Churchill River, Missinipe to Robertson Falls - September 9-13, 2004 - Annual NorthStar Expeditions guys trip with Bryan, Rob, Jay, & Rod. For Rob's photos, follow the link. After replacing the motor for the windshield wipers in Rod's Range Rover, we loaded up and headed off with abandon into ... a blizzard. Yup, that's right, a blizzard on the night of September 8th and we were heading straight into it at 1:00 am with 2 canoes strapped to the roof.
We got away late, much later than we expected. Let's blame Rob for not anticipating that it was going to take several hours to fix Rod's vehicle (we anticipated that the weather might be bad enough that we would need his windshield wipers) and for not getting Jay there sooner so we could have had more hands getting in the way, and for not having Rod's vehicle loaded with the canoes and ready to go earlier. So, at the crack of 9 pm we headed over to Rod's house to deliberate and reconsider our options, and maybe have a rum to ease the thought process. The forecast wasn't looking good - cold, wet, & maybe even white. A similar amount of driving in the opposite direction would have landed us in Montana and a land with a forecast of near 30C temperatures. We scoffed at cold with only a minimal amount of whimpering and hit the road heading North at around 10pm. Fill her up with gas & onto the open highway. By midnight we were in PA, filling up with gas again (ummm..... is this a bad sign guys?). Back on the road we were peacefully enjoying the ride up when one of us noticed that the rain seemed to have gotten harder, and whiter. Shit. It's snowing. Rod casually points out that it had been doing so for a while and we hadn't gone too much farther before it turned into a full snowstorm. Once we arrived at the Waskesiu turn-off we decided to pull in, go over the map and reconsider our options and have a beer in the closest bar to keep us perky. After only a little whimpering (mostly from Jay) we decided there was nothing for it but to keep heading North. By now the snow had accumulated and the roads were getting worse. We eventually reached Weyakwin Lake around 2 am and decided to call it quits for the night so we pulled into the winter wonderland looking for a place to set up our tents for the night, wondering if they would handle the snow load. Things were not looking particularly good at this point with about 6" of heavy wet snow everywhere. We found a gazebo near the community centre and after moving aside some tables and a couple of garbage bags full of beer cans we set up one of our tents in this tiny parcel of snow-free ground. Some rum, brandy, & rye was consumed while we considered our current situation and the prospects for the morning.
Day 1- Friday, September 9th - The next morning in the daylight we were finally able to take in our winter wonderland. We packed up and hit the road bright and early (9 am?). Driving the gravel road back out to the highway we saw thousands of trees broken under the weight of the snow. Back at the highway, we again deliberated and considered our options - North or South? After 10 minutes parked at the intersection we eventually decided to throw caution and all sense of reason to the snowy wind and continue North. Part of the reason for this decision may have been the amount of money we put into fuelling the vehicle thus far. Our decision made, we headed across the road to fill up with gas ... again. In the gas station/general store we heard tales of the power outages and line fires that had occurred. It seems that the snow weighed the trees down so much that they would touch the power lines and start fires. Back on the road we noticed after about 10 miles of driving that the snow was no longer quite so deep. Soon, there was no sign of the blizzard we had just been through. Things were looking up!
We made a short stop in Air Ronge for gas (of course) and a visit to the local hardware store to stock up on whatever items had been forgotten, as well as adding a bunch more cold-weather gear to our arsenal. My personal addition was a pair of insulated rubber boots. It would prove to be a wise selection. With lunch of greasy La Ronge A&W burgers under our belts, we were off on our final leg of the journey. Thankfully, we didn't see any dead guys in the ditch this time around. We parked and put-in at the provincial campground at Missinipe and after only a minimal amount of confusion we were underway on Otter Lake.
We headed generally East across Otter Lake, navigating our way through the network of islands and bays. A couple hours of paddling in calm conditions brought us to Naheyow Island which we went to the south of. There is a channel to the south of this island which seems to see less traffic than the MacDonald Channel to the north. There is a riffle to pass through at the western end of the channel and a couple of campsites were indicated on our maps for this area. We found our campsite in this channel just beyond where it takes a 90 degree turn to the northeast. The campsite is well used but in decent condition with a good supply of firewood not too far back into the bush. It proved to be a much nicer campsite than the one located right at Robertson Falls, and much less traffic is seen in this part of the channel. There are enough tent spots for a fair size group (room for at least 4 tents, probably a few more). With our camp set up, we finally got around to having lunch, at what was probably 5 pm by that time.
