“At the northern extremity of the Labrador coast, a range of high barren mountains with sharp precipices extending inland from the sea was known to traditional Inuit as the abode of the master spirit in their mythology. Their name for the region, Torngait, meaning a place of spirits, derived from the presence of Torngarsoak who was believed to control the life of sea animals and took the form of a huge polar bear.”
My mid-life-crisis-turned-fishing-trip had become simply a fishing-trip-turned-crisis. The immediate manifestation of that situation took the form of a fibrillating mountain tent, which had just been flattened on top of us by a 60-miles-per-hour wind gust. The wind had been blowing steady at 40 miles per hour or better for more than twelve hours and the storm was still building. The tent lay cold and wet on my face and chest. Even through the muffle of my earplugs I could hear the howling of the wind, the ripping tatter of rain, and the relentless, explosive snapping of the rip-stop fabric. It may have been Kipling who said, “You know you are on a real adventure, when you wish you were home in bed.” I think whoever made that quip had it nailed dead right. I wanted home now.
None of the three of us that shared the tent had been sleeping. Who could sleep when every once in a while a locomotive runs over your head? Cold nylon fabric having a similar effect on all, we quickly wiggled out of our bags as the tent tried to rebound against the gale. Then, on our backs like flailing crabs, we found the tent wands and supported them with our arms and legs. The tent shook violently in the wind but regained its shape as we gave twelve-limbed assistance.
Although we joked about our situation, we were all hyper-anxious. Only a few hours before, the nylon dome that housed our other two compadres had gone for a fifteen-foot ride. As was our tent, it had been staked down at nearly a dozen points, about half of which had their stakes ensconced in a foot-high pile of rock rubble. A mere tendril of a 60-miles-per-hour (80?) gust “got under it.” In an instant the tent tore free of all its anchors and rolled along like a giant yellow-and-gray beach ball. Inside, our two friends and all their gear offered only marginal ballast.
By some lucky quirk of the landscape our own tent had held fast. We shuddered to think about the possibilities. If a tent could roll fifteen feet, why not a 120 feet? And if so, it would have gone into the lake. This was a life-threatening catastrophe at the least. We were positioned on an exposed pebble beach, a hundred feet from the lake’s edge. Its rocky bottom graded precipitously deep.
I pictured that yellow-and-gray beach ball blowing hundreds of feet onto the lake. Then real-world physics would catch up with it, like the cartoon character that has been running on air until the moment of realization—“Hey, I can’t do this!” and he plummets to earth. In our case the tent would fold in the middle and start to sink rapidly. The late-summer temperature of that potential wet grave was 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The immersion time, in which one could maintain even gross muscular control, would be measured in minutes. You can run your own movies about what it would be like extricating yourself from a down mummy bag . . . in a double-zipped tent . . . under a tangle of rainfly . . . in deep frigid water . . . with one or two close friends in the pile trying to do the same. Yes, I wanted home. Fuck the yard-long fish. Get me home!
But here there was no packing it up and walking it out. We were in the heart of Canada’s fabled Torngat Mountains. We were camped on a mere spit of level rock-rubble on the flank of a narrow glacial lake. The lake lay in a narrow canyon of a valley, hemmed in on two sides by nearly three thousand feet of local relief, a landscape perfectly configured to maximize the wind force on our strained tents. We were some two hundred rugged and trail-less miles from the nearest permanent human settlement and far enough north to have the aurora borealis as our awesome, silent nightly companion. The wind howled like the banshee. God bless the North Face VE 25! The tent encased and protected us.
The idea of a fishing trip to this remote bastion of North American wilderness had taken hold about eight months earlier and brought five friends together to make a go at it: me, Bruce, Clem, Ed, and Tim. It was to be a completely self-guided affair. The Torngat Mountains offered the prospect of combining some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet with fishing for arctic char, the sea-run cousin of the brook trout. When we began, we had no idea of the amount of time and energy it would require to plan and coordinate the adventure. We also had no idea how much the reality of this little-explored region would surpass our wildest fantasies.
If the Torngat Mountains of Labrador are familiar to you, you are an exceptional geographer. Most people have a hard time even locating Labrador on a map. Labrador is the mainland portion of the Canadian province of Newfoundland, and for most anglers it conjures up pictures of thick spruce-fir forests, clouds of black flies, ravenous mosquitoes, brook trout of mammoth proportions, and sea-run salmon that will strip a reel clean. This is not the Labrador we were exploring. We were a hundred miles north of where trees stop growing. Here the steady winds eliminated annoying bugs as a significant factor. Here also, the water is just too damn cold for either brook trout or salmon to get by. This tragedy, however, is more than overcompensated for by the presence of arctic char.
From the icy waters of the Labrador Sea, the Torngat Mountains rise precipitously, creating vistas of incredible beauty. The range takes its name from the most powerful of the Inuit spirit beings, Torngarsoak. This deity was the mountain spirit and held sway over such things as weather and hunting success. It was a being that could be malevolent, as well as the occasional practical joker. Torngarsoak’s abode was the mountain kingdom we were visiting.
