Place of SPIR­ITS

A glimpse into the stun­ning Torn­gat Moun­tains Na­tional Park, and how a unique co­op­er­a­tive man­age­ment ap­proach be­tween lo­cal Inuit and Parks Canada en­riches the ex­pe­ri­ence

Canadian Geographic - - FEA­TURES - by An­drew Find­lay with pho­tog­ra­phy by Pat Mor­row


A glimpse into the stun­ning Torn­gat Moun­tains Na­tional Park, and how a unique co­op­er­a­tive man­age­ment ap­proach be­tween lo­cal Inuit and Parks Canada en­riches the ex­pe­ri­ence


a rocky alpine ridge, Bears Gut Fiord is calm and flat, save for the tell­tale dim­ple in the wa­ter where a minke whale sur­faced be­fore div­ing again. A soli­tary ice­berg, in­can­des­cent in the morn­ing sun, sits mo­tion­less near the mouth of the fiord. Some­where out there I imag­ine nanuq, the po­lar bear, ly­ing among in­ter­tidal boul­ders, wait­ing for an un­sus­pect­ing ringed seal or other prey. That men­tal im­age is prob­a­bly psy­cho­log­i­cal residue from the bear safety video I was re­quired to watch ear­lier in the week af­ter ar­riv­ing at the Torn­gat Moun­tains base camp and re­search sta­tion, the gate­way to Torn­gat Moun­tains Na­tional Park, a 9,700-squarek­ilo­me­tre wedge of north­ern Labrador bounded by the Labrador Sea on one side and Que­bec on the other. Named from the Inuk­ti­tut word Torn­gait, mean­ing “place of spir­its,” the park is a wild place. There’s lit­tle in the way of in­fra­struc­ture — no trails, tidy pic­nic sites or in­ter­pre­tive sig­nage — and few have ever walked where An­drew An­der­sen, a Parks Canada vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence co­or­di­na­tor, and I are walk­ing to­day. We tra­verse a shal­low val­ley shin-deep in Labrador tea, the shrubby low-ly­ing plant ubiq­ui­tous on the tun­dra, cross a stream that tum­bles over an es­carp­ment of bril­liant ochre­coloured stone, then as­cend a ridge green with moss. Moun­tain hare­bell blos­soms among lichen-cov­ered rocks, coura­geous splashes of pur­ple in a tree­less land­scape.

An­der­sen kneels sud­denly then hands me a toonie-sized chunk of opaque rock. “Ramah chert,” he says. I roll the stone around in my palm. Its edges feel sharp enough for a close shave. Hard, durable and easy to work, it’s unique to the Torn­gats, which is also home to some of the Earth’s most an­cient rocks, dated at 3.9 bil­lion years old. Arche­ol­o­gists have un­cov­ered tools fash­ioned from Ramah chert as far away as Maine and Trois-riv­ières, Que. Though traces of hu­man­ity in the Torn­gats can seem as ephemeral as snow be­neath spring sun, hu­man pres­ence dates back more than 7,000 years in this rugged land­scape. An­der­sen, 29, was born and raised in Nain, the north­ern­most of four con­tem­po­rary Labrador Inuit set­tle­ments. He be­longs to a young gen­er­a­tion of Inuit re­con­nect­ing with a place that was pre­vi­ously known to them only through the sto­ries of el­ders shared around kitchen stoves and camp­fires. In 2005, the peo­ple of Nu­natsi­avut, the Labrador Inuit’s tra­di­tional ter­ri­tory, signed the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agree­ment, which in­cluded pro­vi­sions for the for­ma­tion of Torn­gat Moun­tains Na­tional Park. In 2015, on its 10th an­niver­sary, it be­came the only na­tional park in Canada with en­tirely Inuit man­age­ment and staff. It was a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone for Parks Canada and for An­der­sen and other Labrador Inuit who will shape the fu­ture of tourism and travel in this re­mote re­gion. “I’ve been hear­ing sto­ries about the old vil­lage sites in the Torn­gats all my life,” he says, care­fully re­plac­ing the chert as though it were a mu­seum ar­ti­fact that had been pur­loined then re­cov­ered.

