Open Water Trips

Adventures in Open Water in Small Boats

Black Island, Lake Winnipeg again!

Black Island Trip Report Aug. 15-16/’08

Photos here:

Since taking up kayaking about 3 years ago, most of my paddling has been in protected waters. As my skills are advancing (slowly) I am beginning to seek out more challenging “big water”. In 2007 I paddled on Lake Winnipeg only a few times. In August I made a day trip from Gull Harbour on Hecla Island and toured around Punk Island and Little Punk Island. That story is recorded here:

Since then, I have been obsessing more and more about going around “the big island” i.e. Black Island. When the café owner mentioned that crossing the channel between the islands required some risk assessment vis a vis the current and waves, this only piqued my curiosity more.

Over the fall and winter months I eventually Googled my way to a trip report from Robert Pruden and Ken Sutherland making the same journey in 2004. What luck! It seemed exactly what I was looking for: isolation, a moderate challenge, back country (island) camping, and a chance to circumnavigate a big landmark. Here’s their link:

Well this year, I decided to go for it. Apart from all the necessary criteria listed above, I needed to get this done to clear the obsession from my mind (and of course move on to the next one…).

Aug 15 I arrived at Gull Harbour Marina with my gear pre-packed into makeshift drybags (industrial Glad garbage bags), and my one true drybag. After registering with the local Provincial Park campground (you fill out a form for back-country camping) and leaving my plan with the marina café, I was on my way.

The weather was sweltering 28-30 Celsius (86F) and sunny. The harbour had a few small waves. On the drive up Hecla I could catch a glimpse of the Lake. BIG, and intimidating. But at least the waves looked manageable. Honestly, as a lowly intermediate this was my biggest concern (fear?). For those that don’t know, Lake Winnipeg has a reputation for brewing nasty conditions faster than you can say “tempest in teapot”. With a total length of 400 kilometers, and an average depth of only 10-12 meters, nasty chop with 2 meter (6 feet) waves is quite possible. [As of Aug 22, waves of 2.5 meters with winds averaging 30 knots were reported]

Fortunately I had checked the weather and marine reports obsessively (did I say that again?) and I had little to fear. So I paddled out of the harbour eager for adventure. And it did find me before I returned.

Once I got past the lighthouse that marks the edge of the harbour and the entrance to the channel between Hecla and Black Island, I found myself staring at 2 foot high waves coming from the south west. Remembering my Tofino guide’s advice, namely that taking waves on your bow is more stable than otherwise I chose to cross with a ferrying angle so as not to suffer beam waves. While this took longer, I felt comfortably safe. However, when water splashed off of my bow and knock a few drops of sunscreen into my eyes, I felt a trace of panic set in. With stinging orbits and difficulty keeping my eyes open, I was still able to land on the first gravel beach without difficulty. Now I was satisfied that I was going to survive my trip. It could only get better from here.

After a quick cell phone call to my wife, I had her confirm the marine weather forecast, with winds expected from the south west, turning to west the next day. It’s rather important to know the expected winds because choosing the correct side of the island can offer shelter from the wind and waves. So, I changed my plan of going around the south side (counter-clockwise) to going around the north (clockwise). This worked very well as I had relatively placid waters to paddle in, at least on day 1.

As the others have written, the north side of the island is exposed to the winds, but I can’t say that it’s any more exposed than the south side. Certainly with the winds prevailing from the west, the fetch is rather shorter than if on the south with a south wind. I could see a north wind being absolute hell as it would have the enormous fetch from the north basin to build speed, but I had an easy time on the north of the island, and as we shall see, a bigger challenge on the south.

Like Sean reported, the north side has many beaches for safe landings. Actual sand, not cobblestones! Many pelicans, especially where the submerged rocks stick out at each point of land. Almost every hour I saw a bald eagle launch from a high tree. This became so regular that I started saying, “Hello again, my old friend” each time we met. Not that conversing with animals is a sign of emerging psychosis, of course. I was not so lucky to see wolves or bears, but perhaps that was a good thing.

