Sunday, October 26, 2008

Canada: Bloodvein River

Bloodvein canoe trip, 2002
There are no photos for this trip, our camera got wet and destroyed the first day.
Pictures in the blog Canada, The Start are representative.

After the 2 canoes were tied down to the struts and the gear stowed, we boarded a DeHaviland OTTER floatplane from Bissett, MB, at about 1pm on Sat., June 8th bound for Artery Lake, on the border of Ontario and Manitoba, Canada. Before we took off we asked the young woman that was working there to pick a number between 0 and 50 and the closest one got to sit in front with the pilot. I won and was accused of slipping her a 10 spot. As I entered the rear of the plane to make my way to the front, I sat down in the fuselage area to check it out. Chris, my 25 year old son, asked if I was going to the front and I thought for second (he was hoping I’d let him go in front, I suppose) and I said, “Yes, I won it fair and square” and to the front seat I went.
As we taxied out into the lake then made the turn to head into the wind, we started to pickup speed for the takeoff. The far shore was coming up fast! We actually popped right out of the water, as we had very little gear for 4 men. At the dock the pilot even mentioned that we had the lowest amount of gear of any 4-man crew that was going to go the distance we were of anyone he could remember. The chests of Tom, my brother-in-law, and I probably puffed out a little, I suppose, as this has become our goal, to travel light with the minimum of equipment to be as efficient as possible on the portages. We had about 35 or so to perform on this 150 mile 6 day trip in remote Canada.
When we got up to cruising altitude the amount of lakes was impressive to say the least.
We started canoeing about 2:30 from Artery Lake down the Bloodvein River toward Lake Winnipeg. After a few of the portages, Chris started to complain about a blister. As he had no socks on, I started in on him how important it was to remember that what happened to one happens to everyone on a trip like this and that he needs to take that into account when he decides to do something. Little did I know that I’d be eating those words before the day was out.
About 5pm we started into a curvy section of the river that I assumed was a C1 rapids. As we got into it more, Tom yelled back, “Are you sure this is a C1” I yelled ahead, “Yes, I think so.” But things were moving too fast and I had to pay attention to the river and could not look at the map anymore. We were in survival mode. I knew we were in trouble. Tom would not have questioned anything if he hadn’t felt uncomfortable. I had misread the map and sent us all towards a waterfall named "Nutcracker." I don't know what the total drop was over the 100 yards or so of fast water, but the final cascade was high enough to not even be rated . Luckily, we really didn’t go through or over the roughest spots, but tried to slip around the left side. The highest rating we did the rest of the trip was a rated CII by the book. Even then we hardly ever took the center but skirted the main water activity in most if not all of the runs we did. The water was high and all of the actual ratings seemed to be one step higher than the listed ratings on the map, so in reality we did a number of CIII’s. For an open canoe with 2 men and gear in a remote setting, this is safely all and maybe a little more, than what good sense allows at our skill level. But, based on the situation, a CIII can be a great ride as well!

Anyway, as Tom and Jon, Tom’s 20 year old son, were in front, they capsized first, after almost making it through, and got stuck on a rock sideways at the very bottom. Chris and I came down and after making an attempt to land the canoe on shore, which was futile, we T-boned into their canoe, then sheared sideways backwards back toward the main part of the current. Being in back, I got thrown into the thwart and when the current took us sideways into another large rock, part of my hand was outside of the canoe and my little finger on my right hand got smashed between the canoe and a rock and most all of the meat got peeled off from the middle of the last 2 knuckles on up. The bone was visible and it was bleeding pretty well with a fair amount of flesh missing. The canoe shows the marks as well, with the gunwale dented and scratched where my hand was. We made it out of the rapids which was tricky due to the force of the water and the very real possibility of exposing the inside (open) part of the canoe upstream to the full force of the oncoming water. If this had happened, the canoe would have peeled inside out and would have become useless. We were trapped sideways on a rock with the bottom of the canoe facing upstream and water coming over the top of the canoe. Needless to say, we were jammed in there pretty tight and one false move and we’d have a wrecked canoe. In a remote setting, this was not good. I’m not sure how Jon and Tom got their canoe out, as I was a little busy working with Chris on ours, but they did. Chris was able to muscle ours out as well in fine fashion after I got out with my loaded backpack and stood on the rock we were caught on. He floated out with the canoe and as the current was too fast for me to walk out, and I didn’t want to put my finger in the water and swim, Tom came around in the eddy that was produced by the rock I was on and I hopped in with what was left of my finger and my backpack. I can only assume some walleye that day got a bite of lunch that was a little different than what it was used to! We then got everything gathered up (we only lost some shirts that were loose and 2 caps) including my fishing pole and all of the paddles and dry bags. Both Old Town Discovery’s toughed it out, which was amazing. Aluminum canoes would probably have been destroyed, I believe, similar to the one we saw later on down the river at a different set of rapids.

