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Monday 12 October 2015


If a paddling expedition down the Churchill River is on your bucket list you may get a lot more than you have bargained for.   

Get ready to enter a vast ecosystem; one that will challenge your thinking as it refreshes your spirit.    

The river is still known as Mishtashipu by Innu, and not surprisingly, Grand River by NunatuKavut, Nunatsiavut, and the settlers of Labrador.  The nomenclature was given Sir Charles Hamilton for a time until Smallwood changed it to Churchill; a sop to Sir Winston.The award was inappropriate for a god let alone a single man.

An endless valley rises to mountains of trees and sky. The river, in relentless pursuit of ocean is, seemingly, given rest only at Lake Winokapau, 40 km. long and up to 760 feet deep.

The body of water is large enough to bring 80 km. of current to a stand-still. Little wonder the river valley eludes any definition, except vastness, or resists any quick appraisal of its own magnificence.

Looking up river, it is often hard to look away especially when the artistry is punctuated by a sun cast light, amidst a seamless palette of reflection.

The Churchill won’t just let you just admire its tapestry, even when the sky displays an artist’s touch on a fabric of grey blue and silver. 

But, then, at any time of day the sky seems tentative, possibly because it can't quite contain the landscape below.

Geologists say the area of Churchill Falls to Lake Melville is very old, its formation Precambrian.  The river valley is thought to have once been filled with fine sediments; the current structure carved by de-glaciation and down cutting, during the last ice-age. One geologist describes the valley as masked by a “thick blanket of marine and fluvial sediment” (Liverman); he must be referring to sand, the endless sand.

Other sediments are found there, too, including glacial marine clays, like “Quick Clay” described as "sensitive". It is special in its class because it contains an ability to “liquefy” and to cause landslides; confirming that in nature, as in fairy tales, beauty and the beast are often inseparable.

Before the glaciers disappeared, the oceans flooded the area, at an elevation just above Gull rapids. With melting, the ocean floor rebounded, but not without retaining this glacial legacy. 

A one square kilometer quick clay induced landslide at Edward’s Island, just below Gull, and others above and just below Muskrat, some very recent, give proof to the Swedish geoscientist, Dr. Stig Bernander’s contention the Churchill River valley is “alive”.  

What the scientist unmistakably infers is evident amidst the carnage at Edward’s Island. Within the enormous cavity, a few lifeless spruce trees stand vigil; their root systems ripped apart as the 2010 sand and clay filled avalanche slid into the river. Though they seem like sentries, warning of an excess of hubris, they must be unaware their caution has been ignored at the North Spur. 

Like sentries warning of excess hubris at Edward's Island
Greek mythology frequently pairs arrogance with Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance. 

Perhaps, Innu culture is more forgiving of modern follies; but with Spirit Mountain overlooking Muskrat Falls, I wouldn't be so sure.

The Environmental Impact Statement on the Lower Churchill describes the valley as lying “within the boreal ecoclimatic region where microclimatic conditions in the valley allow boreal species to dominate over sub-arctic species…”  I  think the Panel was reminding us a good many species have acclimatized to the cold Labrador environment, and even thrived. The Panel catalogued a boreal world of vegetation and wildlife, and provided warnings, too, of the fragility of an environment where ruggedness is all too easily, and mistakenly, interpreted as indestructible.

Fledged species include bald eagles, osprey, ducks, Canada Geese and the Common Loon. Then there are the otter, black bear, moose, caribou, porcupine, fox and mink. 

Their rare appearance confirms an attachment to the land that is as delicate as the razor thin layer of detritus underlying the carpet of black spruce, which the short summer seasons won’t let grow.

Pike and brown trout are eyed greedily, including by hungry paddlers.

Like the valley, the river is not just a large but a complex ecosystem, too. Whitefish Falls, The Metchin, Cashe, Elizabeth, Fig, and Pinus Rivers, some fast, others gentle, all join in the Churchill’s inexorable flow.

