Northern Saskatchewan Canoe Trips: A Guide to 15 Wilderness Rivers
Northern Saskatchewan Canoe Trips: A Guide to 15 Wilderness Rivers
Northern Saskatchewan Canoe Trips: A Guide to 15 Wilderness Rivers Northern Saskatchewan Canoe Trips: A Guide to 15 Wilderness Rivers

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Publisher: Boston Mills Press

Author Statement: Laurel Archer
Audience: Trade
Specs: 15 maps, eight-page color photography insert
Pages: 240
Trim Size: 6" x 9"
Language code 1: eng
Publication Date: 20030201
Price: Select Below

Northern Saskatchewan Canoe Trips: A Guide to 15 Wilderness Rivers

A guide to 15 true wilderness rivers in Northern Saskatchewan, including detailed route descriptions, maps, advice on rapids, hazards, campsites, special attractions, as well as the historical and wilderness value of each river.

There are few places on the planet that still offer true wilderness paddling. Northern Saskatchewan is one of them. Wilderness adventurer Laurel Archer takes us on 15 trips down 15 rivers: the well traveled and the less traveled. With detailed route descriptions, maps, sage advice on rapids, hazards, campsites, and special attractions, as well as notes on the recreational, historical, and wilderness value of each river.


Laurel Archer lived, paddled and guided in the Northern Saskatchewan wilderness for 12 years. She has canoed or kayaked most of North America's major rivers, as well as rivers in Costa Rica, India and Malaysia. Her writing has appeared in numerous outdoor recreation magazines and anthologies.



About this book

This guidebook is the product of over 15 years of canoeing and kayaking on many rivers all over the world and countless days on the waterways of northern Saskatchewan. I lived in this region from 1988 to 2000, residing in Missinipe, Buffalo Narrows and La Ronge. I moved to the North to work as a canoe guide and instructor in this prime wilderness canoe-tripping country, and met my life's partner there. Brad and I spent an average of 50 days each summer paddling, camping and fishing during those years.

I will never forget how magical it was. But sometimes things happen that make you decide to move on. In late May 1999, we lost our log home and all our belongings in a forest fire that burned out of control just north of La Ronge. So in the summer of 2000 we moved to Vancouver Island to experience the adventures the West Coast had to offer. I started writing full-time, and it was then that I decided to spend another summer in what I still consider the most amazing place on Earth. So in 2001, I spent 68 days on the river, paddling the water-ways that had changed the course of my life so many years before and gathering the information I needed to finish this comprehensive guidebook.

I wrote this book because I love to write about the North and canoeing, and I believe that we will lose our wild places if they are not part of people's lives. It is our experience of the wilderness that will encourage us to work to preserve it. I also think some wild places are overused and travelled in inappropriate ways and that others are best left unvisited. These places should be protected too. That is an understanding that comes with living in the true wilderness, even if just for a few days. It is my hope that this book will not only assist canoeists on their river travels and foster appreciation for northern Saskatchewan's wilderness and waterways, but it will also translate into better care for them.

I haven't included all the navigable rivers in northern Saskatchewan by any means. The reason I chose the canoe trips I did was because of my familiarity with them, the quality or uniqueness of the experience available, their popularity with wilderness canoe trippers, or the fact that they are less commonly travelled. A good cross-section of the types of rivers that are found in northern Saskatchewan is represented in the selections.

Finally, this is not a "how to" book; it is a guidebook for paddlers. There are many other resources available to help canoeists develop their paddling and tripping skills, including courses, books and videos. Canoe tripping in northern Saskatchewan definitely requires a certain level of bushcraft and paddling skill, and a lot of good judgment, but this book is not about how to develop those skills. It is designed to provide canoeists with the information they require in order to choose a river trip appropriate to their skill level and special interests. Canoeists can measure their skill level and the kind of river they wish to paddle against the information provided in the book, instead of measuring it against the river when it is too late to make another choice. The detailed Trip Notes are designed only to provide information about what is around the next corner, not to help canoeists wanting to run rivers they do not have the skill to run.


The information in this guidebook is intended only to assist canoeists in choosing and navigating a river suitable to their skill and fitness level and their interests; I assume no responsibility for the use of this guidebook. Water levels vary and rivers are not static entities. Adverse weather and local conditions can alter a canoe trip dramatically, making it more physically challenging, longer than expected, or demanding of a higher level of paddling and wilderness skills. Canoeists are responsible for their own safety and use of good judgment, and I encourage you to err on the side of caution and be constantly on the lookout for hazards.

