Normally I sleep very well, but our night in Prince Albert National Park was rough. I woke up a half dozen times, each time curled up at the bottom of my tent, with both my arms on fire. I knew my arms were sore from the sixteen kilometres we canoed the day before, but the pain seemed much worse than normal. Had it been cold out, I would have assumed my muscles were cramping, but it was warm in the tent so that wouldn't make sense. I was too tired to understand why so I straightened myself and attempted to get some sleep.
I woke up to my alarm at seven in the morning. After a little tossing and turning and denial of the day ahead of me, I got up around eight when I heard Kevin getting up.
We brushed our teeth, splashed some of our drinking water on our faces and broke down camp.
When I was taking down my tent, I realised why my sleep was so bad. We set up in the dark and I had picked a large slab of exposed Precambrian Shield – which was slightly tilted downwards. This meant that not only was I laying on hard stone all night, I was also slowly sliding down as I slept. This would explain why I kept waking up at the bottom of the tent and why my arms hurt so much. I was laying on solid stone.
Sore, but determined, we packed up our campsite and got back onto Kingsmere Lake around nine in the morning. We used up all our wood the night before for our campfire, so we opted to skip coffee and just have an apple, trail mix, and a little bit of beef jerky for breakfast.
Kevin was worried the waters on Kingsmere Lake would be rocky in the morning, but they were as calm as the day before. Whatever wind we had the night before had blown itself out. Instead of a turbulent trip, the final hour paddle to Northend was relatively easy.
Northend had several large campsites as well as a covered cookhouse and picnic tables. They also had an elevated platform to store food so bears couldn't get it. We didn't have much food so we wouldn't need to use it, but I remember us using it fifteen years ago when I last stayed here. Although our night at Sandy Beach was fine, I really regretted not making it Northend. As good as our trail mix supper was last night, it would have been so much better to have some ravioli and hot chocolate over the stove.
After securing our canoe high on the shore, we refilled on water and snacks and started the three-kilometre hike to Grey Owl's Cabin. The trail leaves the campsite, goes along the beach for about half a kilometre, over a small stream and then back into the woods. It was a little difficult to follow but once we were back in the trees, we were well on our way.
Although there were a few people at Northend, we didn't see anybody on the trail. The trail was wet and had a few patches of mud, but was still well maintained, especially for being so remote. A few parts even had wooden walkways over streams and creeks. There were a lot of mushrooms along the path too, especially on downed, decaying trees. Although most of these trees had yet to lose their leaves, the smell of autumn was still in the air.
At one point we also passed some fresh bear scat, but we never saw or smelt any bear. This was foreshadowing of what was to come later.
About a half hour later we arrived at Grey Owl's Cabin – and it's exactly like I remembered.
It's strange to think how much things can change in fifteen years. When I was last at the cabin, I had different friends, went to a different school, still lived with my parents, and would never, ever have done this hike for fun. Seeing the porch of the cabin reminded me of the silly group picture we took there a decade and a half ago. A flood of memories came back to me when I was there, and I found my return a lot more emotional than I expected.
For those who don't know the story of Grey Owl, you'd be surprised to learn his name is Archibald (or Archie) Belaney. He was born in Hastings, United Kingdom and came to Canada to become a fur trapper in Ontario. He had always had a fascination with Indigenous culture, and he trapped with the Ojibwa people for many years. He was deployed during The Great War but was discharged because of a wartime foot injury. When he came back to Canada, he adopted the name "Grey Owl".
In the 1930s he published The Men of the Last Frontier, a book that discussed the urgency of protecting Canada's wildlife, especially the beaver. Due to the high cost of the beaver pelts, and the crashing job market, he claimed "beavers [are] to the north what gold was to the west". He also considered Canada one of the last true vestiges of nature left in the world, and it needed to be preserved at all cost. Grey Owl understood the risk of losing the beaver and even kept two as his household pets – Jelly Roll and Rawhide.
