Nottaway River – 2011.

This is a large Quebec river that flows into James bay about 15 miles south of Port Rupert (Waskaganish).

We run it as a team of 11, using inflatable boats: one raft (Star, 13.6 ft, with a crew of 5 ), one JPW Culebra frameless catamaran (2), one Russian-made Raftmaster catamaran-2, and two hardshell kayaks.
I have found no comprehensive description of this run on I-net, though a few people on Canadian Canoe Routes responded to my request in 2010 and provided me with some invaluable information.
Thus, I decide the more detailed route description will save time and efforts for people who will follow us. Technical part is not presented as a “day journal”,
since our schedule was far from optimal – because lack of description and hard luck with headwinds.

This river is rarely run, and most folks who did it in the past started from Matagami, Bell river bridge. To avoid paddling inflatables on huge Matagami and Soscumica lakes, we elected to use car shuttle to north shore of Soscumica lake.
The access gravel road starts from km 130 James Bay Road (from Matagami)
Raymond Blackned ( cree Indian chief from Waskaganish) knows the fork.
The road does not come directly to the lake. After about 35 km ride, one needs to make a left turn to smaller gravel road ( 50 yards before the cabin on the road left). In about a mile the drivable road comes to an end. This is a marked spot, as another, less-than-drivable old road comes to the same place One needs to walk another 1/3 mile on foot following the remains of the road (in same direction as the drive was – towards the south), and then make a left turn into the bush. The lake is visible on the left. It is actually visible on both sides of the cape, and you
should be positioned near the center (equal distance to both shores) when you step into the bush. It is about 1 km or less of heavy bush-whacking… We found the easier route to the lake by first holding to the left (almost towards left bay) and then to the right (instead of going up the small hill)… following the gully at the hill’s foot, we reached the lake’s shore at the right side of the bay. There is a nice beach there, a perfect place to start the trip.

Our maps were marked with distances from the point in river mouth where Indians were going to pick us with motorboats.
These km marks are not consistent with anything else, but I will use them anyway.
You can either calibrate your own maps or contact me to get a copy of our maps.

Our track starts at ( approx.) km 191 on our maps.

The river is huge, wide and dangerous. . Especially with very high water level we had (no gauge to reliably measure it, but cree people told us that very high and muddy water was not common for mid- July).
Compared to neighboring Broadback river, Nottaway has probably 3 to 5 times more water, and Broadback is a large river itself. Even though there are more class 5 and 6 (5.1, 5.2, 5.3) rapids on Nottaway, number of runnable big rapids is actually fewer, especially, if taken relative to route length ( Broadback from the bridge to James bay is approx. 130 km +- 10 km).
Nottaway seems more remote and wild (though we had seen two small houses – hunter’s camps). Portages are longer and more difficult. Scenery is comparable – good, but not superb, I’d give a nod to Broadback in this category, if not for “moonlike” landscapes with flat rocks on Nottaway on the last river day. Broadback counters with the spectacular 30-meter-high falls.

On a plus side, Nottaway has plenty of campsites – a nice difference to Broadback.
All-in-all, these two rivers are comparable: both are difficult big-water runs. If you intend to try only one of them, Broadback is likely a better choice, mostly, because of much easier access and less danger with similar difficulty level.
In my opinion, it is not a good idea to run either of these 2 rivers in open canoe – unless you are able to roll a loaded canoe in white water (and I knew very few such people).
The reason is simple: you must rely on self-rescue on these rivers – otherwise you will have to either line/portage most of the rapids (hard, hard work), even these that are relatively easy to run – or, alternatively, run them …but at unacceptable level of risk.
All inflatable boats allow you good self-rescue options ( though you must have sufficient skills – not to loose a paddle and not get separated from the boat when it flips), and this is a huge difference. You pay for the safety and fun in rapids with slower speed and difficulties with headwinds, but it is worth it.

