Makkovik to Rigolet, Labrador, Trip Report

By Paul Pigott

Maps showing the area where Paul and Richard paddled, from Makkovik to Rigolet. NTS maps 13I, J, O.

DAY ONE: Zero kilometres

On a windy day in Makkovik people don't mince words. A truck pulled up beside me on the wharf there in August, as I waited for my kayak to be lowered from the local ferry.  It was Willy Ford, my wife's uncle by marriage. As he rolled down the window, his pale blue eyes lit up with a smile. I guess he figured Makkovik had visitors from the ferry for the night. I told him we'd be paddling the 300 kilometres back to Rigolet. I stood there in driving rain, telling old Willy that we were presently leaving for Cape Strawberry eight kilometres away. "You'll never make it," is all he said. Then he rolled up his window and drove on.


I glanced at white caps in the distance and then at my kayak partner. Richard Learning paddled a kayak for the first time five years ago, from Goose Bay to Cartwright. He's been hooked on long-distance kayak trips ever since. Richard paddled the next summer from Cartwright to Lance aux Loup. I followed him in 2005 on a trip from North West River to Rigolet. We both dreamt of open water all that winter and in the spring hatched a plan to take our kayaks on the ferry north. Now we were standing on a windswept pier wondering how to begin.


Richard looked exhausted. We'd both spent the night being thrown from our bunks every ten minutes in a terrible storm. After sharing a bottle of rum with some crew I was happy to tumble around, sleeping only through the hour breakfast was served. When Richard and I staggered topside in the morning the winds were still gusting to 40 kilometres. I spotted Strawberry Cape in the early light, just outside the run to Makkovik. Around that jagged, foam swept rock was our goalfor the day. "Let's just get out there a ways and camp for the night,'" Richard said in Makkovik.


After a bruising night on a top-heavy ferry he just wanted to get out there. We set our sights on Ford's Bight four kilometres away. It has a harbour where the first group of Moravian Missionaries settled briefly on the Labrador coast in 1753. I'd flown by helicopter to an archaeology dig years before. But on this day we faced a much more difficult passage. Loading our kayaks (Richard's Newfoundland-made, fiberglass Sea Knife, my plastic Necky Looksha) took two hours. We grabbed a hot lunch the home of a local schoolteacher Christine Nochasak. She gave us a last worried look as we paddle past the wharf and into the waves.


Ford's Bight, just south of Makkovik (photo Paul Pigott, thumbnail, click on image to enlarge)


I dropped my rudder and tried to find a rhythm after a year on shore. Richard took the lead in his speedier kayak, coming out around Old House Cove to White Point, where the powerful swells surged onto a rocky shore. Richard started to bob in and out of sight between five-foot troughs. The shoreline showed no signs of a safe landing point ahead. I remember feeling awake again after a long slumber. Kayaking in big water is all about attacking the waves with sharp paddle strokes and angling hips. It's about synchronizing body and mind to a pattern of sea.  About three kilometres out we started to turn to the southeast, angling across the waves and through a lots of 'bounce back' turbulence from the shore. In a hurry I'd done a poor job of balancing my load and was now taking on a lot of water from waves that rolled across my spray skirt. Underneath an unnoticed hole in my front bulkhead was slowly filling my kayak with water. It's an experience I've never encountered in a decade of paddling. But with nowhere to land I paddled on with increasing discomfort.


I fixed my eye on the surging foam around Ford's Bight Point just two kilometres away. I must have been watching that terrible shore too well. Four-point-three kilometres outside of Makkovik the current snatched my rudder and threw me over. I floundered in the water for a moment stunned. My fuel and water bottle floated around me as scrambled back into my cockpit. I spent the next hour in utter despair, trying to keep my sinking kayak afloat and away from that rocky shore. Richard tried to tow me for a bit, but that was useless. Soon I was scouring the shore for some opening, anywhere to land. I picked a spot with offshore rocks and what seemed to be calmer water behind. My kayak rolled over the rocks as jumped ship and was tossed onto the shore. My kayak followed, smashing into the rocks with a force that should have broken her in two. I grabbed her bow toggle just as a wave swept over my head, sucking away my glasses and one shoe. Bruised, blind, one-footed and cursing to high heaven I somehow managed to drag a kayak full of gear and water up a ledge and into a crevice above the waves. I then set to work bailing my boat and looking for holes to patch. Finding none I dragged my boat around to face the waves again. Richard watched from he slightly calmer water offshore.


