Film " The New Breed" - Banff to Montreal Canoe Journey

I wold like to thank all those who have donated to the "New Breed" (NB) film project or the climbing tools series. All donations go towards increasing productions values. The film realistically will run a whopping $350,000.00 CND. Your involvement means more to me then words can say. I don't take your trust lightly and promise to produce something that you will be proud to have been a part of. A donation of $50 or more gets you a copy of the film. 

Aven and Tyler McKay; Red Deer River 2014A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. A canoe trip of over 3600 km begins with the first dip of a paddle. The plan is to leave early April 2017. The plan is to put in below Bow Falls in Banff, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies. The water will be low as spring runoff will not really have started yet. 

The main reason for putting at Banff is that it is my home and strangely enough has been part of our family oral history for as long as I can remember. Turns out my great grandfather William Henry McKay used to guide RCMP to this district. Prior to that his grandfather John Richards McKay was a guide for the Hynd expedition (1858) which was taxed with the duty of finding out what resources the NWT had. He would most certainly have traveled as far as Banff. It is just by a strange occurrence that I now live in Banff. 

William McKay; Red River Guide My plan to travel the waterways to Montreal has been in the making for sometime now. As luck would have it the first few days are going to be quite trying. The actual water is no more then low end class 2 however there are 5 dams/portages between Banff and Calgary. Add to that the canyon just after See-Bee. A hazardous stretch of water that the white water rafters sell low end rafting trips on. So this section may be a fairly lengthy portage section. the dams after are just inconvenient obstacles. Time consuming but no big deal. Might as well get used to it as there is going to be a hundred such obstacles between Calgary and Montreal.

Trip Description

The concept of this trip started over ten years ago. A few years ago with the passing of my father I had a realization that a great deal of our family history was being lost with the passage of time. For the sake of my children and myself i decided to retrace our Metis ancestral roots. I made the astonishing discovery that we played a role as best supporting actors in the Canadian fur trade. In Virtually all of the waterways I had planned to paddle had been traveled by my ancestors over two hundred years prior.


“Brothers John & Donald McKAY entered the fur trade by way of Montreal, and by 1788 John was working for Alexander SHAW and his son Angus SHAW at Lake St Ann (Lake Nipigon, ON).” 

As a film maker the concept arose of making an educational documentary on the Metis people. The trip ties together the past, the present and my children’s future as the Metis culture continues to evolve in a rapidly changing world.

This will be a completely non mechanized canoe trip and rely entirely on the physical strength of the participants. There are as many as 70 portages between Banff and Montreal. Six between Banff and Calgary alone. 

Stage 1 - Banff to Winnipeg

The route itself begins from my hometown of Banff, Alberta. A location that had become part of our family’s oral history as far back as 1859 when my 4th great grandfather John Richard McKay guided the Hynde expedition. The first leg follows the Bow River which eventually joins the Red Deer river and becomes the South Saskatchewan river. The Saskatchewan fills the Diefenbaker Dam water reserve. At the area known as the Elbow is the source water for the Qu’Appelle river. This river also was known as the lower fur trade route into the Interior of the North West Territories is a direct line to the Red River country. The primary hazard on this section will be the spring melt and potential flooding. A short lived event that can easily be waited out. This is the far western extension of the Qu’Appelle valley and grows slowly in it’s flow rate as the prairies shed the winter snowpack. 

Joined the Qu’Appelle get a name change at the confluence of the Assiniboine river. Three days travel from this point and the Assiniboine spills into the Red river at present day Winnipeg.  Eventually this Where the South Saskatchewan turns north I join the Qu’Appelle river which combines with Manitoba’s Assiniboine river and drains into the Red river. 

Stage 2 - Winnipeg to Thunder Bay

Follow the Red river north to Lake Winnipeg. The initial part of the outlet is a series of complex mud flats not normally recommended as a pleasurable canoe route. The maze eventually ends and Lake Winnipeg is the next objective. The shallow nature of the lake makes sudden swells a potential objective hazard. Fortunately one can beach almost anywhere along this stretch and wait out the weather if required. 

A few days travel east along the south shore and we are at the outlet of the Winnipeg River. At one time this was a bit of a grunt for the Voyagers as they fought the upstream current. These days because of hydro electric dams the river is more a series of lake with short portages. The majority of the rapids have been removed. 

