by Liz Fleming

Labrador’s Torngat Mountains are as untouched and jaw-dropping as they were millions of years ago when the glaciers roared through the landscape to create them.

helicopterExploring Torngats National Park by helicopter - courtesy of Pat Morrow

When the helicopter touched down at the brink of the cliff in a remote area of the Torngat Mountains in far northern Labrador, the pilot said, “Not sure I’ve ever landed here before….in fact, I’m not sure anyone has.” Given that we were thousands of feet above sea level, on a plateau that topped sheer cliff faces, it was entirely possible that ours might have been the only human feet ever to touch those rocks, our eyes the first to see that particular view, from that precarious vantage point. Walking on lands so ancient and so untouched is a rare privilege.

The need to absorb every experience, to fill our senses with the sights and sounds and smells of everything around us during our precious week at the Torngats Base Camp became an addiction. We were almost afraid to go to sleep at night, fearing we might miss some once-in-a-lifetime experience – like seeing the Northern Lights. Though visible in other parts of the world, the aurora borealis are thought be at their most vivid in Labrador in the summer months. 

Torngat base camp northern lightsCourtesy of Pat morrow

We made a pact. If anyone saw the Northern Lights, they would awaken the rest of the group.

 “Liz get up. You have to see this”, said an insistent voice.  It was 3am. Stepping into the blackness, I stared expectantly upward into the vast black sky. And saw nothing. No lights - not even a green shimmer.

 I wondered what am I supposed to be looking at. Then Mike pointed into the darkness.
Less than a meter beyond the electrified fence that surrounded the camp, just beyond my tent, was a massive black bear, rooting around in a blueberry patch. My headlamp glinted off his tiny eyes and he snorted in disgust.  Mesmerized by his size, his chewing, and his mind-blowing closeness, we froze.

Just as we were preparing to sprint for our lives, two shots exploded into the silence. Our bear grunted, then lumbered up the rugged slope behind the camp. The Base Camp bear guards had arrived.

Wilderness-wise bear guards patrol the bear fence night and day - they’re one part of the amazing human machine that makes the Torngat Mountain Base Camp and Research Station a reality.

Torngat base campOn a cliff overlooking Base Camp, a traditional store food cache hides supplies for Inuit hunters - Courtesy of Parks Canada/Pat morrow

Located 200 km north of Nain, the last inhabited community in Labrador, the Torngat Mountain Base Camp is a fantastic partnership between Parks Canada and the Nunasaviut Group, a collective of Inuit people of Labrador and Nunavik. The Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve both showcases its incredible beauty and protects the Inuit homeland.

Though not luxurious, Base Camp accommodations are more than comfortable.  Each Intershelter tent and Design Shelter (like a green plastic igloo) has a raised wooden floor and two down-comforter-topped single beds. Given that I’d been expecting a pup tent and a sleeping bag, it looked like the Ritz to me, but what really made the place so fascinating were the people. Having traveled in the north in the past, I’d met Inuit people, seen demonstrations of traditional sports, heard throat singing and watched drum dancing – all from a tourist’s distance.

CaribouThough not seen frequently near the base camp, a rare caribou sighting is a treat - courtesy of Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station

My week in the Torngats removed all cultural gaps.The Base Camp staff members are all Inuit, so cultural immersion happens naturally. Eat, hike and laugh with people and you’re bound to learn something. For obvious reasons, no one goes beyond the bear fence without an armed bear guard, and most often trips involve small groups – whether hiking to see ancient tent rings, food caches and burial cairns or motoring through the fjords on a sturdy working boat that can brave the wildest water. The Torngat Mountains comprise 9,700 sq km so almost every trip requires a long hike, a ride on the boat or a helicopter flight.

On our first boat cruise, the sky was clear and blue. Though I was wearing three coats, a hat and mitts, I still shivered in the August sunshine as I did my best to capture the beauty and the enormity of the landscape with my camera. Torngats means ‘Place of Spirits’ in Inutituk and the fjords seem to echo with the calls of ancient hunters of caribou and seal while the shadows on the rock mimic the ghosts of a nomadic people.

Boat rideCourtesy of Pat Morrow

When the boat anchored in a cove, the fishing gear came out and I discovered that despite spending every summer of my childhood with a fishing pole in my hand on the St. Lawrence River, I still had a lot to learn.

We fished from a rocky beach where the water was mirror-still, broken only by the splashes of our lures. In such shallow water I was sure we’d never see anything bigger than a minnow, but in moments, the Arctic char arrived. After just two casts, a char hit my lure like an underwater bomb. I fought to bring him in, with my guide buddies laughing and cheering in the background. Soon, the biggest of the char caught so far that morning was shimmering on the shore. Raising my arms in cocky victory, I made the ultimate rookie mistake.  I didn’t haul my prize far enough up the rocky beach. Seizing his moment, the char snapped the line and wriggled back into the water. 

I swallowed my pride as my fishing buddies swallowed their char – raw. A quick whack on the head killed the char, then sharp knives sliced into the glistening body. We ate small chunks of raw flesh right there on the shore and my friends shared generously, though I’d brought nothing to the feast.

Generosity is integral to the Inuit spirit, a willingness to share the most precious elements of their cultural heritage. Such open-hearted kindness is humbling.

Torngat MountainsCourtesy of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism/Barrett & Mackay Photo

To describe the Torngat world, I learn a few Inuit words: ‘Nanuk’ is the word for the hungry-eyed polar bear on the shore and ‘natsiks’ were the jar seals playing in the water. ‘Pammiuligaks’ are the Minke whales whose mammoth black backs and fins surfaced in the still morning waters and ‘Atlak’, the black bear who came looking for berries. ‘Atsanik’ is the magic of the Northern Lights that pulled us from our warm beds night after night, to stand slack-jawed in the cold night air, unable to go back to bed.

Perhaps the most essential word in my Inuit vocabulary is ‘Ilannåk’. I use it to describe the people who shared their char, cooked our meals, taught us throat-singing and drum dancing, flew us to remote plateaus, and kept us safe where we could never survive on our own. It’s the word I use for the people who told the stories of their ancestors – the people who welcomed us. ‘Ilannåk’ means friend.

Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Winter/Spring 2017 issue.

 

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