Words & Photography by Dustin Silvey
The beating of the drums slowly starts to trail off as the elder finishes her song. She opens the tent flap, letting in the cold Manitoban air. The same cold that I had dreaded for the past 12 days has now come to release me from the grasp of heat exhaustion.
The drum pounds in my ears. My heart is beating faster than a hummingbird’s. Sweat pours off my body onto the blankets under me. My mind and body want to run, telling me to get out, that I need to escape this heat and the drumming. I lie down and curl into a ball on the ground, listening to the soothing singing of the elder who leads this Indigenous ceremony. I can’t see any of my companions in the darkness; I hope they are not suffering like myself.
The beating of the drums slowly starts to trail off as the elder finishes her song. She opens the tent flap, letting in the cold Manitoban air. The same cold that I had dreaded for the past 12 days has now come to release me from the grasp of heat exhaustion. The elder allows us all to exit into the frigid cold and comforts us with blankets and conversation as we stand outside her home.
I take time to speak with her, but I have a difficult time focusing; my mind keeps wandering back to the Bloodvein River. I see myself capsizing in the Class III/IV rapids, waking up to frost on my face, fighting off a chronic illness, and disturbing the hibernation of a furious nest of wasps. I would never have imagined that after all of this, the hardest part of my 12-day whitewater journey down the Bloodvein River through central Manitoba was going to be an Indigenous sweat lodge.
Several months before my heat-induced daydreaming, my companions and I were sitting on a porch in downtown Winnipeg having a drink and discussing future adventures. The idea of paddling the Bloodvein River came up. I hadn’t heard of the river before, but was immediately sold based on its name alone.
The Bloodvein River – rumored to get its name from the many Indigenous battles that occurred along its banks – is a Class III river with over 80 sets of fierce rapids along its 220km stretch through Manitoba’s backcountry. During the colonisation of Canada, these same intense rapids kept fur traders off the river. This lack of settler contact in the area has left the river ecosystem and the nearby Indigenous nations relatively untouched by outside influences. Five Indigenous communities that have lived off the land in this region of Canada have also kept the area pristine: Poplar Rapids First Nation, Little Grand Rapids First Nation, Pauingassi First Nation, Pikangikum First Nation, and Bloodvein First Nation. On Canada Day (July 1st) 2018, these Indigenous communities succeeded in creating the first ever cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage Site in Canada, Pimachiowin Aki, in which the Bloodvein River flows. In recognition of the significance of the UNESCSO appointment, it seemed to me, 2018 was the year to run this river.
Two months later, we packed our bags, booked our seaplane flight to the source of the river, and started our journey down the Bloodvein River. For the first day, the river was like any other I had paddled in Manitoba: huge Canadian Shield, hot enough to melt butter on the rock, and lots of bugs.
On the second day I saw the truth of how the Bloodvein River got its name: from the huge line of magma rock that runs its length. Once we spotted the ‘Bloodvein’ we never lost sight of it. The bright red magma was a guiding light that led us to the river’s mouth at Lake Winnipeg. Class II and III rapids started to pop up, and, unfortunately, this day was witness to the first of my two dumps in the water. As we came barreling through the rapid, I felt we were right on our line but then a wave caught the side and I felt the boat lurch. Being our second day on the water, I was rusty and I grabbed the side of the boat, which threw it out of equilibrium and took us into the cold water.
Turns out that Tippy – as we affectionately called it – was not the most stable boat of our three. I was the unfortunate soul to take the first swim, and all the mockery that came with it, but I certainly wasn’t the last.
A day later, the wind was so fierce, pelting us with hail and rain, that it pushed us backwards up the river despite our furious paddling. We finally made it to shore and collapsed on the beach to wait out the storm, exhausted. Even after the storm passed, the clouds remained low and dominating, ready to burst at any moment. It set an ominous tone for our expedition. As we paddled a wide stretch of the river, I kept thinking that we were guests here and the river could take control at any time.
Each afternoon we would arrive at a new campsite along the river. None of us knew what to expect around each bend. Selecting a campsite was a gamble: was there something better just up ahead, or would it be just be a barren rock jutting out from the Canadian Shield? Most nights we were lucky, and we’d set up our tents in a nicely forested area near a rapid in which we could hone our paddling skills.
The morning after one of my companions forgot to stake his tent down and had to fish it out of a deep eddy, our PFDs were frozen solid where we had hung them to dry. Mist floated above the water, birds were quiet, and the cold seemed to keep other life at bay. The scene was surreal. Moving slowly and quietly, we packed up our gear and set off down the river, worrying that the cold of central Canada was coming early this year.
A day later, the wind was so fierce, pelting us with hail and rain, that it pushed us backwards up the river despite our furious paddling. We finally made it to shore and collapsed on the beach to wait out the storm, exhausted.
Each night I would curl up on my Therm-a-Rest hoping that temperatures would stay above zero. One morning I woke with my face – which was the only part of my body not enveloped in my sleeping bag – covered in frost. I climbed out of my tent to find my drysuit frozen solid, along with my shoes and everyone else’s gear.
