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
“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
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
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.
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
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.