Journey to Grey Owl’s Cabin – Part 1
· 17 min. read
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It's been about fifteen years since I last visited Grey Owl's Cabin. I went with my elementary school's Outdoor Ed program when I was about thirteen, and the only highlight I remember was missing school when I got back because of the blisters on my feet.
It was also around fifteen years ago that I last paddled a canoe.
So, it's fair to say I wasn't prepared for the 40-kilometre canoe trip to Grey Owl's Cabin. To make sure I didn't lose my way or end up being bear-food, I asked my good friend Kevin Dunn, the former 2018 Saskatchewanderer, to come along with me.
Before I talk too much about my trip, I want to thank Parks Canada and Prince Albert National Park for making this possible. Although I worked with Parks Canada last year in Riding Mountain National Park, this experience was very different. When I was in Riding Mountain, we toured as a group, were fed, watered, and lodged. This time we were thrown into the woods and told to figure things out or a search party would come find us.
And I loved every minute of it.
Prince Albert to the park is an hour-long drive along Highway 264. However, if you're wanting to experience the best of the park, you'll want to hop on Highway 263 instead. Highway 263 winds itself through the park, and although it is about twenty minutes longer than the main highway, it is very much worth the trip. I made this trip in the autumn so I could take in the colours, and this route was full of the fiery beauty of Northern Saskatchewan. If you're on this highway, you'll especially want to take in the Height-of-Land Lookout Tower so you can see the treeline from above.
Regardless of what highway you take, both end up at the southeast corner of Waskesiu Lake. Kevin and I took separate vehicles from Prince Albert to the park, but we checked into the park together. One thing to remember when visiting a national park is that once you get off the main highway, you're on your own. You won't run into a single person for hours ? which is one of the many reasons the park is so beautiful. For some, this isolation is intimidating, but for others ? including ourselves and Grey Owl ? it's liberating.
Kevin and I both had to sign some papers and were given a few maps of the area at the parks office. Our campsite for the night was Northend, but if things went wrong or we ran out of daylight, we could dock at Sandy Beach. However, it was recommended that we try our best to get to Northend. There are only a few campsites available and we had one guaranteed at Northend. If there wasn't a campsite in Sandy Beach, we'd end up camping in the bush ? which defeats the purpose of preserving nature.
It's also important to note that staying at a different campsite makes it difficult for park officials to find you if for whatever reason you don't come back.
Once we filled out our forms, we started the drive around Waskesiu Lake to Kingsmere Lake. One thing to remember when travelling in Northern Saskatchewan is that cell coverage is non-existent. About thirty minutes later we lost all communication to the outside world and we arrived at Grey Owl's Trail. Our canoeing adventure had begun.
But there was one problem: we didn't have a canoe.
I had assumed there was a canoe waiting for us, or that there would be a rack of canoes at the launch. Instead, we found nothing. Kevin and I wandered around the area, checking our maps for something we missed, and then hit the trail to see if maybe the canoes were further into the trees. We wandered down the path to a fork in the road and followed it towards a nearby campsite. On our way, we came across a rail portage where we could haul the canoe a kilometre-and-a-half across the land before lowering it into Kingsmere Lake. There was no canoe there either, so we walked to the end of the portage. Still nothing. Confused, we walked back, down the railway, back down the path and back to our cars. We had a dilemma: without a canoe, we can't do our canoe trip. Do we hike the 40 kilometres instead? Neither of us had packed for a long hike and Kevin had brought a large container of water. Carrying that would be exhausting but going without it would be suicide.
We opted to drive back until we got into service and call the Parks Canada office. They recommended we call the Waskesiu Lake Marina to see if they had any canoes to rent. I called them and it seemed like we weren't the first overly ambitious, but woefully unprepared canoeists to give them a panicked phone call.
Kevin and I arrived at the marina a few minutes later and got our canoe, personal flotation devices and paddles. We also had to sign some forms, which again said that on the chance we go missing, they'll send a search party out for us in a few days.
We strapped the canoe to the top of my car and drove back down to the launch point. We unloaded the canoe, unloaded our cars and finally, after almost two hours of a delayed start, we were on our way.
But the moment our paddles hit the water; we had another problem. Although Kevin is an experienced canoeist, I am not. I sat in the back of the canoe and oversaw the steering, and our canoe kept going in circles. After I figured out how to stop that, we ping-ponged off the banks of the creek all the way upstream. Once we got around the bend to the railcar portage, Kevin said it might be better if we switched positions on the canoe. If we didn't switch, we would probably never find our way to Grey Owl's Cabin.
Without hesitation, I agreed.
