First instalment of a trip report. It’s a long one though I did manage to edit it down to twenty seven pages of a Word document; there was so much more I wanted to include.
Please excuse the poor quality of the pictures – I resized them about a dozen times before I figured out what I was doing wrong and was too lazy to go back and fix them.
“The land should not be called New Land, being composed of stones and horrible rugged rocks…. I did not see one cartload of earth and yet I landed in many places… there is nothing but moss and short, stunted shrub. I am rather inclined to believe that this is the land God gave to Cain.”
Jacques Cartier, 1534
Labrador. Desolate, cruel, unforgiving and beautiful. The first, and also the last, frontier in North America.
This is a trip report, albeit an older one, of a journey on the Kanairiktok (can air ik toc) River in Labrador. In Inuktitut, the river’s name means “the place with straight trees good for tent poles”. It was an unknown river of raging whitewater, narrow gorges and falls, set in an isolated, barren landscape. To say I was nervous about this river trip would be an understatement; I was scared shitless!
The report is divided into chapters or sections, to separate the preparation from the trip itself and then again for the ending or epilogue which is just the anti climactic journey home. My reasoning for this is so the reader could skip whatever parts that do not hold any interest.
But first, the necessary legalese of a disclaimer:
ALL INDIVIDUALS USING, REFERRING TO, TALKING ABOUT, OR THINKING ABOUT THIS TRIP REPORT MUST READ THIS FIRST!!!
This inaccurate trip report is based on dim recollections, half-baked guesses, gossip, blind speculation, and outright lies. In NO WAY does it tell the full story. You would probably be better off just trying to find your own way down the river, than you would be if you used information gathered from this report. But that statement in no way implies that I am in any way responsible if you don’t use the information I give you here, and something bad happens anyway.
If you paddle, especially paddling a river, you may die or be seriously injured. And the longer you paddle the greater your risk of bad luck, which may or may not be compounded by hubris catching up to you. This is true whether you are experienced or not, trained or not, and equipped or not, though training, experience and equipment may help. It’s a fact, paddling is extremely dangerous. If you don’t like it, stay at home. You really shouldn’t be doing it anyway. There are any number of unobvious, extremely and unusually dangerous conditions existing on and around the river and shore, and elsewhere. I probably don’t know about any specific hazard, but even if I do, don’t expect this report or its author to try to warn you. You’re on your own.
We won’t even begin to discuss rapids. If you are thinking of traveling here for the express purpose of running rapids, do us all a favor: Just take a nice nap in the fast lane of a truck route. But be advised that, if you do, I am in no way responsible for the consequences of that, either.
Weather can be dangerous, regardless of the forecast. Be prepared with extra clothing, including rain gear. Hypothermia, heat stroke, dehydration, frostbite, lightning, ice and snow, runoff from rainstorms, flashfloods, etc. can kill you. Rain can turn easy paddling into a deathtrap and can drown you if you’re looking up into the sky with your mouth open.
I promise you nothing. I won’t even try to warn you about any dangerous or hazardous condition, whether I know about it or not. If I do decide to warn you about something, that doesn’t mean I will try to warn you about anything else. I may have done things in those areas that are unwise and dangerous. I probably did, but I don’t remember. Sorry, I’m neither competent nor responsible. This report gives you bad advice. Don’t listen. Or do listen. It’s your choice, but you face the consequences either way, whatever they may be.
In short, PADDLE AT YOUR OWN RISK. If you, or your heirs, relatives, dependents or others known or unknown to you, your partner or your partners heirs, relatives, dependents, or others known or unknown to you OR your partner, are the slimy kind of lawyer-touting parasites who would try to sue the author of a report; if you can’t take responsibility for your own decisions, knowledge, route finding and plain dumb bad luck, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE stay far far away from these routes and those areas, give up paddling, and die of some completely natural, painful, and slowly progressive disease.
Thank you, paddle safe, and have fun!
Rob, who has, or had been, my paddling partner on many occasions. Good canoeing skills combined with the strength of young age and toughness when it counts. Probably the best whitewater skills out of the group.
Jim, a relative newcomer to our group, although we had paddled with him for 400K the previous summer. Possessed of a laid back and carefree attitude, along with a head the size of a bread box, but able to go the last mile without complaining.
Paul, that would be me. The oldest of the group and probably the least qualified in the skills required.
Although we were all friends and knew each others likes, dislikes and abilities, we also knew that sometimes on a trip of this length there may be differences in opinions leading to a stalemate and arguments. Opinions on where to camp, which rapids to run and which to portage and even important stuff like what to have for lunch. Someone had to be delegated to weigh all the facts and make a decision, keeping in mind all the fragile egos involved and what was actually best for the team; a group leader so to speak. The other two picked me.
Preparation, Anticipation, Trepidation
As most of our trips did, this one started out as just a simple email sometime in the winter. Rob was the first to mention it and I imagine Jim and I ran to the net to explore maps of this river we had never hear of. Internet research turned up very little and what did appear was not to my liking. The one trip report for this river was very vague about what to expect, especially about the gorge on the upper part.
The gorge worried me. The only reference I could find was about someone spending two days patching a canoe after a mishap with rocks. Topo maps showed very steep banks up to 150M in height and 60K in length. The only thing I knew for sure was that once in, there was no way out except at the far end. I was starting to get nervous.
A passage from a book written well after our trip has this to say: “During a helicopter over flight, it was clear that the Kanairiktok 10K upriver from Sipiskan Lake could be paddled, but above that, appeared to be a continuous rapid from the headwaters.”
The maps also showed forty five sets of rapids and four major waterfalls. Our maps were 1:150,000 so we all knew there would be plenty more whitewater than what was shown. No wonder I was nervous!
Original plans called for two tandem canoes and four paddlers. We managed to find the fourth member after an internet request.
Preparation and planning proceeded through the winter and spring and then into the summer. A jump off date in early August was selected to coincide with vacation schedules and also to avoid the blackfly season.
Our plans evolved, as we all knew they would, over the course of the spring, and a local outing to ensure compatibility. The fourth prospective member of the team backed out due to time restraints so we were left with just three. That would mean three of us in solo canoes. This only compounded my nervousness. I was not very good soloing my canoe, a sixteen footer. Rob took me out a few times for instruction and advice and I did learn a bit.
This was supposed to be a canoe trip but the actual river portion turned out to be the shortest; in straight line length, compared to all the other methods of travel.
We would drive to Goose Bay, Labrador, fly by charter aircraft to our put in, paddle 375K on the river and north on the coast a bit, and then board the costal ferry back to Goose Bay, ending with another long drive home.
The road portion was about 2,200k one way, the flight 170 air miles, the ferry about 575k. Considering the fuel used by all the means of travel, it was a very ecologically unfriendly trip.
We would not be paddling the entire river. We all had jobs; well, at least Jim and I did, Rob is a teacher. Total time away from home would be three weeks, leaving about two weeks for the river, so we had to cut some of it out. A careful study of the maps revealed a series of small ponds connected to the upper river by a meandering creek.
One pond seemed large enough to land a float plane and this was confirmed by the charter company after a few faxes. Distance from the pond to the river was 10K so we allowed the remainder of our flight day for this portion. By landing in the pond we would cut out about 100K of river travel, leaving what we thought was plenty of time for the remainder.
