From Pickle to Berens

It had been three years in planning: studying maps, talking with native villagers, and pinning down a ride across Lake Winnipeg. Accompanied by my staff partner Mike Ketchel and ten veteran campers, we set out for Lake Winnipeg's east shore in our seventeen-foot wood-and-canvas canoes via a network of creeks, rivers, swamps, lakes, and portages crossing the height of land between Ontario's and Manitoba's Hudson Bay watersheds. The first week of the trip followed a route I had traveled before.

Paddling from near the mining town of Pickle Lake in Northwest Ontario our route bore down the Miniss River to Lake St. Joseph, the headwaters of the Albany River and a wondrous body of water.  Stretching forty miles east to west and catching the flows of countless tributaries, Lake St. Joseph is the epicenter of life for a band of Ojibwa that continue to hunt and fish its miles of bays, islands and shoreline. Flowing south into the lake is the Cat River, a major tributary and a traditional travel route. After crossing the lake and spending the night at a splendid camp at the mouth of the Cat, we gradually ascended the river and lakes system for a couple of days to Zionz Lake where our trip to Manitoba left the Cat River for a small unnamed tributary that flowed east from the height of land.

I felt fresh heading into new territory opening a route for Keewaydin. After ten days of canoe travel, we reached the last day of lining upstream on a miserably buggy and shallow creek and paddling across shallow, reed-choked ponds to get to the height-of-land portage. This would carry us from the Albany River watershed to the Berens River watershed and the start of three hundred miles of downstream travel to Lake Winnipeg.

Little Shabumeni Lake was the last lake of any size before the Berens River watershed. There was no trail leaving Little Shabumeni that we could find, so out came the machete and axes to clear a portage. Taking a break on the pond after the portage, I eagerly anticipated crossing the next portage to the headwaters. Again, there was no trail leading to the far side, and we spent considerable time looking for the easiest route through the rocky and swampy terrain.

Mike found a good enough route. Tired, but excited, we followed him with axes to blaze and clear a bare-bones track. The route started out through fairly open jack pine and birch climbing along a shallow grade. Soon the timber got thicker as the track descended alongside a rock shelf into the ubiquitous black spruce/tamarack swamp. We tromped along, the muskeg sucking at our boots until the route crossed out of the swamp and climbed gradually to drier ground. Reaching a high point, the trail descended through Labrador Tea into yet another swampy section at the end of which was a small rock with a small lake on the other side. I drank deeply. Though shallow and tannic, the water of the Berens River held possibilities we had yet to discover. Tromping back along the path to start portaging our gear, our morale was high.

On the rock, an hour later at the end of this important portage, I broke out the jewelry of pots and pans and set up for hot lunch of mac and cheese. The wind blew the mosquitoes away a bit and dried out our sweaty shirts and mucky shoes. And what a feeling we had. The first headwaters lake of the Berens was before us and there was nothing but downstream paddling and portaging to the end of the trip. How lucky, I thought, to have fair weather on such a day.

Descent of the Berens

We paddled slowly after lunch enjoying the feeling of heading down river for the next four weeks. We were looking out for a good camp upstream from what the map depicted as a twenty-mile stretch of meanders through a swamp. At dusk, we found the spot, a long sloping rock into the river with mossy glades of jack pine and lichen surrounded by low swampier country. We set about making camp and found plenty of room to stretch out on the shore. Supper was animated that night with much talk and anticipation of the river ahead of us. It was the full moon and from our camp it rose above the forest on the far shore shedding its light on a wonderful, remote, canoe-country scene.

