After the last night at sea, I am up at 6:30. Despite the many early starts on this journey, I still confirm that I just don’t do mornings! It has to be something pretty compelling to get me out of my bed/bunk. This morning it is the pending arrival of the ship in St John’s, Newfoundland. The sun is peaking over the horizon as the pilot boat comes along side and the pilot swings aboard. Cape Spear is visible in the distant south as we make our turn into the Narrows, the entrance to St John’s harbour. Signal Hill is off the starboard bow. Cabot Tower, the citadel on its crest, stands proud as we slip past into the sanctuary of the harbour. The colourful city buildings rise up around us and all manner of boats are coming and going. It’s a busy place. As I stand on deck and watch, my mind wanders as I remember visiting Signal Hill with my husband Doug. We stood and saw thick fog banks roll off the sea. They were so thick, I could see nothing. Nothing. And yet it was still breathtaking. Doug, on the other hand, saw in his mind’s eye, the North Atlantic convoys of which he was a part. His memories were as clear as the days during World War II when he left this coast as a young man. He was in the Canadian Merchant Service. One of his ships sank beneath him and he spent days in a life boat. Yes, he had a different vision as the wind moved the fog and a chill spread through us. Today, thunder clouds have dissipated and the air is clear as the Orlova comes along side and disembarkation begins. As I step off the companionway onto the pier, I realize with some sadness that my journey along the Labrador and Newfoundland coasts is pretty much over. Those of us not heading directly for the airport board a bus that circles to the quaint seaside village of Quidi Vidi and passes the US military barracks before breaking down in the parking lot of a local but controversial grocery store. It appears there was some debate among city fathers when the “Memorial” arena became a Dominion Store!A bus trip to Petty Harbour, as pretty as it was, just didn’t cut it after the remote and rugged beauty of the Torngats and the hospitality of the province’s remote villages. Our breakdown meant that time was a bit short on this tour, so once we arrived at Cape Spear, the most easterly point on the North American continent, our driver suggested we walk to the sea. Once the group had reached the path, I headed for the lighthouse. I wanted to experience the view from the top of the hill. Instead of asking for permission, I figured I would just ask for forgiveness, if necessary. Before long, we were all back on the bus and on our back to St John’s and the hotel. Mission accomplished. After a quick supper in the hotel restaurant, I find myself ensconced in my harbour-side room. I spread out my gear and my assorted gifts and try to condense it into the space available. Tripods and rubber boots take up a lot of room! Outside, the lights of the harbour make it a fairyland of sorts.Before turning in, I check my email for the first time in a couple of weeks. Many of my shipboard friends are already home. Another friend is spending the day moving into his new house. Obviously, life marches on for adventurers as well as non-adventurers. I have tomorrow morning to explore St John’s before catching my flight to Toronto and this city and its environs never disappoints. It is my favourite Canadian city, a walking place, full of history, color and music and an example of much that is good about my country. It’s all here to experience but it helps if one is half mountain goat. I have no idea how these streets are managed in the winter. In the spirit of wanting to hear this place as it awakens, I am up at 6:00 and hit the hilly streets.The sun is rising over Signal Hill. The light is constantly changing. Beautiful pinks and oranges mix with thundercloud grey. It’s quiet. I start downhill, making my way to the nearest Tim Horton’s. My boots click on the rough pavement. An occasional gull moves through my field of vision sqwaking as he flies past. Few folks are out and about. There is little traffic. Occasionally, but not often, I come across a street person asking for coffee money. There is not time to walk the boardwalk to Signal Hill, something that I want to do sometime, but I wander past the historic and colourful homes that paint the hillside and swoop down towards the harbour where private yachts and fishing vessels sit end to end. I ponder the stories they could tell. After a couple of hours, I head back to the Marriott. I sit on my suitcase and let out a sigh of success when I am able to pull the zipper all the way around. I roll my gear to the lobby where the concierge hails a cab for me. The driver hoists the “two-ton” case into the trunk and smiles. I think to myself that he must have been a stevedore in another life! At the airport, the Air Canada folks are not so smiley and obliging so to avoid a surcharge I unload my rubber boots and reload lighter items into my checked luggage to avoid a $100 fee. I’m thinking that it is better that that money go in the travel fund rather than Air Canada’s coffers. Three hours and ten minutes later I am in Toronto. Seat 19D was just fine. As the plane lands the sun sets on an amazing adventure in Canada. This is a great country full of beauty and opportunity. As a Canadian, I want to learn about and see as much of it as possible. The more I travel, the more I understand its vastness and diversity and the more I understand, how collectively, a land and its people make a great nation. ~ Note: The content of this journey will soon be available in book format, an addition to my “Adventures in Canada” Series published through BLURB.com. For further information on travelling the Ghost Coast, contact ADVENTURE CANADA at 1-800-363-7566 or goto http://www.AdventureCanada.com.
