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When Francis met us at the train station in Labrador City, he had already been driving all night. The Trans-Labrador highway is a tire-shredding gravel track that cuts across the otherwise roadless province, connecting the iron ore mines of western Labrador to the Churchill Falls hydroelectric complex, and further east to Goose Bay on the Atlantic coast. It can take anywhere from ten to twenty hours to make the trip. Crammed into the cab of a Ford pickup, we bounced along the rugged highway, with Francis at the wheel, a small but intensely muscular Innu man in his fifties, with wavy jet-black hair, a scarred face and a nose that seems to have been broken many times. Our canoes were waiting for us at the launch site, he said, just a stone’s throw from our campsite, where the rest of our group was expected to join us.
After driving for a couple of hours, we passed through the town of Churchill Falls, a company town (a complex entirely enclosed in glass and steel, housing a school, hotel, movie theater, swimming pool, and curling rink) located at the summit of the ancient portage trail the Labrador trappers, now an extinct breed, called the Big Hill Portage. From here a regiment of 735 kilovolt towers begin their long march across hundreds of miles of boreal wildlands. A traveler who was just passing through would never know that this is the site of the largest single source of hydroelectricity in the world. Above ground, there’s little to see: the cataract itself – reduced to a mere trickle –is hidden from sight and the powerhouse is deep underground, where the magical transformation of water-power into light goes on deep in the bowels of the earth. This is the location of one of the two largest underground powerhouses in the world, hidden inside a chamber deep enough to fit the Empire State Building inside of it, with eighty feet of water flowing through it for five miles. There is no towering concrete dam at all.
Francis Penashuae and his wife, Elizabeth, who was expected to meet us later that evening, grew up traveling the mishtashipu– referred to as the Grand River by the Labrador settlers, before it was named the Hamilton, and then the Churchill– its tributaries and its headwaters, before the dam was built in the late 1960s. Francis and Elizabeth had invited us – a group of six river advocates and journalists – to go down the lower stretch of the river with them, to bear witness to their protest over a plan to expand the Churchill Falls hydroelectric complex by harnessing two sites – Muskrat Falls and Gull Island – on the lower Churchill, in what the two provincial governments boasted would be the second largest hydroelectric project in the world, after the Three Gorges in China.
“We want people to see the land,” Francis said, “before it’s gone.”
Before we would make our descent of the river, Elizabeth wanted to show us the site of the vanished Pashuatuan. From the Trans-Labrador highway where the Brinco Bridge crosses a dried-out stretch of the river, Elizabeth escorted us up a trail along the cliffs facing the falls, climbing three hundred feet to a lookout over the canyon. There we stood directly in face of what remained of the Grand Falls of Labrador. Had I stood at that lookout thirty years before, I would have seen what resembled an upturned mushroom cloud, where the drainage of a watershed the size of Ireland – 27,000 square miles – plunged over a precipice before exploding in a foaming, smoking mass. This was the climax of what was one of the most tumultuous descents of any river in the world – where, after gathering up steam over five miles of tempestuous rapids, the river made its stupendous leap in an explosion of white water, before twisting around a sharp bend and raging for another 30 miles, pent-up between the massive walls of Bowdoin Canyon.
But before us was an eerie scene. We looked down on a bone-dry riverbed at the bottom of the canyon, and a fragile white vein of water slipping over the smoothed-over rock-face, streaked by the former passage of the river. The spindly wisp of water fell to the desiccated riverbed below. I looked straight into the basin that had always been mysterious, hidden by clouds of vapor, where waves as high as thirty feet crashed against the walls of the canyon and huge boiling whirlpools appeared. As if looking at an x-ray, I could study the legacy of the glaciers this geological vivisection had exposed: heaps of gravel and boulders strewn in the ancient riverbed by the mile-thick ice sheet as it moved across the land.
As we climbed the trail, Elizabeth collected fir boughs and sprigs of Labrador tea for a bouquet, “for her sister,” she explained, with whom she last visited the site. Elizabeth was born on an island that now lies submerged beneath the sprawling Smallwood reservoir –that blue mass at the center of the map of Labrador that looks like someone had put a fist through the page. Much of the land she traveled with her family in her youth, by canoe and portage, snowshoe and toboggan, now lies beneath the reservoir named after the project’s chief proponent, Newfoundland’s first premier, Joey Smallwood. Elizabeth had asked her sister to describe her birthplace to her, who was older and had more vivid memories of the places that were rubbed out by the flooding.
