“Forward hard!” Jean-François Bourdon, a Boreal River guide, shouted, his raft plunging toward a boulder. Close behind 2 other rafts were approaching the rapid. The paddlers dug in and the raft skirted the boulder and spun slowly in a calm pool below the rapid. There they waited for the other rafts.
“The action has barely started,” Bourdon said to the group. “Up next is ‘Snow White’ and then the ‘Can-opener’. Both are bigger than ‘Porcupine’ that you just paddled.”
If you’ve ever gone rafting that scene might not seem too special. But consider this: the group is on a 6-day rafting trip down the remote Magpie River in Quebec’s north. They are hours, if not days, from help and this is a therapeutic retreat: they’re either recent cancer survivors or still living with the disease.
Break from daily routines
The trip was special 20th anniversary for Sur la Pointe des Pieds (On the Tips of the Toes). It’s a foundation that takes young people living with cancer from across Canada on outdoor adventure trips to get them out of their daily routines.
The foundation asked Boreal River to design a custom trip. It had to be adventurous enough to push the group, but safe enough and well-paced to give the participants time to reflect, connect and just be, away from the hustle of hospitals and everyday life.
The goal of the trip, they said, would be to break out of the rhythm of our everyday lives. It’s a chance for the group to forge deep, meaningful connections with nature, themselves and each other.
9 days of whitewater and wilderness
The 9-day program included 2 days of training and 7 days of whitewater rafting and other wilderness activities on the Magpie River, such as hiking, kayaking, paddle boarding and fishing. The 15 participants in the program were accompanied and supported by the Sur la Pointe des Pieds team: a nurse, a doctor, two program leaders and a social worker, as well as a blogger and a camera crew. The Boreal River crew consisted of 6 guides.
“The trip definitely took me out of my comfort zone,” Jean-Christophe, a participant, said. “Spending over a week rafting on the Magpie, with people that I had never met before was a little bit intimidating.”
Jean-Christophe was diagnosed with cancer in December 2015. After 8 months of chemo and radiotherapy he was declared in remission in July 2016. That’s when he decided to register for the expedition.
Despite his initial fears he grew comfortable with the routine, accustomed to the pace in the raft, expert at setting up camp rain or shine, and sleeping outdoors.
“It was definitely the boost of motivation that I needed to help get back to regular life,” he said. “It made me realize that I could, again, set myself new goals and decide where I want to go.”
Chutes Sur la Pointe des Pieds
Perhaps the most moving part of the 20th anniversary trip came at an unnamed waterfall on the fourth river day. With the help of the local river keeper society and Innu groups, it was agreed to name the falls “Chutes Sur la Pointe Des Pieds”.
“This incredible waterfall is an enormous challenge for paddlers running the Magpie,” Bourdon said during a small ceremony at the foot of the falls. “Paddlers either have to struggle through a difficult portage or try to find safe lines to run. It’s a metaphor for what you’ve gone through and shows us that we can navigate difficult obstacles.”
For Mario Bilodeau, a founder of Sur la Pointe des Pieds, it was a moment to reflect on the foundation’s history.
“We named the organization to show that we can see past cancer,” said Bioodeau. “20 years later and there are still stars in the eyes of the youth we bring on these trips. I’m certain that the right type of adventure, an adventure such as this one, can change lives.”
A chance to reflect and look forward
For Jean Christophe and the other participants, the trip was a success. It achieved the goal of giving the participants a break from their usual routines so that they could reflect on their experiences.
“The expedition was way beyond my expectations” he said. “I’ve made friends. It allowed me to grow as person, and it has woken up the man I used to be before cancer.
“The waves are huge, and the rafts looked so tiny in the photos and video I saw beforehand,” Lydia Mestokosho-Paradis, a 26-year-old Innu artist, says. “I never thought I could do it.”
