The story of the Bloodvein River being in my thoughts stretches back afew years to the Irish Canoe Symposium which was held on the river Barrow, I had invited Ray Goodwin over to be a guest coach for the weekend and Ray had said that he would give a talk about a recent trip he had just completed in Canada. It was that talk on the Bloodvein River, that got me thinking and ultimately led me spending 14 days in pristine wilderness with nothing to do but paddle and enjoy life!! At the Start of August 2015 I found myself thinking I need a break I had been working nonstop for the last Year and a half with the Longest break being 7 days I was in need of a proper adventure and the choices seemed to be endless, Sea kayaking in Green land or Northern Norway where on my mind, but so was The Bloodvein, As luck had it Ray Goodwin and Paul Kirtley where running a trip to the Bloodvein later that month and the dates lined up perfectly. All I had to do was book a flight for the morning after one of my friend’s wedding August 28th and a flight to be back in Ireland to start work on A PLC course on September 15th it was tight but it looked like it would all work out. So after afew phone calls and emails I was in, 2 weeks later I found myself with a mild hangover boarding a flight from Dublin to Toronto and onto Winnipeg. Once in Winnipeg I met with the rest of the crew a great group of people from all different walks of life.
The Bloodvein River is located In Ontario & Manitoba, Canada to put this region in context Manitoba alone has over 100,000 lakes, innumerable rivers and the territory is 76 times the size of Ireland but has a quarter of the population. The river is situated in the largest boreal forest on the planet; it is a true wilderness area. Our Journey would take us from Red Lake in Ontario to Bloodvein Reserve in Manitoba.
Our Journey started at 8am on a Sunday morning as we loaded our Canoes and Kit onto 3 Float planes known as Beavers. These are incredible machines which some can date back to the 1950’s. Luckily I had a Pilot who was older than the Plane he was flying. Due to new restrictions each plane can only take 1 Canoe Shape on the outside of the plane and if they have this then it drastically reduces the load which they can take inside, hence the need for 3 planes for 6 people. We eventually got everything loaded and the first plane took off, 20 minutes of taxiing around a lake while the oil pressure stabilised and the engine warmed up. Our Journey In the float planes would take us 100km from Red Lake to Artery Lake and drop us off into the Wilderness to start our 14 day, 220km decent of the Bloodvein River. The landings where staggered, we unloaded the last plane we said goodbye to the Pilot and watched as the Plane flew off into the distance soon to only be a slight hum in the distance, we were on our own now just us and the river the adventure was to begin.
We decided to load up the canoes and paddle a short distance upstream to a good campsite, it was lunch time by the time the float plane had dropped us off, we arrived at the campsite unloaded the gear set camp had lunch and then headed off for a paddle to an amazing Pictograph site on Artery Lake. It is here that we also observed the tradition of making an offering of Tobacco to ensure safe passage on the river, Legend would have it that if you do not make an offering that a serpent will come up and strike you on the river. Around the camp we could hear the unforgettable sound of a Loon in the distance. Our easy day one allowed us take stock of what supplies we had as the Outfitter had only dropped us our barrels of food as we loaded the plane. After a great evening of paddling and chatting we hit the hay with the hopes of an early start and getting into the journey.
The next morning we awoke to start proper our decent on the Bloodvein river, Infront of us we had 200+km, 80+ rapids (Grade 1-6), 12 camp sites, unknown weather conditions, unknown wildlife encounters and who knows what else, the adventure was only beginning.
Paddling with fully loaded canoes and 2 fully grown adults can pose its challenges, the loading of the canoe is very important so that we could get our trim right especially as if we ran rapids we would run them with the canoes fully loaded. It took me the full first day to get our packing sorted so that we knew what went where and why. At the start of the Journey the canoes each has 2 barrels of Food/Utensils, 2 main portage packs (1 each) with personal clothing and camping gear and 2 day bags with what we might need for the day (Containing extra thermals, rain gear, cameras etc), add to that 2 fully grown adults and each canoe was loaded to the max. This weight means that the canoes react differently to when they are empty turning is slower but they carry more speed in moving water. With the reduced manoeuvrability in mind inspection of rapids is essential all our food, shelter and lives are in these canoes they are our transportation back into civilisation so we must think of the canoes safety at all times, sometimes this means stepping back from rapids that you would run in a heartbeat if it were on your local run as out here if we lose a canoe, a bag of kit or someone gets hurt it is a whole different ball game. The best thing was as we descended the river the more we ate the lighter the load got.