We bandaged up my finger as best we could once we all got to shore, as luckily we had a good first aid kit with Jon and myself both bringing good antibacterial cream. We then started down the river to where a fishing lodge was supposed to be. Our/my initial plan was to get me out to a doctor ASAP. When we got there about 3 hours later, it had been torn down. We camped there and ate dinner, instead. Then we boiled water. Tom let me know it was ready and even though I was “into my cups” with Windsor knew enough to let it cool. I told Tom, “We want to clean it, not cook it”. We washed the finger as best we could and used a clean toothbrush to scrub it up a little. Hint: when scrubbing an open wound with a toothbrush, don’t confuse dirt with the ends of small blood vessels and continue on to the point of removing flesh.
Tom then poured Windsor over it to kill the germs. It must have stung some, as I had to wash it off after a few minutes. All I can think about today is the scenes in the old westerns where the guy bites a bullet and then they pour whiskey on the wound before they go in to remove an arrowhead or bullet. Needless to say, I poured a fair share of Windsor in me before we did any of this, thank goodness. Tom did not let me wash it off after the 2nd. Windsor bath. After numerous inquiries by me in various degrees of "medicinal Windsor induced states of being,” Tom and Chris looked it over, declared it "good to go” and we bandaged it up for the night. I don’t remember anything after this, but was told I staggered around most of the night miraculously not falling into the river high atop the rock bank we were camped on singing “It’s only a flesh-wound” make popular by the Monty Python Holy Grail movies. Tom and Chris both mentioned they wish I would have passed out and Jon, being a 20-year-old collage student, probably thought he was just back on campus, nothing new here.
The next day, Sunday, I woke up to a sleeping bag covered with blood, as well as the area of the tent I was rolling around in overnight. The finger felt better than my head did and we headed out. We came across an old trapper cabin that was left open to the public. We went in and looked for any first-aid that was better than ours, but there was none. We did sign a log and 3 years later, at Canoecopia in Madison, WI while looking over PFD’s and talking to the sales guy, Hansi from Duluth, MN, enough of this story came out that he realized that it was our party he was following down the Bloodvein that year. He had seen the entry in the bloodstained log, blood at different points along the trail and a bloody bandage that had come off on a portage. Small world!
On Monday we came across another fishing lodge where people were staying. They really didn't have any more first aid than we did, but they were going to be flown out the next day, Tuesday, and offered/advised me to go out with them. As my finger was doing fine (no infection, little pain) I decided to continue on so as to not mess up the trip for the others and myself. As Jon mentioned once we got back in the canoes, “they weren’t doctors and it wasn’t like they stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night, or anything!”
They did seem quite concerned for us as they kept giving Jon food to take. We finally eased their minds by taking a can of potatoes with us.
Most of the campsites along the way down the river had firewood available that had been gathered and left by the last campers. As most of you know, doing that is just not a reality with our crew. You Know Who has to burn everything in sight. Tom seemed quite satisfied that this tradition will be carried on to the next generation, as Chris proved throughout the trip to have the necessary skills to accomplish this task. As our group wasn’t able to leave firewood, we left the canned potatoes for the next bunch of canoeists, or maybe the bear that left the footprint by our campsite that Jon and Chris saw while portaging the canoes earlier in the afternoon? Not politically correct, but we really didn’t want the added weight. I guess we could have buried it, but we thought that if someone really was hungry, they could have it.

Well, things went fine from there on. I was able to pretty much do everything like paddle, fillet fish and do my jobs like cook the fish, although the rest of the guys did all of the heavy stuff. Chris and Tom both tried their hand at filleting fish, but after a few attempts, I took the job back. We didn’t see any point in catching fish then not having enough meat after filleting to eat any of it.
I was still able to cast and retrieve, even after Chris made a duct tape cover that went over my 4th. and little finger to protect it from rain and also served as a "cast" when I banged it on things. We're considering patenting the design!
We caught enough walleyes to have 3 great dinners, but the northerns were not biting very well. Once we had just portaged around a falls and I fished in the fast current at the bottom. I casted about 15 times and caught 4 nice walleyes. After that though, Chris bailed me out a couple of times by catching a couple of nice walleyes right before supper to supplement what I had caught earlier in the day. I caught 1 nice northern, but that was about it.

The weather was cool and rainy with the wind at our back until Thursday, although Tuesday late afternoon after we turned NE on the river we had to camp, as the wind, which had been favoring us, was now in our face at a very high clip. Thursday was hot and we had a headwind. We got into the Bloodvein Reservation Thursday about 5pm, a day earlier than we expected. We averaged 40k (24 miles) or so a day with our best day of 33 miles. Jon kept track of all of this. He has since become our scout and map reader. Gee, I wonder why?

