The Vachon River begins at the base of Pingualuit Crater, more than 1,100 miles north of Montreal. A national park was created there in 2007 and I was hired to make a survey of the river. It took me 16 days: a week to cross 37 miles of lakes, eight days to paddle the 125 miles of river and one more day in a motorboat to cross Payne Fjord to Kangirsuk, near the Ungava Bay.
The lakes section was the toughest because of the numerous rock gardens and ice on the bigger lakes. The weather was awful-bitter cold, and I was windbound for three days. It blew continuously at 50 mph for 36 hours, with gusts over 60. It was impossible to walk in a straight line.
Before I got there, the description in the Quebec Canoe and Kayak Federation’s river book made me laugh. “Danger to life is real and constant,” it said. But in those 50 mph winds, I realized how dangerous it was to be there alone in that shitty weather. Don’t drop anything, because you’re never going to see it again.
One evening I saw a black bear on the other side of the river. I’m thinking the water is so cold, he’s never going to cross it. But he did. I traded my camera for my shotgun. He didn’t smell me and went back to the other side.
Around 10:30, I heard another bear. It was a female with a cub, and it already had two paws inside my boat. I shot one over her head and she turned toward me with a drybag full of food (all my suppers) in her jaws. If I let the robbery go unpunished, she’d have been back to grab the rest. So I shot again, closer this time, and she dropped the bag and ran away with her cub.
It must have been midnight when a third bear tripped over my tent. I was so scared. This bear had even worse manners. It was completely inside my boat, chewing on a drybag. Since the shotgun hadn’t seemed to impress the others, I sent an emergency flare over this one’s head. He stepped out of my boat with the drybag in his mouth. No hesitation; I fired a shot into his rear! The bear dropped the bag and ran. I didn’t sleep well that night.
The Vachon had never been documented before, so I was running it blind and solo. If I flipped, the only safety was a throwbag, and the canoe’s bowline, which I tied to a quick-release on my life vest. If I did flip, the goal was to reach the shore and have enough slack to hold my boat. On one rapid, I slammed into a rock so hard that it knocked the skid plate off my boat. It was a warning: Don’t be stupid. I still had 125 miles to go and it was a long walk.
I love solo trips. It’s like a pilgrimage, a journey within yourself.
Eric Leclair mapped the Vachon River in 2007. With its turquoise water, Arctic landscape and 45 rapids between Class II and IV, he likes what he found. As told to Joe Carberry.
This story was featured in the March 2010 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.