Lake Winnipeg

The sunrise came on another blue-sky day and we hit the flat water of the swampy river that led to the mouth of the river. Its banks retreated amidst the alders of the silty shore. The pelicans, which we had not seen since leaving Family Lake, returned. And then, appearing ahead in the afternoon, was an opening on the horizon behind the alders and swamp-brush that we knew meant we had arrived at the mouth of the Pigeon River and only a few short paddle strokes would bring us onto the lake. Coming into sight around the final bend was a limitless expanse of water, Lake Winnipeg, one of the great inland seas of North America bounded on the east by an unbroken stretch of forest and touched on the western shore by the prairie. A shallow lake gouged out during the last glaciation, Lake Winnipeg is steeped in the history of Native Canadians, fur traders, missionaries, Métis, and farmers. Its shores are ringed by shoals and its depths hold immense quantities of fish. It has the highest concentration of American pelicans that nest on isolated islands. Birds migrate in droves along the shores during spring and fall.

We were elated to experience the views and vastness of this inland sea, and our sense of accomplishment was intense. We paddled out onto the lake following the channel cut into the shallows near shore. We discovered that before we were a few leagues out into the lake, it was too shallow outside of the river-cut channel to effectively paddle our boats through the light waves.

If I were to do it again, I would paddle only given very calm conditions. Given our elation and the blue sky of late afternoon, we resolved that conditions would undoubtedly improve instead of worsen. In fact, the waves were perfectly manageable without any chop, even enjoyable. But given that we had to cut across a bay, the further we went towards our destination at Flathead Point, the further we actually traveled from shore. With the wind quartering across our bows we steadily pushed for the point about five miles distant. Despite the warm weather and blue sky, from somewhere the wind steadily increased.

At first we were nonplused being veteran paddlers who had seen our share of hard wind and choppy waves, but it was not long before the waves grew beyond the comfortable size for me and were larger than any others that I had paddled in previously.

At this point we should have made the call to turn downwind and head for shore, beaching our boats wherever they may land and wait for calmer winds. We were all still together fairly close together. I could see the faces of the boys and they were elated, having fun, for though the waves were large, they were well-spaced and still quite manageable. If they stayed thus we would be fine and would reach the point in no more than an hour. But they did not.

The wind at six p.m. blew even harder out of the western blue sky and built the waves. We were now plowing up steep faces of surging water only to drop off the other side into deep troughs. I quickly learned not to crest the waves too fast as that would launch the bow and create an unsteady boat. The technique required just slowly pushing over the crest and then paddling harder down the backside. When the waves reached eight feet or so I knew we were in trouble. When the first set of twelve to fifteen footers rolled under my boat and sent a soaking spray over the entire canoe, I became downright terrified. I was now convinced that we were doomed to swamping and having a long swim to shore ahead of us.

After that first monster wave sent two to three inches of water to the bottom of my canoe, I learned the value of a large bailing cup. Luckily I had one and before the next large wave could swamp us I had the boat bailed out. Then I took a look around for my section and I could not see a boat or soul in that immensity of time and space.

That moment has haunted me ever since. It was the most lonely and terrifying moment of my life.

Perched in my open canoe  with Charlie, my bowman, in such a rough sea is a poignant memory. So I called out to Charlie that we were coming about and going to head downwind. We successfully turned the boat and began riding waves we could not see coming. I was on my knees at this point with my weight as far to the center as possible to help the stern lift above the rising waves. Still they boiled and crashed all about constantly spilling over the gunwales into the boat. I alternately held a strong rudder while riding down the face of the wave. I would quickly bail the boat with my right hand that clutched the bailing cup.

And so it went for an eternity until rising atop a wave I spied two boats capsized and four swimmers. I managed to navigate close enough to see that they were conscious and swimming. I shouted encouragement, and was glad to see them teamed together riding the makeshift raft of their double-packs, kicking for shore.

There was nothing else I could do, so I turned my attention to finding the others and perhaps making it to shore myself. Turning up into the wind and waves, I could see another boat ahead near the shoals that guarded Flathead Point. Oh, how I remember hoping that we would make it so far.

To get to shore meant beating up into the wind and then turning and running downwind as a sailboat does all the while creeping in a zigzag towards shore. To turn into the wind was the most frightening, as I could only glance over my shoulder to see if the waves were of moderate size and manageable for a turn. I would yell to draw like never before and we would swing up into the wind catching at least one wave broadside before turning to a tack heading into the wind.

The shoals of Lake Winnipeg are notorious, and glancing at a topographic map of the lake one can see why. They dot the coastline in a profusion I have seen nowhere else. And it was through this offshore treachery we had to navigate to safety. The waves pounded the rock piles spraying massive plumes soaring towards the sky. They were everywhere and as we pulled near I looked for a route through this maze, hoping that we would have the muscle power to make the critical turn. Then we were upon the shoals and as we passed one, the next loomed menacingly close. The roar of the waves on the rocks was deafening. I could tell my body was at its limit as I initiated the swing back up into the wind. I had reached past endurance to come this far and we swung the bow through the waves and slipped through the shoals. Shouting and crying out, our prospector canoe turned past broadside and up into the wind. We left the pounding waves behind as we entered the relative calm behind the shoals.

