Next summer the Rupert River’s flow will ebb. Its shores will grow. Its fish will thrash about and die on the exposed rocks. Its many falls and rapids will no longer churn and cool the air along its banks. The river will breathe its last grasp and expire.
Oceans, lakes and rivers draw people to them. The best tales reside by bodies of water. The Nile and the tragic Cleopatra. The Amazon’s doomed explorers. Huckleberry Finn’s raft floating down the Mississippi. The Rubicon crossed by Julius Caesar. The East River and movie gangsters. The Little Big Horn and Custer’s demise. Jesus baptized in the River Jordan. The songs: Mooooon Riiiivverrr!
The Rupert is one of the largest rivers in Quebec and one of its most storied. The first mention of it appears in the chronicles of Henry Hudson’s voyage into his bay in 1610. The next account is when a Father Dablon and a Sir de la Vallière left the St. Lawrence via the Saguenay and descended the river in 1661. In a guide to Canadian rivers, the Rupert fills more than six pages, beginning with the 1661 expedition and ending in 1974. The one Cree who appears is Nibosh. In 1972, a small group of paddlers were surprised to find Hydro-Québec construction crews at Oatmeal Falls. There is little mention of the countless Cree who passed up and down the Rupert River for thousands of years in any chronicle I’ve read.
The middle part of the Rupert route, as we float down the river, is calm and broken up by small drops. There are long, wide stretches and gentle turns through green hills. I’m reminded of rain forests I’ve seen in movies as it starts to drizzle. The sky is black to the west and lightning flashes get closer. It pours as we reach the rapids at Yapshamshee. The canoe scrapes over a large boulder we easily flew over the previous summer. The canoe lists abruptly but we’re sitting low on board and recover quickly. There is no sign of the camp through the pouring rain. The flashes light up the shore every few minutes. The camp appears and the downpour stops and the sun emerges. We find Yapshamshee abandoned and claim the archaeologists’ field lab as our bedroom for the night. We’re wet but not miserable.
A helicopter buzzes and hovers over us as we near Swallow’s Nest. We meet Patrick Salt and David Erless in their anchored Zodiac near the south shore. They’re studying fish stocks here on the Rupert and the Nottaway. A sand bar and a beach, which wasn’t here the last time, lines our camp’s shore.
The next day’s destination is Old Nemaska. An early departure is important if you are to arrive at the abandoned community at a godly hour. A few hours’ journey brings us to a bend just before a tiny rapid we remember well. Basdinginsh was picturesque when we last passed. Now, we hear the clangs and bangs of heavy machines before we see what is now there. The forested shore we rested at last time is now a bare, gravelly construction site.
We curse aloud. The first real sign of the change to come is there before us. We land as a giant dump truck backs up along a high dike more than halfway across the river. The driver waves a friendly hand but I feel too much anger to return his greeting. A short easy haul of a loaded canoe over a muddy path cleared a small yet tricky rapid a year ago. The dike forces us to run the rapids. The work crew pause to watch our descent. What goes through their minds as they work the river? Is it their next pay cheque or the landscape that will be lost forever? There is no time to discuss such matters so we push on.
Genomee, a 2-km-long rapid, lies ahead. Quick water and a large boulder dunks Lyle and Richard into the river. They’re soaked but safe. We pull in at a calm spot. I urge my white friends to rename the place after a Navajo beauty I know from far away.
Old Nemaska appears deserted as we approach at dusk, but then we hear voices. A young crew from New York have just descended the Broadback on their way to the bay. We rush towards the James Bay highway and pass them one fine evening and camp at a high rise by a gentle fall. From there it is an easy paddle and one reaches the highway within hours. But the view is spoiled by more gravel dikes.
My father smiled when we told him we’d paddled from Old Nemaska to the highway and were planning to canoe to James Bay. The old veteran warned that the lower Rupert was filled with arduous trails, high falls and was the most grueling stretch of the entire river. His first job as a boy was running portages to their end and boiling tea and cooking bannock for the men. His work as a carrier ended when the Company no longer required his services in the 1940s. His recalled the times when Nemaska or Waskaganish appeared around the bend in the river and a grand welcome awaited them there.
There was a sense of foreboding before we embarked on the final leg of our trip. Richard damaged a few nerves in his drinking finger opening a bottle of wine the week before. Lyle required hand surgery and was advised by a doctor to stay home. My nephew George sliced open his finger on a cheese grater packing for the flight north. Robert hoped to kayak with us but chose to greet the Legacy crew at the river’s mouth instead. James ignored doctor’s orders and swallowed a mouthful of pills for his pain. We were ready to go.
In Nemaska, Luke Tent tells of his last trip in 1968 with Willie Jacob and Joseph Cheezo to fetch a new canoe at the factory in Waskaganish. He pores over maps and notes changes in current, eddies, waves, portages and the deadly falls. Luke’s parting words as we leave: “Be careful – the river can pull you in.”
Our journey resumes at Km 257 below Oatmeal Falls. A bonfire is blazing and bad rock music plays as we reach the shore. There is a party of Cree and French workers. “Hell… Jikneebahenoh a? (Are you traveling at night?)”, a woman jokes.
