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HomeNL-2013-02 Windcocking


by Paul Woodcock

Even when I first started paddling I understood that when paddling with a crosswind the canoe will pull in the direction the wind is coming from. I never knew this was called windcocking until I read an article in that gave it that name. The article helped me recall when this phenomenon caused a real problem. It was the second wilderness trip on the Bloodvein River in Manitoba, Canada. We had decided to take two shorter trips with a break between them rather than another long trip. This trip was going to be over 200 miles and it all started with the first fly-in I have ever done.

As we were strapping the canoes to the pontoons of the Otter airplane I noticed the cowling of the plane was covered with oil. I got the honor of sitting next to the pilot as we flew to Artery Lake where we were going to start our paddling adventure. As we were flying over the lake-dotted landscape, the pilot started digging around the dash of the plane. It was covered with stuff just like a Kansas farmer's pickup truck. He moved some pliers and sorted threw the papers and picked up some reading glasses and a ROAD MAP. As he was studying the map I looked at the stick that was wrapped in multiple layers of duct tape, He made a course adjustment and stated; “Damn, I am over the hours to get this plane serviced.” He then started the approach to an island and stopped the plane at a sand beach. We were able to unload the gear without even getting our feet wet. 

Artery Lake   Bloodvein Map

It was mid morning but I never like to start a long trip as soon as we get to the put-in so we set up camp. As the plane flew off I could feel the isolation we were in. It really brought home that it was over 200 miles to civilization in either direction. This was before there was GPS or satellite phones or the Internet. We were navigating with map and compasses and had no way to contact the outside world. It takes a while for you to shed the robe of civilization and develop what I call the wilderness eye. The first part of the trip your body goes into survival mode, you become constipated, nervous and hyper alert. After a while you become attuned to the wilderness spirit and you can intuitively figure out where the portage is and sort of know if there is a moose or a bear close by, but this usually takes a week to develop.

Looking at
the map
We looked at the map and tried to fix our location and decided to paddle down the lake to look at some pictographs the next morning before actually starting our trip. We left the camp sight at about 8 AM the next morning knowing whenever you are returning to a spot you should look backward so you can visualize what it will look like when your return to the spot. This becomes an automatic response as the trip progresses but we forgot to do it as we did not have the wilderness eye open yet.

As we returned, we crossed the open water and it was a one of those oh s&%t moments. There were a number of islands and we could not see our camp. The 2:00 o’clock winds had come up and it made looking through the binoculars in the bouncing canoe difficult but at last I saw a patch of blue that was our tent on one of the islands. We checked our map and decided that we had placed ourselves on the wrong island and added another red dot for our starting spot. The next morning we started across the lake to the river outlet and as we were looking at the map we discovered we had marked the wrong island as the starting point. We added yet another red dot on the map and we were now sure of out location on Artery Lake.

  Quiet time   Taking a break
We had fallen into that rhythm you get on a long wilderness trip, waking up at sunrise and packing your gear, eating breakfast, having that last cup of coffee, brushing the mosquitoes from you face and automatically spitting out the ones that are in your coffee. We usually paddle for two hours and take a break, have a snack and then stop every hour to get out of the canoe, stretch and listen to the rapids. We were not into seeing how many miles we could cover each day, but to just enjoy living in the here and now. Nothing existed except each other and the river and camp sights. We have a rule: we will set up camp at around 2:00 PM. or three portages whichever comes first. These trips are the highlight of my life and if it were possible this is how I would live my existence, just drifting down every river I could. The hardships of sleet, rain, snow, extremely hot temperatures, and the long hard portages just make the good peaceful times that much more meaningful. Sitting around a campfire, watching sunsets, drifting with the current are the good parts. I can’t deny the adrenaline rush I get from running the rapids don’t excite me, but this is not why I take these trips. You can feel the spirit of the earth all around you. You don’t have to search for any meaning of your existence, it is here, facing the challenges of getting down the river, having the confidence that no matter what happens you can handle it. Life is good.

Bushy Lake  
We arrived at Bushy Lake. It was a dreary day overcast and as we figured out our coordinates to the bay where the river left the lake, the wind started to pick up. It was’t really strong and as I would rather paddle on days where it is uncomfortable weather and save a lay-over day for when for when it is sunny and pleasant, where you can dry out gear and sit on the river bank and fish, read a book, and just rejuvenate.  We decided to cross the lake. As I looked across the lake I got that feeling where you feel the hairs on the back of your neck rise. It felt like someone was watching us, or something bad was going to happen. The wilderness eye was open. It was a crosswind and as it got stronger our attention was on the white caps and we just occasionally looked at the high cliff on the bay we were paddling toward. We were much relieved when we got to the bay and were looking forward to finding the outlet and following the river current to our next camp site. As we paddled around the bay, behind the peninsula there was no river outlet. The cliffs were there, but no river. Studying the map we discovered that we had drifted into another bay that had the same features as the one where the river outlet was. The wind had died down and it had turned into a beautiful day. We had a snack, drank some coffee and then decided to paddle to the bay on the other shore. Windcocking had created this problem but it would be minor as we would lose only a couple of hours and there were any number of camp sites on the river.

From our previous trip we had discovered that you had to pack much more food than you had originally thought. When we had arrived at the Bloodvein reservation we had one pack of oatmeal and one pot of coffee. We had lost about 20 lb. apiece as we had run out of food about a week before take out. We had cut the breakfast oatmeal in half and lived on that and fish we had caught. Lesson learned.  We now were never committed to reaching a certain place each day as we had packed food for a larger number of layover days.

We paddled to the peninsula that led to the long entrance to the bay. The sun was bright and was warm on our backs. We had confidence we would make a designated camp sight, albeit later than we planned. As we approached the cliff we could see that there was no exit, just a solid wall of cliffs. We did not want to paddle the extra 1/2 mile so we turned around and went back to the lake to once again find the right bay. We paddled the shore but found no other bay, so I found a high spot and got out the binoculars and scanned the shoreline. It was all swampland except for the out crop I was standing on so we had to get to the river to find a camp spot. I called out to Dana and Mary. There is no other place the river can be except where we came from so we reluctantly paddled back to where the solid cliff was. We decided to go right up to the cliff and as we got close to the cliff we discovered that there was a left turn next to the cliff.  The reflection on the water had hidden it from our view. We had to set up camp later than we liked, and it was not as nice as the one we had decided on, but we definitely learned what "windcock" meant.

When we finished the trip we were talking to a Metis
 guide (he had a Masters degree in biology), he told us that he had never told another living soul, but when he was crossing the lake where we had got lost he had seen a creature much like our Bigfoot. Were we being watched?  Did I somehow know that windcocking would get us lost, or was it just the same random feeling you get in a parking lot that means nothing.  I will never know...

the earth is my mother.
the sky is my father
the animals are my brothers
the canoe lets me get closer to them