Why The Bloodvein?
Atikaki & Woodland Caribou Provincial Parks
From its headwaters just west of Red Lake, Ontario the Bloodvein River flows westward for 340 kilometres before emptying into Lake Winnipeg. The first 120 kilometres are within the boundaries of Woodland Caribou Provincial Park and flat water paddling dominates.
This changes dramatically after Artery Lake with the Manitoba section of the river. Some eighty sets of rapids – many can be run by those with the right skill set – await canoe trippers as they enter Atikaki Provincial Park and embrace the final two hundred plus kilometres to Bloodvein Village at the river’s mouth.
Having just completed a seventeen-day trip down the river, my brother and I are of one mind about the Bloodvein: it is the most beautiful river we have ever paddled.
Rapids on the Bloodvein – called “X-Rock” by Wilson/Aykroyd
We are certainly not the first to rave effusively about the river’s natural beauty and seeming magic. Google “Bloodvein canoe trip” and you come up with all sorts of very positive reviews of various trips – always expressing amazement at the pristine wilderness feel of the river. Some paddle the whole thing; some paddle the WCPP headwaters; others paddle down from Artery Lake. There are many possibilities – none bad! And the thing is – you do not have to be an Olympic-class river runner to do it.
Hap Wilson, your best guide to the river, gives it a “experienced novice” rating with the proviso that all rapids from CII technical upwards are portaged. Given that my brother and I were travelling on our own, this is mostly what we did and the portaging after Knox Lake was no big deal. In fact, it provided me with lots of reasons to pull out the dslr and get yet more shots of rapids and other stunning scenery as the water tumbled down through various chutes and rock combinations.
the river view from Day 10 campsite
While the local Anishinaabe (that is, Ojibwe) have lived on and with the river for at least the last three hundred years, the fact is that other rivers to the north or south were more convenient for the fur traders, whether they were from Montreal or Hudson Bay. Thus the Bloodvein system remained relatively untouched – and unspoiled. Logging and mining also seem to have passed the area by.
Like other great canoeing rivers of the Canadian Shield country – the Missinaibi and the Kopka come to mind – it flows freely along its entire length with no communities along its shores except for the Ojibwe community at its mouth.
Admittedly, you can see change coming. We paddled under the bridge some 10 kilometres east of the village. Just beyond the bridge fresh and ugly graffiti spoiled a small pictograph site we paddled by. By October of 2014 the road will open and connect the east side of Lake Winnipeg from Bloodvein Village to Highway 305 in the south. However, even with development near the mouth of the river, the top 95% will hopefully be spared the worst of what we know can happen.
In 1984 the two senior levels of government in Canada established the Canadian Heritage Rivers System. To date, some 42 rivers have received the “heritage river” designation. The CHRS website sums up its mandate this way – “…to conserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational heritage, to give them national recognition, and to encourage the public to enjoy and appreciate them.”
The Bloodvein is one of these rivers, having joined the list in 1987.
Pimachiowin Aki Map
More recently, the Governments of Manitoba and Ontario, along with some First Nations leaders in the lands east of Lake Winnipeg, have pursued a bid to have a vast area comprising the two adjoining provincial parks as well as other lands, recognized as a United Nations World Heritage site. In 2013 an expected decision on the application was postponed by the UNESCO committee meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. However, bid organizers are optimistic that Pimachiowin Aki (as the overall site is known) will soon receive its UN designation. A recent Winnipeg Free Press article brings the issue up to date.
The Artery Lake Pictograph Site
On top of everything else that the Bloodvein has going for it, another major draw for me was its significance as a major pictograph site. There are at least a dozen different rock faces along the river system with Anishinaabe-inspired rock paintings which provide entry points to their traditional culture. While many of the pictographs have faded beyond any hope of being “read”, there is still enough there to make you forget that you’re on a canoe trip as you sit like a pilgrim in front of the ochre images painted by the shamen of old.
Mapping The Route:
Trout Bay at west end of Red Lake to Lake Winnipeg – click here for a live Google Map view
In our case the route was pretty simple to figure out. We had three weeks set aside to spend with the Bloodvein. We also knew we wanted to do the entire river from top to bottom. Others may have less time or want to focus on the WCPP – or the Atikaki – section of the river.
