Why The Bloodvein?
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 last 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.
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 by various canoe trippers – 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 an “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 in our 42-lb. Swift Dumoine Kevlar Fusion, 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.
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 coming from Montreal or from a post on 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 kilometers 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 304 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.
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 June 2014 Winnipeg Free Press article updated the situation by a year. In mid-2016 the withdrawal of support for the project by Pikangikum First Nation derailed the application. (See this CBC article. Never stated is exactly why it did so! Also not clear is why Berens River First Nation and the territory to the east of it were never included in any map of the proposed site. See below for the original and final versions of Pimachiowin Aki.
July 2018 Update:
It finally happened! Click here for the Globe & Mail article or here for an article in the Winnipeg Free Press.
On top of everything else that the Bloodvein has going for it, another big draw for me was its significance as a major pictograph site. There are at least a dozen different sites along the river system with Anishinaabe-inspired rock paintings that 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 shamans of old.
Mapping The Route:
In our case, the route was pretty simple to figure out. We had twenty-one days set aside to spend with the Bloodvein. (Four of those would be travel days to get from southern Ontario to Red Lake and back.) 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.
Hap Wilson’s Guide-Book
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. 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 locations of campsites and pictograph sites, as well as other points of interest.
The Federal Government’s Natural Resources Canada Topos:
While I am old enough to remember paying something like $2.75 a sheet for the Federal Government’s Natural Resources Canada 1:50,000 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 also keep a spare set in the dry bag.
We now create our own maps using two government websites where the map material is available at no charge. (That is, no charge for something for which CDN taxpayers have been paying for years!) The first is a site that has all the 1:50000 topos available. All you need to know is the map’s identifying number. The maps you would need to paddle from the Red Lake town dock to the headwaters of the Bloodvein near Pipestone Bay to Artery Lake and then downriver to Lake Winnipeg are the following –
- 052 N 04 Red Lake
- 052 M 01 (Pipestone Bay);
- 052 L 16 (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’s Natural Resources Canada website. The downloadable files are in tif format; you can convert them to jpg or pdf if you prefer.
If you have an Apple ios device, you can download David Crawshay’s Topo Maps Canada App onto your iPad or iPhone and then download any 1:50000 map you want. The app is free, as are the topographic map downloads! (The app makes use of the very same Federal Gov’t. Natural Resources Canada 1:50,000 topos as those listed above.)
The third Government of Canada map source is the Atlas of Canada’s Toporama site which can be accessed here. One nice feature of the Toporama site is the ability to zoom in to 1:15,000 scale for real close-up.
Garmin’s Topo Canada map set:
As already mentioned, 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! With the GPS and paper topos and the essential Wilson/Aykroyd maps and you have really got it all covered.
Other Map Sources:
Official Park Map:
In 2014 we bought an official paper copy of the Woodland Caribou Provincial Park Map for $15. The key information provided was portage location and length. We found this information to be fairly accurate. The map also indicates access points. Missing from the map were campsite locations and pictograph locations. Here is the official park explanation for not providing the campsite information.
This map has since been replaced, I think, by a Chrismar Adventure Map. The first edition of their Woodland Caribou Provincial Park and Area map was published in January of 2014. Like the old WCPP Planning map, it 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. These both include campsite locations and the Missinaibi one provides pictograph locations as well.
Unfortunately, their WCPP map, while it provides portage info, does not include campsite or pictograph locations. It may be the logical extension of the lack of campsite markers in the park itself. The apparent aim is to maintain a “true wilderness feel” and seeing campsite markers would seem to compromise that.
Campsite Locations in WCPP:
Oddly enough, there is a somewhat useful 1:319,410 map of the park put out by Ontario Parks (click here) which indicates a couple of hundred campsites! Here is the Bloodvein slice that takes you from Larus Lake to Artery Lake.
The Paddle Planner website has an interactive planning map for all of WCPP, perhaps making use of the Ontario Parks campsites map for some of their info. See here to access their interactive online WCPP map, an excellent contribution to the paddling community.
