September 7, 2008

McPhadyen River Trip- Western Labrador, Canada

For the last couple weeks in August, I joined some friends and ventured north to the 54.5 North parallel and a remote river in Labrador to paddle canoes downriver to the beginning of Menihek Lakes and the Quebec North Shore and Labrador railway which we used to return to civilization. The six of us all met in La Mal Baie east of Quebec City where we had a friend's home to repack the final trip outfit. Including two wood and canvas canoes and one PAK canoe, we fit our luggage and then ourselves into two mid size SUVs and began the long day drive to Labrador City. This town is very remote and isolated but once there, all services are available and the streets are well paved with curbs and sidewalks. We arrived at 1:30 am and in the dark found the Two Seasons hotel open for directions to Labrador Air Safari's float plane base on Little Wabush Lake right in town. We set up tents and crashed quickly in anticipation of our 7:00 am flight to the headwaters Lake McPhadyen.

We arose late as the time had changed to Atlantic and before twenty minutes were up we had weighed our luggage, strapped a canoe on the float, loaded the PAK canoe and three of us into the 1956 deHaviland Beaver plane and taxied out onto the lake. After a lengthy and thorough preflight we were airborne heading north into the Labrador/Quebec borderlands wilderness. Soon we had left any sight of man behind and were skimming right at intermittent cloud level, looking down on a landscape of open taiga punctuated by lakes, rivers and tundra capped granitic dome shaped hills. With the map laid out on my lap it was difficult to keep track of the terrain as the criss crossed lakes and ridges were all quite similar. However a few landmarks jumped out and I was able to orient and feel good that indeed the GPS was working as we landed on the lake adjacent to a couple of low water beaches. Here we shuttled our gear and watched as the Beaver took off to return in two hours with our final three companions. I had asked to ride the first flight so that we could set up the PAK canoe while waiting for the second flight to arrive. Setup went smoothly on the beach and within 30 minutes Bob, Matt and I had the canoe trip worthy. Having only viewed the craft on one trip before and having only paddled it once I was still unsure of how it would handle and perform.

The other three paddlers, Ben, Garrett, and Constantine showed up safely on the next flight and by 1030 we were off the beach and paddling the lake to the first narrowing rapids section of the river. Out pilot, Trevor, had remarked on low water this season due to lack of rain and as this first day cleared out entirely and the hot sun shone down on us as we paddled up the lake shirt free, we imagined the summer like this. We had not gone far when a very attractive hill to the east inspired us to stop and climb through the berries, lichen, moss and taiga forest to reach the tundra capped hilltop. With great views down on the lake and off to the distant high hills of eastern Quebec, we rejoiced in our aloneness with a wilderness river for the next 9 days ahead of us. After some photos and lengthy berry picking on the way down we paddled up the lake to the first rapids and made camp. Here came the first test for the PAK canoe. We unloaded the luggage at the campsite, scouted the three foot wide 4 inch channel rushing swiftly over a three foot falls, and while nothing we would have run in a wood and canvas canoe we were used to using at Keewaydin, Matt and I decided to give it a go. Lining up the run was the tricky part in the end for the canoe ran the chute perfectly despite slowing down as it eased over the rock ledge on its belly. As we turned the canoe over shortly after and put it to rest for the night, there was no blemish to the hull made from super strong rubber/vinyl. We were impressed, but this was just the first drop and we had at least fifty more to negotiate before the end of the trip.

When we walked back over the portage to camp our fishing friends had gotten their gear out and had been stalking the trout in the rapids. They had all caught a few foot long Speckled Trout and also had caught two good sized ouananiche, landlocked salmon. The ones they kept were excellent eating and proved to be part of our everyday fare riverside.

Day two started with the second set of the first rapids and Matt and I dedicated to staying in the canoe and running everything possible made tight turns, stony backferries, and hysterical leans to keep ourselves afloat and in deep enough water to keep afloat. We ran every rapid that day, about a dozen, with the highlight a four foot falls followed by a rocky strainer to avoid. We back ferried for river left. Matt had forgotten any river shoes and found himself choosing between barefoot and rubber boots, so the few times we needed to get out of the canoe due to lack of depth I encouraged him to stay put as I manuevered the canoe into the deep water channel. He may have waded barefoot all of 20 feet that day and it would only get better as the river picked up tributaries and little by little grew in size to become an average 50 yds wide channel by the end. Today we entered a burn that would stretch until day five. This burn seemed like it must have been part of the complex of fires that caused our coworkers at Keewaydin to abandon this trip in 2000.

