In summer 2004, Nigel Foster and Kristin Nelson traveled to Kuujjuaq in the Inuit territory "Nunavik" with the plan to kayak to Labrador. What follows is a brief report of their journey.
The plan Our plan was to kayak from Kuujjuaq to Nain via the northern peninsula of Labrador. A trip of 675 miles, the only inhabited settlement we would pass is George River, a little way up the river of the same name that we would pass in the early days of our journey. We would pass many former summer camps and villages, for the Inuit have historically hunted and fished for subsistence along this coast during summer. Between the 1950's and the late 1970's the Canadian Government actively resettled these families into communities further south in an attempt to bring them into a wage-economy, so by 2004 we were unlikely to see anybody during the five weeks we allocated for the trip. We chose to be self-supporting, packing everything into two "Legend" sea kayaks. Everything that is except fresh water we would collect daily from streams or pools.
Our starting place, Kuujuaq, is marked as Fort Chimo on this map
Travel logistics We drove 4,000 miles from Seattle to Goose Bay Labrador via Norway Nordic in Montreal where we left some of our heavier baggage, flying back from Goose Bay to collect it on our way north. Norway Nordic kindly dropped our kayaks to air-freight to Kuujjuaq. Arriving at Kuujjuaq a helful airport official ferried us with our kayaks to the river. Our planned return travel plan on completing our paddle to Nain was to catch the coastal steamer south to our car at Goose Bay and to drive back home.
Kuujjuaq The largest town in the region, Kuujjuaq houses 2,200 people. Sited on the banks of the Koksoak River about thirty miles inland from Ungava Bay, it grew up near an early trading post and the newr American Crystal 1 base from the Second World War. Local people, especially Ida, Sara and Larry, were very helpful to us.
Ungava Bay The Koksoak River flows into Ungava Bay, the bay that forms the southern shore of Hudson Strait between the peninsula of Labrador to the east and the Ungava peninsula to the west. Tides in this bay are notable; at Leaf Bay about 30 miles northeast from the mouth of the Koksoak River, the tidal range equals or exceeds the range of the Bay of Fundy, certainly equaling the biggest tidal range recorded anywhere on earth.
The coast consists of low land with rock ledges and reefs extending offshore beneath shallow water. When the tide falls, these ledges become exposed, revealing mudflats and boulder-fields in between. In places the falling tide exposes ledges that run five miles out from the high tide shore. Translating this into kayaking reality, this necessitates some long detours at low tide to skirt the ledges, and some challenges finding places to camp above the reach of high tide.
While skirting ledges near the George River we met fishermen in aluminum skiffs, enjoying a break from Montreal to catch arctic char and salmon, camping at the nearby Inukshuk Lodge. We were invited to spend the night by the staff.
It was close to the mouth of George River that we first encountered polar bears. Two bears bounded down the rock toward our kayaks, watched for a minute or so, then headed away over the rock and out of sight. This was exactly how Kristin had wanted to see polar bears, from what seemed to be a safe distance with the bears wary of us, but this was possibly the least scary encounter of the whole trip.
Inuit Camp One grey day with fog and rain we kayaked through a gap the chart showed as deep water between and island and the mainland, to find more and more boulders poking their heads above the receding water. Soon our paddles scraped the muddy bottom and we slowed right down to avoid hitting rocks. Our channel was drying out, and soon the water drained away altogether leaving us stranded on a muddy slope. Looking up we saw a small group of people walking down the mud toward us. Up above the tide line were two white tents with vertical walls and pointed roofs. Two freighter canoes were hauled up near the tents. The Inuit who greeted us invited us to shelter in their tent to warm up out of the rain and have some tea. The tide was still falling, they said, and it would be some time before we would be able to leave.
