This article was produced as part of Matador Network’s partnership with Canada, where journalists show how to explore Canada like a local.
FLOATPLANES ARE DIFFERENT than commercial airliners. Instead of checked luggage, our pilot asked if we needed to strap any canoes to the pontoons, and he didn’t care if we carried filet knives and fish bonkers on board.
Once inside, it took 30 seconds for the co-pilot to unmoor the boat, scramble in, point out the emergency exits and floatation devices, and jump into his seat. In place of well-planned flight routes, high-tech GPS navigation, and Air Traffic Control spouting directions, our co-pilot traced our route on a creased map stuck under his sun visor.
We landed at the wrong house.
Its owner was home and she invited us in for coffee. We declined — floatplanes are billed by the hour — but she did give us directions. “It’s the right lake, just the wrong dock!” she said. “Taxi the plane down the west shore, where the water is deeper. It’s the next camp.”
Fifteen minutes later, we climbed down from the plane to meet our host, Ric Driediger, but we still weren’t at our destination. It seems even bush planes can’t land in the middle of nowhere. Ric guided us across a portage to a smaller lake and helped load our gear into canoes for the final leg of our journey.
When I clambered onto the deck at Forest House, I couldn’t imagine a quieter place. The noise of the floatplane had long since faded into the distance, and the only neighbours lived several kilometres away. I settled into an Adirondack chair facing the lake and took in the silence. Ric handed out glasses of iced sun tea and took the seat opposite mine.
He caught me studying his knees. It wasn’t just that they were hairless. They were also completely flat. Throughout his 40-year canoe-guide career, Ric has opted to kneel when paddling and he’s run enough rivers that his knees wear the floor contours of his favorite 18’ prospector canoe.
“My father told me I had to choose between farming and canoeing,” he said, “so I went for a canoe trip to think about it. When a man asked how much I wanted to get paid for guiding him, a light went on in my head.”
Ric is 58 years old but you wouldn’t guess it. He’s got a thick grey beard, and his blue eyes still twinkle with the enthusiasm of a teenager who’s just been given the freedom of a driver’s license.
“I still love canoeing,” he said. “Even at night, when I can’t sleep, I imagine paddling Great Devil Rapids. I’ve paddled those rapids so many times I can remember every rock. There is a big waterfall at the bottom, where you have to eddy out and portage around. When I get there, I’m asleep.”
In the mid 1980s, he purchased Churchill River Canoe Outfitters (CRCO) in Misinipe, Saskatchewan, and started to run trips throughout the province and further north in Canada’s territories. Still, he always returned to the Churchill, and he jumped at the opportunity to buy a share of Forest House.
“I think the best way to protect an area is to put more people in it. That way, they’ll realize it’s too special to destroy, “ he said.
The next morning, Ric said he expected company. I thought he’d lost his mind. Even our floatplane had trouble finding this place. Yet shortly after lunch three canoes appeared across the lake and set course for the house.
It was the Shoo Bears, a group of 8 Saskatchewan women who earned the nickname on their first independent canoe trip. They’d woken up to a bear scavenging their campsite, and Barb had grabbed a canoe paddle and waved it, shouting “shoo bear!” The name stuck. That trip turned into an annual tradition. The women have been canoeing with each other for the past 25 years.
At home, they are doctors, lawyers, teachers, employees, and bosses. Most are mothers and wives, too. Out here, they’re explorers.
“It’s a week to get away from kids, jobs, and everything,” said Barb, “and just spend time with friends. Whenever somebody new wants to join in, we tell them they can’t. It’s just been the same group for too long.”
One year, they paddled 250km down the Cree River. The next it was a section of the Churchill. This year, they were in the McLennan Lake area and they’d decided to stop by Forest House for a visit after meeting Ric at his CRCO office.
No sooner had the Shoo Bears left than a second group of visitors arrived. Rob MacIntosh, co-owner of Forest House, dropped in unexpectedly to show his sister the property.
His wiry frame spoke of an active life; his fiery red hair complemented his intensity. It was evident that Rob didn’t sit around and wait for something to happen. He was the catalyst behind the Pembina Institute. As co-founder of the organization, he helped it grow from a regional advocacy group in Drayton Valley, Alberta, to one of Canada’s leading environmental think tanks providing practical environmental solutions to industry and government.