Jim and Rob would be paddling Swift Dumoine’s and I would take my old faithful Mad River Freedom. These were classified as sixteen foot boats but mine came in at only fifteen and half, perfect for nesting inside one of the Dumoine’s.
After much discussion, and my belligerent insistence, all the boats were outfitted with spray skirts.
Jim went all out and had one custom made to fit either solo or tandem paddlers. An acquaintance who owns an industrial sewing business made mine, set up only for solo. Rob made his own out of an old tarp and duct tape. It didn’t look like it would deflect much water and lived up to all our expectations. Jim and I also added flotation bags. I figured I would need all the help I could get; compared to others, I did not think my solo paddling skills were all that great.
Because Jim lived in a different city, we simplified our food as much as possible. Rather than have an all encompassing menu, each person was responsible for six breakfasts, lunches and suppers. We would be at the mercy of the other guy’s tastes. Our buffer for unexpected delays was built in; the expected time on the water was only fourteen days.
Fishing was expected to supplement our food supply. A magazine article about great speckled trout fishing was the reason Rob started talking about this river in the first place.
Newfoundland and Labrador have a couple of archaic, and what we considered unfair, regulations about non resident fishermen. It seems that, even with a visitors fishing licence, a full time local guide is required when further than 1K from any road. Or maybe it is further than 1 mile. Whatever; it was totally out of the question. Sounded like a make work project to us. The other two were the fishermen and decided not to bother with anything. It wasn’t likely we were going to run into anyone, much less a conservation officer.
As the start date approached, preparations seemed to speed up; food was assembled and packed, a rack made for my truck, supplies for the trip selected, maps copied and laminated plus all that other gear for an isolated trip.
For three weeks we watched the Labrador weather on a daily basis. Daytime highs averaged eight to ten degrees with a constant rain; down to freezing with sleet at night. Our clothing reflected the anticipated weather; long poly pro underwear, parkas, toques, gloves, heavy pants, paddling jackets, rain gear and wetsuits for the salt water portion of the trip. We expected to be cold and wet most of the time, huddling close to a fire to keep warm.
Our packs carried eighteen days of food for each person, safety supplies, PLB and all that gear needed for an isolated trip. In other words, we were loaded heavy.
A day before departure Rob and I packed all our supplies in the truck, nested the canoes and secured them to the rack.
Departure or D day started quietly. I picked up Rob at his house and we were off to Jim’s place in Orillia. After packing Jim’s gear we had a light lunch in his back yard then start the long drive to Goose Bay.
After getting on the 401 we made good time, cruising at 110 KPH. The rolling hills of Ontario flew past, endless lines of orchards and fields of grain. There was no difference in the crops when we crossed the border into Quebec, only the language on the signs changed. A stop was made at a tourist information place so we can pick up some a few road maps and have a pee break, then we motor on towards Montreal and Quebec City.
Somehow, and it must have been difficult to do, I got us lost near Quebec City and we end up off the freeway and downtown. After half an hour of cursing French signs and Quebec driving habits we are able to get out of town on the correct highway heading towards Tadoussac and Baie Comeau.
Large overhead lights on the freeway keep the darkness outside our field of vision when dusk turns to night, and driving is easy, at least until the four lanes end. Numerous villages break the monotony along the coast, the St. Laurence visible to our right.
The flat costal plain slowly transforms from gentle hills to steep slopes and narrow defiles, twisting and turning, leading us up and down and always heading east. The villages we pass through are old and crowd the highway up to the sidewalk. We joke that if someone opened a house door we would take it off with the front fender.
The highway abruptly ends at the Saguenay River where the ferry waits to take us across the Tadossac Fijord. Our timing is perfect; we drive on and depart almost immediately. The ferry ride is only about fifteen minutes and I appreciate the chance to get out and stretch my legs. It is only a short respite before we are on the road again. I am getting tired.
Dawn is breaking when we enter Baie Comeau and our stomachs are telling us it is time to eat. We pull in at a prospective greasy spoon and wait half an hour for the establishment to open before we can order breakfast.
After breakfast I curl up on the back seat and try to sleep, having been awake for twenty four hours and driving for most of that, while the other two get us out of town and driving north on highway 389.
Dozing on a small seat while sliding from side to side and sometimes to the front is actually quite refreshing. Jim must be driving like a maniac ‘cause I seem to be all over the place.
On the approach to Manic 5 we stop on the shoulder and take a few pictures from a couple kilometres away. Even at that distance it is a huge and amazing structure. Its size is even more impressive when we are directly underneath, crossing the bridge.
The road is monotonous but the sights are amazing; miles and miles of boreal forest, swamps, rivers, hills and mountains. The hills are sometimes frightening with warning signs posted of upcoming grades of 14%. That doesn’t seem like much until you are going down one of those twisting stretches, it feels like the seatbelt is the only thing holding you from hitting the windshield.
Somewhere in the midst of this wilderness, a paved section of road appears, complete with curbs and sidewalks. It is the remains of Gagnon, an abandoned mining town.
It too passes as we continue the trek north.
The sun is out and shining brightly, tunes are playing and we are in a good mood even though we are all tired.
A sign announcing the 52nd Parallel whizzes by, then a couple of large concrete silos appear on the horizon so we drive right up to the base and explore a bit. These are the remains of a mine at Fire Lake.
When we reach the Labrador Plateau, the difference is actually discernable as the hills flatten out somewhat. The paved road is good and we make excellent time, the kilometres fly by. There is a gravel section around the railway tracks and mine at Fremont where we have to slow down, then changes back to pavement.
A large blue sign beckons so we stop the truck and take a picture of us standing underneath. Welcome to Newfoundland and Labrador!
The difference in the road is obvious, like a line painted across the pavement, as we enter the province. The road is still good, just a bit coarser.
We pull in to Labrador City and find a mall with a Timmies. We are stopped only long enough for coffee and fuel then get lost trying to get out of town. The road, Highway 500, twists and turns for the first while then straightens out when the major water bodies are passed. This is the Trans Labrador Highway that leads from Labrador City to Goose Bay. Other than Churchill Falls, it is utterly deserted. No towns, houses, gas stations or help. There are signs at either end warning of the distance to the next fuel stop.
It is a rough road of coarse gravel with washouts and large potholes. The truck takes a pounding in some sections. Clouds of dust follow us and blind the driver when we meet the rare oncoming traffic.
A few hours of uneventful driving bring us to the town of Churchill Falls and we decide to check out the generating station. An abrupt about turn is made when we see the armed security at the gate because we don’t want them to see the couple cans of open beer we are drinking.
We do stop at the first tower where the cables go over the river gorge and take a couple of pictures before continuing, next stop is Goose Bay.
Dusk falls and a rain begins, turning to a downpour after dark. Our speed decreases considerably. Water covers the road in places and hides some big holes that we hit hard and have to stop to re tie the canoes.
We know we are getting close to the Goose when the descent from the plateau starts; the hills are once again very steep.
The sign announcing Goose Bay is passed at the stroke of midnight, thirty six hours after leaving Orillia.
I am driving again and get a little PO’d when the others cannot navigate me around the little town. I’m cranky and tired but my bad mood disappears when we find an all night restaurant and gorge on some greasy food.
Our plans are messed up a bit, we had planned on just driving directly to the charter company but now we have arrived a full eight hours ahead of schedule and have to find someplace to sleep.
We cannot find a hotel and after driving around town for a bit decide to pitch the tent on the lawn of the town offices, the ones across the street from the old military jet on the pedestal. The rain has let up somewhat and we sleep ok for a couple of hours.