The rapids of the Bloodvein are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen, every type of rapid is on the river tight and technical, big volume drops, pool drops the works. For the first half of the trip the rapids were generally very well spaced out and were pool drop style as they were essentially the outflows of lakes, we would navigate our way along long ribbon lakes around Islands and then be met with a narrow passage containing the rapid, these ranged from Grade 2-6 some being straight forward and others being as I like to call them “death on a stick” 3-4meter high pour over feeding into tight slots with no access for safety even if you did have a kayak to paddle it.
The second half of the expedition the river became more like what we would call a river with longer rapids that needed to be broken down into sections and run in more a traditional river running style however it was in these sections that we would find some of the biggest rapid I have ever stood beside one that stands out in my mind had massive double over head haystack waves leading into massive wave trains and then straight into a undercut caved wall, with water pushing left into a football pitch sized recirculating eddy or pushing right along an undercut cliff and into another long wave train. The beauty and power of these rapids was amazing and humbling.
We would run as many rapids as possible but inevitably we would encounter rapids that we could not run. Many times this lead to a full portage with our equipment up, around and down to the bottom of the rapid. 6 people, 12 paddles, 3 canoes, 6 Barrels, 6 Portage packs, 6 Day bags and a couple of peli cases all had to get from one end of the rapid to the other. In a way this was one of the most special moments of the trip knowing that the trail I was walking on with all my kit was the same as what the native people would have used for thousands of year. At first this was a killer but eventually you get into a routine and you figure out what you can Load up at one go, which pack sits on top of which barrel the best as you hike the trails. We had a rule from the start that each canoe would only touch what they had in their own canoe, this was to help prevent things going missing or being misplaced. Portages could be short and sweet 20-30meters or our longest was close to 2km by the time you have done 2 runs to get all the loads down.
To avoid portaging rapids we could not paddle or to at least make portages shorter we would line as much as possible and boy did we come up with some creative lining in order to avoid loading and unloading our canoes. The skill of lining is something we don’t regularly practice in Ireland however it is an essential tool on these journeys.
Weather wise we had everything, for the first few days we have 30+ degrees Celsius and very humid so much so that when you got into the tent you would melt, soon this broke with 24 hours that contained 2 of the biggest Thunder and lightning storms any of us had encountered on hit at night and lasted about 5 hours where lightning kept illuminating the sky for 3 hours straight like strobe lighting with massive forks every few minutes and roaring thunder trees swayed and creaked, I don’t think any of us slept much that night the next morning we awoke to cleared skies and the air felt much lighter. We paddled for afew hours found a camp site and then Storm 2 hit this one lasted about 3 hours and in that time 6-10cm of rain fell on us lightning struck and thunder roared again. The river did rise with all this rain but not by any substantial amount. Once these storms had passed autumn was in the air with the air temperature dropping during both day and night the river temperature also dropped which made the afternoon wash much quicker than the relaxing refreshing swims we would have in the first few days.
After the storms had passed we were treated to our first glimpse of the Northern lights, the first sighting of it was vague with just some small shimmers and nothing too spectacular. But then after a unexpectedly long day on the river where we only pulled into camp as darkness began to fall we were treated to a few hours of the most spectacular northern lights display any of us had ever seen. The sky we lit up with greens and purples from horizon to horizon dashing, flashing and dancing across the sky! This night was one of the most spectacular nights I have ever experienced sitting above a beautiful rapid, camped on a rock outcrop 30 meters above river level, in total wilderness hundreds of kilometres from any substantial population base in total silence, it really made eating the dehydrated meals much easier when you have such an amazing natural show!
On our journey I really wanted to see a bear in the wild, unfortunately on this trip I didn’t get to see a bear in its natural habitat, maybe our bear precautions where too good. This is an area I learnt loads from Ray and Paul who are both very experienced travelling in Bear country and these skills/knowledge are essential in keeping unwanted encounters in camp to a minimum. We did get to see alot of spectacular wildlife on the journey, daily we would see Bald Eagles which are stunning to see moving up close, we spotted Beavers, Otters, Chipmunks and Moose along with shed snake skins at on camp spot. There are Wolves, Coyotes and Bear in the region but we didn’t see any sight of these no doubt they saw us as we traveled through their habitat.
I have so many good memories and experiences of this trip that It is hard to put it all down on paper, we had ups and downs over the journey but all memories are good and everything added together to make for a special trip. Most people I have talked to about this expedition since I have returned said “A once in a lifetime journey” Well for me this is just the start of the journey to get into the wilderness with a canoe. I have spent years developing my skills and now these journeys are where my skills are all tested and put into practice and I feel at peace away from phones, email and simply living life, reflecting on this expedition I know where I need to develop specific skills which is great we never stop learning.
Im already planning my next expedition and looking forward to leading people into the wilderness over the next few years. If you are thinking of heading for or would be interested in a multiday wilderness canoe expedition and would like a guide please feel free to contact me.
Happy paddling and hopefully I will see you on the Water