At 7am, it is already 12 degrees centigrade. I am a little worse for wear today as I slept on my “Good Night” chocolate. Trust me, this is not a good thing to do. It isn’t pretty. I guess my cold was getting the better of me last night and I forgot to put the chocolate in the dresser drawer with all the ones from previous nights. I slept on it instead! Just think about that.
At breakfast it sounded like the ship had been taken over by a company of seals. Germs seem to be taking over the place. I am no longer the only one coughing.
The Ghost Coast of Labrador is technically behind us and has been for several days, but as we continue south (more or less) our next destination is the Change Islands. Located between Notre Dame Bay and the Labrador Sea, this group of three islands is the home to about 300 and was at one time, a main port for fishing schooners sailing to Labrador. Two of the islands are populated. The middle and most southern are separated by the “main tickle”, a narrow strait. The most northerly is most difficult to reach while the southern ones are more populated, boggy and treed.The town, itself, straddles the tickle. Back in the 1700s it was first populated by Europeans as part of the seasonal fishery.
A stiff breeze carries the spray from the zodiacs as they return to the ship to ferry the next group of us back to the main dock in town. Daniel Payne, from the ship, as well as other musicians from the islands, fill the air with fiddle tunes. The locals are out in full force to greet us and so begins another amazing show of Newfoundland hospitality. Cars line the road leading to the pier so that any who wish can just pile in and be driven to the school, on a short tour, or to the beginning of the Squid Jiggin’ Trail. No one here is worried about seat belts or over crowding. Always up for a challenge, I lug my tripod and hop into a car to be let off with others at the beginning of the trail. The view is breathtaking. The climb just takes what is left away. The other hikers begin to diminish in size as they scramble over the rocks more efficiently than I do. The trail is narrow and rocky. Parts have been provided with handrails and safety lines. The tide is out as we work our way around the bay and exit the trail near the white church clad with wooden siding. It was built in 1896.I am part of a group of stragglers that wanders downhill past the post office. The tickle is lined with salt box houses, nicely kept and in most cases painted the same immaculate white as the church. The stages are painted up in traditional red ochre. One by one, people stop to converse with the ponies that watch us closely as we pass. Descended from those brought to the island by early settlers, they have adapted over the centuries to the harsh realities of life in this out-port. They developed thick manes, heavy winter coats and close-set legs that helped in walking the narrow paths. They are reported to have been hard workers with good temperament. In addition they were able to survive on little food. According to Rare Breeds Canada, and despite their strengths, these ponies have now been declared to be in danger of extinction. Over the last twenty or so years, the population has diminished from 12-13,000 to 88 that are now registered. Most live in the Change Island Newfoundland Pony Refuge. A few are located elsewhere in Canada and the United States. Their demise is attributed to the establishment of ant-roaming laws in the 1960’s and the advent of snowmobiles and ATV’s that usurped their work. In the A. R. Scammell School auditorium, the locals and the visitors mingle to the benefit of all. (Scammell was the native son who wrote the Squid Jiggin” Song.) More fiddle music sets the stage as tray after tray of home made goodies replenish the buffet setup in the middle of the gym. Gallons of coffee are consumed. There is much laughter and the buzz of constant conversation fills the air. Being social is a good part of outport life and today I am again the beneficiary of this endearing hospitality. References: http://www.changeislands.ca
Once we are all back on board, the afternoon is spent at sea heading in a southerly direction. It was time to walk the deck and breathe in the salt air while watching whales blow and crash there huge pectoral fins onto the ocean’s surface.
Inside, Senator Bill Romkey and Jerry Kobalenko fill folks in on the history of Labrador and the incredible experience of kayaking its coastal waters. Thanks to Bill, I think, I’ve finally got the structure of this province correct. Nunatsiavut is a provincial territory, part of Labrador and within the province of Newfoundland & Labrador. Nunavut is a federal territory that stretches across the far north. Both have a form of self-government. You would think this would not be hard but I seem to stumble every time I try to get our evolving federal and provincial structures straight!
