TEASER: I hate flying on any plane and now we’re about to let a single engine tiny little pile of metal fly us into the middle of nowhere and drop us off. Egad!
One of the quotes of the trip was “it might be a little bony
“You are going to end up spraying it the wrong way and seasoning yourself for a bear,” my brother Dan exclaimed optimistically when I told him we were taking bear spray on this trip. As it turns out, I managed to make it through without seasoning myself or anyone else, but it was quite comforting to know we had it with us several times throughout. This is the tale of our trip. Hope you enjoy it!
The people involved were Craig Wassinger, Jason Miller and me. I had only met Jason once before embarking on this journey. I was hoping we’d get along. He seemed easy going enough. I’d been paddling with Craig for a few years now and considered him one of my closest friends. We were invited to join a private group to paddle the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon last year. The journey down the Colorado and the fun had on it were what enticed us to search for another multi-day trip. When asked later how this trip compared to that 18 day adventure, we had to say that this trip made the Grand Canyon look like a spa vacation.
The river was the main character in this tale. Her name was Riviere Romaine and she had her origins in northeast Quebec up in Labrador. She was a big, mighty river who alternates taking her time and rushing impatiently to drain into the St. Lawrence Gulf. She had lots of sisters all along the northern St Lawrence– the Magpie, the Aguanish, the St Jean. She was remote, accessible by fly-in only, scenic, challenging and mostly runnable– she filled all of our qualifying traits for a river we wanted to attempt. But did we stand up to hers?
We had been in frequent contact with Bob Gedekoh, local kayaking legend and all-around good guy, regarding several aspects of this trip. He provided us with an article about his trip down the Romaine in the late 1980’s. An excerpt of his article reads “What are the qualifications? Solid Class 4 boating skills. The physical stamina to complete the journey. The fortitude to spend 10 days in the wilderness with less than 25 lbs of gear. And perhaps most important, an easygoing disposition- the ability to laugh in the face of adversity. Whiners and snivelers need not apply.” I don’t know about Craig and Jason, but just reading this made me want to crawl in my sleeping bag and take a nap!
Our conversations with Bob were quite helpful in deciding upon this particular river and in the planning and logistics. He had paddled the river with Mike Bush and Dean Fairburn in the late 1980’s. I had the pleasure of meeting Mike at this year's Gauley Fest. We discussed the intensity of trips like these and he laughingly stated “I don’t do trips like that anymore.” Barry and Kitty Tuscano were also invaluable in our planning and preparations. They had kayaked the Romaine in the early 1990’s. I kept bugging Kitty, calling her to make sure I could handle the whitewater. She and Barry kept stressing that we would all be fine with the whitewater, but that we really needed to function well as a team and be conservative due to the wilderness and remoteness of a trip like this.
So the decision was made. Food, gear and special equipment were purchased, borrowed, or rented. We ended up borrowing two Prijon boats from the Tuscano’s- a T-Canyon and a Boxer. Reservations for the float plane were made after some confusion about water levels. The air charter service actually told Craig that they would not fly us in to the Romaine because it was too low to land on. We made the plans anyway and our departure flight was scheduled for August 14th.
The drive itself was quite an adventure. I left from West Virginia, met Craig in Pittsburgh and we proceeded to his parents’ house in Buffalo. Already five hours of drive time for me. Jason came over from Akron the next morning to meet us and we were on our way. The next 22 hours of driving include many moose crossing signs, a 2:00 a.m. surprise ferry ride in Tadoussac, some bumbling attempts to communicate with French speaking gas station attendants, and efforts to find ketchup packets to take in the boats due to Jason’s condiment addiction. We drove through towns whose names we couldn’t pronounce, such as Baie-Comeau and Port-aux-Quilles, and finally arrive in Havre St. Pierre. A small quaint fishing village on the shore of the St. Lawrence, Havre St. Pierre was not quite a bustling metropolis, but it was the location of the charter float plane service that was to fly us in.
So there we were. The air service had flown a hunting group somewhere on the plane that we were to have reserved. They informed us that we could still fly in today, but we were split up into two even smaller planes. One plane had two of us inside and one kayak strapped outside to the landing float. The other plane had one of us and the other two kayaks inside that plane. Everything was divided up, loaded, strapped down and we were ready to go. Jason and I got into one plane and Craig boarded the other. Our pilot, Stephan, spoke very good English, but looked barely old enough to drive a car, let alone fly this small plane. I was having serious second thoughts about this. I am not a good flyer. I hate flying on any plane and now we’re about to let a single engine tiny little pile of metal fly us into the middle of nowhere and drop us off. Egad!