Lining the boats at Gull rapids

Currents, whirlpools, standing waves, boils, eddies, rapids at Minipi and Gull, and, of course, the drop at Muskrat, serve mostly to speed passage, but, at times, to obstruct.

Frequently, the decline in elevation is quite perceptible as the water speeds up: river right, then river left. Boats that should be moving quicker, don't. One up for gravity!

Each valley bend introduces something new; sometimes an eagle's nest or an auditory dispatch from a pair of Loons. Islands always inspire and many have familiar names, like Fox, Wolf, and Glacier, and others less familiar, like Swallow Cliff. 

Attempts at description are always incomplete. The Churchill is much like a nature film in which the videographer has over-worked his lens.  Captured is an over-sensory easel of elemental magic; the perfect blending of water, earth, and sky. 

For all those reasons, the Churchill is demanding, but less on muscle than on parts sensory.

By just the second day of paddling, you know it will exact an assessment of the value system that guides you; the same one that allows passive approval of the river’s very destruction. 

The realization is quite shocking. Most paddlers seek only challenge and fun; now, they are asked to assess not just their society’s values, but their own.

As much as Nalcor will argue otherwise, whether in terms of definition, appearance, or natural utility, reservoir is not nearly the same as river!

Not surprisingly, two of our number, disciples of the Grand River Keepers, a lobby group, spoke with more than just knowledge of the Churchill. They exhibited a deep emotional attachment, too.  

Their position is one some think uncompromising.  But, on the river, it is far easier to understand, possibly because empathy has been aroused. Without even knowing, long held misconceptions are arrested; the River has simultaneously captured and captivated you.

The allure isn’t purely sentimental. Even the more development-minded, who maintain ledgers, and profit and loss statements, might be forced to ask: was a valuation performed, (one distinct from an EIS to which the proponent has paid lip-service), comparing the Churchill River with, say, Gros Morne?

The question may be jolting; but it is better asked in advance of an execution, isn’t it? 

Hence: would we, as a society, watch apathetically if Gros Morne was selected for flooding; an internationally recognized natural treasure submerged under water?

Some may think the comparison unfair. Think again. Isn’t the only difference that one is internationally prized; the other an unknown gem?

Or, is it that hydro is awash with paid advocates, while the Churchill has none?

In the 1960s, a set of canals and dykes corralled a water shed area the size of New Brunswick, making major pristine rivers and lakes dam-ready at the Upper Churchill. A 1000 ft. falls disappeared in a deal akin to a Faustian bargain, except nothing was claimed by us, not even pride. By 2020 or so, the area of the river, from Muskrat Falls to Gull Island, will be flooded to perform a job for which other, more eco-friendly and cheaper options, are available.

Rightfully, we should ask: what is left to salvage?

Gull rapids to the Upper Churchill represents 232 km. of something extraordinary, even if evidence of the yellow surveyor’s tape, cut overs, and a rough road to the TLH for machinery, offer a clue to its intended fate.

The horse shoe symmetry of Gull, in concert with an almost continuous drop in elevation, except at Lake Winokapau, makes it the perfect place for a concrete dam measuring 99 meters high. A river system that, now, represents a visual symphony with earth and sky will become a reservoir, as the entire distance from Gull to the spillway at the Upper Churchill is flooded.

The valley's own remarkable natural features constitute the river’s inherent demise; their measurements fodder for computer programs and calculations of ‘hydro static head’, in megawatts. All those things are in the surveyor’s crosshairs. Dam and dammed have found perfect confluence.

Joe Goudie’s grandfather, a Grand River Trapper, kept his trap lines here. He would have headed upstream each Fall, the “hard” way; punching against the current in a canoe. Having slogged past the North Spur, he might have prayed the fast water is behind him, and the foxes plentiful, too.

Likely, he defined renewable differently than any equation that calculates carbon substitution and neglects any offset for methylmercury.

The grandson, had a keen eye, too, choosing this place for his own river lodging; holding on, as long as he could, to the view of Gull the older one claimed.

To what will we make claim; the ones who only hear “hydro” when “Churchill” is called?

