Story by Eric Thum
Photos by Eric Thum and Doug Merriman
On June 10, 2019, Doug Merriman and I pushed our Dagger Reflection 17-foot canoe off from shore and started the long journey down the Pipestone and Winisk Rivers in northeastern Ontario. Our destination was Peawanuck village on the Winisk, just 16 miles from Hudson Bay. We planned on four weeks to paddle and portage, with brief stops at the First Nation Reserves of Wunnumin, Summer Beaver, and Webequie along the way. Doug had travelled this route before and had friends in those villages. I had not been north of the more civilized Quetico Provincial Park. We looked forward to fast water, meeting First Nation natives, wildlife sightings, and Canadian Shield scenery. This vast boreal forest is what Sigurd Olson called “the lonely land”.
Our first seven days were spent on the Pipestone River. The water was high from spring run-off and the numerous Class II and III rapids tested our whitewater skills. Cautious about swamping in the big rollers, we stayed close to shore and/or followed the “V” whenever possible. Portages that were so easy to find and hike in the Boundary Waters were non-existent along this waterway. Our first job, after finding the start of the portage, was to cut a path with machetes and flag the route with surveyor tape, then return to fetch the first load. A final return trip was necessary to get the last pack and canoe. On our second day we portaged through burned-out terrain from a 2018 forest fire, almost stepping on a newborn bear cub along the way. Needless to say, we finished that portage double time to avoid a confrontation with the mother bear. We had some wonderful campsites during this early stage of the trip. Our campsite overlooking the “Hole in the Wall” falls was spectacular. It took a long time to adjust to the long daylight hours up north. I found myself wondering if it would ever get dark at 10 p.m. In the distance, the clear whistle of the white-throated sparrow was ubiquitous. On Assin Lake we met a fishing group, flown in from Iowa. On our last night on the Pipestone, we had a gorgeous campsite surrounded by black spruce. Someone had left a stack of firewood. We gobbled up our freeze-dried chicken and rice dinner and thought about what lay ahead – the big Wunnumin Lake and Winisk River.
Our arrival in Wunnumin Village marked the second stage of our trip. We left our canoe on the sandy beach and hoofed it to town. Thanks to counselor Phil Gliddy, we acquired overnight digs in a small apartment. We showered, washed our clothes and had frozen pizza purchased from the Northern Store. Residents here were most kind. The next day Phil drove us back to our canoe. It was a beautiful day and the lake perfectly still. From here we would paddle Wunnummin Lake and then enter the 295-mile Winisk River. Today our canoe made the only ripples on the placid water. What a lucky break! Doug was windbound here last year for several hours. It took us just three hours to cross the immense lake. We had lunch (waffles and bacon topped with whipped cream and berries provided by the folks at the village) on a rocky point. Next was a 0.6-mile portage short-cut that saved us many extra miles of paddling. Hordes of black flies feasted on our blood as we trudged through large water holes and spongy moss. But at the end of the portage was the Winisk, the shore lined by spruce and aspen. It was a beautiful, narrow stretch of river. Bald eagles watched us from high atop their perches as we paddled by. But we had no luck finding a decent campsite at the end of the day. Finally, Doug spotted an old trapper cabin with room for two tents, and we spent the night there. Late that night a loon made a lonely call off in the distance.
“Bald eagles watched us from high atop their perches as we paddled by.”
We left the trapper cabin campsite at 8 a.m. It was a beautiful sunny start to a long day. The Winisk at this point is wide, almost like large lakes aligned southwest to northeast. We finally arrived at Summer Beaver late in the day. Peter and Sylvia Neshinapaise let us take showers at their house and pitch the tents in the spacious backyard. Doug and I decided to take a rest day here to ship some of our unused equipment home, pack more food and relax. The cursed black flies seemed to ignore the Permethrin I sprayed all over my clothes and tent at the beginning of the trip!
From Summer Beaver we had our share of class II-IV rapids. Many were too dangerous for our canoe, so we portaged on what the natives call “skidoo trails”. The Winisk was very wide at this point. Our campsite that night left much to be desired. Using a machete, we hacked at the spruce and balsam to clear enough room for two tents. The black flies were insufferable. As soon as we finished devouring our pepper steak freeze-dried dinner, we jumped in the tents to get away from the blood suckers.