Morning is overcast and cold, just as we expected and we pack the gear and head to the airplane base to see if we can leave early. Our scheduled departure is noon but the dispatcher calls the pilot who says he will be available after breakfast. We have enough time for a quick meal and then unload all our gear on the dock beside the plane. It is a Turbo Otter so there is an abundance of room for just the three of us.
I have a quick meeting with the pilot and dispatcher confirming our drop off point on their large wall map before loading the plane.
Sunshine is trying to peek out from the clouds and a brisk wind picks up as we load he gear.
The canoes are tied to both sets of struts, the pilot checking all the ropes and knots. He seems very professional and experienced. Our gear hardly makes a dent in the large cargo area behind the seats. There are a couple of laughs from the ground crew when the PFD’s are tossed in, something to effect of “the only one’s that wear them ‘tings is those that want their bodies found”. Great. My stomach is already churning from nervousness and the greasy eggs and bacon from breakfast. The others don’t seem near as tense as I am or maybe they can just hide it better.
Before we know it we are packed and sitting in our seats. I am in the co pilot’s seat with headphones on and can talk to the pilot but not the others. Mike, the pilot, goes through his checklist, flipping switches and reading gauges then starts up the engine. It is very loud. The ground crew pushes us away from the dock and we taxi to the center of Lake Melville, Mike talking to me the whole time. My answers are mostly single words; I’m too scared to talk much.
Mike says “here we go” as he pushes the throttle forward. Our journey has begun.
The prop blast kicked up spray as the turbo roared to full power. G forces push me back into the seat as we accelerate rapidly. Pontoons slapping on the chop shook the entire plane, diminishing as we picked up speed. Suddenly the shaking stopped as we rose off the water and circled, gaining altitude in a slow climb to the north. The view is amazing; boreal forest, swamps, rivers and snow capped mountains. Visibility is almost endless, not a cloud in the sky and the sun is beating down.
Mike starts telling me about the woman who went up our way a few weeks ago, trying to retrace the Hubbard expedition and how she had to call for a rescue just a couple of days ago.
I’m starting to calm down now and can actually manage a couple of questions of my own, mostly about the landscape and prominent mountains. Mike has thirty two years experience flying in Labrador so I figured he would have some information about the terrain and river we would be paddling. My stomach actually lurched a bit and I am once more sent into an anxious state by his reply to my question of how many times he has been in this area. He turned to look me directly in the eye, peering over the tops of his aviator glasses, and in that delightful Newfoundland accent, all he says is “ain’t nobody come up here”.
We find our river and follow it northwest, looking at all the white water we will have to negotiate, and then find the creek that will take us to the landing spot. The pond is reached in seconds; or so it seems anyway. From two hundred feet, we can see that the pond is a mass of submerged rocks, making a landing impossible. We circle and look for an alternative that is still connected somehow to the original creek and river. We keep circling, map out on my knee, covering ground quickly in just a few short minutes. Another is too shallow, the next too small. Finally, one is spotted that the pilot thinks he can put down in, and the decision is made - land here! As he stands the plane on its wing and circles in, I am surprised to see the Smallwood Reservoir only a couple K to the west. Where the hell are we?
Mike puts the plane down and is completely stopped in seconds. He cannot get to shore so us three paddlers get out on the pontoons and release the canoes, then separate mine from Rob’s. Mike does not shut down the engine; he needs it twice to get us back to the center of the pond. The gear is tossed out randomly, into any canoe that is handy. A last quick check of the cargo area, I thank Mike and shake his hand then climb into my canoe and paddle away. Mike turns and takes off just as we reach shore.
We are standing on shore; gear piled haphazardly around us, craning our necks back as the plane circles back and Mike makes his obligatory wing wave, then vanishes over the tops of the spruce trees. The engine sound slowly fades then disappears altogether.
We are very alone.
Loading a canoe for a river trip is something all of us can do in our sleep. We all pitch in to assemble the seats, thwart and yoke for Rob’s canoe then concentrate on our own gear. I am finished first and stand around chain smoking and looking at the sights; black spruce, caribou moss and bogs. We are at the east end of the pond, just where the creek heads out for our river. It seems awfully shallow to me. An hour spent assembling the nested canoe, then packing the gear and we can start to paddle. I jinx us all just as we are about to push off by remarking on the lack of bugs and that we haven’t seen any yet. I cannot get that last word out because a swarm of blackflies attacked us and I swallowed a few. Time for the Muskol!
Our paddle time is only a couple of minutes before we run out of water.
The series of creeks, streams and ponds we plotted on the map and saw from the air take on a different perspective when we are actually on them. They are shallow and full of boulders. The ponds are impossible to paddle so we drag the loaded canoes when we can or portage around, slipping on the wet caribou moss and stumbling over hidden rocks.
A few minutes in the canoe are followed by hours portaging and our packs are enormous and heavy. We struggle along, paddling when we can or carry the gear and canoes when we must, tormented by swarms of blackflies. It was 27C when we landed and seems to be getting warmer. We drink copious amounts of water just to sweat it out again. Our headway is painstaking slow; we will never reach the river today. It is push, pull, drag and carry for the afternoon. A small falls stops a short paddle, which means unpacking and portage. We get to run a steep creek; it is not really paddling, more like bumping off the rocks, then another portage around a large falls. Afternoon is fading when we reach the top of a bluff, overlooking a bit of a lake or pond and decide to call it quits for the day and make camp. It will be a good starting point for tomorrow.
Our traditional first meal on the river is usually steak or other fresh meat but we discover that today’s supper of sausage and buns was left in the cab of the truck back at the air base. They should smell real good by the time we get back.
Instead, we stuff ourselves on pasta and shrimp with a nice Italian sauce. While supper is being made, someone comments about all those spices visible in the pasta. The cook just snickers as we all chow down, ravenous from the exertion. We are not carrying spices. The meal is pasta a la blackfliy.
For what must be the hundredth time that day we sit around afterwards and study our maps, trying to pick out which pond we actually landed in. We can’t seem to find one that fits so we reckon it is not marked. We have started our trip not even knowing where we landed or the distance to the river.
There is not much to see here but we walk around anyway and find an owl perched in a dead tree not far from camp. It never moves as Rob approaches, probably has never seen a human before.
Blackflies and mosquitoes are very bad; it is still hot when the sun is long gone, we are hoping it cools off a bit at night.
Someone piles wood on the fire and we lay about, sipping whiskey and talking. Surprisingly, everyone feels quite good, considering the drive and all the portaging today. We limit ourselves to one drink, not because we have to ration, but rather because we don’t want to let the bugs in if someone has to pee in the middle of the night.
Bed is early.
Day two dawns hot and dry. I feel an itch on my forehead above my right eye, where my hatband rests. There are a dozen or more small bumps like mosquito bites, all clustered in a circle the size of a quarter. It is not that bad so is no cause for concern at this time; let’s eat breakfast and get going, the blackflies are terrible!
A rare ten minute paddle brings us out of the pond and into a small creek that immediately turns into another boulder forcing a 500M portage. It is still early morning but the temperature is already over 25C. While trudging along with the gear or canoe, I cannot get over the scents, the strong smell of spruce and juniper mixed with Muskol. Another short paddle of 100M brings us again to more boulders. We try to lift and drag as long as possible rather than unload and start carrying the gear.
Somehow we reach a narrow creek and enjoy less than five minutes of paddling before it starts running downhill fast. Not liking the looks of the water or of the sound coming from ahead, we all jam the canoes to a stop. The creek is so narrow that at an angle, the bow and stern will touch both banks. After a quick discussion standing waist deep in cold water we unload the gear, one pack at a time, and make our way up the bank. It is about sixty feet and very steep. Standing upright is impossible; the ascent is made on all fours, clutching at twigs and rocky outcroppings, scrambling for purchase anywhere we can. The top of the bank is wide open and clear, baking in the oppressive heat. Water is gulped as we rest a bit, head down for another pack and crawl back up; depositing the packs in a pile. Rest. Drink. Do it again. Sweat is dripping in our eyes, bringing with it the sting of Muskol. Our backs are soaked, then arms soaked, sweat running down our legs, into our boots, our thirst is beyond quenching. Now the canoes, all three of us sharing the load; two pulling, one pushing, it seems to take forever. Finally the top. More rest, more water. Then do it two more times.
We flop down on the hard baked ground, taking what little shade is offered from the canoes, trying to summon courage to start the two thousand meter walk to the next water. There is no discussion of how we will accomplish this, someone just gets up, hoists a canoe on their shoulders and starts out. The others follow suit. Plodding along the ridge above the now roaring creek, each footfall is marked by puffs of dust and the crunching sound of tinder dry moss. Blackflies swarm into our mouths, noses, ears and through our clothes. Blood seeps in a steady trickle down my neck. Those bumps on my forehead are starting to ooze. The taste of Muskol is everywhere. The put in is steep so I pile the gear into the canoe and give it a shove. The old boat makes it almost to the water, crashing its way through brush, stopped by a few spindly black spruce.
We get to enjoy less than five minutes of paddling. Another creek, more ponds, more rocks, the day is constant push, pull, drag and carry. We drink gallons of cold water to no avail, we are always thirsty, always sweating, all our clothes soaked. Minutes pass like hours. The heat is unbearable, peaking at 30C. The sore on my head is now leaking a constant stream of puss. There is no conversation now; we try to conserve any way we can.
On one of our portages over some high, exposed rock, we are just getting up and shrugging into our packs when I feel rather disoriented and a roaring in my head. The roaring builds quickly to noise so loud I actually get down on one knee to avoid it. The others also duck just as three fighter jets scream over us, no more that 100 feet off the ground. We can feel the warm wash of the engines as they disappear over the horizon. This must be where NATO forces are doing all that low level training that we have heard about.
Sometime in the late afternoon, we are forced to stop when the creek tumbles down a huge 120 foot drop. We are beat and set up camp; it is 1730h. A postage stamp sized level area, the only one in this god forsaken area, is selected. There is not enough room to set up the tent until after we eat. We eat a desultory meal, too tired to hold any real conversation. Someone is always checking the maps but it no use, we are just guessing as to where we are. The consensus is that we have come about 5K today, who knows for sure. We think we can see the banks of our river and hope we can be on the water by noon. A single portage is made by all of us with our canoes so we can be off early in the morning. The tent is set up and we pass out, exhausted from the exertion and heat.
Hot before dawn, the temperature is only going up. My jaw is sore and someone sees those tell tale red signs of infection tracing the veins in my neck towards that oozing mess on my forehead. We complete the 500M portage started the night before and get our boats into the water only to have yesterday start all over again. Another five minute paddle. Another portage. Or a continuation of the last one. Always up a steep bank. Then up hills. As someone says “the real estate around here is mostly vertical”. Tangled alders. Burned and jumbled spruce. Heat. Biting and sucking insects. Thirst. Time drags for an eternity. We struggle on, wondering where our river is. Wondering how far we have come. Wondering where we landed. It is a brutal day.
A cooler wind starts to blow on our faces, blue is seen through the trees ahead. Our river! Only three hundred meters to go!
However, it is down a cliff face of fifteen meters. We wander this way and that, bulling our way through alder thickets so dense they can hold our weight off the ground, scouting out a likely route down. There isn’t any. The canoes and packs are lowered down in two stages, beside a now raging falls. Ropes, carabineers, strategic tree branches and brute strength are indispensable; along with some poor sap down below clutching at slimy rock faces with one hand trying to guide the loads with the other.
The gear is thrown in the canoes and we can finally paddle the last hundred meters to the river and make camp on the far shore. It has taken us 4 ½ hours to go 1/2K. There is no ceremony as we sprawl out on the rock beach, too tired to be uncomfortable. Slowly we regain movement and set up camp. A breeze is keeping the bugs at bay, it is idyllic. While supper is cooking I wash my poly pro in the river, during the rinse cycle, the water is stained red from all the blood washing out. Damn flies.
Taking stock of our depleted bodies we survey the damage as a group. Every muscle known to medical science is sore from abuse. Everyone has bruised legs and feet from stumbling over rocks. One skinned ankle is infected. One wrist is sore enough that a paddle cannot be gripped. Thirty fingers and thumbs are scraped and cut, only a couple of nails bent backwards. All ears are bent forward from the mass of bites behind them. And my head is badly infected. Other than that we feel fine.
The real concern is that we are now three days behind schedule. If we are late for the ferry in Hopedale it will mean chartering another plane to come and get us.
After supper there is time for coffee and wandering around. The bush is thick and green and a maze of caribou trails. They must pass here by the hundreds; the trails are wide and free of any growth. A few antlers lay about and we all grab one for a souvenir. There is not much level area away from the river shore before the land starts rising to the hills all around.
Beach rocks are moved about to make a fairly level area for the tent though we all know it will be an uncomfortable sleep.
Around 2000h the wind dies but the temperature drops fast so the bugs leave us alone for the rest of the evening.
A large fire is stoked while we sit around and talk about the upcoming river and watch the northern lights, then we retire for the night. Tired though we are, we can’t seem to sleep and continue chatting for a while, stretched out in our sleeping bags. Eventually we drift off, one by one.
More to come . . .
First instalment of a trip report. It’s a long one though I did manage to edit it down to twenty seven pages of a Word document; there was so much more I wanted to include.
Can’t Wait for the
next insallment of your trip report.
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Chapter III The River
"Have you considered getting the final, complete trip report posted on “Places To Paddle”?"
Actually, I didn’t even know there was a place we could post a report. Wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in it either; maybe too long?
Jim and I are up at 0630 to find Rob out already with a fire going, coffee on and a breakfast of cereal prepared for all of us.
The infected spot on my head is still bothering me, it’s still leaking puss and the whole right side of my face is sore all the way down to my jaw. It is painful to even chew cereal. A regimen of penicillin was started last night so hopefully this will clear up in a day or so. If not, the others are prepared to amputate.
For the first time on this trip we can prepare the canoes for a full day of paddling and rapids. I top up the air bags, lash in all the gear and attach the front section of the spray deck.
I tell myself “this is it” when we push off from the camp site; we are in the gorge! The sun’s glare on the water is wicked bright and I hit a few rocks before going a hundred feet. Not a good beginning.
Our speed is excellent, the current is swift and we have a tail wind to help us along. The rapids marked on the map are boulder fields and it is hard, constant, work picking a course and dodging them.
Some cliffs rise to 300 feet, bare rock all the way up from a few shrubs near the shore. A couple of small waterfalls tumble down towards us, dissipating into a fine mist after only a hundred feet.
