SK Historic Canoe Route 55
CREE LAKE (LEAVITT BAY) - BRUSTAD RIVER - GWILLIM RIVER -MUDJATIK RIVER - CHURCHILL RIVER - SHAGWENAW LAKE - COMMUNITY OF PATUANAK
Length of Trip: Approximately 257 kilometres
Time Required to Complete Trip: 7 to 9 days
Number of Portages: 8 to 12 depending upon canoeists' proficiency in rapids.
Water levels and canoeing conditions on many Saskatchewan rivers and lakes vary from time to time, causing changes in the appearance of the various landmarks described in this booklet, as well as the presence of hazards not described herein. It is the canoeist's responsibility to proceed with caution and alertness, using discretion and good judgment at all times. The information in this booklet is intended to be of general assistance only and the Government of Saskatchewan assumes no responsibility for its use. Canoeists are reminded that they travel at their own risk at all times.
Access to Starting Point:
There are no roads to Cree Lake. The only access to Leavitt Bay on the southwest side of Cree Lake is by aircraft. Air distances to Leavitt Bay are approximately 145 air kilometres from Patuanak; 176 air kilometres from Buffalo Narrows and 200 air kilometres from Ile-a-la-Crosse. Patuanak is accessible by Highways 918 (gravel) and 155 (paved). Ile-a-la-Crosse and Buffalo Narrows are both accessible by Highway 155, north of Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. Charter float plane services are available from both Ile-a-la-Crosse and Buffalo Narrows or could be arranged for at Patuanak.
Canadian Army Survey Establishment Map 74-B Mudjatik, Edition 3; Map 74-G Cree Lake, Edition 3 and Map 73-O Ile-a-la-Crosse, Edition 3. Map 73-O Ile-a-la-Crosse is preferable to the ASE 73-O map.
About the Trip:
This is not a trip for beginners; however, it is not a particularly dangerous trip. Some lesser rapids must be run as there is no portage trail, but dangerous rapids can all be portaged. One of the portages is two kilometres long and another is over 800 metres long. Upon reaching the Churchill River canoeists must be prepared to travel upstream past Leaf Rapids (portage) and the four parts of Drum Rapids. There is no trail around the three lesser parts of Drum Rapids and canoeists will have to line and wade up through waters too swift to paddle against.
With the exception of having the paddle against the current of the Brustad River (very moderate) at the start of the trip and against the current of the Churchill at the end, this trip is characterized by brisk downstream travel through a seemingly infinite number of meanders. The Gwillim and Mudjatik are swift enough so that paddling up these streams against the current could not be considered as a recreational or pleasure trip. Native trappers and hunters go up these rivers using powerful outboard motors. Recreational canoeists opting to use small outboard motors and run this trip in reverse will not have the power to run up the rapids nor the knowledge or skill to avoid the many rocks. They should, therefore, portage where a portage exists and line and wade up where no trail can be found.
Although it is highly recommended that recreational canoeists fly to Cree Lake and paddle downstream, portage descriptions will be given from both ends, so that those who may decide to attempt this trip in reverse direction (up the Mudjatik and Gwillim to Cree Lake) will have some guidance as to where to find the portages.
The country traversed by this trip is somewhat different from the typical pre-Cambrian scenery in that with the exception of the Churchill River portion, the canoeists is for the most part travelling through sandy rather than rocky country. Where the shores are not muskeg, semi-open stands of jack pine predominate and offer numerous inviting natural campsites at many locations along the route.
Fishing is good on this trip - especially near rapids or eddys. The Cree Lake and Burstad River portion of the trip are in grayling waters in addition to the widely distributed northern pike and walleye.
The community of Patuanak on the west side of Shagwenaw Lake is considered the end point of this trip. There is a general store at Patuanak.
Other options open to canoeists are to paddle another 64 kilometres south of Patuanak on Lac Ile-a-la-Crosse to the community of Ile-a-la-Crosse. Another option is to consider paddling down the Churchill River (generally east from its junction with the Mudjatik) for approximately another 304 kilometres to Otter Rapids where Highway 102 crosses the Churchill River 82 kilometres north of La Ronge. The Churchill River trip is described in detail in Canoe Trip No. 1.
