by Isadora van Riemsdijk
photos by Isadora van Riemsdijk and Yiu Yin Chang
Robert James’ first trip posting as a relatively new member required persistence. Rob had been the last-minute recruited replacement for a Fall 2019 Rivière Coulonge whitewater trip. But when he signed up and tried to post his own multi-day whitewater trip less than two years later, the Covid-19 lockdown in May 2021 forced him to postpone it.
Sandro Weiner’s five-day WCA spring trip down Rivière Bonaventure in 2019 from Lac Bonaventure to the Baie des Chaleurs proved inspiring to me – it made for some great stories and pictures. The river is fast, 127 km long with nearly non-stop class 1 and 2 rapids and some class 3 ledges. It features crystal clear water, no portages, no park fees and… no bugs. Cautions included logjams, sweepers and icy cold water. Not for the faint of heart or solo tripper.
Unfortunately, there was a severe flood in December 2020 and the outfitting company (CIME Aventures) providing shuttles and excursions along Rivière Bonaventure, declined to provide the 3.5 hr shuttle service and warned us of extreme danger due to logjams and flood debris. We eventually deduced they also faced staffing shortages and a legal conflict over the river use with the vibrant local recreational salmon fishing industry. CIME was confining their operations to short guided trips and their campground rentals.
In early 2022, after countless cold calls and internet searches, Rob connected with a ZEC Bonaventure staffer (ZEC: Zone d’Exploitation Contrôlée, i.e. Quebec conservation authority) who not only confirmed that the upper section of the river was still navigable (others had accomplished the descent the previous year) but also found a local person who was willing to provide a shuttle through the network of logging roads, pairing our group with a second client that had been asking the same questions. Rob also connected with Yann Barriault of Eskamer Aventure (https://eskamer.ca), an “adventure” company based in Saintte-Anne-des-Monts, about 2 hours away on the north shoreline of the Gaspé peninsula between the Chic Chocs (Parc National de la Gaspésie) and Forillon National Park (“Land’s End”). Eskamer did their insurance homework and committed to providing the shuttle service. As word gets out, I’m sure they’ll be getting more calls to fill the void left by the departure of CIME for services to the upper section of the Bonaventure River – a river well known by professional guides in Ontario, Quebec, Maine and the eastern seaboard.
The next hurdle was finding an experienced tripping team to make up at least 3 boats. After some beating of the bushes and a cancellation, a team of six was finalized – Robert James, Sara Gartlan, Yiu-Yin Chang, Isadora van Riemsdijk, Tom Baker (1st WCA trip!) and Tom Beakbane (2019 Bonaventure trip alumni). Carpooling logistics for participants and canoes from Hamilton, Toronto, Aurora, Parry Sound, Ottawa, and Montreal took more work and patience but in the end two loaded cars with three canoes headed east. Bonaventure is 1,500 km from Toronto.
In the face of the “unknown” condition of the river (reports of “severe” logjams) and a strong preference for a relaxed travel pace, Rob chose to make the trip six full days with hike opportunities and a rustic cabin stay at CIME at the start and finish. Launch day, Yann Bariault of Eskamer met us at CIME to shuttle us to the headwaters at Lac Bonaventure. Trip teamwork kicked off with an exercise in spatial relations. Seven people worked out how to securely tie three different makes and models of canoes to the custom roof-rack of the expedition sized van. The rack was a wee bit too narrow for two canoes to sit side by side.
The roads to Lac Bonaventure were, for the most part, much better than expected – well marked and smooth gravel. We breathed a sigh of relief; we had been told that the roads were in very bad shape, suitable only for 4×4. The “other” part involved sections where our driver gingerly navigated past some streams and deep ruts. We sometimes got out of the van to cut down some of the trees that lay across the road and towards the very end, just kept walking ahead of the van, shoving debris out of the way. Yup! 4×4 is definitely recommended!
“The river was high and fast…”
The river was high and fast, as expected, and the job in the bow was a busy one. Paddlers were on constant alert for fast, sharp bends, with currents pushing boats hard into walls or sweepers while dodging sleeper rocks. We stayed close together as any upset could easily result in vanished baggage or an impossibly difficult long upstream access to a pinned canoe.
Evidence of the big flood was everywhere. Campsites were hard to find and usually smaller and rougher than expected. Log pile ups were frequent, increasing in size until they were the size of small apartment blocks as the river drained into the ocean. The trees still seemed to be marching off the banks and toppling into the water as though they were being pushed from behind. We stopped a half dozen times just ahead or behind dangerous sweepers, taking turns (but mostly watching Tom Beakbane and Sara Gartlan) attacking tree trunks with sharp folding saws until they were severed and the group could drag the timber aside. There was evidence of people ahead of us. Other sweepers had been dealt with so we had a sense trees were falling every day. In one case a very rough liftover path beside a complicated jam had been established. In another, there was red “tuck” tape flagging just ahead, alerting us to the danger of a big jam by a dense forest that took us a while to decide how best to negotiate safely. Rob launched his drone to help scout.
