Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson, Nate Sawkiw and Jason Vanin
When my friends and I had first started wilderness backpacking, Manitoba's Snail Lake left us nothing short of obsessed. This remote gem is only accessible by crossing North and South Steeprock Lakes in the dense Porcupine Forest. The route is undoubtedly treacherous. But there's one reason that makes this challenge all worthwhile: Arctic char—a fish species found nowhere in Saskatchewan and only in a few stocked lakes in western Manitoba.
About Snail Lake, Porcupine Hills, Manitoba
Snail Lake has been the source of experimental stocking attempts for Arctic char since 1992. More recently, the lake has been managed by the Swan Valley Sport Fishing Enhancement Inc. and has successfully produced angling-size fish. Over 10 kilometres from the nearest road, the lake is isolated in dense woods and remains accessible by snowmobile only. This particular area in the Porcupine Hills is still recovering from a wildfire in May, 1980. The majority of the forest surrounding Snail, South Steeprock and North Steeprock Lakes are wetlands and stands of young jack pine, making it next to impossible to hike through.
Snail Lake is notoriously difficult to reach in summer. However, where there's a will, there's a way. We may not be able to hike into it, but we might be able to canoe.
Part One: Wind, Water and Adrenaline
May 19, 2016, Duck Mountain Prov. Park, SK - "We'll be some of the few people to reach the lake in open water season—and—we're gonna do it without ATVs. We'll join the ranks!" I announce loudly with a slight slur over the chatter of my friends around the kitchen table. I pour another drink. Everyone is talking and having a good time, looking over maps and getting fired up for our first back-country canoe trip of the year.
"Arctic char..." Jason nods with his eyebrows raised. "What are our chances of catching one?"
I figure that mid-May will be ideal since it is only a few weeks after ice-out in the Porcupine Hills. The water should still be cold and the fish might still be in their springtime feeding frenzy before retreating to the depths for summer. I have my tackle set out: an array of flies and spinners. I'll try everything in the box if I have to.
The night gets a bit carried away and we wake up tired the next morning with mild to severe headaches. I'd blame our restless sleep on the liquor, but it is probably an equal combination of leaving the furnace on all night and Kyle's snoring sounding like a wild boar drowning in a bowl of soup.
We gather outside the cabin and begin strapping our canoes onto our trailer and roof racks. The cool morning air does miracles for curing hangovers.
"How are we doin' for time?" Adam asks as he divides the weekend's rations of beef jerky. In spite of our lack of professionalism, we're still on track for an early noon arrival at North Steeprock Lake Provincial Park with time for breakfast in Benito. We must be getting better at this.
We leave Duck Mountain and drive north through the Swan River Valley. After passing by Thunder Hill, the silhouette of the Porcupine Hills gradually takes over the horizon. A left turn at Birch River takes us up the steep slopes of the Manitoba Escarpment, and finally our destination: a boat launch at the mouth of Steeprock River.
Wanting to get the most out of our day, we quickly unload our gear into the canoes and prepare for a long ride. Looking over the lake from the dock, I feel sick. This always happens before leaving on a trip.
"Why won't you get into the canoe?" Sean speaks to his dog, Jean-Paul, while re-fastening his life jacket. He's normally so eager for adventure. J.P. eventually concedes, and steps between the thwarts.
Mitch uses his paddle to push us away from the dock. I shift my focus ahead of the bow and toward the rest of the group, already making their way through the calm river channel. Sean and Adam paddle right beside with J.P. laying low in the middle of their canoe.
"This is nice. Reminds me of Amisk Lake," Adam says. There's movement in the treeline and the sound of wind gusts high overhead. The trees are providing us enough shelter to make paddling no issue. David catches a small pike on his first cast while waiting for us to catch up.
In the distance, the narrow river channel dissipates, exposing a sea of open water dotted with whitecaps. "Well, this is a little less like Amisk," Sean says. We pass beyond the narrows, losing our wind guard and facing strong headwinds from the southeast.
