Behind the Shot: An Epic Overland Journey to Kayak the Nachvak River, Arctic Canada

Kayaker Ben Stookesberry on the Nachvak River in the Torgat Mountains of Arctic Canada
Kayaker Ben Stookesberry on the Nachvak River in the Torgat Mountains of Arctic Canada

See more photos like this in our Extreme Photo of the Week gallery.

“If you define adventure as being out of your comfort zone, then I would have to say the mosquitos and black flies were the most adventurous part of the trip,” says veteran expedition kayaker Ben Stookesberry, one of our previous Adventurers of the Year. “A close second was the shear weight of the remoteness of this place and the realization every night that you could get pulled out of your tent by a polar bear at any moment.”

Stookesberry and a dream team that included Erik Boomer, Chris Korbulic, Ben Marr, and Pedro Oliva traveled overland from California to Canada’s Labrador Peninsula—going from auto to train to epic 600-mile canoe paddle—just to access the remote headwaters of the Nachvak River. After seven years of planning and two failed attempts to reach Arctic wilderness by floatplane, Stookesberry was not disappointed. “The Nachvak was even more amazing than we could have hoped for in that it was entirely runnable,” he says. “It was certainly the first time in my expedition kayaking career that a first descent was made with no portages and at the same time had multiple drops approaching a hundred feet tall.

“It was important to me to experience first-hand that this fantastic wilderness is literally connected to us—just a thousand miles north of New York City.”

Adventure: Who was on the team ? Seems like a dream team!

Ben Stookesberry: This was absolutely an incredible team including myself, Pedro Oliva, Erik Boomer, Chris Korbulic, and Ben Marr. But it should be noted that the mission can be considered as two parts.  Pedro, Erik, and I were on the first part from Sept-Ils through the George River Canoe Route to the only village on the Labrador Peninsula called Kangiqsualujjuac. There Boomer flew out because he was just three months off knee surgery. Then Chris and Ben flew in for the main attraction of the expedition—the canoe route through the Torngat.
A: Why was it such a cool mission? 
BS: For me the mission was different because we were able to get there overland utilizing auto, to train, to an epic 600-mile canoe route.  And I guess the canoe route is really what we are talking about here, but it was important to me to experience first-hand that this fantastic wilderness is literally connected to us 1,000 miles north of New York City.
Add to that the Nachvak River, the ultimate goal of the expedition, was entirely runnable was even more amazing than we could have hoped for.  It was certainly the first time in my expedition kayaking career that a first descent was made with no portages and at the same time had multiple drops approaching a hundred feet tall.
A: Whose idea was it to go here? Did it live up to expectations?
BS: Canadian kayaker Joel Kowolski first showed me this river on Google Earth while kayaking together in Newfoundland in 2007.  Even back then, the satellite images were high-res and showed this surreal Arctic landscape with a crystal clear river filled with waterfalls.  But how to actually get there was the crux. I didn’t realize that it could be done completely overland until after our second failed float plane flight just a month ago. It was only then that I really started pouring over the topo maps and recognized this magical route into the headwaters of the river by traversing the Labrador Peninsula itself.
I would have to say that from that time seven years ago that I first saw the sat images of the river, to finally seeing it in person my expectations were completely blown away.  And I could have never imagined I would actually kayak 600 miles to get there!
A: How many days and miles was the whole thing?
We spent 41 days in total from the start of the George River Canoe Route through the round trip from Kangiqsualujjuack through the Torngat and back. In all we paddled and portaged 608 miles. I have broken down the millage below.
Destination Torngat Stats:
Car – 3,608 miles (Chico, CA – Sept-Ils, QC)
Train – 341 miles (Sept-Ils, QC – Shefferville, QC)
Paddling –  556 miles (422 miles George River + 2 miles Nutillilik River + 21 miles Ford River + 82 miles Koroc River + 29 miles Nachvak River)
Portaging/ Trek: 52 miles (2 miles George River Headwaters Portage + 2 miles Nutillilik River Trek + 8 miles Ford River Trek + 21 miles Akitasaluuk Trek + 19 miles Nachvak to Koroc Trek)
A: What was the most adventurous part?
BS: If you define adventure as being out of your comfort zone, then I would have to say the mosquitos and black flies were the most adventurous part of the trip. They were so thick at times that I honestly believe it would have been impossible to survive without head to toe thick clothing and a head net.  It took weeks to get used to the incessant buzzing and bombardment of the flesh-eating bastards.
A close second was the shear weight of the remoteness of this place and the realization every night that you could get pulled out of your tent by a polar bear at any moment.
A: Was this a first descent?
BS: The entire canoe route was a first of its kind with certain parts that had been done and others that were a century old canoe routes. Without a doubt, this was the first time the Nachvak River had ever been attempted.
A:  Why did you use canoes?
BS: When we say canoe route it refers to a style of expedition made famous in northeastern North America by the native people and colonial trappers.  Because of the relatively (to the mountainous west) subdued terrain, it is possible to paddle and portage upstream on one drainage to access the headwaters of the opposing drainage to paddle downstream in the opposite direction in order to cover 100s if not 1000s of miles.
We utilized a new style of kayak that we refer to as “long boats” that is a hybrid of a touring kayak and a whitewater kayak to accomplish this canoe route.  The long boat was originally designed as a whitewater race boat for a steep Class V race on the Green River Narrows in North Carolina. To give you an idea of the main difference a standard expedition whitewater kayak is eight to nine feet long where as the long boats are 11 to 13 feet long.  This gave us the ability to go even faster than a canoe while carrying much more gear than a standard whitewater kayak in order to go up to three weeks without a resupply. Of course we still needed the strength and manuverability of a whitewater kayak to descend the falls of the Nachvak.
A: Tell us more about how you dealt with the mosquitos?
BS: The mosquitos were as thick as I have ever seen at times.  But the real threat were the black flies.  The head nets that we had purchased seemed perfectly fine, but we quickly realized the tiny mesh openings were still to big.  I am not sure how we would have made it had we not procured proper microscopic mesh head nets from a fishing camp on the George.   Still even having my hands exposed was enough for severe swelling that needed medical attention half way through the trip.