“…we rounded the bend to see Webequie off in the distance.“
More wide-river paddling the next few days. On June 23 we rounded the bend to see Webequie off in the distance. Heavy winds made the going tough, so we stopped on an island in hopes the wind would die down. I smoked a cigar and Doug took a catnap amongst the cedar, balsam and alder. Soon we heard a motorboat – Eric Jacobsen and Chipa Anderson were there to do some fishing and saw our canoe beached on shore. We talked awhile and agreed to meet later to talk about the lower stretches of the Winisk. After the wind died down, we paddled a short distance to Webequie. Marlene Whitehead invited us to stay at her mother’s place. We spent two rest days here, walking to the cemetery and location of the old Hudson Bay post. Eric gave us some idea of the river ahead and what to expect for rapids and portages. He also said we may see a wolverine – a species new to the area.
Wednesday, June 26: After a few rest days in Webequie we loaded the canoe and pushed off for Peawanuck. Only 230 miles left! Headed north into a strong headwind on Winisk Lake. Ahead was the entrance of the river. We portaged around the first set of rapids and hugged the shore on subsequent whitewater stretches. One of the highlights of the trip was Bearhead Rapids – a wide maze of islands, large rocks and strong rapids. We had too many choices on where to run the canoe. We decided to stay to the right and shoot small class II rapids around several small islands. A few times we jumped out of the canoe to prevent swamping. It was a wild but successful ride. Once in calm water I looked back to see the tumultuous and dangerous class IV water we missed by skirting the outside edges. On the 27th we reached Tashka Rapids – an incredible stretch of class III-IV mix of standing waves and violent water that continued as far as the eye can see. I pitched my tent and Doug slept in one of the three old hunting cabins. We decided to take another rest day here, taking pictures, fishing and exploring the area.
On the 29th we took the portage around Tashka Falls in a cold, misty drizzle. It seemed we were on a path that had been used by natives and fur traders for hundreds of years. Large spruce trees blocked the sun and silvery moss grew along the well-worn trail. It was another long day which included cutting a portage around Baskineig Falls. At Seashell Rapids we portaged on a long rock shelf in the middle of wide whitewater. Once below Seashell the river started to change – spruce along the shore gave way to tall grass and alder. Geese, sandpipers, and terns greeted us as we followed the swift current. We paddled left or right along long islands. Our main concerns at this point were the reports of polar bears sighted on the Winisk. We had bear spray and a large assortment of fireworks in case one got close to our camp, but it didn’t assuage our fears of an attack in the middle of the night!
One afternoon, dark clouds moved in from the west and the wind picked up. Even though the wind was at our back, it made steering the canoe difficult. When a crack of thunder exploded in the distance, we quickly got to shore, turned the canoe upside down and stored the packs. Our timing was exquisite – driving rain drenched everything in sight for about an hour. And then black flies came out in hordes. We pitched the tents to get away from the tenacious bloodsuckers. That night I thought about the trip so far and what lay ahead – 6 days of paddling left if we wanted to be in Peawanuck by Saturday. Sammie Hunter, a well-known native there, offered to take us by motor boat to his cabin on the shore of Hudson Bay for a night.
The next day we reached the sharp right turn bend in the river, so pronounced you can see it on small scale maps. Every now and then I noticed large freshets of water pouring into the Winisk. Caspian terns would fly over our canoe and dive bomb into the water. That night we probably had the worst campsite of the entire trip – no good place to pitch the tents – just plenty of gravel and stone. Deer and horse flies attacked us in hordes under a hot sun. But by late evening it finally started to cool off.
Late July 2 we finally made it to Peawanuck! But it took 70 miles of paddling that day to reach our destination, thanks to a very strong current, fear of encountering polar bears, and no decent place to make camp. The Winisk was very wide at this point, with plenty of islands. The shore landscape was sand, gravel, and tall grass. Right before Peawanuck we marveled at the enormous limestone cliffs, deposits of an ancient ocean. A large set of rapids with cross currents and whirlpools tested our canoeing skills one last time. Around the bend we saw the tall microwave antenna of Peawanuck and a fleet of wood and canvas fishing boats (Canots Nor-West) on shore. The final tally – 465 miles in 23 days.
Sammie Hunter was a very gracious host. Since he would be away hunting, he let us use his apartment until our flight July 9. He also invited us to stay at his cabin, located in the Polar Bear Provincial Park on Hudson Bay. We packed sleeping bags and food and Greg Patrick took us in his motorboat from Peawanuck to the shores of this fabled inland sea. After a lengthy snowmobile ride over the muskeg, we reached his humble abode. Doug and I spent the majority of the afternoon on the roof looking for polar bears off on the horizon. Soon one came into view, heading south along the shore. We were also treated to a beautiful sunset. It was a fitting end to a memorable canoe trip down two unspoiled rivers in northern Ontario.