By Jim Baird
The first rapid of the day was long and wide. To run it, we had to get out into the middle of the river right off the bat in order to avoid getting swept into the rocks on river right. The current was too strong to back-ferry, and front-ferrying would require a 180-degree spin on completion. So we just went for it, paddling hard into the middle of the rapid-bound river. With the exclusion of Ep. 6, our dog Buck usually follows on shore and meets us at the end of the run for anything over a Class II. Often times, he’s at the end before we are. With a little elbow grease, we made it out into the middle of the river. After running some big waves, we back-ferried left to avoid some boils. Buck arrived at the end of the rapid at the exact same time we did.
At the rapids, I took some time to explain what I look for in a whitewater paddle. One of my favorite paddles for wilderness trips is the Grey Owl Hammerhead. The large square blade allows you to grip the water with strength, and powerfully pull the canoe in the direction you want it to go. The oval shaft provides an excellent grip, and I love the rounded top of the T-grip for the same reason. It’s available in a 66-inch length, which is ideal for taller people like myself when navigating a heavily loaded tripping boat in whitewater. The extra length gives you better leverage. But perhaps its best asset is its durability, which is why it’s a great wilderness whitewater paddle. You can push off of rocks no problem, and you can bang it around a good bit.
The Natashquan is a very high volume river, and the rapids really boil and churn in places which can make things a little tricky. Not far downriver, I looked at the map to see a rapid marked, yet nothing appeared in front of us. We proceeded, and found ourselves trapped in a big whirlpool that we couldn’t paddle out of. I had to brace hard a couple of times, and we did two full spins before we could escape. The whirlpool was the rapid.
Just downriver from the whirlpool, we scouted another big rapid. After I took a few casts with the fly rod, we went for it. The top of the rapid needed to be hit on the far right, and then a lot of effort needed to be made to get left to avoid a washing machine of holes and irregular standing waves that would have swamped us. Not far into the rapid, a strong boil pushed up ferociously from the depths, and we lost control for a second while I low braced and Tori paddled forwards hard to save a dumping. Now we needed to get left fast. “Paddle hard!” I shouted and we both poured on the coal as we were being swept down the river broadside.
Where the massive standing wave came from I have no idea. It seemed to just appear for a few seconds every now and then and then disappear. That’s the only explanation of how we could have missed it while scouting. It was a monster, and I could see it coming in over Tori’s head at the bow. I pried to straighten us out a bit and we hit it on the perfect angle. The haystack wasn’t just tall; it was abrupt. Once we punched through, half our canoe was airborne and it felt like we were free-falling before we crashed back down onto the river. Soon after, we eddied out to get Buck; we were both shaking a bit. It was the most awesome run of the trip. Whoooo!
But the day wouldn’t all be fun and games. Headwinds plagued us as we pushed on into the evening. We neared our next portage where the river widens to over a mile and a half and drops over a spectacular falls. I thought the portage trail was on the far side. It wasn’t, and it took some scouting and bushwhacking to look for it. We had to dig in and paddle back another two kilometers. We were behind schedule, and it was the second last day of our trip. We had to make it through the next couple of portages and the extra 4 km of tough paddling wasn’t helping our schedule. Luckily, the trail was well used and flat. The falls were exceptional.
On the next couple portages we got it right, and finally a short carry put us at the base of a thundering falls as it was getting dark. Back on the river, there was nowhere decent to camp in sight, and we were both feeling a little stressed. Then, I looked to my right and saw what seemed to be a gift from the Great Spirit. An absolutely perfect campsite. We saw a beautiful beach that led to a rocky flat area, elevated from the river to give a great view of the falls. Driftwood was everywhere, and all the dry wood we could ever want was within an arm’s reach. Even more amazing, as we finished dinner, we were spellbound by a beautiful display of Northern Lights. It was our last night on the river, and it was Tori’s first time seeing Northern Lights. We finally relaxed with great admiration for our surroundings. But we couldn’t hold our heads up for much longer, as we were exhausted after the long day. We tucked into bed for a well-deserved rest as the rush of the falls in the background soothed us to sleep.
— Check out more LESSONS FROM THE TRAIL WITH JIM BAIRD, including:
Episode 1 of the Côte-Nord Adventure: Getting There
Episode 2: How to Strap a Canoe on a Float Plane
Episode 3: Tips for Dealing with Waves and Bugs
Episode 4: Sometimes There’s a Cabin
Episode 5: Shotgun Whitewater
Episode 6: Maneuvering a Canoe in Whitewater
Episode 7: Cleaning Pike and Brook Trout
Episode 8: Delaying the Inevitable
Episode 9: The Big Carry
Episode 10: Bear Trouble
Episode 11: Heavy Rain
Episode 12: How to Use and Axe
Episode 13: Expedition Fishing Tackle
This summer, C&K is 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.