Open Water Trips

Adventures in Open Water in Small Boats

To The End of the River: A Trip Report - Part 3

I arose early in the morning and was on the water by 0600h. The students were all still sleeping so I moved quietly while I prepped the VJ for my first day on Cedar Lake. I had about 20-kms to paddle before reaching the end of the Saskatchewan River, which actually entered the lake near the center of the western portion of the lake. My intention was to use the main channel to enter the lake, which is the branch that runs straight into the central part of the northwest section of the lake. Instead, I found that I had turned right when I should have stayed left so I entered the lake via the rightmost channel. That was a turn of events that would annoy me to no end.

When I left the river and entered the body of the lake, I was dismayed to discover that the lake was so shallow that the VJ bottomed out. I looked around and saw very choppy shallows that extended for hundreds of meters. The water was a beige/brown color because of all the silt that was being stirred up by the winds, which were growing in strength due to the uninterrupted fetch of that part of the lake. I broke my paddle into its two halves and used them to pole the kayak roughly 300-400 meters to deeper water. Once I reached deeper waters, I reconnected the paddle halves and began what would become a very tough slog to reach Poplar Point. I could see the point in the distance: it was far away but seemed to be near the main body of the rest of Cedar Lake. Wind and wave constantly turned the VJ in a northwest direction but I needed to run her in a southwest direction. In the end, I reached my destination but only after roughly 4-hours of shoulder-burning effort. When I reached the point, I exited the kayak to take a break and stretch my legs.

From the point I turned to what I thought was the most favorable spot to access the main body of the lake. I did another smaller open water crossing only to discover that the entire northwest corner of Cedar Lake was locked in by fen and bog. I remembered reading stories about how the local aboriginal fishermen sometimes got lost for two days because of shifting channels throughout the boggy sections of the lake. At this point, I was tired and wanted only to find a way out of this situation. I swore to the skies out loud and bitched to no one in particular about what a ridiculous lake this was. How the hell could I come so far only to find myself trapped in such a frustrating condition? All I saw from one end of this portion of the lake to the other was a long line of fenegue grasses growing on mud banks. I used my 300mm zoom lens to scout out a channel but I could see nothing at all that might serve as a way out. First I paddled one way, and then I changed my mind and moved in another direction. I searched for the hint of a possible escape route but found none. I could see the deeper blue water on the other side in the far distance but I could not find a way through the fen. I was almost in tears with frustration as I scoured the sides of this barrier to find a way through.

I had been heading west when I decided to change my direction again. I turned east and moved closer to the shore of this great annoyance. Within 5 minutes of making this decision my frustrations were eased by what looked like a channelÖa possible escape route. Originally, I saw it only as a tiny bay but because I was closer and looking at it from a different angle, I saw that it was actually a winding water-filled pathway that wandered toward the deeper waters on the other side. I moved the VJ along this route and sure enough, it was winding through the 200-meter bog toward the main body of the lake. I was not more than 20-meters from the open water when the channel became too shallow to paddle through. I shouted out new swear words that were swallowed by the wind for no one to hear except gods and geese who didnít care. Marsh birds seemed to flutter up with each battery of words I offered up. I broke my paddle and tried to pole my way closer toward the blue water but they immediately sank more than a foot into sucking mud. I knew then that I could not disembark and pull the VJ through. The mud was most likely deep enough to swallow my body into eternity and now it held the VJ with its sticky sucking grip. My heart was pounding after making such an effort to move forward. I drank deep gulps from my Gatorade bottle as I pondered my worsening situation. It was with deep regret that I started to shove the VJ back from where I came from. I had decided to paddle out of the shallow and possibly waste the rest of the day trying to find a way out. I knew from my aeronautical map that I probably wouldnít find a way out.

As I moved the VJ backward, hard-fought inch by hard-fought inch, the mud finally released its grip on the hull and she slipped easily back into the deeper waters of the channel. It was then that I spotted an opening along the shore that I saw earlier. There was a short length of mud there that I could park the VJ along in order to get out and stretch my legs and do some hard thinking. I got out and studied my surroundings. While I was doing that my feet were slowly sinking into the mud so I stepped onto a mat of dead duck weed. I noticed that my feet didnít sink. I was only about 75-meters from the open water at this point: I couldnít see that before from the kayak while she was afloat. I made the decision to portage her across the matted carpet of duckweed.