Once in the air, I actually calmed down quite a bit. I looked around as much as I could and saw absolutely nothing but mountains and rivers and lakes. There was evidence of forest fires in large swaths of burnt trees and brush. Talking was at a minimum due to the noise of the engine and nerves. Jason was quite reassuring, squeezing my shoulder during turbulence and pointing out features on the ground. Stephan, the pilot, also attempted to elicit calming conversation, but I was focused on maintaining meditative breathing and not losing the contents of my stomach.
About an hour into the flight, we spotted the Romaine. We began to circle her as we descended. To ensure a safe landing, the pilot had to assess our landing location options. He had to be totally certain that there was nothing under the surface of the water for the nose of the plane to catch or collide with. This whole process consisted of circling and circling and more circling as we flew lower and lower. This whole circling thing was, of course, done with one wing dipped down pointing at the ground. I was so thankful that I had taken Dramamine for motion sickness before we left the ground. I’m sure Jason and Stephan were glad of this as well. The eventual landing was quite smooth, much smoother than most ground landings I’ve experienced. We taxied to shore and soon spotted Craig’s plane circling.
It was time for that “last chance” moment. We had a satellite phone and a personal locator beacon, but this was our abandonment moment. The pilots started the engines and began to taxi away. My heart was racing and the moment seemed surreal. We were questioning ourselves. Did we forget anything? Can we do this? Who the heck are these other people I’m with and what are we doing here? Did anyone bring toilet paper? The planes took off and grew smaller and smaller until they disappeared over a range of mountains. I decided that my first course of action was to toss myself on the ground and make a sand angel on the sandbar where we started. That done, we were on our way.
The remainder of this may be kind of chronologically random. I am a horrible journal-keeper. I really want to be good at it, but I’m just not, especially when fatigue sets in, then rain ... then both. So I hope you still enjoy this compilation of memories, although scattered.
One of the quotes of the trip was “it might be a little bony.” Our first 7-8 miles of paddling was totally flat and kept us observant of where the current was going. We had to keep an eye on where we were going to avoid getting beached on sandbars. We saw our first of many sets of moose tracks coming toward and entering the water. We decided upon a huge, sandy island to camp on for the first night. We filtered river water for drinking, gathered wood, made dinner and attempted to sleep while anticipating our first full day on the Romaine and her rapids that await us.
We awakened to a spectacular morning. Throughout the trip, our average daytime temperatures ranged from low 60’s to upper 70’s, depending on sun and/or rain. Our night time temperatures hit upper 30’s and 40’s. Our first day was probably our warmest of the entire trip. Each morning, we would get a fire started and cook breakfast ... always oatmeal, but with one attempt at pancakes. We had decided to cook over campfires each morning and night so as not take up space in the boats with stoves and fuel. By the rainy end of the trip, the campfire thing got to be discouraging. Our time required for preparation and reloading the kayaks each morning was about 1 and ½ hours. Each day, we wondered how the heck we got everything packed the day before and where it went.
That first morning, our first rapids began to appear on the horizon. Things began easily and slowly and we were happy to have any kind of whitewater. We could really tell that the river was lower than usual in the flat water sections, but the rapids all appeared to have plenty of water in them. After some simple Class 2’s and 3’s, we encountered our first Class 4! Upon scouting, we found that it was pretty straightforward, but that it contained some huge holes. It looked fabulously fun, but with a kayak weighted down with all of our life essential gear, I opted for a sneak line down the left. The guys ran the main line cleanly, but later said that it was pushier than it looked.
A few rapids later, we found ourselves at our first “chute.” The map had the distance of this particular chute listed at 800 meters. We arrived at the conclusion that the French had labeled all the waterfalls or otherwise unrunnable stretches of whitewater as “chutes.” Our introductory chute on the Romaine was phenomenal ... absolutely breathtaking. ... but very, very unrunnable. We began our first portage. Up and over huge boulders, we attempted to stick to a straight line, staying beside the river. We eddy-hopped a couple of micro-eddies here and there along the left bank just to get right back out and drag, push, carry, and slide our boats through and over the boulders. The right side portage looked like it would have been worse, though. Sheer cliffs and straight up and down mountainsides on that side would have not been a place to be portaging. Sweating and beginning to fatigue, we finally saw an end to this long series of drops. We finished our first portage in 4 hours and some minutes.
