In this original expedition, Team Outpost explores Torngat Mountains National Park, the ancient lands of northern Labrador, where the Inuit have trekked for thousands of years
Story and Photos by Sergio David Spadavecchia & Team Outpost, with Steve Usatis | for Outpost
From the moment our Twin Otter touches ground I am overwhelmingly excited to be here, almost at the top of Labrador. Adventure is often amplified by the distance and the effort it can take to arrive at it—and after road tripping for days to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, flying to Saglek Bay where the Zodiacs awaited, then plowing over rough Atlantic waves, it was beginning to feel like I was travelling to another planet.
I have come here on assignment for Outpost magazine to photograph the incredible topography of one of Canada’s newest national parks, all the while participating in an Inuit-guided exploratory trek. And what a park it is: carved out of the most northeastern parts of Labrador (up to its very tip!), it has been propelled onto the Canadian wilderness scene through a unique arrangement between three distinct governments.
So remote and untouched are the Torngat Mountains themselves—which also flow into the northeastern tip of Quebec—that the park guides who were to lead us over the next week carried firearms as effortlessly as people in the city do cellphones. “Bears,” was the calm and logical one-worded reply to my query about the weapons, as we secured the last of our possessions into the Zodiac. Up here bears are an ever-present and serious threat, as I would learn in the days ahead.
Almost as Old as the Earth Itself
The waves crash under our boat as we head from the airstrip to the park’s base camp, about 10 kilometres up the coast of the Labrador Sea. We pass through a channel dividing two rocky shores, and it’s as if we’re passing through a mythical doorway to a lost world devoid of anthropomorphic edifices and conveniences. Already it feels like there’s a singular focus to our existence—we’re here to trek—where not only clocks but the concept of time recedes into memory.
After all, these mountains are part of the mighty Arctic Cordillera, the only true mountain range on the Canadian east coast, and certainly one of the highest—and dare I say beautiful?—on North America’s whole eastern flank. So ancient and prodigious are the Torngats that it is said millions and millions of years ago they soared as high as the Himalayas, only to erode and plunge tectonically upwards and back again from the chaos in the Earth’s radioactive iron core.
There are rocks and minerals scattered across the Torngat landscape that geologists estimate to be more than 3.9 billion years old. To put that in perspective, it is thought they were formed only 600 million years after the Earth itself was created, and long before its atmosphere had begun to swell with oxygen.
They call Labrador “The Big Land,” and as we careen up the coast I can certainly see why. Up here especially, where we are above the treeline, the land feels relentlessly vast and insurmountable over the horizon—and in some ways it is: the park encompasses an astounding 9,700 square kilometres and extends from Saglek Fjord in the south to the top of northern Labrador, and from the Quebec border to the Labrador Sea.
Looking at a map you’ll see it is part of the great Labrador Peninsula, and is sculpted like a serrated knife that runs along Labrador’s coast to its very tip—somehow a fitting metaphor. The joy at being in such a pristine environment is tempered by caution and humility, an awareness of the indifference the land holds towards all the life that balances so delicately upon it.
The warm skies and brilliant sun dancing off the Torngat peaks elicit a feeling of calm and tranquility as I stare across the space; but the cold wind blowing off the Labrador Sea on the park’s eastern border is a sobering reminder of where I am. The moment I arrive at base camp I become immersed in the tempo of this ancient place, shedding my city skin, and embracing a reality that runs in stark contrast to the distracted, bombarded, rapid pace of what I know back home.
Torngat Base Camp
My first impression of Torngat base camp, other than the majesty that surrounds it, was of warmth and friendship embodied in the sincere embrace from the Inuit I meet who eschew formal handshakes in favour of hugs upon arrival. When you travel halfway around the world to get to a place (well no, I didn’t do that!), being so wonderfully welcomed by the folks who will be keeping you alive sure means a lot.
I soon meet the cast of characters who will be my hosts—Wayne Broomfield, a Nunatsiavut Inuit who is base camp manager, Gary Baikie, head of Visitor Experience and Product Development for Parks Canada, Eli Merkuratsuk and Andrew Andersen, who would be my guides on the Torngat trek, as well as the cafeteria staff and all the others who keep the camp hospitable. In addition to serving as the launching point into the park’s tundra, base camp acts as the location where rescue operations are launched, supplies are stocked and many a warm shower can be enjoyed.
