Pushing Limits in Labrador

Like so many expeditions, a six-person canoe journey across Labrador’s little-known Torngat Mountains was conceived on a previous trip in a faraway place. Back in 2015, a crew of Quebeckers paddled 45 days on four different river systems in the Yukon, ending at the Beaufort Sea. Encounters with indigenous people living on the land above the Arctic Circle “sowed a seed” for more adventure, says Nicolas Roulx, a high-school teacher. One of the paddlers, Guillaume Moreau, a Ph.D. forester, spearheaded the next round of trip planning.

Top of the Torngats: Mount Iberville. Photo courtesy of Expedition AKOR

“He knew it would be longer, harder and would take place in a land where the indigenous culture and landscape are interconnected,” says Roulx. “Guillaume searched for wild and hostile regions, and finally discovered the existence of the Torngat Mountains in Quebec and Labrador’s far north. He found it inconceivable that he had never heard of this area before. His curiosity for this region, infrequently visited by canoeists, grew as he discovered little information for explorers.”

Ultimately, Moreau rustled up Roulx, along with Charles Fortin, Philippe Poulin, Sarah-Jeanne Giroux, and Pier-Luc Morissette. Starting on June 7, the team would haul canoes across frozen lakes; descend the surging George River; ascend the Koroc River into the heart of the Torngats; and paddle Labrador’s Atlantic coast. They garnered support from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and named their expedition after the French word for a coastal fjord—“Akor.”

“Friends and family thought we were quite insane for planning to travel by canoe instead of walking or kayaking,” says Roulx. “Just for fun, try to explain to your grandmother how you plan to cross the second-biggest mountain range in Canada by canoe!”

In the end, the 1,000-mile expedition spanned 65 days. We spoke with Roulx to learn more.

CanoeKayak.com: Your route was very diverse and included lots of different components. It’s hard to believe it could be completed in a single season.
Roulx: Our initial plan was even more ambitious. The thought was to ski from Quebec City to Schefferville, then to paddle down the George River to the Ungava bay. From there, we wanted to circle the Labrador Peninsula in sea kayaks to finish in Nain, on the Labrador coast. That would have been a six-month expedition. But after a few cross-country skiing expeditions in Quebec’s Uapishka mountains we realized that it wouldn’t be fun at all—and way too long!

After a meticulous study of the area, we downsized the length of the trip so it would be 1,000 miles, connecting Schefferville, Quebec to Nain, Labrador, across the Labrador Peninsula. We had to consider late-season ice for the start of our journey and the fact that the winds become especially strong on the North Atlantic in September. That meant a three-month window. Moreover, we knew it was a race against the clock to reach the heart of the Torngats early enough to have adequate water levels in the rivers. We expected to drag our canoes across frozen lakes to start, portaging about 12 miles in the mountains, and experiencing bad weather on the ocean. Don’t forget coastal Labrador is prime polar bear zone! We had the details figured out 12 months before departure. We were committed to the plan.

Hauling across frozen Lac Attikamagen, June 2018. Photo courtesy of Expedition AKOR

How did you feel before setting off?
Roulx: Mostly just anxious. None of us knew what it would be like to pull canoes across ice. Heading north from Schefferville it felt like we were reentering winter. Had we planned too big? Was it possible to reach the Torngats in winter conditions? Especially since it meant that we would be paddling the voluminous George River at spring breakup. The George was only the beginning. From there we would go upstream on the Koroc River, across the Torngats to the Labrador Sea. In short, the only certainty we had at the departure was that we were going to have hard times!

What river did you descend from the Torngat to access the North Atlantic?
Roulx: The Koroc flows from the limit of the Ungava Bay watershed. At its source you must cross a divide to reach the Atlantic. The only feasible way to cross this region is to use a river whose width is about that of a bowling alley! Timing is critical if you want to find any water at all. This was a big mystery for us, uncharted territory. There is no existing map of this watercourse; we had to estimate the potential rapids by the distance separating the curves on our topographic maps. Fortunately, the river was flooded when we reached it, which allowed us to float our canoes and avoid a very long portage. However, there were many cascades and falls and we still had to portage about five miles in total. We took care to map this pristine river. Our maps we will put online, open-access for the next crazy people who will return there—probably in 10 or 15 years! Our passage through this spectacular valley was potentially the first canoe descent by contemporary paddlers.

A scene from the unknown route across eastern Canada’s tallest mountain range. Photo courtesy of Expedition AKOR

Did you have any problems with polar bears? What was your strategy in case of an encounter?
Roulx: We knew there’s a large large population of polar bears on the Labrador coast but we didn’t expect to see many. Still, we met 10 polar bears and 14 black bears in 18 days on the ocean. The polar bears were everywhere, all the time: at our lunch sites, on our portages, following our canoes on the shore and sneaking int our campsites at night. We were disturbed three times by bears during the night, sometimes only 50 feet from the tent. At that moment, you know the bear hasn’t come by to to sing you a lullaby! Suddenly you feel like your life is in its hands.

