Another Wednesday afternoon in May, and we all duck out of work early as per our weekly paddling tradition. The two-hour drive to the Bird River, northeast of Winnipeg in the province of Manitoba, Canada, always feels a little daunting. However, the question, “Is it worth it?” washes away as you round the corner to see your pals parked on the shoulder of Highway 315.
Little more than a dusty gravel road through the boreal forest, this unassuming parking lot has spawned many a love affair. Here at the take-out, we stash a bike, and, with no daylight to waste, race to the put-in. While shouldering our boats, the hiking pace increases at the sound of the river in the distance.
It had been nearly a year since we last paddled the Bird. The setting sun cast the forest in golden light, and the whitewater sparkled as we squinted to scout the lines. Bald eagles perched high in the trees above. In the early spring, they swoop down to pluck spawning fish from the rapids. They are every bit as beautiful as they are powerful, like the river over which they keep a watchful eye. These sky-borne guardians remind us where the Bird gets its name and why we love this place.
The Bird River flows from the Ontario border to the Winnipeg River through the traditional territory of Sagkeeng First Nation, per Treaty 3. The upper reaches of the river fall within Nopiming Provincial Park and are frequented by fishermen and canoeists who enjoy the undisturbed beauty afforded by government protection.
The best whitewater, however, is found on a 17-kilometre section of river outside of the provincial park boundary, named the lower Bird River. The whitewater varies from long bouldery Class II to steeper more technical drops, offering something for whitewater paddlers of all skill levels.
Often flowing in spring, some years the lower Bird stays runnable into summer and late fall. The highlight of the lower Bird is “The Canyon,” a stunningly beautiful cascade over jagged boulders. For many in Manitoba, this is the rapid that keeps you coming back—or keeps you up at night. Not feeling up for the excitement? There is a great portage trail with a picnic-worthy viewpoint where you can take it all in.
Whether you run the Canyon or not, a lap down the lower Bird River is an opportunity to move through a slice of paradise. You may come for the whitewater, but you’ll come back for what you see on its banks and in its waters. Bears, moose, beavers, and even wolves are all part of the local traffic.
In 2013, the lower Bird River and the undisturbed wilderness along its banks were in jeopardy. The Tanco Mine on Bernic Lake, just outside of the Provincial Park Boundary, is the world’s largest producer of cesium and has a claim to Canada’s largest deposit of tantalum and lithium. These minerals are critical in medical imaging, electronics and batteries, and in drilling fluids for oil and gas.
Since 1969, the Tanco Mine has been operating nearly 300 feet below ground, beneath Bernic Lake. Just over 10 years ago, the mine proposed draining a portion of Bernic Lake into the lower Bird River to relieve weight on the mine shafts and expand operations, with the intention of someday mining the area through an open pit.
While the exact impacts of flooding the Bird River are not fully understood, concerns raised by the paddling community (and others) include shoreline erosion, increased sediment, and contaminants from mining tailings.
Tanco Mine’s application to drain Bernic Lake was eventually rejected. Ever since, environmental non-profit organizations, cottagers, fishermen, and paddlers have been advocating hard for government protection of the lower Bird River.
Despite over 10,000 letters of support, in 2019 the Manitoba government rejected the bid for protection. That same year, a mining group from China purchased Tanco Mine. Talks of draining Bernic Lake have since resurfaced.
Even with incredibly fun whitewater for paddlers of all skill levels, the lower Bird River will likely never be a whitewater mecca. Far from an urban center, it has a sometimes short and unpredictable season and more flatwater than most are willing to bear. It will, however, captivate those who move through its banks with a charm best described as a subtle magic, be it your first lap or your fiftieth.
For best results, duck out of work a few minutes early on a run-of-the-mill weekday. Although golden light, good flows, and eagles in the trees are not a given, to paddle this river is to love it. We hope this love will keep its waters clean, clear, and free-flowing for decades to come.