Canoeing the Churchill River – Trout Lake to Missinipe, Saskatchewan

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The Churchill River is a classic northern Canadian river to canoe. Starting in Churchill Lake, Saskatchewan, the river flows east for over 1,600 kilometers emptying into Hudson’s Bay. It’s unique in that all the water flowing in the river is Saskatchewan based, with not a drop of mountain water.

The range of canoeing options is phenomenal so your best bet is to pick up a guide book on canoeing the Churchill River or even better, get in touch with Ric Driediger of Churchill River Canoe Outfitters and discuss with him what you’d like to do.

That’s exactly what I did – and with limited time – just four days, John and I, on the advice of Ric, elected to fly in to Trout Lake from Missinipe and paddle back to town.

Here’s a day by day account of our four day canoe trip.

DAY ONE on the Churchill River

Although someone had forgotten to book our float plane, it turns out that in Missinipe, booking a float plane is akin to hailing a taxi in New York City. Just call up, tell them when you’d like to fly – and you’re off.

It was only a 30 minute flight for us to get dropped off on Trout Lake. I love the overview of the area you get from the air.

"Getting organized to head out from the dock in Missinipe"

Getting organized to head out from the dock in Missinipe

"The view of the Churchill River from the air"

The view of the Churchill River from the air – actually a series of lakes joined together by either falls or rapids

"It's a 30 minute float plane ride to our starting point on the Churchill River"

It’s a 30 minute float plane ride to our starting point on the Churchill River

We got dropped off about halfway up Trout Lake – and as it turns out right beside the bones of a bear. But other than the bear carcass and a few moose and wolf droppings, there were no other animals to be seen over the four days, not even a squirrel, though the bird life was good.

"White pelicans are a common sight"

White pelicans are a common sight

"White pelicans roosting"

White pelicans roosting

Our first day turned out to be a mix of paddling and portaging. We didn’t actually travel very far – just 10 kilometers at most. Three portages were required and we only ran one set of rapids. But because we’d hiked 30 kilometers the day before, we were happy to call it a day at a very pretty campsite right beside Rock Trout Rapids.

"Moose Rapids must be portaged"

Moose Rapids must be portaged

"The only other canoeists we met in four days"

The only other canoeists we met in four days

"Looking up Trout Rock Rapids on the Churchill River"

Looking up Trout Rock Rapids

"Our campsite beside Trout Rock Rapids"

Our campsite beside Trout Rock Rapids; we had to cross the river against the current to reach the campsite

"Sunset over the Churchill River, Saskatchewan"

Sunset over the Churchill River on Day One

Day Two: Trout Rock Rapids to a campsite two kilometers north of No Name Rapids

Our timing was perfect. Breakfast was eaten and the whole campsite packed up when we felt the first drop of rain. It looked nasty so we donned our rain gear and spent the next four hours paddling 19 kilometers. We had Little Trout Rock Rapids to deal with immediately after leaving camp, followed by Chief Rapids and Chief Lower Rapids about 45 minutes later. All were easy to navigate.

"Rain on the Churchill River"

Our second day looked like this with non-stop rain

Our luck held as we paddled across Nipew Lake with barely a breath of wind. This section could be tough going in a big wind. The highlight here was a rookery absolutely covered with hundreds of gulls and white pelicans. We continued on, weaving our way through a maze of islands to reach our campsite. We had read other blogs where people had some navigation issues and ended up paddling many extra kilometers so close attention was paid to the map and our location.

When we rolled into camp we were dripping wet, but in 10 minutes or less we had a tent and a tarp set up. As we were in camp by 1 PM, we had plenty of time to sleep and read which was a real luxury for us.

"We only set the tarp up on the second night"

We only set the tarp up on the second night

The rain continued on and off until dinner time. Then, over the next few hours we were treated to an ever changing and very dramatic sky.

"Campsite on the second night on the Churchill River"

Campsite on the second night on the Churchill River

"We are treated to dramatic skies on the second night"

We are treated to dramatic skies on the second night

"Great cloud formations viewed from our campsite"

Great cloud formations viewed from our campsite

"The skies start to clear in the late afternoon"

The skies start to clear and we’re treated to a double rainbow

DAY THREE – Paddle about 12 kilometers to Barker Island

Our third day started with an easy seven kilometers of paddling. After that you have to make a decision on how you want to return to Missinipe. The night before we had discussed and decided that we would opt for the Barker Lake route back to Missinipe. The other option is a long portage around Great Devil Rapids and Little Devil Rapids to reach Devil Lake. We also didn’t want to camp on Devil Lake because of the noise from a nearby road.

