Guided beyond expectations on Saskatchewan’s northern waterways
As you’re driving the scenic gravel roads up to northern Saskatchewan, there is a point when rock, the ancient core of the continent, begins to reveal itself in the forest landscape.
It’s a sign that adventure is just around the corner. The anticipation builds for the tall cliffs, whitewater rapids and wildlife found in the boreal shield.
The area is one of Saskatchewan’s best kept secrets and home to most of the province’s 100,000 lakes and rivers. It offers endless possibilities for paddling expeditions and thrilling experiences.
The wilderness changes people. This is what Ric Driediger told me the night before I went on my first guided trip on the Churchill River. Driediger has been canoeing this water for 50 years and operates Churchill River Canoe Outfitters (CRCO).
I interviewed Driediger about what the wilderness had offered to him and others over the decades. His insight into the landscape, and the connections forged while travelling across it, stayed with me long after the trip.
Early the next morning, our group of six helped strap three canoes to the outside of a floatplane: our ride to Black Bear Island Lake. The lake would be the starting point for our five-day trip paddling 100 km back to Missinipe.
The Churchill River is a series of lakes connected by rapids. This gives paddlers a choice to navigate the open waters or challenge themselves in the faster moving sections.
We were planning to try both.
Lucky for us, our small group had two skilled CRCO guides, Courtney Hancherow and Layne McKenzie, leading the way.
The guides taught us how to navigate the water, but they also made sure paddlers don’t miss out on hidden gems along the route.
We arrived at a collection of red ochre pictographs after only a few hours of paddling. The colour of the ancient images appeared vivid on the rock face. Driediger had learned from local stories that, during the 1700s, the Indigenous people told others that they were unsure of who created the images – meaning they were already many generations old by that time.
We took risks and reveled in the environment with new adventures every day: floating in warm lakes, plunging off rock cliffs into deep waters, playing in whitewater rapids and counting the eagles soaring overhead. We stopped at a majestic waterfall; a little oasis hidden behind trees on the shoreline.
The group took turns standing under the falls, astonished by the raw power of nature.
As each day came to a close, our guides would locate our campsite for the night. Hancherow and McKenzie had the fire roaring and food cooking before the rest of us had even set up our tents and sleeping bags. The service was phenomenal.
They crafted a banquet table by rigging one of our canoes upside down between two trees. The trip menu was a wonderful surprise; each meal carefully planned to ensure maximum nourishment, freshness and delight for the duration of the trip. We learned to forage for berries and herbs, spicing up the meals.
After five days of paddling, and with some instruction from our guides along the way, we were gaining confidence running rapids. We felt ready to take on our biggest challenge yet: Otter Rapids. The rushing water stretches about 500 metres long.
McKenzie assessed our new skills as paddlers and gave us a 50/50 chance of making it through the rapids without tipping. He helped us read the water and pointed out the safest route.
Then he pointed out a route through the centre of the rapids known as “The Party Line.” The waves here were the biggest we’d seen all trip, growing so tall that you completely lost sight of the other canoes and their paddlers.
I was hesitant, but my colleague Andrew Hiltz, The Saskatchewanderer, insisted we party on and go for the big waves down the middle. I steered from the back of the canoe, laughing with excitement and watching him bounce up toward the sky as we hit massive wave after massive wave.
It was thrilling.
It was also exhausting, but somehow, we worked hard enough to keep the canoe afloat and on course. We paddled with all of our might. To the surprise of everyone, including ourselves, we ran all of Otter Rapids through “The Party Line.”
It was the perfect conclusion to the trip of a lifetime. As we started packing up the gear, I couldn’t help but reflect on the conversation we had with Driediger before setting out.
He had told us that the wilderness changes people. He was right.
Feeling the energy and grace of nature. Disconnecting from the rest of the world. Making memories with a great group of people – strangers turned friends. All of it renewed a sense of wonder in me and by the end, I did feel different.
How will this wilderness change you?
Plan Your Trip
- Rendezvous Point: Missinipe – 80 km N of La Ronge on Hwy 102
- Accommodations in Missinipe:
- Amenities: Churchill River Trading Post
- Area Attractions:
5 Amazing CRCO-Guided Trips
There are enough canoe routes in northern Saskatchewan for a lifetime of paddling. All you need is a sense of adventure. Churchill River Canoe Outfitters can handle the rest. It offers rental gear, expert guides and custom itineraries to help you experience the expedition of your dreams! Check out these 2023 adventures:
Paddle along the sandy shores of Pardoe Lake. You will approach Coghlan Falls downstream and can take in the stunning views of four cascades. Together, the falls drop 28 m!
Canoe by Saskatchewan’s oldest building, the beautiful Holy Trinity Anglican Church, on the way to one of the province’s tallest waterfalls. You will also see ancient pictographs along the way as you take in the beautiful boreal landscape.
This highly recommended route features many rapids – all of which can be run in your canoe. That’s right, no portaging necessary! The scenery is full of breathtaking views, especially as the river flows along limestone gorges.
Go chasing waterfalls on this route. There are 11 unique falls along the way. Sandy beaches, including some that are lavender in colour, and rock formations that appear melted from a past cataclysmic event are part of the natural wonders on this trip.
CRCO says this trip is “not for the faint of heart.” Within a landscape of ancient mountains, challenge yourself on Saskatchewan’s most northern river, which rushes through the picturesque taiga shield.
Author: Mitch Doll
Mitch Doll is a cautious adventurer who, knowing it would be a terrible idea, would vacation to Jurassic Park if it were real. He is a Content Creation Consultant for Tourism Saskatchewan who tells uniquely Saskatchewan stories through video.