The obvious starting point for anyone planning a Bloodvein canoe trip is the following guide-book:
Hap Wilson and Stephanie Aykroyd. Wilderness Rivers of Manitoba: Journey By Canoe Through Land Where The Spirit Lives. Boston Mills Press, 2003.
the canoeist’s ultimate source on the Bloodvein
Based on the notes and drawings from a few thousand kilometers of rivers paddled in the early-to-mid-1990’s, this book by Hap Wilson and Stephanie Aykroyd makes the very notion of doing another trip report on the Bloodvein seem pretty pointless. In the book’s Preface Wilson says this of Wilderness Rivers of Manitoba –
“(It) is not a ‘how-to’ book, although we have included chapters that briefly cover worthy areas on interest….Instead, this is a book of maps. Over 300 hand-drawn and labelled maps to be more specific.”
What is remarkable – and very positive – is how little has changed in the twenty years since the book was first published. The text and the maps dealing with all 89 of the rapids (from Class I to Class V) will still be your best guide to the challenges of the river and a ready source of excellent advice on how to meet them. Included on the maps are the general location of campsites and pictograph locations, as well as other points of interest.
While I am old enough to remember paying something like $2.75 a sheet for the Federal Government 1:50000 topos for our early 1980’s Missinaibi trips, those days are long gone. The last time I bought a topo was in 2010 for our first Wabakimi trip and it was $15. a sheet for Tyvek; we could easily have spent $150. on maps for our Bloodvein route. We didn’t!
While both my brother and I bring our Garmin gps units (and the installed Topo Canada v.4 map set) along, we still like to work from a set of paper maps in the canoe and keep a spare set in the dry bag. What we do now is create our own maps using two government websites where the map material is available at no charge. (That is, no charge for something CDN taxpayers have been paying for for years!)
The first is a site which has all of the 1:50000 tops available. All you need to know is the map’s identifying number. The maps you would need to paddle from the headwaters of the Bloodvein near Pipestone Bay to Artery Lake and then downriver to Lake Winnipeg are the following -
052 M 01 (Pipestone Bay); 052 I 06 (Medicine Stone Lake); 052 M 02 (Murdock Lake); 052 M 07 (Sabourin Lake); 052 M 06 (Artery Lake); 052 M 12 (Sasaginnigak Lake); 062 P 09 (Minago Lake); 062 P 08 (Shallow Lake); 062 P 10 (Pine Dock); 062 P 15 (Princess Harbour).
Clicking on the above map titles will take you to the Government of Canada website. The downloadable files are in pdf format; if you would rather work with tif files, the website provides the option – click here to get started.
The second site – another Government of Canada map source – is the Atlas of Canada’s Toporama which can be accessed here. One nice feature of the Toporama site is the ability to zoom in to 1:15000 scale for extreme close-up. On my Garmin Oregon 450 is the Topo Canada v.4 map set, which makes for a good companion to the above two sources. There is nothing like a gps reading to resolve that feeling of total confusion that will invariably occur sometime during the trip! Add a mix of gps and paper topos to the essential Wilson/Aykroyd maps and you have really got it all covered.
Other Map Sources:
There is an official planning/canoe route Woodland Caribou Provincial Park Map which I think I paid $15. for. The key information provided is portage location and length. We found this information to be fairly accurate. The map also indicates access points. Missing from the map are campsite locations or pictograph locations. Here is the official park explanation for not providing the campsite information. Oddly enough, there is a useful map of the park put out by Ontario Parks (click here) which indicates a couple of hundred campsites!
The Chrismar Adventure Map people published a first edition of their Woodland Caribou P.P. and Area map in January of 2014. Like the WCPP Planning map it also costs $15. Printed on a tear-resistant plastic, the map’s scale is 1:110,000. I have a couple of their other maps – the Temagami 1 and the Missinaibi 1 – and both are very well done. They include campsite locations and the Missinaibi one provides pictograph locations as well. I have yet to see a copy of their WCPP map so I can’t say if campsite and pictograph locations are indicated. It may make a better buy than the paper copy of the official one.
Access Points – Choosing A Starting Point
The most obvious starting point for a Bloodvein canoe trip is Red Lake and the various access points at the west end of the lake itself.
- You could just start off from the Red Lake town dock and spend a day and a half or two paddling along the south shore of the lake until you get to one of the usual access points – either Pipestone Bay or Trout Bay. Given the potential for some pretty choppy water if the wind is right – and it often is when you’re paddling west! – the thought of starting off your canoe trip with this can be intimidating. Yes, it would be cheap! However, you have to believe that it would be more fun to spend the two days in the park instead of getting there on big Red Lake!
