A year ago my brother and I made a pact to travel down the river our father and grandfathers worked for many summers. They paddled up and down the Rupert in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company several times a summer. My father George Diamond started when he was a boy. He would dash to the end of a portage and whip up a dish of bannock and tea before the first load got there.
Many times a new employee fresh from England would be transported upriver to his post miles inland. The managers rarely lifted a paddle but would sit imperiously mid-ship. The Cree would laugh and ask who would wipe the man’s ass when the time came. My father grew into manhood traveling up and down the river. He loved to tell how the exhausted men would change into their best clothes and would paddle faster before they sighted Nemaska. A feast, a dance and charming girls to woo waited beyond that last point.
The Rupert is high and flows fast this summer, the result of heavy rains and deep snows from the past winter. At every rapid powerful eddies and whirlpools form and the current reverses, flowing upstream and back down again. Canoes accelerate, change direction and slow to a crawl in the space of a few feet. This is not a river for the weekend canoeist.
Our Indian guide had only been on this part of the river once the past week and his memory of the river’s twists and turns was a bit fuzzy. A late start brought us to a fast part of the river and the deep rumble of white water as the sun dipped. A spinning eddy caught us unaware and nearly capsized us just metres from the portage. Accusations of incompetence were exchanged, the first of many to come.
A quick grueling portage later and we are back on water. The guide fires off a few quick words of advice, “Follow me, keep the canoe in line with the flow and don’t get too close.” We paddle towards the current and it grabs hold of our canoe sending it past rocks and huge waves. We reach calm water exhilarated and wet.
The night is starless and the river like glass as we strain to find our camp – Freddy Jolly’s cabin, 15 kilometres from the Route Du Nord. I was here with Freddy three years ago and my memory is good. There it is, its windows reflecting what light’s left. We fry up some frozen sausages with a tiny brook trout and rice, wash it down with tea and tuck in. Deep into the night the American lets out a pained shout. He claims the following morning that his legs were cramping. I suspect vivid dreams of flying down dangerous waters.
A fine morning with golden light streaming through the windows. We make a quick meal of instant porridge and Montreal-style espresso, our only luxury, and we’re off. Within throwing distance from our camp is a “Bashdingan,” a small rapid people don’t run. The canoes are roped and floated down the swift water. There are signs of Hydro-Quebec’s work on an island in the middle of the river, denuded with a rough wooden helicopter pad. A few kilometres down we hit another rapid. We stop our canoes by holding on to bushes and trail through wet bush to scout ahead. Our Indian guide points the way through. He leads as we weave our way through rocks and churning water. We pass our first test.
The Rupert does most of the work for us but we must do our part. Sections of it meander and our flabby bodies work nonstop. Hunger comes quickly and we munch on energy bars we would never think to eat elsewhere. The bush makes everything taste better. One more rapid to run and the Indian guide deems it a pretty spot to rest. Sturgeon, onions and garlic sizzle in the pan as the American casts in the calm spot. I swim in the cold water and there is much “shrinkage.” We dry off and catch a few winks in the burning sun.
We come upon an unusual sight – sandy dunes amidst the boreal forest. We land to investigate. The beach reminds us of the tropics. We’ve no time to frolic so we snap a few photographs and push off amazed. Our Indian guide is way ahead so we paddle hard to catch up. It’s useless, there are many distractions and discussions on “canoemanship” and we are lazy in the sun. Far ahead we hear the whine of a motor and we know we are near another camp. Two hours later we are still straining to catch up.
Finally we paddle alongside our guide and a large camp comes into view. It’s the Moar’s fishing spot. A helicopter takes off flying scientists who are measuring the river’s flow. We wonder why they are still taking readings. Didn’t they submit all their findings to the authorities? They’re blasting rock sky-high and stripping the land bare miles up river for the diversion and they’re still measuring the river’s flow? Something’s fishy here and it’s not what they haul from nets. We are exhausted and fall asleep before dinner hour and wake up with aching muscles as squadrons of mosquitoes buzz about. As the Whites are wont to do, the American renames this place “Mosquito Bay.” We sleep in, breakfast groggily and head out.
