to the south where the river forks (both times). There are four easy
rapids before Oatmeal Rapids, the last of which is a kilometer and a half
above the falls. Matthew Wapachee told me that the Cree name, Gowmoegeow (Kaumwakweyuch
on the 1:50,000 maps), means “where the fish came to eat eggs.”
is a short suspension bridge over the falls now carrying the James Bay
Highway north to the dam sites on La Grande Riviere. The old
Keewaydin campsite is at the base of the south anchorage, now buried under
tons of sand and gravel.
portage around the falls takes out up the creek that meets the river on
the west bank at the lip of the falls. The trail begins at the west
end of the first pond. It is advertised as 1300 yards long. Be
VERY careful crossing the highway. In 1992 we saw an 18-wheeler
every minute running the supply line north. Across the highway walk
down the sand and gravel anchorage to the river. The Cree youth
brigades had done some work on the portages below the bridge in 1998.
They had built a staircase of flat granite at the downstream end of the
Oatmeal Rapids portage. This should make climbing the bank easier
and curtail erosion in the future.
runoff below the falls is fun. It passes an old Hydro-Québec (HQ) research station on the south bank at the falls. The station was in
use in 1991. It was closed in 1992 and 1993. But it was open
again in 1998. The runoff from the falls pushes you across the bay
below, all the way to the south shore.
the two rapids three kilometers below Oatmeal on the north shore. Go
slowly and carefully!!!! There are two portages around Rapides
Wapamiskuch. If you miss the first one you will be dragged over the
steep, unrunnable ledge below!!!!
first is a short liftover deep in the bay above the rapids on the north
shore. It bumps over a narrow spit of land on a slippery, clay
trail. Matthew Wapachee told us the Cree call it “whaleback.”
I would imagine that this is because the gray clay of the trail looks like
a beluga’s back as it is surfacing.
second portage is about 250 yards. It is called Wapmekgokginsh (
Wapamiskuch on the maps), which means “white beaver.” It is
directly across the deep, finger bay from the liftover. We camped at
the end of this one in 1992, bushing tentsites along the trail and among
the poplars on the slope at the far end. High water forced us to
push on in 1993. A campsite can be made on the next portage, which
is 400 yards downstream on the opposite bank. Cross the river early.
The current is very strong here. The Cree paddle directly across the
river into the deep bay southeast of the portage. Midway across the
200-yard portage below there is a small clearing that sufficed for home in
1993 and 1998.
The campsite marked Old HQ camp on our ministry notes (in the bay to the easy of the runoff past the portage) could not be found scanning the shoreline either year.
|Foot of Oatmeal
Rapids at the portage put-in. James Bay Highway crosses the Rupert here.
Photo: Bill Seeley
Day 4: The Fours
Matthew Wapachee joined us at the James Bay Highway bridge in 1998 and traveled down the Rupert with us to Waskaganish. We shared our ways together and I think both learned a lot from the experience. He showed us the Cree way around The Fours. According to Matthew it had been recently re-cut as part of a summer youth brigade program. This path actually involves four portages (as opposed to the three we used to use). It is preferable to the 1992 and 1993 routes, except in the highest of waters when the guide should scout it by walking the first trail, and examining the eddy between “Cree P1 & Cree P2” before proceeding. This would involve leaving the section well upstream and paddling down the north/right shore to the portage, and then returning to the section. The river can easily be crossed around the bend upstream from first falls.
Matthew told us that the Cree call this set of portages Ganeowshtegow, or “Four in a Row.” The Cree portages are all on the north/right side of the river. The first is a short 300 yarder, straight uphill to a 75-yard open meadow and then straight back down to the eddy-bay north of the bottom of the 100-foot drop. It leaves the river from the north shore, in a shallow bay, where the river jogs 50 yards south before continuing its course and tumbling into the falls (directly across from the 1000 yard portage on the south side). In low water it is just upstream of a long exposed granite point. In previous years Steve and I had speculated that this was the most obvious place for the portage because of the deep bay below, but our notes did not indicate its presence, and we were usually a little strapped for time to be exploring.