When Muskrat is finished, though it may break us first, will we merely lament the loss of the temporary jobs, or remember the corruption of governance that facilitated raiding the public coffers?

Will we be mindful of the price tag only because it gives us offense, while we forget the burden placed on future generations?

Will we lose faith in misguided public officials, feel betrayed by our weak institutions, or have we become inured to the failure of others?

It’s always the others.

It’s never us.

The section of river, from Gull rapids to Churchill Falls, is the only one having some prospect of remaining virgin, even if it still lacks respect.

It is a natural wonder; the river valley; its forested hills, dunes, and sand plains, the wildlife, the architecture. 

It is truly something superior, beautiful, and majestic; a significant natural treasure.

Oddly, the river valley’s best hope may be found among the same bankers who, this time, will be wary that flooding Muskrat has placed the entire province metaphorically, at least, under water. 

Want to know if Gull is worth saving?
Get in your boat. paddle the Churchill. See for yourself. 

The worst thing that can happen is that you will enjoy the company of fellow paddlers, camp-fires, food, stories, and the derisive laughter that accompanies the absence of a half bottle of vapors, ostensibly lost. Where else does a single malt receive a eulogy fit for an Irish wake, its discovery strangely mourned, too, probably because skeptical narratives have to be renounced? 

Ah! humanity.

Great people and great rivers. 

Each in motion, ever changing; never a doubt who is enriched.    

It sure seems someone got both captured and captivated doesn't it..

So, consider yourself warned. 

If you go down the Churchill River, you might get captured you, too!

Editor's Note: 

Many thanks are due fellow paddlers, especially the trip coordinator. I was very fortunate to have joined such a talented and experienced group.

Several of the photos, shown in this Piece, were taken by other paddlers with an eye for the lens. I wish to thank them for sharing their photo journals of this remarkable river. 

It is very difficult to convey an accurate sense of the Churchill River's size, complexity, or its majesty. Any number of photos cannot equate with the on-the-water experience of drinking in its beauty and immensity, but I have selected a number of additional images (shown below) to give readers a greater sense of all that it offers, and, hopefully, to inspire in others the urgency to make the journey themselves. Bear in mind that if Gull ever gets developed as a hydro facility, much of what these photos convey will be under water.

The adage "you don't know what you've got 'til its gone" may well find  resonance here.
Heading towards Gull Rapids

A sun cast light, amidst a seamless palette of reflection.

On the River. The hard part is choosing which pictures to exhibit.

Service road just, below Gull Island, connects with the TLH

Edward's Island
I was familiar with the Edward's Island "Quick Clay" induced landslide, having seen aerial photos taken during Dr. Stig Bernander's Field Trip to the area, last Fall. The aerial shots seem to have diminished the scale of the slide; so I wasn't quite ready for just how large a 1 sq. km. excavation actually looks. A wide-angle lens would surely have come in handy.

When one considers the magnitude of the energy unleashed by this landslide, exhibited by its sheer scale, we forced, by peering through a different lens than the one painted by Nalcor's enginner's, to question whether the "fix" being undertaken at the North Spur is much more than the equivalent of a "band-aid" on a rather deep and large sore. I took a good many photos of the Edward's Island slide. The thought occurs I might consider posting a photo story of this feature, alone, and what occurred to create this huge and quite remarkable "scar".

Noteworthy, is the fact that Edward's Island was one of the smaller slides that have occurred on this section of the river. As noted in the story, "Quick Clay" infects the North Spur and is common in the valley to an elevation reaching just above Gull rapids.

This is "Quick Clay". My feet play with its smooth, plastic surface until the clay breaks down.

Arrivial at the North Spur

Nalcor's "stabilization" plan seems puny when seen in the context of the huge landslide at Edward's Island

Wood stacked and rotting - No Sale

"Toe" of the Spur

Note: Innu Spirit Mountain top right

Below Muskrat Falls

Finishing: one more sleep and a 20 km. paddle to Happy Valley-Goose Bay to end the 320 km. trip.