“We used to make our way up the rapids using a pole, my sister said. There were so many beautiful islands with big birch trees. I was born on one of those islands. My father delivered me. It was in the spring. Now all those beautiful islands are under water.”
“We’d have to shout,” she said, “it was so loud. We couldn’t stand here and talk like we are now.” I could hear her distinctly, and she talked in a near-whisper. “Pashuatan– we could see her from a long way off, and we could hear her, like a thunder.”
The river named Mishtashipu (“Great River”) by the Innu, the Grand River by the settlers at North West River, and the Hamilton by the British, was not christened the Churchill – by Premier Smallwood – until after the death of the former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in 1965, who had been instrumental in launching the hydroelectric project. Just three years after Newfoundland became a province of Canada, in 1952, Newfoundland/Labrador’s first Premier, Joey Smallwood, paid a visit to the ageing Prime Minster at Downing Street. “I am here,” he said, “to offer you the biggest real estate deal of the century…” In grand colonial style, Smallwood unfurled a map of a region the size of Great Britain and entirely undeveloped—it was an aboriginal world– and dazzled Churchill with visions of untold mineral riches, vast stretches of virgin timber and millions of horsepower of potential hydro power. “We want you to come and develop it, and we are prepared to be generous,” he said.
“I like the feel of it,” Churchill responded. “It is a great imperial concept.”
A decade and a half after Smallwood made his visit to Downing Street, Quebec having at last agreed to buy almost all the electricity, construction began on Churchill Falls, in 1967. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Smallwood nervously asserted that the project would be “mainly for the benefit of the people of Newfoundland,” and only “secondly for Quebecers.” (As it turned out, the project has benefited Hydro Quebec, first and foremost, and Newfoundland, not at all.) “This is our land,” he asserted. (He did perhaps protest too much.) “This is our province. This is our river. This is our waterfall.” Then he symbolically detonated an explosive, joking that, “I am supposed to turn this hand piece and blow the bloody place up” – which is precisely what hundreds of workers, over the next few years, proceeded to do.
The most ambitious engineering project ever undertaken on the continent, and yet somehow, according to the public record, it was accomplished “without harming the environment” and without, depriving “a single person of his home or livelihood.” On July 1, 1971 the reservoir began to fill when Smallwood ceremoniously pushed a button, opening the gates on the Lobstick control structure. It would take two years for the reservoir to fill, becoming the third largest reservoir in the world at 2,200 square miles—that is half the size of Lake Ontario. Philip Smith, in The Story of Churchill Falls, records the occasion as “altogether happy.”
The Innu, who had left their caches of canoes, snowshoes, and other material as they always had, in places where the waters were about to rise, were not so much as informed that there would be flooding. Their existence – who had lived in the region for 8,000 years – was not recognized by Newfoundland, nor by the Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Trudeau, who attended the project’s inauguration in June 1972. “Churchill Falls,” he said, “is evidence … that man can employ – not exploit – the resources of the world for his benefit, without causing harm to the environment or destroying the life styles of others.”
Standing before the site of the river spirit that had been extinguished, I listened to Elizabeth tell her story, in her quiet voice.
“It was a great crime against the Innu,” she said.
Our river journey began below the twenty-seven mile portage around the Grand Falls and Bowdoin Canyon, after the river has descended 1,038 feet in only sixteen miles. But there were still formidable rapids ahead – the Moony, Minipi, and Gull Island Rapids, and 200 miles of river before it reaches the sea. We put in below the tracer tunnels through which the river reappears, rejoining its ancient course after its long sojourn underground. I watched Francis and Elizabeth, who had brought along their little hunting dog, and Elizabeth’s sister Philomena and her husband Dominique, put their canoes in the water, and at last, all the laden vessels pushed off one by one. Our canoes slipped into the broad current of the river, which carried us off between the forested ridges rising from its shores.
