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The Great Canadian Epic part 2: The Magpie River

Wednesday-Tuesday Aug 14-20, 2013
Kayak: Tom Nielson (VT), Eric Orenstein (DC), Borge Hamso (NOR), Will Seegers (VT), Taylor Krammen (VT), Andrew Krammen (MA), Brian Rockwood (CT), Felix Touzain (QC), Clay Murphy (VT), Mike Mainer (VT)
Organizer: I blame Tom
Difficulty: advanced WW
Level: medium high
Gauge (cfs): 10000
Author: Mike M

If you read the last trip report, about Clay, Felix and myself paddling in the Quebec City and the Lac St. Jean area, you probably already have an idea as to what is going on here. If not, just know that 10 people, 7 Burlington-area paddlers (mostly UVM-affiliated, or previously UVM-affiliated), one Quebec paddler, a Norwegian and a Washingtonian were all headed for Sept-Iles, where our adventure on the Magpie river would start.

I'll try to keep this more informative than boastful, without spoiling future trips with too much information. Apologies for the length, but it seems there is a lot to say about this river (much of which is not contained in the trip report)

If you don't know much about the Magpie, read the description in Alden's book. Or, here are a few more resources:

To summarize, the Magpie is a 5-8 day, wilderness trip that starts on the West Branch of the Magpie, descends that to Lake Magpie, crosses that and then finishes on the Magpie River proper. The general consensus is that August and September are the best time of year, and that at typical levels for that time of year, the river has lots of class III-IV but with some class V rapids thrown in there. The best way to access the run is by float plane. The typical put-in is at Lac Vital - ( I'll put more logistical information you might find useful in planning a trip at the end of this report.

Typical flows on the Magpie gauge for this time of year are around 170 cms, though as August rolled around, the river was historically low, dropping down to 60 cms. We were concerned about having enough water for the trip, especially on the smaller West Magpie - but as departure time approached, the river started rising and by the time everyone started driving it was near 170 cms and still rising slowly.

Anyways, Clay, Felix and I drove down from Lac St. Jean while the rest of the crew departed Burlington on Monday, August 12. We stopped for the night on a random logging road near Les Escoumins, and were surprised when Tom, Borge and Eric somehow found us there in the middle of the night - two groups randomly encountering one another in the middle of a 600,000 square mile province. There was a great meteor shower that night. The remainder of the drive was really scenic with spruce-clad, craggy granite mountains rising out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and many large, appealing rivers, rapids and falls visible from the road. Adventurous boaters take note: there is clearly a lot of stuff to explore out here, even later in the summer, though unfortunately many runs have been dammed/diverted, or will be soon.

Sept-Iles is something of a boom town, with an aluminum refinery, large port (which handles iron ore from up north), and lots of activity related to hydropower and mining development. All day long helicopters and float planes buzz overhead, carrying not just boaters and fishermen but also prospectors and HydroQuebec survey crews. The consequence of this is that Sept-Iles looks a lot like Rutland,with many fast-food joints, chain stores and gas stations. It also means that open motel rooms are impossible to come by and the cheap ones are still $200 or more. The float plane company said that camping at their place was fine, but the forecast was calling for 2" of rain, high winds and adverse travel conditions the following day. Felix came to rescue and called a local friend, who called their friend, and so on, and before long he had found us a nice, inexpensive beachside cottage with space for 10. Sorting gear, packing boats, picking up a few more food items, etc. took about 5 hours. Shuttle to the Magpie takeout is 80 minutes to the east in the middle of nowhere. As an auspicious start to the adventure, we were treated to a pretty decent Borealis on the drive back and pulled off, turning off headlights and admiring the unearthly swirling green light to our north, clearly visible nearly 100 miles from any major population center.