By day three we had picked up a few small tributaries and were approaching the confluence with the Desliens channels which we hoped would boost the river size and provide some interesting side paddles to check out the lower rapids. On day three we were camped at the north end of a series of three high hills and after dinner at sunset I scampered up through the burned forest for a look around and to enjoy sunset from the summit. With the red glow casting deep hues across the land and setting the burnt truncks to flame the pull of the open ridge lines was hard to dissuade as I walked west along the ridge to the descent. It was here I noticed a rock cairn, the first sign of humans I had noticed other than the small fireplace we stumbled upon at our put in beach.

The next day had us running rapids, climbing the highest of the three tundra hills, picking blueberries and lingonberries, and anticipating the arrival of the Desliens river tributaries and the boosting of our water flow. This hill climb turned out to be our finest as the high hill afforded the best views of the river valley yet and the blueberry picking was phenomenal. We started in the rain , but by the summit it had stoppped and by the time we were paddling again we had sunshine. The tundra expanse on the top of this hill was complete and expansive and gave us the flavor of what a trip in the Arctic would feel like. Without firewood or trees a canoe trip will have different logisitics and exposure necessitating a different approach and equipment. I look forward to my first opportunity to travel by canoe into this distant land that preys on the imagination. While approaching the summit of this hill we scared up a few ptarmigan that flew off rapidly displaying bright white wing tips at a determined speed. In this country seeing birds was an unusual event with only a few shorebirds, sparrows, geese, loons and the ptarmigan viewed on the entire trip. A couple small ponds rested at the summit of the hill inspiring wonder and a great view. How they could not have dried out in this season was a wonder and might have something to do with melting permafrost. We never dug for the permanent ice, but while walking about on a hot day in the deep moss the cold could be felt underfoot, lending us to speculate on its existence here at 54.5 North Latitude.

August 24th was another great day of fair weather and the confluence of rivers. Our river had grown already, but substantially increased with the main channel of the DesLiens from the north. We had t-shirt weather again today and encountered our biggest rapid of the trip. With two granite ridges confining the river to a narrow channel, the river pushed through this constriction forming good sized waves and a few holes to negotiate. Again the line up for this rapid was critical as it had a stony rock dodge at the top. Once on the line in midriver it was a straight forward run down the middle through the first series of waves where Matty and I shipped a bunch of water onto the spray skirt, which had to be manually removed with a grab and pull up, followed by the lower waves that required a manuever right to avoid a large rocky outcropping into the channel. It got us really quite excited for the possibilities of truly testing the PAK canoe but as it turned out, all the other rapids were more broad and shallow rock dodges without the constriction that this one had to create anything nearly as challenging. With the deeper water our friends in the wood and canvas canoes were able to run more of the rapids. As is true with many northern rivers, the rapids often started with rock dodges that had clear channels to follow but ended with a broad stony fan in the foot where deciphering the best channel is often difficult until right upon the edge. I have heard that this is caused by the spring ice break up and over time the ice jamming at the toe of rapids and forming this fan of debris. In these cases we ran the rapids to the foot and hopped out to wade the canoes down through the final obstacles. Some of these fans were especially distinct and shapely without any discernible deep water channel penetraing their guard. Though an annoying obstacle at times they had a serene beauty to them that we compared rapid to rapid. We camped again at a rapid that night and set up tents on the small summit of a low hill that gave us the best view of the river upstream. That evening while cooking dinner a cold front rolled in dropping the temperature 10 degrees in a few minutes.