After our descent of the first set of rapids, we had a long stretch of slack water to cross, including the 36-mile-long fjord-like Lake Winnikapau, where the river reaches its widest point. Beneath the cloudless sky our canoes made silver wakes in the jade-colored water. Elizabeth and Francis were flying the Innu flag overhead, suspended on a pole from the bow of their canoe, its blue and white reflection billowed in the glassy green water beneath them. Elizabeth had tied the bouquet she gathered at the site of the former Pashuatan, in memory of her sister, to the bow of their canoe. Their little dog sat happily between them, atop a pile of gear and beside a tea kettle and a stove pipe. Dominique and Philomena were in an aluminum canoe with no seats, seated in the bottom of the canoe with their knees tucked under them, with no evident discomfort. Occasionally the silence, embroidered by the gentle trickle of water off our oars, was pierced by the shrieks of osprey, who build their nests in the crowns of tall spruce trees along the river’s edge.
To erect our canvas tents each night, trees needed to be felled to make tent poles, firewood gathered, and boughs collected for the tent floors. I joined Elizabeth to gather boughs– we clambered up the steep river bank, over downed trees and over the moss carpet, our feet sinking deep into the succulent peat with every step. The moss carpet was beautiful and lush, quilted in bursts of pale green caribou moss (really a lichen), splashed with bright red bunch berries. The downed logs supported miniature forests of trumpet-shaped soldier fungus and a variety of mushrooms. Elizabeth instructed me on what kinds of boughs I should select, never taking more than one bough from a single tree; we bundled the boughs in a bed sheet until we had a large pile. Then she would hurl the large bundle onto her back – it must have weighed nearly a hundred pounds and was the size of a small bear –with its knot strapped across her forehead, and carry it back to camp.
Midway down the length of the 36-mile-long lake Winnikapau, we could see the point from the distance, stretching out into the heart of the lake like an extended finger. Here was the first sign of civilization we came across — a billboard warning of mercury contamination in the river fish, a legacy of the flooding of the river’s headwaters. Mercury is naturally present in river bottom soils, but rotting vegetation under reservoirs triggers a chemical transformation of the mercury from its harmless form into methylmercury, a central nervous system toxin that bioaccumulates through the food chain. In 1977, the last and only time that their mercury levels were tested, thirty-seven percent of the Innu of Sheshashui who were tested were found to have elevated mercury levels. No follow-up study was ever done. Thirty-five years since the creation of the reservoir, methylmercury levels had not declined.
Written in four languages, it read:
HEALTH CANADA RECOMMENDS THAT REGULAR CONSUMPTION OF LAKE TROUT AND NORTHERN PIKE FROM THE CHURCHILL RIVER AND LAKE WINIKOPAU BE LIMITED TO THE FOLLOWING AMOUNT BECAUSE OF CONTINUING ELEVATED MERCURY LEVELS IN FISH.
LAKE TROUT: TWO MEALS* PER MONTH
NORTHERN PIKE: ONE MEAL* PER WEEK
*A meal is approximately 7 ounces of fish
I stood beneath the billboard and read it aloud. Elizabeth grew angry. “The fish are no good any more,” she said. “It is poison. Innu people always ate fish and the animals. We are not like white people. Why did the government just take the land? They didn’t ask. If the government had asked us to use the land, I know everyone would have said, ‘No, this is Innu land. I use this land. I hunt on this land.’ See what’s happened – it’s a mess.”
This river was once a bounty of whitefish, pike, trout, and landlocked salmon. I remembered that Andy Brown, who wrote about his descent of the river for National Geographic, caught twenty brook trout and salmon in an eddy in a matter of minutes. We should have been living on fresh fish, but only one of us in the group even brought along a fishing pole. Every once in a while, in the evenings after we pitched the tents, he would cast a line.
We arrived at Gull Island on the eighth day, and carried our gear up a steep climb to a well-used campsite. From the top of the hill I could look down over the river and onto the proposed dam site. The river narrows abruptly and the steep, forest-draped walls of the canyon sweep gracefully to the river’s edge, where the current tumbles over two consecutive sets of rapids.
A perfect place to build a dam.
