The Koroc River by Ted Johnson
By 1982 our river-selecting skills were well honed. Around about February, Peter and Ted would trot off to the Parliamentary Library, to which they had access in those days, pull down one of the largest of its atlases, and scour the map of Arctic Canada for a candidate.
Peter was promoting the eastern Arctic “for a change”. They came up with a blue line meandering west from the seldom-visited Torngat Mountains on the Quebec-Labrador border to Ungava Bay. A visit to the National Air Photo Library suggested it might be paddleable.
A few months later two chartered deHaviland Otters left the dock at Scheffervllle, the Labrador iron mining town, with three canoes strapped to the floats, the six of us, and several fuel drums. Our trip was stretching the range of the Otter; worse, the base manager wasn’t sure where or indeed whether, float planes could land on the Koroc. As we discovered three hours later, circling low among the Torngats, they couldn’t (or wouldn’t). We’d have to settle for an un-named lake above the tree line, fifteen kilometres up a tributary, or go home. We went for the lake.
As we set camp in a brisk mountain wind, uncertain as to what lay ahead, Peter chose to cheer us up with gifts. He had joined us from Greenland where he had accompanied Governor General Schreyer to the thousandth anniversary of the founding of the Greenland Colony. What better way to celebrate his safe return from that challenging assignment than to give us each a small box of ice from the Greenland icecap? Looks of incredulity among us ingrates softened into benign amusement at happy-hour as we listened to the snap-crackle of 10,000-year-old air bubbles bursting in rum daiquiris.
The lake turned out to give us good access to a bit of mountain hiking, but it also set us up for two days of hard work. To get down the tributary river from the lake to the Koroc, we would have to descend some 300 meters in 15 kilometres – an extremely steep gradient. We dragged, lifted, lined and occasionally portaged our way over kilometre after kilometre of ledges and boulders, sometimes chest-deep in glacial meltwater. By the middle of the second day of this crap, spirits flagged from exhaustion and frustration. And once again the philanthropic Peter stepped forward. From his pack came a bottle (more than one, in the event) of Gemmel-Dansk, a thoroughly fortifying liqueur he’d picked up in Greenland. Spirits were restored and the expedition saved.
We were less than a kilometre from the Koroc when disaster struck. David and John Godfrey’s canoe became irretrievably wedged among rocks in an incident described more fully by David elsewhere on this site. (Wreck on the Koroc)
The Koroc valley is a pleasure to paddle, even when you’re crammed in three to a canoe and fully loaded. Unspoiled virgin forest creeps up mountainsides rounded by ice-age glaciers. Once in a while a waterfall tumbles off a jagged cliff-face. Good moss-covered tent sites are abundant. Runnable grade I and II rapids add spice, and involves a short portage, a spectacular campsite and excellent char fishing. We were surprised to see fish actually attempting to jump the falls. Labrador and eastern Quebec are notorious for bugs, but with dry weather and fresh breezes kept them down, with the exception of one sun-baked still evening when mosquitoes tormented us until we donned bug jackets, something we almost never had to do in thirty years of paddling.
The air turned cool and damp, sea-birds began to appear, and we reached the sea with two days to go. In retrospect, it is astonishing to think what an easy time we had of it. We might have encountered heavy seas and been winded-in for days. But the canoeing gods smiled and we experienced smooth water most of the way to the Inuit settlement of George River (Kangiqsualujuaq in Inuktitut) some 60 kilometres to the southwest.
Our greatest enemy was fog. It forced us to stick close to shore. But at one point, to avoid following the shoreline for 10 miles around the perimeter of a bay, we chose to cut across its mouth, from headland to headland, completely out of sight of land. Our compass course was 210 degrees ‘true’. But magnetic variation was 40 degrees. As we headed out into the gloom a heated debate broke out among the navigators whether to add or subtract the variation. Shouts and insults between canoes faded into the fog. Someone pointed out that if we got it wrong, we’d be heading out into Ungava Bay never to be heard of again. The committee agreed to subtract the variation. The others crossed their fingers. Given our speed we figured it would take about 25 minutes to reach the far shore (we aimed about a kilometre east of the headland). Thirty minutes came and went. No sight of land. Recriminations flowed. Then suddenly, after 33 minutes we were grounding on the foreshore flats with a rocky beach barely visible 20 metres ahead. Out came the Gemmel-Dansk.
We pitched tents and prepared dinner enshrouded in fog. When it finally cleared, we couldn’t believe it – the tide had receded and ‘shore’ was now a good 500 metres out to sea. One of our party – this writer, it has to be admitted- had brought tide tables for Ungava Bay, but had left them on the plane. We knew the tides were big, but we had no idea when they would peak and ebb.
How do you reload your canoes in the morning when shore is hundreds of meters away? Any idiot knows: you portage your packs down to the water and then go back and get the canoes. We dumped the packs on a flat rock. By the time we started back with the canoes, the rock had become a island and some of the packs were getting wet. The tide was rolling in at quite a clip. We dragged and canoes over the rocks, paddled out to the ‘island’, loaded in a rush and were off for Kangiqsualujuaq.
We rounded the rocky headland and headed up the bay toward the Inuit community at about 4pm. By 5, someone commented that we appeared to be making no progress past the cliffs to our left. The fearsome tide? The current from the mighty George River? Whatever.
We kept spirits up by telling our family histories as we paddled. A motorized freighter canoe passed by on its way home. They waved, we waved. Thankfully, they turned back to us. An Inuit family out hunting seals (successfully); would we like a lift to the settlement? We accepted – except for Peter and John who were determined to ”finish the trip”!
At dusk in Kangiqsualujuaq we had still seen no sign of Peter and John. A boat owner kindly offered to go back for them, bringing them in just at dark.
After an evening feast of caribou meat at the home of the David Ananak family, and a good sleep, we boarded the Air Inuit weekly Twin Otter flight South….Ted Johnson