By late afternoon we have cruised our way to the town of Conche that is on the north eastern tip of the island of Newfoundland. It is a predominately Irish Catholic community. Some of the residents came here from the Grey Islands as part of the government’s resettlement of folks from remote fishing communities.
As the zodiacs bring us ashore, we are greeted by tons of friendly people ready to point us in the right direction or give us a lift to the hall where we will share a meal and some island music. But before supper there is time to walk the gravel roads, past peeling paint and idle fishing boats. Eventually I arrive at the community hall where the French Shore Tapestry is under construction.
Inspired by the eleventh century Bayeau Tapestry, it was designed by artist Jean Claude Roy and his wife Christina who developed a partnership with local stitchers, Joan Simmonds and Colleen McLean. Roy researched the history of the French Shore and produced a 222 foot template. It includes colourful characters important in the history of the area as well as legends about life in Conche stretching from creation to 2006.
Local stitchery artists were taught how to transfer the design to linen canvas. It was stretched on a specially made frame and by the time it is complete over 20,000 hours of work will have gone into the telling of the story. Pride, precision, craftsmanship and dedication have made this a remarkable community project.
One by one, our motley crew weaves its way to the top of the hill where supper awaits. It’s like a church supper but more rambunctious. Music fills the air and those who are able, dance their dinner away.
As the moon comes up, the parade past the churchyard winds its way back to the harbour where we load the zodiacs and head back to the ship. The town’s deep harbour runs the length of the community and in spring folks can be marooned by ice. For a long time getting around was best done by dog sled but in the 1970’s the town was connected by road to the rest of the province. Overnight ,we will travel to the Change Islands the traditional way….by water.
Reference – wikipedia.org,www.frenchshore.com;frenchshoretapestry.com;Adventure Canada Notes, Personal Journal
A “rolly” night crossing the Strait of Belle Isle is behind me. Our expedition leader says it’s a balmy 9 degrees outside, with a sea temperature of 30o C. The wind is 35k.
The day starts with my cabin mate departing for Toronto, via Goose Bay and Halifax. The ceiling is high enough to allow for her flights so I spread out my collection of camera equipment and multiple layers on her bunk. What a luxury! I also find time before preparing for our landing, to find my errant images that are hold up in a file called “stories”. My computer mice are clearly at work again. Who even created this file?
The ship is hovering in Noddy Bay, rather than being at anchor. A little before nine the first zodiacs leave the ship destined for a “wet landing”(…..read …. rubber boots are required. )The hills surrounding the bay are home to a small community that is only minutes by road from L’Anse Aux Meadows. A short bus ride acts as a time machine and before you know it I am in Viking Country.
For centuries, the rolling landscape that surrounds the bay held secrets–secrets that were unearthed by Helge and Anne Stine in 1960. Helge was an explorer and his wife Anne an archeologist. A local farmer, named George Decker, lead Helge to what was known locally as the old Indian camp. Excavation of the undulating mounds, between 1960 and 1968, resulted in the uncovering of a Norse presence in Newfoundland dating from the eleventh century. This is the oldest known European settlement in the New World. For some, L’Anse Aux Meadows is the site of the fabled Vineland, for others it is part of a larger configuration of land that was called Vineland, a country and not a place.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site includes dwellings and workshops for smithies, carpenters and those who repaired ships. Tools found in the bog–nails and rivets– led to these conclusions. As is required by places seeking inclusion as a World Heritage Site, areas of the shore that were of archeological interest were covered with sand and a layer of fresh turf in order to protect possible artifacts.
During the eight years the Stine’s were studying the site, an international team excavated eight Norse buildings. They had walls and roofs of sod that were supported on wooden frames similar to the construction methods used in Iceland and Greenland. In the buildings thought to be used as residences, a long narrow fireplace used for cooking as well as heat and light was situated in the middle of the floor.
Significant to the dating of the site was the discovery of a bronze cloak clasp. Other artifacts included a stone oil lamp, a spindle and a bone needle similar to those used in knitting. In addition, slag from smelting iron boat nails lead to the belief that this was indeed a Norse site inhabited by both men and woman.
Work from 1973-1976 focused on the peat bog below the building terrace.
As I walked the wooden path from the interpretive centre towards the reconstructed Norse buildings, I passed current excavation sites, carefully covered to prevent environmental damage. Groups lead by interpreters huddled together to hear the story of this ancient place. I walk alone and just try to imagine.
