The Hard Line
Follow Frank Wolf on a canoe expedition across Labrador
By Conor Mihell
Frank Wolf is Canada’s most diverse adventurer. In the past 20 years, he’s done an impressive single-season canoe expedition across Canada, climbed volcanoes in Indonesia, whitewater kayaked in Cambodia and Laos, cycled from the Yukon to Nome, Alaska in the dead of winter, sea kayaked around British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii, hiked, packrafted and sea kayaked the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and supertanker route from Alberta’s tar sands to the Pacific Ocean, and last summer he was part of a four-person team to row the Northwest Passage. The common thread between all of Wolf’s expeditions is a mind-boggling degree of difficulty, revealed through creative (some might say impossible) route selection and personal suffering along the way. Even more impressive is Wolf’s ability to film insightful and humorous documentaries along the way.
In 2012, one of the bigger Frank Wolf canoe expeditions was a new and exceedingly arduous—400-mile canoe route across the wilderness of Labrador and northern Quebec, which he completed with Todd McGowan. We caught up with the 43-year-old North Vancouver resident to learn more about KITTURIAQ, Wolf’s new documentary, which is now available to rent or purchase on Vimeo.
CanoeKayak.com: Where did you get the idea to do the Kitturiaq expedition?
Frank Wolf: I had this idea to do a canoeing film from the perspective of a mosquito—my canoe partner and I would be joined by a mosquito who would report as narrator as if she were on the trip with us. Thus the name Kitturiaq, which means “mosquito” in Inuktitut. It would be a new creative challenge that would differentiate it from my other canoe expedition films, BOREALIS and MAMMALIAN. I just needed to find an appropriate setting with an ample supply of film extras.
I always look for blank spaces on the map I haven’t visited and then figure out a way to go there and experience the area by self-propelled means. I hadn’t been to Nunatsiavut (Inuit Labrador) or Nunavik (Inuit Quebec) so I started looking for a way to travel through both areas by canoe in one journey. I chose Nain, Labrador as the start point of my journey, working out a line on the maps that I thought would go. The town is the last stop of a two-day ferry ride from Goose Bay, NL up the Labrador coast, so as far north as I could get with my canoe.
The locals must’ve been pretty stunned when you guys showed up with these plans.
Yes, the locals in Nain were surprised. Nain is the governing hub of the region, so I interviewed the President of Nunatsiavut and the Minister of Tourism and Culture for the film. They said some locals occasionally venture up onto the edge of the plateau in the winter time via snowmobile but never in the summer—because the access is much more difficult and also “the flies.” They laughed at us but didn’t discourage us, which was nice of them.
In researching the trip, I discovered a British explorer named Hesketh Prichard had attempted to cross the Labrador Plateau by canoe in 1910. For the first 50 miles, his team began up Nain Bay and the Fraser River like us, but then went a little further up the river than us. After caching one of their canoes in the valley, they portaged up to the 1500-foot high plateau via steep, rocky Bear Ravine. Once on the plateau, with no water in sight, they abandoned their last canoe and then walked to the George River overland via a different route, eventually returning via the same route. Prichard details his trip in the book Through Trackless Labrador.
Learning from Prichard’s error, I chose a different route up and across the plateau that looked like it would allow for more paddling. In Nain, Inuit hunters there agreed that my route up to the plateau via the Poungasse Ravine would be the easiest of many difficult options. I weave Prichard’s story in with ours during the course of the film as well.
What is it about you and these crazy difficult routes?
My routes aren’t intentionally difficult but since often there is no information about the route to draw from, unexpected challenges pop up. A big reason I do the routes I do is because I don’t know if they can be done—the adventure is in being creative and tactful trying to push a route through difficult terrain. I also never use bush planes to skip over hard sections. I have deep respect for and try to emulate the style of First Nations, Inuit and voyageurs of the past who went upstream as much as downstream to connect routes, sometimes enduring difficult portages along the way. After all, nothing worthwhile is easy.
In terms of difficulty, how did this trip compare to your previous expeditions?
The 155 miles over the Labrador Plateau was quite difficult—a lot of the creeks shown on the maps were choked with rocks and not navigable, forcing us to portage ever-onward between small lakes and ponds. In particular, portaging 30 days worth of food and gear up 1,500 feet of elevation over a 2.8-mile stretch in a blackfly swarm from Fraser Lake to the Plateau was tough—but great for the film! I’d put that at the top of my toughest portages ever.
Besides the bugs, what’s your biggest memory of this landscape?
It is beautiful everywhere up there, from the steep cliff faces of the Fraser to the stark, rolling tundra of the Plateau. But the strongest memory is of the experience. We portaged for most of the first week over the Plateau, averaging maybe six miles per day, but then it fattened up once we crossed into Nunavik from Nunatsiavut, where we were treated to absolutely spectacular whitewater paddling down the Natikamaukau River —which I’m sure few people have ever paddled. The Natikamaukau River then spilled us into the George River where we encountered an Innu encampment at Mushuau Nipi and feasted with them on fresh caribou and lake trout. After that it was pure leisure and pleasure down the powerful George River. So the first half of the trip was somewhat of a grinding hell but we were paid back in full during the second half. That full range of experience is what any trip should be about.
What’s next? Any more canoe trips on the horizon?
Last year I didn’t do a canoe trip. I attempted to row the Northwest Passage with three other fellows instead, so I’m itching for a canoe trip this year. I have an 800-mile line picked out—equal parts upstream, flatwater, and downstream through the sweet water of the boreal from the narrows of Lake Winnipeg up to Hudson Bay. It’s another line I’ve never experienced before so it should be a good time.