I first saw the lake on a satellite picture. I was drawn to its perfect roundness, remoteness, some interesting crinkly edges and the unequivocal commitment of a full lap. A couple of years of procrastination, blamed firmly on “the covid” meant I didn’t get a-round to it until July 2022.
Exhaustive Googling (nearly 20 minutes) produced a grand total of two trip reports; I recommend Rob Rutten’s excellent description of the history and geology of the feature (link below).
Early decisions were that I could do this solo, in a fast but seaworthy kayak (Rockpool Taran and a wing paddle, if you’re interested) and that for me there were not many reasons to stop for a long period; I don’t fish and there weren’t any unusual birds or animals to search for. I felt like I needed an inReach for a bit more safety, and extra food in case I got pinned down by excessively sporty weather, something that the reports suggested was a distinct possibility. The nature of a circular lake means there are always two very long fetches of downwind open water, so it’s a good bet that some section of the lake is going to have a bit of buildup. As it turned out, the worst conditions I faced were on the first day, where crossing to the island put me on the business end of a ten mile fetch, creating a morale-sapping four or five foot chop under a 15 knot headwind. A relaxing way to ease into the trip, I think you’ll agree.
A big decision on this trip is where to launch. It has to be somewhere along the eastern, usually leeward side along Route 389. Option one, to put in near the Relais Gabriel gas station, is sketchy but a better suited for poor weather. Option two is secure and more legit, but costs money. This is Station Uapishka, which has a nice website and hostel-like facilities.
Because I am cheap and carefree, I chose option one. It is unclear on the satellite, and in real life, whether this site is public, safe, or legit. It looks and feels like a typical dodgy whitewater putin in the US northeast: from the highway a narrow gap in the trees leads to a dirt road which forks into ever smaller roads near the lake with numerous gravel parking areas and one or two ramps into the water. Campfire circles, abandoned sheds and bulldozed undergrowth show that it’s occasionally used. When I arrived there was a VW campervan of Germans who had been there two nights and not seen anyone on the property. There is little to no indication of whether it’s okay to park and launch here. It doesn’t seem to be owned by Relais Gabriel, and while there is one tiny plywood sign saying ‘private driveway’ in French, it is clear that many people come here to launch and have campfires. After unloading my boat and gear at the water’s edge, I pulled my car as far into the most obscure, unused dead-end track and left it there for nearly a week without any apparent problem.
The biggest, and almost only, navigation decision comes as soon as you put in – do I turn left or right? Clockwise or anti-? Turnwise or Widdershins? Once you’ve decided that, it’s just ‘follow the coastline’, maybe going one side of an island or the other but without great consideration. It would seem like the inside line is considerably shorter, but in fact when the distances to and from the island are factored in, the journeys are almost identical at about 130 miles. There may be good reason for switching from inner to outer ring to seek wind shelter, or vice versa, but any advantage might be negated by the crossing. At the twelve o’clock position, though, there is a narrows that would facilitate an easier crossing. The gap is such that crossing or hugging the coast will be equally exposed, so this is your best place to change sides. Getting from the inside track back over to the takeout is quite exposed although prevailing winds could make it a sporty downwind surf.
Camping is a doddle. Especially in the northern half, most of the coastline is beach and you can literally pull off anywhere. No tide, no campsite critters, and there are many windswept peninsulas to keep the bugs at bay. I paddled in early July and there were a few blackflies here and there. I wore a bugshirt once, but it was less bitey than many other Northeastern trips I’ve done. There are no official campsites, and there are so many options that I never saw any sign of previous groups.
The lake water was cold and clear. I used a big ol’ filter pump, but chemical purification would be fine as the sediment-free water doesn’t need pre-filtering. Even in July, a drysuit might be a good idea for some, and you’d have to be a braver man than I to go for a dip.
The weather did not match the online forecasts for Baie Comeau or on the inReach. The temperature was at least five degrees Fahrenheit lower than at Baie Comeau, and the precipitation forecast was inaccurate. Fortunately, it erred in my favour, and after the first day’s wind and showers, there was barely any wind, and only showers on the last night. I think I got lucky.
I saw no animals to speak of on the island, only moose tracks. I spoke later to a group who was there after me and they saw wolf tracks. Loons were everywhere. One day I so nearly stepped out of my boat onto a loon’s egg that I fell over trying to avoid it and nearly lost the boat. Loon nests, no offence to loons everywhere, are pathetic; no sticks, no fluffy down to warm the egg, just a scrape in the sand and an egg sitting in broad daylight. There was no sign of the parents and I hope they returned to their egg (from what I read up on afterwards, they probably did).
I do like a good map, and tend to travel with more than I need. Part of the joy of coastal kayaking for me is following along on the map as the coastal features unfold in front of me. I love knowing where I am, what I’m looking at, and where I’m going to be next.
I bought the official Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN) 1:50,000 series maps from an official US seller, East View Geospatial. It was very easy to order online, and delivery was quick to the US. They are good quality paper maps and held up very well on the deck of a sea kayak when folded into a ten-gallon Ziplock bag. I bought all eight maps that cover the inner and outer routes, although if you’re committed to the inside line then two maps only have a mile or two of your route and can easily be skipped. They are a nice, if expensive, keepsake though.
