The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  WINTER 2003

PAGE 3

OUTFIT 111
 

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   Expeditions

Part  1  2  3

                         Author Jim Stone on the upstream route looking for Low's elusive Long Portage.

                                                                                                       MAX FINKELSTEIN

Naococanne Lake: Gentlemen, Let the Portages Begin! Our trip will start where Low and his crew entered Lake Naococanne from the east, and we will complete our so called  by paddling to Nichicun Lake. In 1895, Low spent a futile three days looking for a  route from Lake Naococanne to the HBC post at Nichicun Lake.

His report in the 1896 Annual Report of the Geological Survey of Canada states:  “Naokokan is a large, irregular lake, nearly covered with islands and deeply indented with bays... From an elevation of 300 feet ... the lake had the appearance of a wide plain, covered with numerous small lakes, and it was found only on passing into the lake that these numerous small lakes were really connected by straits and passages.” Low gave up due to unfavourable weather and failing supplies, and the exploration was ended here. He then returned to descend the Manicouagan River.

No wonder Low was bewildered!  Flying over Lake Naococanne , we see a maze of islands and peninsulas, more land than water. Our first impressions after landing the water is cold, clear, but brown; the forest is all black spruce and each tree seems to lean just a bit to the east. We are traveling through the boreal forest, named after Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. It is the largest expanse of natural forest in the world, sweeping in a broad band circling the planet and Canada from coast to coast. Canada has about one third of the world’s boreal forests. This great swath of green plays a vital role in regulating the earth climate, filtering out greenhouse gases and temporarily storing carbon in trees, roots and bogs.

After the drone of the Otter fades away into silence, we know exactly what to do. Eat lunch. We dig hungrily into the peanut butter, jam and tortillas, eating not only to fill our stomachs, but to reduce the weight of our outfit. Just thinking about portaging all this stuff is causing our aging joints and muscles considerable discomfort. All of a sudden I realize that in spite of canoeing and camping with Max for a decade, I have never been in the same canoe with him. With the plane fading away it’s too late to worry.  We set off into the maze of Lake Naococanne. The dark grey rain clouds that have dogged us all the way from Mistissini finally catch up to us. It seems that the weather has changed little since Low’s explorations. The southwest gales, accompanied by rain and fog, speak of Low’s reason for turning back. But we have nowhere to turn back to.  Naococanne is a MAZE lake. The lake bed is a vast flooded boulder field, never very deep and never very high. In the narrows between the many islands, points and peninsulas we sometimes find gentle currents.

On the same lake, we sometimes head upstream, sometimes downstream with no logic to the current. I pity Low whose strategy in large lakes was to follow the current to the outlet. No wonder he was lost and confused here. Nevertheless, we know from maps that the water we are canoeing on is part of the La Grande River, and that every drop will eventually pass through Hydro-Quebec turbines.

In two days, we reach the Nichicun River, after portaging around the rapids leaving Lac Sureau. This was Low’s goal in 1885, but the maze that is Lake Naococanne thwarted him. We are on the old canoe route between the Hudson’s Bay Company Post on Lake Nichicun to the coast, and on the track of Low’s explorations of 1893. We climb the highest hill we can see from the river. The ever present rain squalls (it rained twice during lunch) follow us up the hill, through open spruce forest, with thick, spongy light grey-green caribou moss between the trees, and thickets of alder, Labrador tea, and bog laurel.

On the north side of Nichicun Lake we can discern a small group of white buildings, the abandoned weather station, last occupied in the early 1980’s. We cannot see the site of the abandoned Hudson’s Bay post, a few miles to the SE of the white buildings. Way off to the northeast, we see the rugged country that stretches to the Caniapiscau reservoir. Climb any hill in this vast country, and, except for details, the basic view will be the same lakes upon lakes, hills upon hills, bogs and vast areas of burned spruce forest (we are standing in the middle of a burned forest at the top of the hill).

Low’s route now takes us from the waters of the La Grande River (or Big River, as it was known), through a series of over grown ponds to the watershed of the Eastmain River. Without copies of Low s original maps, we would be hopelessly lost. The route used by the Hudson’s Bay canoes is not evident from looking at maps, as it avoids some of the larger lakes. In this headwaters areas the portages are many as the lakes are small and the creeks have little water. Even with Low’s archival maps (drawn at 1:62,000) finding the start of portages connecting this maze of lakes, ponds, bogs and streams is a challenge. The portages have been little used in recent years and the landing sites have reverted to bush. We quickly become portage detectives, adept at finding clues to answer the question that we ask ourselves over and over again:  where would you put a portage trail?

