Camping in the dunes along the William River this August long weekend

Canoeing in the time of Covid

August 31, 2020

In our opening newsletter for this season we mentioned our uncertainty about how the season would unfold. Almost all of our bookings for cabins and guided trips had been cancelled after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. As late as the first few days of July we were not certain that CRCO would survive the summer.

Well, the pandemic has been full of surprises and not all of them bad, even in the tourism business. After a slow start, canoers – sick of being locked up in their houses all spring and longing for the freedom of the river – started rolling in to Missinipe in unprecedented numbers. Canoe tripping offered an accessible and pandemic-friendly option for a summer getaway. By the middle of July we reached our capacity for offering guided trips, and we had to slap patches on some of our retired boats so we could reintroduce them to the rental fleet in an (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to meet demand.

We were especially pleased with the strong interest in our no-frills guided trips, especially our slimmed-down Boreal Primer trip. The feedback from our guests was that, at the price point this trip was offered this year, it was hard to resist and a great value. $1195 per person* for a fully guided and catered 8-day trip down the Churchill – and that includes canoe rentals and  shuttles! Our deluxe Boreal Primer trip adds a bit of luxury and float plane access – with a price tag of $2800.*

Due to the success of our Covid-era no-frills trips we are extended them to 2021 as well. Contact us for details on our low-cost Boreal Primer, Falls & Rock Art, Brabant / Chartier River, and Great Devil, aka "Churchill Whitewater" trips today!*

In this issue:

Guided Churchill Trips: Fly-in and Drive-in options at a price tag that will surprise you. Guided trips take the work out of trip prep, and allow for a relaxing and fun paddling vacation. Guided trips are also a chance for your friends and family to enjoy a trip that might be a bit more challenging than you would do on your own, and are a great opportunity to take your whitewater and tripping skills to the next level.

Ric's Reflections: Ric Driediger reflects on a summer that surprised us all up here in the Churchill River.

Paddling Northern Saskatchewan: A guide to 80 canoe routes: Ric is publishing a new guidebook that will offer you a lifetime of paddling adventures in northern Saskatchewan!

Sand Dunes: Churchill River Canoe Outfitters ran another trip to the sensational Athabasca Sand Dunes this summer.

Whitewater Festival: It was later than usual and smaller than usual but we were able to run our annual Churchill River Whitewater Festival again this year, the 12th year running, and it was a lot of fun. In a year with so many disappointments this event was a real highlight for the almost 30 people involved.

In the news: CRCO was featured in a number of news articles this year. We provide links to a few noteworthy articles.

Portage and Campsite Maintenance: a brief overview of the grassroots effort at keeping things clear and tidy, as well as a gear review of Silky's Big Boy 2000 arborist saw, an excellent addition to your canoe tripping gear list.

What about the high water? CRCO gets a dozen enquiries a day about the high water. Apparently there are public advisories warning about high water levels on the Churchill River. Do you need to worry? Short answer -- no! 

 * Pricing and availability subject to change

Ruth and Aria blasting down one of the Paul River's many Class II+ rapids this summer

Guided Churchill River Trips

Northern Saskatchewan has plenty of trips that are perfect for paddlers with limited whitewater experience. But, as Jimmy MacDonald pointed out in a recent interview with Sask Tourism, “Saskatchewan is a land of swift flowing rivers, so if you can't paddle on those swift flowing rivers you can't see much of the province”.

Gaining skill in moving water is a combination of training, mentorship and experience. While you can throw yourself into challenging trips without mentorship and training, all you’ll gain is experience and 30 years of experience with canoe tripping may not get you the skills that result from just a few days of training with an instructor who can critique and challenge you to improve your technique.

So that’s why CRCO offers courses and guided trips. Our Paddle Canada certification courses (like this one!) take canoers through a progression, with the goal of establishing competence on challenging whitewater in both play and expedition contexts. And our guided trips aren’t just fun vacations, they’re also an opportunity for mentorship and experience doing the thing that we love to do the most up here: canoe tripping.

Here at CRCO most of our clientele are looking for canoe rentals and tips on where to do their next trip. This is the bread and butter of our business, along with offering comfortable pre- and post-trip accommodation. The vast majority of our clients are novice paddlers or paddlers with much canoe tripping experience at a modest level. So we point them towards the gentle waters of McLennan, or for those with a bit more experience on moving water we suggest classic Churchill or Paul River trips.

