This trip had been a long time in the planning. Some time towards the end of 2010, Simon Knox somehow persuaded Martyn Read, Doug Johnson and myself that we wanted to travel to Quebec to paddle the Magpie river. Despite Simon mentioning the 26 miles we would have to paddle down a lake, it still sounded like a good idea and during the following months, the remaining spaces on the trip were filled by Nick Smailes and Richard Morley. This first post is a write-up of my diary for the first part of the trip, before we flew in to the Magpie.
Sunday 14th August 2011
The issues started before we had even set off for Gatwick. After arriving at my house, we discovered a 4 inch crack in the bottom of Martyn’s boat – that would make it entertaining to paddle across 26 miles across a lake! Fortunately I had a couple of spare boats in the shed that Martyn was able to choose from so he ended up taking my old Nomad 8.5 (I have recently changed to a Jackson Villain). After spending a few hours practicing how to pack our gear into our boats, Doug arrived and we loaded the boats onto the car ready to head to Gatwick very early the following morning.
Monday 15th August 2011
Today started very early – we left my house at 0430 in order to get to Gatwick for 0600 This should leave us plenty of time to unload the cars, drop them off at the car park and get to check in nice and early. Upon arrival at Gatwick drop off, we pull up behind Simon’s car who had arrived only a couple of minutes previously… not bad considering we hadn’t arranged it!
When flying with boats the most stressful time is checking in as we hope that we get the boats on without any issues. Fortunately Thomas Cook have a clearly defined policy for taking kayaks (£30 flat fee each way) with the only weight limit being the 32kg limit specified for baggage handlers. Once we had checked in and then dropped all of our boats off at oversize baggage it was time to go through security to get some breakfast – I can proudly admit to enjoying my fry-up with both a coffee and a pint of London Pride!
We discovered we were on the same flight as Sam and Emily from Love It Live It, who were off to Ottawa to run a coaching course. During the flight Emily came over to show us some photos from her trip down the lower Magpie river a few years before which whetted our appetite even more.
Arriving at Ottawa, we retrieved our boats and kit, collected our hire cars (a Ford Explorer SUV and a Dodge Caliber) and commenced with the challenge of loading them with 6 boats and all of our luggage – no mean feat! It didn’t take Helen long to get tired of our farcical attempts at loading the boats so she decided to take public transport to commence her own holiday (she flew out with us but as a non-paddler had her own itinerary as a tourist in Canada). After numerous attempts, we were finally fully loaded and ready to leave the airport and headed into downtown Ottawa in the direction of the Ottawa Paddle Shack where Martyn and Simon purchased matching bright yellow cags and Rich invested in a set of AT paddles. Our next stop was just down the road at the Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) were we all invested in a considerable number of Clif energy bars and various other bits of outdoor gear we needed for the trip. Returning to the Dodge we discovered that we had already earned a parking ticket – having only been in the country for a couple of hours!
Having lightened our wallets significantly, it was time to head out of the city towards our first river. A two hour drive took us to Maniwaki, near the Gatineau river. We pulled in to a motel only to discover that the lady on reception didn’t speak a word of English, so it was time to pull out our best French. Somehow we succeeded in getting three rooms so we dumped our stuff and set off in search of much needed food before getting a relatively early night (having been up for approx 22 hours taking into account the five hour time difference).
Tuesday 16th August 2011
Struggling to adjust our body clocks, we were all up and about early and wolfed down a McDonalds breakfast before setting off to the river.
Trying to locate all of our kit at the Gatineau get-on
The shuttle took considerably longer than any of us expected and this was the first, but definitely not the last, time that we doubted the distances quoted in the guidebook. The river turned out to have a considerable amount of flat sections, although it did have a number of interesting rapids. On the track between the get-out and the road Simon discovered that the Ford Explorer was not 4 wheel drive as he managed to get the car sideways on a bend, heading for the bushes! After collecting the Dodge from the get-in, we set off on the six hour drive to Tewkesbury, in preparation for paddling the Tewkesbury section of the Jacques Cartier river tomorrow.
We arrived in the town of Tewkesbury after dark and, after discovering the only motel in the area was fully booked, we decided to bivi in the car park at the get-in. Pitching in the dark we were glad at how easy it was to pitch our bivis. The biggest challenge we faced was in avoiding the boggy patches all around where we were pitching.
Wednesday 17th August 2011
Awaking early again, we were to all surprised to discover that our wild camping spot came with a port-a-loo (courtesy of the local rafting companies who use the car park as their get-on).
