Whiteshell Provincial Park: Big Whiteshell-Crowduck-Eaglenest-Saddle Loop (4 days / 75 km)

In the late fall of 2017 a group of friends and I decided to take on a shoulder season canoe trip over the Thanksgiving Weekend. Given that we all had roots in spring paddling, we decided to take on a route that we deemed “stupid hard”. I followed lines on a map of the Whiteshell that would take us through massive lakes, unmaintained portages and finished with an epic 2km hike between Saddle and Crowduck Lake. The boys were fired up for the challenge, and we took it on, finding it to be just as hard, painful and epic as we’d imagined. This loop is not for the faint of heart, but for a paddler looking to take on full days and tough portages, it offers beauty, solitude and an epic wilderness challenge. 

Trip Completed: October 2017

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Big Whiteshell Lake Campground

Ending Point: Big Whiteshell Lake Campground

Total Distance: 75 km

Duration: 4 days / 3 nights

Difficulty: Advanced. The route requires lots of kilometres and has long difficult portages. Paddlers should be familiar with big lake paddling and be prepared to deal with strong winds.  

Location

This route takes place in Whiteshell Provincial Park, located in Eastern Manitoba. The put-in is about 2 hours from Winnepeg.

Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki and Michif Piyii (Métis).

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: No official guides, some resources available on MyCCR.

Map: Canada-052L03, Manitoba Government Map. You can also see campsite and portage information on the last page of the Whiteshell Provincial Park Backcountry Map and Trip Planning Guide.

Campsite Permits: A Manitoba Parks permit is required for vehicles, however backcountry travel and random camping are allowed and unregulated.

Outfitters & Shuttles

Outfitter: We had all of our own gear, so no outfitter was used for this trip.

Shuttle: No shuttle is needed as this route starts and ends at the same location.

Trip Report

Day 1: Put In to East Side of Big Whiteshell Lake (6 km)

Trying to get six boys in their early twenties organized and into a van on a Friday afternoon is a very difficult task. So, as expected, we left Winnipeg much later than we planned and arrived at the Big Whiteshell boat launch around 6:00 pm, not long before sunset. We set out with three canoes just as the sun dropped below the horizon, and quickly paddled across the lake, determined to get some kilometres in and find a campsite before dark. As darkness descended, we quickly chose a flat, rocky site on the eastern shore of Big Whiteshell Lake to make camp.

Campsite: East side of Big Whiteshell Lake. Flat, spacious campsite on bedrock.  

Day 2: Big Whiteshell Lake to Echo Lake (40 km)

We took off early in the morning and, after about 2 km of paddling, we portaged 600 m into Crowduck Lake. The portage between Big Whiteshell and Crowduck is minimally maintained and has a swampy section about halfway through. It also passes by the Mantario Hiking Trail.

We set off on Crowduck Lake in a light headwind, passing high scenic cliffs. We stopped mid-morning to cook Kraft Dinner over a fire. At this point, one of our party declared a choice. Looking around at the spacious island we had chosen for our brunch he said “You know boys, we could just stay here, sit in the sun and eat and drink for the next two days instead of doing this stupid route”. We looked around longingly, but our egos won us over and we quickly all agreed that we would commit to the route.

We paddled about 14 km to the northeastern corner of Crowduck Lake, entertained through most of it by a crew member telling an extremely long story / joke with a really bad punchline. From Crowduck Lake, we portaged 300 m over Crowduck Falls and into Boundary Lake. The portage was straightforward and uneventful, following a steep but stable bedrock path next to a narrow waterfall. The route through Boundary Lake took us briefly into Ontario, marked by a large sign.

We then returned into Manitoba and into Eaglenest Lake. We passed by a fly-in fishing lodge on the western shore, but it was closed for the season. From Eaglenest we paddled a shallow, narrow stream into Little Echo Lake, and then another stream into Parks Lake. At this point, the early fall evening was descending on us. After a long day of paddling, we sat in the stillness of Parks Lake and watched the sunset illuminate the trees and reflect off the water.

