Natashquan River - Main Branch

CanadaQuebec07 Lower St Lawrence, N Shore
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400 km
18 days
Loop Trip: 
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0 m
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0 m
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Route Description
Technical Guide: 

By air from town of Natashquan
Start on unnamed lake
Southeast on Natashquan River
Southwest through Big Steady lake
South on Natashquan River to finish at town of Natashquan

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Natashquan River
By: Terry Aitken

This article originally appeared in Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring 2000) of “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 germ of the idea for this trip was planted in the fall of 1997 on a brief five-day outing up an down the Natashquan from its mouth. If I were to return, it would be with the intent of starting at the source and traversing the whole river, nicknamed the Nahanni of the East. After its beginning in an area shared by the birthplaces of its well-known neighbours, the Romain and Little Mecatina River, in the mountain ranges on the border of Quebec and Labrador, the Natashquan runs approximately south to the North Shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Attempts in late 1997 and in 1998 to interest anyone in my idea were unsuccessful, till I saw an advertisement in Nastawgan for partners in a 4-5 week canoe trip to contact Tom. He put me in touch with Peter, who became enthused by the possibility of such a trip when we reviewed the topographic maps at the WCA Symposium in February 1999. Another acquaintance put me in touch with a pastor to the Montagnais in Sept Iles. He strongly recommended Mat, who came on board, to be joined later by his older brother Karl. After a lot of disappointment trying to attract a sixth person, I was finally able to interest Pat, who lived nearby.

Pat had experience with brief whitewater trips. Peter and Tom had been tripping for a month or more at a time for 20 years. Mat and Karl were kayakers, who had only made short trips in canoes. My experience was almost solely confined to canoeing flatwater. Pat and I attended the Madawaska Kanu Centre for a week of whitewater training in May 1999.

Four of us could only be away for three weeks, yet Tom and Peter wished to make a longer trip. It was decided that they would set out earlier and rendezvous with us at an unnamed lake, which is near the headwaters of the Natashquan River (Lat 52° 30`, Long 63° 25` E). They would paddle east from the Quebec North Shore / Labrador railway, which they had left at Oreway on mile 186, as Bob Davis had done in 1982. Tom and Peter moved up their departure time from the railway to July 1, so as to be sure of making the planned rendezvous with us on July 19.

We chose the Natashquan River because it has the merit of being unknown and rarely travelled. Although the first one hundred kilometres of the entire 400 km trip looked difficult, the remaining three hundred kilometres appeared easier. There was road access to the end of the trip, reducing the cost.

The timing of a mid-July start was intended to be a compromise between concentration of blackflies and depth of water. We estimated the trip would take 18 days.

Pat and I set out from Kitchener, Ontario late in the afternoon of July 16, and reached Mat and Karl`s place in Sept Iles late the next night. We were dismayed to discover the canoe they had borrowed was totally unsuitable. It was fiberglass, but only 20 cm deep from gunwale to keel. On Sunday, a frantic search commenced for a replacement. We eventually found a large Indian canoe with cedar interior, still stained by blood from the last Caribou hunt, and totally devoid of seats and yoke, but at least it was deep enough.

En route to the town of Natashquan late Sunday afternoon, we were able to make contact with the Surete ud Quebec in Havre St. Pierre, to inform them of our plans so they could come looking for us if we were not out by August 9.

19 July 1999
While on a pre-breakfast walk around Natashquan, we noticed two new ABS canoes on display outside a store. It was decided that we should try to buy/rent one of these canoes to replace the Indian one. This serendipity was nothing short of miraculous in such a small town. The negotiations for the acquisition of the new canoe were so protracted that our outfitter came within a whisker of cancelling the flight to our put-in point. We eventually headed out one hour behind schedule. However, 15 minutes later Pat discovered he had left his personal pack behind in the rush, so back we went. (The longsuffering pilot was duly reimbursed).

Finally on our flight north, we flew over seemingly endless wilderness, and it occurred to me that it would be not picnic trying to find our way out if we had to make an emergency landing. We reached our rendezvous point around 1:00 p.m., flying past it a couple of times before we were able to show the pilot where Peter and Tom were. It was a great relief to meet them, and they enjoyed some fresh apples we had brought.

We started our canoe trip heading south around 2:15 p.m. There was a strong tail wind, so we even could use our paddles as sails, getting to the end of the lake and the start of the river around 4:00 p.m. Shortly afterwards, we hit the first rapids and had to hastily recall the strokes we had learned.