If it is built, I thought, the forests will be cleared and paved over, and obstructing the river, on the site of the storied Gull Island rapids, will be a massive concrete structure. We came across orange survey markers, and places where logging was already underway.
“Maybe the government thinks, these people are always going to be quiet,” Elizabeth said angrily, as we surveyed the damage. ”They’re always going to be asleep. Maybe that’s what the government thinks.”
On our last day, I asked Philomena to describe her early travel routes. She couldn’t describe them they way I wanted her to, she apologized, because they never used maps.
“My father would throw a stick in the river to see which way the river flowed, and that way we’d know where we were. Then he’d follow the river until he came to the Red Wine River. My father never had maps. And we told the time by the sun – not by the clock.”
She was referring to the height of land straddling the Quebec-Labrador border, dividing the south-flowing rivers of Quebec from the east-flowing rivers of Labrador. Often they went for days, she continued, with nothing to eat but an occasional partridge. They followed the trail of other Innu, looking for tree stumps and fire rings, and that way would find their way to seasonal Innu camps.
“There used to be a lot of caribou on the islands on Lake Michikamau – and there were a lot of moss-covered islands on the lake. Now everything is under water, there’s no more moss, no more caribou. Now all you see is mud dead sticks along the water’s edge.”
When Philomena recalled how her family traveled routinely hundreds of miles from Michikamau to Sept Isle or to Davis Inlet, she made no suggestion that this was something extraordinary. If someone were to accomplish a journey like that today – that is, to travel by foot in the heart of winter over hundreds of miles of forest, bog, and barren grounds, over lakes and wild rivers, through deep snow, without maps, without compass, with few provisions – some flour, perhaps, and some pemmican–without sled dogs, with no chance of a rescue or of sending out a distress call to the world outside – it would be legendary.
With Gull Island behind us, we climbed back in our canoes and paddled down more light rapids, bouncing over the waves and navigating through boulders. The clouds cast shadows on the hills and the sunlight dappled the water. At last we came to Gull Island Lake, the water becoming shallow and the river immensely broad, with a long forested island down its length. As we approached a bend, we saw the two canoes of our guides resting in an eddy and our guides crouched low behind a rock; we followed, gliding into the eddy when I heard Elizabeth call softly: “Geese!” We heard the cackle of geese and saw one fly across the river and then heard a shot. Then we saw the four of them pull into shore where they began searching through the tall reeds. At last I saw Dominique raising a dead goose by its neck in the air; then I saw Elizabeth holding another limp bird. Both of them were smiling. The birds were goslings that had sought cover in the grass but the hunters had found them and caught them and wrung their necks. They slung them over their bundles in the canoes. We watched the whole scene from mid-river, the women in their brightly covered head coverings, the white flowers in the grasses and the quaking aspens behind them, the waters sparkling in the sunshine and the rocks shining through the shallow water.
Later when we stopped for a tea break, Elizabeth was dancing on the rocks. “I am so happy!” she exclaimed. She kicked her feet and clapped her hands, tossing them over her head, laughing out loud, still wearing her bright purple life jacket. “I will remember this trip forever.”
Twelve years after our descent of the river, in 2010 the Innu Nation, representing the Labrador Innu, signed a land rights agreement with Canada and Newfoundland/Labrador, securing a 5,000 square mile land base (that is the equivalent of the area that was flooded by the Churchill Falls project), a limited form of autonomous government, and hunting rights to an additional 13,000 square miles. The agreement includes, at long last, compensation for the Upper Churchill project. Included, however, in the package deal is their consent to the Lower Churchill project at Muskrat Falls, for which the Innu will receive job contracts and millions in royalties. The two communities, by an overwhelming majority, ratified the agreement. It was the end of a decades-long humiliating process, in which the Innu had to prove their very existence to the newcomers who could not so much as turn up an arrowhead or gravestone to prove their own claim to the land.
“Why didn’t the government ask, may we use this land? They didn’t ask, and I know the Innu people would say no,” Elizabeth had said. But they did not say no. The Innu Nation was able to move forward with the land claims process – which had been lingering on the shelf for twenty years – only because it held a card that Newfoundland wanted badly – the Lower Churchill. While their land claims sat on the shelf, they were losing their land to development and white settlement, bit by bit, river by river.