Relief was only for a moment, though, as I thought of my friends swimming and of those who I had lost in the madness of the wind. Reaching shore, I jumped out of the boat to scope the water hoping to locate the four crews that I knew must still be out there. Dan and Fritz had made shore before us and I sent Dan and Charlie to look for a rocky shore that might afford a campsite.

I turned back to the water with Fritz and a bag full of dry clothes. We paddled back out to help the others. The empty canoe was much less stable than loaded and soon it was obvious we would only be able to help those that made it to shore on their own. Beaching the boat on a long point stretching out into the lake, we rushed to two survivors who had washed ashore. We gave away the clothes and I ran to the end of the point to scan for others. I could see two others swimming with their double-pack. They washed past the point and into a bay behind where they made shore. Hiking back to us on the point it turned out to be Mike and his bowman. We decided to split up in an effort to search the shores. I headed to the campsite with the four boys. Along the way we ran into two others who were okay. We had a joyful reunion before continuing on to the camp.

Here I left everyone and pushed towards Flathead Point looking for the last missing pair, Eric and Tom. When I reached the point, after crawling through thickets and wading through the swampy shores, I discovered nothing but a beautiful sunset and an awesome view of the lake with surf pounding majestically upon the rocks of the beach. No paddlers and no sign of them. I turned back dejected and hoped that Mike had better fortune.

I reached the camp just before dark and Mike was still not back. This gave me hope that I clutched until well after dark when Mike returned. By the dejected way his body hung, I knew our boys were spending the night out, alone. The wind howled and after a thankless supper of oatmeal, we all crawled into the three remaining tents and spent a terrible night of sleeplessness.

Every so often a surge of adrenaline would course through my veins, my heart rate would increase precipitously as would my breathing. With the pounding of blood in my ears I would lay there and shiver, exhausted and wondering about those boys out in the darkness.

At the first crack of light, Mike and I set out looking for Tom and Eric in settled weather. Paddling east into the rising sun made seeing the shore difficult, but as we stroked deeper into the bay we spotted much of our shipwrecked equipment. Here a canoe, there a wannigan box, and so forth, but we could not see the boys.

As we entered the deepest part of the bay, a green tent was spotted on a tiny island no more than ten yards from the cliff shores of the lake. I yelled with satisfaction and we paddled furiously to get there. The rock island was a dreadful monster of slimy shore, yet I leapt from the boat and dashed to the tent undeterred. My first view was of the two lying together on their backs with nothing on but boxers and their lifejackets. Tearing into the tent I roused the two from their deep hypothermic sleep and began rubbing them and getting them dressed in the warm clothes I was wearing. Soon they were up and telling us their tale of high seas misadventure.

They had capsized earliest and landed on a shoal. The next wave carried them off the rock back to deeper water. For the next few hours they swam with all their equipment lashed together. When they neared shore they were lucky to hit the island. They managed to set up the tent, have a paper fire inside an ammo box, and eat three pounds of cheese before passing out into an exhausted sleep.

Mike and I were so relieved.

We now had to worry about our gear. We loaded them into a boat each with one of us, and gathering all their baggage, we slowly worked along the shore recovering canoes and other shipwrecked articles. Mike's boat # 67 was destroyed, with multiple holes and no form left. We salvaged the tumpline and dragged her skeleton into the bush. It was a sad end for the boat paddled for years by Ted Forbes and Mike Ketchel.

There was a great cheer as we came into view of camp. We had all regrouped and the feeling of camaraderie was evident in each person's face. Through an amazing catastrophe we had come together. Though none of us was pleased with the loss of equipment and the loss of a flawless trip, we each realized more deeply the meaning of life. For one, I learned a lesson about prudence.

We spent the day recovering more equipment, drying out and recuperating. We moved camp to Flathead Point that evening and made pizza all evening long, talking and recovering composure.

The next day the wind was blowing again. Not so hard but it forced us to portage around the point. We did so without breakfast, and when we reached the lee side of the point we settled in for a pancake brunch. The day was again sunny, and sheltered from the wind. Our nerves settled knowing we had a clear, safe run to the town of Berens River.

Having lost one canoe, we had to mojo in two. We passed silent, staring groups of pelicans in the mouth of the Berens River. The relief was evident on each person's face when we landed at the town. The trip was over. We were in the grasp of civilization again.

The boys, however, were very nervous about crossing the lake on Jack Clarkson's thirty-eight foot vessel. He was a crusty white man living among the natives. There was a much larger ship owned by natives about which the boys encouraged me to inquire. When I did, the owners offered a cheaper ride than Jack's, and I had unknowingly opened a sore wound among the factions in town. Jack threatened to call the Coast Guard on us, for he claimed it illegal for us to ride on a large boat that did not have a commercial license. In the end we loaded our boats and equipment on Jack's powerboat and set off across the lake under the able leadership of Ed, our Métis captain. The day was much calmer, and the ride went quickly and flawlessly across the lake to the road at Matheson Island.

The next day we were picked up by our favorite bus driver from New Liskeard, Frank, and we spent the next two days driving back to Lake Temagami. We were relieved arriving and flexing our paddling muscles again. We paddled to a campsite across from Devil's Island and enjoyed a final afternoon together cleaning equipment and getting ready to paddle into base camp. We had bought sides of ribs at the grocery in New Liskeard and had a wonderful dinner. The weather was perfect and we enjoyed being alone together for the last time on Lake Temagami.


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