The second Cree portage can be found just beyond a stand of scrub willow on the waters edge, maybe 130 degrees of arc or 500 yards downstream around the deep semi-circular portage bay. In low water a large round exposed boulder must be passed just above the landing. This landmark would be unexposed most years. The portage is very short, just lifting around the short falls at the downstream end of the bay (the bay is formed by two good-sized islands that create a bottleneck in the gorge – there is a campsite on the downstream side of the lower island). In regular and high water the landing would be in the fray, that is, in strong current just above the falls. You must fight a strong back eddy to reach the current. As a result, and because the portage is not far downstream, if you cannot pick out the landing before embarking, I would advise simply walking the shore and scouting the landing. THE LANDING IS SMALL AND CAN ONLY ACCOMMODATE ONE CANOE AT A TIME, if my recollection serves me.
Heb says that this part of the route is called The Fours because the Brigades used to paddle part of the fourth, three kilometer drop. This seems unlikely to me given the well established trails at the beginning and end of the last of The Fours portages, and the direction of the trail where it becomes subsumed by an old HQ survey road. Matthew Wapachee told us that the route he showed us was the way the Cree always went. He says that they call the portage on the south side of the river around the first two drops the White Man’s Portage. But, my 1:50,000 map calls the north portage Petite Portage Kaipeshimushich, and the longer one on the south side Portage Kaipeshimushich. I have done no further research than to compare Matthew and Heb’s accounts. But the route Matthew showed us is certainly the more sensible one, because it does not involve crossing the gorge in swift current between the second and the third drops.
We managed to complete The Fours in an afternoon in 1998, largely because we chose the shorter Cree P1 & Cree P2 (and were in a hurry because of some smoke we had seen rising back in the bush south of the river just upstream from The Fours). There is a campsite at the far end of the last of The Fours and one at the beginning of the next long portage which the Cree call “Walking on the Edge of the River” (at Chikaskutukan Emitapeyach Rapids), in addition to the Mid-Fours Island Campsite. We made it down to Waskaganish in three days from the James Bay Highway bridge, paddling dawn to dusk, in 1998 (two long days and two half days as we stopped at Smoky Hill Rapids for a long half-day before continuing in to Waskaganish, which is an easy half day from Smoky Hill).
What follows is the route as pursued in 1992-3, taken from my 1993 write-up (and amended), from our campsite a ½ day above The Fours. The last two portages, “White P2 & P3” are “Cree P3 & P4” and are found as described below.
The runoff below the campsite portage is a long horserace. There is an RI at the six-kilometer mark. It is just some swift water at a narrow spot in the river. There is a winter camp a kilometer and a half upstream around the bend from the first of The Fours on the south bank. We stopped for lunch here in 1993 and 1998.
section of the river that follows is referred to as “The Fours”
(according to Heb) because the brigades, Cree crews who used to supply the
Hudson's Bay post a Lac Némiscau by 24-foot canoe (send that length to
research Danny), traversed this extended gorge in four portages.
(Matthew Wapachee says it is simply because there are four drops and four
portages in a row). There are four waterfalls in this stretch, three
of which count as enormous. I can’t speak for the gorge below the
top of the fourth because the portage avoids the river bank altogether.
The first obstacle is a kilometer-long gorge which drops over two falls,
one 80 feet and one 10 feet. The island campsite below allows easy
access to a second island just upstream, from which the view is
The third falls is by far the most dramatic. It is a 75-foot sheer drop. In low water years a campsite can be made at the top of the last falls with a view of the third drop upstream. In the stretch of river above and between the falls extreme caution should be exercised. An upset here would send gear the entire length of The Fours. The only difficult portage of the set is the second, and it is the shortest. (After the Cree cleared the route this ceased to be true, as they cleared the trail, and the two portages above it are shorter). We found that late snows made the trail a bit crowded with windfalls from here on down to Waskaganish in 1993. They are currently well cleared due to the efforts of ourselves and a group of four French Canadian expeditioners a couple of days ahead of us. (of course, this had been superceded in 1998 by the work of the Cree youth brigades).
The first falls can be portaged on the south/left bank, 1000 yards, on an old HQ survey road. My notes say that this is the easiest of The Fours. Approach with caution. The portage takes out at the lip of a six-kilometer gorge consisting of three major drops. The trail begins on the south bank. Hereafter I will call this trail W1 (White 1). The approach is blind. The landing is in the eddy just downstream of the last point on the south bank 100 yards above the lip of the gorge. There is a stone kicking up a standing wave just out of sight behind the point. Eddy out beyond it. The maneuver is not difficult, but the proximity to the falls is a bit unnerving. Follow the trail up the hill to the old road. Go right at the road to the old HQ camp. The trail becomes obscure in among the alders here. It drops down the steep hill to the base of the second, smaller falls. The downstream landing is between the two large islands.
