PALMER PARADISE -- It's hard to top the tough but incredibly scenic Palmer River, the traditional route through the Torngat Mountains connecting Ungava Bay and Labrador. Peter Brewster and Andrew Macdonald of the Labrador Odyssey 2001 expedition paddle a small but welcome lake expansion of the steep rocky river as they headed to the Quebec border and the Korok River.
By MICHAEL PEAKE
Icebergs, whales, polar bears and caribou. Labrador Odyssey was a smorgasbord of northern delights. We enjoyed clear, calm oceans, surging rapids and waterfalls that made our hearts beat faster and many miles of scenic mountain portaging that really made our hearts beat faster.
Labrador Odyssey was a benchmark trip-a summer we'll remember with delight, a challenging journey made more difficult by the technological demands of an online trip.
We were joined by more than 200,000 visits from cyber-paddlers. This year's Web site contains hundreds of photos and 360 degree panoramas, many layers of background information, available to all at the click of a mouse.
Sean Peake researched and designed it and yours truly worked many late nights this winter and spring, writing, editing and preparing for this our 20th anniversary trip. Woods Canada supported and sponsored us in first class style along with Infosat and Nikon Canada. Being asked to participate at the Scouts Jamboree in PEI and having 14,000 young Canadians watch us pack was one great sendoff. Geoffrey Peake and Peter Brewster did some fine writing in two very different and distinct styles, which are still there for the viewing at www.canoe.ca/labrador2001. Rather than recount the whole trip, I would like to point out some of my recollections from those three wondrous weeks.
First of all, I am extremely proud of what the HACC accomplished this year. We did a tough trip and reported on it every day- just like we promised. Filing daily stories and photos has a huge impact on a trip but soon becomes one of the essential duties like pitching tents and making a fire.
I knew this would be a special trip. Long time Che-Mun subscriber and ace wilderness paddler Dick Irwin, who has been almost everywhere, said it was his all-time favourite trip. That's saying something - and it now tops my list as well.
Nowhere else can you get such stunning mountain vistas and have a historically canoeable trip. It's prime wilderness - we saw no one until the final rapid into Ungava Bay. For the 21 days it took to reach the mouth of the Korok we were on our own in a pristine wilderness of unparalleled beauty.
The trip began with a sad last minute flurry of activity that saw our back-up paddler, Tom Stevens, being contacted hours before he flew to the U.K. to take in the Wimbledon tennis tournament. We learned of the sudden death of Angus Scott two days before our departure. Besides being a terrible personal blow to us all, it meant Peter Scott could not come and Tom agreed to. He would join Peter Brewster and Andrew Macdonald and the three Peakes; Michael, Sean and Geoffrey down in PEI where we were spending a few days at the Scouts Canada Jamboree with 14,000 scouts and leaders. We ended up sleeping on the grounds of CJ'01 and had fun speaking with the kids as we packed all out stuff and tested communications equipment. It also brought us a lot closer to the Woods Canada crew who were there with their families.
We were a day late flying out of Summerside PEI with Air Labrador as the weather up north was socked in. We finally departed after carefully assembling the Twin Otter Canoe Puzzle (getting three 17-foot Old Town Trippers inside) and headed to Happy Valley-Goose Bay where we were socked in again for three days.
A minke whale surfaces in magical Nachvak Fjord on our second morning there. Andrew Macdonald was up to catch the action before breakfast.
I was amused when the Air Labrador base manager in Goose Bay came out to check out how we had packed three canoes into one of his Twotters. When I made the booking they were VERY dubious it could be done. We did have to remove the fire extinguisher from the wall (and some paint) but we did it.
We made the most of the delay in this traditional canoeing center and visited some great folks including canoeing legend Joe Goudie, former MLA and whose family makes up the fabric of local history. We also met and visited Them Days, the small but famous local newspaper that has done such a great job of documenting the history of the area. We made the 40-mile trip to Northwest River, the departure site of the three Hubbard-Wallace expeditions and stood on the very beach in front of the same Hudson's Bay Company post they did almost a century ago.
Having travelled for a number of years in the north we had to remind ourselves that yet again such northern delays always had their bright sides and, indeed, had been very kind to us over the years. We were still anxious to get going as our original plan had called for taking a boat north from Nain to Hebron. Sadly, the visit to this unique Moravian Mission had to be cancelled due to weather and we would now fly directly to the airstrip at Saglek, the North Early Warning station. Only Air Labrador had the rights to ask to land at this spot and it was obtained.
