I traveled from the village of Umiujaq on the Hudson bay to the Leaf River Estuary close to the village of Tasiujaq on the Ungava bay by hiking and packraft. It was a solo expedition that lasted 19 days.
The expedition took place in a region of Northern Quebec called Nunavik. It is Inuit territory. There are no villages inland, all settlements are on the coasts.
(To get the beautiful music from Emancipator - Turn the volume on!)
The idea for this trip evolved over time, from initially wanting to paddle just the Leaf river and being shocked at the cost of a float plane to get there to the desire of a more ambitious expedition. The Hudson to Ungava solo project was born. Months of planning and preparation when into this project. The three main points being refining my list of gear, working on my whitewater skills and planning my route.
In the months before my expedition, I went on multiple multi-days packrafting outings where I would hike and paddle with all my gear. This allowed me to make multiple very beneficial adjustments to my gear list and also to work on my gear organization. I would take a lot of notes each time on items I wanted to add, change or remove from my gear list.
For the route portion, I spoke to some people that had traveled the region but no one had taken the exact route I wanted to take. Most people doing this crossing of the Ungava peninsula start by heading North along the Hudson Bay and then head East once they are at the same latitude as lake Minto. I did not want to do that because I was too afraid to encounter polar bears (even though it was unlikely in the summer) and I wanted my route to involve more hiking. By studying topographic maps and Google Earth, I was able to identify a couple potential routes. I prepared the maps for two different hiking routes in case one proved to be impracticable.
I was lucky enough to have a "preparatory trip" in Tursujuq park, a national park that is near Umiujaq and that I crossed as part of my trip, before this expedition. Since it was my first experience in the tundra, the one-week practice trip was very helpful. I mostly hiked and paddled around Tursujuq park, next to the village of Umiujaq. I found out that a short leg of my initial itinerary was not practical as it went through an area with dense bush and steep cliffs. I also got to experience tundra travel, bugs, marshes and other common aspects of the tundra. I did not encounter any large animals on this trip, which gave me more confidence for my real expedition. The Tursujuq park staff were very helpful for this initial trip. They offered a lot of advice and help!
Arrival in Umiujaq
Three weeks after the end of my preparatory trip, I was back in Umiujaq for the beginning of my real expedition. I arrived in the village a couple days earlier with the intention of spending time in the park to take photos and shoot videos before I began my real journey. I landed in Umiujaq on a beautiful summer day and the park staff gave me a ride on the single road that enters the park. I set up camp close to the road and took out my drone to take some shots since the weather was so good. Once it was time to settle for the night, I realized in panic that my sleeping pad was not in my backpack. Even after months of meticulous planning, I had managed to forget this important piece of equipment in Montreal! My mistake came from the fact that I left some gear in Umiujaq after my preparatory trip, items that I noted on my gear list. I changed my mind at the last minute about leaving my sleeping pad in Umiujaq and brought it back to Montreal instead, but forgot to remove it from the "gear in Umiujaq" list. So, there I was, about to begin one of the most ambitious expeditions of my life without a sleeping pad.
I packed my tent and headed back to the village as soon as I realized my mistake. The walk back to the village was about one hour, during which I had time to evaluate my different options. Back in the village, I was able to call Air Inuit's cargo service and to inquire about a potential delivery. I had a family member drop off my tiny sleeping pad at their location, expecting to receive it the next days. Then begin a 4 day wait during which the plane never landed in the village because of bad weather (this is quite common there). On the fourth day, when the plane finally landed, my sleeping pad was not there. I was beginning to run out of time and options. The park staff was offering to lend me one of their sleeping pads... the only issue was that the thing was about triple the volume of the one I had planned to take and I had absolutely no available space in my backpack. Finally, on the day of my planned departure I hiked from the Hudson Bay to the point on the road where my hike was beginning and came back to the village, hoping my package would show up on the afternoon flight. It did and the park staff drove me back to the point where I had stopped hiking in the morning. I was on my way!
Day 1-2 Departure from the village
After picking up my sleeping pad at the airport, I got a ride to the point where I had stopped hiking in the morning by the park's staff. "I think I don't want to go anymore" I said only half joking. I got understanding looks back. I was nervous and a little scared to head out in the wild on my own.
Waving goodbye, I started my hike through a very marshy valley. The black flies were there to greet me and I soon hid under my mosquito shirt. I had food provisions for the next three weeks on my back, not knowing how fast I could travel in the tundra and how many portages I would have to do to reach my resupply point at the fishing lodge Leaf River Lodge. Weather also had the potential to cause delays. I had to paddle through Lake Minto, a huge Northern Quebec lake and headwinds could cost me a couple days.
