Leaf River Trip Report
August 16-25, 1998
by Tim Kunin
Click on the photos for larger images
Quebec's Leaf River (R. aux Feuilles) is an almost perfect canoe trip. A relatively short low arctic trip with amazing scenery, runnable drops, lots of animals, and the possibility of canoeing into a town with scheduled air service, all only 1000 miles north of Montreal. The only problem is getting there and dealing with the "world's largest" tides of Leaf Bay.
To simplify the logistics and save money, we used Pak*Canoes (built in Enfield, NH) which we brought along as luggage (Free!) on the First Air flight from Montreal to Kuujjuaq. We took Johnny May's float plane charter to our put in on the Charpentier River, which drains into Lac Minto. Our biggest problem with the trip was missing our flight from Montreal and being wind/cloud bound in Kuujjuaq for two additional days. This resulted in lengthening our charter flight (200 miles) and reducing the amount of time we had for side trips and on the Charpentier. Our original plan had been to fly to Lac Nedluac, but it would also be possible to fly directly to the Leaf or Lac Minto.
8/16-17 We put in at Lake 217, on a small island just below a sizable drop. We saw our first caribou on the far hill as we put our boats together, and saw another on our walk up to our lunch spot. The Charpentier was slower than expected with lots of scouting and numerous portages. Not all the rapids were marked and two marked rapids were really falls. We did see animals every day including 3 bears, 2 otters and 14 caribou. The scenery was wonderful with high barren hills and a series of small lakes.
8/18 We finally reached Minto and put on skirts for the large crossings and big waves of the big lake. We struggled with a headwind in the morning, but it had switched by the afternoon. Minto is exquisite with large barren hills and numerous caribou trails. We camped at the foot of one of these trails and were greeted by 12 caribou crossing north from our campsite just after breaking camp. We also saw the first northern lights and first black fly from this campsite just up lake from R. Irsuaq.
8/19 We reached the exit rapids in 4 miles. The first set is an easy class 2, but the second one is much larger (class 3 with 5 ft. waves and aligned v's). We portaged the tandem boat and all the gear and ran the solo boat. After a 3 hour shore lunch (w/wolf tracks on the beach), we picked up a tailwind and camped at 8:45 after alternately paddling and sailing. We saw over 30 caribou and had boil-in-a-bag Indian food for dinner. A great day.
8/20 Rain and Rapids. We only saw one caribou all day, but the rapids picked up after a stop at former Hydro Quebec camp. (This is a possible put in, it's only 160 miles to Kuujjuaq) The rapids are a mixture of R-1's and scout from the boat R-2's. There are many miles of continuous runnable boulder garden style rapids.
8/21 More rain. We ate an excellent breakfast and made a late start with worsening conditions in the afternoon. We finally ate lunch at 4:00 using emergency shelter to keep warm. We encountered big tail winds and 2-3 ft waves. Sailed again. Used emergency shelter to cook dinner because we were all very wet and cold. Bear signs at camp, although this was the only day we didn't see animals.
8/22 Broke camp at 10:30 in the rain again. Beautiful scenery, especially after "Mountain Bend". We saw hundreds of caribou on the ridge lines and on the meadows near the tops of the barren hills and also several groups of 2-6 swimming across the river in front of us. Bob switched into the solo boat. He is faster and better at using the kayak paddle which has become wonky and needs constant adjustment. Ran several big drops (2+). Drew and I hit a rock buried in a drop but the skirt held. Another group of 10 caribou on shore just before camp. 30 miles.
8/23 More rain, but it's beginning to clear. Saw several rainbows as well as 13 caribou (including one on small island in the middle of a long class 2 drop). The river is getting bigger and the rapids are getting more pushy with big standing waves. The only rapid that needed scouting was run on the extreme left (cheat route). Another day of great scenery, animals, and whitewater. Northern lights at camp. 25 miles.
