Wawagigamau (Yesterday) River

CanadaOntarioJames Bay south
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Bob Olajos
Trip Date : 
May 26 to June 10, 2017
Additional Route Information
272 km
14 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
6350 m
Longest Portage: 
1500 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 


The Wawagigamau River flows through the land of the Moose Cree. We are grateful for their ongoing stewardship of this region. For our ease of pronunciation, we chose to use the river’s former name — the Yesterday.

The Yesterday River begins at Yesterday Lake, 87 km northeast of Cochrane Ontario. It flows for 117 km before joining the Wakwayowkastic River, then the North French River, and finally the Moose River. However, unless you fly to its headwaters, it takes about 5 days and 56 km of overland travel through two different watersheds to reach the Yesterday. Once you put all three sections together — the overland, the Yesterday, and the lowland stretch to Moosonee — this route is 272 km. We took 15 days.

Very few people paddle the Yesterday River because it is (or was) hard and expensive to get to. It is a tributary of the more popular Wakwayowkastic River. The Wak is a relatively well-known river and you can drive right to its headwaters. It took us seven days just to get to the headwaters of the Yesterday, crossing two other watersheds in the process. Other relatively popular rivers in the area include the Nettogami, Partridge, Kesagami, and Kattawagami, all of which offer easier access than the Yesterday. Most people wanting to paddle in the southern James Bay region will consider the one of these fine rivers first.

However, my buddy Jeff and I are not “most people.” When we hear that a lot of people paddle a certain river, we start looking for a different river. Which brought us to the Yesterday.

According to the Internet, which knows a lot of things, but doesn’t know everything, the Yesterday River was last paddled by the famous Gunnel Grabbers of Michigan. They liked it so much that they paddled it twice, in 1984 and 1987. They even generously wrote a trip report at the request of the MNR, which was promptly shelved, never to be seen again. I was able to track down Sheldon Buckmaster of the Gunnel Grabbers. Now nearing the end of his canoeing days, Sheldon generously provided his trip reports from both ’84 and ’87, with the provision that we use them exclusively for ourselves. The report that follows is based solely on my observations. Both Gunnel Grabber trips flew in to Yesterday River Lake (Day 9 of our trip) and lasted seven days.

In November 2016, Jeff and I did a short exploratory trip into the headwaters area off Highway 652. We had a hunch that we could follow a string of lakes from the Floodwood River to the North French River and finally to the Yesterday River. Our hunch proved correct. We found a series of trapper’s trails and bushwhack portages connecting the lakes. Planning for the 2017 trip to the Yesterday was in full swing! Over the winter, we were fortunate to pick up three more participants — Gord, Matt, and PJ. On May 26, five “middle-age+” guys, all with decades of wilderness canoeing experience under our expanding belt-lines, set off for the Yesterday River. We travelled in two Swift Dumoines and a solo Mad River ME.

Our overland route could be used just as easily to access the North French River. Like the Yesterday, the North French is rarely paddled because most people assume you have to fly in to it. Well, now you get to it right off Highway 652 for an 8-10 day trip.

Note on named waterbodies

The following waterbodies were named by us. You will not find them on any official map.

  • The Peanut Ponds (Lucy, Guaraldi, Linus)
  • Wildlands Lake and Creek
  • Nonami Lake
  • Two Days Ago Pond

Other official lake names are courtesy of Air Cochrane and the Ontario government’s Fish ON-Line webpage, but do not appear on topo maps.

  • French Lake
  • Moose Lake
  • North French Lake
  • Bounce Lake
  • Yesterday River Lake

Major rapids on the Yesterday were given names by the Gunnel Grabbers. I have used these names in this report, but they are not traditional or official names.

Finally, if you are looking at the Air Cochrane webpage, they indicate that they have a cabin on Yesterday Lake. However, the map included on their page indicates that this cabin is on Little Wakwayowkastic Lake instead.

Day 0 to Day 1

We met at my house in North Bay the day before to do a gear shake-out and get to know each other. The following day, we drove to Cochrane in two vehicles. To facilitate the shuttle, PJ and his truck stayed in Cochrane, while the rest of us headed to our put-in. We took Highway 652 (aka the Detour Mine Road). Formerly a gravel road, it was paved a number of years ago. At km 88, we turned left, toward the Ministry of Transport maintenance yard, then took an immediate right. We followed this dirt road for 3 km to the put-in at the Floodwood River. This put-in is suitable for cars.

