Petite Mecatina

CanadaQuebec07 Lower St Lawrence, N Shore
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Admin
Trip Date : 
Route Author: 
Unknown
Additional Route Information
Distance: 
500 km
Duration: 
25 days
Loop Trip: 
No
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
0
Total Portage Distance: 
10 m
Longest Portage: 
6 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Advanced
Lake Travel: 
Intermediate
Portaging: 
Difficult
Remoteness: 
Advanced
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Access to Put-In Information: 

fly in from Natashquan, PQ, though a surface route has been done

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

QUEBEC’S PETITE MECATINA

On the 20st of July 2003 our group of 5 arrived at the village of Natashquan, Quebec, 500 miles east of Quebec City on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. Our target was the Petite Mecatina River, (pronounced mec KAT’ nah), which heads up in the northeast Quebec wilderness near several more famous siblings, the Moise, Magpie and Natashquan. Unlike those rivers, which get paddled pretty often, there was almost no information available about previous Mecatina trips. That’s a factor which made it attractive for us! So on July 22nd we made the 200+ mile floatplane flight north, into an un-named headwaters lake at ~1,770 feet elevation, the beginning of our 320 mile descent to sea level. We treat our trips kind of like aqueous backpacking: each person has his own boat and clothes, food for 20 days, tent and bag. Aside from some pots and a fire grid, there is very little group gear. We have three Blue Hole Sunburst 2's, a Mad River ME and a custom kevlar/fiberglass C-1.
The headwaters lake on the high plateau looked typical of other northern lakes and forests, with low, rolling wooded hills, bouldery banks with small patches of sand. It would have been a pleasant spot for a days’ relaxation and fishing. On the lake were some ducks, terns, geese and loons. But from the air we had seen a big boggy area at the south end of this lake, and before long we’d paddled into a dead-end. After exploring further to the west, we found a clear channel winding through the bog. After 5 miles, in a swampy area with pitcher plants in bloom, and a narrow sandy beach, we camped for the first night, at ~52deg42'N, 63deg15'W.
The Petite Mecatina is little more than a creek here, with adequate water to float a boat, though thin in class 1-2 rockgardens. Most of the time it’s a long, skinny lake. At the bottom of rapids brook trout bit on nearly every cast. Around the 15 mile mark the rapids picked up to class 2/3. While running these rapids, a black bear was sitting on the bank, intently watching, but turned and ran into the brush when we looked back. The next morning we passed through a 5 mile stretch of continuous bouldery class 1-2 rapids, plus 3 class 3 ledges. Then the river reverted to long pools with little current. The next day again mostly flat but with a few rapids up to class 3. Often the river was 100 meters wide and 100 mm deep with a sandy bottom. Late in the afternoon we got entertained by some very Wagnerian Opera-like thunder in the distance to the north, but the rain never hit.
July 28: We had camped at the 84 mile mark when rain came. Crawling out of the tent at11am, I found a thick, cold mist being blown upriver. It was tough coaxing a fire to life. In a steady rain we cooked a little and ate warm. I watched a pair of nighthawks catching insects over the water. That night the sleeping bag got zipped up all the way for the first time. This was the only layover day of the trip.
The next morning a heavy overcast slowly gave way to sun. We found a few more small class 1-2 bouldery rapids, and a lot more lake paddling. There were several osprey and late in the day a confused bull moose – or perhaps more than one moose, that crossed the river twice. In camp at the 108 mile mark we enjoyed a pretty sunset as the temperature dropped quickly.
At early morning it was slowly becoming sunny and showing signs of developing into a scorcher. The rapid at mile 109 was big: at the top a routine boulder garden, but part way down is an horizon line. The flow was funneled into the middle where it dropped over a boulder barricade and then is focused onto a huge boulder forming a recurving wave above and pouring over into a monster hole that looks like light should not emerge from it. Clearly a class 5, our first true portage. We ran several more boulder gardens in the class 2-3 range, then came on a broad, solid class 3, a problem because it was borderline runnable. The middle, though very technical, was the best place to be, and the runout lasted 300 yds. At the end of the day we had reached the 123 mile mark.
