Manitoba's Bloodvein River serves up introductory whitewater, pristine wilderness, and some pulse-quickening surprises.
by Kelly m. m. Bastone
All I can see is water and granite. Beyond the bow of my canoe, the current grinds against a towering cliff, then shunts powerfully to the right. Dave's commands from the stern cannot penetrate the river's steady roar, and that's a problem: The Bloodvein is my first foray into whitewater canoeing, and its learning curve is proving steeper than I ever imagined.
Normally, this pool-drop river provides newbies like me with the perfect whitewater entre, doling out adventure in one-rapid doses chased with enough flatwater to collect paddlers, gear, and anything else that bungled maneuvers might send for a swim.
But there's nothing normal about this ride down the Bloodvein. Two weeks of torrential rain have transformed these typically mellow waters into a fire hose blasting 9,500 cfs—eight times the average flow for early September. In this big water my paddle feels puny as a toothpick, and the current shoves me along faster than my untrained brain can choose between "draw" or "pry."
Suddenly I feel the bow dive as we plunge over a ledge. I lean back, instinctively unweighting the bow. We narrowly skirt a clump of submerged willows, I stab my paddle into the eddy behind them, and we skid to a stop along the riverbank. "Was that the hardest section we'll hit?" I ask Dave, whose expert skills had just saved us from swimming. He's paddled the Bloodvein 24 times before, but on his 25th trip, he was discovering a brand-new river.
"I dunno," he answers, grinning. "But we'll find out."
Whitewater is exactly what drew me here—one of the reasons, anyway. Having previously canoed only on placid lakes, I craved an introduction to splashier stuff. Another attraction was the wilderness: Designated a Canadian Heritage River, the Bloodvein courses through a broad slice of Canada's 1.4 billion-acre boreal forest—one of the most pristine ecosystems on the planet. Most of the river's 190 miles is protected from development, and the entire journey from northwestern Ontario to Manitoba's Lake Winnipeg takes three weeks via canoe. I chose to paddle the Manitoba segment, which serves up the biggest rapids and deepest sense of solitude. Over seven days of paddling, I'd glimpse no roads, buildings, or any evidence of fellow human beings save a few ancient pictographs painted on the rock.
The clincher was the name: Bloodvein has a mystical ring, like something out of Heart of Darkness. The name likely stems from a ferocious battle between the Salteaux and Cree, who call it "Miskwi Isipi" or "Blood River." Somehow, that grisly history added to the river's allure.
So I signed on with Dave Pancoe, who's been guiding Manitoba's northernmost reaches for 14 years. He's 36 now; at 25, he and four friends spent nearly three months pioneering a 1,125-mile canoe route north to remote Lake Pancoe, where they placed a plaque honoring Dave's uncle, a war veteran. Now Dave guides wilderness trips and teaches whitewater canoeing through his company, Northern Soul Adventures. After joining him in Winnipeg, driving to road's end in his bio-fueled van, and flying farther north in a DeHavilland Otter with a pair of canoes strapped to the floats, my fingers are itching to grip a paddle.
From the air, I gaze over an intensely green landscape that sparkles with ribbons and pools of water. Hiking is impractical in the boreal zone, thanks to soggy mosses that sink under each squishy step. Likewise, building roads through the muskeg is prohibitively expensive. That leaves rivers as the only viable surface routes through this immense tract of virtually uninhabited forest.
The drone of the departing plane quickly fades, leaving us draped in silence. Dave breaks the quiet with introductions: My fellow adventurers include three Winnipeggers, two Brits, and a Californian. It feels a little odd to embark on a long wilderness journey with strangers, not friends. I opted for a guided trip when jobs and family commitments claimed the buddies who would've joined me on a self-guided adventure. That would've meant renting canoes in Winnipeg, hiring road and air shuttles, and threading unknown rapids. But while I miss my posse, I'm glad to be on the river: Guided trips don't get cancelled when your cohorts' hall passes are revoked.
Initially, the rapids we encounter are ledge drops punctuating an otherwise straight, open river. The biggest challenge is warding off the chilly drizzle that makes me glad for my neoprene gloves. September in these latitudes isn't the tail end of summer; it's the doorstep of winter. But soon we meet tight chasms that pinch the massive flow into explosive whitewater. We scout one such tumbler from a placid patch of wild rice, each stalk picked clean by geese. Dave and I discuss our plan. I agree to work the stern for this one, but feeling daunted, I ask, "Do you think I'm strong enough?"
"It's all technique," he replies, as we creep upstream and enter the current. Great, I think grimly. I don't have much of that, either. We peel out into the current and I fix my eyes on the line we targeted, paddling furiously. We cut through cleanly, but as we swivel toward shore I forget to lean against the eddyline. Water sweeps over the gunwale as Dave saves the day with a mighty brace. I grab the bailer and wonder if I'm in over my head.
