Where There Are Innu
A month long canoe trip in Northern Quebec and Labrador
I found the route by pouring over topo maps. The river was labeled Adlatok and it runs from the Quebec border through Labrador to the ocean, ending not far from the community of Hopedale. Getting to the headwaters of the Adlatok would be a serious challenge; we would have to embark from the end of the tracks near Schefferville, Quebec, where we would begin to paddle and portage 170 miles and cross three heights-of-land just to reach them. When we finished the trip after a total of 350 miles, we could hop on a ferry in the remote coastal community of Hopedale, followed by an eight-hour vehicle shuttle to get back to our truck for the 24 hour drive home. The logistics worked, and with a little research, I found a 1982 trip report by a group that followed the exact same route. I also learned that no one has done the route since ’82—when I was only seven months old.
I was searching for a route that would put us on the world’s most immaculate brook trout fishing waters, but it wasn’t only fish I was after. Although this expedition is as tough as they come I knew it would give me a deep respect for the land as I traveled through it the way native people and fur traders of past times did; I find it’s moments on trips like this that are the most enriching.
I, of course, would bring food but we also wanted to live close to the land and planned on fishing, foraging, and waterfowl hunting for much of the 6000 plus calories we would each need per day. Among the most challenging parts of the trip would be the necessary 15 miles of portaging, including one 6 mile carry. We would also have to track our canoes up the powerful George River for 8 miles, then run and line lots of wild rapids on the Adlatok before a 30 mile paddle on the tempestuous Labrador Sea to reach our finishing point at Hopedale. Needless to say, we had our work cut out for us.
En Event! (French For “Onwards!”)
Clearly, my brother Ted knew what we were getting into because he asked me several times “why the hell are we doing such a hard trip?” I knew one thing for sure, although I have ventured on a few northern canoe odysseys before, this was going to be the toughest trip I have done. Ted and I would paddle in the sterns, our good buddy Will, a realtor (who is also a licensed Labrador fishing guide), would paddle in Ted’s bow, while new recruit Marty would team up with me. Marty is a long time family friend who knows how to rough it but has never taken on anything like this trip before; it would be Will’s first hard-core northern expedition too. We would all have to raise the bar to meet the challenge. On August 12th 2011, Bernie of Tunilik Adventures drove us from Schefferville, Quebec to our put-in at Attikamagen Lake, and there we stood: four friends with 350 miles of daunting wilderness in front of us. The expedition was officially under way.
Before we started the six mile portage on Day Eight, we had already run into a couple mishaps. Somehow both of our stoves broke irreparably and Ted almost poked out his eye one evening when gathering firewood. The eye looked bad—bright red, dripping bloody puss. If things weren’t bad enough for Ted, when we came back for the second load on the two-day portage, he popped a large cap off his front tooth trying to bite a knot out of a rope, He looked like a mess but he didn’t let it slow him down. Rather than carrying our canoes and remaining gear for our second trip on the backbreaking six mile portage, we threw our canoes in a creek and dragged them up it, gaining 77 yards in elevation to get to the same camp site we used the night before. The following morning we started lake hopping and at one point I was walking by myself carrying a heavy load through an old burn. The intense stretch of portaging we were enduring on this part of the trip was to cross the height-of-land between the De Pas and George Rivers. Halfway through the burnt portage I stopped to break and a family of caribou walked passed me, no more than 20 feet away. I stood motionless as they smelled the air, but the regal creatures didn’t seem to see me. Bear sign was everywhere in the old burn and I wondered if my encounter could have just as easily been with a bear. I didn’t know at the time but in a few days it would be.
Tracking Caribou And A “Cat”
Tracking is the act of walking on the shore with two long ropes and pulling your canoe up river. You prevent your canoe from dragging along the bank behind you by controlling its angle with ropes as you move forward. It took us almost two days to track up the George; halfway up we camped by a great fishing hole on Day Twelve. Surprisingly, we only glimpsed one caribou as we traveled up river. The George River caribou herd was once the largest in the world. Totaling 385,000 in 2001 it is the most accessible herd for the majority of Americans and Canadians to hunt. Tags were cut heavily in 2011 because scientists believe the herd fell to 75,000 animals in 2010 and is rapidly declining; current estimates put the herd at around 50,000. The reason for this is unknown but over-hunting, natural cycles, scarcity of food sources, parasites, disease, predation, effects of climate change, or a combination of all these factors have been put on the table. The fact that top biologists with modern technology at their fingertips do not know the cause of the decline is one of many examples highlighting how little we truly know about our natural world. Continuing on through a wide, island-studded river after conquering the George, we kept catching pike and trout including a couple of 9 lb lakers. But the going was still tough in Northern Quebec because we had to travel against the current between large lakes until we reached Labrador and the Adlatok.