THE FIRST OR­DER of busi­ness when you fi­nally ar­rive at the base camp (the jour­ney in­volves a flight to an iso­lated airstrip next to a DEW Line sta­tion, fol­lowed by a 45-minute boat ride) is bears. An elec­tric fence en­cir­cles the camp, which is sit­u­ated at well-pro­tected St. John’s Har­bour on Sa­glek Bay, just out­side the park bound­ary. Nei­ther tourists nor vis­it­ing sci­en­tists are per­mit­ted to ven­ture be­yond it without an armed Inuit es­cort, Gary Baikie, the park’s su­per­in­ten­dent and a Nain na­tive of Inuit-scot­tish an­ces­try, told me af­ter base camp ori­en­ta­tion on the first day. In many ways, the park is still a blank slate in terms of de­vel­op­ing the vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence. Base camp is open for just six weeks in the sum­mer, and fewer than 700 peo­ple vis­ited the park in 2015. While Baikie and his staff cel­e­brated the park’s 10th an­niver­sary, they’re also look­ing for­ward. Plans are in the works for a four- to six-hut back­coun­try hik­ing route start­ing north of base camp at Lit­tle Ramah Bay and head­ing in­land to­ward Mount Caub­vick, the high­est point in the park at 1,652 me­tres. Es­tab­lish­ing the hut sys­tem and ev­ery­thing else in the park is un­der­pinned by co­op­er­a­tive man­age­ment be­tween the Inuit and fed­eral gov­ern­ment. “Bal­anc­ing sci­ence and Inuit knowl­edge is crit­i­cal and a sig­nif­i­cant part of how we work up here,” says Baikie. Life at base camp quickly as­sumes a cer­tain rhythm. By day, guests ex­plore the park by boat and land with Inuit guides. By night, they eat with the Inuit staff who

keep the so­lar pan­els func­tion­ing, the food hot and the soft-walled houses and in­su­lated fi­bre­glass domes (all raised on plat­forms) that serve as ac­com­mo­da­tion clean and com­fort­able. One even­ing, Evie Mark and Akin­isie Sivuara­pik, two Inuit vis­it­ing from north­ern Que­bec, treat us to a post-din­ner throatsing­ing per­for­mance. I close my eyes and lis­ten to their dis­so­nant, gut­tural ex­change. They are soon joined for an­other song by David Serkoak, a jovial for­mer school­teacher from Nu­navut and now Inuit cul­tural am­bas­sador whose drum-danc­ing per­for­mances have taken him from Lon­don, Eng­land, to the open­ing cer­e­monies of the 2010 Win­ter Olympics in Van­cou­ver. Later on I read in my fi­bre­glass dome. The propane heater flick­ers in the corner. There’s a knock on my door, a Hob­bit­sized open­ing de­signed to be too nar­row to per­mit the con­sid­er­able girth of a po­lar bear. It’s Baikie. “Hey, the north­ern lights are go­ing off.” Out­side, the sky is alive with light. Waves of blue, green and pur­ple twist and turn upon one an­other in a spec­ta­cle of con­stant mo­tion. I watch for 15 min­utes and am on the way to the wash­room when some­thing star­tles me. It’s a black bear, a mem­ber of the only pop­u­la­tion of that species on Earth known to live en­tirely above the tree­line. Its eyes shine in the light of my head­lamp, just me­tres away on the other side of the elec­tric fence. The next morn­ing, Baikie, An­der­sen, Serkoak, Mark, Sivuara­pik and I board the Inuk­ti­tut, the camp’s diesel-pow­ered pas­sen­ger boat. We’re bound for Sal­liku­luk, or Rose Is­land, one of the park’s more sig­nif­i­cant cul­tural sites, a haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful home to graves and tra­di­tional sod houses that were oc­cu­pied as far back as the 1600s. We chug away, and from the top deck I see Mount Caub­vick and some of its neigh­bours, where the only non­po­lar glaciers east of the Cana­dian Rock­ies cling des­per­ately to the moun­tain­sides. I spot a ringed seal briefly pok­ing its whiskered snout above the wa­ter off the star­board side, wisely cir­cum­spect. Two days ago, an Inuit staff mem­ber shot one of th­ese an­i­mals, and we have been din­ing on seal stew and in­tes­tine ever since — a del­i­cacy for the Inuit, a gamey, ac­quired taste for in­ter­lop­ers like me. The Labrador Inuit are the only ones al­lowed to carry firearms in

the park. Though boats and snow­mo­biles have re­placed kayaks and dogsleds, the Inuit re­tain the right to hunt within the park for seal, ptarmi­gan and, per­haps again one day, cari­bou, if the Ge­orge River herd ever re­bounds from its still un­ex­plained de­cline. They also fish for de­li­cious Arc­tic char that spawn in abun­dance in rivers and streams cut­ting through the moun­tains. Yes­ter­day, Serkoak and I watched a black bear for­ag­ing the hill­side be­hind camp. I sized up the an­i­mal for my post­card mem­o­ries; Serkoak sized it up for win­ter cloth­ing. “That bear would make a great pair of pants,” he said, with a cheeky grin. Tongue in cheek or not, the com­ment was re­veal­ing. For the Inuit, liv­ing on the land is not an ab­strac­tion; it is re­al­ity. Their re­la­tion­ship with the Torn­gats is based on prac­ti­cal­ity, knowl­edge and re­spect rather than some sen­ti­men­tal no­tion of wilder­ness. A few nau­ti­cal miles from Rose Is­land, a flash of white against the vel­vet green of a shal­low vale catches Baikie’s eye. The Inuk­ti­tut’s en­gine must have star­tled this po­lar bear and sent it lop­ing quickly away from the shore­line. Through binoc­u­lars, I see its mus­cu­lar haunches rip­pling as it strides across the tun­dra and dis­ap­pears over a knoll. I shud­der at the thought of this an­i­mal try­ing to squeeze through the door­way of my lit­tle eggshell abode back at camp. Once we’re on Rose Is­land, it strikes me as an un­likely place for set­tle­ment, with its nearly uni­form flat to­pog­ra­phy that of­fers lit­tle re­lief from the sav­agery of a win­ter storm. We fol­low Baikie in obe­di­ent sin­gle file on a brief cross-is­land walk to a low­ly­ing bank, knee-deep in grass and sedges,

and over­look­ing a sandy cove. It would be easy to miss the shal­low de­pres­sions in front of us that once formed the floors of six sod houses. “Whale bones would have been like fram­ing studs, and you can see a whale ver­te­bra that prob­a­bly held a seal oil lamp,” Baikie says, point­ing to one of the larger homes. A warm wind scuffs across the is­land. I imag­ine smoke from the seal oil lamp drift­ing lazily from the open­ing of a roof made from cari­bou hide, chil­dren col­lect­ing peb­bles on the beach nearby, women cook­ing over peat fires and men beach­ing kayaks af­ter a day of seal hunt­ing. Af­ter­ward, Baikie leads us to a windswept point jut­ting into the wa­ter, where rocks have been piled into a crude cairn. The re­mains of 113 Inuit now rest here, repa­tri­ated in 1995, more than two decades af­ter arche­ol­o­gist Ja­cob Ed­son Way ex­humed them for study be­fore even­tu­ally stor­ing them at the

Uni­ver­sity of Toronto and then Me­mo­rial Uni­ver­sity in St John’s. Mark and Sivuara­pik kneel next to the grave and throat sing to Serkoak’s sim­ple rhyth­mic drum­ming. An­der­sen and Baikie stand qui­etly, lis­ten­ing to the melan­choly trib­ute. The singing ends and Baikie speaks up. “I like to spend a few min­utes of si­lence by my­self at this spot.” And it’s then — with the Labrador Sea lap­ping at the is­land’s shores, minke whales graz­ing on capelin and her­ring in clear bays, and po­lar bears prowl­ing the tun­dra — that I re­al­ize the park is about much more than pre­serv­ing a wild piece of the north­east coast of Canada. It’s also about peo­ple such as Baikie and An­der­sen re­claim­ing their his­tory, their land­scape, their fu­ture.

Sun­light breaks through the clouds and across the rugged, re­mote land­scape of Torn­gat Moun­tains Na­tional Park, on the north­ern tip of Labrador.

Parks Canada’s An­drew An­der­sen pauses to pick blue­ber­ries dur­ing a hike in Torn­gat Moun­tains Na­tional Park ( op­po­site). Vis­i­tors pho­to­graph an ice­berg from aboard the Inuk­ti­tut ( right).

An­drew Find­lay writes about ad­ven­ture sports, travel, con­ser­va­tion and busi­ness from his home on Van­cou­ver Is­land. Pat Mor­row spe­cial­izes in out­door ad­ven­ture and moun­tain-cul­ture pho­tog­ra­phy, work that has taken him around the world from his home in Wilmer, B.C.

Watch­ing the night sky ( top) at the park’s base camp on Sa­glek Bay ( op­po­site). Throat singers Akin­isie Sivuara­pik (left) and Evie Mark per­form with drum dancer David Serkoak on Rose Is­land ( above).

An­der­sen leads a trio of hik­ers across the in­te­rior of the park dur­ing a day-trip from the base camp.

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