Woodland Caribou Provincial Park is being called "the new Quetico" by many of its visitors. If you think about it, the label fits. The parks are comparable when it comes to the endless possibilities for canoeist looking for a route to paddle. They're also managed in a similar fashion; portages and campsites are not marked and no roads, railways or powerlines penetrate the interior. The only difference is that Woodland Caribou has only been around a little over two decades and Quetico has been a prime paddling park for close to 100 years.
The bonus of being a relatively new-found park is that crowds are at a minimum. On average only a thousand paddlers use the park in any given season and its common place to find yourself alone out here. The immense size of Woodland Caribou also helps increase your seclusion. The park measures 450,000 hectares (1.2 million acres). On top of all that it's also being nestled beside Manitoba's Atikaki Wilderness Park, close to the same size as Woodland Caribou, and is the headwaters for one of Canada's Heritage Rivers, the Bloodvein.
This is a park that simply can't be beat if you're looking for an accessible but remote wilderness getaway.
Woodland Caribou may have similarities with Quetico when it comes to size and management style but it has a landscape all to its own. It's an ancient ecological wilderness; a place biologists have labeled "Prairie Boreal" due to its similarities with central Manitoba or Saskatchewan. This is a forest that has never been logged and where wild fires have been allowed to burn.
Indeed, almost all of the park area has succumbed to forest fires every hundred years or so. The park's existence actually depends completely on it. The thin soils and dominant stands of jack pine, along with the fact that the area is rated as the hottest and driest place in Ontario, and that it's the third most likely place to be struck by lightening in North America, that makes fire a natural element. Its constant regeneration produces a place for a dozen of the uncommon plants in the province and home to many rare fauna, including the western red-sided garter snake, Franklin's ground squirrel, and of course, the woodland caribou which gives the park its name.
Populations of the rare woodland caribou are average in the park, meaning you have a good chance of spotting one or more of the 120 members who call it their home. The critical factor again is the fire that's allowed to burn here and in return produces perfect growing conditions for the caribou's winter food - reindeer lichen. The lichen grows on exposed bedrock amongst mature stands of jack pine forest.
Archeological evidence found in Woodland Caribou park indicates that semi-nomadic tribes, titled the Laurel People, existed here around the same time the Romans were dominating over much of western Europe. That's close to 5,000 years ago. And they continued to settle in the area for a good many years that followed.
The best visual evidence of past occupation by prehistoric Native groups is the many pictographs adorning the slabs of granite found along the Bloodvein, Gammon and Oiseau rivers. One particular set of paintings on Artery Lake are thought to be placed their between 900 and 1200 A.D. , rating it as a national significant site. One pictograph is that of a bison, far away from its prairie habitat. A second shows a shaman making a sacrifice before a war canoe and many warriors. The significance of the second is that the name "Bloodvein" is thought to be derived from a great battle on the Bloodvein River between the Saulteaux- Ojibwa and another unknown tribe. Many deaths occurred and the name "Miskwi Isipi" or "Blood River" was applied.
Woodland Caribou and its adjacent Bloodvein River was also a main trade route for Ojibwa trappers during the 18th century and became an important secondary trading route for the Hudson Bay Company between 1790 and 1821, during its rivalry with the Northwest Company.
At present the descendants of the Saulteaux-Ojibwa people still continue traditional skills of trapping, hunting and fishing.
As a retirement venture Canadian paddlers Scott and Kathy Warner of Hamilton Ontario, undertook a 60 day trip in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park and were so moved by that trip that they returned a year later for 65 days in the park and the land north of there.
Here are some of the basics they believe are needed if you're planning on an extended trip in the park:
- Build up to a long trip like you would if you were training for a marathon. Be comfortable with your planning, gear, pace and menu choices over some two week trips first.
- Get to know the people you'll be traveling with. Personal traits get magnified over days of close quarters …. if you're an early riser don't travel with the crack of noon boys.
- Get some wilderness first aid training and build a first aid kit.
- Get that dental appointment out of the way.
- A couple of months at the gym every other day will do wonders.
- Carry a satellite phone and call out once a week. Program the numbers for help into the phone and write them in your log book.
- File your trip plans with your outfitter and give him a set of maps.
- Know where help might be found. Put the location of fly-in camps on your maps.
- Think about what can go wrong and try to prepare... Spare tent pole, zipper repair kit, canoe rescue kit, a spare set of maps, etc. We even tie our canoe down every night.
- Have an exit plan and try to plan your campsites where a plane could land.
- Leave the ax at home. Bring a small folding saw .. it's all you need in most situations.
- Plan a rest day about every five days. This can account for weather days and give you a chance to do laundry.
- Stay clean. Bathe every day if possible... and wash your hands before handling any food … keep your GORP in a container so that you pour it rather than reaching in..
- Crank up the test kitchen and try out those meals. If there are other long trips in your plans get a dehydrator and learn to use it. We can carry 20 days of food for two in a 15 gallon (60 liter) barrel.
- Know your limitations and take them into account when planning distances.
- When in doubt …. Portage! It takes less time to do the portage than it does to scout and run.
- Find out about local places of interest and take the time to see them. Pictographs, rock formations, interesting plants and lookout points ….
- Take lots of pictures and keep a log.
- Respect the wilderness and everything you find there.
Kevin Callan is the author of eight books including "The Happy Camper: An Essential Guide to Life Outdoors." He is a recipient of the National Magazine Award and a regularly featured speaker at North America's largest paddling events. Check out his web site: kevincallan.com