When reading Ken and Robert’s report I got the idea to camp and sleep on one of the little islands on the north east corner of Black Island. The largest of these is called Cairine Island and after a few hours of paddling, I set my heading directly for it. By this time the waves were almost directly behind me, and about one-two feet in height. Taking this as a good sign, I used the following seas to guide me directly to my destination. The waves were not quite big enough to surf, but did require a bit of stern rudder technique to stop my boat’s broaching tendency.

Setting foot on Cairine Island was another accomplishment. After so many months of wondering if I could do this, I found that this was well within my abilities. And one hell of an adventure, at that.

Cairine did not have many ideal spots for camping. On landing at the isthmus of the island I found that I could easily cross to the opposite side by way of a narrow foot path. The whole land mass could not be more than ten meters across at its narrowest point. After downing a couple of granola bars and water, I decided to start looking for a home for the night. I knew (by his Google Earth map) that Sean had stayed on the nearest island to the southwest so that became my default destination.

First I rounded Cairine and along the way found a very rustic cabin, which I presume was for fishing teams. The door was locked, and I felt my tent was somewhat more luxurious, so I went on my way. The east side of Cairine offered a few east-facing coves protected from west winds, and a couple of decent beaches. However I wanted a nice sunset to watch, and some longer daylight hours. Ultimately I followed Sean’s lead and went to the next island.

What a surprise, when I found footprints (human) and I believe the marks of kayak keels on the beach! Reassuring to know that I had found safe haven, tested only a few weeks ago. Tired, sweaty, and satisfied, I knew that the inevitable was coming next: beer!

I don’t drink beer like when I was younger, but after a day of sweaty manual labour in hot sun, nothing clears your palate like a fine ale. And I was overjoyed to learn that the icepacks and insulated lunch boxes kept my refreshments as chilly as my basement fridge. Paradise!

I set up camp with the usual tent issues (how do these poles go?) and set about making supper. My newly purchased Coleman single burner stove and propane bottles worked beautifully to fry up a helping of garlic sausage and instant herbed pasta. A feast fit for a king! Any bears on the big island must have been driven quite mad by the delicious smells from my kitchen. Yet another good reason to camp on a tiny island.

I was interrupted a few times by beavers crossing the cove not more than twenty feet from my dining room. Fearing they were after my food, I made some effort to scare them off by tossing logs in their path, which worked at least until nightfall. Rather reminded me of “Caddyshack”. I recall once in the night being half awake and seeing one of the critters a few feet from my tent door, but quite minding his own business. By then I didn’t care and they left all of my gear alone. I did put my wooden paddle in the hatch just in case they got any ideas to use it as lumber. The next day I found a well-used trail leading up from the water line into the bush, and concluded that I was intruding on their space, rather than the other way around. Sorry guys! (I wonder if Sean saw any beavers?)

By nightfall, I was well sated, bathed (in lakewater with biodegradable soap) and ready for bed. Except that I forgot my sleeping bag. Doh! I remembered stuffing it into my rear hatch during my “packing dress rehearsal” and then after removing it, promptly forgot all about it. Not one of my better plans. However I was able to make do with makeshift pillows from an air filled drybag, the paddle float, and my first aid kit. At first I needed nothing for warmth as the temperature didn’t drop until well past midnight. Eventually though I was forced to don my fleece sweater and pants, and wrap the space blanket around me to stop losing heat through the floor.

Ultimately I didn’t get a great sleep, but I think this had more to do with the noisy waves, strange environment, and my excitement level rather than any lack of cushy accommodations.

The next morning I awoke early to somewhat overcast skies, with sunlight beaming down between the gaps in the clouds. Perfect paddling weather. When I first got on the water I checked the wave and wind direction by pointing my bow directly into them and checking my compass. Knowing that the forecast called for west winds, I predicted that the south side would be protected and I chose to keep going around the island clockwise to complete the circumnavigation. In the end I didn’t get the west winds or protection that I expected, but this is the stuff adventures are made of.

