Note: For river kilometers and rapid numbers refer to Hap Wilson's book "Rivers of the Upper Ottawa Valley."
In the quest of completing the Quebec "Triple Play," the Coulonge River was on the menu for this year. The crew included my son Christopher(15), his friend Austin(14) and his father Jim. Jim wanted a fly-in experience for his son, so this was a perfect opportunity; we therefore opted to fly into Lac Pompone instead of using a road shuttle.
We arrived at Rapid des Joachims at around 12:00. It was a nice sunny day, good flying weather. We decided that Christopher and I would go on the first flight in followed by Jim and Austin. While we were getting ready for the flight, the plane landed and proceeded to unload a family of tourists. As soon as the plane was refueled and our cargo loaded, we took off. In no time we where emerging from the Ottawa River Valley to a full view of vastness of the Canadian forest. The pilot sat the GPS, it indicated an ETA of 34 minutes. The flight was a bit bumpy but there was no doubt in my mind; a ride to Pompone on the dusty and winding roads we would have being much worse. When the GPS indicated an ETA of 1 minute, we could see Lac Pompone straight ahead of us. As we approached, I noticed logging roads and cabins scattered here and there. I recalled Hap's comments about the impact of man on this river and he was right. I became even more apprehensive when I notice a flotilla of canoes on the lake. I was fearful that we might not have a similar wilderness experience as we did on the Noire the previous year. The plane banked sharply to the left, kissed the tree tops and then landed smoothly on the water. As soon as the plane came to a stop, we loaded our packs into the canoe and in no time the plane was taking off again. Christopher and I were at first debating the merit of paddling to the portage located at the end of the lake. But after we judged the distance to the outlet, we instead opted to paddle to a nearby sandy beach and wait for Jim and Austin's arrival. We took advantage of the wait to rearrange our packs and inflate our bow and stern air bags. It was a very nice day with not a cloud in the sky, so a swim was in order.
Before long we heard the rumbling of the Beaver engine as it approached, yet we could not see it. Finally, it emerged from a cove already gliding on the water. We quickly paddled over to the plane and by time we got there Jim and Austin had already unloaded their canoe and the plane was again ready for take-off. It took us all a few minutes to get oriented to exactly where the outlet of Lac Pompone was, but we eventually figured it out and set course for it. A few kilometers of paddling and we were at our first portage of the trip. The portage trail was on the right side, it was somewhat rocky but short. This early on the trip we were all very motivated and we were back on the water in no time. Our goal for the first day was to do this portage, run Rapid #7 (Double Trouble) and then camp at the first camp site river right. Our first rapid for the trip, was definitely worth scouting. We pulled over on the left bank and proceeded to walk over logs that lead us to a big boulder that overlooked the rapid. Some of the rocks Hap had outlined in his book were submerged. This provided a better approach and made the run fairly straight forward, a ledge with a tongue on river left. We hit the tongue and all was well, we both ran it as we had planned and moved on.
As we paddled toward the camp site we could see the group of canoes I had noticed during the landing negotiating Bride Rapid. We headed toward the campsite marked in Hap's book and soon found it. The campsite was a big disappointment, for whatever reason someone had parked a camping trailer on the site. It appeared to be parked at the location for some time and not used very often. We debated whether or not to take the risk to move on. We had a large group ahead of us and Air Swisha had told us they had flown in a couple in the morning. Well, we tempted chance and decided to go down river. This would mean we would have to run at least one more rapid of some significance today; Bride Rapid CL II # 8. We were hoping that the site at km199, located after rapid #9 would be too small for the large group and would therefore be open for us. We did not scout Bride Rapid, it looked straight forward and we ran it, per Hap, river left to center, a fun long rapid with good wave action. We proceeded down-river and somehow we had lost site of the group ahead of us. We were enjoying the scenery and not paying much attention to where we were going. Eventually we realized that we were supposed to go through an opening river-left at around km 202, but we had missed it. Realizing our mistake, we back paddled, made the correct turn and were now entering a large body of water. We passed km 200, rapid #9 and were now looking for the smaller campsite river-right. Bad luck, the couple that was flown in the morning had set up camp there, we had to move on. From Hap's book, we were all aware of the lack of campsites on the upper section of the river and it was getting late, not to mention that we already had a long day. No one was talking but we were all contemplating the possibility that we might have to bushwhack a site. We had to make a decision soon, at around km 196, where the river makes a sharp 90 degree left turn we noticed a large boulder on river-right. On the right of the boulder formation I noticed an area where canoes may have been taken out. We decided to explore and finally, luck was on our side, a nice campsite was located just up the bank. It was flat and had a fire pit, the previous occupants even left fire wood ready to be used. The site would have room for about three to four tents. We put up camp and quickly started to cook supper. By time we were eating it was dark and we finished cooking with our flash lights. This was the end of a long first day!
