Bob lifts his rifle and scans the shore through the scope. Seeing nothing, he resumes snacking on the pitsik, dried arctic char, strung like laundry across the rear wheelhouse. From a speaker overhead, tinny music piped in from the forward cabin bears a cowboy twanging about life's critical moments: "It's where I drank my first beer. It's where I found Jesus. Where I wrecked my first car." As surreal as the surroundings still feel, the country tune isn't that out of place on this working crab boat - the 16-metre longliner, What's Happening - plying the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The song could be the anthem for our trip. A trip of unforgettable firsts.
Take the iceberg that we glide past. I barely give the mass of sea ice another look as, like my Inuit companions, I'm intent on scanning the jumbled shapes along the rocky coastline for tutuk - caribou. I can clearly remember the excitement of seeing my first iceberg, as it happened only yesterday. The sheer size and turquoise blue luminescence added a dreamlike touch to a landscape already difficult to grasp.
We had touched down on the helipad in Sallik (Saglek) Bay a couple days before, just outside the southern end of Torngat Mountains National Park.
Labrador, it's like going to the moon. The last frontier.
I was joining a special group from Parks Canada to complete a summer of filmmaking across the country to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Banff, our first national park, and finishing in the Torngat Mountains, our newest. We stood blinking at the ragged edge of Northern Labrador, just about at the northeastern-most tip of continental Canada. "Labrador, it's like going to the moon," says Ross Dicker, an Inuit contractor in camp. "The last frontier."
As spectacularly raw and barren as it seems here, we're in the homeland of the Labrador and Nunavik Inuit. The Torngat Mountains National Park is their gift to Canada. Torngait, as the Inuit know it, is home to the highest mountains west of the Rockies and the world's largest caribou herd. A place with supernatural energy, it's named after Tungak, the most powerful spirit in Inuit mythology.
At 60 degrees north, we're above the tree line, making it seem like a high alpine environment, right at sea level. Low vegetation clings like tattered green velvet to some of the oldest rock on the planet, dated at close to four billion years old. Willows sprawl over the rock like octopi road kill. The coastal islands tend toward hard, rounded mounds as if worn into submission by waves and wind but on the mainland the glacier-scoured land ramps up steeply to heights exceeding a kilometre.
Our base camp is Kangidluasuk. Life at the end of this inlet is confined to a compound surrounded by a 10,000-volt electric fence. Polar bears - nunuk - loom large in our existence, even if by midweek, there are still some in our group who haven't actually seen one. (When they do make a sighting, they announce: "My first polar bear!") From the moment our group landed, Inuit polar-bear monitors in high-visibility vests surrounded us, rifles slung over their shoulders. Their figures on every distant horizon would become a fixture of the landscape during the rest of our stay.
One day on a speedboat outing we ran parallel with a polar bear barrelling along the water's edge, a stone's-throw away. "Close enough for you?" asked Bennett Barbour, one of our bear guards. "Unless you want to get us up on shore," I joked. He scowled and spat through his mustache as if I'd just suggested that he stick his hand in a garburator.
On Joey Angnatok's longliner though, we have little to worry about. And it was on his and Ches Webb's boats that we'd spend most of our days. Gary Baikie, the park's visitor experience manager, would lead us on excursions to many of the cultural sites in the area, to remnants of Inuit habitation from over the past six millennia. "There's a relic among us," he might say crouching over seemingly innocuous ground. Then he'd point out a Ramah chert shard, a translucent quartz used to make razor-sharp implements, sitting within a tent ring. A pile of stones turns out to be a grave or a food cache. Deep depressions in the earth - fragments of sod houses.When we motor up a remote fjord that's remarkable for its sinuous waterfalls and walls of sedimentary rock zigzagging across the horizon, we learn it's where the mother of one of our guides, Jako Merkuratsuk, was born. Another bear monitor, bear-like in size himself, Harry Haye, talks about fishing in the same spot as a child with his parents.
Perhaps nothing brings home how important the land is to the Labrador Inuit than the sad case of Hebron.
One morning we visit this town, established by Moravian missionaries in 1831. When the mission was closed for financial reasons in 1959, the federal government took the opportunity to disperse all Inuit among communities to the south. Without ready access to their familiar hunting grounds, the Inuit became instantly impoverished, losing both their way of life and self-respect.
Four generations of Gary's family had lived in Hebron. Now he oversees the restoration of its Germanic main building.
The Inuit today can continue their traditional practices in the park - including hunting, the purpose of today's excursion. The camp needs more meat and the kitchen has ordered two caribou, some arctic char and, if possible, some seal. Even the vegetarians in our group have chosen to sample everything from dried caribou to fish eyes. They might have bypassed the fresh seal liver, brain and gelatinous eyeball fluid that I get the opportunity to savour raw. The liver, especially silky and mild, gave the best foie gras I'd ever tasted a run for its money.
For generations Inuit boys have noted important "firsts" on the way to becoming men: their first fish, first rifle, first seal. These firsts remain important among those we travel with today. Gary talks about his first ptarmigan, at age 8, which he gave to his grandmother as per tradition. His first seal at 10. His first caribou at 15.
This afternoon, I'm joining in my first caribou hunt, an incredible opportunity open to visitors accompanied by Inuit (only the Inuit are allowed to shoot). We accompany Bob Harris, a bear monitor with a tattoo of polar bear tracks padding up his right arm, and our bright-eyed skipper, Joey, as they each harvest a caribou. Bob coaches me through dressing out the animal on the deck of the boat. Turns out I'm not much of a hunter -Joey's brothers, Leo and John-Ross, step in to do the fine work and strip the animal down like a Mercedes in a chop shop. Every part of the animal will be used. The hide is saved. The hooves and ankles will be boiled for the tender muscle. The stomach lining will be hung to dry. Joey peels back the velvet from an antler and cuts slivers off the soft tips. It has the taste and texture of abalone. We carve out slices of filet mignon from the carcass and eat it raw. I'm surprised that the taste isn't gamey; it's tender and quickly melts away.
Before I leave, there are other firsts to croon about. But right now, the planes of sky and ocean have clamped together again and cloud rolls up the inlet toward us. "When it comes in, we can imagine that we're anywhere in the world," Joey says. I, however, wouldn't choose to be anywhere else.
Special to The Globe and Mail
If you go
Torngat Safari - officially launched this year in joint co-operation between the Labrador Inuit Development Corporation, Parks Canada, and the Inuit-owned Cruise North Expeditions - offers seven-night safaris for $4,361 and four-nights at $3,190.
Those who seek to arrange their own travel into the park should contact Parks Canada to secure permits, and can also arrange a stay in base camp, boat transportation and guides 1-709-922-1290.
Accommodations in base camp range from simple tents with access to camp facilities, to insulated tents with stoves, raised beds and a private dining room.
Contact Air Inuit to arrange a charter flight to Saglek Bay.