Broadback River: James Bay Highway to Waskaganish (8 days / 140 km)

This trip report summarizes the final 8 days of a 23-day expedition done along the Broadback River, from the James Bay Highway to the town of Waskaganish on James Bay (140 km). This section is characterized by large whitewater, great fishing, and relatively few portages.

We were a group of experienced canoe guides looking for a fun challenge. We had 3 fully decked tandems and 1 tandem with airbags. I’d recommend bringing the skirts if you’d like to run more whitewater. We were on the water in late August and had high water levels for that time of year. We had a great time and even paddled on James Bay under the Northern Lights!

Trip Completed: August 2020

Trip Summary

Starting Point: James Bay Highway

Ending Point: Waskaganish

Total Distance: 140km

Duration: 8 days

Difficulty: Expert

Note: This is a remote and challenging whitewater with many long rapids that can be difficult to scout. Water levels are hard to predict but tend to be lower in August. Lower water can make this trip easier. We paddled the Broadback in high water conditions.

Location

The Broadback River flows through Northern Québec into James Bay. The closest town is Waskaganish.

Traditional Territory: This route is in the traditional territory of the Cree Nation, and is governed by the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government today.

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: We are not aware of a guidebook covering the Broadback River.

Map: WGS 1984 18U & 17U, and this map with campsites by Carte Plein Air

Permits: No permits are required. Given the circumstances due to Covid, we communicated with members of the community prior to committing to the trip, organizing our shuttle, and entering the community.

Outfitters & Shuttles

We organized our own shuttle and gear. Normally (when there isn’t a raging global pandemic), you can call the Waskaganish Cultural Centre to ask if there is someone who can help with shuttles. 

If you’re organizing your own shuttle, the James Bay Highway passes over the Broadback 105 km before Waskaganish. You’ll drive 5 km on a paved highway, and once you turn off towards Waskaganish the next 100 km are on gravel roads. The drive takes around 1h20m. There is gas in Waskaganish, however due to Covid precautions we waited until after our trip to fill up our vehicles. 

You can park vehicles at the put-in, and can camp there as well. There’s a small box where you can leave a donation. For the take-out, you can park across from the Cultural Centre (make sure to call first). The cultural centre is a short walk from the boat launch where you’ll finish your trip.

If you’d rather avoid the 20 km flatwater paddle on James Bay, it is also possible to organize boat transport back to Waskaganish.

Trip Report

Note: Kilometre markings are the distance from the ending point at Waskaganish. For example, ‘km110’ is 110 km of paddling from Waskaganish.

Day 0: Drive to the put in at km140

We woke up at 4:30 am and drove from Plevna, ON to the put-in (where the James Bay Highway intersects the Broadback River). 

Campsite: Put in off of the James Bay Highway, 327025/5673225 18U.

Day 1: Put in at km140 to Campsite at km110 (30 km)

From the put-in, the action gets started right away with a 500 m long CII rapid. It’s a nice warm-up for the whitewater to come.

The next 30 km are generally flat, and hold a few easy to scout CI – CIIs. There isn’t much current here at this point, and be ready for the typical Broadback headwinds from the East.

Campsites can be few and far between on the Broadback, and we didn’t see the marked ones on our map. We decided to camp at the marked beach at km 110 and check out the “good fishing”. Due to high water, the beach was actually underwater, but we were able to bush-crash there anyways. A few of us went to check out the fishing in the small lake cut off from the Broadback by a dry river channel, and we got summarily skunked; no bites! 

Campsite: Small “beach” on the river right hand side, right before the river goes into a large canyon. Roughly 302025/5670225 18U.

Day 2: Campsite at km110 to Campsite at km100 (10 km)

Today starts with a bang. Around the corner from the beach is a huge CIV rapid. You can scout it by climbing the big hill on the river left side. Beware, it looks smaller than it is. We started left, and drove left, aiming for a tongue between large hydraulics. We were immediately grateful for our spraydecks. Portaging would likely be easier on the river right side, from the small lake with (supposedly) good fishing. However you would have to hike up a dry streambed, so watch your ankles. This rapid ends in a huge wave train that was lots of fun.

Following this rapid is a 5 km stretch of mostly flatwater and some easy rapids. This brings you to Rooster Falls, which is a definite portage. The portage is river right, and starts at a big, rocky shelf. It would be a great camp spot. The full portage is around 800 m, but we shortened it to 500 m and ran the splashy class 3 below.

The next big rapids are called “The Washing Machine” and “The Rinse Cycle” (CIII/IV). They were marked as two but were more like one rapid. We scouted from the river left side and ran down the river left side. One boat opted to line and carry over on the left. A long CII section is next, and we stayed left through it all, anticipating the next large rapid, “The Agitator” (CIV). We ran and scouted down the left because we couldn’t see the river right side. After the left bend, we pulled up on the river centre island (not recommended). From that vantage point, we saw that the river right side has potential lines. We carried over the island and then paddled back to the left side to camp. It’s possible to portage this rapid on the river left side.