Checking with the WCPP manager or with your outfitter before the trip has been the recommended way of getting established campsite locations down on your map. While it is probably a good idea to confirm your map locations with their 1:50000 topos before departure, it is certainly more convenient to have that information before you even get to Red Lake.
The Hap Wilson book mentioned above has dozens of Bloodvein campsites indicated. Once you leave WCPP and hit the Manitoba section of the river campsites are plentiful and mostly stupendous.
For Bloodvein pictograph locations, the Hap Wilson guidebook provides the general location of over a dozen of them. So do the maps in my various posts. It would be a shame to paddle down the Bloodvein for over two weeks and not even know that you are paddling on the other side of the river from an Ojibwa rock painting site. Knowing they are there and also knowing where to find them puts you face to face with something that makes the Bloodvein trip even more special.
Access Points – Choosing A Starting Point
The most obvious starting point for a Bloodvein canoe trip whose aim is doing the entire length is Red Lake and the various access points at the west end of the lake itself.
1. Starting From The Red Lake Town Dock:
You could just start off from the Red Lake town dock and spend a day and a half or two paddling thirty kilometers 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!
2. Starting From The Black Bear Lodge:
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. Leaving your vehicle(s) at the lodge you would paddle to the west end of Pipestone Bay. And then 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.
Wilson has them all indicated in his guide-book. This is probably the second cheapest option. 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 area and the amount of uncleared deadfall. Given that you are at your heaviest on Day One of the trip, it would take a couple of days of slogging to get to Knox Lake.
So – on to Option #3!
3. A Shuttle On The Pine Ridge Road To Lund Lake:
The Pine Ridge Road access route requires a shuttle and eliminates some of the portaging involved in #2 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 about 3000 meters) from the workload. One party of three 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 the gravel road condition.
4. A Shuttle On The Suffel Road To Johnson Lake:
A vehicle shuttle from Red Lake townsite 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 and longest carry – the one into Knox Lake.
5. A Boat Shuttle To Trout Bay – Portage to Douglas Lake
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.
It is no faster than Option #4 but probably a bit more enjoyable, given that you’re on the water and not on the gravel road. A potential bonus – if you are into pictographs – is the chance to see the only recorded pictograph site on Red Lake itself. We also liked the idea of getting to paddle through lakes that few get to. (In retrospect, we realize we could say this about all of WCPP!)
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 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!
6. Flying Into Knox Lake:
Something you might consider, if all of the above sounds a bit too painful or time-consuming, is being dropped off by bush plane on Knox Lake. You would thus avoid the worst of the portaging altogether and you would have two days to spend downriver. Viking Outpost Air’s 2018 cost is $745. for a de Havilland Beaver to drop off a canoe and two passengers. (The price hasn’t changed since 2014!) A tempting proposition at $373. a person! (See the Red Lake Outfitters’ 2018 complete air service price list here.) Deducting the cost of some other form of a shuttle (let’s say $250.) from the ride in the Beaver to Knox Lake would make it seem even cheaper! How’s that for rationalizing it!
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.
7. Flying In From Bissett, Manitoba
An option which does not involve getting to Red Lake that would be very attractive to paddlers in Winnipeg and west (or south in Minnesota or Wisconsin) would be this – drive up to Bluewater Aviation in Bissett (on Highway 304 east of Manigotagan) and get flown in to Artery Lake, Sabourin Lake, Knox Lake or some other starting point. The one complication here is that Bluewater only has an Otter available so the cost will be prohibitive if there are only one or two people to split it. At the end of the trip, Bluewater can arrange to have your vehicle(s) waiting at Bloodvein Village thanks to the now-open road that goes up to the community from highway 304. The shuttle fee for 2015 is $400. for the first vehicle and $100. for each additional one.
