SK Historic Canoe Route 54
Besnard Lake - Neale Lake - Bar Lake - Pinehouse Lake - Sandfly Lake - Black Bear Island Lake - Besnard Lake
Length of Trip: Approximately 180 kilometres (112 miles)
Time Required to Complete Trip: 6 to 8 days
Number of Portages: 8 or 9
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:
The starting point for this loop trip is either the bridge at the central narrows of Besnard Lake or the campground about two and one half kilometres (1.5 miles) north-northeast of the bridge. Besnard Lake is west of La Ronge and can be reached by a 95 kilometre long gravel road which branches to the northwest off of Highway 2 at approximately Mile 68.
Arrangements for the safe parking of vehicles during a canoe trip could undoubtedly be made with either of the two private outfitter's camps located at Besnard or vehicles could be left at the campground.
73-0 Ile-a-la-Crosse, 73-P Lac La Ronge. If these two maps are unavailable Canada Army Survey Establishment maps: 73-0 Ile-a-la-Crosse Edition 3 and 73-P Lac La Ronge Edition 4 may be substituted. The Nemeiben-Besnard map, First Edition, March 1973, compiled by the Saskatchewan Government is very helpful on the northeastern portion of this loop trip.
About the Trip:
This canoe trip is a loop trip; that is, it returns the canoeist to the starting point but by a different route. It is a trip of intermediate difficulty which involves travel on several large lakes which can become quite rough in windy weather. The portage trails are generally well used, but one of them is one and one half kilometres (1 mile) long. Because there is a lot of lake travel involved the need for competence in compass and map reading is particularly important.
There are no dangerous rapids which cannot be avoided by portaging; however, which ever way this loop trip is made - clockwise or counter-clockwise - there will be fast water which must be paddled against and possibly lined up through. Because this loop trip can be made in either direction, portage descriptions will be given from both ends. It is probably better, all factors considered, to make this trip in a clockwise direction and the description will be given for that direction of travel.
It should be pointed out that this canoe trip overlaps in part Canoe Trips No. 17 and 18. It would be possible, therefore, to extend this canoe trip to end at either Nemeiben Lake or Otter Lake north of La Ronge. Reference to trips No. 17 and 18 would make the possibilities of such combinations clearer.
Although this canoe trip is predominantly on larger lakes, there are sections between Neale and Pinehouse Lakes which involve pushing through very narrow, overgrown channels and the outlet of Besnard Lake is also a very narrow stream.
Fishing is good throughout the trip for northern pike and walleye, but especially so below the rapids in the Churchill River portion.
Attractive natural campsites are frequent along most of this canoe trip, but are a bit harder to find on Neale Lake and the channel connecting it to the next small lake to the west. The long portage between Besnard Lake and Neale Lake is easy and pleasant walking through its entire length. This trip also takes the canoeist past the community of Pinehouse. Food and general supplies can be purchased at Pinehouse if needed and radio, air service, telephone and hospital are also available.
The Canoe Trip:
Canoes may be launched from either the bridge or the campground on Besnard Lake. Paddle in a generally west southwest direction to the west end of Besnard Lake.
Portage No. 1:
Connecting Besnard Lake with Neale Lake. Approximately one and one half kilometres (1 mile) long and in good condition. This portage has also been used as a winter road and offers wide trail and pleasant walking conditions.
From the west shore of Besnard Lake this portage is located as printed on either of the recommended maps 73-0. The start of the trail is obvious and well used. A diamond drill camp has been located at this site at one time and the signs of use are evident. The trail divides between 1,190 and 1,280 metres (1301 - 1400 yards) along its course. Follow the right or more northern fork. The left choice wanders to the south to an old drilling site. From the most easterly bay at the southeast end of Neale Lake, this portage starts as shown on the map on the east side of a cove at a sandy landing at a wide break in the willows.
Enter the narrow arm on the northwest side of Neale Lake. Canoeists will have to push through grassy narrows and cattails as the channel is almost closed. There is a slight current to the northwest and soon the shallow channel opens out onto the east side of a small, nameless lake lying between Neale and Bar Lakes.
There is a choice of routes on the west side of the small, nameless lake west of Neale Lake: (1) Make optional portage No. 2 or (2) paddle up the weed-filled northwestern arm of this small lake and out onto the east side of Bar Lake.
Portage No. 2 (optional):
Connecting the small, nameless lake west of Neale Lake with Bar Lake. Approximately 40 metres (44 yards) long and in good condition.
From the west central shore of the small, nameless lake west of Neale Lake, this portage starts at the south end of the narrow land strip separating the two lakes at this point.
From the southeast shore of Bar Lake, this portage starts at the south end of the narrow land strip separating the two lakes at this point (see map 73-0).
Canoeists who decide to enter Bar Lake by paddling up the northwest arm of the small, nameless lake, should be prepared to push through a dense and extensive stand of wild rice. This wild rice is commercially harvested each fall by residents of Pinehouse.
Canoeists paddling from Bar Lake who decide to enter the northwest arm of the small nameless lake west of Neale Lake may have trouble finding the very narrow entrance. Look for a low spot in the tree line just north of a sand beach.
Paddle to the northwest end of Bar Lake. There is some current flowing from north to south but can be paddled against without much difficulty. Watch for rocks if the water level is down.
Upon reaching Hillman Bay of Pinehouse or Snake Lake, it is possible to paddle through the base of the peninsula separating Hillman Bay from Pinehouse Lake proper. This can be done if water levels are high. This route would be a short cut to the community of Pinehouse. If a visit to the community is not required, paddle north-northeast to Cowpack Island. There is no settlement at Belanger. Paddle on to Sandfly Lake. There are many good campsites on the islands of Sandfly Lake.
