CRCO Whitewater Festival
Each year the Churchill River Canoe Outfitters in Missinipe, Saskatchewan hosts a whitewater festival on Barker Island and the surrounding rapid play area in the Churchill River System. Missinipe is located on Treaty 10 land, a 5 hour drive north of Saskatoon and the island is two to three hour flat water paddle and portage from Devil Lake Campground.
My friend Natasha and I signed up for the festival in early June and began gathering supplies for the weekend. In past years I had been quite intimidated by the idea of a canoe trip because I didn't have the gear or know how to pack for this type of adventure. My first canoe trip last summer, however, showed me how easy it is to borrow things you don't have or make do with variations. Since then I've started investing in some of my own items, but it's a process and you definitely don't need to buy it all at once. I'll be writing a post soon listing all the items I take with me on this type of trip.
Upon arriving in Missinipe late Friday afternoon, Natasha and I stopped in at the Canoe Outfitters to pick up our festival wristbands and t-shirts before driving up to Devil Lake Campground to launch our canoe. We unloaded by the lakeshore and found a spot in the packed lot to park the van for the weekend and then headed out across the lake.
We managed the few hundred metre portage around Mosquito Rapids in two trips, the first carrying our packs and gear and the second with the canoe over our heads. There we met a group of 3 women also heading to Barker Island. They were a bit mixed up on where they were on the map so I helped get them oriented and gave them directions to the island as I had camped at this spot last summer. Two of the women were in a canoe while the third was on a stand up paddle board. She was having some trouble keeping up and had already gone for an unintended swim with her small dog, so we offered to give her a bit of a tow to help her keep moving upstream. This is one of the reason's I would suggest this trip if you've never done an overnight canoe trip before - there are more people around in the area than normal, so if you ever get into trouble someone is sure to come around the corner and give you a hand.
We made it Barker Island around 5:30 and found a spot opposite the festival location to pitch our tent before paddling back around the island for dinner and festivities. Friday night's dinner was included in the festival admission (which is only $50) and consisted of delicious pulled pork, naan bread, col slaw, orange slices, muffins, and baked beans (Natasha and I were nice to each other and skipped out on those). Shortly after dinner the musical entertainment began with Hillsburn from Halifax and The Barrelmen from Saskatoon both playing great acoustic sets. We hung out around the fire making new friends and singing songs until the last glimpse of sunlight was escaping the horizon around 1am.
Saturday was when the whitewater fun got going. We joined the group at 10am for a quick refresher course on front-ferrying up rapids to get to Surf City where we spent the day watching and playing in some big but safe waves. Natasha and I had never paddled together before this trip, and we quickly learnt that our communication styles and the way we handle stress are very different from one another. This made for some interesting interactions when paddling but we were able to talk it out and work together to improve. We got a little wet and had a few mishaps throughout the day including a shuttle back up stream on a motor boat after we tried to rescue some fellow paddlers while we were in a borrowed play boat, a lost paddle, and a sprained finger, but managed to keep smiling amidst it all. Of course my GoPro battery decided to die first thing that morning and my extras were back in the tent, so I didn't get any photos or videos from our day on the white water. Below, however, are a couple pictures that I pulled from the Churchill River Canoe Outfitters Facebook page.
Along with a guide and small group, we paddled a new route back to camp in the afternoon and then took a quick nap to refresh us for the evening. We joined some neighbours at their fire to cook supper and then headed over to the main site for a raffle prize draw and campfire hangs. A few new friends invited us to come for a visit across the lake so we met up with them later in the evening and sat around the fire sharing stories until midnight. We were also treated to a Canada Day Northern Light show just as the day was ending and paddled home in the moonlight.
On Sunday Natasha's finger wasn't doing so well, so we took it easy and decided to forego the guided trips. We took our time having breakfast and packing up camp and then paddled back towards Devil Lake Campground. We ran into a couple friends from the weekend during our portage at Mosquito Rapids and watched them run the rapids (one successfully, one with an added swim) as we ate our lunch on shore. The day was much windier than the days prior so it took a little extra push to get across the lake, but we had enough stories to talk and laugh about to keep us distracted.
After packing up the van we decided to make one last stop and pulled off at the bridge over Otter Rapids. It was a warm sunny day and we had been planning this swim all weekend. We scouted the rapids looking down from the bridge with a little help from a stranger and then walked out to the point and jumped in (lifejackets on, of course). We swam front-crawl up stream for about 20 metres to get into the current and then turned around to ride it feet-first on our backs. We navigated the first half quite well but of course both got sucked into the one spot after the bridge we were warned to avoid. It pulled us under water (Natasha hit the rock with quite a bit of force) before we fought our way out and continued down stream. As the waves died we turned back onto our stomachs and pulled our way across the eddy line and into the calm waters before climbing up onto shore. Our bodies and minds were far more tired from the experience than we expected but it was definitely a rush I would recommend! I had done it last year when the water was lower and it was such a thrill both times! The power on my GoPro got bumped off in the middle of the ride but here are a few screenshots I was able to snag from what little footage I got.
In the end, the festival was a great experience that I would recommend to anyone with enough paddling experience to move in a straight line on flat water without having to switch sides - the rest you can learn as you go! The location is beautiful, the staff are top notch, and the experience is well worth the drive. Whether it's your first canoe trip or you've been paddling white water for years this weekend is sure to be a ton of fun! Bring your friends, bring your family, and enjoy this land we call Canada!