She was right about the waves. The Magpie is one of National Geographic’s top-10 multi-day rafting rivers. It’s continuous stretches of Class III and IV (out of a scale of VI, with V and VI being reserved for professionals), are big and imposing and command respect. But she was wrong about whether or not she could do it.
Healing journey for young Innu women
Mestokosho-Paradis was part of a group of young Innu women who were brought together by Innu communities along Quebec’s Côte-Nord. The Innu roots in the Nitassinan (the Innu word for their home territory) stretch back to the beginning of time, but Mestokosho-Paradis, like many modern young Innu, doesn’t spend much time on the land.
The organizers hoped that the journey down the river would help the Innu youth connect with their ancestral land. By pushing the youth out of their comfort zones, they’d gain confidence and learn leadership skills.
It didn’t take long on the river for Mestokosho-Paradis and the other women, to feel connected to the land. They realized that despite, or maybe because of, their fears, the river could help them grow.
“I learned to be confident on the river with the help of the guides who gave us tips and helped us push ourselves,” she said. “And I feel peace when I’m on the river. It reminds me of when I went on the land with grandparents. It’s so nice to be away from work, the internet and the troubles of everyday life. It’s healing. It lets me take a step back and reflect.”
Expansion to other Innu communities
Since the first expedition in 2011, 11 groups of Innu youth have tackled the river. Originally the trip was for the members of the Ekuanitshit (Mingan) band exclusively. However, due to its success it quickly grew to include the 3 communities who work in the Mamit Innuat (Ekuanitshit, Unamen Shipu and Pakua Shipu). And in 2016, the community of Natashkuan also offered a chance for their youth to discover one of the beautiful rivers of the Nitassinan.
Mestokosho-Paradis has joined 4 trips. She loves the lessons she learns about life on the river and says she thinks that’s why the trips are a success.
The river as healer, teacher
“Hard things happen in life that you have to get through. The river teaches you it’s OK to ask for help to get through the tough spots,” she says. “With help the problems aren’t as big and you can come out stronger. Watching the guides stop at the top of a rapid and analyze the situation to find the safest and smartest way through is a great example of what we should do when faced with a problem.”
The controlled stress of the river and the need for teamwork means that bonds are forged quickly and shyness doesn’t last long. The result is new friends and even a kind of ad hoc group therapy among participants.
“I have seen a lot of women with drinking problems find the strength to take control of their addiction after the trip,” Mestokosho-Paradis says. “I think part of it is they get a taste of nature and physical activity and realize it feels better than alcohol. They gain control over their emotions, reduce their drinking and many have been able to find housing. The river and the challenges help show us how strong we are. Our ancestors could do it with less technology than us. We have their strength too.”
Mestokosho-Paradis says the river has also connected them with the stories their elders told them when they were growing up. “We’re proud that we’re once again navigating the river today,” she says. “It’s a way of telling the world that we haven’t forgotten our roots. That it’s our history. That we’ve been using the river for millennia. Descending it now is simply keeping our traditions alive.”
Protecting traditions and the river
Crucial to the survival of those traditions is that the river stays in its pristine state. Mestokosho-Paradis is worried about hydro development on the Magpie, so is her aunt Rita Mestokosho, who is a poet and on the local band council.
“The river is a place of journeys and history,” Mestokosho says. “It’s a place to relax and rest. For the youth today it is an important symbol of their freedom and their roots.”
An intact river is also a place of healing. Mestokosho adds, “Everyone gets bruised in life and this type of voyage is a necessary part of the healing. It pays homage to our past and our territory and helps us realize there are bigger things than us and our worries. That knowledge and overcoming the hard moments help us grow and appreciate the good times.”
A perfect example of that growth is Mestokosho-Paradis’ desire to keep pushing herself. “I’m interested in learning how the guides do what they do. I think it would be another way to push myself out of my comfort zone. Something I wouldn’t have considered had I not joined the Magpie adventure.”
Once you’ve booked your Magpie River Adventure, you’ll want to take advantage of your trip to Quebec’s remote, rugged and stunning Côte-Nord (North Shore) region. We can help.
