The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  WINTER 2003

PAGE 4

OUTFIT 111
 

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Expeditions

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Canoesworthy

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Canoelit I

Canoelit II

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   Expeditions

Part  1  2 

Low's crew on Lake Chibougamau, 1892. This bark canoe would have been rented from the  HBC post on Lac St. Jean, where most of the crew came from.

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Neoskweskau: Down the Eastmain. The Eastmain River was named by the early Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders for its role as the first route inland on the east side of Hudson Bay. A trading post has stood at the mouth of the river since the early 1600s. Hecla Lake is an expansion in the Eastmain River where Long Portage Creek joins it. Hecla Lake has a good strong current running through it, and even a few swifts. We have been following small streams up to now, but when we reach the first rapids there is no doubt that we are now on a big, powerful river. While thunder rumbles overhead, the river thunders over a falls and boulder studded rapids that would turn our canoe, and ourselves, into mush. But on a positive note, we see the portage trail, and to us, it seems like a highway. We are like puppies, wagging our tails over how easy this portage is to find. At last we won’t lose time in looking for trails.

 However, dreams of Algonquin Park style portages soon disappear, as the trail ascends into an old burn. Trees have fallen down, forming layers of crisscrossed trunks like a giant game of pickup sticks. The fire hardened broken branches are lethal spears. The exposed boulders are slippery with wet lichens. A fall could be disaster. The trail ends with Max charging like a fullback with the canoe through a jungle of alder to the river. This is a pattern that repeated itself 18 times, by our count, on our descent of the Eastmain.

It is initially curious that none of the rapids and falls on this part of the Eastmain have names, although where names occur, they apply to portages. For example, there is a Sunday Portage, but no Sunday Rapids.  On our 140 mile descent of the Eastmain to Neoskweskau, one image remains paramount. In 1895 Low recorded that “the greater part of the region is destitute of forest trees, these having been removed by frequent extensive fires.” Based on much greater travel over most of the territory, he estimated that one third of the forests had been burnt in the past 25 years. 

The most spectacular waterfall on the Eastmain has no name, and is barely even mentioned by Low. He describes Pond Portage which bypasses this 55’ drop as “stream is ascended for 200 yards, and from there a 200 yard portage up a low hill leads to a small pond: crossing this, a rough road over boulders and through swamps for half a mile ends at a small channel of the river... “

Our shins and ankles can attest that the rough road is still just as rough, the boulders and swamps are all still exactly where Low encountered them! But Low does not mention that these falls, a great foaming sheet of white, broken by huge angular black boulders.   

 

To Lake Mistassini: Our trip down the Eastmain ends at Tide Lake (Low records this as named  account of the deposits of mud that cover the shores and islands), the site of an abandoned group of houses and the intermittent HBC post of Neoskweskau (first built in the 1790’s and older than Ottawa). The old post is now a large field of fireweed and raspberries where the buildings once stood. We camp at a well used Cree camp on a point near the site and are alarmed to find live ammunition on the ground beside our fire after we cooked the meal. It hailed in the morning. Here we turn south to go upstream on the Kawachagami or Clearwater River, Low’s route of 1892 when he came north from Lake Mistassini. The total distance is about 150 km, with about 20 portages. We thought it would be easy.

At a lunch break on our way upstream on the Kawachagami we put Vaseline on our hands. The skin on our hands is becoming very chapped and dried from being wet and cold all the time. Big mistake! Working up the rapids, our paddles slip and slither in our greasy hands. All attempts to paddle upstream dissolve in fits of laughter. However, finding portages is much easier on this portion. The old portages have been cleared recently with chainsaws and axes, although they have not been walked on recently.

“Did you know the portage starts here?” Max asks.  I looked for the Indian sign, I reply, holding up a plywood sign painted white, with the faded black letters in Cree syllabics and the transliteration in Roman letters PIMMAASKWFY AASIGH  KAPATAKAN. We find it significant that this short easy portage has a name. In the next few days we find such signs at many portages, but some have disappeared in forest fires. When Low came through here in 1892, he reported that fires had burned away most of the forest, and bare rocks covered the hills. Today, the land looks different, not because the forest is burnt, but because in this area many of the old burns and forest were burnt again six weeks ago. These fires sent plumes of smoke as far south as Washington DC in July. This is the bleakest land we’ve seen on a journey through bleak lands. 

