The West Magpie by Train: A Northeastern Quebec Ramble-about


Harjes rockin' in large
on the West Magpie.


An early morning view
of what awaits downstream.
Ever spend vast sums of time and money on a big trip, only to see your hopes crushed in a flash? We could not have been more ready, or more fired up, to jump in the float plane and fly 120 miles to Lac Vital to run the West Magpie. We had spent 35 hours driving, and countless more cramming a week's worth of food and foul-weather gear into our boats. I even had six pounds of pepperoni and cheese stuffed under my seat. The pissy weather we fought as we packed turned out to be the leading edge of a three-day soaker, drowning all hopes of flying a tiny plane with ancient navigation systems over the mountains and into the lake.

Nate Warren had planned the trip for us, my wife Natalie convinced me to go big for graduation, and Asheville Adventure Rentals set me up with some much-needed new gear. Three weeks later Joe Barkley showed up in his 1988 Toyota Town Ace mail truck with the driver's seat on the right, a finicky five-on-a-tree gear shifter, a newly-re-re-built fuel pump and no speedometer or emergency brake. We stacked our kayaks in back and headed North, stoked to meet the crew, run the Taureau, then hop a flight to the Middle of Nowhere. We arrived at 5 AM thanks to a Canadian border agent with a particularly sexy French accent who insisted that we must have something illegal in the quagmire of gear behind the cab. A surprisingly refreshing dirt nap in the Taureau takeout parking lot and a delicious brunch of hot putine (French fries with gravy and cheese curds) helped us keep pace with Nate Warren, Tom Perkins and a fired-up crew of young Quebecians on the juicy southern Quebec classic. Another monster drive brought us to Labrador Air Safari headquarters in Sept Iles to meet Jake Risch and Mike Dowell.

Kayakers on a mission are nothing if not determined. After crying softly for a few minutes about the rainy destruction of Plan A, we collected our wits and pored over Labrador Air Safaris' giant wall map of Quebec and Labrador in search of road-accessible multiday runs. We stumbled across a road leading into what might be a put-in for the nine-day Moisie run, reputed to be the Grand Canyon of Quebec. We ruled it out because that same spot might just as well be the put in for paddling in circles on a giant lake for nine days.

Further map study and local beta revealed a commuter train crossing the West Magpie enroute to the mining operations of northern Labrador. This made us wonder why dirtbag kayakers would pay for a float plane when the train offered a much cheaper way in. A painstaking tracing of the bends and oxbows upstream of Lac Vital revealed the answer- 57 miles of flatwater, IF you managed to shortcut the top eight by paddling in on a tiny creek, and IF you didn't get lost in any of the lakes on the way. Jake and Nate bailed at this point due to time constraints, which was a sad loss for the crew.

The Headwater Maze
Bummed but undaunted, the remaining four of us stuffed more food into our already overloaded boats, set the takeout shuttle (two hours each way) and climbed on board the train the next morning at 8 AM. The ride was gorgeous- up the lower canyons of the Moisie and along the Canada-sized waterfalls of the Nipissis, then out the top of the drainage into a vast area of incredibly flat tundra smattered with lakes and streams running in completely random directions.

The spot the conductor dropped us off didn't look much like the map's depiction of where we needed to be, but he assured us it was right. Even if we had shared his confidence in our placement, we would have still questioned our judgment at being dropped off this far from nowhere. As the train faded into the distance, we digested the finality of our decision, and started paddling around the marsh and bogs looking for the tiny creek we hoped would deliver us into the West Magpie. After some intricate discussion that could have gone badly with a weaker crew, we finally found it- about 12 cfs flowing east through chunky rocks made of sandpaper and super glue. We walked down most of it to save our boats from being cheese-grated, and were stoked beyond belief when it dumped us into a real river.

The West Magpie that far up was about 2,000 cfs of incredibly slow-moving shallow water interspersed with confusing lakes and half-mile wide upstream wind tunnels. Every day streams large and small joined in, the trees got bigger and the banks got higher, but the river and landscape remained oppressively flat.

The rain continued for three days as promised, with short breaks but not a peep of sun. We paddled til our arms fell off, camped in the rain, repacked our boats in the rain, and paddled more. I have never struggled through so much flatwater in my life, even on sea kayaking trips. Upstream winds blasted our faces and fought our progress. Massive sandbars ground us to a halt and forced us to take painful detours around the farthest edges of wide river bends. Voracious hordes of black flies chewed us to insanity any time we got too close to the brushy banks during the day. The occasional rapids even felt awkward, out of control and not so fun in our low-riding torpedoes, and the absurd weight of nine days of food, breakdowns, stoves, shelter and clothes made our boats so heavy that dragging them up the banks to camp took all the strength we had.

