On June 26th, 2014, Andrew Morris and I set out to retrace Mina Hubbard’s 1905 canoe journey through Labrador. The major difference with this trip was that we would be using traditional equipment: a canvas tent, packs, a wood burning stove, and cedar canvas canoe and so forth. Needless to say, travel proved to be as difficult as I expected, and for sometime we lived in those alternate states of joy and suffering that have drawn me to expedition canoe travel over the past fifteen yars.
The major difficulty came at the Wapustan Portage section, a detour from the main river that becomes walled in by canyons, something, which at the high water levels we were traveling, would be impossible to get a canoe up.
This section is unique to Mina’s particular route and to our knowledge has not been traveled (with the exception of trappers in the winter) since 1905. All together, we were facing roughly 13 miles of bushcrashing, that is, portaging all our gear through a pathless forest. With fifty days of food and equipment, this took three trips, going back and forth, to bring through.
Because of a fire in 2013, the first mile was pleasant. Broad and flat, with plenty of room to bring a canoe through. The area unaffected by the fire was where we landed in some trouble. With an average rainfall in July that is more than the average rainfall for Seattle in January, this is not the land of stunted trees, and making your way through such a dense, uncut forest is slow, frustrating and painful. Dense forest, rough terrain, and numerous foot traps. After three days we had managed to go two miles. While portaging the canoe I had landed on my ankle wrong and with each step my foot screamed at me. Andrew had tendon inflammation in his shin. Imagine the sound of a rock against a washboard. Each time he moved his foot, that sound came from his shin. At this point we had to separate any emotions we had from the facts and really look at our situation.
We still had at least 9 miles to go before we reached Seal Lake. After this, we would have about 4-5 miles of bushcrashing over Job’s Portage on the upper Naskaupi. At our rate of travel, and with some luck, we wouldn’t realistically reach Smallwood Reservoir until Day 40 of the trip. At which point we would have about ten days of food left for 400 miles of travel. Part of me wanted to push on and at least complete the lower Naskaupi, or get to Smallwood Reservoir. However, our injuries weren’t getting any better (we were quite the sight to see in camp, stumbling around like decrepit old men or drunk teenagers, take your pick). In addition, after we were above the gorge, the only way out would be by float plane or helicopter, which would cost far more money than either of us had. The other factor in this is that it was not certain that either plane or helicopter would take the canoe out with us. The thought of having to abandon this beautiful work of art in the wilderness was not an easy one to entertain.
So we made the decision to turn around and retrace our steps back to the put in.
I want to be clear: the equipment we used was top notch and in no way do I believe that having more modern equipment would have made much of a difference. I will probably never bring a nylon or Gore-Tex jacket on another canoe trip – waxed canvas all the way – and I have a new love for canvas tents and canvas canoe packs remain my preferred way of packing. A cedar canvas canoe, well, that speaks for itself. All this equipment performed in some harsh and very wet conditions.
I have never attempted such a large, multi-faceted undertaking as this Labrador Passage project. It required over a year of detailed planning and involved a large number of people, all of who donated their skills, money, and most important, support in a way that made me aware that this was indeed a communal enterprise. Though everyone has been more than supportive of our decision, with so many involved in the expedition, I cannot help but feel as if I let some people down. I suppose this is the nature of such a communal undertaking.
There is a lot more to say about all this, and I have a good amount of video footage, photos, and a good story here that will translate well into film and presentations, so stay tuned.
Both Andrew and I have gained an enormous respect for the men, Job, Bert, Joe and George, who brought Mina through the wilderness in 1905. The way they so effortlessly lived in this wilderness represents a mode of being that we who travel a month in the wilderness each year (if we are lucky) can only dimly grasp. I think my days of hard, suffer because it’s good for you (thank you Catholic upbringing) canoe trips are at an end. However, like so many others, I have fallen under the spell of Labrador and am grateful to have experienced, if only through a slim window and a brief period of time, that wonderful Labrador.