However, the magic of the moment was ruined when we realized that the shallow, reedy bank of Parks Lake would not offer a decent campsite. As twilight once again descended on our crew, we quickly landed on the 500 m portage to Echo Lake. As we set up to tackle the portage, half the crew realized that they had not brought a headlamp. We tackled the wet, rocky portage in darkness, leading each other blind through the rough terrain. We found a gently sloping bedrock ledge just past the portage and used it as our campsite for the night. The site had a metal fire pit, which we used to cook chipotle chicken and rice. 

Campsite: North shore, just past Parks Lake/Echo Lake portage. Large bedrock campsite with metal fire pit. Spacious and ample firewood. 

Day 3: Echo Lake to Saddle Lake (11 km)

We took off across Echo Lake in the morning in high spirits. Our goal for the day was to reach a campsite near the dreaded 2 km Crowduck Portage, so we could hit the trail early on our final day. As we made our way onto the main channel of Echo Lake the wind began to pick up and the waves became increasingly larger and choppier. Soon, the bows of our boats were riding high on the crests of the waves, and slamming the troughs. Water was coming over the gunnels and the flying bows were making us unbalanced. We did not want to turn our boats around and risk exposing our broadside to the waves, and the rocky, cliffed banks of Echo Lake offered no refuge. Discouraged and alarmed, we fought into the wind and waves, hoping for an opportunity to find shelter.

Eventually, we spotted a bushy, steep break in the cliffs and beelined to it. We landed, pulled our boats across a narrow spit of land, and then hunkered down in a sheltered bay on the other side. We made a fire and hung out all afternoon, waiting out the wind. We were forced to wait all afternoon, but eventually, the wind died down around 5:00 pm.

When we felt safe to do so, we launched our boats again. The south end of Echo Lake was thick with wild rice, but we pushed through the vegetation, eventually arriving on Saddle Lake. We passed an old snowmobile shelter and quickly stopped to explore. Then, we paddled another few kilometres to a large island near the Crowduck Portage. The island offered a spacious campsite with a prebuild fire pit. We spent the evening recounting the day’s adventures, letting the waves grow bigger and stakes higher with each repeat of the story.

Campsite: Island on the southeast of Saddle Lake. Spacious, pretty site with a rock firepit. Pretty views of a small bay. Evidence of prior use, but like all campsites in this area use is sparse. 

Day 4: Saddle Lake to Big Whiteshell Lake (18 km)

After a hearty breakfast, we paddled a short distance to the 2 km Crowduck Lake Portage. We had been planning for the portage for the entire trip and quickly mobilized ourselves. To avoid backtracking on the route (and extend it to 6 km), we opted to carry everything in one heavy trip. For a lightly used and unmaintained trail, the portage was surprisingly good. It snaked through open forest and bare bedrock. A small rocky rise about halfway through gave us an opportunity to take a second breakfast break. We completed the portage by 9:00 am, and got back onto the water in good spirits.

We paddled about 10 km through the northwestern arm of Crowduck Lake, then returned to Big Whiteshell Lake through the same 600 m portage that we came in on, around 10:00 am. As a final challenge to the trip, winds were high on Big Whiteshell Lake. We battled through the winds, using the islands in the middle of the lake as windbreaks. We finally reached the boat launch around mid-afternoon. After a tiring few days, our crew drove back to Winnipeg, just in time to return home for a massive Thanksgiving Dinner!

Reflections

This has been one of the most difficult, poorly planned and fun canoe trips that I’ve been on. Taking on this challenge with a group of friends was an awesome experience, though I may not have felt that way at the time. Many lakes in the Whiteshell can be subject to high winds, as we saw on this route. Paddlers on Big Whiteshell, Crowduck, Eaglenest and Echo should be prepared for strong winds, and be ready to wait out weather or modify plans if necessary. Paddling this late in the season was a new challenge for me on this trip, but we were lucky to have sunny days. Paddling when the water is this cold offers higher consequences and makes hopping out at portages much less comfortable. This trip offers a chance to paddle on very quiet and rarely used lakes, which is a nice contrast from many of the other paddling routes in the Whiteshell. I do not think I would ever repeat this trip, but I sure am glad that I did it. 

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Author Bio

Hey! I’m Liam! I am passionate about paddling and hiking and have guided paddling trips in Manitoba and in Algonquin Provincial Park. My favourite river is the Bloodvein in Manitoba, followed closely by the Manigotagan. When I’m not paddling I work as a geologist.

Instagram: @mckinno

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