SK Historic Canoe Route 40
Clearwater River - Warner Rapids (Saskatchewan Highway 955) - Fort McMurray (Alberta)
Length of Trip: 210 Kilometres (131 Miles)
Time Required to Complete Trip: 7 to 10 days
Number of Portages: 7 to 13 (depending on choice, and experience of canoeists)
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 causing hazards not described herein. It is the canoeist's responsibility to proceed with caution and alertness, using discretion and good judgement 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:
Road access is via the northern community of La Loche where arrangements for the safe parking of vehicles can be made. The actual trip starts from the Government of Saskatchewan campground situated immediately north of the bridge over the Clearwater River 55 kilometres (34 miles) northeast of La Loche on Highway 955 (gravel). It is not recommended that vehicles be left at this campground during the trip.
After canoes and equipment have been dropped at the campground, canoeists taking vehicles to La Loche for parking may use a taxi service to return to the bridge.
Alternative starting points for trips on the Clearwater River:
Lloyd Lake and the upper portion of the river (see Trip-58);
Careen Lake and the Virgin River (see Trip-58);
Turnor and Wasekamio Lakes from the community of Turnor Lake;
Descharme River from the community of Descharme Lake.
Alternates 3. and 4. have not been surveyed for canoe tripping.
Three termination alternates for the trip, other than continuing to Fort McMurray:
Carry over the 20 kilometre (12.5 mile) Methye Portage and paddle to La Loche;
Arrange float plane pick-up from the 10 kilometre (6 mile) section of the river immediately east of the Saskatchewan/Alberta border;
Arrange float plane pick-up just below Cascade Rapids, 23 kilometres (14 miles) into Alberta.
Non-emergency float plane landings are not permitted elsewhere on the river within Clearwater River Provincial Wilderness Park.
Maps: 74-C/11 McLean River, 74-C/12 Wallis Bay, 74-C/14 Tocker Lake, 74-C/15 Mackie Rapids, 74-D/9 Bunting Bay/Alberta, 74-D/10 Hollies Creek/Alberta, 74-D/11 Fort McMurray/Alberta and 74-D/15 **/Alberta ** This map has no name designation!
About the Trip:
This is a challenging trip and it is not recommended for those with minimal canoeing skills, or with no whitewater experience. Many of the rapids encountered are shallow and rocky and may present varying degrees of difficulty depending on water levels. The river's flow usually peaks in late May to mid June and has declined by about 1/3 in early September. Therefore a late summer trip includes a greater potential for wading and lining certain sections to avoid damaging canoes. Conditions also vary greatly from year to year; during the summer months the highest recorded flows have been 150-260% of the lowest flows in any given month.
It should be noted that portages were found only past major navigational hazards such as waterfalls and larger rapids, except on the portion of the trip below Methye Portage where portages dating back to the fur trade still exist past all rapids.
Canoe parties should be well equipped and prepared for self- contained wilderness travel and minimum impact activities. Adequate first aid, equipment repair and navigational equipment are required. Except for food consumed enroute, everything packed in must be packed out. Digging of garbage pits and cutting of tent poles are prohibited. Mandatory use of portable stoves may be instituted at any time by Park managers. Recreationists will be expected to avoid interfering with traditional resource use activities of native residents.
Sport angling by persons holding a valid fishing licence is allowed, but canoeists are reminded that a Saskatchewan licence is not valid in Alberta.
This trip takes the canoeist on one of Saskatchewan's most outstanding wild rivers. As it flows westward, the Clearwater exits from an area of sand-mantled Precambrian Shield to enter a deep, broad glacial spillway valley, along the floor of which it alternatively meanders among sandy terraces and cuts gorges in Devonian dolomites and limestones. The superb scenery includes several spectacular waterfalls. Numerous opportunities occur for wildlife viewing and experiencing the Boreal Forest environment. Excellent fishing for northern pike, walleye and, in places, arctic grayling is reported.
In addition to the spiritual and heritage significance of the river for native Dene, Cree and Metis residents of the area, the Clearwater was a pivotal link during the height of the fur trade period. Peter Pond was the first European to cross the Methye Portage in 1778, after which this height of land, and the Clearwater River, became a prime exploration and trade route between the Hudson Bay and Arctic watersheds for over 100 years.
