The Grand Falls Of Labrador

The usual method employed was what is technically known as “tracking.” That is, a strong rope, about the thickness of a clothes-line, was tied to the gunwale of the boat just aft of the bow. To the shore end of this broad leather straps were attached. With these across their shoulders, three of the party tugged away along the rocky bank, while number four of our crew, with an oar lashed in the stern, steered a devious course among the rocks and shallows of the river.

The “tow-path” in this instance was of the roughest and most diversified character. Sandy terraces and extended reaches covered with glacial boulders characterized the lower portion of the river, while farther up-stream great numbers of smaller boulders, insecurely lodged on the precipitous sandy banks, would baffle us by the precarious footing they afforded. Where a combination of this “rubble” and a troublesome rapid occurred, it was only by the most violent exertion and no end of slipping and sliding that the tension of the tow-line could be maintained on the treacherous ground. Then, again, stretches of steep rocky bank, where no tracking was possible, would often compel us to scale the rugged cliffs and pass the line from one to another over various obstacles. Wading through the water was frequently the only resource. This was always the case when we reached a place in the river where the spring freshets had undermined the banks, and where numbers of trees, stumps, and underbrush littered the shore, forming chevaux-de-frise of the most formidable character.

The long daylight of midsummer in this subarctic region was a point in our favor, enabling us to work to the limit of our strength. Here, indeed, we found that “Night and day hold each other’s hands upon the hill-tops…. No sooner does the sun set north by west, than, like a giant refreshed, it rises again north by east.”


Judged by ordinary standards of travel, our advance up the river was slow indeed; but to those who are familiar with canoe transportation on Canadian rivers, I am sure our progress will appear respectable, when the unwieldy character of our boat is taken into consideration. There seems to be something positively personal and vindictive in the resistance which rapids make to a traveller’s advance into a wild and mountainous country. There was, accordingly, a cumulative feeling of satisfaction as one after another of these barriers of nature’s making were surmounted. In the swollen condition of the river, the struggle with these wild rapids was often as savage and exhilarating as one could desire. John and myself usually took the lead on the tow-line, Geoffrey busying himself with keeping the line clear of snags, while to Professor Kenaston was assigned the steersman’s part. Bending to their work, the linemen would clamber along the bank, dragging the slowly yielding mass up-stream. Ofttimes the force of the current would carry out the boat far into mid-stream, until the full length of line would be exhausted. We could do nothing then but hang on like grim death and watch our craft toss and roll amid the billows, until, like a spirited horse, gradually yielding to the strain, she would turn her head shoreward. Professor Kenaston, meanwhile, with tense muscles, bending to the steering-oar, skilfully guided his charge amid the encompassing rocks and eddies,—the only quiet figure on the surging flood of the river….

Looking back on these days spent along the river, I recall how each one was filled with incident and how all were stimulated by the uncertainty of what lay before us. It is the experience of many that, in recalling travels of this kind, the pleasant features of the time are remembered with more distinctness than the trying ones. So in the retrospect of this journey, many of the incidents, unpleasant at the time, are softened by time’s perspective, while the bright ones stand out in bolder relief and recur to the memory with pleasure. One awkward adventure, however, which occurred on the first day on the Mouni Rapids, I have not yet succeeded in relegating to the realm of forgetfulness. We were approaching a rocky point, similar to many others we had encountered, past which the water dashed with angry violence. It was our custom, on reaching such a place, to first detach the canoe, and then to shove out the boat obliquely from the still water, to allow her bow to fairly meet the swifter current. On this occasion, while Montague and I, facing up-stream, were waiting on the bank above for the signal to advance, the boat, through some carelessness, was pushed out from the quiet eddy squarely into the swift water. The full force of the torrent struck her abeam, and away she swept down-stream like a thing possessed. Taken unawares, no time was given to throw off the leather straps from our shoulders, and instantly we were thrown from our feet and dragged over the rocks into the river by the merciless strength of the flood. Most fortunately for me, the circular strap slipped over my head as I was being dragged through the water. Montague’s also released itself, and the runaway sped down-stream a quarter of a mile before stopping. On clambering up the bank I found Montague stunned and bleeding from a scalp wound. Aside from some abrasions of the skin, I was none the worse for the shaking up, and after a brief delay Montague revived, and we resumed our “tow-path” exercise.


The declining sun of August 20 beheld our small craft glide into the smooth waters of Lake Wanakopow. The first view of the lake was beautiful, and most grateful to our eyes after the long struggle with the rapids. Even Geoffrey and John, usually indifferent to scenic effects, could not conceal their admiration as we glided by towering cliffs and wooded headlands, and beheld at intervals cascades leaping from the rocks into the lake, their silvery outlines glistening in the sun and contrasting distinctly with the environment of dark evergreen foliage. This romantic sheet of water stretches in a northeasterly and southwesterly direction a distance of about thirty-five miles, and has an elevation above sea-level, according to my aneroid observations, of four hundred and sixty-two feet. Low mountains of granite and gneiss rise on both sides, and the average width of the lake is less than one mile. A sounding taken near the middle showed a depth of four hundred and six feet. This narrow elevated basin is probably of glacial origin, the presence of great numbers of boulders and the rounded appearance of the hill summits pointing to a period of ice movement.


