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Ben Stookesbery Reflects on the End of Destination Torngat
Posted on October 9, 2014

Looking back upstream from the take out of the Nachvak River

We tracked the Destination Torngat kayak expedition—both literally and figuratively—through the remote reaches of Northern Labrador for six weeks this summer. Audio dispatches, field reports via sat uplink, coordinate updates from their DeLorme inReach device, and a steady stream of stunning images from one of the most remote places on earth. Ben Stookesberry, Chris Korbulic, and the crew are back home safely and reflecting on the epic after paddling an ancient canoe route down the George River, completing the second descent of the Ford River, ticking a no-portage descent of the 18 waterfalls of the Nachvak River, and surviving an expedition of a magnitude that trumps most we have seen. After a clean shower, a hot meal, and a few weeks of reflection, Ben Stookesberry summed up the experience with his final report from the Torngat. —LYA Editor

Chris Korbulic takes a moment to consider the DeLorme GPS and check in with the outside world via the InReach system from the take out of the Nachvak River.

Words by Ben Stookesberry, Images by Stookesberry, Pedro Oliva, and Ben Marr

Since 2007, when Canadian kayaker Joel Kowalski first said “Torngat” to me, an expedition to that destination has occupied my imagination. An Arctic moonscape draining into a crystal-clear river that stairsteps its way into a fjord one mile deep. The Torngat remains one of the most remote bits of terra firma left on the planet, and just getting there with a kayak seemed impossible. Yet after years pondering maps and satellite images, an overland route emerged. East of Montreal, a tangled network of roads leads to an old mining train, heading another 400 miles north into the still intact wilderness. At the end of the train, a century-old canoe route enters the George River, flowing 450 more miles to a lonely Inuit village on the Labrador Peninsula, with the closest outpost to the Torngat still nearly 100 miles away.

Two weeks after embarking, we arrived at our first whitewater goal: two tributaries entering the lower George. On the Nutillilik, we descended what we thought would be the largest waterfall of the trip on an 80-foot cascade. It was an unbelievably remote place to be descending waterfalls of such size, but the team and conditions were perfect. After just 19 days Erik Boomer, Pedro, and I completed the George, along with a first descent of the Nutillilik and the trek and second descent of the Ford. By itself it was a major accomplishment, and something that had never been done before. Little did we know that was just the warm-up. Where the George finally reaches sea level, we navigated a 40-foot tide into the Inuit village of Kangiqsualujjuaq and said goodbye to Boomer. Taking Erik’s place, Chris Korbulic and Ben Marr arrived on the daily small twin-engine Otter. When bad weather canceled our planned floatplane, the trip got epic! We spent the next few days at a friendly fisherman’s house in Kangiqsualujjuaq, poring over the topo maps of the vast peninsula looking for another option. And there it was: a seemingly magic path up and over the Labrador Plateau that would put us in the headwaters of the Nachvak River, with a 20-mile stairstepping portage up the Akitasaluuk.

 

Over the next 4 days, we ascended through dense boreal forest to over 2,000 feet above sea level, following terrain and DeLorme GPS. Lost and exhausted in a thick soup of Atlantic fog, we were shouldering 100+ pound whitewater kayaks into the middle of nowhere. All of a sudden, we stumbled into this surreal lake just as the sunset lit the sky on fire. Six days after the start of the trek, we reached the long-dreamt-of falls of the Nachvak, wondering if the 1,200 vertical feet of river into the mile-deep fjord below could be runnable. Drop after drop, over the next 3 days everyone in the group took their turn at courage, bravery, and vulnerability. After descending at least a dozen drops over 40 feet and some approaching 100, I took my turn on a powerful-looking, but seemingly benign, double drop. I spent the next 2 minutes struggling for my life, stuck deep in the beautiful and unforgiving blue recirculating torrent. You can’t go on an expedition like this without a few close calls, and this was mine. I didn’t “see God,” but it was a hell of a swim.

