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Tursujuq Park (Clearwater Lake & Richmond Gulf) Aug. 2018
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Author:  chad9477 [ September 11th, 2018, 11:22 am ]
Post subject:  Tursujuq Park (Clearwater Lake & Richmond Gulf) Aug. 2018

Tursujuq Park, Nunavik, Quebec
Solo paddle, Prijon Seayak
Dates including transit Aug. 7 – Sept. 4, 2018

A few months ago, when I informed my workplace that I was planning this trip, someone described it as my “once in a lifetime adventure”. Now that it’s over, all I can say is: Once isn’t enough. I’m going back again as soon as possible.

It was certainly quite the adventure, and a deep learning experience as well. Among its many firsts for me: First time in Inuit territory, first time in Nunavik, first time on a float plane, first time carrying a satellite beacon, first time allocating such a high percentage of a trip to travel itself. And it did require a lot of travel. Most people I know (I live in Maryland) had never even heard of Nunavut, let alone any place names from far northern Quebec, far less a barely five-year-old Canadian park that is inaccessible via the road system. Several people wondered aloud how I’d managed to learn of Tursujuq Park in the first place. A couple of times I told them I just put a map on the wall and threw a dart.

That wasn’t remotely true of course. Any, er, dedicated readers of this space might have noticed my proclivity for kayaking through dramatic, unusual geography and landscapes, like giant crater lakes, imposing cliffs and refreshingly unorthodox island arrangements. Inevitably I’d want to visit a place that features a lake made of two essentially overlapping meteorite craters – one of which has a circular archipelago in its center – as well as a gulf bounded by the most picturesque set of cuesta mountains I’d never heard of.

Desire was one thing, execution quite another. I kayaked other places for years while trying to figure out a realistic way to get up there. For a long time the whole region had called to me – Clearwater Lake especially – but it seemed virtually inaccessible due to the prohibitive cost of hiring a float plane from Radisson or one of the outfitters on the Trans-Taiga Road. Crews like the 1980s National Geographic team and Al Stirt’s expeditions from the mid-2000s seemed to have far more of either time or money on their hands than I did.

Things have changed, apparently since the area became a park. The nearby village of Umiujaq, where the park is headquartered, now has daily scheduled flights on Air Inuit from Radisson’s La Grande airport, and Richmond Gulf’s northern tip is now connected to the village by road. So in early 2017 I started an email conversation with the park rangers, who as it turns out fly to the lake a couple of times each summer. Their hints that a single extra seat occasionally pops up on bush planes encouraged me to start saving my vacation days.

Speaking of the rangers, I should mention straightaway that this would have been a very different trip had the park staff not been there. I flew to Umiujaq ready to camp, with my tent and bedding in my carry-on, my loaded sea kayak bubble-wrapped and shipped on a separate cargo flight. From the rangers I hoped only for a few initial advisory conversations and a far-off drop-off, followed by their willingness to be copied on my daily GPS location updates. What I actually encountered was a friendly crew of professionals who provided me with near-constant support and treated me like a guest in their home.

After an enervating three-day roadtrip to Radisson, I flew to Umiujaq on Aug. 11 and returned to Radisson on Sept. 2. My learning experience began immediately, starting with a lesson on patience. My plans started changing upon arrival at the park and went on to morph several times during my three-plus weeks, largely due to the frequent and sometimes lengthy weather delays that I learned are a part of life in the north. The rangers, most of whom are local Inuit, know this territory well, and as a newbie I soaked up every bit of information they offered and tried to readjust my plans. One thing they said was that Hudson Bay usually sends a lot of wind over the cuestas in August. After my paddle I am in no position to argue.

The trip I eventually took – 15 days of wilderness time, plus two local area daytrips from Umiujaq – ended up being split into two roughly weeklong paddles on Clearwater Lake and Richmond Gulf, respectively. (I got the impression that the park is trying to establish the use of native names for these and other local spots, but I heard enough variation that I’m not quite sure where to go here.) Both weeks played out similarly: Paddle off on a lovely calm day, then spend the next several fighting conditions that made me wish I’d taken more advantage of the first day’s paddling opportunity or simply been more consciously appreciative. I like to think I’ve developed better mental presence since I left.

As sea kayaking destinations, both the lake and gulf are superb in my opinion. A few photos here. The lake is surrounded by hills that are sometimes dotted with the trees and shrubs common to the taiga, but its northern shore has the stark, empty, scraped-clean look of the tundra that is just getting started at this latitude. I paddled the northern half of the lake’s western basin and enjoyed an occasional low peak here and there, plus the islands that form the central ring have steep banks and high plateaus that make the larger ones good for day hiking. It’s big sky country. Climb on the right day and you’ll see the whole ring and lagoon spread out in front of you. Most likely you’ll be the only person looking at it.

The gulf was admittedly even more gorgeous in places than my long-dreamed-of lake. The cuestas made me feel as though a scenic swath of Arizona landscape had been spirited away from the desert and set down to rest by the sea. On a clear day they stretch away from you southwards, peak after peak, until past the horizon. I paddled along them for several miles, left them roughly at the gulf’s midpoint, and headed southwest along its eastern shore. (I went back to my starting point taking the same route in reverse.) The rest of the gulf has dry rocky islands and whitewater rivers to explore, culminating — in this writer’s opinion — in the spectacular falls at the De Troyes River mouth.

