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Fit for a River

by Dave Yanko

Laurel Archer
Laurel Archer

Near the historic portage that links two ancient water highways in northern Saskatchewan there's a spot on a little island where First Nations people have camped for more than a thousand years. Wilderness writer and canoeist Laurel Archer was camping there when an electrical storm brewed up overhead. As she photographed the play of frenzied light on her timeless surroundings, she thought about fur trader Joseph Frobisher's "discovery" of nearby Frog Portage.

"I got a real sense, from being at that place, what happened in the large context,'' says Archer, author of a guide book on northern Saskatchewan rivers. "That small, non-descript height of land changed everything for the people of northern Saskatchewan."

Frog Portage connects the Churchill River to the Sturgeon-weir River, a tributary of the Saskatchewan River. When Montreal trader Frobisher crossed the portage to the Churchill in 1774 he not only intercepted furs destined for the competition's facilities on Hudson's Bay, he extended European influence into the northwest portion of the continent.

History, including prehistory, plays a feature role in Archer's book, Northern Saskatchewan Canoe Trips: A Guide to Fifteen Wilderness Rivers. Some of the trips explore rivers used by the voyageurs while others trace the ancient travel routes used by First Nations people—rivers like the Churchill were primary highways for both. Archer provides a short history of each river and rates them on a one- to four- scale based on their historical significance.

Island on the Fond du Lac
- courtesy Laurel Archer, 2001
A river island on the Fond du Lac.

Archer is a certified flatwater and moving water instructor who has paddled rivers around the globe. She's canoed in northern Saskatchewan for 15 years, lived there for 12 and worked as a guide for a good portion of that time. Her magazine articles have appeared in recreation periodicals and anthologies.

She wrote the guide with a clear view of the potentially negative effects additional recreational development could have on northern Saskatchewan's wilderness. It was a view that gained perspective and an opportunity for expression when she and her husband moved to Vancouver Island after a 1999 forest fire claimed their northern Saskatchewan home.

"I've seen the North change so much even in my time there,'' she said in a phone interview from her new residence near Comox. "More and more people are coming from Alberta, Ontario… There's nothing that's going to stop it. So I guess I decided it was better for me to do it, because I cared about it. Not in a commercial sense, but as an environmentalist."

Wintego Lake
- courtesy Laurel Archer, 2001
Camping on billion-year-old bedrock at Wintego Lake, part of the Churchill river system in northeast Saskatchewan.

In her book, Archer devotes a chapter to each trip and uses the same prose-plus-rating device for wildlife-viewing and fishing prospects, as well as for the level of solitude one might expect to experience on the trip. Among the highest rated rivers for wildlife viewing are the Cree, Haultain and Wathaman, where she and her paddling companion spotted scads of moose, a particularly curious mink who swam up to their canoe as they entered some rapids, and what they thought was a rare, blonde moose.

"But it was actually a wolf in the willows,'' Archer writes. "It loped up the nearby outcrop and stopped to watch our passage. We floated by, admiring it all the way.''

Difficulty ratings, equipment tips, geological sketches and additional reading sources for the expeditions are found in each chapter. And there's a directory of services at the back of the guide that covers everything from outfitters and charter aircraft companies to park contacts and map sellers.

Reproducing detailed maps for 15 rivers would have created an unwieldy volume, says Archer. Instead, the 240-page guide contains in-depth trip notes to be used with the 1:50,000-scale maps she specifies for each journey. Campsites, rapids, historic sites and portages are some of the features she references by map coodinates, allowing trip planners to mark their own charts accordingly.

Porcupine/Fond du Lac confluence
- courtesy Laurel Archer, 2001
On the east shore of the Fond du Lac looking north towards the confluence of the Porcupine River.

Applying the rating system to each trip and illustrating the results in a comparison chart at the beginning of the guide strengthens Archer's effort to help paddlers select the river trip that's right for them.

"That's my whole purpose.''

The guide assumes a basic level of canoeing skill in the reader. Some trips are rated for the beginner, however, beginner in this context is someone with lake paddling experience who would be comfortable running Class 1 rapids (moving water with small waves but few or no obstructions) with another beginner.

Time and money are two major considerations in determining which trip is the best fit. What many American and European canoeists love about Saskatchewan's beautiful northern wilderness are its solitude and interconnected rivers, where "you can paddle for six weeks, eight weeks, 12 weeks or 16 weeks."

Beginners looking for a bite-sized experience on a northern Saskatchewan river, on the other hand, might consider a weekend trip to Sluice Falls on the Churchill, says Archer. From Otter Rapids, located about an hour by road northwest of La Ronge, the 12-km paddle upstream to the falls requires a few simple portages around rapids. It's a good spot for new river trippers to practise their skills on several sets of rapids and they can enjoy some flatwater canoeing on nearby lakes.

Otter Rapids
- courtesy Laurel Archer, 2001
Looking upstream from the bridge at Otter Rapids in the direction of Sluice Falls.

Another good destination for weekend trippers is Stanley Mission, home to historic Holy Trinity Church. Archer says the trip begins at Missinipe, about 10 minutes south of Otter Rapids, and offers beautiful scenery, good fishing and portages that are "not too onerous".

"You can also get a good sense of the history and prehistory of the Churchill because you can see the rock paintings and visit the church at Stanley.''

Old and new have been coexisting on the Churchill ever since Frobisher crossed Frog Portage. Archer knows there will be conflict and compromise between people hoping to develop the area's rich resources and others who'd like it to remain a wilderness: Introducing the North to more canoeists can't help but strengthen the case for conservation.

Black Lake
- courtesy Laurel Archer, 2001
July sunset on Black Lake.

However, for "southerners" who come to know Saskatchewan's northern wilderness by paddling her ancient highways, the two camps are not as divided as one might expect.

"It makes them better people,'' says Archer. "It makes them understand better the kinds of issues that are facing the First Nations people and what a big decision it's going to be as to how far development in the North is going to go."

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