A Lake Manitoba Adventure

From the 2008 David Thompson Brigade

By Rick Zroback
Submitted March 2018

In 2008, I was fortunate enough to be a member of the Borealis Canoe Club team from Fort MacMurray Alberta that participated in the 2008 David Thompson Brigade.  The adventure started on May 10th and ended in Old Fort William situated in Thunder Bay Ontario on July 12th after the Brigade had paddled over 3200 kms in 63 days. The Brigade was organized by individuals that wanted to honour the significant role David Thompson played in opening up the frontier of Canada.  Their paddling adventure celebrated the bicentennial anniversary of his 1808 travels when he journeyed  by canoe from Rocky Mountain House Alberta to Rainy Lake Ontario to inform his employers, the Northwest Company, that he had found a pass through the Rocky Mountains. The Howse Pass west of Rocky Mountain House provided the first access for future fur traders to access the Columbia River and eventually the Pacific Ocean.  Their brigade completed a one way journey of 3,200 km to Old Fort William; in 1808 David Thompson had to turn around at Fort Frances on Rainy Lake and return home to Rocky Mountain House all in the same summer!

After traveling for 27 days and just over 1700 kms, the 2008 David Thompson Brigade arrived about half way down Lake Manitoba on June 5th, 2008.  When we got to this location called the Narrows, our Brigade consisted of 10 teams with 6 people in a canoe at one time paddling an average of 60 kms per day on the lake sections we encountered. Prior to our lake paddling we had averaged about 80 kms per day on the North Saskatchewan  River as we utilized the downstream current to our advantage.  If you are familiar with the geography of Manitoba, it is really obvious that southern Manitoba does have a lot of prairie, but right in the middle of the province there are three monstrous lakes – Winnipegosis, Manitoba and Winnipeg. We were scheduled to paddle sections in all three, their size comparable to the smaller Great Lakes. If your itinerary includes paddling lakes of this magnitude with their wide open flat topography, no islands, wind and prairie thunder storms, it is safe to say there is a bit of trepidation.

Overall we had been extremely lucky with the weather on the first part of our journey and especially our previous encounters with the large unprotected lakes.  Both Tobin Lake in Saskatchewan and Lake Winnipegosis in Manitoba had been fairly calm and although there were some challenges on Lake Manitoba on the 4th of June, the 5th had been a paddler’s dream as the lake was absolutely still. The weather had been so perfect that day we had to look for shade when we arrived on shore and some of the Brigade members decided to have their first swim of 2008.

That night we were camped at the Narrows with two more planned days on the bulky south end of the lake still to come.  Throughout our trip we had been treated with unbelievable hospitality by local communities that we visited as we continued on our journey to Old Fort William. At the Narrows, the hospitality was similar but somewhat unique as the welcoming committee consisted mostly of the local resort owner and his desire to showcase our adventure. He arranged to have about three hundred school children from all over the Interlake area greet us as we arrived, entertainment which consisted of some exceptional native dancing and drumming as well some of the best toe tapping fiddling in that part of Canada. All in all, a really enjoyable day.  Our luck was about to change!

Every night, the canoe captains would meet to discuss scheduling and the planned route for the preceding day. That evening at the captain’s meeting after much discussion we decided to paddle down the east side of the lake as our warm weather was about to come to an end as Environment Canada was predicting rain with winds gusting up to 60 km from the NE.  Since we were traveling south, we would be able to use these NE winds as a bit of a tailwind and still be able to hug the east shore of the lake. I can’t even imagine what might have occurred if we had decided to travel down the west side of the lake as originally planned.

 As captain of the boat I had the extra responsibility of being the stern paddler. Our 25 foot canoe christened the “Metis Voyageur”, was an unbelievably stable craft that functioned oh so well in all kinds of conditions.  On the 6th, our canoe was tested on its ability to stay upright with a strong tailwind. A slight tailwind obviously can be used for your advantage but with the strong tailwind and waves pushing our boat to some extent to the west, my steering skill as the stern paddler was tested constantly to ensure the craft ran as straight and safely as possible in the direction I tried to make it go.  I digress, if anyone wants more details on paddling a 25 foot canoe in inclement weather, meet me later.

Our first 20 kms was paddled with the strong tailwind under overcast skies. By time we did a crew change with two people leaving and two more paddlers replacing them, the rain predicted for the rest of the day had begun to fall, but not in torrents. Hindsight is always 20 – 20 and in retrospect we should have probably stopped at this changeover location to assess the weather in regards to the feasibility of continuing on with the day’s paddle. I know if we hadn’t been such efficient paddling machines and had arrived about a half hour later; there would be no Lake Manitoba Adventure.

