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400 km
23 days
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10 m
Longest Portage: 
2 m
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INTRODUCTION: The Notakwanon River in Labrador was brought to the attention of wilderness paddlers in a CANOE magazine article in1977 by James West Davidson and John Rugge, who called it “the ultimate wilderness whitewater river.” Wanting to verify this for myself, I had twice tried to get there and both times had failed. The easy way, and the way this river is most often accessed, is to fly into a headwaters lake, then paddle out to the coast, a trip of ~150 miles. That was the plan in 1980, but bad weather for eight days stymied our group from flying in. Determined not to be undone again by the fickleness of the weather, I plotted a surface route, the hard way, as there is a lot of lake paddling, portaging, with the trip lengthening to 330+ miles, and returned in 1984. I hired an old Goose Bay local with a boat to tow us across Smallwood reservoir. He got lost, it cost us 3 days, and the trip fell apart. Getting whooped twice left a bad taste that had lingered for 14 years, one which could only be purged by returning and doing that surface route. So in 1998, I returned in a group of five solo paddlers in whitewater boats, each self-supported, including 25 days food, kind of like an aqueous backpacking trip.

PART 1: THE BIG LAKE: Lake Michikamau had a reputation as a terrible wind lake. When Smallwood reservoir was formed for the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project, inundating Michikamau and trebling the surface area, crossing the lake became an even greater problem. Smallwood Reservoir, some 2,000+ sq. miles surface area, has a very irregular shape with many deep bays and islands, and as there are no landmarks and everything looks the same, navigation across it would have been nearly impossible without a G.P.S. We launched from its south shore, a few miles east from the Lobstick structure, on 3 August. To ease the pain of these 70+ flatwater miles, where in places there is ‘exposure’ of 4 miles, and to eliminate the lost guide problem, we had brought a 3hp outboard, so lashed the canoes together to create a ‘trimaran’. This arrangement served us well on the big lake, particularly when the typical Labrador summer rain squalls moving consistently west to east pushed up wind-driven, white-capped, 4 foot rollers. As those passed beneath us there were times the prop was buzzing in air! We had mixed feelings about the use of an outboard: we are paddlers, after all, and using an outboard goes against the grain, but in this case it allowed us to make progress through 3 days of windy, rain-squally weather that would have prevented paddling. I wouldn’t take a bet that I could make this crossing in a week if powered by paddle alone!
Fifteen miles from the north end of Smallwood we were walking our boats ‘up-current’ well before the first expected portage because of the lower-than-full-pool lake level. The first real portage, from Smallwood into Adelaide Lake, was over spongy terrain that quaked underneath every step. Late on the evening of the fifth day we reached the north end of Adelaide, then dragged the boats across the ‘height of land’, a hundred yards of bog separating the southward drainage to the Churchill River from the northward flowing George River. We had come about 92 miles and climbed but 13 feet to reach the northward flowage.

PART 2: THE GEORGE DRAINAGE: We were now in Quebec, at historic Lac Hubbard, named for journalist Leonidas Hubbard who had starved to death nearby in 1903 while on a canoeing expedition. This new phase of our journey began on the 8th of August, with us rising early and immediately starting to paddle without breakfast. In these parts the wind seems to blow least very early and very late in the day, and very persistently from west to east, so to make miles you have to adjust your paddling schedule, and even the route you choose, i.e. seeking protection from the shore or islands, accordingly. On several days the temperature reached 80+ degrees, and the wind built in strength until mid-afternoon when we were forced to seek shelter. Even as a tail wind, it was too strong to continue traveling. It was strange that on some of these days the atmosphere was gray and hazy, though quite windy, the sun only an orange disc. Mid-afternoon was the time to nap, eat and clean up, then resume paddling when the wind slackens, and continue until dusk .
The George River was a series of interlocking lakes with short, and generally easy, rapids between in a region of flat, swampy terrain. Hubbard was connected to Elson lake by only a trickle, which meant another portage, but after that we found plenty of water, since the main flow of the George enters Elson from its southeast end. A nondescript lake, north of Lac Cabot, designated only as 468 on the topo, will forever be known to us as Lac Confusion. Leaving from camp early, two of our party turned easterly into a long, dead-end bay – not were the water flowed, and got separated from the rest of us. The remaining three of us found the exit of the lake to the north. We waited there for the lost pair to came back, but despite paddle-waving from shore and whistle blowing, they headed far to the west, away from us! Eventually they saw us, but 3 hours had been wasted before we were again moving downriver. Just another reminder how easy it is to get lost in Labrador. In this generally swampy, gently rolling terrain the river stayed broad, with occasional class 2/3 boulder-fan rapids and plenty of water. Mostly visually uninspiring, there were occasional scenic spots along the way, with lovely, bald-topped grassy hillsides, big, sandy eskers, as well as ducks, terns, loons and two bald eagles.