Leaving Jeff, Gord, and Matt at the put-in, I drove back to Cochrane. We had hired Cochrane resident Bud Cline to assist with our shuttle. World famous Cochrane shuttle driver Terry O’Neil was unavailable that day, as he was driving a solo paddler to the Wakwayowkastic. Bud is a friend of Terry’s. I parked my truck at Bud’s sister’s house, then PJ, Bud, and I squeezed into PJ’s truck and drove back to the Floodwood. Bud then drove PJ’s truck back to Cochrane. It was 6 pm, but our every move was being followed by some suspicious RV campers. Not wanting to disturb them, we set off downriver.

With high spirits, we paddled down the flooded Floodwood River to a portage Jeff and I found the previous fall to Ishaw Lake. The portage begins just downstream of Ishaw Creek. It goes inland for about 50 m to an old logging road, then crosses the creek on a beaver dam. It then follows the road for another 50 m, turns left, and follows an ATV trail to Ishaw Lake. Total distance 900 m. We camped at the beaver dam.

Day 2

PJ plied us with coffee, which enabled us to finish the portage to Ishaw Lake. Ishaw means, “the last lake,” in Cree. I assume this means that for southbound travellers, Ishaw is the last lake before reaching the Floodwood River. A series of four portages through the “Peanut Ponds” (Lucy, Guaraldi, and Linus, from south to north) connects Ishaw with Skate Lake. Portages are 300 m, 50 m, 700 m, and 200 m respectively. Our group doesn’t travel light. It was a solid three-plus loads per person. We bushed a campsite on a point on the northeast shore of Skate Lake after a hot, muggy day.

Day 3

Underway around 9:30 am, we knew this would be a tough day. Ahead of us lay a bushwhack portage across a clearcut to Wildlands Lake. The trail begins at approximately Grid Reference 5404E  54901N. I’ll spare you the gory details, but Jeff flagged the trail using his unique combination of compass work, dead reckoning, and head scratching. I followed behind, cutting out deadfalls and trimming branches. PJ “swamped” the trail behind me, tossing my detritus off to the side. Matt and Gord humped gear. It rained. A lot. It was cold. Part of our trail followed the original portage through 200 m of unlogged shoreline reserve. The old portage was visible as a snaking depression in the sphagnum moss with the occasional axe blaze on a big black spruce. Of course, the old trail ended where the clearcut began. The clearcut is about 25 years old, so the new growth is well established (i.e. thick as shit). We followed winter skid trails through the logging corridors and raspberry canes to an ATV trail. After some distance on the ATV trail, we dove back into the thickets and finally into some spectacular old-growth black spruce to the shore of Wildlands Lake. We bushed a campsite on a hill by the lake, surrounded by majestic black spruce. Total distance for the portage (and the day), about 1500 m. [Edit: annotated map of portage location added to downloads section below.]

Day 4

Wildlands Lake is a headwaters of the North French River. We are aware of one party which had previously paddled the North French from its headwaters. Brad Bassi wrote an account of his 2000 trip. Bassi’s webpage is no longer online, but can still be found on an internet archive. Bassi drove to a different unnamed headwaters lake, 2 km west of Wildlands Lake. The logging road was in better shape back then. A washout some 15 km west of Bassi’s put-in now blocks vehicular access. From Bassi’s lake to French Lake is 7 km. According to his account, it is a very difficult stretch, taking his group two days. We opted for an eastern approach via Wildlands Lake. Wildlands Creek to French Lake is 11 km, but with a much larger watershed. We reasoned that the eastern route, with more water, would be easier. While we probably had more water than Bassi’s western route, Wildlands Creek would not let us pass without testing us first.

We set off down Wildlands Creek and encountered little resistance for the first bit. Soon though, tag alders encroached. In order to make progress, we used a combination of dragging over beaver dams and pushing through alders, with the odd paddle stroke thrown in for good measure. After a kilometre or two of this, we reached a small pond (Grid Reference 54939), where we took our lunch.