Inside the steam-filled tent were an elderly couple, David and Suzie, with their young granddaughter, sitting around the warmth of a sheet steel woodstove. The chimney ran up through a hole in the canvas tent roof but smoke occasionally billowed from the stove when the wind gusted. Everyone else scrambled in after us to squat around the perimeter of the tent. Suzie had been unwell and wanted to revisit this favorite camping spot. They had stayed about a week. The second canoe was passing earlier in the day ad saw the tent. It was raining hard and the youngsters in the canoe wanted to get out of the rain, so they pulled ashore and set up their tent next to the other.
Neither Suzie nor David spoke English, only Inuktitut, so one of the other men translated. David had used a kayak for hunting on the Labrador coast when he was younger, until the government relocated everyone. His father had built him a succession of kayaks, five in all. He said things had been difficult for everyone since the relocation split their family up. They now lived in George River.
Suzie poured tea into enamel mugs and we warmed or hands while we talked, kneeling on narrow plywood boards on the ground. The tent was pinned down by a circle of boulders on the inside of the tent, which was propped up by a length of 2 by 4.
David told us a tale about the tide, how it takes time to come in, and how impatient one can get waiting. Then when it comes, he said, we always say "slow down! You come too fast!" He kept listening at the open door, occasionally sticking his head out into the mist to look. Finally he announced it was time for us to leave. One of the men offered us a duck to take with us to eat. The kayaks sat high and dry on the mud with the tide filling slowly from the west, but in moments the tide overflowed a barrier from the east and rushed down the slope, quickly floating them. Kristin sprinted down the toward them, falling headlong on the slippery mud a couple of times in her haste. She waded out waist-deep to catch them as they drifted away.
An Ungava Bay tent site, with a good open view of surrounding land and water in case of polar bears, a flat place for the tent and shelter, and fine scenery!
"Bear Be Gone!" Ten days into our trip, we paddled into sheltered water amongst a group of rocky islets. I was looking for a place to pee. Hidden from the choppy water was a narrow dead-end of a channel, scarcely wider than my kayak; the perfect dock! I drifted to the end and climbed out onto the sloping rock. Kristin had come in behind me but content to stay in her kayak, suggested I left my kayak floating where it was. I climbed higher up the undulating rock and stretched. The last ice-age had covered this whole region in an ice sheet that had ground the rock smooth. Now as I looked down I could see the bands and striations patterning the rock in pink, green-grey and black, polished like the growth rings in a slice of tree.
My eyes casually traced the sinuous folds of a single threadlike band of dark rock as it meandered between clusters of bright crystals that sparkled in the sunlight. Suddenly I spotted a movement, a patch of ivory-white fur had appeared above the rock about 60 feet away. In moments the polar bear was in full view, head held low, striding purposefully toward me. In long easy strides it approached quickly, its fur swinging heavily around its long legs and huge body.
I grabbed my pfd and sprayskirt and turned away. Anxious not to provoke a charge, I walked steadily toward my kayak, calling out "Kristin! Back off into deep water! Now!" "Now!" She looked over her stern to see me approaching with the bear only yards behind me. As she attempted to reverse from the slot, I reached my own kayak and slid into the cockpit.
The water level was falling. Mid-tide it would fall 2 inches every minute in this area of huge tidal exchange. Kristin's kayak was already aground. Again I urged her to get away. She pushed hard against the rock with both hands but her kayak was too heavily laden for her to push over the obstacle. "Nigel! I'm stuck! Should I get out?" I got out of my kayak and popped open my day-hatch to grab my flare gun.
The bear stopped when it reached the stern of Kristin's kayak. Its huge head extended toward her. It was close enough to reach her with its forepaw, so it was unlikely she would be able to escape to open water. I tried to control my fear and focus on loading the flare gun. Fumbling, I broke open the barrel and inserted a red cartridge.
I snapped the barrel shut and cocked the firing pin. I aimed vaguely to one side of the huge animal, hoping to shoot close enough to startle it but anxious not to hit it. A flare gun is not meant to be an accurate firearm, and I was worried that if I hit the bear it might provoke an attack. I squeezed the trigger. "Poof!" The flare rushed past the bear and bounced off the rock. IN the brightness of day the ball of incandescence seemed as insignificant as the muffled report of the gun. Yet it was enough to surprise the bear. It bounded a few yards from us up the rock.