This list of 7 things to do in Sept-Îles before and after your trip was created with the help of our experts in the region. It’s an insider’s guide to what’s cool and interesting in Sept-Îles.
1) Visit the reason it’s called Sept-Îles:
Sept-Îles, or seven islands, got its name from the 7 islands that guard its harbour. The archipelago is now a nature reserve and you can hike and camp on the closest island, Île Grande Basque.
2) The Vieux-Poste
Sept-Îles’ old trading post was excavated and restored. It now houses a museum that tells the story of the fur trade and the Innu-European relationship in the region. Learn more about the Vieux-Poste. The site is only in French, but if you have questions, please contact us. We’ll be able to help.
3) Road trip to the end of the road
Sept-Îles was only connected to the rest of Quebec in 2013. You can drive along the spectacular north shore to the end of the road and visit the 138-person town of Kegaska, Quebec. The drive is spectacular.
4) Visit Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve
A 2-hour drive east from Sept-Îles, the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve is a geographical wonder comprised of boreal forest, a rich coastline and stunning monoliths carved over centuries by wind and waves. You can sea kayak through the 1000 island archipelago, camp along the north shore or stay in a 4-star lighthouse on L’Île aux Perroquets.
5) Shaputuan Museum
Devoted to preserving the traditional Innu way of life, the Shaputuan Museum tells an important story of the region of Sept-Îles. It will help Magpie River Adventurers to appreciate the uniqueness of the area.
6) Whale watching
It’s a bit of a drive to Tadoussac from Sept-Îles, but the whale watching is well worth it. More than 200,000 people a year visit the area for whale watching. And, once again, the drive down the north coast of the St-Lawrence river is gorgeous.
7) Parc National d’Anticosti
Just off the shore of the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve is Anticosti Island National Park. You can mountain bike, camp, explore waterfalls, enjoy fly fishing and regular fishing and so much more. It’s one of Quebec’s natural treasures.
Depanneur (corner store), café, sandwiches and meals to go, and huge Quebec micro brew selection: La Boucherie
Local treats & eats as you travel east down the coast:
Looking for souvenirs? In Riviere Au Tonnerre, for everything and anything made with Cloudberries (locally called ‘chicoutai’), from jams to vinaigrette, Maison de la Chicoutai, makes for a great stop.
In Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, Le Macareux Dodu offers meals prepared with vegetables from the local co-op.
When in Havre-Saint-Pierre you’ll find Chez Julie. It may not look like much from the outside, but it’s home to incredibly fresh and delicious sea-food. Read the reviews if you have any doubts.
In September 2017, outside of Hydro-Quebec’s headquarters in Montreal, a flash mob appeared. They were protesting Hydro-Quebec’s “behind the scenes” blocking of any attempt to protect the Magpie River from damming.
The event was organized by Pier-Olivier Boudreault of the Societe Pour la Nature et les Parcs du Canada (SNAP). They are the Quebec branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), which is committed to protecting public land. Boreal River was there (with a raft) and so were some of our students and guests.
Mixed messages from Hydro Quebec
“We were protesting, which is something we rarely do, when something incredible happened,” Boudreault says. “We had an official from Hydro-Quebec come out and announce that they had no plans to dam the Magpie.”
Boudreault had been working on protecting the Magpie since 2008-2009. “Some local people wanted to protect the Magpie after they saw what happened when the Romaine River was dammed.” They started with a petition and then commissioned a study of the river to assess its potential.
“The researchers compared it to the other famous whitewater rivers in the Americas. It came out very good when compared with the Futaleufu in Patagonia, the Colorado River, the Nahanni…etc., so that helped guide our strategy.”
Social value of the Magpie
In most cases, Boudreault says, they focus on the ecosystems or endangered species. However, for the Magpie they realized that they could also focus on the social value of the river.
