Carving through the rugged stone and dazzling forests of the Canadian Shield hides one of the best-kept secrets in Manitoba. Not only do the wild, remote waters appeal to thrill-seekers and whitewater enthusiasts but the solitude and beauty found on the Pigeon river demands a trip from all avid paddlers.
Touted as having comparable whitewater to the Colorado River, the obvious advantage of the Pigeon is its relative ease of accessibility. Strangely, it is often left out of lists of the foremost paddling routes in Canada as its southern neighbour the Bloodvein seems to take all the publicity. A short (although not inexpensive) floatplane ride in and out slims the annual paddling numbers to less than forty per season. Cruising the historic fur-trade route, for eight days we were thankful for its lack of human traces short of a few old fire-pits and some rarely trampled portage trails.
Leading up to the trip, we dreamed of the huge falls and hundreds of meters of rapids that awaited us, only to be a little disappointed by the lower than usual water levels. As it turned out, these conditions worked to our favour. As we did not have skirts on our canoes, larger waves may have stopped us from running some rapids. Instead, nearly all but some gnarly rock gardens or waterfalls were runnable in empty canoes or kayaks, or at the very least lined. On the other hand, at one point where the river split into three a should-have-been boulder field was reduced to an unexpected trickle of water. But with lower water also came exposed banks for lining and spectacular lunch spots on slabs of granite next to the pounding falls.
Wildlife was also in abundance as we saw many bald eagles, a moose and its young and traces of bear and wolf.
Stunning sunsets were a nightly occurrence as each evening brought a new pallet of colours. Shear rock faces looked like perfect pictograph spots, or failing that, great launches into the cool water below. Before long, the river started to slow and meander listlessly through marshes and thundering rapids no longer echoed in our ears. Our pickup was drawing near; a long straight section just before Windigo Lake was our clever way to avoid another 40 km of flatwater, allowing us to spend more quality play time in the untamed boils of the river. As we reluctantly crammed into the plane, we thought back on feasts of pickerel cheeks and late nights of tunes around the fire. It seemed a shame to be leaving the tranquillity of the wilderness that taught us so much in such a short time; as one wise man once told me, the best things in life…aren’t things.
A big thanks to Craig Campbell and Dean McLeod - the two paddling experts who’ve taught me all I know over the years and lead a great trip.
Hap Wilson – Wilderness Rivers of Manitoba - The detailed descriptions of rapids let you know what’s coming and helpfully point out portages. Unfortunately, we soon found the classifications to be fairly useless because water levels were so much lower than when Wilson’s diagrams were done.
John Buchanan – Canoeing Manitoba Rivers – Vol. 1 South - Great info from a local paddler on some of the smaller, lesser-known rivers of southern Manitoba both flat and whitewater. Not as detailed analysis of the rapids, but another great read to get you psyched up for a trip! He also has some great recipes to try at the end of those long days…try the Canoe Scramble, it’s my favourite!
John Buchanan has also made a series of river running guides for most notable Manitoba rivers. They can be found at Manitoba Natural Resources Mapping Branch