Jim and I were up at around 6:30 and we made coffee and prepared breakfast for the boys. In the mean time we saw the couple that camped on the smaller camp site passing by us, they were wishing us a good day. It was a nice sunny day. We packed and were on the river at around 10:00. Despite a long day yesterday we were happy with our progress, considering we were only on the river for a few hours. Jim had equipped his canoe with a partial homemade spray deck; my canoe was outfitted with a spray deck that I had never used before. This was not the type of river requiring a spray deck, but what the heck; this would be a good opportunity to try it out. Judging the water level from the banks, it looked higher than normal. This was good sign since it would probably cover some rocks and give us smoother runs. A few miles down river we passed the camp site were the larger group we saw yesterday, was camping. The group included about eight kids ranging in ages from 12-14 with two adult leaders. I was impressed by the challenge these two leaders had taken on, taking a group of kids on such journey is not a small task. Just down stream was rapid #10, a long CL II rapid. We stopped and took a look and went for it. I quickly could see the advantage of a spray deck, especially when we hit some of the big waves in the middle of the rapid. We had a blast; it was definitively a fun rapid.
Next we came to rapid #12; we ran it without scouting per Haps notes as we did for rapid #17. Rapid #20 CL III we portaged. When we arrived on Tall Pine Rapid our intention was to take a good look at it before attacking. The rapid arrived so fast upon us that before we realized it, we were already engaged. My first mistake was immediately evident as I engaged the rapid river right instead of river left and got hung up on the first ledge. We let the canoe spin around and slid down the ledge backwards into an eddy. No harm done, we spun the canoe around and pointed it in the right direction. The waves became larger and larger as we progressed down the rapid. At one point I was looking at a four foot hole. The bow completely disappeared in the water and Christopher was almost knocked out of the canoe. Without the spray deck we probably would have been swimming. Jim was watching us going down and was debating whether to go or not, but he decided to go for it. He started the rapid at the correct entry point, river left; I could see he was running the same route as I had. As I was watching, I could see he was taking on water and after he came out of the big hole his canoe was almost filled. Skillfully, without tipping, he nursed his canoe to shore and emptied out the water. Wow! This was one hell of a run!
As we proceeded to the end of the rapid we noticed the couple that passed us in the morning, watching us coming down and perhaps wondering if they had to pick up some swimmers. They had opted to line Tall Pine Rapid, probably a wise decision for an open canoe. We were initially planning to camp on Tall Pine Rapid but it was early in the day. In addition we could see the couple was pulling over to it and were already taking their canoe out. We proceeded down river to the CL I rapid # 22 (Stonewall Rapid). After running CL I #26 we decided to look for a campsite. We noticed on river right an area where canoes were pulled out, just a bit after the swifts that followed rapid #26. It had a log retaining wall that probably dated from the logging days. We decided to head to shore and evaluate. Yes, it was a camp site, it was relatively big and had room for many tents and had been used before, judging from the trash that could be found here and there. Some of the previous occupants had built a small jumping platform, something the boys really liked. Another site was visible from this location and it was just down river about 1 kilometer. Jim and I were debating if we should stay here or move on, but seeing the boys having fun jumping from the platform was reason enough to stay. We settled in and while the boys had their fun, Jim and I relaxed in our hammock. After an hour or so the group with kids with their two leaders passed us. We exchanged greetings as they proceeded to the next campsite. We cooked supper and settled in for night.
Jim and I were up and about at around 6:30 we started the day with our usual cup of coffee. We sat in our mosquito tent pondering the upcoming day. It was overcast and the air was heavy and humid. The boys were still asleep, as any good teenager would be at this time of the day. After our first cup of coffee the weather seemed to turn, drops of rain were hitting the mosquito tent. Almost in unison we jumped out of our shelter, got the boys out of the sacs and immediately broke camp. There was no reason to pack wet tents unless it really had to be. We managed to break camp and cover all the packs with a tarp just in time before the sky opened up. Rain was not our only concern, we could also hear and see thunder and lightning, and it was getting closer and closer. By then, all four of us were huddled in our mosquito tent watching the water just pouring down the sides. At one point a lightning bolt hit within a few hundred meters from us and scarred the hell out of us. Finally, the weather cleared and the thunder storm progressively moved away. We finished packing and launched soon after.