You know it’s going to be a tough day when, at 8:30am, you’re already thinking forward to the swim at the end of the day. One of benefits of having many miles of shallow, sandy headwaters was that the water was warm, so frequent swims with a bar of soap, and a washout of smelly shirts, were enjoyed. The flow had grown to ~ 2,000 cfs, but aside from some class 2 rapids, paddling this pseudo-river was entirely slogging it out on flatwater. At lunch on the 1st of August we figured to be at mile 168, putting us past the mileage half-way point after 9 days, and on schedule for a 20 day trip. Camp that night was along Fourmount Lake. The next day we paddled on through lakes Donquin and LeBreton, both several miles long, with a steady following breeze, and camped at the far end. Just as we were about to leave camp in the morning, a black bear was walking the beach, headed in our direction. When he heard us he headed for cover. Upon leaving Lac LeBreton, it starts to look like a river again and a couple big-volume rapids come up. Around 10:30 we ran a long class 2 rapid that has a bedrock ‘cliff’ on the left at the bottom. We paused below these cliffs to cast, and landed two good sized pike. This was a LOT of fish fillets so we had a real suppertime feast, and enjoyed viewing a vivid red sunset through thin clouds.
4 August 03. In the moist sand near the boats Curt noticed fresh, large, wolf footprints. In an hour of paddling we came to a major rapid, which was passed by a combination of lining, lifting and running. Later I noticed a sow & yearling black bear on the bank, digging in the dirt. Even when I was 50 feet away the little one didn’t care that I was there. He looked right at me. Late in the afternoon the scenery changed markedly as we approached hills, and before long we had reached the first rapid of the infamous canyon section of the Mecatina. We realized now that the river had doubled, or trebled in volume over the past few days, though with so much lake paddling, that increase had been difficult to detect. At this first rapid all that flow is necked down to less than 100 feet, and drops 20 feet through a horseshoe-shaped notch in the water-polished gray granite. I quickly termed this “The Royal Flush”-- it seemed a perfect fit. There are several incredible, huge kettle-holes in this rock. We camped at the top left, just above this rapid, where there was a sand beach only foot above water level, barely room enough for our 5 tents and a fire. At dusk we were surprised to see a bat flying round.
So after 14 days, which were mostly warm and sunny, with mostly easy, occasionally interesting paddling, good fishing and nearly constant following breeze, we have reached ~mile 238, close to 51deg24'N, 59deg58'W. We’ve passed the mark where less than 100 miles remains to take-out. Thus far there have been no rude surprises, though some disappointment at all the flatwater miles. There is an old proverb which warns ‘Be careful what you wish for, because you may just get it’, and we had been wishing for rapids to run. Now this river takes a sharp turn to the south, cuts a canyon, and heads in earnest for the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Prior to leaving on this trip the only information we had about the Mecatina was an article from CANOE magazine in 1985, which tells of a trip by group of six who paddled 18' kevlar downriver canoes. This story tells of ascending a creek, following a chain of highland lakes, then descending a creek, a portage taking three days, in order to by-pass an unrunnable 3 mile set of cascades where the gradient is 100 feet per mile in the canyon. We didn’t know exactly how far we had to go to reach those cascades, or how many big rapids had to be passed, but being experienced Appalachian technical creek paddlers in solo boats, hoped to be able to work the edges, run a lot of these rapids and at least avoid much of that wicked-sounding portage.
