The Romaine River emerges from countless bogs and lakes near the 52 parallel on the Quebec-Labrador border and flows South to eventually meet the sea along Quebec’s Côte Nord (North Coast). The Romaine River flows through a vast wilderness area and drops 1350 feet in its final 130 miles. This amazing river is currently being destroyed for profit by Quebec Hydro, a company owned by the Canadian Government. The Romaine Complex will be composed of 4 dams that will be capable of producing 1550 Megawatts. All of the power produced will be exported to the United States.
Realizing that this was a once in a lifetime chance to paddle this river before it was dewatered and flooded, we hashed a plan together in less than a week to travel 1400 miles North East to the small town of Havre Saint Pierre, a fishing and iron ore export port along the coast. Four paddlers; John Moore(Calorie King), Dave Carey (International Playboy and Pro Kayaker), Brian Kish (negotiator and black fly bait), and myself (Muscle/ Cop look-a-like)met up on a Friday night for a 27 hour marathon drive to a small float plane base outside of Havre St. Pierre. We made a few stops along the way including a stop in Quebec City for lunch made by Dave’s Québécois girlfriend (which he met during our last Quebec epic adventure earlier this summer). Upon arrival we realized we had been foiled and there was no lunch. We drove out of Quebec City following Route 138 for 12 hours heading North East . Hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline, small towns, and other legendary whitewater creeks and rivers past by on our way North. We arrived Saturday night after midnight and set up camp at the mouth of the Romaine.
Early next morning we woke and headed for the airport. When we arrived we were informed the cloud ceiling was too low to fly over the 3500 foot mountains. We waited there all day hoping for a break in the weather, which never came. On Monday morning the weather was even worse, pelting rain and 30 mph winds. The group morale was low as we might have had to turn around and attempt another run. Finally we awoke Tuesday and we could see the mountains for the first time. We loaded up quickly with boats and gear for six days of wilderness paddling into a 1956 Otter float plane. Our pilot Tan Gauy, (Pepe la Pew) spoke broken English and ensured us the plane was young because it was the same age as he was. He did this while passing a sheet in French about what to do in case there was a crash. We took off and flew over a tapestry of lakes, bogs and granite bubbles. We also flew over a massive 93 mile road construction project that will lead to the impending doom of the river. Pepe landed the plane in a narrow deep straight in the river with incredible skill and we unloaded our boats and gear onto a sandy island. As the plane took off we all realized this is the most remote place that we had ever been.
On the first day we dropped the hammer to make up for our two day flight delay; some flat water and easy rapids brought us into the first gorge. Granite walls and domes rose nearly 1000 feet above the river bed. 180 cubic feet per second or 6,400 cfs roared through the gorge in a pool drop fashion. The rapids were big and powerful and we quickly learned our long boats with 50-60 pounds of gear didn’t behave the way we were used to. We were armed with hand drawn canoe maps that had been made some 30 years ago, but proved to be extremely helpful. They indicated where the campsites, chutes (waterfalls) and rapids were as well as suggested routes and portage trails; all of these directions were in French of course. Many of the rapids had multiple lines and channels ranging from class 5+ big water to low volume class 4. We made two portages in the first gorge around a chute and a class 5+ rapid. We opted to boat conservatively considering our loaded boats and the remoteness of the river. In the big rapids our normal plan of action was to find a low volume channel and sneak down as far as we could until we needed to scout or portage. Near the end of the gorge I was probing a class 4 drop with two offset holes. I found myself being dragged into the second hole and the surf began I made a few strong attempts to surf out, but the hole was a perfect boat keeping a steep walled C shaped hole. I decided to hang in the hole until some of the other group members could get down to me. After about 3 minutes my arm felt like it was ready to fall off and I had to swim. This was my first swim in four years. John bagged me with a rope. After recovering my boat we paddled a few more miles and had our only campfire and dry night of the trip. We camped on a beautiful sand bar just above a 20 foot waterfall.
After breakfast and packing up we started the day with an easy twenty foot slide and a class 4 drop, then we came face to face with 15 kilometers of flat water. We paddled steady trying to make it to the next gorge. We stopped only for a few #1 breaks and an hour lunch break. At lunch each day we watched in amazement as John plowed through 14 ounces of tuna, two mountain house meals (serves 2) and some trail mix for desert. To pass the time we talked creeks near and far, bowel movements, and the women of Fayette County, PA. We came to the second gorge after lunch; what we found were more huge powerful rapids. The class 4 rapids had huge wave trains and stoppers while the class 5’s had even bigger features with multiple moves. We portaged two drops in this gorge a stout waterfall and a long class 6 rapid. Near the end of the gorge we saw a helicopter and workers cutting trees and stringing a line across the river. It was our first reminder of the fate of this amazing river.
