View topic - Wheeler River from Russell Lake to Wollaston

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PostPosted: September 12th, 2019, 12:54 pm 
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June 2019 was a big season for canoeing and the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas! In total twenty-one biologists and support crew were sent on four river trips and a multitude of lake trips in order to access remote survey locations. Our days started with a dawn hike to our survey locations, where we navigated to predefined points and identified all the bird songs we could hear. In the afternoon, we would break camp and hop into the canoe to paddle to our next sites. Below is the trip report I’ve put together for the Wheeler River.

The topography around the Wheeler River was amazing, with hills, eskers, sandy cliffs, and rocky outcrops. We did the trip in 9 days of paddling (and one day of no travel) which included a few detours to get to our study sites, and travelled about 170 km. There were lots of lovely places to set up camp, and we never had trouble finding a good place to spend the night. We went in early June and had only one or two days near the end with any biting insects to speak of. We saw lots of fish, lots of birds, quite a few porcupines, and one well-behaved bear.

We were expecting to have 11 sets of rapids and ended up with 22 – rapids almost every day! Most were short drops but there were several longer sets. There was LOTS of boulder-dodging involved, mostly class 2 rapids with some 2+ and one 3 (Big Baby on the Geike).

Check out this link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1dg1FNbRTXIkgxX5NDr0aqheR4jF5DeXJ/view?usp=sharing for a Google Earth file of rapids and where we camped. I suggest taking a look at Bing Maps satellite imagery, which is much higher resolution than Google Earth in that area.

Day 1 - On June 6, 2019, we made the 9-hour drive from Saskatoon up to Russell Lake. The paddlers were me (Atlas technician and trip songbird authority), my dad Alan (canoe Captain and camping chef extraordinaire) and Dana (kayak Captain, rapids guide, and trip botanist). We stopped briefly at the gates of the Key Lake Mine, where we had pre-arranged permission to drive up through the mine site to access the lake. We got dropped right on the shore at 57.456767, -105.357416, and paddled only a few kilometers to our first campsite at 57.427015, -105.331291. We had a dinner of fresh hamburgers then quickly hit the sack to rest before our first full day.

Day 2 - We had an earlybird wakeup of 3:30 AM to do our songbird surveys. I have never had so much topography on a survey morning in Saskatchewan! We got a lovely sunrise walk over the hills, with some great habitat, lots of fun northern birds like Rusty Blackbird, White-crowned Sparrow, and Olive-sided Flycatcher, and got to go through a few small wetlands.

That day we made the 17 km paddle up to the north end of Russell Lake to get close to our next survey locations. We got rained on that afternoon, but found a lovely campsite at 57.474863, -105.215893, complete with picnic tables, firepit, pots and pans, fish-cleaning table, and latrine. We cooked up fresh tacos for dinner, the last of our fresh meat.

Day 3 – It was raining in the morning, so we weren’t able to do our surveys. We went back to bed and had a nice lie-in, then built a fire in the afternoon to try to dry out our soaking wet boots and socks. It rained on and off all morning, but started to let up in the evening. Dana caught two northern pike, and we had a delicious dinner of fish fried over the campfire. We stayed in the same spot another night and hoped for better weather the next morning.

Day 4 – Another 3AM wakeup, and the weather was clear and calm. We divided and conquered our surveys, with lots of hiking through the squishy sphagnum bog.

After a quick breakfast we started on the 26 km paddle to our next study sites. On the way back out from the north arm of Russell Lake we found a Common Tern colony with birds sitting on eggs. We had some short sections of surprise rapids at 57.485234, -105.136851, 57.500766, -105.067845, and 57.500766, -105.067845. All were boulder gardens with small standing waves. None were a problem for Dana in her kayak, but water levels were below normal and some were too shallow for the canoe. In the canoe we were quite rusty and ran into a few boulders, and in some spots ran aground and had to get out to float the canoe over the shallow sections.

After the last set of rapids we took another detour to the south. We made two little upstream connections into Moore Lakes, where we found a drill site with hundreds of kilometers of core samples. We got out to take a look and say hello, but no one was there. Despite the lack of people, there was garbage everywhere, uncontained fuel, and equipment lying around all over the place. Some of those core samples were very beautiful, and we were wishing we had brought along a trip Geologist. We tried to make another upstream connection to the next lake to the south, but we gave up pretty quickly as it looked like it would be a boggy portage into a boggy lake. We instead camped on a sandy beach at 57.500766, -105.067845 with a nice view of the esker to the east of us.

