Rapids on the Camsell River
On most of the school’s canoe trips, rapids were part of the route.
What is your favourite experience shooting rapids? Which trip were you on?
Send us your story.
February 10, 2014
February 10, 2014 at 4:17 pm
The Camsell trip is one of my top five. It’s Named after the portage from Lake Athabasca to Tazin Lake. The route starts on Davin Bay on Wollaston Lake, goes down the Fond du Lac, then along the north shore of Lake Athabasca, over Camsell Portage into Tazin Lake. Then down the Tazin to the Taltson, then down the Taltson to Great Slave Lake.
One rapid on the Tazin was terrifying:
We’d done the portage, or rather a miserable excuse of a deer trail. came down to the rocks, and found that we weren’t at the end of the rapid. Maybe in August we would be, but not in June. Mr. Nordahl walked back up the point of rock and scouted for a trail to get us the rest of the way down. Half an hour later he came back. “Rocks, and trees. It will take us the rest of today and a good chunk of tomorrow. Let’s take another look at the rapid.
We did. Moderately big waves, but weird currents. Nordahl said he was going to try to sneak down the right hand shore.
He set out, staying within a canoe length of the cliffs on the right.
I changed my mind about the size of the waves. Or some mysterious force shrank his canoe as he went downstream.
He was about two football fields away, when he turned and went to shore, disappearing behind an outcrop. Then he came out, circled and went back in. Came out at a different angle, and skirted the outcrop. Twenty minutes later he was with us again, somewhat red from his exertions, and a crew that was a tad worn.
“No access on that side. Big ledges that you can only see the tops of the haystacks from here.”
“Why’d you go in that bay?”
“No choice. That’s where the water went. But I did get a good look. The centre is just big. No rocks. I’m going first. Botsford, you’re sweep.”
Nordahl set out again, this time keeping to the center. We watched him go. 100 yards. 200. 300. Then sharp left turn padding full speed straight toward the left wall. Hard right, and downstream.
“He must have seen something at the last minute. ” Mr. Jeynes went next. He took it about a canoe length closer to the left, to miss the boojum that had spooked Nordahl.
No issues for 300 yards. Then HE turns hard left.
Savin and I look at each other. ” Must be a ledge with a gap just by the cliff.” I said. “I don’t like how close he came to the cliff. He had a hell of a time getting it parallel to the current.”
Savin took a course between the two.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t seen Nordahl yet. The geometry was such that he might have gotten around the bend without being seen, but I set out with a lot of jangling nerves.
I wanted time. Time to change my mind. We set out slowly, doing a light back ferry. Not enough to cancel our forward motion, but enough that even light currents would take us around the rocks.
The problem with a back ferry is that you are moving forward relative to the bottom of the river, and the rocks, but backward relative to the water. Really easy to get your steering in a muddle. You point your bow toward the rock you want to miss.
We move down. 200 yards. 300 yards. Nothing there. No rock. No wave. What the ???.
Then the canoe spun 90 degrees in 2 seconds. We were pointed straight toward the cliff, and despite my backferry it was getting closer at an alarming rate. “PRY!” I shouted to my bowsman. He was paddling on port so nothing complicated there. “Port give way HARD. Backwater starboard.”
It wasn’t turning. “Shades of Samuel Herne!, won’t this boat turn?”
We were half a canoe length from the wall, and the bow was still too close to a right angle to that hard face.
SPIN. Once again the current grabbed us and turned us, clockwise this time. Parallel to the current, 10 feet from shore. Dipsi-doodle down a few small ledges, and into quiet water where the others were waiting.
“What the hell was that all about” Never did find out what was under the rocks.
Around the corner, the water fanned out over a huge gravel bar. Track and grind for a couple hundred yards, then into the lake. The rapid took something out of us. We stopped early that evening, on an island.
February 10, 2014 at 4:25 pm
Camsell Portage is confusing. Firstly, there is a town/settlement by that name, in the bay leading to the portage. Metis community of very nice people. Spent the night, and had a nice pancake breakfast before setting off.
The portage is really 7 portages, separated by small lakes. Or should that be large ponds.
The route climbs. A lot. Tazin Lake is some 500 feet above Lake Athabasca.
The route is also not used very much. Much of it is gravelly soil, with a stream running down it.
Due to a leisurely breakfast we got a late start. By the time we reached Tazin Lake however, it was past 6 p.m. Time to shut it down for the night.