That night, we reviewed our map. We counted almost 20 chutes and rapids rated at least Class 5; some are Class 6. We were not sure what the difference was going to be between a chute and a Class 6. Either way, we were looking at several days of long portages. At the rate we were going, we worried about completing the 144 miles back to the St Lawrence in the planned 8 days. Nevertheless, we had no alternative other than to keep moving, by land or by water.
The next morning I awakened to find that I couldn’t see very well out of my right eye. The soft area under my eye was swollen due to a mosquito bite. I also had one on my forehead that felt like an itchy goose egg. My neck and ears…. Well, let’s just say I’m sweet. The bugs didn’t seem to have even noticed Craig’s presence in the area, but Jason had gotten a couple of bites. I was wearing my bug head netting almost 100% of the time when we were off the water, but the bugs seemed to find their way under it. We could see black clouds of the nasty little critters and they were relentless in their search for bare (not bear) skin.
At the beginning of the trip, to allay my fears, Craig had said to me, “We’ll be fine. It’s just paddling and camping.” He forgot to mention the whole portaging thing. The portages turned out to be the most challenging aspect. Some were only 30-40 minutes while others lasted grueling hours. We learned that the fastest way wasn’t always the straightest way. We began to look for and find trails through the woods left by previous trips, even though the most recent trip reported on the Romaine was at least 5 years ago. The vegetation still showed signs of travel. The trickiest part was finding the “trails” and then scouting them back to the river so we didn’t find ourselves backtracking with loaded boats if a trail ended or we couldn’t get back to the river that way. The vegetation on even the easiest trails was dense and the going was slow. Fallen trees, moss, roots, vines and wild blueberries! I needed quite a bit of help with my boat, especially on steep areas. Jason and Craig were extremely patient and helpful, sometimes telling me to take care of the paddles while they would take care of the boats. As concerned as I was with equality and pulling my own weight out there figuratively, there was no way I could have done a lot of the portages alone.
At the end of one especially long portage, we came back down to the river and could find no easy access. There was a sheer rock all around with a small pool at its base and a small rock island about 15 feet out. We decided that I would get to that island, then we would navigate the boats down and to the rock with ropes and webbing. The guys lowered me down with webbing as far as they could, but I was still dangling about 5-6 feet above the water. I let go and quickly discover that I couldn’t see a thing because I still had my bug net over my head. I flailed around, hopefully flailing in the direction of the rock island. I found it with my shins and a spider crawled up due to its slippery wet surface. At this point, I was to toss a throw bag back over to the guys to anchor on to a boat. Perhaps this may have been the time to admit my lack of practice with a throw bag. I think they are still quite dumbfounded by the attempt that actually went behind me. We eventually re-grouped and got back on the water.
Another grueling portage ended steeply, but with an easy access back on the river. At first glimpse, it seemed benign enough to put in here, make a ferry move across the current and out around about a 40 foot rock wall to be out in the main current and headed back down the river. Upon closer inspection, the ferry move was looking more and more dynamic. The current we were looking to ferry was approximately half of the entire river and swirling around before pillowing up on the 40 foot wall. Craig had gotten in his boat and was playing around in the eddy. Watching him try to control his boat in the fast, turbulent current had me looking at Jason and saying, “I don’t know about this.” It didn’t look that bad if it weren’t for the heavy boats being slow to respond and hard to manipulate. And it didn’t look that bad if it wasn’t for the wall we had to make it around. And it didn’t look so bad if it wasn’t for the size and swirliness of the water. That was too many risks for me on this specific river. I’m sure none of us would have thought twice about that specific ferry move anyplace else, but we needed to be conservative as a team. So up and over another few boulders and we were on our way.
The Romaine began as a beautiful and mighty river. She increased in splendor and size everyday. Some areas had sheer rock walls; others were mountains as far as the eye could see. There were fields of blueberries and wild flowers. The rapids were spectacular, something new and challenging everyday. Big water waves and hydraulics everywhere, some creek lines down sneaks in channels that were possible due to the low water. The features were always much bigger than they looked from scouting above a rapid. We paddled almost 80 rapids in 8 days, ranging from long, fun, bouncy wavetrains to swift, narrow chutes to tumultuous rock gardens full of holes and pourovers. We all agreed that one hole that we saw at the bottom of one of the chutes was, by far, the biggest hydraulic any of us had ever seen.
