Story and photos by Cindy Chandler
The Bloodvein River is a Heritage River that flows from the headwaters of Red Lake, Ontario to the east side of Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba. It is around 300 km long. The first 100 km or so are a series of lakes and some arduous portages. As whitewater enthusiasts we decided to start with a fly-in to Artery Lake and paddle the remaining 210 km through some 77 sets of rapids over 13 days. We brought with us Hap Wilson’s description of the rapids (his book on Manitoba Rivers) and a friend’s previous itinerary, that combined was very helpful with our plans and travel. We had planned to do this river in 2021 but a week before departure, the aviation company Blue Water Aviation gave us the heads up that no flights, people, or canoes could go in due to the massive ongoing forest fires. In fact, they were evacuating canoeists who were currently on the river. Disappointed but glad not to be on the river at that time. But the spring and early summer of 2022 brought significant rain, giving us high water that was sometimes too much to run loaded boats. We also had some less experienced paddlers so felt we needed to be conservative with our decisions on running or not. Get Hap Wilson’s book on Manitoba Rivers with great descriptions of the rapids and call Blue Water Aviation for your fly-in.
Since this was our summer vacation, we decided to take a leisurely drive 2263 km from the Ottawa area to Bissett, Manitoba located about 2.5 hours northeast of Winnipeg. Bissett is a welcoming community with a great little community campground where we could camp and sort through our gear for a 6 a.m. flight the next morning. We can’t say enough about Blue Water Aviation and their excellent service. They offer a shuttle service, dropping off our trucks at the bridge takeout that crosses the Bloodvein about 10-20 km before Lake Winnipeg. They were very accommodating in allowing us to notify them if we were going to be earlier or later than planned, and as luck would have it, we were a day early, so after we sent an Inreach message, “Tanya” had the trucks waiting for us at the bridge as promised.
Saturday July 30th
Up at 4 a.m. to get the last-minute things packed and head over to catch our flight.. Rather than nesting the canoes, we chose to charter two flights. It was a beautiful morning and fortunately we were flying early. There was a fishing derby later that morning and we were told it makes for a little tricky take-off and landing with the many fishing boats in the water. The flight is only 20 minutes to Artery Lake. Since the beach drop off was underwater due to the high water, we dropped off in the lake less than 500 m from our first campsite. We planned to stay there for the day and search for the pictographs on Artery Lake then head downriver the next day. Well, we think we found a couple of pictographs but determined that the high water may have covered some and others were very faint. We checked out the marine railway on the first rapid #10 which was not far from our campsite, ran the rapid and headed back to camp looking forward to starting downriver the next day. One of our canoeists, an avid fisherman, caught a large pike with his first cast and that certainly set the tone for him this trip. Late that night a huge thunder, lightning, rain, and windstorm blew in and was relentless in the morning. Begrudgingly, we crawled out of our tents and waited for someone to say, let’s hold tight to see if the weather clears. The whitecaps were horrendous on the lake and would not have been a fun start to the trip. By noon, it was still roaring so we settled in for the day, keeping a fire going, reading, napping, and playing cards.
Monday Aug 1st
Weather had improved – sunshine in the morning and a few showers off and on throughout the day. The trip has now officially begun! Lots of wildlife sightings today, bald eagles, golden eagles, otters, cow moose and calf, snow geese and pelicans! Who knew they would be so far north. They are very large and seem to be in groupings of 20 or more. When they took flight, their wingspan was huge, and you could hear the flap of the wings as they took off and flew overhead. We ran a few rapids today and lined around a canoe-eater rock outcropping. Little elevation but very pretty area with the rock shore interspersed with some swamp areas and we camped 1.5 km past rapid #20.
Tuesday Aug 2nd
Another day of mixed weather. At least the winds were calm. Again, we were able to run a few rapids but lined and portaged more in this section. The portages were relatively easy with the longest being 440 m, rocky and steep, beginning to end. Today we saw evidence of last year’s forest fires. We travelled about 16 km to camp at what Hap Wilson calls X-Rock rapid #25 and yes, there is a distinct vein in the rock marking an X. Very typical Canadian shield scenery and drop and pool rapids.
Wednesday Aug 3rd
What’s a canoe trip without headwinds? Today we had strong westerly headwinds but no rain and long stretches of flat water mixed with a couple longish portages (440 m & 275 m). Goose Rapids was not runnable but did have a memorable portage. The area was quite burnt, and the rough portage was marked with flag tape up and over a steep elevation. We diligently followed Hap Wilson’s river description but had to make allowances for the high water. We portaged our gear over the “fishhook” at Goose Rapids and ran the technical rapid with empty boats. All good until the third boat hit the diagonal wave near the end and catapulted the stern person John out of the boat. The bow person Sonja – petite and mighty – had an amazing brace to stay upright but she had no idea she was alone, and we could hear her shouting “keep the boat straight!” However, the boat swamped and over she went. Our destination today was to camp at Round the Bend Rapid, which was a beautiful, play rapid and excellent campsite. Lots of wildlife viewing again today and John caught three pickerel, which we had for breakfast.
Thursday Aug 4th
Less wind today and a mix of sun, cloud, and rain showers but the temperature was warm. The scenery was the nicest so far. It really felt like a river, as it was much narrower with rocky shores and very little evidence of burn. A couple of portages, runnable rapids and lining seemed to be what we were encountering each day. The marked campsite below CI #37 was not really evident to us, but with a little ingenuity by all we made a decent, comfortable site for the night. Today we saw the most amazing display of pelicans on the river and in flight.