February 10, 2014 at 4:36 pm
While Camsell portage is interesting, they have diverted the river. Where most of the lake used to go down the Tazin, they wanted power for Uranium City. A 30 foot dam caused all the water but for some leakage, to go the other way to the penstocks of a power house. 500 feet generates a fair amount of power.
Anyway, when we portage the dam, we found that the river had about 3 inches of water in it. Paddles in the canoe. Two guys with each canoe, everyone else pack mule. We didn’t have to carry long. After a kilometer we were able to drop the food box in. Another kilometer we put all the gear in, and the mules skipped along the shoreline while the trackers continued to wash their socks.
Another kilometer, and we were all able to get in, althoough we were popping in and out like grasshoppers whenever we found shallows spots.
Late morning we came to Tethilicki falls. This should have been an easy portage. About 700 feet. The falls drops about 60. No big deal, right?
No one had been here for decades. No sign of a trail. So in typical SJ fashion, we started to cut one. I counted later. 700 stumps. Most of them not very big. 1″ 2″ Occasional larger one. Meanwhile, we get the gear through the woods and down to the water’s edge.
Down is the right word. The 60 foot drop is a gorge. Our side of it is talus slope. Rocks. Big ones. Pickup sized rocks.
We ended up putting all 4 crews on each canoe. Couln’t carry them. We had to get in position, hand over hand the canoe down, then scramble to get to the front of the line again. Worked out that everyone had to have two stations on each trip. Four times.
700 foot portage. Seven hours.
I was beat.
I was having a ball!
February 15, 2014 at 8:53 am
Best rapids? I think that depends how you look at it.
We shot a great many of them but I’d be hard pressed to give the names of more than a few. I can remember two that we portaged around that made enough of an impression on me that I actually asked what they were called. One was Maynard Falls, the second or third day of the Newboy, when I would have still been in such a state of shock that I’m surprised I noticed anything. The second was at Whitedog on the Grand Portage, located just south of Tetu Lac. It might have been the water from the sluice gate below the dam and perhaps the portage trail was very close to the water, but I remember the huge white-foamed standing waves that looked very dangerous. Those standing waves at Whitedog are generally the first image that comes into my head when I think about rapids, so the most memorable or best ones aren’t necessarily ones you shot.
Tetu Lac is where the Grand Portage and the Newboy routes converged. I seem to recall Bart MacLean pointing this out on the Grand Portage trip and saying that we would be starting to see things we’d recognise from the Newboy trip ten months ago. That makes me think MacLean must have been steering us that day. But he can’t have been because I remember for sure that he was steering on the last day of the trip as we ascended the Red River, five days later. Hmm.
There were five canoes and the steersmen were Mr Jackson, Mr Anthony, Mr Corkett, plus John Rushforth and MacLean who were alumni. Steersmen rotated around the canoes every two days. The trip was 15 days long so with five steersmen we would only have got through the steersman rota one and a half times. I know that Rushforth was steering us as we left Point Du Bois because I remember him accurately predicting a couple of seconds before it actually happened, that Mr Corkett’s canoe was going to tip in Eight Foot Falls (about a mile below the dam). I remember Mr Anthony was steering us when we crossed Traverse Bay. He had to pull us out of the canoes on Victoria Beach when we landed there in the middle of the night because the water from waves splashing over our legs had made them too stiff to stand up. Mr Corkett was steering us on Rainy Lake and on Rainy River when we tipped in Manitou Rapids. So having done this mental arithmetic, so to speak, we must have had Rushforth steering us from Thunder Bay to the Grand Portage and across, Mr Anthony up the Pigeon River, across the Height of Land and up the Granite River (beautiful country), MacLean from there through to part way down the Namakan River (lots of rapids and waterfalls), Mr Corkett across Rainy Lake to somewhere near the mouth of the Rainy River (the mouth was quite uninhabited in 1974 but it now appears to be very developed, at least on the American side, with holiday homes. I remember that there were some derelict boats – like old weathered wooden cabin cruisers – stripped of their equipment sitting on or by the shore on the Canadian side, some maybe sunk with their decks above water. Some of us were sitting on them and it was on one of those derelicts that I mistakenly left my brother’s jean jacket – another St John’s trail artefact I contributed in my time) and we had Mr Jackson across Lake of the Woods and up to somewhere near Minaki (the lodge hadn’t burnt down yet and there was still talk of the Ontario Government revitalising it – I remember there was a sudden squall and we stopped somewhere near the railway bridge to sit it out. We went into one of the lodge buildings, I seem to recall it was quite a large stone building, maybe a boat house or the powerhouse, waiting for the rain to stop). So Mr Jackson or Rushforth must have been steering us at Whitedog as we approached Tetu Lac. But of course it still might have been MacLean who pointed out the Tetu Lac route convergence with the Newboy route during lunch or at camp. Which means I haven’t actually resolved anything in this entire long run-on paragraph.
