in at a village several times a day to buy supplies and find a comfortable cottage for the night. On the Churchill River you are forced to carry many days of supplies. There are only very few villages along the river. In some extreme cases you can actually paddle for more than a week without encountering a single settlement. The Churchill is just too remote!
- It is much too dark at night. You can actually see stars! Most of us are used to cities where on most nights you can actually count the stars. Most nights on the Churchill River are quite disconcerting – there are far too many stars! So many should not exist! You can’t fathom their numbers. It is good to get into your tent before dark so you won’t have to view the night sky. There are many places to paddle in other parts of Canada where you will always find hoards of other people, where the city noise is close by, and where the cry of the loon will not disturb your conversations.
I suppose I’ll keep paddling the Churchill – it is my back yard. But I do expect you to heed my warnings about the Churchill and continue to paddle near to Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa or Calgary.
Ric Driediger is the owner and operator of Churchill River Canoe Outfitters and Forest House Wilderness Lodge. And Ric does invite you to come and paddle in his backyard. It is an experience you won’t soon forget!