Campsite: Rocky hill, lots of blueberries (!), and many good, but small, tent spots. River left, just after the large rapid (the Agitator). A small bushwhack-y portage trail ends here as well. Roughly 295025/5674225 18U.

Day 3/4: Campsite at km100 to Campsite at km87 (13 km)

This day started with a large ledge-y rapid that we lined/ran our way down on the river left side. After about 4km of flatwater there’s a nice campsite on a rocky outcrop. At this point, the river splits into two channels: the left is a large river-wide hole, and the right is an easy CII. We went right.

The following rapid we scouted and ran on the left. 500m later there is an extremely large rapid that can be scouted on the right. We carried over the rocks around the first bit and ran the second half down the centre/right side.

Some flatwater and easy CIs bring you to Rapides Tupatukasi, which is actually a large waterfall. The portage (~600m) lies on river right midway down a short C1 stretch prior to the lip of the falls. The start of the portage is also a nice camp spot, and we opted to stay an extra day here.

Campsite: Rapides Tupatukasi, roughly 292500/5680225 18U.

Day 5: Campsite at km87 to Campsite at km72 (15 km)

Around the corner from Rapides Tupatukasi is a 1km long CII stretch that we ran left to right at the top, and then hugged the right side the rest of the way. The next rapid is a shorter CIII that you can scout & run/line on the right. After 10km of flatwater is a small CI. The next rapid is another river-wide ledge, and we lined/ran our way down the right. We camped just downstream of it at the start of the next rapid on the river left side.

Campsite: Nice wide-open bedrock, with great fishing. River left at the start of the rapid, roughly 694000/56854225 17U.

Day 6: Campsite at km72 to Campsite at km40 (32 km)

Another day that starts with a big rapid. We lined/ran our way down the left-hand side. Until 690000/5682225, there are a few smaller, easy rapids. Then, there’s another big ledge that we ran/carried over down the river right-hand side.

At 685000/5685225 is the beginning of about 5 km of mostly continuous whitewater. The first distinct section is a 1km CII/III that we ran mostly centre. Then a 1 km CIII that we also ran centre. After this rapid, the whitewater relaxes and is mostly just CI/II/swifts.

At 674000/5685225 is the start of another large rapid. Due to high water, we didn’t have much of a riverbank & scouting was quite difficult. We opted for the river right hand, the left looked huge. For the first section we snuck down the right side, and then we made our way over to the centre where the river really starts to widen, regrouped, and then continued down a channel left of the centre. We paddled another 5 km and camped on a bedrock shelf across from the mouth of the Rivière Natouacamisie. This is one of the last campsites that we noticed before you get to James Bay.

Campsite: Bedrock shelf across from the Rivière Natouacamisie, roughly 669000/5687225 17U.

Day 7: Campsite at km40 to Campsite at km20 (20 km)

From the Rivière Natouacamisie until the marked rapids at the mouth of the Broadback is mostly flatwater with a few small rapids. Before the last rapid we filled up water vessels for our last night and next day, as the water after this rapid is brackish.

The last rapid starts out quite easy (CI), but don’t get caught off guard. Halfway down, the river splits and the left channel is a large ledge. We took the right side of the right channel. After this section, the river really widens into a CI rock garden. This rapid will look different depending on what tide you catch it at.

We camped on the river left side on a bedrock shelf located at roughly 649500/5691225. Make sure to pull your gear up nice and high, as the tides come up quite a bit.

Campsite: River left, where the Broadback meets the Nottaway, roughly 649500/5691225 17U.

Day 8: Campsite at km20 to Waskaganish (20km)

We woke up at 3:30 am to catch the outgoing high tide for the paddle back to Waskaganish and we saw the northern lights! We were quite lucky and had full-on glassy conditions on our paddle out.

Trip Video

This video is from the full 23-day trip that we did. Any footage with 8 people or massive whitewater is the lower section of the Broadback.

Reflections

This trip was a great time. With huge whitewater, cool scenery, and awesome fishing we got exactly what we were looking for and the high water added a little extra spice that we wanted.

Personally, I loved having a spraydeck, and given the unpredictability of water levels, I think that having one vastly increases what you can run & how you run it. For us, that meant a higher fun factor.

Additionally, campsites can be hard to find and small when you do find them, so be prepared for some bush-crashing.

This route is fairly well travelled and with a keen eye you can pick out where others have gone before you to ease your decision-making. We chose to paddle out on James Bay and were really lucky to have perfect weather. It’s well worth considering factoring in an extra day in case the weather is bad. Alternatively, you can book a motorboat shuttle out – just ask at the cultural centre in Waskaganish if anyone is doing them.

Gallery


Author Bio

Gregory Nettleton is a whitewater canoe guide and instructor from Toronto, Ontario. He’s been guiding and instructing for over 7 years. He splits his free time by paddling some more, skiing, taking pictures and reading anything he can get his hands on. You can find him on Instagram at @greg.nett.

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