Friday Aug 5th
Today was a little later start and we got on the river at 9:45 a.m. We were able to run more rapids CI & CII, and take easy portages or lining around falls. We have now estimated that we are approximately 110 km away from the takeout. The intended destination today was to camp at Okogie Falls, which was described as a great site on the portage or on the upper bluff. We did not find the portage campsite and the site on the bluff meant a long walk to the river for water. We agreed to paddle five km further to Kautunigan Lake to another marked campsite. We think we found it and although not ideal, a little bushwhacking made home look good. The next two days look like numerous rapids to contend with but we are ahead of our planned itinerary so fingers crossed we can run more than we need to portage.
Saturday Aug 6th
How many of us have had this happen? We leave our campsite and no more than two km around a bend is the actual marked campsite, which looked like an upgrade to where we were last night! The next hill over, we spotted a black bear on the hillside watching us very carefully before he waddled on up into the forest. A couple of CIs and swifts were a nice diversion today from the flat water paddling, and we stopped to check out a well-maintained hunt cabin. We decided to have a short day and camped at Chap Falls, which is a very nice campsite. The rapid itself is a CIV suggested as a play rapid, but at this water level there were some large holes requiring tricky moves and even the experienced paddlers passed on the play. It was nice to have a shorter day. We have a tradition that each boat brings a surprise event/game to the trip and when appropriate, reveals a surprise, which always adds some entertainment. Today was perfect for the ladder game one of our friends made. First we painted rocks that we would toss to accumulate points. The prize was your choice of a mini beverage courtesy of samples they had collected on the side of liquor bottles. Lots of laughs!
Sunday Aug 7th
We are making good progress and travelling on average 18-20 km each day. There has been good current and today looks like we can run most of the rapids. We are still encountering lots of wildlife, moose grazing in swamps, black bears, snow geese, otters and so on. Perhaps feeling a little overconfident, we decided to take a tricky line at CII rapid #54, thinking how bad can this be, and doesn’t higher water make things easier to run? Well, the first hole we ended up in we were seriously side surfing and after what seemed like a long time, we slipped out the side only to end up in the next, bigger hole. Now we are full of water, bracing, leaning and just trying to paddle out. Over we go, but fortunately a nice big eddy to swim into was not far away. It made for good conversation the rest of the day analyzing what went wrong. A short, wet paddle to a very nice campsite located between rapid 55 & 56 was a great place to settle in for the evening.
Monday Aug 8th
Today is sunny and warm with 16 sets of rapids to make life interesting. We encountered technical CIIs that required scouting first and 1.5 m drops, CIIIs with 1.5 m wave trains needing a good brace, complex CI/II followed by ledges not runnable in high water, possible sweepers to be aware of and landing in very strong currents at the brink of the rapid. We paid close attention to our guidebook, especially the notation “Do Not Run”. Our intended campsite at the end of the day, described as having a scenic view, was destroyed by fire. Now we were in quite a large area that was ravished by last year’s fires. It looked like a war zone. Even though we were filtering our water it still had a smoky taste to it. We did not see any wildlife in this section and the portages were destroyed. Some portages had flag tape, which helped with direction, but there were many burnt trees to step over. With the high water the entry to some of the portages was very close to the tip of the drop, and strong current made for some quick jumps out of the canoe to land. Every day we have been able to run some rapids so that keeps the spirits high! The scenic camp on river right one km past rapid #73 Kakasannapeekak Rapids was totally burnt but we were able to set up camp across from it. Even still, many trees were burnt, and soot was getting all over everything.
Tuesday Aug 9th
Another day of ferocious headwinds. We paddled 16 km to camp at Rapid #78. It was tough paddling but we did have runnable rapids CI-CIII. This section of the river was designated as scenic but unfortunately again the burn has altered that. The river is getting bigger again as more side rivers and creeks empty into the Bloodvein. We camped at a nice little CI rapid #78 with a surfing wave to play on.
Wednesday Aug 10th
Sunny and hot but no headwind today. This area had escaped the fire and now you can call it scenic. Had lunch at a very pretty spot where the Leland River comes in. The river is still drop-and-pool and we realized there must be a good current as we ended our day at Namay Rapids by midafternoon. We found a big, open rock shoreline and good tent sites, which were slightly elevated above the river. This campsite was the best of the trip. Swimming and a little boat play after the drop was our entertainment for the rest of the day. A couple of us made mention that we thought the river level was dropping, which of course started a good debate. You could watch the features of the rapids grow and recede, specifically a surf wave that was there one minute and gone the next. Strong eddy fences and boils were interesting to watch change.
Thursday Aug 11th
It’s our last day paddling and we have 15 km to go to the bridge takeout. With four more rapids to go we ran the CIIs easily, lined the CIII and casually enjoyed the CIs and swifts. We were at the bridge by 2 p.m. and on the road back to Bissett, which was about a 1.5-hour trip.
Overall, this was a wonderful trip and we would highly recommend putting this on your bucket list. On average we paddled 20 km/day in five to six hours. We chose to do some shorter days rather than full-day layovers. The bugs at this time of year were non-existent other than some annoying little flies that hung around the bottom of your boat to feast on your ankles, fishing was good, water warm and virtually no one else but you on the river.