Summer Travels on the Path of the Paddle
Text and photos by David Jackson. Location: Path of the Paddle on Iinoo Oowan Trail, between Big Whiteshell Lake and Whitedog Dam.
Northwestern Ontario is a hub for canoeists looking to challenge themselves and experience the solitude of a wild landscape that is mazed by rivers, creeks, lakes and the portages between. While the possibilities for trips are seemingly limitless, there’s one line in particular that stands out – Path of the Paddle (POP). For 1,000 km, the POP navigates across quintessential canoe country, a region of gin-clear waters, intimate creeks, abundant wildlife, labyrinth lakes and powerful rivers. The best thing is that this scenic, wild route is part of the Trans Canada Trail.
My partner, Leah, and I are used to long trails; every summer we travel all over the north on 1000+km canoe trips, disappearing for months at a time with everything we need to exist in a land of water. Branwen and Bruce, who have joined us on this trip, made the long journey across the pond from their homes in the United Kingdom. For Branwen, this is her second home, as her family was raised between the Welsh coast and the small town of Atikokan, which is on our route, and canoeing is in her DNA. Although he has spent his life at sea and in the mountains, for Bruce this is his first time in a canoe; he quickly figured out the pace and rhythm of travelling by paddle and pack.
On July 5, 2022, I and three other paddlers embarked on a trip to traverse the entire trail from Whiteshell, Manitoba, to Thunder Bay, Ontario. For 30 days, our mission is to update Trans Canada Trail signage, test new maps being developed by the Path of the Paddle Association, and capture the beauty of the trail and the story of a myriad landscape through photography and video. In the heat of a Manitoba summer day, we launched in Whiteshell Provincial Park and took our first strokes towards a trip broken into 225-km sections between resupply points.
The first section, known as the Iinoo Oowan and Migizi Trails, is a beautiful, though challenging, stretch, as beginning on the west end of the trail we are forced to go up the Winnipeg River, and this year has seen record floods with continued high-water across much of the region. The evening of our first night, after a late start, we sat on a rocky outcrop of Crowduck Lake while the sun sank slowly behind the distant trees, the orange glow radiating off the upturned canoe hulls and the fire crackling over the silence. Beginning a long trip is often the hardest part as the logistics of planning, packing and departing often consume the weeks leading up to this lovely moment beside a still lake, where all that remains is the beauty of human-powered travel on the trail of our dreams.
The next morning, we began our ascent of the Winnipeg River, battling powerful currents and portaging around giant rapids. For days, we had to overcome the challenges presented by so much water bearing down upon us until we reached Lake of the Woods, where we gave up battling big currents, for the portages that connect through scenic lakes to the east. To reach Vermillion Bay, we spent our days paddling across emerald lakes backdropped by towering cliffs and unloading the boats at portages, adding a fresh sticker decal to the POP and Trans Canada Trail signs, before carrying our gear overland to the next water and continuing on. In Vermillion Bay, we were greeted by greasy burgers and a welcome from the mayor. After 8 days and 225 km, it felt good to be at our first milestone and we were looking forward to the long journey ahead.
It’s sometimes hard to believe that a trail exists for such a vast distant, across a region best navigated by canoe, let alone that it’s maintained by a volunteer base of dedicated trail stewards who enable us to dream wild dreams. What is more astonishing is that this trail we travel is just a section of a much greater network that spans the country. As we prepare for the continued long journey ahead, we can’t help but imagine all the places in this country that human power can deliver us, and with that idea we travel on.