On day 5 or 6, we came to a long series of drops. We portaged a couple of drops, actually ran a couple, and then arrived at a drop that was punctuated by 3 fairly large islands spaced across the river. This was a good indicator of how wide the river had become in places – to have 3 major islands with 5 channels of water to choose from. We scouted from the farthest left island. The most left channel was straightforward, Class 2-3, easy boogey water, but it fed into the bottom of the channel going to the right of the island. At the bottom of this was the THING! It was a 30-40 foot wide monstrosity that had to have been alive. One second it was a smooth glassy wave, but seconds later it had morphed into a huge sinister looking hole. Then unpredictably, it would have a split personality -- a hole on one side and a wave on the other. Then, the features would change sides. A minute or two later, you were looking at a smooth glassy wave again. But there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to its stages or personality changes. We were unable to discern a pattern and there was no way I was paddling anywhere near this creature. Craig decided he saw his line and that he wouldn’t come anywhere near the THING. Jason and I watched and videotaped his attempt. He started out, had no problems with the left channel and appeared to be heading for a line that would take him right past the creature. But wait! The current was too strong. It had hold of him and despite his efforts, brought him right around the bottom of the island and right into the channel containing the THING. Even Craig had a concerned look on his face at this time, and that is a pretty rare sight. He fought with the current for 15, maybe 20 seconds, then committed to a line that ran him right through the smooth glassy wave phase of the THING where seconds later, a hole took its place. At this point, Jason and I retrieved our boats and aimed them for the center island to select a nice sweet THING-less channel to navigate.
One of the highlights of the trip was “La Grande Chute de Le Romaine.” In less than a quarter of a mile, the river lost more than 200 feet. It was unquestionably one of the most impressive displays of whitewater beauty I’ve ever seen. Seeing La Grande Chute alone would have been worth this entire trip. Its presence was apparent far upstream by the mist and that roar of a big one that gets your heart racing without even seeing it yet. The portage around the right side of this drop took less than an hour despite its size. We stayed for a while, took an abundance of pictures and commented on how lucky we were to have gotten to see something this beautiful that so few others have ever and will ever see.
Another highlight of the trip was the bear cub we watched swim across the river in front of our kayaks ... and the loons diving everywhere for dinner and staying underwater for minutes at a time ... and the waterfalls coming straight down the faces of the mountains ... and the tortellini with pesto on night 3 ... and the wildflowers … and the moonrise so bright it cast shadows …and the look on the guys faces when I rolled my heavy kayak up after flipping where I really shouldn’t have been upside down … and the chocolate pudding with dehydrated milk. (Thanks, Craig -- it made up for the split pea soup!) I could go on and on.
The final 20 or so miles were flat water. Or they were supposed to be. They would have been if it weren’t for the gale force wind racing up the canyon. The wind was whipping up 2-3 foot waves which would have been nice if they were headed downriver. If we stopped paddling, we would lose ground. Or should I say water? We were all having skin breakdown issues on our hands at this point and conversation was minimal. We stayed in a drafting formation for most of the paddle out, keeping our heads down and our arms moving. At this point, none of us wanted to spend another night with our wet clothes and no dry firewood. We pushed on and reached the bridge of Route 138 along the St Lawrence sometime in the mid-afternoon.
Our river journey was complete and we climbed up the hill to the road and back into civilization. Our next challenge was to hitchhike back to the airport to retrieve my 4Runner. Easier said than done with 3 grungy looking, smelly, English-speakers in the middle of nowhere. Someone kindhearted (and possible olfactorily and visually handicapped) eventually agreed to take Craig. He returned with the vehicle and we loaded up and drove about 2 hours into Sept Iles for showers, a meal and soft, comfortable beds in a hotel.
“Would you do it again?,” I’ve been asked. My answer now is “absolutely!” My answer upon being asked or in the middle of the trip may have been different. Before beginning this trip, Barry Tuscano had said something to me that I’m sure he doesn’t think is as profound as I interpreted it to be – something along the lines of rather dying than not living. This journey was just that – not just day to day living, but really living. I am so glad I had this opportunity to traverse this spectacular stretch of land and water with such fantastic friends. So, yes, I would definitely do it again!
TEASER: We were unable to discern a pattern and there was no way I was paddling anywhere near this creature.