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A Canoe Trip On The Churchill River In Saskatchewan

A Canoe Trip on the Churchill River in Saskatchewan

The Churchill River is a classic northern Canadian river to canoe. Starting in Churchill Lake, Saskatchewan, the river flows east for over 1,600 kilometres 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 on the Churchill River.

Day one canoeing 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 kilometres at most. Three portages were required and we only ran one set of rapids. But because we’d hiked 30 kilometres the day before in La Ronge Provincial Park, 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 on the river: Trout Rock Rapids to a campsite 2 km 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 kilometres.

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 kilometres 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 on the Churchill River – Paddle about 12 kilometres to Barker Island

Our third day started with an easy seven kilometres 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 metres) along the Sluice Channel. The first 100 metres 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 1.5 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 on the Churchill River

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 on the Churchill River

Pretty sunset on our last night out

Day four canoeing the Churchill River: 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 kilometres 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 on the Churchill River

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 kilometre long. And from the end of it, there is only another five kilometres to reach Missinipe.

We were back in town just 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 our 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 on the Churchill River

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 before you go

Missinipe is a small community located about 90 minutes north of La Ronge, Saskatchewan via a road that is paved for the first 20 kilometres and then is dirt for the next 60 kilometres. 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. Read before you go – Tips for Staying Safe in Bear Country.

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!

Further reading on paddling in Canada

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

Canoeing the Churchill River in Saskatchewan



Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 57,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 23 Comments
  1. Really gorgeous photos here, Leigh. From the air, the landscape looks almost tropical, then from ground-level it looks like very northern. So interesting.

    1. @Sophie I really didn’t know what to expect on the Churchill River. I knew there’s be rock but I find your observation interesting Sophie as it does look wilder from the air. It’s a marvelous place to explore.

  2. Leigh, this post is spectacular, including your photos–the best canoeing photos I’ve ever seen. I’ve done a bit of canoeing and your sharing your Churchill River trip makes me want to do more. Thank you!

    1. @Gail Thank you for your wonderful comment. I tend to kayak more than canoe so it was a real treat for me to explore the Churchill River. I really wish I’d had at least a week. If we’d started one lake further west we would have seen some rock paintings. I am very keen to do more; at least this summer I have more canoeing in my plans.

  3. Leigh, I got goosebumps reading your reaction to the realization that the trails had been used for thousands of years. I’ve had moments just like that in my life too! Great news…I can finally directly answer one of your travel questions from personal experience LOL! I had an amazing life experience of canoeing the Canadian boundary waters in southern Ontario. I will never forget that hope to write about it someday. Unfortunately I don’t think I can find any pictures even from the boxes of stuff my Dad left behind when he passed. Then in 1984 (and I wrote a post on this) my step father took me on his own personal Outward Bound trip to Northern B.C. and so many of your photos reminded of that. I was able in 1996 to take a float plane from Lake Union, Seattle to Victoria, B.C. Thank you, thank you for the post…it brought back so many awesome memories. Sorry you didn’t see any wildlife except for the birds! 🙂

    1. @Mike I really don’t know why it took me so long to have that moment of realization. I think when you go to school here in Canada – at least for me – it was all about the European history and what a young country Canada is. The country itself hasn’t been around for long but when you really start to think about the people, and maybe there was something about the trail I was walking, that just struck a deep chord with me – that it wasn’t new. I really did walk in the paths of First Nations people who have been in the area for as long as man has been around. Interesting that you had a powerful experience in the Boundary Waters. My friend Ted – at Traveling Ted – spends a lot of time paddling Quetico Prov’l Park. I’d be interested to get his reaction.
      We were fine with only seeing birds. They were interesting and one could sleep easily knowing there wasn’t much wildlife around.

  4. You know you are going somewhere cool when you have to fly in just to begin the trip. Looks like an amazing paddle and very similar to Quetico. I can’t believe you did not see any moose. The population of the moose in Quetico and Minnesota has taken a dive the last couple of years. Wonder if Churchill River area is experiencing a similar problem.

    1. @Ted I was told by the fellow who knows the area really well that there have never been many animals – mostly because there is just so much water around – and there has been some hunting in the past. Most of the animals are just a little further to the north – where I now want to go on an extended trip.

  5. That’s awesome! That aerial pic shows a great overview of the type of water-conditions to expect, doesn’t it? Some day!

    1. @Hank It’s really helpful to get a sense of the lay of the land plus I always have a romantic notion about travel via a float plane. Nothing says summer and holiday time to be like the sound of a float plane.

  6. I am wondering if the picture of “the bar area” is actually a picture of fish filleting tables. We have travelled to Otter Lake for many years and have seen these rudimentary tables crafted and used to fillet fish for shore lunches on various lunch spots around the lake.

    1. @Beattie They may be a filleting area but my guess – because of the number of them is that it really was set up to resemble a Caribbean type bar. But who knows for sure? Thanks for stopping by.

  7. My heart aches for “home” when I see photos of the Churchill. I used to guide for Ric and the area is very special.

    Did you see Naomi’s Wave and memorial plaque just below Sluice? Did you read any of the explorers’ journals about their time travelling the river as you went along? There is so much history pre and post contact to read about.

    It’s a river that all skill levels can paddle because of the portage trails. You often have the choice to paddle or portage depending on your ability and the current conditions that can be so different from one month to the next or from year to year.

    Not many Canadians know that 3/4 of Saskatchewan is covered in lakes, rivers and forest. They are more familiar with the gorgeous agricultural land along the Number 1 highway. Visit the north, people! Go north!

  8. Hi Leigh, this trip looks great. Do you remember the cost of the float plane? I am thinking of doing a Churchill trip this summer and I can’t find prices online for the plane.

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