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Land of the Water Bear: The Torngat Mountains National Park (written in 2007)
Inuit mythology tells of the “Torngait”, the spirits that a Shaman or spiritual leader looks to for wisdom and power. “Torngat” comes from this Inuit name and the legends which hold that in this region the spirit world overlaps our own. White people have called this area the Ghost Coast and have commented how the sounds of the winds whistling through the rugged mountains bring forth the feeling that one is in another realm. If the earth is home to ancient spirits they would seek out this land where the rocks are among the oldest on the planet and the landforms hold an otherworldly appearance. Perhaps this truly is a place of spirits.
The Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve is the new name for this ancient place. It is the northern portion of the Inuit homeland of Nunatsiavut, located in northern Labrador. (“Nunatsiavut” means “Our beautiful land” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.) The park reserve encompasses roughly 10,000 square kilometers and extends from the deep waters of Saglek Fjord in the south, to the very northern tip of Labrador; and from the boundary with Quebec in the west, to the waters of the Labrador Sea in the east.
The park protects an area of spectacular Arctic wilderness, with towering mountains, breathtaking fjords, gentle river valleys and rugged coastal landscapes. This wilderness has been home to a diversity of arctic wildlife and to the Inuit and their ancestors for thousands of years. It includes dramatic Nachvak Fjord, which lies near the centre of the park, formed by a glacier cutting through the Torngat Mountains as it flowed to the sea during the last ice age. The Torngats also feature the highest peaks in continental eastern North America, and are dotted by many small glaciers.
The park includes much of the range of the small Torngat Mountains caribou herd, as well as a portion of the world’s largest caribou herd, the George River herd. A unique population of tundra-dwelling black bears also calls this region home. The Northern Labrador coast is the only region in the world where black bears occupy treeless tundra. The growing season in the north is short, making food scarce. As a result these northern black bears, unlike their southern cousins, require enormous amounts of land to search for food. These bears are also known to have the longest recorded annual denning periods, over 200 days for some adult female bears. Due to the short season and the challenges of carrying cubs, the sows (females) along this coast are the world’s smallest black bears.
The Inuit distinguish between the two varieties of bear in the region based on their feeding areas. Polar bears are “water bears” while black bears, who can also be seen along the coast, are bears of the land who do their best to avoid their larger, predatory cousins.
Wolves and arctic fox also live here, and the plentiful bird life includes the peregrine falcon and golden eagle. The eastern Harlequin duck, listed as an endangered species less than 10 years ago, nests along a number of the rivers running into the Labrador Sea giving the Park a key role in the effort to restore numbers of this handsome, curious duck. The ornate blue and white colours of the males resulted in Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to the south calling male harlequins “Lords” and the females “Ladies” whenever they were seen on the ocean.
The human history of the park is rich and ancient. Within the park there are hundreds of archaeological sites including tent rings, stone caribou fences, caches, and ancient graves, all of which tell the story of the peoples and cultures, particularly the Inuit, who have made this special landscape their home.
South of Nachvak Fjord is Ramah Bay, home to a unique translucent stone called Ramah chert. This mineral holds an edge that is sharper than surgical steel. It was so prized by the ancient peoples of Labrador that prior to contact with the Europeans, some used this mineral almost exclusively in their arrows and blades. Ramah chert was so useful as a hunting tool that over the generations and centuries before Europeans it was traded or carried as far south as Maine and Vermont, and as far west as Montreal.
The Norse describe northern Labrador in their sagas or oral history, but the first Europeans to settle in Northern Labrador were Moravian missionaries. Encouraged by the Newfoundland governor, the Moravians (who formerly worked among the Inuit in Greenland and knew the native language) came to Labrador in the late part of the 18th century to bring Christianity to the Inuit and to stop some of the violent interactions between the various peoples who were exploiting the coast. Mission stations and settlements were created at several sites along the Labrador coast including Hebron, Killinek, Okak, Ramah and Zoar. Some of these communities survive into the present including Nain, Hopedale and Makkovik. Nain is the largest community on the north coast, with over 1,000 people. It is the staging point for the huge nickel development around Voisey’s Bay to the south. Nain was established as the first Moravian mission station in Labrador in 1771.
The Moravians initially discouraged other persons of European origins from living in the region. After 1815, however, a few trappers and traders from southern Labrador began to occupy and settle the bays and islands around these northern mission stations. Some of these pioneers were the offspring of mixed European-Inuit families descended on the male side from former employees of English firms. Most of the Europeans, however, were relative newcomers who arrived in Labrador with the Hudson ‘s Bay Company or with the migratory fishery from Newfoundland. By the mid-19th century, northern Labrador had a European population, descended from French Canadian, Norwegian, Scots, Irish, Welsh, English and Newfoundlanders. Almost all these families, locally known as settlers (to distinguish them from aboriginal peoples), descended from Inuit women and their foreign mates. Today these people of mixed Inuit ancestry are referred to as Kablunangajuit, which translated means “partly white man”. Approximately 7,000 people, primarily Inuit and Kablunangajuit, reside along the northern Labrador coast, primarily in the communities of Nain, Hopedale, Postville, Makkovik and Rigolet. The north coast also includes the Innu community of Natuashish.
