By Marsha Alexander
Stephenville Crossing, Newfoundland
In August, the Department of Education, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teacher's Association and Parks Canada teamed up to offer a professional development opportunity unlike any other to 10 teachers: a week-long camping expedition in the Torngat Mountains National Park in Northern Labrador. To be accepted, you had to answer a variety of questions: What do you hope to get from this experience? How will this be reflected in the classroom? How do you plan to make use of what you learn in your teaching? What commitment will you make to ensure your learning/experience has longevity and impact beyond the week at base camp? What can you do to help create a legacy of this institute? As I sat on the plane returning to Goose Bay from Saglek Bay, I picked up an issue of Downhome and realized that the Torngats story could travel far and wide on its pages.
If you visit the Parks Canada website and search for the Torngat Mountains, you will receive this beautiful description: "From the Inuktitut word Torngait, meaning 'place of spirits,' the Torngat Mountains have been home to Inuit and their predecessors for thousands of years. The spectacular wilderness of this national park comprises 9,700 km2 of the Northern Labrador Mountains natural region. The park extends from Saglek Fiord in the south, including all islands and islets, to the very northern tip of Labrador; and from the provincial boundary with Quebec to the west, to the iceberg-choked waters of the Labrador Sea in the east. The mountain peaks along the border with Quebec are the highest in mainland Canada east of the Rockies, and are dotted with remnant glaciers. Polar bears hunt seals along the coast, and both the Torngat Mountains and George River caribou herds cross paths as they migrate to and from their calving grounds. Today, Inuit continue to use this area for hunting, fishing, and travelling throughout the year."
The Torngat Mountains is the newest national park created by Parks Canada, and they have a base camp set up in Saglek Bay that runs from the middle of July to early September. Travelling there requires patience and flexibility, as weather can be unpredictable; however, the journey is well worth it. From Goose Bay, Labrador you take an Air Labrador charter into Saglek Bay airstrip, which was established in 1953 as a general surveillance radar station. From there, you take a 45-minute boat ride deeper into Saglek Fiord, surrounded by beautiful mountains and valleys. At this point, you are almost to the southern boundary of the park, and, with the help of Parks Canada, you can determine how to navigate this vast, untamed wilderness.
The base camp has wonderful tent accommodations, a dining hall and research station, solar panels that are able to run electricity, four showers and six flush toilets. An emergency satellite telephone is the only form of communication to the outside world, but hours of conversation with other guests, park staff and Inuit beneficiaries will be the only communication you need! All of this is surrounded by an electric bear fence, the 24-hour protection of bear guards (who drive the bears away) and some of the finest people in the world!
My experience in the Torngats is difficult to put into words. The breathtaking beauty of mountains, valleys, fiords and waterfalls; the amazing display of polar bears, black bears, whales, seals and wolves in the wild; giant icebergs rising from the cold, blue waters. The vast, harsh and untouched wilderness is unlike any I've seen. The Torngat Mountains are still pure and unspoiled. I realize how lucky I am to be there; yet, it is not only the beauty that captures my heart, but the people.
Teachers in the Torngats group with their bear guards at North Arm. From left to right: Eli (bear guard), Matt Grant, Stefan Way, Fred Sheppard (Parks Canada Interpreter), Gus Pike, Marsha Alexander, Rae Dicks, Kimberley Gilbert, George Tucker (NLTA), Jacinta McGrath, Darla O'Reilly, Barb Brooker, Peter Bishop and Robert (bear guard)
During the week, we visited North Arm and camped overnight. We hiked up to a beautiful waterfall and spent the day fishing for Arctic char. Again, our tent area is surrounded by an electric bear fence, and our bear guards patrol the area to ensure we are protected. We are told that one of our guards, Jacko, scored 197/200 on his shooting test. We have a sniper with us, and we know we are safe. Our camp hostess, Mary, decides she is going to cook our char for lunch. She places a flat rock on two rounded rocks and lights a fire beneath it. When the flat rock is hot, she adds some butter and fries the char. Resourceful ingenuity at its finest!
The heart of the Torngats
During our week, we are lucky enough to have two Inuit elders with us. Sophie and Willie were born in Northern Labrador. Sophie is able to speak English quite well, but Willie is still unilingual, speaking only Inuktitut. They tell us stories of growing up on the land: Stories of survival, harshness and heartbreak that cannot be truly understood by our current industrialized society. As Sophie tells her story, I cry.
Sophie was born on Rose Island, Northern Labrador. During her visit to the park, she returns to Rose Island for the first time since she was a small child. I am not there for that reunion, but she tells me about it with tears in her eyes. Her family was nomadic, and moved from place to place along the Labrador coast, from season to season, to survive. When she was five, her family made their permanent home in Hebron.
Hebron is an abandoned Inuit community on Labrador's coast. In 1959, the Government of Newfoundland forced all the community members to move further south to communities such as Nain, Makkovik and Rigolet for financial reasons. Today, some of the original dwellings still stand at Hebron, and the Moravian Mission Church is being restored. Sophie tells us stories of going to church at Christmas and seeing two large Christmas trees on the altar. She tells us that the church had two entrances, one for the men and one for the women. She tells this with a smile.
Behind the church, three monuments have been erected. One highlights a letter from the Newfoundland government to the people of Hebron, apologizing for forcing them from their home and for its part in the hardships the people of Hebron endured. A second highlights the names of every individual forced to leave Hebron. The third is the letter from the Inuit people to the Newfoundland Government, accepting their apology. I see Sophie's name as she points out the names of her parents, siblings, aunts and uncles.
"I remember going down to the bay for the last time, looking at our community, standing and looking, women crying until it was so small we had no choice but to go inside the boat to cry because we were leaving our own home," said Sophie. "I remember thinking that at that time, I didn't know there was other people in the world; there was only us in this world. I thought we were the only human beings on this earth because we didn't have contact with people from the outside world." As beautiful as the scenery was, and as much as I loved the adventure, I will never forget Sophie and the tears I cried as I listened to her stories.
The week passed quickly. My brain was working overtime to store everything I'd seen and heard. We were entertained by throat singers and drum dancers; we made soapstone carvings; we ate like kings and queens, everything from caribou stew to bannock to char soup; we were educated on Labrador flora and fauna; we were blessed with new friendships and a new view of the roots of Newfoundland and Labrador. We played slockey and pass the ace; we laughed while the ukulele, guitars and drums resonated songs over a farewell bonfire; we met people from other parts of Canada and the United States who were also drawn to this vast wilderness for its adventures and scenery. And despite the wet feet, black flies, mosquitoes and the rain and fog, we were blessed to be part of something so spectacular!
I know that very few will get to experience the Torngat Mountains in all of its greatness, and that these few pictures and words are but a mere glimpse at a geographical and historical phenomenon. It is a journey that I will treasure forever, and I thank Parks Canada, the NLTA, the Department of Education and everyone at the Saglek Bay base camp who made it possible for me to experience one of Canada's greatest hidden wonders.