Macdowall to the Sturgeon River  09-08



  • Lots and lots of Km's through Nisbet Forest & around outlaying country side and communities.
  • Transportation for up to 4 persons included unless otherwise specified.
  • Head to toe gear available as required.
  • Each individuals meals, fuel & oil extra, + + as required unless specified otherwise.
  •  Pricing for Full Day Nisbet Forest Cross Country Tours
  • A Good Reason to let a SNOCRUISE Tour Guide Lead the Way!      





March 21, 2009   

On Saturday March the 21, 2009 We embarked on a ride in the prime of winter. We had a couple of goals in mind.  It turns out it isn't, but we thought this was going to be the last ride of the season because of the weatherman's endless call to lift some peoples spirits with the only cure known........... great warm weather in the up coming days, [however always in style, it seems that being vertical on two, just isn't good enough for some people!] Some times you just never know how long the snowy conditions will last, and when the opportunity arises, away you go! So having just read the book PRAIRIE WARSHIPS River Navigation in the Northwest Rebellion by Gordon E. Tolton, our primary objectives was to of course have a  fantastic ride, and was also to look for the intersection of the Sturgeon (Shell) and the North Branch.

We cross over both the Shell and the Sturgeon River Valleys many miles to the west from here when we ride cross country to Emma Lake. We cross them prior to the rivers merging, thus the various maps labeling the resulting river either the Shell or the Sturgeon River.  It's documented in this terrific book, that a couple of paddlewheel steamboats were dry docked here for the majority of 1884 season, due to a number of economic and ergonomic reasons. It was in the spring of 1885, March 26th that there was a  Louis Riel/Métis settler up rising, and shoot out near the town of  Duck Lake with the RNWMP.(*1)   As a result all 7 of the paddle wheeler steam ships available on the North Branch and South Branch(*2),  were hired by the Canadian Government to participate in the Canadian Army's retaliation to the North-West Rebellion of 1875. Incredibly this appeared to be a financial windfall for the owners of steam ships whose season was looking otherwise pretty bleak. Three ships in the Nisbet Forest area included the North West on Prince Albert's river banks,  the Manitoba and the Marquis which were dry docked at the mouth of the Sturgeon  for quite some time in the care of Captain Julian Dougall. So that April 1885 Captain Dougall put together a team of men who would get the ships ready to sail. Unfortunately both ships were still in water to shallow to float, further compounded by the fact that their rudders were frozen down in the muddy river bottom. Then finally one Saturday night/Sunday morning April 9, the Sturgeon River rose 4 feet overnight as the spring thaw occurred. Flooding Captain Dougall's cabin on the shore to the top of his bed's legs! Eventually the Marquis although partly floated had some repairable damage and also had to have its 4 rudders cut off, freeing it from the frozen mud, which were then reconstructed by carpenters before it could make a trial run into Prince Albert on April 23 1885.

  I'm riding the perfect iron horse for the season and the time. It's a contrast to the steam powered vessels that cruised these waterways in the opposite season 124 years ago, my craft of choice is 105 HP Firecat, it's a gasoline powered engine, displacing approximately 30.64 cubic inches or 2.553 cubic feet of measured displacement. The sled weights 446 pounds dry and ideally about 750 pounds loaded, under ideal conditions it will run a solid 90 miles per hour.

We ride from the Macdowall area thru the Nisbet Forest, cross country up into the Lily Plain area. Along the banks of the North Branch we locate a series of trails that lead us down onto the river. Watching closely for chunks of river ice protruding thru the snow, our group throws up some snow dust as we ride the river. We are watching for any sign of a river intersecting the North Branch, a sign of the Sturgeon River a direct clue to where the Marquis and the Manitoba were dry docked in 1884/1885. We find it! At least we think so! After checking out some large and really old looking timbers we snowmobile up the Sturgeon River. 

It's all good for quite awhile then after we cross over a couple of beaver dams the scenery starts to change a little bit.....suddenly with out to much taa do...........the bottom falls out instant...... 8700 RPM is definitely necessary....we regroup on some solid land mass then find a way up the embankment ASAP, plow thru some light trees, and walla we find our selves leaving the heavier bush behind! really had to be there! I'm petty sure the edict of "go'in down with your ship" doesn't apply to snowmobiles.  No one got wet! Shortly we find our selves in a highway ditch north of Prince Albert! Nothing wrong with being back in the 21st century after our little historical interlude!

There was a Fort Sturgeon at the mouth of this river as well back in the day and here is a wikipedia link to it. 

 wikipedia. Fort Sturgeon

We pull over a few miles out of Macdowall to adjust our gear. This old yard site is a natural just because it's not far off our route, and it's sheltered so you can look over your sled, just up to temperature, the sleds have been cranking eight or 9 thousand RPM in bursts over some rolling hills and through some
cat tails slough bottoms for the last couple miles!

Looking closely you can see a log house, a past pioneer's
Homestead, hiding in the overgrown trees.

Here we are parked on the North Branch shoreline next to the mouth of the
Sturgeon River.

Looking up the Sturgeon, the river narrows quickly into a winding body of water that in most places has high embankments carved out of the landscape by many years of fast moving spring water.

We rode up the winding river and found a few places that were flatter, were spanned with beaver dams and crossed over from above with a few roadways and bridges. Eventually we started to encounter quite a few spring time soft spots suddenly opening up under our snowmobiles.......
that maybe wouldn't compare to the excitement you would experience during the North West Rebellion, but  just enough to escalate the ol' heart beat to another level,  and inspire us to climb the bank ASAP and get off!
Water skipping 101!!

This photo is taken looking North up the mouth of the Sturgeon from the North Branch.

This is looking west up the North Branch, near the entrance to the Sturgeon River.

Looking east down the North Branch.

A few snaps of the huge timbers that are imbedded in the ground just inside the mouth of the river.

Could these be the timbers that they would of dry docked the North Branch paddle wheelers with 125 years ago?

The letter A marks the spot where we got on the Sturgeon/Shell rivers.
The letter
B marks where we got off on a high bank in the trees and popped out next to the hiway. (luckily!)

This is a snap I took of an ill fated attempt to put a light paddle wheeler back on the North Branch in the 1990's.We came across it while riding in the 1996 Laird Poker Derby.

Still there in the winter of 1997 it's evident that the boat is being stripped

A few photos I took of the Northcote's mechanical boilers and cylinders while on a snowmobile ride across Cumberland Lake to Cumberland House in 1997.

This shows some of the hardware that would connect the paddle wheel at the back. 


SS Northcote

Northcote remains 1905.

SS Alberta

SS Marquis