This past long weekend, being Canada Day and all, Jena and I thought we would undertake something truly Canadian, a backcountry canoe trip! Jena had heard about Lakeland provincial park from some friends and it came with good reviews so we thought we would give it a go. The park is approximately 250km northeast of Edmonton, just east of Lac La Biche and consists of several larger lakes and many small ones with backcountry campsites scattered throughout and creeks and portage trails linking many of the lakes. Our route would take us in a circuit 36 km through four lakes eventually bringing us back to where we started. This would normally be about three days of paddling but I wanted to add a little extra motivation to our trusty borrowed Clipper Prospector, so I spent a few days during the week and most of Canada Day putting together a sail, mast base, mast and a lee board or keel while Jena managed to do most of the packing…. thanks dear! I’ll soon add some details about the sail rig to the sailing page.
By the time I finished building everything and we got the car loaded it was getting late. We didn’t leave the Edmonton area until 3pm on Canada day, luckily the days are long this time of year! The map shows the area we paddled through, starting at the Jackson Lake Staging area and portaging three km to the northern arm of Jackson Lake. We finally got started portaging at 6:20pm after the 250km drive and getting everything unloaded from the car and packed into the canoe. This first portage trail was smooth and well used and the mosquitoes knew all about it; needless to say we made good time, about 55 minutes for 3km pushing a canoe full of gear. Our dog Ellie tied to the front helped with a bit of extra pull after the long car ride. We had our own homebuilt canoe cart along but there are well-built carts with tall tires that are provided at all the longer portage trails. The staging area trail had at least a half-dozen carts at each end. We got in the water and paddled our way to the Jackson Lake South campsite which we deemed much nicer than the slightly closer East campsite. All the campsites throughout the park are well set up and perfectly functional with fire pits, tables and green throne backcountry toilets, along with lockers or poles to keep your food away from any curious black bears. Some of the sites are just more scenic than others, and the South campsites had great views of the sunset over Jackson Lake.
I didn’t get a chance to try out the sail for this first leg so after a late supper of farmer sausage cooked over the fire I set everything up and went out onto the almost glass calm lake to try sailing……in a canoe. Strange and foolhardy as it may seem to add a tall mast and sail to something as tippy as a canoe the rig worked beautifully with just enough of a light breeze to test it out as the sun went down.
After a fitful sleep ( it never really seems to get dark up there) we woke up to a beautiful morning and had an awesome breakfast of french toast with strawberries on top. After cleaning up and reloading the canoe we headed off and soon had paddled out the bottom of Jackson Lake and into a series of interconnected ponds which would lead us to the next portage. This portage was approximately 600m long and was decidedly rougher and less well used than the trail from the staging area. There were only two carts here and after pumping up the tires on one of them we loaded our canoe and headed off. The larger wheels on the provided carts rolled easier over bumps than the tiny tires on the cart I had brought but it was a good thing I brought the bike pump along as most of the cart tires were low.
This portage brought us into McGuffin lake which is only a couple of km long. A quick and scenic sail assisted paddle brought us down to the start of the trickiest part of this trip. The portage from McGuffin Lake to Blackett Lake is 1.6km long, goes up and down a good size hill and the trail is very soft and very bumpy. It also starts off with a nice thick patch of stinging nettle you have to walk through. The soft trail surface, basically forest floor with most of the vegetation removed, made pulling the canoe along very difficult due to the skinny tires on the provided carts which sunk into the soft ground. Our little cart would not have made it at all. Some wide floatation tires would have been the best bet for this trail. There are many roots, rocks and general bumps to go over which along with the hills to climb made pushing our heavily loaded canoe a grueling task.
