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I have to confess that the dearth of either muskeg or mosquitoes 

is my favorite part of Quebec. 

The logs cover three trips that I took down the Rupert River in the James Bay region of Quebec for Keewaydin Camps of Temagami, Ontario.  My partner in guiding was Steve Springgate in 1992 and 1993, and Bart Pinkham in 1998.  Steve and I spent many summers introducing Keewaydin campers to the wily ways of the Quebec bush and I would be remiss not to thank him (acknowledgements would fall far short) for showing me the ropes.  The care and wisdom with which he has always approached every aspect of wilderness canoe camping, from the morning bacon to the wildest whitewater, forms the backbone of the Keewaydin experience, and was the foundation from which each of these trips flourished.

I have tried, in writing these notes, to project a subjective aspect where I felt that it was possible to do so without damage to their accuracy.  I believe that the virtue in wilderness canoe camping of this sort is in the little “discoveries” that they provide, a virtue that is the result of a trace of the pioneer, or the explorer, that each of us carries within us.  As a result I ask only that you embrace the ambiguities with which memory has left me saddled as opportunities of your own.

Keewaydin returned to the Rupert after a fourteen-year absence from the Mistassini region in 1991.  The route that year was identical to the route Steve and I used in 1992.  The duration of the first trip was 39 days, and the second 36 days, not including travel to and from.  The 1998 trip was shorter still, 32 days, as we had originally planned a trip on the Great Whale River but discovered dry conditions and fires at our put-in and so came back south to run the Rupert. 

The names ”Little George River” and “Moon River” are our own.  These waterways are unnamed on the maps.  Heb Evans refers to the latter as the Misticawassee Creek in his 1968 notes.  He paddled down the Rupert to the Moon River confluence, and then paddled upstream to Neoskweskau on the Moon that year.

In 1992 and 1993 we drove to the provincial campground at Lac Albanel to put in.  In 1998 we put in from the village of Mistassini.  Each year we flew our canoes out “freight available” (on the next empty return run) to Timmins, which was at the time Air Creebec’s closest freight hub.  We usually had to wait a week or so for the canoes using this strategy, but it significantly cut the cost.  Of course Timmins is only a day's drive from Keewaydin so this was a sensible plan for us.  In 1992 we flew our gear and ourselves (without our canoes) to Val d’Or on a regularly scheduled flight.  In 1993 we flew to Moosonee on a regularly scheduled flight and took The Polar Bear Express home.  In 1998 we flew to Timmins.  There are plans for a road into Waskaganish, which by my understanding should be completed by the summer of 2000.  This will simplify matters in one regard.  If flying out were one’s druthers one should keep in mind that, at least in those days, the 748 and the Dash 8 flew Monday to Thursday.  The Friday plane was usually a Beech 90 with a very limited (for all practical purposes non-existent) cargo capacity.

Propair of Chibougamau maintained an outpost at the bridge over the Temiscamie River, five miles south of the provincial campground at Lac Albanel.  They had a freezer and a Beaver there.  Our re-outfit flew from here in 1991 – 1993.  We first stopped at the float base in Chibougamau (just before coming into town at about the junction of routes 113 and 167) to confirm arrangements, and then left the re-outfit with the outpost base.  We flew the re-outfit from the Chibougamau base in 1998.1  We have been using Propair for many years and they have always been a dependable operation.2

The landscape is spectacular.  Heb Evans had wanted to locate Keewaydin’s outpost camp here when the idea was conceived in the late 1970’s.  (Unfortunately for that plan, Quebec politics prevailed, and the Outpost was established in equally magnificent territory between Armstrong and Sioux Lookout in Ontario.)  The region is remote and nearly totally empty of other travelers, including local Cree, once one portages off of Lac Mistassini (although extensive evidence of Cree travel exists on all three routes).  We saw no one between Lac Mistassini and Waskaganish (at the mouth of the Rupert) in 1992 and 1993, except at the old village on Lac Némescau.  The Cree of this village settled in a new townsite at Champion Lake as part of the James Bay Agreement.  The Cree have begun to rebuild this village in an attempt to reclaim the land from Hydro-Quebec.  Originally the Nottaway-Broadback-Rupert (NBR) project (Phase III of the James Bay Hydroelectric Project),  was to have flooded it.  In 1992 and 1993 there were two winterized cabins and a winterized common building (all in the log-cabin style of the old village), along with 30 or so wall tents and a handful of smoking tents.  The sturgeon nets are still strung across the current in the sandy shallows just off the beach (Nemesca, to the best of my knowledge, means “lots of fish”).  The HBC buildings still stood at the south end of the village then, the large warehouse down on the point, the store up on the hill and the factors residence just to the south of it, their red roofs a beacon towards which to set the short crossing from the east, along with the old sign announcing “Hudson’s Bay Company, Est. May 2, 1670.”  The old graveyard is well kept up the hill from the HBC site.3

