Where Rocks Tremble – Exploring Nistowiak

                July 30th, 2017 – Little Deer Lake, Sk

Rocking gently, I look passed my hammock suspension at lightning in the sky, thunder surrounding the cook shelter. James and I have spanned our hammocks from the rafters. The breeze has broken the still evening now that the storm looms so near.  We are expecting an onslaught. We decided to set up in the cook shack firstly because it seemed like fun, and secondly because we would like to start our trip with dry gear since we have the option.

Photo by James Jackson

We are to set off to Nistowiak Falls from Stanley Mission tomorrow morning. It’s a very impromptu trip so that ads to the excitement of finally getting to see them, I’ve heard so much about this destination. James drove up from Saskatoon this afternoon with his canoe. We met up while I worked away at my waterside office overlooking Little Deer Lake.

This day has been a mix of events. I’ve reset from one trip and packed for another, spent time brainstorming, writing, and interviewing Ric. I’ve felt elation, indecision, unconfident, confident, anxiousness. I really can’t pinpoint any of it. It has made me oddly chatty tonight, with very poor articulation. I think it’s a product of spending so much time alone. I get that way every once and a while, chatty, and then embarrassed because I’ve been chatty.

My conversation with Ric was incredible. I feel very fortunate to have been able to listen to his story and wisdom. There were so many gifts given through his words and I’m excited that I get to share them with my readers.

But to put a cork in the chatty evening I might as well cut this off before I begin to ramble. I will retire the pencil for the night.


July 31,2017 – Nistowiak Lake – two feet above Stanley’s grass

There is a breeze in the leaves of the poplar trees; I’m suspended beneath their canopy in supreme comfort. It’s a pretty great place to recount the day. On my right I can hear the constant, always constant, thousands of years a-crashing sound of bubbling, roiling water coming down through fisher rapids, and before that, the rock vibrating boom of Nistowiak Falls. James is over somewhere to my left. He let me take the cool spot over the bright green grass which Stanley has planted to create a tent pad for his family.

We met Stanley and his wife on rather uncertain terms. James and I had just finished our hike into Nistowiak and returned to the water when the lightning started for an afternoon storm we had been watching. We sheltered on this peninsula and had supper while it passed. As we were leaving Stanley and his wife and grandchildren were pulling up in their boat for an evening picnic. We weren’t sure what the reaction would be to our trespassing, but we certainly didn’t expect what we received.

“You’re more than welcome to stay,” he said, before offering us his cabin, his fire, axe, food, chainsaw, bait. The generosity was so unlike what James and I have become used to expecting. We talked about how caught up in our own boxes we tend to get with life in the city: “this is mine, these things in it are mine; don’t touch what is mine.” We had expected suspicion or anger, but no, we were treated like valued guests. It was a great experience which exemplified the First Nation’s traditions of sharing that really left James and I feeling grateful.

But we met Stanley in the evening, there is a whole day to tell about and I wish I hadn’t left it until now because I am ready for sleep!

James and I woke up dry and happy in our cook shack at Little Deer Lake. We weren’t in a rush. We packed up, had breakfast, and ended up chatting with a man there who was camped nearby (who I’ll admit, I had wrongly cast negative judgement upon the night before as my lakefront office was overwhelmed with fumes and the noise of generators; but they only ran them for supper and a quiet night followed).

He was great to chat with. He shared stories of his career as an arctic float plane pilot. Our conversation circled around safety, and about how often he’d airlifted people out of the bush due to poor judgement, DOA. It was very interesting conversation. Some takeaways I will share from him: always know what you’re getting into, know yourself and prepare for what is needed, and leave the booze at home. He’s witnessed too many accidents with liquor as the main culprit.

We left to Stanley Mission after chatting with this fellow. Our paddle ensued shortly after arriving and me buying chocolate bars. Passing the Holy Trinity Anglican Church we were both snapping photographs. The church was built between 1854 – 1860 and is the oldest building standing and still in use today here in Saskatchewan. It really looks to be in great shape from what we can see from the water.

