Paddlers and outfitters have used Indigenous peoples’ lands without permission in Canada since paddling became a recreational sport. Many paddlers are even unaware that they are on Indigenous lands while exploring their favorite rivers or lakes. Recently, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created several calls to action to help bridge the divide between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Canadians. The TRC also sheds light on the injustices that Indigenous peoples of Canada have had to live through and brought attention to many of the issues facing Indigenous peoples. Through the TRC, many non-Indigenous Canadians are learning for the first time how they can work to build a stronger relationship with their fellow Indigenous Canadians via respect and understanding.
Taking this idea to heart, Twin River Travel (TRT) – a canoeing outfitter based out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada – decided that their new 220 km canoe trip along the Bloodvein River would not only be based around paddling, but also around educating their clients about Indigenous culture. To do this, the owners of TRT put together a team of paddlers, a videographer, and myself, a photographer completing my PhD in community health in which I work with and alongside Indigenous peoples, to run an exploratory trip down the Bloodvein River. Our team’s goal was to not only to scout the river and campsites for 2019 summer expeditions, but also to build a relationship with the Indigenous community of Bloodvein.
After a day of waiting for the sky to clear we landed at the Artery Lakes located at the Manitoba and Ontario border. Unloading the floatplane is always one of my favorite parts of any expedition: Will we make it? Will things go according to plan? What wildlife will we run into? Will we crack a canoe in half? All these thoughts make for an increased heart rate and adrenaline dump as we quickly try to unload the plane.
Once we got ourselves geared up and out of the Artery Lakes we were able to see why the Bloodvein River has such an awesome name: a blood red ancient vein of crystallized magma runs almost the whole length of the river from the Artery Lakes to Lake Winnipeg. As we paddled the river in late September, the water levels were low and we were able to see the Bloodvein for almost the entire trip. Having this lovely strip of red always reminded us where we were, and whose river we were paddling along.
There are more than 84 rapids along the Bloodvein River, each with their own twists and turns. Some of these rapids the team navigated well with little to no trouble, others we needed a helping hand to pull us out of the water after a big dump.
Having a team of paddlers that you know you can trust to help you out when things get rough is what makes a 12-day trip like this easy. Swims can be tough, but knowing you have a friend that actually knows what they are doing waiting to pull you out lowers your stress levels immensely.
Each day we would pick a spot to camp. None of the team had run the Bloodvein River before and all our maps were based on previous paddlers experiences. Campsites were a gamble, “do we take out here because it is decent, or is there something better another 100 meters down the river?” I truly believe that 10 times out of 11 we made the right choice of campsite, which was not only lucky but also good for the psyche.
Working as a videographer or a photographer can get nerve racking on paddling trips. Paddling with over $25,000 worth of equipment in your boat can be scary. River crossings to get that perfect shot are probably the most stressful part of any expedition for media team members. One slip, and there goes your livelihood, and the rest of the trip is wasted without the footage or photographs you were hired to take.
There is an old trapper’s cabin along the Bloodvein River. Most paddlers stop to sign and read the guest book to see who is ahead of them, and some even spend a night or two in the cottage to warm up, or sleep with a roof over their heads. We had not seen another soul (and would not) by this point in our trip and it was exciting to read how far ahead other paddlers were along the river. At this time in the late September, there were only two other paddlers and they were two days ahead of us. After reading up on other peoples notes, we left our own, sharing our new knowledge of the area, and about our expedition into reconciliation. Now knowing the likelihood of us seeing another soul along the river was practically zero, we could really feel the sense of freedom paddling along this river.
Late September in Manitoba can be a cold time. By day eight of the trip our gear started to freeze in the evenings. Our Kokatat dry suits and PFDs, wet each day from keeping us alive in the frigid river, needed to be thawed by morning fires. Shoes also needed to be thawed out by the fire, and most outdoor adventurers know about leaving shoes near fires to thaw: don’t do it. One pair, not mine, was melted when left too close for too long; rookie mistake not made by a rookie.
As a journalist and adventurer, I love to talk about the huge rapids, the crazy sneak lines, and the sick maneuvers we pull off on trips, but the best parts of being on a remote river are the calm moments. Those moments where we take a minute away from the city, the jobs, the deadlines, the chatter, the phones, and the computers and just stare at the calm water listening to the wildlife and wind. That is what these trips are about for me.
Once we arrived in the Indigenous community of Bloodvein we met with some of the community members. We were asked to do a presentation at the local school for 20 youth about our paddling expedition. The community leaders hoped that having us present about our exploits would motivate their youth to want to go on similar expeditions on a river that practically runs through their backyard. After our presentation an Elder invited us to her home to participate in an Indigenous sweat lodge. After cleansing ourselves (as seen in the photo) we entered the tarp-covered area and hot rocks known as “grandfathers” were placed in a pit in the center of the area. In the darkness all we could see were the rocks growing bright. As our bodies slowly started to heat up, the Elder began to sing to us. None of us could understand her words, but the songs calmed our fast beating hearts and our pounding overheated heads. When the ceremony was completed we exited the tent and stuck around to speak with the Elder about her life growing up in residential schools, her later expulsion from said school, and her life living in Bloodvein.
This paddling trip was about much more than a team of paddlers, a videographer, and a photographer paddling down some river. It was about building a relationship with the Indigenous people that owned the land. In order to work towards educating clients TWT will include an Indigenous sweat lodge ceremony in their trips, working with the same elder we spent time with. During their time in the community clients will get a first-hand experience of a remote Indigenous community. This can lead to educating non-Indigenous Canadians and other clients about how Indigenous people live. As a country, we in Canada need to do a better job in how Indigenous people are treated and respected. Although this trip won’t change the world, it may lead to educating people from around the world about Indigenous Canadians, and education leads to respect and understanding.
The best part of being on a remote river are the calm moments; Those moments where we take a minute and just stare at the calm water, listening to the wildlife and wind.