Down the Nastapoka River

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September 7th 2013
Published: September 7th 2013
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One of my first love in life what canoeing. It had been a long time since I had the chance to do a river trip. But in August, I had the privilege to be part of an expedition on the Nastapoka River, which is now part of the newest Quebec National Park: Tursujuq Park. Our goal was to map the river: the rapids, the portages, the best spots for camping, etc. for the future visitors to the park. The contract was given to the LERPA, affiliated with the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi and the mapping project was combined with a leadership course that is part of the outdoor program of UQAC. So there was 11 students with us, 2 teachers, one coordinator and a film maker, for a total of 16 people including myself.

This river was actually on Hydro Quebec's radar for many years, where they had planned to build a dam. Needless to say, it is a powerful river with amazing waterfalls and it was a big and long battle between Hydro Quebec, the Cree, the Inuit and other groups to protect that river from development. As soon as we got on the river, we realized how important it was to protect this jewel. It is a very remote river, but so wild, majestic and inspiring. We spent about 3 weeks on the river, for a total of about 180 km, from the Seal Lake to the mouth of the river. There was not a single day where we didn't say "waw"! The scenery changes constantly, from flatter country, beaches and rolling hills to canyons. From wide, shallow and calm water to narrow channels, rapids and falls. From open toundra to fairly thick forest. We saw little wildlife (probably due to the size of our group), but we had the chance to see a few freshwater seals, a species a risk that is found nowhere else in Canada. Well, we also saw quite a few black flies...

We were extremely lucky with the weather, with only 3 days of rain and grey skies, the rest was sunny and warm, which made the trip even more enjoyable. The experience was incredible in many ways, partly because of the privilege to see such practically untouched wilderness, the pleasure to paddle down really nice rapids and of being outside for such a long period of time. It was also quite an adventure at the "human" level: sharing the experience with people who had never been in the north before, future guides who were willing to learn about leadership skills, sharing the passion for the outdoors and for other cultures and places, with incredible teachers. I have no words to describe how much I enjoyed this experience. It was challenging, but so rewarding.

It is also impossible to describe in a few lines the best moments and experiences, and the feeling of seeing the incredible waterfalls that are near the mouth of the river. Especially the Twin falls and the Nastapoka falls. Both are huge and powerful. We spent a few hours in each place, in awe, speechless and moved. TWin falls was the most memorable and we were able to lie down on a big flat rock, very near the first falls, and feel the vibration caused by the rushing water. It was dizzying, mesmerizing and powerful. Of course, we also had to portage those obstacles, but it was also very enjoyable and with such a large group of enthusiastic people, everything went well. Even the last rapids, which was long and in a steep canyon, and quite a bit bigger than what it had looked like the day before viewed from the ridges, was done without anybody dumping their canoes. And after that last big challenge, we drifted down, taking our time to appreciate what we had just experienced and let the intensity of the moment sink in.

The last day of the trip, which happened to be my birthday, was no less memorable. After a peaceful and quiet morning, we portaged the last falls in a storm, with lightning and thunder, hail and rain, in a very thick forest of tall alder and slippery rocks. Then the rain stopped, but the fog came in. Some Cree from Whapmagoostui were supposed to meet a group of INuit in Umiujaq and travel together in the community boat to meet us at the mouth of the river, where the Nastapoka meets the Hudson Bay. UNfortunately, the Cree couldn't land in Umiujaq that day and missed the boat ride, but about 20 Inuit came to meet us. We heard the boat before we could see it in the fog, and the INuit set up their camp next to ours. They were extremely proud and happy to great their first official visitors, following the official creation of the park. We spent the evening together in a big wall tent, shared bannock and tea, listening to stories from the elders, translated by a young leader of the community. We also had the immense privilege of having throat signers present for the occasion. Young babies to elders, it was such an incredible moment, and quite an experience for everybody, especially for the students who had never been in contact with the inuit culture.

The next morning we played inuit games on the beach. The wind was very strong so we waited for the tide to be lower before we got ready to go. We finally packed everything up and got on the community boat. Our canoes and gear were put on another boat that left before us. Once we were all on the boat, the captain realized that the tide was now too low, and we were touching bottom: no way we could leave. We waited 3 hours in the cold, wondering if we would make it out or have to camp without our gear, but finally around 7 pm, we tried to get out of the bay. The wind was even stronger and once we left the cove, the waves were insane. It was a big boat, but still, I think most of us were very scared. Some even vomited. We were traveling extremely slowly, we only had 40 km to go but it took over 4 hours. Luckily after the first hour and a half, we could travel near some islands which protected us from the big waves and the rest of the trip was way more enjoyable. We arrived late in Umiujaq, but another group of Inuit and some Cree were there to greet us and welcome us to their village. Waw! What an experience.

We spent two days in Umiujaq before we finally said goodbye. The students and teachers had a charter to go south, and I was heading north. I think it took some time for each one of us to get used again to a more regular life, but the Nastapoka River is now for all of us a very special place, and we all have incredible memories that we will cherish for the rest of our lives.

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