About Canoeing in Northern Saskatchewan

Northern Saskatchewan is an international wilderness canoe-tripping destination, and it is a completely different land than the one people often associate with Saskatchewan -- the wide-ranging prairie of the south. Saskatchewan means "the river that flows swiftly," It is an apt name for this province, especially the northern region, which was travelled by canoe for thousands of years, long before the fur trade. Vast lakes, streams rushing through rocky banks, forests of black spruce with feather moss carpets, tamarack bogs and granite cliffs made overland travel difficult in many places. The canoe was the most efficient way to move north, south, east or west.

Northern Saskatchewan is a rugged, remote, sparsely populated area. The northern regions referred to in this book account for 40 percent of the total area of Saskatchewan, yet its people are only 1 percent of the total population of the province. That's one person per 23 square kilometres! Solitude, scenery, whitewater thrills, culture, history, and tourist services can all be found in northern Saskatchewan -- it has the best of everything under the sun (or the Northern Lights) that anyone could want in wilderness canoeing.

The First People

Northern Saskatchewan is a wilderness with a rich history. It has been home to First Nations people for thousands of years; Dene, Woods Cree and Metis people live in the communities that dot the major lakes and rivers. They once travelled these bodies of water to move to their seasonal settlements and foraging and hunting grounds, and they are still the living highways that provide sustenance.

Each culture has its own language, history and unique adaptations to the northern environment. Traditionally, the Dene people's main source of food and materials was the barren ground caribou. Dene life was centred on the caribou migrations, and they moved north and south seasonally to their hunting camps. They often travelled overland, as birch for making canoes was scarce in their Far North home. During the fur-trading era, they predominantly used the waterways running north and south that took them to and from the barren grounds or the Churchill River. Trappers also used the east-west routes in between the Cree and Wollaston Lake regions. The Dene First Nations' current homelands are in the far northern areas of Saskatchewan around Lake Athabasca and Black Lake, the western part of the Upper Churchill and north and south of there, and the Wollaston Lake area.

The Cree also moved seasonally, relying on the resources of the boreal forest. The canoe was their primary means of travel, and the routes they paddled were extensive. The Cree were the authors of the pictographs found throughout the North, and the sites indicate important canoe routes in prehistory. Prior to contact between the Native people and the Europeans, Cree territory is thought to have extended as far north as Lake Athabasca in the west, Cree Lake in the central region, and the north end of Reindeer Lake in the east. The Cree First Nations' current homelands are generally south of the Churchill in the west, and in the areas north and south of the Churchill beginning around Pinehouse Lake to the mid-Reindeer Lake region.

The extent of change the fur trade had on traditional Dene and Cree lifestyles and territories was significant. With the smallpox epidemic of 1781 decimating the Cree population in northern Saskatchewan and the adaptation of a significant number of Dene to the fur-trading economy, traditional travelling patterns changed. Areas with high yields of furs and viable canoe routes gained importance. And although the two cultures usually gave each other wide berth, they both gathered in Ile-à-la-Crosse, the most important trading centre in fur-trade history.

Communities grew at the trading posts, with more and more traders and voyageurs coming to the Northwest, and the Metis population became a strong force in northern Saskatchewan. These children of "country marriages" became the backbone of the fur trade, working as traders, trappers and guides. Where major fur-trading houses such as Cumberland House, Ile-à-la-Crosse, and Stony Rapids existed, there are still thriving Metis communities.

Many of the canoe trips outlined in this book follow traditional First Nations' travel routes, and rock paintings signal the way. Some follow the voyageur and explorer routes, and some pass through areas more lightly travelled by all.

Early Exploration and Fur Trade

Louis Primeau, the Frobishers, the Henrys, Samuel Hearne, Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson, Simon Fraser, John Franklin -- all the famous fur traders and explorers travelled northern Saskatchewan's rivers in their journeys. The Sturgeon-weir joins the Saskatchewan River to the Churchill River and was key to the fur traders accessing the rich furs of the Athabasca Basin. At its outflow, Cumberland House, established in 1774, was the first non-First Nations settlement in Saskatchewan, and it boasts the oldest schoolhouse in the province. Over a short portage at the headwaters of the Weir, the Churchill River, the great highway of northern Saskatchewan, opened up huge possibilities for travel to the Northwest. The Methy Portage, a famous 20-km (12 mi) portage, linked the Churchill and Clearwater Rivers on the northern fur-trading route to the Mackenzie Basin. First Nations groups and trappers travelled these and many other lesser-known rivers on their way to the trading posts that began to spring up all over.

