We’ve been tracking the progress of Destination Torngat deep in Labrador’s wilderness for the past few weeks. So far, it’s been an epic kayaking tale of historical canoe routes, swarming mosquitoes, and long flatwater paddles in the remote Canadian wilderness destined to become Canada’s next national park. But the big news is that the team has reached the end of the George, swapped out Erik Boomer for Chris Korbulic on their roster, and headed further afield to tackle the rarely-run whitewater of these stunningly remote mountains. And they’ve added a serious deterrent capability for the polar bears. Yes, polar bears. Ben Stookesberry checked in with his update via satellite uplink and Delorme InReach, and this is his visual, audio and written report from the wilderness. —LYA Editor
Words by Ben Stookesberry, Images by Pedro Oliva, Erik Boomer and Ben Stookesberry
Since I last wrote you all, it’s been an epic 10 days on the bottom portion of the George River canoe route. We spent the first two weeks of the paddle simply as an approach to the Labrador Peninsula and the Torngat Mountains. Finally off the 70-mile-long Indian House Lake and more than 250 miles into the journey, the mighty George River picked up speed and headed north through the eastern side of the Torngat Mountains. It is here that we set our sights on exploring a few of the Lower George tributaries.
About 100 miles from the mouth of the river, we stopped in at historic Pyramid fishing camp and received information about a steep, waterfall-choked tributary called the Nutillilik River and a falls at the confluence. Camp proprietor Peter May has spent his entire life on the lower stretches of the George, and has already explored many of the George’s tributaries for their world-famous trout, char, and salmon fisheries. Currently Peter holds the river record for largest brook trout at a whopping 11 lbs. True to Peter’s beta, Erik Boomer pulled a few fish out of the turquoise swirling waters at the confluence of the Nutillilik and the George.
Upstream of the George, the Nutillilik is a remarkable sight, dropping over massive azure waterfalls exiting a glacially sculpted, hanging valley, and this is where the longboats really started to show their worth. In addition to transporting our 3 week’s worth of gear and supplies 350-odd miles, these boats—especially the Jackson Karma UL Kayak—are made to be extremely versatile. They can make the transition from touring mode to whitewater mode by simply setting up camp and unloading the boats to make them as light and responsive as possible in the extremely steep Nutillilik.
After spending just a few hours descending the bottom two miles of the creek, we repacked our boats and recharged our camera and communications equipment in perfect subarctic summer weather with our Goal Zero Nomad 7 solar panels, and rejoined the George for an arduous, but spectacular, evening paddle. With the river now picking up speed in its descent to Ungava Bay, now just 80 miles north, we covered 25 miles in just 4 hours, paddling through thick clouds of mosquitoes and a northern sunset that lingered for hours.
We were moving fast to take advantage of our final days on the George and to add an exploratory twist to this legendary canoe route. Instead of continuing down the George, we stopped 66 miles above Ungava Bay and the mouth of the river to hike into a river running nearly parallel to the George called the Ford River. Like the George, the Ford is a huge river that drains a significant portion of the Labrador plateau. But unlike the George, the Ford has never been navigated until two years ago—via a floatplane approach—because of its remoteness and the precipitous drop over the last 25 miles of the river where it flows into the George.
Ford River Second Descent
Despite being relatively close to the George by the standards of this vast wilderness, we were faced with carrying our boats eight miles over a mountain pass and through an untested route. To make this possible with our hundred-odd pounds of gear, Erik Boomer offered to be the gear boat and transport our access food and supplies downstream on the George to the confluence, while Pedro Oliva and I attempted the challenging route into the George via the DeLorme GPS system. We would simply not have been light enough for the arduous hike in had Boomer not “taken one for the team.” Having undergone knee surgery just three months ago, it was the right call for Boomer to stay in his boat and off the side of the mountain.
Between the George and the Ford, we climbed nearly 2,000 feet up and out of the George and descended half of that back down to the Ford. In deteriorating weather and nearly blank terrain high in the mountains between the two rivers, visibility decreased to 50 feet. We had to navigate by DeLorme GPS through a keyhole in the terrain and a spectacular mountain pass that was our gateway to the Ford. Finally on the river, Pedro and I were treated to a rarity in descents, finding this huge, crystal-clear river that was extremely runnable in terms of its steep whitewater, and open enough to make some portages where the whole river slid incredibly down the side of a 3000-foot-long granite slope. Somehow calling the Ford “spectacular” is an understatement. It’s easy to see why the Ford, along with the entire bottom 100 miles of the George, will become Canada’s newest national park in 2015.
Through unseasonably hot conditions at the beginning of the canoe route, to driving rain on the 70-mile-long Indian House Lake, to the arduous hiking and clouds of mosquitoes over mountain passes, our Kokatat technical river gear GORE-TEX drysuit and PFDs, in concert with our Eddie Bauer clothing, camp, and sleeping accommodations, made this logistically challenging trip possible, if not thoroughly enjoyable: the open-air accommodations of the Stargazer tents, at times when even the most toxic DEET wouldn’t keep the skeeters and flies at bay; the StormDown sleeping bags that re-lofted and stayed warm and dry even after being packed and unpacked in heavy rain; and the lightweight layering system for staying dry and warm on and off the river, just to mention a few areas where our EB gear really shined.
The Mouth of the George and Kangiqsualujjuaq
Now roughly 450 miles later, we have finished our first-of-its-kind longboat descent out on the George in just 18 days, and are finally at the doorstep for the main attraction of this Destination Torngat expedition. Here at the far-flung Inuit village of Kangiqsualujjuaq, we are only hours away from boarding a floatplane for the 70-mile transport to Nachvak Lake, where we will attempt to make the first descent of the Nachvak River flowing to the North Atlantic Ocean off the other side of the Labrador Peninsula. In addition to being framed by the highest peaks in eastern North America and showcasing some of the highest coastal rock faces in the world, the Nachvak has been in the sights of kayakers for at least a decade since Canadian kayaker Joel Kowalski spotted the waterfall-stacked waterway on Google Earth, flowing through the legendary Torngat moonscape that is populated only by wolves, caribou, and polar bears.
Despite being an integral part of the logistics for this expedition, we are saying goodbye and good luck to Erik Boomer, as he is off to Baffin Island to take part in a first rafting descent that will aid in important fisheries research. Luckily, we have benefited from his knowledge and experience (and kayak fishing) on the George River. Even more importantly, we have spent the last few days training and preparing for the very real risk of an intense polar bear encounter. Replacing Boomer is a Kangiqsualujjuaq native named Jobe, who will carry our main bear deterrent. Chris Korbulic and Ben Marr round out the kayak team, along with Pedro Oliva and me, as we continue our adventure in the Torngat.
The End of the George Gallery
The Descent of the Rob Ford Gallery
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