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By canoe on the Petit Mécatina river

Guy et Jean sur la rivière du Petit Mécatina

Story of the first canoe descent recorded on the entire Petit Mécatina river

This 800 km expedition which should take us from New Quebec, via Labrador, to the Lower North Shore in the summer of 1977, originated on a rainy and cold day on the Red River while Alain and I was going down the “Vingt-et-un-Milles”. This is where the idea arose of doing an expedition together lasting at least a month and which would also constitute a “great first”.

Alain wasted no time in providing me with an itinerary. After multiple checks and a few modifications, we arrived at a final route. This itinerary admirably met our criteria: having an estimated duration of 37 days, being a “first” and being economical, that is to say accessible without a plane.

Rivière du Petit Mécatina : De gauche à droite : Jean Masson, Serge Théorêt, Sylvain Beaudry, Jean Lauzon, Alain Chevrette et Guy Garand
From left to right: Jean Masson, Serge Théorêt, Sylvain Beaudry, Jean Lauzon, Alain Chevrette and Guy Garand

We intended to descend the Petit Mécatina river over its entire length, i.e. 384 km. (Editor’s note: the Petit Mécatina river is more than 545 km long according to the Quebec Toponymy Commission). But to reach its source, there were 416 km to cross, 416 km where it would be necessary to change watershed twice and go up a distance of 75 km of rivers punctuated by multiple rapids.

The winter was spent drawing up a list of equipment, composing the menu and recruiting four members. Three months before departure, everything was ready. One team would be made up of Guy Garand and Jean Lauzon, a second of Sylvain Beaudry and Jean Masson, graduates at CÉGEP Montmorency, and the third of Alain Chevrette, professor at this CÉGEP, and myself, professor at Polyvalente Deux-Montagnes

Days 1 to 7: Montreal to Sept-Îles

It was with feverish excitement that we loaded our canoes and luggage onto the Quebec North Shore & Labrador Railways train in Sept-Îles this morning of July 8.

Let's go! We will get off at Oreway, 298 km further north, or almost, since the driver forgot to stop the train at the right place. We will be left with an extended portage of a few hundred meters. Phew! Already, at the first portage, the 50 kg bags are felt heavily! Fortunately, they will become lighter over time...

We must first cross a series of lakes: à l'Eau-Claire, Pas-D'Eau, Jospeh, Képimits, Atikonak, connected by the rivers à l'Eau-Claire, Képimits and Sans-nom. From the first days, emotions are strong. Alain and I must ensure that the other young people, who lack experience, acquire it as quickly as possible without taking unnecessary risks in the 14 rapids that we encounter.

The fishing is excellent and our dinners are complemented by pike, whitefish, speckled and gray trout and landlocked salmon. We also have the pleasure of observing a rich and varied fauna: loons, geese, ducks, sea swallows, grouse, beavers, mink, hares, caribou. We have the incredible luck of surprising a pair of bald eagles a few meters from us. We will discover their area the next day.

More dams? We can do better!

The Petit Mécatina river is threatened by the construction of hydroelectric power stations.

Tell the government that we can do better than dams to protect the last great wild rivers of Quebec

Day 8: find your way without a compass

It was a memorable day! First we start going up a river full of rapids. You have to resort to hauling in this icy water and it will last five hours. In the afternoon, four portages will begin between small ponds towards the Rivière aux Pêcheurs. A first incident occurs: Sylvain gets lost with the canoe on his shoulders. Is this an omen? A few hours later, we carry out the last portage of the day, 1 km long using the compass, but when we return to collect the other half of the luggage, we try to do it without the compass. What was supposed to happen happened: we got lost.

There is no panic but tension is high. We are in the middle of nowhere, with food and maps somewhere, canoes and equipment elsewhere. It will take us three hours of agonizing work to get out of this precarious situation. It all ended in darkness and cereal because we were too tired to prepare supper which was postponed until the next morning.

Le groupe en randonnée lors d’un changement de bassin hydrographique entre la Romaine et le Petit Mécatina. De gauche à droite : Jean Masson, Guy, Alain, Jean Lauzon et Sylvain.
The group hiking during a change of watershed between the Romaine and the Petit Mécatina. From left to right: Jean Masson, Guy, Alain, Jean Lauzon and Sylvain.