But there are many more challenging Northern Saskatchewan trips that are perfect for beginners led by a guide. Examples of this are the Paul River (running rapids instead of portaging), Six Portages (Nemeiben to Otter Lake), or the Foster River. Further north is the Fond du Lac (which Laurel Archer calls the “mother river of the far north”), along with lesser-known waterways like the Cree River, Hawkrock River, and Geike River.

Paddlers who are uncomfortable with remote wilderness canoe tripping, managing challenging rapids and portages, or who are unfamiliar with dealing with the logistical aspects of far northern canoe trips may never get to see experience these gems of the “Land of moving water”.

But in the company of one of CRCO’s expert guides all of these trips are possible and at a price tag that will pleasantly surprise you. As an example, a family of 4 willing to self-cater and deal with the logistics directly can hire a guide for a 7-day trip for just $695 per person and come out of it with skills training and Paddle Canada moving water and canoe camping certification at the end of it as a bonus!

Hickson Lake has an incredible concentration of high quality pictographs and is a protected park

Fly-in trips

Everyone loves the thrill and ease of flying in to a river. The classic popular choices are the Paul River and the Churchill River, but there are many other to consider as well. What prevents people from doing these trips is the price tag. But when you realistically compare the cost of even the most expensive trip here – the Porcupine River – it’s only another $1000 per person for the additional cost of flying (compared with a drive-in, drive-out trip) for a group of 5. The Hawkrock or Foster River are even more affordable at less than $500 per person. So if you can’t fly to Europe for your family vacation next year due to Covid – hey, you’ve got budget dollars to spare! Do something way cooler and cheaper than a trip to Italy and paddle one of the plums of the north!

Hawkrock River – full of interesting rapids with many Class 2 and Class 2+ rapids and ending in Black Lake. This is a perfect river for beginners interested in gaining experience in running rapids as the river starts off as low-volume and not at all pushy. It’s remote – 5 hours north of Missinipe! – but worth the effort. Drive to Forsyth Lake and fly out of the Fond du Lac river or Blake Lake.

Fond du Lac River – Start at the bridge over the Waterfound and paddle north into the Fond du Lac. From there enjoy one of the most accessible and beautiful river trips in the north over many rapids with very few mandatory portages. This trip can last 6 to 14 days depending on where you decide to take out.

Porcupine River – Fly-in to the Porcupine and fly out at either its confluence with the Fond du Lac river. This river is at the top of the list for wilderness, beauty, whitewater and rugged shield scenery.

Geike River – fits into a tidy 5- to 7-day trip, this river is a whitewater rush a couple of hours north of Missinipe. Best suited to guided groups with intermediate or better skills. New for 2021, contact us for details!

Foster River – Laurel Archer describes this as a river that is not “in vogue” these days. Why? For the simple fact that it’s a longer trip that either requires 2 weeks or a flight out in addition to the flight in. If you loved the Paul River, this is the Paul River times ten. Really, nobody should be coming up to Northern Saskatchewan for anything less than a 14-day trip so put it on the must-do list for 2021! New for 2021, contact us for details!

Rohan finishing up on Mosquito Left at the end of a 6 Portages trip, which is a drive-in, drive-out trip

Drive-in trips

Many people ask where you can paddle from Missinipe without the use of a plane. Of course the answer to that question is “almost anywhere!” Float planes are a relatively recent innovation compared with the long history of canoe travel in Canada. The beauty of the Canadian Shield is that everything is connected. Well, of course I’m exaggerating a bit. But not too much. For example Zev Heuer, CRCO’s 15-yr old staff member, paddled from his home in Canmore to Missinipe this spring. Most years someone cruises through Missinipe on the way from some far off destination (like Montreal) to another far-off destination (like Inuvik, YT, on the Arctic Ocean; or Baker Lake, a stone’s throw from Hudson’s Bay in Nunavut). [As an aside, for the first time in decades Zev was the only long distance paddler to stop by Missinipe this summer -- perhaps one more thing to blame on Covid?]

Many people don’t have the time and energy for heroic travels or the cash for the fly-in trips – but smaller-scale trips that give all of the flavour of canoe travel on the Canadian Shield are possible with a little grunt work. Here are a few to consider:

Nemeiben to Otter Lake – Also known as the “Six Portages” route, this route gained a surge in popularity this summer when we advertised it as the "Boreal Primer - Pandemic Edition". We ran three guided trips and pointed at least half a dozen self-guided groups towards this historic route. The general consensus is that it’s a “hard route but a good route”. The initial six portages are in generally good condition but come at the start of your trip when packs laden with food are heaviest. But the thrill of cruising down the Churchill for the last 5 days makes the effort worthwhile. And besides, doesn’t everyone love a challenge?