Despite the suboptimal conditions, Joe Barkley, Tom Perkins, Mike Dowell and I kept an impressive morale and even had some fun up there. We took frequent breaks on beaches upwind of the bugs, mixed cranberries and blueberries with our rum rations, slept late and gorged ourselves in an effort to lighten our boats for the rapids ahead. Brutal mile-long sandbar mazes would spark increasingly falsetto choruses of "Flatwater warriors- charge!!!" as we struggled to redefine gnar by how many blisters and bug bites we could accumulate each day. We celebrated the occasional option to shortcut vast serpentine meanders, crashing through 20 feet of reindeer moss and stunted fir trees to make two miles of instant progress. On the third day, I got ahead of the crew, caught a few trout in the rain, saw a wolf at close range, and realized I was farther from civilization than I have ever been. The depths of Middle Kings are but a stone's throw from the highway by Magpie standards.

Tom was attacked by geese as a child (no shit), and we were craving real meat by then, so we chased down one of the many Canada Geese on the riverbanks, roasted it on a stick and ate every bit of it with a well-garnished surf-and turf of trout and blueberries. The heart was especially tasty.

Whitewater At Last
Two other wonderful things happened that evening- the rain stopped and the whitewater began. Day four started with running amazing rapids and surfing glassy overhead bowls, all immersed in brilliant sunshine and stunning scenery.

The four of us established a casual rhythm of playful downstream motion- sleep late, chill by the riverside with coffee and freeze-dried bacon and eggs, run a few rapids, paddle some flatwater, take a long lunch break, dry our gear, roast trout on sticks, take a nap and eat more. Long afternoons of paddling offered plenty of time to scout, set safety, take photos, try alternate lines and surf our brains out.

A few of the play features allowed us to blunt, spin and loop in creek boats loaded with far more weight than I have ever had, even on the Oyocachi where we packed machetes and a home-made tube tent from the hardware store. The rapids ranged from big splashy wave trains with playful slots and boofs mixed in, to enormous churning drops that pro boaters would drool over. Some of the holes were bigger than my apartment. Evenings brought more trout, cheery campfires, a tasty buzz, jokes and stories, huge piles of food and a night under the stars- right into another morning of cowboy coffee by the riverside. The Magpie provided surprisingly comfortable accommodations- plentiful trout and blueberries, a few natural lounge chairs and several well-arched back cracker rocks- much needed after the heavy days of paddling in the upper section.

The fourth night's camp was a weird little bedrock peninsula below a stompin' broken waterslide that we scouted at length but all walked. The river was so close that it occasionally surged into a channel that flowed into the fire, sending up a cloud of steam and sparks. Morning brought an incredible foggy sunrise and one of the fastest, rowdiest boogie rapids of the run, followed by many more. Night five left us scrambling into the last eddy right above an intimidating portage at dusk, to the fortunate welcome of a smooth spit of flat rock far enough out in the riverbed to save us from the bugs, and with enough driftwood to rage a silly white man's fire while pillaging our remaining liquor stash. The mix of deep Southeastern and northern New England cultures spurred the playful intensity of kayakers on the loose, and got us laughing so hard we nearly tumbled into the river.

At 220 cumecs (7,770 cfs) the West and main Magpie were surprisingly easy to scout and portage, even with a bit of a hangover. Ferrying across to scout alternate lines still took quite a while, and we often had to climb and attain back upstream to access lines that made sense. Fortunately the casual group dynamic and the ready support of the entire crew for the choice to run or portage made the process of finding our place in the massive, branching riverbed more fun than work.

The one exception was an unusually committing gorge late in the fifth evening. It looked like it would take well over an hour to portage, which would have left us camping in the buggy brush and fighting the mid-afternoon winds on the lake the next day. Adam Herzog had told us that paddling across Lac Magpie in an afternoon upstream wind was one of the hardest things he's ever done. Twenty five miles of dead flat water against four-foot whitecaps kicked the Linville Triple Crown holder's ass. His accounts of the experience instilled in us a mortal fear of cursing for days on a liquid treadmill. No amount of Flatwater Warrior rallying cries would make that experience fun.

With all that in mind, we seal-launched into the gorge hoping for the best. My aversion to locked-in burl evaporated as I landed in a huge backender, blasted into a giant walled-in rapid, and celebrated with cheers, hugs and even an awkward bit of dancing around on shore when it finally opened up. 'Zog told us later that there's a good portage trail on the left, which we would have gladly taken had we found it. Joe threw an absolutely perfect monster kickflip in the next wave train, and we cruised victorious into a gigantic valley ringed with bright green, granite-topped mountains.

We paddled into the night, camped on a sandbar right where the lake opened up, and awoke at three AM to the most pleasant surprise of the trip- a gentle tailwind that pushed/surfed us across the lake in a surprisingly easy eight hours. The dreaded afternoon upstream wind kicked up right as we reached the shelter of the far side. That night's camp brought more and bigger trout in an even bigger river- welcome protein after a near marathon of dead flat water in loaded creek boats. Even with the help of the blessed tailwind, we were beat. We fell asleep under the stars only to wake to a pitter-patter of rain that turned into a good soaker. I was so dead asleep that I would have awoken drenched and freezing if Joe hadn't scrambled to pitch his tarp over both of us. Another chilly morning packing in the rain led into such a fun set of wave trains and waterboofs that we didn't care how wet our camping gear was.

