Trans-Labrador Recon Trip, Quebec:
August 29-October 12, 2009

Expedition Report
Prepared by Rob Mullen


We designed this expedition to explore several aspects of a developing environmental education project stemming from WREAF’s on-going focus on wildlife and landscape art, natural history and adventure, combined with archaeology, anthropology and current Innu cultural issues from the Smithsonian’s Dr. Stephen Loring and Tony Jenkinson of the Tshikapisk Foundation in Sheshatshui, Labrador. We also intended it to stand on its own as an educational adventure from Lac Attikamagen east of Schefferville, Quebec, to Nain, Labrador, thirty miles north of the mouth of the Kogaluk. The route would pass through three major ecosystems, completely traversing northern Labrador from the Height of Land to the Labrador Sea - a true “Rivers to Oceans” journey.

Specifically the recon aspect of the journey was to test the feasibility of paddling from Schefferville, QC to Lake Kamestastin in 2010 as a part of a story about the land, the wildlife and the people that depend on them (directly, caribou and the Innu; by extension, the natural world and all of us). It would traverse the traditional homeland of the Mushua-Innu, specifically including the routes between the George River (Mushua-shipu) and Lake Kamestastin; two key physiographic features in traditional Innu culture and the ecology of the region. The recon diverged from the route to Kamestastin by turning north to the Kogaluk between Hawk Lake and Long Pond, but covered all but a half day’s walk according to Dr. Loring. The 2010 canoe journey would be run as close to the autumn caribou migration as possible and in conjunction with on-going archaeological fieldwork being conducted by Dr. Loring on ancient Innu caribou hunting camps. It would conclude at Lake Kamestastin with a base camp during the autumn migration.

Combined with an expedition to Kamestastin in April and May 2010 for the spring caribou migration, it would follow the caribou and associated species (i.e. wolves, bears and humans) through two defining events of the year. Using film, museum exhibitions, magazine and newspaper articles and internet presentations, we will share the interaction of land use, habitat preservation, reinvigorating native culture and its historically inseparable connection to wildlife and the lessons we can all take from that dynamic.

Focus on the migrations also provides a multifaceted insight into how a meteorite impact that stuck Labrador about 38 million years ago created a microhabitat that has drawn the caribou through during migration for thousands of years.

As originally envisioned, this year’s recon expedition was to proceed as follows:
   1. Kalon, Rod and I would driveto Labrador City from Montreal. Tony Jenkinson would come out from Goose Bay to meet us and return with our vehicle to Goose Bay while we boarded the Tshiuetin RR for Schefferville (no access by road).
   2. Meet with Tunilik Adventures for overnight and separate out provisions for the resupply flight (that would meet us on the 18th) and drive a few miles east to Lake Attikamagen the next morning with the two tandem canoes.
   3. From Lake Attikamagen east of Schefferville, QC to the headwaters of the De Pas River.
   4. Down the De Pas to its confluence with the George River 145 miles into the journey; recharge batteries at Tunilik’s Twin River Lodge at the confluence.
   5. Work out a portage route to Lac Mistinibi. This was a major challenge of the trip since it required a minimum distance of six miles overland, climbing eastward out of the George River watershed.
   6. Artist, Cole Johnson would drive to Labrador City on Sept 16, leave his truck there, take the train to Schefferville and come in to join the crew with the resupply plane on Sept 18, as far east along Lac Mistinibi as we could manage after the portage (the solo canoe would come in too).
   7. Meet Tshikapisk co-founder Tony Jenkinson at the eastern end of Mistinibi and portage across the Height of Land to Labrador at Hawk Lake (determining which of two possible portage routes was best).
   8. From Hawk Lake the route was to follow the outlet stream as it grew into a river and flowed ENE converging on Long Pond to the north.
   9. At the closest point of approach to Long Pond the crew would portage a few hundred yards across relatively level tundra to Long Pond.
   10. Following a small river upstream to a series of ponds north of Long Pond the crew would commence a “pond hopping” series of portages to reach the canyon of the Kogaluk.
   11. After working out the challenging portage down off the Tundra Highlands to the Kogaluk the crew would paddle this larger river (that ironically means “Little River” in Inuktitut) to the Labrador Sea at Voisey Bay.
   12. At Voisey Bay would commence a thirty mile paddle through the coastal archipelago to Nain, Labrador; the most northerly permanent settlement in Labrador, thus completing a complete traverse of northern Labrador.
   13. From Nain, the crew would travel by a coastal freighter which sails once a week and serves the coastal communities of Labrador, back to Goose Bay.
   14. After a night in Goose Bay Tony would return home to Sheshatshui and the rest of the crew would return to Labrador City in Rod’s vehicle. In Lab City we would pick up Cole Johnson’s vehicle and continue back to Montreal and points west and south.

We also originally intended to include a rendezvous with Dr. Loring’s archaeology field team on Lac Mistinibi after they finished an archaeological survey of Lac aux Goelands. However, weather delayed the start of his survey work on Lac aux Goelands south of our rendezvous point. Dr. Loring therefore decided to conduct his survey as a separate WREAF expedition and will provide a report to CWF on his findings. Work on Lac Mistinibi will continue next year with the 2010 expedition.

That was the plan. However, as is usually the case in wilderness travel, things didn’t go according to plan. In the tundra highlands of Labrador, the topographic maps were misleading, first-hand accounts did not reflect the conditions we encountered, no information was available ahead of time on water levels and the nearest available weather data varied enormously, ranging from near drought conditions to heavy rain in the preceding months. Despite extensive pre-trip preparation, terrain conditions, water levels, weather, equipment failures, medical issues and physical and mental challenges in the field, tested our resources, experience, imagination, skill and resolve.

The Expedition

The expedition divided into sections; more literally than originally envisioned. Not only were there the three major ecosystem divisions and the archaeology team as mentioned above, but the main expedition also broke into sections distinguished by their respective degrees of “wilderness” with two almost completely different crews. The first section of the expedition, on the De Pas River to the George River, is a traveled and documented route with considerable whitewater. Eastward from the George, we traversed a region that is as remote and unknown to modern travelers as can be found in this day and age.

The Drive

Accessing Schefferville, QC requires air or rail transport. Since we were finishing the journey at Goose Bay, Labrador, it made sense to access the Tshiuetin rail line that runs from Sept Iles, QC to Schefferville at Emeril Junction, east of Labrador City via Quebec Route 389 north from Baie Comeau, QC and the Trans-Labrador Highway. North of the Manic 5 dam that impounds the enormous Manicouagan Reservoir, Quebec 389 is a challenging road (even on the paved section below Manic 5, it twists so badly that you can see your own taillights).

As in all previous WREAF expeditions, this one used the private vehicles of WREAF members. As in a few other expeditions, we had a problem with excessive speed and poor driving habits. This time, for the first time on any WREAF expedition, excess speed and inattention lead to a minor accident. Even this lesson was not enough; rather than slow down, the driver actually increased his speed, leading to a confrontation with me. Egos and private vehicles are a problematic mix. I will discuss some ideas regarding solutions to this issue in the conclusions of this report.

Using the satellite phone for the first time at Schefferville, I discovered that it drained batteries at an alarming rate. Even recharged at the floatplane base, the batteries only lasted for a few calls before being useless. There was nothing we could do except reserve the satellite phone for true emergencies and important logistical communications.

Lake Attikamagen - La Riviere De Pas

September 1

We were driven out to Attikamagen and put in at 2:30 pm Labrador time (Schefferville is in Quebec, but the border is very irregular and the first portion of our journey was in Labrador).

We used both traditional navigation (map and compass sight navigation) and GPS to stay on course across the confusing welter of points, bays and false leads across Attikamagen. An early example of the wisdom of backing up technology with traditional map skills occurred when UTM coordinates from the topographic maps were mistranscribed into the GPS yielding a serious error. A discussion ensued about the proper course when the GPS indicated a turn into a bay that made no sense according to the map. This precursor to serious GPS issues that arose later provided a timely example of the pitfalls of over-reliance on (or blind faith in) technology. We had a phone-in question regarding how we kept from getting lost so I emphasized the importance of traditional skills even when technology is available. We made 15 miles to a point just shy of the passage to Mole Lake – excellent progress for a late start; especially since it meant that the potentially problematic large Lake Attikamagen was behind us (winds can turn a placid lake crossing dangerous, or even impossible, in just a few minutes).

After Attikamagen, we reached the Height of Land, passing back into Quebec and the headwaters of the De Pas River.

