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Exploring Labrador's Remote Torngat Mountains

Two hundred kilometres north of Labrador’s most northerly community, our writer takes a subarctic plunge into life at Base Camp.

Spirits live in Tongait, the mountains rising from the ocean

While Inuit are inextricably linked to the sea, the spirits live in Tongait, the mountains rising from the ocean.

Beneath the last rays of the setting sun, John Andersen steers his Zodiac along Saglek Bay in the northern Labrador Sea to an outcrop of smooth rocks. At a more temperate latitude, they would be the perfect spot for sunbathing; at 58ºN, however, they’re the ideal, table-height filleting station. “How do you say Arctic char in Inuktitut?” I ask Elias Harris, who, with Andersen, agreed to take me out on the fjord to check their nets. “IKaluk,” says Harris, holding up the fish. Its rosy belly blends in with the late-evening sky, the scales catching the glint of the sea, the greenish freckles on its back riffing off the pixelated Torngat Mountains beyond. The two men work like surgeons, and before night snuffs out the remaining light, we’re back at the Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station, bearing bags of fillets.

Polar bear

If you’re lucky, you might spot a polar bear shaking a paw.

Like the seasonal fishing camps set up throughout the self-governing region of Nunatsiavut, Base Camp is a summertime hamlet (albeit one 200 kilometres north of Nain, Labrador’s northernmost permanent settlement) of tents, igloo-like pods and yurts. Along with the 400-plus visitors who will come to Base Camp this summer – and that’s not counting the geologists, biologists and other scientists who do research here – I’ve come to rub fleece-clad shoulders with Inuit elders and youth and a majority-Inuit staff of about 20 who work as bear guards, skippers, cooks and guides (and, unofficially, as storytellers). This spot on the northern edge of Labrador lets you glimpse millennia of Inuit resilience that, as of this fall, will also be on display at the Todd Saunders-designed Illusuak Cultural Centre in Nain (see sidebar). But Base Camp is also the access point for Tongait, the Mountains Where the Spirits Live, the sweeping ochre and steel mountains that make up most of Torngat Mountains National Park. The park itself was a gift, a gesture of goodwill to the Canadian people, from the Labrador Inuit when the land was officially declared theirs under a 2005 land-claims agreement.

Megan Dicker, Base Camp alumna

A Base Camp adventure involves shaking a leg alongside Inuit like Megan Dicker, an alumna of the annual youth program.

It’s a gift that at Base Camp comes with all-inclusive comforts. The bed in my yurt has a fluffy duvet; there’s electrical lighting and a portable propane heater that earns the nickname Big Buddy on account of its reliability on nights when the temperature dips toward zero. Advice for northern life is doled out as of the first day: When pouring myself a coffee after lunch, one of the skippers passes me a can of Carnation sweetened, condensed milk. “Extra energy for the road,” he says and grins. As if I need it after digging into three kinds of dessert, set out in amounts so copious, they’d form a new mountain home for the spirits (though, of course, he turns out to be right, and I make Carnation a tradition).

Jason Dicker

The Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station is the setting for a program for Inuit youth, like Jason Dicker, to learn – and in turn teach Kallunaat visitors – about their culture.

The ancestors seem to be on our side on the day we set out for Rose Island. The fjord is a mirror, and with the air temperature at 15°C in the sun, it’s balmy enough to have some of us go for a pre-breakfast swim in the sea. It’s the redefinition of “wake-up call,” the call being our screams as the 4°C water sucks the air out of our lungs; still, we manage to swim, not just dip, and even do handstands because without dunking your head, it would be cheating. Afterward, we set out on the water, always on the lookout for polar bears and minke whales. As we putter past icebergs and islands where magma has pushed through some of the world’s oldest rock to create black stripes, I remember something one of the other guests said. We Kallunaat from the south think of this as wilderness, but there isn’t a wave that hasn’t washed over human life or a square kilometre of land that hasn’t been brushed by an Inuk’s foot. No wonder the Labrador Sea can carry on its swell the weight of giant icebergs; it’s packed dense with history.

Arctic char

Delicious smoked, air-dried as pitsik, or pan-fried, Arctic char is a summertime staple in Nunatsiavut.

Rose Island has been a gathering place for people for some 5,000 years. As we scramble up from the rocky shore, Gary Baikie, an Inuk from Nain and the park’s superintendent, tells us there are more burial sites here than in any other place in the subarctic and Arctic. Along with two Base Camp elders who spent summers here as children, Baikie takes us to the site of a mass grave. It holds the remains of 113 Inuit who were taken without permission from their graves for research in the late 1970s; their bones were repatriated in 1995. “We think our ancestors are happy to be back,” Baikie says. I listen from the top of a flat rock, his solemn voice riding on the whispering wind. I look out to the sea behind me, then turn around toward land, facing Tongait. The sun sends shimmers down my spine.

