NAMAY RAPIDS, Man. -- On any given summer day, Manitoba's most celebrated whitewater river is more likely to be plied by paddlers from Wisconsin, Minnesota or elsewhere in North America than anyone from Winnipeg or elsewhere in this province.
The Bloodvein River, which begins in northwestern Ontario and flows through Manitoba's Atikaki Provincial Park on its way to Lake Winnipeg, enjoys a well-deserved reputation as one of the best paddling routes on the continent. Yet it remains something of an enigma -- if not a complete afterthought -- to Manitobans who never choose to venture into regions of the province where there are no roads.
An historic paddling route for centuries, the Bloodvein is unusual in that fewer humans travel it today than did 200 years ago, at the height of the fur trade. The Bloodvein also owes its status as a Canadian Heritage River to the unusual concentration of indigenous pictographs etched on to its walls back in pre-European times. The finest gallery of images can be found at the east end of Artery Lake, just across the Ontario border, where many paddlers begin a 230-kilometre trip to Lake Winnipeg.
The Bloodvein also possesses amazing natural beauty, as much of its course is lined by impressive granite cliffs and rockfalls and peppered with waterfalls and rapids.
I'd argue it should be on the life list for every Manitoban who loves the wilderness. After spending 11 extraordinarily sunny days on the river earlier this month, I can testify to both its natural beauty and its relatively pristine state.
If you're considering a trip, here's what you need to know to undertake it:
TIME COMMITMENT: The 230-kilometre paddle from Artery Lake to Bloodvein First Nation at Lake Winnipeg takes 10 to 14 days, depending on your skill level and group size. Shorter trips are possible by flying into Kautunigan Lake -- but then you'll miss the picturesque upper portion of the river.
SKILLS REQUIRED: For a self-supported Bloodvein trip, you should have backcountry camping and paddling experience, along with moving-water instruction and ideally some experience with reading and shooting rapids. You must also know how to use a throw-bag and conduct canoe-over-canoe rescues. But novice paddlers with minimal wilderness experience can easily handle the trip with a guide.
RAPIDS: There are about 80 sets of rapids between Artery Lake and Lake Winnipeg. Almost all of them have well-used portage trails, but you can reduce the number of portages if you shoot the easier rapids, line around some of the difficult ones and lift your boats over smaller obstacles. Extremely low water this year has made some high-volume rapids easier to run, but has transformed some gentler rapids into rock gardens.
GETTING IN BY AIR: Since there are no roads in Atikaki Provincial Park, the only way to access the Bloodvein is by floatplane or canoe. Blue Water Aviation (www.bluewateraviation.ca) offers charter flights to Artery Lake from a base at Bissett, while Wamair (204-276-2410) offers charters from its floatplane base at Pine Dock, in the northern Interlake.
GETTING IN BY CAR: If your budget
precludes a floatplane flight, you can reach the Bloodvein by paddling down the Gammon River, which can be accessed through the infamous Obukowin portages, which begin at Wallace Lake on the north side of Provincial Road 304, east of Bissett.
GETTING OUT: All Bloodvein River trips terminate at Bloodvein First Nation. On weekdays during the summer, you can catch a ferry ride on the M.V. Edgar Wood across the Lake Winnipeg Narrows to Islandview Landing at Provincial Road 234, north of Pine Dock. From there, it's a three-hour drive to Winnipeg. The 12:30 p.m. ferry is free but does not run when winds are high on Lake Winnipeg.
PERMITS & FEES: There are no permits required to enter or camp in Atikaki Provincial Park, but paddlers are advised to register their route with the RCMP in Pine Falls/Powerview (204-367-8728) and Manitoba Conservation's eastern regional office in Lac du Bonnet (204-345-1431). Paddlers who enter Artery Lake in Ontario's Woodland Caribou Provincial Park must obtain an entry permit ($10.75 per canoe) and pay backcountry fees if they intend to stay the night on the Ontario side. Woodland Caribou fees may be paid over the phone (807-727-1329) with a credit card. A permit will be emailed to you. Fishing licenses are required for both sides of the border, as per usual.
NAVIGATION: Although rivers are easier to navigate than lakes, take a compass and at least two copies of the seven topographical maps that cover the route from Artery Lake: 52M/6, 52M/5, 52M/12, 62P/9, 62P/8, 62P/10 and 62 P/15. Protect them from water. Also take along a copy of Hap Wilson and Stephanie Aykroyd's Wilderness Rivers of Manitoba, which includes indispensable intel about the rapids along the Bloodvein.
GUIDED TRIPS: A self-supported 15-day Bloodvein River trip, including food and floatplane flights, will set you back $600 to $800 per person. If you'd prefer a guided trip, both Northern Soul Wilderness Canoeing Adventures (www.northernsoul.ca) and Wilderness Spirit Adventures (www.wildernessspirit.com) offer nine to 15-day guided paddles starting at either Artery or Kautunigan Lake for $2,100 to $3,000.