The portage by Royal Flush went fast, but the problem getting back onto the river at the base was two fold: smooth, slippery rock and a surge of 3 feet in the eddy. We loaded the boat, sat in it, waited for the surge to crest, and seal-launched one at a time. Almost immediately we were at another big rapid, and the several big rapids that followed, back-to-back-to-back, now run together in my head. We ran only one of the many rapids after extensive scouting, down a big tongue on the right, then sharply left into an eddy. From there, staying along the left bank for a couple hundred feet and then cutting out sharply to the right, aiming to hit a green-water tongue that formed below a smallish ledge/wave and riding that to the right and out the bottom of the rapid. Mostly we portaged. At one rapid we sneaked around a rock point in much the same way you approach the lip of a dam to drop into a left side slot where we could carry/drag for a short distance over smooth rock past the really big stuff. But we were up against a vertical rock cliff, couldn’t portage, couldn’t get back upriver, so with no place else to go, had no choice but to run out the rest of the rapid, which was easily a high class 3. Again we had to seal-launch into the crest of a 3 foot surge. Every rapid in this canyon was BIG! It looked like 10,000 cfs. It looked like Grand Canyon rapids, and 3 of us have paddled the Grand Canyon in solo canoes. But his river is tougher because of the boulders littering the canyon everyplace. It was all class 5 in the center and sneak routes were few. Two more portaged rapids brought us to another formed by an island of solid granite, perhaps one acre in size, which splits the current, which crashes over at least two 10 foot ledges. Resigned to the start of a grueling portage, we worked back upstream a few hundred yards to where there was a sandbar for a camp.
6 August 03. The objective of the first hike was to scout the portage route, to see the canyon and the cascades, determine if there might be sneak routes at water level, and also to determine where we will re-enter the river at the end of the canyon. So with heavy packs on, we head out. Soon we realized that this forest was extremely thick, and we made poor time. At noon we’re on top of a bluff overlooking the rapid that had stopped us yesterday. In the sun it was blisteringly hot. We did not find the anticipated caribou-moss-covered balds at the top, where the walking would be easy, nor were there the game trails to follow through the woods that we’d hoped for. In the forest you could not see the person only 50 feet in front. At 3 pm break we were nowhere near the end of the canyon and had drunk all our water. It had to be in the mid-80's. We needed water and a place to camp before dark. On the topo maps a lake was shown not far away so the coordinates were dialed into a GPS, and we headed in that direction. I’ve come to call this camp ‘Tent Lake’, which according to the GPS was 1.8 miles, as the crow flies, from our camp of the previous night. Admittedly we did not move in a straight line, but after 8 hours of some of the most difficult bushwacking I’ve ever done, it was a discouraging thought to contemplate repeating this twice more.
Up at dawn, each of us packed a light pack with some food, and extra clothes, figuring that we could not make it back here with boats in a day. It took 3+ hours to reach the boats. Then began the toughest portage I’ve ever done, pulling and shoving the canoes up hills, and sideways through the dense spruce trees. Portaging in the traditional sense, canoe overhead, is not possible here. There are many down dead trees that add to the problems. It took hours and hours, just to get boats and packs onto the boulders near the mouth of a stream on the downriver end of Granite Island Rapid, which wasn’t even a third of the total portage distance, and we were real tired. After a slim supper we put on all the clothing we had, a couple of us used deflated airbags as blankets, and curled up. It became colder. Sometime during the night the fire died, and had to be rekindled. This night took its toll.
Then we started to move up the creek. Well, kind of. With packs on we started to walk up along the creekside, but this foray did not last long. The viewpoint was expressed that this portage route was an impossibility, that the 1985 group MUST have used some other creek. The argument ran something like this “ Suppose we had no information whatsoever about this river? What would we be doing? We’d be probing on downriver until we came to something that we absolutely could not get around. We haven’t gone that far yet.” Well, I can’t argue with that, because it’s premise is correct. It might even be true. We dragged the boats down to the Mecatina and headed around the next bend. In only a few hundred yards we were at another major rapid, a long and bouldery class 4/5, which began with a ledge. If we continued to portage this rapid the canoes would have to go over boulders the size of vans and panel trucks, and the next rapid below was clearly unrunnable. Still uncertain whether we were at the head of the impassable cascades, one