Newfoundland: Reflections on this big island’s root beer colored water
Getting to Newfoundland
To say that hind site is 20/20 in the search for extreme kayaking first descents is a gross understatement. For all the local beta, historical weather data, topo maps, geologic maps, and finger crossing you can only get a better idea of what you hope you will find. Even if you find a river with the “goods,” there are countless variables that effect the river conditions and levels. Add to this the fact that you are relying on the rainiest month of the year to bring the rivers up to runnable levels, and you have a veritable crap shoot on your hands. Despite the daunting odds 8 members of Team Jackson kayak pulled off 6 different first descents in a mostly sunny and dry Newfoundland October.
Upon arriving 11 days before the rest of the crew, Darin McQuoid and Chris Korbulic found a rusty but low mileage Plymouth Acclaim for a shuttle vehicle, and made a quick push towards the West Coast. From the West Coast of Newfoundland, St. John’s lies 400 miles to a far South East peninsular offshoot of the Island, giving you of an idea of the Islands shear size. It also led Joel Kolowski and Nick Troutman to schedule their port of entry for Deer Lake. As the West Coast transportation hub of Newfoundland the Deer Lake airport is a modern facility that caters to big game hunters, salmon anglers, echo tourists, and the local population. Fueling the areas transportation needs further is the Newfoundland economy that has shed much of the blue collar work force, and has since seen those same workers commuting to the coal mines and oil fields of Northern Alberta.
Photo: Chris Korbulic
By the time Jesse Coombs, Eric Jackson, Dane Jackson, Nick Troutman, Joel Kowolski, and I arrived it had become clear that the rain was going to be hit and miss. After a brilliant rainstorm upon their arrival, Chris and Darin had only managed one day of kayaking in 9 possible. Thus we spent our first days in a fevered search for the largest drainages with the highest gradient. The thought being that there should be some class V water for which you actually want really low water. The Humber fell squarely in that category although it took two attempts over two days to actually find it. If you see a “big falls” marked on the map on the Humber River that is not right falls. It seems that what is considered big for a Salmon, and big for a kayaker are two different things. With a little help from the Newfoundland kayak club representative Chris Buchanon, we finally located this drop that is unrunnable for Salmon, and spent the day working out the delayed boof that made easy work of the massive recirculation at the Base. Interestingly enough it was Dane Jackson who was the first to make it look pretty.
For the next few days we were stymied by an even more insidious factor than low water. No water was the case in many of the rivers that we hunted down over those frustrating days. Apparently the Dam and Deversion Builders had access to the same maps as us and are interested in the same types of rivers that would have been good these low water conditions. Unfortunately they had been at it for 15 years longer than us and had pretty much found all the rivers that were steep, high volume, and roadside. This is the same unfortunate “Green Power” saga that is playing out across the planet. The powers that be have convinced us that not only do we need more energy, but now that energy has to be green. Hydro is the quickest and most ancient form of power on the planet, but as with any technology all uses intended and unintended will be revealed. Thus there are micro-hydros that target low risk low use streams, and there are the macro-ones like three rivers in China that displace millions of people changing the echo system of a massive chunk of central Asia.
Desperate to find water, we head for the Northern Peninsula where there has been some recent rain.
3 hours north of Deer Lake we start to see the evidence of the recent showers. Massive waterfalls are pouring out of glacial valleys that were still dry in the South. We cross over what I had expected to be a small brook, and it is pumping. A quick glimpse at the map is a solid reminder of why we need rain. This small costal brook is the same size of brooks around Deer Lake that were almost dry. This one, the Doctors brook, carried nearly 700 cfs!
We forget all about the previous days low water woes and make a fevered hike to get as far up the drainage as light would permit. A true Newfoundland bushwhacking nightmare ensues as we drag our boats and our bodies through the densest miniature forest I have ever seen. The Tuckamore Bush (or Tuck Bush) as the locals call it creates the single worst environment for the off the beaten trail hiking experience. Spiny spruce branches that rake at your face and a visibility less than 2 feet are just some of the highlights.