The Canoe Trip:
There are good natural campsites along the shores of Leavitt Bay and the bay southwest of Leavitt Bay, separated from it by Stony Narrows. The mouth of the Brustad River has numerous small islands in it, but most of these are too low and overgrown to provide good campsites.
Canoe parties should work up the Brustad River against a slight current. The channel narrows and the current becomes stronger as the lake feeding into the Brustad River from the south is approached. There is no clear landmark indicating to the canoeist that he is immediately north of the lake as the area is very overgrown with aquatic vegetation. The best advice is to stay on the southeast side of the river and look for open areas which would lead to the north end of the lake. The best landmark is the presence of several beaver houses and a sandy cutbank on the left or southeast that has been used as a campsite in the past. After passing the sandy cutbank, the channel to the south widens out into the north end of the lake.
Paddle in a southeast direction down this angular lake. The lake appears to end in low, muskeg shores, but there is a narrow, partially hidden channel two to three metres wide which continues on in a southeast direction. Map 74-G shows this lake as all open water, but in fact it is two lakes connected by a narrow channel. Towards the end of the channel it becomes vague and only one metre wide. There may be places where canoeists will have to physically push through the sedgy muskeg.
Upon reaching the more easterly lake at the east end of the channel, alter course and paddle in a generally southwest direction. There are numerous attractive, open pine campsites along the shores of this lake.
Travel to the low spot in the shore on the southwest side of this lake. There are old blazes and signs of an old campsite at the low spot.
Portage No. 1:
Connecting the southwest end of the angular shaped lake south of the Brustad River with the northeast end of a small nameless lake. Approximately 1,000 metres long and in good condition.
From the landing spot on the southwest end of the angular lake, this portage angles up the semi-open ridge to the west side of the small circular pond situated 45 metres southwest of the landing spot. The start of the trail is indistinct but becomes very clear once up on the ridge.
From the northeast end of the small nameless lake, the start of this trail is obvious with blazes and signs of use.
Paddle to the southwest end of the small nameless lake and land where blazes and signs of use are evident.
Portage No. 2:
Connecting the small nameless lake to a small roundish lake. Approximately 290 metres long and in good condition.
From the southwest end of the small nameless lake this portage starts at the blazes and angles to the south up a piny ridge.
From the northwest shores of the small roundish lake, the start of the portage is obvious.
There is a small Indian graveyard 45 metres to the east of this portage on a sand ridge overlooking the small roundish lake.
The next portage (No. 3) is a little difficult to pick up. The trail generally parallels the outlet stream from the small roundish lake on the west side of the outlet all the way to the Gwillim River. The trail which is much used as a winter trail actually ends on the south side of a muskeg bordering the small stream which flows into the roundish lake from the west.
It is probably easier, however, to leave the small roundish lake by its shallow outlet stream to the south and land on the west side of the stream at any good landing spot within a few hundred metres of leaving the main part of the roundish lake. It should be easy to pick up the portage trail within 45 metres or less of any such landing.
The outlet stream of the roundish lake has numerous beaver dams in it and canoe travel down the outlet becomes increasingly obstructed by alders and willows. It is possible to go all the way to the Gwillim by canoe, but this would involve literally cutting a route through the willows and alders with an axe from the front of the canoe. The long portage is the easier choice.
Portage No. 3:
Connecting the small roundish lake with the Gwillim River. Approximately one and a quarter kilometres long and in good condition.
From the south shore of the inflowing stream from the west, shortly before it becomes non-navigable, the start of this portage shows as a break in the spruce to the south. The landing is wet, indistinct and in muskeg as this is actually part of the winter trail. It is easier, and slightly shorter, to pick up this portage trail from any good landing spot on the right or west side of the southern outlet stream before the outlet stream becomes too obstructed with alders and willows. Follow the left branch in the trail.
From the Gwillim River side, this portage starts from a sandy cutbank on a quiet side channel on the generally west side of this winding river. It would be the left side for upstream canoeists. The portage trail starts in back of a well used campsite. This campsite where the portage is, is several hundred metres downstream from the point where the alder-filled outlet stream from the small roundish pond joins the Gwillim.
The Gwillim River is swift, deep, narrow and very winding. As the canoeist approaches Solitude Lake more birches begin to line the shores.