In this booklet, when referring to one side or the other of the river channel, a downstream direction of travel is always assumed.
The Canoe Trip:
The Warner Rapids bridge is located 55 kilometres (34 miles) northeast of La Loche on Highway 955 (Grid location 231076 - Map 74-C/15). Unloading and preparation can be done at the small campground on the north side of the bridge.
Canoes may be launched either above or below the rapids at the bridge. These rapids form a Class 3 chute that may include partly exposed boulders during periods of low water. Some Class 1 riffles occur in the first 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) below the bridge.
The next rapids occur 7 kilometres (4.5 miles) below the bridge (Grid location 168060 - Map 74-C/14), these are divided by a small island. The left channel is usually negotiable but rocky and shallow near the bottom. The shorter right side has a small ledge at the top.
A further 4.5 kilometres (3 miles) downstream (Grid location 128035 - Map 74-C/14) the river splits around a large island for 1.5 kilometres (one mile). Either side consists of riffles and short sections of shallow but passable Class 1 rapids. A number of riffles occur in the 5 kilometre (3 mile) section between the large island and the confluence of the Descharme River.
Flowing southwest, the river enters a significant rapid 1.5 kilometres (one mile) below the Descharme River (Grid location 078015 - Map 74-C/14). This rapid must be examined carefully prior to making any decision on portaging or running it. The rapid can be run down the left side.
Portage Number 1 (Optional):
90 metres (98 yards) long and in good condition. This portage by-passes a Class 2 rapid.
This portage starts on the right, or northwest, shore opposite the top of the rapid, it traverses a sandy open stand of jackpine which offers a good natural camping spot.
The river now tends mainly south for a distance of 6 kilometres (3.75 miles) to a large island which divides the river above the approach to Gould Rapids. This section has a number of low willow-covered islands.
Proceed down the right, or west, channel to a short Class 2 rapid which should be examined for safe descent. Several options are available for by-passing Gould Rapids.
Portage past the entire length of the rapid;
Run the Class 2 rapid at the start of Gould Rapid to the start of the main drop and carry west until joining the main portage 900 metres (984 yards) from its end;
Follow the left, or east, shore and proceed with extreme caution, stopping frequently to examine the chutes ahead;
As in 3. above, but carrying 150 metres (164 yards) past the last section of Gould Rapid.
Portage Number 2, Gould Rapids:
1280 metres (1400 yards) long and in good condition, though wet in spots. This portage by-passes a Class 3-4 rapid.
The portage starts opposite a tiny islet (Grid location 066953 - Map 74-C/14) at a break in shoreline willows on the right, or south shore 250 metres (273 yards) above the start of the rapids.
Portage Number 2A:
1050 metres (1148 yards) long and indistinct until joining main portage which is in good condition.
This portage starts at a rocky landing in a small cove on the right, or west, bank immediately above a narrow side channel where the river is divided by two small islands (Grid location 067948 - Map 74-C/14).
Those electing options 3. or 4. should cross the river below the large island at the head of Gould Rapid to the left, or east, shore. They should then run the Class 2 rapid at the start of Gould Rapid to the start of the main drop and proceed with extreme caution. The next 250 metres (273 yards) past the point where the river divides around two small islands consists of very constricted chutes. The safest course is to hold, as much as possible, to the left shore to facilitate entering a small bay (Grid location 068946 - Map 74-C/14) so as to assess further conditions. Below this point, the remainder of Gould Rapids is a strenuous combination of large boulders and several chutes demanding a high level of skill. Those deciding to by-pass this last section of the rapid should carry over Portage Number 2B.
Portage Number 2B:
150 metres (164 yards) long and in good condition, but somewhat indistinct through jackpine.
This portage starts in the small bay described above (Grid location 068946 - Map 74-C/14) and ends below the last major chute of Gould Rapids.
The current is moderately fast for the next 1.6 kilometres (one mile) as the river makes a number of sharp turns along the south valley wall before turning abruptly northwest a few hundred metres (yards) above a major drop (unofficially known as Smoothrock Falls). Use caution above this falls as the current can be deceptively strong.