Other than a few ducks and some Canada’s, no wildlife is seen.
The canoes spread out and we lose sight of each other, sometimes for quite a while. When drifting at these times, it is surprising how much noise there is, in this isolated land. Wind whistling through the trees, water gurgling around rocks, even small bits of gravel trickling down the banks.
The jets visit again today. The reverberation of their engines precedes them down the gorge, amplified by the high cliffs. I have to do a quick head snap to follow them as six fighters scream past in a line, playing follow the leader. Bringing up the rear is a C-130 transport, low and slow. The pilot wags his wings in response to my upraised, waving paddle. The German eagle is easy to see on the tail.
Lunch is seven speckled and rainbow trout, courtesy of Rob and Jim.
The day continues with more rapids and swifts before we come to our first real rapid. It is a good one, two ledges and some strategically placed sharp rocks that would even tear our ABS boats. We line the first ledge RR and push off from a shear cliff face to run the rest. I have a hard time getting away from the face, the wave train from the first ledge is only about three feet to my left and keeps pushing me back to shore.
We all collect in the lower pool then take the tongue RL through another drop.
Swifts are constant for the next hour or so and the rocks are well under water so the kayak paddles come out for some real mileage.
Camp is made on a sand bar just past some islands. Total distance today was 45K and we didn’t really push.
After camp is set up but before supper, we all bathe in the river. It feels great to get all that Muskol out of our hair.
A cool wind from the north is keeping the bugs away.
It’s my turn for supper and I prepare cheese/broccoli/potato sauce to top sliced canned ham. The sauce ended up a bit watery, nevertheless there were no leftovers.
Darkness comes quickly, partially because of the steep canyon walls to the west. It is a lazy night, laying around the fire with a drink of whiskey, listening to the wolves howl.
We turn in at 2300.
Jim and I sleep late again until 0700, Rob has been up since 0530 and has coffee and pancakes ready for us. We are on the water at 0830.
It doesn’t take long for us to separate again and we don’t get back together until 1130.
The river is still fast, swifts are common and so are gravel beds, twisting with the current, just under the surface.
Lunch is in the boats, tied together and drifting. There may even be a nap or two as we stay together without paddling for two hours. Jim eventually leaves while Rob and I drift some more, then Rob falls asleep so I leave too.
Wildlife is still uncommon. A couple of hawks are seen far above, and then we hear some branches breaking on shore but can’t see anything.
My little thermometer reads 28C, it has been sunny all day.
We paddle and drift, drift and paddle, the rest of the afternoon.
Camp for tonight is on a large sand beach, a couple K past Shipsikan Lake. Total mileage is 40K, and it wasn’t difficult at all. We have now regained all that lost time from the portage and are ahead of schedule.
The first thing we notice as soon as we step on shore is the swarms of mosquitoes so repellent is needed for the first time today.
The second thing we see are the wolf tracks, there must be hundreds of them.
Jim makes us a supper of sausage and Kraft dinner and a small twig fire. There is not much firewood around and we are not brave enough to go into the bush and disturb the mosquitoes.
Bed is early, unknown what time.
For a change, I am up first at 0630, feeling great!
A quick breakfast of juice and gorp and I’m off and paddling. The river twists and turns with plenty of gravel beds so a route must be searched for the deep water channel. We are again by ourselves for most of the morning, separated by the river bends and distance.
A brisk west wind picks up making headway difficult. We battle the wind for a couple hours, trying to make an upcoming 180 bend in the river, leading up to Snegamook Lake. We’re still about 150M from the shore on the outside of the bend and see a caribou splash out of the water, followed by what look like a couple of calves, and run into the bush. When we land, their tracks are plainly visible and we see that they were not calves but two large wolves. They will eat well tonight.
The wind is still brisk and we are lazy so decide to set up a sailing rig for the three canoes. A bunch of small spruce are cut for cross members to lash the canoes together as a trihull, then a double mast set up with a tarp for a sail. Parachute cord holds everything in place. We are working in a mud bog with clouds of mosquitoes around us and mud half way to our knees. After an hour or so of work we are ready and push the ungainly craft into the water. The wind dies completely as soon as we sit down. No matter, we decide to wait a bit.
Rob sets up the stove and starts brewing a pot of coffee. A gust of wind catches us off guard and I have to make some quick adjustments with the rudder. The sail fills up, pushing us to better than paddling speed. This is good!
Coffee laced with brandy is passed around then Rob fries up some fish for a late lunch; talk about luxury.
As my canoe is a slightly different shape and length than the other two, it is in the middle and I have to steer. It is not a demanding job, a paddle lashed to the rear cross member to use as a rudder, and I can lean back with my legs stretched out, but I have to stay awake while the others nap.
Approaching Snegamook Lake, sand bars abound; the river is wide and shallow, bottom is easily visible. Our craft, and that is being very generous calling it a craft, does not steer very well when the wind shifts even slightly from directly astern and twice we are forced to push when I run us aground. The sailing continues till it is almost dark.
Camp is made on one of those ever present large sand bars and we have to carry the gear 50M from the canoes to where it is dry. A lone dead tree, stuck in the sand, provides some soggy firewood. We have to eat our supper of sardines and crackers by flashlight when night falls. Mosquitoes are very bad, it is not cooling off at all, and for the first time a piece of Pic coil is set in the tent before we get in. It is a full moon tonight, very bright and clear, but we cannot stay up to enjoy it because of the bugs. It is not a good sleep, for some reason the sand feels harder than rock.
Jim and Rob are woken by howling wolves sometime during the night but I sleep right through.
All of us are up at the same time, 0730, to an extraordinary sight. The campsite is covered in wolf tracks. All around the tent, near the fire, our packs and down to the canoes. Nothing has been touched but we all have an eerie feeling.
Gear is thrown haphazardly in canoes and we push off, a breakfast of cereal and coffee prepared on the fly. Our river is now over 1K wide, still with many sand bars. Jim and Rob push us off a couple of sandbars while I remain seated and yell instructions.
Back what seems like a couple months ago, but really was during the flight up here, Mike the pilot told me about a cabin at the end of Snegamook Lake that was owned by the air service. He told me it was always open and to make use of it, which we all agreed we would. The cabin would be our destination for today; it would be a change from sleeping in the tent and also a place to organize our gear for the fast water that was coming up.
Sailing continues all morning and into the afternoon. Rain gear is needed at sometime because the temperature drops like stone, no rain though.
The outlet for the river is passed about 2K before we get to the cabin, we will have to back track a bit in the morning. The canoes finally grind to a halt on a wide sand beach in front of the cabin, late in the afternoon. We carry a few packs up to the steps to discover it is locked up tight. There is one small window, high up on one side that looks as though I could squeeze through so the others boost me up and I slide inside onto the table and then dismantle the door lock with a Leatherman. Damn handy tools! When we leave in the morning we’ll just reverse the procedure.
Gear is humped inside and I make some soup right away; we’re all starved. Sleeping bags are spread out on the bunks and we all have a nap then wander around or journal. It is only 1630 now, an early day.
Supper is mine again and I make black beans with pita. Uck! Double uck!! It is terrible and almost inedible but we eat it all anyway.
After supper we start a fire in the old brick chimney and sit around talking. Things are different this trip, none of us feel like keeping accurate track of our position and daily mileage, close is good enough.
