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  Nature's Itinerary

by Gerry Klein

I had pulled my tent trailer two thirds of the way up the side of a greasy, muddy hill when my van -- tires spinning -- slowly ground to a halt.

Saskatoon writer and avid outdoorsman Gerry Klein.
Saskatoon writer and avid outdoorsman Gerry Klein.

My heart sank into my stomach.

I glanced at my wife Viviane, who was studying the map that led us into this quagmire. As far as we could tell, we were on a 'Grade A, Saskatchewan Grid Road'. According to the view through our windshield, it was a forest cutline torn apart by a week of rains and a four-wheel drive.

The first couple of kilometres were rough, but gravelled and passable. The last eight kilometres were a tortured trek over a pockmarked, puddle-ridden road too narrow to turn the trailer around. We were stuck in the middle, 10 kilometres short of the junction and the same distance from the beginning of the road.

It was an inauspicious beginning to our trip to Dore Lake.

Our 10-day trip at the end of June and beginning of July was a flight of fancy, so to speak. Viviane is an avid bird watcher and the boreal forest by Dore, Sled and Smoothstone lakes, north-west of Prince Albert National Park, is world famous for the diversity of its avian population.

We spent the weekend camping at Lac Leauclaire, about two and a half hours north-west of Saskatoon. In spite of the occasional rain shower, the weekend was very pleasant. Leauclaire is a small lake with a nice beach, a clean and spacious campground and a healthy population of loons and ducks.

We explored the lake in our canoe, and we swam and fished. Rainy times were spent relaxing in the tent trailer. We were skunked at fishing, but the lake was still kind to us, hosting a spectacular sky accentuated by thunderstorms passing by.

This is the way the road's supposed to look when you're travelling in the north.
This is the way the road's supposed to look when you're travelling in the north.

Leauclaire was also home to at least two families of loons.

It's in these small lakes and quiet streams of Saskatchewan that a canoe really comes into its own. By gliding silently over the water we were able to watch for birds fluttering through the trees, catch sight of the occasional muskrat and enjoy a wonderful encounter with a family of common loons.

There is nothing common about the common loon. This bird came to Saskatchewan on the heels of the last ice age. Its summer nesting grounds are shrinking elsewhere on the continent, but most northern lakes in Saskatchewan remain haunted by its ageless cry (for more on Saskatchewan's loon, see The Loons of Anglin Lake.

As we neared one family of loons in the canoe, the male separated from the female and young ones and approached us with a warning call meant to mark his territory.

We were curious. We wanted to get a closer look at the little ones without being too disruptive.

The adult male kept calling until we passed him, at which point his call became much more urgent. He screamed out a warning to his family and began acting as though he was hurt.

He came closer to our canoe, flapping and struggling with a feigned injury intended to draw us towards him and away from the brood. Meanwhile, the little ones seemed almost as curious about us as we were of them -- their mother had a devil of a time keeping them in line.

Lac Leauclaire, after terrorizing the loons.
Lac Leauclaire, after terrorizing the loons.

As we got closer, the female joined her mate in the distressed-bird routine and the young ones swam into a nearby bed of reeds to wait things out. At this, we realized we'd tortured this little family quite enough. Once the birds saw we were heading in the other direction, the little ones emerged from the reeds, the female swam over to check on her charges and the male dove out of sight, fearing we were finally coming after him.

While paddling my own little family back across the lake, the loons picked up their haunted cries as if to tell other resident families: "We're okay. We won the day. But watch out for those crazy floating humans!"

On Sunday morning, we set off for Dore Lake. We were a little reluctant to leave Leauclaire for what looked like a four-hour trip north, but we were driven by the thought of exploring a piece of Saskatchewan we'd not yet experienced.

We were only an hour out of Lac Leauclaire when we came to a fork in the road that led to our muddy cutline. I crawled from the van to survey our predicament and alighted in soupy mud that reached midway up my calves. My younger years, spent working in the bush, told me this could be serious -- particularly if one of the threatening thunderheads opened up above us.

It took us an hour of backing up, manoeuvring, pushing, pulling, digging, turning the trailer by hand and swearing (I accomplished this on my own), before we extricated ourselves from the mud and headed back on a two-hour detour through Green Lake.

At Green Lake we headed north until the boreal forest turned into the skeletal remains of a forest fire. We were getting a bad feeling about this day.

The fire -- I later recalled it forced a widespread evacuation in the mid 1990s -- had been confined to the west side of the highway. At the tiny village of Dore Lake, we headed east into pristine forest towards the lake.

Dore Lake is a deceptively large body of water and we were too cautious to head out of the bay in the canoe. We didn't have to go far to see the wildlife.

A family of grebes living near the dock entertained us during our stay by swimming back and forth with babies perched on parents' backs. Apparently a family of ducks was equally amused by the grebe-back riders. Mom, dad and the fluffy kids liked to clamber up onto the dock and carefully watch the grebes float by. The ducks would reluctantly relinquish their perch whenever we walked our dog to the end of the dock.

Meandering on the dock at Dore.
Meandering on the dock at Dore.

Although my youngest daughter loves fishing, at $90 a day plus gas, the cost of renting a boat was a little too steep. We did our fishing vicariously; we watched others come ashore, their coolers packed with jack fish (northern pike) that included some as long as my arm (see our Fishing Guide).

Viviane and I travelled by van along the south shore of the lake, pausing now and then to try to identify bird songs. But we were often driven back into the vehicle by horseflies, which were plentiful in some areas and not so bad in others. We did identify a few song birds, such as the white-throated sparrow and the chickadee. But alas, this wasn't to be a time for songbirds.

At week's end we headed back south, stopping at Delaronde Lake for the last couple days of our holiday.

Delaronde is a long, narrow lake. Blessed with light winds, we headed out in the canoe. This time, our daughters Sarah, (then 13), and Chantelle (then 17), were lucky, claiming a couple of mid-sized jack fish within an hour. I wanted to explore, and I was looking forward to barbecuing our last roast, so I let the little fellows go.

Delaronde is home to at least two flocks of pelicans that skim the lake, head to tail, like strings of pearls. But the lake also attracts a number of people with personal water craft -- the bane of canoeists, naturalists, or anyone else looking for peace and quiet in the north. The closer one gets to the cities in Saskatchewan, the more likely one is to run into high-powered boats and personal water crafts.

If you're seeking peaceful solitude and interaction with nature, head further north. But you might want to first phone the town or municipal office in the region to check on the roads.

Gerry Klein is a journalist with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix newspaper.

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