Speaking of the cafeteria, the food is plentiful and delicious here, and I treat myself to many a fabulously-cooked meal. So hospitable is the place that it promotes an open door, drop-by-as-you-want-to policy; indeed, after our trek (am fast forwarding here), as we were holed up waiting for the weather to break to return home, I indulge my usually well controlled but slight obsession with anything and everything that is chocolate. But I digress.
Base camp is like a minimalist compromise between camping and civilization. A co-operative effort between governments it was established originally because of the remoteness of the park, the difficulty of getting here, and frankly surviving once you did. But the operation has evolved into a commercial venture that exclusively employs Inuit, is operated on a for-profit basis and works to assist adventurers with ambitions to travel or camp within the park.
As I quickly saw the cafeteria is really more a meeting ground, where visiting clientele can rub shoulders with schoolchildren and native elders. Nights are spent in small tents scattered across the grounds. Everything works in a coordinated and surprisingly efficient manner, considering the remoteness and a supply chain that is often disrupted by weather.
In case you’ve forgotten about the presence of polar bears here, the staff sure hasn’t. A three-metre-high, 10,000-volt electrified fence surrounds the perimeter of the camp and gets turned on every night to provide all of us, bear guards included, with a good night’s sleep. When I ask what type of protection the fence really affords, I’m informed that a polar bear was recently seen “engaging it for a few seconds,” after which the bear simply “disengaged and calmly walked away.”
As the day draws to a close and the sun mutes behind the surrounding mountaintops, I’m compelled to take a crisp walk down to Saglek Bay—the camp is perched on its shores—and am not disappointed. The late evening glow is stunning, and despite a full day of travel and work, I am energized and unable to sleep. I need to capture what I can with my lens, and so lose myself in the singularity of the moment, in the richness of the horizon’s red-blue-gold palette. A time-lapse may be in order.
One would have to be perpetually sleepwalking not to appreciate the almost spiritual aura of this part of the planet. The combination of vast mountain ridge-lines rippling over treeless valleys, where rocky fjords reach out to the cold Atlantic waters, evokes a strange but enlightening feeling of being both empty and fulfilled at once.
My travels have taken me to many a varied environment; as a photographer, I am a student of light and its interaction with the landscape, its ability to illuminate and refract what we call reality. Up here, there is something magic in the way the fog and clouds and ocean mist mingle with the mountain-scape, are compelled by the wind into becoming what feels like living organisms that caress everything. A product, no doubt, of the rare union between Arctic and sub-Arctic climates that intersect along the mountainous coast.
The window of warmth and sunlight in this hemisphere is narrowing, as the Earth once again turns from the sun and the annual campaign of winter’s encroachment comes faster each day. Perhaps it is the clash of summer and fall that is manifesting in the atmosphere here, making it seem unlike anywhere I have witnessed or been before. This is what we will be walking into at the beginning of our journey, tomorrow.
Coming Home, Land of Ancestors
Torngat Mountains National Park Base Camp & Research Station is not just about affording the outside world, and particularly southerners (we are all “southerners,” we non-north dwelling people), a chance to explore the almost mystic land that is northern Labrador. It also provides an opportunity for local Inuit to return to where their ancestors hunted and gathered for centuries, a place they call Nunatsiavut, a place they call home.
For thousands of years the northern Labrador Inuit have been here in one way or another. Numerous archaeological sites that have been unearthed show a long presence of human life—burial spots, stone fences, tent rings, even food reserves—dating as far back as 7,000 years ago. And so as equally as important to the team who operate the camp is the mandate to employ it as a centre to promote Inuit culture and history, to celebrate the relationship the Inuit have with the land’s complex ecosystem.
On December 1, 2005, the Torngat Mountains became a national park reserve when the Labrador Inuit (of Nunatsiavut) settled their land claims agreement with the Government of Canada. It became a full national park after the Inuit of Quebec (of Nunavik) also settled their claim, and today the two Inuit peoples share rights over the park.
Parks Canada spearheaded the establishment of the base camp, which now operates under the management of the Nunatsiavut Group of Companies. The idea was to build practical infrastructure that allows local people and travellers to experience this stunningly rugged land within the history and sensibilities of the local Inuit—who, it should be said, are quite distinct from the Inuit of the Arctic.
