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The Great Canadian Epic part 1: Tewkesbury and the Mistassibi

Saturday-Monday Aug 10-12, 2013
Kayak: Clay, Mike, Felix
Organizer: Felix
Difficulty: int-adv WW
Level: medium low
Author: Mike M

A lot of what is posted in the online kayaking world - blog posts, trip reports, facebook statuses - especially ones detailing longer or harder rivers in particular - often times seem more about touting one's own achievements than about sharing information with fellow paddlers ... so while this is going to be a fairly long account of two weeks paddling in Quebec, I'll try to make it more informative than boastful. After all, we paddled a few rivers that are not really that far from Vermont, are really high quality, run when most runs in Vermont are bone dry, and yet are almost never run by Vermont boaters. If that piqued your interest, read on - it'll be a long one, but if I have written accurately, then you just may find yourself paddling something different one of these weekends.

Also, please keep in mind that many, many rivers in Quebec are under threat of hydropower development, and the more people that run and publish a record of those runs, the harder it is going to be for the axis of evil to divert them.

Clay and I left Burlington Saturday afternoon, August 10, drove up and picked up our new Quebec friend Felix. Felix actually knows a lot of Vermont paddlers, but if you don't, just know that (1) He knows every single person in Quebec and (2) He pretty much embodies everything you know about French-Canadian paddlers, i.e. he runs everything in a playboat, is a virtual encyclopedia of inappropriate humor, wears sunglasses at all hours of the day, even at night, and will likely return from running shuttle with some attractive Quebecois woman. If you read further, you'll learn that without him our American asses would have gotten lost many times over the course of the next few weeks and I'd advise against boating in Quebec without him.

That evening, we ran the Tewkesbury section of the famed Jacques-Cartier River, just 30 minutes outside of Quebec City. It was running a bit on the low side for early August, but a little rain the past week had brought it up to -1 on the put-in gauge, or about 50 cms (1700 cfs), which turned out to be a really pleasant medium-low level. The raft companies maintain a very nice put-in available to paddlers (park at the back of the lot) and after the customary opening of beers, donning of kayaking regalia and vague comments about the late hour, we put on a little after 7:00. A short section of flatwater and class II and we got into a great section of fun, boat-scoutable class III-IV rapids in a small canyon. It had something of a bigwater feel with some nice playspots, lots of interesting eddies, a few good boofs and minimal flatwater but plenty of pools between rapids - very similar to the West Branch Penobscot at lower levels. The scenery is pretty nice - like the Deerfield Valley, but in a boreal way that reminds you that you're on the edge of the vast Laurentian wilderness. There were perhaps a dozen rapids total and by the time things started flattening out we felt pretty sated. I did the very hill shuttle on foot, which as about 5 miles and took 35 minutes. All in all, the run took about an hour, with shuttle being less than 10 minutes each way. I expected something mediocre, but was pleasantly surprised to find a river that is really a local classic. It's nothing like the Taureau or Malbiae, but for something you can run on a summer evening it's really good. Look for about 25 cms as a fun minimum, Alden's book has directions... go get it!

That evening in Quebec City, we talked about what we should do tomorrow. Lapping Tewkesbury seemed like a fine option, but Felix insisted that the Lac St. Jean area was sort of in the direction we needed to go (and about 3 hours away), and there were some really good runs up there like the Mistassibi and Valin (which was actually very high at the time). Clay and I hesitantly agreed to make the drive up there.

Now for an interlude... if you are in Quebec City and are looking for Kayak regalia/paraphenalia, there are two shops in Quebec City: Mountain Equipment Coop (essentially Canada's REI) and La Vie Sportive (sort of like the OGE of Quebec City). MEC has a good selection of standard outdoor gear, though they have limited whitewater gear (i.e. just a few skirts and paddles). La Vie Sportive has a really good selection of boats, paddles, skirts, drytops, etc and has a much greater inventory of whitewater gear than any shop in New England. The prices are good and they are willing to negotiate. By my calculations, they are closer than MountainMan in Old Forge, and the exchange rate is still somewhat favorable.

Anyways, we headed up to Lac St. Jean, making the very scenic drive up Autoroute 73 throught he Laurentians. We headed straight for the Mistassibi, paid the $3 per person take-out fee at the raft company, and got to the put-in by late afternoon. If you're one of the few people who have not read about it in Alden's book, the one thing you should know about this is that it's a big-water run. Gearing up, we could see the first rapid downstream, which looked like a class II riffle. Felix assured us it was actually a big class IV rapid. Once on the water, we started to realize the scale of many of Quebec's rivers when those class II riffles turned out to be a giant wavetrain with a few big holes here and there.

The Mistassibi was awesome. Thunderstorms floated in the distance, with bolts of lightning hitting the horizon, while we paddled in hot, golden evening sunlight which refracted through the clean water which was as translucent and clear as white wine. There were several long, big-water rapids, almost all read-and-run with only short stretches of moving water in between. You may recall the largest rapid, Hawaii, was featured in the 2012 Whitewater Grand Prix. At the level we paddled (200 cms... about 7000 cfs... I would say medium-low, though levels mean nothing on a big-water river like the Mistassibi) the massive curler was actually a massive diagonal hole, which we avoided. This was a great run that challenged Clay and Me, who had not paddled bigwater in several months. Felix said he ran it in a playboat at 600 cms and that it was a lot of fun. I would say the Mistassibi is basically a bigwater version of the New Haven Ledges (even though it's a totally different style of river) - short enough to be convenient, but long enough to be a full run, challenging enough to be interesting, but never scary, with a quick shuttle (6 miles, 15 minutes in the car or 45 on foot) and runnable at a very wide range of levels. Anyways... go run this river... it has the finest class IV bigwater this side of the Zambezi, it's running while you read this and you can hit lots of other great rivers nearby, and on your way to and from there.

That evening met the landowner at the takeout. Felix chatted with him a bit, and he said it would be fine if we camped there. The folks around Lac St. Jean are really nice - the whole area is something of an enclave with a slightly different dialect and culture and with the absurd amount of whitewater in the area it's a place worth a visit.

In the morning, we did two more great laps on the Mistassibi, stopping to run Hawaii twice on each lap and trying out the tricky right line of the rapid just below. Unfortunately our time on this wonderful river had to end and we headed east again, but not without stopping for some of the signature Lac St. Jean comfort food, Tourtiere, a delicious meat pie.

I'm actually going to add a little more about Tourtiere, because it's so key to the whole Lac St. Jean paddling experience. It's the ultimate post-paddling food - delicious, hearty, caloric, readily available and inexpensive (I got a massive serving for about $6). It's basically spiced ground meat and potatoes in a flaky pot-pie crust. It has the same classic Quebec cachet as poutine, but it's culturally more important - it's as Quebecois as thanksgiving turkey is American. You can get it at almost any diner, deli, or grocery store hot-food section in the Lac St. Jean area.

So that concludes the paddling in this portion of the trip report. Our next destination, the Magpie River, lay 8 hours east and given the significant nature of that run, I will describe it in a separate trip report. The drive was long and very scenic and brought us to an area that all of us had heard of, but had never been (including Felix) - the Cote Nord.

In the meantime, you should start planning you're paddling trip up to Quebec City or Lac St. Jean. Keep in mind that there are many, many other rivers of all sorts in these areas, but given the dry summer they weren't running while we were there, though many of them often run in August.

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