Grey Owl and his third wife Gertrude Bernard (aka Anahareo, or Pony), and their two beavers, originally moved to Riding Mountain National Park with Parks Canada to help promote and preserve the area. However, the park wasn't suitable for beaver and the lakes often complexly froze in the winter. Shortly afterwards they would move to Prince Albert National Park and set up a permanent dwelling. Grey Owl and Anahareo shared their house with their two beavers, who had a dam attached to the side of the building. There was also a guest house on the nearby hill.
Grey Owl, Anahareo and their daughter Shirley Dawn are all buried on the property.
Kevin and I wandered around the cabin for a while, pocketing the Grey Owl specialty postcards that can only be collected at the cabin. We looked at his old bed, his paddle, his stove and took in his simplistic but fulfilling life he once lived.
When we were done, we walked up to a nearby guest house and then the gravesite.
The whole time we were there, the skies, trees and waters were silent. There were hardly any birds, very little wind and not an insect in sight. Although it was nearing the heat of the day, it was such a perfect time of year that we weren't too hot at all.
Once we were done at the cabin, we began the hike back to Northend. On our way up to the cabin, the sun was closer to the horizon, but now it was higher above us and the paths we walked on were half cast in shadow. This turned the hike into something out of a fairy tale, or an L. M. Montgomery novel.
About halfway down the path we began to smell something – something musty and hot. I had told Kevin about my time in Riding Mountain National Park and the smells of a stench of a nearby bear. When we smelt the musk of it, we stopped and looked around. We saw nothing, but in a few feet, we found some track prints going into the forest. We're not professional trackers, but whatever it was it was big, and it wasn't too far away.
For the rest of the hike we talked a little louder and make a little extra noise, just in case.
When we got back to Northend we had a food and water break and planned our canoe trip back. I had been complaining about my arms the whole day and I asked Kevin if he had any pain killers. He had some Tylenol. After taking it, he gave me some tips on how to paddle a little easier. I was angling my paddle at about a forty-five-degree angle, which caused me to push the water instead of push the canoe. If I angled the paddle sharper down, I would have an easier time and not hurt as much. Since we still had twenty kilometres left to paddle, I took any advice he could give me.
We adjusted our bags, refilled our food and water and got back on the lake. We were heading south-east, towards the sun. Kevin wore a hat and sunglasses, but I had no sun protection. We had also changed from our pants into shorts, since we expected to get a little warm on the water. By the time we rowed past Sandy Beach, I was already developing a sunburn.
Once again, we tried to cut across the lake instead of going along the shoreline. The waters were a little rougher by now, but nothing we hadn't seen the night before. One of the neat things about being on a large body of water like Kingsmere Lake is you can see the wind gusts rippling the water as it blows towards you. A few times we lifted our paddles and sat on the water as a gust barrelled over us and the rocked our canoe.
I'm not an anxious person, but I began to feel sick while on the water. I don't know if it was the stronger waves or the pain killers or the sunburn, but I felt very nauseous. I told Kevin I wasn't feeling very good and we angled towards the shore. We would lose some time, but at least I wouldn't faint in the canoe and risk losing everything.
We arrived at a rocky beach somewhere between Chipewyan Portage and Sandy Beach. We got out, stretched our legs and ate some food. Once I got some water into me, I felt a lot better. However, I still asked Kevin if we could stay closer to the shore from now on.
It wasn't long after we got back on the water that we decided that would be a poor decision. The shoreline curves and we would go around the bends if we were to stick to the coast. We could cut back on time if we cut across the bends. After a little deliberation, we tried it again. For what seemed like an eternity, we were back on the open water, paddling as the sun drifted overhead.
My arms didn't hurt anymore, but I was starting to feel exhausted. I began paddling in sets of forty before switching arms, but by this point I was lucky to paddle in sets of ten. A few times we stopped paddling for a few minutes, just to rest.
After about the fifth rest stop, we pulled ashore and checked where we were. This beach was much sandier than the other one and we spent about twenty minutes here. We figured we must be getting close to Westwind soon, but we didn't know how much further to go.
Once we got back in the water and went around the next bend, we saw the sign for Westwind. We were so close we would have been able to see the sign if not for the tree in the way. This meant we only had about an hour left to go!