8/24 Got up at 5:30 to check tide schedule. Out at 7:45 in order to make high tide at the exit rapids at 12:00. No luck. First head wind since Minto. The river has lots of sand bars now and we met people for the first time. Two Quebecois caribou hunters setting up a fly-in camp and a freighter canoe with 3 Inuit hunters from Tasiujaq. They said they would give us a ride into town at noon the next day so we stopped at the exit rapids and made camp (4 p.m.). This is a beautiful spot with seals, an owl, and a small black bear all seen from the campsite. The sand/boulder bar we are camped on is not a possible portage although it maybe possible to line the drop at low tide. At high tide this is not necessary, because the entire 40 vertical feet of the drop is under water!! We arrived at the highest tides in the month at the spot with the highest tides in the world. Amazing. The entire basin below the exit rapids fills up completely covering bus sized boulders that are dry at low tide.
8/25 Great weather with scattered clouds and no wind. We used the morning to dry clothes and wait for Inuit hunters to return. When the rapids disappeared at 11:30 we ferried all the gear and boats below the "drop" where we expected to get our ride. At 2:30 the rapids had started to reemerge so we began our 20 mile ocean paddle into town. This late start was a real error which forced us into our first real portage on the Leaf, a twenty foot lift over in the middle of the ocean around the first part of tidal rapids that appeared during tide change (3:00) in the exit fjord.
This was the most bizarre thing I've ever seen canoeing. We were paddling on a calm sea between incredible cliffs/small mountains when a line appeared 100 yds. ahead of us. This line turned into a huge rapids! We eddied out on sea right behind a 10 foot boulder that just appeared out of the water. Within 10 minutes there was a class 3-4 (maybe bigger in the middle) rapids all the way across the mile wide fjord. We portaged the first part of the drop on the former ocean floor (very slippery) and then ran the retreating water out through an enormous boulder field till we reached the new sea level 20 vertical feet below. Ten minutes earlier the drops might have been too big, and five minutes later it would have been dry and we would have been trapped for 6 hours. This tidal rapids was not mentioned on either of the trip reports we had, and probably could have been avoided entirely if we had left the exit rapids at high tide.
We had escaped and were back on Leaf Bay with an incredible adrenaline rush. We paddled across the front of Bale Rouge (now all rocks) to Pointe de la Riviere. The sea was beautiful with birds and an occasional seal. Unfortunately low tide forced us to go the long way around because all the islands were connected to the mainland. 4 1/2 hours of hard paddling without lunch finally brought us into Bale Profund with the tide working for us now. We saw another incredible rainbow and stopped for a 10 minute "lunch" at 7:30 on Isle de Rowe only 4 miles from town. Just before the Finger River mouth a beluga whale surfaced twice next to the boats. We reached the river mouth at 8:20 with the tide coming in and the sun setting. We could see the lights of the town but the river has a series of rapids that we had to line/pull up as it got dark. Finally, we stopped trying to follow the river and carried our packs into town across the sand bars, only to find that the river had come up so quickly that the boats could now float in 1-2 feet of water where we had just walked 10 minutes earlier. The rapids had vanished entirely. If we had waited 30 minutes we could have paddled into town instead of dragging up the river. To make it more bizarre, we arrived at the town dock at the same time as the Inuit hunters, who had killed 11 caribou and propped a head on their bow.
8/26 Tasiujaq (pop. 200) doesnít have a hotel, but it does have an indoor hockey rink and an airport with a tower, waiting area and baggage claim. We camped on the main street by the town dock and were quickly visited by several groups of people driving by. We called home and in the morning met Mario the city administrator and Anthony the Northern Store manager (and wilderness paddler from Ontario). Our flight out was at 2:30, but first Mario drove us 1 mile out of town towards a small circle of musk oxen that had been approached by several of the town's dogs. An amazing end to an amazing trip. Musk oxen in the a.m., Montreal in the p.m..
Pak*Canoes made the trip logistics easy, but a few more days, or a take-out by freighter canoe from Kuujjuaq or Tasiujaq would have allowed for side trips and fishing. A tide table is a necessity for travel on Leaf Bay. We had great weather on the bay, but this is not the norm. We were told that there are many days when the freighter canoes are grounded.
Copyright 2000, Tim Kunin. All rights reserved.