Jim brings out his bear repellent and we take turns plinking at the empty beer cans in the garbage bin. I get 10 out of 12, not bad I guess.
Bed is at 2200.
Up at 0700, pancakes with canned peaches and lots of coffee is our breakfast today. A quick clean up of the cabin and I assemble the lock from the inside then crawl out through the window to meet the others at the canoes.
Wind is still from the west so we have to push hard to back track to the river outlet. Only 100M out of the lake and the river spreads out to 1/2K wide and becomes very shallow, only about 6 inches deep. Rob gets out and pulls his canoe but Jim and I struggle on and get to a deeper section near center. Within a couple hours we are at the falls, just as it is marked on the map. The main drop is about 40 feet and full of jagged rocks. To our surprise, we find a portage trail RR. As we carry the gear down the trail starts to look familiar, almost like a portage on the Spanish River back home. Rob and Jim fish, pulling in lots of what look like salmon, while I wander about. An old canoe is spotted under some growth; it must have been here for years. Also there is a fresh saw cut on a blowdown and some red paint on a rock at the put in. Maybe someone else has been here this year. There is also a caribou carcass with the bones scattered about. No smell, thankfully.
A sailing rig is once more set up for the three canoes, this one just a couple of poles that we hold by hand with the tarp in front. Of course, as soon as we do, the wind dies so we just drift for a couple of hours. Temperature is very high; 32C without a breath of wind. I am getting tanned as brown as a native.
At 1800 we finally dump the poles and paddle to the next rapid marked on the map. It turns out to nothing more than a swift. A good place to camp is spotted RR just below the swift so we pull in to inspect. We are shocked by what we find; a nice flat spot for the tent, a fire pit and some cut and split firewood, it is a good and welcome site.
Across the river an esker stretches for a couple K to the east, bare gravel except for a couple of spruce trees, one of which is home to a pair of hawks. We are invaders of their territory and they screech at us for hours. Just past the esker is a butte like rock formation that the map shows as 1495 feet elevation.
Pasta for a late supper, then we lay around a good fire to watch the northern lights and talk about our medical condition. Besides the mass of bug bites, Jim and Rob have one ankle apiece that is bruised and infected and I still have that infection on my forehead. My neck and jaw are not nearly as sore so I guess the penicillin is working.
I retire early while the other two stay up. They wake me at 2400 so I can see how the moon is lighting the complete valley. The night is clear and cool, sleeping is good.
Another day starts with the same routine; up at 0630, breakfast, pack and on the water. Current is fast compared to what we had around the lake section, paddling is easy. A few swifts push us along, making good time then we come to a marked rapid. It is large and long and cannot be run. We scout from RR then ferry over to RL where the shore is mostly all bare rock making an easy portage. I mess up a bit near the end, losing the trail in some alders and have to bushwack for a bit.
Rob spots a cabin RR just after the put and explores while Jim and I drift. The cabin belongs to the Canadian Hydrological Survey. Rod added our names to all the others that were written on the walls plus “Smallwood Reservoir to Hopedale”.
Swifts and rapids are common now; we are travelling fast, it is hard to slow down.
The next major rapid is almost a falls; RR is rock with lots of pools, just right for lining. Before we get to the bottom Rob and Jim start fishing and haul in some good specs so we stop for lunch. Lunch turns into a mid afternoon camp as we all bathe and wash our clothes. Jim and I are lying about, updating our journals when Jim starts laughing and tells me to look around. Rob is casting from shore, a cigar clamped in his teeth and Tilley hat stuck on his head. Nothing unusual except for being naked. All our fresh washed clothes are drying in the sun. Fried fish for lunch and getting into clean clothes makes us all feel great.
Only 1/2K from lunch there is another marked rapid, this one again a mass of boulders. It is runnable but barely so; not because of the drop, which is not all that steep, but because of the boulders. There is no way to plan a complete route through, the run is nothing but furious back blading, sharp turns and hard paddling, playing dodge the rocks. I am sweating and beat by the time I get to the bottom.
More swifts and boulder fields come and go; we don’t even stop to scout most of them.
The shore here is mostly flat with a rocky or boulder strewn strip that gives way to the trees. We are all on the lookout for wildlife and never see a thing.
When we hear the sound of another rapid up ahead, someone says it’s probably just one more boulder field just run through. There looks like an island in the middle of the river and I get trapped RR above a dry channel. The others are on RL overlooking a 12 foot falls. Good thing they didn’t run through!
I ferry over and we all line to a pool over another drop then carry the gear about 200 feet around that one.
We notice green and red paint on a few of the rocks, just like the last one. No one knows how long paint lasts on river rock; it could be from a couple years ago or last week.
A steep rock point RR after this portage looks like a place where the wind will help keep the bugs at bay so we decide to camp there for the night. It is still very warm yet clouds are coming in blocking the sun frequently.
Supper is Jim’s concoction of ham, potatoes, green and yellow beans with pineapple sauce. Again, no leftovers.
Jim is in pain and limping from his infected ankle and also has a headache tonight. Robs ankle is sore though not as bad as Jim’s. I actually feel good; the penicillin is doing its job.
“Chairs” are made from PFD’s placed strategically in some smooth rock clefts and we while away the time watching the clouds and then the stars, suffering in the heat and humidity…
It is late when we lift the tent and go looking for a level patch of ground and select the best spot we can find. Nobody has good sleep because of the lumps, holes and heat.
Breakfast is quiet; we are all tired from the poor sleep. Rob checks the maps and tells us there is a rapid just around the corner.
I set out first and discover Rob was correct so pull in RR to put on my PFD. I am too far down stream to continue on this side, RR is nothing but a mass of boulders. Rob and Jim come into sight and Jim continues on while Rob eddies in at a large rock mid stream to wait for me. I do a hard front ferry to the eddy rock, Rob leaves and I follow. There are a few boulders to avoid then we have to work to RL. Rob is waiting in an eddy near the bottom to take a picture so I ham it up and take a lap full of water as I watch the camera and not the route.
There is time to drift a bit or paddle if anyone cares to, the current wil carry us along if we get lazy. Boulder fields and swifts keep us awake and looking about even though we don’t stop to scout any of them. A large rapid is coming, one that we know we will have to scout.
Three large islands plus an assortment of large rocks will make this one interesting and only a little challenging. We start in RL then ferry to just left of center, pass two islands then to RL to miss a rock and back to center to finish. A nice run by all.
Lots of sand and gravel is appearing in the river now, a bit of searching is needed to select the deep channel. I pull ahead of the group and pull in on a sandbar to wait for the others just in time to see a caribou swim to the far shore. The river twists and turns now, sometimes we have a headwind sometimes from the back.
Mist hanging in the air marks a major falls coming up ahead. We pull in RR and scout even though we know we must portage. Total drop is about 40 feet, maybe a bit more; most of the water rushes through a narrow channel from a keyhole type opening producing nothing but wild churning froth with jagged rocks strewn about the bottom. A real killer.
Since we are already on shore we decide to portage this side, it looks like some bare rock near the end will be easy to traverse after some bushwhacking. This portage reminds me of days we spent getting to the river. Tress are burned and blown down in a jumbled blackened mess, interspersed with creeks and bog. Carrying the gear starts at 1430 and is complete at 1800. I am a filthy, tired mess by the time I drop the last pack in the canoe. My pants are black from stumbling over burnt tress and one leg is ripped from the knee down after snagging a branch. Temperature was once more at 28C all afternoon, bringing out swarms of blackflies and soaking us in sweat. I’m beat, my hands are shaking as I drink about a litre of water at the end.
