Canoeing the Grass River

Grass River: Paddling the “Upper Track” 18th century fur trade route in 2011

Winnipeggers Ronald and Christopher Olesky made a canoe trip on the Grass River to Tramping Lake and from Wekusko to Setting Lake in July. Both Ron and Chris had been North before as workers but not as travellers: Ron was underground at Inco T-1 in 1963; Chris was an engineering student near Thompson in the early 1990s. This is an account of their backwoods trip on the historic river.

“As fine a stretch of water as one could aspire to paddle” were the words that writers and canoeists Hap Wilson and Stephanie Aykroyd used to describe the Grass River between Wekusko and Setting Lake. We took up their invitation in late July. It was up from Winnipeg on Highway 6, left at Highway 39 and right to Wekusko Falls Provincial Park – a full day’s drive. Advance “getting ready” stuff included seeing that we could safely park at Wekusko during our trip, checking the bus schedule from Setting Lake to get back to our car and getting across Wekusko Lake and its high waves. We also decided to carry a firearm (a pistol grip shotgun, fitting nicely in our pack), based in part on what was a remote journey for us and what we saw on the Wekusko Lodge website: it showed local bear hunting with photographs of hunters and their game.

We camped that night at the park and took the next day to see the Tramping Lake Rock Paintings. Some say the paintings are 1,500 to 3,000 years old. They are located about seven miles upstream from Wekusko Falls Provincial Park. It’s a little farther if you miss them going out, as we did. After putting in a couple of extra miles, Chris said, “I knew we passed them.” We found them on a large rock outcropping on the north side of the lake narrows across from a small cabin. There are numerous images of animals, the image of a fir tree branch and individual persons in red ochre. Some are weathered and faded – all beautiful to see: markers of First Nations presence and visions of long ago. One painting, in particular, of a man standing behind a moose or deer would come back to us at the end of our journey. Daydreaming and jesting, Chris speculated: “there could be a code somewhere in the bush explaining the paintings.” We paddled back to the park’s falls under a hot sun; there was little current; the water was clear, revealing alluring grasses in the riverbed.

At the park we contacted Keith Scott, a retired Snow Lake miner, to shuttle us across the seven to 10-mile width of Wekusko Lake the next morning. It was one of our better ideas: as we powered across the lake, three foot waves started to cross our bow at a bad angle and would have sunk us in a canoe.

On the other side of the lake, we entered the Grass River from a rock outcropping southwest of the Manitoba Hydro line and once we did, we knew we were in for 75 miles or so to Setting Lake – there was no turning back – “in for an inch in for a mile.” Here the Grass is about 200 yards wide and ascends northeast to the top of a saw tooth-like turn. We had the river to ourselves the whole way, not one other soul, well maybe, a ghost or two of an early traveller, Samuel Hearne, David Thompson or one of their crew who paddled and packed or one of their First Nations staffers who told them of what lay ahead. We saw eagles, very large loons and ducks including many episodes of the mother “lame duck” diversion while the young ones escaped in another direction. The river narrows as it approaches its most northerly point and turns south where there are some swift waters and a noticeable slope: our spirits started to race along with the fast water. Otherwise the river had a slow and easy course. After about 20 miles of paddling, we approached the first set of falls, referred to on a Real Berard map as the “Eight Foot Falls.” On-the-scene observations included: “I hear water.” “I can see it.” We looked for a break in the woods. “Hey, I mean … that portage is pretty close to the falls, eh?” and it was. These falls cannot be run; we found a portage on the left side. We checked the portage, hauled over and paused at the base of the falls to enjoy the rushing water at close but safe range. There we saw the den of an otter or something, containing the remains of crayfish.

We pushed on another mile or so to the “Twenty Foot Falls” and were ready to camp at the portage (left side) where Chris saw some bear scat. We backtracked to a small sloping island short of the falls. We camped, made a fire, had Starbucks instant coffee with porridge, tested our shotgun and slept easily.

Next day: refreshed, we cleared the portage at the Twenty Foot Falls. We could not help but to “hang out” at the bottom of the falls. In their loneliness, the magnificent falls called out for attention, saying “look at me; stay with me”.

This area appears to be identified by the Province as Nicolson Rapids: the naming might be improved to say “Nicolson Falls” – they are definitely not rapids. The “Eight Foot Falls” might also use an enhanced name; enough travellers and time have passed since the accurate mapping of the river to suggest a name. The Grass River between Wekusko and Setting Lake was accurately mapped as early as 1796 (Aaron Arrowsmith), showing how well known the Grass River was at that time. The same map shows the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and Lake Winnipeg to be poorly laid out.

About a third of a mile away around a left hand turn, we encountered the first runnable rapids. We scouted the river from a left side portage to settle our path in the water. We took a course “to the left.” Down we went on the rush of water in a two to three-foot drop. At the bottom, the water swung the stern of our loaded 17-foot canoe around, like a twig, so that we faced the rapids, which we had just cleared. “What a feeling Right on.”

