Journey into Woodland Caribou Provincial Park

A pitched tent rests in the forest close to a lake.

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An eight-day fly-in canoe fishing adventure in the wilds of Woodland Caribou Provincial Park 

First, we had to get there

How many times over the years have I heard travellers exclaim that the north shore of Lake Superior is one of the most beautiful places, and one of the most scenic drives in the world? I have to agree. Driving the 16 hours north from my home in southern Ontario to Thunder Bay is transformative. Of course, the land itself transforms from the relatively flat, mixed forest and intensively settled landscape of the south to the vast, relatively undeveloped boreal forest of the north, a land dominated by trees, rivers and lakes, the greatest of which is Lake Superior. But it is within myself that I feel the transformation the most. I leave the shackles of society at home. 

It is here in Thunder Bay, the ‘Gateway to Adventure’, that brings the outdoorsman, the adventurer in me, bubbling to the surface. Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, our destination, is just six hours from here, and although I would be happy to spend more time exploring the land of the Sleeping Giant, I am eager to start our canoe trip further north. 

I have been dreaming of an adventure like this for decades, and even as we pull into Red Lake, I am still anxious that something is going to happen at the last minute to cancel or postpone our trip. But when I meet my local guide, all my fears disappear. His eyes light up as we discuss our chosen routes and what to expect on the trip. I can tell that he is excited for us and that he genuinely loves to share his knowledge about the Park. 

Our adventure begins with flight on a DeHavilland Beaver floatplane 

We step off the floatplane onto the dock at the beautiful Olive Lake Eco-Lodge in the north end of the park. We made it. We are here. 

Twenty-four hours after paddling out from Olive Lake, I sit quietly on the shoreline of Linge Lake watching the sun rise and the forest awaken. I recall the dramatic events of the day before and the word “extreme” monopolizes my thoughts. It is only the morning of day two, yet we have already experienced extreme weather, extreme beauty, extreme wildlife, and extreme fishing. I can only imagine what the days ahead will bring. 

Sunrise on Linge Lake 

I think back to the flight and how I marveled at the vastness of the boreal forest below. It seemed to go on forever. In fact, it covers an area of 50 million hectares and contains two-thirds of Ontario’s forest.   

But now, as I paddle in the heart of the boreal forest, it’s the little things that impress me. The wild rose that springs from the shallow soils in the aftermath of a forest fire, the tiny tadpoles that swim away from me as I paddle past, the small bear cubs that scramble up the tree while their mother peers out through the thick underbrush, the moose calf that swims towards us, temporarily mistaking us for its mother, and the wispy clouds that slowly gather on the horizon. 

Guided by Wind and Weather 

These are the little things that grab my attention, but it is the amassing of these little things that contribute to the extreme nature found here in the boreal forest. The rose bush is just one of millions of resilient plants that form a low but impenetrable jungle, the tiny tadpoles feed the minnows that the big, hungry pike, walleye and lake trout prey upon, the calf moose develops into the enormous bull that thunders away as we nearly paddle into it at a sharp bend in the river, and those clouds gather until they become a massive, destructive thunderstorm that blows down trees, ignites forest fires and pelts us with cold, hard rain. 

For the first few days, we enjoyed the warmth of the sun and cursed the incessant wind that seemed always to be in our faces. But when the wind switches to easterly today, I know that the weather is about to worsen, and we alter our canoe route accordingly. We are right to do so. Taking refuge from the first storm to hit us, we prepare for the worst and hope for better days ahead. We spend a restless night perched on a bare rock on the edge of the Bloodvein River, waiting for the storm to subside. 

The next day, only slightly discouraged by the foul weather that seems to have moved in for good, we launch our canoes and paddle south into the wind. Trying to navigate the seldom-used portage trails through fire-ravaged forests proves to be challenging, and the perspiration and precipitation takes its toll. 

By early evening, we have had enough of the gloom, and we search for a campsite, convinced we can find something more hospitable than the campsite the night before. A tiny, green island appears before us, and I joke that it must be a mirage, a lush oasis hidden in the midst of the burned out landscape that has consumed us for the last 24 hours. 

The following morning, we scarf down our breakfasts and hit the lake early. Our destination for the day is 30 km south of us through several lakes and uncharted portages. The rain continues, but the small lakes offer welcome respite from the wind and we make good time. Paddling across one small lake, we finally emerge from the burn area and suddenly find ourselves surrounded by beautiful, old-growth boreal forest, complete with dense conifers and carpets of lichen, moss and Labrador tea.  

The incessant rain today, and the difficulty of navigating the slippery portage trails and numerous fallen trees have dampened our spirits, literally. Today is marked by an extreme range of emotions. Low points during particularly nasty portages are quickly replaced by the elation of a beautiful moment. Fortunately, these moments happen often. 

We take out our fishing rods for the first time today and catch pike for our only midday shore lunch of the week. The warmth from the fire is as nourishing as the fish. We push on, eager to reach a particular lake rumoured to harbour lake trout, a fish species that has so far eluded us on this trip. In fact, there have been a lot of firsts this week, for both of us: first and biggest walleye, biggest pike, first swimming bear, first camp in the aftermath of a forest fire, first flight in a Beaver floatplane—the list goes on. Surely the irony of paddling into Constellation Lake in my Northstar Polaris canoe will bring us good fortune! 

The campsite on Constellation Lake is fantastic and we settle right in 

With the extremely long days of June at this northern latitude, we take advantage of the calm evening to paddle around the lake after dinner, seeking trout but catching northern pike instead. Perhaps tomorrow is trout day. 

The reality of the last full day of the trip sets in as we paddle away from our campsite. Just one short portage around a waterfall separates us from the lake we will be picked up on by floatplanes tomorrow. This is the point in every extended vacation that I relax, process what I have done before today, accept what I may or may not accomplish on this trip and simply slow down and appreciate the moment. Calm. Until the lake trout hit my lure, that is. 

As soon as I see what it is on my line, I know this will be the best day of the trip. Several more trout follow. We are both elated, and the paddle and portage to our final campsite on Royd Lake flies by in anticipation of the imminent feast of trout. 

Lake Trout 

We spend the rest of the day cooking, eating, and reminiscing around the campfire, agreeing that this was a trip of a lifetime, every expectation fulfilled. But, as usual, dreams and plans are already forming as we speak, and out come the maps to begin planning the next trip to the lakes that we did not reach, the sights we did not see and the fish we did not catch. As the sky darkens and the light rain intensifies into a steady downpour, we douse our last fire, pack up our gear, and reluctantly crawl into our tents for the last night in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park.  

We sleep well. 

Planning Your Trip 

To plan and book your own extreme adventure in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, contact Goldseekers Canoe Outfitting and Wilderness Expeditions

Travel Resources 

If you don’t want to drive, you can fly to Thunder Bay with Porter Airlines, then to Red Lake with Bearskin Airlines

Original story by Shawn James

Shawn is an outdoorsman from central Ontario who is passionate about photography, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, camping, fishing, hunting. 

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