Ten years ago a member of my family, Andy Clark, was killed in a plane crash just outside the La Ronge airport. This past winter we learned that a few weeks after the funeral, the local community created a gazebo and memorial in remembrance of him at the crash site. We decided this past Canada Day long weekend was the perfect time to see it.
La Ronge is about six hours north of Regina, so the trek took us two days, having us stopover in Prince Albert for the night. While the southern half of Saskatchewan is prairie, the northern half is full of rolling hills, sparkling lakes and thick dense forest. Part of the Precambrian Shield, northern Saskatchewan has some of the oldest stones and hills in the world, dating back 2.5 to 4.2 billion years. The area's hills were once volcanoes, now dormant and flattened with erosion. This is one of the last few places in the world left untouched by modern man.
We arrived at La Ronge and set up a campsite at Nut Point, right on the edge of the lake. While we picked a campsite no electricity, we had the best spot in the campground. Just check out that view!
After setting up our tents, we dropped by Mistasinihk Place to learn about the Indigenous people that lived in the area. We learned about the food they ate, the tools they worked with and some of their cultures and traditions. It was very interesting and worth checking out!
We left Mistasinihk Place, drove to the La Ronge airport and got directions to the Andy Clark Trail. After driving around for a bit on a gravel road, we found a turn off and headed deep into the woods. The road took us up a large hill and then back down it, but we finally found the memorial, sitting right on the edge of a cliff. We speculated the plane went down where there is now a clearing of trees, and crashed into the cliff below. It was very powerful to see. While it might not mean a lot to many of my readers, knowing such a thing existed meant a lot to my family, especially my mother who was close to Andy.
We did little the rest of the day except drive around La Ronge and explore our campsite. As the day progressed more and more campers would arrive in anticipation of Canada Day, so we were lucky to get our spots when we did. We ended the night with fishing and a campfire.
That night our campsite was visited by a bird that was a little too fond of a bag of Doritos we left out on the picnic table. This served as a reminder we were now in bear territory and to secure our food much better. Even though we didn't see any bears on our trip, we have seen them up in this area before so the threat is very much real.
The next day we drove an hour north to Stanley Mission, which is one of the oldest communities in Saskatchewan, being incorporated in 1851. Being this deep into northern Saskatchewan, driving isn't always the most effective method of travel, so after arriving at Stanley Mission we located our guide and hopped a boat to Jim's Camp.
Being a prairie boy, I don't have any sea legs so the sensation of flying across the water is something very unfamiliar to me. Our guide knew that and gave us some warning as we approached the rapids. He knew what he was doing, but as somebody who has never experienced the crashing and rolling of rapids before, it was fun and mildly terrifying.
Jim's Camp, run by his wife Annie after Jim passed away several years ago, is a half dozen small cabins on the intersection of the Churchill and Rapid Rivers, a short hike away from Nistowiak Falls. While the cabins were cute, our destination was the waterfall, so we began a short 10 minute hike up the hill.
Like any waterfall, we could hear it before we could see it, and when we saw it we were blown away by its sheer magnitude. While only 10 meters or 33 feet high, hundreds of gallons of water roared over the waterfall and down into the river below every second. Above the waterfall is a pristine, calm lake, one that would appear safe to canoe across or take a swim in, if you ignore the deafening roar of water just feet away from you. Because of this illusion of peacefulness, signs have been placed around the lake warning people of the danger that is lurking just around the corner.
We then hiked down from the falls and explored the river for about a half hour. From there we got back on the boat and went to something even more fascinating than waterfalls: ancient rock paintings!
The rock paintings were created somewhere between five hundred to two thousand years ago. Our guide told us the paintings say what river we were on, what food can be found in the area and warns about the nearby rapids. Slowly the rock paintings are fading and within a century or so they might be impossible to see, so I am very lucky to have seen them when I did. According to our guide, rock paintings like this can be found all along the Churchill River and throughout the area.
From the rock paintings we went to Holy Trinity Anglican Church, the oldest building in Saskatchewan. It would take seven years to build as two boatloads of supplies capsized on the river while attempting to deliver them. It was finally constructed in 1860 – even before Canada became a country!
The original Stanley Mission was built around the church, but has since been relocated across the river from it. As a result, the area around the church is an archeologist's goldmine with mid-19th century artifacts, such as pottery, clothing and architecture giving us clues to how these early settlers once lived. Although the community has moved, the church is still active, as is the cemetery behind it. While I have been to many cemeteries in my travels, this is the first one I ever saw with fences around the graves.
After finishing up at the church, we took the boat back across the river to Stanley Mission and ended our tour. An hour later, we were back in La Ronge and prepared for the Canada Day fireworks. Being this far north, the sun never really sets, with the skies not going dark until a little after midnight. This means the fireworks were delayed, and we went to bed sometime around one or two in the morning.
Our last day included a hike on Nut Point Trail. Unlike our hike to Nistowiak Falls, we didn't complete this whole hike and just went to the nearby Dowtown Lake. Also unlike our hike to Nistowiak Falls, this hike included a little bit of rock climbing, via ropes.
The trail was mostly very easy to hike, thanks to bright orange arrows that pointed our way. A little ways into the hike we arrived at a plateau above the forest. It was here there was a tipi, an inukshuk and a plaque dedicated to the 1999 Mallard Fire that burnt acres of the century old forest. While almost two decades have passed since then, the scars of the flames can still be seen.
While the 1999 Mallard Fire is history now, the threat of fires up north is still very much recent. In the summer of 2015 many communities in northern Saskatchewan had to be evacuated because of the fires, with some evacuees coming to Regina. The story is also true in Alberta this summer, where the community of Fort McMurray was forced to evacuate when a fire, colloquially referred to as "The Beast", raged towards it. It would be the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, dwarfing the 1999 Mallard Fire but reminding us that forest fires of that magnitude have been and always will be a challenge to the north.
The plateau was the halfway point to Dowtown Lake, so we carried on down the path. Some of us got a little scrapped up and bruised during the hike to Dowtown, but we finally arrived at the lake. It wasn't as pretty as Lac La Ronge, but there was a communal canoe on the path for anybody wanting to take the canoe across the water. We didn't want to do that, so we turned around and started out way back. If you're interested in taking this hike but you want to know what's beyond Dowtown Lake, check out Hike Bike and Travel's article for more information.
After that, I was exhausted and slept until suppertime. After supper we fished for a few hours, grilled bologna over the fire and slept with the sun still peaking over the edges of the horizon. The next morning we packed up and headed back home, to a different landscape, a different history and a different world, only six short hours away.
If you are looking for something to do this summer, take a look at camping in northern Saskatchewan. You don't have to tent it like we did, but I encourage you to hike, fish, swim and enjoy yourself in the luxury of nature, for at least a weekend.
Have you ever been to Lac La Ronge? What did you do there? Let me know in the comments below!
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.