Kristin climbed out of her kayak. By the time I'd broken open the flare gun and pulled out the spent cartridge case, the bear was back, standing next to us. I loaded another flare. Kristin tried to slide her kayak, but stopped when the bear craned its neck to sniff at the dry-bag strapped to her rear deck. The deck bag contained vacuum-packed freeze-dried food. Even if the bags were airtight, I knew we had probably transferred all kinds of scents to it from out hands.
Polar bears are known to have the keenest sense of smell of any mammal and have been known to pick up the scent of a seal from a distance of more than five miles and to track it down. Kristin stood by her front hatch. I aimed at the rock beside the bear and set off the second flare. The huge white head turned and it sniffed the rock where the flare had hit, before turning its attention onto Kristin. This time the flare had done little to distract the bear.
Kristin stood beside her kayak and looked up at the bear. "Bear! Bear! Be Gone!" she commanded loudly and firmly. It struck me as an odd thing to say, almost funny. "Go away!" might have made more sense, but here was this slender woman looking up at a creature the size of a car, speaking in what sounded like Old English. "Bear-Be-Gone!" she demanded again, enunciating each word slowly and deliberately as if she were trying to sell a new brand of pest repellent or stain remover. Her choice of words seemed absurd, but I was relieved that she was calmly facing up to this bear instead of screaming or running away, either of which could encourage an attack.
There was something very humbling to stand face to face with a polar bear. It was majestic, curious, fearless, and hopefully not hungry...
(photo from Nicolai, Denmark)
The bear stood facing her just feet away, its mouth hanging slightly open. Its head was as broad as Kristin's shoulders. I was ready to fire my next flare. I had decided to shoot straight at the bear if it attacked, but I wasn't sure if a direct hit would deter the bear or enrage it. The bear shuffled on its four huge paws. I fired again, just off to the side. The whoosh of the red fireball flying close past the bear didn't get so much as a sideways glance. The bear continued to study Kristin. A polar bear can pounce 20 feet from standing, and this one was less than 10 feet from us. "Bear be Gone!" Kristin insisted. The bear looked at me, looked back at her, then half turned, shuffled its huge paws and wandered a few paces up the rock away from us.
Kristin instantly dragged her kayak backward until it was afloat and with a single fluid movement was in the cockpit and backing toward open water. The bear turned. I hauled my kayak across the rocks to the water as the bear began hurrying toward me. I tumbled in the cockpit, my pfd and spray skirt on my lap, and started to push back. In a few steps the bear reached the waters edge, extended its head forward and fixed its stare on me, but Kristin and I were already a few yards from shore, paddling vigorously away.
Free from the narrow confines of the narrow slot where we had landed, we were now had to exit the channel between the islets to reach the open water beyond. I paddled close to Kristin. The bear ambled over the rock, matching our pace with ease. Even steep cliff-like rock faces didn't slow it down. It was elegeant and graceful and seemed to gather momentum like a ball rolling down a hill.
When we paddled clear of the island and reached open water, the bear paused and stood watching us. It walked a few more yards, lifted its head to sniff the air, then walked headfirst into the water and submerged. The white shape of the bears head appeared, pushing across the surface toward us then vanished again. Polar bears can stay under water for as long as two minutes and swim at a steady six knots, so if this bear wanted to catch up with us, it was certainly capable of doing so. We hurried away and didn't relax out paddling pace for a couple of hours.
Killinek Back in 1981 I had reached Killinek once before when I kayaked solo from Iqaluit on Baffin Island, south across the stepping stones of Lower Savage Islands, Resolution Island, across Hudson Strait to the Button Islands, and then over Gray Strait to Killinek Island. That's another story, part of which is published in Raging Rivers Stormy Seas. It was a special moment to reach that place again. There at what used to be called Port Burwell are the remains of the last village to be relocated by the government, as recently as 1979. There are still communication towers here so maintenance crews visit from time to time, but most of the buildings are in decay, rotting into the ground.