Later at the campsite, while pat was heating water for tea, he suggested I try some fishing, as he had noticed that the fish seemed to be leaping up at the pieces of onion he was peeling. With a Meps lure, I caught a fish with almost every cast. This first night, we enjoyed mushrooms, onions, filet mignon and a speckled trout each, all cooked on the grill. C`est la vie! The insects were not bad because of the breeze. There was thick moss on the ground.

20 July 1999 – 12 km
We got everyone up at 6:45 a.m. to eat another six fish I had caught (five specs and a whitefish) followed by Red River cereal with milk and brown sugar.

We did a lot of rapids this morning, one of which required lining. The strong wind of yesterday was still present, and we had repeated squalls of showers. How hard it it to keep everything dry in the wilderness!

In the afternoon we saw an osprey wheeling over its nest. We got onto a lake but went too far because the map misled us; it must have been made when the water was higher, so that what had been an island was now land or rocks. By the time we had discovered our error and started back up the lake to where the river left the top right hand corner of the map, the wind was so strong that we gave up and came ashore at 2:00 p.m. to set up camp. We had another great supper: mashed potatoes with chunks of dried bacon. It had been a rainy, windy day but at least there were few bugs. The water filter became difficult to use tonight, so we did not use it again.

21 July 1999 – 21 km
Today was a perfect day. The sun was shining. There was still a westerly, which helped us out with paddling and got rid of the blackflies. We set out just before 9:00 a.m. and reached the river again in 30 minutes. It would have taken two to three hours the night before. Rapis followed rapids, one of which we had to line. Our canoes received dozens of scratches daily, in spite of our best efforts to prevent that from happening.

Finally, we reached the first marked rapids of the trip, and they were no worse than many of the unmarked ones, class 1 to 2. On one lake we used Mat and Karl`s tarp as a sail and, travelling in parallel covered three kilometres without paddling. Where we had lunch we found a Quebec survey marker. It was set in the top of a rock, which had been painted orange. Initially we thought it was lichen.

Just before stopping to camp, we saw and photographed three otters, also found a baby loon, which we gave a ride to before predators such as the otter would find it. Eventually we discovered a nest with one broken egg and one intact one. We left our little loon, likely newly-hatched, at the nest.

The campsite was flat but swampy, and big enough for a whole scout troop. An old caribou antler was found in the water at the edge of the lake, hence this campsite was dubbed the caribou pasture. When pat shampooed his hair that evening, brown rivulets ran down his face, likely old blood from blackfly bites.

22 July 1999 – 8 km
Early today, Matt lost a paddle in the rapids. We did not look for it very exhaustively, thinking it would be further downstream, but we never found it. The aluminum paddle with plastic blade was a fairly critical loss. Fortunately, we had two spare wooden paddles, the tips of which we reinforced with duct tape.

Shortly thereafter, we reached some falls that required a tough portage – about four hundred to five hundred metres, real bushwhacking! After Mat and Karl lost their way on this track, Pat and Tom went looking for them. Peter then declared that he would use markers for future portages. While traversing the trail, Pat saw a strange, mouse-like creature, charcoal grey/black in colour, scurrying down a branch into a hole.

Where the portage ended, there was the outlet of a small stream. In that sheltered location, the blackflies were terrible. They got into our mouths and nostrils when we breathed. They crawled into our ears and bit our wrists, especially at one`s wristwatch strap. When observed closely, they were noted to have ivory-white legs that constantly scurried. Twenty-five metres away, where we had lunch, they were not nearly so bad.

Our campsite this evening was one hundred metres below some rapids. The blackflies were bad, but they disappeared when Pat put up the bug tent. I had hurt my left calf when I slipped trying to take a picture of the falls at the portage. Sleep did not come easily tonight, as the constant vigilance required to avoid rocks in the rapids had been stimulating and difficult to shut off.

23 July 1999
This morning, it was the turn of the mosquitoes to be ferocious. Our first four kilometres to Big Steady Lake (more a widening of the river, really) were fairly uneventful. The view here was spectacular. We had successfully completed the section the Wild River Survey had pronounced uncanoeable. To the best of our knowledge, we were the first Caucasians ever to do so. We sailed the nine kilometres across Big Steady Lake before re-entering the river. After a bannock lunch we hit some big falls and had to portage on the right about four hundred metres. Everybody helped each other and we got through much more expeditiously than yesterday.

