One evening in early June, I had just finished shooting some photos with Dale Monkman and we chatted about where the next place he and the “Island Boys” were heading to paddle.
“Lac St-Jean, Quebec,” he said. “Tomorrow.” They would paddle and practice for a few days in the small town of St-Félicien prior to the town’s annual whitewater rodeo.
Dale and a few others had gone to paddle the Ashuapmushuan River in Quebec’s Saguenay–Lac St-Jean region for two years previous and it had become something of a tradition, returning each year with more people to scout more rivers and find more of the undiscovered, un-run gems in Quebec’s whitewater Nirvana. Like most of the crew, I was out of a job, so I decided to tag along. Dale assured me the water is still high in early June and I’d get some sick shots.
Dale and I hooked up with Laura Nash, Nick Miller, and Aussie Anthony Yap the next morning just east of Ottawa for the daylong drive. En route we joined fellow Canadians Justin Thompson, Dave Tiedje, Mitch Braun, Patrick Camblin—plus Americans Marlow Long and Brooks Baldwin who were planning to do some shooting for Young Guns Productions’ next video offering. Some were veterans of the area, others were following Dale’s version of the gospel of St-Jean—Laura Nash included, who said she’d been hearing Dale rant all spring about the “Aswapmuswam” River.
This is a tight group of boaters at the forefront of Canadian freestyle of which the central core—Dale, Patrick, Dave, and Nick—are some of the original “Island Boys” of the Ottawa River. They have paddled and competed together for several years on the international stage, and their cohesiveness is obvious as they share and swap gear, food and boats as only a tightly knit bunch of paddle gypsies could.
Brooks managed to travel the whole way and back without remembering to pack shoes, thus spending the whole time walk- ing gingerly barefoot. Somehow he still managed to get into restaurants—perhaps an advantage of not understanding French.
The seven-hour drive from Ottawa to St- Félicien is a picturesque adventure along some of Quebec’s “pedal to the metal” superhighways leading progressively to twisty-turny logging truck–travelled backroads (where it is still “pedal to the metal”). The scenery is fantastic views of lakes, hills and cliffs, and there are many nice French Canadian towns along the way.
In total, 45 rivers empty into Lac St- Jean—a basin smaller than the city of Toronto. And all are accessible within about 100 kilometres’ drive in either direction along an encircling network of roads. And three large and powerful northern Quebec rivers—the Ashuapmushuan, the Mistassini and the Mistassibi—pour the combined spring runoff of a decent-sized European country into the lake’s northwest corner near the small town of St-Félicien.
These rivers drop down to the lake level over well-polished outcrops and giant bread-loaf boulders of Canadian Shield granite, bringing paddlers’ dreams to life along the way. Amazing playboating waves and holes, big technical and pushy water, waterfalls, steep chutes, and big-water runs compare with classics like the Ottawa or the Slave.
The guys described the Ashuapmushuan (ass-whupin’, you swam) as like an Ottawa River without the crowds—starting off like the class IV Garvin’s Chute “on steroids” followed by a high-water Coliseum—and surrounded by other rivers and more potential first descents than anyone could paddle in a lifetime. Patrick Camblin noted,
“The paddling in the Lac St-Jean region is second to none…. You could run a new river or section of river each day for a week and not have to travel more than an hour to find it!”
The Saguenay–Lac St-Jean region is also the de facto blueberry capital of Canada, with many commercial farms near the lake. The local communities have combined forces to organize a 250-kilometre cycling route around the lake dubbed the “Blueberry Route.” Women in the region outnumber men three-to-one, though these ladies may be of a certain age—Dave Tiedje reported finding “a fantastic over-40s bar filled with too many cougars (if there can ever be too many of such a thing).” In other words, there’d be no shortage of things to keep you busy if you weren’t busy paddling.
We spent most of our days cruising up and down the Ashuapmushuan where it flows past the town of St-Félicien. We stayed at a free public campsite, conveniently right beside the rapids at the Chutes à Michel, a small river-wide rapid that features a ledge drop and a manmade fish ladder (three quar- ters of Lac St-Jean’s cherished landlocked salmon spawn up this river).
Chutes à Michel is the put-in for the short playboating run of the lower Ashuapmushuan. Not far downstream is a pair of huge hole fea- tures below a railroad bridge which provides a great overhead viewpoint for scouting and photos. The run finishes off at the Vague Arcand, an impressive breaking wave. Vague Arcand is the site of St-Félicien’s rodeo and our group’s “king of the wave” wars—an elbow-to-elbow surfing tradition imported from hanging out on the Ottawa.
We found a plethora of other paddling options only a short drive away, including the spectacular rapids and slides at the massive Chute à l’Ours, not far upstream on the Ashuapmushuan.
Down Highway 169 from St-Félicien, near Roberval, we spotted a waterfall drop on the Ouiatchouaniche River right beside the road. It was an easy line down a 15-foot slide that shoots into a 10-foot waterfall to a calm pool. Everyone ran multiple laps with the cameras rolling. Dave and Justin both ran a different line at the same time and others threw hero moves on the drop.
Out of town to the northeast are big-water runs on the Mistassini and Mistassibi where the two large rivers flow side by side through the twin towns of Dolbeau and Mistassini.
We spent several days playing around, longboarding in the parking lots in town to get away from the mosquitoes (many rivers = many bugs), stoking blazing campfires at the campground and prying secrets of the un-run from the minds of the few local paddlers we could find—most notably Gino Thibeault, organizer of the St-Félicien rodeo.
A teacher in Jonquiere, Gino spends his summers guiding punters down local rivers in Topo-Duos and living in a tiny cabin beside the Ashuapmushuan. He has probably scoped the area’s whitewater more than anybody. After consulting some topo maps, Gino and Dale teamed up for a run of the Petite Chute à l’Ours further up the Ashuapmushuan—a likely first descent.
Off-river days were spent driving around in a state of general awe at the size and gradient of the region’s other rivers and eye- balling ballsy imaginary lines through rapids that were bigger than many of us had ever seen.
“Perfectly steep, green waves taunted us from between killer holes and pourovers,” mused Laura. “It was like being in the land of the giants.”
Dale and the boys will probably come back again next year for more relaxing days on the Ashuapmushuan and more exploratory runs of the surrounding rivers. In time, more and more paddlers will probably slap on the DEET and make the pilgrimage to the land of blueberries and first descents. Maybe Lac St-Jean will be discovered and its single women will be wed, but I doubt its rivers will ever be crowded.
Ottawa-based photographer Rob Faubert is a regular Rapid contributor.
This article first appeared in the Early Summer 2004 issue of Rapid Magazine.