[Note that from here on I will give northing grid references primarily. The easting references are unnecessary because the route heads mostly due north. Grid references are from the topo maps, which use NAD 27. They are estimates, not exact GPS coordinates.]

After lunch it was smooth sailing for a ways, then more alder-mania. At GR 54962 a large creek flows in from the east, increasing the volume significantly. Still, it was hard going, with lots of alder, some blow downs, constant turning, and some wide, deep sections. Many of the blow downs required group effort to haul over. On one such log, PJ fell in up to his chest. With a thunder storm approaching, we made camp at a sharp bend in the river at GR 54994. Indian tacos (fry bannock, corned beef, salsa, and veggies) were ready just as the storm hit. We ate huddled under the tarp.

Day 5

The morning started clear and we made haste for French Lake, but first had to deal with a few more big blowdown sweepers. Deep water and swift current made these operations somewhat dangerous. An hour later, we crossed French Lake in the rain and passed by a fishing camp.

From French Lake downstream, the North French is easily navigable, with the tag alder morass and river-wide blowdowns behind us. Between French and Moose Lakes, we ran about four Class 1 rapids without scouting. The rain let up at Moose Lake, so we stopped on a sand bar where the river dumps into the lake and made a big fire to dry out. Lunch was soup and hors d’oeuvres. Bellies full and clothes somewhat drier, we continued north, past another fishing camp on the east shore. Downstream of Moose Lake, the river is wide, flat, and fast. The next big landmarks were the power lines running to the Detour gold mine. Shortly after that, we entered North French Lake. In the northwestern basin of that lake, we left the North French River and headed up Unknown Creek to Unknown Lake. Wet, tired, and cold, we camped at a fishing camp. Jeff fed us more macaroni than we could finish. We had a lively debate about whether to travel up the creek to Bounce Lake, or lake-hop through Nonami (i.e. no-name) Lake. Assisting the debate was some unpronounceable single-malt Matt brought from Scotland. We anticipated alders on the creek route, and had had enough of that. Portaging it would be.

Day 6

Gord swept and mopped the cabin, leaving it cleaner than we found it, as per bush etiquette. Up Unknown Lake to the northwest corner. In lower water, the beach there might make a good campsite. Jeff was able to locate the trapper’s trail to Nonami Lake. We could tell it was a winter snowmobile trail because the axe blazes were above head-height, which would be chest-height in the snow. The 630 m portage is easy, passing mostly through thinly treed boreal moss. We took our lunch at the end of the portage. I caught a medium-size pike in the narrows, which was promptly dispatched and filleted at the beginning of the next portage.

An old red canoe poking out of the bush at GR 55166 showed us exactly where to start. Again we followed the trapper’s trail, cutting out blowdown as we went. This 450 m portage ends at the pond just east of Bounce Lake at GR 5232E 55165N. It was raining fairly hard and getting late. While the rocky outcrop at the end of the portage would have made a suitable campsite, we opted to push on to Bounce Lake. However, getting up the short creek to the lake proper was no easy feat. Tag alders and beaver dams, complicated by upstream travel, made this a late-day lemon-fest. PJ fell in up to his chest (yes, again). Cold and tired, we battled a headwind and more rain, and passed a very fine looking (and occupied) cabin, to a nice-ish campsite at a small beach on the northwest shore of Bounce. My pike and PJ’s stir fry were hoovered up. It rained most of the night.

Day 7

Temperature around 2°C and still raining. We knew this day would be one long portage. By now, we were a well-oiled portage machine. Jeff found and flagged the old trapper’s trail. It dives into the bush on the western shore at GR 55177, heads toward a thinly-treed swamp in the midsection (where we took our lunch), then goes through more bush to end at “Two Days Ago Pond” for a total of 970 m. Finally we were in the Yesterday watershed! We pushed downstream through tag alders and over beaver dams to Yesterday Lake and camped in the rain at a decrepit cabin on the western shore. That cabin was a lifesaver though. Matt got the old tin “hippie burner” stove assembled, I cut and split some dry wood, PJ hung a clothesline, Gord pushed the mouse shit aside, Jeff made dinner, and we made the place our home for the night. Still raining.

