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Wassegam is a small lake in Prince Albert National Park. It is north of Crean Lake and near the north boundary of the park.
In the fall of 1964, my good friend Dave Lepp was working for the Warden's Service and part of a team that was flown into Wassegam to live trap Lake Trout for Hatchery Stock. Lake trout spawn in the fall and it is prime time to capture them for hatchery breeding. Dave was an avid fisherman and talked often of returning to try some sport fishing.
Over the following winter the topic kept coming up and we finally concluded that we should go to Wassegam the coming 24th of May long weekend. We often fished together and traveled to try out new waters, but this would be different. The only access to Wassegam was by air in summer, snowmobile in winter or, as we planned, by boat and on foot. Our proposed route would take us by boat from the Heart Lakes Landing to Crean Lake and across Crean to the north shore. From there we would hike the trail to the Crean Fire tower and then bushwhack from there north east across the Maclennan River and on to Wassegam. We were both Park employees and could get permission to use the Tower Cabin and a winter Patrol Cabin at Wassegam. There was also a canoe at Wassegam that had been left behind the previous fall. We would travel light and only carry food, sleeping bags, our fishing gear, and a small emergency kit with some building plastic for an emergency shelter if we needed it.
The big IF in our plans was if the ice would be clear from the lakes. Spring breakup in those days would usually come right around the May long weekend.
Our departure was Thursday after work. We launched Dave's boat at the Heart Lakes. The trip up the lakes was uneventful. However when we arrived at the bay where the Heart Lakes connect to Crean, the lake was open but the wind had pushed a huge pan of ice down into the bay. There was no way through or around it. We didn't want our trip to end there so after some discussion we decided to try and get the boat up onto the ice. We moved our gear and ourselves to the rear of the boat and gunned the motor. When the bow of the boat came up on the ice we rushed forward. With one of us on each side, one foot in the boat and the other out on the ice, we were able to drag the boat the rest of the way up onto the ice. If we coordinated to both push with the outside foot at the same time, the boat would skate along quite nicely on its keel. Twenty minutes later we had covered the three or four hundred meters to open water.
At the trail head to the fire tower we cached the motor and boat gear out of sight and secured the boat well up the beach. The trail to the tower was good walking and we arrived in the dark.
Our watch alarms were set for very early Friday morning. After a quick breakfast and repack of our gear we climbed the tower with our map, binoculars, and compass. We spent about an hour up the tower trying to memorize the lay of the land and visualize the route to Wassegam. We could see Wassegam from the tower, and our imagined target was a creek that runs out the south end of the lake into the Maclennan River. The tower was on high ground that trended north and east. We would try to follow the shoulder of the high ground while keeping the up slope to our left.
We set off for Wassegam both singing The Happy Wanderer as loudly as we could. “Valderi, valdera, valderi, valdera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha”. That didn't last long as we needed our breath for walking.
Dave was an experienced woodsman so we headed out with him in the lead picking our route and me behind with the compass keeping track of our direction. It's rough bush country and frequent detours were required to get around wind fallen trees, wet ground and, at one point, about a one kilometer detour to get around an old burnt over area. The pine trees had re-seeded so thick it was impossible to walk through them.
Dave's sense of direction was excellent and he was able to navigate the obstacles and maintain a general direction that agreed with our planned compass heading. We stopped frequently to check our progress but he required very little input from me or the compass. We kept at it and arrived on the banks of the Maclennan River late in the day. Amazingly, we were only a couple of hundred meters from the little creek running out of Wassegam.
Our next major obstacle was the Maclennan River. It runs west to east and we would have to cross to its north bank. Spring runoff was in full swing and the river was running high and fast. We scouted both east and west until we found a spot we thought was suitable to cross. We cut a couple of sapling trees and hacked them into crude wading staffs. Once in the water, the method was to plant both feet firmly, probe ahead with the staff to locate firm footing for the next step, then plant the staff downstream to brace against the current while we took that step. Repeat and keep repeating. At the middle, the water was up to our waists. It was also very cold. When we reached the opposite bank we lit a fire and boiled a pot of tea to dry off and warm up.