I have been here before and it is a privilege to revisit this site and think about the time when Norse children played on the hills and along the shore. My mind floods with memories of that first trip to Newfoundland in 1993. I see in my minds eye, Doug and I holding hands as we walked the dirt path towards the sea. The boardwalk was incomplete. It was sunny and warm that day. A happy time.
Today, I follow the fence line towards the shore. The wind is strong but I am bundled appropriately. I’m thinking that Gortex wins out over hand woven vestments held by ancient clasps. And I remember, that today the wind that blows my hair into a frenzy is an October breeze, and not a arctic blast from the Labrador Sea in mid-January!
Another rolling night takes us to a place just off Cape St Charles. After two days of visiting isolated 21st century communities, we are now back to what was left behind. Only ghosts live in Cape St Charles most of the year. In the summer some past residents return to the remnants of a life they knew or a childhood lost.
Through my porthole I can see that the fog is thick. I mentally remove a walk to the point from my agenda for my time on shore. Cape St Charles‘ headland is at 55o 37’ 15”W. It is the most easterly point on the North American continent but truly I have to take the fact that it is out there on trust!
Ashore, I grab my tripod and wander my way past curtained windows and latched doors. Paint is peeling and weathered wood merges with the fog. The horseshoe on one door clearly says the luck ran out for this fishing community. There was a time, when the inland fisheries were at their peak, that this isolated community was full of life and defined by hard work on an unforgiving sea.
The history of Newfoundland’s cod fishery dates back to the 15th century. Early on, ships from Spain, Portugal and France fished right on the Grand Banks, salted their catch and went home. Because less salt was available to them, both the English and the Newfoundlanders took to drying their fish on land on flakes and salting them more lightly than the Europeans. Inshore fishermen had to know their fishing grounds. Certain harbours and inlets held more fish. Men went out in small boats from a string of tiny settlements that dotted the coastline. They jigged for then plentiful northern cod.
Through centuries and wars, the areas designated for international fishing changed. Fishing vessels were replaced by trading ships that came to exchange their goods for fish. The development of a mercantile system soon resulted in the development of the protected capital of St John’s.
From what I can see here in Cape St Charles, life looked to be simple and hard. The small church had well worn pews. Most houses hugged the harbour while a few ambitious and independent souls took to the hills. There is no evidence of a road. Only a footpath, partly overgrown but still noticeable, leads me past berry patches towards the outhouse! A visit must have been an adventure on a rough day!
Back on board, I hunker down for a warming lunch and a short voyage along a fog shrouded coast. Eventually I’m told we are at anchor off Battle Island. Could fool me, it’s still grey everywhere. Not easily deterred, I make my way to my cabin to gear up for a landing at Battle Harbour.
As I walk the dock at the landing, I try to picture this fairly deserted village as a bustling economic and social center. Its houses, stores, and fishery buildings have been restored. Just the people are missing.
Back in the early 1770’s, John Slade and Company from Poole, England used the island. By the mid 1800’s there was a population of 350. Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, who provided medical care along the Labrador coast, established the first hospital outside of St John’s here. Opened in 1893, the facility was destroyed by fire in 1930.
The Canadian Marconi Company built two wireless towers at Battle Harbour. In 1909, Robert Peary, used this facility to wire his controversial claim of reaching the North Pole to the New York Times.
Twice, the island was to change hands, first to Baine Johnston and Co. in 1871 and then to Earle Freighting Services of Carbonear in 1955. By the 1960’s families began to leave Battle Harbour. In the 1970’s others were relocated by the Government as the fishery began to fail even more. The Earle’s continued to operate here until the cod moratorium in 1992.
The moratorium brought to an end a tradition that had shaped the history of eastern Canada for nearly 500 years. The introduction of high–tech trawlers that were capable of fishing larger areas at greater depths reduced stock to the point that it could not replenish itself. The cod stock had fallen to 1% of its former level. The eco–system was disrupted further as non-economic species were caught in the nets. Capelin were caught too and this reduced the cod stocks’ ability to rebuild itself. The most acute impact of the moratorium was felt in Newfoundland. 35,000 fishermen in 400 coastal communities became unemployed.
Displaced fishermen received economic assistance from the Federal government. Retraining was provided. Some men left for the Alberta oil fields in order to support their families.
