"Novice whitewater canoeists often make the same mistake,” says guide Cameron White of Winnipeg-based Northern Soul Wilderness Canoeing Adventures.
“When approaching rapids, they’ll race towards them, believing they can power their way through. It’s better to approach slowly, read the water and use your strokes and technique.”
White is advising my group of eight while we contemplate our first Class III whitewater. We’re on Manitoba’s stretch of the Bloodvein River, 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, on our short four-day, 50-kilometre stretch of its 300-kilometre watercourse.
So, I’m backpaddling, stabilizing my canoe before negotiating our first significant rapid. White’s in the stern; I’m kneeling in the bow, hoping not to capsize our Prospector. Graciously, he’s agreed to be sternsman because of my pernicious shoulder injury. I’m a flatwater canoeist, so the Bloodvein’s whitewater rapids pose thrilling challenges to my capabilities.
“No need to rush in and die!” encourages White. “Are you ready?”
“Yes!” I rediscover commitment. The Bloodvein pulls us into its midst down a sleek V-tongue of black water. Immediately White shouts, “Draw! Hard!” I thrust my paddle repeatedly into the water, drawing it firmly to my side. In nanoseconds, White counters, yelling, “Cross-draw!”
And there I am, doing it, crossing my paddle over the bow, extending into the Bloodvein. Obediently, the Prospector slips right.
Suddenly, we’re through.
Grinning, I turn and, in paddlers’ traditional salute, we raise our paddles, smacking them together.
Laughing, we point upstream, secure in an eddy and gently bobbing. Now we adopt what will be our oft-repeated role as safety canoe, poised to assist any of our companions, should they capsize. This time, no one tips.
Not, mind you, that we ran every rapid. At Ankuasi Falls’ Class IV, we acknowledged their superiority and portaged around its split rocks, awestruck by the river’s raw power. White allowed ample time to survey the scenery. Some adventurers fish here for world-class northern pike and walleye.
The boreal forest landscape is equally exhilarating. Immense granite boulders resembling beached whales line stretches of the Bloodvein. Each wear distinct horizontal lines carved by ice-action over time: scoured pink below, gnarly grey with lichen above, topped by emerald mosses, pink lady-slipper orchids and jack pine forests. Bald eagles perched on snags monitored our daytime progress; great-horned owls hooted after nightfall beneath an inky sky where constellations popped.
Unfortunately, weather proved mercurial. One day, drenching, bone-numbing rain pelted down upon us, persuading us to pitch camp early. Although we’d not tipped, I was chilled through and through. After the fact, I realized I’d seriously alarmed everyone by stripping and clambering into warm, dry clothes before helping pitch camp.
Nonetheless, the four days scooted by far too quickly. As we paddled, White explained about First Nations history and culture.
For instance, the river’s name. Although it possibly recalls the Cree word, Miskwi Isipi (Blood River) due to several First Nations’ battles along it, White claims it likely gets its name from the veins of red granite thronging the river—not from blood coursing from hapless paddlers.
While paddling, he explained pictographs exist here, too. “Author Hap Wilson mentions red-ochre pictographs near the Four Battles campsite, but I’ve never found them.”
Immediately watchful, I scanned the rocks and thrillingly, I spied them: two reddish stick figures and a box-like shape, their meaning lost to time. We paddled over to appreciate the ancient artwork left by river-runners possibly thousands of years ago, when the Bloodvein was a First Nations trade route.
Camping in the boreal amid the Canadian Shield’s dramatic rock formations is undoubtedly special. First, there’s the mossy quiet of the forests. Then, there’s the comical search for elusive spots to secure tent-pegs on glacier-scoured granite. Finally? My journal entry recalls The Bugs. Think of the largest mossies you’ve ever seen; then think of horseflies with jaws so big they’re called bulldogs. I speak in jest. Sorta. Nonetheless, White knows how to jolly everyone through such beasties. This extraordinary fellow pulled an oven from his pack, so he and Toronto food-writer Amy Rosen baked to die-for cinnamon buns. All was not lost...
On our fourth night, we stopped at Bloodvein River Lodge, owned by William Young of the Bloodvein First Nation. We visited the community, where we participated in a sweat lodge before jumping into the river with the Bloodvein kids to cool off, later sharing a meal. Sweats are distressingly hot for me and as I baked and profusely sweated (no mere perspiring or glowing here), participants shared deeply intimate thoughts. It’s fascinating to experience a sweat’s spiritually cleansing releases. They’re the reason I choose to participate, despite them being, for me, more physically and mentally demanding than even the Bloodvein’s rapids.
Back at the Lodge, although it offered undeniably wonderful bed-comfort, the Bloodvein’s riversong called and I longed to be camping alongside its rushing current. Now, that’s the sure sign of a fabulous backcountry trip. Incidentally, White offers 15-day trips, too, starting in Ontario’s Red Lake. Perhaps that’s for another year...
From Winnipeg, you’ll need to arrange a flight to the Bloodvein River. The easiest way to organize this backcountry adventure is to coordinate with Cameron White of Northern Soul Wilderness Canoeing Adventures (northernsoul.ca). Cam can organize the flights with Bluewater Aviation Manitoba Air Charter Services (bluewateraviation.ca).
Northern Soul Wilderness Canoeing Adventures can also arrange a stay at Bloodvein River Lodge as well as a sweat lodge experience and dinner at Bloodvein First Nation.
Northern Soul Wilderness Canoeing Adventures Bloodvein River trips are typically nine or 15 days in length.
Where to Stay
In Winnipeg, stay at The Inn at the Forks (innforks.com), a downtown hotel located at The Forks, deriving its name from the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. If you’re a culture geek, it’s an easy walk over Esplanade Riel footbridge, spanning the Red River to St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s French neighbourhood, where Métis leader Louis Riel is buried.
Three More Activities
#1 Pinawa Channel Daytrip
Why tackle the Bloodvein with jetlag? If you’re flying into Winnipeg, plan to arrive a day early, before flying north, and get into your paddling rhythm by canoeing the gentle Pinawa Channel, 113 kilometres east of Winnipeg. Enjoy easy meanderings while paddling roughly five hours downstream. In midsummer, paddle through the 1.5-metre-tall wild rice growing in the shallows, appreciating its whispery rustling while gliding through. First Nations peoples used to gather it by knocking seedheads inside their canoe. Watch for turtles, bald eagles and even trumpeter swans. Pullout is at Old Pinawa Dam Provincial Heritage Park. Take a picnic and relax on the rocks, then explore the remnants of the century-old dam. pinawa.com
#2 Riding Mountain National Park
Explore this park’s landscape of 65 million-year-old rocks, all-too-rare fescue grasslands, boreal forest and aspen parklands. I went in September and thrilled to the sound of bull elks bugling—the thin, nasal mating call is one of nature’s most magical songs. Any time of year, visit the park’s Lake Audy Bison Enclosure, home to a herd of plains bison, where in-season, Parks Canada staff offer fascinating glimpses into bison facts—including First Nations culture of the bison, a spirit totem. Stay in a Parks Canada oTENTik or bring your own equipment. pc.gc.ca/riding
#3 Manitoba’s Big Five
What are Manitoba’s “Big Five” wild animals? Black bear, moose, bison, beluga whales and polar bears. Where to see them? Riding Mountain National Park and Churchill, with Frontiers North Adventures. Guides explain the biodiversity of Manitoba through its varied wildlife habitats. Take your camera and binoculars and be ready to be wowed. frontiersnorth.com