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Chase the adventure

Canoe trip along Bird River system an exhilarating experience

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Despite the strong headwind blowing in from the west, our combined canoes cut through the choppy waters of Elbow Lake with ease. With each paddle stroke our confidence and speed increased.

What a sight we must have been to those other campers along the lake as we plied through the whitecaps in our rather crude but effective outrigger.

Jerry Ameis, Monica Reid, Marilyn Hearn and I -- all members of Nature Manitoba -- were homeward-bound after eight exhilarating days of canoeing, portaging, camping and exploring up the Bird River system from Tulabi Lake in Nopiming Provincial Park to Chase Lake in northwest Ontario.

For me, it was a good thing we were headed home, because I'd committed a cardinal camping error -- leaving my erect tent unpegged while we were having breakfast that day. When I returned, it was gone. A gust of wind had blown it out into the lake, where it sank from sight. It was a "Gilligan manoeuvre," as my friend, David, observed a few days later.

We had travelled a total of 110 kilometres during our late-August journey from Nopiming, about 227 kilometres by road northeast of Winnipeg.

The previous evening, Ameis, our very experienced trip leader, had collected a couple of three-metre-long birch logs from around our campsite on an Elbow Lake peninsula. Just prior to departure, he and Reid tied our two 16-foot (4.8-metre) Kevlar crafts together by lashing a pole across the rear thwart of each canoe and then doing the same with the second pole across the centre thwarts.

"You need at least a metre separation between the lashed canoes to minimize wave spillage into a canoe," Ameis said as we loaded our gear into the canoes for the final leg of our trip.

Paddling into the tough headwind was easier and safer this way, and it compensated for the slower canoe's paddling rate.

"This makes paddling into a community event," he added, though truly the camaraderie between all of us was evident during the entire trip. Having good group dynamics is essential on any extended wilderness excursion, as it is in other aspects of life.

The beauty of this boreal landscape was in full display: crystal clear lakes bordered by billion-year-old granite rock and sheltered by stands of thick black spruce, white spruce, jack pine, birch and poplar among other trees and colourful flora. And during portages and at our camp sites, the air was suffused with this heady wild bouquet.

We traversed a total of 20 portages with four river chutes that we either walked or were able to run in our canoes. The longest portage was 400 metres and the shortest was a mere 15 metres. One tough one was a rerouted portage that beganwith a steep, rope-assisted climb up a dirt incline below picturesque McGregor Falls.

The region we paddled through is part of the Little North, an area that lies north of Lake Superior, east of Lake Winnipeg, west of James Bay and south of Hudson Bay.

"The early fur traders referred to it as Le Petit Nord as distinguished from the vast area west and north of Lake Winnipeg, which they called Le Grand Nord," notes the illustrated Canoe Atlas of the Little North by Jonathan Berger and Thomas Terry (The Boston Mills Press 2007).

"Despite its name, the Little North encompasses more than 20 major lakes and river systems in more than 1,295,000 square kilometres. The people of the First Nations call much of the Little North 'Nishnawbe-Aski,' Land of the Original People."

More than 17,000 years ago, ice some two kilometres thick enclosed the primordial landscape of the Little North.

"In the short geological period since that time, vast forces have changed the land and shaped the canoe routes," the atlas says.

"Glaciers have come and gone, while seas and glacial lakes waxed and waned. The land has rebounded from the weight of the ice, plants and animals have entered the region and people have made the Little North their home."

At one point on our trip, a female moose bolted from the surrounding forest, plunged into the water and swam, antlerless head held high, across to the other side. It happened so suddenly only Ameis and Hearn saw it. We also encountered a family of streamlined, curious river otters gambolling in the water as our canoes glided silently past.

Bald eagles and turkey vultures were witnessed at various times, catching thermals on outstretched wings. Raucous ravens, noisy blue jays and that classic symbol of northern wilderness, the common loon, were among other bird species we saw or heard during the trip.

Our island campsite on Chase Lake was situated across from a fly-in fishing camp. Chase Lake connects to Midway and Eagle lakes via narrow channels. Eagle Lake's north shore rims Woodland Caribou Provincial Park -- a pristine place where six of us, led by Ameis, had canoed for nearly two weeks in the summer of 2010.

There are so many outstanding fishing spots you could spend an entire summer trying to fish each one of them, and there is plenty of opportunities to try out your favourite fishing lures, says information from the Province of Ontario. Northern pike, walleye and smallmouth bass, among other species, are plentiful in the waters of this region.

"Wilderness canoeing usually inspires me to ponder larger matters; some might refer to them as 'spiritual,' said Ameis as we sat around our crackling campfire one night under an infinite star-studded sky.

"The Bird River is one of those small rivers. It takes me to peaceful places. It allows me to shed civilization's burdens, at least for a short while."

A couple of nights later, a thunderstorm rumbled across Elbow Lake. I scrambled out of my tent to witness massive lightning strikes illuminating the western horizon. It was both impressive and terrifying.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 D2

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