Natashquan River - East Branch

CanadaQuebec07 Lower St Lawrence, N Shore
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Trip Date : 
Route Author: 
Additional Route Information
300 km
14 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
0 m
Longest Portage: 
0 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Technical Guide: 

Start at town of Natashquan
Fly in to Lac Fontenau
South on Natashquan East Branch
To confluence with Natashquan Main Branch
South on Natashquan River
Finish at town of Natashquan

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

East Natashquan River
By: Herb Pohl

Originally published in Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring 2000) “Nastawgan – The Quarterly Journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association.”

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Board of Directors of the Wilderness Canoe Association.

The plan for the summer of 1999 had actually been to finish a trip started in 199t, but after a sober assessment of the condition of the old carcass it was clear that it could no longer cope with the wear and tear of cross-country travel. The search for an alternative led me back to a watershed which I had seriously considered 25 years ago – the Natashquan River. What makes the river more attractive now is that Hwy 138 along the North Shore is completed all the way to the village of Natashquan and there is a charter service – Deraps Aviation – which is happy to take you to any point in the neighbourhood.

Several weeks earlier, a party of WCA members had started on a trip down the main branch of the river. Knowing this, I opted for the east branch as a starting point, which also reduced the cost of the charter by several hundred dollars.

Lennard Deraps, the owner of the charter company, briefly tried to convince me that the East Natashquan was not suitable for canoeing because of an impassable canyon and falls on the upper river, which the Indians avoided. (He also told his wife: “I don`t think we`ll ever see this fellow again,” I found out afterwards.)

All the rivers were very low due to the nice weather the region had experience. Predictably, this changed the moment I arrived on the scene. At the end of a long, drizzly day the ceiling lifted enough for us to take off for the south end of Lac Fonteneau. A late supper, prepared in the steady rain which continued all night, quickly re-acquainted me with the joys of tripping.

Lac Fonteneau is situated in a narrow glacial groove. At the south end of the lake, tree-covered hills rise steeply more than 140 m above the shore. In its sinuous progress towards the outflow at the northern extremity some 40 kilometres away, the lake is seldom more than two kilometres wide. The high hills of bedrock become attenuated, until near its northern terminus the lake`s shoreline is defined by low eskers. At several places, the remnants of sandy eskers, which at one time traversed the lake, provide attractive campsites.

The gloom of morning was not assuaged by the discovery that my heretofore trusty tent had allowed a measurable quantity of water to reach the inner sanctum. (An optimist no doubt would see it as evidence that the floor of the tent is still waterproof.) More bad news came at breakfast when my non-stick frying pan (after a mere 11 years of service) refused to life up to its promise and made a mess of my pancakes. Despite this inauspicious beginning, I was whistling and singing as I proceeded northward into a stiff headwind. Being alone in the wilderness, paradoxically, calms the soul and excites the senses. Soon the clouds gave way to blue skies, the sun sparkled on the waves, and as so often in the past, I was overcome by a feeling of undeserved privilege.

Evening was celebrated on a sandy spit about halfway up the lake. A steady procession of ominous dark clouds hurried eastward. Periodically, the rays of the low sun performed their magic and warmed the somber landscape. It turned cool during the night. In the gray of early morning, scattered fog banks began to coalesce until they obscured the landscape. By six o`clock, I had slipped away into this mystical world, which gradually dissolved into a brilliant morning with the urging of the rising sun.

The north end of Lac Fonteneau has all the physical features of Labrador; rolling hills covered with a thick carpet of caribou moss, a smattering of black spruce and tamarack, and plenty of blackflies. In the few hours it had taken me to get here, the weather had changed once again and a dark wall of clouds, softened by streamers of rain had moved in. I hadn`t bothered to get the map covering the north end of the lake and it cost me an extra hour of paddling to find the well-disguised outlet. Just a short distance downstream, a waterfall, followed by several rapids bars the way. Finding the start of the old Montagnais portage trail was easy; long disused, it was partly overgrown and finally completely obliterated in a tangle of deadfalls and willows. It made the decision to carry around the falls and run the rapids a lot more palatable, even though the sound effects and wave action made me nervous enough to scout the whole thing.

By the time I reached the East Natashquan, some three kilometres downstream from Lac Fonteneau, the incessant and frequently heavy rain made the notion to stop for the day and put up the tent quite unattractive and so I carried on. I had been told that there was an old log cabin on Lac Le Marquand, some 20 kilometres downstream. After what must surely rank as the most tedious paddle ever, I discovered it in the gray of evening with a great sense of relief. It had a solid roof and floor, but plenty of openings in the walls, and so I put up the tent inside the cabin, had a belated cold lunch and escaped into the sleeping bag to warm up.

The next morning, the water level of the lake had risen noticeably and it rained as hard as ever. I decided to stay put for the time being. Al that was needed to make my shelter more homey was a supply of wood to feed the stove. Within and hour I had located a nice, dry standing spruce, cut it up, fed the stove and produced a batch of impeccable pancakes. Alas, the feeling of satisfaction quickly gave way to boredom. There was nothing to do once all the gear had been dried. Late in the evening the wind changed from northeast to northwest and ever so briefly a bit of blue sky emerged, raising hopes for a better morning.

