Section A and A New “Bay”
In 2016, John Frazier and Sam Morris teamed up to lead Section A to Ungava Bay, via the Leaf River. John and Sam also teamed up to write about the trip.
Part 1, by John Frazier
This year Section A paddled to Ungava Bay. While the destination was new for both Section A and Keewaydin Temagami, the spirit of exploration – one of our oldest traditions – goes back to the woods of Maine in the late 19th century and the inception of the camp. The first half of our route took us through the territory in northern Quebec, now familiar to Keewaydin’s Bay trips, up until our re-outfit site on Seal Lake, and then into new territory as we headed north over the height of land into the Ungava watershed.
We paddled 1000 kilometers from our put-in at Lac Des Oeufs to reach Tasiujaq, an Inuit village on Ungava Bay. The Leaf River was about 350K long, and we wanted to paddle its entirety from the headwaters on Lac Minto to the sea. The trip required we paddle roughly 350K further in the second half of the trip than Section A has paddled the past several summers, which meant distance-wise, we had traveled as far as the entirety of many of our other favorite bay trip routes before we had even reached the Leaf.
After our re-outfit plane came (a day late), we had our work cut out for us to get up to Lac Minto, heading straight north for several days over the height of land to water that flows east to Ungava, rather than west towards Hudson Bay. The second “half” of the trip was to be roughly 130k longer than the first, and also required that we move more quickly to budget time appropriately for paddling on the bay.
The trip took the section through some breathtaking scenery, which changed as we moved from the lower reaches of the open forest sub-zone to the northern limits of the forest tundra sub-zone at the northern boundary of the Boreal forest, to the arctic shrub tundra. As we traveled down the Leaf River, which is apparently only ice free for roughly 60 days per year despite its 556m3/s flow, we paddled along the liminal space between the arctic tundra and boreal forest vegetation zones, which made for dramatic views and cold water! Despite its length, the fast moving water on the Leaf River was almost all paddle-able, save one portage half way down the river, which made for long multi-kilometer stretches of fun and intense rapids.
Ungava Bay was beautiful and dynamic, with arguably the largest tidal range in the world, the sea level rose and fell so dramatically it left kilometers of dry boulders and mud stretched out where hours before there had been deep water to shore. The tide created obstacles for us as we paddled from the river to Tasiujaq such as a waterfall that flows different directions or disappears completely, depending on the tidal cycle. The northern village of Tasiujaq marked the end of our trip, and also the first people we had seen (except the re-outfit pilot) in 1000K of paddling. Then, we flew from this town of roughly 250 people to Kuujjuaq, with a population of about 2,500, where we got a flight to Montreal, a city of roughly 1.6 million. It was surreal and jarring to see our trip-worn wannigans and double packs moving along the baggage carousel, to say the least. Finally, we traveled by bus back to Temagami. The trip was done, the goal won, and many indelible memories made for all. Thank you to the Section A campers, whose hard work and love of Keewaydin allowed for this spectacular trip to be successful!
Part 2, by Sam Morris
John’s piece should provide a sense of what made the trip special in terms of numbers—distance, days travelled, and so forth. To get an appropriate sense of the scale of this trek, I recommend taking the time to think about those numbers. My impulse is to add to his words with false modesty (“we only portaged three times on the Leaf,” or, “the second half proved a little tricky,” or, “to reach the Ungava watershed required some classic up and over portaging”), but in this case that bravado rings far too obviously untrue.
The truth is, I thought the second half of the summer was dang hard. Maybe I’m getting older and weaker, but I’d list the week-long push across the height-of-land after re-outfit, across Lac Minto, and into the headwind that barreled up the Leaf as the longest sustained effort I’ve done at Keewaydin. Anyone who was kind enough to stop me at paddle-in knows that I arrived on the island somewhat shell-shocked and hesitant to definitively answer that nagging question: “How was the trip?” The physical challenges, the frustration of headwinds and bad camping along the Leaf River (gone were the fields of caribou moss and sparse spruce forest), along with the deeply unmooring event of John’s back blow-out on the last days of the trip, colored the second half of the summer tough.
Still, I hesitate to leave my report there. “How was the trip?” It was hard, yes, but with some perspective, I’ve begun to consider that my answer might require a bit more nuance. Now, a full month and a half since paddle-in, thinking of the height-of-land into the Ungava watershed, I remember cresting the toughest alder-strewn hillside, breath ragged and smelling of wool wet with my own sweat, to behold far below me: shimmering with the gray light of a cloudy afternoon, Lac 222±, the high point above Minto, separated from seemingly endless ponds and lakes by somber swells of Canadian Shield. The challenge is there in the memory, yes, but it’s inextricable from the beauty of the place, and the feeling of chipping away at our goal.
Keewaydin is an unusual community for many reasons, but perhaps most appealing to me is our willingness to value challenge as an aesthetic. We like stories about folks achieving feats of endurance and strength in the woods, and we really like stories about our people overcoming obstacles and growing from the experience. It’s why John and I haven’t abandoned the craggy coasts of Quebec for the sprawling rivers of Ontario; there’s just something fundamentally right about Section A campers facing down steep, brushy portages, and long, thirsty, salty paddles on the ocean to achieve the Bay. For us, a good trip, a beautiful trip, is a trip that offers appropriate challenge through its terrain.
On the last, harrowing day of travel this summer, we raced time to pass a dangerous tidal waterfall and plant ourselves, exhausted but safe, on a shale beach within striking distance of Tasiujaq. Behind the beached canoes, the retreating sea exposed an expanse of boulders and mud. We had a tidal cycle to wait before we could move again, and only the water that remained in our bottles, so we wandered off the beach to find something potable to drink. We walked through fields of purple and pink wildflowers in a light sea breeze until we reached the blinding white of a quartz-strewn mountaintop that yielded views of Leaf Bay, Baie Rouge, and the undulating rises of Canadian Shield. We stood there as the trip ended, thoroughly parched, but drinking in the beauty of it all.