Up at 5:30 the next morning, the weather didn't look too bad and so we were off to the float plane base. The pilot said that bad weather was coming in, but he could get one group of five in - but probably not the second. This concerned us a bit - when flying into a wilderness area several times the size of Vermont, you want to keep the group together. Felix, the skilled negotiator cut a bargain - we'd fly in a day later at a slightly reduced price - and we headed back to the cabin and made a huge breakfast with the rest of the crew. Sure enough, the clouds dropped down and the rain started. We passed the rest of the day paddling on the ocean, taking quick, cold skinny dips, warming up in the hot tub and sampling various liquors.

Up at 5:30 a day later, the first group of five piled into Tom's truck and by 7:00 Labrador Air Safari's baggage handler/secretary/radio operator/dispatcher/accountant/customer service rep (a large, mustachioed man named Tarzan) had loaded 5 80-pound creek boats into the back of the 1963 DHC Otter, and after a quick warm-up lap around the lake to get the big piston engine to stop mis-firing, we were airborn and headed north. I don't want to spoil this part of the trip - but that part of Quebec is awesome... 1500' deep canyons with big rivers and big rapids cross the pristine landscape. There is a lifetime of exploration available to a motivated boater in this area! A little over an hour later we were pushing our boats onto a small windswept beach, set amid stunted spruce and acres and acres of open, spongy reindeer moss. We picked blueberries, took a nap and paddled across the lake to find the outlet and just two hours later, the second group of five had joined us. At this point (12 noon exactly), there was not much to do but get in our boats, paddle across the lake and start down La Riviere Vital (nice class III), which soon deposited us into the West Branch of the Magpie.

At this point, I'll provide a brief description of each day, but will leave out many details, such that subsequent groups may derive pleasure from exploring this fine river as if it had never even been run before.

The remainder of Day 1 involved paddling some flatwater to the first set of rapids, most of which were ledgey big-water drops with big pools and holes, though there was one very beefy impressive gorge which turned out to be one of the most memorable rapids. There were some extended sections of pool-drop class II and III, a few class IV and by evening, some big, meaty class V rapids returned. We ran almost everything that day, except for a steep, unfriendly boulder garden that only Eric and Borge fired up, making it through by the skin of their teeth. The remainder of us learned how exhausting dragging a loaded creekboat through the woods can be. The holes in this section were huge! In fact, after I blew a line and plugged one of the largest, scariest pourovers I've seen (fortunately getting worked briefly before flushing out in my boat), we all realized that we were tired, on a pretty tough river and in a setting where a swim would be disastrous. We set up camp and cooked dinner above another big horizon line and were snoozing pretty quick.

Day Two started with a similar set of big rapids, before settling down into many, many miles of quality, long, boat-scoutable class II, III and IV rapids interspersed with short sections of moving flatwater. Things flattened out a bit towards the end of the day, and the drizzly cold rain yielded to warm sunlight and a beautiful evening. We stopped on the only sandy beach we could find... the UK Rivers Guidebook said that there were nice beaches everywhere... where were they, and why was the water nearly up into the bushes? At any rate, the scenery was astounding up here, and it felt great to build a nice big fire, get dried out, and enjoy portions of our scotch rations. So far, the river had been much more challenging than we expected, but with standout rapids and lots of in-between stuff that was still absolutely awesome. While I had originally imagined the Magpie as a flatwater river with some good sections of whitewater, it was turning out to be a fantastic whitewater river with just a few modest sections of flat-but-still-fast-moving flatwater.

Day Three had more sun and a bit of pleasant flatwater to start with. The goal was to push through a fairly steep, 6-mile section of continuous rapids and hopefully make it close to Lake Magpie. After just an hour we hit the first horizon line and made fast progress through a mile of tense, continuous class IV bigwater before an even larger horizon line had us out of our boats and portaging. The rest of the day was tough, with plenty of great bigwater rapids, many boat-scoutable, but many tight lines complicated by massive holes and high gradient - yes there was some portaging, which was exhausting. By midafternoon we were all getting pretty beat and were confronted by a walled-in ledge drop with two nearly river-wide holes and a house-sized pillow. The portage took a few more hours and a lot of energy, and when we dropped back to the river, we found more big rapids. Fortunately things yielded not long after and we boat-scouted miles of class II-IV big-water before the sun set and we climbed out on a rock slab to find a nice, flat, lichen-padded campsite, still miles from our intended destination. This turned out to be one of the hardest days of boating I've done, and we made a futile effort to dry our gear out before we crashed, hoping to start tomorrow early.