Drinking River – Ric did this route many years ago and still describes it as one of his favourite all-time trips. Plenty of adventure (read: not many people do it…) but a promise for a memorable experience. This route links the Maclennan area with the Churchill River through the Drinking River. 

Wapisakau and Chartier Rivers – both incredible trips in the Brabant Lake area, these rivers can be linked to make for the perfect wilderness canoe trip for waterfall enthusiasts.

Stanley Mission to Pelican Narrows – why don’t more people do this trip?! It’s awesome. It takes you down the Churchill River to Frog Narrows, which is the lynch pin in the old voyageur highway and connects the Churchill River system with the Saskatchewan River system via the Sturgeon Weir. It takes you past many historical sites, rapids and portages. Best of all it’s a cheap drive-in, drive-out trip.

Paddling above Tuck Falls this summer

Ric’s Reflections

by Ric Driediger

This has been a summer that many people have tried something new. The new thing many tried was to go on a canoe trip in northern Saskatchewan. For many it was their first canoe trip. Others were seasoned canoers who for some reason had never canoed in the world’s best canoe country. It’s always a pleasure introducing people to this amazing country. Most are surprised by the very many options available.

We have only 3 days. Should we do the French Ducker Route? Should we do the short circle in the McLennan Lake area? Should be go see Nistowiak Falls?

Another group has 6 days. Should we fly into Black Bear Island Lake and come down Churchill River to Missinipe? Or should we start at McLennan Lake and paddle to Missinipe on one of those routes? Or the Paull River? Or the Wapiskau? Or should we paddle in to see Coghlan Falls? How do we decide?

With so many options, this only means canoeists need to keep coming back. Every option has a different feel, a different mood, a different level of difficult. During each trip paddlers will see 2 or 3 other options they would like to explore. It doesn’t take many canoe trips exploring and soon a lifetime is not long enough to go all the places one wants to go.

It is only fair to warn people that going on a canoe trip in northern Saskatchewan is addicting. There are always 2 or 3 more places to explore and routes to paddle. I have been at it now for 47 years and there are many places I want to go back to and explore further where I just rushed through before. Going on a canoe trip in northern Saskatchewan opens a life time of adventure and an addiction to constantly returning to the best canoe country in the world. And yes, I am only a little prejudiced.

With all this said, I wonder what will happen next summer? Will most of these groups come back again? If that is the case, everyone will have to book early. Or will COVID still be a thing and keep people from coming? This summer it largely stopped travel from outside Saskatchewan and Alberta. If the European and American travel and travel from other parts of Canada opens next summer, the area will be busy. So, book early!

We look forward to seeing all of you again during the summer of 2021. Have a great winter!

Ric Driediger's new book "Paddling Northern Saskatchewan" hits the bookstores this October

Paddling Northern Saskatchewan: A Guide to 80 Canoe Routes

There’s an exciting rumour circulating about a new book by Ric Driediger coming out this fall. The rumours are true! Paddling Northern Saskatchewan is a guidebook to the rivers of the northern half of our province like no other before it.

Northern Saskatchewan has a variety of canoeing experiences from paddling lake to lake in the Precambrian Shield to steering the rapids of a whitewater river. It has both mountainous canyons and Caribbean-like beaches. You can paddle through marsh land or past sand dunes.

Paddling Northern Saskatchewan provides a descriptive overview of 80 different canoe routes, rivers, and canoeing areas to help you understand the experience of paddling in Northern Saskatchewan.

Those who are looking for the step-by-step information contained in books by Laurel Archer or Robinson & Marchildon might be a bit disappointed. This book is to point you in the right direction and inspire you on a lifetime of adventure. If you need more information, you know what to do! Just give Ric a call (preferably in the off-season) and he’ll talk your ear off with all the details you need and more. And of course CRCO provided detailed maps for many of the routes.

This new book will be available through CRCO so stay tuned for the announcement of its release! You can also pre-order books by contacting us here.

Ric Driediger has been paddling and guiding these routes since the early 1970s. He owns and operates Churchill River Canoe Outfitters in Missinipe, Saskatchewan.

On top of one of the great dunes west of the William River

Sand Dunes

Anyone living in Saskatchewan has heard about the famous sand dunes on the south shores of Lake Athabasca. Ric asked me to guide a trip there this summer and I was pretty excited. I’d heard the stories and seen the photos; now it was my turn to see them for myself.

With a small group, including my 13-yr old daughter, we flew to Fond du Lac and proceeded from there with a motorboat across the lake to a spot on the shore just east of the William River. From there we spent a week hiking and exploring the fascinating geology of the region.

