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Monday 17 October 2016


Photo Credit: Des Sullivan
There is a belief, perhaps commonly held, that Labrador, especially its northern domain, is “the Land God Gave to Cain”.  It is an ascription which Jacques Cartier gave the entire north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Ostensibly, he was alluding to Genesis 4:1116 which tells us that, as punishment for having killed his brother Abel, Cain is condemned to survive a barren land.

Cartier may have known scripture, but it seems he gave little assessment to the place he perceived only as bleak and desolate. He may have been right about Cain’s reward all the same. It just seems that he had such a limited expectation of a deity he might have thought a merciful God.  

Just possibly, the allusion to “barren” elicits an excess of subjectivity anyway. Indeed, who would argue that destiny’s plan for the biblical Cain might have been not just to survive but to thrive. 

Could there be a better place to embolden and to renew the human spirit than this arctic oasis?

Did the land not testify to an ancient and gifted human occupation where two great contemporary aboriginal cultures, the Innu and the Inuit  have endured?

These questions were answered, of course, long before the twin-engine Otter carrying kayaks and provisions for two weeks and four eager paddlers and hikers   touched down on the runway at Saglek Bay. The expedition would take us on a 200 kilometer, circuitous marine route to ply the land and the waters south of the resettled community of Hebron. Our destination was Grimmington Island, where are situated the highest mountain elevations (on an island) in North America namely Bishop’s Mitre and Brave Mountain.

Each of us had visited parts of Labrador on previous occasions. Now, having unloaded the plane, and shook off the wait in Goose Bay, each of us could reflect on our reasons for coming this far north. 

For months I had been under threat by Mark, the trip co-ordinator, that his “kit” would include a saw blade, in case my 18’ kayak proved too long to load. Arrival, with the boat fully intact, was its own satisfaction. Likely, the others enjoyed preoccupations that were different and less prescient. Of course, the view of Saglek from the aircraft was its own confirmation of why we were here. But it would not be the only proof that we had entered an extraordinary portal to the “Big Land”.
Photo Credit: Mark Dykeman
This very reference suggests, perhaps, that too much deference is paid to Labrador’s geographic dimension, even if the reasons are compelling. “Big” sea and “big” sky demand homage, too. Indeed, there are many elements that resist easy appraisal. Two exceptions are obvious. First, this is a place where normal notions of scale are challenged. Second, the usual metaphors are inadequate and imprecise especially the language of ‘awesome’.

The absence of trees and grasses, revealing endless boulders and rock-strewn mountains along the fjords and inland, suggests barrenness, but a landscape so full of magnificence defies any such default. Even the moon rising over the Labrador Sea acts as a celestial glow-stick bewildering the imagination, complicating simple observation the shadow-casting beacon offering redefinition, enjoining the immensity below. It is not difficult to conclude that this is a place that demands a more complex, even if obscure, literary metric.
Photo Credit: TA Loeffler

The absence of permanent residents does not negate the need to place them here. It is an impossible task anyway. Humanity’s character and culture are intertwined with and inseparable from the encompassing world. In the “Big Land” people have thrived for millennia possibly since soon after the peoples of Asia crossed the Bering Strait.

In the interior, indigenous Innu tribes found reason to remain, as did the Inuit who settled the coast (and still inhabit it today). On the face of it, nothing more need be said except that, historically, we have assumed that life for all the aboriginal peoples has been harsh and unforgiving. Surely, modern society has gotten that much right!

But even here, the unwarranted assumption leads us to ask: who are we to judge?

The question is given context almost from the start of our expedition. Arrival in Saglek was met with quick dispatch to Hebron, 200 KM.north of Nain. One would be surprised how quickly and easily notions of what is important can be transformed. All it took was descending darkness and the generous gift of a Labrador tent ready for occupancy for which we were very grateful to Jenny, one of Hebron’s small number of summer residents!

Route Plan: Mark Dykeman
But it was the next morning’s tour of the ancient community especially the much newer, but still old, Moravian Mission House (1830) which provided a more studied assessment of the question.