We were deep in the wilderness when we made an open water crossing on ominous Lac Aux Goelands. Winds blew strong and whitecaps broke as we paddled hard across a large bay. Waves hit our starboard side and a few splashed over the gunwale. Halfway through the dangerous crossing we stopped to bail in the lee of a small treeless island and then pushed on for the safety of the opposite shore. The next day we were wind bound as Goelands threw up large breakers. With two spruce trees we turned our canoes into a catamaran and when the wind died down enough, we completed a five mile crossing in our cat. It’s scary to be in the middle of a big body of cold water when you’re in a canoe; if you dump out there, you die.
A Surprise Encounter
Continuing up in elevation we finally reached the barren high country of the Quebec-Labrador border and the headwaters of the Adlatok on Day Eighteen. Trees are scarce in the stark but beautiful landscape that is the traditional hunting territory of many “Naskapi” Innu natives (despite the similarity between the words Innu and Inuit, the words and cultures are not related). Innu used to follow the Adlatok River on snowshoes in the winter towing sleds. They travelled all the way to the trading post in the Inuit community of Hopedale. This is why the river is known as Adlatok, an Inuit name meaning “Where there are Innu”.
On Day Nineteen, we were still in the headwaters when we saw people. Turns out they had flown into the remote area at great expense to build an Innu healing lodge near a landing strip that was once a Mid-Canada Defense Line station manned by Americans in the early stages of the Cold War. The work crew was shocked to see us, and they offered us a cabin. It felt surreal to be cooking our fish on a stove and drying out our wet stuff around a warm fireplace.
The surrounding scenery became increasingly dramatic after we left the cabins. We soon portaged around a powerful 100 foot waterfall where the river plunged into a gorge. The fishing was legendary—we were catching brook trout on every cast in some spots, four pounders were not uncommon and I caught a five pounder. We even hooked into a land locked Arctic char above the falls. Vegetation was slowly getting thicker as we lost elevation, and with the decline came rapids that needed to be run and lined.
On Day Twenty-one, we were running a mile long class one rapid that feeds the Adlatok’s huge canyon where the river drops 90yds in four miles as it rages at the bottom of 350 foot walls. Mid rapid, Marty noticed a sow bear and two cubs on top of the canyon wall. We safely made it into a large eddy before the porthole of the canyon and told Ted and Will that we had company. The bears were right on our portage route and if it hadn’t been for Marty noticing them we would have walked straight at them. All of us got out of the canoes and walked to where we could see the bears (I had my rifle for safety). When we spotted the sow, she intently looked at us before beginning to ascend the steep hill, heading right for us. Halfway down, she waited for her two cubs to climb a tree and then kept coming. I fired a warning shot that sent rock dust in the air in front of her. The bear casually turned around and then stopped to wait for her cubs. Problem bear protocol for a black bear says make noise and look big to scare them away, so we promptly stood close together and I yelled “Beat it!” Marty came in with “Get out of here, bear!” That’s when the sow turned around and started aggressively running at us with her back hairs raised. I looked behind me to see Ted, Will, and Marty speed walking in the other direction. “Don’t run, guys, don’t run! Stand close together,” I said. “Easy for you to say, buddy, you have the gun,” Ted came back with. After the bear made it out of a patch of alder bushes, she was now walking slowly towards us rather than charging. “If it gets past the canoes, it’s game over,” Will said. Then, Ted fired a bear banger that blew up right in the bear’s face. She quickly took off after that, but we decided not to start the portage that day. Up river was a rapid, the opposite bank was a cliff and swift current, in front of us was the canyon and in the only other direction there was an angry sow and two cubs.
The canyon took us two and a half full days to get around, but there would be a reward waiting for us at the end of our toils. We by-passed the canyon by following a chain of six lakes to the north where we walked on compass bearings and leap-frogged our gear on the longer carries, all while being gnawed on by relentless swarms of black flies. Signs from the three bears were everywhere—if that sow wanted to get us, she would have gotten us. It’s a good thing we managed to scare her, but we always carried a gun with us when portaging. To finish the portage we followed a well worn bear trail down the steep slope to the canyon’s base and then enjoyed zipping along in the miles of swift current below it. Letting the current do the work, we gazed up at soaring cliffs as quixotic waterfalls rushed off their tops and fell hundreds of feet before crashing on the jagged rocks below, their waters eventually joining the Adlatok’s. We landed lake trout fishing the mouths of these tributaries and as we traveled down river, Will and Ted jump shot got two Canada geese with a single 3 ½ “ shell. We enjoyed spit roasted goose and trout for dinner that night, and things were good.
