The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  FALL 2003











In this issue

Front Page


Labrador Tragedy

Robert Service

Fall Packet


From the Editor


Back page





Part  1  2  3

Black Spruce Journals

                                                                                                                                      STEWART COFFIN

Russ Binning and Ralph Climb on the boisterous lower Romaine River 1980.

Chapter 12.

Naskaupi River

Accompanying us on the QNS&L [Ed. Note - the famous Quebec North Shore and Labrador railway that runs from Sept-Iles to Schefferville] at the start of our George River trip was a party of four headed for the Churchill River. During the train ride I became friendly with one member of that party, Dick Irwin, as we swapped canoeing stories. We later kept in touch by mail. In one of his letters, Dick invited me to join his group for a trans-Labrador adventure the following summer, 1968, which I readily accepted.

Our plan was to take the train to Schefferville and be transported by truck to Astray Lake. We would descend the Churchill (Grand) River to Churchill Falls in order to view this spectacular waterfall, then retreat back upstream and through the large lakes of central Labrador to Michikamau Lake, the source of the Naskaupi River, and descend this river to North West River on the Labrador coast. It sounded to me like quite a challenging route, and I had my doubts that it could be done in the allotted time of three weeks. Studying the maps, I discovered what looked to me like a shortcut around the large lakes by way of the Portage River. Even the name of the river sounded promising. The others readily agreed to this change. Little did I realize what a fateful decision that would prove to be.

Our first camp on this trip is memorable for two reasons. Sounds carry a long way over the surface of a lake, especially at night. In the stillness of the evening as we sat around the campfire we heard the haunting cry of wolves coming to us from afar. I had seen them a few times, but this is the only time I have ever heard this primordial sound of the wilderness, and it made quite an impression on all of us.

Also, burrowing deep inside my sleeping bag that night I listened to part of a Boston Patriots (as they were then known) practice football game. It seems that just before the start of the trip, Jane had acquired in some sort of box top deal a small and very cheap transistor radio, and I was curious to see if it would work in Labrador. I did not tell any of my companions. My partner, Jay Cushman, was a sound sleeper, and as soon as I heard him snore I knew it was safe to put the radio to my ear. Only one station came in that night – WBZ Boston. More about this later.

The side trip to see the falls was well worth the effort. We were one of the few canoeing parties, and probably the last, to see this spectacular waterfall before it was reduced to a trickle by the power project. Roads and other signs of construction were already much in evidence.

Our two-day ascent of the Portage River was arduous, but it probably shortened our trip by a day or two. We waded up miles of shallow rapids in frigid water sometimes up to our hips. The rocks on the river bottom were extremely slippery, and at one point I slipped and injured my knee badly. It couldn’t have happened at a worse place, since many long and difficult portages lay ahead. It bothered not only for the remainder of the trip but for several years afterward. Worst of all, it hindered my kneeling in the canoe. Not until five years later (1973) did I attempt another canoe trip, on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. There, while scouting at the very first rapid, I slipped and injured the same knee again. Another five years would pass before it was healed sufficiently to resume wilderness trips. It never bothered me again. I think it was a chip broken off my kneecap, and I have to admit that it was very stupid of me not to have it operated on and fixed promptly.

A short portage and downstream run brought us to Michikamau Lake, where we were windbound for a day. From there the route was all downstream, following in reverse direction the historic route of Mina Hubbard in 1905. We had a copy of her book with us, and were able to locate some of the places that she identified and photographed, especially the many falls. We knew of no other canoeing parties to have come this way in the intervening 63 years. We would probably be the last to see the country as it was, for soon Michikamau Lake would be dyked and flooded by Smallwood Reservoir, with its waters diverted to the power project. Sadly, we already saw survey marks.





 Fall 2003         Outfit 114 

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