PADDLING SASKATCHEWAN'S FOND DU LAC RIVER
by Bill Layman
The wind hit me with its full force as I clambered to the top of the sandy esker. My breath came hard and I felt
my heart racing. As I wiped the sweat from my brow I looked up at the dark leaden sky. Banks of gray-black
clouds raced past with the speed of a dream; so close that it felt as if an outstretched arm would surely be lost
from sight. Looking down to where I had started my climb, I saw our green cooking fly; the back guyed down to
our prospector canoe and tied off to two small birch trees in front. To the left stood our little yellow
mountaineering tent; inside warm down sleeping bags laid out on therm-a-rest pads waited to welcome us into
their warm comfort. I could see Lynda crouched in front of our little Coleman camp stove under the shelter of the
tarp where I had left her tending to a pot of tea and a bannock.
Durrant Lake, that we had just paddled in from mere minutes ago was alive with lines of racing white caps; their
peaks blowing off in submission to the strong northeast wind that howled in from the arctic ocean with the speed
and ferocity of a tundra wolf. The top of the esker was narrow, no more than twenty feet wide and along its
center I could see a deeply rutted serpentine game trail; these eskers make easy walking for all wild animals, even
the two-legged kind. Tendrils of mist hung on the tops of the black spruce that clung to each other for dear life in
tightly knit clumps along the top of the esker; further down the slope, seeking a less harsh place to grow, jackpine
and birch dotted the fields of caribou moss, cranberries and bearberry. In the soft light cast by the storm the
colours were a vibrant mix of greens, yellows and reds and my heart was light as I walked beside the trail and
looked out, as if master of my own private world, at the unending solitude.
Lost deep in my dreams and my feeling of independence I almost walked right past it. A roughly hewn four sided,
five inch diameter, "claim post" made from a jackpine tree to mark one corner of a mining claim. As I looked at
the post bearing a bronze mining tag, and the inscription written in my own hand, my mind wandered back many
years. I remembered the cold January day when I had snowshoed four miles to mark out one of the boundaries of
a tract of land that a mining company had hired me and ten Cree Indians to stake for them. That day as I walked
through the stands of open jack pine, and saw for the first time what my fellow workers called "parkland", I
vowed I would paddle by canoe through the area some day. And now here I was on my third trip on the
Waterfound-Fond du Lac River system in northern Saskatchewan.
THE COUNTRY AND GEOLOGY
The Fond du Lac River follows a sinuous course, winding its way from Wollaston Lake north and west to Black
Lake about 170 miles downstream. Its course generally demarcates a fault line between the harder granite to the
northeast and the softer gravels and sandstone formations to the southwest. Since the river has had an easy job
cutting its way through the soft gravels and sandstone formations, there are very few of the violent, drop-pool
rapids typical of rivers that cut their way through harder granite formations.
The geology of the Fond du Lac makes for a river with lots of long shallow rock strewn rapids and a few steep,
short falls where its course intersects harder sandstone and granite formations. To the southwest of the Fond du
Lac is the Athabasca Basin. It is characterized by open stands of mature jack pine placed on soft carpets of
caribou moss, bearberry, twinflower, and a host of other low creeping flora. Many sand eskers and drumlins cut
into the river on the northeast-southwest geological strike that appeared as the glaciers retreated from the area. It
is not uncommon to walk for miles in these stands of mature jack pine trees without having to step over a dead
log - thus the local designation "parkland" for this seemingly cultivated forest.
I refer to this country as the "friendly wilderness": although far from civilization, it is such a comfortable and easy
area to travel in that you are lulled into an immediate sense of relaxation. Mature jack pine forests require forest
fires to begin their growth again - the cones need intense heat to open - and you will frequently find yourself
paddling through old fire-killed areas where you can see the new-growth jack pine reclaiming the area. Dry,
standing-dead firewood is everywhere and you're almost guaranteed to find a gorgeous campsite within minutes
of deciding to end your day's paddle. On one trip my partner was marking good camp spots on his map for future
reference; after the first twenty finds in our morning's paddle I convinced him that perhaps it would be easier to
mark the bad sections of the river.
The other predominate forest type, along with occasional tamarack and paper birch, is the black spruce, which
claims the lower, wet, muskeg areas.