After making good time in the swifts we moved slowly through the major whitewater section of the trip. The rapids came one after the other with no break; many were long and boulder-ridden technical runs that posed a serious pinning threat, while others were high volume runs with large powerful waves. Tough bushwhack portaging and long linings broke up the run-able rapids. The work was hard and food was scarce. We call these days “The hungry days” because on the night of Day Twenty-five the mercury dropped to 23⁰F, and the fish wouldn’t bite for days. We made it through the rapid section unscathed; however, we did have one upset when Marty and I dumped on a relatively unassuming ledge, possibly overconfident after nailing a couple tough runs. I remember yelling “We’re blowing it!” as we approached the ledge; this was not what Marty wanted to hear while he was uneasily waiting for me to call out an appropriate stroke. Although we failed on the run we executed a great rescue and nothing was lost or broken. The rapids were fun but getting to camp famished with only a skimpy dinner to devour was making us a little edgy.
Once through the intense stretch of whitewater, the rapids were more spread out and we started really making time trying to get back on schedule. We traveled 40 miles on Day Twenty-eight and passed a couple of mining prospecting operations on the way. The camps consisted of groups of small semi- permanent structures supplied by helicopters. Rich deposits of minerals lie under the surface of Labrador’s wilderness; nickel and copper are mined in an open pit mine to the north of the Adlatok. Large deposits of uranium have been found to the South and to the North near Ungava Bay. Gold deposits have been discovered and diamond prospecting is also under way on the Labrador coast; some believe the precious gems will soon be found in Northern Labrador. It is safe to say we could have been paddling over potential gold mines.
Remnants Of The Past
Approaching the end of the river and our last portage of the trip we wanted to add a few meals to our dwindled food stash before we headed out onto the ocean where bad weather could pin us down for a couple days or more. We saw some Canada geese near the head of our last portage. Slipping the canoe along shore, Ted paddled as Will stayed motionless in the bow with the shotgun, and on gliding into range, they got two birds. The last portage on the Adlatok took us over some spectacular country where the river rushed through a thin canyon and over two falls which poured smoothly into round deep pools at the base of stunning mountains. Ted took the first cast and all I heard was the buzz of his drag, but the huge fish broke him off; we thought it was probably a lake trout. I took a few casts with our fly rod and saw a huge fish follow my fly to within fifteen feet from shore and then inhale it. I paused for a second before I set the hook. Several epic jumps later and I landed a 15 ½ lb Atlantic salmon by beaching it on the rocks.
Then Ted caught a 6 ½ lb brook trout, shattering my old record of 5lbs. The famine was over, and we feasted that night. The next morning when our bows hit saltwater our surroundings would change dramatically as we transitioned into the Inuit and polar bear country of treeless barren rock.
An ancient inukshuk marked the point where we were trapped by winds on Day Thirty-two, the communication towers of Hopedale were visible three miles to the north but good judgment told us to stay put until the winds broke. The Hopedale area was a meeting place before the community was established, its Inuit name, Agvituk or “Place place where there are Whales” seemed fitting as we watched a pod of minke whales swim past the point. A seal carcass on the beach did not reassure our fears of a polar bear encounter. We grew restless as the late afternoon sun cast long shadows on the ground while the wind was still strong. Our ferry was leaving Hopedale the next day. After eating the rest of our goose cooked on a fire of drift wood and a discarded half burnt toboggan, Ted found a pile of chert knaps, a stone that only occurs 250 miles to the north, the small pile of rock flakes undoubtedly remnants of arrow or spear head makings in past times. The deeper story they hold may be lost forever but they told us that we were not the first to seek shelter on this point.
The Crack Of Dawn
Anxiety grew as we restlessly watched day fall into night, the winds still strong. I slept by the fire, waking every hour throughout the night to check on the weather. I ran out of wood before first light and hugged the fire stones for warmth. I woke up with a shiver to see a dim light spread across the sea; the sun hadn’t broken the horizon yet but I could not hear the wind. I woke up the crew at 5:15am; we quickly broke camp and chomped down our last moldy pitas for breakfast before pushing off. The wind was cold and my ungloved hands grew numb in the sea spray. We paddled all-out across the bay and I looked back to see Ted and Will silhouetted against the sun as it came up over the distant horizon. Rounding the last point, the wind picked up again so we turned our bows into it and followed the shore for safety. We didn’t let up until we reached Hopedale, and at 8:00am on September 13th, Day Thirty-three and the expedition was officially over. After we climbed out of the canoe Marty pulled a moldy piece of pita out of his pocket and took a bite. Ted asked for some and Marty handed it to Ted, who immediately threw it in the sea. We laughed and walked into town for bacon and eggs.