Portage Number 3:
1300 metres (1422 yards) long and in fair condition as well as steep, wet and indistinct in spots. This portage by-passes an 18.5 metre (60 foot) fall.
This portage starts in a small cove on the right, or north, shore 100 metres (109 yards) above the head of the falls (Grid location 057930 - Map 74-C/14). The trail skirts the falls and one kilometre (2/3 mile) of rapids and boulder fields below it, terminating in quiet waters at the foot of the rapids.
The whole vicinity is exceptionally scenic and provides good opportunities for photography and for fishing.
For the next 6 kilometres (3.75 miles) the river flow is uninterrupted until the start of a large island (Grid location 993937 - Map 74-C/14). The river's main flow is in the right, or north, channel whose start is marked by a short Class 2 rapid at a constriction over a low ledge. In periods of low water, a short carry may be required over shoreline rocks. Near the end of this 1.5 kilometre (one mile) channel are falls in a narrow dolomite gorge (Grid location 985931 - Map 74-C/14). Use caution above these falls as the current can be deceptively strong. As well, any attempt to run the minor rapids above the falls could lead the canoeist irretrievably past the portage trail.
Portage Number 4:
345 metres (377 yards) long and in fair to good condition. This portage by-passes a 15 metre (49 foot) fall.
This portage starts at a grassy opening in the right, or north, shore 75 metres (82 yards) above minor rapids preliminary to the falls. It ends in rocky shallows below the cliffs of the gorge. Views westward from above the gorge are impressive as the high valley walls drop in the distance.
Short Class 1 rapids occur on either side of an island 400 metres (437 yards) below the gorge. The river now tends west and southwest for a distance of 4.5 kilometres (2.75 miles).
The channel narrows as the river turns south where difficult rapids flank a midstream island. These rapids are marked by incomplete ledges and boulders. The left, or east, channel generally appears less impassable.
Portage Number 5:
80 metres (87 yards) long and in fair condition. This portage by-passes a Class 2+ rapid.
This portage starts on the right, or west, shore at a grassy landing a few metres (yards) above the start of the rapids and ends in the fast water at their foot.
Canoeists are now into a section of the river known as the Simonson Rapids. Fast water and bouldery Class 1 and 2 rapids are interspersed for the next 5 kilometres (3 miles) as the river flows first south, then turns abruptly northwest, and once again south. Water levels will dictate the degree of difficulty encountered in these rocky sections of the channel. Wading and lining along the shore may be called for at times. At the start of the second southward bend (Grid location 924913 - Map 74-C/14) sharp Class 3 ledges span the main channel. This obstacle requires a short portage on the left, or east shore or at the small island on the right, or west, shore. Alternatively, a narrow by-pass channel skirts this small island; though passable, this channel is tricky at its base and it should be surveyed carefully from shore before running is contemplated.
More bouldery rapids occur in the next one kilometre (2/3 mile) until the channel widens at the confluence with McLean River (Grid location 925893 - Map 74-C/11).
600 metres (656 yards) below the mouth of McLean River, the Clearwater enters Contact Rapids. These rapids are the last exposure of Precambrian rock along the Clearwater River. An excellent portage by-passes the entire length of Contact Rapids, or canoeists may elect to descend these scenic but difficult rapids.
Portage Number 6, Contact Rapids:
1150 metres (1257 yards) long and in excellent condition. This portage by-passes a Class 3-5 rapid.
This portage starts at a noticeable cut in a high sandy bank (Grid location 922893 - Map 74-C/11) directly across from the mouth of McLean River and ends at a grassy clearing at the foot of the rapid.
Canoeists choosing to descend via the scenic Contact Rapids route should proceed south remaining in the widest channel on the right, or north, side as it accomplishes a sweeping turn to the right. About 100 metres (109 yards) further an island divides the river, which drops through impassable chutes on either side of the island. A short but difficult carry-over on rocky ground is possible over the island (Grid location 922887 - Map 74-C/11). A short distance further the river turns to the left, then sharply again in a sweeping blind turn that ends with a high ledge. It is best to proceed along the right shore, stopping before the blind turn to survey water conditions and to scout the options for carrying across the inside of the bend. Below the ledge the river continues as a rapid that divides around an island where the channel once again bends sharply to the right. The main flow is in the left branch where some early maneuvering is required due to boulders. As the bend is completed the canoeist passes the toe of a high cliff of exposed dolomite (Grid location 914887 - Map 74-C/12). A further abrupt turn to the left comes almost immediately. The current remains strong and the channel contains scattered boulders. The presence of several islands with small, shallow chutes between them marks the end of Contact Rapids, the last whitewater before the Alberta border.