Parts of the trail that are boggy or otherwise too rough are covered with boardwalk which is a mixed blessing because there are spaces between the boards which are just wide enough to allow the tires of the cart to slip into if you don’t steer very carefully! Several times the cart wheel dropped in up to its axle, threatening to dump the canoe and/or break the wheel. These situations required some serious heaving to get unstuck. If you can learn how to drive your canoe carefully the boardwalks are certainly a lot easier than the rest of the trail though! Near the top of the main hill on the trail we came across two large trees that had fallen across that path, no way around and too high to bump the cart over. They required unloading the canoe and dragging it over the trees before loading up on the other side, not impossible but it certainly made us wish we had packed lighter!
After the trees the trail finely started to slope downwards, quite steeply in a couple of places but sadly no smoother than the uphill sections. This did alow us to invent a new sport though, Canoe wrestling. It’s a lot like steer wrestling except the canoe and cart seem to have a lot more sharp corners and edges. By the time we got to the end of the trail both Jena and I were battered, bruised and exhausted, but we made it! No more portaging until the trail back to the car which seemed laughably easy now that we had conquered this.
Blackett Lake is probably the most interesting of the lake we canoed through due to its many islands, bays and inlets. It also has five campsites that are completely isolated from each other including three that are on islands. We found a spot on Blackett East Island which was great because due to its distance from shore we didn’t have to worry about bears so no hauling the cooler up the bear poles and due to the small size of the island we could let Ellie roam free and be a dog. After supper and a quick swim, another great sunset made for some nice solo canoeing. I checked out the campsite just across the lake east of the island and concluded that again we had picked the nicer spot!
A better sleep was had by all (funny how a full day of paddling and few gruiling portages can help with that) and we headed off the next morning at about 10:30 am to see how far we would get. If the paddling didn’t go well we could still stay another night on Kinnaird Lake and be back in Edmonton on Sunday. As it were we had a somewhat gusty wind from the south-west which quickly blew us on our way. We paddled into the creek connecting Blackett and Kinnaird lakes which was full of birds including at least one great blue heron and soon we were out onto Kinnaird Lake. With the sail out full and the waves coming up things were getting a little tippy with the fully loaded canoe untill we realized we could reef the sail to any desired size by wrapping it around the mast a few turns. Reducing the sail to about half made things much more relaxed but we still skimmed across the lake and made it to the bridge over the opening into Jackson Lake by 1:00 with only moderate paddling effort on our part. From the GPS we topped out at 11km/hr which feels pretty fast in a canoe!
At the bridge we got a view of Jackson Lake which had been stirred up into whitecaps by the increasing west wind and the much longer east west span of that lake. We took down the mast and after a quick bite of lunch to energize ourselves we paddled under the low bridge and out into the waves for a quick dash to the more sheltered northern arm of the lake. A quick rain shower hastened our progress back to the start point and we were out of the water and on the portage trail by 2:30. Experts at this process now we loaded the canoe onto the best looking cart, strapped it down securely and made another dash through the bugs back to the car. The trail is slightly downhill and Ellie, again tied to the front for some extra thrust, really likes to pull down hills. I could feel my strides getting longer and longer as we careened down the trail and around corners, narrowly missing trees and bouncing over roots. Luckily the carts are well made and the trail was wide and relatively smooth. We hit 12.5km/h and must have shaved 10 min off our time coming out!
Once we were loaded we made the drive back to Edmonton in time for supper. A quick trip but a good one and a great success for the maiden voyage of our sailing Clipper!
So, a few recomendations for anyone else looking to make this trip.
1. Paddle down and back through Kinnaird Lake and you won’t have to do the hard portages! They are doable but the one from McGuffin to Blackett Lake is not fun. If you are planning on doing the loop, pack light!
2. If I were to do it again I would paddle down to one of the campsites on Kinnaird and set up camp for a couple of days. The distances are short enough that you could easily paddle around and explore all the lakes on day trips out from your site, even without a sail. This way you don’t have to break camp and you get to explore and potentially make some easy portages with an empty canoe! Good paddlers could easily do the whole loop in a day with an empty canoe. A sail certainly helps though!
3. Don’t worry about your own canoe wheels, the carts are great but do bring a bike pump in case the tires are low!