The Cree route around this first stretch consists of two portages, hereafter referred to as C1 & C2 (Cree 1 & Cree 2). C1 bumps across the large bulbous point on the north shore that forms the pinch at the lip of the gorge. The trailhead is 200 yards above the lip of the gorge, upstream of a long granite spit, out of sight from the lip of the gorge, due north of the grassy eddy landing of W1. The trail is 300 yards, straight uphill to an open plateau, and then down the far side of the point to the eddy bay below the first falls. The falls shoots out over a ledge 10 feet above the eddy bay, sending the current downstream with quite a bit of force, and creating a strong back-eddy in the large, shallow portage bay.
C2 can be found 500 yards downstream (800 yards along the shoreline). It is marked by a tangle of scrub willow right at the waters edge. In the low water of 1998 an exposed boulder stood several feet out of water a canoes’ width offshore, forming a narrow channel at the trailhead. This is a short portage that lifts over the falls formed by the upstream island. I repeat from above, “In regular and high water the landing would be in the fray, i.e. in strong current just above the falls. You must fight a strong back-eddy to reach the current. As a result, and because the portage is not far downstream, if you cannot pick out the landing before embarking, I would advise simply walking the shore and scouting the landing. THE LANDING IS SMALL AND CAN ONLY ACCOMMODATE ONE CANOE AT A TIME, if my recollection serves me.
The advantage of the Cree route over the "white route" here is that one does not have to eddy out into the blind bay at the lip of the falls, and one does not have to cross the river below the portage. In higher water both of these events, although benign in nature, offer opportunity for Gitchi-Manitou’s mischief, and any accident would have tragic results.
There is a campsite on the second of two large islands below the falls. The site is on the west end of the island. We stopped here in 1993. In 1992 we used the portage at the last of The Fours. Getting to the campsite from the Cree route requires crossing strong current just below the second falls. The spot is idyllic. But, again, caution should be exercised as the next falls is 750 yards downstream from the west end of the island.
The portage around the third drop, Cree 3/White 2, takes out on the north bank 30 yards above the lip of an enormous falls. Ease down the north bank to this trail. There was a false landing 10 yards above the real one that served as a warning that we were getting close. This was a trail that ended 10 yards into the bush. The portage is 600 yards. The cleared path was a dream in 1998. In previous years it had been an overgrown, slippery, clay ordeal, whose twists and turns were more like a fun house nightmare than a portage, no longer long enough to easily maneuver a 17-foot canoe through. The clay slope at 200 yards was famous. The key was to race to be the first down before the surface became an unmanageable ski slope.
Matthew told us that this one is called Nipigageewhebwet, which means, “where the water goes up and down.” The landing on the far end of this portage is in the base of the falls. The eddy rises and falls quite a bit. The loading is hairy. I watched Matthew study the crossing-wave patterns and time the surge from the falls in order identify the correct time to load his canoe. There is a lull every so often when the eddy settles down and drops at least two feet. I never got the hang of it, but Matthew was able to predict this, have his gear ready, and get the canoe loaded in time for the surge to carry him out of the eddy and into the lighter downstream current along the shore.
The 1:50,000 map calls this portage Kawipuskasich, and the large north bay above it Kawakupayich Nipi. I do not know the origin of these nor do I know what they mean. The map marks the portage as two kilometers and says it walks to the top of the last gorge. We never found any such trail.
We ran the rapids between this falls and the next in 1992 and 1993. The low water of 1998 pushed the run too far out into the main current and we opted to line it instead. There are two take out points for the last portage, C4 & W3: one at the lip of the falls and another 50 yards upstream. Both are on the north bank. We camped here on a sand beach in 1992. The campsite was picturesque with a view of the 150-foot falls upstream. Our campsite was under five feet of water in 1993, so we continued on to the campsite at the far end of the portage. Matthew told us that the Cree call the last of The Fours Guybayat, or “slope," because it has a gentle grade. It is marked Coude Kachiwopayich Nipi on the 1:50:000 map.
 There was a small expedition of French Canadians ahead of us in 1993. We crossed paths briefly in Waskaganish where they were staying with the Roman Catholic priest.
We have attempted to include the most up-to-date and accurate information, but conditions change. We would be grateful for any corrections or suggestions for improvement.