Friday 30 June: Canada at last!
Five in the morning, time to get up, throw my bags into the car and drive to Heathrow. Everyone’s early so we stand around our baggage mountain waiting for the check-in desk to open. All the hassle and emails and phone calls and meetings are now behind us, and we can leave the next bit to Air Canada.
Air Canada duly delivered us to Thunder Bay where we were met by Duncan Mackay and Al Cox, who had flown out earlier. We collected provisions from the local stores and settled into the bus for the long drive to the small town of Schreiber (pronounced skriber). We were taken to the Anglican church where a meal and a warm welcome had been prepared for us. By now we had all been up for at least 18 hours, so eyelids were drooping as we finished the meal and checked into the pre-booked motel rooms (for males, females and staff). The staff extended the day to a full 24 hours, with a short visit to the local - Rocco’s bar
Onto the Steel river
We walked the short distance to the church for an excellent breakfast and a briefing by Duncan on the mountains of food that he had prepared for us. Father John saw us off with a short church service, accompanied by Seb on the piano. Next stop was Duncan’s home in Terrace Bay. There we dragged hundreds of pounds of food from the basement onto the lawn and packed our food bags with everything we would need for three days on the Steel River. Back on the bus to drive 60 miles along a gravel track to our starting point on the Steel River, where the outfitter had left the canoes for us. We tumbled out of the bus, picked a boat and loaded our kit into it, just as it started to rain heavily…
The rain continued as we paddled down the river, which was narrow, tortuous and strewn with logs and debris. Within an hour we came to a lake and our first campsite. The tents went up quickly, and we crowded under the tarps trying to work out just what was what in our food bags. Somehow, we all managed to prepare something edible before the next challenge: finding trees strong enough to hang the food bags out of reach of bears… Our initial attempts were pretty pathetic, deterring only the shortest of bears!
Day 1 on Steel River
It rained all night, but stopped as we set off across a series of small lakes. Soon we came to our first portage of the trip. Only 100metres but enough to give us a taste of what was to come! Between the lakes the rivers had a nice variety of water conditions as we gained confidence in fast-moving water. Later in the day one stretch caught out a number of boats, with three capsizing. Useful lessons were learned at the cost of a paddle and some personal gear that hadn’t been tied in!
Our intended campsite was occupied by some fishermen when we arrived, so we had to carve space for our tents out of some wilderness on the other side of the lake. Somehow we found room for eleven tents among the live and fallen trees but it was difficult to move between them. Hanging the food bags was a frustrating exercise again: the undergrowth was thick, the trees were brittle, we weren’t working well enough as a team, and people were getting tired and stressed as we raced to finish before dark
Day 2 on Steel River
A really good day. I was first out of the tent and was rewarded by the sight of mist steaming off the still water in the early morning sunshine, so I took some photos before making breakfast. As we left our “wilderness campsite” we had a magical experience paddling quietly across the glassy waters of a completely still lake. We are all very keen to see some wildlife on this trip. Today, the big stuff stayed out of sight, but we saw ducks, dragonflies and plenty of beaver lodges. The water was very clear and perfectly drinkable everywhere and, apart from ourselves, there was no evidence of mankind anywhere
There were fewer rapids today, though we did line the boats down one stretch. During the afternoon we got some vigorous exercise when we had to paddle across a lake into a brisk headwind which was funneling through the gap between two headlands.
The day’s paddling finished above Rainbow Falls. We took the boats out and portaged along a good track to an excellent campsite where we made ourselves very comfortable. During the evening everyone took the opportunity to walk back and admire the falls. The bag-hanging was much more organised tonight, as Nigel took charge and held a “teach-in” on an improved pulley system that he and Duncan had worked out
Day 3 on Steel River - transfer to White River
Everyone was really well organised this morning, and on the water by 0900. Starting immediately below the falls we were immediately faced with a technical section of fast flowing water, which most people handled well. One boat got pinned against a tree and had to be rescued, and I picked the wrong line and took on several inches of water. Now the river was shallow and meandering, requiring concentration to pick the best line round the bends. As always the trees came right to the edge of the river, and some had fallen across it. Most we could get round, but we came up against one log jam which we couldn’t clear. Some pulled their boats over it, while the rest of us lined our boats down an alternative route
It was a shock to round a bend at midday and see a man-made bridge across the river. This was Dead-horse bridge, and the end of our voyage down the Steel river. We hauled everything out of the water and found the bus waiting on the gravel road. Rob Woito our outfitter was also there with his canoe trailer.
