by Tom Wolfe, CRCO Staff

This is a question we get all the time. Flipping through Laurel Archer’s book Northern Saskatchewan Canoe Trips you’ll find descriptions of venerable classics. But it would be a mistake to think that these are the only great canoe routes in Saskatchewan’s canoe country. In fact, there are countless other rivers all with their own unique characteristics that rank with the best. The answer, really, is “all of them – it depends!” I sat down with Ric Driedeger and picked his brain for six Northern Saskatchewan classics that almost nobody thinks about.

We're in the CRCO office at Missinipe, seated on the old armchairs with cups of coffee in our hands. Many of you have been there -- and asked the same question I'm sure. And each of you has likely had a completely different answer. Ric gets excited, pulls a seemingly random map out of the drawer, and starts drawing lines across patches of blue. Here's what our conversation yielded today... I've divided it into two categories, roughly "North" and "Really North".

North: Churchill River Watershed – home to the Churchill River and countless tributaries, this is the first major watershed you will encounter driving north.

Chartier and Wapiskau Rivers – "These two rivers flow in or around the Brabant Lake area north of McLennan Lake, with the Wapiskau draining into Reindeer River. Both are low flow rivers with numerous beautiful waterfalls, sinuous reaches through classic shield country. The land is marked alternately with various generations of Boreal forest, from fresh burns to successively older tracts including ancient old growth. These rivers are unique in that they have road access on both ends, and can also be combined beginning on one and ending on the other in either direction."

Pink River – "Fly into Hickson Lake, where you’ll find one of the best rock painting sites in North America. Paddle through a series of beautiful lakes including One Man and Deception. After this, follow a long stretch of river with some runnable rapids, some lineable, some that must be portaged, winding up in Wathaman River and eventually the road."

Whitemoose River – "Fly into Big Whitemoose Lake. This river is a series of rapids and waterfalls that flow into Drinking Lake from the south. From here paddle down to the Churchill along one of Ric’s all-time favourite canoe routes and paddle up the Churchill to Stanley Mission and the road. There are two things that are really unique about this river. First, it flows from the south into the Churchill. That’s unusual. Even more unique is that it’s a true windy, twisty, narrow river – also unusual in the pool drop country of the Churchill."

Really North: Athabasca River Watershed – Eventually the Athabasca winds up in the Arctic via the Mackenzie River, but it has its humble beginnings just a little ways north of us. Here’s a couple of rivers that form its headwaters:

Hawkrock River – "This is a very far north river that you can begin off the road at Forsyth Lake west of Points North. You can also start on Ward Lake which requires a short flight and follow Ward Creek into the Hawkrock if you want to add a few days to the start. The Hawkrock is a blast, a low volume river than winds and twists its way through classic Athabasca sandstone canyons. A big highlight of this trip is the hiking. Unlike the boreal shield country, here you have miles of trails beaten in by the numerous bear in the area that follow the shores and connect the little lakes the dot the landscape. The Hawkrock finishes with its confluence with the Fond du Lac, which you can follow to Black Lake and beyond if you like."

Badwater River – "Fly into Passfield Lake from Points North. Passfield is a shallow, crystal clear lake with outstanding camping and photography. The Badwater River flows out of Passfield and eventually into the Cree River. Paddle down the Cree to the road, or continue north to Black Lake and one of the settlements there if you want a full adventure. There are so many amazing things about this route, beginning with Passfield Lake itself, formed by a meteor strike well before Ric was born. There are some fantastic hiking opportunities up dry canyons that fringe the river. And of course there’s the final stretch on the historic Cree that brings you to the confluence of the Pipestone River. A detour up the Pipestone brings you to some amazing sand dunes."

Otherside River – "Fly into Livingstone Lake. There are lots of runnable rapids and a canyon near Richards Lake with lots of beautiful waterfalls. From Richards Lake it’s a clear run down to Lake Athabasca just across the lake from the town of Fond du Lac (a 4 km lake crossing for the intrepid who are thinking of using scheduled flights out of the airstrip there). The amazing thing about this trip of course is the finale on one of the great lakes of the north, not to mention unbelievably beautiful camping."

Why would I hire a guide for a canoe trip?

If you’re Canadian, then you can canoe trip. At least that’s the conventional wisdom and it seems to hold true. But Canadians are sensible; they know their limits and tend to choose rivers that line them up for success. That’s wise – but it’s also limiting.

Did you know that most of our most challenging and remote wilderness rivers can still be successfully paddled by beginners led by one of CRCO’s Paddle Canada certified canoe instructors and guides?

If you would like to paddle one of these rivers with your family or a group of friends in the company of a CRCO guide, consider one of these amazing trips. We have room in 2019 and 2020 for you, your family, or your group of friends!

Great guided trips this summer at CRCO

Paull River – August 13-20, 2019. A classic trip for everyone: Beginner paddlers who don’t mind the occasional portage will love this trip, but so will experienced whitewater paddlers who want the thrill of the exiting whitewater options on the Paull and Churchill Rivers culminating in the whitewater playground of Barker Lake. Read more… 

Hawkrock to Fond du Lac River – August 19-26, 2019. The Hawkrock is a blast, a low volume river that winds and twists its way through classic Athabasca sandstone canyons. The trip ends on the mighty Fond du Lac river, the Queen River of the North, on the shores of majestic Black Lake. This is a great trip for anyone keen on enjoying the many whitewater rapids that these far northern rivers have to offer. Read more… 

Boreal Primer – August 19-27, 2019. An ultra-classic paddling trip on the Churchill River from Black Bear Island or Sandfly Lake to Missinipe. The Churchill is the ultimate Boreal shield-country paddling trip. It has everything: beautiful campsites, good portages, lovely boreal forest, superb runnable rapids, and the impossibly green waters of the Churchill river. Read more… 

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