Finally in Labrador; at the Eastern Quebec
Western Labrador border
I sat on stony, moss-covered ground, my legs splayed like a wishbone, and gazed at a pastel sunless sky, jagged mountain tops, and a glassy bay. My back was against a cold rock face—just beyond my feet, a patch of fuchsia fireweed stood straight and still, and mosquitos buzzed against the netting draped over my head and chest. I breathed in a full breath of salty sea air. It was 4:20 a.m. on July 21 and I was wearing a thick, black jacket with fluffy white fur that lined my face, two pairs of pants, and gloves, all to protect me from the mosquitos and ward off the morning chill. Low tide served up a glistening sand walkway to mounded, grassy islands.
A colony of seagulls snacked on sea creatures in the tidal flat and then, all at once, a roar of flapping wings lifted the gulls in a unified wave. The flock squawked and fluttered south . . . Silence flooded in again. I soaked in all that was the abandoned coastal Inuit settlement of Hebron, Labrador: the most culturally significant place in all of Labrador, Canada. The towering Torngat Mountains loomed to my left. Dead ahead, out beyond the safety of the natural inlet and bay, was the Northern Labrador Sea, and beyond that, Greenland.
“How did I end up here?” I thought.
View looking out From Hebron
The easy answer was: I was visiting friends near Ottawa, Ontario in June with my Airstream in tow and something tugged me east. I stopped in Old Quebec City and continued up the coast of the St. Lawrence River, then north toward Labrador. It had been a month of boondocking on rivers and lakes, hilltops and deep in boreal forests via unplanned travels. A month of meeting and befriending the kindest people, and over and over being given fresh fish by strangers and new friends, so much fish that my freezer was packed to the gills. And a month of hunting down cell service a couple days a week to work and then diving back into untouched nature again. Now added to the list of adventures was my incredible journey by boat into this rugged arctic paradise.
To get to this place, I hauled my Airstream as far north as roads would take me on the east coast of North America and left my truck and Airstream at the dock in Goose Bay. I boarded the Kamutik W ferry for a two-and-a-half-day ride to Nain, the northernmost town in Labrador. The six small Inuit and Innu towns that dot the northern Labrador coast are accessible by boat or plane only. Once I arrived in Nain, I hired an Inuit guide, William, to take me farther north by private boat, and I also stayed with his family in Nain. From Nain, it was another 150-plus miles of raw nature to Hebron. We skirted through unimaginably beautiful seascapes and craggy cliffs.
Lakeside on the Labrador Highway
William and I stood, looking out over the dashboard, in a 19-foot aluminum boat with a forest-green, 50-gallon drum of gasoline laid on its side behind us. It was secured in place with square wood stick and rocked with each wave we hit. I never would have guessed I’d hop on a little metal boat with a near stranger and a drum of fuel and set off into the wilderness, but it all felt perfect. When in Rome — err, I mean, Labrador …
Mountains and islands grew taller and larger the farther north we went: Towering, bright green grass-covered mountains dotted with patches of snow, jagged cliffs the color of rust with marigold, tangerine, and bronze swaths of minerals flaunting themselves in the bright arctic sun. And icebergs! Oh. My. Goodness! Their arctic aquamarine shimmering color is something that cannot be described and several were humongous enough to house a small town! Seals, whales, polar bears and caribou are just a few unique species that roam the banks and swim in the waves. I was in awe for six hours straight on the boat, and then another whole day after that.
Iceberg on the coast of the Labrador Sea
About 4.5 hours into our boat journey we spotted a sailboat offshore heading north.
“You want to go check it out?” William said.
I answered with quick nods and a big grin.
After a few minutes of chasing them I wondered what they might think of us.
“What if they think we are pirates?” William thought I was joking … but seriously: we were in no-man’s land, and I kind of thought we looked like pirates in our aluminum boat and rusted up steel drum.
“Do you have a white flag?”
William shrugged and laughed at my silly questions.
The sailboat was flying a British flag along with a Labrador flag. We exchanged waves and smiles and kept on going.
