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Wild places: Churchill River, Saskatchewan

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A primer on one of the best rivers in Canada and what you can do on it

From its headwaters in the boreal wilderness of northeastern Alberta, the Churchill River flows eastward across the Canadian Shield, stretching more than 1,600 kilometres to the windblown expanse of Hudson Bay. To call it a river is perhaps a leap of faith, for as much as the water moves inexorably to the sea, it is more a waterway linking countless lakes scattered helter-skelter across the north. But stand in the midspan of the Churchill River Bridge, where Saskatchewan’s Otter Rapids rush underfoot, and there’s little doubt this is indeed a river. A mighty river.

The Woods Cree who, along with the Dene, used the waterway as a travel corridor for millennia before European contact aptly called it the Missinipe, or “Great Water.” The river’s current name came into use shortly after John Churchill became governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1685. By then, its

importance to the fur trade had been well established, with voyageurs following the age-old portages deep into the soul of the land.

By virtue of its relative isolation, the Churchill has managed to hold onto its wildness as it flows through northern Saskatchewan. It’s true the sound of outboard motors and the drone of fl oat planes intrude on the serenity from time to time, but that intrusion is almost reassuring when the only other sounds are the hiss of the current against polished bedrock and the pervasive hum of blackflies and mosquitoes.

The region was largely inaccessible until after the mid-1900s, when Highway 102 arrived at the village of Missinipe, north of La Ronge. Around the same time, another road—Highway 155—was carved into the boreal landscape to reach Buffalo Narrows at Churchill Lake. Today, both communities offer opportunities to explore and fish the river and countless surrounding lakes.

The fishing, after all, is reason aplenty to be on the Churchill. Walleye are virtually everywhere and aggressive northern pike prowl the weedy shallows. And Buffalo Narrows is a perfect departure point for an extended fl oat trip following the route taken by the fur traders as far as Stanley Mission, stopping here and there to fish and make camp when the sun dips toward the horizon.

To find out more about fishing and hunting opportunities in this wilderness area, contact the following organizations

Boat/canoe rental

Churchill River Canoe Outfitters: 1-877-511-2726

River & Portage information

Canoe Saskatchewan

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