The Moravian building had been given precedence over the re-establishment of Inuit sod shelters, perhaps sensibly given that 19th century wood construction had come very close to defying restoration. The sheer act betrayed its impermanence alongside the remnants of an ancient culture that thrived without the construction techniques of the Europeans. 
Photo Credit: Mark Dykeman
Yet, it was neither the Moravian project nor even the graveyards giving evidence of European settlement from 1829, not the Inuit sod houses nor the ancient rock graveyards, which testified to lives lived, a respect for family as well as for community for even here, the evidences of life found no association with notions of barrenness, endurance, hardship, or deprivation. 

That proof was manifest in the pride exhibited by an Inuit elder and carpenter working on the restoration project. He led our eager group to one site, and then another, sharing with strangers stories of the old ways, and some much more recent. He spoke not as might the historian or the archaeologist, but as one who had also endured, one for whom it was personal. After all, he was in the place of his ancestors, where he was happiest and where he evidently belonged.
Photo Credit: Mark Dykeman

In 1956 and 1959, the Government of Newfoundland without consultation forcibly relocated the people of Nutak and Hebron.

As deeply moving were the artifacts of early Inuit life and culture, and even those relatively modern especially the Moravian Mission House and the remnants of the Hudson’s Bay Company store, the latter giving way to the elements none quite affirmed the love of place as did the sentiments expressed and inscribed on bronze plaques, erected in 2005.

Photo Credit: Des Sullivan

Written in both Inuktitut and English, and prominently mounted where they give homage to those who have passed on, the plaques echo the earlier proof of a people who had truly lived, loved, and laid down roots roots that ran so deep that the experience of having them torn apart caused in those that remain, and their offspring, a pain so hurtful, so deeply profound that, unacknowledged, the wound simply would not heal.

The Government’s statement read in part: “As a result of the closures and the way they were carried out… the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, on behalf of the citizens of the province, apologizes to the Inuit of Nutak and Hebron…”

Inscribed, also in bronze, is a Letter of Reply from the people of Hebron and Nutak. Its message possessed a pride undiminished and a yearning for reconciliation. It states: “We have waited 45 painful years for this apology, and we accept it because we want the pain and the hurting to stop. Hearing your apology helps us to move on.”

Photo Credit: Mark Dykeman
Continued the Reply:
“When we, the Inuit of Nutak and Hebron, were evicted from our homes, we carried with us much that is precious and good: the spirit of our ancestors, the beauty of our land, the treasure of our language and the love of our God who gave us hope for our future. These are the things that we want to pass on to our children in a spirit of humility and forgiveness. 

And while the expression of heartfelt loss is absolute, as is the priority that what is “precious and good” should be passed on, the need for liberation from the hurt and for closure remained undiminished.

The Inuit spokesperson adds:
“It is in that spirit that I say to all those who had a hand in the closing of Nutak and Hebron, and who promised that this was done for our benefit: We forgive you.”

The three words of forgiveness seem less a powerful message of absolution than a reclamation of authority by a dispossessed people, one still proud, having not forgotten who they are, their connections, and the primacy of their claim to the land of their ancestors.

Then, too, the statement manifests a human sophistication that is noble precisely because it speaks to the strengths that emerge from both culture and character. There’s no cry of deprivation here no evidence of an aboriginal community embittered by climate, barrenness or circumstance. There is only the lament of an entire people “unceremoniously ripped” from their moorings.

Indeed, it is impossible for us to draw any conclusion except that the Inuit were and are a people positioned not on the fringes of history but at its very core. Rather than weakened, they must have been enriched and strengthened by forces we think excessive and unbearable a fact that finds terminus in Jacques Cartier’s wearisome invocation of scripture.

Photo Credit: TA Loeffler
To be fair (for me) a couple of weeks slogging kayaks over boulders masquerading as beaches, and performing the seemingly endless grind of making and breaking camp always with a thought to the day’s paddle or hike might strike some observers as a parsimonious prerequisite to any right to such comment. While I will admit that any pretensions to being a seasoned scout disappeared by day two of the expedition, I took some comfort (in case we were marooned) in having located place names like Harp Peninsula, Cod Bag Island, Napaktot (Black Duck) Bay, and Seal Bight all of which speak to an ample bounty, even if not one easily accessible.

Photo Credit: Mark Dykeman
Still, the thought of having to keep my kayak upright as I quietly descended upon and speared a day’s food, watching the seal or whale bolt, keeping it tethered until it was exhausted, seemed a matter best left for later contemplation. After all, the satellite phone was never out of reach.

