Manitoba is home to legendary backcountry rivers and incredibly remote whitewater playgrounds. Working as an outfitter and guide in Manitoba has given me a chance to explore some of these rivers, and in order to explore these areas, that often means staying in, travelling from, and working with local indigenous communities. The string of Anishinaabe communities that flank the east coast of Lake Winnipeg are the gateway to world class whitewater rivers that run into Lake Winnipeg from Northwestern Ontario’s vast network of lakes and rivers. Heading north from the Winnipeg River at Sakgeeng First Nation, you drive along the coast of the lake, passing another bucket list rivers every 50 to 100 kms as you travel the patchwork of paved, gravel, and ice roads that lead to the great north . The Manigotagan, Bloodvein, Pidgeon, Berens, and Poplar Rivers are the most famous, but there are plenty of other smaller rivers worth exploring in the vast untouched swath of wilderness.
Last year, UNESCO granted World Heritage site status to the traditional lands of 4 of the local First Nations (Bloodvein, Poplar River, Little Grand Rapids, and Pauingassi). The world heritage site, “Pimachiowin Aki” includes a huge swath of this whitewater mecca, including the Popular and Bloodvein Rivers. This UNESCO designation gives the region international exposure, helps the communities better protect their natural resources from outside development, and provides support for projects that help promote conservation, education, and sustainable tourism.
An a whitewater paddler, and co-owner of Twin River Travel, the Bloodvein had been on my bucket list for a while, and this new UNESCO designation provided the perfect catalyst to start planning a trip and developing a relationship with the Bloodvein community. All with the goal of promoting the incredible region and offering guided trips on the river in future seasons.
Flying in from Bissett to Artery Lake on the Ontario border and paddling to the town of Bloodvein took a total of 12 days. Our team of six people paddled hard most days, but on others we spent way too much time playing around in the best rapids, breaking drones, losing tripods and all the while not seeing another soul during the entire trip. Not a single fisherman, hunter, paddler, gold prospector, or vacuum salesman; just us, alone, in the middle of the vast Pimachiowin Aki wilderness. The river is a classic Canadian Shield whitewater river. With slow, relaxing stretches of flatwater interspersed with a few dozen exciting sets. The river is especially known for its fun and difficult class III playspots: narrow canyons push the river together in a few spots creating long wave trains, as well as narrow, technical runs. The river is also culturally and historically important, with multiple ancient pictograph sites along the way, as well as being an important traditional cultural area for the local Anishinaabe people. Traditional hunting, trapping and fishing grounds are everywhere, and the Pimachiowin Aki world heritage organization has recently done a fantastic job of mapping out and recording this priceless traditional knowledge.
For this trip, we had put together a small team of explorers, paddling guides, whitewater instructors, and a photographer/videographer pair to document the experience. Also included on the trip, the ever reliable 16 foot T-Formex Esquif Prospecteur. With low fall water levels, the light yet tough boat was perfect for the scrapes, bumps, and bangs of tight lines with rocks just under the surface. With reduced risk from the lower currents, and the confidence that our boats were up to the task, we were able run some awesomely fun rapids that normally would be unrunnable at higher water levels. In the bigger sets, the Esquif was fun and easy to paddle, it was easy to set on the right lines and always comfortable to ride. In the small tight sets that are typical for low-water in the Canadian shield, the boat was even more fun. For an expedition boat, the Prospecteur is incredibly responsive and exciting to paddle through narrow drops and sharp corners.
At the end of our trip, we had already made connections in the town of Bloodvein. We had a place to stay in town, with our only instructions being to “come to the school and ask for the gym teacher”. We arrived in town early in the afternoon and proceeded to wander around; lost, disheveled, and generally worse for wear. After multiple stops for directions, we found our way to the school and walked in looking for our place to stay. With everything finally sorted out, we were set up in his house, connected to the wifi, and started on some much needed dinner and sleep.
The next day we went in to the school to do presentations and workshops with the students, we talked with them about how incredible their own backyard is, why we had traveled from all over Canada to come visit their town and their river, and asked what the world heritage designation will mean for their community. That evening we talked with the gym teacher, and an elder, who is also the land based education teacher. Our time with them taught us how this UNESCO designation has already affected the students, making them more proud of their culture, and more interested in learning more about the land and their traditions. The elder, Yvonne, has been running sweat lodge ceremonies weekly with the students, and we were invited one evening to participate. After nearly two weeks on the Bloodvein, the emotional and physical intensity of a traditional sweat lodge with the students and an elder of Bloodvein was an experience that I will never forget. It made us realize more than ever that when we explore these regions by paddle, we are guests on Indigenous land, and we must understand that although we may see these remote areas as “in the middle of nowhere”, they are actually central to a rich tapestry of Indigenous culture, geography, and knowledge.
When you explore Canada’s wilderness, take time to learn about the Indigenous peoples in the area, take time to use the services of local business, take time to make connections in local communities, and always try to understand the meaning and value that the land holds to them. Do it because you have the responsibility to do so, but also do it because you will have a more meaningful trip, and will come away with a deeper respect and appreciation for the beauty and importance of the “untouched” areas you are so lucky to have the privilege to explore.