Rob’s restlessness showed throughout our stay. The day after our arrival, he guided us on a three-lake afternoon canoe trip. When we returned, most of us opted to alternate between hot sauna and cold lake. Rob fired up a chainsaw to clear deadfall trees from a hiking trail. After dinner, he built the fire and poured the whiskey.
When, at the end of the week, it came time for us to return to our iPhones, unanswered emails, and busy agendas, he was the first person packed.
On the return trip, we didn’t fly. We canoed.
Ric had the trip down to a science. He’d been training us all week. When we’d gone to meet the Shoo Bears, he taught us proper sterning techniques — the art of steering a canoe without paddling on alternating sides. Our half-day paddle to check out an abandoned camp gauged both our endurance and portaging strength. Even our lake swim now seemed to have been more about ascertaining our swimming ability than escaping the heat.
Although Forest House sits only a dozen kilometres from the highway and its link to civilization, the return trip covered four lakes and included four portages, across which we had to carry not just our equipment but our canoes, too. After three days at the wilderness lodge, we couldn’t complain. This route was how everything — the phone antenna, solar panels, even the refrigerator — had been hauled to the property to begin with. By comparison, our bags were light.
How to visit
- When: Forest House opens for clients between June and September; however, the owners are considering winter trips in 2013.
- Where: Forest House is located 75km north of Misinipe, Saskatchewan.
- How: Unguided canoe shuttles are included. Guides are available from Churchill River Canoe Outfitters and cost between $110 and $225. Floatplanes from Misinipe to Forest House, with Osprey Air, run between $425 and $775 depending on group size.
- To do: Learn about wild edible plants, organic gardening, and sustainable living. Paddle a canoe, hike through the boreal forest, or fish for northern pike. Relax in the sauna and swim in the lake.
- More info: Contact Ric Driediger at email@example.com or call 1-877-511-2726.
At the end of a long day of riding, I couldn’t get off my bike fast enough. I pedalled from asphalt onto gravel and then, just before the path hit the South Pacific Ocean, I dropped my bike between two pastel-painted wooden fishing boats. From there, I simply followed my nose towards our latest feast: grilled lamb. Instead of a state-of-the-art kitchen, our lamb is skewered above wood coals contained in half an oil barrel. It’s rustic, but so is Patagonia.
After nine days on ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours’ Pedal the Andes Plus Chiloe Island trip, I trusted our guides’ judgments. By the way the nine other cyclists were crowding the makeshift picnic tables, the feeling was mutual. By the end of the tour, one rider claimed it was the best culinary ride of his life, despite having done cycle tours in Italy, Spain and France.
We started our journey across Patagonia’s Lakes District in similar fashion. Our first dinner – famed Argentine Asado at El Boliche de Alberto in Bariloche, Argentina – set the tone for our ride. Everything came off the grill: tenderloin and sirloin steaks, Patagonian lamb and juicy pork sausages. Even wheels of provolone cheese came grilled and doused in olive oil. Heaps of salad sat untouched amid this carnivorous feast.
For the four Canadians on tour, it wasn’t just the fact we would spend the next eleven days getting a jump start on both our cycling legs and tan lines while dining on local specialties that glued smiles on our faces. We had also traded in our snow-shovelling duties and abandoned our spin classes for 700 km on asphalt.
After circling Nahuel Huapi Lake, it’s rolling shoreline luring our legs back into cycling shape while the myth of prehistoric monsters lingering beneath its surface seduced our imaginations, we exited Argentina. All that stood between us and Chile was a 42 km no mans land across the Cardinal Antonio Samore Pass that separates the border posts. The climb was a battle against winter-trained legs; the descent a reckless fight against gravity.
The next morning, we pedalled into Chile’s lush green farmland. Pastures littered with dairy cows lined the roadsides, broken up by berry patches and clumps of rhubarb. By mid morning, the Osorno Volcano appeared on the horizon and became our silent guide. We kept turning towards it as we rode from town to town, circling Llanquihue Lake, but it took four days to reach.
ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours runs trips around the world and prides themselves on using local guides who help make time off the bike an authentic local experience. In our case, they are Tika and Javier. Both portray common Patagonian heritage in fitting ways.