An eagle is perched on a treetop. We veer for a closer look and a photograph. It is fearless and we come within 20 feet before it flies off. A few more bends in the river we see a young thin bear standing on its hind legs. It stares for a moment and disappears into the forest. The river quiets and we glide past perfect spots to make camp but we came without shelter.
Our Indian guide announces we are nearing “Genomee,” the long rapid. We pass by a small camp in fast water and a female voice calls out a greeting. We wave and continue on more interested in a quick bite to eat. We find out later that they are archaeologists unearthing pre-Columbian pottery.
We hear “Genomee” long before we see its white water. The portage is mercifully short but rough. We sit on a rock and eat, enjoying the cool breeze generated by the huge rapid. We still have hours to paddle and a storm looms in the distance. We are feeling more confident in fast water and the American snap photos of our Indian guide as he weaves through rocks. “Paddle!” I shout. He puts his camera away and we fly downstream.
Our Indian guide veers right before the last boulder. The American turns the canoe to follow. I wonder why we don’t just go straight with the current. We are right in front of the rock and sitting high in the canoe as our Indian guide shouts, “Soohk! Paddle!”
I feel the canoe tip and my last thought is thank the Lord I’m wearing a life jacket! I don’t even feel the cold as I go under. I grip my paddle and hold fast to the canoe. My feet hitting rocks. My boots are coming off. We drift into gentle water and the American boards the other canoe and we head for shore.
A container of bug spray floats away. Our camera and its precious cargo have to be safe. We reach land and find the camera dead. Amazingly everything that wasn’t secured to the canoe is still with us. A zip-lock bag with the last of our tobacco and toilet paper is full of water. The paper’s soaked but, a miracle, the tobacco is dry. A wet discussion follows. A slight depression descends at the idea of a wealth of photographs possibly lost to the river forever.
Rain begins to fall and the wind blows as we canoe out onto a widening river. Point after point of land lies ahead and our arms burn and we curse the wind. The river narrows and the lake stills. We’re almost there, Old Nemaska. We paddle past the last point and there it is, we can almost smell it, the abandoned community. The last few hundred metres feel like miles.
Old Nemaska is a ghost town. Bats fly around and the only human presence is Billy Mettaweskum. He is gutting sturgeon and blasting Billy Idol. He replenishes our tobacco supply and feeds us a chunk of his catch. We hang our gear to dry in the wind and the cabin’s rafters and fall asleep.
Rain. The American’s birthday and he’s happy. We’re 65 kilometres from our destination. Our Indian guide decides to wait. Hours pass but the sky won’t let up. If we don’t leave now the day will disappear and we land in darkness.
Nemaska Lake is beautiful in the rain. We pause to admire the pictographs near the outlet to the Rupert. A short portage brings us to a calm and short winding river. Another portage reveals the Rupert proper – 15 kilometres of a wide Rupert, a mile long at it’s widest. Again rain but little wind. We reach the last big rapid and make lunch. We portage all of our gear and shoot the rapids right down the middle of the river.
We’ve paddled 45 kilometres with 20 to go before we reach the falls at the James Bay highway. The rain has left us and the river’s fast. Bend after bend in the river passes and night is falling. Finally we hear the roar of “Oatmeal falls.” The accelerating current sends us past our guide and we enter the last rapid before the river drops. We fight over who will control the way to the very end. “Left!” “No! Right!” We make it through the rough water both agreeing we don’t make a very good team. The canoe scrapes over a rocky beach as we land.
Long ago the men of the HBC canoe brigades and their fathers before them covered the distance we did in half the time without breaking a sweat. The Rupert, as we learned, is unforgiving of the slightest mistake. The River received its name in the mid-1600s in honour of Prince Rupert, the nephew of King Charles I and the first governor of the HBC. Its Cree name Waskaganishiu Sibi appeared around the same time. Perhaps the upper part was called Mistissini Sibi and the middle Nemaskau Sibi. Then again, such a massive important route might have claimed one name, now forgotten.
On a sandy rise by the shore of the river lies a grave. An old man and a child are buried together, victims of a famine. It is said that the old man chose this spot to be their resting place. The story also goes that in his final words he said that, here, his grave would never be flooded. The old man, it appears, saw through time. His bones rest below the dam that will divert the river north to the La Grande. In a few short months the singing roar of its many falls and rapids will fade to a trickle. All that will remain will be its many stories.