Our wild camping car park
With no eateries in the close vicinity (we were actually a couple of miles outside of the town), it was porridge for breakfast. Once kitted up and the shuttle complete, we got on the river and were pleased to see that this river actually had a flow (unlike the Gatineau yesterday where the flat sections had no obvious flow). It didn’t take long for the rapids to arrive and after a few warm up rapids we arrived at what looked like a long rapid. As we started to eddy-hop our way down Simon managed to drop into a chunky hole and proceeded to demonstrate his freestyle ability. Unfortunately, the hole was not in the mood for letting Simon escape in his boat so before long he was heading downstream while his boat continued to recirculate. Having seen Simon’s beating, none of us were particularly up for following his line into the hole so Rich and I headed off downstream after him, being careful to avoid the big holes. Simon managed to get himself and his paddles to the bank and out of the river at the bottom of the rapid, approximately 200 metres from where he swam, while his boat managed to eddy out into the eddy next to the hole he swam from. Once Simon had collected his boat and everyone else had reached the bottom of the rapid it quickly transpired that Simon was not the only one to enjoy some hole time – Nick managed to drop into the same hole as Simon but escaped in his boat and Doug found himself in another large hole towards the bottom of the rapid – again managing to escape in his boat. We later discovered that Simon had been beaten in a hole called “Meatgrinder”! There were a few more chunky rapids before the get-out was reached. Despite it only being early afternoon and the run down taking a couple of hours, we made the decision not the run the section again – deciding instead to set off towards our next destination – the Malbaie. As we starting to realise, Canada is actually a very big place requiring a considerable amount of driving to reach each of our destination.
Following the instructions in the guidebook, we turned off the highway after kilometer board 55 onto what the book describes as a ‘dirt road’. It turned out they weren’t joking! After a few miles of this we crossed the river and arrived at a lodge claiming that we had to register our entry into the park. A chat with the woman in the lodge was again made complicated by having to hold the entire conversation in French, but it didn’t take them long to get across the message that camping was prohibited in the park with the nearest campsite being at Lac Ha! Ha! half an hour up the road. Bundling back into the cars we went back to the highway and followed the directions to the campsite. Luckily it was easy to find – it was signposted from the road. However, as the receptionist didn’t speak a word of English booking in was complicated but we ended up with two pitches for the six of us. We did feel and look quite out of place as all of the other pitches had large RVs or caravans on whereas ours had 6 bivis! As each of the pitches had a fire pit we decided that we would have a go at cooking dinner on an open fire. Our attempts were short lived as, blaming the restrictions imposed by the small fire pit, we pulled out the gas stoves to cook our dinner considerably quicker whilst doing our best to avoid getting eaten by the mossies.
Thursday 18th August 2011
As the alarm went off at 0600 we all awoke looking forward to the adventure that awaited us today. This morning we didn’t even consider cooking porridge on a open fire so fired up the gas stoves and left the campsite by 0730. Now, such an early start when we stayed just over half an hour from the get-on should mean that we got way before we ended up getting on at 1300! The guidebook says to drive as far down the road to the get on as we dare before unloading and continuing on foot.
Making our way to the get-in
We decided that we ought to do the shuttle while we left the others to walk down to the river so off Rich and I went. If we thought the dirt tracks up to this point were bad we were in for a real shock! The stones in the road grew into what could be classified as rocks and the gradients became steeper. At the top of one particularly steep descent we passed a four-by-four going the opposite direction and I was concerned by the look of shock they gave me as I sat in the Dodge! Nevertheless I slowly set off down the hill wandering if I would be able to drive back up later… The guidebook describes the track to the get-out as a ‘6km horrible, horrible dirt road’ – worse than the tracks we had driven along so far. Again, we drove the cars as far as we dared, before deciding to ditch the Dodge and see how much further we could get in the Explorer. A bit further down the road we ditched the Explorer and continued on to the get out on foot (we had to continue down to the get-out so we would be certain to recognise it later on as we paddled the river). After walking for about 2km we spotted something moving along the path a little way in front of us. As we continued to watch it walk on we both came to the conclusion that it was a bear! Needless to say it didn’t take us long to decide that we weren’t going to continue along the path so we hot-footed it back to the Explorer, continually over our shoulders to check that it hadn’t decided to follow us – not that we would have had any idea what to do if it did!! Reaching the car we breathed a sigh of relief as we drove back up the track to find the Dodge and then back upstream to where the track crossed the river, which is where Rich and I decided we would paddle to. We made it back to where we unloaded the boats more than 3 hours earlier without further incident and headed off down the track to the get in. The others had taken all of their kit the few kilometres to the get in and we met them as they were carrying our kit down. We eventually made it onto the river heading downstream at 1245 – almost four hours since we started the shuttle for the 7 mile river! The Malbaie is a fantastic river with plenty of pool-drop rapids and plenty of big holes to avoid.
