Labrador Air Safari: It might not be legal to strap a boat to the pontoon and have James sit on a milkcrate in the cargo area, but it saved us 500 dollars.
Tripp, James and I are back from Quebec! Well, we’ve been back for a few weeks now, but between the Labor Day releases in New York and sneaking food from the Middlebury Dining Hall, it’s been hard to pull together a blog post. I went to the Romaine last year, full of idealism about the "Last Descent." But, we went again this year, only to find that it's really over this time -- the Romaine's vogue as a whitewater destination is done.
But, to set the scene…
The ’96 Honda Civic is backed into a trail off of a dirt road. This dirt road is off of another, slightly larger dirt road, which comes off of Rt 138, the whitewater highway of northern New England. The car doesn’t start. After ten minutes of re-grading the road to get a running start, we bump it in reverse and head out to the coast. When we reach the first stop light, the engine stalls. In fact, whenever I take my foot off the gas and the car out of gear, the car shuts off.
This would not be a huge problem other than:
1) We speak limited French
2) Everyone else speaks only French
3) My debit card has been disabled because NBT bank thinks I am a fugitive fraudster trying to buy Orangina.
4) We are far, far from the civilized world. Only a few days before we’d been within spitting distance of Labrador, and the nearest “NAPA pieces d’auto” was at least hours, maybe days away.
5) Hurricane Irene had just launched most of Vermont into interstellar orbit, and was headed our way.
So, we coaxed the car up to Sept-Iles, where we bought a new battery, adjusted the idle with a pair of forceps from the med kit, and headed off to the next adventure.
The new creases in my roof are a permanent feature...
Only six days before, we packed our boats at Labrador Air Safari in Havre-St Pierre, chatting with the baggage handler.
“No, you cannot go past Romaine 2” he said.
“Will they stop us from paddling?”
“You cannot paddle past Romaine 2. There is no water in the river. And much blasting all the way.”
Hydro-Quebec has been developing the Romaine River for almost a decade now, and we had hoped to paddle it before the dam construction destroyed it forever.
“We fucking missed it.” James said.
“They will take you off the river at Romaine 2. You cannot go past, you have no choice.”
Lloyd, James, Christian, Tripp. Guess which one of us speaks the best French.
We flew into the river feeling cheated. Tripp and James probably felt like I’d mislead them – that I should’ve done better research and learned that it was already too late to paddle La Romaine. Instead of the romantic “last descent”, we set out on a shortened and discouraging trip.
It rained. Somehow the bugs were bad but we still had a constant headwind. The river level was low, and we fought through shallow cobble beds. The expansive flatwater of the first few days felt even more painful because we knew we couldn’t paddle much of the good whitewater in the third canyon. We probably wouldn’t even be able to see the Grand Chutes.
Tripp on a sneak.
We slogged a long days in the rain down to Nascar, where we set up camp and waited out a ferocious windstorm that dropped more than an inch and a half of rain overnight. Everything was soaked, but we woke up to sunshine and a rising river. We dried our sleeping bags and gear on flat rocks sparkling with sheets of blue and red minerals, then headed out into the clearing morning.
Home sweet home. Just before the soul-soaking downpour.
Sharp granite faces lifted 1500ft straight out of the river on our right. The other bank was more gradual, but had been recently burned. Dry spruce trunks covered the hills like bristly hair, and the exposed granite was cauterized white. Feeder streams on both sides were swollen with the rain, and we paddled underneath waterfalls cascading all the way from the rim of the canyon.
All of this will be flooded by Romaine 3.
Downstream from the R-3 site, where Hydro-Quebec workers were heli-logging the steep walls, we saw helicopters at least a few times daily. Many were transporting lumber and other building materials (filing cabinets?), but a few choppers clearly took time out of their scheduled work to circle us for a few minutes. We had been spotted, and it seemed like our chances of making a sneaky run past the Romaine-2 construction were slim.
But, it just wouldn’t be British to give up so easily, so we decided to wake up before dawn, paddle down to the dam in the dark, improvise a stealthy portage around the construction, walk the four miles of dewatered canyon, then continue on our weary way.
This rapid is one of the few unrun drops on the Romaine. It will probably remain unrun.
We camped just above the R-2 construction and climbed a hill in the dusk to get a better idea of our options. The entire river was diverted under the mountain as expected, but the sight was still shocking. The Romaine is a large river – almost 10,000 cfs even in the driest summers – and to send it in neat, rectangular tunnels through the core of a mountain of granite seemed both improbable and outrageous.
In the words of John McPhee: “there is something special about dams, something – as conservation problems go – that is disproportionately and metaphysically sinister. The outermost circle of the Devil’s world seems to be a moat filled mainly with DDT…and so on past phalanxed bulldozers and bicuspid chain saws into the absolute epicenter of Hell on earth, where stands a dam.”
More to the point, there was no way to go around the dam. The river had been dewatered between two steep, exposed walls. On one side, the wall had been blasted to vertical. After a wrong turn and unnecessary rappel we were back to river level, where we nonchalantly walked through the middle of the biggest construction site this side of, well… the next HQ project.
About to sneak past R-2. Dawn Patrol for real.
The night shift had just gotten off, and the day shift was arriving in pickup trucks and school buses. We put back in on the downstream side and paddled away. Not only had we made it around the dam, but there was water in the river. We’d been upset all week about missing some of the best whitewater on the trip, but within a few minutes we were at the lip of the Spike, which James and I fired up at 5:45 AM.
We picked our way down the rest of the canyon, portaging Freebird but running everything else. Portaged Land of Giants behind a big wall (new this year) and raced across La Basin des Murailles. Bunch of flatwater down to Boof into Camp, where Tripp ran the first descent of the “Melt into Camp” line, which worked out better than I imagined, given the size and uniformity of the hole.
melt into camp
We made a smoky fire, explored the potholes, and enjoyed our last night on the river. The next day we finished the runout rapids, including the Disappearing Hole, pulled out at the Grand Chutes and caught a ride back into town for the car.
(find James in the hole…)
The construction projects have really taken over the river; for six days we saw helicopters and heard blasting. The diversion we saw at Romaine 2 is just a glimpse of what the corridor will look like within a decade.
Unfortunately, the Romaine isn’t the only North Coast river under development or study by Hydro-Quebec. The Petit Mecatina (which was on our itinerary but rose too high for us to run), the Aguanish, the Natashquan and several more of the region’s pristine rivers could face the same treatment.
It’s clearly a loss for paddlers, but even more so for the residents – both First Nations and Quebecois – who have hunted and fished these rivers for generations. I had the privilege of talking with a few Hydro-Quebec workers, an archeologist, and some residents of Havre-St Pierre near the mouth of La Romaine. Everybody has a different take on the project, from conservation to quick cash to clean energy and Quebec’s political independence.
Godbout -- One of those, "The portage really sucks, so I'm going for it" drops
Hydro-Quebec does provide well for their employees, but they don’t employ many workers from Havre St Pierre or the neighboring Innu reservations. They claim the energy is “green”, and sell it to the United States as such, but there are obvious questions about the environmental impacts of drying out long sections of big rivers and flooding others.
Godbout -- The gorge downstream of this inviting ledge was a massive sieve pile, followed by a mile of class IV boulder gardens. If you run the Godbout (don't), put in right here.
I’m looking forward to heading back next summer with a 4×4 truck, an uncracked boat, and some more time. But, to the pressing business of Vermont for now…