Getting to know the Aulneau: A 6-day paddle around the largest land mass in Lake of the Woods

By | August 3, 2020

On Lake of the Woods, there are more than 14,500 islands for paddlers to hide behind if the wind gets too high.

The problem is, they’re not evenly spaced out like socially distanced shoppers lined up outside a Costco during a pandemic.

The northern basin most familiar to visitors from Manitoba has thousands of islands, many of them dotted with the cottages and camps. So does Whitefish Bay on the east side of the lake and Sabaskong Bay to the south.

The southwest expanse of the lake, however, is pretty much an inland sea. The Big Traverse, most of which sits in the United States, is as shallow, broad and featureless as Lake Winnipeg’s southern basin. No canoe or kayak belongs in the middle of this windswept void.

And then there is the Little Traverse, the little cousin of the lake’s southwest. There are islands here, but not enough to stop a strong southwest wind from picking up momentum and curving the surface of the lake into swells.

By the time these swells crash into the edge of the Aulneau Peninsula, the large land mass in the middle of Lake of the Woods, these ripples in the surface disintegrate into metre-high waves on a windy day.

It was here I found myself in mid-July, questioning a decision to paddle around the Aulneau Peninsula as the waves of the Little Traverse broke over the bow of my kayak.

My forward momentum was next to nothing. Two companions in shorter kayaks struggled even harder to make metre-increment gains.

Conceding defeat, we spun into a cove and accepted the fate of every windbound paddler who does not possess a death wish: It was time to sit on shore and wait.

The allure of the Aulneau

From a vantage point  in Kenora, Lake of the Woods may not look that big. All those islands obscure the fact that this northwestern Ontario jewel is the 36th largest lake on the planet.

There’s a different feel to each basin of the lake. The Big Traverse is lined with the grasslands of the prairies. Whitefish Bay teems with American sport fishers during years without a deadly global plague. The north side of the lake is classic cottage country. 

In the middle lies the Aulneau Peninsula, the great divider, the largest land mass in the lake and the only stretch that remains largely natural and undeveloped.

The Aulneau Peninsula juts into the middle of Lake of the Woods. You can paddle around it in about 165 kilometres if you skirt the edges of bays and cross the narrow isthmus at Turtle Portage. (CBC News Graphics)

For decades, I wanted to paddle around the Aulneau. I grew intrigued after skirting its edges during the canoe trips of my youth.

But it’s not the most arduous journey, as the circumnavigation of the peninsula only requires about 165 kilometres of paddling. There was always a more exotic trip to take in a more remote and difficult location.

That is, until the pandemic arrived and provided the perfect opportunity to finally knock off some destinations closer to home in Winnipeg.

The end of mandatory quarantine for return trips back from northwestern Ontario sealed the deal. I carved out a week in July and convinced two friends unfamiliar with the Aulneau to come along. 

I promised long days on the water with only one portage. I was not certain the prevailing winds would co-operate. The lake, nonetheless, obliged, except for that one windbound afternoon in that cove on the Little Traverse.

No Americans, but not by choice

On Ontario Highway 71, the sign advertising the road to Vic and Dot’s Camp only faces south. You can’t see it coming from Kenora. You can only see it coming from the U.S., where almost all of the Whitefish Bay fishing camp’s customers usually come from.

“We’re not even turning on the generator this summer,” said Robert Tolen, grandson of the titular Vic and Dot, who started up the camp on the edge of a bucolic marsh known as Atikaminke Bay. Robert and his with Rebecca now operate the place.

“We’re just cutting the grass and keeping the lights on,” he said with a wince.

The pandemic restriction on cross-border travel has been devastating to fishing camps near tourist towns like Sioux Narrows, Nestor Falls and Morson, all of which rely on Americans heading north.

While the Kenora area still enjoys a steady stream of tourists from Manitoba, there is no Canadian source of business further south. People who live in Fort Frances, Ont., already know their way around a lake.

Vic and Dot’s, however, is the perfect place to launch a trip around the Aulneau Peninsula. It’s only 10 kilometres northeast of Turtle Portage, a 122-metre-wide neck of land that improbably connects the entire peninsula to the mainland.

The hand-operated boat portage at Turtle Portage Narrows, a tiny neck of land that connects the Aulneau Peninsula to the mainland. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

The portage was once an artificial channel, excavated in the 1950s to allow boats to bypass the peninsula. The cut, however, allowed algae from Sabaskong Bay to flow into deeper and clearer Whitefish Bay, where complaints emerged about the effect on the trout fishery.