That evening brought a return of sun at our final campsite- an island beach carpeted with perfectly round, smooth little river stones. We passed around the last of our food and liquor, and somehow had enough of everything between us to feast quite nicely. Despite our best efforts to pack everything we would need, each of us would have run out of food, coffee, liquor, sunscreen, bug dope, or some other crucial provision. Between the four of us though, we had creative family style potluck meals, plenty of everything and an amazingly comfortable nine days in some rather inhospitable wilderness. I think the best dish that night was Tom's mashed potatoes and gravy with powdered cheese sauce donated from Mike's macaroni, a handful of freeze-dried bacon from my breakfast stash, and a fat smoked trout Joe filleted into the mix.

We were sad to see the end, but the promise of cold beer, a day off and a meal that hadn't spent nine days stuffed in the back of a kayak urged us through the last day of running big rapids and portaging huge ones. The scale of rock, water and gradient on the lower Magpie is mind-boggling. The massive bends, islands and braided channels in the flat reaches provided the novel challenge of actually navigating a river. The larger drops would still be burly as hell even if scaled down to a fifth of their size- we felt like foam boaters tossed into overgrown creeks, dwarfed to insignificance by the volume and complexity of churning water surrounding us. Dozens of our rapid photos turned out to be just a paddle blade sticking out of the foam, or nothing at all. The medium Shiva performed surprisingly well even packed with 40 pounds of food, clothing and shelter.

The Road Home...With a Few More Paddling Stops
On our second night out of the woods, I was attacked by the Town Ace. I awoke to find her bumper directly over my head after she rolled 25 feet and mushed my tent into an awkward triangle. Joe slept right through the bouncy ride, and thought I was crazy when I opened the canvas to ask him to move his truck out of my tent. I guess that's what I get for laughing at the raggedy-looking old Ace when she showed up at my house to take me to Canada. Despite her homicidal tendencies and insanely quirky controls, she turned out to be the perfect vehicle.

Next day brought us to the Rocheres, perhaps the most interesting river I've ever done. Each of the seven rapids braids into three to five channels with plenty of water and at least one amazing rapid. We explored as many routes as we could, often running one channel and attaining/ climbing back up to run something even better in another channel. One of these exploratory attains brought us to the bottom of a beautiful little rapid that looked really awkward to carry a boat up. My answer was to pull a Jason Hale and just swim the thing, but an unseen rock painfully reminded my ass that I am not Jason Hale.

After two glorious days exploring the Rocheres, we bid Mike and Tom a sad farewell, camped on a gorgeous rocky beach enroute to Montreal and drove to Lachine. We had a bit of a misunderstanding with the directions the mostly French-speaking surfers at the put-in scratched into the dirt for us, and ended up swirling around in giant whirlpools over a mile away from the legendary waves we had come to surf. We got so disoriented in the two-mile-wide riverbed that we spent about an hour wandering around the backyards of quaint little vacation homes on a series of islands, disrupting the residents in the middle of their morning crepes and wine. We finally stumbled across an English-speaking kayaker who gave us a grand tour of the area in his homemade, badass carbon and cedar motorboat, then dropped us off at Big Joe's, a river wave so clean that surfers swim rapids to get to it.

Once there, Little Joe spun, blunted and looped the shit out of Big Joe. I had the novel experience of kayak surfing right next to a board surfer, taking turns showing off what each of our crafts could do with every ounce of body weight thrown onto one edge. The surfer had me beat hands-down, so the next day I rented a board and surfed Montreal the right way- on a thin plank of glassed foam wearing nothing but board shorts.

On the way home I talked Joe into sidetracking to the Gauley for the first weekend, which would have been great if it had actually been the first weekend of Gauley. Joe was remarkably understanding of my logistical flail as we frowned at the trickle of water spitting out of the dam, and even took the opportunity to score himself a videoboating job at Class VI. I've rarely traveled with someone so easy to get along with, and never had a crew work as smoothly together as we did with Tom and Mike on the Magpie. I couldn't believe how much time I spent grinning, giggling or just plain laughing my ass off in the midst of cursing black flies, shivering, grunting through molasses flatwater or wondering whether my tailbone was broken.

Three weeks on the road brought new and closer friendships, great memories and a perfect celebration of my hard-won graduation from Nurse Practitioner school. We were fortunate to survive the trip with only sunburned faces, plentiful bug bites, a badly bruised ass and a splash of motor oil on my tent. I highly recommend the Magpie as a taste of something entirely different and wonderfully remote. Feel free to contact me for beta if you decide to do it.

Tom edited a bit of low-fi video of our trip, aptly titled "Dirtbags in Quebec"- check it out at http://vimeo.com/49068250

[ed. jeroen: embedded video here as well.]

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