The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  WINTER 2004

PAGE 4

OUTFIT 115
 

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In this issue

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Canoesworthy

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Canoelit

 

 

 

   Expeditions

The Pull of The Lure

Part  1  2 

 

 

 

Hope Lake or Bust!

July 14, 2003 – 2,725 meters of hills, gullies, swamps and ponds. Hundreds upon hundreds of greenhead flies buzzing loudly and fiery swarms black flies. The hottest temperatures and brightest sun of the entire trip; reaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit by early afternoon! Nine long hours of backbreaking labor, navigational disagreements and near total exhaustion. It was the single most difficult day of portaging we had ever endured, but when all was said and done we had made it. Hubbard, Wallace and Elson must have felt the same sense of relief and elation when they caught their first glimpse of Hope Lake through the spruce trees. We walked in their footsteps today and there was more than one occasion that I chanted their names aloud as I struggled under the weight of heavy loads. Today was a day like no other to test a man’s mettle and a day that I will not soon forget.

The Big Blue

The only thing more stressful than crossing a big lake in a small fully loaded canoe is worrying about it before hand. Smallwood Reservoir (Lake Michikamau) was our biggest unknown from a planning standpoint and we knew our success or failure on the Big Blue would come down to one uncontrollable factor: wind. We reached the reservoir on the evening of July 20th after completing some fairly technical lining on a nameless river that cascaded into a shallow bay. Smallwood appeared to be about 15 feet low and there was an incredible amount of firewood piled up on her shores. We were greeted by glass conditions that evening and much to our utter and complete amazement very favorable paddling conditions persisted day-after-day and we were able to paddle 75 miles north across this formidable obstacle in just 4 1/2 days!

My memory of Smallwood is marked by spectacular sunsets that threw pink and yellow light onto giant wispy clouds and reflected hues of turquoise and hints of purple and light blue onto her glasslike surface. It was so still at times that it seemed as though the ripples from a single paddle stroke would stretch to every shore. Although these near perfect conditions graced us, the section was still quite challenging. Aches and pains from the upstream phase still lingered and Caroline was just working into her paddling arms. The sheer size of the reservoir posed mental challenges as well. Distant hills remained distant even after a solid day of paddling. So it was easy to feel as though we weren’t getting anywhere.

The Mighty George

It was a dream that Hubbard never realized and it was like a miracle for us. To ride the back of the mighty George River is to experience a natural amusement park ride like no other. It’s a massive, yet manageable, river that is broken into three main sections, each with its own distinct character: the Upper George, Indian House Lake, and the Lower George.

On July 26th we portaged over the height of land that separates Labrador from Quebec, which is only 200 meters wide and one foot higher than the lakes to the north and south. Hubbard Lake, Elson Lake and Cabot Lake (the traditional starting point for many George River trips) quickly followed. We entered the Upper George on the 27th, paddled five or six rapids and spent the following day windbound, which worked out well because we needed a break. The next day we had the pleasure of watching over 100 caribou cross a fast water section above Lake LaCasse. We then came to the point where the George splits into three channels, each with an impressive gorge. We took the east channel and portaged river-right around the long Class IV & V drop.

August 3, 2003 – Silence and solitude atop a 1,900-foot barren peak above Indian House Lake.  A strong north wind prevented forward progress for most of the day, so we took to the hills that rose up from the western shore to stretch our legs and get a better view of our surroundings. The lake is impressive from this vista. But it is what you can’t see that truly boggles the mind. It is only on top of the largest rock at the very top of this hill with my noise to the wind that I can remove my headnet and get a moment of peace from the horrendous swarms of black flies that literally fill ever square foot of this landscape. It is a winged firestorm of misery that defies mathematical comprehension.

We zipped through the first Class II section on the Lower George, traveling two miles in a near effortless ten minutes! The expedition was starting to feel like a vacation. A full day of toil was required on the Susan to make such mileage and we now found ourselves riding a giant ramp to the sea; content to watch majestic, boulder-strewn hills rise up from the riverbanks as we closed in on Ungava. There would be only three portages in 300 miles on the George. We were able to bypass many of the larger rapids on river-right by either paddling sneak routes or by lining. Our closest call came when Brad yelled, “Ah ... paddle hard, paddle hard!” We powered up and over the left edge of a 5-6 foot wave that dumped enough water over the gunwales to fill the canoe up halfway. We braced and managed to “steer” ourselves to shore.

The Miserable Shack

The weather had been beautiful for eight straight days and with just 12 miles to go to reach the village we pulled into a small cove to set up camp for the evening. We had read about the strong tidal influence in this part of the river, but none of us had ever actually seen a 17-foot tide, so we didn’t quite know what to expect. Now you see it, now you don’t! We could barely believe our eyes. It was as if someone had pulled the plug from the bottom of Ungava Bay. The cove we had paddled into had been completely drained by the outgoing tide. To make matters worse, a storm blew in overnight and the four of us spent the entire next day huddled in an eight-by-ten foot shack as gale force winds drove streams of water through cracks in the walls. Fifty days is a long time to spend with your own shadow, let alone with two or three other people. But we managed to pass the time by attempting to answer age-old questions such as, “Should we have beans and rice or rice and beans for dinner?” and we gained a deep appreciation for the weather resistant qualities of plywood. Conditions improved the following morning and we timed the tide well enough to exit the cove and set out for the village. We reached Kangiqsualujjuaq in the early afternoon of August 12th after battling a very strong outgoing tidal current that made our final crossing of the mighty George a difficult, yet memorable one.

Reflections

It is amazing to read a piece of history and then actually have the opportunity to pass through a landscape that has remained virtually unchanged since the moment those early explorers passed through it. There were many times this summer that I half expected to see Hubbard, Wallace and Elson walking just ahead when I looked up while dragging the boat over rocks or while portaging heavy loads through the nearly impenetrable spruce forests and alder thickets. It was almost as if we were doing the trip with them. There are so few places left where one has the opportunity to feel a true connection to history. Labrador’s vast interior is one of those special places.

The story of the 1903 Hubbard expedition is a timeless example of the power of the human spirit in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It also speaks volumes about the mysterious pull wilderness has on the human heart. If the time I spent in Hubbard’s midst taught me anything, it is that the Lure of the Labrador Wild is alive and well and that his story will likely endure for another 100 years.

 

Troy M. Gipps resides in Grafton, Massachusetts. He is the Webmaster for wildernesscanoe.org as well as a major in the U.S. Reserve Forces. Readers are invited to take a virtual tour of this expedition  on his web site. He can be reached by e-mail at troy@wildernesscanoe.org.

 

 

 

Entering Grand Lake

View of Lake Hope from portage

 Winter 2004         Outfit 115 

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