The excellent lightweight "Go-Lite" tent we used as a shelter, changing room and kitchen, in action on Killinek Island.
McLelan Strait This swift tideway runs through the northern extremity of the Torngat Mountains to separate Killinek Island from the mainland. Here is the transition from the low-lying ledges of Ungava Bay to the precipitous mountains of Labrador that rise from the coast to more than 5,000 feet. We paddled through the Strait, somewhat uncharacteristically against the tide, having changed our minds about camping at an ancient Inuit village site. At the last moment we had spotted a bear crouching in wait as we neared shore by the historic site. This bear swam after us for some distance until we reached another bear on the opposite shore, when it veered away. We approached a third bear later that day, mistaking it for a duck as it floated with its head just breaking the calm surface.
As tendrils of fog creep into McLelan Strait, we set up the "Go-Lite" shelter ready for the night on a small island on the Labrador side of the peninsula.
The Torngat Coast The Torngat Mountains are named after the Inuit spirits of legend. Torngarsoak, the "Great Spirit", is said to take the form of a huge polar bear. He controls the sea, and all the sea creatures, while his wife Suporuksoak, the "Great Wind", has power over the land and all its creatures. Giant caribou guard their cave in the mountains. Perhaps it is no coincidence that polar bears are common along this coast as they migrate north during the summer following the melting of the sea ice, or that strong winds funnel through the mountain passes to rip along the fjords with little warning. The massive George River caribou herd scatters across the area in summer, often standing in shallows of the sea to escape the ravages of biting flies, and to keep cool.
The larger part of this remote mountain range, (more accurately of the eastern, Labrador side, for the western side lies in Quebec,) is slated to become a Canadian National Park as part of a land settlement with the Inuit. The landscape we passed was streaked with snow and fog while icebergs slowlydrifted south on the Labrador current past the massive capes and across the fjords. We spotted evidence of earlier habitations; circles of stones used to hold down tents, fragments of transparent chert used for tool-making, catches and Inuit graves.
At Ramah the earth banks that made up the walls of Inuit winter sod-houses stood overgrown in a sea of tall marram grass, while caribou grazed the flower-speckled meadow inland. A waterfall pitched out seaward from a low cliff onto the beach.
Saglek Saglek Fjord marks the southern border of the Torngat Mountains, and what will be National Park. It is one of the deepst fjords, rich in resources utilized by present day Inuit and their predecessors. In 1942 a B26 Marauder bomber ran out of fuel on its way home via Greenland and crash-landed in the saddle here behind Cape Uivak, the cliff that marks the southern entrance of the fjord. the surviving team survived almost 2 months of winter here before finally dying of starvation and cold. Later the military laid an airstrip here and built a series of early-warning radar installations on Cape Uivak.
Temporary buildings at Saglek during PCB clean-up
Climbing the hill toward the site we discovered a team of 32 people finishing a project to clear the old military site of PCB's. We happily accepted the kind offer of a shower, food and a room for the night in the temporary accommodation that had been shipped in. The project has since been completed, and the buildings and equipment together with tons of contaminated soil has been shipped away.
B26 wreckage, 2004, Saglek
Hebron Archaeologists suggest this area of Labrador has long been important to resident cultures, close to the northernmost available trees and rich in wildlife valued as food. More recently Moravian missionaries, active in Labrador since the 1700's, built a mission here and later the Hudson's Bay Company operated a trading post. The population was relocated in 1959 against their wishes by the government. The community was divided up and sent to several different settlements further south. Since then the mission building has been designated a Heritage site. This year, 2004, a working party of eight men were busy restoring the roof.
Moravian Mission at Hebron under restoration
Kaumajet Mountains The "Shining Mountains" rise as spectacular cliffs from the water, visible and distinct even from a great distance. Sem, one of the Hebron working party, suggested we should paddle into Cod Bag Harbor to an Inuit portage and camping place. The route funnels inward between steep high cliffs to a narrow beach. Inuit graves and tent circles spread across the neck of low land while mountains overlooked from all sides.