While at the Northwest River Post we had learned from a reliable Indian that the old trail, long disused, led from this point on the river to a chain of lakes on the table-land. By following these lakes and crossing the intervening “carries,” the rapid water which extends for fifteen miles below the Falls could be circumvented, and the traveller brought finally to the waters of the Grand River, many miles above the Grand Falls. Our plan was to follow this old trail for several days, and then to leave the canoe and strike across country in a direction which we hoped would bring us again to the river in the vicinity of the Falls. It was deemed best to follow this circuitous canoe route rather than to attempt to follow the banks of the river on foot, in which case everything would have to be carried on our backs through dense forests for many miles.

After a long search the old trail was found, and, leaving Geoffrey in charge of the main camp on the river, the other members of the party took the canoe and a week’s provisions, and began the ascent of the steep path which led up to the edge of the elevated plateau, which here approaches the river. Making a “carry” of three miles to the north along the old trail, we reached the first of the chain of lakes, where we erected a rude shelter and camped for the night. A violent storm arose during the night, and next day we lost much time in seeking for the continuation of the trail on the opposite side of the lake. Having been disused for twenty-seven years, the path, where it came out on the lake-shore, was distinguished by no “blazes” on the trees, or recent choppings. This necessitated a careful examination of the shores on all the lakes, and caused considerable delay.

We were now on the great table-land of the Labrador interior, and, wishing to get a good outlook, climbed a conspicuous hill near by to scan the adjacent country. A view truly strange and impressive was before us. As far as the eye could reach extended an undulating country, sparsely covered with stunted spruce-trees, among which great weather-worn rocks gleamed, while on all sides white patches of caribou moss gave a snowy effect to the scene. A hundred shallow lakes reflected the fleeting clouds above, their banks lined with boulders, and presenting a labyrinth of channels and island passages. Low hills arose at intervals among the bogs and lakes, but the general effect of the landscape was that of flatness and bleak monotony.

The continuation of the old Nascopie trail remaining invisible, to escape the discomfort of another rainy night on the plateau we returned to the shelter of the camp on the river. On August 30 we returned to Geoffrey Lake, where our patient search for the trail was at last successful.

Next day we advanced along the trail, which led us over four “carries” and across five lakes. For convenience of reference, we applied names to some of these small sheets of water. Thus, the third one of the chain was designated “Gentian Lake,” from finding the closed variety of the blue gentian growing on its borders. The next day we turned aside from the dim trail and paddled to the northwestern extremity of the sixth lake, where we drew the canoe ashore and prepared for the tramp across country. Arrayed in heavy marching order, and carrying nearly all that remained of our provisions, we were soon advancing westward on a course which we hoped would soon bring us to the river in the vicinity of the Falls. The country we were now passing through was of the most desolate character, denuded of trees and the surface covered with caribou moss, Labrador tea plants, blueberry-bushes, and thousands of boulders. By keeping to the ridges fair progress was made; but when compelled to leave the higher ground and skirt the borders of the lakes, dense thickets of alders and willows were encountered, and these greatly impeded our advance. Language seems inadequate to describe the desolation of this upland landscape. No living thing was encountered, and the silence of primordial time reigned supreme.

Just before sunset we went into camp on a hill-side near a large lake, and soon after, from the top of a high rock, beheld a great column of mist rising like smoke against the western sky. This we knew marked the position of the Falls, and, needless to say, our spirits rose—oblivious of our bleak surroundings—as we contemplated the near attainment of our journey’s end. During the night the thermometer registered a minimum temperature of forty-one degrees, and we were treated to a superb display of Northern Lights.

September 2 was a day memorable as marking the date of our arrival at the Grand Falls. A rough march over the rocks and bogs intervened, however, before we reached this goal. As we approached the river, spruce-forests of a heavier growth appeared, and, pressing on through these, although we could no longer see the overhanging mist, the deep roar of falling waters was borne to our ears with growing distinctness. After what seemed an intolerable length of time—so great was our eagerness—a space of light in the trees ahead made known the presence of the river. Quickening our steps, we pushed on, and with beating hearts emerged from the forest near the spot where the river plunged into the chasm with a deafening roar.

A single glance showed us that we had before us one of the greatest waterfalls in the world. Standing at the rocky brink of the chasm, a wild and tumultuous scene lay before us, a scene possessing elements of sublimity and with details not to be apprehended in the first moments of wondering contemplation. Far up-stream one beheld the surging, fleecy waters and tempestuous billows, dashing high their crests of foam, all forced onward with resistless power towards the steep rock whence they took their wild leap into the deep pool below. Turning to the very brink and looking over, we gazed into a world of mists and mighty reverberations. Here the exquisite colors of the rainbow fascinated the eye, and majestic sounds of falling waters continued the pæan of the ages. Below and beyond the seething caldron the river appeared, pursuing its turbulent career, past frowning cliffs and over miles of rapids, where it heard “no sound save its own dashings.” The babel of waters made conversation a matter of difficulty, and after a mute exchange of congratulations, we turned our attention to examining the river in detail above and below the Falls.