of us made a 3 hour scouting hike. On return he had few words: the impassable canyon was just around the bend. The river was white as far as he could see. Both canyon walls were smooth rock at a 45 degree angle descending into the water, and passage through at water level was impossible. Resigned, we retreated upriver. Back at the mouth of the creek for the second time, and not wanting to spend another night here in the open, each of us picked up his second pack and, around 2 pm, started to hike toward Tent Lake. As you would guess it was again torture from both trees and heat. A GPS position check was made every half hour. At one point we were 0.3 miles away from the tents, and a half hour later 0.5 miles away! It was getting into dusk, and we were becoming concerned. We kind of semi-ignored the GPS and went by dead-reconning, eventually reaching the lake, but at the wrong end of it, so another 45 minutes of terrible hiking by flashlight was required to find our tents. So at 9:30 we were getting the kettle boiling to make supper. It was a really beat up group.
The alarm clock didn’t sound as early as usual, and when we did gather by the fire we were not moving quickly. In talking over our situation it was clear that we had to get the boats up that creek and into the highland lakes, in order to get them close to Tent Lake, and we could not do it in one day. It was also clear that we had neither the muscle strength nor the amount of food & days needed to move all five boats. Two canoes would be abandoned. So again we packed light packs in anticipation of spending another night in the woods away from our tents and gear. The hike back to the boats went predictably slowly on yet another hot, dry day. A note was tied to a thwart of an abandoned canoe giving the date we had left and where we were headed. It was with a lump in my throat that I walked away. Losing a boat is a humiliation, a defeat. We were getting our asses kicked.
The ascent of the creek began. It’s not a big creek, only 10 cfs. There were innumerable lifts of 3-5-7-feet, up small falls and over fallen trees. The going was slow, but at least we were going, and being wet from the waist down meant that the heat was less of a problem. This little creek rivals in green-ness and lushness any stream in the Smokies. The rocks were often slippery, and we all suffered many stumbles, cracks to the knees, shins and ankles. It was perhaps 5 hours of exceedingly tough work to ascend the one mile and 500 feet gain in elevation. While the guys rigged a tarp and spread out ground cloths for a place to sleep, I tended the fire and improvised a one-pot group meal from potatoes-au- gratin, milk powder, dried green peppers and corn, plus a summer sausage. The cook always likes favorable comments but I have to believe these were influenced by fatigue and hunger.
Up at first light, 4am. It had been a quiet, dry night and was again a warm morning. Now we started the different, but equally difficult task, of finding our way. It was here that we realized the problems of using maps obtained off the internet and printed on home printers: the green ink is water soluble. Both copies have suffered water damage, though stored in plastic bags. They have become borderline readable, with the green running everywhere, but the brown contour lines stayed in place. Better than nothing. As we worked through a series of small, interlocking lakes, mostly dragging between them, there were frequent map checks. At the top of a small lake where a sphagnum swamp only inches above lake level divided us from the next creeks’ watershed, we portaged across and found a ravine with a trickle running down it. The descent was predictably slow and very difficult because of the thick underbrush and many down trees. After 3 hours we found a very small lake, dammed up by beavers, then following 100 feet of moist boulders, there was a real lake. The trickle feeding the beaver pond MUST be draining Tent Lake, so that’s where we’ll have to go to retrieve our gear. If anything, this was the most difficult push through the bush we’d done yet. Both the creek itself and the nearby forest were a tangle of fallen trees and underbrush. Another backbreaking job on top of so many others, after we were already exhausted. But the gear DID get retrieved. Reunited with all our equipment for the first time in 5 days, we loaded up, tandem now, got into the bigger lake, and immediately looked to camp. When I crawled into the tent, on this night like so many others, I was asleep instantly, and slept the sleep of the dead.