The protests at Muskrat Falls continue as I write these words almost two decades since I paddled over 180 miles with the Penashues. The river has had its defenders over the years, but the loudest protests have been not over the dam itself but over the methylmercury contamination that will come from flooding. And since the Innu ratified their land rights agreement, they have mostly come from the Inuit, not the Innu. Land claims would prove to be complicated in a region where aboriginal peoples traveled over great distances, flowing and intermingling like the braids of a river.
“Hundreds of Inuit individuals will be affected by this development,” said Harvard researcher Dr. Elsie Sunderland, who teamed up with the Nunatsiavut government (representing the southern Labrador Inuit) to study the effects of impounding water behind the dam on methylmercury levels in Lake Melville, an estuarine fjord that drains the Churchill River watershed, and an important source of wild foods for the Inuit. The results of the four-year study surprised even the scientists, who found unexpectedly high methylmercury levels in Lake Melville from melting arctic ice, and predicted a four-fold increase in mercury contamination from the Muskrat Falls reservoir. Inflamed by these findings, the Inuit and their supporters staged marches, rallies in St John, Ottawa, and Montreal, sit-ins, hunger strikes, and a two-week long occupation of the work site that finally resulted in concessions from the government, which agreed to reduce methylmercury contamination by partially clearing the reservoir area.
And the Innu people from Sheshatsui began to come forward. Bart Jack, a 68-year-old former Innu Nation leader who once supported the project, has become one of its most outspoken opponents among the Innu. “I made a mistake,” he said, standing on the shores of the river near where we disembarked at the end of our eleven-day journey. “What have we done? We have destroyed the future for our children.” At the October 16, 2016 protest, which launched the occupation of the work site, Elizabeth Penashuae was back – now a widow – megaphone in hand, speaking up for the river, the animals, and the fish.
On our last day on the river we paddled under an immense sky. There were long flat islands and sand bars, and the water was shallow and for a while it was calm. The river was broad and we could see the bright marbled clouds to the east and pillars of rain over the mountains to the west; dark purple storm clouds were moving from upriver pressing toward us, casting a giant shadow over us and bringing in fierce winds. Our guides were always far ahead – Dominique was not to be seen – and my canoe partner and I felt alone on the immense river in a cosmos of cloud and sky.
As we approached Muskrat Falls, our final destination, we ferried across the river one last time, in what was the most challenging crossover of our trip. Elizabeth and Francis came into view, who were in the lead, the Innu flag raised from the bow of their canoe swaying in the breeze. We moved slowly over the slate-colored water towards the chute, as a cluster of tiny dark shadows moved toward us over a jumble of boulders. It was our guides’ sons and daughters and grandchildren come to meet us. It was overcast and a ribbon of silver light hung low in the sky. There was the brooding, hunched-over mountain where lives, in Innu lore, the monster of the falls.
Before leaving I walked downriver to view the falls. Here the corridor narrowed abruptly, and from the glassy calm stretch before the falls, the water began to twist like a rope, then plunged 25 feet into a cauldron of white water, then plunged again. The force of the water was stunning and I suddenly appreciated the power of the element that carried us, in our frail vessels, 150 miles across Labrador. The drainage of 27,000 square miles, requiring 850 ton turbines over nine stories high to turn its energy into light…
We unpacked our canoes for the steep portage. I watched Elizabeth remove the brown, wilted bouquet– picked in honor of her sister on the first morning of our river journey– from the bow of her canoe and toss it into the river. The current gently curled around it, sweeping it over the cascade into the cauldron of white water. She murmured something I couldn’t make out over the roar of the cascade, then headed back toward the trail.
Alexis Lathem is an environmental journalist and author of the poetry collection Alphabet of Bones and two chapbooks. Recipient of the Chelsea Award for Poetry, a Vermont Arts Council grant, and a Bread Loaf scholarship, her poems and essays have appeared in AWP Chronicle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Chelsea Review, Hunger Mountain, Saranac Review, Spoon River Review, and other journals. She lives on a small farm in Vermont with her musician husband, and teaches writing at the Community College of Vermont.
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