Walking the paths through the village of Battle Harbour, past the hotel and oldest Anglican Church in Newfoundland, (Built 1857) it’s not hard to fill in the blanks and see children laughing and skipping along the waters edge. It’s not hard to imagine the fishermen bringing in the catch or the salt cod being spread on the flakes to dry.
I leave the museum buildings to last. The displays help to consolidate my growing understanding of the fishing industry. When the Earle Freighting Service gave the site to the Battle Harbour Historic Trust, artifacts pertaining to the industry were gathered for its collection. Block and tackle that hang in a loft, speak to the hard work involved in this type of fishery. From the salt storage area in one of the buildings on the wharf, I can see down the narrow and nearly empty harbour. I try to imagine it with ninety-two fishing vessels huddled to shelter from the sea. That’s how Bishop Field reportedly saw it in 1851.
By 2006, the cod stocks were beginning to show improvement. By 2010, a 69% recovery since 2007 was reported for Newfoundland waters. As late as 2013 landings of cod are still reported as poor but the fishery has reopened on a limited basis.
Battle Harbour is a living museum–one that should find itself on Canadian Bucket lists. Today, one can book a holiday and stay at the hotel, learn to bake buns in a traditional manner or wander the hills. One can even book the church for a wedding.
When we headed for shore from the ship the town was shrouded in fog and some stayed over the land all afternoon. Now as we leave, the location of the ship is the mystery until out of the fog looms our “ghostly galleon”.
After supper, as my roommate packs, again, in the hope of a morning departure, I download my images and stare in disbelief when they appear to have gone to cyber space instead of to a file with the title “Battle Harbour” . Oh well, I’ll think of it tomorrow at Tara! …….Oh!, make that L’Anse aux Meadows. Labrador will be behind me and I will be in Newfoundland.
References:www.newfoundland.com,www.battlehoarbour.com,www.wikipedia.org,www.cdii/cod/history5/htm,The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes
Hurricane Kyle has been kind to us…at least so far. The sea was not bad last night, and sleep was possible. I’m lucky that I am pretty sea worthy and do not succumb to sea- sickness too readily. At 7 am it is overcast but apparently the barometer is rising. The water temperature is 2 degrees centigrade and the air a balmy 6 degrees.
We are anchored off Agvituk or Hopedale—the place of the whales. Originally, Agvituk was an Inuit settlement. Today Hopedale, renamed by the Moravian missionaries who came here in 1782, is the legislative capital of Nunatsiavut. It is a community of about 650. Nearly 90% are protestant.
The Moravians established their community at Hopedale to convert the Inuit to Christianity. Their complex of buildings is the oldest wooden structure east of Quebec City.In large part, these buildings were brought from Europe prefabricated and were reassembled on their present site. Today they have been designated a National Historic Site.
As I come ashore, the presentation of the Mission is much the same as it was two hundred years ago. The church is still active. Now the connecting buildings house a museum and interpretative center full of artifacts and documents dating back to the 1700’s. Its white pews and immaculate floors speak of the care that it receives to this day.
Hopedale is smaller than Nain but similar, at least to my southern eye. I walk the streets where still more puppies with attitude seem to abound. Mounds of poles, traditionally used for the drying of fish, stand waiting. The land and sea melt together in a flurry of fall colours.
I head up to the Amos Comenius Memorial School along with the others from the ship. All grades are taught in this one facility. The road is gravel and is one of those that serves the village but doesn’t lead to the outside world. A small airport provides the fastest way to get to Goose Bay. The school is up a hill that offers a good view out over the water if one takes the time to turn around. Locals are moving to the school with us as a program of song and Inuit games will be provided for all of us in the auditorium.
It’s one of the special features of Adventure Canada trips that there are many opportunities for travelers to interact with people who live in remote communities. I find it is one of the best ways to increase my understanding of my country and its multiple dimensions. Connecting with people first hand builds understanding.
In the auditorium, the kids are pumped and get even more so as they interact with us. I show them my camera and with their permission and that of their teachers, they take pictures and I take pictures of them. Maybe they will remember the crazy lady that lay on the floor and took a shot as they huddled in a circle. It was fun!
They sang. The group clapped. Some of the older students played Inuit games that are simple but simply hard. I’m thinking that precision, agility and just plain skill are needed to hit a ball with ones foot when the ball is hanging several feet off the floor that you are actually laying on! It’s difficult to describe but trust me, it looks hard!