The fur traders and explorers came, fast and furious, to northern Saskatchewan, followed by the missionaries. The oldest church in Saskatchewan is found on the Churchill at Stanley Mission, and is still used by that First Nations community today.

The Environment

In northern Saskatchewan there are shallow technical rivers with granite or sandstone ledges, big-water rivers with huge green waves, tiny tributaries hosting Arctic grayling, and vast, cold, clear lakes. There aren't many places in the world where it is safe to drink the water from the source without boiling, filtering or treating it, but in northern Saskatchewan you often can, unless you are in the vicinity of a community. The boreal forest predominates in northern Saskatchewan, and a large part of it can be found on the Precambrian Shield, the oldest land mass on Earth. The Shield is an incredibly resource-rich environment. Lichen-covered outcroppings and deep lakes accent the forested landscape. The sandy soils host black spruce and jack pine, while the clay soils in the eastern region support spruce and aspen. There are many low-lying peatlands scattered with tamarack trees. Almost 40 percent of this region is water, and flying in a floatplane above it you may not recognize the Earth below you; it appears instead to be a vast surface of blue, with green islands and yellow muskegs joining together here and there.

Farther north, the work of the glaciers is the dominant art form. The Athabasca Sand Dunes -- the most northerly active sand dunes in the world -- are home to plant life found nowhere else on the planet. Some of the dunes reach up to 35 m in height, and others come right to the shores of Lake Athabasca, the largest lake in the province. A provincial park was created to protect this unique area. It is a photographer's dream.

In the Far North, beyond Lake Athabasca, the taiga begins. The taiga is a transitional subarctic area between the boreal forest and the tundra. In the west you find a rocky, almost mountainous region where the trees are small and sparse. Farther east there is more sand and glacial till covering the bedrock, giving it a somewhat gentler appearance.

In every ecoregion of northern Saskatchewan, canoeists can observe a variety of wildlife. Most areas are home to moose, black bears, timber wolves, otters and beavers, and fish-eating birds such as eagles and osprey. In some places, mule and white-tailed deer, elk, caribou and Arctic foxes are found. Fish are plentiful, the most common species being the northern pike, walleye, whitefish, Arctic grayling and lake trout.

Forest fires are a common occurrence in northern Saskatchewan. They are a natural part of the regeneration process. Areas of old burn provide excellent habitat for wildlife, but they can sometimes change a river trip dramatically. Familiar portages and campsites can be lost, as well as features of natural beauty.

The long days and short nights of these high latitudes make for many extra hours of enjoyment off the river, swimming, fishing, exploring, hiking and sitting around camp telling stories. Observing the Northern Lights is more difficult, though. They are not as frequently seen in the summer, and by the time it is dark enough and they really get going it might be 1 A.M.! But the stars that you will see on a clear night while you are waiting will keep you company and boggle your mind. Bring a star chart. There is no better place to find the northern hemisphere's heavenly bodies and constellations.


Though it is very cold in the winter and the ice does not usually leave the bigger lakes until late May to June in the Far North, summer temperatures are comfortable. The average daytime temperature for June, July and August in the Churchill region is 16°C (61°F). The nighttime average temperature for this period is 9°C (49°F), and it can often be much warmer than that. However, in the Far North, especially in the extreme northeast corner of the province, these temperatures are lower on average by several degrees.

Generally, the summer months are very pleasant, but the thing to remember is that the temperature can fluctuate greatly, and you must be fully prepared for extreme heat or cold and rain. The ecoregions in northern Saskatchewan get most of their precipitation in June, July and August -- July having the most rain on average. Now that's not saying much at an average of 7 cm (3 in) per month, but it can pour and get socked in at times. Sometimes the wind can be more of a factor on your trip than temperature or rain. Expect the prevailing winds to be from the west and northwest. My motto is to plan and pack for the worst possible weather and enjoy what you get.


Given a warm summer and plenty of water around, the insects can be voracious. The North is a silent place where you can hear the rapids you are approaching for several kilometres. Every sound is amplified, so you sometimes will actually hear the insect life all around you. However, don't let the bugs scare you off. Some areas are worse than others. You can't completely escape the blackflies, mosquitoes, no-see-ums (or midges and sandflies), horse and deer flies, or biting houseflies, but you can deal with them. The blackflies are usually at their worst in the early summer, late May to late June. In the Boreal Shield ecozone, where you find the Churchill and its tributaries, once the dragonflies come out in mid-June the population of blackflies begins to go down remarkably. Farther north, the blackflies are around longer. The key is protecting those places where blood is close to surface of your skin. The beggars love to crawl into your clothing and bite there, at your wrists and ankles, and around your hairline, neck and ears. So protecting those areas with a bug net or jacket -- clothing that restricts the flies from crawling into it -- or using repellent is key.