Sedimentary sandstone has been deposited as slab-like layers along much of the Fond du Lac. The river has
carved its way through this soft, porous material, leaving gorgeous, striated, vertical walls, many over fifty feet
high. In many places the river has undercut the overhanging material to form shallow caves and roofed ledges. In
one location Lynda and I found a gigantic, well-used eagle's nest on a ledge about twenty feet above the river's
surface with a perfectly formed roof of limestone; talk about a room with a view. The many small caves and
crevices give rise to wild fancy of just what might be living inside -- no doubt helping to create the legends and
superstitions about "the homes of the little people" so common in the Aboriginal Cree and Dene oral history.>
s at Waterbury Lake and flowing northeast through Theriault (Unknown) Lake and Durrant Lake to join the Fond
du Lac River at Waterfound Bay. It is about 65 miles from the shore of Waterbury Lake to the confluence with
the Fond du Lac and this is by far a prettier trip than that from Wollaston Lake. The Waterfound is a smaller river
and follows the geological strike through the center of the sand covered Athabasca Basin so you often find
yourself paddling for miles along the edge of spectacular sand eskers. As an added bonus, many of the rapids
below Durrant Lake abound with grayling. And like the Fond Du Lac, the campsites are world class.
The country is generally covered with low soft rolling sand and gravel hills rather than the abrupt sharp rocky
terrain of the Precambrian shield near La Ronge.
The first European to explore the Fond du Lac River was David Thompson in 1796 employed by the Hudson
Bay Company. Known to his contemporaries as "Mr. Astronomer Thompson", in recognition of his prowess with
a sextant, he was looking for a better and shorter route to the Athabasca country where the "Honourable
Company" was seeking fur principally beaver pelts. Thompson's trip with two Dene guides, Paddy and
Kosdaw, took him from near The Pas up to the Churchill River, then to the south end of Reindeer Lake via the
Reindeer River, up the Swan River (about half way up Reindeer's east shore) and through a series of small lakes
and portages to Wollaston Lake and then down the Fond du Lac. He could have also chosen to go to the north
end of Reindeer Lake from where he could have worked his way upstream along the Cochrane River but this
route was much longer.
C. S. MacDonald in 1924, while making a survey trip for the Topographical Survey of the Department of the
Interior from The Pas, Manitoba to Lake Athabasca, noted that, "By this route, the journey to Wollaston Lake
is 213 miles, with 23 interuptions in the way of rapids and falls". One of these portages past Big Stone
Rapids is 1 1/ 2 miles long and having done it on my trip to Nueltin Lake I can vouch for why Thompson and
MacDonald took the shorter, less scenic route. At 45 miles, despite MacDonald's mention of 17 portages, this
would by far be the easier trip.
Thompson's trip was nearly his last; on his return they lost the canoe and nearly all their gear while trying to line up
the rapids that now bear his name (Thompson Falls). Cold, wet, and without food they somehow managed to
rescue the canoe and continue their trip. Desperate for food, Paddy and Thompson roasted and ate an eagle
chick and both nearly died from violent dysentery. Had the three adventurers not stumbled onto a Dene family
who nursed them back to health they would likely have perished. On Thompson's return, rather than gaining any
sympathy for his near-death adventure, he received a curt note from his employer that told him to stop exploring
and concentrate on the business of gathering furs - it had been decided that this route to beaver country was
During this period the indigenous aboriginals, the Dene, didn't make any particular use of the area of the Fond du
Lac River. In spite of attempts by the Bay to get them to trap for the lucrative beaver pelts they preferred to range
with the herds of caribou that wintered on the edge of the treeline and wandered north far onto the tundra each
summer. As Sheila J. Minni said in her 1976 paper about the Black Lake community, "The basic adaptation of
the Chipewyan (Dene) has not been to a single environmental zone but to a single animal species whose
range cross-cuts several environments". In other words, the Dene wanted to follow the herds as they always
had, and in many ways still do.
Lynda Holland, whom I paddle with, works with and counts as friends the Dene in the communities of Wollaston
Lake and Black Lake. She has been told many times by older people that, "In the old days we (the Dene) were
just like packs of wolves. We followed the caribou just like the wolves did". Since the easiest place for the Dene
to kill the caribou, spring and fall, was at the predictable river crossings of major rivers on the barrens like the
Kazan and the Dubawnt, they spent a lot of their time in areas where there was no beaver to be had. As well, the
fact that they walked in their pursuit of the herds made carrying pelts an unpractical reality. Besides, why would
they bother to collect furs to trade when the caribou provided everything they needed from sewing needles and
sinew, to tepee skins, clothing and food.
Following Thompson's trip, Europeans ignored this area for the next century. The next people to travel into the
area of the Fond du Lac were the geological surveyors and prospectors. In the mid 1890's J. B. Tyrell and D. B.
