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Paddling Swiftwater in Northern Quebec Photo: Virginia Marshall

Paddling in the wilds of Northern Quebec

Scrambling through a sea of knee-deep scrub alder and dwarf willow, I scurry to keep pace with Jon’s loping gait. We’re trekking across the rolling taiga into the rapidly sinking sun, and the golden light washes across the mesh face of my bug jacket, obscuring all but the lanky silhouette of my canoe partner. My near blindness and the cloying warmth inside the hood amplify the sound of my panting. At last, I stumble over a rocky rise and my breath catches, half-drawn, in my throat.

Moments earlier, Jon had burst into our campsite where I was hiding with our tripmates, Conor and Kim, from the evening blackfly onslaught behind the screened walls of our tarp shelter. “What is it?” Conor asked, glancing past Jon for signs of a marauding polar bear.

Jon pressed something icy cold into my hand. “It’s what we’ve paddled 35 days to see,” he replied, dropping his arm to reveal the snowball in my palm. “But you have to hurry.”

Lush subalpine meadows carpeted in delicate white bunchberry blossoms and a score of other tiny wildflowers tumble down to the edge of a misting precipice. The last rays of sun pour like honey into the deep gorge and spill fully on a thundering avalanche of water. Near the rim of the falls, hidden in shadow for most of the day, a small snowfield clings to the slippery bedrock, irreverent of the early August warmth.

The falls’ cold, billowing mists have formed this remarkable micro ecosystem, a world every bit as sublime as the imaginary Elvish kingdoms of Tolkien’s tales. And yet this spectacular cascade is unnamed on our 1970s-era, black-and-white topographic maps—an unremarkable hatch line where the Nastapoka River doglegs between bald-rock hills on its westerly journey to Hudson Bay.

The falling water whispers a certainty: If this were Banff or Yellowstone, rather than this isolated wedge of northern Quebec, the falls would be among the parks’ star attractions. But up here in Nunavik, the 100-plus- foot plunge is merely an all-but-unknown precursor to Nastapoka Falls, just a day’s paddle downriver, which plummets into Hudson Bay 40 kilometers north of the Inuit community of Umiujaq.

Together, the falls, rapids, valley and headwaters of the Nastapoka River form one of the central arteries of Parcs Quebec’s newest national park, Tursujuq, a 26,100 square kilometer (6.5 million acre) wilderness of taiga, rocky ramparts, swift rivers and crystalline lakes. Designated in 2013, the park is one of North America’s largest protected areas, nearly triple the size of Yellowstone and four times the size of Banff. However, like many...

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