Wabakimi Provincial Park Canoe Adventure
Wabakimi Provincial Park is very remote, with only 700 backcountry visitors a year to its 2.3 million acres — as much territory as the Quetico and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness combined!
Our trip would start at the Allanwater Bridge and follow the Western edge of the park and would travel 40 miles including 23 portages covering 2.5 miles (since we could not make each portage in one trip, we walked a total of 7.5 miles).
Saturday August 11, 2018
Our team would consist of three men that have experienced other wilderness canoe trips with me. My brother Tim Pelton and his two son-in-laws Eric Nordland and Derek Hilding.
We met at Eric’s house in Roseville, on the north side of the Twin Cities. We packed the truck and prepared to head North. Tim provided the team with new MSB hats to celebrate his upcoming opening of Mineral Springs Brewery in Owatonna, MN.
We stopped at Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors before arriving at the hotel in Silver Bay, MN. Enjoyed a nice meal, cold beer and sleep.
Sunday August 12, 2018
Up early, crossed the border into Canada without any problems. Lunch in Thunder Bay. Drove north on Hwy 527 to Mattice Lake Outfitters near Armstrong, ON. Got permits, a big heavy Old Town canoe, paddles and arraigned for the float plane to pick us up on Friday morning on Tew Lake.
We made the short drive from Mattice Lake Outfitters to the Armstrong Train Station, the outfitter would pickup the truck on Monday. Dinner at Gail’s restaurant. Met new friends from Toronto that also planned to take the train into the Wabakimi, but they planned to paddle out of the park to Hwy 527 via the beautiful Kopka River.
Despite all of the warnings that the train often runs late, our Via Rail train arrived 30 minutes early. We quickly packed the canoes and gear in the baggage car and boarded the comfortably air conditioned club car. We were all very impressed with the friendly and responsive people working on the train, the baggage handlers and the porters were all fabulous!
We enjoyed the train ride into the wilderness and we departed the train at the famous Allanwater Bridge. Stayed the night at the Allanwater Bridge Lodge – Owner Jonny Jelinski is an interesting character, but it worked out fine. We setup our tents in the lawn of his lodge and tried to watch the Perseid meteor shower before going into our tents on a warm night. The loon calls welcomed us back before drifting off to sleep.
Monday August 13, 2018
Breakfast of eggs, cheese, green peppers, onion and sausage on the lawn of the lodge. Packed up our camp, said goodbye to our Toronto friends, loaded canoes and headed Northwest through Moose Bay, turned right (Northeast) through a creek, a pond filled with wild rice, another creek and a small unnamed lake. A bald eagle welcomed us.
On our first portage (100m) into Foam Lake, Tim twisted his ankle, but recovered to handle 22 more. Derek and Eric handled portaging the canoes – Tim and I just tried to stay out of their way.
We enjoyed a nice lunch after a tough portage into a beautiful lake.
We crossed Foam Lake to the Northwest to Foam Creek. The water was down 2-3 feet. We ran the swift on the North end of Foam Lake. Made the short portage to continue Northwest on Foam Creek. We tried to find the South portage to Barrington Lake on the West shoreline, but no luck. We saw two fishing boats and found their portage (219m) to Barrington Lake where they left their other two boats on the other end. These were the last people we would see until Friday at 12:30.
The wind kicked up out of the Southwest. We tried to follow North end of Barrington Lake to the West, but got turned around in the islands and ended up trying to paddle into the stiff wind and the whitecaps. Eric was the first realize our mistake and we drifted back to the protected channel on North end of Barrington Lake.
We made the 160m portage before setting up camp in a beautiful rock ridge. The tent pads were near the water, but the fire pit was high on a rock ridge. Beautiful view!
A swim in the deep water below the rocks felt great on a warm day! We had good luck fishing, with Derek and Tim catching two 17″ Walleyes and Eric catching a nice eater sized Northern.
We enjoyed blackened Walleye fish tacos with red beans and rice. We picked the bones out of blackened Northern pieces. A great meal before sunset and sleep.
Tuesday August 14, 2018
A cold front came through overnight with a strong wind out of the Northwest. Derek and I moved our cooking gear to the back side of the point to escape the wind. Hot coffee with a breakfast of eggs, green peppers, onion, cheese and sausage warmed and prepared us for the day. Just after we broke camp and loaded the canoes, a light rain began to fall. We put on our rain gear and headed out into the wind and rain. It was slow paddling into the wind and waves across the open expanse of Heafur Lake. We passed through a nice campsite and a short portage (22m) on the left of the creek. We ran a swift before finding another short portage (37m) around some pretty rapids on right/North side into the Flindt River.
After a short paddle, we had to tackle an 800m portage, the longest of the trip. With the low water, we had to first land the canoes in the rocks a long way from the start of the portage. After navigating the bowling ball sized rocks before the landing and some down trees, Derek and Eric carried the canoes all he way to the other side without stopping – Amazing!
A long paddle following river to the East, we found the river heading South to a 170m portage than we followed the river East to find a 146m portage into Flet Lake. Derek and Eric showed us how to successfully navigate the swift.
Tim and I got sideways when trying to run the Swift. I stepped out, but Tim fell out of canoe into shallow water before we got off the rock and turned in the right direction.
We found our camp below rapids with some slippery rocks, but a nice landing for the canoes.
This camp featured “stadium seating” on it’s steep rock bank that featured a nice fire pit. We found two fairly level places to setup the tents 50m from shore. Derek and Eric went out to fill the water bags as the sun stated to fade, highlighting the trees on the distant East shore with the purple sky.
I found a flat spot to setup my cooking gear to make 10 pizzas for the hungry men with Triple Berry dessert.
