Tuesday, September 8, 2020

West Magpie ouest

Bottom line: Call the wife at work and let her know you’ll see her in a few weeks, drop the kids at the arcade and the dog at the park, get together a couple friends that you wouldn’t mind spending a couple weeks alone in the bush with, grab your boat and expedition gear, book a train or plane ticket and drop a downcar (3 hour round trip from the train station) to head out on this very scenic and fun 6-14 day trip that is as much expeditioning as it is whitewater. You don’t need to win a lottery or pack your excrement with you for this extravaganza. Camping on beautiful beaches is plentiful and it’s doubtful you’ll see another group on this run (at the time of this writing). 

Getting things ready at the roadside pullout in Sept-îles the day prior.
Before mid-July I hadn’t ever even heard of the West Magpie, I was aware of the existence of the classic Magpie multiday (which forms the final portion of the West trip), but it wasn’t something that ever really registered on my radar as I’d rather spend the time and/or money going somewhere like Cali or BC for example. Suddenly, in the space of about a week I got two invites as well as a passive invite to Colorado for Black Canyon of the Gunisson season! Seeing as the border is currently closed the solution was simple… 

Getting dropped off the train in the middle of nowhere, with no infrastructure anywhere close, just short of the Labrador border.
Draining the Northern Taïga Canadian Shield region of Northern Québec and Central Labrador are some big rivers such as the better known Moisie ultra-classic canoe route, the West Magpie is one of these rivers. You have two options for access, pay 50$ for a train ticket, plus 150$ for your kayak to get up to the Éric station, which is at a bridge over the West Magpie just short of Labrador, and take 8-14 days to paddle your way down. Option two is to get a floatplane ticket with 3 people for about 700$ each and fly into lac Vital to cut 100 km of moving-ish flatwater river and the equivalent amount of time, out of the equation. The big factor will probably be your time available vs. money for many people. I should mention for people who've only done the fly-in that the flatwater above this point is much better than the flatwater on lac Magpie, more on that below..

Map of the stations along the Sept-îles - Schefferville rail line. Photo Art Keeling.
We did the trip in 9 nights and 10 days including the train ride, about 6-7 hours North from Sept-îles. This was averaging 27-28 km a day on the river, and we were lucky enough to have beautiful sunny weather on all but 1.5 days, one rainy morning and the last day, which caused us to cut a day and book it to the car at the end. We started most days about 10 am and finished most days around 5 pm, though at times as early as 4 pm and as late as 630 pm, this gave us plenty of time to set up camp, eat and have a fire before dark, as well as take it easy in the morning, waking up around 730 am and having plenty of time to chill, we did have an efficient crew that made everything a lot easier (when we stopped some would set up tents while others would collect firewood for example). It is quite important to have a decent crew of people who don’t mind the time expeditioning and get along well together like we did.

First strokes into flatwater, the stoke it high.

...3-4 days and 100 km later the first rapid of note, a typical style West Magpie rapid, if not one of the easier ones.
The total length of the trip is about 280 km South from the train drop, and about 200 km of it is flat, 100 km on the river on the way to the canyon (with some small rapids and a million high-tension power transmission towers and cables), 40 km on lac Magpie, and 60 km of flatwater and lakes between rapids, which is much less noticeable. The rapids on the West are great, mostly pool drop with available sneaks at the levels we had. There is one more continuous section of about 2.6 km that all goes as well, but is more continuous and difficult than most of the rest, of course it could all be portaged readily as described in the canoe guide to this river, which is excellent (https://www.canot-kayak.qc.ca/modules/parcours/releve_Magpie.pdf). The whitewater ranges from class I-V, is big water (bigger after the lake), and you should have a capable creeking crew if you intend to get through the harder and more continuous parts of the West Magpie canyon. 

One night of great caribou moss camping. The other non-beach night was spent on a large rocky area with nice arranged sites in the trees on the Magpie proper.

7 out of our 10 nights were spent camped on beaches like this, with plentiful driftwood for fires. One night we chose not to stay at a chalet we passed by as the weather was nice and we wanted to gain some more km on the lake, this likely paid off on the last day, our only real rainy one.
Levels seemed great, if a bit high for a first time without someone who knew the river. When we started it was about 180-190 cms and gradually seemed to taper down to around 130 cms by the time we got off. I’ve heard 160 is ideal, 250 is max and 280 is too much, so we really can't complain.

