In northern Saskatchewan, the rockbound Canadian Shield emerges from the Great Plains and cradles a network of rivers and lakes, creating a canoe-tripper’s multi-lane highway. Indigenous Cree paddled these waters for centuries. Later on, early European explorers and fur-traders traveled the area in the 18th and 19th centuries. More recently, it was immortalized by Minnesotan conservationist Sigurd Olson’s 1961 book, The Lonely Land.
Since then, countless paddlers have retraced the strokes of Olson’s journey, which followed the pool-and-drop course of the Churchill and Sturgeon-Weir rivers at a time when fur-trading posts were still centers of commerce in roadless communities. But few modern trippers-Olson included-compare with the ambitions of Toronto-based paddler Bill Buxton.
On paper, Buxton’s three-week, 270-mile expedition, set to depart in less than two weeks, reads much the same as a typical northern Saskatchewan canoe trip: It takes in the island-choked waters of Lake La Ronge, follows the old fur trade route across historic Frog Portage, and ends at the town of Missinipe. Where it differs, however, is in Buxton’s choice of canoes. His party of four will paddle two 17-foot birchbark canoes-of similar design to the area’s first canoeists and no more technologically advanced than those paddled by legendary explorer Alexander Mackenzie.
Buxton assisted Ontario craftsman Tom Byers in building the canoes. Initially, he admits he was intimidated by the thought of paddling cedar-ribbed, bark-covered canoes in whitewater. But Byers, who describes birchbark canoes as being “spring-loaded” and resilient, convinced Buxton otherwise. “I’m sure that many of Tom’s canoes are used as decorations,” says Buxton, “but it’s clear that he builds them to be used. Plus if I wrap it around a rock I can go into the woods and rebuild it. That’s kind of neat.”
For Buxton, a jet-setting Microsoft researcher, choosing to paddle traditional boats was also one of aesthetics. “I live very much in the high end of the high-tech world,” he says. “I like the grounding [paddling a bark canoe] brings. They are the most beautiful canoes in the world to paddle. When you see one, you just have to paddle it.”
- Conor Mihell