There are about 12 rapids of class 4 and 5 in 180 km below Soscumica lake . A few of these rapids (3: Iroquez Falls, Kachechekuch, Interdite) are among the largest I ever saw; they are unrunnable, don’t have sneak routes in side channels and likely will kill anyone who’s accidentally swept into them.
I had run many class 5 rapids in hard shell kayak, but these are well above my threshold for “acceptable risk”.
Another rapid we did not run is probably class 5.1 and still very dangerous – at least, for the boats. 8 others (this number also depends on how you count rapids in some cascades) we had run – at least, partially, sometimes only by Raftmaster, sometimes with a short carry/line around a ledge or huge hole, sometimes – using side channels. 4 or 5 remaining rapids, however, we had run in main current, and river power there was apparent.
There are also many rapids and stretches of class 2 and 3 water that is simply fun.
Even runnable rapids on Nottaway often have current that exceeds 30 km/h. With river width of 200 meters to 1-2 km, if you approach a difficult rapid being on the wrong side of the river, you may have to line or paddle upstream quite a significant distance before it is safe to attempt a ferry. We made this mistake twice, and both times paid with couple of hours of hard work.
Central channels in all big rapids have huge standing waves, 2.5 – 3 meters high and large hydraulics.
Interdite rapid has the single largest wave I’ve ever seen, it is approximately 5-6 meters high and has a slope of about 20-25 meters. Normally such waves do not exist, as waves break when they reach 3 m. But at this spot, a combination of high current speed and funnel effect ( there is huge side wave on the river left that acts as a support pillar for the monster wave in the center) create this curious monster feature…

Runnable big rapids on Nottaway present you with a few unusual problems. For example,
the river is too wide to set up a rescue from the shore or from eddy if someone runs a line in a middle. So, holes and breaking waves became more of an issue… Similarly, there are a few places there good lines are out of question simply because previous rapid had the good lines close to opposite shore, and there is not enough time for a ferry. Finally, it is very hard to correctly estimate size of waves and holes when river is a few hundred meters wide. Sometimes what looks small from the shore ( and on photos), in reality, is quite big. All of the sudden, wave starts to break high above your head and it’s back slope is twice as long as your boat. For an observer on the shore it looks like optical illusion: a huge raft starts to disappear between waves that look like nothing at all… On a plus side, most of these waves are scary but smooth and easy, they do little damage, besides disorienting the boaters.
In some instances though, these waves can stop and backsurf the raft or flip the hardshell kayak (and tamper with subsequent roll attempts). And a few hydraulics and funnels on the side of the wave trains are big enough to swallow the canoe. In other words, big water is what it is – difficult big water.

The route includes a few lakes, and we had a bad luck with a very strong headwind on couple of these lakes. Even with current’s help ( the river is so big that all the lakes have noticeable flow)
we could not fight this wind and had to line along the shore – a difficult task, as banks are often a mixture of sand and mud and not solid.
As a result, we did not make it in 6 days as originally planned. We went out of last rapid into the tidal zone only a few hours late – but this resulted in a whole extra day because of tide schedule.
For someone who follows this description and does not repeat our mistakes with choosing wrong shore on approach, 6 full days is a reasonable time to make it ( 7-8 days from Matagami) . One layover day is certainly recommended, and the best spot is on left shore just above the Interdite island. You can carry the empty boats along a dry channel on your rest day ( 1.5 km carry) – and follow the next day with gear bags.

Our water lever was high ( or medium – high) for July; the water was brown – no fish.
With lower water level a few rapids may become easier, but other few will retain all their power and danger.

Last note to readers: when you look at the pictures in our photo albums, please adjust what you see for the river size. It’s usually 200-400 meters wide, and with very tall trees on the shore you loose the “scale”… Rapids on pictures seem way smaller than they actually are.

Technical details:

First easy rapids appear at km 178 an 176 after approx. 11 km paddle on lake Soscumica, which may take 2-4 hours depending on your luck with the wind. At some point on the lake, you make a 45 degree turn from West to North-West. It is possible to shortcut and shelter from wind through the narrow ( 1-2 meter wide) stripe of land that connects north shore with a cape at turning point.
There is a decent campsite there. Rapids at km 178 and 176 are class 1 and 2 respectively.

Occasional small rapids and wide river bed will continue to km 152 ( half-day paddle).
There you’ll see a first big rapid, class 4/ 4+ . Approach and scout from the right.
Left side is a series of rocks and ledges with hard holes and tricky class 5 lines and class 4 sneak lines along the shore.
The right side of the river is clear, main obstacle are irregular standing waves ( center and right side of channel) and big hydraulics left of main current.
This best line is to ferry 2/3 of the channel from right to left side, then angle boat to the left and paddle away from standing waves, but avoid catching hydraulics between main current and left eddies.