Hopedale is the capital of Nunatsiavut but Nain is the largest and most northerly community. It is home to a commercial fishery lasting from July to October. The main species of fish processed at the Nain fish plant are Arctic char and scallop. The fish plant provides employment for local men and women; people fish as far north as Hebron when the opportunity arises. In late spring (April/May) just before the ice breaks up (usually in June), people fish for trout in the mouths of rivers in the Nain area. Subsistence hunting is performed year-round for different species of animals, marine mammals and birds. Ducks and geese are hunted in the fall just before freeze-up. Caribou is mainly hunted in the spring when the George River Caribou Herd often passes on its way to calving grounds between Nain and Hebron. Some trapping is done during winter months for fox and wolves while seals are hunted year-round. The Labrador Inuit Development Corporation has anorthrosite quarries seven to eight miles from Nain at Ten Mile Bay and further south at Iggiak.
Nain is the homeport and starting point for our Wildland Tours’ Northern Labrador Polar Bear Expedition. To learn more about Nain, visit www.ourlabrador.ca; to learn more about the history and culture of the region go to www.nunatsiavut.com.
The community of Hebron — now a National Historic Site — was first settled when the Moravians established a mission in 1830. For some 129 years, the Inuit developed many cultural legacies in Hebron. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Inuit became increasingly dependant on the economy of the newcomers and adopted new technology to earn income from industries centered on seal netting, cod fishing, fox trapping, and char and salmon fishing. The Moravian structures at Hebron and Hopedale still stand as reminders of this transition and represent two of the most historically significant mission-built structures in the province. They are the oldest mission buildings in North America.
The Inuit population of Labrador suffered from frequent epidemic diseases during the 19th century causing high death rates and severe reduction in the size of the mission stations. The worst epidemics occurred in 1918 at Okak and Hebron, when an outbreak of influenza (the Spanish Flu) led to the death of one-third of the total Inuit population. Except for a few children, everyone died at Okak. The Inuit were relocated from Hebron in 1959, and the Okak Inuit were relocated in 1956.
The buildings of the original mission at Hebron still stand today and will be one port call during our voyage along the north coast. During the 1990s, the large wood and stone church was used by caribou that sought shelter from the heat and flies in the cool interior. The site is currently undergoing repairs and the caribou are keeping a wary distance. Once Hebron was abandoned, Nain became the most northerly community in Labrador. As you travel north from this centre you will see almost no signs of humanity other than fishing boats, the occasional group of local people on the land, landing strips, and the structures at Hebron.
North of Nain we will see several ranges of mountains. The Kiglapaits are about 40 miles north of the community, and will provide a spectacle of unimaginable grandeur as we voyage to the Torngats. This is considered the wildest and most remote scenery on the Atlantic coast of North America. Fjords stretch in from the ocean, and feature huge runs of arctic char. Further north there are several mountain ranges including the Torngats, with the highest peaks rising 5,000 feet. In many places the steep mountain cliffs soar straight out of the surface of the Labrador Sea. This rugged northern landscape is home to the Inuit spirits known as the Torngait, and to a significant population of polar bears.
In the absence of humans, the polar bear is the undisputed king of the coast. Seals, caribou, walrus, seabirds and other northern species must all be wary of this stealthy, fearless hunter. Our voyage north will feature informal lectures detailing polar bear biology and evolution. Further, we hope to provide useful observations and population data to bear scientists. To learn more about polar bears go to www.polarbearsinternational.org/bear-facts.
Part of the corporate mission of Wildland Tours is to contribute to the study and protection of eastern Canadian wildlife and habitat. To learn how Wildland Tours contributes to the protection and study of whales go to www.atlanticwhales.com.
As people have come to recognize the profound effect that their activities are having on the atmosphere and our planet’s average temperature, the polar bear has become a species of special concern. Shrinking polar caps, a warming ocean, and a profusion of windborne industrial chemicals from the south all threaten the polar bear’s future. The people of Newfoundland and Labrador are especially concerned as they have watched the life-giving pack ice of the Labrador Sea grow thinner and disappear more quickly every year.
Canada ‘s foremost conservationist, Dr. David Suzuki, has said that appropriate tourism is one of our planet’s great hopes. If we are going to change our ways and help the polar bears and the other threatened species of our planet we have to experience them and think about them. Wildland Tours and Wanderbird Expeditions are delighted to present this unique voyage to northern Labrador . Our goal is to demonstrate that the polar bears of the north coast represent a special travel opportunity that needs recognition, protection and celebration. The poignant stories of the Inuit in Northern Labrador add a rich cultural dimension to this unique expedition.
Our voyage will take in a landscape with substantial numbers of polar bears. We also hope to view whales, wolves, golden eagles, sea ducks, seals, and other wildlife in a manner that is both respectful of the wildlife and useful to the scientists and other folks concerned about the health of these arctic populations. We are striving to work in partnership with the local people who call this magical coastline home as we pioneer a vacation experience that celebrates and explores the Inuit homeland of Nunatsiavut. We invite you to join us on one of our inaugural voyages of wonder and discovery to a mountainous coast of ancient spirits and water bears.
Update: While we are not offering any large 2011 or 2012 polar bear expeditions to the Torngat National Park area, our time in Labrador with these voyages, when combined with our expedition cruise ship work on other excursions along this remote coast, mean that we can offer exclusive (but expensive) programs featuring this spectacular region. Drop us an e-mail if to discuss how we can create the subarctic trip of a lifetime for you. And check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2fKOfSMF9E to see images from the amazing voyage discussed above.