Jagged Islands, south of Adlavik Bay (photos Paul Pigott, thumbnail, click on images to enlarge)


It's hard to say how I got past those breakers. It's something I'd practiced on the sandy shores of Vancouver Island's Long Beach. This was pounding waves on rock. The first surge slammed into my chest, throwing my kayak to the right and then left onto a submerged rock. At some point I dug my paddle in with such force that my spray skirt popped off it's cowling. By the time I was safely out of the surging waves my cockpit was full and my kayak started to sink again.  Cold, tired and utterly frustrated I swallowed my pride and told Richard that we should call back to Makkovik for help. But in the rolling seas he couldn't get a satellite connection. I struggled to stay up for another half hour in a kayak that was now under the waves and hard to control.


The trip should have been over right there. It looked like I was going to have to crash land again, probably smashing my kayak and losing the rest of me gear. Then out of nowhere Bob Andersen and Alfie Chaulk appeared in a speedboat. They'd been out to Ford's Bight checking salmon nets. With even less commentary than Uncle Willy, Bob hauled me out of the water and into his boat. The three of us dragged my 'submarine' over the transom. With not much fuel to spare Bob was very keen to get away from that wicked shoreline. So we grabbed as much gear as we could from Richard and left him to paddle the fourkilometres back to Makkovik alone.


I sat for a long while at Bob's kitchen window watching with binoculars for Richard. Bob meanwhile found the source of my trouble, poking a finger through a bulkhead where years of salt and strain had worn way the sealant. My forsaken partner finally paddled in to shore looking tired and worried that months of planning had ended in quick failure. I told him about the hole in my bulkhead and that we'd try again tomorrow. We found a room at the Adlavik Inn, devoured a hot meal of caribou and set to work drying our gear. 

DAY TWO: 37 kilometres

The next morning was calm and clear. I patched my bulkhead with some locally purchased marine goop. We loaded up our gear next to a fishing stage where Bob and a group of local men chatted about our prospects. An older man and I just sat with a map for a while talking about the places ahead. Then we all shook hands in a hearty farewell and we were off again. The waves picked up as we approached the place where I 'd had such trouble the day before. With my rudder tucked away and my light gear up front the bow of my kayak ran high and dry high through the tricky water. I'd found my rhythm at last. We reached Ford's Bight in a couple hours them aimed for a beached iceberg on the other side of a four-kilometre crossing to Strawberry Head. But those grueling two days suddenly caught up to Richard. "I'm not feeling good, we need to find a place to stop." At Strawberry Harbour we searched in vain for a good place to land. I was pushing to get some distance behind us after my day-one debacle, so we gulped down some energy bars and aimed three more kilometres ahead to Nipper Cove. The next crossing was five kilometres out in the middle of deep bay called Wild Bight. Even on calm days the ocean troughs up there, giving Richard lots of stomach trouble. He looked weak and pale. He now claims to have blacked in the middle of Wild Bight.


We slowed up the pace and paddled together for a long while to Pamiadluk Point. It's a jumpy bit of water with lots criss crossing waves. We rounded her at a safe distance and along the way spotted our first bit of wildlife: black guillemots (sea pigeon to Settlers, pitsiulāk to Inuit). Beyond Pamiadluk (an Inuit word that literally means big old tail) we could finally relax a bit as we paddled into Adlavik (the place of the black bear) a 60 sixty-kilometre gulf that's sheltered by offshore islands. After six hours and 20-plus kilometres of inhospitable shoreline we found a round little bay called October Harbour, with a sandy beach and a ring of scraggly trees. Richard settled his stomach. I snored by the fire for a little bit. But I wanted to reach a cabin at the bottom of Manak Island 12 kilometres away. So we dragged ourselves away from the fire and back to our kayaks.


