National Geographic : 1951 Jul
Labrador Canoe Adventure BY ANDREW BROWN AND RALPH GRAY With Illustrations from Photographs by the Authors T WO Indians ran dark hands and eyes over our twin aluminum canoes lying outside a warehouse in Burnt Creek, northern Quebec mining camp. Prospectors, geologists, and drillers stroll ing by in their iron-reddened clothing ex pressed doubts about the unfamiliar metal craft. One hairy giant muttered something about "tin-can-oes." We kept ears cocked for opinions; in that water-laced land canoes are indispensable for cross-country travel, and experts in their use are a dime a dozen. No one knows these northern waters as do the Indians, prospec tors, and local trappers. Despite pessimistic comment, we were con fident the little canoes could carry us from the Quebec border across hundreds of miles of Labrador wilderness to Atlantic tidewater. It could be disastrous if they let us down! We saw that the Indians admired the slick paint job (one canoe red, the other blue). But the taller native shook his head and drew a hand sharply across the metal skin, as if slashing it with a knife. "Mathieu say the first jagged rock will gash 'em," interpreted John Michelin, one of our trapper guides. "Well, they weathered a rough test last summer running the Susquehanna River," we pointed out, reassuring ourselves as well as the guides.* "We'll go ahead as planned. They'll do better than you think." By journey's end, the 18-foot Grumman aluminum craft were scratched and dented, but watertight and sound. And-final vindi cation-our guides wanted to buy them. Million-Paddle-Stroke Journey In five weeks we paddled 578 miles on waters of Labrador's Hamilton River, trudged 61 miles over portages and up lookout hills, and navigated 150 fateful yards by raft. From height of land to sea level, each of us dipped a quarter of a million paddle strokes. We embarked near the heart of the vast peninsula of Labrador-northern Quebec (Un gava).t End of our water trail was North West River, trappers' town on Lake Melville, tidal arm of the Atlantic (map, pages 68-9). A chief objective was North America's next to-greatest waterfall, the seldom seen Grand Falls of the Hamilton, a stupendous cataract 245 feet high (pages 73, 94, 96). Niagara, by its huge volume, alone surpasses it. We traveled the interior of the land where Europeans probably made their first landfall in the New World. Yet the tides of history have largely swept by this corner of North America. Explorers recoiled from Labrador's barren, arctic coast. The wooded inland, far more pleasing and habitable, still is rarely visited. In Labrador's wilderness the dense spruce forest marches north, like an immense army, to the edge of subarctic barrens. Myriad lakes break its ranks; also stretches of spongy muskeg and the scars of forest fires. Water laces the country everywhere-twisting rivers, lakes great and small, and grassy marsh. Moss takes the place of soil. Gray or yellowish caribou moss, really a lichen, covers drier ground with its fluffy mat. Crossing moss-quilted bog and boulder fields, every step is a gamble. Rails Soon Will Split the Wilderness The Hamilton, Labrador's mightiest river, gathers its flood from this bewildering tangle. Long the domain of snowshoe and canoe, its western sources soon will echo to locomotive whistles and the clatter of cars on rails. For the upper Hamilton basin encompasses part of vast, newly explored iron deposits that straddle the Quebec-Labrador border region. Track laying has begun on a 360 mile railroad to carry the ore from semibarren hills of Labrador and Ungava to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, whence ships will bear it to market (page 69).$ It was early summer, 1950, when we set out to see and picture Hamilton River wilds. At Montreal we picked up our two trapper guides, John and Leslie Michelin, distant cousins. They had come from North West River, Lab rador, by plane (pages 77, 81). Like other Labrador settlers, these men are of British stock, mixed generations ago with Indian and Eskimo blood. The Michelins blend also a French-Canadian strain; John's grandfather came from Quebec. The Labrador Mining and Exploration Company (LEC), major operator in the Que * See "Down the Susquehanna by Canoe," by Ralph Gray, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, July, 1950. t See "Quebec's Forests, Farms, and Frontiers," by Andrew H. Brown, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, October, 1949. t See "Sea to Lakes on the St. Lawrence," by George W. Long, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, Septem ber, 1950.