The Berens and Pigeon Rivers

Last update=10 April, 95

The Berens and Pigeon Rivers both NE flow out of Family Lake in Eastern Manitoba. They are remote rivers, accessible by float plane. They are big rivers, flowing through swampy muskeg and Canadian Shield, emptying into Lake Winnipeg. The Hudson Bay Company used to have a fur trading post at the mouth of the Berens river. Governor Berens was head of the post. At that time, the Berens River was called the Pigeon River. When the river was renamed in the honour of Governor Berens, the name Pigeon River was transferred to the next river towards the south. Brother Frederick Leach, O.M.I. (Order of Mary Immaculate), was an Oblate missionary who spent much of his life (1892-1982) at Berens River. In his book "60 Years with Indians and Settlers on Lake Winnipeg", he says he finds it puzzling that the name of the Berens River in the Saulteaux language means "Pigeon River".

The Berens is a big river, with many waterfalls and rapids. The majority of the rapids and falls must be portaged. The Pigeon is an even bigger river, with a mini-canyon, many big falls, and many big runnable rapids. A spray cover is recommended for open canoes. Like all rivers in Manitoba, water levels and flow rates vary greatly from year to year. There are long flat water stretches between most of the rapids. Following is an excerpt from the article Paddling the Pigeon, taken from the MRCA Newsletter, volume 7, number 1, winter 1994.

"Except for the first day, the paddling was mostly falls and rapids. The water flow was always huge, even when the river split into two or three channels. The current was everywhere very strong. Six-foot high rooster tails would froth and foam, surging up to 12 feet, before subsiding back to six. We ran one set of rapids where there was a whirlpool off to one side. The water flow rate was around 70 m3 per second on this trip, which is slightly below average. Bucky told of a trip he did when the flow was over 100. On that trip, one canoe dumped in these rapids and got caught in the whirlpool. (The paddlers were washed out.) The current stood the canoe on end in the whirlpool. Suddenly the river spit the canoe out, straight up into the air. It fell down again, back into the whirlpool, where it went round and round, again leaping up into the air. Eventually it got washed out."

"The fourth day was overcast and warm, perfect mosquito weather. We came into the swamp. For 24Km, the river flowed in big S-turns, with flat swampland and willows on either side. A long dreary paddle brought us to Sturgeon Falls. The river splits into 2 channels here. On river right is a substantial set of rocky falls. That evening I tried swimming in the rapids and boils below the falls, and got washed a long way out from shore. The channel on river left is one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen. There are rapids above the falls, and at first it looks like they might be runnable. Further scouting shows that after the rapids the water crashes over a big precipice. There is an island in the middle of the falls, with a big rock face on it. The water coming over the falls tries with all its might to wipe out the island as the water hits the rock face straight on. But the rock face parts the water into two. Half turns right and half left, and descends seething to either side."

"So we paddled through the opening in the trees which forms the mouth of the Pigeon River into Lake Winnipeg. It was a warm, sunny afternoon. We headed north for Flathead Point, just a dim shadow on the infinite horizon from where we were. The waves on the Lake were fairly big, but paddlable. As we paddled out, the cries of thousands of terns and gulls came to greet us, as they circled over us crying whenever we approached the skerries where they nest."

The settlement of the Berens River Indian Reserve is at the mouth of the Berens. Irving Hallowell, an anthropologist from Philadelphia, spent many summers among the Indians at Berens during the 20's and 30's. His books The Role of Conjuring in Saulteaux Society and The Ojibwa of Berens River, Manitoba make very interesting reading, especially the parts about conjuring and the shaking tent ceremony.

Nowadays there is a hotel at the Berens River settlement. Rafting trips on the Pigeon can be organized through them, telephone = (204) 382-2379.

Icon101 Berens River, July, 94 Icon102 Berens River, July, 94

Icon103 Berens River, July, 94 Icon104 Detail of previous photo

Icon105 Mini-Canyon, Pigeon River, July, 93

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