All the next morning we paddled the tight meanders of the swamp constantly working to make the turns in the channel. A heavy rain shower put us ashore for lunch and tea, and all afternoon we portaged small rapids as the river descended to the confluence with the Serpent River. After those six portages we found ourselves on the deeper waters below the tributary and a few miles downstream the next major tributary doubled the volume again. But the shore of this larger Berens River was swampy again and we entered dusk racing for Upper Goose Lake hoping there would be a campsite on some exposed rock. In the gathering dark Mike and I stroked onto the lake and scanned the shoreline with binoculars. To our right was something that looked promisingly like a point. We did not hesitate for the stragglers who knew how to follow. When the last of them arrived at the point, it was dark, dinner was cooking over a roaring fire and the mosquitoes were thicker than one ever remembers. Between bites of food and mouthfuls of bugs, we marveled at the size change in the Berens in one day's travel of thirty miles.

Awaking the next day we discovered evidence of other humans on the point, trash. Fisherman trash often as not is what one finds out in the land of fly-in fishing.

In one long day we had left a headwaters creek behind for what had become a fair-sized river. The maps spoke of many falls on the upper Berens. Child Falls, Woman Falls, Eagle Falls, Otter Falls, Makaiami Falls and others. They were all beautiful, some very powerful and frightening, others sparkling and soothing. We did not shoot many rapids as most of them were class IV whitewater or waterfalls. The Berens was running high, at bank-full stage, and a few of the portages were right along the edge of the river in the water next to the falls.

The upper Berens was characterized by long channels broken by rock outcroppings that the river would cascade over into nice pools with channels beyond. We saw few signs of people except on the lakes. Portages were old and poorly maintained, yet short and easy. Eventually the upper Berens ended tangibly at Berens Lake, a lake ringed with a rocky shore, long sloping segments of the Canadian Shield diving into the waters. The lake was deep and had numerous islands of incredible beauty. We stopped at one for lunch in the hot sun and enjoyed swimming off the rock that sloped steeply into the clear water.

Pikangikum, our first Native village, was a couple of rapids downstream from Berens Lake and on its own lake. The village was a typical bush town: right on the edge of the lake with the surrounding forest cleared and replaced by dirt roads, trails, prefab housing, fireweed, raspberry, a ball field and an ice skating rink. We were there for a re-outfit and mail, and to look for some native handicrafts to buy.

I walked all over town, and though quite neighborly and clean with nice yards and native habitats, I could not find anyone with crafts. It seemed as though much is sold by mid summer.  We left in the afternoon looking for a campsite. Landing at ours for night, the site had trash dumped here. As with many native towns, the shorelines are littered with the accumulation of modern trash. I feel a compassionate sadness for people who live caught between two worlds, struggling for survival and culture.

As we pushed on, the nature of the Berens changed from one of mostly a channel to one of short sections of river with good whitewater interspersed by large rocky lakes with many islands. We passed another native village, Poplar Hill, and were much dismayed and saddened by the extreme poverty of this village.

One of the first runnable rapids we came to was mostly a chute. The first wave curled to the side and required precision and a punch to penetrate. Charlie and I safely navigated the waves and turned to watch the others try. The first hit that front wave and they launched off it like a corkscrew turning, sideways and flipping immediately. We picked them up in the lake below laughing. Our section was getting along well and we were making good time.

The middle Berens ends at Little Grand Rapids, a wonderful waterfall, and the name of another native village.

After one of the rapids, we scared a mother bear and her two cubs on the shoreline. They sprinted up the rocky bank and the cubs quickly climbed up into a spindly jack pine where they swayed with every move. We had a good laugh at their antics and watched closely from the safety of our green canoes. After a while the mother signaled to them and they clumsily climbed down then ambled off into the forest.

After leaving the bear family we paddled across the southern portion of Fishing Lake and found ourselves approaching Little Grand Rapids in the early afternoon. We camped directly at the falls with its mists blowing toward us and keeping the air cool and fragrant.

After setting up camp on the right hand shore of the falls, I was sitting by the edge of the rapids watching the river flow when a large bird flew upriver. At a distance I thought it was an osprey. However. its wing beats were considerably slower and deeper and its head appeared larger. At the edge of the falls it climbed and passed. It was an American white pelican and it was magnificent. With a wingspan exceeded in North America only by the California condor, its size alone was impressive, eight feet across. But equally so was its snowy white plumage accentuated by black primary and secondary feathers. It held its head in regal stateliness as it surveyed its kingdom and with grace it descended to the pool above the falls and alighted on the surface. I was entranced and spent the next hour or so watching it fish and trying to get a decent photo.

The next day, we re-outfitted at Little Grand Rapids village after portaging around the falls and running the rapids below. The Northern Store there had been one of the early Hudson's Bay Company posts and the grounds surrounding the store and manager's house were well maintained and comfortable. We got permission to camp next to Family Lake. We also set about trying to get a softball game together with the locals. We had to paddle across the lake to the settlement and after wandering around we were invited to use the sports complex. Though disappointed not to get a softball game, the boys found entertainment playing street hockey and jamming on the rock band's instruments. After many days of being outside hearing only the voices of nature, the throb of a bass guitar under flourescents was a novel experience. The sunset that evening was memorable with a few low clouds adding highlights to the purples and pinks of the long northern sunset.

Descent of the Pigeon

At Family Lake the Berens splits into two channels, the northern bearing the name Berens and the southern and smaller acquiring the name Pigeon.  We were headed for the Pigeon as it was the less traveled, non-traditional route to Lake Winnipeg. Paddling the length of Family Lake, we watched many groups of pelicans soaring, bomber-like in the air. They are the most beautiful birds to watch. Taking off from the water with ponderous wing beats, wingtips touching the water, they soon gain elevation and in groups they stick together soaring higher and higher until they are barely specks in the sky. And then they disappear in the blue.

The next morning found us paddling, portaging, and shooting rapids on a significantly smaller river than the Berens. The size was perfect for our canoes and as we floated from rapid to rapid, we were struck by the surreal beauty of this river. The channel was quite straight all the way to Lake Winnipeg and lining the banks were open stands of jackpine and aspen. The understory was a thick carpet of lichen and mosses growing on the pure granite of the Canadian Shield. One after the other the rapids poured over ledges and streamed through chutes on its ponderous journey. Each portage trail, lightly used, traversed through potential camps with abundant tenting and kitchen sites. Ages ago it seemed, we had struggled across the height of land to the first waters bound for Lake Winnipeg. 

The river had flown into our souls and our spirits soared. The Pigeon River had hold of my heart. After thirty days on the water the rhythm of the paddle felt right and I looked forward to the days with childlike anticipation. Each rapid proved a new challenge, each portage trail saw new feet. The fishing was better here than it had been during the rest of the trip and we regularly had pickerel for dinners and breakfast.  We saw a couple moose on the few lakes that interspersed the channel and no people, or much sign of them. We were also blessed with fine weather for this part of the trip and life among the section was one of camaraderie.

Of course as the trip was almost over, the pangs of returning to the roaded world loomed, but first, we still had to see Lake Winnipeg and paddle to the town of Berens River where we were to catch our ride across the lake to the road. Our second to last day on the river was accompanied by a hard head wind blowing from the west straight in our face. Despite the significant current our pace slowed to a crawl, and with the sun in the west blazing into our face we stopped for the night. In hindsight, I should have remembered this wind blowing strong in the afternoon with a cloudless sky. I would soon regret the strength of this blue-sky wind.

On our last night on the Pigeon we camped at the portage at the last falls of the river. My heart was sad to be leaving the river behind, but I looked forward to paddling on the big lake and also to returning to my wife and seven-month-old daughter, Cree. It had been a great trip, and now it was almost over. I spent much time sitting next to the falls that evening letting the peace and beauty of the surroundings and the past month flood into me. I had a sense that this might be my last season for a while and I wanted to remember all the details and all the love I have ever felt for the lake country of Canada beyond the roads. Alas, night fell around a campfire and a few of us talked quietly, reminiscing and enjoying the peaceful comfort of our friendships. It had been a great trip, a worthy exploration for Keewaydin, a first to Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg. I felt those feelings we all know so well, profound happiness amidst a sadness difficult to assuage.  


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