Day 5 – Again, too much wind to do our morning surveys. We were worried about finishing the trip on time, so we decided to move on rather than stay another day to get them done. We backtracked out of Moore Lakes and onto the Wheeler again. We were aiming to get to the Wheeler River Lodge, 21 km away. There was another set of short rapids at 57.500766, -105.067845, 57.500766, -105.067845, which Dana did very well and my dad and I did somewhat poorly. At the bottom of that set there was a swarm of over 20 Common Nighthawks, displaying right on top of us and not helping us concentrate on avoiding rocks! It had been so cold up to that point and we had had almost no flying insects, so I was wondering how they were surviving with such little food. It’s very unusual to see so many flying around in broad daylight! We had a lovely calm paddle the rest of the way to Wheeler River Lodge with Nighthawks flying around us all the rest of the way there.

We stopped in at Wheeler River Lodge, and met the owners, Kevin and Cheryl. They invited us over for dinner and said we could set up camp wherever we liked, so we paddled back around the peninsula to camp on a lovely sand beach at 57.500766, -105.067845. We washed our faces and tried to make ourselves presentable, then walked over for a delicious meal of fresh-caught fish, pasta, and red wine. We were only the second paddlers Kevin and Cheryl had ever seen come through. It was a lovely lodge with very kind folks running it!

Day 6 – Good weather in the morning and we got our surveys done. It was easy walking with lots of open sandy Jack Pine forest. Very beautiful but not as high bird diversity as we had seen in previous days, with lots of Dark-eyed Juncos, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Chipping Sparrows.

We set off bright and early for our next campsite, 23 km away. We had more small sets of rapids but getting longer at 57.554776, -104.904240 (??maybe, I got lazy with recording my waypoints), 57.577809, -104.835158, 57.583985, -104.812692, and 57.613185, -104.745897. Either the rapids were getting easier or we were getting better, or both, because we managed all of these pretty well. A 2 km set of rapids came up at 57.598651, -104.752639. We ran these fairly well, with lots of boulder-dodging and only one or two scrapes.

Those were out last rapids of the day and we camped near our study sites again at 57.571915, -104.721123.

Day 7 – Super early bird wakeup of 2:30 AM for a bit of a hike to the study sites. Luckily, it was nice easy walking so I got there early and had to wait for the sun to start coming up! Once there there was a fun variety of habitat, from jack pine to black spruce bog to some little lakes. I picked up the first Orange-crowned Warbler of the trip, and had a Bonaparte’s Gull circle me and start telling me off for daring to walk through his territory.

That day we paddled 20 km to our next campsite. We crossed Keefe Lake with a bit of a crosswind. We ran another short set of rapids in quick succession at 57.621227, -104.579328. It was deep enough for us to run fairly well, but at the end we saw that there had been a portage trail on river right, which is visible on Google Earth. We camped on the easternmost of Kindrachuk Lakes at 57.584656, -104.558926, on a sandy beach with a little patch of live trees at the edge of a large burn. Over supper we had yet more Common Nighthawks circling over us, and we got to see two interacting high in the sky. One would fly up and up and up, then go into a steep dive headed right for the other one. At the last moment it would pull up, making a “whoomp!” noise with its wings, and the other would have to do some evasive maneuvers to avoid getting hit by the first.

Day 8 – We did our morning surveys in the burn and had several more Nighthawks zooming around us. We found a Black-backed Woodpecker nest and lots of other burn-loving birds (American Robins, Rusty Blackbirds, White-throated Sparrows, etc.).

That afternoon we paddled 16 km to our next sites. As we left Kindrakchuk Lakes, the river made some gentle meanders. We saw a Trumpeter Swan in the marshy edge of the river, a very exciting find. We came across a 1 km stretch of rapids at 57.568430, -104.502753. We ran the first little section of these just fine, the canoe following Dana, then eddied out. We went ahead to shoot the next section, which had very little opportunity to get off once we were on. We hit a little section with a sharp drop and some very big waves, which completely swamped the canoe. Luckily we were able to muddle our way to shore and bail the canoe, but I had lost my nerve so we portaged through the bush and lined the rest of the way. That night we camped on top of a sandy hill at 57.616767, -104.405431, just before the last long set of rapids on the Wheeler.

