Book Review – Canoeing the Churchill

Many years ago I paddled a couple of stretches of the Churchill, and now that the kids are older, I’d like to do some more. Meanwhile reading about it lets me live vicariously.

I originally wrote this book review for the December 2006 edition of Treelines, the newsletter of the Saskatchewan Forestry Association.

Canoeing the Churchill: A Practical Guide to the Historic Voyageur Highway

by Greg Marchildon & Sid Robinson 2002

Reviewed by Phil Loseth

A recent instalment in the Discover Saskatchewan series produced by the Canadian Plains Research Center at the University of Regina, Canoeing the Churchill is clearly a labour of love. As the book’s title indicates, it offers practical advice to paddlers on how to navigate the Churchill River, but it is much more than a technical handbook, being packed with fascinating historical information, descriptions of the communities along the route, and other information. An impressive amount of academic research has been combined with personal observations from the authors’ trips on the Churchill, all presented in a highly readable style.

The route described, referred to as the “voyageur highway” or “guide route” due to its significance to the early exploration of western Canada and to the early fur trade, includes parts of three river systems stretching across northern Saskatchewan from close to the Alberta border almost to Manitoba. Starting where the Cluff Lake Road (Highway 955) crosses Warner Rapids, step-by-step directions guide the reader down the Clearwater River, across a height of land via the gruelling Methy Portage into the Churchill River system, and down the Churchill to Frog Portage, where a much lower height of land is crossed to the Sturgeon-Weir River, ending at Cumberland House.

Although the route covers approximately 1100 km, which the authors paddled in one summer, most paddlers will want to break the trip into smaller segments taking anywhere from a couple of days to more than a week, and the book is organized into chapters accordingly.
An introduction provides general information about the route’s climate, vegetation, and wildlife, in addition to helpful information on canoe trip planning. This is followed by a chapter on the history of the route, from the earliest known archaeological evidence of human habitation, the indigenous Cree, Dene and Métis, and the early fur trade. What could have become a dry academic history is enlivened with anecdotes from the journals of early explorers and traders. The subsequent eleven chapters describe segments of the trip:
• Clearwater River to La Loche
• La Loche to Buffalo Narrows
• Buffalo Narrows to Île-à-la-Crosse
• Île-à-la-Crosse to Patuanak
• Patuanak to Pinehouse Lake
• Pinehouse Lake to Otter Rapids
• Otter Rapids to Stanley Mission
• Stanley Mission to Pelican Narrows
• Pelican Narrows to Denare Beach
• Denare Beach to Sturgeon Landing
• Sturgeon Landing to Cumberland House

Throughout these chapters, the descriptions of the river’s rapids and portages and the recommended routes across lakes are interspersed with descriptions of local communities, historical events and colorful characters, rock paintings, and other interesting tidbits. The non-technical information is formatted in shaded boxes to easily set it apart, a nice feature for canoeists wanting to find information quickly. Advanced canoeists may find the authors overly cautious in their recommendations regarding which rapids can be safely run and which should be portaged (most Class 3 and many Class 2 rapids). However considering the number of voyageurs buried along the
route, most paddlers, especially those at the novice to intermediate level, will appreciate the emphasis on safety.

At 480 pages, this book may be too bulky to fit in the canoeist’s shirt pocket, but an advantage of canoe tripping compared to hiking is that a bit of extra weight isn’t as much of a concern. Canoeing the Churchill should be a welcome addition to anyone considering a trip on Saskatchewan’s historic voyageur highway.

Comments are closed.