In the Footsteps of Herb

There is no book I have read more times than Herb Pohl’s posthumously published, The Lure of Faraway Places. Herb’s words are filled with magnificent imagery which the avid paddler cannot help but to dream up when they recall their own fantastic routes crisscrossing Northern Quebec and Labrador. And that is what we did, with this book in hand a dream was created, to piece together three different Herb Pohl routes and make it into one fantastic journey to the fabled Mistastin watershed. 

If the first day of our 667-kilometre expedition through the Labrador wilderness was any indication of how the rest of it would go, we were surely fooled. We set our canoes in the water by the train tracks at Menihek Landing, just north of Labrador City, on a day that remained as clear and calm as it was when the sun first broke the horizon. With all the enthusiasm four excited young men could muster, we fired out of the gate and covered a cool 54 kilometres by dinner — little did we know that this would be the longest distance we would travel on any day during our 35-day, Boreal 2 Barrenlands canoe expedition. That first evening around the campfire, with the sunlight fading, the sky grew overcast and rain began to fall. And the rain continued to fall almost daily for the rest of the trip. 

Group photo on the Quebec/Labrador border and the headwaters of the De Pas River

In order for us to reach our objective for this expedition, the Mistastin watershed, we portaged, paddled, lined, tracked and grunted our canoes up six river systems and down five. To begin, we paddled through a series of large lakes: Astray, Dyke, Freeman and Attikamegan, reaching eastward toward the Labrador/ Quebec border and over a height of land into the De Pas river, a well-established canoe route. We were required to leave the well-trodden path of the De Pas and strike out east toward another height of land at the Labrador border. In order to do this we used a portage route pioneered by Stew Coffin in 1982, also used two years later by Herb, the same year I was born. We followed this unmarked portage trail for three days alongside Pardy’s Creek and through a series of small lakes to an unnamed river which carried us down to the George River. Once we reached the George River we tracked our canoes upstream, holding onto the bow and stern lines, into Geolands Lake or White Gull Lake. Here we were forced to take our first rest day due to a nasty front which brought strong easterlies and thunderstorms. It was on this nondescript island that we stumbled upon a previous traveler’s fire pit, long since forgotten and filled with lichen and bits of charred wood. Could It have been one of Herb’s campsites? We took the day to replenish our stock of fish, to nap, to catch up on our journals and to prepare ourselves for our first big open-water lake crossing. 

Goeland Lake is an expansive body of water.  We woke before the sunrise in an attempt to put as many kilometers behind us as we could before the wind kicked up. By mid-afternoon we had paddled 34 km and found ourselves basking in the sun at the foot of an esker running east- west in the northeast corner of the lake. Clothing and equipment spread out far and wide as if there was a garage sale. From here we followed a portage route pioneered by Herb, through the headwaters of the Dumans River to reach Lac Mauchault. It was a tricky 14-kilometre stretch of black spruce bog, boulder fields and rivers. On our maps the route appeared to be navigable but as Herb had noted in his journals it would take considerable work. 

We found ourselves standing on individual boulders in the pouring rain, shivering with cold, eating chocolate bars and wondering, how are we ever going to get our canoes through this. 

Beyond Lac Michault our route took us over another height of land, continental divide of watersheds, and back into Labrador through a series of lakes.  It was in this section that we were finally rewarded for our hard work and toil. Through the headwaters of the Notokwanon River we paddled through lakes surrounded by barren hills, void of almost all trees. We took time to explore these hills. The water runs cold and clear, filled with landlocked arctic char, remnants from the last ice age. A short portage took us into the Mistastin watershed and the beginning of our descent to the sea.

All the rain we had received up until this point of our expedition actually helped us negotiate this section of river. Herb passed by this point on his way north in the summer of 1996 noting that the passage was “Too steep, too rocky and not enough water.” He returned to this place years later with fellow paddler Pat Lewtas and added another caveat to the list, too many bugs. He wasn’t wrong. Our experience travelling through here was without a doubt very different from that experienced by Pat Lewtas and Herb in 2001. The upper Mistastin River presented us with the challenge of paddling a highly technical, very steep, boulder-filled waterway. There was no way to portage and we would spend hours precariously lining and wading our boats downstream, usually fumbling with our footing on the slippery, awkward river bottom. The sections we could paddle required an ability to make accurate decisions in moving water, quick reactions and a strong backpaddle. We spent two days negotiating the upper Mistastin River.      

When we finally reached Mistastin Lake, we had endured 17 consecutive days of rain. By some miracle, that evening around the campfire, the fog lifted and for a brief moment in time the sun came out. In complete silence we all stopped what we were doing and just kind of stared, pulling our hats off and running our hands through our hair in total disbelief. The sun and calm weather that followed was a gift, a true honour to be able to experience Mistastin Lake in all its glory. With the fine weather we took the opportunity to paddle out into the lake to explore the large island inhabiting its centre. We wandered its barren hills for hours, gorging on blueberries. From here we undertook our longest open crossing of the entire trip.  Nearly 7 km of open water separated the island from the point of land we aimed our canoes toward. All along the northern shore of the lake the barrenlands stood, layer after layer of growing hills spanning off into the distance further than the eye could see. Snow lay on the flanks of all the south-facing hills, often reaching the edge of the lake. 