We finally landed on July 13 on the first clear day in weeks at Saglek. Our pilot, Kevin Hann, gave us a nice fly past of the unmanned post that's also a weather station perched on a 1500-foot cliff over the sea.
It was late afternoon and a few caribou were wandering around the tanks and buildings in the area. We shouldered packs and boats almost immediately and hiked the rough road down to the water about 500 years away. We were on the water at 6 pm and we finally felt that, at last, Labrador Odyssey 2001 was under way. With the Torngat Mts. beckoning across the breadth of Saglek Bay, about six miles away, our course was clear. But we had to paddle into the bay for several miles to make a safer crossing, which we did the next day. We had, in fact, three perfect sunny and calm days to get up to Nachvak, an incredible reprieve after so many days of bad weather.
Sean and Geoffrey Peake sample one of the rare nicely runnable rapids on the incredibly rocky Korok. Woods bug jackets were in order as the weather turned warm which was great for photos and bad for the blood supply.
The irony was rich. This section of the trip was the one which most worried us - and our spouses. There is no getting over the remoteness and rugged nature of the northern Labrador coast. There are few places to hide and you can only paddle when the weather's right-which it usually is in July. Despite this, one Labrador adventure guide who takes tourists up the coast for hiking trips, expressed surprise when we told him of our canoeing plans. "You're doing what?" he said. Again, experience and planning served us well. In fact, we view comments such as that a precursor to a great trip. A trip for which we had done our homework and paid our dues.
Ocean paddling is one area we have little experience in. We took along superb drysuits and anoraks made by Kokatat. These bombproof Gore-Tex garments were never put to the supreme test but they supplied some peace of mind both for those on the trip and back home. The tides in the area are small but the wind and currents shift with the tides and many small, localized winds come out of nowhere to keep the Doubt Meter running full time.
What can you say about this coastline! Superlatives pale. It's a geologists dream. Huge walls of rock lined with ribbon-like dykes of various colours all revealing a violent and ancient past. Icebergs cruised by with regularity steaming south to a melty demise. The conventional wisdom is to stay away from these fascinating attractions and we mostly did. But we stayed even further away after watching one a mile away do a 90-degree role and drop a massive chunk of itself into the frigid waters of the Labrador Sea with a 100-foot high splash. It we had been within 300 yards of that thing it was big trouble from either ice or waves.
The other large white hazard up here is polar bears. Their inevitable presence meant we carried a gun for the first time ever on a trip. It was never needed but we did stumble on four bears on one rocky point of Nachvak Fjord. We had been watching a caribou herd that was doing maneuvers along a high ridge when the bears appeared. We were a couple of hundred yards from shore - far enough it seemed. The male wandered off and a female with two cubs did too. But she came back by water minutes later to our shock and happiness. After giving us a thorough once over, where six adult male canoeists stopped breathing in unison, she continued wandering the shore with her two young. They were directly below the line of caribou who were heading south. I got a neat digital shot of a herd of polar bears being watched by a lone caribou! As all this was happening minke whales were rising on the water of Nachvak behind us. For once, we barely gave them a look. It was an unforgettable scene.
Without a doubt the scenic gem in this pile of diamonds was the ascent of the Palmer River, which flows into Tallek Arm, the southwest corner of Nachvak Fjord. Hemmed in by towering ridges of the Torngats in an impossibly symmetrical U-shaped valley, the crystal clear waters of the Palmer flow towards the sea. We had alternating great/crummy weather going up the Palmer, which made for good variety in photos. We were all drinking in this incredible scenery. The three youngsters of our group made an all-day trek into the mountains, which veteran mountain man Geoffrey Peake described as 'hairy'. The steep sides also meant a challenge in getting a spot to hit our satellite which lay near the equator, relatively low on the horizon. It was a challenge at times.
But, lest we deceive, the going was tough, very tough. We had heavy loads and there was a lot of carrying up steep terrain. But this crew worked together in a way unmatched in our 20 years of tripping. The younger guys took extra loads without being asked, dishes were done without prompting or scheduling and there was an incredible sense of purpose.
Reaching the height-of-land was a relief. Andrew surprised us with a bottle of champagne, which we enjoyed that night on the Korok. We also posed with a photo with a picture of the late Angus Scott, to whom we dedicated the trip. It was here the weather took a turn for the worse-yup-hot and sunny. The bugs appeared in a way we hadn't seen for many years and the next four days down the Korok had their ugly moments. But now, with the swelling subsided and the sunny Kodachromes looking great, we forgive the weather gods.
Labrador Odyssey will be a warm memory in the minds of HACC paddlers for a lifetime.
This story first appeared in Che-Mun Outfit 106 in 2001.