The route from Kawachagami Lake to the main branch of the Rupert River is unbelievably convoluted as the small lakes and narrow creeks follow low spots between low hills. We cross a narrow boulder moraine which separates the waters flowing into the Eastmain from those flowing into the Rupert. Since leaving the Eastmain four days before, we have risen about 50 feet - this is one of the lowest heights of land we have ever crossed between two immense rivers. We now realize that the James Bay project can only be built with vast and relatively shallow reservoirs, build a dam and you raise the water level over a large area.  The low land also makes it easy to divert entire watersheds with a few low dykes and short canals and this is what will happen to the Rupert River. After a number of swampy portages through burns, we finally reach the main channel of the Rupert in rain showers. We continue upstream, heading to our food drop at the empty Camp Joliette located on a high just past the outflow of the Rupert from Lake Mistassini.

 

Down the Rupert: James Bay or Bust!  The final leg of our journey is to take two weeks to down the traditional canoe route between James Bay and Lake Mistassini, mapped by Low in 1885. Surprisingly, the route avoids the main branch of the Rupert route (which goes north before turning west), and takes a small branch of the Rupert, called the Natastan, which heads more or less directly west. We will leave the Natastan where it turns north, and go west to the Marten River, to follow it west until it joins the Rupert just above Lake Nemiscau.

From here, we will follow the Rupert to James Bay. Again, unless we had a good route map, this route is difficult to conceive and follow, but has the advantage of being shorter than the Rupert Route. This section of the route shows signs of being more travelled. Portages are, for the most part, cleared, and the paths obvious. Often the portages are marked by orange garbage bags, and other detritus now turned into trail markers. This helpful stuff may be unsightly but cannot be called garbage.  Everything has a function. 

Each day is much the same. We get up at dawn, to the sound of rain on the roof of our tent. With a bit of effort, we light a fire (here you have to know how to light a fire in a puddle!), and the oatmeal and coffee put on to boil. The wet tent and sleeping bags are stuffed into canoe packs lined with waterproof bags, and the rest of the gear stowed.

Lakes, rapids, portages all merge together, punctuated by rain squalls, and once, a thunderstorm at 9 am. After about 10 hours on the water, we stop at the least unlikely camping spot. Even with just one tent, we have difficulty in finding good spots. We cut branches from seven spruce trees to make padding for the tent above the soaking wet sphagnum hummocks. Another fire is lit, and the supper spaghetti, noodles and cheese, beans and rice, and even Thai green curried shrimp, put on to cook. A cup of hot chocolate, and a piece of chocolate bar and then we crawl into the tent, light our candle lanterns, and try to catch up to our journals before the drone of rain on the fly sends us to sleep.

Did I mention that my boots got wet only once? That was on the first day and they never dried out! How about Max’s rubber boots, which keep his feet continuously wet by filling up with water dripping from the brush on portages? The routine repeats itself without major interruptions, except for the day Max put lemon crystals into his morning coffee and oatmeal, thinking it was powdered milk, and then worried all day that he was ill because everything tasted sour.  

The Marten is a small river, sometimes flowing between higher hills and over scenic falls, and stands out as the most scenic part of the route in comparison with a lack of scenery on the earlier portion. We find the charred remnants of campfires left by other river travellers, and on a portage around a set of falls, we find five abandoned wanigans with (Camp) Keewaydin printed clearly on them. The rain is wearing us down. On one particularly wet day, we find that our electronic gear is not tough enough for James Bay weather. The video camera won’t work, one of the point and shoot cameras is useless, the batteries for the satellite phone are drained, and the solar panel is useless for recharging them. We haven’t seen the sun for days, and wonder if we will ever see it again. The only electronics functioning are our watches and flashlights, and they are made for SCUBA divers! 

When we at last reach the Rupert River again, (we last saw the Rupert just a few miles downstream of Lake Mistassini, when we followed the Natastan Branch), it has grown into a BIG river, a half-mile wide, with a powerful current and big falls and rapids. Here the river is about the size of the Ottawa River at Ottawa. Once the next phase of the James Bay project is completed, almost all the water in this section of the river will be diverted upstream to flow into the Eastmain. We are slapped in the face with the enormity of the next phase of the James Bay hydro project.

On June 17, 2002, Earthwild International released its Canada’s Top Ten Most Endangered Rivers list. Topping the list is the Rupert. Hydro Quebec will build a number of dykes to divert up to 92% of the Rupert’s flow into the Eastmain where it will follow the waters of that river to the turbines on the La Grande. While the river we are now paddling on will be almost empty, the water level behind the dykes upstream will be raised by more than 120 feet.

Its is hard to imagine the awesome beauty of the Rupert’s falls and rapids reduced to a streak of slime and mud.  We never did make it to James Bay. We just ran out of time but not food or energy. Low made it from Mistassini to Rupert House in 12 days, but he was travelling over a well marked route, in an empty 24-foot canoe with ten paddlers who knew the way. We meet our friend Don where the highway crosses the Rupert River, at Oatmeal Falls. We are darned glad to see him again.

The long rain is over. But we’ll be back.

 

 

 

 Winter 2003         Outfit 111 

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