On long trips like this, you have to make a pact with the river. You will respect its speed and power, and it will let you go safely on your way. If you don’t show the proper respect it might pull you under and not let you go.
The nights got colder. Each night I would curl up on my Therm-a-Rest hoping that temperatures would stay above zero. One morning I woke with my face – which was the only part of my body not enveloped in my sleeping bag – covered in frost. I climbed out of my tent to find my drysuit frozen solid, along with my shoes and everyone else’s gear. We lit a fire and started to thaw our water wear, all the while trying not to burn our shoes. This became on ongoing trend and we decided that it was getting too cold. The time had come for us to paddle hard to arrive at the Indigenous community of Bloodvein a day sooner than expected.
After our last day of paddling we discovered garbage scattered all over our last chosen campsite, and clearly some of it had been there a long time, half-buried, while other wrappers and beer cans seemed fresh. This surprised us. All our other campsites had been pristine. Why was this one so filthy? None of our theories made sense. On that last night along the river, I heard noise outside my tent that did not sound human. I yelled out loudly that there might be a bear in camp. When I did not get a response or hear any further noise, I laid my head down and sleep came rapidly.
The next morning I woke to commotion in our camp. I crawled out of my tent, tripping over one of the many SealLine dry bags we had on the trip, and saw what the commotion was all about: one of our barrels had been torn to pieces and the food had been scattered. A bear had wandered into camp, picked up a barrel, journeyed a little way into the trees, and dug in for a late-night supper. Interestingly enough, of the many food items scattered about camp, the bear had eaten only an entire bottle of syrup. We later learned that the main road (and our pullout spot) was only 800m downriver from where we had camped that night. Weekend revellers often used this campsite. All their trash over the years had attracted the bear, which is a well-known resident of the area – and may now also be a diabetic as a consequence of its scavenging.
Adventures and misadventures aside, this trip was about scouting the river for future expeditions and building a relationship with the Indigenous community of Bloodvein. The owners of Twin River Travel (TRT) – a Manitoban paddling company – planned this trip along with Travel Manitoba. TRT was hoping to run expeditions down the river the following summer and wanted to be sure of each rapid and to select specific campsites. It was equally important for them to build a relationship with the Indigenous community, as they would be using the land of Bloodvein First Nation. For many years, Canadian Indigenous peoples and their rights have been forgotten and ignored, not only by the government but also outfitters that use their land without permission. One of TRT’s goals was to create a lasting relationship with Bloodvein in order to incorporate Indigenous teachings into their expeditions. Thus, we spent two days after the paddling trip in Bloodvein getting to know some of the people and a small amount of their teachings.
When we arrived in Bloodvein, we went through the standard surreal impacts of seeing other humans again after a journey away. However, Bloodvein is not like flying into a major city. It has just over 1,000 residents. We wandered the dirt roads, visited the local store, bought some food, played with the dogs that ran about the town, met some of the local people, and spent time getting to know one of the Indigenous elders and some of the youth. We ran a wrestling practice with some of the youth at the school and also did a short presentation on our trip. One of the elders of Bloodvein hoped that seeing people on their adventures would motivate some of the youth to want to experience this amazing river that was in their own backyard.
That night one of the elders invited us to her home to participate in the sweat lodge. I was excited – this would be my first sweat lodge experience in 10 years. When it was completed, and I had gained my senses back, the elder and I spoke about what the newly formed UNESCO World Heritage Site meant to her and the people of Bloodvein.
She said, ‘It has shown our youth that they live in an amazing place. The fact that people outside of Canada are noticing how great Bloodvein is tells them that they should take pride in where they are from, what their culture is, and who they are.’ I asked about the youth participating in sweat lodges – three young girls had joined us during ours – and she laughed, saying, ‘Oh, if the kids could do these every day, they would.’
I smiled. Imagine going through the heat-induced dreams and thoughts the experience brought on for me every single evening. No; for me once every 10 years is enough.
That night we packed the van and headed home. We were quiet during the six-hour drive back to Winnipeg. I think we were all feeling the sadness that comes at the end of an adventure, and we had all had powerful experiences in the sweat lodge that brought up even more feelings about heading home. Having to go back into the real world, having to interact with hundreds of people in the city, traffic, jobs, bills – it is all just so complicated. It is so much simpler to think about the next paddle stroke, the next turn of the river, or where to set up your tent for the evening.
Every night as we sat around the fire I felt that we were slowly becoming a family. Like a group of medieval warriors thrown together on a quest, we got to know each other better and grew closer through stories. This didn’t mean we got along all the time, but we cared about keeping each other safe and (more or less) happy. Working together to be sure we had what we needed, even sharing dry socks, created a bond that we share to this day: just me and my Manitoba family.
Dustin grew up in western Canada and three years ago, after his career as an elite level Olympic wrestler ended due to injury, he found he had 20 hours a week to fill. He bought a camera, learned how to use it, and started taking pictures of everything. His photography skills blossomed from there due to the help of some fantastic mentors and their feedback. While currently working as a photojournalist he is completing his PhD in Medicine.
Thanks to the following companies for their support of this journey: