BY REBECCA BARTON-DAVIS
Each June, my Dad Bruce goes on a wilderness canoe trip with his best buddies. Usually, the trips consist of ultra-remote fur trader routes that end in the Hudson Bay after covering hundreds of miles of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan with no guidance except trader journals from the late 1800s. This year, he decided to tackle 236 miles of the Bloodvein River from Red Lake, Ontario, to its mouth in Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba. This trip was slightly less remote than his usual trip, so he decided to take my mom, Roxanne, and friends Jeff, Bill and Kirt. The group planned to cover 20 miles a day for 12 days in a 25-foot, yellow Clipper Voyager Canoe with six seats, lovingly named “the school bus.”
Most paddlers do the Bloodvein by either flying or boating in, then paddling downstream. Bruce decided to put in at Red Lake because it was accessible by road and then paddle 50 miles across various lakes, going “upstream” until switching watersheds, and dumping down into the Bloodvein. This route was good, but camping isn’t allowed on Red Lake, so the first 25 miles had to be covered in one day. After three days of mainly lake paddling, the crew made it into the Bloodvein. As he did before the trip started, Kirt made an offering of a Spruce bow as they crossed into the new watershed, asking for a safe passage. This is an integral part of each trip; a tradition adopted from the Cree people of Northern Saskatchewan.
Early on the Bloodvein, the portaging was long, hard and often. The river has 89 sets of rapids and at a low level. For the first few days, there were quite a few waterfalls that couldn’t be navigated safely in the School Bus. With five people, a 225-pound canoe, food, and equipment for nearly two weeks, a mile on the trail took almost three hours. This made for some very long days. Roxanne was in charge of moving packs while the guys would take turns pulling the boat with a waist harness, or if it was too rocky, shouldering the boat and slowly making their way. For the first seven days, there were afternoon thunderstorms, making the trails slippery. The portages were marked with hatchet notched blazes, and not always on the side of the river that the maps indicated, so everyone had to be on the lookout. The trails had been well used by native peoples for centuries and are now maintained for canoe trippers.
The river is a series of pools and drops, sometimes with lakes in between. This meant there was not much current to assist with downstream travel, but it made scouting the different rapids easier since they could get pretty close without having to worry about the current taking the boat. Historically, the Bloodvein was used as an inland waterway by native peoples, since it could be traveled easily in both directions. With little current and well-marked portage trails, this river didn’t require a ton of technical ability for the paddlers and would be a good introduction to long-distance canoe camping, as long as paddlers are comfortable with roughing it for a week or more.
Most of the river was bordered by granite shores, sometimes going through small canyons. One of these canyons provided a trip highlight – the native pictographs that are thought to be some of the oldest in Canada. The pictures were mainly of moose, wolves and canoes, with one depicting a buffalo. These well-preserved paintings are thought to be over 500 years old.
Other paddlers were scarce – only three groups were seen on the river and that was in Manitoba. This is most likely because camping permits are required for the Ontario portion of the river. That, coupled with the hard portages and difficult access, keeps most of the waterway hidden in solitude.
The camping is excellent and the wildlife abundant. Bill, the resident fisherman, kept the group full of northern pike, walleye and bass. Never wanting to waste a catch, fish was on the menu nearly every meal. Jeff enjoyed spotting moose, bear, eagles, sandhill cranes, beaver, otter and deer. They even paddled up upon a wolverine that had just killed a beaver. The water was bloody from the battle. Roxanne said the wolverine had claws as long as fingers and looked ferocious.
Overall, the trip was a success, but the portages were more rugged and frequent than the group was expecting. The scenery along the river was breathtaking and wildlife was everywhere. Surprisingly, the bugs weren’t bad, which is unusual so far north. This isn’t a good trip for beginners, but for hardened adventurers looking for a challenge, the Bloodvein is a great canoe camping destination. Make sure to pack light and bring good company.