Dowling explored the area as part of a project for the Geological Survey of Canada during which time they
traveled from Lake Athabasca up the Fond du Lac, across Wollaston Lake, down the Cochrane River, and
finally down Reindeer Lake to the Churchill River. C. S. Macdonald in 1924, as already noted, made a trip
following the route that David Thompson had first used. Constable Marcel "Chappy" Chapuis patrolled in the
area of the Fond du Lac twice during the winter of 1924-25 but his trips by dog team and were not near the
actual river. In 1928 Ted Nagle, along with three others, mounted an exploration party from Fort Chipewyan for
Consolidated Mining and Smelting following Tyrell's route and ending in The Pas.
The next group of Europeans to access the area were the trappers who showed up all through Canada's north
during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This was a time when fur was king and the prices for white fox were
higher than they had or will likely ever be. Most of these trappers followed the route that became the norm for the
area, traveling from Edmonton to Fort McMurray by train and then on to Fort Chipewyan by steamer. From Fort
"Chip" they worked their way by canoe, or any large boat they could find, to Stony Rapids at the east end of
Lake Athabasca. From Stony they fanned out to the good trapping areas each fall and many worked their way up
the Fond du Lac by canoe. A good account of the life and times of these trappers can be found in Eric
Munsterhjelm's book, The Wind and the Caribou.
The last group to penetrate the area were the recreational canoe parties that still paddle the river each year.
Sigurd Olson's book, Runes of the North, published in 1963, recounts one such early trip down the Fond Du
Lac from Wollaston Lake, and yet despite his testimonial to the beauty of this river few others paddle its length
each summer. Last summer Lynda and I paddled Nunavut's Coppermine River and we met well over 20 people
and yet in three trips on the Fond du Lac I have still to meet another canoe party.
C. S. Macdonald reported that between Wollaston Lake and Stony Rapids on Lake Athabasca, "there are 28
rapids or falls, many of which must be portaged". My personal experience is that on the course of the Fond du
Lac I have only portaged at three locations two of which are mandatory. I have seen the river at different water
levels and found that there is always one way or another to run or line all the other rapids. As noted before, the
rapids tend to be long and shallow and often you have to "bump and grind" your way over the shallow spots.
There are a number of ledges along the course of the river that are all easily avoided if you keep your eyes peeled
and have good back-ferry skills. The current isn't "pushy" and if you have a modicum of whitewater skill it is a real
fun ride to Black Lake.
The first portage on the Fond du Lac is a ledge-waterfall about a mile and a half below Thompson Rapids
(marked on 1:250,000 map 64L Wollaston Lake) which I lined over on the extreme river right on one occasion.
The portage here is on the left and is excellent after you scramble up the 15 foot near vertical sand bank. The next
mandatory portage is at Manitou Falls (marked on the same map) about 1/2 mile below the first portage. The trail
is on river left and is a short 150 yard carry. Stopping here for overnight or just for lunch will definitely be a trip
highlight. The last portage is at Burr Falls and starts on river right just above a large mid-stream island. There are
usually a few aluminum fishing boats belonging to the Aboriginal Dene hunters at this end of the trail so keep your
eyes open as the portage is easily missed. This portage is about 3 /4 of a mile long and don't be dispirited by the
first 100 yards which wanders through a low wet bog. After you scramble up the hill from the bog you find
yourself on an excellent sand "highway".
There are many other named and un-named rapids on the Fond du Lac and with a little study you will easily find a
safe route or a way to line them. Failing either option, you will almost always find a well traveled portage like the
one on river right at Thompson Falls (actually really a class 2+ rapid). Remember what I said before this is a
From Waterbury Lake to Waterfound Bay there is only one place I have ever portaged and only once at that.
About 2 1 /2 miles from Theriault (Unknown) Lake (5200E / 647300N) there is rapid which needs to be
scouted. It is long and it is hard to see as it starts in earnest after a tight left turn. The main portage is on river left
before the turn but it is easy to back-ferry down the inside of the turn and slide into a calm pool where you can
re-group and scout the rapid. Years ago I cut a short 20 yard trail from here up to the main trail as there were a
bunch of sweepers in the river from a recent forest fire and it was easier to carry a few hundred yards than it was
to find a way around them. I have never followed the trail to the bottom of the rapid, finding it easier to just carry
a short stretch and run the rest. In any case scout this one well as it is fast and shallow and spills out into a rocky
boulder field at the bottom.
If you want a very detailed listing of the rapids along the Fond du Lac contact Ric Driediger at
email@example.com. Ric runs Horizons Unlimited in Missinipe, Saskatchewan, and can tell you about the
river, rent you canoes, organise your guided trip, book your air flights, provide vehicle shuttles to your put in, and
for that matter he will be happy to "talk your ear off" about paddling Saskatchewan's north.
The Fond du Lac is a relatively easy river but as in all northern travel remember that you are on your own if
something happens to you . There are daily scheduled air flights between Points North Landing and Stony Rapids
so I carry a small handheld VHF radio which can be used to communicate any problems with an airplane. If you
buy or rent one of these units for your northern trips, familiarize yourself with the local air schedules, the
frequencies that the planes use, and general radio protocol. I also carry a Personal Locator Beacon that is
strapped to the back of my life jacket in case we capsize and lose our gear. This unit, when activated, sends a
signal by satellite to the Mission Control Centre at Canadian Forces Base, Trenton. Upon receiving a signal, the
most appropriate rescue plan is initiated based on your location.
The Fond du Lac is a warm river and you aren't in any real danger of hypothermia in the event of a spill as you
would be on an arctic river. The biggest danger in the event of a capsize is the possibility of wrapping your boat
around a rock, or worse getting yourself pinned. A good course in whitewater technique and emergency rescue,
and solid skill in class 2+ rapids will see you safely to the end of the river. There is no need for a covered canoe
on this river but given that you aren't portaging much anyway it won't hurt to have one. The final lake crossing to
the community of Black Lake is over 20 miles and there are no islands to break up the full force of the wind so
you might just find a cover is good thing to have along.
Firewood is more than abundant and there is no real need for gas stoves although one is handy for those wet days
when you want to cook under your rain fly.
Fishing on the Fond du Lac is excellent. Take tackle for pike which you can search out in shallows and weed
beds and for walleye (pickerel) that you can find at the bottom of many rapids along the eddy lines. As well
grayling fishing is excellent in the many rapids of the Waterfound so take some "tiny" spoons and dry flies.
Count on seeing lots of wildlife. Black bears are common as are moose. In one section below Redbank Falls I
have seen as many as 12 moose in a single day, and in fact I have never seen fewer than two. I have also seen
lynx, foxes, otters, mink, beaver, marten and wolves.
Whether you choose to start your trip where gravel highway 105 skirts Wollaston Lake, or at Waterbury Lake,
the headwaters of the Waterfound River, your trip will be about 170 miles. With few portages and lots of current
count on an easy 15 to 20 miles a day. Allow a few extra days for possible wind on lake crossings.
You will need three 1:250,000 scale maps for your trip
Wollaston Lake 64L
Stony Rapids 64P
Pasfield Lake 64I
This section is very simple for me to write. If you want a guided or unguided trip, need to rent canoes, rent camp
gear or radios, arrange charter or scheduled air flights, get a shuttle vehicle to take you to the put in, etc etc
etc .phone Ric Driediger. He is a real one-stop shopping center. But do him a favour if you want a guided trip
tell him you want him to guide you so he can get out of the damn office! This guy can paddle and he loves it!
If you insist on doing your trip on your own, Points North Landing is the company you will have to talk to. They
are located near the edge of Waterbury Lake from where you will have to charter a float plane to get you on the
Waterfound River. Check out their website and let them know what you need they are always ready to help.
Points North Landing has secure parking and is at the end of the road. To get there you take drive north from La
Ronge 290 miles on highways 102N and 105 N. This is a gravel road and there are lots of BIG trucks called
"super Bs", they look like small trains - so drive slowly and cautiously. It is a road best suited to half-ton trucks
and make sure you have basic tools including two spare tires as there are no services to speak of - you can buy
gas along the way but that's about it. If you are at all in doubt about driving get Ric Driediger to shuttle you up to
Points North in his heavy duty well equipped van.
On arriving at the community of Black Lake you can easily arrange to rent a "half ton taxi" to get you to the Stony
Rapids airport some 20 miles away. There are any number of Dene entrepreneurs in Black Lake willing to take
you to Stony but for my money find Boniface Robillard and get him to tell you about when he trapped far out onto
the barrens looking for white fox. His stories alone are worth the cost of the taxi ride. Once in Stony you can set
up a tent somewhere but there is no real designated campground so don't leave your gear unguarded. You can
also stay at the hotel but it is nothing to write home about and the meals leave lots to be desired. There are usually
several daily scheduled air-flights from Stony during the work week that will get you back to Points North or
further south, but the schedules change a lot. Phone Ric or Points North to get the latest info.
1.Ric Driediger, Horizons Unlimited, 306-635-4420, firstname.lastname@example.org,
2.Points North Landing, 306-633-2137, email@example.com, http://www.pointsnorthair.com/
1.Munsterhjelm, Eric (1953). The Wind and the Caribou, Toronto: The MacMillan Company of Canada
2.Nagle, Ted & Zinovich, Jordan (1989). The Prospector North of Sixty, Edmonton: Lone Pine Publishing.
3.Olson, Sigurd F.(1963). Runes of the North, New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc.
4.Glover, Richard (Ed) (1962), David Thompson's Narrative (1784-1812), Toronto: Champlain Society.