My backpack was incredibly heavy and was already hurting my back. "Its weight will decrease every time I eat" I thought to encourage me. I was following an old 4WD trail that led to a lake not too far from the village for this first day. I had traveled this way on my previous visit and still felt I was in known territory, which was comforting. I would rest by placing my backpack, while still on my back, on tundra rocks, relieving my back and shoulders for a couple minutes at a time.
I reached my first lake after a few hours of hiking. I inflated my boat for the first time of the trip while fighting the black flies and set out on the water. Paddling was a relief for my back, the weight of all my gear being on the boat rather than on me. I camped out on a small island, finding it comforting to be in the middle of a lake instead of on the main land.
The first night of this trip is probably the one where I slept the least. I was nervous about potential animal visits and feeling the excitement around the beginning of the trip. This would not happen again for the remainder of the trip; I was usually so tired at the end of the days that I would fall asleep instantly.
On the second day I soon reached the furthest point from the village that I visited on my first trip. It made me a little nervous, from there I was entering unknown territory. I didn't know if my planned route would end up being a good choice or not. I made good progress on the second day; I mostly paddled on small lakes that had short portages in between them. I stopped early at the end of the day because of heavy rain. Looking at the terrain ahead, I had an idea that the next day would be difficult, I just didn't know how much yet.
Day 3-4 The joys of tundra travel
Day 3 was probably the worst day of this whole trip. I started the day by having to change my itinerary because the terrain I was initially planning to cross was too steep. I progressed slowly on forested slopes, my back hurting from the heavy load (the food I had eaten so far did not make much difference). After a couple hours I reached a very green valley and tried to identify the best way to cross it from an elevated point. The area seemed to have dense bush and a lot of small ponds, which indicated that the whole thing was probably an immense marsh.
I identified what I thought would be the best location to cross the valley and started walking through the dense bush. I had to backtrack multiple times because some places were impassable without inflating my boat. I went back and forth multiple times, trying to find a place where a crossing that did not involve swimming would be possible. My frustration was increasing with every passing minute and I finally resolved to inflate my boat to cross a pond about 4 meters large. Overall, crossing the valley took me around 4 hours, involved inflating and deflating my boat three times and left me exhausted and full of scratches. I also had very little progress on the map to show for my efforts. I finished the day hiking in the fog and found a nice flat campsite on a ledge not too far from a lake.
Waking up on day 4, I once again decided to change my itinerary to favor paddling over hiking. My back hurt and my morale was a bit low because of the previous day's experience. I even paddled against a head wind for a while in order to avoid hiking through the bushes and paddle a larger lake. While in a channel in between lakes, I unexpectedly saw some houses in the distance! Intrigued, I paddled towards the encampment and got out of my boat to investigate it closer. Five houses were hurdled together on a peninsula between two lakes. There were recent tire marks but no one seemed to be there at the moment of my visit. I did not stay long and took advantage of the nice afternoon weather to progress some more. I found a nice place to camp not too far from a nice lake and enjoyed a beautiful sunset.
Day 5-6 Quicksands and the Nastapoka river
Waking up to a beautiful day on Day 5, I took the opportunity to take some campsite and hiking drone shots as there was very little wind. The area, bare of trees, was perfect for the drone. I was in a good mood, hoping to reach the Nastapoka river on that day, which marked the end of the first leg of my trip, at least in my mind. It felt that if I reached the Nastapoka river, I would have finally done something other than talking about this trip.
The terrain was alternating between bare, easy slopes and areas with dense bush. I had to walk along the shore of a couple unnamed ponds and found myself in an area with a impassable stream as the bottom seemed to be a bog where I would sink deeply. I tried crossing by walking in the water in the pond but soon found myself sinking in some quicksands. I swore heavily and got really scared, this being my first real experience with quicksands. I managed to get out of it quickly and found a safer spot where to walk, only to sink again a few meters further. By moving quickly I was once again able to get out of them, and was very weary of any sand for the rest of my trip. Once again I was suffering under the heavy weight of my load. I had now switched direction of travel from an Easterly one to a Northern one. Most lakes in the area extending from West to East, I could not paddle as much as I would have liked to.
On the afternoon of day 5 I reached the Nastapoka river, ending the first leg of my trip. By then the wind was blowing strongly, unfortunately not in the right direction to facilitate my travel. I took my time to transition to paddling gear, hoping that the wind would die down. I had no such luck and set out on the river anyways. The river was very large where I started and the wind was pushing me upstream, unless I paddled very hard! I managed to reach the opposite shore and decided to walk on the shore dragging my boat behind me instead of paddling, as I was covering more distance that way.
I camped a little ways ahead of the first rapids on my map, in a nice sheltered area by the river. The next morning, the wind had completely died down, making the large river look more like a lake. The weather was gorgeous and I enjoyed one of the best days of my trip, the beautiful river, scenery and weather all combined to create a memorable day. The Nastapoka river was a bliss to paddle (at least the section I did) with only a short portage to get over a ledge.
