The Wabakimi Project

When I realized that the pilot was flying the tiny Beaver airplane by map and compass, without the assistance of the blinking and beeping from a radar screen, I knew I was in for an adventure. Sweeping 2,000 feet above black spruce trees and deep blue lakes on our way to rendezvous with the Wabakimi Project, I sat in a mixture of awe at the pilot’s skill and terror whenever the plane would buck unexpectedly.

A week in the woods of the Albany River system volunteering with “Uncle Phil” on his mission to make Wabakimi Provincial Park more accessible and visitor friendly was what myself and two men from Wisconsin had signed up for. The park is located a three hour drive north of Thunder Bay, Ontario, near the small town of Armstrong, but without roads to it, flying is one of the few options for entering and exiting.

The Wabakimi Project’s purpose is to locate and maintain the traditional canoe routes in the area, locate and clean campsites and note other areas of interest along the way. The end result will be a series of canoe route maps of the entire area. I wasn’t aware until the day before the trip that there is some controversy surrounding the Wabakimi Project as their activities are done without the blessing of Parks Ontario. Apparently, I’d travelled more than a thousand kilometres to participate in some semi-illegal activity.

It certainly wasn’t like any trip I’d ever been on before. We stayed up late hunting for the Northern Lights and broke camp near lunch the next morning. We cut up deadwood with a chainsaw called The Dog, created fireplaces, removed bags of garbage from a single site where there had been a moose camp and when the weather turned sour and the wind blew hard we stayed put.

Uncle Phil is a tough old guy. And I don’t just say that because he broke two ribs earlier in the summer and has stuck it out in the bush since. (Canoe & Kayak magazine may have best described him as an “emaciated, curmudgeony Santa Claus.”) Full of life and laughs and stories, he kept us all entertained even during the three days we spent wind bound. Of the eight days and seven nights on trip, we had three days of foul weather, which culminated in a snow squall one morning, but the rest were beautiful blue skies. We even saw the Northern Lights, a first for me.

We came across a number of people and motorboats over the week due to the close proximity to the Fort Hope Community. Many were hunters, dressed all in black with big rifles, which, as a city gal, I found a little intimidating. The majority of the campsites, which Phil painstakingly marks on both map and GPS, were beautiful – either sandy eskers or rocky ledges. The fishing was excellent  and my Wisconsin friends, Ed and Tony, shared their bounty. Most nights we ate fresh pickerel fried with a touch of breading, Phil’s late wife’s recipe. Absolutely delicious.

It was a strange feeling when it was time to board the plane as the next three participants tagged in; even though the contrasts in terms of structure, environmental beliefs and technique with my recent trip in the Yukon left my head spinning at times, I did feel like we’d been a part of something bigger than ourselves. The Wabakimi Project will leave a legacy that will be around much longer than any of us.

(When the plane did arrive to pick us up it was a windy day. Phil and I came up alongside the plane’s pontoon in our canoe ready to start loading but the plane was being pushed back across the lake by the wind, far too close to shore. “Hold on!” the pilot called to me as she jumped back in her seat. Confused, I turned to look at Phil in the stern. “Duck your head and hold on!” he yelled over the growing roar of the propeller. So I grabbed on to the pontoon, ducked my head and that’s how I found myself being taxied across the lake in a canoe by a float plane with a propellor whirling just a few feet from me.)

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