Each portage has its own signature. Max scouts the shoreline in the canoe.  A few spruce poles lying in the water at the shoreline could be natural, or it could be the remains of a  dock. The Crees lay the tops of green spruce trees in the water for skidding fragile canoes up on to the shore. I walk parallel to the shore, about 50 feet inland of the thickets of shoreline vegetation looking for a faint trail or old blazes on upright trees, or even on trees lying on the ground. 

Surprisingly, a line of same-aged spruce trees often indicates an old trail. Spruce cones seem to germinate more often in the wet trail rut, and so leave a line of trees. At the campsites at each end of the trails, we find Voyageur trees, spruce whose tops had been cut to make bedding and from which new leaders have grown leaving a gap in the middle. The green line of cranberry winding through the light grey-green caribou moss   even this might indicate an old portage trail. Metal clues are more obvious, such as old metal items such as cans of condensed milk and remains of sheet metal stoves, and show up particularly after a fire has burned away the ground cover. At first, we are fooled by caribou trails, but soon learn to distinguish these from old human trails. But all this detective work takes time and Max figures that in the first seven days, we have spent about a day just looking for portages. By the time we reach the final over grown pond at the head of the Long Portage, we are beginning to feel that we can sniff out any old portage. 

The Long Portage leads from one tributary of the Eastmain to another. We figure that its reason for existence is to substitute a 200-foot drop on foot (good for HBC canoes) for a steep rapid filled river (bad for HBC canoes). Low didn’t say much about Long Portage even though he was coming uphill: “Portage is two miles in length passing ridge 200 feet high, terminating at a small lake 150 above its lower.” Discounting Low’s notes for the well maintained trail of his day, we expect something benign, downhill but a bit longer than the other portages. We land at a likely indentation in the shoreline, and start sniffing out the portage. Immediately, we find an old campsite about 30 yards inland. A faint trail leads west. We follow it 100 yards into a bog, where, of course, it disappears. This can’t be the portage, so we spend the next three hours thrashing through thick undergrowth parallel to the shoreline, looking for the trail. We seem to be the only large mammals in the area, and that makes us feel very much alone and isolated. There aren’t even any squirrels chattering. Finally, with the evening coming to an end, despondent, depressed and befuddled, we give up and camp at the old campsite where we first landed. We take one last walk into the bog, and this time a faint blaze on a silvered spruce tree in the middle of the bog. We splash through to the other side where we find another blaze. We’ve found the Long Portage! 

After the next morning’s hearty leftover spaghetti breakfast (in the rain of course), we head out. Our loads are heavy, the footing abysmal and the trail almost, but not quite, non-existent in the tangled bush. With two carries each, we decide to hopscotch way, carrying one load of packs until we stagger to a halt after about 450 yards we fetch the canoe and the remaining pack, and carry them about 200 yards beyond where we dumped the first load. The trail heads in a fairly straight line, but we keep losing it among the alder thickets and fallen trees and retreat to the last blaze and guess again. It is a painstakingly slow process. The trail dips into another bog, and then climbs into an old burn. Here the trail disappears for good, and an hour of scouting does not reveal it. We start orienteering with canoes and packs and head towards the creek through the boulders of the old burn. The rains catch up to us again, and we have lunch under the overturned canoe. The walking is horrific-fallen trees, sphagnum moss covering loose rock, fields of car sized angular boulders, clouds of black flies, and the ever present hiss of rain. Did I mention the intervening pond where we loaded and then unloaded our canoe 20 metres farther? 

Finally, at 5pm, we stagger like drunks through the burned out forest to the shores of Long Portage Creek. This two mile portage took us nine hours! We are so exhausted, we set up the tent during a break in the clouds and immediately fall asleep to the electronic buzzing sound of nighthawks gobbling up insects, only to wake up a little later to the normal sound of bugs and rain on the tent fly. 

Compared to the bone crushing agony of the Long Portage, the next day’s float down Long Portage Creek to Hecla Lake is delightful with only one portage! The sun shines on us as the current of the stream carries away the fatigue of yesterday, and the preceding week, of bugs, bogs, and portages. 

Cont'd

 

 

 

Survey crew on Lake Mistassini, 1885. The man in the foreground is Jim Macoun, son of James Macoun (Dominion botanist). He is holding a survey rod with two targets used to estimate distances with a transit, which they took every mile along the route.

 

 

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