1. The Wilson/Aykroyd trip down the Bloodvein begins at the Black Bear Lodge on the south side of Red Lake, not far from Pipestone Bay. After paddling to the west end of the bay, the portaging to Knox Lake begins! Seven portages totalling 4900 meters will get you to the start of the last and longest one, the 1600 meter portage into Knox Lake itself. The crucial assumption here is that the trails will be walkable. Harlan Schwartz at Red Lake Outfitters did not recommend this access route, given recent fires in the are and the amount of uncleared deadfall. Given that you are at your heaviest on Day One of the trip, I’m guessing that it could take a couple of days of slogging to get to Knox Lake. So – on to Option #2!
two Hooligan packs, two duffels – and one canoe
2. This access route eliminates some of the portaging involved in #1 by use of a road which runs north and west of Red Lake to Lund Lake. What this does is knock off the first three portages (and 2700 meters) from the workload. One party of four canoes which we later met on the river had come in this way. All you can say is that it is less work than the first option. They didn’t comment on trail conditions. Here is a third possibility -
access points – west end of Red lake
3. A vehicle shuttle from Red Lake on the Suffel Lake Road which runs on the south side of the lake will get you to Johnson Lake. 600 meters worth of portaging and a bit of paddling and you find yourself on Douglas Lake to the south of the Carlsons’ Viking Island Lodge. Now you’ve got a couple of days of paddling west and north – first to Indian House Lake and then, after a few more portages, the take-out point for that carry into Knox Lake. Total portage distance – about 3800 meters to the start of the last carry.
Knox Lake portage – the first 400 meters of mud
4. A post (New Access Point/Option For Woodland Caribou) at the Canadian Canoe Routes forum by Harlan Schwartz of Red Lake Outfitters alerted us to another possibility – and the one we ended up choosing. Harlan provides a forty-five minute boat shuttle to the west end of Red Lake – specifically to the start of the 800-meter portage trail from Trout Bay into Douglas Lake.
Red lake dock at 7:30 a.m.
It took us two days to paddle from the put-in on Douglas Lake to the take-out for the portage into Knox Lake, having portaged a total of about 4000 meters to get there. On Day 3 around sometime before noon after the final 1500-meter carry we were in Knox Lake and knew that the worst of it was done. We had done two-thirds of the trip’s portaging in the first two and a half days! We thought of it as the “admission fee” that one pays to enter the Bloodvein. The fact that not everyone would be willing to pay the price makes being there even more special!
5. Something you might consider, if the above sounds a bit too painful, is being dropped off by bush plane on Knox Lake thus avoiding the worst of the portaging altogether. The 2014 cost is $745. for a Beaver to drop off a canoe and two passengers. A tempting proposition at $373. a person!
What does seem to be more common for folks not focussed on a down-the-Bloodvein route is a flight into Artery Lake and then a paddle back towards Red Lake with a vehicle shuttle at the end. Kevin Callan did such a route in his first visit to WCPP and introduces it here. You can catch episode 1 of his 10-part video on the trip by clicking on Youtube.
6. I am sure there are yet more possibilities. How much time you have – and how willing your are to part with a bit of cash for a bush plane drop-in or pick-up – will determine the choice you make.
Getting Back To Red lake At the End of the Trip:
The road back To Red lake at the end of the trip …717 kilometres and a day’s worth of driving
If you’re going to the Bloodvein from top to bottom you have a problem on your hands! Sitting by the ferry dock in Bloodvein Village, you are a long way from Red Lake and your vehicle! One solution that people have come up with is to have someone shuttle the vehicle to the Islandview ferry terminal at the end of PR234 to the north of Pine Dock. At least once a day (weather permitting!) there is a ferry that crosses from Bloodvein to Islandview. Apparently the shuttle costs something in the order of $1000. It will interesting to see how an all-season road from Highway 304 right to Bloodvein will impact shuttle options.
at the Carlson dock in Red Lake
We ended up flying back to Red Lake via a Viking Air Beaver which landed in front of Bloodvein Village about three hours after we ended our trip at the ferry dock there. It was only the third time – twice in the past two summers – we have made use of air service as a part of our canoe trips. Somehow the notion that bush plane drop-ins or pick-ups are wildly extravagant and outrageously expensive has faded from my mind as I have grown older.