I was the one who drifted away from camp first a few days later and only 500 yards below camp noticed 15 caribou cows, calves and bulls swimming across. Trying not to spook them, I sculled close, snapping photos as they emerged from the water, shook themselves dry, snorted, moved back into the bush and vanished. Had I been here a minute later I would not have known that they were here. Many gulls and terns cruised above as we crossed Lac Resolution, another large and mostly shallow lake which got its name as a result of the Hubbard expedition. We easily located the 7-mile long bypass channel to the east, a high-water alternative to the George, and the shortest route to the next lake, but it contained very little water. We poled, then dragged the boats over the slippery boulders. Canoeists’ hell is bumping down a dry riverbed in a driving, cold rainstorm, and that is exactly what we got. Lightening came with blinding rain and wind so strong we had to stop, crouch, hold onto the boats, and just endure the punishment. For a short time there was a rainbow, then a second thunderstorm. Reaching the next lake, labeled 441 on the topo, it was a froth of white-topped rollers stirred up by the storm, so we sought shelter almost immediately behind a thin screen of trees. It was a cold, wet, unhappy camp that night, the low point of the trip, in both the emotional and geographical senses. A warmup of Jack Daniels helped dispel the gloom. Geographically, this lake was at 1433' elevation, since we had dropped ~100 feet in the 50 miles since crossing the height of land. We were windbound the next day and while killing time, doing the odd maintenance job, I turned over my canoe and was horrified to see big bubbles between the ABS and the matrix, and small holes oozing water! Only 1/3 of the way into the trip, 200 miles still to go, and I was in jeopardy of holing the hull!
The temperature fell, and in the middle of the night an aurora pranced across the sky. At 4:30 am on 12 August while there was barely enough light to see, we arose to find frost on our packs. The wind had stopped and the lake was calm with mist rising. We skipped breakfast, loaded up, and began paddling into a most strange orange/purple semi-light to find the un-named river we would be following easterly, up-river to reach the next height of land. It’s an enchanting place with multiple channels divided by thousands of rocks, rocky islets and wooded islands, flowing deep and crystal clear: prime brook trout habitat, which we unfortunately did not take the time to verify. The weather became sunny and warmer with a gentle westerly breeze and was perfect for crossing the huge, open water of Lac Goelands (White Gull Lake), west to east, 8 miles. We camped where the stream we will follow dumps as a small rapid into Goelands, a lucky choice, as enough trout were caught there in a few minutes for supper. It had been a good day, as crossing Goelands would have been impossible with windy conditions. We had gotten lucky.
While eating wild blueberry pancakes next morning a yearling black bear moseyed up to watch from across the river. The next up-river section gained 18 feet elevation in 2 miles, and though there was current and some smallish rapids, they could be attained by short linings. This route we are following takes us to the ‘south branch of the Notakwanon’, which rarely gets traveled. Had we wanted to take the ‘north branch’, which has been used by paddlers who access it from Schefferville via the De Pas, then upstream on the George, we would have paddled to the far northeasterly bay of Lac Goelands and ascended a different stream. Late in the morning, after ascending several miles and crossing a couple small lakes, we paddled up in front of a big bedrock formation with water cascading over it, a good creek class 4. Lac Rochereau, the next lake up, was 90 feet higher, so we had anticipated a tough mile-and-a-half portage at this location, but we got more than we’d bargained for. There was a complex web of game trails through the forest which made the walking somewhat easier, but it was a sunny, hot, breezeless day, and the blackflies were swarming. We were sweating profusely, the DEET was washed off, and the bugs feasted on us. At one point I tried to paddle/line up the creek, but that failed to be easier than portaging in the forest. After 5 trips across completing the carries we were hungry, exhausted, unpleasantly hot and miserable, probably exsanguinated, so paddled only a mile on Rochereau and quickly went into camp on a sand bank which had evidence of use years ago, as there are scraps of a coated fabric, a couple fuel drums, and a rusting box spring. Each of us had dozens of blackfly bites and took antihistamine to alleviate their effects. Though this could have been a most enjoyable campsite for lounging around the fire, not long after supper everyone was in his tent.
The next day was again sunny with a gentle trailing breeze nudging us across Lacs Rochereau and Chapiteau, in total, 17 miles easterly. There were several cabins, a hunting camp, near the southwest end of Chapiteau. Seeing us eating lunch on an island, a French-speaking guide with two sports in his motorboat, came to check on us. His demeanor make it clear he did not like us here. Later we paddled past his orange-clad sports sitting, waiting for Frenchy to drive a caribou past, so they could shoot it. Now this is real he-man hunting :(. At the northeast corner of Chapiteau a dry riverbed lead higher in this watershed, so another portage began, this time nearly 2 miles, the longest of this trip, across dry highland tundra. There were hundreds of caribou here, curious creatures with poor eyesight that trotted to within 100 feet to squint, sniff and snort at us. The walking was easy, as the hilltops are mostly lichen-covered barrens with ripe blueberries, peculiar boulders, and hundreds of interlocking caribou trails to follow. The caribou had inflicted some serious use on this landscape. We completed two trips across on this day, then camped just shy of the next lake. This was a fantastic location, more bare than wooded, with a view for miles. We could watch the sky churning, threatening a storm as darkness fell, but no storm hit. Two more small lakes and two short portages the next morning put us at Lac 502 (elevation 1631'), the highest lake in this drainage, 200 feet above the low point which was now 50 miles behind us. Portaging over a rise of 5 feet put us into Labrador again, in Lake 501, the first lake emptying to the east, down the Notakwanon to the Atlantic. Judging from some erosion here, I had to wonder if there are times when water from one of these lakes spills over into the other. We sat on the beach of Lake 502, eating lunch and enjoying some superb scenery. Unlike the flat-looking George drainage, this place actually looks hilly, with the river valley seeming to fall away in the distance. A great place for a few days of rest and fishing, if only the schedule would have permitted.

PART 3: DOWN THE NOTAKWANON: We’d reached the Notakwanon the hard way, traversing about 180 miles in 13 days of sometimes very tough work, but from here on it was ALL DOWNHILL! From atop a huge esker, the hilly country all around, the greenness of the area, the crystalline lakes and whitewater in the creek below presented a marvelously scenic spot. It has an ‘alpine’ look to it. I’d read stories, and seen the Davidson & West movie, showing how gray, bleak and desolate the headwaters of the Notakwanon were, but those fly-in trips had not seen this area. That evening the setting was difficult to enjoy as we huddled around the fire in our raingear in a driving downpour, quicky shoveling hot stew into our mouths before it cooled. Even the trout we’d caught did not get fried. The creek which exits this lake is very small. Despite the considerable overnight rain, that next mile-long set of rapids, which drops 90 feet, had little water, but we kind-of-ran-it anyway, depositing considerable red vinyl on rocks. Then came several miles of peaceful, very quiet small stream paddling.
In a day we reached Esker Lake, not its name on the map, labeled only 449, but the geology makes this name appropriate. Try to imagine it as a three leaf clover, with one leaf going east, one northwest and one southwest, joined at the stem. We came in from the southwest, whereas the north branch of the Notakwanon enters from the northwest. At the ‘stem’ was an abandoned native peoples encampment, marked by abundant debris and trash of all description being scattered about by the wind. The east leaf is where float planes traditionally have deposited fly-in paddlers, and to its east end it exits into a decent-sized river, flowing at ~500 cfs. In the next few miles were a half-dozen boulder-fan type rapids, class 2+/3. Fun running! The Notakwanon begins to accelerate it’s drop toward the canyon, and we had run many rapids by afternoon when we reached the big falls as a steady drizzle set in. Leading up to the falls, in a continuous class 2-3 rapid, the river is split by a large rock island, obviously constricting the flow through two channels which we scouted both right and left, and although border-line runnable, this is not a place to take chances. In another hundred yards the flow cuts left, drops, and turns abruptly right just before plunging into freefall off the edge of this cleft in the granite. We did half of an unpleasant portage around to the right, going uphill and through a rough boulder field to a small, flat spot encircled by rocks and trees to get some protection from the weather. The cold, rain, blackflies, mosquitoes and no-see-ums which were uncommonly aggressive, the lack of dry wood, all contributed to a gray mood. With some effort we got a small fire going which sizzled and smoked while we ate the simplest of freeze-dried suppers, those that require only boiling water and a 10 minute wait. Even that was too long in these conditions. Then into the soggy tents. Pots left at the fire contained an inch of water in the morning.
To get past the falls we decided to slide boats down a vegetated 60 degree slope to a flat place, then lower a second time, vertically, to the base of the falls. This falls drops 70 feet, nearly vertically off the edge of a cleft in the geology, with vertical cliffs that run on both sides for another quarter mile. Working in constant drizzle, with two safety ropes tied together, everything got lowered to the bottom, some hundred feet to the right of the base of the falls. But getting out of this pocket was not a piece of cake. That plunging thousand cfs caused an impenetrable veil of mist below the falls. I watched as the first two guys went in there and vanished. I could only assume they’d made it out the other side safely and were waiting as rescue boats. I knew that I would see nothing through wet, fogged glasses, so pocketed them. I powered forward, felt the current punch from the right, then the turbulence of the falls from the left, and everything was white! I didn’t know whether I was moving straight downriver, right toward the wall, or left into the falls! I stroked hard and soon found myself up against the right side wall and managed to work along the rock and out the other side. Yes, the others were there, having made it without trouble. There are several rapids, though none large, in this narrow cleft before it begins to open up.
This next section of river drops 240 feet in 5 miles, with the flow estimated at 2,000 cfs, and here we found mile after mile of rapids in the 2+/3+ range, with big waves, holes and hundreds of mid-stream boulders. As best I can judge we had a medium to slightly above average August flow. It is nearly continuous, yet there are individual discrete rapids. This is paradise for the whitewater paddler! We ran nearly all of it by boat scouting, getting out only a couple times, one of those for a short drag around a 10 foot fall about a mile past the first fall. The scenery was spectacular, despite the dreary weather. There were waterfalls off the cliffsides and the here trees were taller, straighter, greener than previously. Mountain peaks soared sharply to 1,500 feet above the water. When we reached the first sizeable ‘pool’ (i.e. fast moving flatwater) at 4:30, having covered ~11 miles past the falls, we were more than ready to set up camp, and as we did the rain intensified. At camp this morning, above the falls, we were at 380M, and now we’re camped at