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"Limestone Rocks, Lake Winnipeg", (1825) from "Views from Upper Canada Along the McKenzies" by George Back courtesy National Archives of Canada.

Lake Winnipeg

By paddle: 495km; By air: 349km.

Satellite photograph of Lake Winnipeg (courtesy NASA)

Scale: 1pixel=1km

Where are all the waves? Black Island, Hecla Provincial Park.

Where are all the waves? Black Island, Hecla Provincial Park.

No one had a good word to say for Lake Winnipeg. Canoers who thrive on the end-of-season swells of Lake Superior turn pale at the mention of Lake Winnipeg. Frequently used adjectives include windy, rough, unprotected, unpredictable, relentless, spiteful, and the most common, shallow. It's a buffeting combination. With no high ground to cradle the lake, the unhindered wind, which you are lead to believe is incessant, pulls up choppy, steep-sided, grating waves—no wide, spacious, rolling waves here. There is some truth to all of this, but like Lake Superior, it is frequently flat. But what no one told us was that Lake Winnipeg is beautiful—breathtakingly bleak, remote and untouched. It has white, sandy, unending beaches that would make the Seychellois jealous, if only it was a little warmer in winter. Along the northern fringes of the peninsulas between the Narrows and Clarks Point, limestone strata form spurs that defy the gnawing water—the bay between Cat Head and Lynx Point is flanked by towering, greeny-yellow cliffs, topped with gnarled, tangled pine. The sun-drenched bay shore is terraced with large, golden limestone shingles—Lake Winnipeg is beautiful!

And there are bears...lots of bears. You've read the black bear handbook—you know not to get between a sow and her cubs; you know to cook, eat and store food away from your tent; you know when to play dead (but know you'd never be able to do it); you've got pepper spray, just in case; and you know that if you find any traces of bear activity, such as footprints, scratching posts or scat, you should find somewhere else to camp. Follow this last rule, and you'll be sleeping in your canoe. There appear to be no areas of Lake Winnipeg's shoreline that are free from signs of bear activity.

With the lake only 2-3km wide, the Narrows provides a bridge from the east to the west shore.

With the lake only 2-3km wide, the Narrows provides a bridge from the east to the west shore.

Tip: You'll know bear scat when you see it—it's those muesli-mounds (full of berry goodness) that induce a reaction of "If its ar** is that big, I sure don't wanna see the rest of it!"

Our second night on the lake was a baptism in true Lake Winnepegonian tradition. Stopping early to enjoy a relaxing afternoon of sun, sand and shade, we pitched our tent on a white sandy beach, away from the potentially wavy water, pressed up against the bordering scrub. After climbing into the tent for the night, we heard a rustling sound in the bush beside us. At first we weren't sure, but then the large adult black bear towered up onto its rear legs, stretching up against a tall shrub, pulling it over to reach the berries near the top. With the bear only five metres away from us, we scrambled out the tent, singing songs we'd forgotten we knew, while pretending we didn't know it was there (another rule we were told: don't make eye contact—the bear might take it as a challenge.) Sure enough, after a brief moment of indecision, the bear scuttled off into the woods—a textbook response, but very unnerving. So in a controlled panic, leaving everything inside, we lifted up the tent, threw it onto the canoe, collapsed the poles, and paddled a couple of kilometres along the coast to a rocky slab extending a hundred metres into the lake with no visible berry-bearing bushes on it. As dusk turned to night, very shaken, we settled down again inside the tent. Through our heavy eyelids, we saw the flashes. We watched the storm coming for over an hour. There was no rain, no wind, only a silent light show high above the cloud tsunami approaching from the west. Next we felt its vibrations, then we heard it. We knew it had hit when our canoe was flipped up by the wind and thrown against the tent. Thankfully it's a strong tent but, given the storm-force winds and torrential rain, we lashed it and the canoe down between two sheltering bushes. We huddled outside under a nylon sheet, on our life jackets (for electrical insulation) in what quickly became a pond for an hour before we decided to try our drenched luck in the aluminium-poled, couldn't-design-a-better-lightning-attractor-if-you-tried tent, hoping that if it did suck the lightning down upon us, it might at least act as a Faraday cage! Luckily, the storm passed without testing our questionable physics hypothesis, and at about two in the morning, we finally managed to get to sleep.

Limestone cliffs, Lynx Point.

Limestone cliffs, Lynx Point.

