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Riding the back of a Great Whale

Falls on the lower Great Whale River in Quebec.

Story and photos by JOHN FISKE

In 1979, the Eastmain River was diverted into Hydro-Quebec's massive LG 2 hydroelectric development on the La Grande River . Although I know a number of people who paddled down the river, I never did have the opportunity to witness Clouston Gorge, Conglomerate Gorge, Island Falls, Talking Rapids, and the other tremendous cataracts in the lower Eastmain.

Not wanting to miss the chance to see an East Side - east side of James Bay - river before they were all dammed, in 1987 I set my sights on either the Rupert River or the Great Whale River. My friend, and partner on the Winisk in 1986 Dan Cullaty and I (see Che-Mun Outfit 84), began to make plans to go down the Great Whale. We decided on the more remote Great Whale because it was slated for hydro development before the Rupert. He planned to quit his job in June. I was self employed and able to take a month for the trip.

Dan's father's failing health prevented my friend from going on the trip, but he was able to drive Patrick Otton, whom I had met quite by chance, and I, and all our gear to Sept Iles, Quebec.

Patrick who was then 34 and I, then 25, rode the train to Schefferville, and chartered a bush flight to the dam on the Caniapiscau River on July 1, 1988. Our plan was to put in below the dam, continue down the Caniapiscau for eight miles, then portage about one mile up to Lac Duralde, the source of the Great Whale.

Hydro-Quebec literature I had obtained asserted that about 25 percent of the Caniapiscau's flow was being diverted into the La Grande project, so I assumed there would be plenty of water to float us eight miles down the Caniapiscau. Wrong assumption.

The Caniapiscau was dry as a bone, and Patrick and I struggled for two arduous days to get down those eight miles. I wrote in my detailed journal: "The Caniapiscau is a mere shadow of what it used to be. We fought and clawed barely four miles down it today (July 2). Oh, what a chore! The stream (I cannot call it a river) is filled with rocks and shallow rapids. Over and over again we were obliged to unload the canoe and work it through shallow, narrow areas."

After two days on the dried-up Caniapiscau, we did portage up to Lac Duralde through buggy, though fairly open northern forest. It was a relief to paddle without obstructions freely on a lake.

For the next two weeks we followed the watershed across the high Quebec plateau. The weather was sparkling clear, and the winds generally moderate. Day after day we enjoyed easy paddling, light rapids between lakes, few portages, and lovely campsites.

Falls on the lower Great Whale River in Quebec.

At Lac Maurel, on the 9th, Patrick sustained a serious cut on his left index finger. He had found a a caribou antler and was attempting to saw off a piece to bring home. The saw jumped out and caught his finger. Patrick, who had obtained sutures from his surgeon-uncle in Montreal, bravely stitched the gash closed, without benefit of anesthesia. I asked him if it hurt. "Of course it does," he cheerfully replied. I tied the knots. The injury healed perfectly in only a week.

Later we wound our way down a deep, narrow stream from Lac Maurel into Lac Louet. "the stream is swift," I wrote, "and it weaves its way through a whole series of 15 to 20-foot hills that are covered only with moss. It was fabulous."

On the 11th we reached the vast, island studded expanse of Lac Bienville. Careful navigation was imperative: to become lost among those hundreds of islands would mean being lost for days.

The Great Whale River begins with violent rapids at the southwest corner of Lac Bienville. The big lake is about 1,200 feet above sea level, and about 200 river miles from Hudson Bay. The initial rapids served to herald the nature of what we were going to encounter in the next two weeks, the second half of the trip.

We started down the river without much understanding of the river's power, and we ran into trouble. On the 16th, after two short portages around heavy rapids, we "were coasting down a fast-water stretch. Around a slight bend to the left was a noisy rapid which featured only a moderate drop in a short distance. One simply had to start left and push through the left side of the vee to avoid a large curl and a line of stacks in the center. There was plenty of room and water to the left.

"But we were lackadaisical about getting far enough left. The curl sloshed over the gunwale amidships and filled it up, and we went under."

I was swept downstream a mile before I could swim the canoe to shore. Patrick had made it ashore quickly and ran down stream shouting and coaching me as I struggled to get the canoe to shore. I was acutely aware of another marked rapids just ahead, and I did not want to go through it with a swamped canoe.

Our loss of food was minimal, but the kitchen wannigan disappeared. As we collected our gear, and took stock of our situation, the next two weeks appeared grim indeed. No pots or cooking utensils. That evening we cooked out of an ammo box.

In the morning we sullenly went about our usual routine and were on the water about 7:00 am. Not even a quarter-mile from our camp, though, we found our kitchen wannigan washed up on the shore. We dumped out the water, discarded some soggy spaghetti, thanked the Lord, and moved on.