A mile above the main leap the river is a noble stream four hundred yards wide, already flowing at an accelerated speed. Four rapids, marking successive depressions in the river-bed, intervene between this point and the Falls. At the first rapid the width of the stream is not more than one hundred and seventy-five yards, and from thence rapidly contracts until reaching a point above the escarpment proper, where the entire column of fleecy water is compressed within rocky banks not more than fifty yards apart.

Here the effect of resistless power is extremely fine. The maddened waters, sweeping downward with terrific force, rise in great surging billows high above the encompassing banks ere they finally hurl themselves into the gulf below. A great pillar of mist rises from the spot, and numerous rainbows span the watery abyss, constantly forming and disappearing amid the clouds of spray. An immense volume of water precipitates itself over the rocky ledge, and under favorable conditions the roar of the cataract can be heard for twenty miles. Below the Falls, the river, turning to the southeast, pursues its maddened career for twenty-five miles shut in by vertical cliffs of gneissic rock, which rises in places to a height of four hundred feet. The rocky banks above and below the Falls are thickly wooded with firs and spruces, among which the graceful form of the white birch appears in places.


The deep, incessant roar of the cataract that night was our lullaby as, stretched out under a rough “barricade,” we glided into that realm of forgetfulness where even surroundings strange as ours counted as naught.

By the morning light we again viewed the wonders of the place, and sought for some sign of the presence of bird or animal in the vicinity; but not a track or the glint of a bird’s wing rewarded our quest, and this avoidance of the place by the wild creatures of the forest seemed to add a new element of severity to the eternal loneliness of the spot.

The Grand Falls of Labrador, with their grim environment of time-worn, archaic rocks, are one of the scenic wonders of this Western world, and if nearer civilization, would be visited by thousands of travellers every year. They are nearly twice as high as Niagara, and are only inferior to that marvellous cataract in breadth and volume of water. One of their most striking characteristics is the astonishing leap into space which the torrent makes in discharging itself over its rocky barrier. From the description given of the rapid drop in the river-bed and concident narrowing of the channel, one can easily understand that the cumulative energy expended in this final leap of the pent-up waters is truly titanic.

If a substratum of softer rock existed here, as at Niagara, a similar “Cave of the Winds” would enable one to penetrate a considerable distance beneath the fall. The uniform structure of the rock, however, prevents any unequal disintegration, and thus the overarching sheet of water covers a nearly perpendicular wall, the base of which is washed by the waters of the lower river. In spite of the fact that no creature, except one with wings, could hope to penetrate this subaqueous chamber, the place is inhabited, if we are to believe the traditions of the Labrador Indians. Many years ago, so runs the tale, two Indian maidens, gathering firewood near the Falls, were enticed to the brink and drawn over by the evil spirit of the place. During the long years since then, these unfortunates have been condemned to dwell beneath the fall and forced to toil daily dressing deer-skins; until now, no longer young and beautiful, they can be seen betimes through the mist, trailing their white hair behind them and stretching out shrivelled arms towards any mortal who ventures to visit the confines of their mystic dwelling-place.

The Indian name for the Grand Falls—Pat-ses-che-wan—means “The Narrow Place where the Water Falls.” Like the native word Niagara,—“Thunder of Waters,”—this Indian designation contains a poetic and descriptive quality which it would be hard to improve.

From the point where the river leaves the plateau and plunges into the deep pool below the Falls, its course for fifteen miles is through one of the most remarkable cañons in the world. From the appearance of the sides of this gorge, and the zigzag line of the river, the indications are that the stream has slowly forced its way through this rocky chasm, cutting its way back, foot by foot, from the edge of the plateau to the present position of the Falls. Recent investigators estimate that a period of six thousand years was required to form the gorge below Niagara Falls; or, in other words, that it has taken that time for the Falls to recede from their former position at Queenstown Heights to their present location. If it has taken this length of time for the Niagara Falls to make their way back a distance of seven miles by the erosive power of the water acting on a soft shale rock supporting a stratum of limestone, the immensity of time involved by assuming that the Grand River cañon was formed in the same way is so great that the mind falters in contemplating it, especially when it is recognized that the escarpment of the Labrador Falls is of hard gneissic rock. And yet no other explanation of the origin of this gorge is acceptable, unless, indeed, we can assume that at some former time a fissure occurred in the earth’s crust as a result of igneous agencies, and that this fissure ran in a line identical with the present course of the river; in which case the drainage of the table-land, collecting into the Grand River, would follow the line of least resistance, and in the course of time excavate the fissure into the present proportions of the gorge.


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