Into the Whiteshell, Part 2


A painting by my daughter Hannah, based on a photo of Grandpa and me from a fishing trip in Canada.

Our trips to Whiteshell Provincial Park typically lasted seven or eight days, including travel time. Having five days in camp allowed us to explore the lake, trying out old fishing holes from Grandpa’s earlier trips and some new spots. Back in the 1950s and 60s Grandpa and his friends mainly fished for big northern pike, and occasionally got into some good walleye fishing. By the time I got to go, Echo Lake had developed an excellent walleye fishery.

My first year up, Dad brought along a 69-cent, hot pink lure with white feathers. Grandpa gave him some grief over it, but Dad tied in on anyway. For whatever reason, that lure was irresistible to walleyes.  By mid-day, the feathers were gone and by the end of the day the lure barely had any paint left on it! Grandpa tore through his tackle box, looking for anything with pink on it. Even though Dad had the hot hand that day, we all caught fish.

To keep under the possession limit at the time, we ate fish everyday. Sometimes Grandpa threw a frying pan, some lard and salt and pepper in the boat so we could a have a shore lunch, just like those fancy guided fishermen from the resorts. Grandpa did all the cooking on those trips and I did the dishes. The menu was never fancy but we ate like kings.

While we enjoyed catching walleyes, for real excitement we went after big pike.We checked out a spot on the lake Grandpa called Meat Market Falls. Located somewhere along the western shore of the lake, a creek tumbled down the rocks. It was a spawning stream for suckers, a favorite food of northerns in the spring.  Grandpa once caught a 28-lb. pike there years before. I remember admiring the big fish hanging on the wall in Grandpa and Grandma’s basement, its belly sagging below the edge of the mounting board. But we found the creek had been dammed up by beavers, so we landed the boat, hiked up the slope and inspected the dam.  It was the tallest beaver dam I had ever seen, over 10 ft at the centerline. Behind it was a pond of crystal-clear water where we tried a few casts but had no luck.

At the end of my first trip up, we stopped at a rock outcrop on the way back to the portage. Another sucker creek poured into the lake right next to the outcrop. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were in no hurry to leave. We cast spoons off the rock and hooked several nice northerns. Grandpa rigged up a frozen smelt on the end of his line and cast it out to sink about 6 ft below a big wooden bobber. When the bobber went down he told me to set the hook and start reeling. I fought the fish at least 20 minutes before Dad was able to get the landing net under it and haul it in. I had my first trophy northern pike, 42 inches long and about 18-20 lbs.

Grandpa was even more excited than I was and he and Dad decided right on the spot to have the fish mounted by a taxidermist for me. We carefully slit the belly on one side to clean it and packed it in ice. We brought the frozen fish to the taxidermist a few days after getting home. I remember the wait for the taxidermist to finish as excruciating – I couldn’t wait to see my trophy! Finally, after some months, we brought the mount home. Grandpa insisted my parents hang the thing in their living room where everyone to could see it. When I became an adult with a job and a house some years later my parents allowed me to take possession. The old mount has survived a half-dozen moves mostly intact, and hangs in our cabin to this day.

When we were not fishing or lolling around camp, we did some exploring. We hiked to nearby Forbes Lake, checked out islands for potential future campsites, and watched moose swimming across the lake. Grandpa always stopped to watch wildlife, whether beavers or bears or bald eagles.  Even though Grandpa lived to fish, he took the time to enjoy the beauty around him and enjoyed sharing the experience with me. Through him I gained a deep appreciation for the natural world and for quiet places. This is his greatest gift to me.






Into the Whiteshell, Part 1

Of all my experiences with Grandpa, our Canadian fishing trips had the most profound effect on me. Spending a week traveling to and camping in a wilderness in the Canadian Shield country, fishing for dinner, soaking in the beauty of the place, gave me a lifelong appreciation for the natural world. The Whiteshell country shaped who I am.

