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Ungava

By THE HIDE-AWAY CANOE CLUB

You Don't Go for the Weather

Timing is everything. No saying is truer than this when navigating Ungava Bay. With a tidal range of around 15m (second only to the Bay of Fundy), setting out at the wrong time can leave you miles from shore embedded in a thick inter-tidal goo of unknown depth (we know it's more than knee-deep) or perched atop super-slick rocks that are impossible to traverse for several hours until the tide returns to lift to lift you off.


Peter Scott, Geoffrey Peake and Sean Peake scouting a rapid on the Rupert River out of Lake Megouez in June 1982. (Photo - Michael Peake)
The tide also plays havoc with the last rapid on the Korok. As it comes in, called Flood Flow, it pushes against the standing waves and tailrace at the base of the rapid, changing minor obstacles into steep, treacherous, canoe-swamping mountains of boiling water. At the brief time of high tide, most of the rapid will have been inundated by the sea, reduced to a mere riffle. As it falls, called Ebb Flow, the rapid emerges again and becomes more difficult with each passing minute -- rocks emerge from nowhere, inverted "vees" of slick navigable water transform into dry ledges, and small waves mutate into monstrous haystacks -- until the tide is fully out. What remains is a small trickle of a rapid running through a slime-coated boulder field. How enchanting!

We have 25 miles of travel on Ungava to reach the village of Kangiqsualujjuaq (George River), population 660. We plan to make the trip in two days. From there, we fly home via Kuujjuaq and Montreal.

Kangiqsualujjuaq wasn't a village until the 1960s. The Hudson's Bay Company operated a post nearby for sporadic periods from 1838 to 1932. The local Inuit preferred to live along the coast in summer to fish and camp inland in the fall and winter. It wasn't until 1959, when a local co-op for selling arctic char was started by the Inuit, that the town site began to take shape. By 1962, construction of pre-fabricated homes began.

We will plan our launches into the bay around slack water (a short window of time when the tide is neither coming in nor going out), and our landfalls at high tide -- we don't want the sea to join us in the tents in the middle of the night.

Belugas

During our time on the coast, we hope to find Beluga whales. During their annual spring migration, some of these white whales break off from the main migratory group moving up the Hudson Strait across the mouth of Ungava Bay heading to Hudson Bay. They move down the Ungava coast to take up residence in river estuaries until late August, when they head north again to rejoin the group as it retraces its route along the Hudson Strait to the Labrador Sea. We saw whole pods of them at the mouth of the Churchill River back in '85, and could hear their whistles and clicks through the hull of the boat we were in taking us to Fort Prince of Wales on the opposite shore.

Ungava and the Bomb

The word Ungava comes from the Inuit term for "toward the open water".

Today, many people are unaware just how literal that term could have been. In 1946, as the Cold War set in, some Brainiacs south of the border and in Britain had a brilliant idea that makes the hair at the back of your neck stand straight up. They thought that a good way transform the wasteland of the Arctic into a productive, friendly place of American domination was to detonate atomic bombs in strategic locations to get rid of all that pesky ice. No, really, we're serious... and some of them were, too.

The Spring 1988 edition of CHE-MUN reprinted the whole article and it provides a true glimpse of the mindset of the victors of WWII and that the generation of our parents and grandparents were prone to fits of lunacy.

Fish

What attracts Beluga whales are the fish. Ungava is blessed with them, and fortunately for us, a lot of them head up the rivers draining into it to spawn, which is the only reason why we've brought along a fisherman (Peter Brewster) and his Gilley (Peter Scott). Together, they supply us with delicious fish almost on demand. There are three kinds of fish we will be after: Arctic Char, Atlantic Salmon, Brook Trout, and Lake Trout.

Arctic Char

Arctic Char are a northern fish (it's name sort of gives it away) and they are an important dietary item of the Inuit because of their high vitamin B content. Catching one is like having your line attached to a tailor hitch -- it is amazing how much line these fish roll off when they strike. They hit with a ferocity that can snap the line, or even the rod of any unsuspecting fisherman.

There are two kinds of char: one that winters in freshwater and summers in the ocean, called Anadromous, (iqaluppik, in Inuktitut), and landlocked char (nutillik). Like salmon, char reproduce in freshwater but do most of their feeding in the sea. They begin their annual summer migration to the sea at three to five years of age when they are at least 2cm long. There they gorge for several weeks on a variety of small fish as well as shrimp before returning inland for the winter. They adapt to their surroundings by changing their colouring: at sea, they are a light, almost silver colour; inland they are darker. During their return upstream, however, char display the characteristic brilliant red underside. Catching a char is a vital part of any northern experience and can match the fight of our next fish, the Atlantic Salmon.

Atlantic Salmon

Atlantic Salmon (Sama) are the Holy Grail for fly fishermen. They are the hardest fighting fish in Ungava. Salmon spend their first four to seven years in fresh water, living on insect larvae until they grow to about 20cm long. Then, as the days grow longer and the water warms to 10°C, they head to the sea, where they live the river estuaries to adjust to the new conditions before heading off to the open ocean to live for two years.

