We’re eight kilometres into a 290 kilometre canoe trip in northern Saskatchewan and I’m already wondering how I’m going to survive two weeks of paddling. It’s not the bugs, the rain or the mildly hypothermic temperatures I’m worried about – but our campsite we’ve had to carve out of the forest on a bed of slippery reindeer moss. Is this what we’re going to have to do every night for two weeks I wonder to myself?
John and I have driven 1,200 kilometres to Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan from Calgary via Saskatoon, La Ronge, and Missinipe. The last leg of the trip – a couple of hours on a dirt road that’s in better shape than the Smith Dorrien Road (for those of you hike in Alberta’s Kananaskis Country) – deposits us on the shores of Reindeer Lake, the ninth largest lake in North America.
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A few interesting facts about Reindeer Lake
Reindeer Lake enjoys a couple of other statistics that would give most people pause before considering a canoe trip on it. The lake covers an area of almost 2,500 square miles according it the status of 22nd largest freshwater body of water in the world. With over 5,500 islands, the lake boasts in excess of 9,000 kilometres of shoreline shared between Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Reindeer Lake is also home to Deep Bay formed by a meteorite about 140 million years ago. Its six miles across and a whopping 700 feet deep. Fisherman like it as the waters stay colder than the rest of the lake, but I was happy to admire its contours on a map, especially as any crossing in its vicinity could be very dangerous if the wind whipped up.
How this canoe trip in Canada came to be
I first heard about Reindeer Lake from Ric Driediger, owner of Churchill River Canoe Outfitters back in 2015. His description piqued my interest so I purchased a set of maps covering the route. In the winter of 2020 before COVID reared its ugly head, John and I booked off a couple of weeks starting in late July to do the paddle that had been on my wish list for five years.
Initially two old friends who kindly say yes to practically anything I propose, were going to join us – but the drive from Ontario was wrought with problems and there was no way to visit their son in northern Manitoba without self-isolating. So they nixed the trip. And I’m so glad they did as you’ll discover if you continue reading.
Our planned route on Reindeer Lake
We had three maps put out by GoTrekkers.com of the route on Reindeer Lake we planned to take. While most of the information was accurate, some vital information – like campsites and portage routes was out of date as we discovered along the way. (They will be updating the maps.) I understand after the fact, that the last known group to do the full loop was about 10 years ago.
From the comfort of our living room on a winter day, we mapped out what we thought would be a doable route, paddling between 20 and 30 km a day for 14 days. The plan was to start near the community of Southend, canoe due north for four days to Gillespie Bay and knock off the only major portage of the trip into Nokomis Lake.
From there it was roughly 30 kilometres of hard paddling to the next short portage. After that, there was one more short portage and then a few days of paddling to return to Reindeer Lake again. We figured we could manage the rest of the canoeing through a maze of islands back to our starting point in 6 – 7 days.
What really happened
Most wilderness trips offer up a combination of highs and lows and this one was no exception. It’s a good way to see if you’re resilient in the face of hardship.
After our first night out wild camping on an island that at most could hold one tent (an issue we encountered several times) the trip improved – insofar as the wind blew up so the bugs mostly disappeared. That was a good news – bad news scenario. Canoeing was harder and waves were on occasion challenging, especially when the dog decided to stand up in the boat!
But after a few days out we got into the rhythm of paddling and lost track of what day it was – which is always a good sign. We’d get up by 6 AM and be on the water at the latest by 8 AM. We’d paddle a few hours, take a break, paddle some more, eat lunch and by 2 PM start focusing on where we might camp for the night. Out of 11 days of paddling, nine were very windy – so you really had to be smart about crossings and planning your route.
After getting a tent set up, we’d find a comfortable spot with a view and enjoy a glass of wine or a beer before cooking dinner. We were always in our tent by 8 PM as that’s when the bugs made an appearance in earnest. There were a few evenings when we broke that rule as the sunsets were run-to-get-the-camera kind of beautiful.
We expected more wildlife on the trip than the one black bear I saw running in the distance. (John missed it.) Loons were everywhere – and as always a treat to listen to as we drifted off to sleep.
Portaging from Reindeer Lake to Nokomis Lake
We’d been warned that the long portage from Reindeer to Nokomis Lake hadn’t been used in a while and so might be in rough shape. When we finally found the portage – after 30 – 40 minutes of searching we were initially pleasantly surprised. There was a wide trail with only a bit of mud for two thirds of its length. The last third of the portage was brutal as we had to deal with boggy, spongy ground with uneven footing. It took us three hours – an hour for each load – to complete the portage.
Once it was over we were again quite pleased with ourselves thinking we’d never have to do it again. We were back in less than 72 hours.
The day from hell on a canoe trip in Canada
Our day from hell actually got off to a great start. We had almost no wind so were able to knock off the 30 km of canoeing to reach the second of three portages in about six hours. In fact we were feeling so pleased with ourselves that we thought we could be through both portages and back on a proper lake by the end of a very long day.
We reached the second portage – at least as it was marked on the map – at someone’s deserted fishing camp. Hopping out of the canoe to scout the route, it became apparent in short order that there was nothing remotely like a formal portage route. In fact we wasted a solid hour just trying to get our bearings in a landscape of downed trees, thick brush and swampy land – with enough bugs to illicit a lot of swearing on my part.
We did eventually find the lake – and humped the first of three loads down to it. On the return to pick up the second load, we scouted an easier route and found one that was a little less onerous. After schlepping two more loads (my hat goes off to John portaging the canoe in the terrain we traversed) with much use of the F word, sweating and slapping of bugs we were on the water again. Bliss.
The map showed that we had to paddle down the lake to a stream. Ten minutes into the paddle a beaver dam blocked the route. Once again we had to empty most of the canoe to get over the God-damned thing. And then the stream/river – whatever the little blue streak on the map was – turned out to be an overgrown, barely moving, bug-infested stream.
We pulled out the saw and cut branches. We heaved sunken tree trunks and emptied the canoe so we could lift it around tight corners. We walked through calf deep water – looking for an easier way forward, while encouraging our dog to continue as she was relentlessly attacked by blackflies on land.
After 90 minutes and 200 metres at most of travel, we said SCREW IT. There’s no way we can do this for another 1800 metres – and then get through another overgrown, unmarked portage.
We left the canoe in the stream and humped our tent and food for the night to flat spot in an old burn. By now we’d been going hard for about 11 hours and we were both bagged – and hungry. A quick dinner – naan bread grilled cheese – and a large glass of wine, sipped when I dared to move my bug net above my lips, revived our spirits enough that we figured we’d scout the landscape and see if we could portage the canoe.
That was a big negative so we went to bed knowing we’d have to retrace our route through two nasty portages.
The highlights of our canoe trip in Saskatchewan
Now that you’ve heard the negative parts about canoeing Reindeer Lake, let me tell you what made the trip a success in our books.
The paddling was harder than I expected it to be, and distances between points on land longer, but there was a sense of deep satisfaction we both got from working hard physically, day in day out. There were many days I gave every stroke my all for long periods of time so by the end of the trip I felt very strong and powerful. You never find the time to devote this much of the day to exercise when you’re home.
The silence and sense of space on the lake was fantastic too. Even the loons didn’t know what to make of us! There were days on end where we didn’t see so much as a motorboat in the distance. What a treat to feel so removed from civilization – and away from all of our devices.
We also caught a couple of days that were quite unique in my paddling experience. One day was so calm and the reflections of the clouds so strong, it felt like we were paddling in an infinity pool the size of a lake. It was dizzying and actually a tad disorienting.
On our last evening, ribbons of yellow pollen (my best guess) weaved through parts of the lake. There was so much pollen in the water that the next day we saw rainbows – probably formed because of the way the sun bounced off the pollen particles. It was a unique and memorable experience.
Campsites after our first night were either amazing or pretty darned good. Some required a minor amount of work to fit our tent in on flat ground but almost all were on pretty islands with a breeze and a view. I was surprised over and over again at how little flat space there was on some of the islands and can’t imagine how hard it would have been to add a second tent.
We also got really lucky with the weather after the first day. We hit a northern Saskatchewan high pressure system and enjoyed day after day of hot sun. The lake was warmer than I expected so you could jump in and get refreshed every day.
Fishing on Reindeer Lake
We did not come to Reindeer Lake to fish – though people do from around the world as it’s a world-class destination for grayling, northern pike, lake trout and walleye.
John bought a fishing license ($75 if you’re from out of province) in case we got winded-in on an island and ran out of food. About two thirds of the way into the trip he figured it was time to at least pull out the rod and see if it worked.
Three casts later and he had a meal of northern pike flapping at the end of the rod. They are supposed to be a bony fish – and we still had food – so it was easily released with barbless hooks. John fished a couple more times – mostly at lunch time, but never for more than about 15 minutes. He caught one more fish – so I knew we wouldn’t ever have to worry about having enough to eat.
Reindeer Lake is not for the novice paddler. Winds are too unpredictable and distances between islands way further than they appear on the map.
There are loads of beautiful rivers to paddle in Saskatchewan so I’d probably lean towards those – even though I did love the challenge of the lake and the sense of feeling so far removed from the rest of the world. Still, it was a perfect summer for us to tackle the lake with COVID in our midst.
Information for this canoe trip in Canada
Should you want to paddle Reindeer Lake (perhaps without the portages) then I highly recommend going through Churchill River Canoe Outfitters. They rent just about any of the gear you might need including satellite phones. You can also book into one of their cabins in Missinipe before and/or after the trip – thereby breaking up the drive.
As far as gear is concerned, there are a few things that you should definitely take on a trip of this remote nature – aside from bagged wine and beer, two essentials in my books.
Include some gear aid tape for repairs. If you get a hole in your tent, the bugs will drive you crazy!
A kitted-out first aid kit would be very worthwhile. We didn’t need more than an Advil but being prepared in the wilderness is essential.
Take a couple of comfortable chairs to sit on. I’ve used one like this for decades (and it’s still going) but to be off the ground would be very appealing. I like the look of this Helinox Chair that weighs in at 500 grams.
A bug head net, bug jacket and bug spray are essential unless you’re like my husband and hate using all three of them. And it gets hot in northern Saskatchewan so don’t forget a sun hat and sunscreen.
Getting to Reindeer Lake
Reindeer Lake is located 217 km northeast of La Ronge via Highway 102, an all-weather road that’s actually in great shape. You don’t need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get to the launch site. You can gas up in Missinipe though there is also gas available at Mile 81 and Mile 136.
The launch site is from a public parking lot just a few hundred metres from the Nordic Lodge as shown on Google maps here.
From Saskatoon, with the nearest airport of any size, the driving time is about 7 hours.
Further reading on canoe trips in Canada
- Early Season Canoeing in Algonquin Park
- A Canoe Trip on the Churchill River in Saskatchewan
- Canoeing the Cameron River to Yellowknife, NWT
- The 3 Day Lac la Biche Canoe Circuit in Alberta
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