It was very slippery on the rocks today, hence very treacherous getting in and out of the canoe on rocks. Someone should design water shoes with Velcro straps – the laces kept getting caught in the underbrush – and there should be slip-resistant soles.

After leaving Big Steady Lake, we noticed a lot more water in the river with more power in the current. How would one ever manage without an ABS canoe? The bottom of those canoes buckles as one goes over the shallow rocks, then rights itself again.

As it was raining when we set up camp in the evening, we erected the tarpaulin using the canoe as a base. We didn`t have a fire, just used the stoves.

24 July 1999 – 10 km
A cold, bright, windless morning. The bugs gave us a great send-off at 8:30 a.m. They seemed very keen for us to stay, and we didn`t get clear of them for quite a while on the water. Just one hundred metres from where we started, the banks of the river almost came together like pincers, and the river was only 10 metres wide. Through this, the current was very strong, but there were no rapids as the river was deep. It would have been an excellent place to cast a line if I had had the inclination the night before.

We did rapids all day. The second was disastrous for Pat and me because we tipped after hitting a rock and the canoe filled with water. We lost Pat`s camera, bug jacket, rain jacket, the tent, the tarp and a paddle. By degrees, we recovered the camera in an eddy, the tarp, the floating tent and, most importantly, the paddle. We never found the two jackets. Peter and Tom loaned spares they had.

After lunch, we commenced a huge series of 29 rapids. Pat and I lined for more than a kilometre on the left, did a couple of liftovers, then lined again, then finished off the day with a paddle. I lost my watch at an early part of one portage because the strap got caught on the alders. The portages through the woods were brutal.

Tonight we had lentils for supper. They were nice but very flatulent. Then for a surprise – a chocolate cake, baked in the Dutch oven for my birthday.

25 July 1999 – 14 km
Today was another day of bump and grind, we kept on getting stuck in shallow water, interspersed with one 250 metre portage and a shorter one, preceded and followed by lining. Very wearisome, but we saw some beautiful scenery with falls.

My pack was not waterproof, so no good for trips like this. After lunch, Mat and Karl`s canoe filled with water while they were lining, but nothing got wet.

Tonight we were back camping on moss, so should have a comfortable night, except that it gets very cold, and I kept Pat awake with my snoring. Our campsite overlooked a four hundred metre width of river, but none of it would be more than 30 centimetres deep.

26 July 1999 – 7.5 km
Caught one small brookie on a dry fly this morning. Our journey downstream commenced with another bump and grind. At one point, it was decided to ferry across to the other side. Tom, Peter and the brothers accomplished this successfully. Pat and I went a little too close to the rapids below and almost got across, but swamped within a metre of the opposite bank. We were thus close enough for the others to just haul us up and bail the canoe out before continuing.

There was another near disaster. Everyone else had come down the left side of the river, and scouting showed that this was the best side to continue. Pat and I were, therefore, instructed to come across to the left side. The water was not very deep, perhaps one metre, but the current was swift. Peter came out and threw us the lifeline across a gap of five metres. While Pat managed to stay on his fee, I had the rope but lost my footing and had to swim to Peter. At one point during this same crossing, Pat saw swept off his feet. I grabbed him to keep him from being swept downstream, but this prevented him from getting his feet on the riverbed, which was what he wanted. Then the knot in the yellow rope securing the bow of the canoe came undone at a critical moment, but fortunately I was able to grab the canoe before it sailed off downstream into the next rapids.

There were lots of hard linings today, and the rocks were so slippery. A lot of things were wet again tonight. Tom even said this was the worst day of the trip. He found the river very shallow, worse than any river he had been on. He was afraid to inspect the bottom of his Kevlar canoe.

Pat and I saw a pair of black ducks. We had also seen mergansers and canvas backs, while Tom and Peter saw a mink. pat kept seeing these charcoal-grey mice that we have dubbed “feral gerbils.”

To clear a tent site we had to cut down alders, which stirred up the blackflies to an unbelievable degree. This tent site also had such deep holes on either side that we had to throw boulders into them. While cleaning up tonight, Mat and Karl lost the black pot which floated away downstream. Fortunately it was rescued, providing an amusing diversion.

27 July 1999
Another gruelling day. Overcast. Two linings. One portage around the gorge, not as difficult as we had expected and on the other side was a magnificent falls upstream. Total distance of this portage, our longest so far, would have been about one kilometre.

After supper, I caught some specks easily, just down from the falls where we were camped – probably our most spectacular campsite. But we did not keep the fish because we were not sure if they would keep overnight and they might also attract unwanted guests such as bears, minks or otters.