When the performance is over, I start down the hill to the harbour area but not before I look uphill in search of the joint US-Canadian airbase that is somewhere in the hills above town. It was abandoned in 1968 and only the non-military communication tower remains. The base was originally built as part of the Mid Canada Line, one of three systems (the others being the Pinetree and DEW Lines) that were intended to protect Canada and America during the cold war through early detection of incoming Soviet bombers. The station in Hopedale was the most easterly in the system. Now that the facility has been deactivated, the cleanup is underway. Here and across the north everything from damage to the tundra through the use of off road vehicles producing melting permafrost, depletion of fish stocks, agitation of caribou because of non-seasonal hunting and a general negative impact on the economy, has been blamed on the building and maintenance of the early warning systems. Cleanup takes years.
A new legislative building is also being built in Hopedale. This new assembly will sit in contrast to the Moravian Mission that dominates the landscape. It will have Labradorite* tiling and seal skin seating.
Back on board, I find I am coughing and blowing my nose like there is no tomorrow. I hear singing in the lounge but I just want my bunk.
My nose and eyes run all night, but, oh well, I was awake anyway as the seas were rougher as we headed in a more or less south easterly direction towards Hamilton Inlet and the town of Rigolet. In the morning, I take a mind over matter approach as I really don’t feel well. I help my roommate carry her luggage to the deck using for disembarking the vessel as she has to fly out from Rigolet. (Later we will lug it back to our cabin as the weather prevents her from leaving for Happy Valley).
I dress warmly and stuff my pockets with cough candies and Kleenex before heading for the Zodiac line up. In the rain, I make my way to the community center to listen to fiddle tunes, songs in Inuktitut, Greenlandic and English. Residents demonstrate basketry and other crafts. Feet fly and there is a sense of fun as the fiddlers lead with a reel. Coffee, bakeapple jam and bannock hit the spot before we have to head out in the rain.
Back in 1735, Rigolet was founded by a French Canadian fur trader, Louis Fornel. It remains an isolated community but it is accessible by a snowshoe trail and by water. In addition, there is a 4.4 kilometer board walk that connects it to Burnt Cove. It seems unreasonable that I would have missed this, but I did!
If I had felt better, and if the weather had been more inviting, there were lots of outdoor things to do in Rigolet from fishing and whale watching to berry picking or duck hunting. The Heritage Society has restored the 1876 net loft and a replica of Lord Strathcona’s home has been rebuilt. Strathcona was formerly known as Donald Smith when he came to work for the Hudson’s Bay Co. His home, dubbed “the grandest house in all Newfoundland”** is now a cultural interpretation center.
Sadly, there was no time nor did I have the will to walk this town and learn more of its story. As I remember it, the zodiac ride back to the ship was wet, cold and rough.
*Labradorite is a feldspar mineral, which is found near Nain. It is iridescent and has a range of colours form gray-brown to greenish blue.
The last few days have been pretty much devoid of people, if you don’t count the hundred or so on board the ship. Today we will visit Nain, the most northern, permanent settlement in Newfoundland and Labrador. Established in 1771 by Jans Haven and his missionary brothers, it is now a predominately Inuit community of just over a thousand people including some who were relocated from Hebron when that Mission was closed by the government in 1959.
In the early years, Nain was a trading post, a stopping off place for hunters, trappers and fishermen who used traditional seasonal migration routes. Moravian missionaries ran the store until it was taken over by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Nain is located 1573 miles from Ottawa and 370 k by air from Happy Valley. The sea is the highway. There is no road out or in.
Today, we slip through Strathcona Run, a fifty mile journey from the ocean, and weigh anchor on the north side of Unity Bay just off Nain. The climate here is very close to polar due to the impact of the Labrador current. This means lots of rain and lots of snow. Today, low lying clouds cloak the tops of the hills and creep through the valleys. I dig for my rain gear.
In 2005, as the result of the ratification of the Inuit Lands Claims Agreement Act, Nain became the administrative capital of the autonomous region of Nunatsiavut. This Act, gave limited self-rule to Northern Labrador and northeastern Quebec and granted land title and aboriginal rights. The Labrador Inuit Settlement deals with an area of 72,000 square kilometers. The Inuit do not own this vast expanse but they have special rights related to traditional land use. They do own 15,000 square kilometers.
