When Rylea texted me asking if I was free for a week in May, I thought they had come so far in such a short time that they'd be making Winnipeg. It turns out they wanted a stand-in paddler to keep their trip less off-track than with only two paddlers while Claire attended a wedding as a maid-of-honour. My initial reaction was that of reluctance. I'm not an avid paddler and have mostly only ever camped at campsites with the exception of a week-long summer camp canoe trip on Lake Nutimik when I was a boy and a one-nighter Hansen Creek to Frances Lake where my buddy and I forgot our sleeping bags and spent a cold night awake by a dying fire. But I knew they had been planning and preparing for years, had over a month of experience to work out some early trip kinks and that I'd be looked after. I knew they'd be well equipped and pending work allowing me the time off on short notice, I agreed.
I caught a ride out with Claire's parents to meet them at Highway 19 and the Qu'Appelle River in Saskatchewan. They came into view after a grueling portage from Diefenbaker Lake but were in good spirits. After a brief reunion, I subbed in and we launched back into the Qu'Appelle. Almost immediately after the first turn in the river, we encountered the rustle of rushing water and made for the riverbank where Kendra hopped out to scout ahead to see if Wheezy could handle the drop. A weir with a five foot drop and metal spikes awaited us so we had to portage. My first portage with them went incredibly smooth. As I had assumed, they had their system worked out: Unzip the skirt, pass the bags up from the canoe on to shore, lift the canoe out, portage, re-pack and shove off. The rest of my first day on the water was calm and sunny with a slight breeze and felt good but it was only a half day of paddling after a comfortable sleep at home.
First Camp (Water Filtration Set Up On Paddles)
We set out early the next day on a windier day but got a good full day of paddling in. I'm thankful that they organized paddling by: paddle one side for 30 minutes, switch, 30 minutes on the other side and break (raspberry!). Once one part of your shoulders, hands and back start to feel sore; you switch and allow it to rest. By the end of the day I was ready for sleep. The sky was ominous but looked like it would pass. While waiting for dinner to cook, I watched an ant-hill make preparations to be rained on. I found it interesting and said "I think we're going to get rained on" and was met with laughter: "Kevin, turn around.", the storm that looked like it was going to pass had grown to encompass nearly the entire horizon and made no signs of sparing us. We spent the night in the tent, battered by wind and saw the occasional lightning flash through the canopy. I hardly slept and was sore from paddling. It didn't help that I had borrowed a sleeping bag that packed smaller but was rated for 10°C. It would drop below that most nights but with nowhere to go except downstream, into the headwind of yet another windy day.
Come late afternoon, the headwind got the best of us and the decision was made by Kendra and Rylea to line the canoe with the equipment inside along the riverbank. This was the first time I had ever lined a canoe and made my best efforts not to get it stuck. Part of this endeavour like most of Saskatchewan, had been devoid of any trees along the riverbank but today was a special day of walking through trees while trying to cast the line over the branches. Luckily the trees were thin enough to bend to the line when pulled. However, thorny bushes made a happy appearance too but this made better time than facing the wind every three out of four turns in the serpentine of the Qu'Appelle. We camped again before entering Buffalo Pound Lake.
Kendra And Rylea Lining Along The Qu'Appelle When There Weren't Trees
We woke to better weather and made breakfast. Nearby we heard the CF-18's take flight and saw them pull a quick turn. I learned of the Byway Babes being alerted that they were about to enter a military base with a live firing range before I joined them and were required to notify the military. It seems running into strangers come friends offered good information to what might be in store.
We had already paddled Eyebrow Lake but noticed no change in the river so I had no idea if Buffalo Pound Lake would be an actual lake or not but today would be my first day paddling on a lake and they let me steer. I had never steered before and got a quick lesson from Rylea before setting out. It took some getting used to and after bumping the riverbank from time to time, I finally figured out left from right and tried my best to keep Wheezy on a straight line as opposed to a drunken stumble. We entered Buffalo Pound Lake which did look like a lake but whose introduction was dotted with sandbars and shallow water. Trying our best to navigate, we encountered a sandbar that spanned the width of the lake and came to a halt. Kendra with her waterproof pants and Rylea with her waterproof socks and boots hopped out and pulled the canoe while I gondoliered and we eventually found deeper water. The lake had a decent crosswind which made for interesting steering but kept us cool in the sun. We stopped at a highway crossing to scout whether we could paddle through a potential unseen opening or if we would have to portage. I walked the once old road while they watched the canoe and found a decently wide inlet that joined the rest of the lake. After a long day of paddling we came to Buffalo Pound Provincial Park where we'd be graced with luxury of bathrooms, showers and the ability to refill our water. Up until then, the water filter that they had to make river water drinkable had clogged from the silt and wouldn't produce water fast enough to meet our demands. We had to boil water and use fuel needed for cooking in order to stay hydrated. Showered, fed with some treats from a nearby convenience store, we fell asleep to the beating of a prairie chicken of which I had never heard before.
Wheezy On Windy Buffalo Pound Lake
Setting out again on another beautiful day, we finished off the last of the lake and had a short portage where we chatted briefly with some fishers enjoying the long weekend. It was always a delight for me to hear their response after they asked "Where did you paddle from?"; "Vancouver", or "we've been on the river since Calgary" and to witness the bewildered look and encouraging words of a trip that amazed them.
Buffalo Pound Lake The Following Morning
This next section of the Qu'Appelle would prove to be the most wildlife I would see on the trip. Almost immediately after shoving off, we encountered the first of many beaver dams which would mean plenty of beavers. We were startled when four or five ran out of a burrow in the riverbank and dove in right as we passed by. Not nearly as startled as the giant black rock that stood up 15 feet away from us to reveal a startled young moose that at first, resembled a black bear before it ran up the riverbank. Or when we found the rough way through some rocks and got hung up. I hadn't taken any white water training and my initial reaction was counter-productive. Water rushed up along the side of the canoe and I was promptly told not to lean into it because I could swamp the canoe. After stabilizing, we found our way off the rocks backwards but afloat. We made camp late in the evening right before sundown on some farmland. There was something stimulating about pulling up anywhere you felt to make camp but knew you would never disrespect the land or anyone's property, have your stay and then quietly leave it as you found it minus a few footprints.
Camp The Night Before Lumsden
Wheezy On The Riverbank Before Lumsden
Making our way into Lumsden would be the last day of paddling for me. We took in a wonderful tour and sampling of some of Lumsden's finest rye and vodka from Lumsden Distillery. Their preparations allowed for resupply by Kendra and her parents in Regina while Rylea and I stayed with the equipment. The following day, Claire came out and I bid the Byway Babes adieu knowing my assumptions that they were more than capable were true having seeing it for myself.
I imagined the Byway Babes would face their rough days of paddling, undesirable weather and spontaneous anomalies but quitting for them isn't an option. Most nights are devoid of civilization, out in the wilderness with only one way to Saint John, New Brunswick; relying on working together, their equipment, their training and the kindness of family, friends and strangers giving advice, lodging or helping them with food drops. It's inspiring to be in the company of such tenacious women, everyone has their job and they work well. I'm honoured to have had the opportunity to paddle with them and learn from them.