1 (709) 722-3123
The Last Place on Earth
Roland Huntford, in his retelling of the 1911 race to the South Pole, described Antarctica as “The Last Place on Earth” but northern Labrador, the thumb in Canada’s mitten, gets my vote. Let me tell you why.
Far to the north the waters of the Arctic Sea, fed by watersheds of Siberia, Alaska and northwest Canada, rotate counter clockwise seeking a southerly exit. Finding none in the shallow and icebound channels of Canada’s Arctic archipelago or between Ellesmere and Greenland, a great cold current descends the east coast of Greenland. Off Cape Farewell it encounters the Gulf Stream and bends back. Somewhat warmed, it ascends Greenland’s west, receives the broken bits of icecap we call icebergs, and, bent back again at the head of Baffin Bay, sets its final course southward along Baffin. Meanwhile, a second great stream, the outflow from the Hudson Bay watershed, in volume many times that of the Mississippi and annually charged with last winter’s sea ice, courses eastward through Hudson Strait. The two collide and mix before following the Labrador coast southward to Newfoundland and the Atlantic.
This almost inexhaustible flow of refrigerant passes constantly along the northern Labrador coast. The last of the Hudson Bay ice frequently lingers about Cape Chidley into August and the sea is never less than cold. This cold current shields northern Labrador from casual approach and lends it a uniquely intimidating character. The Norse discovered this over a thousand years ago, and Europeans have generally shunned the coast ever since.
But about my nomination for “Last Place on Earth”. There are certainly those for whom it was their last place. From 1606, when John Knight, fresh from exploring Greenland and charged with opening the Northwest Passage, went ashore near Mugford Tickle and disappeared, north Labrador’s history is dotted with tales of distress. Not all are of untimely death, however; there are those who merely received a good scare, like William Gibbons, another Northwest Passage adventurer who spent ten weeks icebound at or about Saglek in 1614. For them we might say that it was only the last place they’d like to revisit. For some Europeans it was the last place in another sense. Whether it was the northern Europeans who followed the Norse counter clockwise arc across the Atlantic or the southern Europeans who explored the North Atlantic in the opposite direction, in the fifteenth and sixteenth century both stopped when they encountered Labrador. This dichotomy persisted into the eighteenth century and beyond, the English, approaching from the south and the Moravian missionaries approaching from Greenland, both stopping at or near the natural boundary of Hamilton Inlet. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries northern Labrador was not so much the last place visited as the first place avoided with the arctic whalers, traders and polar explorers all hurrying past at a safe distance. It was “last place” in William Gibbons’ sense, if you will. And when the great material requirements of 1942 brought much construction to the north, almost all of it was to the south, west and north; only a weather station or two, and the DEW line radars of the Cold War, mark the great wars’ passage on this coast.
So why should you visit my “last place on earth”? Because you look at trail’s end as I do; because as the world shrinks every other place begins to look like every other place; and because that same shrinking globe has brought north Labrador’s gateway almost to your doorstep so you can visit it. Why should you do it now? Because, after a thousand years, the world has discovered northern Labrador and resource exploitation, habitat degradation, and modern ‘civilization’ are rapidly encroaching. Why should you do it aboard Wanderbird with Wildland Tours? Because with a small vessel and the latest charts and navigational aids you can hug the coast and drop into places the big ships can’t. Because on a small ship you can experience things big ship passengers can only see on a lecture screen. And because our local hosts will provide an authentic introduction to the wildlife, geography, and landscapes. And because in a small group you can meet and interact with the resilient people who call this unforgettable coast home.
George E. Sollish, Chief Engineer with the Auto Gear Company is an Arctic adventurer and sometimes lecturer on the historic European presence in Canada’s arctic. He travelled aboard Wanderbird on Wildland Tour’s first Northern Labrador Polar Bear Expedition in July 2008. He continues his attachment to Northern Newfoundland and the Labrador coast through study and travel.