The Saskatchewan grand slam: 4 amazing north Saskatchewan canoe trips
Jimmy MacDonald is a veteran whitewater canoe instructor and expedition guide with Churchill River Canoe Outfitters in northern Saskatchewan and around the planet. Story and photos courtesy of Jimmy MacDonald.
As our guest writer/raconteur today, Jimmy shares his passion for Saskatchewan adventures, lakes, and rivers. Check out these four amazing canoe experiences in Jimmy’s absolute favourite place in the world—northern Saskatchewan.
We hear that Saskatchewan boasts over 100,000 lakes, but what about all our beautiful rivers? Virtually all our lakes are connected by rapids, waterfalls, and river systems. The name ‘Saskatchewan’ comes from the Cree word for ‘swift flowing river.’ So in my mind, rivers are our province’s greatest attribute.
Here are four of my absolute favourite rivers to canoe:
1. Churchill River
Ready for a great canoeing adventure?
Before you go: stop in at Montreal River Outpost in Air Ronge to rent canoes or pick up last minute items. Next, you’ll start the quintessential Saskatchewan weeklong canoe trip from the northern village of Missinipe on Otter Lake. After you load your canoe and camping gear at Osprey Wings docks into a 50-year-old de Havilland Beaver, you’ll take a short flight to one of numerous island-studded lakes on the Churchill River and be set to launch. My favourite is the gorgeous Black Bear Island Lake.
The Churchill River is likely the most family friendly and relaxing trip around. Paddlers are treated to warm water and fun, consequence-free rapids. There are top-notch campsites on rocky outcrops to bask in the summer sun (which barely drops below the horizon in the summer). History abounds along this route, too. If you pay attention, you’ll notice the once jagged rocks along the portage trails have been smoothed over by the footsteps of hundreds of years of moccasin footsteps.
Remember to kick back and relax in the wilderness. You might get a chance to see the osprey feed on walleye as they dive dramatically into the rapids for their prey. The biggest mistake people make is NOT taking longer to do this trip. Here’s a sample video of the fun you can have.
2. Clearwater River
This is an amazing whitewater adventure. The Clearwater River is accessed via highway 955 north of La Loche or else through the floatplanes in Buffalo Narrows flown by Barry O’Brien at Voyage Air. The Clearwater River is action packed, and for those trying to check off places in The Great Saskatchewan Bucket List, this river contains some spectacular must see spots!
With constantly flowing water, sometimes your problem on this river is trying to slow down and soak it all in. The skilled canoeist is rewarded with countless rapids that seem to go on forever bouncing between boulders and rock walls like a gigantic pinball machine.
This trip includes the infamous Methye Portage, which was the longest voyageur portage trail in Canada and the most important link during the fur trade. Pro tip: your trip just isn’t complete until you’ve seen the sunset on the foreboding cliffs of Skull Canyon. Watch the last rays of the sun light up the orange, lichen-covered rocks in an intense glow. Magic.
3. Cree River
If fishing whets your appetite more than the adrenaline rush of running rapids, then the Cree River is the Holy Grail of rivers to paddle in Saskatchewan. Flowing from 160 km due north from Cree Lake to Black Lake, you’re best to fly into this river from Points North Landing.
The headwaters boast a healthy population of monster lake trout, while the river is positively frothing in the upper stretches with Arctic grayling, all ready to launch out of the water for your fishing lures. As you float leisurely down the 150 km of easy rapids, there are massive northern pike lurking in the weedy bays waiting to attack anything cast their way. If you’re dedicated, you’ll be delighted by deep cold pools filled with walleye.
Six people is the secret number to keep costs down and maximize the load capacity of the Turbo Otters. Your only concern will be making sure you don’t run out of Fish Crisp as you float down the river, feet up and basking in the sun, looking for fish in Saskatchewan’s clearest water.
4. Fond du Lac River
I saved the best for last—the Fond du Lac River holds a special place in my heart. The endless white-sand beaches and crystal clear waters make me reminisce of leading sea kayak trips in the Caribbean Sea.
Flowing from the third-largest lake in Saskatchewan, it twists and turns its way down to Lake Athabasca through the sandstone canyons. It’s easily accessible by road—Cameco accommodates canoeists and allows escorted access through their Eagle Point Mine Complex to launch from their docks on Wollaston Lake. Part of the allure to paddling the Fond du Lac is the ability to have an exceptional wilderness experience but access the river directly from a road. This is a huge plus—it keeps this trip affordable for the budget minded paddler.
There’s something for everyone on this trip. You’ll see:
countless challenging Class III rapids
campsites that boast towering Jack Pine forests with the only undergrowth being a soft spongy layer of caribou lichen and blueberries
a rich history involving the First Nations and more modern fur trade era, including Canada’s most famous explorer/cartographer, David Thompson
There you have it: my four favourite northern Saskatchewan canoe adventures. This is just a sampling of trips, though, as there are seemingly endless adventures that await you on the waterways of northern Saskatchewan. There are not enough days in summer, or years in your life, to explore all the amazing canoe trips in our province. So you’d best get out there and get your paddles in the water soon!