The day before we had joked around that Lake Manitoba was like the Caribbean Sea with the warm weather and calm water.  Lake Manitoba was about to become the North Sea consisting of cold driving winds combined with a torrential rain with absolutely no heat value. You always hear about storms on these big lakes and until you experience one they are just words. Believe me I have now been there, I’m only happy that our violent weather experience on that lake only lasted about an hour.  The rain was coming down so hard from the NE that when my face was slightly exposed outside the hood of my rain jacket I would be just pelted. You know you are in desperate times when you have to remove your glasses to hopefully improve your vision. The remaining part of this escapade on the water was a little blurry for yours truly.

Our brigade of ten canoes stayed in close proximity to each other and to shore during this heavy downpour. Although there was a period of indecision and turmoil as radio communication was hampered by the howling winds our Brigade captain was able to communicate that getting off the water was our only option. Once ashore, it was immediately decided that there really was only one other option. Stash the canoes, walk east to the nearest road or farm , make contact with our road crews and find warmth and dry accommodation for the night.  Since we had initially stopped at an extremely exposed spot, it was decided to paddle a little further to a more sheltered bay.  The one time that I really had a chuckle during this challenging time occurred as we paddled the last small section.  As we paddled close to shore a herd of cows that had been peacefully seeking shelter under some trees noticed ten canoes coming straight at them out of the storm. In a matter of seconds they began to stampede. In fact that herd was so freaked out that one of them took on a barbed wire fence knocking off the top strand as it escaped to safer higher country further away from the invasion of modern day sodden voyageurs.

After all the canoes were pulled up on higher ground, the troop began to walk east having no idea what was going to happen as at that time as we had no contact with our ground crews. Having 60 people move was imperative as hypothermia had not set in but we were darn close. We had to walk across pasture land, climb over at least three barbed wire fences knowing that a road or farm house was within a kilometer or two away.

Now how would you like to be a local farmer having coffee with your son and daughter in law and looking across your son’s fields towards Lake Manitoba on a stormy day watching your other herd of cattle stampede not realizing that this second stampede had been initiated by the lost Lake Manitoba paddlers.  Your first thought was that you have coyote problems that have to taken care of with a gun. Just as you were about to initiate your pest control plan you become a little more baffled as you glimpse through the rain and fog something yellow moving off in the distance. Then you observe other indistinguishable moving objects until you finally realize you are being invaded by 60 gortex suited aliens carrying paddles and other gear heading straight for your farm house. So now you grab more guns or find out what is going on, hear their story of woe, open up your home, get people dry and serve them tea, coffee, baking and hot dogs while this misplaced group makes contact with their ground crews and directs them to the right farm. Thank god it was the latter!  The Gord Johanson family was so gracious and kind to us that no words can really express the heartfelt feelings we all felt for this very special family. Although their two young children were not as enamored with our invasion as they never left their parent’s side the whole time we were there. 

Needless to say the fine people of the Municipal District of Eriksdale Manitoba had lots to talk about after our short unexpected visit. In fact one neighbour lady who has her own blog rushed over to interview us. She had her dictaphone on the whole time and was just beside herself with glee as she all this great material for future entries. 

The rest of the day was a little anticlimactic for our team as we were able dry ourselves and our belongings out in motel rooms in Ashern Manitoba. Later on that day we returned to the Johanson farm to assist the other teams in dragging the canoes to a more advantageous spot for loading onto our boat trailers. It was time for hugs, good wishes and bon voyage as the Brigade had a schedule to fulfill and more adventures to follow. I can only say that there were many more exciting activities, but thank goodness there wasn’t another Lake Manitoba Adventure for the rest of our expedition.

A small footnote: When I initially wrote this account, I really didn’t put any significance to the day of our adventure until I started to do some research for a writer’s workshop. Once I realized that we had all this turmoil on June 6th, the anniversary of D Day June 6th, 1944, I started to draw some comparisons to that infamous day. We definitely did not come anywhere near the horrors experienced by both sides of the battle on that day. However we did hit the beach in a flotilla and the startled enemy didn’t shoot at us but they did stampede towards the first invaders before retreating to fields further away from the beach. We had to climb over barb wire as we marched eastwards, just like the allies in 1944. Finally once the locals realized that we were not the enemy, they took us into their home not as liberators but as lost drenched souls that needed special assistance so they could lick their wounds, regroup and continue on with successfully reaching their goal at Old Fort William on July 12th, 2008.