There is now a road that connects Mistassini to the Champion Lake settlement (called Nemaska) via the large Albanel transmission station.  We used this road to get to Mistassini in 1998 and saw cars at the Rupert crossing and the Marten crossing.  There are several Cree camps at the Marten crossing.  But, this new access did not appear to have contributed to the use of the bush by either Cree or non-Cree.  We were still alone in the woods for the duration of the summer in 1998.

The 1992 route became uninhabited once we left Lac Baudeau and headed upstream on the Tichegami.  There are Cree camps on the Wabissinane River and on Lac Baudeau.  The Cree in this region are making a concerted effort to maintain the old ways.  We came across many active camps on these trips, all closed up for the summer.  These camps are usually comprised of several spruce frames for wall tents.  The Mistassini band also maintains several winterized trappers cabins.  In 1993, while in Mistassini checking on fires that burned on the Wabissinane, a Cree elder told me that the upstream Tichegami route is the old route to the fall hunting grounds for several of the band’s families, but that no one much went that way anymore.  He did not know of anyone who had taken our Little George route to the Eastmain in 20 years.4

The 1993 route overland to Lac de la Marée is the old trade route from Baie du Poste [Mistassini] to Neoskweskau.  That year a school group had cleared the route as far as Lac Cawachagamite as a heritage project, and posted hand-painted signs (in Keewaydin green, Danny) with the portage names written in syllabics.  In 1998 we used some of this route.  The signs had faded from the weather but the syllabics could still be made out.

There is evidence of extensive use on Woollett Lake.  We found several abandoned camps on the west shore including a large one at 51° 28’ N, 73° 50’ W, on the north shore of the western bay.  There were at least five building foundations there and lots of moose bones.   We camped at a large village of wall tents at the north end that was obviously well inhabited in the winter.  The site was quite urban for the bush.1

The old site of Neoskweskau is nothing more than a large grass clearing on the west bank of the northern body of Lac de la Marée.  We found an iron stove and some metal detritus but no foundations were left (firewood Danny). There was an old fuel cache across the lake from the clearing but we didn’t investigate.   We camped on the end of a gravelly point where the Eastmain empties out of the lake at a small active camp.  Through the narrows north of our campsite, in the next large bay downstream, we found a large, very permanent, winter camp.  It extended for about a mile along the shore and a hundred yards back into the bush, ending at a creek that bordered it to the north.  There was evidence of clearing across the river but no buildings were found.  Perhaps this is a “lumber yard”.

The “Moon River” [Misticawassee Creek] (so called because we traveled under a new moon on this stretch each year), which we employed as a route from Lac de la Marée to the Rupert, is unused for most of its course.  The route to the Rupert from Lac de la Marée was cut in 1991 by Steve Springgate and Ted Kenneally.  There are two Cree sites towards the bottom of the river which both appear to be well used.  The latter has a dock and an old, non-winterized log cabin, and I was told it is accessed by float plane from Mistassini.  The road is not well traveled, and, as with the Little George River route, we were certainly the first to come that way in many years (although I know of at least one other group – Keewaydin Camp of Vermont -- that regularly uses the route now).  The Little George and Moon Rivers are absolutely the wilderness highlights of our Rupert trips due to their remote character.