Cod Bag Harbor
Okak Islands A relatively large Inuit population once lived throughout Okak Bay area. The Moravians established a mission and trading post at Okak, but at the end of the First World War, in 19189, the mission supply ship Harmony brought Spanish influenza which decimated the population. Two hundred died from a population of 253, leaving no adult male native alive. Nutak subsequently grew up beside the channel that divides Okak Islands. In 1948, in an attempt to resolve the problems of unprofitable trading posts, closed the post at Davis Inlet further south in Labrador and shipped the resident population of Innu (Montagnais and Nascapi Indians) to Nutak. Dropped off with tents, food and clothes in an unfamiliar area, the group eventually walked back to Davis Inlet. The remaining Okak Bay population of Inuit were ultimately "relocated" by the government in 1956 to settlements further south. Used to a subsistence hunting economy with seasonal migration, the population fared poorly in the new surroundings, where the unfamiliar forest and larger populations already relying on local resources, offered few hunting opportunities for them. We were held up by squalls that roared like trains between the islands.
Kiglapait Mountains The Kiglapait or "Sawtooth" mountainspresented us with our last mountain obstacle before reaching Nain. Accompanied by Minke whales for much of the day we finally rounded a finger of land dodging boomers to enter the calm of Medusa Bay, and made for "Village Cove" at the northern end of Port Manvers Run. Here we met Jim and Helena, owners of a tidy cabin above the beach. They were taking a weekend break from Nain to hunt and fish and to enjoy some peace at their cabin. They kindly invited us to stay and we feasted on arctic char they caught. We slept in our tent but were woken in the night to watch the northern lights.
Jim and Helena outside their cabin
When relatives of Helena visited in the morning, we learned more,
first hand, about what the re-settlement schemes enforced by the
government in the 20th Century meant to the people who were moved.
Currently negotiations are in progress to offer the Inuit part of
their territory and original rights back. If you first take
everything, then a little returned might seem like a lot!
Loading our kayaks on the narrow beach at high tide, we heard
Helena calling. “Nigel’ Kristin! There’s a polar bear swimming
toward you!” When we turned and walked back to the cabin, the bear
could tell it had been spotted. It swam along the shore and
vanished behind the rocks.
Morning light, Port Manvers Run
Kayaking the “inland passage” between South Aulatsivik Island and
the mainland was a mix of incredibly calm cruising and very windy
early September weather. We sheltered at the edge of the forest
and feasted on mussels, wild mushrooms and berries while the wind
howled, and finally slipped quietly into Nain. Sixteen encounters with polar bears, (all ending happily) left us jumpy and watchful... it took a long time to really relax again!
Truly the calm before the storm...
Kristin tending "blueberry sludge" and boletus soup over a fire on the beach.
Our two Legends sparkling with frost, and mountains coated with fresh snow told us it was time to head for home.
Skinnier and hungry, but happy together.
Our 2004 route from Kuujuaq, Quebec, to Nain, Labrador.
The return home
The weekly service in summer of the ship Northern Ranger links the
settlements as the northernmost, Nain, with Happy Valley Goose Bay,
where we had left our car. The boat journey itself is worth taking
if you take advantage of the opportunity to explore on land
whenever the ship docks.
A Legend being lowered to the dock in Happy Valley Goose Bay; a peaceful scene compared to the chaotic dock at Nain where they were loaded on board!
Nowadays the highway cuts across Labrador, linking Goose Bay to
Churchill Falls, Labrador City and Wabush, and continues through
Quebec onto hardtop roads. However a road from southern Labrador
is being pushed through to link the coastal settlements in
southern Labrador, and will eventually reach Goose Bay, offering a
full circuit around southern Labrador by road. We completed our
trip with 4,000 miles of driving back to Seattle, Washington.
Nigel and Kristin do offer slide presentations about this and other trips. Please contact them if you are interested to hear them speak.