2015 Kazan River Adventure

Kazan River Adventure 2015 By Les Wilcox

This slide show is a day by day chronicle of a 41 day, 1,374 km, canoe trip from Hidden Bay on Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan, to the community of Baker Lake, Nunavut. The participants were Joe Beynen, Steve Foley, Murray Muir and Les Wilcox. Joe, Murray and Les are old hands at these adventures and had previously paddled the 1,500 km from Yellowknife to Baker Lake via the Hanbury-Thelon route. It was Steve's first big canoe trip. The river, the land and the wildlife are the backdrop for their journey.

L to R: Les, Murray, Steve and Joe – photo Miriam Koerner. Click on image for a larger view.

They'd spent the winter researching, planning and preparing for the journey that involved 2 provinces, 2 territories, 4 rivers, 3 watersheds and a lot of big windy lakes. Each had their own MEC Lightfield 2 tent with additional cord loops for rocks where pegs wouldn't work. The group had three sets of 1:250 topos, 1:50s and Google aerials for the tricky bits, compasses, 2 Garmin GPS map units, a SPOT Locator and a satellite phone (some guys just have to call their wives) which made up the navigational gear. Joe had a small, custom made, stainless steel fire grill. Murray had a “Little Bug” stainless twig burner. Steve and Les each had a one burner Colman Peak stove. Murray brought his favourite ax, Joe his favourite saw, Les his favourite Miro camp pots and Steve his favourite (big) frying pan. They carried 8 litres of stove fuel but the only place where stoves were used was at the canoe shelter in Baker Lake. The fuel had to be given away because it couldn't be taken on the plane. They'd packed food for 56 days because there's always a risk of being ice bound on the larger lakes like Yathkyed. This had happened on a previous trip. They didn't get ice bound but trips coming down the Thelon had to wait out the ice on Aberdeen. Joe's son Kevin, who was stationed in Rankin Inlet, was able to purchase fishing licenses preseason and email them. As you'll see, they caught lots of fish to fill that frying pan.

Excellent Kazan route descriptions by Bill Layman and Allan Jacobs (with GPS coordinates) were downloaded. From Paws & Paddles Outfitters, Murray got a copy of the Little Partridge River Route description by Andy Breckenridge which was crucial for this trip. Route information for the beginning of the trip came from books like No Man's River by Farley Mowat, Sleeping Island by PG Downs and From Reindeer Lake to Eskimo Point by Peter Kazaks. In the Baker Lake airport, on a previous trip, Murray and Les had met Miriam Koerner and Quincy Miller, who own Paws & Paddles Outfitters in Air Ronge Saskatchewan. Their business was perfectly situated for shuttling between Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan and The Pas, Manitoba, where Miriam picked up the group with Joe's 150 at the end of the trip. This was after a grueling ride on the “Muskeg Special”, from Churchill to The Pas, which took 30 hours. At the beginning of the canoe trip they could smell the smoke and see the haze from a distant Saskatchewan forest fire. At the end of the trip they learned that Paws & Paddles had lost their outpost cabin and all of their dogsled trails to the fire.

Map of our route. Click on image for a larger view.

There was no set departure date. The NASA Worldview website allowed them to watch the ice melting on Wollaston Lake. They finally hit the road from New Liskeard, Ontario, on June 15th. . Miriam dropped them at the Hidden Bay dock on the afternoon of June 19th. Two old 17' ABS canoes, Joe's Swift Albany and Murray's Scott Missinaibi, were their transportation. Each had their own favourite paddle and a spare plus 3 packs, totaling nearly 200 lbs (800 lbs total). The canoes weighed about 85 lbs each. The weather turned out to be generally on the cool side allowing for long sleeves and legs which, combined with a little insect repellent, kept the bugs at bay.

Murray was the only serious photographer in the group. He took 899 shots with his Nikon D80. All of the numerous “flower” pics are Murray's - so much colour in a barren land. Joe took 236 shots with an Olympus 8010. Steve took 197 shots with a Nikon Coolpix S32. Les took 299 shots with a Nikon Coolpix L32. The 1,631 photos have been collectively edited down to 574 and chronologically sequenced for this 57 minute, fast paced slide show. The video footage was shot by Steve. The sound track is upbeat and heavy on Canadian content.

