The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  SUMMER 2004











In this issue

Front Page



Labrador Tragedy

Summer Packet


From the Editor


Back page





Part  1  2 

Methye Portage



The scenery changes dramatically on the river. The valley is washed in sand and filled with jack pine. Sand and boulders line the streambed, and here the river lives up to itís namesake. The larger rapids are restricted to a few narrows where the river shoots a gap through the crystalline bedrock of the Canadian Shield. The most notable rapids are below the Semchuk Trail, a dirt road that crosses the Clearwater en route to the Cluff Lake uranium mine. About 10-km downstream from the road crossing, the gradient increases, and the valley walls close in on the river channel. At Big Island, the river finds contact between the 300 million year old Devonian carbonates (approx. 400 million years old) and the Canadian Shield (locally at least 2,500 million years old), but the river bottom follows this contact for 60-km, so that you arenít finished paddling through the Shield until reaching Contact Rapids. Within this section, the river carves two gorges through weathered granite, Smoothrock and Bald Eagle.

Our favorite spot of the trip was near Smoothrock Falls.  The river splits here with most of the water roaring over the falls in an awesome show of power. The other channel is largely abandoned, although enough water spills over to create a garden of cascades and pools over polished and sculpted rock. Without a doubt this is one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited.  I expended a roll of film, but its beauty eluded my efforts.  Perhaps my memories will be best served without photographic images.

Below Contact Rapids the river loses itís spirited nature, and settles into a rhythm of gentle currents and long meander belts.  Shades of the upper river are still apparent as pine and poplar continue to line the shores and occasionally the river cuts through a high bank of sand, but overall the change in character is striking.  The Methye Portage enters the Clearwater during this stretch. A large clearing makes the carry easy to spot. A jaunt on the famous trail was all but mandatory, but our excursion was brief. Fortunately I knew I would return, because the ancient trail deserves to be portaged in true voyageur fashion.

Downstream from the Methye the river drops again, beginning with Whitemud Falls and ending with Cascade Rapids. Within this stretch was another incredible area, the gorge through Pine Rapids. Yellowish-gray limestone cliffs confine the river, and great columns of rock, tinted with orange sunburst lichen, rise from the rapids. Even back in the woods the rock is heavily crevassed and demands exploration.

Below Cascade Rapids, the river settles down again, but flows surprisingly fast and has few large meanders. The voyageurs travelling east had their work cut out for them, but we rapidly descended the river. For the first time, balsam poplar and large white spruce are commonplace along the shore and the cut banks of sand and groves of jack pine fade away. Perhaps the most surprising features are large, wet, grassy meadows, loaded with wild flowers and reminiscent of alpine meadows. Certainly these natural pastures once made pleasant camp spots, but now three established campgrounds exist along the riverís lower stretches. The river can be easily ascended from Ft. McMurray in powerboats, so we assumed the worse, but only encountered two boats upstream from Waterways, the old town east of Ft. McMurray where the railroad from Edmonton used to reach the river.  The center of activity has since moved to Ft. McMurray, a small but bustling city that seems out of place along the Clearwater-Athabasca wilderness.

The Clearwater is one of Canadaís many spectacular waterways.  The sole protection offered to many of these rivers is their isolation, but thankfully, this is not the case for the Clearwater. From Lloyd Lake to Whitewood Falls the river and the Methye Portage have been designated a Saskatchewan Provincial Park; the river is also part of the Canadian Heritage River System. The protection is well deserved and ensures that the beauty of the Clearwater will be protected for future generations. Perhaps more importantly the park pays tribute to the spirit of the travelers who have forged this trail and etched it into history with the soles of their feet and the blades of their paddles. We honor their legacy and spirit by following in their wake.

For more information about Lake Agassiz, Clearwater-Athabasca Spillway, and the ice sheet see: Dyke, A. S., Moore, A., Robertson, L., 2003. Deglaciation of North America. Geological Survey of Canada, Open File 1574.

Andy Breckenridge lives in Duluth, MN and is finishing a geology dissertation on the early history of Lake Superior. He paddles with his wife Rachel, and recently completed the final leg of a trip across Lake Agassiz (Grand Portage to Churchill to Ft. McMurray).  He wishes the Canadian Geological Survey still messed about in canoes.




 Summer 2004         Outfit 117 

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