The bus took us to Marathon, where we had 20 minutes to buy luxuries in a small supermarket before joining Rob at his home. Unexpectedly, his family had laid on a lavish lunch – including bear and moose meat – which was devoured hungrily by all
The rest of the day was spent transferring to the White River and sorting ourselves out for the main expedition. Our start point was a commercial campsite beside the river. Apart from the last showers and toilets we would see for a couple of weeks, there was also plenty of space to sort out and replenish our food bags. We went through every item deciding what to take and what to leave behind, but we still finished with food bags weighing well over 80lbs…
Today was Jes Salter’s 16th birthday too…
Day 1 on White River – through the swamp
Rob Woito’s final present to us had been some wild rice which is traditionally used to placate the river gods. We set off in warm sunny weather, sprinkling the rice on the water. The river meandered slowly through a quiet swamp, the scenery making a change from the usual trees. Plenty of distinctive birdsong, and some very attractive red-winged blackbirds to watch. Watched the banks very closely for otters, beavers or other animals but there were too many of us making too much noise.
The country didn’t lend itself well to campsites but we managed to squeeze all eleven tents onto a tiny site next to a large rock platform. No trees, so floated the food bags in boats away from the shore
Day 2 on White River – the hardest day
Great excitement after breakfast, as a moose could be seen grazing in the distance. For the first couple of hours, the terrain was similar to yesterday, but then we came to a series of rapids. All were inspected by Al and Gaffers, but the first few were all shootable. Some were quite exciting, with boats (including ours) emerging at the bottom full of water. Funniest sight was Duncan emerging from a rapid with no freeboard, the bags floating higher then the gunwales and his dog perched nervously on top of the bags! Less amused was Rob who, having already drowned his camera, managed to lose his favourite hat
Inevitably we eventually came to a rapid we had to portage – a real b***d of about 750 metres through thick undergrowth, over and under tree trunks and through deep muddy bogs. Everyone stuck to it really well and we were relieved to return to the river, with a railroad track in view on the other side. Unfortunately we could only cross the river before unloading the boats again and dragging everything up the embankment onto the railway line. The portage along the railway line to the end of the next rapid was shorter than the previous one but the heat made it just as hard (Barry & Gwyn tried to paddle this rapid, but capsized…)
Tired after a very long and hard day, we needed to find a campsite. We couldn’t find the ones marked on the river map but John and Nigel chose an idyllic spot by a quiet lagoon, and we carved spaces for our tents out of the undergrowth. Heard beavers slapping the water with their tails during the night
Found that my big dry-bag wasn’t dry. The seal wasn’t good enough to keep the water out when we were swamped on one of the morning’s rapids, so my sleeping bag, clothes etc were wet through
Day 3 on White River – the wettest day
After yesterday’s exertions, we plan to find a good campsite tonight and have a rest day tomorrow. The day started sunny but the mozzies were out in their millions. The first rapid was short but awkward, with lots of exposed rocks. Chris and I managed to get it completely wrong, and got stranded high and dry in front of everyone else! We had no choice but to climb out, unload the canoe and tow it to the bank – while everyone else cheered and took photos… The water was actually very pleasant – warm and refreshing under a hot sun, and the stuff in my dry bags stayed dry this time. However my radio and binoculars were in my buoyancy aid, so got swamped
We managed to paddle most of the rapids today, until we came to the final one, just above our campsite. It looked challenging but safe, so we unloaded our boats and tried paddling down empty. John and Nigel tried first and capsized spectacularly on a hidden rock, but most of us had a go with an empty boat. Like most people, Chris and I capsized. This was quite frightening as I came up under the boat, and had to struggle to get to the surface as we were swept down the rapid
We set up camp in the woods at the top of a portage, nursing a few bruises and scrapes, and looked forward to a rest day tomorrow.
Moose seen by Al and John G further downstream. Otter seen by John S and others just above the campsite.
Day 4 on White River – rest day
Rest day, free to do as much or as little as we want! Slept until about 1030, then had a rolling brunch of porridge and pancakes which lasted into the afternoon. Then had a go at making bannock, which turned out really well. No need for an evening meal tonight…
Day 5 on White River – moose day
Weather started grey with rain in the air, but clearing to sunshine and becoming very hot. Easy paddling on a slow-flowing river, but three short portages before lunch. During the afternoon we were able to paddle all but one of the portages, and even Al and Gaffers walked that one!