We passed the two guides and their pupils while they were packing on the other campsite. This was the last time we encountered them. From the river looking up it looked like the campsite was Ok (Km 177). By now the sun came out and a northwesterly breeze was keeping us cool. We ran a few CL I rapids and in no time we could hear the roar of the "Cascade du Batardeaux." We stopped to scout, opted for a different route than Hap had suggested. The idea of back ferrying before a drop was not too enticing to us. Instead we opted for a route river-left; along the shore, the water was high enough and most all rocks were submerged. Christopher and I ran first, besides hitting a boulder on the last drop, we had a fairly smooth run. Jim and Austin followed; they corrected the route a bit and had a perfect run. We pulled over on river left for the portage. The large log pile Hap illustrates in his book was gone and this improved the access for the portage. We portaged our packs to the take-in and lifted over the canoes over the first drop and then lined the rest of the way.
Before getting back on the river one had to admire the beautiful rock coloring near the end of the portage trail, it is definitively worth taking some pictures of it. The scenery was gorgeous, bluff and fast water. Before long we arrived at our next portage located on river-left and 275m long, around a fall. The trail was good except at one location where a tree was obstructing the way. A poor campsite for one, maybe two tents was also noticeable 2/3 down the trail. Before reloading the canoes, we sat next to the fall and enjoyed lunch. The boys took advantage of the break and went for a quick swim. We proceeded to the 35 m portage; we took a look at it and ran it river-left, it was bumpy but very doable.
Rapid/fall #35 was a surprise for us; we were not expecting such large drops. I guess Hap referring to the drops as "LIFTOVERS" somehow diminished their significance. Make no mistakes; those two consecutive drops were of major significance. We approached the first drop on river- left; it was a rather difficult lift-over. We stayed on river- left and proceeded in a similar fashion over the second drop. In retrospect, I believe we could have lined both drops all the way down on river- right where the drop is more progressive and saved us some grief. Finally, we were done with the portages for the day. Next challenge was a long CL II, rapid # 36, that was not difficult, just plain fun. Our last goal for the day was now to find a decent campsite. We proceeded down river and were now entering the meandering river section; this meant the dreaded sandy beaches. All sites were of the same caliber, on river bends and all sand, since none were to our liking we kept on paddling. Finally we had to make a choice, on Km 146 we took one of the sandy campsites and called it a day.
We started the day with the usual routine, except we had fine sand all over. We started our paddle at 9:30 and continued through the long meanders. To our surprise we were still making good time and getting a break from the portages was a welcome change. We stopped at the spring on river-left (Km 127) and enjoyed the nice cold drink of spring water and filled up all our canteens. A bit further down we stopped and checked out the campsite at the fork of the Riviere de la Corneille and the Coulonge. Definitely a very nice camp site with room for probably four to five tents, but it was too early in the day so we opted to proceed to Chute Gautier. The fact that we had not seen anyone on the river since yesterday morning gives us the feeling of isolation. We arrived at Chute Gautier, we ran the upper CL I and portaged from point "A" to "B"; next we ran the canoes down to point "C". We opted not to paddle around point "E", any mistake at that location would mean going over the fall. The campsite marked "NICE" in Haps book is no more. The two upper sites are OK to mediocre, the bottom site has a hunting shack in the back of it and one would practically have to camp on a gravel road. We opted to camp up a ridge of point "C". It was a poor site requiring us to clean out some brush in order to find places for two tents, but at least the view was good. I am still scratching my head,
"who was the bone head that authorized the building of a cabin in such a pristine area?" As punishment for the cabin location, we used their outhouse. The fall on the bottom of Chute Gautier is particularly spectacular and worth several pictures.
On the river at 9:00, another beautiful but hot day. The wind seamed to have shifted back south west, bringing along the humidity and the heat. We passed a remnant of a bridge at Km 94 and the lumber camp that was located in the area was not visible from the river. The river had good current and the paddle from Chute Gautier to Chute du Diable was done in an easy day. There are at least three sites at Chute du Diable; we felt the one on the bottom overlooking a lake to be the best. Here again, two cabins were erected on river- right. Fortunately, they were somewhat located out of the way and did not interfere too much with the beauty of the fall. The trail leading to the lower campsite was very good. We put up camp and relaxed for the rest of the day while going for a swim and trying our luck at fishing. No fish dinner, instead we had to settle for couscous with chicken. The sky became overcast and weather was deteriorating rapidly. We made the usual preparation for rain and were hoping we would not have to face a thunderstorm to the likes we had a few days ago. Eventually it started to rain and the wind was picking up in strength, we were all nestled in out mosquito tent hoping that the storm would be a short one. All of a sudden an almost tornado-like gust of wind came through, ripping all the anchors out of our shelter tent. Looking down on the lake, we could see water being picked off the surface, almost forming a water spout. To make matters worse, trees were breaking off and falling around us. By then we decided it was too dangerous to stay in the tent. We all felt it was safer to be out of the tent so we could perhaps dodge the falling trees if we had to. Luckily, no trees fell on our tents or on us, but the inclement weather and its strength and damage are something I will never forget. Lightning preceded the wind, but luckily for us it was not very close. When it was all over we crawled into our tents, all wishing for good nights sleep.
