A Failed Trip up Nunainguak

 By Paul Pigott

1:50,000 scale NTS maps - 14C/12, 14D/9, 14D/10, 14D/11

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This is a report for anyone interested in the Nain area. I'm an intermediate paddler with about ten year's experience, mainly on the west coast of Vancouver Island and on Hamilton Inlet in Labrador. I'm also a reporter for CBC radio.  

Last August a group of adventurers retraced the 1910 overland voyage of Hesketh Prichard. The British “gentlemen explorer” walked and paddled from the Frazer River to the George Rover (at Indian House Lake in Quebec.) The modern Prichard group hiked most of August, returning in early September to a pick-up point at the head of Tasitsuak. That's a 50 kilometre finger lake at the mouth of the Frazer River. 

Having shipped my Necky Looksha to Nain on the Northern Ranger ($80 one way), my plan was to kayak to their pick-up point for an adventure and a CBC story. My problem was planning; I didn't do enough of that. I gave myself three days to paddle about 100 kilometres, which is reasonable in good weather. But Nunainguak Bay is a long fjord with steep hills on either side. The wind often funnels into a strong westerly. It's something anyone in Nain could tell me. I learned instead by experience.  

On day one I got off to an extremely slow start. I arrived in Nain late and then took a long time to organize the transport of my kayak to my launch site (Kajak is pronounced HIGH-yak because the capital "K" is similar to the "h" sound in English, and is the standard way to write kayak in the Labrador Inuktitut dialect, the Inuit language in this province. Qajaq is a transcription from the Baffin dialect, i.e., Iqaluit). 

I set off late afternoon from a small bay just north of the Nain airstrip, beside the Nain dump. I was in a rush and did a poor job packing my Looksha. The balance wasn't right and I ended up tying down a dry bag on deck. Not exactly ideal with winds gusting to 30 kilometres. 

Ron Webb gave me the ride. He's been piloting speedboats between Nain and Webb's Bay most of his life. Ron suggested I set off another day. My wife, who is from Nain, seemed even less impressed. But I was hell bent on getting up the bay and promised to stay close to shore as I paddled away. My safety equipment equally rash, I had no satellite phone, no GPS, and was wearing only a wet suit and dry top.  

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My only reasonable precaution was instructions left with Wayne Jenkins, an outfitter in Nain who promised to watch out for me three days hence on his way up the bay to pick up the Prichard adventure group. I was even traveling with a 1:50,000 scale map that gave me no sense of the sheer rock points I would be skating around in the next couple of days. I did have some knowledge of Nunainguak from a couple of trips up to Tasitsuak on a snowmobile.  

Any reader has a clear picture by now of an unprepared kayaker putting himself in a potentially fatal situation. I was saved by some strong paddling and a lot of luck. But it was an unnecessarily stressful vacation. This is the story of a very stupid trip that I hope will never be repeated in my paddling career. 

Northern Labrador has frigid waters and fast moving weather. Unless you’re tripping around Unity Bay in sight of Nain, paddling any distance alone up there in only a wet suit is NOT an option. I figured that out about three hours outside of Nain.  

The southeast part of Nunainguak proper quickly dips into a wide bay. With an unusual easterly at my back and riding a two or three foot swell, I decided to cut some distance off. I pointed towards PiKalujak (the Inuktitut word for iceberg), a jagged little island that resembles its namesake. I was making fantastic time with the wind and swells pushing me forward.  

Then the swells started breaking onto my rudder and aft. It took a couple of frantic digs into the breaking water to realize that I was in a lot of trouble. Capsizing your boat in Northern Labrador with the wrong equipment could easily be fatal. With that realization floating around somewhere in my foolish head, I began paddling with a bit of desperation. I made it to PiKalujak, stopping for a snack and a rest. The wind died down a bit and I risked another crossing.  

I made it, but even the shores of Nunainguak don't offer much relief. The southern shore is a series of increasingly rugged points, broken occasionally by coves lined by boulder break. I paddled on as the sun sunk beneath the mountains above Tikkuatikak Bay. Even in September, it still stays pretty light in Nain until well after ten o'clock.  

I made it past Tikkuatikak neck, a place where snowmobilers cross over into that bay. It's only thirty kilometres from Nain, but facing another sheer point of cliffs that fall straight into the water, I decided to stop. It was actually a fantastic spot with a sandy beach and lot's of driftwood. I set up my tent, lit a fire, and warmed my weary, waterlogged bones.         

The wind howled cold all night. By morning it had turned around on me completely. Facing a 50 km westerly, that nasty head, and a bay teaming with white, I decided to stay put. Apparently my scare from the day before had actually knocked a bit of sense into me. Being weather-bound turned out to be the best part of the trip. I hiked all day, following caribou trails up to the top of hills. It was hard climbing, but the view from up there was unforgettable.  

I first took a peak at the point ahead. There was nowhere to land for many kilometres, and the water below teemed with white caps. I was going nowhere by boat; the weather had turned my paddle into a hike. I banged around all day on the hills trying to spot wildlife with my binoculars. The best view was of the cliff ahead. I watched divers swoop down from their cliff perches for hours. A ptarmigan narrowly escaped an end in my supper pot. I spent a couple of hours casting for char without even a bite. Any good hunter would tell you that my shameful lack of respect for Nunainguak meant no wild food for my supper that day.  

Fortunately I brought a supply of caribou meat along. In fact my landing place was haunted by the George River herd. Their tracks traced the best routes up the mountainside and lead me directly to a bog filled with slightly overripe bake apples (cloud berries). I ate berries and lazed around in the caribou moss most of the afternoon. September is a pleasant time in the Labrador country. It’s often cool enough at night to kill off mosquito and black fly swarms that would carry you away in August.  

My hike ended at the top of the highest peak around. From there I could see Tikkuatikak Bay proper, a superb circle of water framed by steep mountains. Turning further north, I glimpsed the depression where Webb's Bay is located, just behind a string of peaks. And, in the distance, the Kaumajait (pronounced HOW-ma-yite) Mountains. The name is from the Inuktitut word, “to shine.” When the sun is in the right direction, the ice and rock do just that.  

By six that evening, the wind had died off completely. I was hopelessly behind schedule and decided to make a run for Nain. I paddled on into darkness that night, startled at times by shimmering jellyfish and dancing Northern Lights. Those last hours paddling for the Nain airstrip lights were grueling but beautiful. I must have been a pretty strange sight that night, hauling my yellow kayak up on the beach below the village at midnight.  

Anyway, this was a pretty embarrassing trip for me. I probably deserve to be kicked out of the kayaking club, but I advertise my misadventure in the hope that anyone considering a trip in Northern Labrador will avoid my folly. There's nothing wrong with going solo up there, but listen to warnings from people in Nain, wear a dry suit with feet, and always travel with a satellite phone. I got away without one last fall. You may not be so lucky.  

Nunainguak is an absolutely spectacular paddle. If you come prepared you may actually be able to enjoy it.  

Postscript: A couple of day’s later, I did get up to the Frazer River by speedboat. I noted even fewer landing points and increasing winds all the way up the fjord. From Nain to the Frazer River is a tough trip in kayak that requires a careful planning and at least five days one way.

Paul Pigott is an avid kayaker living in Happy Valley Goose Bay. He’s currently planning a trip out to Black Island, east of Nain, and saving for a dry suit.

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