Facebook message brings men back to epic 1995 paddle to northern Manitoba

More than 20 years after five young men made a 64-day canoe and kayak trip from Winnipeg to tiny Panco Lake near Hudson Bay, one of them received a Facebook message with a photo of a plaque they left behind in 1995 and the question "Is this you?"

Snowmobiler tracks down paddlers who left memorial for veteran at Panco Lake

Karl Gossen, Paul Gossen, Dave Pancoe, Chris Pancoe and Keith Eyrikson took a 64-day canoe and kayak trip from Winnipeg to Panco Lake in 1995. (Submitted by Keith Eyrikson )

More than 20 years after a group of young men made a 64-day canoe and kayak trip from Winnipeg to tiny Panco Lake near Hudson Bay, one of them received a Facebook message about his youthful "rite of passage."

It included a photo of a plaque the men had left at Panco Lake in 1995 and the question, "Is this you?"

"Panco Lake is arguably the most remote spot in Manitoba. It's as if you went to one of the least populated regions of Manitoba and took a random pin on a map and pointed to a random kilometre-square lake — that's where Panco Lake is," said Chris Pancoe.

"So the odds of someone going up there and finding this thing and photographing it and getting in touch with me is just … it's pretty low odds."

Pancoe, his brother Dave and three friends chose the destination for their 1995 trip because the lake is named after a relative of the Pancoes who died in a Second World War prisoner of war camp in 1943.

From left: Karl Gossen, Dave Pancoe, Paul Gossen, Keith Eyrikson and Chris Pancoe in front of the poppy they brought to Panco Lake in 1995. (Submitted by Keith Eyrikson )

The five spent weeks paddling and then another week trekking through muskeg to get to the remote spot, where they left the memorial plaque for Pte. Mike Panco, a relative who used an older spelling of the family name.

Pancoe didn't think he'd ever see the plaque again, but then he got that Facebook message and photo.

"I took a look at it and I knew exactly what it was," he said.

All five paddlers carved their names on the back of the memorial. (Submitted by Chris Pancoe)

The man on the other side of the Facebook message was Clint Sawchuk, of Gillam, Man., a town about 740 kilometres north of Winnipeg — and 85 kilometres west of Panco Lake.

Sawchuk stopped at a trapper's cabin on Panco Lake while on a weekend snowmobile trip, doing some winter camping and hunting.

The trapper and his wife told him about the plaque, which they'd found about 200 yards from their home, a cabin they built on the lake five years ago.

They took him over to the plaque, which, in addition to Pte. Panco's name, had the paddlers' names etched into the back with a map of their trip.

The bugs in the muskeg were just apocalyptic.- Chris Pancoe

"I like adventures and seeing what's around the next corner, so it was neat to see how they got there,'" said Sawchuk. "I wanted to hear the story and find out how they got it there because I know there's no rivers coming in."

Pancoe laughs now when he thinks about how he and his friends got into Panco Lake.

The avid paddlers planned the trip after they found out the federal government named many of the lakes in Manitoba after war veterans, and Panco Lake was named after a great-uncle of Chris and Dave.

"We had this map in our basement and we started following and we saw that we could get there by canoe if we wanted to," Pancoe said. "Then we said, 'Well, let's do it.'"

After about a year of preparations they set off, paddling from The Forks up the Hayes River system and through a small waterway they found on the map called the Penny Cutaway to Panco Lake.

A brass plaque on the memorial tells the story of Pte. Mike Panco, who died in a prisoner of war camp in 1943. Panco Lake is named after him. (Submitted by Chris Pancoe)
But the map had oversold the Penny Cutaway.

"It was an incredibly trying experience," Pancoe said of the last leg of the journey through the cutaway.

"It showed up on the map, but it was no real stream — it was basically hiking with us dragging and pulling our boats over muskeg over seven days or something like that.

"The bugs in the muskeg were just apocalyptic."

There was no solid ground, so they had to camp on marsh.

At times that was the least of the crew's concerns. 

"There were a few times where we almost died. We had canoed a bit, but we'd never done any whitewater canoeing. We were going practically down waterfalls," said Keith Eyrikson, who was on the canoe trip two decades ago with Pancoe.

"When we finally got to Panco Lake, it was this beautiful little lake, about a kilometre square, that had this nice solid esker on one end, which we were able to camp at," Pancoe said. "It was the first solid ground we'd seen in seven days."

After camping at the site for three days, they put up the monument — a wood base that had been sealed with "layers and layers of Varathane" with a brass plaque attached.

Clint Sawchuk tracked down Chris Pancoe on Facebook after finding his name carved into the memorial. (Submitted by Chris Pancoe)

They also buried a time capsule filled with memorabilia donated by local veterans and personal mementos from each paddler before going back through the Penny Cutaway to York Factory, where they caught a float plane out.

"It was kind of a rite of passage — it was like the moment where most of us had gone from boys to men in a lot of ways," Pancoe said of the trip.

"It was like the moment that changed us in a lot of ways, just because it was such a trying, very hard journey, and it was just such a wild experience."

Now that they've heard from Sawchuk, Pancoe and the others are thinking about making the trip back up to the lake to see the plaque again — but this time by snowmobile, with Sawchuk to help.

In the meantime, the trapper who lives at the lake has said he'll replace the plaque's post.

"That just totally made my day," Pancoe said. "It's nice to know that there's actually some kind of caretaker up there who is actually looking after it and who is respecting it."

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With files from Laurie Hoogstraten