Cross Solitude Lake and enter the outlet at the southeast end of the lake. Within three kilometres or so rapids occur which must be portaged.
Portage No. 4:
Around rapids in the Gwillim River below Solitude Lake. Approximately 190 metres long and in good condition.
From the north or upstream approach this portage starts on the right or west side immediately opposite the start of the rapids. The landing is inconspicuous but the trail improves once it gets up in the pines.
From the south or downstream side this portage starts on the west side 20 to 30 metres below the base of the rapids at a break in the alder and spruce shore.
Gwillim Lake or Sandy Lake offers numerous good campsites. There are some cabins belonging to an outfitter from Ile-a-la-Crosse on Gwillim Lake. There are excellent fishing opportunities at both of the narrows near the south end of Gwillim Lake.
Several kilometres south of Gwillim Lake the canoeists passes through a conspicuous blow-down area where a strong wind has levelled the trees along the river's course.
Two small lakes are passed and the river touches on the north end of a third small lake. As the canoeists approaches the junction of the Gwillim with the Mudjatik, the meandering decreases, the speed increases, and some noticeable rock outcrops are passed on the west. The Mudjatik joins the Gwillim from the east and appears to be a river of generally similar size and character. Eight kilometres or so below the junction, the Mudjatik speeds up as it approaches the start of Little Grand Rapids.
Portage No. 5:
Around the first part of Little Grand Rapids. Approximately 15 metres long and in good condition.
From the north or upstream side this very short portage starts at a left or eastward bend in the river. The rapid is actually a small falls at a ledge in the river. The portage starts on the left or east side in a tiny cove directly above the rapids. The landing is a break in the alders and birch and the portage is no more than a short haul on a grassy trail.
From the south or downstream side, this portage starts immediately to the east of the base of the rapids at a grassy landing.
Below these rapids there is a small, willow-covered island. About 800 metres below the first part of the rapids, the second part of Little Grand Rapids occurs.
Portage No. 6 (optional):
Around the second or more southerly part of Little Grand Rapids. Approximately 75 metres long and in good condition.
Experts or even intermediate canoeists can run the second part of Little Grand Rapids after surveying their entire length from the west shore. The cautious should make this easy portage.
From the north or upstream side this portage starts on the right or west side immediately above the start of the rapids.
From the south or downstream side this portage starts on the northwest side somewhat above the base of the fast water.
After descending through another 400 to 500 metres of fast currents, the third and final part of Little Grand Rapids occurs.
After looking this third part over from shore, most canoeists will decide to run it. It should, like all rapids, be treated with respect and is more strenuous than it appears.
Portage No. 7 (optional):
Around the third or most southerly part of Little Grand Rapids. Approximately 110 metres long and in good condition.
From the north or upstream side this portage starts on the right or northwest shore at a vague landing above the start of the rapids.
From the south side or downstream side this portage starts vaguely on the northwest shore somewhat below the end of the rapids.
The river divides around a sizeable island below the third part of Little Grand Rapids. Either route around the island is good.
Within six to eight kilometres the canoeist comes to Grand Rapids. The preliminary rapids can be run with great caution; the main part must be portaged. At their start or upper end these rapids are divided by an island. The best course is to descend on the right side of the right channel, that is, follow close to the west shore of the river. Move away from the right or west shore near the lower end of the island to avoid a bad spot. After passing the lower end of the island, swing promptly across the river and land on the left or east side at the start of portage No. 8 immediately above major rapids.
An alternative for the very cautious to running the preliminary rapids on the west side of the island is to portage on a very poor trail on the east or left side from above the island and then make portage No. 8.
Portage No. 8:
Around the main part of Grand Rapids. Approximately 80 metres long and in good condition.
From the north or upstream side this portage starts on the left or east shore immediately above dangerous rapids. The landing is an obvious break on the east shore in fast water.
From the downstream side or south side this portage starts on the north side of a quiet cove 25 metres east of the base of the fast water and shows as a break in the willows with an open, grassy slope behind it.
Below Grand Rapids there are several long, low islands. After a long stretch of meandering travel the canoeists comes to Old Woman Rapids. There are three options open to the canoeist: make a long portage, make a short portage or, if expert in white water, run the rapids on the right after looking them over from shore first.