Those reflections often skipped to thoughts of our good fortune that the trip co-ordinator had exercised amazing judgment in choosing possibly the warmest two weeks of the year to undertake the journey notwithstanding the fact that, at night, my sub-zero-rated sleeping bag still warranted high-tech underwear, socks, fleece, and sometimes more. That required planning. Luck is finding scattered bits of driftwood for a fire to take the chill off the morning or evening air. No one needed reminding that, within a few mere weeks, the first blushes of snow might be seen, changing the landscape again evoking thoughts of sparse settlers digging in for another long winter.

Indeed, it was impossible not to think of those people in a Darwinian sense and applaud their intelligence, resilience, character, good judgment, and the effort each generation undertook to shape the next one.

Photo Credit: TA Loeffler

As visitors, our preoccupation was not with the vicissitudes of survival. We wanted to experience the sheer fascination of this remote part of the world located, relatively speaking, in our backyard a place always accorded respect within our own culture, in part due to that remoteness and to the extremes of temperature, wind, and sea state which inspired fear, at times, but always fascination.

Here, the superlatives most always measure up to their billing. But there is one absolute. This part of Labrador is so different, so unspoiled and unpopulated, that whatever you thought about its power or its magic, the place where your feet set down always seemed to feel the first touch of humanity.

Photo Credit: Marian Wissink
This was especially true as we trekked over the hills of Ferdinand Inlet with grasses, bushes and other vegetation asserting themselves with surprising frequency. Three Mountain Harbour, a climb of modest elevation, exposed beclouded mountain tops while still affording spectacular vistas, as if warning the sea of their overbearing presence.

Sunday Run, the name conjuring thoughts of a gentle afternoon drive, claimed the protection of Finger Hill Island to calm the Labrador Sea. Here we were also introduced to the Kaumajet Mountain Range an array of peaks, each seemingly in competition for notice, rising quickly out of deep ocean depths. This is where you also get an early sense of what lies in wait on Grimmington Island. But that’s for later; right now, a mountain climb is rewarded with a view of five waterfalls in the distance. Taken together, the images seem excessive except that the experience of sensory overload seems all too common.
Photo Credit: Des Sullivan
The mountain range at Napaktok (Black Duck) Bay also demands singular focus. The hiker’s footpath consists of kilometers of slate stone, one-half inch thick, and likely dozens of feet deep. The tiles represent an entire mountain peak that, 3.4 million years ago, rose haughtily, mocking the land far below. Now it modestly serves as ground cover giving proof, if any were needed, of the futility of resistance to the forces of change.

Photo Credit: Des Sullivan

Arrival at Grimmington Island, our most southerly destination, aroused an exaggerated sense of expectancy. The anticipation had been building months before the Lab Air charter set down in Saglek. Two of our number, TA and Marian, had branded the expedition “Paddle2Peaks” giving it an air of challenge as if a state of enabled fascination wasn’t enough.

Photo Credit: TA Loeffler

Brave Mountain and Bishop’s Mitre rise to 4032 feet and 3400 feet elevation, respectively. The Island is approached with some foreboding, perhaps because magnitude always conveys a certain gravitas. At Grimmington, it’s as if even the mountains’ shadow has weight. Aptly named, Bishop’s Mitre radiates the sensation one often feels when entering a cathedral, except in this case a single overbearing tower stands erect, like an unyielding finger, reminding us that the far superior overlord to which it is attached has the power to incite solemnity as much awe.

Photos Credit: TA Loeffler
Grimmington is a place where the camera resolves the most ardent attempts at description. Metaphor is challenged when the word awesome seems a lazy attribution for a temple to the gods. I’m not sure if there was a mystic among us. But, in a place evoking such profound spirituality, how would anyone have noticed?

Of course, thoughts of tomorrow’s climb suppresses all others. I ask myself, again, why I would expect to follow one of our number who is an expert climber, having ascended a good many mountaintops. I am hopeful that she, and the others, are mindful that everyone defines themselves from a different (possibly lower) elevation, each claiming their own Everest.
Phots Caption: Mark Dykeman
After a steep climb at the start, followed by a long and energetic scramble over rough boulder-laden terrain, the trek continued rise after rise using the rough and often deep river bed that time had cut into the centre of the mountain. Feet shuffled over ice-filled gullies, now slightly slushy which made them passable without crampons thanks to a fortuitous sun. At 1500 feet, this humble(d) writer sat content, knowing he ought to save some juice for the descent, as the others better fit went higher.