With the fire going and breakfast over, we made an effort to consolidate, lighten the loads, and get better prepared to tandem paddle. Burned were a small bottle of hand lotion, five empty film canisters, two pens and a tablet, a pair of sneakers, a full roll of canoe tickets, a shattered fishing rod, badly torn nylon pants, the lacerated Frog Tog pants and several other small things. So after this longer than usual ‘breakfast’ period, we loaded the remaining gear and headed out across this good-sized lake. There was some wildlife here, including ducks, mergansers and some little guys with a white belly, gray top, black head with white patch just behind the eye. When we found the exit flow we were rather pleased that it was a swamp creek plenty big enough to float a canoe. After following that creek for a several miles, a critical decision point was reached. If we stayed on this creek we might be descending into the Mecatina canyon too soon, where we would face unrunnable cascades. The alternative was to work up-flow, through additional lakes on the canyon rim, to get to a second creek further downstream. This option involves more miles of dragging and portaging, and keeps us up on top for at least two days with very poor maps. We don’t know which of these two creeks the 1985 group took, if either. The additional days of hard work and the additional food that would be consumed on the longer route tipped the balance. We decided to go with the flow.
Before long this little creek starts dropping precipitously over solid rock ledges, the first of them 30 feet! It’s an interesting place, scenic in it’s own way. Hard to judge our rate of progress, dragging, pushing, grunting, but we keep moving. Before long we saw nothing but sky in front of us: the lip of a 100 foot fall. This one forces a portage into the woods. As you would expect it was again an extraordinarily physically difficult task, but at least it was mostly downhill. During one of these ‘poses’ a thunderstorm struck. We huddled underneath overturned canoes for a half hour, then continued. As dusk was falling we were no where near the Mecatina, though we could now see it, occasionally through gaps in the trees, still far below, and we were at the lip of another hundred foot fall. To our left was a brushy field with few trees, and lots of caribou moss, which became home for the night. Big servings of spaghetti, with meat sauce and Parmesan made supper, and we could have gone for a seconds. Everyone craved those calories.
After a couple more hours of hard work the next morning we reached the big river, viewing both a big rapid above, and a big rapid below, but in both cases there was a boulder apron along the sides and we could pass there if necessary. Good news. Though still in a canyon, the walls were no longer so tight. We took an hour to rest, swim with a bar of soap and wash out clothes, the first hygiene we’d practiced in 6 days. Our bodies looked bad, scabbed, bruised, bug-bitten, and thin, with lower legs, ankles and feet swollen. Since we’re now 3 days behind schedule, the push began to make the once-a-week ferry boat in time. We have less than three days. Numerous big rapids were encountered downriver. Everything was big water racing through big boulders, and nearly everything was a portage. We’d work the edges as much as possible to minimize the distance that had to be walked, and when a route was borderline runnable, it became common practice for the bowman to step out with a pack, lighten the canoe by 200 lbs., and let the solo paddler take the boat through. And a number of really significant rapids in the class 3-4 range were run this way. The canyon floor continued to widen, and the hilltops moved further into the distance. We again found ourselves, paradoxically, on a river often resembling a lake. There were long, shallow stretches of gentle or imperceptible current. But when this river decided to drop, it continued to throw a temper tantrum. Nearly every cross-hatch on the map was an unrunnable rapid.
It was already late afternoon when we reached yet another huge rapid, a waterfall, really, where a notch has been worn in the orange granite. A couple of us grabbed packs and began to walk, scouting the portage route. It was soon obvious there isn’t an easy one. Belatedly, we realized where we were. After its initial drop into a foaming cauldron, this river does something that no other I know of does: crashes into a granite face and IT SPLITS! With 150 feet in elevation still to loose, these two channels go their separate ways, 15 or 20 miles, to the coast. The eastern channel keeps the name Mecatina, but the west channel takes the name Netagamiou. So we had another critical decision to make: if we take the east channel and the weather gets windy, we’ll be unable to paddle out to the island where the ferry stops. If we take the west channel we arrive at a small town where we will have to find someone with a boat big enough to haul canoes out to the island. We slept on it.