During the night the bad weather did not flare up again and the morning was the beginning of another beautiful day. We broke camp and were back on the river at 9:00. Before heading down river, we paddled over to the chute and took a few pictures; it was another beautiful waterfall. The damage resulting from last night's wind gust was apparent all along the shore. We could see uprooted trees lying in the water, while many other trees had their tops broken off. Not before long we arrived at a CL II, Little Devil Rapid. We stopped to scout and ran it according to Hap. It was definitively worth taking a look at; it certainly had the potential for trouble. Austin made some memories as well on this rapid, while scouting he stepped off the path and accidentally stirred up a bees nest. He ended up with eight stings. We kept an eye on him for a while and after a half hour or so we felt he would survive the ordeal. We proceeded to Die Hard Rapid, stopped to scout and decided to line it on river-left. We did not like the upper CL III drop and the lower CL II had too many to boulders for our taste. We stopped at a nice lunch spot river-left located on the bottom of the rapid. We continued our journey toward Rapides Enrages until we encountered Leroy, an Indian that lives up a tall bank on river-left. He offered us some cold refreshments; well, after five days of drinking warm river water we were an easy target. We paddled over and walked up the long and steep bank. We visited with Leroy for about an hour or so and enjoyed the cold drinks he pulled out of his propane powered refrigerator. We found him to be quite interesting as he told us his life story. He invited us to camp at his place and even to cook food for us. But we chose to stay on plan and gratefully made an offering to his donation box before we went on our way.
We arrived at Rapides Enrages at around 4:30. We pulled out river-right and proceeded to scout the various options. We looked at the possible route Hap outlined on river- left, but the water level was too high for us to cross over to point "D" and "E". It was getting late and setting up camp became our first priority. We proceeded down the trail "B" (the Hell Trail as some refer to). We found the camp site "M" to be occupied by a group of teenagers; we proceeded further down the trail and found a great site next to Triple Play Rapid. We returned to our canoes via the road trail, but since it added a significant amount of distance to an already long portage, we ruled this option out. We carried all our cargo down to the campsite while making sure to take a fresh drink of water at the wonderful cold spring half way down the trial. The portage sapped all the remaining energy out of us; we therefore opted to leave the canoe transfer for the morning. The camp site at Triple Play Rapid deserves an E rating, nice logs to sit on and very roomy.
As morning came we still had to finish our portage, as we looked up river and much to our surprise, the kids that camped up river from us were already heading down. They ran Triple Play with no difficulty and, judging from their paddling technique it was obvious they knew what they were doing. We headed one more time up the trail and carried the canoe down to the spring just below the Cascade "C". From there we took advantage of the nearby lagoon to float the canoes down to campsite "E". The lagoon was very shallow and filled with boulders, I knelt in the middle of my empty canoe and soloed it down to the end of the lagoon, bumping and grinding on the rocks all the way. The boys, having a weight advantage over us old guys were able to run the other canoe down in tandem. I assume one could probably line a loaded canoe down the lagoon and somewhat reduce the length of the portage. From that point "E" we jumped in our canoes and paddled down to Triple Play Rapid and pulled over to our campsite. We loaded our packs into the canoes and headed down river to the discovery of a new daily adventure. Before long we arrived at Rapid Galinotte. We proceeded per Hap's notes, a combination of portaging and running. We enjoyed several nice swifts before arriving to rapid No 52 which we ran without scouting. The water level was high enough, making many of the boulders Hap referred to not visible. We all had a great run and hoped for more soon.