Our tents were pitched on a mossy knoll overlooking the river. Tom had been watching the water levels: there had been a one-centimetre drop each of the last tow nights, so we were not getting out of this shallow terrain a moment too soon. Tom had never known bugs to be so bad as on this trip, which had also been the toughest Peter and Tom have done. Pat`s feet have taken a punishing from slipping off rocks.

28 July 1999
Today was another tough day. It started badly with an extremely difficult portage. We virtually slid the canoe the 500-700 metre trail by brute strength. This river certainly is freaking me out the last day or two.

It was my turn to get lost on a portage today. The whistle was useless above the noise of the rapids. Tom had begun to gather the fluorescent markers. I had returned to pick up the last things after most of these markers had been retrieved. Now, all the terrain looked the same. Fortunately, Tom came looking for me.

After our brutal portage, we lined and then tried to run the last rapids. Due to an error on my part (I didn`t draw the stern over hard and fast enough; in fact, I froze), we filled up, and with dismay watched our packs float away downstream. Everything was recovered, but we were quite rightly admonished by Tom for not having everything tied in. To be fair, we had debated this, but were concerned that if we got swamped, we might not be able to get everything out of the canoe. Only one hundred metres below this debacle, the rapids ended for a long time. As before, the water was not deep, so we were easily able to get ashore and bail the canoe out on the spot. Tom and Peter also swamped today while lining.

Finally, around 2:00 p.m., we broke through to the Musquamanaga Junction, thank goodness! There would be some more grind and bump further on but mostly very plain sailing; the river was just a lot wider here. We made nine kilometres down from the junction before camping at the first rapids on this, the main part of the river. It seemed quite miraculous to cover this distance so easily, after the battle we had for the last few days.

Mat and Karl found wolf scats at this campsite. They built a big campfire. For the first time, we camped about 10 metres above the river. Karl collected cloudberries, blueberries and mountain cranberries. There is an increasing diversity of trees evident here, in addition to the ubiquitous alders.

29 July 1999 – 39 km
Steady rain overnight put the river up six centimetres, hence we wanted to get as far south as possible before the water level dropped again. The scenery was magnificent today: large massifs and beautiful forest. Erosion has occurred in places where the river had changed course, and there was regrowth on the eastern side where the river had dried up. After an initial portage around rapids in the first hundred metres of today`s tripping, we encountered rapids that we were able to traverse.

We saw two yearling bears today, the first just inside the Quebec order on the right from a distance of 10 metres. Total viewing time all of two seconds. Then after luch, we saw another at a distance of one hundred metres on the opposite bank. We watched if for 15-20 seconds – enough time to photograph the animal if my dampened camera had been operational. The bear was looking at the canoe ahead and stood up to watch it. Only when the bear saw us did it run away.

There was a lot of hilarity at lunchtime; the pressure was off, but we still had 250 kilometres to go. Near our campsite tonight Karl found the stakes of a fishing weir, consisting of poles of various lengths.

30 July 1999
We initially made reasonable progress against an increasingly heavy headwind, but were eventually forced to give up just after 11:00 a.m. and camped on a beautiful beach in front of a log cabin. This gave us a chance to wash, do laundry and rest. We had a hot meal at midday. If the wind died we would take off, but we might have to wait till first light, as it was hard to see the sand bars in the moonlight.

At the entrance to the cabin, there was a “bear mat,” a slab of plywood with up-pointing nails. One of these punctured the special heel of mat`s sandal. Further exploration revealed a large hole in the floor that a porcupine had made to gain access to the cabin.

31 July 1999 – 66 km
We left around 5:30 a.m., before breakfast, in order to make up for being windbound yesterday. At breakfast, there was some lighthearted banter about whether a movie should be made about our saga, and whether it would be a comedy or a tragedy.

There were no blackflies at our campsite near the junction with the East Natashquan River, just a few mosquitoes. Pat actually sat outside the tent before retiring.

Our satellite phone continued to be non-functional, as it had been since July 24. Both Pat and I were beginning to crave fat and/or meat. Swiss Chalet chicken sounds good.

1 August 1999 – 48 km
It remained wet and overcast with squalls of rain all day. The wind increased to the point where we had to stop at 10:30 a.m. It was difficult to continue. During the morning, Pat and I had, at one point, gone around the other side of an island from the others, and here we spied a pair of gyrfalcons on their nest with a large white chick, which finally took off after its parents. We nearly lost Pat`s touque in the wind. Just rescued it before it sank.

On stopping for lunch we set up the tents and the tarps, then sang Happy Birthday to Pat. We snoozed till 2:30 p.m., by which time the weather had settled enough to continue paddling until 6:00 p.m.

During supper we had another cloudburst, followed by sunshine and a glorious double rainbow. We enjoyed another Dutch oven birthday cake tonight.

2 August 1999 – 51 km
After a couple of hours of paddling today, we reached the anticipated first rapids, and did a short 15 metre portage to the right. The second, 1.5 kilometres further down, was more tricky. Here, Mat, Karl, Peter and Tom nearly got themselves into an impossible situation where they couldn`t go backwards or forwards. Meantime, Tom had been scouting around and found a portage track, which was traversed with alacrity. Just after this, we encountered a fairly challenging set of rapids that had one-metre standing waves at the bottom, but we got through without mishap.

The rest of the day`s journey was uneventful and beautifully scenic, except that it seemed we had a map missing, as we could not match the topography with the maps we had. After I got home, I discovered that one of the maps had been left out, so we covered about 10 kilometres without one.

Tonight, Pat and I had to wash the sand out of the zipper of the tent, as it was speedily becoming jammed.

3 August 1999 – 55.5 km
We spent most of the morning figuring out where we were. We plodded down the long, steady river for five hours, thankful that there was no head wind. Then there was a 1.5 kilometre portage over rocks – our longest of the trip.

After this, Pat and I almost tipped when we hit a big reverse eddy at the bottom of some rapids. The next rapids looked too risky. Pat and I, together with Peter and Tom, decided to portage around them on the left, about 40 metres. We just unloaded a couple of packs from each canoe, then the four of us manhandled the boats across. Mat and Karl took a chance on the rapids and sailed through in grand style.

Next thing, Tom (who had preached constantly on the need to secure canoes) was hailed by Pat, who was seated some distance away and saw Tom`s canoe starting to float out into the current.

We finally came around the corner to the hut where I had stayed in 1997. There were huge dragonflies on the river. Peter remarked cryptically that this was hardly surprising given the blackfly population they fed on.

4 August 1999 – 30 km
The morning dawned overcast and still, and we got away in record time, around 6:20 a.m. The wind stayed away for most of the day, and the sky brightened. The first portage that I remembered from September 1997 now had so much water running over it that we sailed across it with hardly any difficulty. We reached the first of the four remaining portages well into the morning. On the third, we met a group of Montagnais (our first human sighting, except for each other, in 15 days) who, without being asked, helped convey our gear across the portage. They were about to go salmon fishing at the top falls. After the final portage, we stopped, exhausted, for lunch. Again, the Montagnais cook at th third portage, who had roared past us in a powerboat, helped us with his tractor-trailer to carry most of our stuff across the portage.

Ominously, while we were having lunch, a wind sprang up, eventually stopping us kilometres short of Pointe Parent. The final paddling, and more particularly the lining before we gave up was gruelling, because we often struck a patch of soft sand into which we sank while still trying to haul the canoe. I`d sooner paddle than line any day!

We were finally able to get our satellite phone working again. Peter felt that this route is like the Nahanni with the hills – very scenic.

5 August 1999 – 11.5 km
It was only 10°C when we got up at 5:00 a.m. The next one and a half hours to get to Pointe Parent was hard work. We kept running into sand bars, and had to line about 50 metres on three occasions. Just when we thought we had seen the last sand bar, another one loomed into view.

At Pointe Parent, the Montagnais had gathered in force to greet us, even at 7:30 a.m. They happily clicked away on our cameras to obtain pictures of the group of us at the end of the trip. Three of us were conveyed, free of charge, to pick up the vehicles.

After recovering the Indian canoe we had left behind at the motel, Pat removed the thwarts and found that he could easily fit Mat`s and Karl`s new ABS canoe inside.

By common consent, we retired to a new restaurant “John de Bardeur,” for a bacon and egg, toast, fruit, juice and coffee breakfast, before filling up with 71.9 cents/litre gas, and commencing our 2000 km homeward journey.

Special Comments: 

The Natashquan has been nicknamed the "Nahanni of the East." It is a whitewater intensive route, not for beginners.


Post date: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 19:36


would like to know if it is possible to paddle only the Natashquan main branch
and if the trip can be about 10-12 days only and can we arrange a plane transport.