Travel

Wild adventures in Labrador

An epic tour of the remote western Torngats appeals to adventure-seeking geography geeks, with treks via foot, boat and plane to explore the area’s geological and wildlife riches

A photo tour in a small plane takes in the breathtaking topography of the Fraser River Canyon in northern Labrador. (Photo: Javier Frutos)
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The landscape is otherworldly. Canadian Geographic creative director and photographer Javier Frutos and I have just arrived on this raised point jutting out of the surrounding lowlands along the Siorak Brook in Labrador’s western Torngat mountains area, peaks of varying sizes all around. Three smallish geodesic domes covered mostly in white heavy-duty PVC, save for a panoramic window on one side, stand stark on the plateau in the fading light. It has the feel of a scene from a Lord of the Rings saga.   

The wind is howling, too — hard! — funnelled through this mountain trench the river occupies. Our first order of business is to jump in to help our hosts batten down the hatches, so to speak. The communal tent outhouse, for instance, is poised to make like Howl’s Moving Castle. (Days after we leave, the wind does actually blow down one of the domes, presumably the one put up by the littlest pig.)

We’ve arrived at this outpost to explore parts of the new adventure tours dreamed up by Wedge Hills Lodge, located just over the Labrador border in Quebec, in partnership with Golden Peninsula Tours. A veteran pilot and nature guide, Alain Legacé, has expanded the  more traditional fishing and hunting offerings of the lodge — these new trips are aimed at adventure-seeking geography geeks, with treks via foot, boat and plane to explore the area’s geological and wildlife riches.

Like the Merewether Crater or kettle lakes. Like the fjords of the Torngats or iceberg alley. Like monoliths or polar bears and caribou. Like this unique spot, the so-called Moraine Desert.

Once the camp is secured against the massive wind gusts, guide David Merkuratsuk hastens to show us a find he has made near the newly established camp. Merkuratsuk, an affable Inuk with many stories to tell, grew up in Nain, the youngest of a family of four. His father, who went to residential school, was a translator. He also hunted caribou in this very area.

Not far from the camp, lying half hidden among the caribou lichen that’s already starting to grey in the cool early August days that mark the end of summer this far north, Merkuratsuk unveils a sun-bleached plank he says was clearly once part of a qamutiik, the traditional multifunctional Inuit sled. He thinks it may possibly have been from a sled his father once used.

David Merkuratsuk kneels beside a sun-bleached plank he says was clearly once part of a qamutiik, the traditional multifunctional Inuit sled. He thinks it may possibly have been from a sled his father once used. (Photo: Aaron Kylie)
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Scanning the area, it’s not difficult, even for a southern boy like me who grew up in the suburbs of Toronto and is more familiar with concrete sidewalks and paved park pathways, to spy the game trails beaten into the landscape — likely over thousands of years — by the migrating caribou of the George River herd.

Just 30 years ago, that herd was the world’s largest, numbering some 800,000 animals. The population has declined sharply since, standing today at just 50,000, or fewer depending on the estimates, victims of a combination of factors that include resource development and climate change. To see one of these legendary animals sometimes referred to as grey ghosts would tick an item off my bucket list.

Signs that the caribou have been here are not hard to spot. Bisecting trails cut every which way through the low-growing lichen, fireweed and Labrador tea. Walk along an animal-stomped path through the vegetation here and it doesn’t take long for the keen eyed to find shed antlers of various sizes, shapes and stages of decay.

A close-up look at a sun-bleached plank that was once part of a qamutiik, the traditional multifunctional Inuit sled. (Photo: Aaron Kylie)
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This area was once a prime hunting ground of David Merkuratsuk’s forefathers, with the clear evidence of caribou afoot and the qamutiik artifact he has found. Later, he excitedly beckons me over to another find he’s made along the river’s edge among fist-sized boulders rubbed smooth by years of water and ice. I’m certain only a local’s trained eye could spot such a treasure: nestled among the rocks is what appears to be an arrow or spearhead — it has the perfect shape of one — made of Ramah chert, the local stone once routinely used for such purposes. Further proof we may be in just the right spot to see a George caribou.

As I fade into sleep that night in the dome, my glorious view is of the sun dropping behind a Torngat peak, its dying rays glinting off the water. I close my eyes and savour the thought of glimpsing one of the area’s ghosts.


 

Um, there’s a bear. And not some southern-Ontario-black-bear-at-the-dump kind of bear, but a huge Labrador black bear. That’s what I’m greeted with upon looking out the dome door window when I awake early the next morning. It’s probably 30 metres or so beyond the camp.

My colleague is still sleeping, but I figure the photographer won’t want to miss this opportunity. “Javier, get up. There’s a bear here.”

“Bullsh*t,” says Frutos sleepily.

“No, seriously,” I say. “Look, right out here through the door!”

“Come on, man…”

“Javier, I’m not joking.”

Visitors were thrilled to see a huge Labrador black bear that wandered by the camp in search of berries.(Photo: Javier Frutos)
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Fair, I do have a penchant for leg pulling, but I finally convince him to get out of bed. We dress quickly and head out cautiously see if we can get some snaps. Unfortunately, or fortunately I suppose depending on one’s perspective, the bear heads further away from the camp, up and around a nearby hill.

We double back to the kitchen dome, where Merkuratsuk already has the coffee on, to report our discovery.

“I know,” says Merkuratsuk. “It has been around the camp for hours. It woke me up.” Of course, it did.

As the other guests and guides gather for breakfast, the bear re-emerges from behind the hill and heads back in our general direction. Alain Legacé is keen to get us, or more specifically the two photographers among us, “close” to the bear, so we quickly gear up to track it.

Legacé looks over and immediately scoffs at my fluorescent yellow Helly Hansen rain jacket outer layer. “Got something a little less conspicuous?” he asks. I swap layers, covering up with a drab dark blue hoodie. Note to neophyte bear trackers: don’t go bright. Clothing change made, we set off.

Legacé leads five of us in quick pursuit of the bear, which is feeding on pockets of wild bog blueberries (they’re delicious, can confirm). We’re upwind, so there’s no doubt it can smell us. And periodically, it stops to turn and gaze in our direction. Lagacé quietly instructs us to slow and get low when the bear turns. And if it’s looking right at us, he encourages us to pretend like we’re eating. Lagacé pulls up a large chuck of vegetation and holds it in his mouth. His theory: the predator isn’t threatened by other animals bowing to its dominance and feeding nearby.

And it certainly seems to work. We eventually close to within what feels like about 10 metres of the bear. So close, in fact, that I can snap clear photos of the animal without zooming on my iPhone. Indeed, so close, that as the bear circles around to put me nearest it, I start to get nervous that perhaps we’re too close.

While the photographers were busy shooting photos of a black bear, writer Aaron Kylie spotted a caribou (not shown) that walked behind them and disappeared over a nearby hill. (Photo: Aaron Kylie)
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I. Put. My. Phone. Away. Slowly.

Bend. Further. Down.

Pretend. To. Eat.

The bear moves along. Lagacé is undaunted, though, and keen to get the photographers a shot from the other side of the bear with the camp as a backdrop. And so the photographers in the group set off to circle the animal from the opposite direction. They make great progress as the bear continues to meander through the scrub, stopping periodically to graze.

The photographers are getting their shot — bear, watchers, camp — when us watchers spot something else. A caribou. It’s trotting along slowly just beyond the lensmen, so close to them that it’s hard to believe they can’t hear it. Of course, we attempt to subtly signal to them — so as not to upset the bear — to turn around. But the photographers aren’t picking up our message and the caribou lives up to its moniker, ghosting on beyond them.

And so, while there’s no photographic evidence, in that moment I tick the caribou box on my bucket list! The whole encounter, bear tracking and caribou drive by, is a highlight of the trip, though there are numerous special moments: the half-day hike to a four-storey waterfall and fresh trout shore lunch; the boat ride up the George to an eagle nest; the fat biking on the old airstrip across from the lodge; and the float plane trips over the dramatic Fraser Canyon and along the fjord walls in the Torngats. The collaboration between Wedge Hills Lodge and Golden Peninsula Tours is a truly superb geographic adventure to the wilds of Quebec’s Ungava region and Labrador’s Torngats.

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This story is from the May/June 2023 Issue

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