Woodland Caribou Park has 16 official entry portals. Look it up on their map. Some of the Put-Ins are easy to get to and some are not. Most of the portals that I have seen, of late, have signs announcing the border of the Park. The most remote entry is at the top of the park map. Throughout the winter I wondered if a park sign was posted there.
In January and February I was confined to bed with a back injury. Crutches and canes followed. My friend Bob also battled an illness. Over the winter we met to plan canoe voyages. I felt that a rewarding goal to celebrate our respective healing would be to finish the summer with a great canoe trip. How about traveling from the north boundary to the south boundary of Woodland Caribou? Yes that would be it! We would travel in one of the most beautiful quadrants of the Little North in the Canadian Shield. North of the Bloodvein to south of the Bird. And beside no one has written that story.
We rested at Job Lake north of the park boundary. It was late August and a high pressure system was holding the weather just fine thanks. At the north end of Job Lake we found a beautiful meadow-like campsite that offers a 180 degree view of the lake and sky. And flat, comfy bed sites.
Would you have a wee dram then? I asked the Stranger, also known as Bob.
The supper was over and we could rest and get ready for the next day. So we quickly put things in order. The fastidious and routine practices of maintaining the campsite and our belongings are second nature to us. Itís really a bummer to lose something out here. So donít do it!
Weíll both have a wee dram said the Stranger and we sat with legs dangling over a small cliff and watched the sky flood with soft renaissance colors.
Bob and I have canoed together for nearly thirty years. We have explored the south and west quadrants of Woodland Caribou and environs for many of those years. Even before it was a park.
I seek out canoe-only routes. The beautiful canyon-like, sinewy passages created by the last glaciation just for us self propelled folks. Throughout the Park canoeists can find days and weeks of remote waterways that are neither accessible nor desirable for motor boat people. I give over the mighty Gammon, Larus, Royd, Donald or Carroll Lakes to the fisher people and motor boats and play in the spaces in between.
I had read one winter, years ago, about a canoeist named Howard soloing up the river Musclow from the Bloodvein to Job Lake and it sounded like a little bit of paradise. To me it looked and sounded like one of those exclusive little river paddles.
So, here we were, still a long way from home, moving into the Park through the North entry. And life is grand.
While gazing south, basking in the goldredorangepurple of the sunset on Job Lake I turned my head to the left and the almost-full moon hung in the sky.
As the sunís long-ray light spectrum of reds and purples did their incomparable slow dance across the horizon I leaned back and relaxed on the PFDís and took in a stunning panorama before turning in. .
The next morning was clear with a small wind from the west. We leisurely made breakfast and enjoyed another tranquil, hushed morning. A second cup of coffee later we regaled each other again over our good fortune being here and delighting in the small pleasure that we can drink the water we travel in. This is a big issue with people we know who travel the planet. How privileged we are to have wilderness where we can do that. Drink the water. This always amazes me. Iíve been to many countries where you donít drink the water out of taps never mind rivers and lakes.
Of the worldís total water supply only 2.6% is fresh. But more that half of that is locked up in the ice caps and icebergs leaving just 1% of the worldís water available for human use. Canada has more than 20% of whatís available.
Later we moved around the north shore of Job Lake and quickly across Robert Lake towards the river Musclow. I heard camp noise on Robert Lake and later found out that a lodge was on the east shore.
The river out of Robert Lake was easy to find, untrammeled and although the maps suggest a meandering paddle it seldom is and this was the case. The forest just wrapped itself around us and we eagerly moved into it. I like the feeling of it surrounding me. My hearing and sight seem to become acute very quickly because of this.
The travel was relatively easy and the passages pristine. I bet very few feet stumbled over these trails. Grassy, overgrown paths with faint brown lines down the middle were the norm. The river bits thrilled with every paddle stroke every single stroke brought something new to see. To paraphrase and re-appropriate a bank advertisement - "the experience of the moment was priceless". .
A Quiet Entry
Sometime late morning, in the river, we passed into Woodland Caribou Park, an inauspicious entry to be sure but really beautiful in an unadorned way. I didnít see a sign anywhere. So I left an Al Purdy poem (Still Life in A Tent) in a baggie.
The day was warm and clear and the river unfolded and we were at Hawk Lake in the afternoon sun. There is a good campsite on the north shore where we ate lunch and suntanned. Now, Iíve been told there are few hospitable places left on the planet where there is a complete absence of human generated noise. Well, I believe, this is one those places. Ahh, the pleasures of the north portal entry were upon us.
