The Manic from Space
Manic 5 Dam
Wing N' Wing
Waiting out the Storm
Circumnavigation of the Manicouagan Reservoir
July 28 – August 6, 2018
This trip was conceived roughly two years ago when I was looking for a whitewater river to run in northern Quebec. I was scanning terrain on Google Earth when I noticed a large ring of water that was north/northeast of Quebec City. Hard to miss, but I had never noticed it before. A little bit of digging revealed that it was the Manicouagan Reservoir (I was told it is pronounced “Man-a-kwah-gan”).
According to Wikipedia, the “Manic” is an annular lake in central Quebec, Canada, covering an area of 1,942 km2 (750 sq mi). The lake island in its center is known as René-Levasseur Island, and its highest point is Mount Babel. The structure is believed to have been created 214 (±1) million years ago by the impact of a meteor of 5 km (3.1 mi) diameter. The lake and island are clearly seen from space and are sometimes called the "eye of Quebec.” The lake has a volume of 35.2 km3 (8.4 cu mi).
The first idea was to canoe around the ring – an idea quickly discarded given the distance to be paddled and the size/scope of the reservoir. As we would find out, this is a big place – one to be respected.
Plan #2 was to bring a sailboat and circumnavigate by sail. One boat. Four guys. That idea was discarded as too cramped and a bit too dangerous given that all of our eggs would be in one basket.
Plan #3 – buy two equivalent boats and drag them both north. This is the plan we put into action. The first step was buying boats. We purchased a 17’ O’Day Daysailer locally and sailed it on Lake Champlain (summer of 2017). It handled pretty well, even in heavy wind, so we began looking for a second, similar boat. I found one in southern Maine and, in October of 2017, we (Burchard/Brady/Kozlowski) drove down to purchase the boat and bring it back to Vermont. The boats were the same make and model, but the Maine boat was a bit newer and in better condition.
The local boat we named Edwina – after a girl Brady “dated” while on a canoe trip to Montreal when he was a teen. The Maine boat was named “SWAK” – after the letter Edwina sent Brady that was sealed with a kiss (and some gum she had licked). Weird, but as a result pretty funny.
Spring of 2018 rolled around and we began work on improving the boats. I made new, semi-water tight hatch boards. Burch and I inspected the rigging and, in places, beefed it up. I put new gudgeons on SWAK, and built removable oarlocks for both boats – which proved critical in spots during the trip (when wind was lacking). I installed tie downs in the cabin (which proved to be completely unnecessary since the cabins ended up crammed with gear). McFall inspected and tuned up the trailers for the 1,100+ mile round trip. Burchard and I cleaned up Edwina and hull/water tested it to be sure it wasn’t leaking (it wasn’t). Burch fixed some holes/cracks with fiberglass. Brady . . . . well, he did do the shopping (redemption -- great job).
We originally planned to launch the boats and test them, fully loaded, before making the trip. But, as usual, getting the group together was like herding cats suffering from ADHD – we could never find the time to get the boats in the water. So, as our departure date (July 28th) approached, we decided to make the trip without a shakedown cruise. A bit risky, but we decided it was worth it.
We were ready. We had a PLB and SPOT for emergency communication. Food sufficient for 2 weeks (or more), spare hardware (cable, wire, screws, bolts, etc.), power and hand tools. And the usual: tents, sleeping bags, cookware, beer, vodka, and rum. We had emergency bags that were clipped to the hatch boards so that if we lost a boat, we would have fire and some shelter/food until help arrived.
A description of the trip follows the stats.
Miles Driven: 1,144
Miles Sailed: 145.4
Days to Circumnavigate: 8
Total Trip Days: 10.5
New Northern Latitude Max for the VAC: 5,725 kilometers north of the equator at Camp 3 (beating Moosenee at 5,680 kms – an increase of 45 kms).
Beers Consumed: 102
Vodka: 3 bottles (2,250 ml)
Rum: 1 bottle (750 ml)
Euchre: 2 matches split, Brady/Kozlowski up one game in Match 3
2nd VAC Cook-off: A Shrimp Smackdown. Shrimp Scampi vs. Shrimp ‘n Cheesy Grits. Brady wins (a close one) with his scampi.