While Spaniards settled most of Argentina and Chile, they mostly landed in urban areas. Both governments feared their empty southern territories would be susceptible to invasion by the other, so each country adopted aggressive plans to populate Patagonia. In Argentina, English, Scottish and Welsh sheep farmers came in droves. In Chile, it was swarms of Germans who settled vast stretches of the land around the shores of Llanquihue (Yankee-way) Lake before spilling into Rio Negro and Neuquén provinces of Argentina. Today, their blond hair, bratwursts and names populate the area and each town has its own German school. Although he arrived long after the 1846-1914 immigration boom, Tika moved to a small homestead in Argentinean Patagonia from Germany as a young boy.
Javier, on the other hand, depicts a newer era of migration. He recently fled a stressful career in the USA to return to his native Patagonia. It’s a growing trend and both Buenos Aires and Santiago are losing more residents to quiet southern towns each year.
Both guides know this route and manage to add in side trips to impressive viewpoints throughout the entire tour. When unexpected road construction closed a portion of the standard route, they managed to squeeze in a detour that added more kilometres on quieter roads.
After seven days, we’d completed our ride on the mainland and shuttled to Chiloe Island. Most of us had come to see the Andes, lakes and vastness of Patagonia and we had few expectations about Chiloe. It stole the show.
The mestizo culture that exists on Chiloe Island is a rare mix of indigenous and Jesuit missionaries and island culture speaks of hardy equality. It’s the type of place where visitors are invited into homes, not businesses. Our first meal on the island was Corantu, served on a local farm. Similar to a New England clambake, corantu starts by digging up somebody’s backyard. Fire-heated stones line the bottom and ingredients are piled in: shellfish, pork, chicken, potatoes and milcaos (a potato bread). Chilean rhubarb leaves seal everything in to steam.
Our hotel in Castro stood on stilts above the bay and vibrant-coloured wooden shingles covered every visible wall around the island. When cathedral plans calling for brick and mortar first arrived from Europe, the locals still chose to build with wood. The result? Fourteen wooden cathedrals protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site, which have withstood centuries of pacific storms despite being built without nails.
For our last ride, we ferry hopped to Qinchao Island. We’d climbed the Andes, crossed the lakes district and circled a volcano, but the near vertical climbs on this island demanded the granny-gear.
By the time I’d finished my grilled lamb and taken the requisite photo of the rustic oil-barrel-turned-barbeque, my legs were shot. A few people opted to jump in the van, but most of us struggled onto the saddle one last time.
Like a mid-summer ride at home, this climb became a race. Whoever reached the top first would have a straight-line descent to the finish line. I stood up and attacked. The whole group gave chase. Legs churned as the pace quickened and the final Chilean landscapes streaked by in a peloton-driven fury. It didn’t matter who won. After all, we’d all just be that much better prepared to beat the crew back home once the snow melted and they dusted off their bikes for spring.
How to get there:
Air Canada runs a daily redeye from Toronto to Santiago, Chile, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Connections to Puerto Montt with Lan Airlines are available from Santiago, while connections between Buenos Aires and Bariloche are possible with either Lan or Aerolineas Argentinas.
Where to stay:
Patagonia’s Lakes District has many small towns and a seemingly-endless supply of hotels. However, a few Spanish terms will help point cyclists to the right choice. Campings are campgrounds, residenciales are budget options with shared bathrooms and kitchens, and hosterias are similar to bed and breakfasts.
What to eat:
In Argentina, it’s all about barbeque and Malbec wine. From the grill, order Cordero to try Patagonian Lamb, Bife de chorizo to discover why Argentina is known for its beef, Choripan for a sausage on a bun, or Provolone to satisfy a cheese craving. Adventurous eaters can opt for parrillada, but beware, it’ll include beef, kidneys, intestine and blood sausage at the very least.
In Chile, salmon, hake and shellfish are abundant and cheap. Chupe is a seafood bread pudding and Curanto is a culinary experience. Chiloe Island is the birthplace of the potato, too, so try to sample more than one of its 400 native varieties.
When to go:
The best time to visit Patagonia is when you’re sick and tired of riding a stationary bike or shovelling the driveway. Summer runs from November to March, but February and March offer plenty of sunny weather without the crowds.
ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours (experienceplus.com) is the only company with a road-bike friendly trip. The 11-day Pedal the Andes Plus the Island of Chiloe tour takes in the main highlights of the lakes district in both Argentina and Chile while removing the headache of route planning and gear hauling.