The River Unknown: Exploring Canada’s Far North with the Ikivuq Expedition

In the summer of 2017, six friends from Quebec planned a canoe exploration of the Ungava Peninsula, the northernmost mainland of eastern North America. This region, now known as Nunavik, consists of countless wild rivers and mysterious crater-impact lakes, and windswept tundra. For its lack of development, Nunavik represents one of the greatest wilderness areas on the planet.

The Ikivuq team flying from Kuujjuaq to Pingualuit National Park to begin the adventure

Photographer Francois Léger-Savard and his tripmates, Ariel Desjardins Charbonneau, Cloé Fortin, Raphael Hernandez, Anne-Sophie Daigle and Élise Bélanger, sought to document the unknown Lestage River with what was likely its first descent. Their goal was to share the wonders of this landscape through photographs and a documentary video, and shed light on the indigenous Inuit culture that remains a fixture on the landscape.

We caught up with Léger-Savard to learn more.

CanoeKayak.com: What first attracted you to the Lestage River? Did you have a good idea what to expect?
Francois Léger-Savard: The first thing that enticed me into paddling the Lestage River was the fact that it was still unmapped for paddlers. The idea of facing the unknown, traveling this immense territory and documenting our path convinced me to take on the adversity associated with such a project.

The water level of the Vachon River was very low, forcing the team to walk their canoes.

Tell us a bit about what went into planning this expedition. Besides mapping the river, what were your objectives?
The project came to us many years ago when my friend Ariel [Desjardins Charbonneau] told me that some northern rivers were still unmapped. At that moment we started dreaming about those waves, about those miles to cross and we started looking at the maps with a different perspective. The maps revealed the possible location of our next adventure. A few objectives lead us through two years of preparation and on our journey across the land. One of my main goals was to share this adventure. Every time I explore Nunavik, the emotion of being extremely privileged is enthralling. In my mind, this privilege comes with the responsibility of sharing these encounters with the inspiring Inuit people and the extreme beauty of their territory.

What does Ikivuq mean?
In Inuktitut, ikivuq means " jump in" or "going on". For us, it represents an invitation to be part of our journey. Our attitude is that this entire project makes no sense if it only benefits us. We try to inspire and raise awareness by sharing. The use of Inuktitut language seems essential to us, not in appropriation but in order to acknowledge the Inuit's ancient and contemporary occupation of this land and the comprehension and wisdom of these residents.

Hundreds of caribou surrounding our encampment.

Tell us a bit about the team of paddlers you brought together for the expedition. What did they contribute as individuals to your overall goal?
The team was composed of three women and three men--six dedicated humans gathered on a common trail. We faced hard conditions and exhausting obstacles. It quickly became obvious that the only way to get by was by taking care of each other. As individuals, we all contribute something unique to the group. One member brought energy when the others lacked of it, another smiled when it was most needed.

Snow is still present on the banks of the Arpalirtuq River.

What were some of the highlights of the trip?
We paddled through the Leaf River caribou herd territory. Knowing that this population recently dropped by 54 percent in five years provided unique significance. We met thousands of caribou when traveling the tundra and we had to stop our paddling to let hundreds of caribou cross the water. Swimming in front of us, it seemed obvious that the caribou had the right of way--like a pedestrian crossing. On one magic morning, coffee was in progress and the cereal was just doused in milk. We opened our eyes to thousands of caribou surrounding our campsites. Mountains were moving like a wave that swallows the horizon. At that specific moment, we were Lilliputian, almost invisible. Nature is strong and the tundra is powerful.

Another important moment for me was the encounter with two imposing square-shaped rocks structures. The remains of these shelters lead me to reflect on the men and women who long ago arranged the rocks. They reminded me of the resilience, intelligence and strength of those who have lived in this area, well before our passage. They made use of the only resources that this isolated environment could offer. Standing at the center, within four walls, was a defining moment. It reminded me that we are only passing.

When the rain and wind stops, flies are omnipresent.

I’ve heard about the crazy wind and terrible weather in northern Ungava. Did you face these sorts of challenges?
For sure, the weather was one of the major challenges during our trip. Strong winds made our three-day portage very hard. Walking on unstable, slippery rocks with violent bursts of wind pushing the canoes felt like the labors of Hercules! The first 10 days of the trip were made of wind, rain, snow, hail and cold. When the sun finally appeared, blackflies emerged in quantities we’d never experienced before. Wind was also an obstacle when paddling on Lac Nantais, forcing us to stop because we could no longer move forward.

Peaceful end of the day at the camp.

Were there any pieces of gear that were critical to your success?
For me the critical piece of gear was my Kokaktat drysuit. It kept me dry and warm. My hood almost took root on me because I wore it constantly.

How did this expedition (in terms of scenery and level of difficulty) compare to your previous trips, such as the Mountain River, Koroc and the George?
This adventure was very different than our previous paddling trip in Nunavik. At Pingualuit National Park, where we started, the horizon is made of rocks and water. The landscape evolved with the progress of the expedition, with mosses appearing, shrubs and eventually green valleys. The difficulty was different than previous adventure: it was more physically laborious. Last winter’s low snowfall and early flooding made the first 40 kilometres gruelling. While the canoes were at their heaviest, we had to pull and lift the boats on the dry riverbed.

Raphaël et Élise on the Payne River.

From a photography perspective, were you satisfied with the trip?
The main goal of all my adventures is to bring back images. Everything is organized and planned in a way to create my representation of those moments and places. With the Ikivuq project, most of my work was oriented towards producing a documentary film, which I’m currently working on.

Visual highlights from the trip.

What is the future of this region of Quebec?
For me, the future of this region passes through those who have lived there for millennia. As Canadians we must recognize our colonial past and support Inuit and First Nations through their healing and empowerment.

Arrival at Kangirsuk village.


-- Learn more about the expedition at the Ikivuq website

-- See more photos on Instagram

-- Keep up to date with the team's future projects on Facebook

More at CanoeKayak.com:

Announcing the winner of C&K’s 2017 Dream Adventure contest

Crossing New Boundaries: A digital feature from the Boundary Waters

Alone Across the Arctic with canoe adventurer Adam Shoalts