Day 8

Rain gave way to overcast skies after breakfast. The Yesterday River flows out of its headwaters lake in the northeast corner. Whether it would be easier to portage to Today Lake, or drag downriver, is hard to say. We opted to drag. The river is about canoe-width and up to neck deep. PJ and I put on our dry suits, whitewater helmets, and safety glasses and basically swam and dragged all the way. The other two boats (Jeff in a solo) tried to paddle and alder-pull as much as possible. There were a lot of big blow downs. Finally we made Today Lake and took our lunch at the narrows. A Beaver floatplane was leaving just as we arrived, picking up a group of anglers, we assume. They got a good look at us and were doubtless surprised to see anyone there.

We continued north, through the twisting narrows of Today Lake. At the outlet is a bouldery C2 rapid, which we ran without scouting. PJ and I had an opportunity to practice “leaning downstream” when we broadsided a rock.

The rest of the river to Tomorrow Lake was uneventful. We camped just across from the inlet, in a sheltered bay on a big point. At one time there was a cabin there, which evidently burned down. There was a lot of broken glass, but the clearing made a good campsite. Jeff baked muffins in the reflector oven while everyone else smoked cigars and watched the everlasting boreal sunset.

Day 9

Paddling past the last fishing cabin of the headwaters section, we entered the river again at the north end. Deep and wide, it offered no obstacles. We lunched at a large pond at GR 55370. Downstream we encountered nearly continuous swifts and C1 rapids, all run without scouting. We crossed Yesterday River Lake (known as 50th Parallel Lake in the Gunnel Grabber logs), disturbing a nesting pair of bald eagles at the narrows. There is a nice beach at the south end of this lake, which might make a good campsite. Recall that this is where the Gunnel Grabbers began their seven day trip. We now had six days to do the same.

We continued downstream, trying to put as many miles into our day as possible. At some point we stopped for dinner, slapped a few mosquitoes, then continued paddling until dusk at 9:30 pm. We bushed a campsite on river left at GR 55554, just above a rapids.

Day 10

Quick breakfast of coffee, granola, and bacon. The next few kilometres of river consisted of multiple swifts and C1s, run without incident. For the rest of the day, the Yesterday River enjoyed its last few upland miles by treating us to swift but flat waters. We passed Pegochi Creek, then camped at the brink of Waskotim Falls on river right.

Waskotim is one of the highlights of the Yesterday. Here the river plunges about 30 feet to begin its descent of the Canadian Shield. The falls is spectacular, with an island in the middle reminiscent of Nahanni’s Virginia Falls.


Matt and I tried unsuccessfully to catch brook trout. Jeff baked pizza. The skies were clear. Everyone had some quiet time alone by the lip of the falls.

Day 11

The portage around Waskotim is about 100 m, on the right. Old axe blazes in the spruce, healed over with balls of blackened gum, were clearly visible. These blazes were about waist height, as though they were created by a child. We found uncommonly low blazes on many of the portages in the whitewater section.

After the portage, we ferried to river left and lined the “Troika Falls” ledges. [Note, from here on all rapid names are courtesy of the Gunnel Grabbers.] Jeff ran this C4 rapid on the left.

From the Troika ledges to Hammer Drop Rapids at GR 55814, we ran continuous C1 and C2 rapids without scouting. We lunched at Hammer Drop. Jeff ran this C4, while the rest lined on the right and ran the outwash.

Our only dump of the trip occurred at Chechako Rapids, GR 55818. This is a two-part C3. We all ran the top part left. After scouting the second part, Jeff in the solo and Matt and Gord in a tandem opted to run on the right. PJ and myself chose to line on the left. Jeff ran without incident. Matt and Gord, however, underestimated the power of the river and ran headlong into a boulder. They stood on mid-stream rocks trying to deal with the situation. Like a train wreck in slow motion, the canoe swung into the eddy below, swamped, and dumped all their gear into the river. PJ and I had a front row seat as we lined safely down the left. Jeff ended up chasing packs and water bottles through continuous swifts and C1s downstream. Matt and Gord righted their canoe, which was undamaged, and gave chase. PJ and I finished our lining and joined the fray. All gear was recovered quickly, with the exception of Matt’s camera pack, which contained about a million dollars worth of equipment. Thankfully this was found on shore about a kilometre downstream.

The Yesterday wouldn’t wait for us though. Next comes Kitchen Rapids, a 2 km torrent beginning at GR 55829. The top three quarters is a C1 and the bottom quarter is a long stretch of C3. Jeff ran all, the rest of us ran the top and lined the C3 on the left. Late in the day, one dump under our belts, bone-tired, our lemons were lining up. We camped on the left shore before the bottom of Kitchen, at GR 55837.

No luck fishing for brook trout or walleye on the river this evening (or any other time). We blame high water.

Day 12

We finished Kitchen Rapids by portaging down the left shore at our campsite. From there were continuous C1-C2 rapids to Gunnel Grabber Rapids at GR 55853. We lined that C3 on the right. From there to Baptismal Rapids at GR 55856 were more C1-C2, again run without scouting. Baptismal is a C3, which we lined on the left.

Finally there was some flat water until Double Dip Rapids at GR 55873. Jeff ran this C4 on the right, while the rest of us lined right.

We encountered two C1 rapids at Memekweshiwapisk Creek. According to Craig MacDonald, a friend of Gord’s who speaks the Cree language, this translates roughly to “Little People’s Rock.” Finally we had an explanation for why the portage blazes are at waist height! They were not made by children, but rather by the “Little People” of First Nations oral tradition, analogous to European elves or gnomes. I left an offering at the creek, a granola bar for the little ones.

We had calm water until Pelletee Falls at GR 55908. Here we found the 150 m portage on the right and spent some time clearing out deadfall before hauling our gear across.

More relatively calm water until Ceremonial Rapids, a C4 at GR 55924, which we lined on the right.

We made camp on the right bank, at the beginning of the portage around Boulé Falls, at GR 55929. This is roughly where the 7th Baseline crosses the Yesterday. That survey line was cut in 1931 by a Ontario Land Survey crew led by Beatty. The 7th Baseline is visible on satellite images of the area. The line runs due east-west from Niven’s Meridian near the Moose River to the Quebec border. Beatty’s report is available online and offers valuable insight into the surrounding lands.  Of the Yesterday, he writes:

Our line crossed the Yesterday River in the 7th mile, also a fair sized stream…. We used the French, Yesterday and Nettogami Rivers to place supplies along our line. All these rivers are swift and get very shallow during the summer. The Yesterday River is used by trappers in the early spring and late fall.

At this point, the blackflies finally decided to join our trip. PJ cooked some yummy food while I played Wade Hemsworth’s “The Blackfly Song” on the guitar. The others hid in the bug tent. Surrounding us was in an open area of reindeer lichen, with many woodland caribou tracks. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any caribou.

Day 13

The portage around Boulé Falls is on the right, about 100 m. From there to GR 55933, where the river splits around a small island, is C1-C2 rapids. However, just upstream of the island is a C5 drop, which we lined on the right. Jeff somehow lost hold of his canoe, which floated downstream and interrupted Matt’s photo shoot. Gord and Matt rescued the boat, feeling vindicated after Jeff saved their bacon at Chechako.

We followed the smaller right-side channel and had lunch at the bottom of the island. As always, the rapids were challenging and progress was slow. Since leaving the campsite, we had travelled 1 km.

While fishing at lunch, I caught a strange fish. It was very scaly with a reddish tinge around the mouth and gills, about 12 inches long and one pound, big enough to keep. Like everything, it tasted great when battered and deep fried. In Moosonee, we would learn that it was a fall fish, North America’s largest minnow.

We made up for lost time in the afternoon, running continuous swifts and C1s until an unmarked shelf at GR 55968. PJ and I lined on the right and the others ran right. Soon thereafter we came to Pepper Falls at 55970. We portaged 300 m on the right and lined the outwash. Jeff lined the top drop, portaged his gear, and ran the narrow bottom chute empty.

Continuous swifts, C1 and C2 rapids sped us down the next few miles. The river calmed at about GR 56016, where it leaves the Shield granite behind and enters the sedimentary limestone of the James Bay Lowlands. We camped at the mystical sulphur springs on the right bank at GR 56046. You can’t miss it, it reeks of rotten eggs. Clear, cold water bubbles out of the shoreline rocks, which have turned a silvery, creamy white colour from the dissolved minerals. Legend has it that rubbing the water on your scalp will boost hair growth. Our group of middle-aged men felt we had nothing to lose, and partook liberally.

Day 14

We had a train to catch the following day, so awoke with a mission. Unfortunately, we seemed unable to leave the campsite earlier than about 9:30. Soon, the swift current of the Yesterday joined the wide Wakwayowkastic. We rode the speedy Wak downstream until it joined the even wider North French (awww, we knew it when it was just a baby….). We positively motored down the North French until almost dark, for a total of 60 km on the day. We camped at a nondescript spot on the left bank at GR 56579.

Day 15

Up really early (for us), we left the campsite at a record 9:20 am. We joined the Moose just after high tide and channel-hopped to the left bank, riding the receding tide and current all the way to the Moosonee town docks. Our trip was done, handshakes all around. Not one of the water taxi drivers at the town docks knew of the Yesterday River (or the Wawagigamau, for that matter). They took a keen interest in our adventures, until a V of geese appeared heading north. Then they raced to the end of the docks and called to the flock with incredibly realistic honks. This brought the flock closer, within perhaps a hundred feet. One of the men shot at them with an imaginary shotgun, then laughed. It was powerful and light-hearted, to see these men interact playfully with a species their culture holds sacred.

We hired a minivan cab, piled all our gear into the back, and had it driven to the train station. The canoes were portaged. It was about 2:00, and the train didn’t leave until 5:00 pm, so we had a few hours to spend wandering the Northern Store.

The train ride south was uneventful. Bud Cline met us with our vehicles in Cochrane when the train rolled in at 10:30. We loaded up our gear and drove to the Chimo Motel. The next morning we ate breakfast at Cochrane’s finest greasy spoon, Kaylob's Kafé. Then it was southward bound, with a stop at my place in North Bay to shake out the gear and say our goodbyes.


The Yesterday is a spectacular river. However, it is for advanced whitewater canoe trippers only. The headwaters portion challenges the traveller with alder-choked creeks, oxbows, and blowdowns. It’s doable, but hard. Paddlers on the whitewater section need to be comfortable up to Class 3 in a loaded canoe, as well as wading and/or lining down the larger rapids. We ran up to C2 without scouting. To do otherwise would have added days to our trip. There are no portages around the rapids. In fact, there are only four portages on the Yesterday, at Waskotim, Boulé, Pelletee, and Pepper Falls — and they all end in outwash rapids.

Because this is a spring high-water trip only, there are additional challenges. Bone-cold water makes wading (and dumping) a chilling proposition — dry suits recommended. Be prepared for cold weather, including snow and sub-zero daytime temperatures. Also be prepared for 30°C and numerous black flies and mosquitoes. We began our trip on the May long weekend. Only 50 km away, the ice wasn’t even out of Kesagami Lake yet. Even with our early start, the swifts on the lower Yesterday were getting boney by the time we got there.

Most campsites were “bushed.” There are no campsite signs and no portage signs. Trippers here need to be competent, confident, and self-reliant. Other than the fishing camps along the headwaters lakes, there are no places for floatplanes to fly to the rescue. There are no roads past the put-in.

I started off by saying that so few people paddle the Yesterday because it is hard to get to. That is no longer the case. Jeff, PJ, Gord, Matt, and myself put in many hours of work to make the old trails passable again. In fact, I daresay that the portages on the Yesterday are in better shape today than any of the nearby rivers. If you have the necessary skills, please go paddle this route.

A final note: the Little People appreciate offerings, such as tobacco or granola bars. However, they are also in need of modern trade goods and are not above theft. Our group lost three expensive belt knives. The little ones should now be well provisioned with those. What they may be looking for when you pass by, I do not know. Perhaps bring a few extra whetstones, they may be needing them soon.

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:50,000): 
42 H/8 Twopeak Lake, 42 H/9 North Burntbush Lake, 42 H/10 Montreuil Lake, 42 H/15 Tomorrow Lake, 42 I/12 McParlon Lake, 42 I/7 Wekweyaukastic Rapids, 42 I/10 Kiasko River, 42 I/15 Meengun Creek, 42 P/2 Bushy Island, 42 P/7 Moosonee
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Post date: Mon, 01/15/2018 - 16:55


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