Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Day 76: Calling from Oxford House, Manitoba

Meet the newest member of our crew--Myhan the puppy!

We are calling in from Oxford House at the home of Chief Irvine St. Clair and from our best estimates, there are about eight to 12 days left in our journey. It’s Ann’s trail birthday tomorrow and Natalie’s was on the 11th. We celebrated and made brownies for no reason other than to celebrate our trail birthday.

At the end of this blog entry, we’ll give details on what’s still to come for us. We are estimating about two weeks or less left of the trip but it’s the most dangerous. Thanks for the donations that have been coming in and we hope to get more. We also would like to invite all of you to our after parties in Grand Marais and then in Minneapolis where we’ll auction off our canoe. If you are in Grand Marais this Friday we’ll be calling in on our satellite phone to the Road House on WTIP. That will be at 5:25 p.m. central standard time.

So the last time we posted was at the York Boat Days in Norway House, which was a lot of fun. We hung out there for a bit and before we left, we managed to get a dog.  Mike Muswagon is a Councillor with the Norway House Cree Nation and was our host during our time in Norway House. We were talking one night and they told us that we should have a dog for protection once we got into polar bear country. There are a lot of stray dogs around Norway House so his daughter Crystal took us out driving that night with the windows down in search of a dog. We found one licking up old ketchup packets so we ran over, picked it up and put it in the truck. We named it Myhan, similar to the Cree word for wolf. She’s part German Shepherd we think and a few other things. We made a little leash out of rope for her and she’s still a puppy so she just loves us.

After our dog catching adventure, we waited out a rainy morning and left Norway House. That first night as we were setting up camp we realized we left our lunch bag back in Norway House. It has cheese, salami and tortillas in it but it would be over 10 hours to go back and get it so we decided to live without it. That means we are eating lots of granola now.

We camped on the Nelson River that night and it was very relaxing. This stretch of our trip is like our spring break. It’s after the tough paddling on Lake Winnipeg and before polar bear country where the river also flows very fast. In the past week, we’ve taken two layover days and have spent some time enjoying the end of our trip. We have fishing poles that we obtained in Norway House and we’ve caught some nice fish.

We paddled the Nelson into the Echimamish River which is really cool. The name means a river that flows two ways and it’s very appropriately named. We started out paddling upstream where it meets the Nelson. Oh, this is a really cool place because where the Nelson and Echimamish meet the water has a neat transition zone. The Nelson is a muddier river that flows brown while the Echimamish is very clear and it runs almost black because of the dark rocks underneath.

After going upstream on the Echimamish we dragged our canoe over a big epic beaver dam that was two or three feet up. We’re getting good at avoiding portages and this was no exception. We stayed on the Echimamish for two days.

Our next area of interest was the Painted Stone Portage which is where a lot of native people hang out. Apparently, white settlers blew it up to keep the natives out of there long ago but it didn’t work. This is a place where the river dives 27 meters over this rock and the river just stops and flows downstream. On the downstream side the river is very narrow. It’s so cool in some parts because the river is about the same width as the canoe.

From there we paddled into the Hayes River which is quite a bit larger and really beautiful. The Hayes River baptized us back into the world of whitewater and that first set on the Hayes was the largest set we’ve run ever. This was at the Oskatukaw Rapids and it’s a Class II run. We looked at it and talked about doing this and that through the run but when we got started we set the angle a little off and ended up getting sucked into a recycler current. We shot right out of that and got a little broadside before we got out of it. After going over that rapid set we figure we can go over anything without thinking about it. Thanks to all that and the adrenaline rush, all the other rapids since then we maneuvered really good.

So after that, the river narrowed and huge granite canyons surrounded us. It is so beautiful as you twist and turn through small rapid sets. When Natalie called her dad earlier today, she told him that if Disney were to make a fantastic river ride they would model it after the Hayes.

Our next landmark was known as Hell’s Gate and we went through a few rapids but it wasn’t as big of a thing as it was supposed to be. It’s very beautiful and it’s a continuation of the granite canyon. The gorge runs narrow and fast and the area around it is covered with soft mosses and trees. In another part of it there were big rocks and blueberries. We saw two moose around here and some small waterfalls trickling down—it was a very magical place.