By this time, it was clear that our expectations had been exceeded - we had paddled incredible whitewater over three days, with no more than a few hours of flatwater total. The rapids had, in general, been really big, and the volume seemed comparable to high-water Dead River or spring Hudson Gorge (5000+ cfs, we thought), though the rapids were steeper and narrower. The sandy beach campsites we heard about were not to be seen, and the tributaries we had seen were bankfull. Were we just wussy Vermont creekboaters lost in a land of bigwater, or was the river higher than we thought?

Day Four started with a cold rain, and easy rapids that tapered to flatwater, with occasional big ledge drops with bad holes. Exhausted, we ran most of this without getting out, but before long we paddled into a long class II rapid that ended with a narrow, misty horizon line. Clay and I hopped and out were pleased to see we had reached the final gorge above Lake Magpie. The gorge looked huge and almost runnable, if not for the enormous hole at the end, the largest any of us had seen. There was a pretty acceptable portage trail on river left, and we gratefully used it, making the portage in about an hour. It looked like portions of the gorge could be very runnable, at the right level, but you'd want to start on river right, which offers easier access to the river.

An hour later we reached Lake Magpie, an arresting blue fjord. The sun came out and we stopped on a beach for lunch. 25 miles south lay the Magpie River, and we had to paddle that entire distance. I think Borge, the sage Norwegian, pretty much summed up how we felt at that point: "Make epic portages, camp in the rain, get bitten by blackflies, run huge, awesome rapids and keep going until you are exhausted and beaten down... then you'll be halfway". The group was certainly learning how challenging, and rewarding multi-day boating can be.

That afternoon we paddled about 12 miles into a moderate headwind, which took about 5 hours. Finally we could take no more, and we headed for a beach on the east side of the lake. The strongest among us were beat, and when I looked back, I saw several of my friends drifting in the waves, heads hung low, too tired to paddle the last few hundred yards. There was a light, cold rain while we made camp, which persisted over night and into the morning. If this was a true expedition journal of a truly epic trip, now is when I would write something like:

Today was the day we had to amputate Clarence's toes... he was stoic despite the lack of anesthesia and the use of a camp-axe for the task.

We were not in such dire straights, so instead, I will write:

Today was the day we ran out of Tequila... Fortunately, Clay had brough a lime

Day Five saw a very tired group out in the wilderness, wondering how a run known for forgiving class III and IV had been so rough. Borge, the hearty Norwegian who paddles through Norwegian winters wearing only fleece had started having an allergic reaction to black fly bites, and Eric, former Great-Falls race champion, had a cold which was working it's way into his chest. I was in the best paddling shape I'd ever been in after the incredibly wet summer in Vermont - effortlessly laying down 6-8 high-water New Haven runs in an afternoon, multiple laps on the Big Branch, a podium-finish at the Wells Race... and yet my arms felt like lead and just a few paddle strokes had been agonizing. We had pretty much concluded that the river was high... but how high? Would the main Magpie, which is three times the size of the West Magpie, even be runnable?