Tip: If you have to camp where there are signs of bear activity, camp in places that are likely to be visited infrequently—away from berry-laden bushes, off trails etc.—thereby reducing the probability of a night-time visit. A note about beaches: bears seem to use beaches as highways. If you camp on a beach, try to stay away from existing tracks and camp on a broad patch so they can give you a wide berth.

If you asked us our favourite section of the route so far, we'd answer Lake Winnipeg. It has given us our richest experiences: bear encounters; paddling at night towards Grand Rapids under the northern lights; wind that, no matter how hard you paddle, blows you backwards; canoeing under sail pursued by charging white horses; hot, hot days with thick, soupy flat water; the best campsite of our journey; and a dangerous crossing tale—Moose Island to Louis Island (six kilometres), strong south-south-westerly wind, whitecaps everywhere, no spray cover attached to the canoe, no bailer (we lost it in Quetico and never got around to replacing it,) and definitely no brain (see the Lake Superior section—we chose option 3): the more water you get in the canoe, the lower it sits in the water and so the more water you get in it. After a tense, hip-pivoting ride parallel to the waves, we made it to Louis Island without swamping, but with this exponential behaviour, who knows how many more breaking waves we could have taken over the gunwale before the big one. It seems that good expedition stories come from doing really dumb things.

Why paddle when you can sail? Approaching Kitching Point.

Why paddle when you can sail? Approaching Kitching Point.

This lake cannot be romanticised, yet that's a contradiction in itself, as its unromanticisability contributes to its untamed, raw and disinterested grandeur. It's a contradictory lake in many ways: you feel alone and isolated, but there are frequent signs of civilisation—sailing boats around Hecla, a ferry to populous Matheson island, an out-of-season fishing camp at McBeth Point, empty cabins in Lynx Bay, road access to Gull Bay; many days are windy, but you can still make good progress; it is vast and expansive, but the experience is very intense; bears cause you sleepless nights, but you feel great empathy as you watch them sloshing by the tent in the dark.

We relished every moment on Lake Winnipeg, and yet we were relieved to reach Grand Rapids.

Our Itinerary

DateFromToDistance (paddle/air)
07 AugRiverbank near Silver Falls, Winnipeg River
(14 704129E 5600748N)
Dog Island near Point Mitas, Lake Winnipeg
(14 685579E 5624558N)
36.0/30.2km
08 AugDog Island near Point Mitas, Lake Winnipeg
(14 685579E 5624558N)
Island near Barre Creek
(14 682169E 5655880N)
32.0/31.5km
09 AugIsland near Barre Creek
(14 682169E 5655880N)
Island near lake shore, opposite Deer Island
(14 684304E 5685654N)
33.5/29.9km
10 AugIsland near lake shore, opposite Deer Island
(14 684304E 5685654N)
West Doghead Point, The Narrows
(14 649340E 5734222N)
65.0/59.8km
11 AugWest Doghead Point, The Narrows
(14 649340E 5734222N)
Louis Island
(14 624583E 5736516N)
31.5/24.9km
12 AugLouis Island
(14 624583E 5736516N)
Sandy beach west of Willow Point
(14 610283E 5767431N)
38.0/34.1km
13 AugSandy beach west of Willow Point
(14 610283E 5767431N)
Fishing hut, Lynx Harbour
(14 595069E 5775187N)
32.5/17.1km
14 AugFishing hut, Lynx Harbour
(14 595069E 5775187N)
Clarks Point
(14 563969E 5774615N)
35.0/31.1km
15 AugClarks Point
(14 563969E 5774615N)
Sandy beach between Morass and Shiel Points
(14 548715E 5795571N)
28.5/25.9km
16 AugSandy beach between Morass and Shiel Points
(14 548715E 5795571N)
Narrow pebbled beach west of Wicked Point
(14 510144E 5850748N)
73.5/67.3km
17 AugNarrow pebbled beach west of Wicked Point
(14 510144E 5850748N)
Pebbled beach, south shore of Long Point
(14 515238E 5867541N)
20.0/17.6km
18 AugPebbled beach, south shore of Long Point
(14 515238E 5867541N)
Grand Rapids
(14 482184E 5892665N)
90.0/41.5km

All coordinates are UTM/NAD83.

Typical Lake Winnipeg picnic spot. After-lunch entertainment was provided by a bear and her two cubs (not shown), Nekanayapiskaw Point, Long Point.

Typical Lake Winnipeg picnic spot. After-lunch entertainment was provided by a bear and her two cubs (not shown), Nekanayapiskaw Point, Long Point.