The Rupert and Eastmain Rivers are all that they are cracked up to be.  The water is big.  Nothing that I had seen on the west side of the Bay prepared me for the rapids.  EXERCISE CAUTION!!!  The weather is also a major factor.  We needed all of our extra weather days each year.  Cool, damp weather followed us all of the time in 1991 – 1993.  I surmise, from other records that I have read, it is the norm.  My wool blanket was well used as a sleeping-bag supplement (although the temperature rarely approached freezing).  The approaches to the portages on both rivers take one close to the falls.  It appears that their planners, many years ago, did not like to walk.  Do not forget to stop a bit and appreciate The Fours.  The Fours refers to a gorge, about a half day’s travel below the James Bay Highway bridge, that the Brigades portaged through using four portages.  This is the highlight of the trip, both for its natural beuaty, and for the physical rigors it requires of the stalwart paddler.  The first two falls are spectacular.  A night on the island campsite between them is well worth the time.  The village of Waskaganish is a very friendly place.  The Cree come down to greet you when you make landfall and never fail to say, “Tell us next time when you are coming so that we can arrange a proper welcome!”  We usually asked the factor at the Northern Store (that will never sound right, I will always remember it as the Hudson Bay Company) if we could stay in his yard.  There has been a long history of Keewaydin groups doing so, and they always obliged.  But most canoe parties stay out on the bluff beyond the Anglican Church.  We always asked the Band Council permission to visit before unloading our canoes, and we were always invited into the community.  The village always challenged us to a game of softball, which was a grand spectacle.  The village would come out in force to watch and giggle (as only the Cree can) as we careened around the base paths in our rubber boots and mis-judged lazy fly balls.  It had all of the airs of a family picnic.

All in all the three routes are beautiful and full of observable history.  I will miss them and hope to return soon.

 

Bill Seeley            

May 25, 1994

(revised October 2000)

 

 

*  There is also a route to the lower Rupert from the south by way of the Lac Evans and the Broadback.  Keewaydin used this route in 1962.  See Other Routes for a map and route summary. The full route is listed in The Keewaydin Way by Brian Back, its second edition scheduled for 2002.

 

**  Much of the historical and anthropological information that accompanies these notes has been passed along to me as part of the oral history of either Keewaydin Camp or the Cree we have met.  I have tried to keep this oral history intact.  Where possible I have tried to verify these tales (and sometimes found them tall).  But by and large I have tried to keep to the character of the stories as they were relayed to me (so long as this does not commit me to bald-faced fibs or bombastic falsehoods or compromise the veracity of the route information and the safety of the traveler).  It has always been my contention that the application of the oral history to what you actually find when you get there is half the mystery and all the fun of wilderness canoe camping.  As my friend Dart once said, “Legends aren’t found, they are spun in back rooms over pot-bellied stoves.”

 

That said, please feel free, or even compelled, to email me if you find one of those bald-faced fibs, bombastic falsehoods, or just flat out errors.  Oral history is ever evolving, even when its digital.



1   That year I took several trips to Chibougamau via the Route du Nord from Sam and Harriet Trapper’s camp at the Marten River bridge in order to track the several forest fires that burned in the region.  The smoke was heavy at times, but none of them threatened our route in the end, and after a week at the bridge, and several false starts, a heavy rain cleared the way for the rest of the summer.  I was always able (albeit, sometimes after a days wait or so) to flag down a Cree family in a pickup truck who were more than glad to take me as far as they were going.  Traffic north was heaviest on Thursday and Friday, and traffic south was heaviest on Sunday.  Only one of the heavy trucks moving fuel and materials for Hydro-Quebec stopped for me, and he could not carry us by law. 

     During that week we made great friends of the Trappers. They took us down the road several times on our fire survey and we had their family over for cocoa every night.  Several generations were represented at the camp.  Harriet introduced the boys to boutin, a sweet variation on bannock.  Some epic games of hacky sack were played on the road between our campsite and their camp with George Trapper, Sam’s 17-year-old son, and we had a constant companion in Sam’s grandson Stephan, who I would guess was 8 years old.

2   Propair had gone under as of the summer of 1999.  But their Chibougamau base has a large physical plant and I would be surprised if someone else weren’t trying to make a go of it from there.  Perhaps the Route du Nord has cut in to the float plane business.  The Cree operate an Otter out of Mistassini, but we found this option a bit of overkill as long as a Beaver or a Cessna 180 was operating in the area.

3 In 1998 the HBC buildings had come down.  But there were many more cabins and seemed to be a much more permanent presence.  Nonetheless, the old village is much more active on the weekends. 

4   I saw my Cree friend again who in 1998 told me that he had taken his grandchildren to Nitchequon via the upstream Tichegami route the previous summer, in an effort to pass on what his grandfather had taught him.

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