Finally 2.5k up the creek we can’t take any more and put in. The river is a joy of high volume ledges, slides, and rapids. All eight of us are in the mix with Eric Jackson, Dane Jackson, and myself taking turns at the boat scout probe position. Eventually Jesse Coombs starts pushing the pace as only Jesse can do leading us through some big rapids and to the lip of the big drop. The final drop on the run is a quarter mile cascade that has us all grinning from ear to ear. The icing on the Cake was the cruisy class 3 dump out right into the Bay of St. Laurence.
Castors Falls (Newfies Niagara)
The Weather stays showery and we start planning for the following day. For the first time on the trip we are in a place where the creeks are flowing. In Newfoundland there must be thousands of runnable waterways and the map shows dozens of options in our vicinity. We make a quick probe into the Castors river valley on a logging road to make a chance encounter with some local moose hunters. Throughout the trip the local Newfoundlanders (Newfy pisses them off) have been extremely helpful, and these colorful gentlemen were no exception. Luckily they had extensive knowledge of the area and told us about a waterfall as big as Niagara. One thing you learn about lay people to running big waterfalls is that they will predictably overestimate the height of a falls. Thus we were optimistic for something in the runnable range.
With EJ at the helm of our rental Explorer, we travel at light speed over the muddy hole filled logging road. At 2 Gs we round a hairpin corner with simultaneous hoots and holars. We are witness to every kayakers wet dream as we come around the corner: a massive cascading falls spills from the mountain.
More adventure in the nasty Tuck Bush brings the whole crew up into the middle of the falls. The first two teirs are massive and potentially lethal but the two sliding waterfalls downstream would more than suffice. The first of the two is a crazy sliding rapid that shoots off a 20 foot falls which is run cleanly by all. The next falls is taller and requires a precise line to stay out of a nasty ledge hole on the right and avoid getting pushed onto exposed rocks on the left. After clean if not interesting runs by EJ and I Dane enters a bit to the right losing speed over an exposed flake and auguring into the meaty hole on the right side. 35 seconds of downtime is enough to produce a new found perspective in any paddler and Dane was no exception; although, he showed a maturity beyond his years in the aftermath.
After three more clean lines from Chris Korbulic, Jesse Coombs, and Joel Kolowski; Nick Troutman found himself a few precious feet to the left of good, and went barrel rolling towards the rocks on the left. A lot of time in the air on big waves like Mini-Bus probably helped nick to avert disaster by a helix to stern piton maneuver the likes of which I have never seen before. Also working in Nicks favor was the Jackson Kayak Rocker with it’s intergrated shock absorbing outfitting. Still he hit hard enough to send him swimming semi conscious into the pool below.
Finding the Cloud River
Another one of Chris Buchanon’s recommendations beside the Humber had been to make arrangements to float plain into the Cloud River Gorge. The Cloud is one of the largest, undammed, and roadless waterways left on the Island. According to Chris the river had been attempted in the mid-90’s by C-1 virtuoso Andy Bridge and IR founder John Weld, but that they had portaged the Gorge. Their reports were promising: “many falls from 10 – 30 feet with one big 80 footer at the top.”
The float plane arrangements would prove to be the real crux of the Cloud River Expeditions. Operators were booked solid with Big Game hunters, and the intermittent “bad weather” in the area had put many of them behind schedule. I received my first bid for $5400 dollars from an operator located on the central part of the Island. Our budget would only allow for $200 dollars a person so I continued to pester the local operators to give us a window. The day after our Castors River epic a local pilot ringed to say he was free for the following day. Our luck had gone from 0 to hero in a few short days as we embarked on one of the greatest expeditions left on the Island.