The Lasting Impression Of A Temporary Wilderness
The fishing we experienced on the trip was amazing, and we did pretty well with goose hunting too. There is no doubt that the country we passed through is rich in natural resources, many of them below the surface – but I enjoyed Northern Quebec and Labrador most for a seemingly invariable resource, its dramatic beauty, a beauty that only remains true when held up by something inconstant and very un-renewable, the remoteness of its road-less wilderness. In the rugged, far-flung wastes of Labrador and Northern Quebec, self-sufficiency is a must and true freedom can still be felt to the core. When this feeling transpires, the traveler gains a bond to the land through a combination of deep respect and profound recognition of its complex beauty which incorporates all that is around them, fish, animals, plants, water, and the land itself.
To understand what real wilderness is, I think about it this way. The most remote place in the lower 48 states lies only 18 miles away from a road. By Day Two of our journey we were 20 miles from a road that only connects to the rest of the country by train. The Adlatok River lies two-hundred air miles north of the closest road. Unfortunately, roads destroy areas that are in a state of true wilderness. It is easy to think “who cares if there is just one road” but strong evidence shows us this is wrong. Not long after a road is constructed everything around it for a fifty mile radios will never be the same. It may be difficult to understand this until you have spent time in truly wild country, where ecosystems remain intact and where rivers and lakes teem with fish that have never seen a lure. Roads into the wilderness are usually built for hydro electrical developments or by large mining and logging companies that are often harmful to the environment. Soon after come people, vehicles, increased hunting and fishing pressure, and unfortunately poachers. It is only a matter of time until an area gets fished out and polluted. This is especially true for northern regions where the growth rate and reproductive rate of fish like brook and lake trout is very slow. We often don’t realize how good the fishing and hunting once was in our favorite spots before our time. For some it is easy to forget that grizzly bear and bison roamed the American plains in large numbers, red wolves were found in New York State, and jaguars in California. Eastern elk and eastern cougar were once abundant in the eastern states, their range extending well into Canada before the sub-species were driven to extinction largely by the hands of man (a tiny population of each sub-species may still exist in Canada). Stories like this are a dime a dozen. The way that National Geographic explorer in residence Wade Davis describes the threatened sacred head waters can be applied here. Imagine how it would have been to experience the Great Plains when the bison herd numbered thirty million strong, or to see Yosemite Valley before 3.7 million people visited it every year. This is the opportunity that still exists in Northern Quebec and Labrador. The cry of the depleting George River caribou herd echoes the historic destruction of wild life populations and intact ecosystems across the continent. Unfortunately, it also reflects the current depletion of caribou herds all across the North.
The situation is quickly getting worse; Quebec has initiated something they call Plan Nord. Above the 49th parallel the province intends to secure eighty billion dollars for the construction of northern roads and infrastructure over the next 25 years. On the list of plans is an all season road that will travel north across the tundra all the way to the Inuit community of Kuujjuaq (formerly Fort Chimo) near Ungava Bay. The project is moving forward under the guise of sustainable tourism. Under much of Northern Quebec lies soft metal called lithium. It is great for making batteries because it is powerful and lithium batteries do not have a memory, meaning they will recharge fully every time. They are currently expensive because the demand outweighs the supply. Lithium mining is set to boom with new age battery powered vehicles already on the market. I see the irony in this as many energy experts do, the environmental impact of mining for the metal could outweigh the positive outcome of fewer emissions. It is the mining companies that will pave the way (literally) for increased logging, dams, and eventually, tourism development in Northern Quebec. It does not take a top notch biologist to see that the explosion of infrastructure will negatively affect the recovery of the George River caribou herd.
Would billions of dollars not help to extensively bolster tourism in the area without the construction of mines and roads? There are a lot of interesting cultural discoveries to be made in the region’s aboriginal communities, along with endless hunting, fishing, sightseeing, and adventure travel opportunities. Roads will make the region easier for tourists to access but it is the opportunity to see and feel the land in a state of true wilderness that will leave a profound impact on visitors as it did on me. In a world with a rapidly growing population you don’t have to look too far into the future to see that undeveloped areas could become a world-renowned tourist destination as several remote areas in Canada and Alaska already are. On learning about Plan Nord, I was saddened to think that my grand-children will probably never get the chance to see this country in its natural state as I have.