Filmmaker David Hartman is no stranger to James Bay, the saltwater lobe located at the geographical heart of Canada that’s fed by dozens of wild rivers. Hartman has paddled several of these rivers by canoe—long-distance journeys up and downstream, across lakes and many portages to tidewater. Nine Rivers, Hartman’s video journal of a 27-day canoe expedition across the wilderness of northern Ontario, provides a raw glimpse of what a “Bay Trip” is all about.
Whereas the Arctic rivers of Ontario flow long courses across hundreds of miles of muskeg, the rivers of Quebec tend to be shorter, rockier and far more feral. With these qualities in mind, it’s no surprise the region was targeted by one of the world’s largest hydroelectric schemes in the 1970s. The James Bay Project shackled a handful of waterways; but today, many more are still flowing free.
In June of 2014, Hartman and fellow filmmaker Drew Sellen set their sights on the Quebec side to the Bay. A fringe benefit of the Hydro-Quebec development is a paved highway running within 75 miles of the coast, opening up the region’s rivers to whitewater paddlers. In two kayaks and a small raft, Hartman, Sellen and Matt Hardy hoped to experience the full fury of the Broadback River in spring flow.
We caught up with Hartman to go behind the scenes.
CanoeKayak.com: Why was it so important for you to experience the Broadback in high water?
Hartman: Well, I think it’s an entirely different river that time of year. You’re always searching for the perfect time when the rapids are challenging but you aren’t in over your head. Our goal was to head down a northern river as if we were on a canoe trip, but paddle some challenging whitewater along the way. The extra water makes the flat sections more enjoyable as well.
Why did you decide to go with a raft and two creekboats?
Since you can only fit a limited amount of gear in a creek boat, the raft made a lot of sense for food and gear. Of course, the raft wasn’t the most ideal thing to paddle solo down a high-volume river. I don’t think we planned to run as much as we did with it, and it took us a while to learn just how slow that thing actually was in the rapids. It sure added some excitement to the trip, especially watching Matt escape what could have been a very nasty flip in one of the Broadback’s mighty hydraulics.
Some of the rapids look pretty huge. Was this the biggest volume whitewater you’d ever experienced? How did it compare to springtime on the Ottawa.
It really is a huge river that time of year. I don’t think it’s the biggest thing that any of us have ever paddled, but your perspective certainly changes when you’re up there in a remote location. We had no satellite phone and were really on our own, so everything feels bigger in that situation. I will say that I’ve never seen so many massive hydraulics on a river. There were holes the size of Buseater all over the place. The rivers in that area really do have a character of their own.
What’s your favorite memory from the trip?
There was something kind of surreal about waking up at 4 a.m. on James Bay to start our paddle to Waskaganish. The water was glassy and everything was so calm and quiet, which is rare for the Bay.
What’s next? Any plans to paddle up that way again?
Well, there are always dreams of getting back up there and these trips usually come from an impulse to head north again, so I’d say it’s a safe bet that we’ll be back up there. I hear the Nottaway River is absolutely massive—it could be the next on the list.