Day 6-7-8 More tundra travel
After the idyllic day on the Nastapoka river, the weather switched again on day 7 and I got mostly rain on my way to Minto lake. I left the Nastapoka river on the afternoon of day 6 and reached Minto the morning of day 8. The hike to Minto was quite difficult. It involved many densely bushed areas and many transitions between paddling and hiking mode with many short portages. I paddled whenever I could, even for short distances, since the bushes were making my progress so difficult. By that point I was really looking forward to get into paddling mode for good. Once I reached Minto Lake, there wouldn't be much more hiking.
Day 8-9-10 - Lake Minto
On the morning of day 8 I got into my boat and paddled waterways all the way to what I thought was Bellet Lake, some maps identified this lake in different locations. This lake is right next to Minto lake so I was quite excited. I had to paddle hard with a side-facing wind most of the way. Both lakes were connected through a rocky class 1-2 rapid which made entering Minto Lake from Bellet Lake very fun! The moment I reached Minto lake I held up my paddle up in the air and yelled "Woohoo! Minto!". Another leg of my trip was completed.
Minto Lake had been on my mind since I began planning my expedition as a place where things could go wrong or be very difficult if the weather was bad. I was also worried that orienting myself would be hard, which was not the case at all, all the tiny islands in the lake making good way points to match with my map. If the winds had been facing me or too strong I would have had to hike partway around the lake rather than paddle and that would have made my journey much more difficult and lengthy. However, I was very lucky with weather on Minto and it allowed me to finish my trip much faster than anticipated.
My main direction of travel on the lake was North-East. Therefore I needed South-West winds to facilitate my progress. On the first day on the lake, the winds were mostly North-West, which was not too bad but made waves hit me at a 90 degree angle for most of the day. I had identified an itinerary where I could follow the shoreline as much as possible for crossing Minto, but on day 8 I had my longest crossing away from shore, a total of 1.5 kilometers. I completed it with the North-West winds. It was a little stressful but it went well. For the next two days on Minto, I had very strong South-West (the exact winds I needed) winds all the time. It made me go very fast but also brought big waves that were challenging at times. Because of the strong winds I also did a couple portages while on the lakes to avoid some areas where I knew battling the winds would be dangerous.
On Day 10 I saw the first big mammal of my trip, a muskox grazing nonchalantly on an island of the lake. It watched me go by in my tiny boat and soon resumed its grazing. Later in the day, as I came to a more open area of the lake, the waves were putting me in danger of capsizing. I decided to stop early on the shore and camped amidst the cloudberries.
Day 11-12-13 Leaf River before Leaf River Lodge
Starting on Day 11 my maps indicated "Leaf River" instead of "Minto Lake". However, the river was so large at that point that it looked more like a lake than a river. The winds were still so strong that I could not tell if there was any noticeable current on the river.
On day 11 there was a huge bend in the river that would have made me travel South-East for a while. The winds were still scarily strong and coming from the South-West at that point so I identified a way to portage instead of paddling that bend of the river. The portage was quite long, bushy and steep but probably saved me from some very strenuous paddling.
Starting on day 12 I noticed that the landscape was starting to look more like a river. I also saw the first of hundreds of caribous that I would encounter while paddling the river. Many caribous were attempting to cross the river and would sometimes turn around because of me. Because of the strong winds I still could not tell if there was any current. At the end of the day, I came upon the first rapids of the river, the "Welcome rapids". I ran the first one but was weary of the second one which was a class 3, my boat was still so overly front-loaded that I was worried I would capsize too easily if I hit any big wave. I portaged and camped right next to the rapid. Just before reaching the shore, I was able to observe a whole family of caribou crossing the river together.
I woke up early on Day 13, ready for a long day. I had gone out of my "fun" snacks on day 12 and all I had left to eat was Soylent. I knew that if I paddled hard that day I would be able to reach the Leaf River Lodge, a remote fishing and hunting lodge on the river where I had a resupply box full of nice things to eat waiting for me. The wind had finally died down but now there was some noticeable current on the river. The paddle was pleasant and I went through the class 1 & 2 rapids without any issues. I paddled hard and did not stop much. By the end of the afternoon, I saw the Leaf River Lodge site from a distance. I still had some paddling to do in order to get there and now I had some face winds. I paddled hard, thinking about food the whole time and around 5pm I reached the lodge.
Day 13-14 Leaf River Lodge
I was very excited to get to the lodge and was looking forward to speak to some human beings. As I disembarked my boat, I could see signs that people had been on site recently, although no one was around at the time. I went around the multiple structures, calling out for someone but the place seemed empty. After about ten minutes of roaming around the lodge premises, I heard a motor boat coming on the river. I went to greet the people in there, which looked quite surprised to see me, although they knew I would show up at some point. I spent some wonderful time at the lodge and decided to take a rest day while there, repairing some of my gear, doing my laundry and just doing general maintenance on my stuff. I tried my fishing rod from the deck but did not catch anything worth mentioning. The clients of the lodge were only arriving there during the next week and only four people were on site at the time of my visit, getting things ready for the season. I also ate a huge amount of food! My resupply box was full of goodies.