After getting on the water, I headed directly south to get back to Black Island and to check out the building I could see from Cairine. This turned out to be the Aboriginal center that Sean and Robert both referred to in their reports. I didn’t realize there was a permanent structure here. I looked rather like the picnic shelters one finds in a city park; a concrete pad with a roof, open walls, picnic tables under shelter. The beach that went along with this facility was disappointingly littered. Hopefully, a clean up crew will come along at a later date. I was also a little surprised by its location. From the reports and provincial park literature I expected to find this on the east shore of the island, closer to Drumming Point.

Rounding the northeast corner and east side of the island I had the quietest waters of the entire trip. This allowed me to get an excellent first look at the (in)famous Lake Winnipeg algae. My photos don’t reveal just how dense this got in the worst sections of the trip. A few coves were full of it and it makes one hope to never capsize. [For those who don’t know, Lake Winnipeg’s algae is in the news frequently because it is implicated in cutting off the growth of the deeper lake plants thereby starving off the fish. Excess nutrient input into the lake’s drainage basin from phosphate soaps to farmers’ manure are being blamed. Reminiscent of Lake Erie. They are also known at times to release a liver toxin. Yummy!]

By the time I got to the south east corner, I knew there was a potential portaging site across the base of a peninsula (Gray Point). However, I wasn’t entirely sure I was in the correct place and I only saw marshy reeds so I ended up going around the point and adding 5+ km to my trip.

When rounding the point, I got my first indication that the wind wasn’t entirely in my favor. Faced with southwest winds and ½-1 foot waves, I decided that I could handle this, and rather than take them on the beam for several kilometers, I elected for a forty minute crossing from the point to the silica quarry which was plainly visible. No problems encountered, although it took longer than I expected.

At the quarry, I landed on the north side next to a little stream carrying iron oxide into the lake. I presume this was a natural deposit that the water ran through although I suppose rusting machinery was a possibility. I began to feel the effects of the heat and the long morning of exercise and forced myself to take a break, eat a high calorie lunch and chill out in the shade. I did not explore the quarry because I had forty kilometers to complete and I knew the remaining journey was not exactly easy. By lunchtime the sun was again blazing hot.

Sean’s suggestion that the quarry looks like Tatooine was entirely accurate. Its character is post-industrial, toxic waste dump, and not a great example of pristine natural habitat. My old camera went on hiatus at this point so I have only a few pics of this strange landscape.

After getting around the quarry I was faced with the most challenging paddling of the trip. I had conflicting reports of which side of Black Island presents the greatest paddling challenge. Robert and Ken (and my instructor also) alleged that the north side is exposed to more winds and therefore more difficult. Sean reported that the south has only a few poor quality rocky beaches and that landing opportunities would be greatly compromised in rough conditions.

For better or for worse, my wind predictions were incorrect, and the wind was predominantly south-southwest. No protection; ugh! This meant that as I proceeded south-west I would have a headwind (and waves) off my front left quarter. Worse because it would slow me down, but not entirely bad because at least the waves were not directly on my side, most of the time. And at least I could see them coming.

As I nervously started, the waves were about a foot and a half in size and I reassured myself that the sea conditions were not changing. After all, I had just successfully completed a forty minute crossing. Still I kept close to the shore (away from the rocks though) and looked in vain for landing points. Sean is entirely correct; the south side is mostly rocky and landings are few and far between. Also, the waves have the entire south basin (100 kilometers) to build up steam so even moderate winds can make for serious wave action.

I did pull in to cobblestone beaches for rests when I could. On one occasion close to a strange cube shaped rock I rested in the shade of an evergreen tree. The heat was oppressive, but my mind was on the waves, which seemed to be getting larger despite my instructions to stay the same. I found solace in meditation and hydration, and reminding myself that I was handling the waves admirably.

Regarding quartering and beam waves, I have been upgrading my skills in this area over the past several weeks. In May I enjoyed paddling in some small benign surf at Patricia Beach and started to recognize the challenge that bigger waves present. I was aware of braces high and low from the instruction I took, but I wasn’t quite sure how this translated into the real world. I did have one capsize that day, and resolved to learn more. In July at Tofino I had a mild to moderate scare with wind waves crossing my beam, but my guide gave me practical advice about how to remain stable. That escapade was outlined here:

Since then I’ve been reading anything that I can to advise me how to handle rougher waters.

As I paddled the remaining 14 kilometer leg around the south of the island, I watched as the waves rose to about 2-3 feet high and I became somewhat nervous. At least the rocks weren’t getting any bigger. I used every technique that I learned: edge/lean into the wave as it comes under my hull, time strokes to plant the paddle in the face of the oncoming wave and then on the back of the wave as it passes on the other side, slightly flatten the paddle from the forward stroke position so it works partly as a brace, keep eyes on the horizon, keep the paddle in the water and driving forward at all times. It all worked marvelously well to keep me upright, as did my boat.

I was able to reassure myself that I was not especially in trouble and made steady progress until I finally rounded the southwest point at about 4:00 PM. I pulled into the first cove around the point, rode in on some pea-soup green algae surf and took a much needed rest. At this point I realized just how exhausted I was from paddling since 08:30. I thought I may also be flirting with heat exhaustion and dehydration, so again I forced myself to rest for 30 minutes in the shade of a small tree.

From here I could see the golf course on Hecla Island and I knew the finish line was near. I did have to again consider the waves and current in the channel between the islands, but once I was under way this was not a problem. Small quartering waves from the rear quarter, so just an easy paddle to the light house, and around into the harbour.

When I arrived back in the harbour, several sail boats were making their way back in as the wind was starting to kick up. Finally at 5:30 I landed back at shore and I was finished literally and figuratively. 64 kilometers [40 miles] in two days. I was covered in sweat, sunburned, lips chapped, and I’m sure I didn’t smell Downy fresh. I was overjoyed to complete my journey safely, especially given my experience on the south side. I realize that the danger was more potential than actual, but risk assessment is an ever-present companion of mine.

After packing my gear and boat into/onto my truck, I trundled off to the marina café to sign myself out of their log book. After standing at their counter for a good 10 minutes, probably frightening the customers with my best psychotic unkempt vagrant impression, the staff finally let me have the book. The last time I was here I learned from the owner that he kept the log so that when cars are left in his parking lot overnight, he can keep track of who does and doesn’t need rescuing. Seems like a good idea to me, however twice I’ve found that no other staff member in the café seems to know that he keeps this log. I have to explain this process to them and point out the book on the desk behind them which has my name and contact info in it. It almost seems like a waste of time to me, but I do intend to keep using it.

Then I signed out of the provincial park campground office and was on my way home. Shamelessly devouring salty chips, an ice cream sandwich, ice cold diet Coke, and a large bottle of water, I luxuriated in the air-conditioned cabin of my truck rolling down highway 8. Before I left I had to make a call home to let my wife and son know that I was still alive. Curiously my cell phone wasn’t getting a signal, despite working the previous day. The park office informed me as I was leaving that the cell tower on Black Island was not working, so no one was getting a connection. I did, however, manage to find a payphone at the marina that accepted my credit card, so all was well.

All in all, I am immensely satisfied with my trip. It seems that circumnavigating Black Island is the intermediate level trip to do on Lake Winnipeg, and now that I’m done I can relax my obsessions for another year. I’m a little disappointed that the photos don’t reflect how challenging the waves were at the end, but of course those are the times I don’t want to put down the paddle to get the camera. And for my skill level, 2-3 foot waves are not far from my limits (I think). After all, three feet means as high as my shoulder. It was a great day for reinforcing my new-found skills.

I conclude that the north side is probably the safer side to travel on just because the landings are so much easier and readily available. However, I will always be on guard for bad weather as the Lake can throw nastiness from any direction. I probably wouldn’t want to be there if the wind is west or north but a south wind would mean a great time. If I spend much more time on the Lake I may invest in a VHF radio just to get the updated weather reports. And I really should rent a satellite phone, just in case. Quo vadis?


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Black Island, Lake Winnipeg again!
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