Wednesday, November 11, 2009

2003 - Corner Rapids Canoe Trip

The following trip report was previously published on

Churchill River, Corner Rapids. September 2003. 
Four of us (Jay, Rod, Rob and Bryan) went up to Corner Rapids on the Churchill River for 4 days on the weekend of September 4-7 as the third annual NorthStar Expeditions trip. The weather was fantastic, the fishing periodically very good, the water very warm, the northern lights briefly amazing. For Rob's pictures, follow the link.

The adventures started on Thursday morning while driving North on the gravel. We crested the top of a hill to see a blazer overturned in the ditch, a semi stopped on the side of the road, and a guy named Joe lying at the side of the road looking dead. We stopped and the semi had already radioed for help and one other vehicle had started the drive back to La Ronge looking for help (the semi couldn't reach La Ronge directly but was trying to relay the message by radioing other trucks). Joe was in fairly rough shape and crawled to the side of the road after having been thrown from the vehicle (we think). He was conscious though and of course I decided to put to use the remnant of 1st aid I could remember and felt him up looking for sore spots and protruding things. Only later did I figure out that the other guy on the scene had already done that. It turned out that the other guy was a fire fighter from La Ronge. It didn't take too long after that before we figured out that we were just going to be in the way when the ambulance arrived.

We eventually got to Devil Lake and underway without further mishap. We portaged around Mosquito Rapids, paddled across Barker Lake, then paddled, dragged, carried, lined and portaged our way up the Rapid City channel towards Corner Rapids. While the 4 of us were trying to line Rod's loaded canoe up one short but large rapid, the canoe got swung out into the current and yanked downstream after having filled 1/2 full with water. This was not entirely unexpected and wouldn't have been much of a problem except that Jay had the rope wrapped around his hand so got yanked off the rock and unceremoniously launched into the water. The canoe by that point was completely swamped but stayed upright so kept most of the gear contained. Rod and I ran to my canoe, hopped in and started the recovery process (abandoning Rob on the other side of the river). A couple of 'merican fishermen watching the whole misadventure went around picking up the few loose items that had floated off (the jug of golf balls, a food pail). All told the only thing lost was Jay's sunglasses (free from the Air Ronge Mohawk with a fishing licence), which we suspect are on the rock near where Rob picked up Jay's hat - he was yanked off the rock so fast that his hat fell where he once was standing.

Having decided to portage around that rapid, we were able to line/paddle the rest of the way to Corner without further mishap. We camped at the bottom of Corner Rapids which turned out to be a very nice spot and the day was topped off by a steak supper with Rod's special marinade (a can of coke, mustard, garlic, and various other spices). That night we were sitting around the campfire when Rob pointed up to the northern lights and said "holy shit, look at that". As a result I was stumbling around in a circle looking up at the sky when I stubbed my toe. I didn't think much of it at the time but after it still hurt about 15 minutes later I checked my toe and it was bright blue. It only got worse as the weekend went on and by Saturday morning it was very swollen. I eventually decided to take Rod's advice and release the pressure. I took a fish hook, bent it straight and cut off the point, then heated it over the stove until it was red hot. I then used it to melt a hole through my toenail. I was rather apprehensive but it didn't hurt at all and it did feel at least somewhat better afterwards.*

Friday we spent the day touring around the area below Sluice Falls and fishing. After a few small pike in the morning we were skunked for the rest of the day. We were starting to wish we had kept those first pike since it was looking like a supper of fish batter patties fried in butter. That's about when I caught a 10 lb pike. None of us had a net so I had to wrestle it into the boat. 10 lbs might not sound like much but that was a big fish. It fed the 4 of us quite well and we did not have to go hungry.