On day three we paddled 45 kilometers of swiftly moving flat water punctuated by a few nice class 2-3 rapids. We paddled through an amazing Yosemite-like gorge, thousand foot granite walls rose steeply above the river and waterfalls leaped off its brim. A forest fire had ripped through the area several years back on the eastern shore and stood out starkly in contrast with the dense forest on the opposite bank. A black bear making its way down the bank took a minute to watch us float by. He actually sat down like a stuffed animal and watched us pass. Rain fell steady throughout the day just like it had done the day before; the group joke soon became that it was clearing up. Nearing the end of day we reached the dam site of Romaine 2. Trees were cut down, machines were bulldozing and what used to be mountain had been blown away. The natural river channel was blocked and the river was diverted into a gigantic tunnel to allow for the construction of dam. Our hearts sank as we saw the destruction realizing the wilderness part of our trip was over. The dam to be built will be over 300 feet high and would flood the 30 kilometers upstream, drowning the second gorge and diverting water around the third. Quebec Hydro provided a shuttle around the dam site. We were adamant about wanting to put in directly below the dam so that we could paddle the final gorge called Les Murailles which translates loosely to mean the rampart or the walls of a fortress. We tried to communicate this to the security officers but they drove us 15 kilometers downstream and said they were bound by their orders. We tried to get in contact with their superior but she had already left the office. We decided to camp close to where we were dropped off and call in the morning with our satellite phone.
The next morning Brian Kish, while pants-less negotiated access to below the dam. Within 45 minutes the security crew had arrived and we were on our way. Best of all we left all of our heavy gear at camp which we would paddle down to later. Upon arriving we had to wait until someone pointed out where we were allowed to put on. Around the bend we came to the spire rapid where a narrow channel pours into a furious looking hole just below an impressive 25 foot tall spire rock. We took some time here to admire the amazing scenery and the explosive thunder of the Romaine at its finest. There were no takers on that line but we ran a fun series of class 4 slides down a back channel.
Below the spire we had a heavy dose of class 4-5 with two chutes mixed in. The first chute was an impressive seven meter falls with a stunt devil line down the center and keeper holes on each side; again we opted for the portage. We carried down a steep sloped mass of granite that had been polished smooth by high water since the last ice age. The slick rock required ropes to lower the boats down to a tricky seal launch pad. A quick scout around the bend revealed a 3 meter ledge with a burly keeper hole. To avoid it we needed to execute a hard ferry across 6,800 cfs between the backside of a hole and a boulder. We all made the ferry and found a sweet class 4 sneak to finish out the rapid. After a short pool we came to Les Murailles a one-hundred foot vertical rock wall that ran straight downstream as far as we could see. We followed the wall and moved quickly through several big water class 4-5 rapids until reaching the final series of drops before the Basin of Les Murailles. We ran center down a 10 foot wide tongue accelerating at an alarming rate reaching the trough and then rocketing to the peak of a twelve foot wave each of us relieved we had made it past the 50 foot wide holes that lay on each side of the tongue. The next drop was similar but there was no tongue; we portaged quickly and floated up to the brink of the final drop. The drop had been run once by a previous group and was named the land of the giants. The rapid dwarfed my previous notion of what a big rapid looked like. Here the water dropped nearly 50 feet though a series of slides and ledges choked with a chaotic storm of dynamic waves and explosive hydraulics. The portage around this drop was the hardest on the run, we had to hand our boats up over a ledge and down a cliff to reach a decent spot to put in; luckily all our heavy gear was waiting for us at camp 10 km downstream. In the pool below the rapid, construction of the powerhouse and penstock were well underway. Soon this gorge will be completely dewatered.
We headed downstream to eat lunch and pack up camp. We still had lots of miles to cover to get home on time. We paddled 15 km of flat moving water to the next set of chutes. The first drop was one of the most constricted drops on the run and poured over a 6 foot ledge into the frothiest water I have ever seen. There was more air than water in the boil. Surprisingly, there was a line off a boof flake on the right. I went first and plugged it deep; my stern came up first, but a few powerful strokes with my new paddle had me out of harm’s way in a hurry. The other guys ran after about 2 feet to the right boofing off the wall with much better success. Downstream we ran a fun slide ledge and paddled down to the next chute. This chute was actually a big wave train rapid. We scouted and John ran an easy line down the right. I convinced Brian and Dave to follow me down the meat of a big water wave train. It appeared to be an easy left to right line with only one hole near the middle of the rapid on the left. Brian and Dave did not scout on their own and asked if there were any big holes, I replied “nothing that will stop you.” I back-paddle ferried into position at the top of the rapid and began my descent charging into the giant waves which were about twice as big as they appeared on the scout. I started to climb the tallest wave which was a true 12 foot monster. The wall of the wave was nearly vertical, my bow climbed above the top of the wave as I was starring at the sky. I reached out for my next stroke to crest the wave but I never got there. The next thing I knew I was getting worked in the biggest hydraulic of my life. I looked left and right to see if I could surf out of the hole. I knew what I had to do next; I clenched my paddle and pulled my skirt for the second time on the trip. Luckily, I flushed down the rapid quickly but I was being pulled downstream into another ledge that we hadn’t scouted yet. I swam with my paddle as hard as I could to make an eddy. I got to shore very relieved. After the swim I had learned that the wave had back surfed and typewritered me twenty feet to the left into a huge hole.