Nonetheless, it does confirm one thing I’ve always remembered. That is that my canoe only had Mr Jackson steering us for the one two-day stint on the trip – during the crossing of Lake of the Woods and up past Kenora.
It was a truth universally acknowledged that Mr Jackson expected a lot from his canoe crews. It was also acknowledged that Mr Jackson contributed a great deal to the locomotion of the canoe he was in. I’m not the first in a section of the Memories project to recall that when Mr Jackson paddled, you felt the canoe move considerably faster – “leap forward” are actually the words that come to mind when recalling peer discussions on the matter at the time. And he paddled a great deal of the time, unlike some masters who seemed (in our eyes) to spend more time than necessary steering (more peer discussion – yes, all these things were observed and discussed – but to be fair, when we finally had the chance to steer canoes ourselves on the St Adolphe race in grade eleven, many of us found that such was the effect of many years of punishment on the canoe frames that quite a few of them had a tendency to steer themselves in circles and required a lot of corrective guidance).
So before we bedded down, camped near the mouth of the Rainy River (this being the camp where Pierre Bedard rolled over in his sleep and squashed the loaf of bread that Hugo Marx and I had bought in the bakery in Rainy River earlier that afternoon), my canoe’s crew had an informal meeting of sorts. If we had taken notes, they would have read something like:
February 15, 2014 at 11:44 am
Some points: In the latter years Simon Jeynes, Murray Davis, Colin Belton, and myself took some canoe courses. We then applied that to our large boats, and learned how to do things like power turns, and back ferries. This involved the crew a lot more — and it meant that we shot a ton of stuff that before that we would portage. We took more time on the fun bits too. Trips were still hard and long, but if we thought we could carry the gear, and shoot the rapid empty, even though it would take more time than portaging, we might do that.
Those latter years also saw far more adventurous trips. Routes that hadn’t been done by the school. Sometimes routes that hadn’t been done for decades. A few times routes that as far as we knew had good parts that had never been done by anyone.
In general going through a rapid more slowly is less likely to dump. The canoe has time to move with the water. I’ve taken tandem canoes through 4 foot waves, and gotten only spray in the canoe, by backwatering gently all the way through.
Your description of getting into the canoe by a chute is spot on: Often the water sheets over the ledge in a fast shallow layer. There’s isn’t enough water to float the canoe with people. Getting a half ton of people out allows you to line the boat down the edge of the chute, and get in below. The same rock that makes the ledge, is also the bank at that point, and below that it is very deep, wide, and difficult to travel, so the only good place to get in the canoe is right next to the ledge.
Rapids are certainly adrenaline pounders, but we have had few injuries as a result — mostly scrapes and bruises. Windly lakes are far more dangerous, as Temiskaming drives home. Mr. Jackson claimed that the most dangerous part of the trip was the bus ride to and from the ends.
Portaging, particularly in the latter years when we tended to do trips where trails ranged from bad to absent, is also risky, especially for serious injury. I can recall three serious injuries portaging. Two of them still have trouble from it, 25 years later. I’ve not been in contact with the third.
I know that I have vivid memories of rapids and portages both. And certainly there is a lot of detail to remember. The trips I’ve done that had endless days of plain paddling don”t stand out in my memory.
I don’t remember a lot of rapids from my Grand. Just endless paddling into the wind over a chain of 10-20 km lakes with long names and lots of k’s and s’s in them.
Much of risk is about perception. Thinking that what you are doing may kill you has a profound effect. And I consider that to be one of the virtues of the program. Indeed: if you don’t have kids that run away out of fear, then perhaps you aren’t challenging them enough. I got a lot of heat from certain school administrators for this mindset.
We did dumping practices after Temiskaming. This had two effects: One was that it made the unknown known. Everyone had dumped. We practiced what to do. This made the actual experience much less fearful. Which meant by my standards we needed to push the envelope a bit harder. So we did things that required more skill, more cooperation. Overall I think that the boys loved the greater participation. Danger was still present, but with more training, more felt that it could be mastered.