Fish Caught: Zero
July 28 – Day 1 - Departure
After waiting for Brady to circle back to his house to pick up his forgotten passport, we left Burlington, VT around 8:00 a.m., bound for Baie-Comeau, QC. Both he and McFall were driving their trucks and, for once, I got to be a passenger on a VAC trip (didn’t mind).
The trip to Baie-Comeau was pretty straightforward until we got past Quebec City and began driving along the St. Lawrence River. The river widens as you head northeast, and so the scenery was pretty amazing. More ocean than river. Beautiful. The road then ends at the Saguenay River where it empties into the St. Lawrence. Quebec runs a ferry (free!) across the river where the road continued. Didn’t expect this, but it was a nice break.
Rolled into Baie-Comeau around 6:00 p.m. (10 hour trip), checked into our motel, and headed out for dinner. Found a restaurant on the water that was supposed to be a good seafood place. Not so much. The food was pricey and average at best. But we played some cards and had a few drinks. Got in early-ish so we could get a jump on the first day on the Manic.
July 29th – Day 2 - First Sailing Day
After a great breakfast in town, we headed towards the Manic. The road (Route 389) is the only access road to a series of dams built by Hydro Quebec along the Manicougan River, culminating in the Manic 5 dam. The terrain was far hillier than I expected and, as a result, it was difficult to make good time. The launch site was 190 miles from Baie-Comeau along this twisting road.
After roughly 130 miles of driving, the gigantic Manic 5 dam is suddenly in full view (the road sweeps around, up and beyond the dam). Hard to describe how big the dam really is. We stopped to take pictures and to visit the small museum on site that chronicles the dam’s construction. Very cool. Hydro Quebec gives free tours, but we didn’t have time.
After the dam, the road turns to gravel all the way to Labrador City (with some small exceptions). The next sixty miles would be gravel until we arrived at Relais Gabriel, a small gas station/restaurant. Two women were running the show – one of whom spoke English, so we were able to get some information. Apparently another sailboat had made the circumnavigation earlier in the summer – took them 12 days to make it around. She told us there were a few days with no wind – the reservoir was “glass.”
Relais Gabriel was intended to be our launch site, but because of fishermen near the landing the launch/parking was “full.” Luckily, there is a public “launch” which consists of a very rough access road ending in a small area where the boats could be put into the water. Not particularly easy, but Brady and McFall did a great job with the trailers. The good news is we avoided $200+ in launch and parking fees by using the public facilities.
We raised the masts and began loading the boats, quickly realizing it would be tricky to fit all of our gear in the cabins (that’s one reason a shakedown cruise would have been smart). After a bit of finagling, we jammed the cabins full. Since Pete and I learned exactly how to load the gear into the boats, we then had the privilege of crawling into the cramped cabins every morning during the trip (I loaded Edwina, Pete loaded SWAK) (Burchard and McFall were smart enough to have avoided that responsibility).
We were off. McFall and I rowed out of the narrow part of the access bay in Edwina until we caught some wind (Pete and Burch eventually sailed out). Around the corner as the bay widened we ran into whitecaps – a little unnerving since we had no idea how the boat would handle loaded. We sailed into the wind, and then tacked back to meet Pete and Burch. We then turned back towards the bay opening and were soon pounded by a heavy rain for about 5 minutes – an absolute deluge. Soaked, we sailed around the backside of an island looking for a landing/camping spot and found one. Rocky, and a bit wet, but the only place that looked workable. Camp 1, 6.0 miles into the trip [All distances are actual sailing distances from GPS data, not point-to-point. The total sailing distance of 145 miles for the trip is significantly longer than the waypoints I used for making maps].
The VAC started a cooking competition last year that was won by McFall (each member cooks one dinner – best meal wins). This year, I was first to cook, so I made dinner at Camp 1. It was supposed to be the “ultimate pub sandwich.” Shaved steak, garlic, red onion, smoked gouda cheese on rye served with dill pickle, olives and two, count them two, kinds of potato chips. Forgot the onion (duh). Not a bad sandwich, but not an entry that would win the competition. Oh well.
Couple of cocktails and beers and then bed.
July 30th – Day 3 -- Running with a Tail Wind
Ate breakfast and broke camp. Weather and wind looked good, we launched around 9:00 (which was pretty much a consistent departure time during the trip).