The Barker Lake route still requires a long portage (about 800 meters) along the Sluice Channel. The first 100 meters or so were very muddy but the rest of the portage was in good shape. As you’re portaging and listening to the roar of water, you quickly understand why the portage was necessary – especially when you reach Sluice Falls with its giant canoe eating hole.

The portage took us a good 1½ hours as we had to make two trips. It wasn’t until after lunch that we were back in the canoe again.

After lunch we had five sets of rapids to run. The first four went well – one right after another. But on the last one we didn’t see Dieter’s Rapid – the one we had planned to run until too late and ended up shooting The Shelf. The first wave hit the canoe and landed us in several inches of water, and the next few waves added a bit more. But we didn’t flip, just limped to shore and started bailing. Ten minutes later we were at our campsite for the night on Barker Island. The campsite was well used – more than I like to see – but it did afford an opportunity to explore because of its size.

"Sluice Falls on the Churchill River"

Decked out in a head net for the portage with Sluice Falls in the background

"rapids and falls along the Sluice Channel"

The reason we’re portaging

"Wild red currants"

Wild red currants found on the third day

"Our heavily used campsite on Barker Island"

Our heavily used campsite on Barker Island

"A bar area set up in the middle of Barker Island"

A bar area set up in the middle of Barker Island

"Pretty sunset on our last night out"

Pretty sunset on our last night out

 Day Four: Barker Island to Missinipe

We got an early start on our last day as I had in the back of my mind that we might be able to drive all the way home to Calgary if we were out of Missinipe by noon or so (and we did).

There were a few kilometers of easy paddling, followed by three sets of rapids in quick succession. Then a short portage over Staircase Falls put us on Devil Lake.

"Me with Staircase Falls in the background"

Me with Staircase Falls in the background

We paddled to the end of Devil Lake to reach the last portage of the trip – around Otter Rapids. By the time we’d reached them, we felt like we’d entered civilization again. The Otter Bridge can be seen from a distance and you can start to hear vehicle traffic.

The portage is about a half a kilometer long. And from the end of it, there is only another five kilometers to reach Missinipe.

We were back in town three hours after leaving camp. We had perfect conditions with no wind on the last stretch into town. Others are not always so fortunate.

The four days on the Churchill River exceeded by expectations and now I want to go back for more. Ric left me with a few ideas – and one in particular has massive appeal. It’s a two week trip that can be done as a loop in a kayak – and has only three portages. It starts on Reindeer Lake – another two or so hours up the dirt road from Missinipe.

If you’ve read this far I want to leave you with this. On our last portage of the trip – the Otter Rapids portage, it hit me that the trails we were following had been used for thousands of years – as long as the native people have lived in the area. Don’t ask me why it took so long for that fact to hit home – but when it did, I suddenly felt more in touch with all the people who had walked before me.

The Otter Bridge"

The Otter Bridge

"The last portage of our trip around Otter Rapids"

The last portage of our trip around Otter Rapids

"Looking out at the last of Otter Rapids"

Looking out at the last of Otter Rapids

"Paddling into the town of Missinipe"

Coming full circle

Useful Information about paddling the Churchill River

  • Missinipe is a small community located about 90 minutes north of LaRonge, Saskatchewan via a road that is paved for the first 20 kilometers and then is dirt for the next 60 kilometers. It’s passable with a car but beware the large fuel trucks.
  • You don’t need to take a float plane to paddle the Churchill River. In fact you can leave right from the town of Missinipe.
  • This is major fishing country and the reason most people come to the area. Don’t forget a fishing rod and a fishing license. Once you’re a few portages away from any road, you can count on catching a pickerel for dinner.
  • The bugs were only an issue in the low lying areas of the portages. Bring a head net and a bug jacket to be on the safe side.
  • The weather is very changeable so pack for all seasons.
  • Bring an axe and fire starter.
  • Canoes, barrels and everything else you need for your trip can be rented from Churchill River Canoe Outfitters in Missinipe.
  • Go bear prepared but they really aren’t much of an issue.
  • Although this is a wilderness trip, it’s not as out there as some. There are fishing lodges around and float planes fly overhead many times a day.

A big thank you to Ric at Churhill River Canoe Outfitters for supplying me with loads of great information as well as all the canoe and all the gear for the four days. Truly, this man is such a resource for the area!

What’s your favourite canoe trip in Canada?

Leigh McAdam

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