As we paddled on towards our campsite we passed through a thunderstorm with some very heavy rain, which cleared to a very pleasant evening. As it cleared, I spotted a moose leaving the river ahead of us, though too far away to photograph. As we approached the campsite, a second moose leapt out of the brush just behind John and Nigel’s boat and swam across the river. Camped in our two paddling groups tonight; our group had plenty of space, looking out across a moose meadow. The insects were out in force though, and we could hear them swarming outside our tents when we turned in
Day 6 on White River – snake day
Another hot sunny day. On the water by 0900 and made good progress, confidently negotiating some swift water and rapids, without a single portage! We covered more than 20 km during the day, and passed the half-way mark. Saw a small garter snake swimming across the river.
The “wilderness experience” was somewhat diluted today, as we could see or hear the railroad or highway for most of the day. Some confusion about just where the campsite was, so we just landed and made camp in a crowded but beautiful location. It had been a long hard day and one or two people were tired and edgy, so a few teddies flew before bedtime
Day 7 on White River – Eagle day
Very hot, and no wind at all. After a couple of km of slow water we had to pull the boats up onto the railway track to portage round a rapid. Although it was probably only 2-300 metres, I found this the worst portage of the trip as I struggled to force the boat through thick undergrowth between the railway track and the water
We ran the next few rapids, finishing with a superb run down to the start of White River Lake. We lunched, then set off across the lake – very grateful for the lack of wind. Saw and photographed a bald eagle at the top of a tree, being harried by an angry crow. A couple of hours paddling brought us to a dam. Portaged round it on a good track, and camped shortly afterwards at the top of a long rapid that Al and Gaffers reckoned we could probably paddle in sections
Day 8 on White River – the big wave
Still warm, but overcast. Al and John tried the top section of the rapid and ran aground, so we had to portage the whole section after all. The day featured a succession of rapids, some portaged and some paddled. The highlight was a short rapid which we negotiated through an enormous wave, providing Al with some spectacular material for his film. We also enjoyed the shortest portage of the trip, where we simply manhandled the laden boats over a strand of rock. The day ended with a monster portage around a big fall, and an improvised campsite at the bottom. This was certainly the worst campsite of the trip, with blackflies swarming everywhere, and some rather unsatisfactory terrain for pitching tents. All the trees were too rotten to hang the food bags and, for good measure, it started raining
Day 9 on White River – past Angler falls
We were pleased to leave the campsite – and blackfly – behind, and we soon arrived at the long portage past Angler falls. I was pleased with myself for managing to move the canoe in one carry, and made several trips back to help Duncan and some of the other boats. Then it was my turn to “lose my teddy” as I thought one or two people weren’t pulling their weight…. A couple of shorter portages went smoothly –we’re getting the hang of them now – with one finishing at a beautiful campsite, which almost seemed to good to pass by. After a short conference we all decided to press for another 10km or so tonight, as we knew tomorrow would be very hard. We went through another thunderstorm on the way but it stopped raining as we reached a reasonable campsite. The only problem was hauling the bags up a steep sandy bank from the river. Full moon tonight
Day 10 on White River – the Umbata portage
Knowing this would be a very hard day we were on the water early. We knew of two rapids before the big 2.5km portage, and expected to have to portage them. In fact we paddled through both, and arrived at the top of the Umbata falls at midday, just as the sun came out and started to get hot. We hauled the boats and kit out, lunched and considered our tactics for the portage. Chris and I decided to break it down into 500metre sections which we would measure by pacing. The track was good, but no-one found the portage anything but very hard. All stuck to the task well, and we were established at the campsite below the falls within 3-4 hours. This allowed a long evening to recover, cook and eat and do some washing. Almost everyone walked back to see the falls, and everyone described them with one word: awesome!
Day 11 on White River – the final day
Now we were entering the National Park so had to paddle in three small groups. Chris and I went with Al/John G, Alex/Jess and Carolyne/Dan in the first group as another hot sunny day developed. The scenery was stunningly beautiful, and our team despatched the portages with consummate efficiency! The last – and longest – portage of the day started at the top of a fall where a hiking trail crossed the river via a flimsy suspension bridge. Although the track was good, the portage was hard work as we had to go up and over a steep hill. However, this was the last proper portage of the trip and it brought us to a wide river which we shared with motor boats from Lake Superior. Now we could relax as we paddled slowly down to the end of the river. We dragged the boats across a short isthmus to a lovely bay and looked out across Lake Superior. The sun was hot, the water was very clear and the rocks lay in fantastic shapes and colours as we waited for the other groups to join us. It only remained for us to paddle 5-6km along the edge of Lake Superior to Hattie Cove, our final destination. Conditions have to be exactly right to venture onto the lake, as adverse winds, waves or currents must be avoided at all costs.