We headed northwest with a tail wind – ran down wind, often wing n’ wing. Pretty easy sailing past some amazing islands, some with vertical cliff faces 100+ feet high. Beautiful.
Made 19.3 miles to a headland on the inner island. Camp 2. Rocky, but with enough sand to safely beach the boats. Tomorrow we would turn more to the west, so prayed for a north or south wind so we wouldn’t face headwinds.
Burch was on deck for the cook-off. His plan was to bake potatoes in the fire, cook chicken on the grill and serve it with corn on the cob. He miscalculated the time it would take to bake potatoes, and so dinner was delayed (he took a lot of shit for that). Good meal, but like mine was not going to win the competition. We were headed for a Brady-McFall showdown.
July 31st – Day 4 -- Headwinds as We Turn West
When we woke up we realized our wind prayers weren’t answered. The wind was blowing from the west/southwest and so we were facing a quartering headwind. Not exactly a full beat, but it slowed down our progress. We were also slowed by a passing thunderstorm that required us to beach the boats to let it pass safely.
Nevertheless, after a long day in the boats we managed 18.1 miles. Camp 3 was on the north shore of the mainland, facing a small island. Another beautiful campsite – bear and moose track (together!) spotted on the beach. Pretty cool.
Moose and Bear
Brady’s entry in the cook-off that night was a salad, followed by shrimp scampi and a smoked zucchini side. Pretty f’in good (I can still taste it). Clearly better than my entry or Burch’s. Amazing cuisine given it was cooked over a camp stove.
August 1st – Day 5 – A Squall and a Long Tack West
The lake would turn slightly today and head due west. We didn’t get the wind we were hoping for – we had headwinds that required tacking back and forth for a bit, then two really long tacks for the remainder of the day. We made some tracks – 22.1 miles in sailing distance although a good portion of that was consumed by the tacks.
The highlight of the day was a storm that passed to the north. Very strange looking, with tendrils that ran from the cloud down (almost) to the ground. But the storm was missing us so we didn’t think too much about it until several minutes later when a wind squall hit without warning. No waves. No whitecaps. Wind accelerated to 20 knots, maybe more. We weren’t ready – full sails up and no way to lower them. So we had to ride it out by letting out the main and hedging into the wind to prevent a capsize. But both crews handled it pretty well and eventually we sailed beyond it.
Camp 4 -- another good campsite. McFall, the last chef in the cook-off, fixed a meal with salad, jalapeno goat cheese and bacon poppers as an appetizer, and a main course of shrimp n’ cheesy grits. Awesome -- neck and neck with Brady’s scampi (shrimp v. shrimp). Burchard and I would decide the winner.
August 2nd – Day 6 – Light Winds
This was a pretty uneventful and, unfortunately, relatively calm day. We would make only 13.1 miles before hitting Camp 5 on the inner island. A little disconcerting given the progress in prior days but we hoped it would be an anomaly.
The chefs prepared beef chili and more jalapeno poppers – another fantastic meal. I eat better on these trips than at home. Must have something to do with kitchen skills . . .
August 3rd – Day 7 – Even Lighter Winds
After a low mileage total the prior day, we hoped for better. It wasn’t to be. Winds were light and despite sailing for close to 8 hours made only 11.5 miles. I began to worry about having enough time to make it around, but we were committed now and so it would be what it would be.
We set up Camp 6 on the inner island.
In an attempt to be positive, I predicted a big day coming – 26 miles tomorrow was my guess. Words I would eat.
On the plus side, dinner was steak and garlic mashed potatoes. The food just keeps getting better and better. . .
August 4th – Day 8 – Are We Going to Make It?
Ok. Today was the day we were going to make tracks. 26 miles . . . .
Nope. The wind was light, squirrely and/or non-existent. Got caught in several winds holes and had to row, which didn’t do much. SWAK made a little better progress, but it was slow going all the way around. A bit demoralizing, but that’s a relative term (we never were really demoralized or down – just wanted to make better progress). I was, admittedly, a bit pissy.
On the positive side, we found a beautiful island for Camp 7. Great stretch of beach, great tent sites, and best of all . . . NO BUGS. We could swim, eat, drink and hang in shorts and no DEET or headnets. So, despite the low mileage (4.8 miles), we were in good spirits.