Mature salmon return in mid-August each year to spawn. Unlike char, salmon will leap over obstacle as high as 3m to make it home. Some salmon, called grilse, spend one full year in their home waters before returning to the sea, and other called ouananiche, never go to the sea.

Brook Trout

Brook trout, widespread throughout Quebec, are much sought-after by fly fishermen. Brook trout (aanak) are in some ways similar arctic char but are discerned by their red spots with a trace of blue. Some brook trout, called sea-run trout, move to salt water estuaries in summer. Others change their colouring like char: some get light green backs and silver sides in the ocean and become darker in freshwater.

Brook trout spawn from August to October as water temperatures drop and days get shorter. They eat anything and everything they can find, including fish and small mammals.

Lake Trout

Lake trout are famous for their huge size and are a sought after trophy fish. They have few predators and are always on the move for prey. They have grabbed at coat sleeves that were hanging over the sides of our canoes, they have even tried to eat fish we have caught on the line. They strike the line with a heavy thud and immediately take line. And the closer they get to you the harder they fight. They have become a staple food for us on trips across the barrens and is the base of a cold weather chowder that will put a fire in the belly of the coldest paddler.

Bugs


Peter Scott endures the hoardes of blackflies at the head of the Leaf River in central Ungava July 1986. (Photo - Michael Peake)
If you've read everything we've provided on this site, you will have noticed that we have made no mention of The Bugs. We'd thought we'd leave the best until last.

The bugs in the north, and by north we mean above 55°N, are downright frightening. On the barrens, they are worse.

There two kinds of insects that want to separate you from your blood are blackflies and mosquitoes. Cottagers always complain that the blackflies were "just terrible" on May 24th weekend, but until they have been swarmed with blackflies so thick that they can't catch their breath without inhaling dozens of the little monsters, or when clouds of them literally drop like flies into anything they are eating, then they have never really experienced "terrible" blackflies.

Blackflies are small but mighty, and they attack walking blood sacks (us) in huge swarms. Their sheer numbers have been credited (or blamed) for preserving the North from development. Without them, the white beaches, clear waters, and fish-filled lakes and rivers would have long been exploited by southerners.

Blackflies, in case you've never truly had the pleasure, swarm around your nose, mouth, burrow into your hair, hide behind your ears, crawl into the cuffs of your pants and shirt. They would carry you away if they were smart enough to get organized. And while they're tucked into some place you can't reach or feel, they set to work hacking you open. Blackflies don't actually "bite", no, no, blackflies scrape away your skin with saw-like razors so blood can pool on the surface, which they then lick up. This is why their bites take longer to heal and tend to scab over.

Blackflies like to breed in cool, fast moving waters, which is why they are always worse around rapids and falls. They are poor fliers and can be kept at bay with a light breeze. Because of this flaw, barrenland canoeists tend to sit facing the wind, eat facing the wind, and camp into the wind. (There are some activities, however, you may not want to expose to leeward-loving blackflies unless the function can be completed in seconds.)

Yet, despite their fearsome reputation and biblical proportions, blackflies are considered gentlemen compared to mosquitoes: at least they go home when it gets dark and they never bother you indoors. Mosquitoes, on the other hand, are boors. They will go after you anywhere, anytime.

First off, lets get this straight, mosquitoes can bite more than once -- they can bite up to five times. And after each bite, she (yes, only females draw blood, but we males already knew that, didn't we!) can lay up to 200 eggs. Arctic mosquitoes are larger and stronger than their southern kin and are more resilient. They can handle stronger winds and some species captured at Churchill are active even when the temperature drops down to 3 to 4°C, which means that up north mosquitoes can bother you from June to September.

Mosquitoes can detect a food source (you) from 6 metres and are attracted by body heat (infrared radiation) and carbon dioxide emissions, so anything that is a byproduct of basic living mosquitoes hone in on. The high-pitched whine you can only detect at night in your tent is made by their winging fluttering at 600 beats per second.

The into-the-wind rule also applies to mosquitoes, which is why some of our choicest campsites have been perched on top of eskers, with nary a tree to be seen, fully exposed to any breeze. Doing up the dishes, however, can be a severe bloodletting experience.

Now there is a lot of information, and even more disinformation, about what repellants work, which don't, and which cause birth defects in rats when immersed in 3,000 litres of stuff. Since this is not the forum to set the record straight, and to avoid being sucked into the disinformation trap, it is safe to say that the one repellant that does not, will not, and never will work is the little battery-powered, sound repellant. This is the device that is supposed to emit a tone that mosquitoes can't stand and will buzz off and hide whenever they here it. Yeah, good idea, but there's just one catch... female mosquitoes, the biting sex, are a deaf as a roadie for Black Sabbath. Save your money.

Even with their superior numbers, and abilities, the north occasionally provides the great leveler -- Frost. An overnight frost will knock down the insect populations for several hours, sometimes days, as they spend time trying to recover in low-lying vegetation. Ahh...come on, Jack, bring it on!

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