Conversation drifted as the scenery melted around us. Our first main attraction would be the pictographs which were left along the entrance of Drope Lake. The rock paintings are faint red along the water’s edge. You can see a flat stone just beneath, upon which aboriginal painters would have been able to stand during years with a lower water level . I looked up at a massive stone wall, fractured by millions of years of freezing and thawing, water expanding as it turned to ice, little by little widening the cracks in the stone. The rock alone was worth the stop.

The paintings were very neat. My favourite scene appears to show a man hunting a caribou with a flint lock rifle with what looks like a hunting dog in close pursuit. Another depicts what looks like a game being played. Some are too faded for me to make anything out. I just love imagining back to the time when they were being painted. I want to know the stories but I can only guess at them.

I’ve been told that it is bad luck to photograph a pictograph site, so I have none to show. I can’t help but feel a strange sense of ancient power when I am in an area like that – there is so much mystery around them, and for some reason they have endured so many harsh elements of weather. Were most of the rocks around here painted at one time? How many scenes now lay veiled by lichens and moss or sit in the bottom of the lake after the rock has eroded and tumbled in?

In a small indentation of the rock some have left coins and I’m sure tobacco as an offering of respect. Pouring over my person and belongings, I had nothing worthy to give but my respect and attention. For me to give a gift of tobacco, if I carried it, would be no gift at all because tobacco means nothing to me. It has no value to me as a non-smoker, therefore the offering would have no value, it would simply be a payment, like a tollbooth. An offering, a gift, it should have meaning for both the giver and receiver, shouldn’t it? It should be tough to let go because you want it for yourself as much as you know it will be appreciated by another, therefore it is a sacrifice of yourself to give it away. I may someday stand corrected on all of this.

Until then I will do what I feel is a form of giving back: taking. Taking the litter which decorates the portage trails, that which tumbles its way towards the water’s edge. I’ll clean up the campsite to have it look better than when we came through. It’s all I have to offer right now, because for some reason offering that which I was coveting most, chocolate covered peanuts, seemed like a poor thing to leave sitting around.

James and I paddled quietly away from the site and carried on. We had fun racing through frog narrows after we portaged Little Stanley Rapids. We could have ran them but we had no use to risk a spill, we weren’t after adrenaline.

We arrived at our intended campsite by mid-afternoon, and after passing it to look for another, one with better trees for our hammocks, we decided to go and hike into the waterfalls while it was still early in the day. Docking at a placed called Jim’s Camp, we followed the trail up into the forest passed Fisher Rapids. As we approached James and I separated as I clicked away with my camera.

The falls first identified themselves with a dull growl behind the balsam fir. It grew considerably louder with each step until the trees broke and I experienced the full fearsome and aggressive roar of its power. I looked down at the confusion of boiling white water with its mist and rainbows and realized that I could feel the rocks tremble under my feet. I could feel the bass of the waterfall in my chest. Water sprayed off rocks and frothed at the bottom, lapping up to the base of slanting purple stones. Out of the plumes of mist came rainbows which took your eyes up to lush green moss and horsetails, ever watered by Nistowiak.

Neither words nor pictures can capture the grandeur of a waterfall. You have to feel that mist on your face and those rocks trembling under foot.

I really enjoyed a yellow sign which displayed a silhouetted canoeist tipping over a precipitous drop. It’s been very carefully placed on the other shore to warn boaters of the predicament they may have just found themselves in if they were coming from up-river.

James drew my attention to the clouds which were approaching, and so it was that after a few dozen attempts at a photo I reluctantly agreed to scoot on back to the boat. From there, you know the story of our evening.


                August 1st, 2017 – Lac La Ronge, SK

I really don’t like oatmeal. My day started with it. Well, that and about 17 mosquitoes bites to the nether-regions during my… too much information.