Days 9 to 13: meeting the Romaine River

We continue vegetable gardening to reach the Rivière aux Pêcheurs where several impassable rapids still require us to carry out portages and ropes. Then we come to the Romaine River that we have to go back up. Many rapids still hinder our progress. Hands wear out and bleed from rope and hauling. And this icy rain which is there every day. After a long portage, we attack Lac Long on our way up from La Romaine.

A tailwind of 40 to 90 km/h creates waves of 1 to 2 meters. It’s intoxicating to be able to continue in these conditions; I have never seen anything like this in the 15 years I have been canoeing.

You have to be extremely vigilant to stay afloat. But it allowed us to do 34 km in half a day. Shortly after Lac Long, we leave Romaine and, after several portages, some of which will require to be done with a compass and compound azimuths, we finally reach, this Wednesday, July 20, the Petit Mécatina river.

Days 14 to 25: finally the Petit Mécatina river!

It's a new start! Rapids follow one another, fortunately, they are almost all passable, the flow is low. Morale and understanding between us are high, it’s wonderful! The same could not be said of the weather. Not yet a whole day without rain! 

On day 17, Alain discovers what appears to be the remains of a recent tragedy. On the bank, at the foot of a rapid, we find a polythene backdrop, a pair of sneakers, stockings, a raincoat, a down sleeping bag, a backpack, a first aid kit, a few empty tin cans, a box of matches. What happened? We fear the worst. 

Next to the fire, we also find small bouquets of alder leaves, now dried, tied with thread, and which were probably used to create smoke to signal its presence by throwing them into the fire when any people passed by. a plane. Unfortunately, there are few or no planes that frequent this region. We presume that desalting took place in the rapid upstream and that the canoe and the crewmate, if there was one, were lost. Without a canoe, how can you reach the nearest civilization, 400 km away? 

Expédition rivière du Petit Mécatina

We continue our route, the rapids are still numerous, the volume of the river has considerably increased. For the first time, the serenity of the group is broken. Communication is broken between Alain and the others. This one did not appreciate that they were climbing a huge rock, judging that they were taking unnecessary risks and likely to compromise the safety of the entire group. The pace slows down enormously because of the silence and lack of cooperation displayed by Alain. After 24 hours of silence, communication is reestablished. The escapade will now only be a subject of jokes.

Day 26: the Quebec Grand Canyon

It's an exceptional day! We will reach the 15 km canyon which is described as very dangerous, even impassable, in the report of an overview carried out in 1972 by Parks Canada: “(…) the canoeist would have serious problems if he ventured that far… »

Canyon, Petit-Mécatina
Portage dans un endroit risqué, rivière du Petit Mécatina


Portage at the entrance to the Petit Mécatina river canyon. According to Parks Canada, “the portage required to bypass this section of the canyon seems equally impossible. It would be necessary to climb a vertical rise of approximately 600 to 800 feet (…) and walk approximately 12 miles over the most rugged terrain imaginable. »

And to better make us feel that we were approaching a diabolical place, a magnificent white wolf made the hairs on our backs stand up as it stared at us intensely from the beach where it was 25 meters from us. It is at this moment that we hear a distant rumble. This is what we will call “the canyon door”. You get there! The river suddenly cuts between the mountains and narrows to 50 meters. It first undergoes a drop of 5 meters followed by a long R IV-V. The flow is impressive! It’s brewing!

As we had planned when developing the itinerary, we will camp there and, on a 5-day hiking trip, we will admire this canyon. Afterwards, we will retrace our steps a little and take a siding route already marked before leaving even if this extends us by 60 km.

Day 27: waive Parks Canada advisories

The hike begins in good weather but it quickly becomes painful, in our light espadrilles our feet take a good beating. Our progress is very slow. We only covered 2.5 km in 4 and a half hours. Impossible to continue under these conditions, a decision is necessary.

In light of what we have just seen, we decide to try to cross the canyon by canoe. To hell with Parks Canada notices! The return to camp will be even more difficult in the rain.