On the third day we proved why a group is necessary for a trip like this. We decided to finish the day early in a high canyon at a well established campsite above a class three ledge fed by a high thin waterfall tumbling down the other shore. We unloaded our gear and spent a lot of time scouting to run the ledges in empty boats. The high water level and fast current made for canoe-rolling angled, curling waves. Since there wasn’t a pool and easy eddy at the bottom, we sent the best paddlers first with the rest of us stationed at the bottom with video cameras and throw bags. It was a good thing we were prepared as despite near-perfect execution of the line, the bow lost grip of her paddle before the last ledge and over they went. Both throw bags were deployed with accuracy and both paddlers retrieved, one towing her boat and one sporting a massive thigh contusion. Their two paddles ended up mid-rapid, wedged nearly upright in rocks, cheekily just out of reach. Before the canoe could be sorted with new paddles, a throw rope had been deployed to dislodge one of the paddles and we helplessly watched it speed away never to be seen again. It was the expensive one, of course.
“…caught by a canoe-rolling side wave…”
A second canoe tried their luck with a slightly different strategy on the same line. They slowly and carefully executed their plan but were caught by a canoe-rolling side wave after the second step. Throwbags were deployed again to good effect and this time the only injury was a badly bruised hand with lacerated knuckles. Prizefighter bandages coupled with a Michael Jackson-esque single glove were fashion accessories for the rest of the trip. Undeterred, the uninjured paddler from the first attempt climbed back into a third canoe with a new partner and found success by executing a liftover at the second ledge so as to be perfectly positioned for the last. Cheered but now chilled, we headed in for some wine and burrito and pudding supper. Our early stop had evolved into a full day, and we ran out of time to explore the possible hike up the waterfall.
The Fates smiled in their spinning and a similar composite paddle to the one lost was found a short distance away. Its green shaft and wooden T handle was spotted in a pileup of flotsam on a steep bank at a point of particularly swift current. With a brilliantly executed canoe stop and scramble, the paddle was extricated and used with pleasure for the rest of the trip.
The second-to-last day had us dodging long narrow motor canoes of fly fishermen casting colourful lines for salmon. Late afternoon found us at a CIME-maintained picnic area at the base of a swift with a lovely flat sand & gravel bar, forest sites, latrines, firewood and a big covered picnic table. Score! We wondered about needing to pay for it but a passing 4-wheeler assured us that the gravel bar area was a “site sauvage” and fair game. In any case if CIME wasn’t there by this time in the afternoon, they wouldn’t be. A young CIME guide on group “sweep” duty did make an appearance afterwards, checking in with a friendly chat, making sure everything was tidy. There were a few mosquitoes out so we camped and made supper on the beach, catching a faint breeze. There were a few more efforts at swimming in the swifts but you had to plan for the current sweeping you well down the gravel beach.
“…4 km hike along logging /ATV trails to a lovely waterfall…”
The last day started leisurely with blueberry pancakes and maple syrup followed by an optional 4 km hike along logging /ATV trails to a lovely waterfall (Chute du Ruisseau Blanc) graced by a covered picnic table at its apex. There was another, reportedly even lovelier, waterfall one km further away (Chute du Ruisseau Creux) but we spent so much time photographing the first that we ran out of time. Upon return we piled into our canoes for an easy 13 km paddle to CIME’s campground. Once there, two canoes decided to push on for another 9 km to complete the descent to the ocean. This meant paddling through the river’s mouth, around the lighthouse at the point and surfing the ocean rollers onto the campground beach on the other side. Luckily it was 6 p.m. by this point and the water and wind were calm. We were picked up by the others and after some varied attempts at looking civilized (or at least dry), we fetched up at a high-end pub at the wharf called Kano where we ordered seafood and pitchers of local beer. The restaurant was tastefully decorated with canoes and painted wood paddles. A fitting end to a long-planned trip!
An interesting side note – the Eskamer shuttle driver picked up an unexpected customer on its way back. The paddling team that had also inquired to the ZEC staffer for a shuttle had been unintentionally left adrift by our transfer to Eskamer. Running out of other options, they attempted to self-shuttle and blew a tire on the rough road. With just a donut as a spare, they were “up the creek without a paddle.” The couple eddied in to meet us while we were settling into a rough improvised campsite on the river that first evening, at the end of a long day. We followed them and their green canoe paint for the rest of the trip, meeting up again only by chance at the river’s mouth. When we met and compared notes, they were intrigued by the idea of the WCA as a source of potential trip partners; there are now two new prospective members!