The sun came out almost as soon as we got on the water, and we were pleased to find a brisk tailwind. For the next four hours, we surfed whitecaps down the lake, the powerful wind pushing us towards our destination. 13 miles later, we stopped for lunch at the outlet of Lake Magpie and took off our drysuits to dry out our baselayers in the sunshine. Back on the water, we found miles of boat-scoutable, high volume class II, III and IV rapids - nothing complex and with only a few holes to avoid, mostly just wavetrains with powerful seams and boils and pleasant recovery pools at the bottom of every one. We stopped early on a beautiful, flat rock ledge with just enough space for 10 people. With a stiff breeze and warm sunshine, all our gear was dry in about 30 minutes, and a couple folks pulled out fishing rods and practically pulled 12" brook trout out of the water with spoons. We voraciously devoured them. It seemed that having proven ourselves for the first four days, the river was permitting us easy access to this amazing place.

The plan for Day Six was to paddle as far as we felt like - maybe making it to the takeout, maybe not, but certainly enjoying the river and running as much high-quality whitewater as possible. On the water early, we paddled miles of class III-IV bigwater, with Tom doing some incredible boat scouting. We carried a few ledges with absolutely massive holes - entire rivers flowing upstream amid an even larger river, but on the whole we found quality, runnable, forgiving whitewater. Late afternoon saw some large, flat pools and eventually a huge horizon line. We portaged the Magpie Gorge on a nice trail on the right, stopping to admire what we estimated to be 10,000 cfs dropping several hundred feet in less than a mile. These were far and away the largest rapids any of us had seen. Perhaps someday these cataracts will be run, but we were content to walk, fortunate to have just seen the place. Another pool and another huge horizon line, this one Magpie Falls, where the entire river drops around 100 feet. 6 days of hard work to get here, and we were feeling the reward. The amount of energy expended by 10,000 cfs dropping 100 feet is not easily understood. After following this river for 6 days, it was now going somewhere that we will never go, but seeing it do so was an honor.

A little more flatwater and a few rapids, and we came around the corner to the rude site of the dam and the take-out trail on the right. We were too tired to really feel indignant over the dam, which has flooded the last quarter mile of river, but in retrospect that was really the only unpleasant part of the trip... we can make epic portages, take beatings in giant holes, camp in swamps and paddle until our arms hurt and be the better for it... but damming rivers like this hurts everyone far more, human species and otherwise.

At the takeout we opened beers and changed into dry clothes. There hadn't really been time to let the whole experience sink in. But over the past few days, I've been thinking about the experience and whether I'd do it again. At first I didn't really know - it was a hard trip, much harder than I could have imagined - but now I am quite sure I will do it again.


Water: Folks typically do the run in August or September, at seasonal minimum flow. Earlier in the season is possible, but it will be quite high and the bugs will be out in force. The average August/September flow is 170 cms. As it turns out the level was around 300 cms (10,000 cfs) while we were there - near historical high for that time of year. I would not call that too high, or even high - it's a perfectly reasonable level for the West Magpie, which by it's nature is a challenging run that folks typically run at low water - and it's an absolutely fantastic level for the Magpie proper. Vermont paddler Mike McDonnell once ran this in June at epic high water, and there was a lot of carnage and a float plane evac. My guess is that with half the water, the main Magpie will be good but less interesting, and the West Magpie will be more laid-back class III-IV but still pretty darn good. Even at low water there will still be some class V.

The gauge is here:

Access: You can take a train way up into the West Magpie headwaters for less than $100, then paddle 55 miles of flatwater to the normal put in. Otherwise, call Labrador Air Safari/Air Saguenay to book a float plane trip. Price for 10 people was around $500 per person (after exchange rate, which was slightly favorable) - folks in the know say Labrador Air Safari has pretty reasonable prices. The DHC Otter can take 5 people, maybe 6, including boats, the DHC Beaver can take 3 people including boats. You want to fly into Lac Vital, and ask the pilot to drop you off as close to the outlet as possible (Lac Vital is really big). There is a limit of about 310 pounds per person. The hydrobase is right outside of Sept-Iles at Lac Rapide. The takeout is 90 miles east on Route 138. There is a big HydroQuebec quarry on river right - follow the road to the back of the quarry and farther into the woods where there is a small parking area and a trail up from the river.