What this beautiful place is not is kind to you. Not in August 2018 it wasn’t. Most days I paddled in temperatures of 5 to 11 degrees Celsius along with some combination of rain, high humidity, strong wind and/or an overcast sky, usually most of them at once. Conditions were prime for hypothermia and I had to slow down or stop several times to ward it off. I was windbound for three consecutive days on the gulf – at one point the 30-knot breeze enjoyed bashing my tent roof against my face for several hours – and I got stuck for two days on the lake as well. Other days I paddled through hours of headwinds and whitecaps knowing I would get cold quickly unless I dressed as warmly as possible and kept moving constantly. On the roadtrip home I tried to add up the periods when I’d been able to relax and not focus on what the next hour might bring … I think they totaled less than three days of the 15.

Delays in air transit also hit me. Boats and people go on different scheduled flights up here, and the Air Inuit cargo plane for my kayak was delayed one day on the way up from La Grande and three days on the way back. As regards passenger flights, the Umiujaq-La Grande connection schedule currently demands that you spend the night in Puvirnituq on the return trip. Or if the weather hits, as it did in my case, two nights. Fortunately the town has a co-op hotel ($200 plus tax), a lot of nearby tundra for camping ($0), and a decent restaurant that sees its share of delayed travelers (and whose management doesn’t seem to mind us hanging out in the interim once we’ve eaten).

On the subject of planes, the only reason I was able to get to Clearwater Lake and back affordably is because park maintenance efforts and the occasional Inuit group require a handful of flights to or from the lake. The park does not own any aircraft and contracts with private bush planes. Sometimes there is a bit of extra space on these flights ... So by inquiry and payment months in advance, I managed to squeeze in with the rangers going to the lake (after we endured, you guessed it, a two-day float plane delay) and with an Inuit group coming back. I doubt this approach would have worked for anyone but a solo paddler.

I don’t want to sound too negative about all these delays and difficulties; for me they were all part of the fun and adventure of visiting an unfamiliar place that laid a new set of demands on me. I still got in a lot of challenging solo wilderness time that was unexpectedly punctuated by some welcome reprieves. Spending time with a group of Inuit was a cultural experience that more than compensated for my losing progress on the lake, and the few hours I got in Umiujaq between the lake and gulf portions let me recharge my GoPro’s batteries as well as my body’s.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: I plan to go back as soon as possible. Mostly to visit the gulf’s Goulet and southern cuestas, both of which I had to skip. Neither did I get to check out Nastapoka Falls, a major sightseeing destination up the coast that I hope to recon, primarily because I’m wondering about the condition of the overland portage route from the falls over to Lake Minto. But that’s for a future story.

If you go:

Go in July. You’ll have far better chances for warmer weather and lighter winds than in August.

Expect tough conditions anyway. I planned to wear a full body polypro layer and a Gore-Tex suit. I ended up needing to add a hooded down-filled fleece jacket, without which I simply would not have made it. Even while wearing everything I was still cold, a lot. Next time I will most likely take a dry suit.

Inquire in advance with the rangers. The park is only a few years old and they tell me they only get about 200 visitors a year, most of them Inuit who come for traditional activities during colder months. The few paddlers they get are almost exclusively tourists who pay thousands of dollars for guided group trips on the gulf, accompanied by powerboat and a big central canvas tent heated by wood stove. As an independent visitor I was a bit of a rarity. Knowing my goals and plans helped them help me.

The modern, well-equipped park headquarters building is a dream of an expedition staging area. It has a large heated garage for gear prep they let me use as needed. The building has wi-fi and a kitchen / shower room as well. There are no laundry facilities, but the staff responded very positively to my suggesting they invest in some … I suspect visitors often return as wet and bedraggled as I did.

While we were all waiting for the float plane, the rangers suggested I explore the local area by hiking up the nearest cuestas and then by paddling out to the barrier islands a few km offshore in Hudson Bay. Both proved excellent daytrips that also helped me acclimate myself to the region … a week beforehand I’d been in Maryland with 33 C temperatures. I could feel my body adjusting with each passing day.

The 470 people of Umiujaq are very friendly and, as I understand it, older on average than in most Inuit communities. The village’s businesses are limited to the co-op hotel and its two stores – the co-op and the Northern Store – both of which are closed on Sundays. Their grocery sections are ample but with limited selection and their warm clothing is mostly for town wear, not expeditions. The village has no restaurant and they sounded proud of the fact that there is no bar.

The north is warming, and many of the Inuit mentioned the thicker, higher brush compared to previous decades. Comparing old photos with my observations, it’s true and it’s rampant. Plan accordingly.

Author:  canoeguitar [ September 11th, 2018, 6:50 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tursujuq Nat'l Park (Clearwater Lake & Richmond Gulf) 20

Killer trip. Beautiful country. I've spent my life paddling and backcountry tripping, though so far I've never made to the 'far north'...that is, north of the tree line. It's on my bucket list, and your trip report just gave me one more reason to plan that arctic adventure. Cheers!

Author:  recped [ September 12th, 2018, 2:35 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tursujuq Nat'l Park (Clearwater Lake & Richmond Gulf) 20

far less a barely five-year-old Canadian national park

Nice info on that part of Northern Quebec.

I just want to clarify one thing, Tursujuq National Park is not a "Canadian" park but rather a Quebec park. The province deserves the credit for these parks, it should not mistakenly be given to Canada's actual National Park system.

Quebec National Parks

Parks Canada

Author:  chad9477 [ September 12th, 2018, 3:35 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tursujuq Nat'l Park (Clearwater Lake & Richmond Gulf) 20

Tursujuq National Park is not a "Canadian" park but rather a Quebec park

Thanks, fixed.

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