“For something like the Magpie the social angle as well as the environmental angle is very important,” Boudreault, who is also a biologist, says. “The Magpie is special because its watershed is 99.997% untouched. It’s truly a pristine landscape and truly wild camping experience. So that’s important to us, but the social angle is also very important.”
Boreal River has been active in helping SNAP with its mission. But throughout the past 10 years attempts to protect the Magpie River were met with what Boudreault called “behind the scenes” blocking by Hydro-Quebec. So at the flash mob in September, the news that Hydro-Quebec wasn’t going to dam the river was thrilling.
“It was great news,” Boudreault says. But since then, he’s learned that even though they said that, they still refuse to allow the river to be protected.
10,000 signatures by fall 2018
Boudreault says he hopes that this year they can protect the river.
“We’re at more than 8000 signatures and we want to get to 10,000 by fall of 2018. At that point we want to hand it to the Quebec Government and ask them to protect the river.”
And this is where you come in.
Boudreault says the people most easy to mobilize, for the flash mob for example, are the people who’ve rafted the Magpie with Boreal River. “I heard so many touching testimonials when I organized the flash mob, about how people couldn’t believe how amazing and beautiful the river is.”
If you’ve been lucky enough to travel down the Magpie, get involved in the conversation: share your photos, videos and trip reports.
Let locals know
The people of the Côte-Nord will have a big say in whether or not to protect the Magpie. When you are travelling in the region before or after a Magpie trip, let the locals know what you have been up to and that you came to paddle the river. When you stop for gas, stay at a hotel, or are buying groceries, talk to the folks you come across about the Magpie.
Help at an upcoming SNAP event
SNAP is planning several events in 2018 to raise awareness and to keep the pressure on the government to protect Boreal Forest and the Magpie. Write SNAP Quebec and give them your name, email, and number and they will contact you to help plan and participate in their next event.
Marilyn Scott tries to raft a major river about every 2 years. So far she has rafted 12 rivers, some Class-V, from Europe to the Americas. Two years ago, she figured that a good way to start a month of backpacking around Patagonia was by rafting one of the region’s most famous rivers, the Futaleufu.
“They said I was too old — that they were worried I wouldn’t be able swim if I fell out,” Scott said. “That pissed me off. At my age I hate being told I’m too old to do anything, especially because I’m in good physical condition.”
78 years young
At the time, Scott was 78 years old and had a lifetime’s more experience than most white water rafting guests. She was still sea kayaking and has paddled sections of the Washington, Oregon and British Columbian coast, and she used to kayak white water.
“I have so much experience,” says Scott, who lives in Oregon. “I thought, ‘wait a minute I’ve never fallen out of a raft in my life—almost but never.’”
Add to that the fact she’s lived and backpacked through 18 United States National Parks and worked a 6-person Pacific salmon fishing boat, and it’s easy to see why she was frustrated.
“I wanted to do something that year,” she said. After a quick search for world’s best multi-day rafting rivers she settled on the Boreal River’s Magpie Adventure.
“I have never been to Quebec and my granddaughter had always wanted to go to Quebec City; that was her dream, so I said, ‘why not do Quebec City and the Magpie together?’”
With some logistical support from Boreal River, the pair spent a weekend in Quebec City before driving up the scenic Highway 138 to Sept-Îles.
Unique features of a Magpie Adventure
“The river was great. It had a bigger flow than many I’ve been on. The guides took really good care of me especially during the portages and getting in and out of the rafts with my bad knee. And the Magpie Falls were huge, really monstrous compared to other rivers. The food was great and eating the wild berries and being shown what was safe to eat. The berries are different from out west, so learning that and picking them was fun.”
Two other options that are unique to Boreal River’s Magpie Adventure were fishing. (“I caught a fish four out of five casts!”) and the option to paddle different boats.
“What they offered that other trips don’t offer was the chance to kayak in inflatable boats, or hard-shell boats or stand up paddle board. The variety was great.”
