Is Keewaydin Walking Lightly on the Planet?
Comment from A Wilderness Canoeist
I have very much enjoyed your research. I spoke with you last year
when you were beginning your project. I am the trip director for the
Chewonki Foundation in Maine and although we no longer run trips in
wood-canvas boats I still enjoy an old Chestnut of my own.
As I was reading some of the trip journals that you have posted on
The photo I refer to is the group with the massive pile of caribou
I have been leading extended canoe trips in Labrador and Northern
Quebec for the past 17 years. I remember vividly my first month-long
trip in the Mistassini region and I still have a set of caribou
antlers that was given to me by our Cree guide Alfred Matoush. I have
paddled and hiked past many very tempting caribou antlers since that
time that I have left for the next traveler to observe, enjoy and
I have led ten, month-long trips from Schefferville, Quebec to the
Inuit village of Kangiqsualujjuaq at the mouth of the George River on
Ungava Bay. It wasn't until my third or fourth trip on the George that I
really begin to consider the impact my small groups of 10 had on the
land. On a shallow section of the De Pas River that flows into the
George there was the body of a dead male caribou with a large rack.
The carcass was on the shore near the first rapid of the trip. For
several years, the skeleton marked the entrance to the rapid for me. Each
year as I passed, I watched as first the body was eaten by
scavengers, and later, as the rodents began chewing on the bones and
antlers. This last trip only small pieces of bone were left, the rest
chewed by porcupines, voles or lemmings. My annual observations of
the carcass and its decomposition left me more connected to the land
in a way that I can not clearly articulate. My point is that
even though the George River caribou herd is estimated at one million
animals and antlers are dropped yearly and are found everywhere, they
are still important to the overall health of the ecosystem.
In the past few years, the De Pas and George have received relatively
light pressure from canoe trips, but returning annually as I do, I have
noticed the impact that even a small group can unknowingly have on the
Below Pyramid Hills on the lower George there is an amazing waterfall
that flows off the Labrador Plateau and drops over 150 feet. The
Waterfall is a three- or four-mile hike from the river through the barrens.
About two thirds of the way to the waterfall is a barren hill with
magnificent views of the lower George. I have hiked to the waterfall
on each of the trips on the George. This past July when I arrived at
the top of the hill, there was a new pile of rocks left since my last
trip. I was upset that miles from any village someone felt the need
to leave a sign of their passing. Again, in the notes from the
Labrador Plateau Trip, there is mention of building a cairn of rocks on
a hill beside the Caniapiscau. The native-made inukshuks are an
important part of the link to the past in the North. Those made by we
more recent travelers do a disservice to the native people of Canada.
On the George at Indian House Lake there are Naskapi tent rings that
are, in some cases, thousands of years old. I have witnessed where
canoeists have removed stones from the rings to hold down there own
tents, with no understanding or regard for the impact they are having
on important historical sites.
It is easy to think of the North as a vast unspoiled wilderness and
today in most places that is true, but it won't take much to change
I hope that these observations are taken only as something for leaders
to think about and not some kind of "Leave No Trace" lecture because
that is not my intent. I usually keep my opinions to myself, but after
seeing the picture of the antlers and having been there myself, and
making my living by guiding, I couldn't pass up a "teachable moment."
Maybe it's that I just turned 40 and I'm getting crotchety in my old
age! My own caribou antler is a powerful symbol through which I
relive an incredible experience each time I look at it. Like the photos
of the river trips, it was given as a gift not taken from the land.
I have seen the changes in the Mistassini region over just the last 17
years and the George more recently. I want to make sure that when my son is old
enough to travel the waters that I have explored, that he is able to
experience the same primitive feeling of exploration of the unknown
that I have. I hope he can still sit near a tent ring on Indian House
Lake and imagine the scene thousands of years before. I hope he can
climb a barren hill beside the George River and when he arrives on top
not find a pile of stones left by a canoeist from the 1990's.
If I have at least given your trip leaders something to debate and
think about then sending this e-mail is time well spent. It has at
least made me put down into words some of the thoughts about my own
travels in the North. I make a point of talking to my own trip leaders
about the times that are a changing, and we have to be even more diligent
in teaching and role modeling a low-impact environmental ethic to our
Keep up the good work and perhaps we will meet on a river somewhere.
Thanks for listening.
Wilderness Trip Director
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