There is a nice small island campsite (flat rocks) on km 140.
Next significant rapid is Rapid Long at km 125. Class 3 / 3+. Easy scout and run from the right side. To avoid the wave train, start in the middle and then angle towards right shore. Run on the extreme right is not advisable, because of some mid-size holes and side waves there.
km 119 is spectacular Iroquez Falls. One of 3 deadly class 6 ( 5.3) rapids on the route. Approach and portage trail is on the left. Portage trail (400- 500 m) is not easy to find, but it is there.
Iroquez dumps water into lake Dusaux. The first part of the lake is 12 km long and up to 2 km wide – and still flows… but if you get a strong headwind there, it may stop you dead on tracks.. Lining along the shore is possible, but difficult.
There is an easy R1/ R2 rapid that separates second part of the lake Dusaux from the first one.
Good beach campsite is on the right shore of the lake, it is easy to spot as soon as you exit the rapid ( about 1 km easy paddle)
Follow the right shore into the right channel ( fork is at km 100) . At the end of the lake ( km 98) there is nice small campsite on the right.

From km 98 to km 91 there are few easy class 1, then class 2 and class 2+ rapids, but as you near km 91, stay on river right. The coming rapid is one of 3 monsters that certainly require portage. It is called Kachechekuch, but I’ve learned its name later. It is marked on the topo map but not named there unlike all previous big rapids, so we did not expect anything out of ordinary and called it “Insignificant Other”. But our humor backfired. It looked from the water that main channel may be runnable while right one had clear and unpleasant horizon line; scouting was only possible on river left…so we stayed on the left. That was a mistake. Scouting from the left revealed huge unrunnable class 6 (5.3) rapid and flat rock on the shore soon became a vertical rock making lining impossible; portaging in super-dense woods is not my idea of fun either. Thus we had to line our boats 1 km back and then make a ferry. You can take out before the small island on the right, 100 meters above the right channel rapid which starts with immediate big drop. And if you have a nerve, you can follow our move: take out at the eddy below the island, a few meters above the rapid. The move is scary, it is actually class
2+ rapid, and you need to punch through serious eddy line with standing wave. Any mistake there may have serious consequences. But this move saves you 100 meters of hard and dangerous boulder-hopping at dry river channel, and with inflatable boats it is justified.
Portage is shorter than one around Iroquez, maybe 250-300 meters, but much harder.
The last section of the rapid is class 3 and can easily be run. The put-in spot is quite obvious:
the vertical rock blocks the further portage, so you have to put in or negotiate a class 5 portage section through the cliff.
Emergency campsite ( C-) is on the river right just below the rapid.
Following rapids ( km 90 – km 86 ) are class 2 – 2+ and can all be scouted from water, then comes a small lake ( km 85-81), and then the big rapid just before the Interdite.
Approach it from the lake on river left. Center of the rapid is class 5.1 ; right side is separated into 2 rapids by a huge pool, before the pool it is class 4+ and below – class 5.1 or 5.2
Thus, it is easier (and shorter) to approach on the left.
Wide side channel there offer good technical run of class 3 – 4-. It is better to actually stay closer to the right side of the channel to avoid rocks; after channel joins the main current, you’ll have to turn the boat more than 90 degrees and head towards left shore – to avoid huge standing waves in the main channel.
Below the rapid you’ll see a superb campsite on the left, about 200 meters above dry channel which is a common option for a portage around Intredite rapids. If I ever do this river again, I’ll plan for a layover day there.
Interdite rapid is described above… but you have to see it to understand what it actually is.
With a high water level the “dry” channel on the left is likely to be the best option. We managed to paddle and drag the half-loaded boats there to cut the portage by half. Not that dragging was easy, but still preferable to carrying the stuff through huge and unstable rocks, some of them car-sized. Approximately half-way through the flat rocks on the right side begin, and the carry (after some route-finding) is easy, except last 100 meters.
But in medium and low water level, the side channel can be too dry and not possible. Also in rainy weather, with slippery rocks, portage there would be very hard and dangerous. In both these cases, it may be easier to carry through the island itself. The portage there is shorter (for low water level) and flatter, though you’ll have to deal with the trees.
It took us nearly 4 hours to complete the portage – partially because of the raft. But even with canoes, 2-3 hours seems to me a fast time.
Below the Interdite, just 3 km downstream, at km 74, you come to the next serious obstacle…
This is a class 5.1 rapid, approach is on the right. ( We chose the wrong side again here).
The rapid would be runnable if not for wide ledges near the bottom of the rapid. It seems from both sides, that you cannot avoid at least some big holes. Left side is likely a bit more reasonable if someone wants to take the risk; maybe in low water level some lines will become of class 5.0 or even 4+. But in high water I really did not see any reasonable lines, and lining/carrying on the left was extremely hard ( though not totally impossible).
The right shore meanwhile offers an easy line- and-carry of only 150 meters into the side slot (mini-canyon) to completely avoid the main drops and all the holes. There is also an emergency ( C ) campsite on the right – at the start of the portage.