We enjoyed a nice campfire and the skies cleared to see the faint Northern Lights before crawling into the tents as the temperature dropped.
Wednesday August 15, 2018
Up at sunrise to see the mist roll over the lake on the cool, crisp morning.
While we were nearly out of fresh food, the freeze dried breakfast skillet with the mozzarella cheese left over from dinner was delicious.
Broke camp and loaded canoes for a long paddle day. We decided to add two miles to our Wednesday route in order to give us more time for the 9 portages on Thursday. A light breeze carried us East and then North into Flindt Lake. Ran the one of the swifts around an island. Headed Northwest to portage (140m) on left into the body of Flindt River.
Given the few people that travel this route, the portage trails were generally well maintained. A few trees down across the path, but saw many more that had been removed. Whoever thought it was a good idea to add a balance beam between the split in a huge boulder was expecting someone more nimble than me 😦
The river ahead would seem to just end. Navigating the rock fields was often a challenge.
Unloading and loading the canoes with low water on the slippery rocks was often more difficult than the portage itself.
Eric and Derek had to line the canoes through a shallow swift while hopping from rock to rock. Notice Tim and I are not pictured 🙂
After carrying the heavy red Old Town canoe across too many tough portages, Derek and Tim decided to run one rapids and successfully avoid a short (60m) but steep portage.
We enjoyed a loon dancing for us, before we navigated the last three portages (285m, 100m, 105m) on a beautiful day.
We could see a forest fire off in the distance.
We ran a couple swifts before we found a beautiful campsite at the start of a 100m portage.
A refreshing swim in the river was wonderful before a dinner of Noodles Alfredo with Apple Cobbler desert. It was a beautiful evening, with a small crescent moon.
Eric and Derek collected firewood to have a great campfire to end the day.
Thursday August 16, 2018
Up early to make coffee and a breakfast of oatmeal before starting our toughest day – 9 portages lie ahead. We broke camp, carried our packs to the canoes Derek and Eric had brought down the day before. The scratches on the canoes tell the story of a rocky few days in the Wabakimi.
The next 200m portage started out innocently enough, but after unloading the canoes, the red canoe started to float away toward the rapids. Eric dove like a flying squirrel or superman from the rocks landing spread eagle onto the back of the canoe. He was able to slide his body around to get into the canoe, grab the paddle and get back to the landing before the canoe crashed over the rapids. Amazing!
The 275m portage was followed by two swifts and a 250m portage where an Inuksuk greeted us to mark the powerful rapids that we portaged around.
We stopped for lunch on after the 5th portage, where I was able to handle my canoe for the short 60m portage. Tim lost the first of the two backstraps on his waterproof bag on this portage. The other strap would break on the next portage.
A 90m portage was quickly followed by a 300m portage that started on long flat rocks that made unloading easier than most.
The bad news was that the water had receded at the end of the portage to require an extra 100m walk over boulders, sharp rocks and bowling balls to be able to launch the canoes.
We completed a 250m portage before ending with a 25m portage into beautiful Tew Lake as the wind died down making the lake look like glass.
We were unable to find the campsite noted on the map, so we found a big sand bar that was flat enough for our tents.
We found some big Woodland Caribou tracks in the sand.
We emptied the food bin for dinner. We grilled the rest of the pepperoni and Canadian Bacon, and ate the remaining cheese sticks while cooking the freeze dried lasagna. No campfire, mosquitos drove us into the tents for the only time during the trip. 9 portages makes for a tough day – the men slept well.
Friday August 17, 2018
A cloudy morning with Northwest winds forced me to move the cooking gear behind the trees. Derek and I enjoyed coffee before Tim learned via the satellite phone that the float plane would be delayed and they would pick us up at 12:30 ET. Breakfast was biscuits and gravy with the rest of the grilled Canadian Bacon. The young guys ate lightly and carefully with the thought of a rough flight back to civilization.
We broke camps before we saw the float plane circle us.
The pilot landed the plane North of our camp on the sandbar, tried to taxi closer, but hit another sandbar, so he threw out his anchor and we loaded the canoes for one more trip to meet him.
We paddled to the plane, our pilot Brent greeted us and helped us unload our gear into the plane before he tied the canoes to the floats.
This DeHavilland DHC-3T was built in 1958 and had pretty simple, but reliable controls.
Our take off was smooth as we rose above the trees.
The view from above the trees in the Wabakimi Provincial Park shows the many lakes and rivers in the wilderness. We also saw the smoke from the forest fire located in the far Northwest end of the park. People staying at fly-in resorts in that area had to be evacuated.
The pilot banked gradually to make a smooth landing on Mattice Lake.
Don Elliot, the owner of Mattice Lake Outfitters, met us at the dock and helped us unload our gear from the plane and into the truck.
We settled up with the outfitter and started driving South toward home. No problems at the border. Gas at Ryden’s. Dinner at Voyageur Brewing Company in Grand Marias, but the town had no hotel rooms available on a Friday night, so we headed home after an outstanding trip!
- The Wabakimi is an amazing and beautiful area.
- Where else can you travel 40 miles without seeing another person for 4 days?
- The weather was fabulous.
- The portages were pretty well maintained, but with the low water, the landings were very difficult and time consuming.
- 9-13 miles per day did not allow enough time for fishing each day.
- It is very clear that this trip is a young mans game. Derek and Eric handled the tough portages amazingly well. They unloaded canoes while perching on rocks and they hopped nimbly from rock to rock with a 70 lbs canoe on the back. Tim and I are unable to make these moves anymore.
- It was an outstanding trip – a dream come true!
During the trip, I thought often of Sigurd Olson’s first book, The Singing Wilderness (1956), and this quote:
“The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores….There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten.”