A Historic Labrador Canoe Trip

Starved and exhausted, Leonidas Hubbard, a young American outdoors writer, died alone beside a seldom travelled river deep in the Labrador wilderness in 1903.

Hubbard and two companions had been gradually weakening as they slogged their way across the unforgiving landscape to find help after their ambitious adventure went horribly wrong. Too frail to continue, Hubbard urged Dillon Wallace and George Elson to seek rescue but by the time it arrived poor Hubbard had succumbed.

The story of their experience has captured the imaginations of many in the century since. Other expeditions have succeeded where Hubbard himself failed, and books have been published recounting these trips into one of the least known parts of the Canadian wilderness.

One of these took place exactly 100 years after Hubbard’s tragic attempt to paddle up Labrador’s Naskaupi watershed and then down Quebec’s George’s River to Ungava Bay. In the summer of 2003 a group of wilderness canoeists who specialize in exploring the Quebec-Labrador interior retraced the Hubbard expedition’s fateful route, then proceeded to finish the trip having paddled and portaged a total of 1,047 kms (650 miles) in 50 days.

Troy M. Gipps was a member of the 2003 Hubbard Memorial Centennial Expedition and has published a website with photos and brief descriptions of its various stages. In two Royalex (ABS plastic) canoes, Gipps and his group left from the beach at NorthWest River, as Hubbard had, paddled up Grand Lake and found where Hubbard made the error that was his eventual undoing. You can learn where he went wrong by clicking on Album B (see link at bottom of this page) and reading the text below the photos.

Following Hubbard’s route, the Centennial Expedition struggled up shallow, rocky Susan Brook in rain, hordes of flies, and 32 degree C (90F) heat. When they at last reached Hope Lake, writes Gipps, “we walked in their footsteps that day.”

The Hubbard group had actually seen Lake Michikamau (now part of the massive Smallwood Reservoir) from a hilltop but were unable to find a water connection to reach it. It was September, the weather was appallingly bad and their food was very low, so Hubbard, Wallace and Elson agreed to turn back.

“The story of the 1903 Hubbard expedition is a timeless example of the power of the human spirit in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds,” says Gipps. “It also speaks volumes about the mysterious pull wilderness has on the human heart.”

“It was amazing to read a piece of history and then actually have the opportunity to pass through a landscape that has remained virtually unchanged since the moment those early explorers passed through it,” he continues. “There are so few places left where one has the opportunity to feel a true connection to history. Labrador’s vast interior is one of those special places.”

The Labrador leg of the Centennial trip was just less than a third of their total distance. Gipps describes the Smallwood Reservoir as “the big water”…it measures about 160 kms (100 miles) from east to west and 120 kms (75 miles) from north to south. It took them four and a half days to paddle the 120-km stretch (fortunately the lake was like glass) to reach the George River connection.

The height of land between Labrador and Quebec, Gipps writes, “is just 200 metres wide and about one foot higher than the lakes on either side of it, yet it separates not only the provinces but also two enormous drainage systems.”

For anyone contemplating similar trips, Gipps is encouraging. Even after now having canoed 1,800 miles of wilderness rivers in Labrador and northern Quebec, he is still impressed by the vastness of the region. “Even more amazing is the fact that it is possible to safely traverse large tracts of land in a tiny canoe. In fact, if you plan properly you can pretty much go anywhere you want due to the tremendous network of waterways that criss-cross the landscape.”

In 1905 Dillon Wallace published “The Lure of the Labrador Wild” describing the Hubbard expedition. Gipps’ website lists various sources for more information, including the extensive collection of original Hubbard expedition photographs. Also mentioned are several books written about subsequent expeditions, including rival trips by Wallace and Hubbard’s Canadian-born widow, Mina. The expedition of Mina Hubbard was commemorated in 2005 in Labrador.

You can find Gipps’s website at http://www.wildernesscanoe.org.

All photos used with permission of Troy M. Gipps