The guy sharing the ship cabin with me had three guns with him because he was headed for Ottawa, ON, and you just never know. He’d also brought along a box of dried Arctic char and caribou jerky, traditional foods. Like many of the erudite locals, my Inuit roommate on the “Northern Ranger” was off to college on scholarship to study engineering. But he was eager to get back to Nunatsiavut, “our beautiful land,” soon — to get out on the land, hunting and fishing with his dad.
Without doubt, Labrador — the part of the Newfoundland and Labrador province name that often gets dropped — is the one of the least-discovered parts of Canada. But if Labrador seems remote, then northern Labrador is the end of the world. Just over a year ago the local Inuit agreed to a far-reaching land claim settlement, creating Nunatsiavut. Call it the next Alaska. Way up north in Canada’s far east, Nunatsiavut is 72,000 sq km (27,800 sq mi) of virgin land with only 5,000 or so hearty residents. Most towns boast only a few hundred residents. There are no roads.
In summer, really the only way to explore is by boat. Wildland Tours takes intrepid travellers along on a polar bear research trip. Just 12 people on an expedition ship, scanning for Ursus maritimus, the world’s largest bear. 2008 will be the tour’s first year in operation, an 11-day adventure that embarks in Nain and cruises north to Canada’s newest national park reserve, Torngat Mountains (opened in 2006).
Authentic? You bet. And it’s full of surprises: Inuit with light-brown hair and blue eyes, a legacy of outside settlers who arrived over the past five centuries. Frontier rowdy mixed with rooted community. Dozens of black bears roaming the tundra. A veneer of bleak bursting with life underneath, like the steep, gray fjord cliffs animated with wildflowers. Catch your own Day-Glo-orange Artic char and grill it over an open fire. Life is subtle — you have to scratch beneath the surface to find it.
The best way to explore Labrador’s isolated communities is with the “Northern Ranger,” the area’s marine transit. Fickle weather (a four-day wait for a clearing isn’t unheard of) and cost make flying prohibitive. This passenger-and-freight ferry starts in Goose Bay, travels up to Nain, a metropolis of 1,200, and back for a five-day round-trip. What you get is Labrador unfiltered: time to talk to local characters, hear their stories, visit a museum, watch carvers work soapstone and Labradorite, dine on caribou steak and maybe even goose soup (“I left the head,” says a recent visitor).
Like northern Norway on steroids, Labrador is raw. It’s wild, dramatic, even primordial. Gusts of wind will chap your face. But you’ll make out seals in the clear, sapphire water. You’ll see eerie dawns marked with fog hanging between mountains. You’ll pick tiny blueberries used to make Labrador Tea. You’ll hear whales breathing. It will take forever to get there, and that’s why you’ll go.
www.wildlands.com/tour_and_booking_information/tour_7.html www.newfoundlandlabrador.com www.tw.gov.nl.ca/FerryServices/schedules/H-goosebay-nain.stm www.bluepeak.net/canada/northernranger