Portaging over the Quebec/Labrador border into the De Pas River watershed

The characteristics of the river changed dramatically below Mistastin Lake. Here there was a significantly larger volume of water that ran crystal clear and very cold. The Mistastin River has carved a path through the lake’s surrounding hills which were created by a meteor impact. As we paddled through what appeared to be giant gates, we could see mountains rising steeply out of the river on either side only to be cut off by the low grey cloud cover, creating an ominous scene as the river began to take grip of our canoes and pull them downstream. An insistent drizzle and steady wind did not make the paddling very comfortable. The river now flowed fast and steady with many rapids along its course, many of which were too long to accurately scout, leaving us to run them on sight. The power and size of the water surprised all of us.

We would travel a mere 6 km on this section which would take us a gruelling two full days of portaging dispersed with the odd paddle.

Without incident we reached a series of small lakes contained by an esker running north-south on its east side. From the bottom of these lakes the Misitastin river begins a wild and boisterous ride to its confluence with the Kogaluk river. Little did we know that the work we had undertaken to get to this point paled in comparison to what lay ahead.  

We would travel a mere 6 km on this section which would take us a gruelling two full days of portaging dispersed with the odd paddle. The first obstacle we faced in this section of the river was a waterfall dropping over 45 metres from start to finish, falling into a geological fault running perpendicular to the course of the river, creating a spectacular scene.  

Noah and Dave gaze over one of the lower Mistasin River’s large waterfalls. This place fascinated Herb Pohl for many years.

Below the first drop the river enters one of the most incredible places that could be imagined by any paddler. For a kilometer the river flows dead calm through a narrow canyon of only 30 feet wide with sheer walls rising above the river to over 50 feet in height. The surface of the water remained calm as glass, yet moving steadily. Only the sound of water dripping from the heights above echoing between the walls reminded us we were not in a dream.  At one point in the middle of the canyon, a paddler cannot see a start nor an ending, only rock walls all around him. The only caveat of entering the canyon was that it contained two sets of rapids which required a near-heroic scout over the top of a mountain to see if it was even possible to paddle at all.  Once a commitment has been made to paddling through the canyon, there is no turning back, no exit strategy and no possible portage. The rapids must be negotiated.    

Looking from above, the rapids looked like a manageable, straightforward series of maneuvers, but again we were all caught by surprise at the sheer size and power of the water.  Sitting in our boats, spray decks on, paddles in hand, at the top of the exit rapid from the canyon, it was impossible not to be scared. A giant slide of blue-green water flowing in the shape of an S, wrapping around a massive boulder on the left and a rockslide a little bit further downstream on the right. The river built up its energy only to release it at the bottom in a series of towering haystack waves which ran out directly into the base of a cliff. 

From this point the river continues its furious course over six more unrunnable drops which all required arduous scouting of portages before even carrying a load over. Often we found ourselves shouldering our loads for frustratingly long periods of time only to find the most suitable place to launch the boats being over a cliff back into the water. It was painstakingly slow work. Between each portage a strong current needed to be negotiated, often forcing us to cross the main flow of the river at the bottom of a cliff face just to get to the beginning of the next portage. With persistence we moved forward. Our last obstacle was yet another massive waterfall dropping over 60 meters in a series of powerful cascades. To avoid this and the remaining unrunnable section of the Mistastin River we once again followed in the footsteps of Herb with a two-day portage up and over an adjacent mountain. Only 5.5 km in length, the portage had us climb abruptly out of the river valley to a barren plateau. We travelled across this, paddling two small lakes in the process before beginning our descent. We travelled through some of the thickest bush any of us had ever experienced, to reach an unnamed creek which would in turn carry us down, back to the Mistastin for a brief section before spitting us out into the mighty Kogaluk River.  

The Kogaluk River has been used by indigenous groups and European explorers for centuries. A big-volume river that allowed us to slow down for a few days and enjoy the fruits of our labour. We built a catamaran and hoisted the sails to propel our canoes across Cabot Lake.  We floated with the current taking time to cast into every eddy and backpool to experience some incredible brook trout fishing. As we moved further downstream, the surrounding hills grew in size, their treelines crept ever closer to the river, and the current picked up steadily. The Kogaluk River culminated in a cascade of whitewater falling over two significant drops. Our final camp on fresh water would be at the end of a long portage around this waterfall. It was truly a remarkable place.     

Once out into the Labrador Sea the final challenge of our trip was to paddle 65 km north through a series of islands and inlets to Labrador’s most northern community of Nain. We crossed Voisey’s Bay and many others without incident. Seals would often stick their heads out of the water to investigate this strange red vessel floating through their territories, leaving us to wonder about their intentions. Further on we were surprised by a pilot whale breaking the surface of the water ahead of our canoes. First the blow hole, followed by the dorsal fin and finally the tail. It was an unforgettable experience for all of us. 

    At our final campsite of the expedition, only 3 km from Nain, we stayed up late. The fire crackled at our feet, we relaxed to the sound of the incoming tide rolling over the beach cobble, pilot whales swam by blowing their breath high into the air. A full moon rose over the eastern horizon and for the first time through our whole trip, the aurora borealis danced in the north. It was as if Labrador, the Big Land, was giving us a gift, as it so often did along our route, only exposing its magic to those who have travelled respectfully through its land. 

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