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.
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.
We made a pact. If anyone saw the Northern Lights, they would awaken the rest of the group.
“Liz…Liz…get up. You have to see this.” The voice outside my tent was insistent.
I slid out of my bed and stuffed my feet into the frozen boots beside my bed.
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 flicked on my headlight and snarled at my buddy Mike.
“What am I supposed to be looking at?”
“That,” said Mike, pointing into the darkness.
Less than a meter beyond the electrified fence that surrounded the camp, just beyond the back wall of my tent, was a massive black bear, rooting around in a low-growing blueberry patch. My headlamp glinted off his tiny eyes and he snorted in disgust; clearly, I wasn’t a blueberry.
Mesmerized by his size, his chewing, and his mind-blowing closeness, we froze.
Then Mike asked quietly, “How much would it really bother a bear to come through that electric fence?”
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.
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.
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.
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 – chuckling char-ishly I’m sure.
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.
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.
If You Go
The Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station is reached by flying first to Goose Bay, then to Nain and finally to a landing strip where the Base Camp boat meets you to transport you the rest of the way.
Package prices are available that include charter transportation from Goose Bay to Base Camp, accommodations and all meals. www.pc.gc.ca thetorngats.com/plan-your-trip/base-camp-packages