So Get yourself a glass of wine or cup of tea, put on the headphones or hook up some good speakers, sit back and take a vicarious journey as they travel down the Cochrane River encountering their worst portage at Big Stone Rapids; 3.6 km, grown in, mid section burnt, lots of blow downs, took 6 hours. They paddle and portage through the “Little Lakes” to the Thlewiaza River and Kasmere Lake with it's abandoned fishing lodge. Joe walked into a mother bear and cub on the Kasmere Falls portage (they ran away). Next the guys trudge up the Little Partridge River where their old canoes took so much abuse that it was decided to give them away in Baker Lake. Bush crash portages take them through Roosevelt Lake, several ponds and a downhill run on a mostly navigable creek to Kasba Lake, the headwaters of the Kazan River. J.B. Tyrrell's portage, north out of Roosevelt Lake, was still in good shape. From here they head down river to Ennadai Lake where a night paddle ends in a morning hike up Halfway Bluff. Then on to Dimma Lake where they get wind bound for a sunny afternoon on a sandy beach.

Overall they got lucky with the wind which offered several opportunities for paddle sailing as well as becoming still for the longer crossings. There were only two campsites where the weather forced them to spend a second night. Many of the camping and rest spots they picked turned out to be traditional native sites. And there were lots of beautiful sandy beaches, some still covered with the winters snow. Can you find the wolf pup (hint: esker hike, vertical pic, dead centre, Murray points the way)? A stormy morning paddle on Angikuni ends at a sunny riverside camp. Next day they camp at the end of the portage around the magnificent Cascades. Two days later they're at a still very cold Yathkyed Lake. At Forde Lake they encounter the only other canoe group they saw on the trip. This international group was outfitted with folding PAKBOATs. At the beginning of the Kazan they'd encountered some fly-in fishermen from the Kasba Lake Lodge.

There's a calm paddle and a sunny campsite on beautiful Thirty Mile Lake. Before arriving at Kazan Falls they encounter a herd of about 30 muskox. They'd also encountered a small number of moose and caribou and a porcupine. A fast and scenic river run below the falls leads to Baker Lake where a midnight paddle gets them into town by noon the next day. To avoid the long distance crossings and the Thelon delta sandbars they did an island and point hop around the west end of Baker Lake. The longest open crossing, 4 km, was from the north tip of Nicholls island to the airport landing west of the town of Baker Lake (Canada's geographic centre).

At the airport Joe arranged for stand by flights (by far the cheapest) to Churchill, via Rankin Inlet, for the next evening which gave the guys a day to cruse the town. At the canoe shelter they met girls and boys canoe trips from Minnesota's Camp Widjiwagan (also with PAKBOATs) who had come down the Thelon River. These kids were competent, helpful and polite. The shot of the grave (in rough shape) in the Baker Lake Cemetery is that of Art Moffatt, whose death is documented in the legendary tale Death On The Barrens. Of the 41 days, 39 were travel days and, for the days traveled, the average distance was over 35 km/day.

The Kazan, a National Heritage River, is a beautiful canoe trip. It's relatively easy to do with very few portages considering its length and drop. Average whitewater skills, good preparation, careful scouting and a cautious approach will get you to Baker Lake. Unless you're really adventuresome, you might want to begin by flying into the Kasba Lake Lodge directly from Winnipeg.

Sound Track:

  • 01 Beatles – Here Comes The Sun **
  • 02 Gordon Lightfoot – Whispers Of The North *
  • 03 Glen Reid – Heritage River *
  • 04 Wade Hemsworth – Blackfly Song *
  • 05 Steeleye Span – Jigs: Brides Favorite/Tansey's Fancy **
  • 06 Bare Naked Ladies – If I Had A Million Dollars *
  • 07 Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi *
  • 08 Dixie Chicks – Wide Open Spaces ***
  • 09 Steeleye Span – Cannon By Telman **
  • 10 Glen Reid – Lifeline To The Heartland *
  • 11 Bruce Cockburn – All The Diamonds *
  • 12 David Laronde – Back To Here *
  • 13 Glen Reid – Circle Of Song *
  • 14 Steeleye Span – Reels: First House In Connaught/Lady Of The House **
  • 15 Sarah McLachlan – Ordinary Miracle *
  • 16 Stan Rogers – Mary Ellen Carter *
  • * Canadian Artist
  • ** British Artist
  • *** American Artist