With 18 waterfalls behind us, we floated a few more miles of the crystal-clear Nachvak River, now teeming with Arctic char. On shore, we met with our Inuit “bear guides,” who had arrived by floatplane with a resupply of food and weapons to protect against the very real and very unpleasant threat of a polar bear encounter. Adept fishermen, they quickly pulled out a few 20-pound char to commemorate our survival and a night spent deep in the Torngat. In the morning, with boats on our shoulders, we hiked south toward the Koroc River and our return home from one of the most brilliant and still untouched wildernesses left on earth.

But if that were the end of the story, it wouldn’t have been so much different than any other kayaking trip: get to the end of the river, high five, and hike up the hill to the cars waiting with cold beers. But there were no cars at the top of our hill, and what’s more, it took us 2 days to get there…to a window in the mile-deep terrain, a 3,000-foot gash we called the ”keyhole.” After more than a month on the move, I for one was really starting to feel the wear and tear of carrying my beloved, but extremely, heavy long boat to the Torngat and back. And unlike our magical path up the Akitasaluuk, our way out of the Nachvak turned technical at times, first roping through a box canyon tributary, and then the descent of the keyhole. I’m not sure why the most difficult terrain is always the most beautiful, but the view out of the steep, boulder-choked keyhole and into yet another stunning Torngat drainage called the Palmer was something out of a weird dream, like a Salvador Dali painting. The Palmer flows from a subtle 800-foot-high divide with the Koroc back towards the west…gouging another mile-deep Torngat fjord just north of the highest peak in eastern North America: Mount D’Iberville.

 

We spent another day trekking up the improbable Palmer towards the Koroc before Chris Korbulic yelled somewhere up ahead. We had found it. An unlikely site in such a wilderness: a white electric bear fence with our final resupply of food. Other than our [I think my change is what is intended here]one-night-stand of gorging on Arctic char, we had been rationing to the point of hunger pains for over a week now, only truly sustained by wild berries and mushrooms. We descended on this box like a pack of wolves,so much so that we would spend the next 3 days and 80 miles of paddling out the Koroc River back to Ungava Bay on similar meager rations. But I’d never felt satisfaction like that: for the first time in the Torngat, feeling truly at ease inside the hideous white bear fence, soaking in the realization of what we had done. We had accessed one of the truly great and remote stretches of whitewater on earth from the end of the road over 600 miles behind us. We survived the most hellacious onslaught of flies and mosquitos any of us had ever seen. We stayed true to our goals, while letting go of plans that were always meant to change. We treaded lightly in a land that I hope will never bear the imprint of modernity. And most importantly, we did it all as a team, certainly one of the finest groups I have ever been a part of.

But maybe most rewarding was connecting with the people that call this place home. From our first arrival in the town of Kangiqsualujjuaq at the end of the George River mission to our return 17 days after continuing up the Akitasaluuk, the people of this far-flung North American outpost treated us in a way I will never forget. There is something amazing about these people of George River that treat strangers like family. It makes you want to come back. But after a month and a half, it was time for me to go home. So instead of making vague promises to return, I wanted to leave something behind, something that this community would truly appreciate. Four thousand years ago, the ancestors of these Inuit people began using kayaks as a principal part of their lives for hunting, fishing, and transportation. Today the kayak is returning to the community, with the help of the Nunavik Parks and their initiative to reintroduce this ancient art in Kangiqsualujjuaq. To aid in their endeavor, we were able to donate two Jackson kayaks, including Snapdragon skirts, Werner paddles and Kokatat gear, to what we hope will become a renewed part of life on the Labrador Peninsula.

After 3 days of trekking and more than a week of meager rations, celebration inside the electric bear fence at the Palmer/ Koroc intersection.

Special thanks to our sponsors for believing in this mission:  Eddie Bauer –the official outfitter of Destination Torngat; DeLorme inReach/ Explorer for GPS and two-way sat comm technology; Kokatat paddle gear, made in Arcata, CA since 1971; Jackson Kayak and their Karma Unlimited, the ultimate long-distance whitewater kayak; Goal Zero for portable solar power; Werner Paddles for Ultimate Paddle Performance; Snap Dragon Design and their tried-and-tested spray decks; Satgram.com for the innovative space to share Destination Torngat in real time; and Columbia Overland and their Adventure by design.

Author: - Thursday, October 9th, 2014
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