Caribou herds. Wolves. Evidence of native encampments. When youngsters embark on the Chewonki Foundation’s pinnacle wilderness trip to Northern Quebec and Labrador they see a whole different world.
The George River Expedition first set out in the summer of 1991, a challenging canoe adventure through subarctic terrain. It’s a life-changing leadership opportunity, says Greg Shute, vice president of the Chewonki Foundation.
“It all started to percolate in the late 1980s,” Shute says. After offering a number of month-long canoe trips to central Quebec, “it was clear kids on that trip really wanted to go to the next step.” That meant venturing further north and paddling more challenging waters. Shute and his now-wife Lynne Flaccus paddled the area in a sort of fact-finding adventure back prior to the trip’s inception.
“It’s a group of our most experienced kids who’ve come up through the ranks at Chewonki,” Shute says. And while the trip doesn’t take place very year, it has run regularly over the past five years, he says.
For the most part, participants self-select for the trip, Shute says. “For many of them, they got their first taste of canoeing at Chewonki,” he says. “They appreciate that a wilderness trip is more than getting from point A to point B. They really appreciate the connection to a really remote place.”
And remote it is. Participants – eight youngsters and two leaders – begin with a day on Chewonki Neck in Wiscasset. They make a two-day drive to Sept-Iles, Quebec on the north shore of the St. Lawrence – about a day’s drive east of Quebec City, Shute says. From there they load all their gear – canoes and all – onto the train. The Quebec North Shore Labrador Railway takes them due north to Schefferville.
“It’s a very multi-cultural experience riding with all these native folks,” Shute says.
Schefferville “sprung up around iron ore mines,” Shute says, and there are no roads leading to the community. In addition to the mining industry, it is a hub for outfitters in the area. Once there, the group spends a night at the McGill University Subarctic Research Station. And the next day, five miles outside town, the paddling begins.
For ten days the group paddles large lakes to the entrance of the DePass River, and then, for the next week and a half, they work their way north. “It’s a really great river to teach paddling skills,” Shute says. As the whitewater gets more technical, the terrain becomes more mountainous and the trees begin to disappear, he says.
The group then enters the confluence with the George River and a “magical place” known as Indian House Lake, where the Innu people gathered to hunt caribou, Shute says. The setting includes “all kinds of old native encampment sites, some of them thousands of years old,” he says.
As recently as last year the group witnessed a caribou migration. But the herd, due to climate change and other factors, has dropped dramatically in numbers, from an all-time high of a million animals to “well under 100,000,” Shute says.
Back in the mid-90s, Shute says “it was almost like the landscape was just pulsing and moving with animals because everywhere you look it was caribou.”
The George is “like no river here in Maine,” he says. “It’s up to a mile wide in places, and it’s incredibly scenic because of mountainous terrain.”
The group also experiences the tidal waters of Ungava Bay in northernmost Quebec, which are even higher than the tidal waters of the Bay of Fundy – more than a 50-foot change in tide.
“It’s a real spectacle to sit at a campsite and see the tide come in and out,” Shute says.
The trip ends at the Inuit community of Kangiqsualujjuaq, where over the years the groups “have developed really great relationships with both the native community and the white folks who have settled there,” Shute says. “They’re suffering many ills that that many native communities are, but there’s also an incredible warmth.”
And that’s where the paddling ends, almost 400 miles and four weeks from their starting point.
The group hops a small plane to Kuujjuaq, then to Quebec City, where they ride a van back to Wiscasset.
Shute says “makes a point” of driving the group each summer to the train station in Quebec. “I see the excitement then, tempered with some nervousness.
And when they return a month later? “They come back with this sense of self-confidence and a connection to each other and a connection to the leaders,” Shute says.
The trip includes a leadership curriculum and as the trip progresses, “more and more ownership and decision-making is turned over to the kids.”
“By midpoint, our goal is to have the kids managing much of the experience,” Shute says.
There are challenges, to be sure, particularly the black fly and mosquito population, which is “legendary,” Shute says.
Over the years the groups have witnessed the effects of climate change as well. Back in the 90s, lakes would still be iced over, Shute says. The vegetation is changing as well, he says.
Shute says a major highlight for him is that his son, Kyle, completed the trip when he was 16. “For him it connected an important piece of family lore,” Shute says. “For him it was all he heard about since the day he was born because of the experience my wife and I had up there.”
Participants “have a wealth of stories,” Shute says. “If they’re anything like me, there’s not a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t drift off to the subarctic a little bit.”