Portage No. 9 (optional):
Around Old Woman Rapids. Approximately 200 metres for the long trail and 125 metres for the short trail. The short trail is vague at its lower end. The long trail is in good condition but narrow.
From the northwest or upstream side this portage starts on the right or south shore at a break in the alders 55 metres above the start of the rapids. Fifteen metres back in the bush from the upper landing the trail divides into the shorter trail on the left which stays closer to the river and a longer trail on the right. This shorter trail is just a line of blazes at its lower end and ends in fast water below the bad spot. Use this trail to look over the rapids if contemplating running them.
From the downstream side the longer trail starts in relatively quiet water on the west side at an obvious break in the alders. It would be the only practical portage to make if travelling upstream.
A group of five rapids is shown on the map below Old Woman Rapids and above Bear Rapids. This group of five is known as the Five Sisters Rapids although not so labelled on the map. All five parts of this group can be run by experienced canoeists.
The first part of the Five Sisters Rapids is short and a safe descent route can be selected without the need to land. No portage trail was found at this small rapid.
The second part is longer and swings to the right so visibility is interrupted. If in doubt, look them over from the right shore first. Generally staying close to the right shore all the way down is a good route.
The third part is short and straight and presents no serious problem to alert canoeists. There is a long, narrow island below the third part with suitable camping spots near its lower end.
The fourth and fifth parts of the Five Sisters present no problem at all. Two birch-willow islands occur below the fifth part of the Five Sisters.
Bear Rapids, which is named on the map, is easy to run. There is a good portage, however, but its use would be limited to upstream travellers or during periods of very low water levels.
Portage No. 10 (optional):
Around Bear Rapids. Approximately 60 metres long and in good condition.
From the upstream or north side this portage starts on the right or west shore at a grassy break 15 metres above the start of the rapids.
From the downstream or southern side this portage starts at a grassy break on the shores of a small cove 5 metres from the base of the fast water on the west side of the river.
The lower Mudjatik is characterized by less sand and pine and the prevalence of birch.
The last rapids in the Mudjatik before it joins the Churchill are shown on the southwest side of a dividing island (see map 74-B). Upon reaching these rapids canoeists should take the left or more easterly route around the island. There are some minor rapids along this easterly route but they present no problem.
Upon reaching the junction with the Churchill River, travel west or upstream if this trip is to be ended at either Patuanak or Ile-a-la-Crosse.
Portage No. 11 - Leaf Portage:
Around Leaf Rapids on the Churchill River. Approximately 765 metres long and in good condition.
From the downstream or east side this portage starts on the left (going upstream) or south side at a conspicuous grassy area 30 to 50 metres southeast of the base of the rapids.
From the upstream or west side this portage starts in a hole in the willows on the south side 30 to 50 metres above the start of the rapids.
Line up the lowest or fourth part of Drum Rapids on the left or south side. There is only one spot where most canoeists will have to get out of the canoe as most will be able to paddle against the current the rest of the way.
Canoeists will have to portage around the next or third part of Drum Rapids.
Portage No. 12 - Drum Rapids:
Around the main or third part of Drum Rapids. Approximately 290 metres long and in good condition.
From the downstream or east side this portage starts on the left or south side at the base of the fast water.
From the west or upstream side this portage starts at a pole ramp on the southeast side of the Churchill 225 to 270 metres above the start of the rapids.
To work up through the second and first parts of Drum Rapids, upstream canoeists will have to wade and line up the south side, paddling wherever the current is slow enough and deep enough to permit paddling. There is no portage trail.
After passing the first part of Drum Rapids and a small island, there are no more rapids on the route to Patuanak. At Patuanak there is a store, telephone and road connections to southern Saskatchewan.
If this trip is to end at Ile-a-la-Crosse, canoeists will have to continue past Patuanak, up through the moderate Shagwenaw Rapids, to the community on the west shore of Ile-a-la-Crosse immediately south of the point where Aubichon Arm enters the lake.
Extending the trip from Patuanak to the community of Ile-a-la-Crosse adds about 65 kilometres of paddling. At Ile-a-la-Crosse there are radio, telephone and road connections to southern Saskatchewan.
WRITTEN BY: Peter Gregg (1976).