The channel was then filled and replaced with a hand-operated small-boat portage that was decommissioned in 2019 by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, which balked at the prospect of spending $200,000 over 20 years to maintain the amenity.

Robert Tolen now maintains the portage as best he can. The flat surface also serves as a convenient campsite. We offered tobacco on the first night of the trip out of respect as we were spending six days on Anishinaabe land.

The bloody history behind the Aulneau name

The Aulneau Peninsula is part of Treaty 3 territory and is the ancestral home of several Anishinaabe peoples, including the Ojibway of Onigaming First Nation, a Sabaskong Bay community whose most well-known member is Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew.

Aulneau is not an Anishinaabe name. The peninsula takes its name from Jean-Pierre Aulneau, a French-born Jesuit missionary who ventured west from Quebec in 1735 with Pierre Gaultier de la Vérendrye, who was the first European to see what’s now called Winnipeg.

Sunset after a rain at the Channel Islands in Whitefish Bay. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

La Vérendrye had already established a post on Lake of the Woods — Fort St. Charles, which is now in the Northwest Angle of Minnesota. According to scholar Bill Moreau, the voyageurs meddled in the politics of the area, which was in effect a border land between the Cree to the north and the Lakota to the south.

Aulneau was inexperienced and stationed farther west of any other member of his order. He was supposed to travel to what’s now North Dakota to make contact with the Mandan people, according to Moreau.

Instead, in 1736, Aulneau joined a group of 20 voyageurs — including la Vérendrye’s son — on a paddle back east to what’s now Thunder Bay for supplies.

Within a day, all 21 men were dead. They were found beheaded on a small island in the Little Traverse. Precisely how they died and why is unclear.

The colonial account is the group was waylaid by a group of Lakota, Ojibway and Dakota warriors who may have been upset by a voyageur alliance with the rival Cree and Assiniboine. 

A request to learn the Anishinaabe account was politely and respectfully declined by an Onigaming elder on the grounds the sacred history of his people can not be divulged in a few sentences. 

What is clear is the largest land mass in Lake of the Woods is named after a missionary who spent about a year in the area.

The sun sets over Sunset Channel on the north side of the Aulneau Peninsula. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

One ermine, two otters

Today, the Aulneau Peninsula is a serene stretch of relatively accessible wilderness that remains mostly wild. This summer, the south side of the peninsula is also unusually quiet.

Sabaskong Bay usually teems with motorboat traffic from Morson on the lake’s south shore. The pandemic has rendered Sabaskong Bay silent. 

We only saw three motorized craft on the water in total during our first four days of our trip — from Turtle Portage through Sabaskong Bay and eventually across the edge of the Little Traverse, once the wind died down, as well as up the channel known as French Portage Narrows on the west side of the Aulneau.

Calm water on Lake of the Woods, the 31st-largest freshwater lake on the planet, by area. Open stretches make the lake easier to paddle by kayak than canoe, but there are thousands of islands small boats can hide behind. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

We didn’t speak to a soul between the Monday afternoon we left Robert and Rebecca and Vic and Dot’s the following Saturday when we returned to them.

We did see more bald eagles that we could count, along with the usual marine-bird menagerie of blue herons, white pelicans, double-breasted cormorants and common loons. We also spotted an ermine near the entrance to French Portage Narrows and two river otters on a bluff along Sunset Channel, on the north side of the peninsula.

We also spied a number of white-tailed deer, common everywhere in the Canadian Shield — but none of the wolves known to wander the interior of the Aulneau.

Signs of human activity finally returned as we neared Sioux Narrows on the last two days of our circumnavigation. A flotilla of 14 personal watercraft buzzed the eastern reach of Sunset Channel, scattering themselves among the islands like dragonflies.

Improbably large sailboats used their motors to edge past the narrow, kayak-only entrance to Cross Inlet. Still, smaller motorboats — usually the most common craft on Lake of the Woods — remained scarce on Whitefish Bay.

There is no better time to paddle this lake and have it practically to yourself, and whatever you spend at businesses at the south side of the lake might may actually make a difference.

After the winds of the the Little Traverse, Lake of the Woods eventually settled into a postcard-picture-worthy calm. Only there is no one to purchase postcards any more. Only otters and eagles and echoes of an earlier time.

Recovering from a day fighting the prevailing western wind on Miles Bay. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

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