There was a well-traveled game trail along the creek and good walking along the shore of the lake. It didn't take us long to reach the patrol cabin. First priority? Go fishing. That's what we had come for. We tossed our packs in the cabin. Next step, retrieve the canoe from the rafters of the snowmobile shed. Oops! No paddles. Dave had forgotten that the paddles had gone out on the plane the preceding fall. We managed to fashion a crude paddle from a small tree, a board, and a few nails pried from the snowmobile shed. We caught fish immediately and settled on a nice five pound lake trout for supper.
Back on shore, I gathered dry wood and built a fire on the beach in front of the cabin. Dave butchered the fish, not filleting it in the usual fashion. Instead he by cut off the head and tail then split the fish down each side of the back bone, removing the backbone, and leaving two fillets connected by the flesh of the stomach. He split the end of a willow branch, slipped the fish into the slit, and trussed it up with some twigs and wire from our emergency kit. We then propped it over the coals of my fire. For seasoning, we used what we had - some powdered onion soup mix.
When the fish was done we laid it skin side down on the sand between us and ate the flesh off the skin with our fingers and pocket knives as utensils. It is probably one of the simplest meals I've ever eaten and certainly one of the most memorable. It was amazing. Walking for about ten hours without a lot to eat probably enhanced the flavor. We were ravenous and ate the whole fish.
All of Saturday and Sunday were spent in the canoe. We went ashore only for occasional breaks and for food.
The preferred habitat of lake trout is cold water which normally means deep water. However, for a short period of time during spring break up, the water temperature in lakes is inverted. The timing of our arrival at Wassegam couldn't have been better. Our best fishing was when we paddled along the shore and cast our lines towards shore, often right under the willow branches hanging over the water. We caught most of our fish in water less than two meters deep. The only species of fish we caught was lake trout ranging in size from about two to six pounds. The favored lure was a Len Thompson No.2 spoon in either red and white or yellow with red diamonds. I did hook a much larger fish in the mouth of a creek that runs into the north end of the lake. I fought it for a long time, but when Dave tried to land it, it threw the hook and slipped out of his hands. We had no landing net and had crimped the barbs on our hooks. Dave's best guess was that was about twenty-five pounds. For fear of being accused telling fish stories, I will not quote a number as to how many fish we caught and released, for it was many. The fishing was spectacular to say the least.
Our plan for Monday was to follow the same route we had taken on Thursday and Friday, but without an overnight at the fire tower. We would leave very early and make it home in one day. Our watch alarms were set so we could be walking by sun up.
It did not work out as planned. When the alarms woke us it was pouring rain. We decided to wait an hour in hopes the rain would let up. It did not. Another hour and then another hour. Finally at nine o'clock we headed out in the pouring rain. We knew if we were not home on Monday our parents back in Waskesiu would be extremely worried and we were both due at work Tuesday morning.
It was raining very hard and we were soaking wet within minutes. At the Maclennan River we retrieved our wading staffs from our trip in. With the addition of rain, the river was running even deeper and faster. We crossed in the same fashion but did not stop. We were already wet and lighting a fire to dry out would have been hopeless.
Dave continued to lead and kept a southerly track. The clouds were right down in the trees making it difficult to read the landscape as we had on Friday. At some point, we wandered off of the high ground and into the muskeg. Walking was much more difficult. Muskeg is either hummock or hollow. The hollows were often full of water or muck. We ranged back and forth but did not regain the higher ground. It was wet, uncomfortable, and very hard walking.
Even in the lousy conditions, Dave's sense of direction was amazingly good until about midday. Then for some reason, it abandoned him. He started veering to his left or east. I would call out and we would stop to check my compass. Dave would then get out his compass and check it too. He had a hard time accepting the compass readings. At one point, we put one of the compasses on a log and stood as far from it as we could and still read it, for fear something metal in our gear was deflecting the readings. Every few hundred meters along our way, we would repeat the process. This went on for about an hour and then as quickly as it had left, Dave’s sense of direction returned, and once again he was leading us on a steady track south.
