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The top map shows our GPS track from the Red Lake town dock west through Red Lake itself and past the pictograph island towards Trout Bay; the route continues on the bottom map and shows our round-about approach to Knox Lake. Also indicated on the second map is an alternative approach via Pipestone Bay and then the portages to Lund Lake and westward towards Knox.
DAY 1 BASICS:
- distance: 35-kilometer boat shuttle to Trout Bay portage into Douglas Lake; a 25-kilometer paddle to Crystal Lake island campsite
- weather: overcast and spitting in the morning and then improving; sunny in the afternoon and clear overnight
- rapids/portages: no rapids but six portages in all totalling a bit over 2000 meters.
- campsites: scarce and average at best, including ours on Crystal Lake
- Natural Resources Canada Gov’t. Topos: 052 N 04 Red Lake; 052 M 01 (Pipestone Bay); 052 L 16 (Medicine Stone Lake).
Boat Shuttle To Trout Bay
We were finally on the water! The 2000-kilometer “Grand Portage” from Toronto to Red Lake was done, and we were looking forward to two weeks plus on the Bloodvein. First, the shuttle to get to the starting point. We had opted for the Trout Bay entry via Harlan Schwartz’s brand new powerboat and he was at the store when we dropped in at 7:00 to get things rolling.
[Note: Since Harlan Schwartz’s Red Lake Outfitters shut down in 2019, this boat option is no longer available. See the previous post for alternative shuttle options. The closest option to our boat insertion is #4: A Shuttle On The Suffel Road To Johnson Lake. Click here to see the map.]
We drove the car down to the dock and unloaded our now “used and abused” Swift Dumoine and the gear – the two Hooligan packs, the two duffel bags, and the two life jackets and four paddles. Oh – and one camera pack. I was trying something new this year. Instead of having my Sony A77 DSLR safe inside the Watershed duffel (itself inside a large M.E.C. duffel for extra abrasion protection), I decided to make it more accessible. This meant getting a Pelican 1400 case for it and a few of my favourite lenses – and a lightweight rucksack to carry it on portages. Now I’d carry the canoe and the camera pack as one carry on portages.
“The Norseman Capital of Canada”
I had always thought that Red Lake was nicknamed “The Norseman Capital of Canada” because of the number of Finns and Swedes who came through and settled here. While there are definitely indications of their influence, I found out that the name is really because of a bush plane named the Noorduyn Norseman. It predates the de Havilland Beaver and has been on the job up in northwest Ontario since the 1930s and the first years of the gold rush for which the Red Lake area is famous.
It is a thirty-five-kilometer boat ride to the start of the portage trail on Trout Bay that leads up to Douglas Lake. The ride took us a little under an hour. We did stop to look at the only pictographs on Red Lake itself. The location was a bit of a surprise, having none of the rock face and dominating position on the lake that one usually associates with Anishinaabe pictograph sites.
The Red Lake Pictograph Site:
Whereas many pictograph sites saw new rock paintings added or superimposed over several generations, you get the impression that this humble site had significance to a single person for whatever reason – a life spared, a bounty received, a spiritual connection made. One can only guess. As for the pictographs themselves, two are easily seen but disclose little meaning to visitors. Between the two is another fading set of lines.
The cross figure below could indeed be a cross! If it is, it could be Christian-inspired; it could just as easily be a cross associated with the Medewiwin, the society of Ojibwe medicine men. Then again, it may be a figure in a canoe with an undulating snake approaching from below. Or yet again, it could be a crude representation of the two-horned serpent associated with the “medicine” the painter of this image has come for. There is a similar figure in NE Ontario at the Diamond Lake site in the Temagami area. Lacking any context it is difficult to say much with certainty!
Selwyn Dewdney, whose book Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes, initiated the systematic recording and analysis of pictographs in the Canadian Shield area, visited this site in 1960. The sketch he made of the site shows that the pictographs haven’t deteriorated very much in the past fifty-plus years.
As we approached the top of Trout Bay, we spotted a moose grazing in the reeds. As soon as it noticed us, he was gone, seemingly melting into the woods in the way that moose can. They may look awkward but they are the ballet dancers of the boreal!
Seeing the water tumbling down into Red Lake (357 meters a.s.l.) was a reminder that Douglas Lake (376 m), as well as the next lake we’d be paddling up – Hatchet Lake (393 m) – both feed into Red Lake. As for Red Lake itself, its outlet river is the Chukuni River, which flows south into the English River a bit west of the hydro dam at Ear Falls. Eventually, like the waters of the Bloodvein River system, Red Lake ends up in Lake Winnipeg.
Nothing like starting off a canoe trip with a portage – an 800-meter carry! However, you accept it because – well, because that is the way it is! It is the price that everyone pays for access to some incredible canoe country. At 4 lbs. of food a day and enough to last us for twenty days, our Day 1 portage meant eighty lbs. of food on top of the fixed weight of canoe, paddles, tent, and all the other stuff we consider essential. We are very conscious of weight and have pared it down to this – the 80 lbs. of food + + 50 lbs. for the canoe and four paddles + 100 lbs. for everything else. It was a bit of a shock to realize that the empty packs and duffels themselves weighed a total of 20 lbs! Total portage load to be moved from A to B for this trip on Day 1 = 230 lbs. or 105 kilos. Oh – add to that the pack with the Pelican case and my DSLR and lenses and filters etc. – another 12 lbs.!
Harlan played photographer and snapped a couple of shots of us at the onset of what we hoped would be yet another excellent adventure and then he and Keeto were off. The GPS track on the right shows the 800-meter path from Trout Bay to Douglas Lake and the sliver of a section of Woodland Caribou Park recently added.
Around the corner from our put-in, we would paddle by Viking island with the Carlson family’s Lodge on it – first opened by Art Carlson in 1947!
The rain and drizzle of the early morning had stopped and conditions would steadily improve as the day progressed. The paddling was easy and the portage take-outs were where the official park map indicated they’d be.
Given that our route into Knox could be described as “the road less travelled” the trails are not heavily used and sometimes in need of a trim but we were far from bushwhacking our way to the other side of the portages. We met one other canoe party at the portage take-out for Hatchet. Other than the four fishing boats we saw on the Bloodvein down from Sabourin Lake three days later and another canoe on Artery Lake, they were the only people we saw during our seven days in WCPP.
After a stop for lunch at the Page Lake end of Portage A04, we pressed on. The goal for the day was Crystal Lake. At the top of Page Lake, we did Portage A05 into an unnamed lake and were rewarded with a 45-minute paddle south on a very pretty narrow stretch of water that brought us to Portage A06. Before we had left Harlan Schwartz’s Red Lake store, we transferred some of his campsite info to ours – at least for the first couple of nights.
Now we headed to the first of them – the island site just across from the put-in from the portage from Bell Lake to Crystal Lake. It was 6 when we pulled stopped at what looked like at most an “it’ll do” spot for the night. However, it is not as if we had paddled by a lot of great alternatives in the hour or two before.
The two days of driving to get up to Red Lake combined with a solid Day One’s workload and what would end up to be one of the buggiest evenings of our trip meant that we took to the tent around 9 for a good night’s sleep.
While the sky was clear we weren’t taking any chances so we strung up one of the tarps over the tent just in case.