We paddled a little further past Hell’s Gate and it was nine or 10 when we got to Opiminegoka Lake. The moonrise was high that night and the sunset was beautiful as we found a cabin on the end of the lake that used to be an outpost site. We checked it out and stayed in it for the night. Most cabins up there are so remote that they are kept unlocked because otherwise they’d get broken into. Staying in the cabin was nice because we had a table to play cribbage on, we could cook standing up and there was some shore lunch left there so we caught some fish and enjoyed that. It was so nice we decided to have a layover day to continue our spring break. We set up the hammock, fished, played cribbage, played with the dog, tried to train her a little and just relax.

Our dog is so great, by the way. During the day she sleeps under the stern seat or on the packs. Sometimes she crawls back and forth on the packs but she’s really chill. At night she sleeps in the vestibule of the tent or goes out and hunts. One morning she brought back the hand of a beaver or something that she’d found scavenging around.

We left Opiminegoka the next morning and headed into Oxford Lake. There were more rapids in the middle but they were easy compared to that first set. When we got to Oxford Lake we camped. The sun was going down and we found the perfect campground with five-star parking for our canoe. The little bay worked with the wind just right to hold our canoe in place while the waves blew around everything else around us. The island featured soft, spongy mosses between big trees and it was pretty comfortable. 

Then, yesterday, we paddled Oxford Lake and became a little turned around. We lost our compass near Lake Winnipeg but it’s usually fine. We went into a bay on the southeast side of Oxford Lake instead of the bay on the northeast side of the lake. It took us 15 kilometers out of our way but found a cool island with a beach with colorful pebbles and sand. We ate lots of gorp that day. Eventually, we made it to Oxford House last night where we met up with Chief Irvine St. Clair who we met at York Boat days. We called him and he picked us up. Chief Irvine St. Clair is a great guy and we’re staying with his family tonight.

He took us to meet his council tonight and hang out with them. We went to the conservation house and they showed us cool maps and pictures. They also gave us mugs with the Hayes River engraved on it and surveyed us about our use of the river. The scenery around here is very beautiful and very different from the area around Lake Winnipeg.

Something we noticed about Oxford House is that as we approached the town, there were a lot of people on the river. They were practicing York Boat racing, fishing and there were people along the river bank barbecuing and hanging out. It was a stark contrast to the total lack of people along the rivers of Minnesota and North Dakota. It was nice to see that the people up here in Manitoba are still spending time alongside these historic trade routes.

What’s next?
We will be leaving tomorrow morning and our spring break is over. Now we are entering some really difficult rapids, about 26 left to go, and we are also getting into polar bear country. We talked to somebody who was at Churchill the other day and there were 57 polar bear sightings in one day alone. We are really excited but also really nervous.

We’ve practiced shooting the gun and using the flares. We also have the dog. Everything we’ve read said that once you make this stretch of river, it’s normally so foggy you wouldn’t know if a polar bear was near anyways.

From here, we go into Knee Lake which can be difficult during windy conditions. The lake is 65 kilometers long and will take us three days to get across. From there, we go all the way to the White Blood Falls and then after that it’s a straight shot to York Factory. That stretch of river is really moving and can get you going 10 miles an hour in some stretches.

Another concern we have is that we won’t know what the tide will be like once we get near Hudson Bay so we could still get wind bound near our endpoint. It’s going to be interesting for sure.


  1. Truly enjoy reading your blog posts. Cant wait to flip the page. Bring me home a polar bear if you can. Thanks!

  2. Wonderful to hear news from you two. Thanks and continued good luck.

  3. So enjoy reading your posts - we're all cheering for you!

  4. A dog!? Never know what to expect with you two! I will be thinking of you both constantly during the next few weeks. I know you can do it!

  5. Glad you have Myhan for this stretch. You're taking her on a pretty great adventure. Thinking of you wonderful women and wishing you good weather, good luck, and good tides on the Bay.