Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Expedition
Ah the Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands, these days it seems everyone is interested in finding out a little more information on my new favorite area for exploratory canoe trips. The most popular routes in the park include short trips to Fishog, Sheldon or Crooked Lakes but I prefer to venture further into the 'Wildlands' and witness the true rugged beauty the park has to offer.
Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Park
After accomplishing a handful of trips following the rough paths of others (See The 2011 Trip) I was determined to paddle deeper into the park and set my sights on a potential new route through to Scrabble and Clear Lakes. I had spent a few weeks back last fall pouring over the sat photos to determine the best way into the region and opted on a way in via Fishog Lake and Digby Creek. You can follow along with the trip report on the map I've made up from information I've collected on several trips to the park now.
We departed from the Head Lake Access Point on a brisk April day around noon and made it to the far side of Fishog within the hour. The first plan was to locate a supposed snowmobile trail that was located nearest the far northeastern bay. After an hour of bushwhacking and scanning the map we gave up the search and paddled down the small creek. To reach the first lake on the route leading to Redboat Lake, we first flagged and cleared an easy 90m portage to the right of a large white pine. We then paddled around the lake and searched for the best way to the small stream to the north. No good looking options and the best way out was over a steep ridge. Think 45 degree angle climb, great view, killer for your quads (according to my father). It's the type of start to a portage that makes you wonder why you go on these types of getaways. In all honesty this seemed like out best bet as it was somewhat of a cleared animal path making it a good place to start. However, besides the initial ascent, it really is an easy portage and follows a barren ridge top that involved minimal clearing. We erected some stone cairns then flagged and signed it. Overall it's an easy 290m portage if you overlook the horrid first 60m. This led us to a small lake like stream.
Lake Like Stream
After all this portage scouting, and subsequent clearing/flagging it was getting late. A quick 40m portage around a beaver dam and land bridge on an ATV trail brought us into a small lake where we would stay the night. I could see this lake getting a bit swampy in the summer as you can see the aquatic plant life just rising below the surface. Beaver activity on the lake was quite extensive and I counted about 4, so extra time was spent treating the water.
Temperatures dipped to -5C during the night, and after being serenaded by wolves, we awoke to a frosty, misty morning.
Misty, Frosty Morning
The next portage to clear was directly across the lake, so we loaded up the canoe, only to step out moments later and clear an easy 70m portage over a ridge. This was followed by a bit of marshy creek paddling until we reached a beaver dam that was so high it required the use of a small 5m portage. The portage also marked the first sign of human activity we've seen along the route in the form of an old pair of pruner clippers sitting in the water. Maybe someone from Redboat wanted to clear some routes into adjacent lakes?
Signing the Portage
We continued on through a small lake, pine clad lake and cleared an easy 90m portage around some rapids into Redboat lake. Covered in pines and rocky outcrops, Redboat proved to be very scenic and looks like a great spot for some bass action when the season opens. After a quick lunch break at the Stanton Airways cabin dock, we headed down the shoreline to scout out a potential portage into Digby Creek. We proceeded to clear an easy 75m trail that yet again, has a steep ascent over a knoll, though this one was a straight forward up-and-over a grassy, less quad killing ridge. This portage is just to the left of the lonely, large white pine. Alternatively you could take an ATV trail to the south but it's A: steep, B: muddy, C: has a bad put in at a bridge and D: you then have to get over numerous lift-overs on the creek. The 75m portage avoids all this.
Overlooking the Redboat-Digby Creek Portage
Digby creek was quite navigable much to my relief, just numerous beaver dams and logjams to lift-over, but forward progress is pretty swift. Just have a keen eye and find the best channel. Most logs are simply floating and can be moved with a good poke from a paddle.
Paddling Digby Creek
We checked out cranberry lake but the portage around the rapids seemed to steep and tricky to clear or bushwhack this late in the day. It would be easy to get into Cranberry and it looked quite scenic from our ridge top vantage point. I'll leave that for someone else to explore and fill me in.
The last portage of the day was an easy 55m into Scrabble that we cleared beside the rapids. In low water you may have to walk over the ridge top by the old boat to reach the portage. This portage required a good clearing and man was I happy I had my machete with a saw-blade on the reverse. Lots of dead fall and scrub here, but now it's an easy to follow flagged path! After arriving at Scrabble Lake, we made our way to a beautiful rocky peninsula and set up camp.
The next day we explored the Eastern reaches of Scrabble, finding a few more campsites in the process... and where they all originated from. An ATV trail leading to a cache of over 25 boats greeted us in the far Eastern bay. After exploring the trail for a bit we worked our way back down Scrabble to find a way into Clear Lake.
My initial idea was to locate a portage the ministry said existed, but sadly it didn't appear to. The alternative plan was to head out the way we came in and establish a portage from Digby Creek. But I saw a small stream on the sat images and wondered if it would be passable. Well long story short, it is, but only to those hardy types....
Don't Attempt This Route Into Clear Lake Unless You're The Hardy Type
I scouted the route on the ridge and it looked like it could be done, but after slogging and lining through the small creek for over an hour before finally reaching Clear Lake (still dry somehow but with a boat full of alder branches) we decided that only the crazy should try this for some fun.
At least Clear lake is very scenic, and In my mind, worth the slogging. The sites on this lake are very underused, most look like they haven't been touched in years, but some had some interesting user created features. Historical (60s-70s era) garbage (cans, bottles etc) on a small island were really the only sign of people. Also checked out the 240m portage into Little Couburn Lake. Easy to follow on an ATV trail and the lake is very scenic/secluded.
We left Clear Lake behind and cleared a 295m portage back into Digby creek. Water levels may shorten this. We then proceeded to paddle back to Fishog, making quick progress now that we didn't need to scout or clear overland routes. We could have easily made it back to the access point, but we felt another night spent in the park was in order and we quickly drifted off to sleep after a hearty pasta dinner.
On the final day of our trip we headed back to Head Lake, only to encounter gale force winds that whipped up midway through our crossing. After a harrowing crossing that saw us narrowly avoid a few boat capsizing rouge waves, we scrambled ashore just as the wind picked up and delivered 100km+ gusts. Safe and sound on the shore we reflected on just how successful a trip it had been. As the area is my favorite for exploratory canoe trips, the plans are already in place for a return in the spring of 2013. This time, an expedition to a chain of lakes to the west of Crooked...
Rapids on the Head River