We had no idea where we were. We had no fear of being lost as Crean Lake was a huge target that was impossible to miss. Late in the day, we held a conference and decided we had to hole up for the night. It was still raining hard, we had been wet all day, and if we got into darkness without warmth and shelter we would be in deep trouble. We chose one of the larger hummocks, strung a chord between two trees and erected a small lean-to with the building plastic from our emergency kit. It took us till dark to get a fire going and collect enough semi-dry wood to last us through the night. Everything was wet. Through the night, we took turns napping in the back of our little shelter while the other huddled at the front keeping the fire going. There was no point in opening a sleeping bag as they like everything else were soaked.
Just before sunrise, the wind came up, it stopped raining and we crawled out of our little shelter to bright sunshine. We snacked on our diminishing food supply and headed south again with Dave in the lead. He was singing, “Valderi, valdera, valderi, valdera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha”. Amazing what a bit of sunshine can do for the attitude.
By 9:00 a.m., we were on the shore of Crean Lake. We had completely missed the tower and the tower trail but, surprisingly, arrived only a short way from where we had cached our boat and gear. But, now we had a new problem - the high wind. The wind was out of the north east and blowing right down the lake, creating huge waves. It was much too rough for our little 4.5 meter boat.
The shore we were on was too exposed to the wind for a fire. The boat without us in it and the motor propped up would float in a few centimeters of water. We hoped if we kept very close to shore we could move to a more sheltered location. Dave walked along the shore edge holding the boat out with a paddle just far enough to float it while I towed with the bow line. It took a long time but we were able to make our way into Moose Bay. There we found a small beach that was well sheltered by a bluff of trees and a tall sand bank. Here we could wait in relative comfort. We waited and waited. We waited all day.
All that was left of our food supply was a chunk of slab bacon and some tea. We sliced off bits of the bacon wrapped it around a stick and cooked it hot dog style over the fire. The bacon drippings made the fire flare and by the time it was cooked it was also scorched black. Still, it was not bad followed by mugs of hot tea.
Our discussions centered on how long we would have to wait for the wind to change. We knew our parents would be frantic with concern and we were already a day overdue for work.
Finally, in the early evening, the wind abated a bit and moved more around to the north. It was time to go. Even if we couldn't get all the way we hoped at least to get to a place where we could light a fire to signal the warden's cabin at the mouth of the Heart Lakes that we were okay. We were certain someone would be watching. We started out on calm water but the farther down the lake, we went the rougher it got. The last few hundred meters across the bay and into the shelter of the warden's dock was very scary. Dave had to keep turning the boat's bow into the waves to keep us from swamping. I had the pail and bailed like a mad man. We pulled into the dock with 15 centimeters of water in the bottom of the boat.
Warden Jack Leader met us at the dock. He was readying his big patrol boat to come looking for us. He had been watching for us all day, but felt it was just too rough to search. My dad had been calling every hour on the Park phone line. I went up to the cabin and phoned my dad to let him know we were fine. I could hear my mom in the background give a cry of relief when she heard who was calling. My dad would go immediately to notify the Lepps of our safe arrival. Jack made a pot of coffee to warm us as were soaked once again from the rough ride across the bay. We loaded the boat in complete darkness. Then we were on our way down the Heart Lakes.
It had been an amazing adventure with a very good friend. It was one of the last things Dave and I would do together. That fall, I left Waskesiu to attend Electronics College and my first career job in Northern Quebec. Dave went to college in Saskatoon to study wildlife management and on to the Arctic to work as a conservation officer.
Dave died in 1986. I often think of him and when I do my memories always go back to our trip to Wassegam.
Don Sipes grew up in Prince Albert National Park where his father worked as a National Park Warden.
Don Sipes on the shore of the Maclennan River
Dave Lepp fishing on Wassagam Lake
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