Calm Before the Storm: Northern Quebec’s Broadback River at Full Bore

It’s noon on August 15 and our shuttle driver has just traveled six hours down one of the most treacherous roads of the North to meet us, wish us well and make the return trip with our van to our final destination—Waskaganish, Eeyou Istchee, Quebec. We’ve crammed all our necessities for survival into two outfitted whitewater canoes and a kayak for the 430km journey down the Broadback River to James Bay. We will not see another human for the next 17 days.

 

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Dave scouting Burnt Hip Falls. Photo: Jay Stiles

 

by Jay Stiles

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The Broadback is an ancient route traveled by the Cree of Eeyou Istchee. The journey from James Bay up the river to the inland communities would have been an amazing feat in its time and it is impossible not to appreciate the strength and resilience of those Cree voyagers who traveled without the luxuries of dehydrated food, headlights, plastic boats, and bug shirts. August is usually the optimum time to run the river; the immense volume of water should be running at a moderate low level—except this year it’s not. And by mid-August, the bugs should be starting to ease off—but this year they’re not. Here we go…

 

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Jay running “Quickie.” Photo: Jay Stiles

 

The five members of our team—Rich Fletcher, Cam Fletcher, Dave Higginson, Ian Carr and myself—studied the laminated maps on the drive up and made our own images in our minds of what all these different sections of river would look like. We made note of waterfalls with marked portages, and lots of higher-level rapids with names like The Washing Machine, The Rinse Cycle, The Interview, and Agitator.

As we begin to encounter the first rapids, the sheer size of the river becomes apparent. A class II ledge flips one of the canoes and we realize that all the ratings on our maps need a “plus-one.”

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Cam and Rich looking back up at a 34-metre waterfall. Photo: Jay Stiles

 

As we begin to encounter the first rapids, the sheer size of the river becomes apparent. A class II ledge flips one of the canoes and we realize that all the ratings on our maps need a “plus-one.” We’re thankful for the whitewater kayak which is nimble and able to sneak up to the rapids for scouting. This river is not traveled often and there are no easy take-outs, portages, or viewpoints. We take our time and always remember where we are. More than once I look at a rapid and say, “I could run this rapid, but if I miss my line by a little bit, I could get severely injured and compromise the safety of the rest of the group.” Over the course of the trip, the River Gods grab hold of the boats and flip them all a few times. Fortunately, in all cases, we’re able to retrieve everything, and the skirts keep all the gear in the boats. Most importantly, the accordion and guitar make it all the way without getting wet or bruised.

 

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Sailing on Lake Evans. Photo: Jay Stiles

What I love about trips of this length is that with each new day, your body gets stronger, your mind gets clearer, and the chores of setting up camp become automatic. You forget about the clock and revert to the natural dawn and setting of the day. It’s amazing to live out there with so little, but with everything you truly need—fire, water, food, and shelter.

 

 

Our days are spent fighting headwinds, running rapids, and picking blueberries. Every night presents a new home to eat a fantastic meal, chill down the bug bites and muscles in the cool river, play some Dutch blitz, bake some bread, peruse the next day’s maps, do a little fishing, sit by the fire and maybe enjoy a little story time with Tom Robbins. Robbins had his own river adventures and suggests in his short story “The Day The Earth Spit Warthogs”: “Rivers are the true highways of life. They transport the ancient tears of disappeared races, they propel the foams that will impregnate the millennium. In flood or in sullen repose, the rivers’ power cannot be overestimated . . . River Gods, some muddy, others transparent, ride those highways, singing the world’s inexhaustible song.”

Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Quebec Chapter is working with the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) to create a protected corridor around the Broadback. See snapqc.org/en to learn how you can help.

 

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