The Death March | An early season portage trip in Alberta canoe country

“At the next beach let’s stop so I can stretch my legs,” said Gord from the stern of the canoe.

We were paddling along the north shore of Touchwood Lake at the beginning of an ambitious portage trip through the Lakeland Provincial Park and Recreation Area dreamed up and dutifully dubbed the “Death March” by Scott. Before long we came across a sweeping sandy bay. Gord approved of the spot and we hopped out to stretch. Right behind us in the other canoe, Scott exclaimed,

“Look, a picnic table! Gord, I think you found the campground!”

Closer inspection revealed that we had in fact reached our destination, Spencer Crossing, a roomy and beautiful campground with three backcountry campsites complete with bear lockers and a luxurious green throne with a view of the forest. Little did we know that this would be our home for the duration of the trip.

We set up camp and after a quick discussion decided to strap the canoes on wheels and scout out the first portage into Spencer Lake which borders the recreation area and the Cold Lake Weapons Range. The 3.3 km trail is used by snowmobiles and four-wheelers in the winter and looked wide and inviting. Before long, however, it devolved into a mess of muskeg with deep and wide holes of muck which required a coordinated effort of passing the canoe over each little pond while one person jumped ahead each time to catch it. After some time the decision was made to unstrap the wheels and carry the canoes the rest of the way “island-hopping” as we attempted to keep our feet relatively dry on the swampy trail. It wasn’t much longer until we reached the campsite and put in on the west side of Spencer Lake where we enjoyed a much-needed snack and left the canoes for an exploratory paddle the next day. We made it back to camp later in the evening where we enjoyed a lavish meal of perogies and bacon-wrapped asparagus.

The next day we retraced our steps across the portage and explored the north end of the bay on Spencer Lake before returning to the put-in for lunch. A second paddle out to the South Point was interrupted by strong winds and white caps. We portaged back into Touchwood and enjoyed another hearty meal as the wind continued to pick up and temperatures started to drop. Scott set up a tarp over the picnic table in anticipation of rain in the forecast.

The next morning was chilly and wet as the wind continued to blow across the lake gusting up to 60km/h. We kept busy gathering firewood and making camp more comfortable–mostly just to stay warm. A dark mist settled on the lake. Rain turned to snow as temperatures dropped to below freezing as we crossed into day four of the trip. I was glad for the comfort of my down sleeping bag to keep my toes from going numb under my wool socks.

The morning of day five we were greeted by the sun as the snow started to melt off the trees. After some coffee and oatmeal with all the fixings, we made a short and cold crossing into the wind to Bare Ass point. Then we followed the western shore back to the truck at Touchwood Lake Campground. While we missed out on most of the planned “death march” I welcomed the week in the wilderness—a much-needed break away from the anxieties and stress of life back home. The pandemic had really been starting to mess with my head and a week on a rainy camping trip was just the ticket to some clarity and focus that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

“Slowly” | A Paddling Love Letter to Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo

This land draws you in slowly.

It isn’t vast cityscapes punctuated by flashy architecture. It’s more subtle, more wild. It isn’t bustling subways or crowded downtown corridors. It’s the friendship and community that we find far from home. It isn’t even oil and industry, the first people to live left the stuff in the ground. It’s the rivers and the forests that have provided for so many in so many ways.

This land draws you in slowly, that is until you put a paddle in the water. Suddenly, you’re in love.

You’re in love with misty mornings on northern lakes and endless sunsets that stretch across the sky. You’re in love with rivers coursing with history so strong you can feel it in the current. You can almost imagine the first peoples hunting and gathering along the banks, the fur traders loading up their canoes with their precious cargo, or even the clamour of the shipyard on the edge of town.

Some people say there’s nothing to do here, and honestly, I just don’t see it. I can drive 40 minutes in any direction from town and be hiking in the middle of the vast boreal forest or paddling a winding river. You might see a few beavers, a whiskey jack, or an eagle overhead. The day will almost surely end laughing with friends over a crackling campfire late into long northern nights.

The thing is, you won’t really know what I’m talking about until you experience it yourself.

This land drew me in slowly.

“Slowly” is a short film about paddling in beautiful Nistawâyâw (Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo). It’s inspired by the work of Canadian filmmaker and canoeist Bill Mason and created by friends Willi Whiston, Genoveve Zepeda, and Matt Lorenz.

How to make a paddle (and survive a Canadian winter)

One of my winter bucket list items was to carve my own canoe paddle. A quick internet search seemed to indicate that with a marginal degree of patience the project was beginner friendly and likely to be a success. I sourced some rough cut spruce from the local classifieds and armed with a brand new jigsaw, some borrowed hand tools, and enough ambition to be dangerous I set out on a mission to carve my very own canoe paddle.

I’m fairly certain I printed my plans at the wrong scale and ended up just tracing a beaver tail paddle that I knew I liked. Cutting the shape with the jigsaw was a dream, and besides installing the blade backyards in the hand plane the project went off without a hitch. It was a delight to see the paddle emerge from the wood following a few simple directions.

I made a few mistakes here and there and and now with a bit of experience and a copy of Canoe Paddles: A Complete Guide to Making Your Own I’m excited to try my hand at paddle no. 2.

With the help of my wife Genoveve and my friend Matt we made a little film about the whole thing. The script is written by yours truly and narrated by Harvey Tulk.