Adlavik is spectacular on a calm evening, full of jagged rocky islands and brilliant blue water, all framed by the Tushialuk mountain range. In falling light my GPS lead us to a creek with fresh water and then to a weathered old cabin. We gulped down a delicious meal of bottled partridge, our heaviest provision, and bedded down for a well-earned slumber. 

DAY THREE: 47 kilometres

With the jagged capes of Makkovik behind us Richard and I settled in to a brisk pace through the sheltered waters of Adlavik. When Europeans first arrived here in the 1700s they found Inuit living on the outer islands, close to a rich bounty of seals, whales and sea birds. I thought a lot about those people as we paddled for a pyramid-shaped rock 10 kilometres away, Conical Island. I wondered where all those birds, seals and people had gone. The original Inuit inhabitants were driven north hundreds of years ago, sometimes hunted down like animals by White whalers and privateers.


Adlavik area (photos Paul Pigott, thumbnail, click on images to enlarge)

In this century Inuit and Settlers returned in summer to jig, trap and salt the once bountiful cod. That fishery collapsed in the 1970s a precursor to the 1992 cod moratorium, but for Labrador fishermen there was no TAGS program; residents on this part of the coast drifted away.


As I pondered the past a pair of Minke whales (grumpus, or pamiuligak) startled me back to reality, breeching right in front of my kayak. What a marvelous combination of knowledge, strength and skill Inuit hunters must have had to kill such a Goliath with just a harpoon and a skin boat. Then on that barren cone of and island we feasted on Labrador's delicious orange fruit, bake apples (appet).


Next we paddled past a dark, brooding Stag Bay. Her steep wooded hills drew my eye until a white-beaked dolphin breached (a jumper or alluasiak) just behind my kayak. We stopped for lunch on Dog Island as the sun broke through, illuminating a menagerie of pebbles on the sea floor. Then the remaining clouds retreated up the peaks of the Tuchialuk Hills. We sat there in awe, until I started to laugh. Richard was changing his clothes for the second time in just a few hours. He had a different outfit for every imaginable type of weather. After spending almost an hour swimming on day one, I stuck to my dry suit the whole trip.


Adlavik with Tuchialuk Mountains in the distance (photo Paul Pigott, thumbnail, click on image to enlarge)


We paddled another 20 kilometres that evening, until the sun slipped behind the hills. There's an old Labrador song about the neat and tidy girls of Tuchialuk. Well, the bay is some pretty too. It's a place once inhabited by the Lucys, the Tooktoshinas, the Broomfields and the Pottles. At the height of the Cold War the Americans even had a small base there called Lucyville. The base is long gone and the families all moved away, so we were a bit surprised to see a puff of smoke in the trees at the head of the bay.


We paddled hard against an out-flowing tide into a bay that looks a lot like that Lake Louise scene on the old 20-dollar bill. The still water glowed gold in fading light beneath a cathedral of mountains. In darkness at the head of the bay our quiet arrival surprised the Tooktoshinas. Like any Labrador family would they helped to dry our clothing, gave us a hot meal and place to sleep by the stove. Jim had brought his aging mother home for the summer and she gave us some advice on how to find a portage route we planned to use the following day. 

DAY FOUR: 50 kilometres

The Tilt Cove portage was 20 kilometres to the south. We planned to cut off Cape Harrison and her 50 kilometres of dangerous paddling by dragging our kayaks about three kilometres over land to Shipuk Bay. A black bear watched us land and then scurried away into the thick bush. We dragged some gear through a marshy thicket for about a kilometre before turning back. We wasted another three hours searching in vain for a passable trail.


