BY MIKE MCKAY / PHOTOS BY FRANCOIS BRASSARD
The campsites were flooded. Dry wood for a campfire was out of the question. Despite our exhaustion, sleep came hard in the ongoing storm. And the water just kept rising, even the sneak lines becoming full-on.
We’d taken the train from Sept-Illes, Quebec into a vast boreal landscape of rivers still waiting to be explored. We’d set our sights on the West and Lower Magpie, 175 miles of remote whitewater separated by Lake Magpie, from a remote railhead on the Labrador Plateau back to the briny Gulf of St Lawrence. We’d chosen Dagger Greenboats, 11-foot, 9-inch kayaks originally designed to race North Carolina’s Class V Green River Narrows. They’d be fast on the flatwater, pack plenty of gear and handle all the whitewater we expected to encounter. They’d have to. Canoeists, portaging the rapids, typically take two weeks to paddle this section. Anticipating historic low flows, we planned to run all but the most dangerous rapids and finish in nine days. On the second day, the rain started to fall.
When we reached the first technical whitewater, normally a Class IV/V section, it was swollen to raging Class V/V-plus conditions and choked with boulders, chutes, and mini-gorges. The water inundated the banks and reached deep into the surrounding forest, making campsites rare, scouting difficult, portaging often impossible. We were more than 100 miles from the nearest help, and swimming was a sure way to lose boat and gear alike. We’d landed in a precarious position, but thinking about consequences only frayed our nerves and distracted from the task at hand: learning to handle loaded longboats in big whitewater. Our plan quickly became to run everything. Face it dead on and paddle hard.
Eventually, we reached what the guidebook describes as a “suite of Class III to VI rapids.” A Class VI drop is considered un-runnable, and this one had earned that distinction even at normal water levels. We peered over into the abyss, nervously sending a probe, and then entering the canyon with caution. Soon enough we found it, the biggest rapid any of us had ever seen. The portage options were completely washed out, and the river was likely to keep rising for days, perhaps weeks.
Still, we’d all been paddling well, working in rhythm as a team. We were a strong crew, and we’d learned to trust each other. So when François saw a line—narrow and risky, but a line—there wasn’t much to think about. We went for it. I have never had to dig deeper to take that first paddle stroke. We all caught the first turbulent eddy, then one-by-one made the massive ferry around a blind corner. When it was my turn I rounded the bend and saw a sea of massive holes. I could only drive right through what I thought—hoped—would be a breaking wave train.
— Check out the latest Made in Canada series episode below on the people of Magpie River, shot just prior to the crew’s high-water descent.