We have paused at many places in the Little North and the Park, some pristine, some spiritual, some poignant, some astonishing and all beautiful in their own way. This was another of those beautiful little places. Merely an out of the way spot I thought. Itís amazing but there are hundreds more in the Park.
The paddle down the river to the great Musclow Lake was before us and we were again enveloped by the forest. The routine of river travel sets in but the wonderment never stops. Often the entry and exit from the canoe was directly over the bow or stern. The same with the freight and gear. This requires a degree of flexibility, strength and agility that is a must to travel out here. Itís not always an easy in and out on rivers.
The Birdsí Grand Parade Is A Sight To Behold
After the second last portage before the Lake (we didnít know it was the second last portage Ė one never does really.) we acquired an escort of small flocks of small birds that with every few paddle strokes and every bend in the river grew into larger and larger flocks. Soon there were ducks and larger birds also, small and large there seemed to be several hundred, and then some heron and geese joined in momentarily and then imperiously veered away while the chirping and the whistling and the cawing and the flapping of wings grew louder and louder and intricate rhythms of songs and wing beats surrounded us.
Slack jawed, hunched over and silent we slowly drifted on, not really noticing the sun passing over to the west. Occasionally I needed to remind myself to breathe. The birds continued this gracefully swirling above and around us and it went on for some time.
We paddled around yet another bend and in one seemingly orchestrated move the mottled clouds of birds passed over us, swooped back to the river and in the moment they disappeared we looked down from the sky and the sight line changed dramatically as the river offered us to Musclow Lake.
I could see the curve of the earth on the water it was so large.
The cacophony ended and the quiet returned. My ears were ringing
We floated for awhile, gained our breath and took in as much as possible.
This Is A Big Lake
I was tired, enthralled and needed to stretch, but quickly, the old habits kicked in and we dusted off the warm rosy glow and began a focused conversation of how large this water body really is and how far down the east shore we really needed to go to reach the river outlet and how with a west wind we could really be facing monster tidal wave formations if it blew across the width of Musclow. And I didnít even want to talk about a north-west wind. Check out the map and youíll know what I mean!
We know what its like to drop into a huge wave trough and not be able to see the other canoe youíre traveling with. We know and respect that big wind.
We quickly made off, passing a flat-rock campsite almost immediately. It was perfect and it came with a great vista. What a dilemma - out here you grab the first real (read flat) site you come across, particularly at this time of the evening. Often any site must do as the night closes in fast. But faced with the humongous size of Lake Musclow and our vivid imagination we pressed on.
Just south of the river mouth, on the southeast shore, the topographical map suggested a flat ledge of a good size Ė enough to walk about and have some choices locating my bed for the night It was about 3 miles south.
The sky was doing that Ďflooding with goldredorangepurple colors" routine it does so well out here and the light was dropping. The Lake surface was absolutely calm. The V ripple of the canoe wake spread undisturbed and reached beyond our sight. I, again, had to remind myself to breathe.
Youíll Never Believe What We Saw Next!
So here we are beavering down the lake thinking in about on hour or so we would have a bed spot and a supper and a dram. We took the long route staying inside the east shore islands enjoying a magnificent light show, then, passing the last island the wake of a red canoe was spotted about ľ mile off-shore heading towards the (our?) proposed evening site. Two paddlers propelled it.
They were about a mile or so to the south. The canoe had been hidden by the east shore islands we were clutching nearby. We hadnít seen them, they hadnít seen us.
I know, it was absolutely calm, and there was a more direct route but the size of the lake and the enormity of the sky and the small of our little canoe positioned on this flat landscape provoked a small anxiety in me compelling me to stay closer to the edges of terra firma. Remember, when traveling on rivers, the closeness of the forest snuggles you right into its folds. You can touch the edges. Out on the lake it was like floating in the middle of the night sky. With this stunning light it was becoming surreal. The sky and the lake were one.
A quick revision of plans sent us just north of the river mouth tip where, no matter what the weather offered, we could get out and move forward the next day. The peninsula was quite rough so we invented a campsite, as we often do out here, and found/made the requisite "flat" spot for the tent and scrambled back and forth over the rocks and boulders establishing a home for the evening. The wind was a light westerly and although we saw the glow of a campfire we never heard the folks from down the lake.