Accommodations at Base Camp are cozy tents, yurts or igloo-like pods

Accommodations at Base Camp are cozy tents, yurts or igloo-like pods. The view from each includes a chance to see the northern lights.

Plans made at Base Camp are merely optimistic outlooks, and life here pretty much mimics the rhythm of traditional Inuit life. Wind, fog and cloud cover determine whether you go out on the water or on the land or stay put. (We were grounded one day, but “staying put” is relative: We all ended up in the Inuit Games, duking it out in sports like the calf-crushing One-legged Owl Hop and the strength-testing, shoulder-to-shoulder Muskox Push.) Each morning’s plan is written in marker on a board in the cafeteria. Today “Ramah Bay,” almost three hours by Zodiac from Base Camp, is scribbled alongside “Pack lunch.”

Elias Harris shows off an iKaluk (Arctic char)

Elias Harris shows off an iKaluk (Arctic char), one of 14 plucked from a net that evening. The fish is literally tickled pink when it hits spawning season in summer.

We set out in the morning, looking forward to an alfresco performance by singer Elisapie Isaac, guitarist Joe Grass and harmonica player Mike Stevens, emceed by CBC Radio One’s Shelagh Rogers. (The park is trying out a new concept for visitors and passersby on cruise ships; we’re happy to be test subjects.) Inspired by the promise of music, we start belting out “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” keeping cadence with the heaving swell. All of a sudden, the sea goes rogue, kicking the Zodiac higher; as it hits the water, we white-knuckle the rope that runs along the gunwale. Then we run into a solid curtain of fog and are forced to return. But this small defeat doesn’t mean Nature wins. After dinner that day, we hike to a waterfall, the one by the inukshuk southeast of Base Camp, and find a cushy spot on the ground. Isaac, Grass and Stevens have set up a stage in a natural amphitheatre among boulders: They’re channelling the wind, the ocean, the animals, and even translating the mountains into music. Call it rock of all ages. Score one for Plan B.

Illusuak Cultural Centre

Imagine my surprise when I learn there’s a Plan See. With all the maritime travel over the past week, it’s difficult to appreciate the immensity of the park; you’re always at the lowest possible elevation. To get a better sense of its 9,700 square kilometres – that’s almost the size of Lebanon – I join three other guests in a helicopter. (When not in use to fly the scientists, who are studying, among other things, whether the Earth had tectonic plates some 3.9 billion years ago, guests can book flights on Base Camp’s chopper.) Our pilot takes us over inlets that cut long gashes into lichen-covered rock, as if a great polar bear had swatted the mottled fur of a hooded seal. We trace North Arm, where a few days ago we hiked past ancient tent rings and food caches and filled up on a shore lunch of pan-fried Arctic char and bannock. We even fly over Ramah Bay, spotting Parks Canada’s red chairs, part of a social media campaign, on the beach, and hover over Nakvak Falls and Tungajuktok Lake, a Windex-blue mountain tarn.

Nain – Labrador’s northernmost community

Nain – Labrador’s northernmost community and the administrative capital of Nunatsiavut – is home to the Illusuak Cultural Centre, whose tall windows overlook this dock and Unity Bay beyond.

It’s not until nightfall, when we’re gathered around the campfire, that I finally come back to earth. Someone caught a char from the beach earlier on; wrapped in foil, it’s been baked in a delicious sea of butter, salt and onions. Grass strums a few chords, Isaac sings a tune and the fire slowly fades away. It’s time to go to bed. I lay awake, peeking through my window for shooting stars, for the northern lights. But the sky is silent. The spirits must be sleeping.

Points North Culture

The Labrador Inuit administrative capital seems an unlikely starchitecture hot spot, but thanks to the Illusuak Cultural Centre, Nain (pop. 1,170) is ready for its close-up. Designed by Todd Saunders of Fogo Island Inn fame, the light-filled seashore building takes a cue from traditional Inuit sod houses, with undulating walls that recall the billowing northern lights.

“Illusuak was built by Inuit for Inuit, but everyone is welcome,” says Johannes Lampe, the president of the Nunatsiavut Government. “After the soft opening this fall, we Inuit will finally have a place where we can see ourselves reflected.” An Inuit advisory committee has worked since 2010 in partnership with the Nunatsiavut Government and the community, planning exhibits and experiences that will celebrate Inuit culture, language and innovation. “There will even be a café,” Lampe says, underscoring the centre’s goal to bring together different generations on a social level. Sounds like Illusuak will feed the mind and more.


Saglek Bay

Saglek Bay

Newfoundland and Labrador

The Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station is located a two-hour flight from Happy Valley-Goose Bay (with a stop to refuel in Nain). Run by the Nunatsiavut Government, with Inuit staff from Parks Canada, it’s open from mid-July to late August. Opt for a tent on the beachfront or a pod or yurt below the mountain; either way, you’re guaranteed good views.

thetorngats.com

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