Mitch barrels us forth from the stern—boldly crashing headfirst into the first of many waves like some lunatic sea-pirate. I clench my teeth, "We've got a lot of expensive shit on here in case you forgot!" He responds with a grin. Sheer optimism can be a terrifying thing.
Cold splashes remind me that this lake is only recently thawed. Mitch and I remain focused on steering straight into the waves to avoid being broadsided.
"Aggghh! Damn, this is intense!" Mitch yells with a maniacal laugh. After the initial shock, it's actually a lot of fun to conquer the waves, up and down, relentlessly trying to reach the next island for shelter.
"Hold up," I hear Sean calling, muffled by the wind gusts. "We're taking on a bit of water." Their canoe appears quite low to the water surface, but most of the group is already on their way to the next island. We take a short pause to reassess and move some gear before carrying on.
The open water gradually narrows into a shallow channel of grassy sloughs and stunted trees. We've finally reached the inlet on the southeastern side of North Steeprock Lake. With a wind-guard once again, we paddle with ease through the tranquil Everglade-like wetlands and arrive at the first portage.
We pile out of the canoes and take a well needed break. While tossing my gear into the bush, I spot what appears to be an old trail. Maybe we won't be bushwhacking after all.
"It's looking really good here. Not much in the way except a few fallen trees," Nate says. "Lots of moss. The hike shouldn't be too hard." The forest around the creek that connects the North and South Steeprock Lakes is shaded by a towering canopy of old-growth forest.
The portage is relatively short, but it takes us over an hour to cross the half-kilometre trail due to some unsuspected mud bogs and twisted ankles. Jason's one-man kayak takes four people to carry through the woods. If he's hiding pirate gold in it, I wish he'd tell me.
The shores of South Steeprock Lake come into view. Waves lap onto the grass as the trees churn like a panicked crowd. I've forgotten about the wind and now the sound grates on my nerves. "Why are you doing this to us, Steeprock?" I swear the gusts get louder in response.
"We're not going to make it to Snail Lake today. Not in this weather," Sean says. It would be a perfect day if it were calm, but the conditions have taken their toll. Even J.P.'s canine enthusiasm seems to have run out once again. "If we make it to Gill Island, we'll be nice and close to the Snail Lake portage tomorrow morning," Mitch says.
We take to the water once again. I'm feeling less like a pirate and more like a vanquished swimmer carried out by a riptide. The remote isolation of South Steeprock coupled with my own tiredness is starting to worry me. Another splash of icy water crosses my face, but I don't care anymore. We need to rest.
The group appears to be equally agitated. We paddle hastily toward our last stretch of open water with Gill Island waiting for us on the other side. The gap between our canoes widens as we rush toward our goal.
The wind gusts intensify, sweeping up water off the tip of whitecaps into a visible wall of spray. I stay focused ahead, but the rocking waves are dizzying.
Then, I hear a sound in the distance that pumps my veins full of lead:
"Let's go," Mitch states abruptly. Adam, Sean and Jean-Paul are floating next to the crimson red of a canoe gone bottom-up. We're roughly thirty metres away, paddling fiercely to reach them. I pass by Sean's life jacket floating without him in it. I try to snag it with my paddle, but miss...of course.
"What do we do? Anyone remember?" Adam asks while treading water. I draw a blank. "We—we've got to get our canoe on top and across yours, like a cross," he sputters. I can see his teeth chattering, but otherwise he and Sean look remarkably calm. J.P. swims in his life jacket, patting his paws against the flipped canoe.
Amid the backpacks and loose gear floating about, we attempt to overturn the sunken vessel. The weight of Sean and Adam's canoe over top of ours brings us dangerously close to the water level. Waves continue to rock us up and down. We roll the canoe back into the water. It doesn't work.
"Okay...Try again," Sean says without a second's pause. "Oh my god," I mutter to myself.
