Nipekamew - A Changed River
Captivated by the enthusiasm of others who had described the Nipekamew Sand Cliffs, I hiked in last fall to see them for myself. This natural formation is truly amazing and would take anyone with the normally skeptical view of Saskatchewan landforms quite by surprise. Dating back more than 1,000,000 years the cliffs loom at a tremendous height above the river. Unfortunately, ignorant visitors have partially defaced the ones accessible in the Provincial Park by writing on them, sliding, or leaving garbage.
I was returning from a wonderful trip on the Churchill and keen to find new trips for the following year. With this in mind I walked along the river, a docile stream no more than 2 feet deep and moving gently over rocks and sand. Realizing there were everal more cliff formations further up river that were likely unaltered I determined to find the source of the river and return. Which brings us to this July when my wife Beatrice, also a touring kayak enthusiast, infected by my enthusiasm for wilderness tripping agreed to join me on this journey of discovery.
Our adventure began with a beautiful pre-launch evening camp at Pine Grove Resort on East Trout Lake. We indulged in a steak & trimmings dinner before switching to our coureur de bois food. The camp hosts, Bill & Connie, warned us that we could count on some tough paddling as the river was the highest it had been in the past 10 years. But, having successfully met other challenges this year I was still keen to continue, confident that I could help my partner develop the necessary skills along the way.
Any doubt was removed when our journey began with a beautiful misty sunrise rising over a calm lake. We started up the Nipekamew Lake and into the mouth of the river, a worthwhile paddle in it's own right with lots of marsh and the likelihood of wildlife sightings of beaver, otter, moose, bear, and multiple bird species. Just after entering the river we had a chance meeting with Bill Blackman, owner of Katche Kampe on the south end of the lake. He added another dimension to our journey relating a disturbing update on increased logging planned for the area, and a very real fear that it was unlikely it would remain in it's wilderness state for long. We determined to see what efforts we could make to help prevent this tragedy when we returned home. Bill, the last trace of civilization we would encounter until the end of this journey, added his warning that we were embarking on a trip few had ever completed. He wished us good luck & happy paddling.
Rather than relate the entire trip rapid by rapid I will give you a sense of what we encountered. You will get a general idea when I tell you that we were so busy coping with the challenges that we lost count at 40 sets of rapids. The river began deceptively as we traveled through Class 1 rapids, then calmer water before experiencing the true nature of the river at high water level. As the river narrowed the shore disappeared for long stretches, replaced by dangerous overhanging willow sweepers and fallen logs. Conditions deteriorated further after the first night when we were subjected to a 4" downpour (evidenced by an overflowing cook pot left outside the tent). The increased volume caused the river to speed up dramatically, creating exciting standing waves on each drop. With the sweepers and debris, both floating and lodged in the river, the paddling skills required became especially technical. We had to quickly maneuver our turns at the bottom of each set of rapids, which more often than not meant going around a blind turn in the river.
The rapids changed far too quickly from Class 1 to Class 2,2+ and 3 to allow my partner an opportunity to develop the necessary strokes. This resulted in some unfortunate spills and a loss of confidence, despite an extremely courageous effort. However, having traveled what we mistakenly assuming the worst was over we elected to continue. This meant 3 days of lining (portaging was out of the question with the number of rapids and the lack of previous traffic) through two falls and several parts that were blocked by fallen trees and debris from partially washed out beaver dams. For the tougher rapids we developed a unique shuttle system, with Beatrice following the animal trails along the river affording me the fun of running one boat before returning along the paths to run the second. Hacking & slashing our way through the woods, dressed in wet suits & paddle shoes, all the while singing loudly, we were at least successful in scaring away any bears.
Some potentially tragic situations did have a humorous side. I was too slow ferrying on one turn and caught my rudder on an overhanging branch. My stern ended up out of the water with the bow bouncing around in the rapid - it must have looked quite funny-humor I could only appreciate after finally extricating both myself from the boat and then the boat. On another occasion when Beatrice had to reenter her boat in some deep & fast moving water the strap on her paddle leash loosened, which meant that by the time we had her in the boat her paddle was long gone. This left us up what we now renamed "Shit Creek" without a paddle. After a forced camp & some serious head scratching we engineered a unique solution, lashing our foam seat pads to the either end of a willow branch. Luckily this invention didn't have to survive long as we found our paddle the next morning caught in an eddy a little farther down river.
Following four days of endless rapids we were relieved to encounter sandy shores and a gentler river. With both of us now in our boats we were able to enjoy the kayaking and spectacular scenery. Rounding a bend we felt humbled by the breathtaking site of the towering pure white sand cliffs looming above us. Varying in a multiplicity of forms from sculptured indentations to hanging towers they left us in total awe of the workings of nature, thankful for being afforded this rare opportunity.
I would highly encourage others to embark on this wondrous wilderness journey, especially being unsure how long it will remain in such pristine condition. However, before attempting the trip prepare by getting up to the moment information on water levels, river & weather conditions; obtain detailed logs from previous paddlers if possible; have both 1:250 and 1:50 maps; be proficient in key paddle strokes, bracing, ferrying, exit & reentry; and don't forget to bring a spare paddle.