From here the Grass goes northeast again in an arc, then south and east on a meandering gentle course through fir treed banks and some low lying lands, where the banks are lined thick with reeds. While we were in a marshy stretch: it rained furiously; lightning struck in the distance. In the flat land, there was no protection from the rain at the side of the river; we pushed on in the beating rain – it lasted an hour. After paddling about 15 miles, we came to the “Twelve Foot Falls” where we camped. Nearby a beaver kept us under constant observation, going back and forth across the river. Beautiful campsite. Beside us the falls came pounding through a narrow twisting gouge. Chris cleared the portage trail of large tree that blocked the path. I set up our tent and hung out our wet stuff. We made a fire with dead fir tree branches. Chris filtered water from the river and made freeze dried lasagne. We had rye whiskey; there was no harshness to it, there in the bush.

Next morning, we portaged the 12 Foot Falls down a very steep path. Chris tied a rope to a tree to help us from sliding down the path. Back on the river: in a half-mile we reached the beautiful Kanisota Falls. Again the portage was close to the falls. I suggested: “Maybe we can get close to shore to grab onto those grasses.” Chris said, “We’re good. You’re making me nervous.” As we were to hear from local persons at Setting Lake, these falls are called “Twin Falls,” being comprised of two falls, the first dropping 18 feet in a grand sloping cascade and the second an eighth of a mile downstream dropping eight feet. Both portages are on the left side with a third portage slightly downstream. In the next 20 miles of river, there was rain again and we went through the White Forrest Rapids (portaged left side), Skunk Rapids (left side lift over) to camp at Whitewood Falls. Chris mused, “Each camp site is better and better.”

We camped at the height of the falls and near an eagle’s nest. Here the Grass River plunges 29 feet through bending and overflowing gorges – a sight to behold. It was all the more stunning that we had the entire falls to ourselves. At this point the water is not as clear as upstream, possibly due to bank erosion. We trekked over the rock outcroppings of the falls from top to bottom again and again in wonder. Chris made freeze dried Thai chicken that night and we ate by the light of the fire. We had one more set of rapids to come and about 20 miles to the Setting Lake campground. That night it rained again.

The next morning we slowly packed up with the end of our journey in mind. In the three miles to the rapids, we saw a moose at the side of the river; on seeing us it returned to the wood out of our sight. We approached the rapids slowly and saw a course clear of rocks. A guidebook recommended a centre run. “On centre” were my last words as we entered the rapids: our entry was perfect but spray started coming into the canoe and the bottom of the chute was very deep. We took on water and slowly submerged. We held our paddles and canoe; treaded water to the side of the river and righted. Our packs floated downstream and waited for us in an eddy. At Setting Lake we were later to hear tales from local hunters of fishing out their friends from the same rapids and that the preferred course is “a little to the left.”

In the remaining miles to Setting Lake, the sun was out. The river turns northeast and is very straight for a spell and marsh lined. We caught some wind this day and were able to put up sail (tarp tied to extra paddle); it gave some relief from the constant paddling and the straightness of the river. Our “main sail set” and we cruised through this low-lying area. There was a pleasing break to look in on Pakwa Lake at its north end and see its small islands in the distance before re-entering the Grass on its approach to Setting Lake. Here was the start of a second long haul in a marsh area. “Are we there yet?” I joked.

Soon enough, we came upon the First Nations cemetery, which opened to Setting Lake: this was our crossing point. We sailed the lake for a short while until our sail came apart. We started paddling – strong wind at our back. By the middle of the lake, however, three-foot waves had developed; we cut across the high waves on the perpendicular and paddled “like no tomorrow.” We had no spray cover; there was some risk of capsizing. At the other side of the lake, the waves lashed the boulder-strewn shore as we looked for a landing spot. As the time for a voluntary landing shortened, Chris and I said, “*z*&#@**%*xzx.” But among the large boulders, an opening with a flat rock appeared: Chris saw the mark and took us in “right on.”

We were at a point south of the park and wind bound for about an hour. We boiled our water and had coffee. The wind died; we made our way to the Setting Lake campground. We asked children in the park about a camping place; they took us to “Angie.” “Where did you guys come from? “Tramping Lake.” “You got wet; it’s been raining hard.” “Yes, plus.” She offered a part of her campsite if we wanted. She invited us to join their party of 30 or so of many First Nation individuals and have a supper of bannock, chicken and perogies. We heard stories of work in Thompson, travel down the Grass, the course “to the left” at the rapids and hunting. It was so nice to have travelled a long way and finish in the company of such pleasing and generous people. One man asked: “Did you see any moose?” We said: “Yes and we told the moose about you and it went back in the bush.”

It would come to mind that He was the man in red ochre at Tramping Lake.

We slept soundly that night. Next morning we walked under a mild sun toward Wabowden and stopped at the restaurant on the highway. We were a day early for the bus; with the help of restaurant staffer Linda, we found local resident Lee Munroe who gave us a lift back to our car at Wekusko including an engaging autobiography on the way. Much thanks to all.


Hap Wilson and Stephanie Aykroyd, Wilderness Rivers of Manitoba, 1998.

Ronald Olesky is a Winnipeg lawyer; Chris Olesky is a Montessori schoolteacher in Winnipeg.

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