Torngat Mountains

Section front page story about travelling the wild coast of the Torngat Mountains, Northern Labrador with Inuit guides.

Bob lifts his rifle and scans the shore through the scope. Seeing nothing, he resumes snacking on the pitsik, dried arctic char, strung like laundry across the rear wheelhouse. From a speaker overhead, tinny music piped in from the forward cabin bears a cowboy twanging about life’s critical moments; “It’s where I drank my first beer. It’s where I found Jesus. Where I wrecked my first car. Tore it all to pieces.” As surreal as the surroundings still feel, the country tune isn’t that out of place on the deck of this working crab boat – the 53-foot longliner, What’s Happening – even if we are plying the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Hell, the song could be the anthem for our trip. A trip of unforgettable personal firsts.

Take the iceberg that we glide past. I barely give the mass of sea ice another look, as like my Inuit companions, I’m intent on scanning the jumbled shapes along the rocky coastline for tutuk, caribou. Although, I can clearly remember the excitement of seeing my first iceberg, as it happened only yesterday.  The sheer size and turquoise blue luminescence, added a dreamlike touch to a landscape that already felt difficult to grasp.

We had touched down on the heli pad in Sallik (Saglek) Bay a couple days ago, just outside the southern end of Torngat Mountains National Park. I was joining a special group from Parks Canada that was here to complete their summer of filmmaking across the country. To commemorate the 125th anniversary of Banff, our first national park and finishing in the Torngat Mountains, our newest.  We’d stood blinking at the ragged edge of Northern Labrador, just about at the northeastern-most tip of continental Canada. “Labrador, it’s like going to the moon,” said Ross Dicker, an Inuit contractor in camp, “The last frontier.”

As spectacularly raw and barren as it feels here, we’re in the homeland of the Labrador and Nunavik Inuit. The Torngat Mountains National Park is their gift to Canada. Torngait, as the Inuit know it, is home to the highest mountains west of the Rockies and the world’s largest caribou herd. A place with supernatural energy, it’s named after, Tungak, the most powerful spirit in Inuit mythology.

At 60 degrees north, we’re above the tree line, making it feel like a high alpine environment, right at sea level.  Low vegetation clings like tattered green velvet to some of the oldest rock on the planet, dated at close to 4 billion years. Willows sprawl over the rock like octopi road kill. The coastal islands tend toward hard, rounded mounds as if worn into submission by waves and wind but on the mainland the glacier-scoured land ramps up steeply to heights exceeding a kilometer.

Our base camp during our time here is Kangidluasuk.  Life at the end of this inlet is confined to a compound surrounded by a 10,000-volt electric fence. Polar bears – nunuk – loom large in our existence, even if by mid-week, there are still some in our group who haven’t actually seen one. (Those who do announce, “My first polar bear!”) From the moment we landed, Inuit polar bear monitors in high-viz vests surrounded us, rifles slung over their shoulders. Their figures on every distant horizon would become a fixture of the landscape during the rest of our stay.

One day on a speedboat outing we run parallel with a polar bear galloping along the water’s edge, a stone’s-throw away. “Close enough for you?” asked Bennett Barbour, one of our bear guards. “Unless you want to get us up on shore,” I’d said, joking. “Fuck that,” he’d spat through his moustache, as if I’d just suggested that he stick his hand in a garburetor.  The bears are Jaws on land and one wouldn’t suggest going for a dip with a Great White circling nearby. As it turns out, polar bears are also excellent swimmers.

On Joey Angnatok’s longliners though, we have little to worry about. And it was on his and Ches Webb’s boats that we’d spend most of our days. Gary Baike, the Park’s Visitor Experience Manager would lead us on excursions to many of the cultural sites in the area. Remnants of Inuit habitation from over the past 6 millennia. “There’s a relic among us,” he might say crouching over seemingly innocuous ground. Then he’ll point out a Ramah chert shard, a translucent quartz used to make razor-sharp implements, sitting within a tent ring. A pile of stones turns out to be a grave or a food cache and deep depressions in the earth, remnants of sod houses.

When we motor up a remote fjord that’s remarkable for its sinuous waterfalls and walls of sedimentary rock zig-zagging across the horizon, it turns out to be where the mother of one of our guides, Jako Merkeratsuk, was born. Another bear monitor, bear-like in size himself, Harry Haye, talks about fishing in the same spot as a child with his parents.

Perhaps nothing brings home how important the land is to the Labrador Inuit than the sad case of Hebron. One morning we visit the town Moravian missionaries had established in 1831.  When the mission was closed for financial reasons in 1959, the federal government took the opportunity to consolidate the population by dispersing all Inuit among communities to the south. Without ready access to their familiar hunting grounds, the Inuit became instantly impoverished, losing both their way of life and self-respect. Four generations of Gary’s family had lived in Hebron and he currently oversees the restoration of its Germanic main building.

The Inuit today can continue their traditional practices in the park. Which is exactly what we’re doing on today’s excursion. The camp needs more meat and the kitchen has ordered two caribou, some arctic char, and if possible, some seal. Even the vegetarians in our group have chosen to sample everything from dried caribou to fish eyes.  I get the opportunity to eat some of the most prized parts of a fresh seal, as we dress it out on shore. Its liver, brains, and the gelatinous liquid of its eyes. The liver doesn’t even make it back into the boat, as we all slice chunks of what’s like a very mild foie gras.  Surprisingly nothing tastes fishy, although my pants, jacket and camera still smell of seal fat a week later.

Tivi Etok, an Inuit artist now over 80 years old, recalls in a book that when he grew up, “To be a candidate for marriage a man had to be a competent hunter; a provider.”  Bringing home the bacon had a literal meaning back then. His important milestones in life, “My first fish,” “My first rifle,” “My first seal.” These milestones remain important among those we travel with today. Gary talks about his first ptarmigan, at age 8, which he gave to his grandmother as per tradition. His first seal at 10. His first caribou at 15.

This afternoon, I’m joining in my first caribou hunt. An incredible opportunity open to visitors of the region accompanied by Inuit. We follow Bob Harris, a bear monitor with tattoo polar bear tracks padding up his right arm, and our bright-eyed skipper, Joey, as they each harvest a caribou. Bob coaches me through dressing out the animal on the deck of the boat. He wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that I’m not married.  Joey’s brothers, Leo and John-Ross, eventually step in to do the fine work and strip the animal down like a Mercedes S-class in a chop shop. Every part of the animal will be used. The hide is saved. The hooves and ankles will be boiled for the tender muscle. The stomach lining will be hung to dry. Joey peels back the velvet from an antler and cuts slivers off the soft tips. It has the taste and texture of abalone. We carve out slices of filet mignon from the carcass and eat it raw.

Before I leave, there will be other firsts that I could croon about. But right now, the planes of sky and ocean have clamped together again and cloud rolls up the inlet toward us. “When it comes in, we can imagine that we’re anywhere in the world,” says Joey.  I, however, wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else but right here.

Audio:  Throat singing