So you can imagine how bizarre it was to sit on a near-pristine strip of sand during the August long weekend -- traditionally the busiest of the summer -- without another human being in sight. And it didn't require a major effort to get there.
The place is Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park, a collection of islands and peninsulas that juts out into Lake Winnipeg on the northern side of the southern basin. Most Winnipeggers know the park for its old Icelandic fishing village, and the campground and resort at Gull Harbour.
But the vast majority of Hecla visitors rarely venture east of Hecla Island itself, which has helped maintain a sense of wilderness in a sizable area of Lake Winnipeg's southern basin that includes the large Black and Deer islands inside the park, as well as the tiny Kasakeemeemisekak Islands that sit just outside the boundaries, on the east side of the lake.
In a province better known for its canoe routes, this is an ideal place for sea kayaking, thanks to the maze of islands, a wealth of beach and moss-covered granite campsites and massive populations of pelicans, cormorants and bald eagles.
Though it only takes an hour and 45 minutes to drive north from Winnipeg, few people seem to take advantage. During a four-day, 60-kilometre loop around the islands last weekend, my group -- a seven-person sea-kayak tour led by the University of Manitoba's Rec Services department -- encountered no other paddlers or even motorboats once we got a few kilometres away from our launch at Gull Harbour.
Our sole human encounter was a single sailboat anchored at the mouth of the Rice River, just south of the Kasakeemeemisekak archipelago. This is amazing, considering you'll likely see way more humans in much more difficult-to-reach paddling areas such as the Experimental Lakes Area east of Kenora.
This trip is easily accomplished by experienced sea kayakers, but should not be attempted in open canoes or by complete novices. There are several large crossings that can get ugly when the winds pick up on unpredictable Lake Winnipeg.
Even the smallest of these crossings -- the two-kilometre gap between Hecla and Black Island -- proved to be choppy last weekend, forcing my group to bob through two-foot waves at the beginning of the trip. That said, we encountered almost glassy conditions the rest of the weekend.
Our route took us from the Gull Harbour lighthouse to Black Island, where a series of beaches line the north shore. During a normal summer, these are wide stretches of sand capable of supporting dozens of wilderness campers.
This year, with lake levels more than a metre above normal, you may find yourself squishing against the forest, hoping a north wind doesn't blow up to make the water levels in the southern basin rise even higher.
Paddling east along the north shore of Black Island, you'll notice the landscape shift very quickly from the limestone bedrock and deciduous trees that typify the Interlake to a sandy Prairie Shield transition area with many of the large boulders known as glacial erratics to actual Canadian Shield, with granite rock outcroppings and coniferous trees. The quick-changing scenery is one of the main attractions of the Hecla paddling route.
Along your way east, you'll pass a large grassy area used by nearby Hollow Water First Nation for traditional ceremonies. If you choose to camp here, it's polite to ask permission from the band ahead of time.
East of Black Island lies the most spectacular landscape, as the east shore of Lake Winnipeg sports the geography of the Canadian Shield, with hundreds of little islands, but many plants more commonly associated with prairie grasslands. In a couple of hours, it's easy to see hundreds of pelicans and cormorants, more than a dozen eagles and -- if you're lucky -- river otters, who regularly play in the slightly sweeter water around the mouth of the Rice River.
If you don't want to filter or boil algae-clogged Lake Winnipeg water, the Rice is the place to fill up. Then cross over to Deer Island, where there's an amazing beach site on the eastern tip. Just keep a clean campsite -- we spotted black bear and coyote paw prints on the sand when we arrived. But there are plenty of blueberries to keep the critters happy this summer.
Paddling west along the south shore of Deer Island, there aren't any more habitable beaches, though there are likely more campsites during normal summers when the water is lower. At the western end, you'll need to cross to Punk Island, where eagles nest on the north side, and then cross again to Hecla Island, to complete the trip.
For navigation purposes, you'll need topo maps, or at least a nautical chart of the area, especially if you intend to paddle to the east side of lake Winnipeg. You don't need a map if you're just crossing to Black Island and back.
And if you've never paddled Lake Winnipeg before, find a tripmate with some rough-water experience. If you can wait until next summer, the University of Manitoba charges $350 for a guided tour -- kayaks, paddles and camping gear included.
* From the Perimeter, take Highway 8 north 160 kilometres to Gull Harbour, where you'll launch your kayak and park your vehicle. A Manitoba parks pass is required to enter Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park.
* If you'd rather start on the east side of the lake, launch at Hollow Water First Nation, just southeast of Black Island. From Pine Falls, take paved Highway 304 north for 70 kilometres and drive another 10 clicks on a well-maintained gravel road.
* Or if you'd prefer to go straight to the Kasakeemeemisekak Islands, dip into the Rice River from a gravel road that runs north from Highway 304. Take a topo map or GPS, because it's easy to lose track of the rivermouth's location amid all the islands.
PHOTO PHIL HOSSACK/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS