Nfld. & Labrador

Adventurer calls off Labrador wilderness trek after 83 days

Justin Barbour and his dog Saku made it 1,000 kilometres before weather forced them to abandon plans to make it to Hudson Bay.

Justin Barbour and his dog completed 1,000 of planned 1,700 km trip

Justin Barbour fished and foraged along his route to supplement his food supplies, and says he ate well during his months in the wild. (Submitted by Justin Barbour)

After battling freezing winds, forceful river currents and early winter storms for 83 days, Justin Barbour has conceded defeat in his attempt to trek 1,700 kilometres across the wilderness of Labrador and Quebec.

The adventurer, accompanied only by his dog Saku, departed North West River in late July. He planned to canoe and hike all the way to Kuujjuarapik, a small community nestled on the Quebec edge of Hudson Bay.

Barbour pulled the plug with about 700 kilometres to go, realizing he was far behind schedule, and winter already setting in.

"I don't like leaving things unfinished, but it came down to a safety thing," he said from his home in Grand Falls-Windsor, which now feels "luxurious."

Saku, looking game for a big portage. (Submitted by Justin Barbour)

Winds worse than imagined

Barbour has plenty of outdoors experience — he spent the summer of 2017 trekking 700 kilometres across Newfoundland. Following that, he felt prepared for his 2018 adventure, backed by big name sponsors like MEC. 

But he was still caught off guard.

"I knew what I was in for with some of the paddling and that stuff, but there was a lot of surprises," he said, adding he was particularly surprised by the raging westerly and northwesterly winds.

"They were far worse than I could've imagined, so that cost me a lot of time," he said, recalling hours spent sheltering from the wind, debating whether he could paddle in places like the Smallwood Reservoir.

"I was taking big chances, so I had a lot of delays," he told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning.

Barbour's risks didn't always pay off. Before reaching the reservoir, he canoed 170 kilometres upstream on the Red Wine River. The river, which rises 600 metres above sea level, was a particularly soggy slog.

"That's a big climb on a river, in very short distance. And it was very difficult and very dangerous. There was times I was swept off my feet by the currents, up to my neck in water, dragging the canoe," Barbour said.

"My canoe was almost like a secondary life jacket. If I was swept off my feet, I had to hold onto my canoe to make sure i didn't go any further downriver."

Dog had 'time of his life'

Amid all his trip's ups and downs, Barbour estimated he only interacted with humans for about 24 hours of his nearly three months in the wild, although he did send internet updates.

The rest of the time was far from lonely, however. He credits Saku for being excellent company, unfazed by their circumstances.

"He was just chilling, having the time of his life," said Barbour.

Saku — named for Habs legend Saku Koivu — accompanied Barbour on his 2017 trek. A Cape Shore water dog, Barbour said Saku was at home in the bow of his canoe.

"He's built for the outdoors, built for that life. He had no issues," said Barbour.

Barbour said after 83 days of camping, he really appreciates the comforts of civilization. (Submitted by Justin Barbour)

No regrets

Ultimately, the onslaught of early winter weather, on top of the winds and wet, forced Barbour to realize he wouldn't make it to Hudson Bay.

He spent days waiting for clear enough weather for a helicopter to come pluck him from a snowy mountaintop, but has no regrets about any part of the adventure.

"If it's easy and it's not difficult for me, I don't get that same joy from overcoming those mental and physical challenges. That's what it's about for me," Barbour said.

"When they work out, and you overcome them, [it's] extreme joy."

He added the entire experience has enriched his life.

"To be on your own, you gain a certain appreciation for life, and everything that we have, and the comforts that you cant get anywhere else," Barbour said, recommending other people try something similar out in nature, albeit less extreme.

"I don't think anyone needs to go for 83 days, but I think it needs to be at least a week. It doesn't have to be on your own, it can be with a group."

With files from Labrador Morning

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