De Pas River - The George River

On the De Pas, we had generally fine weather. Our main challenges were low water on the upper river, challenging whitewater on the lower river and for the first time on a WREAF expedition, crew cohesiveness. As we descended the river, the water levels became less of a problem and with Kalon running lead, we managed all the rapids and have some good film of some R3 and R4 whitewater runs. Kalon, a natural showman, did a wonderful job of keeping a running video journal of this portion of the trip, focusing on some of the phone-in questions that we had from students to make up for the satellite phone being largely useless for that purpose.

Kalon was, however, a frustrating member of the crew. Incredibly talented, often very enthusiastic, and imaginatively helpful, he also could be ill tempered and irrational. He displayed a wide range of behaviors, from genial open friendliness with effusive praise of everything to bizarre criticisms and aggressive confrontations over nothing. He obstinately refused to get out of bed before 8 am, insisted on repeated and pointless dinner inventories and a week into the trip developed a sudden insistence on impossibly detailed itineraries of the Labrador section (for which detailed information did not exist). Having him continue on the far more challenging Labrador section was starting to seem like a bad and possibly dangerous idea. I suspected that underneath it all, for whatever reason, Kalon himself wanted off. I therefore suggested to him that he could fly back out on the resupply plane after our big portage to Mistinibi and (with Cole’s permission) use Cole’s truck at Labrador City to return to Montreal. This would cost only a $35 train ticket above our anticipated expenses. This met with instant approval and his mood rose dramatically (supporting my suspicion that he simply wanted to go home).

However, also as we neared the George, a serious toe infection that Rod had developed in August flared back up. His doctor had cleared him for this trip but had initially warned that the original infection had been a threat to his toe and possibly even his foot (as in amputation). Its coming back was therefore a serious concern. Moreover, with a painful and at risk foot, he would be unable to undertake the strenuous 6-mile uphill portage out of the George River (requiring 30 miles of walking). He had back-up antibiotics with him and was capable of continuing on the De Pas, but the portage was out; as a precaution, he would have to fly out from the George. The Trans-Labrador section was utterly remote, unlike the De Pas; evacuation could be very difficult to impossible depending on terrain and weather. Moreover, it involved several long portages, so it was far too great a risk to have Rod proceed, even if there had been a way to get him over the George River portage (having the resupply flight pick us up on the George and fly us over the portage had always been a backup plan in case of difficulties).

Tunilik has one of their main lodges, Twin River Lodge, at the confluence of the De Pas and George rivers. This made for a convenient pick up point for Rod. Now, however, Kalon continuing with me and returning on the resupply plane from Mistinibi would be problematic; it was also academic. Once I decided that we needed to fly Rod out from the George, Kalon became disinclined to continue at all. A final confrontation removed all doubt when Kalon accused me of risking Rod’s life to save money among a host of other complaints. It was the last straw; traveling beyond the George with Kalon was not a safe option. I informed them both while they were having breakfast that Kalon would fly out with Rod from Twin River Lodge on the George. Interestingly, Kalon’s mood for the rest of the trip was positively ebullient. I could do no wrong, and aside from a slightly disturbing “over the top” quality to his enthusiasm, Kalon was the sort of crewmember I dream of; as I said, “frustrating”.

As we approached the last stretches of the De Pas, we were encountering more and more caribou. Interestingly, based on wide ranging conversations on unconventional topics, Kalon had earlier suggested I envision a large herd crossing the river. Sure enough, as we approached the last of the De Pas, we saw a large herd swimming the George and then start up the bank of the De Pas toward us. We beached the canoes and waited in the shoreline brush up from the beach. They all came right past us until the canoes spooked the lead cow. Rod and I got good stills and Kalon shot some beautiful video from only a short distance. It was the first of several large herds we saw.

A short while afterwards, we entered the George River and paddled up to the lodge.

Twin River Lodge

Camp manager Ricky Drudge and his wife, Christina graciously welcomed us. Kalon and Rod flew out on a return supply flight to the lodge on Tuesday, Sept 15. My stay yielded an interesting chapter to the story of this expedition and wildlife issues. Twin River Lodge is a hunting camp, the caribou were streaming through, and the hunters were “tagging out” almost to a man (each hunter has two caribou tags, allowing them to kill two caribou). While many of the camp’s clients were stereotypic of the sort of hunters that give hunting a bad name, some were not. Most at odds with the common characterization of hunters though was the camp manager Ricky Drudge. In my discussions with him and his assistant, I found them to be acutely sensitive to conservation and ethical hunting issues, providing expansive common ground with non-hunter conservationists. This was an example of an on-going opinion of mine that non-hunter environmentalists and hunters are (or should be) on the same side despite the appearance of conflict that is often stoked by groups like PETA and the NRA. My stay at Twin River Lodge could serve as a lesson on the role of hunters in wildlife conservation.