Finally Richard took charge saying simply, "we're paddlers, not hikers Paul, let's get out of here." So we gathered up our gear and steeled ourselves for a run around that fearsome cape they call Harrison. There would be no Bob Andersen to save me if I got into trouble this time, but we had fine weather on the way out to the place where cod was once king. Past Jigger Tickle and Grave Bay the evidence of a now dead fishery remains in almost every cove: rotting stage heads, crumbling tilts and shattered cod traps. As evening came a howling north wind whipped up the waves again and the dark cliffs of the cape loomed ahead. We tucked into a cove and set camp for the night. 

DAY FIVE: 51 kilometres

We were on the water again as the sun gave light to a desolate place. In the distance the impossibly sharp peaks of the Ragged Islands loomed black and menacing. The mainland was even less inviting: cliffs that towered above us on the rock-strewn shore of Wreck Cove. Those cliffs soared to dizzying heights as we paddled on. This was surely hell in a storm, but the weather that morning held and we neatly tucked around the cape before noon. There we faced a choice: to paddle straight across to False Cape, a 12 kilometre run exposed entirely to the open sea, or to creep along the shore doubling our distance. We shot out into open sea


A short time later I caught a glimpse of a rare bird, the red throated loon (a wobby, or katsaut). She popped over a wave and then dove. It was an Iliad kind of warning and I missed the sign. About three kilometres off shore a storm front sliced across the bay ahead of us with remarkable speed. The storm seemed to hang for a moment on the high cliffs above and then pounced downward churning up the sea around us. We turned tail and ran for shore. It was the most difficult three kilometres I've ever paddled. Wind and waves slammed down on our little kayaks, almost tearing the paddle from my hands. We battled our way to the shore, and then began the long and dispiriting route inshore, struggling in the opposite direction of our intended destination.


I cursed the weather as we paddled up into the relative calm of Sloop Cove. Richard kept pestering me to stop and warm up. He somehow got a fire going in the driving rain, igniting soaked bits of tuckamore. I woke up and hour later in the ashes, convulsing with fits of shivering. I ran around for a bit trying to warm up and then jumped into my kayak and took off, paddling hard until I felt warm again.


Out toward False Cape we got our first taste of a really rich part of the Labrador coast. Huge flocks of razorbills (appait) and puffins swarmed around us. In the distance Richard spotted the magnificent wingspan of a gannet. Then line after line of pretty eiders (mitit) whistled past. The waves flattened out for the 15-kilometre run from False Cape to the mainland. We cruised along that evening riding waves and winds south to Big Brook. It's a five gorgeous kilometres of white sandy beach beneath a fringe tall grass and dunes. It also home to an upscale fishing lodge. Michael's River Camp is the private reserve of Al Chislet, the co-discoverer of Voisey's Bay. That night it became a happy refuge for a pair of wet and weary paddlers.


Big Brook (photo Paul Pigott, thumbnail, click on image to enlarge)

DAY SIX: 37 kilometres

We slept hard that morning, enjoying our good fortune as long as we could. The respite didn't seem to motivate us to paddle hard. I was taking in the magic of undulating dune grass in wind all along shores of Byron Bay. Every few minutes my paddle dropped so I could snap photos from the myriad of sea birds that seemed to come at me from all directions. We paddled around the red rocks of Cape Rouge to a lagoon of kelp beds where curious seals darted under our kayaks. Then in the next bay a curious Minke whale surfaced right beside me. We paddled and swam together for almost five kilometres. At first I was afraid she'd come up right under me. But this animal's precision in breeching right alongside my boat time and time again spoke to her playful intelligence. She had wretched breath and wonderful manners. On one breech she even turned a big black eye out of the water to take a peak. It was magic. And the show that day was far from over. We paddled into a long stretch of rocky shoal water where the eiders, divers and black ducks seems to straddle every rock. Then as I paddled around a small cape a flock of more that 60 Canada geese (nillet) launched themselves skyward right in front of me. We slept that night at the head of Aliak Bight in a tiny duck-hunting cabin owned by Bunny Winters. 