Martyn in one of the many rapids
We were able to inspect most of the rapids from our boats but, knowing there was a 30+ft waterfall on the river we were suspicious of a few of the horizon lines. As it turned out, we needn’t have worried – the spray kicked up from the bottom of the waterfall was visible from a distance. Inspecting the falls from the bank, Martyn and Nick quickly made the decision to portage, with Doug not far behind them. Rich, Simon and I spent a few minutes looking at lines but our eyes were constantly drawn to the ferocious boil occurring on the right hand-side at the bottom. Despite this, both Rich and I thought that there was a line down the falls, starting off on the left, hitting the rooster tail and hoping that it doesn’t throw us into the mess on the right at the bottom. As we were both so confident in our line choice neither of us wanted to go first so it was down to the only fair way to decide – rock, paper scissors. I went scissors and Rich went rock so, after one last look at my line, I headed off to get in my boat. Sitting in my boat in the eddy I was confident on my line and peeled out into the flow. Within seconds I was over the lip and underwater at the bottom, slowly floating towards the surface. The aeration of the water at the bottom made for the softest landing I have experienced – so soft in fact I didn’t even feel it. One second I was going off the lip towards the rooster tail and the next I was resurfacing! I floated into the eddy below and signalled up that all was good. Shortly after Rich followed me down and resurfaced at the bottom upside down. Having seen me and Rich get down safely Simon decided that he wanted a go and, after ensuring there was sufficient camera cover, got in his boat, peeled out of the eddy and fell off the waterfall.
Yours truly on Gatineau Falls
Rich paddling out from the bottom of Gatineau Falls
The rest of the river passed without incident and the get out bridge was soon reached. With the boats loaded and us changed, we set off back up the dirt track towards the get-in to collect the Dodge before heading off in the direction of Sept Iles. Unfortunately, the second hill proved too much for the Explorer and we failed to reach the top. In fact, we only made it about a third of the way up before the car lost grip and made it no further. Thinking it might be too heavy, everyone but the driver got out who reversed the car to the bottom of the hill before taking a run up and trying again. Nope, still didn’t get to the top. We were starting to get concerned that we might be stuck out here, miles and miles from anywhere (including the road!) and it was only a couple of hours before dark.
Trying to get to the top
Three more attempts and a change of driver later the car finally made it to the top – much to our relief. We collected the Dodge, returned to the road and started the 7+ hour drive to Sept Iles. We stopped at a roadside Motel after a couple of hours, enjoyed our first showers since Tuesday morning and dined in yet another diner.
Friday 19th September
After a relaxed start we continued the long drive to Sept Iles, eventually arriving mid-afternoon.
The long drive to Sept Iles
Our first port of call was the float plane location to check that everything was still on for our flight tomorrow. Despite having booked a plane to take all six of us together, they didn’t have a large enough plane available so had changed our booking to two smaller planes capable of taking three passengers and boats in each and that our take off had also been put back from 0800 to 1430 due to pilot availability. Leaving our boats at the ‘airport’, we set off for Sept Iles town centre to locate a motel for the night. We checked in to the Comfort Inn, unloaded all of our gear into the rooms and then Nick, Rich and I set off to do the shuttle, having lost the spoof. We were to leave the Explorer at the get-out for the Magpie, some 100 miles further east from Sept Iles with the shuttle. Whilst we were spending almost four hours completing the shuttle Doug, Simon and Martyn made a start at packing for the Magpie trip.
Upon our return at approximately half past eight, the three of us made our first attempt at packing before we all headed off for our last proper food (and beer) for at least five days. An enjoyable dinner was had in Mike’s – a chain of ‘traditional’ Italian restaurants, accompanied by a couple of beers each… except Nick… who stuck to the soft drinks. Returning to our rooms, most of us had a second attempt at packing before retiring to bed.
To be continued…
(EDIT: the rest of my diary is now available at /2011/09/29/canada-2011-multi-day-on-the-magpie/)
Simon’s write-up can be found at: http://thedrownedfish.co.uk/2011/09/05/quebec/.
More photos are available at:
Simon’s photos on Facebook