Saturday we decided to play in the whitewater and decided Farside Rapid was the best one to start on. Farside is on the far side from Corner (i.e. river right) and is a big rapid that we played on when we were up there on previous trips. The water level was fairly high so the waves were nice and big. Rob and I went first while Jay and Rod watched from above. The first wave we hit sent Rob way up in the air, then hit the canoe at an angle, knocking us a bit and causing us to take in some water. We then rode out a few more of the waves but started to get knocked around a lot and took on more and more water. We eventually capsized and went for a swim. The current does some funny things there and Rob says he was pulled under for a bit. After floating in the current for a while the eddy nicely deposited us on the rocks on the right side. The canoe continued upriver in the eddy back-current before coming back for another loop. I jumped in after it and grabbed the rope and once I was standing on shore I was able to pull the canoe onto the rocks as it passed us for the second time. This time the only thing lost was Rob's hat (he also lost a sandal and a paddle but we picked those up in the bay around the corner thanks to Jay's swimming efforts and in spite of my efforts) and the canoe suffered not a scratch. After watching us, Jay and Rod quickly and wisely decided to carry over the rocks rather than suffer our fate in the water. After that episode Rob was somewhat nervous and I was less anxious to continue running rapids that afternoon. While paddling back across the current near where the Farside current and the Ric's Falls current come together, a big swirling hole opened up right in front of Rob and I. It was probably 20 feet across and 2 or 3 feet deep and seemed like it was about to swallow us whole though we were able to skirt it's edge. One second the water was fairly flat and moving in a straight, predictable manner; the next this giant swirling chasm was opening immediately in front of us. I had never seen anything quite like it before, at least not from so close up and it was pretty freaky especially given what Rob and I had just gone through.** Instead of playing in more rapids we fished from the point off our campsite and found a whole bunch of tasty pickerel (figures, we spent the previous day touring all over the place trying to find fish only to have them on our doorstep). It was beautiful fishing, standing up to our knees in the warm water and casting into the current with the sun shining.

The above is from a previous trip. My brother and I on the wave where Rob and I wiped out.

Thankfully, Sunday was free of misadventures. We packed up and ran the rapids all the way back to Devil Lake. Jay even introduced me to the Three Sisters Rapids and Staircase Falls, none of which I had seen before. This side channel allowed us to bypass Mosquito Rapids to the South and instead do just a short carry around Staircase Falls to get back to Devil Lake. Once back at the campgrounds we loaded all the gear into the van and paddled over to Otter Rapids to run through. Rob, still a bit gun shy from the previous day, chose instead to record the event on film. When I went through with my canoe and Rod in the bow, Jay insisted on kneeling in the center and bailing for us. He said it's the only way to get down without swamping. I'm still not convinced. The boat was much more tippy with the extra weight and higher center of gravity. We took on a lot of water and Jay bailed a lot out, but I'm not sure we would've taken on so much without him there in the first place. I guess we'll just have to set up a whole series of randomized, replicated trials next year to figure it out for certain.***

The table below summarizes the weather as recorded in LaRonge, about 80km away to the South. It was pretty great.
The chart below shows the water levels for '03. Levels were pretty low, that's probably the lowest water I've seen on the Churchill (the last several years have had predominantly high water with records being set in '09 and a few years ago).

Things I haven't mentioned: 
  1. Butter, not enough about the butter. 
  2. Bear poop: No mention of the mountain of relatively fresh bear poop in the middle of our camp site. 
  3. No mention of the road grading schedule that we confirmed (but have since forgotten the answer to).
  4. No mention of the longest drive competition that I won.

*Footnote: (pun intended) Once I was back home the swelling in my toe returned and I went to a doctor to have a professional look at it this time. He confirmed that what we did in the bush was the right thing to do, and he repeated it in his office, this time using a fine electric soldering iron instead of a fish hook heated over a camp stove. The toenail fell off two weeks later and took over 6 months to fully re-grow.

** Here's what Laurel Archer has to say about Farside Rapids in her excellent book, Northern Saskatchewan Canoe Trips, A Guide to Fifteen Wilderness Rivers: "The [river right] rapids are the Far Side.... This class 2+/3 chute is fast with a long, large wave train to follow. There is a violent current, making boils and whirlpools. Again, good walleye fishing from the island." We could've drowned but at least the walleye would've picked our bones clean.

*** Jay's response "You didn't see the water in the canoe when Rod and I went down, I'm convinced that we need about 20 trials next year to confirm."