The newest edition is 15 years old, and the lake level has dropped by maybe eight feet, so some small islands are now peninsulas. A less obsessive navigator could probably do fine with prints of satellite images, as long as the weather is good and there’s no need to take bearings. Beaches will show up better, which would have been very helpful at the south end of the island. On the island clockface, from five o’clock until seven there are few sandy beaches and my last two sites were poor, muddy and sloping. A satellite picture would have helped me plan to land at the best spots, but it was still possible to stop almost anywhere if I were willing to have a sub-par campsite.
It’s a 17 hour drive from Clinton, New York to the putin near Relais Gabriel. I chose to break the journey in the last town on the coast road, Baie Comeau. This medium-sized milltown comes in two halves, the old town and the new, with motels and fast food places in both. Like many of my experiences in Quebec, the prices are high and the language barrier is real. The last four hours of the drive are on Rt 389, the best dirt road you’ve ever driven on, but is nevertheless quite attention-grabbing. At 65 mph it’s quite smooth, and wide enough not to worry about oncoming traffic or the local pickups which blew by me like I was standing still. The older reports I had read were written before road improvements, and I found the road to be smooth and quite fun to drive in my Outback. Any car could do it, and there were quite a few small RVs and motorbikes on the road which leads up to Labrador and the ocean.
(Insert the usual anecdotes about travel in Quebec here. It’s big. It’s fantastically expensive. The roads are good. Their French is quite unlike what you learned at school, and even if you make a decent effort at trying to speaking it, you may get nothing in return. I mean, how hard should it be to order at Subway???)
In the five days it took me to paddle a lap, I saw one small motorboat, two huts, and I picked up all the garbage I found – a piece of electrical wiring, and a smooth bit of glass from a bottle. That was it. For five days, that was it. Can you imagine any maritime coastline as pristine as this? There are no designated camping sites, so perhaps the impact is more dispersed and there are small bits of litter all over the place, but I doubt it.
My original intent was to take my time, do 15-20 miles a day and spend a week or so. However, after day three, I began to get lonely, more lonely than I had prepared for. I’ve solo paddled the Maine coast, where there are always lobster boats and houses, and on the Yukon river I was never far from a fishing hut or NOLS group. Even the Everglades has navigation marks and well-used campsites. But this was different; apart from one John boat spotted over half a mile away, a hut up in the trees, and a table on a beach, I didn’t see so much as a vapour trail in the sky or power cables on the shore the entire time. I couldn’t even see a road. There were very few birds and no sea animals beyond the regulation issue Canadian beaver. I never quite bonded with the place, and couldn’t find a connection with this, the world’s largest artificial island. It didn’t feel natural, and I never felt as relaxed in the place as I so often do on an extended trip. Thus, I decided I needed to expedite my remaining days, and opted to “book it before I properly wig out.” I ended up averaging 26 miles a day and finishing in five. In my isolation I found myself having conversations with loons, terns and my alter ego; at one point, after losing my only piece of cutlery for an entire evening, I had a five minute “chat” with myself about spoon discipline. ‘Decide where to keep your spoon, and leave it there, dammit. It doesn’t matter if you think you’ll need it somewhere else in five minutes, ALWAYS put it back in the same place. How many times do I have to tell you this?’ It is good advice. ALWAYS know where your spoon is. In Blenkinsop and Henderson’s excellent Paddling pathways, an anthology devoted to paddling routes in Canada and the connectedness it creates, the authors all connected to First Nations history of the waterways they navigate. I never felt that connection to past journeys on poor Manicouagan.
Generally, I paddled in one-hour blocks. Steady but continuously for the first hour, then a ten-minute break to eat etc. Paddle for another hour, then a 20-minute break out of the boat to stretch, wander around, pump water etc. Then repeat; another split two-hour cycle, ending with a longer break with ‘hot lunch,’ making four moving hours. Finally, another two or three hours, getting progressively slower and with longer breaks, until I was done for the day. This was quite tiring, but with so much daylight, so little adverse weather, and a burdensome excess of silence, it seemed like the right thing to do.
I learned from Rob Rutten’s splendid description of the geology of the crater that this is one of the few places to find Impactite, a rock created only when a meteor impacts the planet and forms a unique metamorphic rock. My geologist friends eagerly requested that I bring back some samples, so I read up on where it’s best found (the southern quadrant of the island, allegedly) and chose to go round anticlockwise in order to carry my samples the shortest distance possible back to the car. Despite picking up over 30 pounds of every kind of rock I could see, I apparently failed to find a single sample! I wish you better luck in your searching (or perhaps less picky geologist friends).
I returned home with an overwhelming sense of the hugeness of the lake, the dam, and perhaps most of all the vastness of the Canadian ice shield. There’s a lot of nature up there, enough to make you feel as small and insignificant as you care to ingest.
Pictures at Facebook page 'Andrew's circular adventure.'
Rob Rutten’s excellent trip report
Option one, the sketchy put in
Option two, Station Uapishka
Nerd out on Impactite here
My route, if you have a Strava account
Maps of the lake, from the excellent East View Geospatial
This is the first/last map
Paddling Pathways: reflections on a changing landscape. By Sean Blenkinsop and Bob Henderson. Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing. 2022.
- Weather forecasts did not match reality.
- Long fetches will create big conditions for any lake
- Isolation. Do not expect quick or easy rescue or resupply
Long fetches create waves that would be hazardous to a canoe
- Trip Dates: 7/4/2022-7/8/2022
- Sport/Activity: Kayaking
- Skill Level: Advanced
- Water Type: Flat/Sheltered Water, Open Water/Ocean