In the morning began a one mile portage around the falls, and at least 4 more class 5 rapids, to get to the west channel. Completing this took us 8 hours! Continuing to push, we paddled hard through the afternoon, either portaging or solo paddling several additional rapids. This morning, with only 15 miles to go, we had let ourselves believe we really could make it into town this evening. We had talked about getting a hot shower, and what was the first thing we were going to eat, but this damn river simply would not let up. Even in this Netagamiou channel, with half the flow, everyplace where there was a little drop there was a big rapid. There were rapids on the river NOT indicated on the map. There are map symbols for ‘swifts’ or small rapids, and nearly ALL of these were class 4 or more, though some we got by with a solo paddler. We’d worked hard for 14 hours, but the lengthy scouting and portaging consumed a lot of time and as darkness fell we had 5 miles still to go. By now we all just wanted this trip to be over. Dispirited, we camped, and built fire and cooked and ate after dark one last time.
Up at 4am, Saturday, 19 August, and on the water without breakfast. This afternoon the ferry leaves, and if we are not on it we are stranded for a week. By first light we are portaging a rapid, then paddling, then portaging again, and again.....this river will NOT let us go. At 7 am we have reached the final falls, a 50 foot drop to tidewater, and for the first time in 25 days found a well-cut portage trail. At 8 we paddled up to the dock at Chevery. Finding no one to talk with, we’re ready to hike toward town when a guy rode up on an ATV. We asked him if he knew a fisherman who might haul us out to the island. He rode away and soon returned saying someone would come soon. Loading everything onto the back of this crabber, we hung on as he headed out into the north Atlantic chop. We passed around what little jerky and gorp we had left: the final breakfast. In an hour we’ve landed at Harrington Harbor. Free at last, Free at last! Free of the Mecatina, at last! We have made it in time to catch the afternoon ferry out of here!
So if you are considering a trip to the Petite Mecatina, I have one word of advice for you: DON’T! It was by far the toughest trip I’ve ever done. None of us, and we have a lot of wilderness tripping experience, have ever seen portaging conditions as difficult as those through the woods, and the rapids are suitable only for class 5 kayakers. And we still don’t know what exactly is inside those ‘cascades’. My wilderness gear is wrecked, I have to buy a new boat, and it’ll take a long time to heal up from the damage done. This is a trip that will be talked about for a long time as the trip from hell. That’s not far from right.
POSTSCRIPT: Through the modern miracle of the internet search engine one of the participants on that 1985 trip was located living near Montreal. After exchanging several emails and some photos there is no doubt that our portage route was completely different from what that earlier group had done. They had gone down the canyon to about the furthest point we did, but then went directly up and over the top of the hill on river right, and immediately down the other side. This is a VERY VERTICAL portage, but much shorter than what we did. Was it easier? Debatable, as our route appears to climb less in elevation. Our 2003 trip had a ‘medium’ water level.
I’m working on a comprehensive trip report, that includes more details, the GPS benchmarks, maps and photographs. It is going to run around 40 pages. Obviously I can’t afford to print that out and distribute it to everyone, but if you are really, REALLY serious about the Mecatina, contact me. Mccloud-tom@worldnet.att.net. Maybe you’ve got a trip report you can trade me.

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:250,000): 
St. Augustin, Harrington Harbour & others
Other
Special Comments: 

extremely difficult rapids in canyon section requiring extensive portaging

Comments

Post date: Mon, 07/07/2008 - 16:48

Comments: 

here are some photos etc from a subsequent 2007 descent through the previously unrun gorge...

http://www.triberiders.ca/Petit%20Mecatina%20Update.htm

http://www.triberiders.ca/Petit%20Mecatina%20Update%202.htm