We decided to camp just downstream because it was late and we felt it wasn’t a good idea to proceed to the next chute and class 5 rapid a few kilometers downstream as it was getting dark. Each time we pulled onto shore we greeted by a cocktail of blood sucking insects, worst of all “la mouche,” the black fly. Within 30 seconds of pulling ashore we prepared our defenses; head nets drawn, deet applied, sometimes we even wore gloves. Even with our precautions, dozens of black flies found a way to fulfill their primordial instinct and drew first blood. We often wondered what the flies did when we weren’t there to bite. Black fly bites reactions are a lot like poison ivy reactions, some people are affected very little while others swell up and break into hives. Brian Kish fell into the latter category. By the 5th mourning Brian’s face was swollen to the point where his eyes had nearly swelled shut. There was some pity, but mostly jokes resulted from brains face which looked liked he had visited an insane Botox doctor. Despite his near blindness Brian continued to paddle downstream.
On the fifth mourning we had 60 km of river to the takeout or a 20 km paddle and a two mile hike out. We debated both options but left it up in the air for a later decision. After a short paddle we came to the most interesting rapid on the run. Here two converging channels surged together creating a hole that would form, then suddenly break and flatten out completely. A few seconds later it would form again. We watched the cycle carefully to try hit it just at the right moment. I charged it a little late and punched the hole as it started to form and caught an eddy just downstream. In the eddy the water suddenly rose five feet before quickly dropping out. Our last major obstacle was La Grande Chute a two tiered 80 foot waterfall. It was a truly impressive site watching 6,800 cfs drop that much gradient all at once. Just below the falls was our last class 5 rapid, and a bridge was being built directly over it. A worker came down and told us that he called security we needed to walk about a 100 ft up and a ¼ mile around the rapid to avoid the work site. Brian and Dave informed him that we were just going to run it, which we did. A few kilometers downstream the river turned and began to parallel the coast. We were greeted with a stout coastal breeze forming foot high waves with whitecaps. We trudged through about a mile of this before taking a break, we had 40 kilometers to go which would have been impossible. We also realized we passed the hike out spot by a mile. At that point we decided to paddle back upstream and hike out. The paddle upstream was easy with a strong wind on our backs and waves to surf.
We hit the shore and began our hike first crawling through a thick patch of alder and then up a densely forested steep hill complete with lots of dead falls. Already exhausted at the top of the hill we still had 1.9 miles to go. We continued to drag our fully loaded long boats through a thick forest as I struggled to figure out how to use my newly bought gps. About 45 minutes into the hike we came to a large opening in the forest where a vast bog sat. It was a beautiful, but daunting sight. I began marching through the bog and quickly learned not to step on the red moss. I sunk waist deep in quick mud nearly losing my booties. We paddled across a few ponds and slowly made our way across the bog. Each step pulling a 100 lbs of boat and gear was a challenge, to make it worse I had lost a water bottle on the hill, and I knew I was getting dehydrated. Finally across the bog we followed the GPS back into the woods and made our last push to the road. The black flies were happy we came to visit. Finally, two miles and three hours later we made it to the road. John threw out his thumb to hitch a ride to the airport and instantly got a ride. A short time later we loaded up, plowed some poutine (French fries, gravy, and cheese curds) and set off for our 27 hr ride home. Brian “Rip Van Winkle” Kish slept for about 24 out of the 27 hour car ride home. The Last Descent of the Romaine is a trip that we all will remember the rest of our lives.
The paddler profiles:
• Art Barket, 27, middle school Technology Education Teacher, 7 years paddling
• Brian Kish, 27, internationally traveling architect, 8 years paddling
• Dave Carey, 30, Unemployed, 20 years paddling
• John Moore, 38, Coal Power Plant technician, 13 years paddling
Photos and Story by Art Barket
For More Romaine Photos and other Quebec Epic Photos check http://artbarket.smugmug.com/Whitewater-Kayaking