Northern Ungava Canoe Expedition Announced - June 18 through September 4, 2006

Brad Bassi and Phil Royce scout a drop on the Little Whale River
Brad Bassi and Phil Royce scout a drop
on the Little Whale River
© John Angus

Two hundred feet above the raging waters of Quebec’s Little Whale River, perched on a forty-five degree slope covered with dwarf spruce and mats of mint green lichen, the canoe slipped another inch as my grip on its thirty foot bow line weakened. A redoubling of effort resulted in gaining back the two lost inches plus a few more, bringing a brief smile to my sweat streaked and fly-bitten face.

Although this seems like quite a ridiculous situation to be in on a canoe trip, it was one of necessity. A mere fifteen kilometers from its mouth on Hudson Bay, the Little Whale River enters a sheer walled canyon and plummets over a one hundred foot waterfall. The only option is to portage up and out of the gorge before the cliffs close in at the big drop. After hauling the canoes and gear up a slope that would qualify as a double black diamond at any ski area, everything had to be carried for a hundred yards before being belayed back to water level. The reward was getting to paddle a few kilometers of potentially un-run class II – III whitewater tucked into one of the most surreal canyons on the planet.

While such scenes and locations are increasingly hard to find in today’s world, Quebec’s Northern Ungava holds an endless supply of them. Last summer’s trip down the Little Whale River led to the rebirth of an idea I had been developing for some time. I wanted to spend the entire summer exploring the barrens of Quebec’s Ungava Peninsula by canoe. The route had been established years before while pondering an endless pile of maps back at my New England home.

Brad Bassi peels out below a large drop on the Little Whale River
Brad Bassi peels out below a large drop on
the Little Whale River
© John Angus

This fall I was able to convince Eric Nemitz, also from Dublin, New Hampshire, to complete the two-person team that would tackle the ambitious route developed to explore one of the most remote and least traveled portions of the world.

Our objective
Our two-man team’s objective is to circumnavigate the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec by canoe. The route will start and end on Hudson Bay and involve travel up and down several watersheds including the Nastapoka, Leaf, Payne, and Povungnituk. This route has never been attempted in its entirety, as its distance and the terrain covered pushes the limits of regular canoe trips. The expedition will cover 800 miles and take 70 days of traveling.
Significant upstream travel will be required for extended periods of time. Upstream work consists of lining canoes along shore, dragging the boats in places, and portaging gear for great distances. The work is wet, cold and physically taxing. Switching drainages requires working in small headwater streams that may or may not have water levels that facilitate canoe travel. Movement between watersheds requires portaging for significant distances over jumbled terrain with loads of up to 100 pounds.

2005 Little Whale River team members prepare to belay gear into gorge after an exhausting 3 hour portage of a major waterfall
2005 Little Whale River team members prepare to belay gear into gorge after an exhausting 3 hour portage of a major waterfall
© Brad Bassi

Our supplies will be carried in NRS Outfitter Drybags equipped with Paragon Pack carrying harnesses. Preliminary training has already proved that this system can comfortably haul these tremendous loads. When not moving upstream the expedition will face long stretches of flatwater paddling on some truly huge windswept lakes. This can be enjoyable or impossible depending on wind conditions. The finale of the expedition will be running the Povungnitunk River, where we will navigate numerous rapids and falls. Some will be runnable, while others will force our canoe to be lined down the edges of the river or portaged.

Our Style and Purpose
Our self-supported team of two will move light and fast through the harsh terrain of northern Quebec. In order to make good time we will reduce weight by carrying a minimum of food, relying on fishing to supplement our meals. To reduce costs we have eliminated as much outside support as possible, leaving it up to us to paddle a longer distance that involves upstream work
Traditionally, travel in Ungava was by canoe and involved crossing watersheds and portaging. We will mimic this style by carrying our own gear and food and working our way up and down several different river systems. By not confining ourselves to a single watershed we will be able to explore much more terrain than most expeditions. Ambition, patience and hard work will be key ingredients to successfully completing this route.

Arctic Quebec, although only a thousand miles north of Montreal, remains a relatively unexplored wilderness. Northern Quebec, traditionally known as Ungava, has recently been renamed Nunavik. Less than 30,000 Inuit living in small coastal villages inhabit this landmass. The barren and rugged interior is completely uninhabited and remote by any standards.

This is truly one of the world’s last frontiers. In many ways, it is more wild and secluded than well-known wilderness areas in western Canada and Alaska, where tourism and adventure travel are well established. The level of commitment that the expedition will face is high. During the nearly 800-mile route we will encounter no permanent settlements and be hundreds of miles from the nearest remote outposts.

Barret Miles, Phil Royce, and Brad Bassi complete a portage on the Little Whale River
Barret Miles, Phil Royce, and Brad Bassi complete a portage on the Little Whale River
© Brian Chaffin
For the last 6,000 years the Inuit people have inhabited the wind scoured, treeless tundra of arctic Quebec. Through carefully studying this harsh land, these people have been able to adapt to the environment and survive in one of the harshest climates in the world. The Inuit language, Inuktitut, represents their connection to the land. The Inuit have no less than ten different words for snow and their religion is based on characters resembling animals they’ve relied on for food. It is our intention to immerse ourselves in this land in order to better understand its intricacies and successfully complete the expedition. By the end of the expedition everyone involved will have a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the world they live in.
Perhaps most important is our desire to raise public awareness of the vast wilderness that is northern Quebec. This land is threatened by hydroelectric development and mining interests and it would be a shame to lose such a beautiful place. Awareness will hopefully foster caring and a sense of stewardship. On return from the expedition the team will be traveling with a slide show to help share the wonders of arctic Quebec and raise awareness of this great land while at the same time demonstrating the resilience of the human body and mind.

This expedition is being made possible by :
NRS, W.L. Gore, Nova Craft, MSR, Mitchell Paddles, Emergency Beacon Corporation, Bear Valley Nutrition Bars,, Northwater, and Seattle Fabrics.

Full trip report coming this fall.

Brad Bassi
Dublin, New Hampshire