We’ve answered the 5 most popular questions we get from people who want to run the Magpie unguided. Keep in the mind the Magpie is remote and big and only experienced paddlers should tackle it on their own.
1. What section should I paddle?
The Magpie and West Magpie are both amazing multi-day trips that take paddlers through the heart of the Quebec’s north shore wilderness. The West Magpie is more advanced, remote, and technical than the Magpie, which is accessible to intermediate boaters.
This section offers a more advanced and technically challenging white water experience geared to class IV – V boaters. The water levels are harder to predict and the whitewater’s difficulty changes with the volume change. This section of the Magpie has lower volume. However, it has been known to rise quickly. Paddlers should understand that this is a significant undertaking requiring a solid team, capable of making decisions effectively and safely.
The West Magpie flows into Lake Magpie 50km north of the start of the ‘lower’ Magpie. Most groups paddle the 50km down Lake Magpie to combine the West Magpie and the Magpie.
Here is some footage of a 2009 West Magpie and Magpie trip taken by a small group of Boreal River guides and friends:
This section offers a combination of a quality whitewater and amazing scenery. It can be accomplished by most recreational kayakers with wilderness travel skills. Most groups choose to spend 5 to 8 days on this section to fully appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. Expect great fishing (especially through the first 15km after Lac Magpie) and amazing camping. The final 15 km contains huge scenic gorges and waterfalls with some flat-water before flowing into the St Lawrence Gulf.
Most paddlers will arrange to meet in Sept-Îles, Quebec. It is a 10 hour road trip from Quebec City. The airport also connects with most North American cities. From here paddlers can travel as a group to the West Magpie or the Magpie.
Access to the West Magpie:
Two options are available to paddlers.
OPTION 1: Take the train from Sept-Îles and specify to be dropped off at the location “Eric”. From here 100km of mostly flat water separates you from the West Magpie’s first major rapids. This option is cheap compared to flying. Check out the Tshiuetin Rail Transportation website or call (418-962-5530, or 1-866-962-0988) for the schedule. The train usually runs twice a week, leaving Sept-Îles in the morning.
It’s best to arrive early so things go smoothly with boats, as it can get busy before departure. If the group is large, arrive the afternoon prior to talk to the folks in the office in the town of Uashat and see if an engineer will meet you at the train the evening before to load your boats.
There is a surcharge for canoes.
OPTION 2: Involves taking a float plane from Sept-Îles to Lac Vital—Air Tunilik (website), Sept-Îles: 418-962-4639 (summer), 450-666-3718 (off season). Flying to Lac Vital gets you very close to where the great whitewater starts. Call to reserve flight times. The float plane base is just outside of Sept-Îles to the west of town. When you get to the float plane base they will weigh you and your gear, look at the overall volume before deciding which and how many planes you need to go on.
For this flight the Beaver can take 1200 lbs and the Otter can take 2000 lbs. An important consideration is also the bulk of your equipment. Kayaks are fairly light, but take up a lot of room. The Otters can usually take 5 people with their boats and gear safely, however, it is ultimately the pilot’s call.
Access to the Magpie:
From Sept-Îles most groups drive along the coast on highway 138 to Havre-Saint-Pierre where a 30 minute float plane flight will bring you to the southern tip of Lac Magpie—Air Tunilik (website), Havre-St.-Pierre: 418-538-3866 (summer) 450-666-3718 (off season). Alternatively, you can fly from Sept-Îles, but it is about 35 per cent more expensive. Call to reserve. The float plane base is just outside of Havre-Saint-Pierre to the east of town. When you get to the float plane base they will weigh you and your gear and look at the overall volume and the pilots and staff will decide which and how many planes you need to go on. Here again, the Beaver can take 1200 lbs and the Otter can take 2000 lbs.
Take off of the Magpie by using an access road that joins the Magpie on the river right upstream of the dam before the buoys. It is very obvious from the river. The access road joins highway 138 approximately 75m west of the Magpie Bridge and goes through a quarry before reaching the river approximately 250m further. There are a few parking spots and a turnaround spot at the top of the hill before the road abruptly turns to the right for the last 50m down to the river.