As far as the expedition was concerned however, I had no one to help with the portage and to continue as planned, would have to paddle Mistinibi by myself. Mistinibi is a large lake with unavoidable open water crossings. The danger in wind is considerable and a single canoe (let alone a single canoeist) is at far greater risk. Doable, yes, but traveling alone in this region was not a risk I had planned on and in consideration of loved ones, one I wouldn’t take unless absolutely necessary. However, staying put until Cole came in would put us almost a week behind schedule and still leave us with the dangerous situation of a single canoe on a big lake (in the event of a capsize there would be no one to assist). While at Twin River, I learned that Tony Jenkinson’s funding had not come through and that he wouldn’t be able to meet us on Mistinibi. Now there was even less reason to risk the big lake.

We had already discussed the possibility of having our resupply flight meet us at the eastern end of Mistinibi (where Tony would have been) and the less likely possibility of having the resupply flight stop at the George River on the way and hop us over the big portage. By combining those two ideas and continuing another five miles we would be on Hawk Lake and avoid a now pointless 2-mile portage over the Height of Land between Quebec and Labrador that would only slow us down by another day. This seemed the best idea to maximize safety and the continuation of the expedition while maintaining most of the original goals. I reluctantly decided it was the best option and called Andre to arrange it. We split the flight with some caribou hunters going out and therefore were under enormous time pressure. Raymond Cloutier, the pilot decided that he could not take both canoes, so we left one in the care of Tunilik at the camp for use next year. Cole no sooner landed than we were hastily sorting and repacking the extra food (now only for two). Within a few minutes, we were airborne again for the 15-minute flight to Hawk Lake.

Hawk Lake to Long Pond; September 18-21

Raymond Cloutier and his DeHavilland Beaver landed us at the eastern end of Hawk Lake, circled back around for a wave after taking back off and quickly vanished back into the west. Suddenly alone, but happy to be back on the journey, Cole and I hiked back into Quebec so that our trek would be a true and complete crossing of Northern Labrador from the Height-of-Land to the Labrador Sea. We hiked back to the canoe, loaded up and set off, hoping that afternoon to reach the point where we could most easily portage to the next section of our route north to the Kogaluk, Long Pond.

The route I had worked out followed the outlet stream trending ENE on a gradually converging course toward Long Pond, which roughly paralleled it to the north. William Cabot pioneered this through route in 1901, Dr. Loring paddled it in ’79 and ’84 and the Innu used parts of it for thousands of years until the 1950’s. As we started, the water was low, requiring some lining and dragging, but being high in the watershed I was not too concerned. However, a few miles further, a massive boulder choke totally blocked the stream, with nothing but narrow rivulets of water coursing between large boulders for at least half a mile. There was no indication of rocks in the stream on the 1:50,000 scale topographic map. Normally that scale map indicates significant rocks in a river let alone such a populous community of them. We could see open water far beyond, so we camped next to a dried kettle pond, planning to carry around the unanticipated obstacle in the morning. The morning was cold, windy and clear. Fresh snow on the ground and a Gyrfalcon overhead welcomed us to our first full day in the Tundra Highlands. Thus, we commenced what was to be one of the most challenging and rewarding wilderness journeys I have ever undertaken.

With the brushy carry complete, we loaded the canoe and set off, glad to back on the water and fully expecting to work out the short portage to Long Pond later that day. Such was not to be. To our escalating dismay and surprise, and with utter disregard for the wide clear stream indicated on the government maps, more boulder chokes appeared every time we thought we were back in the clear. After two days of grueling work and vanishingly little progress, I concluded that we had to abandon our planned route; there was not enough water. It was an exciting physical and mental challenge to work out and execute an alternative in such a remote and trackless wilderness; especially after the GPS failed. I worked out an alternate portage route to Long Pond; one that instead of a few hundred relatively level yards, covered close to two miles of rough ground with a steady climb and steep descent. The strong west wind created tall steep waves and threatened to drive us onto the many exposed rocks at or near the surface. However, even being on Long Pond did not save us from our low water woes. Unbelievably, what the map showed as lake, turned out to be boulder strewn and impassable river! Back to the map and we set out to recon a portage route around this newest obstacle.