Sean and Adam carefully place their overturned canoe across of ours and we roll it into the water once more. This time, it works. Mitch and I shift our weight to the opposite side of our canoe to give Adam and Sean enough leverage to pull themselves into their seats. Jean-Paul is quickly hoisted back into their canoe. Jason collects any gear he can find floating by.
From the middle of the lake, we paddle a long distance to get to the nearest shore. Our canoe has taken on a lot of water and the wind continues to fight us with every stroke.
Part Two: Stranded on South Steeprock
"Please sir, I insist," Matt says, flicking a lighter at the end of the unlit cigarette hanging out of Adam's mouth. The flint is too wet, so it doesn't work. He keeps on trying though.
Sean paces through the bush with a confused look on his face. Adam stands majestically overlooking the sunset with a thousand yard stare, soaked like a wet dog in a pair of boxer briefs. J.P. lays on the ground looking mortified.
I pass Adam a dry lighter. "Thanks, man!" he says with a nod and a smile, appearing to have snapped out of whatever contemplation he was in. I pass him a jacket, but he politely declines.
"I can't believe that happened," Sean says. "Jean-Paul tried standing up. I remember seeing the water flow over the edge of the canoe, then just being tossed into the water...It took less than five seconds." Adam responds, "Yeah, I was just paddling, then all the sudden I'm in the water. Not sure I liked that very much."
The shore we're on is far too dense with pines. Mitch spots an open plot of land further down, requiring us to paddle nervously out onto the lake once again. Finally, we find a place to rest for the night.
Almost as an insult, South Steeprock Lake glistens with a tranquil dignity for the rest of the stupid evening. We cook supper on the shore and open a few ceremonious bottles of rum. A few of us even go for a leisurely paddle. With the celebratory mood, it's frighteningly easy to forget that - if the chain of events had played out only slightly different - we would be up to our necks in a life-threatening situation right now.
After a restless sleep, the wind greets us once again. The whitecaps on the lake suggest that Steeprock has no intention of going easy on us. I've nearly forgotten about Arctic char.
"What's the plan?" Jason asks the group at large. "Who's all coming to Snail?"
It's hard to ignore the complete lack of response.
"I'm definitely not going," Sean says. Adam questions the idea of heading onto the water again, but seems open to it.
We wait another hour for the wind to die down while Adam and Jason canoe around the edge of the lake to get their sea-legs once again.
Do we go to Snail? I don't know. Maybe we shouldn't take our luck for granted, although I don't want to give up on a trip because of superstition. To give up because of poor planning?—You betcha.
"It doesn't look like it's going to get any better out there," Jason says. "What should we do, Andy?" The Arctic char I've been daydreaming about slips out of my hands.
"I think we can make it to Snail. We need two canoes and at least four people to come along in case we run into trouble..."
Trouble. What could that be? I remember the water being an inch away from submerging my canoe into the middle of a lake while my friends struggle to lift themselves back into their seats. I think about the fact we have no GPS beacon and no way to call for help in a life-threatening emergency. I remember frantically paddling, unable to stabilise against the wind while it pushes us further from shore. I picture us trying to build a fire in soaked clothes. I imagine leaving gear behind so we can make enough space on the floor of a canoe for someone with a broken ankle.
We take risks any time we venture out into the wilderness. But, while good or bad luck can turn the table at any moment's notice, there's no excuse for unpreparedness. A flipped canoe is not something we have prepared for. Without the lifeline of a satellite distress signal, every step we take from now on is unprepared. We are at the mercy of 'luck' and that is a bad place to be.
Unwilling to move, we stay stranded on South Steeprock for another night. The evening calm reclaims the lake once again as the vulnerability of our situation is clouded by box wine and cheap charcuterie.
On the morning of our departure, I fall out of my hammock with a knot in my stomach and step through a field of snoring toward the grassy shoreline. The wind steps forward from the background—louder and louder until it screams in my ear.
Nature may be beautiful, but it really doesn't care whether you make it out alive.