We awoke to cloud cover and cool temps and launched with full clothes into another day of rapids and a hill climb. Ben and Constantine got hung up on a rock shortly thereafter and got pretty wet so we pulled over for a fire and some gorp. After drying out on this gray but dry day we launched again and watched the landscape change as we left the burn behind to reenter the taiga forest. The greens of black spruce and tamarack soothed our eyes and we were glad to reenter the forest hoping it would last. It did. We climbed our final hill and this one proved to be the most challenging as it crossed a couple small draws with swamps was brushy and occasionally steep and we sarcastically wished for the burn again. As always the views from the top were beautiful of the river valley below to the north. Garrett and Constantine walked onto the further south summit and reported a splendid view to the south of a valley holding another small tributary. The country was amazing and laid out well and fine for a longer backpack sojourn possible along the ridges. We pulled over two rapids into our longest final run of rapids and set up camp river left. The clouds were low and threatening so we set up the fly which took some effort with the lack of trees. More fish were caught as our ace fishermen went at their business again. In my day I have been a good fisherman, but on this trip ALL my fish ended up LDR, long distance release. I guess I was a better cook than a fisherman on this trip. Thankfully there was no lack of good fishermen and with Chef McKean in control of the kitchen we were all very well fed.

August 26th was our coldest morning as the cold front had passed the day before and the night had been clear. It was in the high 30s I am guessing and we all wore most of our clothes that morning. As the sun rose over the river we watched as the far side of the river bathed in its warmth while we lingered in the remaining shade of the north bank. By the time we had launched into another set of morning rapids another bank of clouds had hidden the sun and its heating potential for the day. Runnning downstream and picking the line as we went was great fun and challenging and we had a number of sets to negotiate right away. These turned out to be the last of the real rapids as the final two sets turned out to be a wide shallow shoal dodge followed by a short and small drop at the mouth of the river just before entering Mehihek Lake. We had stopped earlier for lunch at a cabin on the north shore that was open, clean and with a solid woodstove we warmed up in its space and boiled up some noodles on the stove top. There was an eviction notice on the front door from the government of Newfoundland. I guess even here in the middle of nowhere there are eyes watching. There was no recent sign of human activity but the cabin was so well constructed and furnished that I felt bad for the Innu owner who had obviously put much time, money, and energy into building his retreat. Alas if he had applied for a permit and paid his fee, he may have avoided the repercussion. In the end a tent is a better idea for a non pemanent dwelling anyway, but to demolish the building and clean up the site would be difficult and may create more of a mess than the intact cabin. At this point not much for a good solution to this problem. We camped at the last rapids after paddling down through the gorge through the gates of the mountains that separate the interior from the Menihek Lakes region. A long ridgeline spreading north and south of the river beckoned with its tundra capped highlands, but with the cooler temps and lack of specific motivation on this cloudy cool day we did not climb.

Paddling south the next day we left the river and with yet another tailwind sped down the lake. Garrett caught a huge pike at an island stop and Matty and I kept trying to get the jump on the others by leaving early due to the PAK canoe's slower pace on the lake. We were able to keep it moving quite well however and did not feel that it was enough of a detriment to have opted for a faster canoe on the flat water To not have been able to run all the rapids on the river would have been less than ideal from Matt and my perspective. We pulled into the Clarke River, lake opposite the rail siding of Esker for the night and enjoyed a beautiful camp next to a big rapids where we all walked and caught fish. The views of the mountains were delightful and a melancholy feel as the trip ended was broken by the good camraderie, the emerging sunshine, and again prolific blueberrying and the thought of runnning another northern river soon.

We had a relaxing departure from camp the next morning and took our time paddling across the lake to Esker, stopping at the large island and enjoying the sunshine, views and extraordinary pike fishing with one large ouananiche kept for lunch, roasted over the open fire on a spit. All was consumed and then we were off to pack out and catch the railway from Esker to Emeril. We met nice people there from Newfoundland and Quebec, learned how a track lifter works and spend the night hobo style camped out next to the train tracks waiting for the train we thought was incoming the next morning. By 2 pm we were loaded up and saying see you later to this siding, as I do plan to return to this part of the world in the future for more canoe tripping. As the train clacked south and we watched through the windows as the north slipped by, we smiled knowing we had planned and executed a remarkable trip in a relatively short amount of time. plans for next year soon surfaced and we discussed the merits of this and that river to that and another river realizing there are many to choose from and we better keep at it if we are going to get a chance to paddle many of them.