I have to admit, when I first set foot on the shore I thought “Well, that’s a lot of sand.” But the more I walked the more I discovered and the more the calm and stupendous beauty of the area grew on me. Before our trip I talked to Robin Karpan, who literally “wrote the book” on the Athabasca Sand Dunes, and the first thing he told me was, “I’m jealous! I wish you would take me with you. The sand dunes are my favourite place on earth.” By the end of the week I sure knew what he was talking about. In my other life as a mountain guide I have spent over 20 years exploring the most incredible alpine landscapes in the world, and the sand dunes are firmly in that category. Not as “in your face” as a sheer mountain face, the dunes are a horizontal wonderland that takes more time and more walking to discover.

One of my favourite parts was the stark contrast between desert and lush boreal forest. In fact, the sand dunes are not “desert” – they just look like a desert. All it took was a few scoops from the top of the dry sand surface and you would find moist sand the consistency of brown sugar. Why the sand dunes exist is not firmly understood by even the scientists who study them.

Another highlight of course was traveling up to the big dunes west of the William River. This required fording the river, which given the weather we had at the beginning of August was refreshing and wonderful. With a bit of careful route finding it was mid-thigh deep; otherwise you might have to swim a bit for short stretches. On the other side of the river was a five kilometer hike to the big dunes, which are truly impressive. Ruth brought along her crazy carpet and sure enough, you can toboggan down these steep sandy dunes. Following Robin’s advice, we went in the evening and watched the sun set over Lake Athabasca. The resulting light was amazing. The hike back to the William took long enough that it was dark when we forded the river, but by then we had a full moon to light our way. I made dinner over a campfire at 11:30 pm and at about midnight we were treated to an impressive display of northern lights. How perfect can it get?!

I was sorry to leave the dunes, but I’m looking forward to returning in 2021. If you would like to join us, send Ric an email!

Tom Wolfe lives in Canmore, Alberta. He spends his summers guiding for CRCO where he teaches whitewater canoeing and guides river trips. In the winter he’s found working as a mountain and ski guide at backcountry ski lodges in BC and out of sailboats along the coast of Svalbard in Norway’s Arctic.

Rohan and Zev about to get eaten by the Surf City wave

Whitewater Festival 2020

CRCO hosted our 12th annual Churchill River Whitewater Festival this summer. The weekend was blessed with fantastic weather, with sun and temperatures in the 30s. And to top it all off we got treated to a stellar northern lights display!

While most, if not all, whitewater festivals across the country were cancelled due to Covid this summer, we decided to go ahead. The beauty of our Northern Saskatchewan festival is that it's small, grassroots and chaotic at the best of times. So we just made it a bit smaller and a bit more chaotic and it turned out just fine. We had to modify the event a bit for Covid. Only about 30 people were in attendance, which allowed for all of the required social distancing, and we didn't run a communal dinner. But there was an abundance of whitewater spirit, including the usual carnage on Surf City with the full gamut of watercraft including canoe, kayak and surf board. The water is so deep that a few backflips were done right from the firefit into the rapid. Singer-songwriter Ava Wild entertained the paddlers with her guitar and lovely voice on Saturday night.

We were visited by a film crew from Tourism Saskatchewan who put together a nice little promo video highlighting the festival as well as the exceptional paddling opportunities that Northern Saskatchewan has to offer. Here's a link to the video -- awesome video footage!

Zev enjoys a quiet sunrise from the shores of Champagne Island in the middle of a 6 Portages trip, a drive-in, drive-out Churchill River trip

In the news

CRCO has got quite a bit of press coverage this summer. Here are a few links to articles:

COVID-19 brings more in-province tourists into Saskatchewan’s northYorktown this week, August 29, 2020: “If you looked at just straight numbers, there are more people coming this year than last year at this time. But if you look at where they're coming from, it's totally different.”

Travel in northeast Sask. welcomed with caution. CBC, May 20, 2020. "Province doesn't understand north."

Teen spent 8 weeks canoeing to his summer job. CBC Kids News, July 6, 2020. "When COVID-19 restrictions started, Zev decided he had to get out of the house. That’s when he decided that instead of getting a ride to his summer job with Churchill River Canoe Outfitters in Missinipe, Sask., he would canoe there."

What makes The Churchill River so nice? Saskatchewan Tourism, August 19, 2020. 'It's the beautiful land, the caring and passionate people and, of course, the challenge for people of any skill level. Ric Driediger says "I don't think a lifetime would be enough to paddle to all of the good places to paddle to in northern Saskatchewan. I fell in love with the area and I started telling people about it." Watch and listen to Ric tell us about his love for the area.'