Groups that choose to take the train and start at Eric will have to complete 270km before arriving at the take out. The first 100km is almost completely flat water. Groups who chose to fly to Lac Vital can avoid the flat section and focus on the 55 km of challenging class IV-V before getting to Lac Magpie. A 50km stretch of Lac Magpie separates the end of West Magpie from the start of the Magpie. Strong wind on Lac Magpie can sometimes cause delays. Most paddlers who complete the West Magpie can complete Magpie river’s last 65 km with one camp.
Boater groups who fly to Lac Magpie typically take 5 nights for a relaxed pace. This usually includes the first night very close to Lac Magpie or at Lac Magpie to account for later flights and everybody getting there. Five nights would also usually include the last night at Magpie Gorge (4ieme chute) or Magpie Falls (3ieme chute), which are spectacular spots close to the end of the river.
4. When are water levels best for me to go?
There is no gauge for the West Magpie. The West Magpie is more like a mountain river that can flood mid-season if there is sustained heavy rain for a few days. Sections can become very continuous should that happen.
The gauge for the Magpie is located at the outflow of Lac Magpie. The Magpie has a pool-drop character and is great at a wide range of levels. With Boreal River, we have never encountered levels in July or August that were deemed too low or too high. Commercial trips have been run everywhere from 65CMS to 250CMS.
5. Where do I stay before and after?
Near Havre Saint Pierre
If you are flying out of Havre-Saint-Pierre, a great place to stay the night before your trip is Auberge La Minganie. It is a hostel on the coast at the mouth of the Romaine River. This is a beautiful spot. There is a communal kitchen and dining building as well as bathrooms and showers. They also allow camping with use of the facilities.
Directions: turn right at the brown sign approximately 30km after going through the town of Longue-Pointe-De-Mingan. The turn off of the highway is pretty easy to miss. You have gone too far if you get to the Romaine River.
Otherwise, there are many hotels and motels in Havre-Saint-Pierre and Longue-Pointe-De-Mingan (30 minutes away). If you are looking for a B&B and are going to be spending some time exploring the coast and the islands, we recommend Gite La Chicoutee in Longue Pointe de Mingan. Sylvain, the owner, is a paddler who is familiar with the Magpie and also has his camp on the river just below Magpie Gorge. Riviere-Au-Tonnere also has a couple of motels.
Along the way
The town of Tadoussac makes for a good overnight stop for those making the road trip to the Magpie. There are many hotels and B&B’s for those looking for private rooms. For a lively atmosphere, the youth hostel in Tadoussac is busy all summer long with nightly campfires and lots of travellers.
Havre-Saint-Pierre and Minganie
Havre-Saint-Pierre has a large supermarket called Tradition. It has everything you need but is significantly more expensive than the supermarkets in Sept-Îles. There is an SAQ (liquor, wine) across from the Tradition. There is also a hardware store nearby that sells camping, hunting, and fishing supplies as well as Québec fishing permits. On the street by the harbour and the national park visitor center there is a store / counter that sells fresh seafood. Other options include:
Mingan (Ekuanitshit) has a gas station which sells basic groceries
Longue-pointe-de-Mingan has a hardware store, a well-stocked small grocery / general / liquor store as well as a seafood stand
Riviere St. Jean has a small general store
Riviere-Au-Tonnerre has a well-stocked grocery / liquor /general store
Sept-Îles has many large stores including Maxi, Wal-Mart, IGA, and Canadian Tire.
There is a produce store that sells local fruits and vegetables called Le Végétarien about 15km west of town, on the south side of Hwy. 138 (here it is on Google Maps).
Sept-Îles has a SAQ (wine, beer, alcohol) but there is also a store called Marché 7 Jours about 5 minutes west of town on the south side of Hwy. 138 (at the Ultramar) that has a wide variety of Québec Microbrews.