The river now meanders across the floor of its deep, broad valley. The current is variable as the water flows over shifting sandbars and amongst low channel islands. A trapper's cabin on a river terrace on the left, or south, bank (Grid location 708868 - Map 74-C/12) is passed as one approaches the vicinity of the Clearwater fire tower at the crest of the north valley wall. At an open, grassy flat on the left, or south, shore (Grid location 697865 - Map 74-C/12) the canoeist finds the northern terminus of Methye Portage. This historic 20 kilometre (12.5 mile) trail runs southeast toward Wallis Bay on Lac La Loche and, with a 19 kilometre (12 mile) paddle on that lake, may be used as a route to the community of La Loche that requires about 1.5 - 2 days to complete. (NOTE: It is quite possible to become wind-bound on the wide open expanses of Lac La Loche.)
Camping is not permitted in the immediate vicinity of either terminus of Methye Portage.
Those wishing to be picked up by float plane are advised that landings are only permitted in the downstream area from a river bend 6 kilometres (3.5 miles) below Methye Portage (Grid location 652850 - Map 74-C/12). Very low water conditions may preclude landings in this section. The situation should be discussed with the air charter service prior to departing on the canoe trip.
The river crosses the interprovincial boundary at a narrow island (Grid location 609846 - Map 74-D/9).
5 kilometres (3 miles) into Alberta, the river swings sharply to the left and flows south toward the top of Whitemud Falls, a 12 metre (39.5 foot) drop in a gorge. Use the utmost care and alertness in the approach to this falls! A conspicuous, high 'flowerpot' island stands out of the water 150 metres (164 yards) upstream (Grid location 575836 - Map 74-D/9) of an abrupt widening of the channel. Canoes should stay close against the right, or west, shore up to that widening, turn sharply to the right around the blind turn and remaining close against the right shore for the 60 metres (66 yards) needed to enter a small side channel. This channel branches almost immediately; take the left branch which, although it returns to the main stream and falls, also has the head of the portage past the main falls.
Those who are unsure of navigating the fast water at the head of the falls should use Portage Number 7A to either preview the area, or to by-pass the blind turn immediately above the falls.
Portage Number 7A, (Optional):
300 metres (328 yards) long and in fair to good condition. This portage starts on the right, or west, bank just upstream of the 'flowerpot' island. It climbs a steep bank and terminates at a small stream across from the start of Portage Number 7B.
Portage Number 7B, Whitemud Falls:
450 metres (492 yards) long and in excellent condition. This portage starts on the right, or west, bank 20 metres (22 yards) from the branching point noted above, and 75 metres (82 yards) above the first drop in the gorge and ends at the foot of the rapids below the falls.
The Alberta government has developed a semi-primitive campsite midway along this portage; fire rings, pit toilets and tables are provided.
4 kilometres (2.5 miles) below Whitemud Falls a minor rapid is split by an island (Grid location 542849 - Map 74-D/9). The main flow is on the right side and can easily be run down the middle.
The portage past this rapid is the first of three historical upstream portages used by the fur traders.
Portage Number 8 (Optional):
125 metres (137 yards) long and in good condition. This portage by-passes a Class 1 rapid.
The portage starts at a slight break in shoreline willows on the left, or south, bank 70 metres (76 yards) above the rapid.
This rapid will warn canoeists to prepare for the main section of Pine Rapids which begins a few hundred metres (yards) downstream.
The first short section of Pine Rapids consists of series of small Class 2 ledges in a narrow fast moving channel. The main part has Class 3+ ledges and shifting boils in a gorge within 30 metre (100 foot) limestone cliff formations of the Devonian period which have been eroded into spectacular hoodoos, overhangs and caves. The lower part of the rapid becomes Class 2 prior to dividing around a large island. Canoeists are strongly advised to take the scenic portage which by-passes the entire rapid.