Note: My original post made mention of an air service named Wamair and the possibility of flying out of Matheson Island to the put-in point. I had found the information in a couple of older trip reports. Well, things have changed and Wamair has not been flying out of Matheson Island since 2009! There may, however, be a flight service running out of Pine Dock. I’ve updated the info to spare future trippers researching dead ends. BTW, thanks to Winnipeg tripper Neil Fitzpatrick for the up-to-date information taken from his response to a Canadian Canoe Routes forum thread (here).
8. I am sure there are yet more possibilities. How much time you have, how much of the Bloodvein you want to paddle, and how willing you are to part with a bit of cash for a bush plane drop-in or pick-up, will determine the choice you make. As the saying of the decade has it – “It’s all good.”
Getting Back To Red Lake At the End of the Trip:
If you’re going to do 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 used in the past was 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 vehicle shuttle from Red Lake to Islandview costs something in the order of $1000.
There is a new option thanks to the opening of the all-weather road from Highway 304 up to Bloodvein First Nation. You can now drive up the east side of Lake Winnipeg to Bloodvein Village – so it will be possible to have your vehicle shuttled to the bridge crossing the Bloodvein some 10 kilometers east of the village – or perhaps right to the village itself. The cost would be similar to the shuttle to Islandview.
If you chose Bissett – and a bush plane drop-in from Bluewater Aviation – as your way to the start, then getting your vehicle to the endpoint would be much less complicated. Some canoe trippers have already made use of their shuttle service from Bissett and paddled to their vehicle in a secure parking lot at the Nurses’ Station in Bloodvein Village.
We chose the most expensive but for us the fastest option. We ended up flying back to the town of Red Lake via a Viking Outposts Beaver. It landed in front of Bloodvein Village about three hours after we ended our trip at the Bloodvein Village ferry ramp. 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 has faded from my mind as I have grown older and face fewer and fewer potential canoe trips. The thing I realized one day was that I was not buying a seat on the plane – I was renting the whole thing!
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’s Viking Air landing dock. All in all, pretty painless and as the VISA commercial says – “Priceless!”
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 Bissett for a flight with Bluewater Aviation to the east end of Atikaki Park or perhaps all the way to Red Lake. In 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 above shows us at our overnight stop half-way to Red Lake – in downtown Marathon, Ontario.
Park Regulations and Permits
The 2019 Woodland Caribou Provincial Park interior camping fee schedule can be accessed here. While Ontario residents pay $10.17 a night, non-residents of Canada (the 85% of those who make use of the park!) get to pay $14.97.
Once you cross the border into Manitoba and Atikaki Provincial Park, you’re done with camping fees. Check out this Manitoba Parks write-up of Atikaki and under the heading “Camping” you read this –
No designated campsites have been developed, and no camping fees are required in the park. Visitors should practise the principles of no trace camping out of consideration for the land and others who follow. [See here for full document]
Unmentioned so far is the need for fishing permits. Given that we are just not into fishing, I really cannot comment on the issue. 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 can check out the details here! A comment below provides a link to Manitoba regulations and free structure. Click here to see the document Manitoba Anglers’ Guide 2016.
Outfitters in the Red Lake area:
Harlan Schwartz at Red Lake Outfitters was our contact in Red Lake and if Red Lake is going to be your entry point, we would highly recommend his services. In our case, I’ll admit it was relatively simple – a couple of copies of the WCPP map, a boat shuttle to Trout Bay, a flight back from Bloodvein First Nation, and arranging 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. His well-stocked store and the info on his website make it clear that he can offer whatever level of service you need.
There is another Red Lake-area outfitter that previous trip reports sometimes recommend – Albert Rogalinski’s Goldseekers Canoe Outfitting. A Google search will turn up references to his business. However, it would seem that for the past couple of years Rogalinski has scaled down operations and decided to spend the summers focussing on family and teenaged children. He expects to be back to full service in 2016.
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.
A Via train east from Winnipeg 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 kilometers there and back 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 set of links of our trip down the river. Included are overview maps and specific maps on portages and such. The pictures should give you a good idea of the changing look of the river and what specific sets of rapids look like.