Next serious rapid is at km 69. Approach on the left. Main rapid seems to be class 5 or 5+ run with huge waves. On the left you can first run a rocky class 3 along the shore, then ( where river makes the right turn), make a sharp left turn into side channel. The channel had enough water to produce a good technical run of class 3+ or 4-. With lower water level it may be close to nothing: drag-and-drop style run or even line.

Next few kilometers you have a fun ride: long and easy R2 / R2+ to km 64, then a mini-lake, and then another set of rapids… it is easy at first, but after 2 km it builds up strength. Current forces you stay on river right… and then it comes: a sudden horizon line. ( km 57).
When you first see it ( have to look hard, it is not easy to see, even from 200 meters the run ahead looks smooth) , you still have an option of hard ferry to the left – and then a class 5 wave train, scary, but probably runnable. However, safety concerns will likely make you keep close to the shore, and then it is too late for a ferry, and you have to use a micro-eddy on your right not to go over the horizon line blindly. It appears a 2-meter ( over 5-7 meter distance) ledge.
It is not a good idea to go straight over ledge because of the bad, bad keeper hole below it. The hole does not look huge, but it pulls the water back from as far as 5 or 6 meters downstream of its edge, which indicates it is very deep. There is no possible exit on either side… DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RUN IT! (in high water.)
The only option there is to line next to the shore. Not easy, but possible. The hole managed to pull in one of our (empty) cats while we lined it. It took a combined efforts of two man to pull it back.

Easy class 1 rapid will bring you to the lake… but it is not a lake. Despite 2 km width, it still has a 4 km/h current… In just 3 hours you can cover a distance of 20 km (56 – 36)…
At the end of the lake the river splits at 3 major channels, they are nearly 4 1/2 km wide all together. The best rout is through leftmost channel.
Keep to the left when you near the lake’s end. Small rapids will follow, and then you’ll see a big tributary on the left. There are many campsites there… Less than 2 km below the tributary (34), more serious rapids start. First comes a class 3 rapid – straight and scoutable from water,
then there is a small island, a convenient place to scout your further lines – you can go either right side ( class 4) or through a small channel in the middle of the island ( a 0.5 meter drop) if there is enough water with subsequent class 3+ run.
Then the river makes a right turn, huge flat rocks appear on left shore; class 5- rapid starts at the bend. Park your boats at a huge pool near the left shore and scout the rapid. It has a neck-breaking wave/hole near the left shore and another huge hole in the middle. It is easy to avoid the first one, but not so easy with the second, because current will carry you strongly towards the left.
The correct line in this rapid starts with paddling upstream in the left side pool, then a ferry 5/6 of the river to river right. The line goes along the edge of the wave that guards right side eddy below the initial drop. Then current starts to carry you to the left, and you have to counter by pointing directly to the right and paddling as hard as you can. This is the only way to avoid the large hole in the middle. The following rapid is solid class 4, it is separated from previous one by a 400 meters of fast moving turbulent water with occasional waves – enough time to make it either to the right shore or to the left, full ferry is also possible (because there is only class 4, not a deadly falls below), yet hard. Next rapid is best run starting from the middle and going more and more to the right – to avoid huge waves.
However, at the bottom of the rapid ( river starts to make a 90 degree turn to the left there) you should try to make a ferry back to the left. Because next rapid ( km 32) that starts at the turn is runnable in full only along left side (class 4+). Run in the middle (class 5) may be possible, but hard to scout (at least from the right shore where all but one hardshell ended up).
The run along right shore is generally class 3+ or 4-, but in the middle of rapid there is an unrunnable ledge that require lining/portaging for about 70 meters around a big rock and/or using very small side channel.
This is actually the last hard rapid on the river. Next comes the lake and then 4 more rapids; they appear after all river channels join back together. First two are class 2 ( km 23), then class 3 (km 20) and 3+ (km 18) , all scoutable from water. Our worries about km 20 rapid, where river narrows to 300 meters was baseless.
These last rapids seem to be gravel-bottom type, so there are just waves ( sometimes – big breaking waves), but no holes.
In other words, you have a fun ride at the end.
As you enter the bay after the last rapid, you have to think about the tides, that may be very high there. Cree Indians advised us that if there is a head wind, we should follow the left shore, using a channel behind 3 small islands, about 10 km from the last rapid, and then go into the channel between 2-d and 3-d island – and from there cross over directly to opposite side… You will find a nice campsite there, and a small brook with clear water. This is a place where Indians can come and pick you up.


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