Minke whales and beautiful scenery near Holton (photos Paul Pigott, thumbnail, click on images to enlarge)

DAY SEVEN: 35 kilometres

Aliak is a dreary little bay - discoloured, shallow and filled with seaweed and algae of all types. The hills around her are barrens and boulders. As we paddled away a curious black bear ambled over the hill towards the cabin we'd just left behind. It all seemed a bit anti-climactic after our wild ride thus far. But the final run to Rigolet along the north shore of Groswater Bay had some surprises in store for us yet.


A black bear scurries about on shore at Ticoraluk Point east of Rigolet (photo Paul Pigott, thumbnail, click on image to enlarge)


The most exciting was at a place called the Dog's Nose, where high winds, rising tide and lots of turbulence created just about the trickiest bit of water I've ever come upon. After a week in my little kayak I was at the height of my paddling powers. I was ready for every 'plop' that erupted under my boat, digging hard into the cresting waves beside me for stability. We entered Rattler's Bight in a place where several speedboats were anchored. The Allen's were in a cabin waiting for the calm. They offered us a meal of salt cod and char. Mervyn and Celeste Andersen were there visiting and invited us to spend the night at their place about 20 kilometres up the bay. We shared a few stories, and before we left Edward Allen offered us his home in Rigolet at the end of our paddle.


It's like that everywhere on the coast, but the friendliness and warmth of these folk from Rigolet really went above and beyond. Richard and I paddled away from Rattler's Bight with full stomachs and another warm cabin to look forward to at the end of the day. Mervyn and Celeste were busy cooking supper when we arrived. More char, chicken legs and two cans of beer. We chipped in the mashed potatoes and the desert. The Andersen cabin is in a really neat spot, on the west side of an almost perfectly round little harbour. Just above the cabin a small waterfall sprinkles down into the sea. 

DAY EIGHT: 31 kilometres

With our final destination almost in sight and the ferry that would take us home not due for several days our pace slowed to a crawl. We got up late and said a leisurely good bye to Mervyn and Celeste. Then we paddled for a couple of hours covering not much distance at all. Richard stopped and suggested a berry picking expedition on Black Island. I gorged myself on black berries and bagged several more pounds to take home. The rare bake apples we did find went straight into our mouths.


Tired from walking, we lounged on shore for a while, eventually dragging our kayaks back to the water. A couple of hours later we were back on break again, cooking up a feed and then taking a sunny siesta (minus the rum and cokes) on sun-baked rocks. As the sun started into its downward arc we got moving again, paddling a 20-kilometre stretch to Long Point. After all the pampering in the last few days I was a bit grumpy to find no cabins in sight as the last rays of evening illuminated the Crazy Mountains, a stunning geological formation that looks like a 20-kilometre-long snake in satellite images. In the dying light I scoured the shore for signs of a cabin and spotted one just in time.  It was a nice little spot, but moments after we douted the lights to sleep Richard jumped up with a yell. He'd been bitten by an ant. I lifted my pillow in horror to find what the ants were attracted to: I'd been sleeping on the carcass of a squirrel.

DAY NINE: 32 kilometres

The sea before Rigolet (a French word meaning fast flowing water) narrows into a passage that's more like a river. After a couple of hours of practically drifting with an incoming tide, a breeze suddenly whipped up the waves into small white caps that were breaking on my tail. It's the hardest type of paddling because you can never quite tell which way the surge will send you. I set a course that angled me across the waves towards an island three kilometres away. It turned out to the seasonal home of nesting Arctic terns (imikKutailit). Tens of thousands of birds swarmed above, with small groups buzzing off to chase a whale that was apparently fishing nearby. The terns erupted into a frenzy as I approached. Thousand more flightless young scampered around the island in a state of panic. How remarkable to think that in a month or so the strongest of these young would fly to Antarctica.


Finally Rigolet came into view, on the other side of a surging torrent of waves and tide. We bounced along the shoreline eddies for a while until the water flattened out enough for us to cross. Nine days after our first aborted departure from Makkovik we were at last in another Labrador community.

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