A week into this stage should bring us into the Lake of the Woods district. A complex chain of lakes and as many as 29 portages. This is a remote section of water with only the occasional fish camp as a sign of civilization. Kenora, Ontario is our last major resupply station before reaching Thunder Bay. These waters are rich in fur trade history and a major struggle for control of this area took place between the riveting HBC and NWCo. 

As we hit the boundary waters bordering the U.S. this trip takes a real turn towards history. Having dug up archival material it is our intention to retrace the HBC/NWCo alternative portage route used to avoid the american alternative known as Grand Portage. While more difficult it avoided heavy taxes leaned against the fur companies. It is quite likely that this route has not been repeated since the railroad was completed to the Red River district. Roughly 130 years. No recent information is available of the route and our crossing will make a nice addition to the data base. Todd and myself will certainly be the first Metis over this section in quite some time.

Crossing the height of land takes us to the upper section of the Dog River. A few class II rapids which can be avoided lead us into Dog lake. Dog lake acts as the headwaters of the Kaministiquia River. This river also has a few portages and one major waterfall that would be unsurvivable should one be foolish enough to go near it. The final section of the river is a pleasant run into Thunder Bay ( former Fort William ). 

Stage 3 - Thunder Bay to Saulte Ste Marie

From Thunder Bay the trip changes completely in nature of the type of water and the associated objective hazards. The north shore of NW Lake Superior has extended sections of towering cliffs which do not allow for shore landings just anywhere. The primary safety feature on this section is allowing for plenty of time to sit out bad or undesirable weather. Early starts and adhering to wind patterns. The Sea 1 canoe will be tricked out with a Falcon Sail Kit and is the best craft of its kind to take advantage of favourable wind conditions. There are a number supply points before reaching Marathon, Ontario. 

Pukaskwa National Park Visitor Centre is the last civilized outpost before crossing a 180 km wilderness section. This is the most remote section of the entire journey. Frequented by wilderness kayakers and canoeists is once again a place where patience and good weather forecasting are your greatest allies.  

From the area of Wawa on civilization becomes increasingly more frequent. Incredible stretches of beach and pristine wilderness along these shores are perhaps some of the best kept lands that Canadians south of the 60th can experience. 

Navigating the busy waterways west of Salute Ste Marie ends the remotest section and in some ways the most hazardous part of the entire journey. 


Stage 4 - Salute Ste Marie to Lake Nipissing

Following the Canadian side of the Saint Mary’s river we navigate the densely populated sections till we can get into the waters of Lake Huron. The encroachment of civilization will become immediately obvious. Camp logistics are more difficult as land is taken up by cottage owners and other commercial interests. 

Huron waters are protected by large islands which act as a break from the open area of this inland sea. Usual caution of good forecasting mixed with the right amount of fear and common sense are still required. 

As we get into the area of Georgian Bay it is a few days journey to the delta created by the French River. Using the Voyagers channel of this delta we head up river towards lake Nipissing. The 160km journey up the French River is better described as a series of lakes marked by short portages to avoid rapids which are created as one lake drains into another. 

Eventually reaching lake Nipissing and following the south shore we arrive at our destination of North Bay, Ontario.


Section 5 - Lake Nipissing to Montreal

A cross city portage of North Bay we put-in on the trout river. One days journey and we begin the navigation of the Mattawa River. The run down to the Ottawa river can be done in two possibly three days. This section has 9 portages which cover a distance of 2.2km total. It is interesting to note that the portage routes are exactly the same even after hundreds of years. My 5th great grandfather John McKay would have portaged this same section of water over these exact trails some two hundred and thirty years prior on his way to join the fur trade. A one way journey as he never returned from the Red River district of what was then the NWT in the district or Rupert’s Land.

The Ottawa river to the busy Saint Lawrence Seaway is the final leg of this journey. passing through the Ottawa valley the heart of new Canada at one time. The terminus of the fur trade route being Montreal. The relatively mild waters of this section is a nice cool down and a great time for reflection.

Perhaps one of the biggest hazards will be the busy commercial traffic in the seaway. It would be ironic if the longest portage of over a hundred would be several kilometres long just to avoid being crushed by a freighter of swamped by a tug boat.