Destination Torngat: Expedition to Canada’s Far Northeast
Kayaker Ben Stookesberry is sharing his latest bid for remote first descents in real-time
Expedition by Hashtag: Check out the crew’s Instagram photos tagged from the expedition to #DestinationTorngat
BY ZAK PODMORE
“I have had plenty of bad ideas in my time, and this is definitely one of them,” wrote expedition paddler Ben Stookesberry on July 9 as he drove north for two months of exploratory whitewater boating in the Torngat wilderness of northeastern Canada. Meeting an all-star crew of fellow boaters at various points along the way, Stookesberry has spent the last month and a half paddling from Quebec into northern Labrador and on toward the ultimate goal of the expedition: “To descend the mighty Nachvak River from the base of the highest mountains on the east coast of North America into one of the deepest fjords in the world.”
The Torngat Mountains and surrounding areas make up the largest contiguous roadless area in the Northeast, and are set to undergo the final legal steps to becoming a national park next year. In addition to countless salmon-choked rivers and lakes, a herd of caribou perhaps 200,000-strong and a healthy population of wolves, the region also boasts some of the continent’s most intriguing unrun whitewater.
All of this seemed too good to pass up for Stookesberry, who calls the area “one of the least famous but most striking wild places on the planet.” With 30-plus international kayaking expeditions and over 130 first descents to his name, the Chico, Calif.-based expedition paddler-filmmaker is no stranger to pioneering his way down huge drops in far-flung parts of the globe. But the Torngat expedition promises its own brand of challenges: long approaches across subarctic flatwater, the ubiquitous clouds of blood-sucking insects, and, as the team nears the arctic, the increasing likelihood of running into a polar bear hungry to try something besides seal meat.
Despite the fact that much of the trip will take place over 700 miles from the nearest road, it’s unique not so much for its remoteness but for its constant cyber connectivity. The entire journey is being tracked in real time through a satgram.com interactive map where the crew has been tweeting, checking in with regular sat-phone audio updates, and uploading photos.
The expedition’s first two weeks were spent largely on a grueling 480-mile approach to the Torngat mountains via George River, a relatively well-traveled canoe route that has been popular — at least by northern Quebec standards — since the 1960s. Stookesberry and legendary Brazilian kayaker, Pedro Olivia, managed to find some quality whitewater on the George’s tributaries, running the intimidating waterfalls of the lower Nutillilk River and making a second descent of 25 miles of steep slides and drops on the Ford River. Both runs were a chance for the pair to test out their long boats (Jackson Karma UL’s) in technical whitewater, while Erik Boomer, still recovering from recent knee surgery, helped shuttle their three weeks worth of gear down main line of the George. Stookesberry reports the 11-foot-10-inch boats were “extremely versatile,” proving their capacity to transition seamlessly from spacious gear-haulers to big water boats and perhaps opening up a whole new realm of possibilities to expedition kayakers in the process.
The crew also made an unexpected discovery off-river when they came across a remote geologic research station charged with mapping the area’s potential as a new source of valuable rare earth elements which mining companies have already begun to claim. Stookesberry noted that this largely untouched area the size of Alaska, “which time and progress have momentarily overlooked,” may be in for serious changes in the near future.
At a village near the mouth of the George, a plane swapped out Boomer for Ben Marr and Chris Korbulic who arrived directly from an extended Russian whitewater expedition. Before leaving for Baffin Island, Boomer, well-seasoned in arctic travel, prepped the team for the ever-growing threat of an unpredictable polar bear encounter and helped them hire David and Jake Sandy, two Inuit bear guards who will keep a fire going at camp on the remainder of the trip to reduce the risk of nighttime bear attack.
The crew’s original plan to take a seaplane to the Torngat Mountains was thwarted by a persistent front moving off Greenland, and they were forced to take a powerboat across 65 miles of tidal channels and then blaze an overland approach to the Nachvak River. As of their last communiqué, the team was nearing the end of the Nachvak, the expedition’s crux, and Stookesberry was thrilled to report full success: “a no portage [first] descent of the 18 falls of the Nachvak through the Torngat Mountains.”
The paddlers are scheduled to fly home at the end of the month.