Shortly after Westwind, Kevin said he saw some kayaks up ahead. They were also going back to Southend and the rail portage, and there was a few of them. This meant that once we finally got off the water, we'd have to walk the kilometre-and-a-half down the railway to get the railcar, then push it back, and then push it back again. After about thirty minutes of us trying to paddle faster than the kayaks, we admitted they would beat us and slowly let the current take us to shore.
When we arrived at the dock, we pulled off to the side and let the kayakers load up the portage first. They had to get it from the other side so from the time we landed until we got the canoe on the portage it was probably an hour. Once we started though, we found we had some renewed strength to push the portage the rest of the way.
When we got back in the water, we had a much easier time steering and paddling downriver than the day before. Mostly we left our paddles out of the water and let the river carry us back. A few times we had to steer around trees or rocks, but it wasn't anything like our time on the river yesterday.
We finally got to shore and pulled our canoe onto the beach. After a quick chat with some curious canoeists about where we had come from, we wandered up to our cars and drove them back down to the canoe. In less than twenty minutes, our home for the last twenty-four hours was dissembled, hallowed out and strapped to the top of my car.
Kevin led the way back to the marina and I followed suit, going a little bit slower. At one point I lost sight of him, but a few minutes later I found him parked on the side of the road. I rolled up beside him to see what was going on and he gestured ahead of us: there was an elk on the side of the highway.
We photographed the elk for a few minutes and then drove past it and took pictures of it from across the highway. As I was busy taking pictures, the giant animal began lumbering towards me. I took some closeups of him and quickly got out of his way. I don't know how docile elk are and I was a little worried he might attempt to ram my car – and the canoe! – if I didn't leave.
We had a couple more encounters with elk on our way through the park before we arrived at the marina. By the time we got there, they were closed and left a note on their door for us to call them when we arrived. Kevin had to leave then so we said our goodbyes and I gave the marina a call.
Once the trip was over, I sat in my car, turned off Airplane Mode on my phone and let two days worth of emails, calls, texts and messages roll in. As my phone buzzed like an angry wasp in my hand, all I could do was think back to Grey Owl's Cabin, the absolute isolation that is Prince Albert National Park and how I couldn't wait to go back again.
Just over a year ago I wrote an article about the glockenspiel that once stood in downtown Regina. I had fond memories of the glockenspiel as a child and was sad when they took it down to renovate the park. I was even more sad when they didn't put it back up, and I was angry when I discovered it was sitting in a junkyard (sorry, outdoor "storage facility") for the past ten years. That article got a lot of attention, from both the public, the city and the press. Today, efforts are being made to restore the bell back to its original location.
I'm telling you this because preserving heritage – may it be a 25-year-old bell, or a fourth century building – is important. Without heritage, we lose who we are. Often, the desire to move society forward steps over the heritage and causes it to get lost. As impressive as tall glass buildings might be, nothing is better than a smoky red brick structure.
Saskatchewan is beginning to realize how important this is – and thankfully it's happening now and not in a few decades after everything is gone. But, our neighbours have been on the heritage preservation band train for several years now, especially in Alberta.
I've known Jenn Smith Nelson for several years now, and I often look up to her for inspiration and guidance on how to grow with my blog. I remember hearing about her book over a year ago, and I've been holding my breath in anticipation ever since.
Smith Nelson teamed up with Doug O'Neill, another talented travel writer, to cover two Canadian provinces. Their new book, 110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, is a part of a Firefly Books series that showcase Canada's diversity of nature.
I haven't gone on a major trip since my journey to Riding Mountain National Park last autumn, so I booked off a week to travel out west. However, things didn't work out as I had planned, and my vacation turned more-or-less into a staycation.
Thankfully, it wasn't all for naught. I managed to get away one day, and I did a couple of little day trips throughout the week too. The day I got away I wanted to go as far north as possible, and I chose the Cochin Lighthouse.
The Cochin Lighthouse is just north of the Battlefords and it is the only lighthouse in the landlocked province of Saskatchewan. It sits on the top of Pirot Hill in the village of Cochin and shines a light out onto the nearby Jackfish Lake – or as locals call it, the "Cochin Ocean".