On a bright morning the river launches us down and within minutes we reach the White Beaver rapids. We cross the river and see a young otter on his hind legs. He studies us for a moment and dives into the fast river.
When the wind permits, “The Fours”, a set of four rough rapids, can be heard for miles. Closer, white water can be seen jumping off its smooth surface far ahead. The water speeds up on the approach to Ga Neoshdegoh and a deafening roar greets us at the landing. “Where The Four Sit” covers a distance less than 10 km and drops almost 80 feet. A short carry of the canoe and bags to the end of the path reveals a towering rush of leaping water. We rest by the shore, awed by the sight.
A few strokes of the paddle and another portage. The baggage is run through a slippery and muddy path. The canoes are floated easily down. We hug the shore until the next trash-strewn portage is sighted frighteningly close to where the Rupert drops again. A long rising and falling, wet and muddy track follows yet again. The canoe does not glide through bush.
Back in the day men navigated the river with 30-foot freighter canoes and carried 300-lb. loads on their backs. An entire brigade brought 4000 pounds of merchandise upriver on long wet portages. My pack and canoe is not even half the weight my grandfather carried. I give up after a muddy climb and tangling bush. I can hear them chuckling.
Luke Tent warned of how the third of the Fours slammed waves in and out against the shore. We’re relieved to see the river’s calmed a bit since then. We launch again and hit furious white water at its tail just feet from shore. We reach our resting place less than a kilometre downstream. The longest portage of the Fours waits and the sun dips.
Our fathers, and theirs before them, last passed through here years ago in the service of the Company’s brigades. Ferrying valuable supplies, they couldn’t take chances. Their bark canoes ripped easily on rocks and bush. Flour, sugar and salt spoiled easily by wet. Rubber footwear, jackets and bags existed only in distant rubber-tree forests.
We’ve passed the most challenging stretch of river. A sandy beach beckons on the far shore but the rush of water across it spells danger. A rocky shore will have to do for the night. A long portage of the empty canoes completes more than half of the next morning’s work. A late dinner of steak, onions, mashed potatoes and a warm fire is a fine reward.
A peek out the tent at dawn shows the river shrouded in mist. It is another world. We eat slowly and linger. Next summer this view will vanish and exist only in memory and photographs. Ganeoshtegoh runs a mere 5 kms as the crow flies but takes hours to traverse. The river here is at its most powerful, frightening and truly beautiful.
The portages are easy to spot with the trash left on shore. The map says these rapids are the Cat. There is no obvious reason for the name. Maybe it’s because the trail runs languidly along the river like a feline lounging in its resting place. Its Cree name – Chikaskutagan Entabayach – suggests a trail hugging a shore.
Gabesh Shee is the next obstacle and comedy ensues. We strap the two canoes alongside each other and we slice through the wide river. We attempt a sail, but the wind doesn’t bite. We run a gentle rapid strapped together. We bounce down river and quickly separate as the cut-way reveals our next camp. A mink running by the shore greets us and we camp by a white crucifix marking the spot where a drowned man was found several years ago.
There are more signs of construction cutting the river’s flow. A cut-way takes us under a new bridge and tiny rocky rapids. We scrape over the rapid in minutes. We’re still laughing when we hit the river and more white water. James frantically waves us ashore and out of danger. The last portage is just ahead and it’s the longest.
Smoke rises from Smokey Hill off in the distance. They are either blasting rock or smoking fish. We decide to run a part of the rapids to an old trail that sits by an island. A bald eagle flashes its wings in warning as we reach the portage, but we miss it in our impatience. We rope the loaded canoes down roiling rapids. One canoe slips from our grasp and capsizes. Richard jumps in for it and disappears under the rushing water. His head pops out. He lets go of the canoe and it slams down the falls.
I run the portage and meet Patrick Blueboy alone. “Did you see a canoe floating by?” He sends a message on the next boat out. Down river a driver sees our canoe and drags it ashore. The camera is found with images of my brother and me. The paramedics are sent for and a chopper scours the river’s shore looking for the drowned. Hours later, word reaches friends and family that we are indeed alive.
A crowd has gathered at Smokey Hill to net fish out of the river. A young man leaves with 200 fresh fish in his backpack. The Kitty family from Chisasibi are here reliving summers fishing the rapids at what is now LG-1 at Cha Sibi (Great River). The talleyman of this part of the river, Clarence Cowboy, watches at the weir. He never agreed to the deal that signed away the Rupert. “I’m not happy with what they’re doing. I’ll never be able to paddle here again.” Clarence says with a shy, sad half-smile.
The next day is sunny and bright and its looks like clear sailing all the way to Waskaganish. We hoist a tarpaulin sail and speed 23 kms down to the bay. A prediction we cast upriver comes true. The large group two days ahead of us are greeted, dined, and hailed as heroes and possibly the last Cree to pass this way. We land at Waskaganish tired, tried and famished. There is no feast for us or speeches or a ceremony. We laugh, happy to be here alive.