Long Pond to the Kogaluk; September 21-26

Even when back on our planned course, the utterly remote and untouched character of the land imbued the experience with a simultaneously exciting and intimidating sense of isolation and lurking danger. That impression was accentuated by the ceaseless wind, cold and snow and the constant reminder of the awesome wildlife in the area; including an enormous wolf who’s tracks indicated a weight in excess of my own and a huge bear who after standing straight up to look us over, approached brazenly to investigate our lunch. He was clearly unfamiliar with humans.

Our long and arduous crossing of the wild windswept highlands lent the experience of finally reaching the canyon of the Kogaluk and seeing the forested river far below, an emotional impact beyond what its sheer beauty could have imparted. Even so, ironically descending to the shelter and freedom of the river was one of the single greatest challenges of the trip; a steep 1,200-foot drop into dense forest and a tangle of blow downs. We were unable to finish our last load before dark and had to leave the canoe in the dense forest. The GPS was still not working, so an exact location could not be determined so I took pains to note the terrain and direction to camp so we could find it in the next day. In a reassuring testament to our woodcraft, we walked right to it within 25 minutes early in the morning. Cole found moose scat during the canoe recovery. Tony Jenkinson told us there were recent reports of moose at the western end of Kamestastin last year, but in general, they haven’t been known to inhabit this region. Guess that is changing.

The Kogaluk to the Labrador Sea; September 27-29

September 27 was arguably the most wonderful day of the journey. After our long ordeal of crossing the highlands, it warmed up to pleasantly cool without a cloud in the sky; we were on a beautiful river of crystal-clear water flowing fast and free between forested banks, carrying us effortlessly toward the sea … with nothing on our backs. The emotional contrast was as stark as the geophysical and ecological ones. Even when we reached Cabot Lake, the following west wind did not raise dangerously high waves and we covered the potentially troublesome ten miles of open water without incident. After 30 miles, we made camp at the east end of the lake on a beautiful beach with views east and west.

I had firsthand reports that the river below Cabot Lake flowed fast and steadily to the sea. This seemed at odds with the indications from the topographic maps but I trusted the firsthand report. In this case, unfortunately, the maps were right. Nonetheless, despite a slow current and headwind, we reached the falls above the estuary in the late afternoon/early evening of the 28th. Since it was cold and pouring rain, we made camp upstream of the falls rather than attempt the portage late in the day.

Like the plunge from the Tundra Highlands to the forested Kogaluk, this magnificent pair of cataracts marks a dramatic boundary between ecosystems as the Kogaluk cascades onto the quiet level of the estuary immediately below the rapid that followed the falls. We stopped to admire and photograph the falls while we were looking for a way to portage around them. The route close to the falls was steep and at one point, a slip would carry an unfortunate paddler straight into a seething cauldron. We looked for a better route on our return and found a ridge that provided a level easy walk almost all the way. However, there was no practical or safe way to walk or line on the right side (where we were) around the rapid below the falls and it was a big R3-4; too risky for Cole and me to run with a single boat (Kalon could have managed it well).

This is an example of an otherwise easy river that is not suitable for the inexperienced. The end of the portage was at the edge of the pool below the last of the waterfall (to the right of the photo above). The only practical options to running the rapid were to line from or portage across the island in the upper middle of the photo (lining is using bow and stern lines on the canoe to control the boat through the rapid from shore). For either, it was necessary to cross the river to the upstream end of the island, between the roiling hydraulics of the waterfall and the powerful start of the rapid. It required some skill and confidence to execute the upstream ferry that had little room for error. We crossed and lined down. With a final small drop below the main rapid at the narrow neck visible in the photo, we entered the estuary of the Kogaluk. It is only a few miles long and we paddled it without incident. We did see increasing numbers of waterfowl, though apart from Common Golden-eyes, Mergansers, and Long-tailed Ducks, we were unable to ID many. We reached the mouth of the river on Voisey Bay at about 3:30 pm and weighed our options; it was 33 miles to Nain and I had been warned about Voisey Bay.

The Coast to Nain; September 29 – October 3

At this point, it was still theoretically possible to make the coast freighter, “Northern Ranger”, which left Nain at 3:30 pm the next afternoon. The wind had been calm on the estuary but there was an easterly breeze on the ocean. However, it seemed manageable and the waves were modest. The crossing was the longest open water crossing of the trip, with a minimum distance between points of land of two miles. Conditions could well be worse tomorrow and the next day. We charged straight into the