Okay, so the ride back cost $1995.+ HST – but we got to experience a ride in a classic piece of Canadiana – the de Havilland Beaver – and we got to fly over the river we had come to know over the past seventeen days. Less than two hours later we were in Red Lake strapping our canoe to the top of our vehicle which Harlan Schwartz of Red Lake Outfitters had just parked by the Carlson landing dock. All in all, pretty painless and as the VISA commercial says – “Priceless!”
Marathon, ON – Lawren Harris Painting redone on the Pizza Hut wall
By now I should be apologizing for my eastern-Canada-centric presentation of the entry and exit options. Obviously if you live in Winnipeg or anywhere nearby, your trip may well begin with a ride up to Matheson Island and a flight by Wamair to the east end of Atikaki Park or perhaps all the way to Red Lake. If fact, if you live anywhere from Thunder Bay west or in nearby Minnesota or Wisconsin all I can say is “You lucky so-and-so, being so close to some incredible canoe country – Quetico, Wabakimi, Woodland Caribou, Atikaki. Wow!” Within eight hours you can be at the start of your canoe trip; it took us two days and a bit over twenty-two hours to drive up from southern Ontario. The pic on the right shows us at our overnight stop half-way to Red Lake – in downtown Marathon, Ontario.
Park Regulations and Permits
The 2014 Woodland Caribou Provincial Park interior camping fee schedule can be accessed here in pdf format. While Ontario residents pay $9. a night, non-residents of Canada (the 85% of those who make use of the park!) get to pay $13.25.
Once you cross the border into Manitoba and Atikaki Provincial Park, you’re done with camping fees. Check out this chart of Manitoba Parks, and you’ll see that it is one of three without a “per night” camping fee.
Unmentioned so far are fishing permits. Given that we are just not into fishing, I really cannot comment on the issue. Perhaps someone can provide a comment below which would clarify the need for fishing permits on both side of the border? I did google my way into a current Ontario government brochure on the topic but my eyes kinda glazed over as I read it. If you are big on fishing as a part of your tripping experience, you might be more motivated to understand what is being said here!
Outfitters in the Red Lake area:
Harlan Schwartz at Red Lake Outfitters was our contact in Red Lake and we would highly recommend his services, No matter how much or how little help you need to make your trip a reality. In our case, I’ll admit it was relatively simple – a couple of copies of the WCPP map, a shuttle in, a flight out, and a place to stay in Red Lake (the Super Eight Motel) on arrival. He also answered my occasional emailed questions during the months preceding the trip.
our canoe sitting at Union Station on a previous trip to the Kopka
Getting to Red Lake:
We had considered taking the VIA from Toronto this year – it is a thirty-hour ride – but in the end were not willing to give up the flexibility that driving up in our own vehicle allows. Besides, the CN tracks as they go from Sioux Lookout to Winnipeg cross Highway 105 (the road to Red Lake) about 155 km. south of the town. Therefore, after getting off the train at 4:00 a.m. (assuming it is actually on schedule!) you would need to have pre-arranged a $365. shuttle to Red Lake. Maybe the Via east and then a shuttle up to Red Lake would make more sense for paddlers coming from Winnipeg; they would only have to figure out how to get home once they got to Bloodvein Village or Islandview on the mainland.
Given that I don’t drive, my brother got to do 4400 kilometres there and back spaced over four days. I google mapped the distance when we got back home – it is the distance from Toronto to Vancouver! It may also end up being the reason it will be our only visit to WCPP – but we’re really glad we did it at least this once!
What follows is a day-by-day summary of what we paddled into and what we framed in our viewfinders. Also included are some overview maps and specific maps on portages and such.
The Day-By-Day Trip Journal – maps and pix
Part One: The Bloodvein Headwaters & Woodland Caribou Park
Day 1: Trout Bay Portage to Crystal Lake Day
Day 2: Crystal Lake to the Portage Into Knox Lake Day
Day 3: Knox Lake to Murdock Lake Day
Day 4: Murdock Lake To Larus Lake
Anishinaabe Pictograph Sites on the Bloodvein: The Murdock-Larus Site
Day 5: Larus Lake to Barclay Lake Day
Day 6: Barclay Lake to Artery Lake
Anishinaabe Pictograph Sites of the Bloodvein: The Artery Lake Site
Part Two: The Bloodvein River & Atikaki Park – the ten days downriver from Artery Lake to Lake Winnipeg – a work in progress which should be up in a couple of weeks.