I clipped my rescue rope to the bow hand toggle and heaved her up onto the mud. The effort caused my feet to sink quickly so I knew that with quick steps, I could probably make it to the open water as long as my feet used the dead fall for support. Several times I had to step onto the areas with no deadfall and my legs sunk to the knees but I yanked them out as quickly as they sunk and kept moving forward. Momentum was the key here. In short order I was almost hip deep but at the edge of the open water. I maneuvered the VJ near some deadfall and stepped onto the mat while leaning on the VJ. With almost gymnastic maneuvers I got each foot into the cockpit then aggressively slipped my butt onto the seat while jamming my legs quickly into position. I was so happy at this point that now my tears were for joy.

From then on, I would be making long open water crossings until I got to my campsite for the night. I cared not one whit for the hard paddling I had to do during the crossing. I knew that I was very fortunate to be where I was now, paddling through clear bluish waters toward a good nights sleep. While I did the crossing, I opened my daily ration of Guinness and enjoyed that light-headed feeling of hard won freedom.

The next day after such a struggle I would carry on earning my mileage in a hard won manner. There were only gentle winds that tenth day of my journey, but because of the 100-km long fetch, the wave action was challenging. I tried to stick close to shore but one annoying characteristic of Cedar Lake is the amazingly shallow shoreline dotted with rocky points and outcroppings that can be encountered even 400-meters from shore. To paddle far enough from shore to avoid the rocks, you had to deal with the waves. Often I dealt with one-foot chop, which was no real problem, it just slowed my progress but I did not mind that. It was the sets of three two-foot waves with a wave period of six-feet or less that made life difficult. They hammered the VJ and caused me to strain my shoulders for hours on end. The bow would rise over the first wave then drop and crash into the bottom of the middle wave, then rise over the final wave.

On Cedar Lake, you either try to follow the shoreline and add days to your paddling adventure of you make open water crossings and deal with the waves. Since the shoreline has little to offer except monotonous, flood damaged shores that resulted from the Grand Rapids Dam, the open water crossings are more fun even if they are at time, difficult. I was not interested in pushing huge miles each day just to put miles behind me to set records for daily distance, I was pushing a little to make sure I met Ken at the put-out point so that we could paddle Black Island on Lake Winnipeg. Paddling Black Island is very a very beautiful experience that I wanted to relive.

My destination for today was Easterville, an aboriginal community populated by the Chemawawin First Nations. I was under the impression that I was a couple of hours from reaching the village: I was wrong. Three Chemawawin fishermen who stopped by to offer food and a tow (for some strange reason), explained that I had a 12-mile open water paddle to reach it. I looked to where they pointed and could just barely see the microwave tower at Easterville. After convincing them that I had plenty of food and did not want a tow, we parted ways with friendly waves. I gritted my teeth emotionlessly and pointed the bow of the VJ in the direction of the microwave tower.

That crossing took me 6-hours because of wind and wave action. I encountered only one short period of time when the waves eased up just a little. I was often amazed that there were any waves at all with such a gentle wind. At one point I swore out loud because with almost no wind, there just shouldnít be any wavcs but they were hammering me as usual. I was getting tired of being spun parallel to the waves.

Once I had the jetty at Easterville in my sights, I used longer more powerful paddling strokes to end my marathon crossing. The closer I got to the jetty, the harder the wind blew. I was not more than 400-meters from its shelter but only inching my way forward with powerful strokes because the winds were increasing in force so much. I had to cinch up my hat string to ensure that the wind didnít steal it from me. I valuve that hat as much as a video addict values his/her favorite game. When I finally found safe haven behind the jetty the VJ simply shot toward the edge of the shoreline as if she was shot out of a sling shot. I pulled her out of the water and sat down on a large rock to rest my tired body.

Once I was rested, I walked over to a pickup truck where several locals were chatting. They had been watching me and wondered who I was. I introduced myself and asked where I could get a burger and fries. I learned that the buger joint didnít open until 5 pm, so I was out of luck. I walked over to the reserve office and used a washroom. There, I spoke with a few locals before heading back to the VJ. I stopped by the local grocery store and bought a pathetic excuse for a submarine sandwich, which was more bun than sandwich and contained a few awful fatty slices of salami or something. Still, it tasted good so I gobbled it up, knowing that I would suffer heartburn later on. I suffered through the heartburn for two hours afterward but I drank water and toughed it out. I paddled on until I reached waters sheltered by a high rocky and relaxed into rhythmic easy strokes until I found my last campsite for this journey.