The Indian travel route to the coast leaves the river at Lac Le Marquand and follows a southerly course overland through several small bodies of water in order to bypass more than 15 kilometres of continuous fast water. Even a cursory look at the map convinced me that following the river was by far the easier option and so, with showers still trailing across the lake, I pushed off the next morning into a much-swollen stream. The beginning of the first canyon was still 10 kilometres away, but within an hour I was in the midst of class 2 rapids which continued to the brink of the first of two falls. Here the river cascades more than 50 metres into a deeply recessed valley in little more than one hundred metres. From the base of the falls, the river continues a boisterous course for the next four kilometres as it drops another 40 metres. Beyond this section, the gradient becomes less pronounced, the walls of the canyon recede, and the river continues to rush along in an ever-widening streambed.

I had planned to portage the five or so kilometres around this section, because a gradient of 10 metres per kilometre in a bouldery streambed demands respect from a solo traveller but, as an old sinner once said, I can resist anything but temptation. The portage to the river below the falls was easier than expected and the ride a wild and hectic experience which telescoped a day`s portage into less than 30 minutes.

Two days later I had reached the top of the second canyon. It is similar to the first one in that it has an impressive falls near the beginning and descends at the same rate (as #2) for six kilometres. However, the river is not nearly and deeply recessed and the shoreline is suitable for landing or launching at a number of places. The realization that good fortune as much as skill was responsible for my traverse of the first canyon banished all thought of trying my luck again. Instead, I was looking for the Montagnais portage trail, which reputedly bypassed the obstruction. After an hour`s drudging through moisture-laden vegetation, I discovered an old trail which paralleled the river near the left shore and began to portage along it. Before long, the trail vanished, as game trails often do, and progress through the dense forest became very slow. The main problem was that there simply wasn`t enough space to advance the boat between adjacent trees. By the end of the day I had progressed a little over one kilometre, managed to find a level space large enough for the tent and retreated to its safety after a quick supper in the pouring rain.

There was no doubt by now, that the portage trail had to be on the other side of the river.

The next morning I continued a short distance downstream, loaded the gear into the boat and began to lower it by rope down the steep embankment. I thought this was an excellent idea, but within 50 metres my conveyance was, for a time, firmly wedged between trees. I came out on the river at a spot exactly the same as the figure eight rapids on the Nahanni River, albeit smaller, and with some difficulty made it across. Most of the land beyond the right shoreline had been recently burned, leaving only the skeletons of trees standing. It made looking for and finding the old portage trail very easy. This time, to make sure it was the right trail, I followed it downstream for some distance. Along the way I also took the odd peek at the roaring river and against all common sense decided, since I was already soaking wet, I might as well run it – just to shorten the carry a little – and in the process almost Made Lennard Deraps` prediction come true.

Everything went well until I approached a spot where the river narrows and the water is further compressed by several huge boulders. By the time I realized there wasn`t a hope in hell to make it through there in one piece, it was nearly too late. I just barely managed to reach the last tiny eddy with the strength panic provides and had no quarrel with being a beast of burden the rest of the way. The portage trail ends, not at the river, but at a shallow pond, the outflow of which almost immediately joins a swift stream which takes the traveller back to the main river. I was quite happy to call it a day near the edge of the pond, and set up the tent on one of several terraces, which are remnants of old stream beds, one of which was nearly a hundred metres above the present valley floor. Late in the afternoon the sun relented and made a longed-for appearance, everything dried out, and by nightfall contentment reigned.

Below the second canyon, the river runs swiftly in a wide, glacier-carved valley with prominent and near-vertical walls of bedrock, which rise more than three hundred metres above the river. The valley floor is occupied by several parallel eskers through which the river has carved a winding course. The dense forest comes right to the edge of the stream and a number of sand bars invite the traveller to linger. The day`s journey was a continuous visual delight of deep green forest, a few white clouds in the blue sky and a shimmering river, ever in a hurry to carry you along. By late afternoon, I reached the confluence with the main arm of the Natashquan River with th4e distinct feeling that I was parting from a good friend.

At the junction of the two streams, the main river runs in a wide, shallow streambed composed of sand and shingles. Compared to the valley of the East Natashquan, the hills are lower and set back from the river, giving a feeling of wide-open space. I only carried on for a few more kilometres before settling on a gravel bar to enjoy the evening. From here to the coast, the river alternately runs in a wide, lake-like setting with a gentle current and numerous sandbars, and regions where the flow is narrowly constricted by hills. Here, the huge volume of water repeatedly tumbles over exposed bedrock in spectacular falls.

With the exception of a few long-disused trapper`s cabins, there is absolutely no evidence of human activity until one reaches the last three falls on the river. Surprisingly, there were also few signs of wildlife. On two successive nights early on, a marten had inspected my camp during the night and once, while I had lunch along the river, two moose walked past me. Other than a number of otters and a few ducks I saw, there were not even the tracks of wolf, fox or bear along the sandy shore.

I had glorious weather the rest of the way and the benefit of the falling tide to speed my through the wide, sand-clogged mouth of the river in a very circuitous course. Two hour`s paddling on choppy saltwater brought me back to the village of Natashquan, after an absence of 13 days, with the old body in surprisingly good condition. Perhaps good enough to go back to northern Labrador next year?


Post date: Sun, 09/12/2010 - 19:35


Ive flown up this river many times and hunted around lac marchand for a few years it is a very rough area.The author was a great explorer and its sad to see that he has since passed in another expidition.Kodos for what he did back then he was a great man.

Post date: Fri, 11/06/2009 - 23:58


Are you still looking for a trip in eastern Labrador, any body did the St-Paul river one in Québec lower north shore? 45miles West of Blanc Sablon, nature is huge. sea with all it's islands. padling on this river would be much special.