By Jim Baird
Lac Fonteneau is a long, serpentine, glacial grove that runs more or less north and south. The lake is 25 miles in length, yet less than 2 miles wide at its widest point. Its northern tip straddles the Labrador border where the denser forest flanking its southern shores gives way to a more scattered dispersal of Tamarack and Black Spruce. And the forest floor is lined with Caribou Moss and Labrador Tea. All these things are typical of Labrador, as are black flies, which came out in force when we found a suitable place to camp at the north end of the lake. But, we’d only travel in Labrador for a total of 4 1/2 miles. Not long after it leaves Fonteneau, the river bends hard to the south and heads into Quebec where it picks up speed on its journey to the north shore.
Big lakes can mean big waves, and the wind was blowing hard on Day 2. Fortunately, the subtle curves of Fonteneau’s shape, along with its many points, protected us from the wind and rough waters.
Here are the skills we used (or in some cases, should have used) to make our way up the long lake and safely into camp.
Wind and waves
– With big lakes come big waves: Don’t attempt large open-water crossings in strong winds. Strong winds create large whitecaps which may seem small from shore, but when you get out into them, it’s usually a different story.
– Beware of whitecaps: Get to shore! Should you find yourself on top of a whitecap, your boat will sink down and start to fill up with water. This is because a whitecap doesn’t have enough buoyancy to float your boat, yet there’s enough water amidst the frothing bubbles to swamp your canoe.
– Wind direction: A tail wind is nice, to a point. When it creates large waves that start really barreling in from the rear, things can get dicey. This will force your canoe into uncontrollable surfs, potentially causing you to breech and dump. You’re also more likely to find yourself on top of a whitecap when big waves are coming in directly from the stern.
– Incoming waves: Large waves are safer when heading into them than away from them. However, it’s safer to take on incoming waves at about 10:00 or 2:00, your bow pointing directly towards the waves being 12:00. Granted that most of the time it may be difficult to achieve that angle in real-world conditions.
– Stay close to shore: When it’s windy and wavy, 90 percent of the time you’re safer when you stay close to shore. There are exceptions though. For example, rebound waves bouncing off of cliffs can create irregular “slosh” as they collide with the incoming waves. This can makes the waves hard to read and can spell danger. It’s usually best to stay a little further out in these situations to avoid the slosh. Also, be aware of shoreline characteristics before heading out. Staying close to shore is irrelevant if you’re paddling at the base of 300-foot cliffs.
– Use the points: This one’s a no brainer. When you see a point, tuck in behind it and use it to block the wind and waves.
-Wait it out: If it’s too windy, wait until the weather calms. You may need to wait for a couple days or more which will be boring, but it’s better than the other option (dying). Wilderness lakes of the Canadian north are cold and hypothermia can set in quickly.
– If you plan to paddle on large bodies of water for multiple days, the rule of thumb is to schedule one windbound day for every four days of paddling.
You may not know what kind of fish are in many remote northern lakes until you get there. I wasn’t sure what I’d hook into on Lac Fonteneau. To combat the unknown, bring a selection of lures that work well for multiple species. The bulk of my tackle consists of varying sizes of spinners and spoons. I recommend Mepps Spinners and William’s Spoons.
– Learn about different species of fish: Knowing the specific behaviors and habitats for different types of fish will help you select the right lure in the right spot.
– Bring a folding net and, if you’re going to go through the trouble of lugging it around the wilderness, make sure it’s accessible.
– Learn how to clean your fish to minimize bones, and bring appropriate provisions to cook your catch. For example, Northern Pike, which we caught on Lac Fonteneau, are great pan-fired with a heavy dusting of Fish Crisp. Beer batter is also sure to please. Make sure you bring both, along with a lot of cooking oil for pan frying.
– Be prepared to be out-fished by your girlfriend. Tori caught the biggest fish on Lac Fonteneau.
They suck: The more experience you’ve had dealing with them, the less they bug you. You’ll also build immunity to mosquito bites over time. I don’t swell up or get itchy anymore like I did as a kid. It is proven however, that bugs are attracted to some people more than others. Here’s how to deal with them:
– Bring a bug shirt: And bring a needle and thread to sew up small holes that will occur over the course of your trip. Note: Don’t cheap out! Get a top of the line bug shirt. They will protect you way better than the cheap ones, and the mesh is a lot more durable.
– Bring bugspray: Whatever kind has the most deet is best. I bring Muskol in the pump spray bottle.
– Bring a Thermacell Mosquito Repellent and/or mosquito coils. Buck gave Thermacell the best testimonial I’ve ever seen when we kept finding him laying next to the device.
– If you know you’ll be in extreme bug conditions, consider bringing along a mosquito net shelter.
– Keep a positive mental attitude, even meditate through the bad parts. To “acclimatize” myself with clouds of bugs, I pretended to not care about them for a long time (even though I was really going crazy on the inside). This impressed my friends, and eventually, it became true…kind of.
Two well worn game trails passed through our campsite at the north end of the lake. As we busied ourselves with camp chores, we never took a moment to see if we could identify any animal tracks on those trails.
— Check out more LESSONS FROM THE TRAIL WITH JIM BAIRD, including Episode 1 of the Côte-Nord Adventure: Getting There
This summer, C&K will be rolling out new episodes of Jim Baird’s Cote Nord Adventure series, presented by Nova Craft Canoe.
About this Series: Come along with Adventurer Jim Baird, his girlfriend Tori, and their dog Buck as they paddle a wild and seldom traveled river of Quebec’s breathtaking Côte-Nord region. Watch the story of their adventure unfold in this 15-part video series as they use and learn a variety of wilderness travel skills, including everything from whitewater paddling maneuvers to axemanship and, when unwanted visitors show up, operating a bear banger. You’ll get to see things from the dog’s perspective too. So grab a paddle, and get ready for a 14-day journey that begins 118 miles from the nearest road.