February 15, 2014 at 4:02 pm
My first time down the Bloodvein. We got to a rapid, and frankly, I would have portaged it. The top had 3 ledges, left right left, overlapping, so you had to go over one of them. The two on the left were at top and bottom of a bowl in the side of the canyon, with water circulating every 20 seconds or so.
But the option: It was marked on the map as a portage. But it had burned 20 years before. Now it was a tangled mess of 15 foot high trees, and waist deep singed logs.
The portage was long, because of the canyon. The rapid was fairly short. An hour of bashing through the sticks at the top of the wall showed that.
This was only my third trip. I was as good as most new steersmen, but I had nothing like the experience that John Corkett, the brigade leader.
We got back to the canoes. “Let’s shoot it” he said.
“How” I asked, “How do you intend to get past the middle ledge.
“Watch me. If you don’t like it, start the portage.” He must have been confident that once I saw him do it, I would try it.
Here’s what John did: Remember that if the right hand ledge hadn’t been there, we could have stayed right. But that one forced you to the left, and didn’t leave you enough time to turn back again before the lower one on the right. Indeed. Just to go between them you had to power across the top of the right ledge at about a 60 degree angle to the current.
And that’s what John did. He got out well up on the right hand shore, then powered for the tip of the upper left ledge. He came in just under it, got caught in the current and pivoted straight toward the wall of the bowl. He swoops toward the wall, and the circulating bowl catches him, and carries him around toward the top.
There he cuts out, and again powers out this time cutting under the tip of the right hand ledge. This takes him beyond the tip of the lower right ledge.
I shook my head. Amazed.
Being young, and immortal, I followed his example. I thought it would be tricky to do those corners like he did. Current did it for me. Was a piece of cake.
“How did you know?”
“Learn to read water.” he replied.
February 15, 2014 at 4:13 pm
My first trip, the Fond du Lac (FdL from now on) was a learning experience. I wasn’t very good at steering, and I was “the newboy” having started at the school in January. I was often at the back.
Bud Brooks said, “two more sets of rapids before Thompson Falls” Now I thought that a set was like a bunch — more than one. Every time before a set was 2 or 3 rapids.
We went through one pair. Not much. I was a good half kilometer behind.
I couldn’t see the canoes in front. The river had curved a bit to the left. I stayed in the middle, as being deeper. River at this point was about a hundred yards wide.
One of the boys yelled. “Look everyone is on shore”
I looked. Indeed. Not only on shore, but unloading the canoes, and a bunch were waving at us.
This was the falls!
I turned the boat, practically breaking my paddle in effort to turn around faster. “Give weigh, HARD”
We angled upstream at a 45 degree angle to the current. We were still moving downstream. “Harder!”
We crossed the current rapidly, slidling slowly down stream.
“Really hard unless you want to go over the falls!”
We got out of the main current. There I could open up the angle, and put more speed toward the shore. We came to slack water about 50 feet above the ledge, then, more leisurely went up the slack water to the rest of the group.
Voss and Brooks took me aside. “We said at the last weigh up two more sets of rapids.”
“Yeah, but a set is more than one. At least that’s the way you’ve always used it before. And you were out of sight.”
Coming back after taking over the gear I stopped to look at the falls. Not really a falls, but a big ledge. In later trips I tried to convince the BL that it could be shot decharge. And one time I met a young lady who not only had shot it in her canoe, but portaged back up to shoot it a second time. I was impressed.
March 17, 2014 at 1:30 pm
There was one trip I did, it was nearing the end of the trip… I’m going to assume it was somewhere in the Whiteshell, we shot some rapids and at the bottom of the rapids was this re-appearing water hole (drain?). It was quite the adrenaline pounding rapids, water was high that year so lots of water.
We go to the bottom of the rapids and was in the surging water at the bottom, fighting the current this way and that way, when all of a sudden this hole starting appearing underneath us and tried sucking us in. It took close to 5 minutes for us to get out of that hole, (which seemed like hours when it feels like you’re fighting for your life) but we made it and we were totally exhausted afterwards.
March 17, 2014 at 5:02 pm
Right you are: On the lower Winnipeg, Lamprey Falls (most years just fast water) Point du Bois dam, Slave Falls Dam, Scotts Rapids, Numao Lake.
The whirlpool is where the river shoots through a narrows just before Numao Lake, and forms a large eddy in the lake. Has been known to take down motor boats.
Below that you have more lake, then Seven Sisters dam at Piniwa, then Lac du Bonnet, then Pine Falls Dam, then Traverse Bay on lake Winnipeg.
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