Running east to west, the Korok is a typical Ungava basin river that's much like a Hollywood agent: fast and shallow. It also means that we head into the teeth of Ungava's prevailing wind, so tormenting and relentless it is known to make a grown man weep like a child.
Where we enter the Korok after slogging up the Palmer we are up 220 m
above Ungava and 80 miles from tidewater. This gives us a drop of 9 feet per
mile, a number that may seem small, but when you're dealing with water,
it's a number that commands respect. The smallest slope is enough to
set water into motion.
There are about 28 individual sets of rapids that range from Level II (can be run in an open canoe) to Level V (covered canoes by teams of experts). There is one fall, Koroluktok Falls, and about three serious ledges to avoid--never willing to upset the balance of things in the Universe, we will obey the Conservation of Energy principle and will haul the canoes over instead of portaging.
Canoeists have been paddling the Korok for decades, so there are a number of solid trip reports around to give a paddler a good idea of what to expect. One remark that is common throughout is the beauty and colours of the Korok valley. When seen from the plateaus above the river, the lush shades of green along the river is in stark contrast to the browns and purples of the higher elevations and the dark, almost black rock of the scoured mountains.
HACC paddlers on the upper Povungnituk River in northern Ungava July, 15 1988. The river was mostly frozen in this lake expansion. (Photo - Michael Peake)
As we descend the Korok, we move out of the Low Arctic Mountain eco-region and on to Tundra-Taiga region -- the Barrenlands. Here, open stands of stunted black spruce and tamarack, as well as dwarf birch and willow, grow close to the river and in sheltered, moist areas. In the open, cottongrass, lichens, and moss are common; in marshy areas, Labrador tea and sphagnum moss dominate.
For the most part, the Tundra region is similar to a desert. There is little precipitation, and most of that is in the form of snow. Because the ground is frozen within one metre of the surface, the precipitation that does fall remains on the surface, making low-lying areas a deceivingly wet and swampy place to walk and portage across.
In this area of transition from trees to treeless, we will encounter the fringe animals: those that are found in one area but usually never in both. Black bears, for instance rarely poke their nose above the tree line, but in this area they have become more common. It is likely the result of the extermination of their main predator, the barren-ground grizzly bear. In the mid-1800s, Hudson's Bay Company traders recorded seeing grizzlies in the Ungava Bay area, but even at that time they must not have been many, since most naturalists relied on the accounts of locals to gather information. By the 1920, however, the grizzlies were gone everywhere east of Hudson Bay, hunted or starved out of their Ungava range by the crashing caribou population.
With their main predator gone, black bears expanded their natural range and moved out onto the barrens. But life is tougher here than in the forest. Their food supply is more spread out and harder to find so they need to cover several times more territory for a meal than forest bears (up to 1,000 square kilometres compared to about 100 kilometres in the south). They also tend to eat more meat and carrion than southern black bears. The hard life and harder climate have made these black bears some of the smallest in the world yet, despite their size, they are more carnivorous than their southern cousins and demand respect.
The banks of the Korok are also witness to one of the most remarkable natural wonders. The George River Caribou herd, estimated to be from 700,000 to 800,000 strong, is the world's largest migrating ungulate herds. And considering the condition it was in just over 40 years ago, it's current state makes it even more remarkable. From the late 1800s to 1910, the Native population of Labrador and Quebec were able to survive off the caribou. Then, for some yet unknown reason, the caribou population crashed. Perhaps it was because of habitat destruction, through forest fire, or human encroachment; no one is sure but the population remained dangerously low for more than 30 years. The decline, which helped push Ungava's barren-ground grizzly into the history books, was so severe and so prolonged that scientists considered putting a few of the surviving caribou in zoos to ensure the species' survival.
By 1954, there were an estimated 4,700 animals left. After that, things began to change. In the spirit of the '60s and '70s, the caribou seemed to have "loosened-up" and a major sexual revolution began. Their numbers boomed. By 1984, there were 472,000 animals, and by 1993, there were over 773,000, all traveling over 4,000 km per year in search of winter forage, spring calving grounds, and relief from insects. Never before had such a rebound in caribou numbers been witnessed. For each member of the George River herd 40 years ago, there are more than 100 today!
Scientists have now discovered herds within the herd --t here is a distinct Leaf River Herd (approx. 250,000), as well as a Korok River herd (from 5,000 to 10,000). Outfitters and Natives are allowed to take 36,000 animals from the herd every year.
We have seen caribou migrations on other northern trips, and know that unlike in the movies, not all 800,000 animals are going to thunder past our canoes or tents in an antler-to-antler mass. We usually see caribou after calving, which is usually in early June, just after break-up. At this time, the animals are starting to collect in larger groups of 20 to 40 animals to begin an almost circular motion in their summer range to keep the bugs at bay.