An encounter with the Ice Bear on the Labrador Sea. Photo courtesy of Expedition AKOR

For three weeks we felt like prey. You’re constantly looking over your shoulder, scanning the icebergs for polar bears. Whenever we landed ashore one of us was responsible for keeping lookout with a loaded weapon. Same thing during the night: One person was always awake as a night watch. We were fully armed: bear-bangers, pepper spray, long knife and a 12-gauge shotgun. We saw 10 polar bears, but the more interesting question to ask is how many polar bears saw us?

What was your favorite part?
Roulx: Each part has its charm—and sometimes physical misery. However, the Nunatsiavut region (the Inuit region of Labrador) surprised us at every moment, especially because of its fascinating history. Every time we found a good campsite we also found vestiges of human settlements: tent circles, human graves, sculpted arrowheads, tools carved in whale bones. Along the steep Torngats coast, the plateaus accessible from the sea are so rare that humans crossing the region frequent the same sites for millennia. To cross this region is to make a leap in time. At all times, we were reminded that until only 50 years ago nomadic societies (Dorset, Thule and Inuit) lived out here in harmony with the land, feeding on berries and marine wildlife. Their Inuit descendants still live much by the same land, even if they are now established in permanent communities a bit to the south. We were challenged to simply cross this region, whereas it remains the homeland of the modern Inuit people who are proud of their culture and proud of their land.

Ancient ruins on the Labrador coast. Photo courtesy of Expedition AKOR

What was the hardest part?
Roulx: The Labrador coast was also the hardest part of the journey. The weather can change drastically, in a finger snap. You are always subject to the dilemma of having to stay close to the cliffs to find shelter in case of a sudden problem, even if you know a polar bear could jump out from a rocky crevice at any time. You know it, because you saw a polar bear in just such a place a few kilometers behind!

Canoeing in Iceberg Alley. Photo courtesy of Expedition AKOR

Overall, the element that had the greatest impact on our health and our mental integrity was the lack of sleep. The problems begin when you’re sleeping only four or five hours a night, waking up to the sound of the gun re-loading. Sometimes we wondered what we were doing here!

What were some of your key pieces of equipment?
Roulx: We prepared for all conditions, any eventualities. In many ways it was like a winter expedition because the weather and water temperatures were so harsh. Safety starts with a good drysuit—one that you can rely on day after day, for many months. We demanded durable canoes that could stand up to ice, snow, rocks and sea salt. We brought a drone to capture feelings of our lived experience. However, we bought it only two weeks before departure.  We would have liked more time to practice to become better pilots. In a region so densely populated by polar bears, not carrying a gun is an act of sheer carelessness that is likely to cost your life. Any Inuit person would frown at the thought of people venturing in this area being unarmed. But carrying the gun is not enough; you need to know how to use it! Finally, equipment that we often underestimate but are essential for cold-weather canoe-camping adventure is a good pair of gloves.

Cold water work on the Palmer River. Photo courtesy of Expedition AKOR

What’s next? 
Roulx: Life is short, but expedition possibilities are endless. So when you have an opportunity to build a solid team for the most dangerous and ambitious trip of your life, you say yes! That’s what is happening to us right now. We are just starting to plan an insane multi-dimensional, multi-sport journey for 2021. It would be a 4,500-mile, seven-month, cross-Canada expedition by ski, canoe and bike. What we are considering to do has never been attempted in a single season.

Camp at the base of Mount d’Iberville, 5,420 feet. Photo courtesy of Expedition AKOR

From our point of view, this type of expedition has the potential to benefit all of us. For instance, on Expedition AKOR we collected wood samples from black spruce at their northern limit of their range to increase our understanding of the effects of climate change on trees growth. Guillaume is studying these samples at Laval University. This research will contribute to a better understanding of this highly vulnerable environment to the climate changes that affect it. We are also currently doing a series of presentations at high schools in Quebec. So far we have reached out to 3,000 young students. The next expedition will be an enlarged and epic version of AKOR, with more research components (ecology, entomology and education) and a documentary film. We would also like at least one Inuit person to join our team. We’re dreaming big to share of incredible human experiences, to bridge science, Canadians and the transforming northern environment—and of course to have fun!

See more trip photos on Facebook.

Catch a presentation from the Expedition AKOR team at the 2019 Wilderness and Canoe Symposium in Toronto, Ontario, February 22-23.

More expedition canoeing at CanoeKayak.com:

— Expedition planning with Alan Kesselheim, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

— How to make your canoe expedition plastic-free

— Two experts discuss strategies for long-range canoe tripping, Part One, Part Two

— More expeditions to the Torngats

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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