We received some rain last night but this morning when I woke the weather’s disposition was calm and cool, happy clouds floated under a blue sky. I slept very soundly in my hammock. I will say that some of the worst sleeps I’ve ever had out camping have been in a hammock, but also so have many of my best. There is a steep learning curve with hammock camping, you have to persist. A hammock is like a pair of jeans in that it has to fit your body properly, but it also then has to be strung from the trees correctly as well. If you read about my first day on the road I’ve introduced James and his business Little Shop of Hammocks, but if you didn’t, click that link and you’ll find his work. He has helped me out a lot in getting my set up to where it is today – in fact he’s made most of the equipment himself.

Our paddle today was relaxed, except for our upstream push of frog narrows. We had to work to get up there. The water is certainly very powerful. Stanley Mission’s boat launch shows how high the water level is, a bench sits about 20 meters off what is now the shoreline.

We had ourselves a fantastic lunch stop on an island in Drope Lake. Not long before this James had had a tingling intuition that he should cast a line, and sure enough, soon after he was reeling in a pike that had a bigger pike biting at its caudal. Those two got away but he did catch another and it was cooked on the island. He is very talented in the art of fish cookery. We didn’t have much, so he used what little bit of oil he had to fry fillet chunks in a titanium cup. We feasted. I even roasted a piece over the fire and it had a delightful smoky flavour.

After lunch the island provided us with a perfect swimming location. We jumped off the beautiful pictures-do-nothing pink stones. They had thick bands of quartz running through them and above the water line they were coated with green and grey crust lichens.

Soon after our swim, right after we had dried ourselves off, a very sudden rain cloud came over and pelted us for a few minutes. The wind picked up to make us rather cold. It really didn’t take long for the situation to change, and if it didn’t end as quick as it began, we would have had to set up a tarp shelter and actively work to warm ourselves back up.

But soon it was again a bright and hot day. We paddled by bald eagles and belted kingfishers; a great blue heron flew over, numerous gulls and a few white pelicans. It was all that one could ask for really. Our paddle strokes were broken only by the taking of water breaks and the fumbling around with a towel for a sail (which worked pretty well despite the fact the breeze was weak). I enjoyed being the bowman, there were sections when I paddled with my eyes closed, enjoying only the sounds and the motion of this action.

Back in Stanley Mission we loaded up and paid for parking at the Northern Store, the proceeds of which go to the youth of that reserve. I impulsively purchased something called a F’real because I was flabbergasted (yes, flabbergasted) by the machine and lured by the flavour of a root-beer float. You pick your flavour cup and place it into the machine. Once you hit a button the machine appears to ‘abduct’ your cup as if it were some sort of alien craft. Some noises happen and shortly thereafter you have a float mixed to your desired consistency. It is basically just a flashy, over-sized, over-priced blender. But I was snacky and the rootbeer float was half price, so I went for it, and then kind of regretted it later.

After a quick stop at Coop in La Ronge we found ourselves the spot where we are now currently stationed. Once again beautiful Lac La Ronge sits before me. The view has been spectacular, but the light has faded now. If a wind pics up we may regret setting up to appreciate the view like we have, it will undoubtedly make a wind tunnel of our tarps if it drives off the lake.

The evening has been pleasant and uneventful outside of the fact that I have broken my new camera. It fell from my pocket in the bathroom and hit the floor. I worry that it is no longer water proof as a piece has snapped off and it looked as though the front panel had separated from the main body. I’m very disappointed by that. But hey, what can you do? I’ll try to get it exchanged, fixed, or replaced. It will just be a pain with all the hassles of shipping it around without having a permanent address.

But forget that, I feel very privileged to feel as warm, dry, clean, and well fed as I presently do, and happy that James was able to come join me for a canoe adventure. It was a fun little trip. With that the headlight is extinguished.


Click here to read the next chapter: Moose Jaw to Winnipeg via La Ronge – Part 3: Back through La Ronge towards Flin Flon


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