The mosquitoes can be a real nuisance or not, depending on the year. Their peak season is usually early June to late July, and they are active in the morning and evening and anywhere there is shade, like on the portage trail and under your canoe when it's on your head! Repellent or a bug jacket works well. So does wearing light-coloured clothing and staying away from strong-smelling soaps. They also like heat, as do no-see-ums, the midges and sandflies that take little bites that really get your attention. Their season is about the same as the mosquitoes, and clothing and repellent are the best protection.

When it gets really hot in July you have the deer and horse flies and biting house flies. They are a pain, and take out big chunks, but usually only in the heat of the day. I just hate when they bite the top of my head where my hair parts! A hat and repellent help, but not much else does, except swatting them -- hard.

Generally, the later in the season you go on a trip the less the bugs are a problem, and by August the insects really settle down. However, insect repellent is a must on your list no matter which river you choose at what time, and I recommend purchasing a head net or preferably a bug jacket with a hood for trips in the Far North.


I've spent so much time in the wilderness camping, people often ask me if I'm afraid of bears. Yes, I'm afraid of grizzly and polar bears, but not black bears. I certainly respect them, but normally black bears in northern Saskatchewan will not harm you if you do not threaten them by surprising them or coming between them and their cubs or food cache. However, the more you know about black bears, the better off you will be if you do end up having a bear encounter. Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, by Steven Herrero, is an excellent resource for learning about bear behaviour.

The goal is to avoid encounters. Key is being alert, paying attention to your surroundings, and taking precautions. Make lots of noise if approaching rapids where a bear can't hear you coming. Keep your distance if you spot a bear, and leave the area. Don't camp near a bear trail or where there is bear sign (droppings, tracks), or where food or garbage has been left (like a shore lunch spot). In camp, pitch your tent away from the cooking area. Keep the area clean of food scraps and throw fish guts and carcasses in deep water away from your camp. Hang your food or store it in bear-proof containers, away from your tents.

What You Need to Know to Go

The minimum you need to know to attempt even the easiest of these river trips is how to paddle a canoe in a straight line and in current. These are river trips and therefore involve moving water. You must also have a solid understanding of how to read moving water and how rapids are classified. Competency in bushcraft is required, and you must know how to pack for canoe travel and an extended stay in the wilderness. You should also have wilderness survival and emergency first-aid skills. You must be able to read a topographical map, understand the basics of using the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) grid system the required 1:50,000 maps are based on, and be competent using a compass to navigate.

To preserve the wilderness values of the rivers, you must know how to practise no-trace camping. Tread lightly: the wilderness is a non-renewable resource. Once it's gone, it's gone. Recognize that you will often be travelling through lands that provide sustenance to the indigenous people of that area. Use the resources of the wilderness as sparingly as possible. Bring what you need with you. If you are going to fish, you must have a valid Saskatchewan angling licence and obey the regulations that are applicable to the region you are travelling in. Be aware that all prehistoric and historic period sites and artifacts in Saskatchewan are protected by a law, the Heritage Property Act, and should not be collected or in any way disturbed.




  • About This Book
  • About Canoeing in Northern Saskatchewan
  • What You Need to Know to Go

How to Use This Guidebook

  • Finding the River For You
  • Locating the Rivers
  • The Logistics: Length, Maps, Access and When to Go
  • Difficulty Ratings: Is This Trip for You?
  • Character of the River and Region: Rapids, Rocks and Trees
  • Local History
  • Solitude
  • Wildlife
  • Fishing
  • Special Equipment Recommendations
  • Trip Notes: Your Detailed Guide to the River's Features

The Rivers at a Glance: A Comparative Chart

The Trips

  1. Sturgeon-weir River
  2. Montreal River
  3. Churchill River
  4. Paull River
  5. Foster River
  6. Haultain River
  7. Clearwater River
  8. Wathaman River
  9. Geikie River
  10. Cree River
  11. Waterfound River
  12. Fond du Lac River
  13. MacFarlane River
  14. Carswell and William Rivers
  15. Porcupine River

Directory of Services

References and Suggested Readings

International Scale of Rapid Classification

No-Trace Camping and Wilderness Ethic

Place Index

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