Crossing the Ungava


Brad Bassi on Hudson Bay.
© Eric Nemitz
The 2006 Northern Ungava Canoe Expedition was successfully completed on August 15th in the remote Inuit village of Kangirsuk by the shores of arctic Quebec’s Ungava Bay. Our two-man team arrived at the village after paddling continuously for two days and struggling to navigate through the thirty foot tides of Payne Basin. Despite the cold downpour that greeted us, our spirits were high and a celebratory handshake was given at the town’s boat ramp.

For the next forty days we lived out a dream that had taken years to plan. Our route through this virtually treeless region of arctic Quebec traversed one of the last true wilderness areas in North America and was nothing short of spectacular. The vast Ungava Peninsula is a land forgotten; its massive rivers and lakes remain virtually unexplored and seldom traveled.
Eric Nemitz heading up to Lake Minto.
© Brad Bassi

The expedition began in the tiny village of Umiiuaq, Quebec. From the start it was apparent that this was not going to be another ordinary canoe trip. The first day involved paddling thirty miles up the ice choked coast of Hudson Bay to the mouth of Nastapoka River. Our plans had us following the Nastapoka and its tributaries upstream for some thirty miles until a chain of lakes was reached.

Although we expected this part of the journey to be spectacularly rugged, it proved to be more difficult than we could have imagined. Facing a five-day rain and snow storm, we battled past a hundred foot waterfall and were forced to make a four-kilometer portage up and out of a deep canyon on the Nastapoka when upstream progress became blocked by unanticipated rapids that were completely cliffed out. This first week of the trip proved to be a blur of snow, frozen gear and the need to find a creative route that carried us up a parallel drainage until it was possible to rejoin our original route.

 
The expanse of Lake Minto
© Brad Bassi

By the time the weather broke, we were used to carrying the 700-pound outfit over the harsh terrain and were able to make excellent progress through a progression of smaller streams and ponds on our way up to Lake Minto. After many portages and much hard work we finally crossed the height of land and entered the Ungava Bay watershed.

For the next two hundred miles we worked our way across the massive Lake Minto and down the quickly flowing Leaf River. Along the way we were greeted by every kind of weather imaginable, including a calm and sunny heat wave. Massive lake trout were landed and our camp was visited by a mother wolf barking and howling in an attempt to protect her cubs from us strange intruders on the land. In many places ancient Inuit campsites could be seen on shore, a reminder that little has changed here since the end of the last ice age.
 
Eric Nemitz portages up the Vizien River.
© Brad Bassi

A hundred miles upstream from Ungava Bay the Vizien River enters the Leaf from the north. It was at this point that the expedition once again turned upstream in an effort to cross into the Payne River watershed. Ascending the Vizien’s numerous rapids took five days and carried us deep into the most remote portion of out trip. Once the headwaters of the Vizien were reached the last vestiges of stunted larch and spruce disappeared, alders became less frequent, and the true tundra was entered. At this point it also became quite clear that water levels were extremely low.

Streams we were supposed to be following were often no more than ankle deep trickles and the water levels were so low that many lakes did not exist as mapped. Many places that we planned on paddling through turned out to be nothing more than dry piles of rocks. This made for some difficult portaging, but in the end we persevered and reached bigger water at Lake Dune.

Low water forces us to head overland.
© Eric Nemitz
The next morning I left the tent to use the bathroom and was surprised to be greeted by a small group of large male caribou walking on a hill just above our tent. For the next two hours we sat tucked behind a clump of alder bushes and watched group after group of caribou pass. In all, we probably saw three or four hundred animals pass within fifty yards of our camp. The rest of the day was spent working our way through portages and lake hopping in the Payne River headwaters. All the while we watched smaller groups of caribou and lone males wandering on the horizon.

This new chain of lakes was connected by small streams similar to those we had been climbing for the last several weeks. Most of these were confined between high rock walls and therefore had enough water for the canoe. However, the land eventually flattened and the connecting streams widened, forcing us to wade and drag the canoe along. While still difficult, going downstream made the job much easier.

The headwaters of the Payne River.
© Brad Bassi

The most exciting paddling of the trip came during the crossing of massive Lake Tassialouc. For 15 miles paddling on the lake was complicated by a strong crosswind and sporadic gales that had blown up a mess of swells, some growing to five feet and breaking. Luckily our 18-foot Nova Craft canoe was protected by a spray deck from Northwater. Eventually the crossing was made and several days were spent paddling down a large and deep river to Payne Lake. Without the large boat and the finely crafted spray deck we would have been windbound for several days while the unsettled weather passed.

Payne Lake and the river draining it lies entirely above tree line. The final push out involved a big effort, covering over 200 miles in five days. While running the fast and easy Payne River we saw many caribou, musk ox, and enjoyed hot clear weather. With the exceptions of the outlet rapids the entire river is fast flowing and free of obstructions. While making for great traveling weather, the warm days brought out swarms of blackflies that made time on shore almost unbearable. Our last major test came at the end of the trip when tidewater was reached.

Two of the hundreds of caribou encountered.
© Brad Bassi
For its last 40 miles the Payne River flows through a wide fjord emptying into Ungava Bay. The bay’s tides reach all the way up this fjord and limit paddling to 6-hour shifts as the massive slug of sea water exits to the ocean. This intense ebbing tide produces strong currents and standing waves complicated by frequently stiff headwinds. To make our flight on time we had to take advantage of each outgoing tide, which meant paddling at night, in the dark, among some of the world’s largest tides.

The trip ended the following afternoon as we rode out the final few miles to Kangirsuk. Paddling around the small seawall and into the town gave us a sense of deep accomplishment and pride. Although a heavy rain was falling, we were smiling and happy to have reached our destination.

 

Payne River © Brad Bassi

While flying from village to village on our way back south we couldn’t help but feel privileged to have experienced one of the remaining wildernesses left on the planet. For a few brief moments we were able to connect with this vast expanse of land that has remained uninfluenced by the hand of man. The pleasure was all ours.

Brad Bassi
Eugene, Oregon

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