I walk the village. It is small. Houses are of wood. Lots of things sit around cluttering the landscape but perhaps they are waiting for their turn to be useful again. One enterprising individual has used tail pipes to fence their yard. Another has the largest collection of license plates one can imagine for a town with no major roads.
I leave a happy band of puppies that have been following me and enter the church. It is immaculate, clearly cared for through the centuries by loving hands. I sit on the white wooden pews and think of all that has gone on here. I’m oh so tempted to ring the church bell as I leave.
The drizzle continues as our band of modern day want-to-be explorers heads for the school gym to compete with some of the residents in an indoor game of soccer. I wander past the post office and other government offices. To the newcomers eye, fishing and government services appear to be the main occupations.
I wish there was time to follow the paths and learn more about the vegetation. The landscape is rugged but at the same time draws me in. The tamarack outside the school are golden, and saturated by the rain.
As the game is winding down, I start out in a heavy downpour so I have time to circle past the cemetery on the way back to the shore. Old tombstones similar to those at Hebron dot the fenced graveyard. In the newer part, graves are cared for and decorated with colourful plastic bouquets. Gone but not forgotten. As I read the inscriptions, it is clear that life can be hard here and that too many have been lost too soon.
Back on board my 5:00 am wakeup to see the non-existent sunrise is beginning to wear on me. I decide to warm up with a shower and a change of clothes before supper. Some time later, after recovering from the fatal error of lying down on my bunk, I make my way to the dining room.
Before folks begin to disperse after a good meal, our expedition leader tells us that it looks like a hurricane is working its way towards Labrador. NOt great news as we head out to the open sea. Before bed, I put the clock ahead an hour and hang the rain gear so it will be ready for Hopedale in the morning. Then I pull the covers up high and will myself to fall asleep before we start to rock and roll.
( References: The Story of Labrador by Bill Romkey; Wikipedia;Thecanadianencyclopedia .ca)
This morning we continue in a southerly direction towards Hebron. The light on the landscape takes my breath away. The water is reflected on the underside of the clouds making them very dark. The light is magical and I’m told that in photographic terms there is only one F stop difference between noon and midnight at this time of the year.
We pass the automated Dew Line station at the entrance to Saglek Fiord as Jerry Koblenko, an adventurer, writer, film maker and motivational speaker regales us with stories of kayaking this rugged coastline. My adventure genes are working overtime as I try to take it all in.
One has to attend to things differently here. The currents bring the ice down this coast from the calving fields in Greenland. The bergs travel north from places like Disko Bay and move with the currents across Davis Strait and down its western side before they start a journey along the Labrador Coast that eventually returns them to the sea somewhere towards St John’s or beyond. On shore, rock acts like a heat sink and the plants that flourish there differ from those growing over ancient bones. Here the soil is rich because the nitrogen has been replenished. Would I ever think of that at home? Probably not. Travel heightens my awareness. I attend to the world in a different way. It makes me feel alive.
As we weigh anchor off Hebron, I wonder if the first Moravian missionaries who came here in 1831 were enlivened by their arrival at this shore. They would have endured dangerous crossings from Germany or England and I can only think that they knew little of this new land they were to call home. Although Nain, a town I will visit tomorrow, had been the site of their first settlement in 1770, their goal was to bring Christianity to the Inuit throughout the region. The beliefs of the Inuit were not the same as these German immigrants and the missionaries found it difficult to replace aspects of the aboriginal culture with Moravian Christian values. Drum dancing, traditional singing and practices like polygamy were soon prohibited.
Here at Hebron a school was established to teach reading, writing and arithmetic as well as providing religious education. Instruction was in Inuktitut. Gradually trading furs with the Inuit, placed religion in competition with commerce and placed the missionaries in competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Up until 1905, new missions continued to spring up along the coast. The final one was at Killinek, in northern Labrador. According to Bill Romkey in his book The Story of Labrador, Saglek and Nachvak had been chosen too, but the HBC got there first.
After lunch I board a zodiac for the short trip to shore. It is windy, sunny and exceptional as I wander the land, passing the Hudson Bay Company buildings and the large residential structure that also contained the school. All the buildings on this site are in a sad state of repair. The main building is undergoing renovations to protect it from further decay but time is winning at this point. Funding to protect and maintain this part of my heritage is only procured a year at a time from the Federal Government. At least for this year, hammers ring out and things are on the move.
I follow a path through yellow willow and low-lying blueberry bushes to a small creek that is fed by the melt from the hills. I cross using the boards that have been laid to form a bridge and climb towards the old cemetery.