Day 2 - Saturday, September 10th - We took a tour over to Robertson Falls (2 km direct, 2.75 km by water around Reid Island) to do some fishing and to check out the neighbourhood. We fished from the portage east of the falls without success before heading out on the unnamed lake below the falls. We went to the west, upriver into the area of the confluence of the channels around Reid Island. This is a very nice area that looked like it should be home to some great fishing. As I recall though, we had moderate success here at best. We then landed our canoes on the island at the head of Twin Falls. After bushwhacking across this island (236 m straight across, more like 400 m after zig-zagging around obstacles and looking for a passable route), we were so impressed by the spectacle of Twin Falls that we bushwhacked twice more to bring back our rods and gear. There is no real path and it's not an easy trek, but it was very much worth the trip. Not only was the view great, but the fishing there was decent too. We pulled a few pickerel out of the fast turbulent waters at the foot of the multi-channel falls. We then headed home to enjoy our fresh fish for supper. We got back to camp under threatening skies and got the tarps up just as the rain started to fall. With tarps up and a fire going, Rob & Jay got supper preparations while Rod & I donned rain gear and headed out into the darkness and rain to fillet our supper.
Day 3 - Sunday, September 11th - We started the day with a great debate regarding where to go. We had 3 options: 1) Head north into Rattler Bay and Rattler Creek. There is a pictograph there that we would like to have checked out. 2) Head northeast to First North & Second North Falls at the other end of Eyinew Island where the remainder of the Churchill River flows out of Otter Lake and into Mountain Lake. 3) Portage below Twin Falls to fish below the falls and explore a bit of Mountain Lake. Being ready to go, we realised Rod had left his fishing rod at the island above Twin Falls. We eventually decided to head to Mountain Lake by a route that would allow us to pick up the misplaced rod. Rod and Jay took the route which had them portage past Robertson then after picking up the rod, traverse into Mountain Lake via Mountain portage. Rob & I decided to take the single portage (350m) directly into Mountain Lake that cuts across a peninsula on Eyinew Lake. This single portage was steep at the Mountain Lake end and we had a time to get the canoe and ourselves down the slope given the damp conditions. Once in the small bay Rob & I paddled below Twin Falls through some waters that could accurately be described as turbulent and confused. The water comes straight off the falls, hitting the wall along which we were paddling. A lot of that water makes it's way into the bay then flows back out to Mountain Lake. Water in that area is going every single direction which makes negotiating it in a canoe tricky and it should not be attempted by novice paddlers. If you do venture though here, keep steady and stay a safe distance (10 feet?) away from the rock face. You may be tempted to stay tight to the rock since there are standing waves further out, but in my opinion the smoother water along the rock is a wolf in sheep's clothing. The waves are at least a bit more predictable and indicate water flowing towards Mountain Lake instead of water that is going downwards. Of course the nature of this area may be very different at a different level of river flow so your experience may be markedly different. Once through this area, we met Jay & Rod at the dock of the nearby fishing camp. After checking out Mountain Portage, Jay & Rod opted to take the shorter route through the fishing camp which was closed for the season. After lunch on the dock, we headed back to the Twin Falls area to fish. We picked up a few walleye and a couple of sauger here, though the sauger were too small to keep for supper. This was the first time any of us had seen a sauger and there was some some discussion about whether it was simply a small dark walleye or something else. Sunset came while we were on the rocks facing Twin Falls and we were treated to an incredible display as the sun peeked through the clouds and shining on us from directly above the falls, through the opening in the trees created by the channel. It was an incredible sight in a beautiful area, such that even though we knew we'd better get back to camp quick, we were slow to drag ourselves away. Plus one of us was away down the rocks in another area and couldn't be found by the others. When we tried to regroup Rob, Jay & Rod headed to where they thought I was. Meanwhile I headed back to where I thought they were and back to the canoes. In so doing, we managed to unknowingly cross paths just a few meters apart with me in the bush and the other three on the rocks. As a result we were all very confused about where the others were. We didn't get to tour as much of Mountain Lake as we had wanted but we had a great afternoon at Twin Falls. It was very dark by the time we had made it back into our home channel so it's a good thing we knew where we going.
Day 4- Monday, September 12th - We packed up and headed home across Otter Lake in a moderate wind. Due to the SW wind we opted for take a more northerly route through the islands in order to seek as much wind protection as possible. This made for a nice variation on the route so that we covered some new ground and saw some new sights. Back at Missinipe we quickly loaded up Rod’s vehicle and headed south. As usual it was late at night by the time we got back to the city, unloaded the Range Rover, and got everyone home.
Follow-up comments: The most adventurous part of this trip may have been the drive North. We seriously considered turning with our tails between our legs and heading for a cabin. If we had, we would have missed Robertson & Twin Falls and some beautiful country we all want to go back to another year. We had cool but mostly dry weather which turned out OK. It was another example of a decent trip despite a horrible forecast. If it had been raining the whole time, or there had been 6" of snow on the ground as we expected, it might have been quite a different story.
Note in the above graph that there was no snow on the ground recorded. That would have been a much different situation had the weather station been in the Thunder Hills near Weyakwin.
September 2009 Addendum: We (NSE) went back to the same campsite at the east end of Otter Lake once again. This year we toured the North Falls route, visited Robertson & Twin again, and did some fishing. We also started off the trip by paddling the Montreal River before continuing our drive north. I'll post a report on that trip sometime in the coming months.