The presence of the park fosters an environment where the Inuit can generate business via eco-tourism, while still utilizing the land in the traditional ways of their ancestors. An informal education program has also been established for school-aged aboriginal children to come and learn these traditional ways. Gary Baikie tells me that many of the children are so energized by what they’ve experienced they’re becoming de facto ambassadors, proudly sharing the stories that they’ve learned of their ancestors and their culture.
Moreover, Inuit elders, who decades earlier had been forcibly relocated to the south, are being extended passage to visit their childhood homeland. Many of these elders still possess a deep spiritual connection to this land and its legacies, and to the gravesites that tell of their communities.
It is telling, too, that the name Torngat is derived from the Inuktitut word “Torngait,” meaning “place of spirits.”
Thus, through an act of extraordinary generosity by the Inuit themselves, what was once a large reserve was donated to create the national park, Canada’s 42nd, so that anyone who wants to learn about this great big land, and of the people who survived here for so long, can come and do so.
Each Trek Starts with a Single Step
I awake at 5:00 a.m. the next morning, not by alarm but by genuine compulsion to embrace as much of my time here as possible. I’m excited not only to see the land, but equally by the opportunity to travel across it in the company of my two exceptionally capable guides, Eli and Andrew, whose practical knowledge is surpassed only by their appreciation of Inuit culture and how this vast space has shaped its character.
Big and burly, with red hair and freckles, Andrew is one-half Australian and one-half Inuit—a pretty rare combination in these parts, and no doubt down under as well. While both are authorities on this environment, Eli in particular has a rock-star quality, and I admit I’m a little bedazzled: be it from the unmistakable level of respect all the guides extend to him, or the quiet competence he employs in everything he undertakes. If you’re travelling into one of the last true wildernesses left on Planet Earth, these are the type of guys you want with you.
It is five hours by longliner up the coast of northern Labrador from Saglek Bay to Ramah, which will be the starting point of our Torngat trek. Our crew is silent while the engine hums, the only human sound on a crisp, sunny morning, as we chug slowly towards where the calm surface of the channel meets open ocean. Carcasses of drying Arctic char hang from every available rope and line on the boat just in case we get hungry—never had it before, so I try it and am surprised at how candy-hard it is on the outside but like soft fish on the inside.
For centuries the abundance of this food has provided sustenance for all manner of wildlife and Inuit. It requires skill to cut and dry the fish, and legend has it that with experience one can actually cook it on a hot rock warmed by the sun. When done properly, as what I’m eating has been, it’s a staple that nobody on board can stop from nibbling.
About half way to our destination, Joe Webb of the long-liner crew suddenly nods to port side, and sure enough there are polar bears hanging out on the land near the shore. Wow! Their heads come straight up, and their eyes, even from this distance, seem to be focusing spot-on us. My first polar bear encounter and I’m electrified.
Eli tells me they are extremely alert and responsive to their surroundings, more so than most animals, a characteristic no doubt of evolving and surviving in a land so competitive for food sources. They are always sniffing around, he says, always looking at anything and everything going on around them.Labrador coast in search of sustenance, going as far south as the coastline of Newfoundland, something unheard of only a decade or so before.
In addition to being ancient, the Torngat region was a challenge for all life sharing the land. Being situated above the tree line rendered securing such human survival basics as fire and shelter a daily struggle, to say the least. All flora and fauna that have earned their place here, so to speak, are specialists—embedded most likely with unique characteristics, able to become masters that enable them to survive.
This is what feels so remarkable about the Labrador Inuit. They are the direct descendants of Neolithic collectives that likely crossed the Bering land bridge during the last ice age. Their travels ended here (think about that: they migrated all the way from Alaska to northern Labrador!), well before the pyramids had been erected in Egypt, when the Chinese were just learning to cultivate rice. Try getting your head around that.
Yet for the properly adapted, the land provided a bounty of resources to be exploited. The original source of Labrador Inuit livelihood was hunting bowhead whales and seals, and all the other treasures of the surrounding seas, especially the one to the east. They soon established an existence woven intimately with an environment shared with Arctic hare, lemmings and massive herds of caribou.
Counted with humans among the ranks of predators competing for energy-rich meats here were Arctic and red fox, grey wolf and several species of bear, including the black and the polar. Just like the one rambling along the banks of the Labrador Sea that seems to be staring straight at me.
Our Torngat Trek Begins
At 13:10 p.m., August 12th, at GPS location 58.858823/-63.295025, we begin our journey onto the treeless Torngat tundra. Adding expedition gravitas was how we would be helping to chart a new hiking route for future adventure visitors. “The park itself is so remote that there are only suggested trails, which are all inspired by traditional Inuit travel routes,” Gary tells us. In fact, the park is so massive that pretty much anyone travelling here could theoretically find ground that has never been trampled on by humans.
Before I take my first step across the land I reach down and grab a stone to remind me of the moment. Throughout human history our ancestors have appropriated similar totems, or symbols, to remind them of things that were important, be it a loved one, location or moment they never want to forget. But what is it that’s happening, exactly, when a nondescript object, an everyday thing, becomes transformed into something special—when unexpected meaning is gained?
It might not become more valuable, but for some reason you find yourself seeing that thing with different eyes. While entirely unremarkable on this landscape, quite suddenly that little stone in my hand felt unique, and over the days of our trek it was indeed transformed—maybe into a symbol of where I was, the journey I was embarking on. Out here these ancient stones hold many meanings, a lesson I would learn during an exhilarating episode near the end of our trek.
As we set off from the shore and begin our walk, soft grassy knolls and blue skies meld into an immense valley before us; bright wildflowers and thickets of willow and dwarf birch burst everywhere under a ring of jagged mountains. The child in me is half expecting (and hoping) to see a band of hobbits and elves somewhere ahead—I can’t help but be reminded of the evocative and mystical landscapes of Lord of the Rings (among my favourite movies) as we tramp along.
Wild blueberry bushes sprinkle the terrain, as plentiful as they are delicious and plump, and we soon develop an unspoken rhythm of walking and bending to grab a handful along the way. Infinitely more abundant, and frankly annoying, are the ubiquitous swarms of tiny bugs and buzzing irritants that seem to be everywhere, flying and following alongside us.
We’re travelling light, a little too light I soon realize, because it’s getting warm and we don’t have any drinking water. When I ask about this, Eli only points to the grassy slopes around us. At first I think I’ve missed something, but on closer inspection I see the terrain is networked by what seems to be millions of tiny streams, some as small as five centimeters wide, that run just above the surface but are sheltered from site by ground-cover.
At our first stop we need only crouch down to fill our bottles with this cold bounty—one that has travelled from the Torngat mountaintops, and will quench our hard-earned thirst.
I admit I was hesitant, accustomed to thinking it’s a necessity to purify untreated H2O when in the field. But Eli says here in the Torngats the water is of a calibre not matched by the most prestigious of bottled products (well no, he didn’t actually say that—more that it was just very drinkable!). So we assailed our thirst under a warm midday sun, with the long healthy grasses swaying around us, and I have to say it was cool and clear and delicious.
Night comes quickly after our full day walk. The lack of trees on the tundra makes finding a protected location for our camp especially critical. We secure our tents on a level plane nestled beside a long mountain slope that will serve as suitable protection from whatever winds may come.
The temperature plunges, a stillness envelops the valley, and silhouettes of distant rock faces quietly pointing to the stars emerge overhead. After a banquet of tea and lasagna-in-a-bag, I retreat into the warmth of my tent, with just those few metres of nylon and my own quiet thoughts the only barriers separating my slumber from the overwhelming vastness of the valley outside.
I Am Taavity
“Taavity,” Eli calls out, as the morning mists begin their upwards dance toward the sunlight peeking from the mountaintops. He’s addressing me in my given Inuit name, asking for help in securing our gear before we begin to walk. “Aaa?” I reply, a little shyly (I have been instructed to say “Aaa” when called to up here)—then set to assisting him.
The kettle is already on the flame and the scent of tea is wafting from Eli’s cup. Peanut butter, jam and bread under the cool morning light will serve as breakfast. Emerging from behind the mountaintops the sun is transformative, appearing almost to breathe life into the valley, and I need to get shooting.
The land, so severely pocked and scarred from the staggering violence of the ice age, exhibits so many different shades and textures as the day unfolds. Hundreds of tiny lakes and uneven land formations created by the retreat of ice sheets up to four kilometres high have left a brutal and spectacularly rugged mosaic of rock, flora and water in their wake.
As we move, the rhythmic grasses give way to a rugged terrain dominated by mudflats and big rocky boulders, which soon cover the landscape ahead. I am impressed with Eli’s stamina as our walking turns into hopping, from one rock to another, and he doesn’t slow down in the least. Throughout our trek both he and Andrew are focused on our surroundings, always searching for signs of other animal life, vigilant and aware, almost hyper alert, as when we spotted the polar bears on the way up—all the while appearing to take a simple summer stroll through a field of boulders!
Hopping said boulders for the better part of a day, we eventually arrive upon the shores of a lovely, ice-aged-carved hole filled with water—otherwise known as a lake. We throw up the tents, put the kettle on and wade out to the middle for a much needed bath, Torngat-style.
The entirety of our trek sees us cover a variety of terrain, and boulders and lakes are replaced by a system of large, cliff-like ridgelines that see us precariously skirting fragile and crumbling ledges. Steep bluffs of shale stone and other razor sharp plates compressed one upon another for millions of years only to dislodge so easily as we slip across them.
Our pace, led always by the relentless Eli, sees us covering between 10 to 15 kilometres a day under a panorama of scabrous mountaintops that patiently witness our labours across the flat land below. Along the way I was often reminded of a sentiment Gary had expressed to me back at base camp while we were studying maps and GPS locations. Unlike us, he said, “Eli just knows the land.”
I didn’t quite understand what he meant at the time, but watching him and Andrew move over the diverse and at-times rough topography, always knowing how to go forward and what patches to avoid, I now knew precisely. They possess abilities that can only be gained through knowledge and practice. Many cultures capture their traditions through painting and dance and scripture, and while the Inuit do much of the same—Eli has even erected a large Inuksuk here in the Torngats—it’s their mastery of this ever-changing environment on a never-changing landscape that speaks loudest of their ancestry.
Nearing the end of our six-day trek we summit a large mountain pass that had tempted us for so long on our horizon. Eli tells me that he use to hunt in this valley with his community when he was just a kid. After a successful kill, he would often carry an entire caribou carcass across his shoulders along this same ragged terrain that I was struggling to ascend. Slowly we plod upwards through a steep canyon, and as we approach the top Eli smiles and tells me to ready my camera.
Despite being surrounded by sheer rock walls, I’ve learned to get my camera out when Eli tells me, too. Torngat is a place where you keep your camera prepped—clouds and fog can roll in and out in a flash, making way for a spectacular shot. I approach the cliff’s edge and the enormity of the entire valley opens below. He’s brought me to an unobstructed vantage point atop glacial-carved fjords, and as I look down I see green mountains lined with endless streams of water feeding rivers that snake into the salty ocean beyond. We take more than a few moments to breathe this in, before a final push down a steep adjacent cliff, where we soon find the location of our last night in the mighty Torngats.
A Simple Stone’s Throw
Remember when I told you about the little stone and how it came to symbolize my time here? Well, on that final evening, I learned that stones and rocks can symbolize quite a lot of things up here in the Torngats.
After some tea and an early dinner, both Eli and Andrew embrace a well-earned early slumber, while I decide to milk as much out of my last night as possible. Close to our fire and still wearing my head mesh to protect me from the insects, I spot a dark blur moving through the bush line near our little camp. My fatigue, combined with the day’s end fog and shadows, makes me wonder if I’ve seen anything at all. But soon the bushes are moving again, now broadcasting some strange noises, and my senses are amplified to DEFCON 3.
Suddenly the big black shadow comes into focus, swaying slowly from left to right and lumbering right towards me. A healthy black bear, not charging but sniffing the air for food, and headed to what I think it thinks may be a source—hope that means he’s a bagged rice and mushrooms kind of guy. My mind spins—should I get my camera and snap a few, or call Andrew in the tent next to me…well, of course that’s what I do! I know that waking him means I probably won’t get the shot, photographically speaking; but valuing life, I figure it’s the soundest option.
“Hey Andrew, I think there’s a black bear close to the tent. Do you think I can get close enough to take a photo?” I ask rather hesitantly.
