From Chisasibi to Umiujaq
Hudson Bay remains today an almost forgotten sea in the nautical world. There, are of course, some merchant ships that supply the Cree and Inuit communities along the coasts of the Hudson Bay from July to October. There are also Cree and Inuit fishermen and hunters who occasionally move along the coast with their 24-foot freighter canoes. But sailing today in Hudson Bay is still considered to be more an expedition than a sailing cruise. According to our research, the last sailboat navigation on the East coast of Hudson Bay dates back to the 1920s.
From Montreal, a 1,400-km paved road leads directly to the Cree community of Chisasibi, along the La Grande River, the starting point of our expedition.
The planning of this 1,100 km sailing expedition, from Chisasibi to Umiujaq, Nunavik, took us nearly a year. The main difficulty lies in the lack of available information on navigation conditions in this area. Nautical charts are only available on very large scales and very little bathymetric information is available near the coast. Google Earth proved to be very useful in establishing our navigation route in order to avoid shallow areas as much as possible.
The second step of our planning was to identify safe mooring sites such as islands, deep bays and river estuaries where we could shelter in case of bad weather. Access to complete satellite weather forecasts was also an important part of the safety plan of our expedition given our inexperience at sea and the small size of our 22-foot sailboat.
Our odyssey began July 23, 2017 from the Cree community of Chisasibi. This was a smooth 14-km sail on the La Grande River before reaching James Bay. The meeting of the La Grande River with James Bay was quite an impressive moment.
James Bay waters are quite shallow and dotted with innumerable low elevation islands. The passage along Long Island, Nunavut, marked our entry into Hudson Bay. These bare elongated rocky islets are composed mainly of rectangular rocks of contrasting colours in an arrangement of great beauty. Here, we are in an Arctic environment which will be observed again only 300 km further north in the Umiujaq region.
On the fourth day of sailing, we reach the community of Kuujjuarapik (Whapmagoostui). This community has two names since it is inhabited by both Cree and Inuit. Our stay of a few hours in this community allows us to experience the vibrant activity of a northern community in summer. The relatively short summer is a time when most construction work needs to be done rapidly. There are many construction sites and the air traffic is quite impressive for such a small community of 700 inhabitants. The freighter Sarah Desgagne moored a few kilometres off Kuujjuarapik assures the annual supply of goods of all kinds to the community. These include food, petroleum, building materials, etc.
The Manitounuk Islands are a jewel in the Kuujjuarapik region. These islands that stretch for nearly 70 km, delimit the Manitounuk Sound, allowing for protected navigation from the open sea. On the west side of these islands, there is a subarctic environment, almost without trees because of cold winds from the Hudson Bay. In contrast, the eastern side of these islands, protected from the prevailing winds, give way to a more boreal environment.
July 28 around 19:00, we finally reach the mouth of the Goulet. The Goulet is a stretch of water that connects the Nastapoka Sound to Tasiujaq Lake in Tursujuq Park, Nunavik. The Goulet offers an impressive view with these bare hills that make us realize we have reached the latitude of the subarctic environment. The passage from the Goulet to Tursujuq Park must absolutely coordinate with the tide.
Tursujuq National Park is a site of great beauty that by itself justifies this expedition. This unique environment is characteristic of Hudsonian cuestas of over 300 m in height. We will keep an unforgettable memory of our stay in Tursujuq Park.
The next day, July 30, departure at 5:30 am towards Umiujaq. Departure is coordinated with the low tide at 8 am to make a fast sail in the Goulet with the tide current estimated at about 11 kmph.
The trip to Umiujaq is motor-driven, with head winds from the north of nearly 30 kmph and a temperature of just under 10 C. We decide to spend the night at the sheltered harbour of Umiujaq instead of going directly to Nastapoka Falls as planned. Overnight, the weather forecast completely changes. A strong windstorm of three to four days is expected in the next two days. It is therefore necessary to plan a stay in a good sheltered area. At 5 am the next day, our decision is made: We are going back to the south and giving up going to Nastapoka Falls, which was only 40 km further north.
Our 70-kilometre navigation from Umiujaq to the mouth of Little Whale River is done quickly by crosswinds of more than 30 kmph with two reefs in the mainsail and with a small jib. Our entry into the river is well coordinated with high tide. We are then seized by the sublime beauty of the site. The rugged coastline along our route was transformed here almost magically into a surreal assemblage of fine sandy beaches and bare mountains, all softened in pastel hues.
An Inuit camp is installed on the sandy banks of the river. The Inuit greet us from afar and we take the opportunity to meet them. This Inuit family from the village of Umiujaq is occupying the site for a period of two weeks and practicing traditional activities. The men fish for white fish during the day while the women clean the goose down that is used to make traditional parkas. The fish is smoked on the spot. This almost surreal meeting in such a special environment will forever hold a unique place in our memory.
As expected, the windstorm settled late in the evening of July 31. For three days and four nights, we are buffeted by winds of 30 to 50 kmph. We stay most of the time in our tiny cabin. We sleep, read, eat and observe the many belugas that are more and more present near the boat. Inside the cabin, beluga songs are sometimes heard as they approach the sailboat. On August 6, we begin the long five-day return trip to Chisasibi.
After having sailed 1,100 km, we like to think we have been “explorers” in our own way by demonstrating that it is possible to make a sailboat expedition in James Bay and Hudson Bay from Chisasibi with a small transportable 22-foot sailboat. Having the opportunity to sail 17 days in a subarctic environment, reached in just two days by car from Montreal, represents an exceptional situation in North America. With a minimum investment in nautical infrastructures, marine tourism could easily begin. In Chisasibi, for example, the addition of a boat launching ramp and floating dock on the La Grande River would be essential to help start up expeditions on these northern seas.
But beyond these unique subarctic landscapes, we are happy to have had the chance to meet these northern native peoples who are the Cree and Inuit, to better know their environment, to better understand the attachment to their culture and ancestral land. We were touched by their kindness but also by the difficulties they must deal with daily. We now understand our “neighbours” in the North a little better and we dream of the day we can return. Goodbye Eeyou Itschee.
A 33-minute video of this sailing expedition is available on YouTube: Hudson Bay Sailing Expedition 2017.
Jean Lelièvre, is a mining engineer from Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec. This 1,100 km sailing expedition on James and Hudson Bays with two of his sons is the fulfillment of an old dream to discover this inner sea located only 350 km from Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec.