They call it 'The Labrador'.
Its very name has resonated in the minds of wilderness paddlers for more than a century and even today it continues to convey a sense of romance, history and excitement.
While not a very large area, it is quite remote. An older mode of transportation opens up the Labrador Wilderness to many paddlers every year. Since its completion in 1954, the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway has run along a ribbon of steel north from Sept-Iles, Quebec, piercing the stunted spruce and rocky hills of the Labrador Plateau, to Schefferville, Que. Built for the Iron Ore Company mines in Labrador City, they also run a passenger train that remains a vital lifeline to people living along its route. Though a road now runs across Labrador to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, it is a perilous and bumpy journey and the train remains the best way to access the interior. Though the ride begins and ends in Quebec, it passes through the western end of Labrador and provides access to many of the fabled short and steep Labrador rivers that plunge into the sea.
The interior of southern Labrador is a high plateau of Precambrian rock. It is from these hard heights that mighty waterfalls drop, like the famed Churchill Falls, in central Labrador, which was tapped in the late 60s. Its incredible plume of water, which could be seen for a hundred km, is now a trickle. As a result of this geography, canoeing Labrador rivers means running many rapids and portaging many more. A great number of northern paddlers have made a career of travelling the numerous Labrador rivers. Many of these rivers begin in Labrador and end up in Quebec along the north shore of the St. Lawrence. These include the Natashquan, Petit Mecatina, Romaine and Moisie. Another set of rivers flow east off the plateau to the Labrador Sea and these include the Fraser, Kanairiktok, Kogaluk, Notakwanon and Churchill, all of which lie in Labrador proper.
There is an incredible rawness to the Labrador landscape. The trees, invariably black spruce and tamarack, are well spaced which makes inevitable portages more bearable. The water is clean, cold and fast. And the weather ... well two out of three ain't bad. Of course the climate can be sunny and mild but the closer you get to the coast the more unpredictable it gets. The bugs are of major league quality as well.
River canoeing in Labrador is not for beginners. It is a place to hone the ample skills you should already possess.
As you move further north, Labrador's land mass shrinks, as the peninsula narrows and the rivers get shorter. Very few people paddle in northern Labrador simply because there is very little space to do so. The Labrador Odyssey 2001 trip is tackling one of the few northern routes, a crossing from the Labrador Sea to Ungava Bay. There are a couple of other possible crossing points but the going is tough and only a few have tried it.
Geoffrey Peake using a tump line to carry a pack and lighten a load with tracking up a small river flowing into the east coast of Great Bear Lake in July 1992. (Photo - Michael Peake)
The LO route is the traditional native route between Ungava Bay and the Atlantic coast. It is also the route taken by Dillon Wallace in 1905 after he had been shown up by the wife of his former partner, Mina Hubbard, who beat him to the mouth of the George River in a bid to finish a trip started in Northwest River by the late Leonidas Hubbard and Wallace in 1903. Mrs. Hubbard took the boat back and Wallace along with companion Clifford Easton, waited until freeze-up and took a dogsled up the Korok river and through the Torngats and down the coast of Labrador on their way back to New York. For more on the George River and its history see our 1997 Onriver.Online trip at www.canoe.ca/georgeriver