A short paddle to RL and we rest on some rocks open to the breeze. There is no campsite but we do find the trail where the portage finishes, guess we should have checked before we selected RR. Supper is eaten on the rocks, us three again sitting in rock chairs. Nearing 2200, camp is set up on a sand bar near the middle of the river. I feel much better after the rest but the others turn in right away.
The tent is hot and humid but we all sleep uninterrupted till 0530.
Pouring over the maps while eating a breakfast of oatmeal, we figure there are only two more days of river travel and two on salt water to complete the trip. Getting close to the big water means we will be travelling downhill faster than before; more rapids coming! The salt water portion is an unknown for us, we have never done this before and don’t know what to expect. Today is hot, humid and hazy, almost ready for a rain.
The usual boulder fields, swifts and rapids keep us on our toes, nobody feels like dumping this close to the end.
One large rapid which we line on RL leads to more swifts and a large rapid that we must portage. Pool hopping on RR and then to center brings us to an island that we will carry over. Jim and Rob decide to fish in the waves at the bottom and I go and explore a bit. There isn’t anything to see so I sit and lean against a tree to rest on the portage trail. Something is making noise in the bush beside me so I remain very still. A large hedgehog the size of a beaver waddles out of the bush and up the trail, passing only a foot from by shoes, totally ignoring me.
Craving a snack, I go back to the canoe and lay back eating some gorp, watching the fishermen who are now casting into pools from their boats. Rain has started, just a light drizzle so I put my rain jacket on, then lightning and thunder crash almost simultaneously. A strong wind picks up out of nowhere and brings more lightning and wind. The others are paddling quickly back to shore. Suddenly, the wind gusts to storm force, pushing my canoe to shore and flipping my plastic maps over the side. They sink immediately. We congregate on shore, looking for a place to set up the tarp but there isn’t any. We huddle down with tarp pulled over our heads, watching the storm. Wind has picked up again, driving the rain almost sideways. Hail starts and beats our backs with golf ball sized chunks of ice. Within fifteen minutes it is over and the sun comes out once more. We have a snack before setting out again.
We spread out again after a small rapid, me in front, the others along behind somewhere. Shallow, fast water, beckons so I lay back and drift. A small black shape on shore catches my eye and gets bigger fast; a bear. It sees me and runs into the river, charging right for me, water splashing all around. The bear repellent is in Jim’s canoe and I take a quick look to see they have just come into view; no help there. When I look to the front, the bear has stopped no more than 50 feet from me, staring for a second before turning and running back to the bush as fast as he came out. My old heart pounds for the next ten minutes.
Lunch is on a 20 foot diameter island in the middle of the river, keeping well away from bugs.
A couple of fair sized rapids come up and we run them OK, I take some water in some 3 foot waves on the last one. Then the last rapid marked on the map. It is a big one, almost 3/4K in length and full of rocks, as usual. It is late in the afternoon so we make camp RR at the head of the rapid.
The only place big and flat enough for the tent is on the rocks next to the river. We cut and limb a few spruce and place under the tent for a pad. Supper is KD and tuna mix, washed down with a pot of spiked coffee.
The rapid is scouted from shore for the whole length as we walk from top to bottom trying to pick a route. The upper part has a clear path for a short run, then it peters out into a mass of rocks. It’s not very technical, just lots of rocks and big waves in the 3 foot or more range.
Lots of talking around the fire tonight, we’re in a good mood and feel like staying up late. Jim is still bumming smokes while we drink some whiskey so every time I have one I have to roll one for him too. This won’t last much longer ‘cause the tobacco is almost gone. Bed is late, unknown what time.
While preparing the canoe this morning, more paint is noticed on the rocks, must be that other party again. Spay decks are installed and air bags blown up and gear lashed down for the last rapid of the trip. I take my canoe 30M down RR so I can take pictures as the others go by. They run OK then I push out and make it center for the ride down to the bottom. It’s a good run.
Fleece is now needed, the temperature is quite cool. We drift to the next falls and pool hop down RR as far as we can. Shore is a burned and jumbled mass of dead trees. I make one carry with a barrel and decide to half line, half drag the canoe over the rocky shore to a poor put in.
More drifting and the sound of McDonald Falls is heard up ahead somewhere. More pool hopping RL to pull out on a sandy stretch of beach. Tracks are visible in the damp sand; lots of bear and even some human boot marks. A bit more pool hopping brings us close to the brink of the falls on a nice sloping rock. The rock slopes gently up for six feet or so then levels of before falling away to river 60 feet below. A couple of large dead trees and some driftwood will provide fuel for tonight’s fire.
It is early for camp but we have lots of time remaining, no worries. A late lunch of soup and I journal while the others nap. The canoes are carried down the bare rock face and tied as best we can. They are above the water because we are not sure if the tide is in or out or even if it comes up this far.
The river portion of our trip is over. The Nalgene of Drambuie is pulled out of a pack and we have a couple sips to celebrate, then nail our plaque to the big tree beside all the other names and dates.
Rocks under the tent make for a poor sleep. Rob gets up early and checks the canoes then goes back to sleep.
The river, or bay now, spreads out fast. Bare rock hills line both sides sometimes with a strip of sand beach and some trees, other times rock to the waters edge. We realize a grave mistake shortly after noon when the water turns salty; we forgot to fill up with fresh water. A small creek is spotted tumbling over the hills so we hike up and fill a couple of olive barrels. The water is not good, almost brackish but it is all we have.
Seals poke their heads out of the water as we pass by, looks of curiosity plain to see on their faces. Jellyfish drift past just to remind us that this is a bay of the Labrador Sea.
The kayak paddles are assembled and we battle a brisk headwind, making good progress. Some of the bays we cut across put us 2K from shore.
Jim and I pull in early at a prospective camp site in a small hook shaped bay with small bare rock hills on three sides. A rare patch of sand beach and some green bushes in this area of dull grey looks good. Bear tracks cover the beach. As we are looking around, Rob starts yelling at us from 50 feet out, we yell back that we know it’s early but we’re staying anyway. When Rob lands he tells us he was not yelling because we were early but because of the bear that standing on the hill above us! Oh oh. We decide to stay anyway but take out the bear repellent and always keep it close.
Naturally a bit jumpy from the bear sighting, some occasional loud noises keep us looking around but we don’t see anything.
After setting the tent and eating supper we relax on top of the rocks facing the bay and finally figure out what that noise is; whales breaching. They are leaving the bay for the open sea in packs, or pods I guess. A couple come close to us but we have no time for pictures, they are up, breathe and down quickly. A good show to watch.
I’m tired and in bed first, unknown what time.
On the water at 0700 to a calm bay. The kayak paddles are out and pushing hard, we want to make good time before the wind picks up.
We finally round the point and are on the North Atlantic. This is an archipelago of hundreds of islands, some big, some no more than the size of a house, maps are now very important.
An old, weather beaten shack is spotted on an island so we head over to explore. It must be years since it was in use, there is nothing left inside but there are a few old cast iron outboards rusting away in the grass.
The North Atlantic has claimed many ships and lives so we are under no illusions as to what would happen to us if bad weather blew in suddenly. The ocean in this area never gets much above freezing so death is inevitable after about five minutes in the water. We have to pick our path carefully, minimizing the long stretches of open water even though this lengthens the route. As a bit of a game we say we will not camp on any islands with names we cannot pronounce; this eliminates Pitsiutatsitikulluk and Kemaktulliviktalik Islands.
