OK, so it's the middle of the summer and you're itching to go canoeing but you only have a few days to spend on the lake.
The closest flatwater-paddling area to Winnipeg is, of course, Whiteshell Provincial Park. But you've probably been there before and may have encountered too many other canoe groups on the water, especially during summer weekends.
As most flatwater diehards know, a more rewarding alternative involves driving an extra hour down the TransCanada Highway to Crown land east of Kenora, where a larger collection of interconnected lakes offers more paddling options and usually more solitude.
The northernmost stretch of the vast paddling area east of Highway 71 and south of Highway 17 is encompassed by the famous (and embattled) Experimental Lakes Area as well as three provincial parks: Eagle-Dogtooth, Winnange Lake and Rushing River. To the south lies the vast Crown land surrounding major lakes such as Dryberry, Atikwa, Caviar, Kakagi, Pipestone and Kishkutena and hundreds of smaller, connecting bodies.
You can spend weeks paddling in this area, which is less pristine than a fully protected park but ironically quieter than a paddling mecca such as Quetico. No guidebook to the area east of Kenora currently exists and the only route suggestions involve a smattering of Internet resources.
As a result, the region may seem inaccessible to paddlers who haven't been shown the routes by other canoeists. In fact, the most frequently asked question I get from paddlers new to Manitoba involves route requests for northwestern Ontario.
Given the interest, here's a quick primer on how to reach the most easily-accessible portion of this region -- the north-central section of the Experimental Lakes Area.
Starting at Stewart Lake, just south of the TransCanada Highway, a three- or four-day loop will allow you to visit the spectacular cliffs of Winnange Lake, petroglyphs on the northern neck of Teggau Lake and portage past Buzzard Falls. A shorter two-day loop in and out of Winnange can also be crammed into an ordinary weekend.
Here are the basics for hitting the water east of Kenora:
Get there: From Winnipeg, take the TransCanada Highway east to Ontario and continue past Kenora to Pine Road, the northern access route to the Experimental Lakes Area. The turnoff is on the south side of the highway, 42.5 kilometres east of the junction of Highway 17 and Highway 71. The first 3.5 kilometres of Pine Road are open to the public. There's a small vehicle-parking area just before a sign that warns you can go no further. A commonly used put in for canoes sits shortly before this parking area, in a dip in the road at the western edge of Stewart Lake.
Stewart-Teggau Loop: This 45-kilometre, nine-portage route can be done in three or four relatively easy days. Counterclockwise, the route takes you from Stewart into Geejay, Manomin, Winnange, Eagle, Teggau, Eagle, Crabclaw, Winnange and Stewart Lakes.
Stewart-Winnange Loop: The two-day shorter option is an overnight trip that only encompasses four portages. Counterclockwise: portage from Stewart Lake into Geejay, Manomin, Winnange and back into Stewart.
Maps: You'll need topographical maps for Feist Lake (52/F13) for the short route and also Dryberry Lake (52/F12) for the longer option. Portages are marked on the Experimental Lakes Area map at www.experimentallakesarea.ca. Always travel with a compass, even if you have a GPS.
Permits: None required. There are no fees for camping on Crown land in the ELA, Winnange Lake Provincial Park or Eagle-Dogtooth Provincial Park. Campsite use is unregulated, but visitors are encouraged to apply leave-no-trace wilderness ethics -- use existing sites only and refrain from building new firepits.
Prerequisites: Flatwater paddling experience in open water and wilderness camping skills. This area is good for novices, provided someone in the party has more experience. There are no services at all in the area, most of which is wilderness.
Dangers: Black bears and rodents can be a problem if you fail to secure food. But the real threat is drowning and hypothermia - wear PFDs and paddle close to the shore, even on calm days. Also check for fire bans before you go and observe all restrictions.