Like Superman leaping from a phone booth Andrew springs from his slumber, focused and alert and immediately spotting the source of my concern. And here’s where I learn a lesson not only of what a small stone on this big land can do, but about the tough, seasoned men who have been my guides.
Eli and Andrew are both hunters, extremely capable men who survive in part through an ability to take and protect life. But Andrew shows me more this night as he engages the bear not with violence but compassion. He could easily kill it; instead, he sprints into action and behaves as if that option is the furthest thing from his mind.
After an initial volley of bear-bangers that echo across the valley and fill the fjord with thunder, the bear pays no notice and lumbers ever closer. Andrew quickly prepares his rifle, one knee on the ground, shoulder tight, elbow down, the posture of a man prepared to kill. Only this isn’t his intention. A good marksman, he pinpoints to targets above and to the side of the bear, trying to dissuade it from approaching further.
Shots fire out, followed by small puffs of dirt exploding close to the bear, one after the other. All the guides carry live ammo here, and the bear has no idea how close to death he is treading. Eventually this succeeds in slowing the bear down but only so he can stand up, in all his rugged glory, and seemingly take real notice of us for the first time.
“Enough of this,” hisses Andrew, and I sadly assume his next shot will be aimed to kill. Instead, he places the rifle on the ground and reaches for some stones, then gets up and heads off directly towards the bear, screaming like his pants are on fire. Almost in flight he aims the stones and hits our new furry friend again and again with an accuracy that might have won him baseball’s Cy Young Award; until amazingly, the bear shakes his head with an almost puzzled-like gesture, and starts off in the opposite direction. Encounter averted.
I am exhilarated. I am stunned. I am astounded. My Aussie-Inuk friend, meanwhile, simply smiles and returns to his tent as if nothing happened.
And maybe that’s as good a place as any to end my story. Small rocks—possibly four billion years old—and the meaning they can have for all who travel across this wide-open land. For me, a souvenir of my experience in the Torngats. For geologists, a glimpse into this ancient planet’s past. For the bear and Andrew…well, who knows—maybe the options man and beast have when they unexpectedly cross paths. ♦
You Can Torgnat, Too | Planning Your Torngat Adventure
Torngat Mountains National Park Base Camp & Research Station is located on the shores of Saglek Bay on the coast of Labrador. It is a great gateway to any Torngat Park adventure, and if you use the camp as a starting point or base for your trip (though you don’t have to), you’re helping support the communities of the northern Inuit of Labrador. Amenities at the camp include (but aren’t limited to) overnight tents, a cafeteria, safety briefings and park orientation.
All travellers to Torngat Mountains National Park are required to register with park authorities. The best place to do so is in the town of Nain, Labrador, about 200 kilometres south of base camp. The park, at 9,700 square kilometres, is incredibly vast—and there are no roads, campgrounds or signs to direct you once in. With so much treeless tundra the winds are sharp, and finding shelter and keeping safe requires skill.
A few tour operators now offer guided trips into the park (such as Adventure Canada, one of the sponsors of Outpost’s Torngat expedition), though independent travel is allowed, as long as you register. Parks Canada suggests that independent travellers hire trained Inuit polar bear guards to accompany them. Trips offered vary in type, difficulty and length—from a few days to a week or more, to guided day hikes or cruises.
Torngat Things to Do
- Trekking in and around the Torngat Mountains, including multiday hikes.
- Camping. Parks Canada says you can pitch your tent anywhere, with the exception being on archaeological sites. As our story shows, always beware the bears!
- Day kayaking or cruising up the coastal waters of Labrador, as well as into the fjords and bays of the park itself. (Polar bears spend a lot of time in the water, so they’re also an issue for kayakers.)
- Fishing. Arctic char is native to the region, plentiful, and can actually be found within the rivers of the park itself.
- Mountain climbing, with challenging but scalable peaks. The highest is Mount Caubvick/D’Iberville at 1,652 metres (5,419 feet).
- Backcountry skiing definitely allowed.
- Sightseeing by plane or helicopter.
For more information on visiting base camp, log onto torngatbasecamp.com. Also see Torngat Mountains National Park. You can also call the Parks Canada office in Nain, Newfoundland and Labrador, at 888.922.1290. ♦