Eventually we were all together again. Once again, the weather was very kind to us, and conditions were ideal for this final stretch. We took care to keep close together as we passed some breathtaking scenery at the side of the Lake. How nice to see rocks again after nothing but trees!
We entered Hattie Cove, beached the canoes for the last time and walked away without a backward glance! The campsite was a large commercial one, and it was strange to share it with camper vans and trailer tents. After some confusion, we were allocated a pitch larger than some of the campsites we had parked eleven tents on earlier in the trip! No need to hang the bags tonight - the main hazard here is Chipmunks!
Sunday: Hattie Cove to Schreiber
Enjoyed a long lazy lie-in and looked forward to a lazy day with, perhaps, a stroll along the coast. Until, that is, Duncan dropped by at 0930 to say that the bus would be here at midday ready to move us back to Schreiber! Joined the queue for the shower before packing. We stopped at Marathon for take-away pizzas, which we ate on the bus. At Terrace Bay, we collected the personal kit that we’d left in Duncan’s basement then, on the drive back to Schreiber, we saw our first and only bear of the trip – a young one loping along the side of the road!
Our accommodation for the next couple of nights was three self-catering chalets in a motel for staff, boys and girls respectively. Al, Gaffers, Chris and I thought we’d done enough self-catering, so we walked to the “Voyager” restaurant for a meal, then spent a long, late night in Rocco’s bar
Monday: hanging around Schreiber and Rossport
Lazy morning. Went back to the Voyager restaurant for the “house special” breakfast while the ancient washing machines in the launderette swallowed the worst of our expedition clothing. We didn’t expect it to come out clean – we just wanted to make it hygienic enough for Air Canada to accept it for the flight home! For lunch, the church kindly invited us to the community hall, where we enjoyed meeting some of the town’s older residents. Afterwards, we were driven to the quiet lakeside resort town of Rossport, where we visited a pottery, and made a social call to some friends of Liz and Duncan’s who lived in a log house overlooking Lake Superior
Tuesday: a walk in the woods
Today we were taken for a walk over Mount Gwynne by Stanley, a friend of Duncan and Liz. We rather expected a gentle stroll along marked tracks footpaths, with views over Lake Superior. What we got was a thrash through miles of dense unmarked forest reminiscent of the worst portages, only without the boats and bags. We eventually popped out onto the top of Mount Gwynne and were rewarded with views of Schrieber and the Lake while we lunched, before diving back into the jungle to fight our way back to the beach
For the evening, we went to Terrace Bay for a meal at the Chinese Restaurant, followed by a very good evening with Duncan and Liz at their home. Alice had injured her leg at the beginning of the walk and turned back early, so we had her checked out in the hospital at Terrace Bay during the evening
Wednesday: return to Thunder Bay
It was finally time to return to “civilisation” as we packed up and moved back to Thunder Bay, stopping on the way to look at Ouimet Canyon and the Terry Fox memorial. We checked into the hotel, then visited a shopping mall – most of us took this opportunity to have some photographs developed. We spent the evening in an Irish bar next to the hotel, but I couldn’t get into the mood – perhaps it’s time to go home….
We spent the morning at Thunder Bay airport, visiting the fire station. After seeing all the equipment used for fighting forest fires, we walked onto the pan to inspect the CL415 aircraft used for scooping and dropping water. The next visit was to Old Fort William, a reconstruction of the settlement as it was in 1815. This gave us a fascinating insight into the history of the region, emphasising the historical context of our recent journeys. After returning briefly to the hotel to clean up, we went out to Thunder Bay’s finest steak house for the final meal of the expedition – expensive but very very good!
Friday: home – via NiagaraWe checked out of the hotel at 0430 to be sure of getting the early flight to Toronto. We arrived before the airport was open, so found ourselves standing round a baggage mountain waiting for the check-in desk to open again. At Toronto we hired 3 MPVs and drove to Niagara for the day. Most people were disappointed with Niagara Falls because of the massive tourist development around them. We returned to Toronto in good time for our 1950 flight to London, and home
|Wing Adventure Training Officer: Flt Lt John Smith RAFVR(T) Web site by: Flt Lt Geoff Bowles RAFVR(T) Last updated: 19/05/2003|