Point Amour Lighthouse
About an hour later we turned inland and William began sharing more about Hebron, about the Polar bear guard that stays there all summer, the work being done to rebuild and refurbish the church and other buildings, and more about the special land we’d soon be stepping onto. In 1959, the Inuit were forced to leave their home, in Hebron, to settle hundreds of miles south in small, seaside villages.
This area, this special, peaceful, and powerful place, this paradise continues to be a sacred space. Thankfully, it’s far enough away from creature comforts that most tourists won’t make it this far … the polar bears that frequent the beaches often scare away the rest.
I was surprised that there were three Inuit volunteers stationed in Hebron for the summer to work on restoring the few structures that are left, welcome guests, and keep them safe: Joas, the Polar bear guard, carried a rifle everywhere he went and placed plywood studded with long nails in front of the sleeping quarters each night. Emily, the cook, welcomed guests, shared history, and kept everyone warm and fed. And Steven, the jack of all trades, made repairs, helped Joas and Emily, and caught fresh Arctic char for supper.
Sunset Lodge Bay
I woke up well before anyone else that peaceful morning and I sat, back against the rock, for more than two hours. Joas would have been worried had he known I was outside by myself. Although, I stretched my head up above the large rock face like a prairie dog every few minutes to be sure no polar bears were sneaking up from behind.
“How the heck am I here?” I thought.
Luck, chance, divine nudging? I could have easily been working a regular job, living in a regular house, experiencing regular old things. Instead, this. Tears rolled down my cheeks as waves of gratitude and awe washed up on my shores. Then more emotions flooded in — this paradise was someone’s home, many someones. This paradise fed them, taught them and took care of them.
What I learned from my new friends and from reading about their history is how the Inuit received what they needed from nature. They didn’t take like society does today. So many people try to harness, use and profit from the land. That’s not how Inuit (and indigenous all over the world) lived. They not only work with nature, they learn from nature … they receive. And my goodness gracious does this place give.
Manic 5 Dam
There are fish waiting to be caught (Arctic char: “Pitsik” Yum!), caribou, and a fresh water stream. The daytime temperature was around 75F and it was mid-July, but there was still a humongous chunk of frozen snow (the size of a small house) to use for chilling things too.
One by one, my new friends woke up. The first was Joas, who noticed me watching the sunrise and invited me on a walk. I wanted to stay and help, to work and learn and love the people and the land. I would have stayed until the winter sent me south. This time, it wasn’t meant to be. I hope someday.
By 7:30 a.m., I was back on the Labrador Sea in watching the picturesque paradise shrink smaller and smaller behind our wake. Wind howled in my ears and the outboard screamed. William stood next to me, hands on the wheel, eyes focused east. I turned and hugged him. “Thank you for taking me here,” I said in a shaky voice, tears welling up again. “Thank you.”
William and Kristy just before she boarded her flight from Nain back to Goose Bay
Some things to note: the rugged journey via the Labrador Highway isn’t for the faint of heart. The expedition begins in Baie-Comeau, Quebec and continues for well over a thousand miles, including 150-plus miles of dirt/gravel roads, and some of the paved roads in Quebec are worse than gravel! Your rig must be fully self-contained (I haven’t plugged in to power for over six weeks) and you must be mechanically sound. You’ll likely need repairs. If it’s broke, you fix it. A couple lost their brakes on their trailer and it was almost a month wait just to get into a shop. If you need a part, good luck.
A local man mentioned he had a flat and the tire was in transit but wouldn’t arrive for three weeks. Come prepared and then be prepared to think like MacGyver. You’ll drive many hours through the wilderness between gas stations. The longest stretch is more than 250 miles of nothing but forest. Be ready for mosquitos and black flies, and be equipped to rough it.
All that being said: What a gift. What an adventure. What a place to realize the strength of human spirit and to be embraced by loving kindness from everyone. The people of Labrador have taught me the boundless capacity to care and love. I’ve been blown away by the thoughtful kindness of everyone in this whole region.
In the midst of this remote land, the human heart bursts wide open and strangers become kin. The scenery and environment is special, but for the people here … there are no words. Everyone is family. There are no strangers here … none.