But then the next canoe charges through with Louie, a Canadian postal worker in the bow, and Kaye, an English paddling instructor in the stern. Louie had pegged a pirate's flag to their canoe, and as the rapid sucks them into its midst, he thrusts his paddle into the air and lets out a renegade whoop.
"It's not how good you are, Miss America, it's how much fun you're having," he later tells me after swamping his boat, and I wonder if his wild-bull attitude isn't a better fit for the Bloodvein's belligerent mood.
The unusually high water makes some things harder, turning easy rapids into places with little room for error, and requiring some arduous portages across high bluffs. Occasionally though, the swollen Bloodvein lets us off easy, allowing us to scoot loaded canoes over the flooded banks rather than portage across them.
We paddle and portage through a lushly beautiful landscape that seems exotic to me, a visitor from arid Colorado. Pale lilies poke out of the spongy green carpet, and mosses drape from the trees. From the water, we glimpse a black bear rummaging among the birches, and sight a cormorant sunning itself on a rocky promontory. We camp at Kettle Falls, named for the cylindrical holes bored into the bedrock by retreating glaciers: As the ice melted, stones caught in the eddys would swirl around, drilling
"kettles" into the granite.
That night we sip Labrador tea, a balsam-scented drink brewed from fuzzy leaves Dave gathered near camp. He'd also picked some chanterelles earlier that day, and after cooking them in garlic butter, he passes them around for us to savor. Then we devour big falafel sandwiches stuffed with fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. Rob from Winnipeg regales us with stories of his motorcycle-racing days, Kelli describes her work as a potter, and the friendly vibe around the campfire suggests we're strangers no more. This guided thing ain't so bad, I think as I drift to sleep to the sound of hissing whitewater. Sure, you forfeit a measure of independence and the sense of adventure that goes with it, and you risk being paired with a wild mailman. But you get an expert's experience and instruction—and way better food.
Eventually the snarls and constrictions give way to a wide, fast river that shimmers beneath the sun that is finally shining overhead. It feels good to nestle my knees onto the floor of the canoe, and when a rising hiss prompts me to stand up and survey the river, I find the wrinkles and boils suddenly make sense. I choose my angle, power through the rapid, and tilt my hips so we cut cleanly across the eddyline. "Smooth," Dave congratulates me from the bow, and I feel giddy, like I've just been handed a diploma.
Downstream, when Dave proposes we surf some glassy waves spaced a canoe's-length apart, I'm eager as a kid. We turn around, so we can back carefully between the swells, and suddenly we're weightless. In my excitement I let the stern swing wide, which skips us off the sweet spot, so we paddle hard upriver to surf again. This time, I focus on holding us straight and we commune with the river, skimming atop its surface as lightly as a dragonfly.
Power lines signal our imminent re-entry into civilization—though the village of Bloodvein barely qualifies as such. Only ice roads reach this smattering of trailers; in summer, the Lake Winnipeg ferry provides access. Tomorrow we'll ride it to meet the van for the return to Winnipeg. But tonight we end our journey with a traditional First Nations sweat ceremony.
Throughout his years of paddling, Dave has made friends in Manitoba's far-flung outposts—including Bloodvein, where his pals Yvonne and Norman Young have invited us to their sweat lodge. Canvas tarps cover a domed frame of birch and willow rods; we crawl inside and await the hot stones Norman transfers from the bonfire. Yvonne sprinkles them with water and steam envelops us. In the dark, I can feel my skin turn glossy with sweat as I listen to Yvonne's beating rattle, which seems to scrub me from the inside out, like rocks scouring a kettle. Emerging outside, I feel cleaner than when I hit the river a week ago, washed pure by river stones and whitewater.
*Know before you go
Northern Soul Wilderness Adventures, Inc. offers guided trips, equipment rental for self-guided journeys, seaplane bookings, and van shuttle services (866-284-4072, northernsoul.ca).
Wilderness Rivers of Manitoba: Journey by Canoe Through the Land Where the Spirit Lives by Hap Wilson and Stephanie Aykroyd contains expedition beta for the Bloodvein River and other wild waterways ($20, bostonmillspress.com).
Winnipeg, Manitoba is the Bloodvein's jumping-off point, served by United, Northwest, and other airlines. Hit The Forks (theforks.com) for a huge variety of ethnic eateries highlighting the city's cultural diversity: Choose from Indian roti, British fish and chips, and everything in between. Two miles north of downtown, the North Star Drive-In (531 McGregor St., 204-589-4003) dishes out poutine (a Canadian classic combining French fries, cheese curds, and beef gravy) as well as Winnipeg's best veggie burger. The Marlborough Hotel (331 Smith St., themarlborough.ca) sits just a block from MEC (mec.ca), Canada's version of REI and a great place to pick up paddling essentials.