SOUTH OF SAGLEK: A NUNATSIAVUT ADVENTURE

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 4:11
16 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 rockstrewn 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 glowstick bewildering the imagination, complicating
simple observation
the shadowcasting 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-zerorated 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 freque
ncy. 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 icefilled 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 aboutturn 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

Des Sullivan
Des Sullivan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Uncle Gnarley is hosted by Des Sullivan, of St. John's. He is a businessman engaged over three decades in real estate management and development companies and in retail. He is currently a Director of Dorset Investments Limited and Donovan Holdings Limited. During his early career he served as Executive Assistant to Premier's Frank D. Moores (1975-1979) and Brian Peckford (1979-1985). He also served as a Part-Time Board Member on the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB). Uncle Gnarley appears on the masthead representing serious and unambiguous positions on NL politics and public policy. Uncle Gnarley is a fiscal conservative possessing distinctly liberal values and a non-partisan persusasion. Those values and opinions underlie this writer's views on NL's politics, economy and society. Uncle Gnarley publishes Monday mornings and more often when events warrant.

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As much as anything else, it is also a simple love song to a people and to their place. It is deficient in the language of inclusion, yes, sexist by the standards of today, too, but only those who misunderstanding the language of respect ascribe to it offense whether to aboriginal, to gender, or to religious belief.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Well Uncle Gnarley, this is probably the best piece of writing I have had the great pleasure to read on your blog. You're still using too many commas, but there is some improvement on that score. Keep it up bro; a Giller Prize beckons.

  2. Cain has chosen well in who might follow him. You spend great effort killing the myths that might lead the good people of Newfoundland & Labrador astray. A beautiful adventure for you to share with us, a beautiful land, a wonderful man.

    • You say `stay up there and do everyone a favour`. I listen to Pete Soucey today on VOCM. He said the emails he is getting about the protesters of Muskrat Falls, it is nasty, toxic stuff, and he has thoughts of having the email address deleted or else collect the comments and compile it and let the world know. I have been impressed with Pete, as a sensible, reasonable, thoughtful Nflder, and well informed. Pete,The real person behind the Snook character. Sadly, what he suggests is that there is a high rate of racism and or bigotry in our Nfld population. Given that many of us have been isolated for centuries from other world cultures, it should not be surprising. Thankfully people like Pete and Des Sullivan help educate and inform and move us on the path to progress, open mindedness, and enlightenment. Ray Guy spent his life at this, and I would like to think he had some success. As to protesters at MF, it seems the government has blinked. Goes to show what a few people with courage can do.

  3. Fascinating capture. Well done sir. You have provided readers with a real portal to Labrador, the rewards of great off-the-beaten travel/adventures, an understanding of Labrador culture identity and an inspiring sense of place to those that call this place home… A pleasure to read.

  4. Of note , the Labrador people still struggle for respect and equality. Protests at Muskrat escalate. Surprised that the Telegram question today shows Nflders are equally split on whether or not they support the protesters, at about 50 percent of support. Frankly, that suggests considerable support. If Islanders really understood the culture and connection to the land and wildlife for Labrador people, the support would be even higher. Is Them Days required reading for our schools yet!

  5. For those who need to have the veil of anonymity lifted, what do you think it will gain you? I fully understand the slippery slope in the trade off between anonymity and accountability. However, is there anyone on this blog spouting morally reprehensible invective? The answer to this rhetorical question is no. And even if someone crosses the line, Uncle Gnarley has the power (which he has invoked on occasion) to remove the offending comment. So what does it gain those who prefer to restrict anonymity…the answer is simply that you wish to have your feeble and partisan curiosity satisfied. Well, that's the view of this anonymous person.

  6. Final result of the Tely question of whether you support the protesters at Muskrat Falls was 52 percent support them.
    When will we see protests on the island for expected power rates of 20 plus cents per kwh.
    Oh, and now a new Consumer advocate, an anti Muskrat guy! Good work Des, you nailed Tom Johnson some time ago.

  7. As of 10:30 PM today, Oct 21, the VOCM question of the day: Should Muskrat Falls project be halted until environmental concerns are addressed. The result : 64 percent says yes , 34 percent says no, 2 percent don`t know. 6300 people voted. Yesterday showed that the Telegram question showed 52 percent supported protesters. It suggests a rapidly growing swell of support for the protest. Today a security guard working at the Nalcor office on Torbay RD quit because he was instructed not to talk to the protesters and that Nalcor workers made fun of the protesters and those on hunger strike. Way to go Nalcor! World class!