Day 9 – Very fun morning surveys. 2:45 AM wakeup, and I got to my first point too early again. In the dim light as I was sitting at my first point waiting for sunup, I heard and later saw two Spruce Grouse nearby doing their wing-flap display and their little dance for a female who was perched in a tree, watching them from above. There was a bit of excitement later that morning as Dana’s recording device ran out of memory, but together we managed to get all the surveys done within the dawn period. We had a delicious breakfast of oatmeal with fresh-picked cranberries before breaking camp.

We started the day with a 2 km section of rapids at 57.598651, -104.752639. It was long and technical, with lots of hazards, but we ran it in decent form. A few spots we were really threading the needle, with rocks on either side with inches to spare. There was just a bit of dragging as it got shallow at the very end. It was followed by two very short rapids one after the other at 57.598651, -104.752639. We paddled south through some lovely lakes, ran one more short rapids at 57.588360, -104.245361, and joined the Geikie River that afternoon. We pushed on to Big Baby Rapids and got there around 7PM.

We ran the short first section of Big Baby just after the island at 57.583882, -104.183349. We then pulled off to the bank and watched Dana disappear around the bend as the real rapids started around 57.587057, -104.177212. Once at the bottom of the rapids, Dana sent us an InReach message telling us there was some very big water with steep river banks and no opportunity to pull off. It would have been too much water for an open tripping canoe. We portaged the canoe on river left and got all our gear to the end of the rapids that night. There was no trail at all, just a long section of jack pine burn followed by a swampy forest. We found the easiest way to walk across was to go uphill right away, walk on the top of the ridge through the burn, then when we hit the bog to go back down towards the river and walk along the moose trails through the bog birch on the riverbank.

We made a crappy camp in the bog at almost the end of the rapids at 57.595863, -104.155643, and left the canoe at the beginning to portage the next night. Good thing there were no more bird surveys to do, since we got to bed at 10 PM.

Day 10 – We finished off carrying the canoe over in the morning, then ran the last little section of Big Baby. A very long 19 km to the highway, where Atlas Coordinator LeeAnn gave us a warm welcome and a ride down to Missinippe. We met up with the rest of the Bird Studies Canada crew that night, before headed our separate ways. Dana back to Saskatoon, Alan back to Vancouver, and me to Buffalo Narrows to prepare for my next river trip.

To finish off, here's a shameless plug for the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas. If you're interested in birds or canoeing, or better yet BOTH, we want your help! The project is running through the summer of 2021 and we need birdwatchers and paddling guides. https://sk.birdatlas.ca/contact-us/


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PostPosted: September 15th, 2019, 8:06 pm 
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Joined: December 20th, 2003, 9:27 am
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Another interesting report. Thanks for posting.
I can't seem to get the link to Google Maps to work but then, I'm not very computer literate. When I click on the link, it asks me to choose a program to open the link. I'm not sure what to do at that point. Any thoughts?


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PostPosted: September 19th, 2019, 8:09 am 
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That's pretty interesting. I know some birds, you obviously know a lot of them, that's impressive. I imagine people like you aren't easy to find for jobs like this. I like that you supplied the coordinates, and can imagine how time consuming that was, but I followed along on a map. That's also interesting that your dad traveled that far for this experience.

Is this the same program that advertises for people to count Loons on the lakes etc.?

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PostPosted: September 24th, 2019, 5:22 pm 
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Hi Ralph! - You'll need to download Google Earth Pro for desktop in order to view that file (you can get it for free online at https://www.google.com/earth/versions/#earth-pro ). I have the "desktop" version but it might also work with web version.

And hi GRS Riverrider! Yes, it is also Bird Studies Canada that runs the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey. https://www.birdscanada.org/volunteer/clls/ I don't have very much experience with the loon survey myself, but I'm sure we would love to have another volunteer with us if you are interested!


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PostPosted: September 24th, 2019, 6:16 pm 
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Thanks, Laura, it worked great.


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PostPosted: September 26th, 2019, 3:15 pm 
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I look forward to reading this report, but I'll have to save it for another day. Dana is a friend of mine - we were in grad school together. Birding and paddling are a couple of great activities, but what I saw in your other report and from Dana's brief comments was that you folks worked HARD!
Cheers,
Bryan

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