Portage No. 3 - Around Rapids at Outlet of Sandfly Lake
Approximately 40 metres (44 yards) long and in good condition. From above the outlet of Sandfly Lake this portage starts 70 to 90 metres (76 - 98 yards) north or left of the more northerly set of twin rapids. Boughs and poles may be laid across the trail to facilitate the hauling of big boats.
Approaching the outlet of Sandfly Lake from the downstream side, this well used portage starts 70 to 90 metres (76 - 98 yards) north of the more northerly set of twin rapids. There is a tiny rapid immediately to the north of the start of the lower end of this trail.
These rapids start a few hundred metres below the end of portage No. 3 and are divided by an island into right and left alternatives. The left or northeast channel appears less dangerous and might be attempted by whitewater experts after carefully surveying the rapids from shore. Running these rapids, however, is not recommended.
Portage No. 4 - Around Needle Rapids:
Approximately 370 metres (405 yards) long and in fair condition but steep at the start. This trail skirts a muskeg in part and footing is poor.
From the upstream side, this portage starts after passing through some preliminary fast water, on the left side of the left channel (northeast shore) 75 to 90 metres (82 - 98 yards) above the start of the main rapids.
From the downstream approach below Needle Rapids this portage starts on the north side in a quiet cove several hundred metres north of the base of the rapids. Upstream canoeists who wish to avoid launching in fast water will extend this portage to the shores of the quiet cove on the north side, completely above the fast water leading to Needle Rapids. A little searching will allow canoeists to pick up the extension of the portage trail which ends in the quiet cove opposite the north end of the small island shown in the map.
Portage No. 5 - Around Needle Falls:
Approximately 50 metres (55 yards) long and in good condition. This well-used portage starts approximately 90 metres (98 yards) to the right or south of the falls. The presence of poles and boughs may make its start easier to find.
Approaching this falls from the downstream side the portage starts about 90 metres (98 yards) to the south of the base of the falls. There is a short side trail to the edge of the falls well worth taking for a good view.
These are not difficult rapids to shoot. It is, however, advisable to land on the rocks above these rapids and study them. It is also a good spot for photography and fishing. In shooting the rapids stay to the left side and swing into the quiet water as soon as possible to avoid the big whirlpools below the rapids.
Upstream canoeists approaching from below Silent Rapids will have to portage a very short distance over open rock and shore to get above the rapids. There is no established portage trail. Pick which ever side looks the easier at prevailing water levels.
Black Bear Island Lake:
It is easy to get lost on this complex lake. Frequent reference to map and compass to check one's position and progress is essential.
If the canoeist is interested in Indian rock painting, several such pictographs occur on the rocks and cliffs of Black Bear Island Lake.
There are three basic ways to travel eastward on Black Bear Island Lake. Each route involves descending a different set of rapids. The route recommended in this guide is the central one which takes the canoeist to the central rapids located near the letter "c" of the word "Black" on map 73-P. The location of these central rapids on Army Survey Establishment map 73-P is one kilometre northwest of the letter "B" in the word "Bear".
These central rapids are not difficult. They can be surveyed from the left shore and are probably best descended on the left or east side.
Upstream canoeists will have to line and possibly portage up past the swiftest portion of these rapids. Since they are very short it should present no serious problem.
After passing the central rapids canoeists should follow a route leading them to the south central portion of Black Bear Island Lake and the upstream route to the northeast end of Besnard Lake. The Nemeiben-Besnard map is very helpful at this point because of the greater detail it shows.
Paddle into the narrow, southwest pointing bay which is fed by the outlet stream from Besnard Lake. There are two fast spots where upstream travellers will have to get out and wade and line up on the route leading to Portage No. 6.
Portage No. 6:
Connecting consecutive sections of quiet water around the first major rapids south of Black Bear Island Lake on the route to Besnard Lake. Approximately 90 metres (98 yards) long and in good condition.
From the downstream or northeast side this portage starts on the northwest side at the base of the fast water.
From the upstream or southwest side this portage starts on the northwest side immediately above the start of fast water.
Portage No. 7:
Connecting consecutive sections if quiet water around the second major rapids south of Black Bear Island Lake on the route to Besnard Lake. Approximately 160 metres (175 yards) long. The trail is wet in spots and the lower landing is difficult.
From the downstream or northeast side this portage starts on the northwest shore at a difficult, rocky landing below the base of the rapids.
From the upstream or southwest side this portage starts on the northwest shore just above the fast water.
Portage No. 8:
Connecting consecutive sections of quiet water around the third major rapids south of Black Bear Island Lake on the route to Besnard Lake. Approximately 155 metres (170 yards) long and in fair condition.
From the downstream or northeast side this portage starts on the southeast shore below the base of the rapids.
From the upstream or southwest side this portage starts on the southeast shore above the fast water about 140 metres (153 yards) below the end of portage No. 9.
Portage No. 9:
Connecting quiet water below the fourth set of rapids south of Black Bear Island Lake and Besnard Lake. Approximately 295 metres (323 yards) long and in fair to good condition.
From the quiet water below these rapids, this portage starts on the southeast shore at the base of the fast water.
From Besnard Lake this trail starts along the outlet stream at the northeast end of the lake. The trail starts on the southeast shore of the outlet stream immediately above the start of the rapids.
On Besnard Lake paddle in a southwest direction to the central narrows and the campground or the nearby bridge. These are the alternate end points of this canoe trip.
WRITTEN BY: Peter Gregg (1976)