Food: We packed a lot of food, and ate almost all of it. We definitely brought pretty energy-dense stuff too - GORP, sausage, dried fruit, etc. We split into groups of 3-4 for cooking/planning purposes. Team Fluff'n'Stuff ate: Mac'n'cheese, with tuna sometimes. Team Norge ate instant mashed potatoes and Mac'n'cheese. Team Steak and Eggs ate Cashew Curry, Vegetable Beef Soup, Reindeer Moss Crepes with a blueberry compote, Portuegese Sausage and Cheese Potee, freeze-dried Foie Gras, and Mac'n'cheese.

Gear: Almost everyone brought drysuits, and I'm sure glad I did. I imagine in warmer weather you could get away with drytops and thick synthetic pants (to keep the bugs off), but the weather was, for the most part, cloudy, with lows in the low 40's and highs in the 60's. The two sunny days we had were a bit warmer, very pleasant and probably more typical for late August. Definitely bring a bug hat - you'll absolutely need it - even in late August the bugs can be pretty bad. We also brought 5 breakdown paddles for the whole group, and used one, and a Sat Phone ($130 total to rent) which we did not need, fortunately. A few folks brought collapsible fishing poles - we didn't have a ton of time for fishing until we got to the Main Magpie, but the fishing there was excellent. People spend good money to fly into places like this and go fishing for a few weeks. I'd strongly recommend bringing topo maps of the whole run. Tom had plotted them out ahead of time.

Sept-Iles: Sept-Iles is a pretty good-sized town with banks, grocery stores, restaurants, etc. There is a decent outdoor shop which isn't great but will probably have whatever last-minute stuff you need - it's in the shopping mall near the Federal Building. They're friendly and helpful and know some of the nearby rivers, and the fellow there told us that they had 6" of rain the week before we arrived. Inexpensive lodging is very difficult to find. Actually, even expensive lodging is difficult to find. Plan on camping, or make arrangements ahead of time.

The river: For the whole run I'd plan 5-8 days. We took 6 very big days. 3-4 days on the West Magpie, 1-2 days on the Lake and 1-2 days on the Main Magpie is pretty reasonable. Portaging is possible everywhere, but is time- and energy-intensive. Total length is (I think) about 80 miles, with 25 being the lake, and roughly 30 miles on the West and Main Magpie - but that's bigwater mileage where individual rapids can be close to a mile long, so the miles can go pretty fast.

Other thoughts: All in all this is a pretty expensive river trip - between the plane, gas money, lodging, food, etc, I'd say $700-$800 per person. Some folks noted that you could probably swing a trip to Ecuador for close to this price. I would agree that if you're just looking for the most paddling for your money, or for logistically simple rivers, there are other options (like staying in VT), but the experience of going way, way out in the wilderness on a river that sees at most 2 groups per year is unique and something every boater needs to do.


The following day we had a leisurely morning involving lots of food. We then started on the leisurely, scenic drive back to Quebec City, arriving at the Tewkesbury put-in at 10:30 PM. The following morning we made two leisurely low-water Tewkesbury runs at -2 or 25 cms - which made it feel a bit like the Upper Yough. I would call that a reasonable minimum. That evening we drove to Montreal, eating a massive amount of Poutine near Felix's apartment. Friday Clay, Felix and myself went out to Lachine to surf Big Joe and Pyramid, which was really the frosting on the cake of the trip - being out amidst 300,000 cfs, carving across a wave so big it would not fit in my living room. There were a couple top-notch Lachine regulars out there but Clay and Felix were holding their own, blunting, spinning and looping like it was easy. I was pretty happy to get some clean(ish) spins and backsurfs, face-planting only periodically. By the time Clay checked his watch I had surfed and hauled myself back up the lines dozens of times, and was happy to head into shore, barely making the long ferry back. Only two days off the Magpie, I was delighted to be in a boat, on an awesome river, exhausted.

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