The chefs raised the bar again by preparing panko chicken. Maybe the best meal of the trip. Burch and I were getting good at cutting wood, building fires, listening to tunes and washing dishes.
The wind prayers continued.
August 5th – Day 9 – Long Fast Reach to the East
Hoping for a big day, we broke camp, packed the boats and headed southeast. The reservoir is narrower here, and the wind was a bit squirrely. Tough getting through the narrows, but as we turned east the wind became more favorable and we began to fly. Sailed the entire day until about 5 o’clock on a great wind, making 29.1 miles. A much needed boost in distance (we made as much ground in one day as in the last 3 days combined!).
At the end of the day we searched for a campsite – tougher since the shore was becoming rockier and less beach-y. Burch and I found a manageable spot on the mainland, but Pete and McFall found a small island that worked even better. So, Burch and I sailed over – a bit tricky given some rocks in the water, but with guidance from Pete/McFall we safely beached the boats.
Camp 8. Perfect. Tough to find tent sites but, once again, NO BUGS. Nice to sit outside with no bug dope or a head net. Very relaxing.
Dinner was meatballs and linguine – delicious, the chefs outdid themselves on what would prove to be the last camp dinner of the trip.
During the night, some thunderstorms with lightning passed to the north and south of us. Worried about being tented on the highest point of the island, and worried that Pete/McFall were near the boat masts on the beach, I got up and stood on the shore of the island for about 15
minutes to see whether we were in any danger. We got lucky (not that we could have gone anywhere, the island was tiny), all of the storms passed us by with room to spare.
August 6th – Day 10 – To the Finish Line
Woke to a perfect wind that would propel us northeast to the launch area. A bit gray to start, but no rain. We ate breakfast on the fly and packed up. On the water early (8:00-ish?) and headed out.
Shortly after departure from Camp 8 we began to hear thunder. We first thought it was jet noise, but subsequent peals were too long and sustained to be anything but a storm. It first appeared to be passing north of us, but pretty soon it was apparent that it was behind us and gaining fast.
We headed for shore as the sky darkened and we started to see lightning, both in the clouds and striking the ground. But we could only sail so fast. The storm caught up with us just as we found a protected beach on the mainland (lucky, because the beaches were few and far between in the southern part of the reservoir).
Beating the Storm to Shore
We buttoned up the sails as best we could and headed into the woods to wait out the storm. A bit unnerving (and for the first time, cold). But the storm passed with no harm to us or the boats. Wet, but ready to move, we put on dry clothes and headed out. The rest of the ride was long but, for the most part, fast. As we approached the narrows into the bay leading to the end zone, the wind died down. We ended up rowing/sailing for a few miles as we limped in.
21.2 miles in about 7 hours (including a longish layover to wait out the storm). Very fast.
We made it. 145+ miles in 8 sailing days. Now we just had to break down the boats for the road and drive to Baie-Comeau. Ugh.
Long haul. Didn’t pull into Baie-Comeau until around 9:00 p.m. only to find out that there were no motel rooms to be easily found. After trying a few places we found one room with two double beds. It would have to do for the four of us.
We decided to head out to find some food. Everything was closed down except for a bar with loud French pop music and crappy food. But, we had cold beer and I handed out T-shirts to commemorate our success. A great night to cap off the trip.
August 7th – Day 11 – Homeward
Up early, Tim Horton’s and on the road. Lunch at A&W (they still exist!). An 11+ hour drive in shitty weather (rain) and Quebec City traffic. But, it was good to be headed home and to have finished what we set out to accomplish. Home around 6:30 p.m. to family. Success.
I think this was the best trip of the many the VAC has taken. The remote location, scale, lack of human presence and beauty will be hard to forget and/or to match.
It is a privilege to travel in such company. Everyone in the group has skill, drive, humor, imagination, intelligence, determination and wit. We more than get along -- I think (hope) that everyone enjoys each other’s company. As a result, these trips are a blast – from the moment we leave until the moment we return. This excursion was no exception. It had the added bonus of being a unique opportunity to see an amazing part of the world that few people ever will.
Long live the VAC. Where next?