Ruth, one of CRCO's youngest staff members, portages around the Gorge on the Paul River

Churchill River Portage and Trail Maintenance

by Tom Wolfe

We've been really happy and impressed with all of the volunteer efforts made to keep our portage trails and campsites in good shape this summer. Many groups have cleaned up as they paddled their routes, or made a special trip out to the Churchill with a special maintenance project in mind. One group traveled the Clearwater River equipped with chainsaws and cleared thousands of trees from the trails; another family tidied up Paul Island filling many garbage bags worth of trash; another group is planning a special trip in September with trail clearing in mind; and the list goes on.

One of the things that makes trail clearing more effective is having the right tools for the job. Not everyone can, or wants, to carry a chainsaw on a canoe trip. But there are hand saws that are surprisingly good. I carry a 35 cm Silky saw, which is a professional-grade arborist saw. Silky makes amazing blades. The only thing better that I can think of, for the weight, would be a light sabre -- but those are hard to come by and require use of The Force. Silky saws are cheap, readily available, and don't require personal training with Obi Wan Kenobi.

If everyone carried such a saw with them and spent 15 minutes a day clearing trails during their canoe trip, imagine how lovely our portage trails would be! Imagine how abundant your firewood supply would be every night, with so little effort!

MEC is currently out of stock but you can get them off Amazon here

Many people bring cheap Canadian Tire bow saws or similar, with thin removable bandsaw-like blades. These cut poorly, are prone to breaking, and are just not up to the task of serious trail clearing.

Silky saws are pull saws. If you jam the blade and try to push you risk hurting yourself or bending or breaking the blade. Using a wedge (i.e. a broken stick) and/or your axe to prevent binding, as well as some strategy and common sense, will make the most of these fine tools. Also be sure to use gloves. They are sharp and dangerous.

As for durability -- I used a smaller 33 cm saw for 15+ years in my other life as a mountain & ski guide and only recently replaced the blade because I thought it might be getting a little less sharp.

Wladyka Falls is powerful with the high water. Yet it was paddled this summer on far river right, and an eddy above it on river left means you can do Great Devil with just a 50 m portage if you're game for running a kilometer of Class II+ above a waterfall!

What about the high water?

CRCO gets many calls every day asking the same question: "Is the water too high?" The answer is "No." The beauty of the Churchill is that paddling is great at any water level. When it's high you have to worry less about dragging your canoe over rocks. And there's this idea that upstream travel is harder with higher water levels. Certainly in some instances, but this week Tom & Zev paddled UP the Shelf (normally a class 2 rapid) and made their way from the top of Mosquito to the bottom of Sluice with just a single 2 metre pull-over at Corner. The one downer about the high water levels is that much of the beautiful shield rock is covered in water, which is more aesthetics than anything. There is still no lack of world-class wilderness camping.

Way back on June 4 this year Ric had the following to say about the high water:

Saskatchewan Water Advisory has issued a warning for high water levels on the Churchill River. The water is higher than it has been in several years but we have had much higher. As most of you know the Churchill River consists of mostly lakes. High water doesn’t change canoeing on these beautiful lakes. However, the high water level does change how one should approach rapids and waterfalls when looking for the portage. You have to be more cautious, but we can help you identify which portages you have to be more careful with and how to approach them safely! Looking forward to seeing many of you up here this summer.

Since this was written on June 4 the water has just kept on rising, each peak greater than the last and most recently above 880 cms (cubic meters/second) at Otter Rapids. This is officially the second highest water level on record, the highest level being in 1974 at 940 cms. But what's amazing about this year is how sustained the high flow has been. In 1974 it peaked and subsided quickly. This year, ever since early July, the Churchill has been sustained at over 750 and has averaged over 860 cms for the past month +. It is conceivable that it hasn't peaked yet as every time we get rain it seems to creep back up to 880 or even a bit higher. If we get one of those hard fall rains who knows what will happen? In any case it's safe to say that more water has surged down the Churchill River this year than any other year on record.

2020 follows many years now of high water on the Churchill. It's hard to believe, but "normal" water levels for the Churchill are around 300 cms, with 200 being quite typical. At low water levels you can actually walk up rapids like Little Devil or Donaldson Channel. In 1993 the Churchill River peaked at 100 cms! While we are enjoying the spectacle of high water levels this year, we all long for a year with low water levels so we can enjoy the vast stretches of the Churchill River's precambrian shield granite that we all love.