Our next significant hurdle was Chute de L'Ours. As we approached the rapid we encountered the group of kids that was camping on site "E", three teenage girls with two young male guides. It was quite surprising to see three girls running around in bikinis in the middle of nowhere. If I were a teenage boy, now that is some guiding expedition I wouldn't mind signing up for! Before proceeding to the take-out at point "B", we stopped over and chatted with them for a while. As we headed down the trail we encountered the group of kids we had seen on Rapides Enrages. They had put up camp on the second site located next to the trail. The site was not spacious but nice, perhaps two or three tents. We portaged all our gear plus canoes to point "C" and launched from a little cove next to the fall. It was only a short paddle before we arrived at our last major rapid of the trip; Rapides Guenettes, a long rapid with multiple ledges. We proceeded very carefully down the rapid on river-right, a bit down the rapid we decided to scout the CL IIs. We noticed several good holes at some of the drops; the possibility of swimming some of these holes was very real. Conservatively we opted to line this section. Once through it, the campsite located on in the middle of the rapid river-right became visible. It was probably the best on the river. I couldn't imagine a better place to spend our last night on the river. We fished the rest of the day and hoped to improve our last dinner on the river. We were blessed with several nice small mouth bass.
Jim and I wanted to spend another night on the river but the boys were getting anxious to go back to the civilized world. Only age teaches one how to appreciate such moments to the fullest. We paid respect to Alex Genette who lost his life on this rapid, while imagining how difficult and dangerous life was for those river men.
Our last night on the river went as they all did; without a glitch. We got up at 6:30 and started with our usual cup of coffee while making breakfast. The boys, smelling the end was near were rather motivated to break camp. We had at least four more ledges left to run on this rapid. We lined our canoes over the first ledge, near the campsite, and then pulled them to the shore just below the camp where we proceeded to load. When we were just about ready to leave we saw the group of kids that we had seen the last two days scouting the CL II section we had lined the day before. They decided to run it. The first canoe, which was probably the most experienced paddlers, did a beautiful job avoiding the big holes and made it successfully. The next canoe did not fair so well, it was almost filled to gunwale before they nursed it to the shore. The last two canoes went for a swim. While they got their canoes back into floating condition we jumped into ours and paddled the rest of the rapid. There were three more ledges left to run, Hap classified the drops as CL I. But I felt, depending where one were to runs them, more like CL IIs. The ledges are river wide and are hard to scout. As we paddled away from this beautiful long rapid we took one last good look with some sadness. Before long we approached the last CL II of the trip, rapid #55. We opted not to scout it and ran in the center avoiding most of the troublesome holes, it was a blast.
Following this rapid was a long stretch of almost continuous CL I water that reminded me of the Noire before getting to the Black River Inn. Eventually the river widened and slowed down as civilization became more and more apparent. We did not encounter any more rapids from that point on. We passed under the bridge at Km 21 and were now looking for the take-out at the golf course. The wind had picked up and like always, it came from the wrong direction, head on. The take out was not easy to find and we actually passed by it. We stopped at what appeared to be an obvious boat landing and asked someone for the location. We back paddled about a half km to the point where one can see the golf course. We pulled out and found out that the club house was located up a long hill requiring at least a Km hike. We retrieved our vehicle and loaded up for the trip home.
The Coulonge is a beautiful river, with nice falls and very scenic. One has to overlook the impact of man and the scarcity of campsites on the upper section of the river. Since the campsites are not marked it is difficult to make plans and one has to play roulette when deciding to press on. They are quite a few hunting cabins located along the river, some of them are not very aesthetic looking. There always seems to be a road nearby which offers both rescue or put-in options but unfortunately, also makes the trip not exactly a wilderness trip. Beside a few semi-difficult portages, most of them are easy with relatively good trails. Judging from our skill level (intermediate), we found most of the rapids fun, not too difficult, yet challenging enough to keep our interest. There are several take-outs near falls and one needs to be on the look out for these locations. We did catch some fish and probably could have caught more had we tried a bit harder. The wildlife we saw on the river were few (no bear or moose) and somewhat disappointing. We opted to fly in which is an expensive proposition but there are several local outfitters that provide shuttle services for much less (John Peron from the Auberge de la Riviere Noire). When flying in, remember the take-out is where you can see the golf course from the shore. The club house where your vehicle is parked, is about one km uphill. On a final note, do not let these few negative comments discourage you from going to this river. These comments are only so one is mentally prepared for what to expect. Most of the river has a wild look to it and is very scenic with beautiful water falls. The beauty definitely outweighs the few negative attributes. We only encountered four groups of canoeists in seven days. I would certainly not call it crowded.
Rx Wenonah Cascade (17.5 ft) equipped with a North Water spray deck and Rx Nova Craft Prospector (17 ft)
We flew-in with Air Swisha
Trans-Canada Hwy 17 to Rolphton ONT, cross into Quebec to Rapides des Joachims for fly-in.
"Rivers of the Upper Ottawa Valley" by Hap Wilson (no other maps are needed)