Magpie River Diary
By Mark Rainsley (first published in 'Paddles' magazine)
Regular contributor Mark Rainsley just returned from a 115 mile paddle in Quebec; down the West Magpie River, along Lac Magpie and then down the Magpie River to the sea.
Friday 28th July
The alarm went off in our motel room at seven am, and Simon made the phone call right away. No good, the planes are fog bound and nobody is flying today. We went right back to sleep.
Were in Sept Isles, a small town in the far east of Quebec, Canada. Yesterday we drove nearly six hundred miles here from Montreal. Our final arrival was a bit of a letdown. With grey concrete, grey sea and grey skies, Sept Isles looks suspiciously like Barrow in Furness. The culprit who rounded us up and dragged us all up here is Simon Wiles, an expat Brit. He has convinced us that - given that it possesses 13% of the worlds fresh water - Quebec has to have decent whitewater hidden somewhere out in the woods. So here we are, a dozen Brits and Americans, wondering if we are all victims of an elaborate hoax.
Saturday 29th July
The alarm went off again, Simon phoned againand this time the news was good. Clear skies for our flight inland. Within an hour we were all assembled at the lake which serves as an airport, weighing our creek boats and a mountain of gear; presumably so that our pilot could calculate how fast wed fall out of the sky. I found myself in the first group, cramming half a dozen boats down one side of the little Otter float plane. Whilst the second group drove the long shuttle, our pilot cranked up the engine and we were airborne in seconds. Labrador Air Safari doesnt provide foxy air hostesses or in-flight moviesinstead a pair of ear plugs was doled out to each of us and entertainment consisted of hanging onto luggage straps whenever the plane banked sharply.
Below us was nothing but trees, lakes, cliffs and rivers. After an hour the pilot swooped low and yelled over the roar of the engine that he was going to attempt a landing on the river. A succession of things flashed past my window disturbingly closely branches, a cliff, sandbarsand then the pilot revved the engine and we climbed steeply up again, before landing gently on a Lake a few miles away from the river. We offloaded the gear and by the time wed waded to a beach, the plane had left to collect the rest of the group.
For the first time in many months, none of us had anything much to do. Marvellous! We sunbathed and paddled on the beach, whilst speculating what to do if the second flight didnt appear. This seemed a distinct possibility, as a thunderstorm was brewing, but by late afternoon, we were all reunited and paddling across Lac Vital in our somewhat low-floating boats. Water levels had been a concern prior to the trip but as we reached the lake outlet, we found a very healthy flow. After several miles of easy rapids, we were deposited in the West Magpie River itself, which was surprisingly large. Im not sure what we expected, but we didnt think wed encounter a big volume Grade 5 gorge at the start! Clearly the Magpie deserves respect, but more importantly weve established that it has qualitymiles after miles of long technical Grade 4 rapids to puzzle your way down.
The silence and solitude out here is simply daunting. The nearest road is about 80 miles away as the Loon flies. The Muskeg landscape is totally alien to us; thick boggy moss with stunted trees. We arent alone, we constantly see moose prints on beaches and we are wearing head-nets to keep the blasted evening blackflies from draining our blood.
No one seems to like my cooking. Whats wrong with hotdog sausages and spaghetti? Its raining.
Sunday 30th July
I woke at five am and tried some fishing. Despite my total incompetence, a few brook trout were dumb enough to get caught. All too small for breakfast, though. Damon joined me and produced a gigantic fly fishing rod from his kayak, Tardis-style. He taught me how to cast a rod properly, not that it made the big fish bite.
Eventually we were all on the river, trying to loosen up after our first night of bivvying. The rapids fizzled out early on and the following four hours were more or less flat water. Andy Mc noted that it was more flat water than hed paddled in his entire life. We all zoned out into our own headspace. I had time to notice that the trees were slowly getting taller, and the grass greenerreally.
In the evening, the whitewater returned and we picked our way down a long series of bedrock ledges, trying with varying degrees of success to dodge the big stoppers they generate. Boofing isnt much of an option when your boat weighs 40 kilos! The paddling gets better and better, not unlike Norway (but with fewer gorgeous blonde women).
Were getting to know the Americans better. Shoving an international mix of egos together out in the wild, sounds on paper like the worst plan ever. In reality, its splendid; they are easy to get on with and were all having a laugh.
Monday 31st July
Mark G had a lousy start to the day, when his sleeping bag blew into the river. What is this changeable Quebec weather all about?
After a slow start waiting for Kevin to pack his boat (usual culprit) we were off with Lac Magpie as our objective for the day. The West Magpie moved up a gear, laying on some of the finest continuous rapids weve ever paddled. Were all paddling carefully; heroics generally arent a good idea when you are several days from help. Keeping communication and safety tight with such a large group is pretty awkward, and at one point Eric found himself left behind, pinned across a large boulder chokeoops.
