• Conor and Kim Mihell in Nunavik

    Conor and Kim Mihell on Rivière Guerin in August 2016 during a previous canoe expedition in Nunavik, Que. (Photo: Conor Mihell)

Between 1901 and 1958, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum sponsored 25 expeditions in northern Quebec and Labrador. Its scientist-adventurers helped establish ecological baselines long before Canada invested any research in the area. Starting July 1, my wife Kim and I will embark on an eight-week, 1,000-kilometre-plus canoe journey to retrace the 1938 Carnegie expedition in what’s still a vast subarctic wilderness of powerful rivers and immense lakes.

Back in 1938, with the expert assistance of Cree and Inuit guides, expat Canadian biologist Arthur Twomey and Carnegie curator J. Kenneth Doutt experienced the “pitiless Ungava triumvirate — scarcity, hazard and solitude” on a quest to discover a freshwater seal described in Indigenous oral histories. Twomey’s forgotten 1942 travelogue Needle to the North is an epic tale of hardship, culminating with the documentation of a new mammal species — a remarkable biological discovery for the time. Today, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada lists the endemic Lac des Loups Marins harbour seal as “Endangered.”

Tracing Twomey’s path from the Hudson Bay coast upstream to the seal lakes before striking north and descending the little-known Innucsuak River, we will paddle the full breadth of the freshwater seal range, from Lac a l’Eau Claire to Lac Minto. Our goal? To experience and share the vast, little-publicized wilderness of Nunavik (formerly known as Ungava).

Sharing our first-hand experience in this region will improve Canadians' geographical and historical awareness — and also document a rich biodiversity. Northern Quebec’s rockbound, waterlogged taiga is an unfamiliar destination for many wilderness canoeists (I have yet to encounter another group of paddlers on three previous trips). This region has not gained the notoriety of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, yet it’s arguably easier to access and even more remote than other Far North canoe destinations.

Nunavik is defined by rugged geography: Beyond the shackles of the James Bay hydroelectric project, Quebec's rivers flow wild and free, pulsing through deep granite canyons with voluminous cascades and towering waterfalls. The climate is harsh, defined by strong winds and high rainfall throughout the summer. Biting insects are formidable.

This wilderness is timeless and so is its allure. Just like Twomey, the deep satisfaction of living small in a vast land exerts a powerful force — our own needle to the north.