Expédition sur la rivière du Petit Mécatina
Aventure sur la rivière du Petit Mécatina

Portage in the rain, Petit Mécatina river

Days 28 to 32: achieving the impossible against the grain

The jitters are as intense as when they left Sept-Îles. Despite difficult portages, we are progressing faster than yesterday and it is less difficult. I'm going to inspect a short rapid: we'll pass it, there's nothing there! Yet we pass through with pain and misery; its level changes at the rate of a slow breath of 3 or 4 feet. It's unimaginable! The riptides are so powerful that Sylvain and Jean take a good five minutes and make several attempts to escape. However, we continue our slow progress. The mountains are getting bigger and steeper.

Now, impassable falls and rapids, as well as almost vertical walls 200 meters high, prevent us from continuing by the usual routes, either by water or by a portage near the banks.

Alain and Sylvain go scouting. We will learn that we must go to the summit with weapons and luggage, and that after this mountain, it seems to be possible to vegetable garden on the banks for 1 km, then the river bifurcates and we will see when we get there.

Portage lors des deux dernières chutes, une fois le canyon passé, près du fleuve.
Portage during the last two falls, once past the canyon, near the river.

It's really climbing that we have to do, as we hoist the canoes using the ropes. This portage takes 4 hours. We get back into the water, we cover half a kilometer and we have to stop again: a grandiose rapid forces us to do so. We portage 1 km on the rocky shore and here we are in front of a new dead end. This time, you will have to climb the highest mountain (350 m) or turn back.

We unanimously choose the first solution. Didn't we come to do the Petit Mécatina? But we have to admit that Parks Canada was right! This portage presents hellish conditions: climbing, steep slopes, and very densely wooded, insects, rain, bivouacs that are more than uncomfortable. It will take 4 days.

Finally, we are back on the banks of the Petit Mécatina, exhausted but happy, scratched and bruised but relieved. We anchor our canoes again but for only 200 meters, another portage! We will camp there on the rocks.

Expédition rivière du Petit Mécatina
Camping sur les berges de la rivière du Petit Mécatina

Days 33 to 34: safe and sound… with some exceptions

By docking upstream of a long VR, Jean and Sylvain were training and, through exceptional luck and a miraculous reflex, I just had time to throw my rope to them. Desperately, they try to hold on to their canoe, but it's useless because I won't be able to hold on. I shout at them to let go. Alain immediately sets off in pursuit of the canoe. I finished rescuing the castaways, my right arm muscles were dislocated and my hands were burned by the rope, the survivors were livid but whole.

What happened to the canoe? Alain will pick it up 2 km further, seriously damaged but, fortunately, the luggage is still securely secured there. He accomplished a feat there because his race led him to cross walls which normally require the climber to be insured to cross them. It will take 12 hours the next day to fix a new clip on Sylvain's canoe while Alain will take this day to recover from his crazy race yesterday. And it will give us new emotions by accidentally finding human bones, pelvis, vertebrae and femurs, just behind our camp on a small beach.

Days 35 to 40: victory!

After seven days and 15 km further, the canyon is finished… Finished! We scream! We sing! You had to be crazy to undertake such an adventure! It's a remarkable day also because it's our first 24 hours without rain… and our last! The routine continues: rapids, descents of rapids, portages, etc. Four beautiful falls also mark this last section. And the river is over… alas!

We will first pass through Aylmer Sound, on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where we will arrive at low tide and in the dark. We will be warmly received by friendly people.

The next day, after spending the night in the only place where we can pitch our tents, the small village bridge, we have breakfast with the parents of Clarence Cox, the only inhabitant of the village of 24 families who manages to get by in French and who received us at his home yesterday evening.

At eleven o'clock, we leave for Harrington Harbor where, after some difficulties which will be ironed out thanks to Nick Ziergiebel, an American employed by the Quebec & Labrador Foundation, we settle into barracks to wait for Fort Mingan, this boat which connects all these villages on the North Shore. We will wait until Saturday, four days of stuffing ourselves and living in anticipation of seeing our friends again.

Finally, after 36 hours and 2 nights of fraternizing on the crowded deck of the boat, we arrived in Sept-Îles where our friends were waiting for us. How good it is to meet again! Even my dog seems happy.

And yet, new projects are emerging…

Fondation Rivières would like to thank Guy Garand, former general director of CRE of Laval, for sharing with us the text and photos of his adventure story on the Petit Mécatina river. 

This story was originally published in the Nord-North magazine summer-summer 1979 edition.

Text and photos: Serge Théorêt

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