The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  WINTER 2003











In this issue

Front Page


Winter Packet


From the Editor

Canoelit I

Canoelit II

Back page





They took the Low Road


Part  1  2   3


Experience and reliable Montagnais canoemen hired by Low on his 1895 trip up the Manicouagan River, taken on Attikopi Lake in August. One of these men would drown in rapids two weeks later in the treacherous canyon on the upper Manicouagan.       NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA


ax rolls the canoe from aching shoulders onto sphagnum- covered boulders, as I wade slowly uphill through waist-high wet Labrador tea, bent under the food pack for our five week trip.

Halfway across Long Portage, we pause exhausted where the faint trail disappears, this time for good.  

Under another drenching rain, with the muskeg sucking at our boots, and the black flies sucking at our blood, we are forcefully struck again of the incredible stamina and endurance of previous travellers and the Aboriginals who guided them over this now half forgotten route. We had expected that 625 mile route from Naococanne Lake, near the geographic centre of Quebec, to the community of Waskaganish, where the Rupert River dumps its waters into James Bay would be tough-but not this tough.  

Once again, I am reminded of a poem by Alfred Desrochers that describes just how we feel; 

“We are the dwindled sons of a race of supermen, 

The violent, strong, adventurous, from this strain, 

We take a northbound homesickness, which comes, 

With the Grey Days that autumn brings again” 

One of these supermen was Albert Peter Low of the Geological Survey of Canada who led some of the last great exploration trips in Canada by traversing northern Quebec and Labrador by canoe in the 1890s. He was the first to detail the geology and the river routes across this huge area, which was largely unknown, except to a few quiet people in the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Aboriginals who had lived here for thousands of years. 

I admit it. I have a serious addiction. I am addicted to dark green. And I am obsessed by the exploits of this remarkable, yet largely unknown, Canadian. The dark green, in case you haven t guessed yet, is the colour  of black spruce. So, together with Max Finkelstein, who also has a serious addiction (watching landscape pass before him at the speed of a canoe), we hatched a plan to re trace some of A.P. Low's explorations.

Thus was born THE A.P. LOW EXPEDITION 2002: ON THE HIGH ROAD. My interest in Low began in dimly lit and dusty archives and the stacks of libraries at least a decade ago when I came across cobwebby Annual Reports of the Geological Survey of Canada dating from the 1880’s and 1890’s while looking for canoe routes.  These reports detailed, in a matter of fact way, long canoe journeys, with descriptions of portages, rapids, and the people he met there. The more I read, the more that his distances and travails of a little known land came out and more of his character to do this for summer after summer, and often the winter too.

 But apart from these reports, I found only the briefest descriptions of Low himself. To really understand the character of A.P. Low, I needed need to follow in at least some of his footsteps, to retrace the portages that he used, and face the same navigation challenges that he overcame. 

We want to find a way into his mind and heart, and maybe even touch his soul. It is only in this way that we can truly achieve an appreciation of the magnitude of his accomplishments, his determination and resourcefulness. This meant a trip a long one in a land still little travelled, mostly covered by muskeg, and populated by an infinite number of hungry bugs.

Who would want to follow a forgotten route of a forgotten geologist? You guessed it - my friend Max Finkelstein. But would he stay my friend after such a trip?  

We hatched a plan. One evening in the darkness of January 2000, Max is sitting cross legged on the floor of his dining room, which is covered with 1:250,000 maps. He has a hopeless look on his face and looks up with a bewildered expression, we’ll never find our way through this country. The lakes form a maze, and in between are muskeg. Everything looks just the same.

Max has been reading  A.P.’s reports to the GSC, and trying to transcribe the route he took onto modern maps. He’s right. We were hopelessly lost, and weren’t even out of the house yet.  How do we know where he went?  After digging a whole lot more in the Archives, we find the original maps and field notebooks (still with dead blackflies between the penciled pages) made by Low and his assistant, David Eaton. These provide the details of his routes to trace them precisely on modern maps. 

In order to get a real flavour of his trips, we link together several of his explorations to make a single trip. After disposing of some fancifully long paths we settle on an ambitious route that links Low s trips of 1885, 1892, ‘93 and ‘95. From the village of Mistissini on the lake of almost the same name, we will fly by floatplane to Naococanne , about 120 miles west of Wabush. We choose this as a starting point because here even the redoubtable Low became lost and turned back on his 1895 expedition up the Manicouagan paddle to Lake Nichicun, the site of the abandoned Hudson’s Bay Company Post. Low passed through Nichicun in 1893 on his way from Lac St Jean to Fort. From there, we will follow in reverse Low route to reach Lake Mistassini. This means we will work our way up the Nichicun River (which becomes the La Grande River) and over the watershed to the  Eastmain River.

We will descend the Eastmain to another abandoned HBC post, Neoskweskau and then travel upstream on another canoe trade route to Lake Mistassini. From there, we will follow the traditional HBC trade route from Lake Mistassini to James Bay, descending the Natastan Branch of the Rupert River, cross to the Marten River, and finally rejoin the Rupert and paddle to Waskaganish (formerly called Rupert House) on James Bay.

The trip is about 1000 km, with some 87 portages. We plan for five weeks of paddling. Although this route is rarely travelled in its entirety today, the country it passes through is

by no means forgotten or abandoned. This is the traditional homeland of the Cree of Eastern James Bay, who continue to trap and hunt in this area.

The Cree signed an agreement in early 2002 with the government of Quebec that gives them $4 billion over 50 years and legal rights to much land, in exchange for the construction of the next phase of the James Bay Project. This will create a 600 sq. km. reservoir on the Eastmain upstream of the existing dam which diverts the river north to the generators on the La Grande turbines at LG2. The project will also divert much of the Rupert River northwards into the Eastmain River to add to the flow to the La Grande. We may be one of the last parties to see these rivers before they are shifted away from their current courses.  


Getting Underway: Max’s wife Connie loans us her beat up old Toyota for the long drive to Mistissini in early August 2002. Max s mechanic friend Tom Gifford assured him that the car had a 90% chance of getting there. Getting back is something else. Our friend Don Haines looked doubtful and generously volunteers to accompany us to Mistassini in his somewhat spiffier station wagon.

And so, on August 5 we load our gear consisting mainly of one green 17.5’ canoe and three huge very hard to lift packs, onto a bright yellow and red venerable single Otter on the clear water of Lake Mistassini. Phillip Petawabano, the chief pilot for Washeshkun Air, dressed in blue jeans and wearing a black T-shirt that reads Mistassini Council, looks a little doubtfully at the lowering clouds and interspersed rain squalls looming on our flight path to the west. But we are lucky. We fly between the storm clouds.

The flight in takes us the length of Lake Mistassini, then over Lake  Badeau finally to the northwest of the mountains. We see some forest burns from early July, large areas of older burnt forests and many patches of muskeg.  But no roads, no cabins and maybe one tent. 

Some three hours later, we land on Lake Naococanne , almost smack dab in the geographical centre of Quebec. Now all we have to do is get this canoe and this big pile of gear to James Bay. That’s what I like about canoe tripping. It reduces life to the simplest elements.    




Max Finkelstein searches through the soggy muskeg of the upper Eastmain River in search of A.P. Low's Long Portage. Max and Jim Stone are high on Low and working on a book about the famed Geological Survey of Canada geologist. They finally found his carry and it took them an epic nine hours — the portage rated merely a short mention in Low's journal.



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