August Long weekend always means a trip to the Churchill River Voyageur Lodge with family and friends, a tradition that has continued for over 20 years. We leave early so that we can pick our groceries up from Robertson Trading in La Ronge. Scott and his staff always ensure to package the order so that it can easily be loaded into your vehicle and then the boat for your trip to the camp. Aside from the convenience of having your groceries packed and ready to go, Robertson Trading always has great quality food, from wild rice and fennel sausage to everything you need for s’mores. A stop at the store is well worth it just to see the museum-like displays of northern clothing, art, and handicrafts.
After loading the groceries, we head up on the road to the historic town of Stanley Mission. It’s an 80-kilometer drive from La Ronge. As you drive into town, you can see the beautiful Holy Trinity Church across the sparking water of the Churchill River.
Once we arrive in Stanley Mission, we meet Camp Manager, Tony Charles, and some of the guides at the public dock. Once loaded (always managing to bring too much stuff for three nights at the camp) we head off on the 30-minute ride to the camp. I always feel the tension and stress drain out of me after rounding the first bend in the river, when you can no longer see the road. From then on, we will be in the wilderness of Saskatchewan’s beautiful northern, boreal forest, nothing but water, rocks and trees.
This year the water is very high. You are unable to see the high-water mark like you can most years. The year has been very wet in the Churchill River basin. Buffalo Narrows experienced a once in a 100-year rainfall a couple of weeks ago. They got a month’s worth of rain in a single day and that water all flows down river. On the way to the camp, we shoot Big Stanley Rapids. Because of the high water, the rapids are large with big white caps, but our skilled guides have no problem negotiating the rapids and we arrive safely at the other side. Shortly after, we arrive at the top dock at the camp, above Potter Rapids, tie up the boats, and unload all our gear.
This year, there are 18 of us and our group ranges in age from 5-years-old to 79 in age. For us, staying at the fishing camp is a social occasion. My wife Therese usually hosts breakfast and supper at our cabin and, of course, we have shore lunch out on the lake on the days we are fishing. The first day is usually just sandwiches and salads as we have already had a hectic travel day and it is getting late. After supper, we all gather around the fire pit and watch darkness settle over the rapids. It seems that no matter what the weather is we all gravitate to the fire, at least for a little while. There is something about a fire, when you are in the wilderness that draws everyone to it. It may just be to make s’mores or to have a quiet drink and reflect on the crackling fire, but everyone always comes to the fire for a bit. People gradually straggle off to bed in anticipation of fishing the next day.
We are up early and have coffee on in our cabin. Therese makes pancakes and eggs on the Camp Chef stove with a grill and there is sausage cooked on the barbecue. Everyone assembles with paper plates and eats on the deck, where there is a good view of the rapids and all the birds that are drawn there. The pelicans bob for minnows while the gulls swirl above. You can usually see an eagle or osprey flying by and ravens are always in view too. Sometimes you will see a belted kingfisher too.
After breakfast, everyone packs a cooler with snacks and refreshments, slathers on sunscreen and goes to the dock to meet with their guide to go fishing. The boats disperse as each guide has his own special spot to find the best fishing.
Fishing is simple. You find a spot and anchor the boat. Everyone puts a ½ oz. jig head on their line with a swivel, hooks on a frozen minnow and drops their line over the side. Once your jig hits the bottom, you reel the line in a bit and wait for a walleye to bite. Sometimes they are voracious and take anything you offer and sometimes they are demure and just eat the minnow off your line. There is a special knack to telling when to set the hook and reel in a nice fish.
After fishing all morning, we head to the shore lunch spot. It is near the end of Drinking Lake, close to the massive standing waves of the rapids leading into Keg Lake. The site is up on a large chunk of bedrock. There is a rain shelter with tables and chairs. The fish are fried, canned beans and potatoes are cooked as well to round out the meal. Hot sauce and tartar sauce are condiments for the fish and ketchup for the potatoes. This trip Tony’s mother, Miriam, is in camp so she makes fried bannock along with homemade blueberry jam. Shore lunch is always the best part of the trip and Tony and the guides do a great job of feeding us.
After relaxing and eating – and some people, including my 79-year-old father-in-law go swimming – we get back in the boats for the afternoon’s fishing. Some people choose to go back to camp after lunch as fishing in the afternoon is always a bit slower than the morning. The forested hills and the glassy, smooth water make a peaceful scene.
Back at camp, everyone takes their rods, reels and coolers to their cabin. Some people shower and some people swim. Supper is a leisurely affair, with everyone gathering to eat and talk about the days adventures. Later there is a fire again.
The second day is a repeat of the first, except that after supper, Richard Charles takes a boat load of us over to see Nistowiak Falls. It is a short boat ride to Jim’s Camp. We debark at their dock and walk up the trail to the falls. It is about a 600-meter walk to the top of the falls. The trail through the bush is narrow and climbs a bit, you can see stretches of the Nistowiak River along the way. Because of the high water, the falls are booming, cascading water with a rainbow visible in the mist across the river. After everyone has taken all the pictures they want we troop back to the boat and head back to camp for supper. A rainstorm means we scramble to take the food in doors while I cook skewers of meat on the barbecue in my hat and rain gear. The rain also means no campfire tonight so people gather in their cabins to visit.
The final morning means cleaning up the cabin and packing your gear. We planned for the guides to start hauling our gear to the dock at 10AM. The last thing we do before leaving camp is stop by the building with the freezer to claim our fish. Everyone with a license, and kids under 16 who can fish without a license, can bring back four walleye. This time everyone who wants to bring fish home can and we make sure that no one has more than their legal limit.
Just before we leave, it is tradition to take a group picture on the dock. Then we jump into the boats and head back to Stanley Mission. We stop at the rock paintings at the top of Big Stanley Rapids, no one knows how old the paintings are but they are a reminder of how long people have used the Churchill River as a highway. After that, we head back to Stanley Mission.
Turning the final corner and seeing Stanley Mission and the road means our trip—at least the interesting part—is over. All that is left is to pack our gear into our vehicles and make to long trek back to the city. As bittersweet as the end of a trip always is you can take solace in knowing there will be another one soon.