The West Magpie flattened off again, and we assumed that Lac Magpie could not be far. Wrong! A bonus gorge appeared which is not on our maps. At the entrance, the whole river plunged into a slot with enormous towback; our first portage. The remainder of the gorge was alternately portaged and paddled, and this took much of the afternoon to deal with. Full marks to John, who carried Andy Ls boat right around the gorge for him after he flaked out. Finally we escaped the gravitational pull of this abyss and emerged into Lac Magpie. The lake is fifty miles long and we have to paddle more than half the length of the bloody thing. With an unexpected gale blowing down the lake, we found ourselves surfing! This was totally exhausting as the creek boats kept slewing off course. After two hours of this unpleasantness, something snapped in me and I rebelled, paddling towards a beach to stop for the day. Thankfully everyone else felt the same and followed.
This evening we are perched atop a slab of rock beside the fire, watching squalls of wind and rain race up and down Lac Magpie. Its a beautiful spot, but everyones mind is focused on the distance we have to paddle along the lake tomorrow. A headwind would be all of our worst nightmares come true at once
Tuesday 1st August
In the early hours of this morning, I crawled out of my bivvy bag to pee. There were more stars crammed into the night sky than I ever knew existed. The heavens seemed three-dimensional, with some stars almost close enough to touch. Better still, the wind had dropped.
Breakfast catastrophe! The porridge I cooked was accidentally tipped over and lost. This didnt bother Eric, who grabbed a spoon and ate it off the rocks. He declared that the mossy bits didnt taste so nice.
We rather reluctantly launched and headed off along the shore. Nothing is more soul destroying than lagging behind someone all day, so Mark G and I paired up. For the first few hours, my shoulders screamed in protest and my mind wished for my sea kayak. We stopped for lunch under a cliff and Damon (once hed caught up) declared emphatically that this was the lousiest day of his entire life. We considered the possibility that we were all unwitting victims of some Reality TV show, and that Ant and Dec would appear out of the bushes at any moment. After lunch however, something bizarre happened. My arms seemed to flow, the miles began to fall away easily, and a wave of euphoria washed over me. I was loving it! I told others about this, but they just looked at me funny. It took us eight hours to cover the 26.7 miles of lake (wonderful thing, GPS) to the outflow of the Magpie River. This section began with large multi-channelled Grade 3 rapids. These were pleasant, but we stopped shortly; we were zonked out and it began to rain coldly.
The campsite weve selected has quickly become known as Camp Misery on account of the endless rain, wet unburnable wood and nasty claggy sand which works its way into every piece of your gear and every nook and cranny of your body. There is talk of paddling the whole Magpie River (over thirty miles) in one single day tomorrow, instead of two. Whilst the thought of steak and a warm bed tomorrow night is tempting, its a long paddle and were all pretty run down so it doesnt seem likely. I expressed my opinion of the plan using a word which rhymes with pollocks.
Wednesday 2nd August
We did it! I was forced to eat my words, today was The Longest Day.
Strange river, the Magpie. It has friendly easy rapids in the first ten miles, but then it just flattens out into a chain of small lakes linked by large granite ledges which form huge stoppers. We were able to find sneak routes around them all, but Chris W attempted to commit euthanasia before reaching his 42nd birthday (tomorrow) when he totally missed his line and boofed straight over an evil pourover onto a thirty foot long towback.
The Magpie dragged on through the day, getting flatterwe thought wed almost done it when the GPS read five miles to the sea. Never count your chickens, the GPS also told us that we were 500 feet above the seathe flat water ended abruptly as the river dropped into a monster gorge, losing most of that height in one mile. As we shouldered our boats for the long portage, I emptied my water bottle to save weight. This was about the stupidest thing I could have done, an hour later I was clinging to mossy cliffs high above the river, completely dehydrated. Idiot.
Damon and I were the last two paddlers to climb back to the river. We were above the gorges final big grade 5 rapid. Neither of us was enthusiastic about this, given our tiredness. I ran the entrance drop by a chicken chute, and waited in the eddy, savaged mercilessly by blackfly. Damon seal launched and paddled out to catch the central tongue through the dropdisaster struck! Damon missed and instead plugged the largest stopper. As the inevitable beatdown ensued, I readied myself to chase a swimmer down the gorge. Damon had different ideashe is a skilful playboater, and regained control over his heavy, loaded creekboat. For a full two minutes he tried to cartwheel and loop out, eventually wresting free, purple in the face. I was in awe, this being some of the best paddling I've ever witnessed (except for the bit where he dropped into the stopper).
It was nearly over. As dusk began to descend, we portaged around Magpie Falls, 80 feet high and spectacular. Perhaps we were too tired to appreciate it fully, but scenes like this made the price of admission easier to swallow.
A few more rapids, another corner in the river, and we faced the building site of a new hydro plant, quite a jarring sight after days in true wilderness! The dam will flood the last mile of the river to a depth of thirty feet, a sad loss but in truth, only a fraction of what the Magpie River drainage has to offer.
One more murderous portage left, through the trees past the dam site. We crawled up to the cars after eleven hours of paddling and portaging, physically defeated but elated. The beer we left in the cars has disappeared in about five seconds. Steak awaits a hundred miles away and Simon has his foot on the gas pedal
Mark Rainsley paddled with Brits Kevin Francis, Mark Gawler, Andy Levick, Andy McMahon, Chris Wheeler, Simon Wiles, and Americans Chris, Eric, John, Damon and Max. Thanks to them all for making a great river trip even better.
Also see this.
Ego trip section follows...