The payoff included a close-up view of the remaining elevation as it towered over us, forcing heads and eyes to scan the majesty above. An about-turn afforded a perspective which stretched as far as the eye can see. Imagine the Kaumajet Mountains, Turtleback Back Island, Cod Bag Island, and a few icebergs, for good measure all in a single frame!

Photo Credit: Marian Wissink
The next morning, an anxious reluctance confirmed that it was time to head the kayaks north, by another circuitous route that took us to some ‘old’ destinations and some new ones, including Soapstone Island and the area west of the Harp Peninsula. Again we allowed ourselves to be bedazzled. A dozen or so gigantic icebergs hid inside Takkatat Fjord yes, this one Fjord the large bay providing ample room to weave the kayaks between bergy bits.

It is one thing to be impressed by the icebergs’ gargantuan size; quite another to hear them groan and strain and crack under their own glacial mass; then, at night, to hear them crash and roll in an otherwise noiseless place as if the cacophonous sounds of an arctic orchestra demanded an audience, preferably one wide awake.  
Photo Credit: Des Sullivan
A few days later, in contrast to the “noise” heard in that city of icebergs, the discord at Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station was both brief and deliberate. With fog capping the mountains at Saglek Bay, a phone call to the helpful Manager of the Camp — who met us at the very start — produced a Zodiac. A short boat trip began to the northern part of Saglek Bay, providing a chance to satisfy a long-held curiosity as to the conveniences afforded visitors to Torngat Mountains National Park.

A community of yurts and tents, including a large version of the traditional Labrador variety with comfortable elevated beds, greeted our arrival. Showers, a fine meal, and a gathering place where we could hang out, read, or just relax, also contrasted with the service-less demands of camping. Even entertainers were part of the deal — three in fact. Each one effortlessly created harmony and gave mimic to the elements, to the forces that created the Torngats, occasionally allowing discordance to magnify the sometimes irreconcilable and unequal powers that have long impacted aboriginal life.

Photo Credit: Mark Dykeman
It wasn’t planned, but it was a stroke of good fortune. We arrived as an awards ceremony got underway to recognize Base Camp staff who had successfully completed courses in GPS navigation, safety, and food service, among others.

Having paddled the waters of Hebron, Takkatat, Jansen, Ferdinand, and Kaumajet Inlets and trekked some of the land around those places, too, it seemed obvious that what had begun under the auspices of the Torngat National Park  in the cause of preserving and respecting the land, and in pursuit of international tourism (and the jobs and incomes that accompany this growing industry) — we had been given a glimpse into an “incubator” of eco-tourism, one of the world’s best kept secrets, in one of its most special places. 

Is there a conclusion to this story? Several fit, but only one affords the opportunity to come full circle and to give final address to Jacques Cartier. I would say this:

Photo Credit: Mark Dykeman
If this is the land bestowed upon the biblical Cain, it was given by a generous God not one who calculated deprivation, hardship, or exacting punishment, nor any of the miseries to which the word “barren” is inextricably linked.

Even the cynical Cain would be humbled by the grandeur of a place too magnificent to warrant address, where the mountains and fjords defy any normal sense of scale where even a demanding and unpredictable, though bountiful, Labrador Sea still commands reverence alongside the Kaumajets. 

This is surely a complex and challenging land. It may well be a place where humility is the best survival instinct. Yet, in its barrenness, it still leaves room for Labrador tea, for mushrooms and grasses and plants, for the ubiquitous black bear and for the much rarer polar bear (about which much could be said, but will be left for another telling). Here, though, all of this just seems normal.

Little wonder the Inuit call it "Nunatsiavut". It is an all encompassing word. Translated, it means "our beautiful land". It is a description at odds with that of the French explorer. Indeed, we might rightly conclude Cartier simply never visited this place, his route possibly having kept him farther south. 

Perhaps, it doesn't matter. Long before Cartier, the land was claimed by aboriginal culture and psyche, by aboriginal bone and sinew. Any other claim is merely that of a visitor. But while I may not have earned the right to profess attachment to a place aptly named Nunatsiavut, as have the Inuit, I can understand far better, now, what it means to belong.
Another Labrador adventure story: Captured By A River Damned