We loaded the canoe onto the rail portage and headed down the track. It was significantly harder to push the canoe than to just walk the path, especially when the portage was going downhill. Luckily the brakes on the portage were very sensitive so if it got too fast or we needed a break, all we had to do was stop pushing.
Fifteen minutes later we arrived at Kingsmere Lake. We took a quick food and water break, moved our bags around in the canoe and assumed our new positions. Finally, we were on our way to Grey Owl's Cabin. It was quarter to six at night and we had a four-hour canoe trip ahead of us.
Every lake in Prince Albert National Park has a different climate and we were worried Kingsmere Lake would be very rocky, since Waskesiu Lake had whitecaps on it. Fortunately, the waters were calm. We were told at the Parks Canada office to stay on the east shore of the lake, especially if the waters were rough. This was about three hours before we got into the water, back when we had plenty of time, but now we were racing daylight. We opted to follow the shoreline and then venture out into the open waters to cut back on travel time.
The lake has campsites on all sides of it, but there are four campsites on the east side ? Westwind, Chipewyan Portage, Sandy Beach and our destination, Northend. Each campsite is about five kilometres apart and could be seen from the water via big green signs, much like city signs one would find on the highway. We passed by Westwind relatively shortly and then passed by Chipewyan Portage about an hour later.
The next campsite, Sandy Beach, was about an hour away from Chipewyan Portage, but we were aiming to get to Northend ? a campsite about two hours away. If we stayed near the eastern shore like we were told to, we wouldn't get to Northend before dark. We had to decide: do we stay near the shore, or venture across the lake to save some time?
Since Kevin and I are the adventurous type, we hit the open water and race against the clock. As we got further and further from shore, we were blessed with calm waves. Kevin called them ?lucky waves?, but I don't believe that is an actual term. Either way, Kingsmere Lake is known for her rough waters and we were lucky not to have any. I didn't dare take out my phone to check Google Maps (which somehow still works when there's no service) to see how far the lake we had gone, but it felt like we were somewhere in the middle. The fiery autumn trees on all sides of us were now embers on the horizon.
As we canoed out into the water the sun began to set. I've seen sunsets on lakes before, but this one was different. The rolling waves looked like a silk blanket that faded from rose pink to deep blue. I tried to photograph it, but the images didn't give it justice. Kevin also noted that since so many of the birds had migrated south, the skies were empty, and the waters were silent. It was like floating on a kaleidoscopic sunset. It was the strangest, but the most breathtaking experience I have ever had.
When we were done looking at the sunset, we began paddling back towards the shore.
Less than an hour later, the waters had gone black. Kevin said he saw some lights moving on the shore ahead of us, and I said I saw some further down the lake. Those were probably the two campsites. It was only a little after eight at night, but because it was so late into the year, it had gotten dark fast. We chose to canoe towards the closest blinking lights.
We pulled the canoe to shore and looked for the big green sign. We had arrived at Sandy Beach. It wasn't the campsite we wanted, but it was too dark to continue. We wandered into the campsite to find a place to set up and found all the campsites were full. We were worried about this. With no place to stay, we set up camp at a small clearing not far from the water's edge.
I had forgotten my flashlights in Regina, so we used our cellphone lights, a headlamp and Kevin's flashlight to set up our tents. When we finished, a cool breeze started wafting off the waters. To stay warm, we found some firewood and chopped it into kindling. The wood was damp, but we had a few rolls of extra toilet paper and a box of matches, so we had plenty of fuel. After about twenty minutes, Kevin had turned what looked like a long, cold night into a toasty chat by the fire.
Finally, being able to rest, we talked about the day we had, and the day ahead of us. At times we also just listened to the waters crashing against the shore. Kevin said he was worried the heavy waves would mean rough waters tomorrow. We had to make plans for either option. Sandy Beach is four kilometres from Northend, and Northend is three kilometres from Grey Owl's Cabin. If the waters were too rough, we'd have to hike fourteen kilometres tomorrow. As a precaution, I dried my shoes out by the fire.
Around ten o'clock Kevin pointed over my shoulder to the north. On the horizon, over the hills and trees, the sky was glowing bright green. As we watched it, flames from the Northern Lights flickered over the tree. It was too distant to photograph so we just sat and watched it for the rest of the night.
About an hour later we put out the fire, washed up and said goodnight. I found the ground under my tent very uncomfortable, but I was so tired that it didn't bother me. I would figure out why in the morning. Kevin and I set our alarms for seven, knowing that we needed an early start. Whatever happened, it would be a long day.
Come read Part 2!
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Categories: Canada, Regina, Saskatchewan