Day 15-16-17-18-Leaf River to Leaf River Estuary
I said goodbye to my new friends from Leaf River Lodge on the morning of day 15. Everyone on site came on the beach to wish me luck. Although I still had half the distance in terms of mileage to cover, I knew that from that point traveling downriver would be fast.
Day 15 was a fun day as the river was flowing fast and had multiple rapids ranking from class 1 to class 3. A couple hundred meters after the lodge, I saw my first wolf of the trip. He/She (?) was on shore and watched me pass by in my tiny boat. On the morning of day 16 I woke up in total fog. I could hardly see the river from my tent although I was camped only a few meters from the shore. I started paddling anyways as I knew that they were no rapids ahead and the river was not very large in that section. Later in the day the sky cleared and I got to see some amazing sections of the river under a beautiful sun. These four days on the river were very similar to each other, I would get up early, paddle around 50 kilometers and start looking for a good campsite at the end of the afternoon. I paddled most of the rapids but scouted any rapids that were class 3. There was nothing more difficult than class 3. I got to observe more caribous, a river otter, and lots of black bears as I was approaching the estuary of the leaf river.
Day 19 Leaf River estuary to Leaf River Estuary Lodge
I woke up early on the morning of day 19 as I knew this would be the last day of my trip. I had slept well given that I had observed many black bears in the area the previous night. As I embarked in my boat, I noticed that a few hundred meters from my tent, down the beach, was a young muskox! A few hundred meters further from the muskox was a black bear. I was glad I woke up and left before they reached my tent!
I had consulted the tide timetable and wanted to hit the last rapid, named “goodbye rapid” at high tide. The tides in the Ungava bay being among the highest in the world, that rapid transforms from a waterfall at low tide to just a few ripples at high tide. Unfortunately when I got there the tide was still too low and I decided to portage around it, which proved to be quite difficult because of some huge boulders in the way. I reembarked in my boat halfway through the rapid and noticed many seals hanging out on the rocks in the middle of the rapid. When seeing me, they would enter the water and later pop out their head to take a better look at me.
Once I passed the goodbye rapid, I was in salty water and officially in the Leaf River bay. The wind were becoming strong and I was getting quite nervous as this section was very exposed. I fought the waves and wind for almost two hours, getting very close to capsizing because of the waves a couple times before reaching an area that was more sheltered and finally being able to rest a bit. The waves had been so strong that going to shore probably would have been more dangerous than staying in the middle of the bay, because I would have had to cross the part where the waves break.
My initial plan was to travel by myself to the village of Tasiujaq using my packraft for part of the way and then hiking over a peninsula. However, I had been in touch with people from a fishing lodge on the estuary of the river, the Leaf River Estuary Lodge, and they strongly advised against following my original plan. They arranged a boat pick-up for me at the Leaf River Estuary Lodge for the next day. I reached the Leaf River Estuary Lodge around 11am on day 19 and my itinerary was completed. I spent 24 hours alone at the lodge, watching the incredible tides of the Ungava, hiking a bit around the area but actually sleeping an indecent amount of time. I had not realized how exhausted I was before reaching that point!
Return trip to Tasiujaq, Kuujjuaq and Montreal
On day 20 the owner of the Leaf River Estuary Lodge picked me up and took me to Tasiujaq. The bay was very quiet, I knew I would have been able to paddle but it was too late! I wandered around the village of Tasiujaq during the day and slept there for one night. I was able to grab the last seat on the flight to Kuujjuaq the next day.
Kuujjuaq, the largest of the northern villages, appeared to me as a busy and large town after four weeks spent mostly in nature and in the villages of Umiujaq and Tasiujaq. It was a bit overwhelming at first but it was a good re-introduction to civilization. I wandered around the village and visited the grocery store many times, as usual, I was fascinated by the food so easily available!
The next day I was able to get on the flight headed to Montreal, with stops in Schefferville and Quebec city. The four weeks that I had spent up North had gone by so quick. I could not believe it was already over. I had planned this trip for so long it almost felt like it was too easy to actually do it.
It was my first experience being remote from civilization for so long. It was a bit astounding at times, but I managed the solitude better than I initially thought I would. I was focused on covering distance and I could have taken more time to just enjoy the location, the fishing and the hiking opportunities. Being solo, I was always worried about turning weather that would cause delays and running out of snacks (!!). I found the beauty and quietness of the tundra astonishing. I am grateful that a remote, wild, untouched place like it still exists. I now want to explore more remote Canadian rivers and hope to plan another trips in the years to come.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON PREPARATION AND PLANNING