Whiteshell Provincial Park contains over a thousand square miles of rivers, forests, bare rock outcrops and crystal clear lakes and is located east of Winnipeg, Manitoba along the Ontario border. The area is essentially the western end of the Canadian Shield country that extends eastward through the Quetico-Superior country, the Boundary Waters and beyond. The exposed rock or shield is some of the oldest rock on the planet.

Whiteshell map.pngThe Whiteshell is named after the megis shell, a sacred object central to the origin stories of the Ojibwe. The area is known for its petroforms, which are rock alignments in the shapes of turtles, snakes, humans and other forms that historically may have been used by the Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwe, and probably are still in use today.

Our trips through the Whiteshell followed the Winnipeg River along the northern border of the park. This route was heavily used during the fur trade era, linking the Great Lakes to interior Canada.  The north half of the park is roadless wilderness, with only a handful of fly-in resorts and trail shelters for development. Our trip upriver was the most adventurous part of the journey. Dad, Grandpa and I traveled on Grandpa’s 14-foot Lund boat packed to the gunwales with gear, gas, food and beer some 40 miles. Grandpa’s boat was powered by an old 10-hp Johnson motor. He had a 3.5 hp Johnson motor that conveniently folded in half for storage, as a backup. That durable little motor is now in my garage.

Leaving Pointe du Bois, just above a large hydroelectric dam, at dawn we weaved our way among the many islands along the river to Lamprey Rapids. Here we had a choice of shooting the rapids or portaging around them.  If the water was high, the rapids were barely discernible and easy to traverse. In low water years, we typically unloaded a few critical items from the boat and then hand-towed it along the edge of the rapids to the upstream side.  We had good reason to use caution. Grandpa recalled a time when he and Grandma encountered another couple at the rapids who had been drinking. They later learned the couple drowned attempting to shoot the rapids.

Above Lamprey Rapids, we continued upriver, Dad reading an old map and pointing out the route to Grandpa. The dotted line on the map showed how to weave through the islands and outcrops. At the outlet of Eaglenest Lake, the river again shallowed and numerous rocks just below the surface had to be avoided. At the south end of the lake we reached Little Echo Creek and followed it back west. We traveled through a couple of smaller lakes to reach a falls and portage around mid-afternoon.

The portage, although only about 500 yards long, was the toughest part of the trip. We unloaded our boatload of gear and packed it over the rocky trail, making innumerable trips. On my first trip, at age 12, I thought we would never finish! I was stripped down to my long underwear, sweltering even though it was only late May.

The worst part was lugging the 14-ft aluminum boat up the portage. Dad grabbed the bow line and pulled it over his shoulder until the bow lifted up. Grandpa and I each took hold of the handle on each side of the stern. We would go about 20 steps, put the boat down and rest. We attempted to make the work lighter the next trip by inserting two aspen saplings through the seat braces to make like a wheelbarrow. Another year, Grandpa completed the wheelbarrow concept by welding up a wheel mounted to brackets which were in turn mounted to the boat. After thinking about this idea, working it up in his shop during the winter, and hauling it all the way upriver, Grandpa was convinced it would do the trick. But it didn’t, and the contraption probably still lays in the woods next to the trail where Grandpa discarded it.

Finally, after getting all our gear over the portage and reloading the boat, we were on the northeast arm of Echo Lake, our destination. The lake was incredibly beautiful, with many high cliffs, tranquil bays and incoming streams. Even though a wildfire several years before had burned off much of the timber, all the rocks and water, the sheer wildness of it – I was enthralled.

On my first trip, we camped on a rocky point near the south end of the lake. This was the site of an old trappers cabin that Grandpa and a group of friends leased back in the 1950s. Unfortunately, over the years more friends and friends of friends abused the privilege, leaving behind trash and letting the cabin fall into disrepair. Park rangers eventually burned it down. We set up an old army tent on the site, built a temporary table against a tree for washing dishes and preparing meals and gathered downed wood for the campfire.

I’ll write more about our experiences at Echo Lake in my next post.