After lunch the same day we reached a titanic and as far as I know, nameless, gorge. Foaming water 15 feet deep hammered over 20-30 foot drops and piled up into 10-20 foot stacks which exploded in a frenzy of spray.

"It's a great deal of work getting here. The portaging is incredibly strenuous. The walking is terrible. The alders are thick, and the shore rocks are sharp and irregular. Unbelievable!

"But the reward is the scenery. I can not imagine anything like it. The unbelievable volume and power of the water. The steep, high hills. The vertical walls of the gorge. The spray. It is the wildest scene imaginable."

Below the gorge we had more trouble. After portaging about 400-yards portage around some heavy run-off, the river contracted to a width of 50 feet for about five feet between low rock walls. The water formed a dark vee with heavy stacks below. I was sick of portaging, and the walking was dreadful, and I figured we could manage the last vee.

"I calmly suggested, in a routine sort of way, that we get some speed up and blast through the left side of the vee and catch the calm water to the left of the stacks. Working to the right was impossible because of a heavy curl at the top."

Now, the entire volume of the Great Whale River flows through this single vee. The water is very fast and very deep. We shot across the vee and into the eddy on the far side. And in a single instant we flipped. It happened so quickly that everything stayed in the canoe.

The eddy which flipped us carried us to shore quite quickly and, as Patrick put it, all we lost was some body heat. We were lucky again, but a strong sense of fear crept into me at this point. The river below was strong and fast with all kinds boils, eddies and counter currents. I didn't want to flip again! But all I could see downstream was this terrible, complex, raging, deep current. My knot of fear grew. We adopted the most conservative strategy to all moving water for the rest of the trip. When in any doubt we lined.

Falls on the lower Great Whale River in Quebec.

On July 23, I noted: "A tail wind! For the second time in the trip we had a tailwind, and it blew us more than 20 miles. But the southeast winds brought warmer weather, and the warmth brought out the black flies."

A few days later we reached the big falls, where the river drops about 80 feet in a single drop. Above the falls the river is a slow-moving lake-like thing, and the surrounding hills are low and set back from the river. Suddenly, the river quickens, and is gone.

At the foot of the falls, the river abruptly turns to the east, tumbles through a walled gorge, and then doglegs sharply back to the west. We eliminated the falls and gorge with a single difficult portage over a steep hill. The effort was worth it. We knocked off four portages, and some dangerous river work with the one portage. We camped that night a half-mile below the falls mess beside a narrow and fast sluice.

The water shot over a four-foot drop in a long, slender, black vee that is smooth - until the eddies below. The boils, eddies and holes were as strong as I had ever seen. The river surged up and down by two feet. Huge swirling eddies created holes that would swallow the bow of the canoe.

It was difficult to conceive of the amount of water flowing through that rock-bound passage. It is the same amount of water crashing over the falls, which are a couple hundred yards wide. That means the water is very deep, so deep that it drops over whatever it is - a ledge, rocks - in a perfectly smooth vee. The strength of the water was simply staggering.

It was this power that Hydro-Quebec sought to harness. The Great Whale was to be diverted to the north, and a smaller river, the Little Whale, was to be diverted to the south into a single channel and through a single powerhouse.

However, bitter opposition from the local Cree and Inuit, and cancellation of power contracts in New York and New England led Quebec Premier Parizeau to announce in November, 1994 an indefinite halt to the project. One more unexpected surprise awaited us: forest fires. We had seen smoke the previous day, and sure enough there was fire. Just below that astonishing sluice, we shot rapids on the right while the left shore was on fire.

"We charged recklessly down the last stretch of rapids, taking water as we went. In the face of this new, and less predictable danger, we seemed to become less concerned with, nearly oblivious to the hazards of the river."

After the fires, there were two more portages, around a long gorge and a falls we didn't even see, and we were at the village of Kuujjuarapik, at the river's mouth. We finished exactly according to our itinerary, on July 30.

Patrick was to fly out to Montreal on a "sked" flight in a few days. I flew with the canoe to Val d'Or that afternoon on the back end of an Air Creebec charter. The next day I successfully hitchhiked to Kirkland Lake, and took the train to Temagami to see some friends.

Epilogue: The Great Whale, and the Rupert are still free-flowing rivers. There remain threats, however. When Quebec Premier Parizeau stopped the Great Whale project, he said, "We're not saying never, but that project is on ice for quite a while." Quebec sovereignty could spark renewed interest in further hydro-electric development in James Bay. Canoeists and environmentalists must stay vigilant to keep these mighty rivers wild and free.

This story first appeared in Che-Mun Outfit 88 in 1997.


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