Cloud River Shuttle
This is real Newfoundland adventure: Find the closest place to where your river dumps into the ocean this is take-out. Find the closest pond to that take out and arrange for the flight plain to meet you there, this is put-in. A float plain is a truly elegant form of transportation. Take offs and landings are buttery smooth and the progress through the sky is slow and scenic. Our flight into the Head Waters of the cloud takes a half our to go 50 miles. Roads and clear cuts end 10 minutes into the flight as we take the birds eye view of countless virgin hectares of highland. We dropped out of the sky at a sizeable chain of lakes and spend the rest of the day floating to the top of the canyon. The end of that first day is marked by deep blue cloudless skies, and a freezing cold wind.
The team rallied to find a sheltered camp spot with massive quantities of firewood. As it turns out, we would need every bit of that wood to sustain us into the night with temperatures dipping well below freezing. Just before bed snow flurries confirmed the frigid temps. The morning brought frozen stiff dry suits, with another cloudless sky… this time minus the frigid wind.
Cloud River: Day 2
Right out of camp the river is amazing. It is a smooth, granite half-pipe with big slides at the bottom. After a clean 15 footer in a juicy hole that was better than espresso at 9:00 am, a massive slide greets us as the first significant drop of the trip. EJ is the first one in the water launching a massive boof off the 15-foot entry ledge. He gets eaten up, spit out, rolls up and is cruising at mach speed into the gaping hole at the bottom. 4 more attempts are made on the drop with verying degrees of success. Joel gets the only clean run with an amazing sub surface stern ride through the guts of the hole.
After cruising for 30 more minutes through the open half-pipe style valley, bedrock walls encroach and the river falls away over an intimidating horizon line. The falls is maybe 60 feet tall segmented between a roiling 20 – 25 foot entry to a 40 foot freefall. From our river right vantage the falls is all sloping under our feet and into the wall… not a good sign! Downstream is another massive horizon line that appears to be completely locked in between vertical canyon walls.
Photo: Chris Korbulic
Over the next two hours our group splits into two parties to survey the full extent of the canyon from both sides of the river. The good news is that the canyon rim is a mere 500 feet over headed and is a treeless rocky tundra. The bad news is that to access the rim we are forced to tear through a near vertical tuck forest that tries the body and the patience with every step. The view from the top is stunning. After the big entry falls, the gorge is chalk full of high volume slides and falls, but it appears that most of them can be scouted at river level. The first two still appear to be the mandatory entry fee to claim the first descent of this elusive gorge.
The view downstream through the picture perfect day reveals our would be take out across Canada Bay in the bustling port town of Roddicton. It is already early afternoon and the idea of a another subfreezing night, this time without sufficient food, is enough to put the whole team into action. Dane and EJ have decided against the gorge and are already up on top of the canyon making the portage. Darin and Nick opt against the first two drops and make a substantial portage in order to circumnavigate the most committed portion of the canyon.
Mean while Chris, Joel, Jesse and I are talking lines and as usual Jesse is the first in his boat. In this first falls the entrance is everything. Getting a good bit of momentum to stay away from the more than questionable right wall is the goal. Jesse is one of the most visual paddlers I have ever seen. By that I mean you can see him visualizing the line in his head before any significant drop and he will not go until the visual is clean. With a few of the supper cool, almost casual, paddle strokes Jesse kicked off one of the most amazing descents of my career. 2.5 hours later Dane and EJ greet us with a warm fire and big smiles at the end of the gorge. Photos: Ben Stookesberry
The remaining 3-hour, 15km paddle out through the inlet and into Canada Bay proved to be the real bugger of the trip as we battled an incoming tide that at times was literally like trying to paddle class 2 the wrong direction.
Journey to Labrador
After the cloud river we could not buy a drop of rain. The rainiest month on average was turning out to be the driest month of 2007. A few days later we said goodbye to Joel, EJ, and Dane. Jesse, Nick, Darin, Chris, and I all had another week so we wanted to take advantage of the time. We had heard from the locals that if all else is dry on the Island Labrador should still have water.