A typical West Magpie rapid for the pool-drop portions, with a typical beach campsite beside.
The blast of fun you’ll have exploring the West Magpie once the rapids begin will be over all too soon (took us about 3-4 days to get through it all, and it’ll end with a rarely run literal canyon section that is very West-coast reminiscent), then you’ll have the lake, which is the most mentally taxing part as unlike the flat sections of river which break down into short distances between points, the lake is one endless horizon line of flatness. If you’re lucky enough you’ll have the wind at your back and a tarp that can be used to sail across a good portion of it (about as fast or faster than you’d paddle anyway, but you save the energy). There are sections where camping does get further and farther between, so make sure you don’t skip a good camp spot too late in the day, and refer to the guidebook to a decent extent, or you may end up paddling a km in the wrong direction for that camp spot you passed once you realize there won't be another for 10 km! 

The view upon emerging onto Lake Magpie.
Following the lake is the classic Magpie, bigger water meets you here and tons more fun rapids, along with decent camping, and before you know it, after 2-3 days of that you’ll be at the Magpie Falls portage to where you take off and drag your boats up to the down-car. 

A fun rapid on the Magpie proper.
I highly recommend this trip, the flatwater is what it is, but you’ll get in shape the whole time, enjoy some beautiful scenery and have a ton of fun running a lot of quality whitewater. Getting dropped off by a train on the edge of the tracks in the middle of nowhere, where there are no people nor services for hundreds of km in any direction is it’s own experience as well. You’ll discover your propensity to live in the tent or bivy for a time, get along with your mates, and enjoy the outdoors. The whitewater pretty much all goes, only the FFH (Far From Home) factor and loaded boat feeling might hold you back from some things. Unlike the Grand Canyon, or some other similarly popular expedition, you’ll be one of very few people who have explored this area. 

The start of the canyon that marks the end of the West Magpie.

A bigger rapid on the Magpie proper.
Bugs. There are many bugs, you aren't on the West Coast anymore fellas, don’t forget a torso mosquito net or something to deal with these guys, fires won’t be enough, and keep it in your ready bag so you can put it on as soon as you land at a camp spot. Also don’t forget some kind of sunblock, if you have sun like we did it’s a lot reflecting off the water all day long. We also saw a decent amount of wildlife including a couple bears, a moose, some river otters and a good amount of waterfowl.

Jasmin boofing a ledge on the Magpie proper.
It turned out that this seemed to be the year, maybe due to Covid-19 or any other reason, that everybody and their dog from Québec and Ontario who were capable ended up on this section of river! We went in late August, the season seems to be from July-September. The earlier you go the warmer it likely will be, but maybe higher levels and more bugs, the later you go the colder it will get, lower water levels more likely and less bugs, so it's all trade-offs with August being the likely happy medium.

Kevin boofing on the Magpie proper.
It should be said that in the last 5-10 years the North Coast (Côte-nord) of Québec (essentially everything East of Québec City to the Altlantic ocean) has been getting expansively explored from a kayaking perspective thanks to locals, Québecers, outsiders and especially groups like the Québec Connection (who've even gone so far as to popularize the area in their TV series 'Expédition Kayak' on TV5Unis, which I still have my fingers crossed for an English subtitled version for my anglo friends), who have been opening up and advertising the beauty and quality of navigable rivers in the area. There are still many left to explore and open up, and with more and more paddlers of all types (families, rafting companies, kayakers) coming to the area, hopefully it will give an enhanced voice to recreation and navigation when it comes to mitigation of the detrimental effects of hydropower projects in the area against these concerns. For many years these went ahead unabated simply because not many paddlers were there to provide a paddling voice, but with population growth, people striving for access and discovery of new terrain and rivers from a recreational perspective this entire area is opening up to be a prime whitewater destination for people the world around.

Apologies for the photo quality, I didn't bring my DSLR with me to save space, so was relying on my cellphone. Here's a bit of a picdump to finish things off.

Heading North on the old passenger train with a million little stops in the middle of nowhere felt like going back in time. The stops are mostly for indigenous sites, villages and hunt camps, further North are stops supporting mines and other industry as well. This is leaving the Sept-îles railyard, much of the line parallels the Moisie River.

Entrance Falls on the West Magpie.

Another early West Magpie rapid.

Labrador tea everywhere!

Another great West Magpie rapid. Many of the rapids have meat lines and sneak lines.

Étienne on a mission to have us a fire!

First camping after emerging onto the lake was actually a decrepit old float-plane stop with lots of garbage around.

Hard to see from this far away, but this is our sail we had setup. The boys set one up day 1 of the lake after I'd got ahead by a margin without enough wind, day 2 we rode it all day long.

The first section of the portage rapid on the Magpie proper from quite far away, this is a big rapid.

Second portion of the portage, this basically marks the end of the trip, portaging is ok, but you have to wade through some crappy swamp to get to the easy part.

End of the line, pro-tip, pre-load your downcar with some beer and snacks!