As if life in this remote place would not have been hard enough, in 1918, Hebron was hit by a severe influenza epidemic. A hundred and fifty of the two hundred and twenty citizens died. As I stand by the dilapidated picket fence, amidst tombstones marked by time, I cannot help but think that this astounding place is not a bad one in which to spend eternity.
Turning back towards the landing, I feel my obligation to fill my plastic bag with blueberries. Instructions were given as we left the ship. “If you want blueberry pancakes or muffins, you had better bring back your share.” I do my duty in the spirit of the life of the missionaries and Inuit. Sharing was a necessity, not just a courtesy.
A 6 am start, to shower and fluff my hair, was pretty much a waste of time. Once I was out on deck, the gale force winds sweeping down from the mountains made quick work of my efforts, but I didn’t care. Travelling along this coast, taking in the cold, beautiful, pristine nature of the earth as it was unfolding in the early morning light, had my full attention.
I felt very small and very young!
Overnight we had travelled in a more or less southerly direction into the territory of Canada’s Torngat National Park. Its 9700 acres stretch from Cape Chidley at the northern extremity of Labrador to Saglek Fjord in the south. The name comes from the Inuktitut “ torngait” or “ place of spirits”. As we cautiously made are way up Nachvak Fjord in search of a landing, three polar bears meandered along the shore. The agenda changed. We now moved slowly through shallow waters in search of a polar bear free landing!
This rugged terrain was once the home of Inuit families who lived off the land and traded with the Hudson Bay Company.
In due time, the ship anchored and we disembarked by means of the zodiacs and landed on a narrow spit exposed by the low tide. I couldn’t help gawking around as I walked towards the shore. I found my own place high on the cliff side, surrounded by ground willow and masses of blueberries. There I sat, in a sea of browns and golds, twisted branches and tiny autumn leaves.
Too soon, I made my way back down to the shore and out to the ship where lunch awaited. As I ate, the ship repositioned to facilitate a second landing. There, a short hike up a rocky incline opened into an expansive valley.
I wandered and photographed. I gazed at the tent circles by the shore and wondered what it was like to live here. I imagined children playing.
A lone caribou, with an injured leg, entered the landscape and moved on. “This is his land”, I thought. I am the interloper.
The aroma of Labrador Tea hung in the air.
Soon only the sound of the wind remained.
I wake up to the call that there is an iceberg visible out our cabin window. My great roommate has the window cleaned of the night’s sea spray so I don’t even have to take on the 40k winds to get my one and only picture of these amazing monsters that calf in the high arctic and follow the currents south to prowl Canada’s eastern seaboard.
When I do step out on deck into the brisk one-degree air, I’m quick to realize that I am not yet acclimatized. Winds from the southeast bring sleet. The world is a uniform grey.
As we head south across Hudson Strait various staff begin an orientation to the north and life at sea.
Safety is first and after an abandon ship drill we learn the intricacies of safe entry and exit from zodiacs, the inflatable rubber boats made famous by Jacque Cousteau. Every foray from the ship is made using these boats. We practice the sailors’ grip and learn that “One hand for the ship” at all times, is another good rule of thumb regardless of the size of the seas.
Ajau Peters, dressed in an amauti, a traditional hooded garment worn by Inuit women, lights a soapstone lamp and welcomes us in Inuktituk.* These lamps were used for heat, light and cooking. Arctic cotton and willow are mixed with moss and used as a wick, a combination that is easily lit using a flint. As the flame moves across the stone it begins to look like little mountains on the horizon. I’m quickly learning that traditional life in the north was about being in tune with the land.
We pass Button Island and Cape Chidley and head for our first anchorage in preparation of a landing on Killiniq Island. The cliffs rise from the sea and the need to touch the land grows within me. How can stone be so beautiful and so inviting. This is where the Torngat Mountains begin.
I climb out the zodiac onto slippery rocks and trade my rubber boots for my hiking shoes. The terrain, is rough. The first traces of autumn color paint the land as low lying plants hug the ground to conserve energy to produce seeds not trunks. Flowers grow in cushions that absorb the heat and collect dust that builds the soil. Snow already fills the crevices. From a height, I look back at the sea and wonder at the miniature that is the Orlova.
At the end of the day, as always, I am amazed by the fact that Canada is so diverse and really, really big!
* Note: Photo of lighting of soapstone lamp from Pond Inlet.