Portage Number 9, Pine Rapids:
1000 metres (1093 yards) long and in fair to good condition but steep in spots.
This portage starts on the left, or south, bank at a break in the shoreline brush opposite the upstream end of a large island which splits the start of the upper section of the rapid (Grid location 537851 - Map 74-D/9). The trail passes through limestone bluffs and canyons similar to those found along the river channel. The portage ends back of the lower island at a break in the shoreline willows (Grid location 528850 - Map 74-D/9).
Those expert whitewater canoeists who elect to run the rapid should enter it to the left of this upper island, then quickly cross to the right side and run generally down the right until the river divides again at the lower island.
4 kilometres (2.5 miles) below the lower large island the canoeist comes to Big Rock Rapid which are shallow and contain boulders. This Class 1+ rapid can be run with caution, or it can be waded. The second historic upstream portage used by fur traders by-passes this rapid on the left, or south, bank.
Portage Number 10 (Optional):
425 metres (465 yards) long and in fair condition. The portage starts on the left, or south, shore at a break in the shoreline willows 60 metres (66 yards) above the start of the rapids (Grid location 487859 - Map 74-D/9).
The third historic upstream portage used by fur traders occurs 1 kilometre (2/3 mile) below Portage Number 10, it by-passes a Class 1 rapid.
Portage Number 11 (Optional):
180 metres (197 yards) long and in fair to poor condition.
The portage starts at an inconspicuous break in the shoreline willows 50 metres (55 yards) above the start of the rapid (Grid location 478853 - Map 74-D/9).
One kilometre (2/3 mile) below Portage Number 11 the canoeist encounters Long Rapids, a 3 kilometre stretch of Class 2-3 rapids. These rapids are shallow throughout and contain numerous cross-channel ledges. There are several islands which divide the flow into a number of channels. Descent of this rapid by running and/or wading is possible. A good portage by-passes the entire length of Long Rapids.
Portage Number 12, Long Rapids:
2000 metres (2187 yards) long and in good condition.
This portage starts at a break in the shoreline willows on the right, or northwest, shore 150 metres (164 yards) above the start of the rapids (Grid location 474848 - Map 74-D/9) and ends at a steep bank below a clearing at the foot of the rapid.
About 1 kilometre (2/3 mile) below Long Rapid, the canoeist encounters Cascade Rapids. These rapids consist of a number of small ledges and one Class 3 ledge. Most of this rapid can be run down the left, or south, shore. The exception to this is the Class 3 ledge which, at favourable water levels, can be run at a point slightly right of centre. A fairly good portage by-passes the entire length of Cascade Rapids.
Portage Number 13, Cascade Rapids:
1260 metres (1378 yards) long and in fair to good condition.
This portage starts on the right, or northwest, shore at an in- conspicuous break in the shoreline willows 50 metres (55 yards) upstream of a sharp right bend in the river (Grid location 446843 - Map 74-D/9) and ends at an Alberta government semi-primitive campsite at the foot of the rapid.
From Cascade Rapids, the Clearwater River again meanders gently in the valley bottom for the remaining 91 kilometres (56.5 miles) to Fort McMurray. In this stretch, only one minor Class 1 rapid occurs 500 metres (547 yards) upstream of the junction of Christina River (Grid location 960803 - Map 74-D/11).
In the stretch of river between Cascade Rapids and Fort McMurray, there are three more Alberta government campsites. These campsites are located at Grid locations 272910 - Map 74-D/15, 123823 and 028788 - Map 74-D/10). At these site there are firepits, fire wood and picnic tables.
Approximately 13 kilometres (8 miles) prior to the end point of this trip, the canoeist will begin seeing signs of civilization. The first sign noted will be the tracks of the Northern Alberta Railway line into Fort McMurray.
The end point of this trip is the marina and float plane base located in a side channel called 'The Snye' (Grid location 765875 - Map 74-D/15).
At Fort McMurray, all the amenities of a small city are available.
WRITTEN BY: Original script by Johnson & Wiechel, Resource Management Consultants; field reviewed in 1986, and text revised in 1990 by Historic Trails Canoe Club.