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The ugly duckling of rivers astounds

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This photo of Dugards Beach on the Brokenhead  River is believed to be from the 1950s. Today, not a trace exists of the beach and the area is completely grown over.

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This photo of Dugards Beach on the Brokenhead River is believed to be from the 1950s. Today, not a trace exists of the beach and the area is completely grown over.

ON THE BROKENHEAD RIVER -- There are a few hazards while paddling the Brokenhead River but nothing quite beats Bush Golf Course.

For a canoeist, it's like being shot at. On the first hole, golfers of every skill level have to drive the ball over the river. Many don't make it. "I've never been hit, but I've seen some plooks (when balls hit the water)," said Dusty Molinski.

The lowly, unappreciated Brokenhead River. Most people know it just from the road signs while driving east on their way to the Whiteshell or Grand Beach.

Now, someone is showing it some love. Molinski has self-published a book on its history, heritage and how to explore it with his detailed canoe routes.

Most of Molinski's research is oars-on. Molinski, 32, paddles stretches of the river about 10 times a year, often alone. He drives his hatchback to his planned egress and chains his bike there, then drives to his access point. He canoes downstream from the access point to his bike, then unchains his bike, chains up his canoe, pedals the bike over gravel farm roads back to the car, packs the bike into the car, and drives back to pick up his canoe.

Molinski is an interpretive guide at Oak Hammock Marsh who studied eco-tourism and environmental management at Sir Sanford Fleming College in Peterborough, Ont.

He became interested in the river from the back seat of the family car when his parents went to visit his grandparents (one set lived near Lac du Bonnet and the other near Stead). That it was this shunned, supposedly ugly duckling of a river ignored by literature, and even canoeing enthusiasts, made him more determined to explore it.

If you suspect paddling the Brokenhead means encountering half-submerged shopping carts, wire from farm fence lines extending into the water, and the canoe regularly skidding over shallow reefs of alluvial gravel, you're wrong. Molinski found a lovely river ideal for canoeists of any ability (if they don't mind golf balls). It's also a place, before Whiteshell Provincial Park opened up, that was a thriving recreational river, even visited by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1970.

The Brokenhead starts in a wetland in the Sandilands Provincial Forest and drains 200 kilometres later into Lake Winnipeg, although only about 120 kilometres are navigable by canoe or kayak.

Alexander Henry Jr. dubbed it Catfish River in 1800, the earliest recorded account, and David Thompson put it on a map in 1814. There are two theories about how it got its current moniker. One is it was named after a brutal slaughter by the Sioux of unarmed Cree. The second theory is that a mystic white buffalo rose from the waters and was shot with an arrow by an aboriginal warrior, splitting its head open.

On our stretch, starting at the Zachar Bridge in St. Ouens, east of Beausejour, we passed a "couples only" cabin operation called Getaways; an avant-garde residence in three sections with a sloped metal roof on the outer sections that looked like wings; two suspension bridges; the Brokenhead River Park; Great Woods Park with its man-made beach and concert area. We passed several farmyards. We spotted many birds, from brightly coloured orioles to bald eagles. "My other life is being a bird nerd," said Molinski.

We had to pick the canoe up a couple of times to walk over concrete roads that cross the river (water flows through culverts beneath the roads). It gets shallow at this time of year and on one long series of Class 1 rapids, we scraped the bottom of our Royalex canoe six times on submerged boulders.

The northern portion can often be paddled all summer, but the southern and middle portions we were on often get too low. Paddlers should first visit federal website wateroffice.ec.gc.ca and search for the discharge of the hydrometric station on Brokenhead (we ended our short paddle at the station, which looks like a residential MTS box).

Brokenhead hit 19 cubic metres per second in early June but was already down to seven cubic metres when we paddled. Ideal paddling level is 10-12 cubic metres, Molinski said.

Molinski's 112-page book is called Through Field and Forest: A Canoe Companion for the Brokenhead River, and is available at McNally Robinson, Blaine's in Selkirk, Oak Hammock Marsh and some stores along the Brokenhead.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 A15

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