The water was high and we ran a few pretty wild rapids on the trip. There were many, many portages but mostly fairly short distances with great water falls and camping conditions. We got very efficient at things and made better than expected time. Chris and Jon knew that at every portage they had to drag the canoes, so it wasn’t too long before they just grabbed them and took off after Tom and I grabbed the backpack, Duluth pack and dry sacks to empty the canoes. Often times they beat Tom and I to the put-in. Normally, Tom and I would spend a few minutes trying to catch a fish or two at the bottom of the portaged rapids while Jon and Chris started down the river, scouting the next “situation”. We really didn't have to worry about bugs until Wed. night, as it was windy every day and night until then.

We saw 3 moose cows with 2 calves each, numerous eagles, beavers and one bear cub and a very large sow that just stood and watched us from shore. Tom and I also saw something cross the river a ways in front of us once and we think it was either a bear or a wolf. We also saw some ancient pictographs, some of which were very distinct even after 1,000 years, especially the moose and a man in a canoe. (they both weren’t in the canoe!) When we got down almost to the Bloodvein Reserve (reservation) there were some more pictographs that were surrounded by modern graffiti. Chris mentioned he saw the graffiti as more interesting and wondered why it was considered art if it was 1,000 years old and graffiti if it was modern. I said I didn’t know, but maybe the elders chewed out the “kids” that drew the pictographs 1,000 years ago for writing on the rocks. Similar to what we do now to the kids that draw graffiti on buildings. Makes one wonder…
Man, was Bloodvein Reservation, the end of our trip, depressing. The first thing we saw as we paddled into town was an old motorcycle sitting half submerged in the water directly down from a 10 foot drop in the river bank. The little kids were begging and challenging us and trying to steal everything we had when we landed and it was mess of a town. We gave the 7-11 year old kids our extra food, as we had one more meal left we weren’t going to use. We had found a local to take us across Lake Winnipeg to our waiting van instead of waiting for the ferry the next day, so we started to empty out our extras. The kids would take one bite out of the cheese and the sausage and toss the rest to the dogs or just chuck it on the ground. The final bit of bacon, that we cherished every night on the river, they just tossed out, as well. Jon said the dog seemed to like it.
A white woman that we assumed was married to an Indian came to us and advised us to camp on an island in the river, out of town. We decided to "get out" ASAP, instead. Our trip across Lake Winnipeg was interesting, as the local we hired to ferry us tied both canoes sideways across his fishing boat with a single piece of old gnarly plastic rope. As we were backing out of the dock, the kids jumped in and came swimming towards us and the back of the boat where the motor was. The “captain” slammed her in forward and it was a race to see if the prop was going to cut off a hand before we got out of range of the kids, or not. Luckily, we made. I didn’t want to see any more water injuries. Tom and I exchanged many glances over those few minutes, just wondering what would happen next. Bloody, screaming kids or our canoes flying over our heads as the rope broke! Off we went, skimming across the water, bouncy, bouncy, bouncy toward the far west end of Lake Winnipeg and our waiting vehicle.
He flew when he could with the spray flying over the canoes and our heads and barely crawled when he knew rocks were close, zigzagging through the islands. Very interesting. Sometimes you just got to trust people.

We went to the hospital in Winnipeg on Friday. When we came into the emergency room the nurse asked the usual, what happened, when did it happen, etc. She was very nonchalant when I said it happened about 6 days ago, but when she opened the bandage and saw the wound she moved quite a bit faster to get me to a Dr. The Dr. said canoe injuries were a dime a dozen but he was amazed I was out there for 6 days with my finger as tore up as it was without it getting infected and coming down with a fatal case of lockjaw. After filling him in on our “bush medicine” and treatment program I asked what we could have done differently and he said, “Absolutely nothing I can think of.” They brought in a plastic surgeon and he wanted to put me in the hospital for 5 days to reconstruct my finger, but I opted to finish my work at Prince Albert and The Pas in Canada the following week then get it taken care of at home.

Our whiskey ran out on Wed. night, so it’s good we got out on Thursday! I kind of over did it on Sat. during the local hospitalization efforts by Drs. Tom and Chris (as I mentioned before, I can't remember much.) FYI, we only drank at night, so the map screw-up was not alcohol related. Tom and Jon had their big night on Tuesday, as that night is pretty well gone from their memory, I guess. Chris was the only "stable/sensible" one. He might have felt he needed to take it easy, to baby-sit the old man, as he was always there to help me. It's kind of nice to have your kid take care of you for a change after all of these years. I'm really glad he made the trip, for a number of reasons, obviously.
Jon and Chris canoed together most of the time and they did great scouting and leading the way. They even found an actual error in the map and did not proceed down another waterfalls when the map said it actually was a C1, after they recognized it did not look right. It would have been much, much worse than the one we all got caught in. Maybe we did learn something from Nutcracker, after all. They got a little impatient with the bumbling "old men" a couple of times, but they also learned a little about "Old Man Power", as Tom and I set a pace they couldn’t beat on the last day during a headwind and hard paddling, even with a cripple in front. We still haven’t told them all of our secrets; maybe never will….somethings you just gotta learn on your own.

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