A good local heckling about our whitewater ambitions is par for the course, but this guys claims included 60 mile an hour sub-freezing winds. Snow flurries at night, and very rocky streams. This fellow ferry passenger was telling us in so many words that this extreme Northeastern portion of North America in mid October was no place for water sports. We played along and tried to get some real beta out of him, but it was all gloom, doom, and frozen ponds from this guy.
Photo: Chris Korbulic
Labrador is one of the most remote places on earth featuring a single road that runs at or near the coast for a couple hundred miles. Thus other than roadside park and huck, access is limited to float plane, helicopter, or snowmobile (when there is snow). This close to the end of our trip the float plain money has all but dried up, and we are thankful that the snow is not flying quite yet. However the 60 mile an hour icy blasts are no joke as our tents shake it’s would be snoozers like dice in a game of Yatzzi.
After seeing the first river on our itinerary low as can be, our hopes sank like our feet into the spongy tundra. We spent the rest of the day surveying the lonely costal road until we found a snowmobile ski road skewered through our tire. The local snowmobile/ atomotive shop was bustling with the new snowmobiles that had arrived just that day. A single degree celcius separated the buffeting drizzle, from a buffeting snowstorm that would put these brand new machines into action. Our Labrador trip had reached its anticlimactic end.
Back on the Island: Torrent Falls
Our first day back on the Island and we stumble across a high volume cascading 40 footer. This was first run by Brandon Knapp and Johny Kern back in the 2002 for Lindgren’s Aerated. Darin leads the charge of a the chunky cascade with a brilliant line. Nick and Chris follow suit with similarly bouncing but upright efforts. Meanwhile Jesse and I eyed a new line down the far left that offered a 30 – 40 foot freefall. It was certainly a high risk line with a very small margin for error. Jesse decided at the lip to just run the center line, but for some reason he signaled me from the seat of his kayak that he would try for the left. I signaled the boys down below and Jesse started his approach. At the very last possible moment (and not a second before) we all realized Jesse was about 2 feet off line and was funneled into a deadend shoot by a guard rock at the lip of the falls. The rock also pitched him to the right giving him the half barrel role trajectory through the tight pinch. Although he appeared to exit the slot cleanly there was the sickening sound of impact and an upside-down landing extremely close to the wall at the bottom. Stripped of his paddle he attempted a hand role and then swam free. His pause on the bank was enough to tell us all that something was wrong. From 200 feet away I could already tell that his left hand had taken a big hit as it was streaming red with blood.
To say that Jesse is a tough guy is an understatement. At one point he had to calm nick down as he instructed us on how he wanted his hand rapped up. He refused any pain killers until hours later claiming that pain is our bodies way of telling us what is wrong and he wanted to feel the full extent of his injuries.
Steady Brook and Corner Brook
As luck would have it, our three hour journey to the Hospital brought us past the islands only ski area where a promising looking creek raged with full flow into the valley below. Steady Brook boasts one of the highest snowfalls in North America along side a creek of the same name that offers high quality class 4 –5 creeking to the lip of an awe inspiring 200 foot water fall. The previous days rain has brought the creek up to a healthy but still boney flow and we hope for more rain. At the base of the falls, an adventure outfitter (mynewfondlandadventure.com) informs us that we should have come in the early spring when the regions 16 feet of average snow starts to head for the coast. We are assured that the Islands waterways are in a completely different state when fueled by the massive snowmelt.
Photo: Ben Stookesberry
Through the next three days Jesse’s hand is set cared for in the Corner Brook Hospital, and we are again stymied with a lack of rain. One day I embark on a long run to pass the time, heading up cities main drainage of the same name. I am amazed by the shear size of this canyon that literally rises out of the center of town. To my surprise the centerpiece of the gorge is a series of spectacular waterfalls that look rnnable with more water: we just need some rain!
Photo: Chris Korbulic