Lunch break is on a rock point of a fairly large island. We hunker down in a cleft to keep out of the cold wind as the soup warms on the stove, bundled up in our fleece and rain jackets as a windbreaker. The rock is polished smooth by years of ice and wind, strata layers visible all over.
Afternoon is spent pushing hard against a cold wind, my hands are starting to lose their feeling. This is a desolate area, all land grey or brown, even the waves are dull. Whales are seen off to the right and some seals playing ahead.
The last haul of the day, to a far island, is a long one across 4K of open water, into the wind and waves. My shoulders and hands are done in when I pull up on the hard scrabble shore. A level campsite cannot be found but we have to stay, we are too tired to go on.
A fire to cook another supper of soup, amongst some rocks for protection from the wind, it is the only nearly flat spot available. We will have to wait until we are ready for sleep and kick the fire away before we can set up the tent.
We can see a large motor boat for a while, out on the big water, then changes course and pulls up beside our canoes. The operator is a native from Hopedale, out fishing for the day. He watched us with binoculars as we crossed the last open stretch, just to make sure we got to shore safely. He tells us that Hopedale is only about another 10K. I bum a couple of smokes and he leaves for supper at home.
Sometime after dark the fire is tossed away so we can set up the tent and enjoy the most wretched night so far on this trip. The ground slants two ways with rocks and roots poking us all over. A fitful sleep is had by all.
My journal does not have any reference to breakfast; we probably skipped it so we could get away fast. Rain started sometime before we woke and continued all morning; before long we are wet, cold and miserable. Good thing there wasn’t any wind.
We island hop again today but run out of islands before long. Ellen Island, which looks close, is in Hopedale Harbour so we use it as a guide. Distances are deceiving, the trip over takes us almost two hours. As we round the southern coast, Hopedale town comes in to view. What a welcome sight!
Our pace slows so we can look at all the detail of the town. Eventually we approach the large main wharf and I take advantage of my position as trip leader to clarify our landing procedure.
The canoes are side by side as we inch closer to the slanted timbers of the ramp; a little bit of back blade or a slight push forward and all the bows touch wood at the same time.
Stiffly, legs and backs aching, we get out of the canoes for the last time, gather at the bows and shake hands all around.
Chapter the Last
So the trip is over except for the journey home. Now we have to figure out where we will stay for two nights. A short walk from the wharf to the Amaguk Inn is all it takes. A room is booked then the gear humped for the last time. Not wanting to leave the canoes on the dock, they are carried through the lobby to the deck overlooking the shore.
The afternoon is spent cleaning up, repacking gear we will no longer need and gorging on hot food in the dining room.
Our first meal is a memorable one. The dining room had maybe half a dozen other patrons besides us, we were known as the “visitors”. Three similar meal orders are placed, open face caribou steak sandwiches with lots of gravy and fries. After eating nothing but dehydrated foods for two weeks my body craved fat, it needed fat. Fat of any kind as long as it was hot. I was specific when ordering the fries; do not drain them!
We chat with some of the other customers until our order is placed in front of us, then priorities take over. To say it was a feeding frenzy may be taking it a bit too far; it was just methodical annihilation. Food had never tasted so good, steaks were cut and shoveled into waiting mouths, gravy splashing unnoticed on our chins and cheeks, fries gobbled unmindful of the heat, greasily sliding down our throats, helped occasionally by large quaffs of cold beer. I am more than half way through the large helping when Jim’s elbow pokes me in the ribs. Slightly annoyed at this interruption of my feast, I look where he is pointing with his dirty chin. The other guests are staring at us in silence, cups and bottles paused midway to their open mouths, eyes agog at the sight of three starving men making short work of a table full of food. Realizing we are not stopping, they slowly return to their own meals and conversation. Even after all these years, I can still taste that meal!
After a long afternoon nap and another meal in the dining room we decide to partake of a few libations in the bar. Talk about a transformation; from a quiet room with just the three of us it turns into a rowdy party of what must be half the town. Some off duty RCMP tell us the locals have come out to see the new “white meat”. We are accosted by those who want to buy us drinks, those that want to buy our canoes and some that just want to dance with us. Somehow we resist all offers. Bed is late.
Next day is spent exploring the town and surrounding area with the RCMP as guides. We also arrange for a truck to take our canoes and gear to the ferry dock, about 1k down the road. The day drifts by and we are in bed early.
When the ferry pulls up early in the morning, we are waiting with our canoes and pile of gear.
Whale watching tourists from across North America line the upper railing, staring at the wild men that will soon be boarding. The canoes are hoisted into the hold while we make our way to our assigned cabin. Wandering about the deck we chat with the other passengers, attaining instant celebrity status when they discover where we have been. Our story is told and retold until we run out of steam and retire to the cabin for another nap. That is how we spend the remainder of the trip; asleep, wandering the decks watching whales and icebergs or eating.
Goose bay is reached on time the next day and the long drive home begins. I am in my own bed thirty four hours later.
Memories are selective. For the longest time, my most vivid memories were of the brutal portages and swarms of blackflies. The memories of the scenery, the river and rapids, the companionship; all the good times, were slow to take over the memories of the hard times. But they did.
We still do not know where we landed.
Labrador would call me back for one more journey. Dreams are calling me back still.
What a trip! What a trip report! I do not think I will ever complain about a portage ever again. Perhaps one day I will visit Labrador (the many canoe routes call to me sometimes), but putting enough time together for such a trip is difficult. You are lucky to be able to take the time and enjoy it.
Thank you for sharing a great story!
Thank you Paul for your wonderful report. I put up the Kanairiktok River on MapQuest (took a while to find it) and follow your progress down river. How does a fellow from Sudbury find a river like this one in Labrador is puzzling to me? I have herd of George River, Vachon River but never of this one. I plan to run the Mosie next summer and hope I will be able to publish a nice report like yours. It is also nice you published your report on this site, reading about an expedition like yours is a rare threat here. I hope I run into you on the Spanish one of this days.
Most Excellent Trip Report! NM
Thanks . . .
Thanks for all the positive feedback, guys. I wasn’t sure what kind of response this would get; I know I tend to get carried away with the length of some of my reports.
Just after posting this, I started reworking a TR on the Winisk River in Northern Ontario. I’ll make sure I post it here when it is complete.
Simon, I had never heard of this river either, until Rob mentioned reading about in Field and Stream in regards to excellent speckled trout fishing.
I did return for one more river trip in Labrador with my SO, a lot shorter but more historically significant.
I’d like to return to Labrador (and Quebec) for a trip on the George, maybe some day.
Encourage you to contact
p-net "Places To Paddle". There are zero (0) trip reports for Labrabor. You may want to do some edits as to length on you text, but send in all your pictures.
They will pick a few photgraphs and may do some further editing, but will send final copy to you before it's posted.
I've posted twice on Places to Paddle, and the p-net folks were great to work with each time:
The reason to post on "Places To Paddle" is that your trip report will reach a much wider audience over much longer period of time.
The message board you have chosen to post on, "Wilderness Tripping - BWCA & Beyond" is a bit "obscure" in the p-net scheme of things.
Your trip report deserves the widest possible audience. Paul, I encourage you go for it!