Published August 09, 2010, 09:50 AM

Paddling in Paradise: Woodland Caribou Provincial Park

On our 10th anniversary trip to Woodland Caribou Provincial Park in northwestern Ontario, we got celebratory and splurged a bit. We paid the money and had our canoe tied to the side of Canada’s own bush plane, a beautifully restored 1944 Norseman that departed from Red Lake, Ont., and got dropped off in the wilderness.

By: Craig Hanson, Northland Outdoors

WOODLAND CARIBOU PROVINCIAL PARK, Ont. — On our 10th anniversary trip to Woodland Caribou Provincial Park in northwestern Ontario, we got celebratory and splurged a bit. We paid the money and had our canoe tied to the side of Canada’s own bush plane, a beautifully restored 1944 Norseman that departed from Red Lake, Ont., and got dropped off in the wilderness.

It was a spot that would have taken us many days to reach with the paddle. Now, we had a stretch of time to simply canoe, fish and camp with an overriding current that favored our direction of travel. Boiled down, it was the fruit of a 14-day trip reduced to the best five days.

An airplane can do that for you, and during the course of our trip, we paddled about 45 miles, perhaps nine or 10 miles a day.

I don’t know when we’ll do it again, but I’m glad we did it this time. The memory is paid for.

I’d researched the idea and knew just where I wanted my canoe partner, Dave Osowski of Grafton, N.D., and I to be dropped. Working our way through three gem walleye lakes in a row without seeing another canoeist was part of the plan and it worked.

The Canadian Shield was ours for those days.

When the young pilot from Chimo Air set us down at 6 a.m. in this pristine location, he was talking about how he loved his job but that the hours can get long this time of year. He stopped for a bit with his work of untying our canoe from the starboard float and squinted into the glittering sunrise:

“And then there’s mornings like this,” he said.

Once we were off-loaded, we paddled back a bit and watched the pilot go and looked at each other like two kids who had really pulled something off. We dipped our paddles and headed out in search of a good camping spot.

That first day was so full, from getting started from our motel in Red Lake at 3:30 a.m. to having our gear loading onto the plane by 4:45, to landing at 6 a.m., to finding and setting up camp and then catching loads of nice walleyes, that soon after supper, I was ready to crawl into my little tent. When I did crawl in, I slept the better part of 11 hours.

My dreams were vivid and many. I was back in a magic place.

The following day, we had a few portages down into the next lake and moved along at a nice leisurely pace, not feeling rushed.

The sunnier places along the route yielded wild raspberries and blueberries — small, bright, sweet ones shot-through with flavor.

The destination lake of the day offered even better fishing than the day before, and after supper, we went out and caught and released walleyes until dark — just to do it. A rain shower at dusk sent us paddling hard for camp because we stayed too long at the walleye show. We got wet anyway.

Put to the test

It’s so easy when writing about an experience such as this to recall only the good, sunshiny perfect parts and not own up to the whole thing. Sometimes, there is really quite a price to pay to get to that perfect spot at that perfect time.

The next day proved to be a real test of our ability and experience.

We packed up wet in the morning, as it had rained several times during the night. Relying on faith that there would be sunshine at the end of the day to dry out gear, we shoved off to see what awaited us. A long skinny stretch of water called a “creek” on our maps needed to be traversed to get down to our next lake.

We entered the creek feeling pretty smug about the nice current helping us along. But as any engineer knows, if you keep adding water while narrowing the creek, something has to give and water will go downhill one way or another.

The creek picked up velocity little by little. One portage around some rapids and we were really getting into it. The creek got narrower and faster, and while the main channel was a constant set of sharp switchbacks, the excess water would gush overland through the moose willows and come blasting into us from the sides and try to swing the canoe, right about when the turn was critical.

We had somewhere from three to 4½ miles of real tough duty. There was no time even to adjust my hat. Constant straining at the paddle and bug-eyed attention to the upcoming turn meant saving the trip from something we did not want to imagine.

Right in the middle of the whole thing, the rain pounded down. Dave is a farmer, and he said it rained an inch and a half — right on our heads — while we came down that creek.

I was glad Dave was with me; I trust his ability, common sense and strength.

Just when we’d had about all we could take, the rain stopped and we were squirted out of the hellish little water tube and floating on a big, beautiful lake in calm sunshine. We paddled along with private thoughts of thankfulness until we found a campsite, set up, dried off and went out and caught two gorgeous black walleyes for supper.

Too perfect?

One of those fish presented a scenario that was almost too perfect. But how can something be too perfect?

I saw a spot where a little nose of rock sloped into the water. The early evening light was showing the scene just right. There were some young green pines getting a foothold at the place where the rock met the island. I said to Dave that the spot was picture perfect.

“There has to be one right THERE,” I said as my jig arched out and touched the water. It never got to the bottom before the walleye grabbed it. That fish was the last half of supper.

The whole situation had come back around, even though I’d sworn off this canoeing stuff forever at the middle of the day. The sunset from our point was spectacular.

Dreaded portage

I’d like to share a few words about portaging. In the U.S., we say the word as it is spelled with the “g” sounding just like a “j”. The Canadians say it in French, and it is a much more beautiful word when heard in French and so much more reminiscent of the voyageurs.

One thing’s for sure: Portaging is usually a little bit hard to do. Many times, it is pretty doggone hard to do. And then there are a few that offer the most exhausting experiences you will ever face.

In 10 years of making this trip, we met the toughest portage of our lives the next day. On our maps, a portage of more than 800 meters (2,600 feet) is considered to be a big one. Our day ahead had only three portages, but one was 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) and the last one was 950 meters, or more than 3,100 feet.

We knew conditions were wet, and we harbored a bit of dread as we approached the monster 1,500.

The first part of the monster portage was a bit muddy but then rose into some high country, which gave us cause for celebration, and we talked back and forth — me under a heavy pack and Dave under the canoe — when the land started to drop.

Soon, we came to the boggy muck. The brush was too thick to get into the woods on either side so we had to keep going down the muck trail.

The last third of the 1,500 was muck over our knees. Never had we had such tough going.

To think we had to go all the way back for the rest of our stuff was horrid. We ate Clif Bars washed down with water and went for it. The only thing to keep us going was that we did not want to die there — not in that muck.

I’m writing this, so you know we did not die in the muck, and the day ended with us once again camped on our own little lake in a spot as pretty as any picture on a nature calendar.

Payment made — reward given: A bit of hell to get to heaven.

Such is canoeing.

One of the evenings, as I sat on a rock and wrote in my canoeing journal, I tried to capture what it is that I like about the experience, and I think I found it. It is the few minutes after the last night’s camp is packed up and the canoe is loaded up for travel. We shove off.

I then turn into the early morning sun and paddle away, never to look back.

Hanson is a freelance writer and outdoors enthusiast from Warren, Minn.