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(2012 - Spring Issue)

Writer: and Photography, MICHELLE VALBERG

The Clipper Adventurer crept slowly around the point towards Nachvak Fjord in Labrador.

Standing on deck in the still northern silence, I waited. And waited. Nothing seemed to move, except the ripples of our wake. And then, as the clouds suddenly peeled away to reveal the faint glow of sunrise, it happened.

I can’t remember what I did first—gasp in astonishment or automatically pick up my camera. Either way, the effect of seeing the looming, ancient majesty of Labrador’s Torngat Mountains took my breath away.

Raw Beauty

And I never fully got it back. For 10 days as we journeyed by water from Iqaluit to Labrador and on to St. John’s, Newfoundland with Adventure Canada, we travelled gape-mouthed at the spectacle Labrador offered, each day blending into the other, punctuated only by meals, sleep and more kilometres under our stern.

Travelling in the north is like that—the horizon is so vast and so raw in its beauty, you can never really escape its magnetism, even after you’ve left.

That morning, as the Clipper Adventurer drew closer to our landing spot where we would go ashore to explore, walk along cliffs and amble along the beach, I took photo after photo: the magnificence of the Torngat Mountains, which cover more than 30,000 square kilometres, the light on the water as it burst through the clouds, the sun doing its magic dance on the peaks. Because the vista is so huge—so much wider than the human eye can process—the brilliance of the moment lingers on and on.

The trip through the Torngat Mountains National Park, along the coast of Nunatsiavut (“our beautiful land”), brought us past waterfalls, arctic wildlife, the deceptively lush tundra, rugged coastlines rising out of the sea and ancient burial grounds. From Nain, Labrador’s northernmost community, to Rigolet, we followed fjords and landed on terrain so remote and fierce, I marvelled that the Inuit ever survived, much less thrived there.

Exploring Killiniq Island

Killiniq Island was our first landfall—the unique convergence of Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut. Our ship’s knowledgeable crew, which included a geologist, archaeologist and Inuit who shed light on the history and culture of Canada’s north, readied Zodiacs that would take us to shore. Some days, that was easier than others: This is the north, after all, and the north can be a fickle place for weather. But first, our Inuit guides would scramble up the rocky coastline, firearms on their shoulders, scanning the horizon for curious polar bears.

Once ashore, the smell hits you first—that unmistakable fragrant ether of bog-dwelling Labrador tea (called tilaaqiaqin Inupiaq), whose pungency is so enticing, it can make you dizzy if you drink it in for too long. Used by the locals to treat everything from colds to lethargy and once to even make an herbal beer called Gruit, it’s now also being harvested as an anti-aging tonic. Scrambling over frozen streams to an unnamed ridge at the back of an unnamed valley, I was reminded of what had propelled me to be there: uninhabitable by any except passing bears and seals and known as the most difficult national park to reach in Canada, it is inaccessible to humans except by boat or, on a good day, a charter flight. Few had stood where I stood. The knowledge thrilled me.

Even so, there was evidence of human life. The Dorset and Thule people once roamed these hills, surviving by relying purely on their ingenuity and nature’s fickle bounty. At Nachvak Fjord, we found bird blinds and meat caches left by Inuit hunters; at Saglek Bay, military installations sit as silent watchers. But most compelling of all is the abandoned Moravian mission at Hebron.

Once a thriving community, it had been established in 1831 by the Moravian missionaries. But then, one Easter Sunday in April 1959, they suddenly announced that they were immediately leaving Labrador. Their reasons were sound enough. They’d been sent there in 1771 with the purpose of evangelising amongst the Inuit, but the rigours of northern life, diminishing financial resources and the emigration of the native population out of the area meant their flock was disappearing. The decision led to complete disarray for those left behind, who one by one abandoned their homes and whose children were placed in residential schools.

Set against the astonishingly beautiful landscape at Hebron, the skeletons of their homes were being reabsorbed back into nature, although carpenters were working hard to save the main building. As I walked through the settlement, now carpeted thickly with blueberries, partridgeberries and crowberries, I literally stumbled across an old graveyard. I don’t typically photograph tombstones, but I did that day, wondering who these people were, how they lived here. There’s a strangely comforting presence about Hebron, as if those people are there still, tied to the land and happy to stay. As I stood amongst the stones, it occurred to me that if Torngarsuak or the Inuit Great Spirit lived there (the mountains’ name comes from the Inuk word torngait or place of spirits), so too might others.

As it happened, those who lived and died in Hebron live amongst us still. After I returned to Ottawa, a friend introduced me to an Inuk woman whose grandmother and father lived in Hebron until it was disbanded. I asked her name and when I got home, I reviewed the photos I’d taken in the graveyard. There, amongst them, was her grandmother’s tombstone.

Memories Linger

The further south we travelled, past Hopedale and its Moravian mission and on to Rigolet, the landscape grew less wild and the communities more populated. The Inuit communities in Labrador are like anywhere else in the north. They open their doors to visitors—it’s always a celebration and very welcoming. Everywhere the Clipper Adventurer went with its 100 Adventure Canada passengers, communities like Conche baked bannock, displayed their culture and shared their stories.

Of course, no trip to Labrador would be complete without a stop at L’Anse aux Meadows, the UNESCO World Heritage Site where Vikings first made landfall in Canada. Although unlike the astonishing landscape I’d seen further north, the site (now occupied by archaeologists excavating for signs of aboriginal inhabitation) was another poignant reminder that, in the north at least, people are visitors. I wandered through the grass-covered mounds, which are all that remain centuries later of the adventurous Norsemen who huddled through the bitter Canadian winter before searching for more hospitable lands.

As I stood there, witnessing nature take back its own, a thought occurred to me. In the north, we never really leave a lasting mark on the land. But it leaves a lasting mark on us.   

Travel Planner

For more information on touring expeditions offered by Adventure Canada to Labrador and Newfoundland, visit:

Adventure Canada: adventurecanada.com

Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism: newfoundlandlabrador.com

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