My final campsite was situated on top of a large flat of limestone that faced Grand Rapids. I could see the microwave tower for the town but that was not my final destination. I wanted to land on one of the many dikes that line the shores just before the Grand Rapids dam. I chose that spot because from my map, it looked like the best place to land. I could care less that I stopped just a couple of kilometers from Grand Rapids because as far as I was concerned, I will have arrived at the end of my journey along the Saskatchewan Watershed. I explored the campsite and photgraphed whatever looked interesting. After I finished a celebratory can of Guinness, I hit the rocks and slept a dreamless sleep.

The next day I expected, or hoped, that I would be able to paddle through glassy flat waters to the put-out point. I used my ICOM VHF radio for the first time ever and learned that the weather report was favorable for the Grand Rapids area. The first hour was picture perfect. I was on the water by 0500h and was totally relaxed: that feeling would be short-lived. Cedar Lake is a restless lake and after the first hour of paddling, I was back to shoulder wrenching strokes to keep the bow aimed at my final destination.

Two hours later, I came to a rocky island populated with thousands of gulls. I landed and stepped out to answer the call of nature. That done, I walked carefully along the shore and discovered that the island was one large nesting area for the gulls. I photographed a few of the nest sites while agitated birds flew around me as thick as a cloud of hungry mosquitos. Once I was satisfied with my photography, I launched the VJ to give the birds back their peace. From there I would make a final open water crossing to reach the dike of my dreams.
Even close to the dikes, the lake would not let me rest. It tried to drive me into the limestone shores but I continued to refuse it with passion. As I turned into the cove near my landing point the waves eased and disappeared: I was home free. My spirit relaxed as I paddled along the cove to choose my exit from this lake that I learned to hate. It gave me no rest and tried to drown me with its waves.

Once I selected my exit point, I moved the VJ carefully into a small slot where I could safely exit her. I used my rescue rope to drag her fully loaded to the top of the dike, scraping her new coats of varnish but not caring one whit. I was off the water and my sea legs knew it. They wobbled and left me unbalanced as I worked the VJ up the steep side of the dike. Once she was atop the dike, I opened a can of Guinness and relaxed while I waited for Ken to find me. I waited for 4-hours and thoroughly enjoyed myself by indulging in photographing local flora. I did spot a bear track but couldnít tell how fresh it was because it had been raining recently. I decided to load up a bear banger just in case and strapped on my big knife. Once done, I enjoyed a long walk along the dike and breathed the hot air of the early afternoon. It was hot out. I was tempted to go jump in the lake but I was too tired of the lake to care much more about being wet again.

When Ken found me I was sitting in the back of a pickup truck driven by two workers I managed to flag down. I had begged a ride to the highway that I knew Ken would use to find me. I figured on shortening his search for me in that wild part of Manitoba. As luck would have it, Ken was on top of the dike nearby. I spotted him and the drivers not only stopped to let me off but unloaded all my stuff beside Kenís car. Kenís grin was huge when he spotted me. Once the workers had left, Ken opened a couple of bottles of locally made stout, which we enjoyed while we relaxed. Ken also offered me the requested double-double from Timís. Ahh, so nice to be back on dry land!

Of the places I paddled through during this journey, I would highly recommend that section of river with all the channels below the Campbell Dam at Tobin Lake. It is absolutely beautiful down there. The different channels offer some excellent close-to-shore paddling with plenty of opportunities for photgraphing wildlife or just watching it as you pass by. With an aeronautical map and GPS, you should be able to find your way to Cumberland House, where you can stay and do some seriously good fishing or just hang about and meet the friendly locals. There are fishing guides all over the place so you can fish from your kayak or fish from their larger boats. Birders will have fun identifying the myriad marsh birds and other land-based birds. Eagles are plenty to be seen as are hawks, owls and other birds of prey.

The east end of Cedar Lake is also a wonderful place to be but only if the winds arenít churing out those damned wave sets. There are islands to explore and plenty of locals to help you when asked. I am sure that the northern shores of Cedar Lake would be a good place to kayak as well since the fetch would be next to nill over there. My bet is that a good week out, week in journey along the north shore would be rewarding.

I had only two failures during this journey. The first was losing my strobe light when I put my life jacket on in preparation for running a few class 2 rapids along the last few kilometers of the North Saskatchewan River. I was depending on it in case of emergency during my open water crossings. The strobe was to signal to possible rescuers where I was in case I was disabled and still on the open water at night. I had 6 hand fired rescue flares on standby so I was not too worried at the loss. The second failure was with my Swiss Gear self-inflating bedroll that I bought for the trip. It blew a seam on the fifth day and could not be repaired. I still slept comfortably for the rest of the trip.

I hope you enjoyed reading this trip report as much as I enjoyed doing the trip.

Robert N Pruden
June 27, 2008

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