This barren range has a grandeur that absolutely dumbfounds our conventional image of what mountains in eastern North America look like. These are the real deal—jagged alpine peaks locked in snow year-round. The range is more than a 150 miles long and runs from Saglek Bay, in the south, to Cape Chidley, at Labrador’s northern tip. From its eastern edge, crenellated by spectacular sapphire fjords, the range rapidly rises westward to snowcapped, 4,000-foot-plus peaks. Nearly all are nameless, except for a few that are prominently visible from the ocean. The same is true with the water features; only a few of the largest bear names. (To give a specific example, consider this. Within the 650-square-mile area that was covered by the two 1:50,000 topographic maps that I cobbled together, there were scores of prominences above 3,000 feet and scores of lakes, rivers, and streams, but only a total of nine named features—three mountains, five lakes, and one river.) There are also numerous glaciers, although none are large. The area, including its associated foothills and lowland areas, is larger than Delaware.
The visitor should not be lulled by the modest elevations. At sea level here, you are already above the tree line, and at 2,500 feet you are in a landscape zone that is equivalent to 12,000 feet elevation in Wyoming. In both cases, there is only soil-less, frost-riven rock and the opportunity to screw up and “buy it.”
In 2005 about four thousand square miles of the range was designated the Torngat Mountains National Park and Preserve. As a result there is now an infrastructure and central point for information, but in 1986 there was no body of popular literature on northern Labrador and no guidebooks on hiking, fishing, or even mountaineering. It was a twentieth-century terra incognita. Our own information was pieced together from correspondence with several government agencies, by phone conversations with the regional wildlife and fisheries biologists, and by telephone calls to university geology and anthropology professors from St. John’s to Chicago. These included the crew that had been excavating a site in Nachvak Fjord, about thirty miles or so south of our own intended landing site. The stories we heard fueled our excitement and determination to make the trip.
“The last time I was in the Torngat,” waxed Berkeley, the fisheries man, “we saw caribou. The herd was more than forty miles long and numbered about thirty-thousand head.” The existence of such quantities of wildlife in this part of the world was a surprise to me. When I picture this kind of four-footed biomass it is usually against the backdrop of an African veld. In fact the caribou herd that migrates here is part of the largest herd in North America—more than a half a million strong. Other large furry critters of the Torngat include wolves, musk ox, black bear (in the south), seal, and arctic fox. Polar bear, or “P-bear” as we abbreviated it, deserve a separate mention, as they were a justifiably huge concern. Common on the coast, but also seen inland, even at upper elevations, they are at the top of the food chain. At the time they had a reputation of being a ruthless carnivore, whose basic nature would be to track you down and eat you.
Based on the reports from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, we knew that there would be a spawning run of char in the Komaktorvik River. There were also several large lakes in this immediate watershed for us to check out, including the Komaktorvik Lakes. These two lakes create a ten-mile-long finger of ice water, briefly interrupted by a moraine near its eastern end. The lakes fill a valley nearly ten miles long and a mere half-mile wide at its widest point. They are hemmed in by 4,000-foot mountain walls. From the outlet of the smaller (lower) lake, it is about fifteen miles to the ocean.Most exciting for us was the opportunity to hook up with the large boreal ancestor of the brook trout— the arctic char. This circumpolar fish is the most northerly of the freshwater fish. Studies have demonstrated that there are both anadromous (spawn in rivers and travel to sea as adults) and freshwater resident (which never go to sea) strains. Water systems with rivers and lakes are favored. Fish may spend a few years in a lake and then head to sea. In studies elsewhere they have been noted to migrate more than a hundred miles along the coast, leaving in the spring and returning in the fall. Evidently the pickings were good around our destination because the fish that we would be catching were predicted to run up to thirty inches.
There are two ways into the Torngat—by boat or plane. On the cheap, we got an offer from a local seafarer (and hotel owner) who would take us up there from Nain in a longboat. It would take four full days to go just one way, and that would only get us to Saglek Bay, the southern terminus of the range. He was quoting us $100 per day. As best I understood it, a longboat was an open boat that could easily accommodate six men and a pile of gear. Even though he assured us we didn’t have to row, the idea of an “open” boat gave me immediate pause. Just how safe is one of those rigs in the cold Labrador Sea? In the end, however, it was the length of the journey that nixed this mode of travel. After getting quotes from bush pilots in both Quebec and Labrador, we opted for an outfit out of Schefferville, Quebec. The charter would use a single-engine de Havilland Otter, the classic bush plane of the north. The pilot would fly us north 325 miles, drop us off, and then return to pick us up twelve days later. The game was afoot.
Planning was extensive. This was an era before satellite phones, GPS devices, and emergency beacons came onto the scene, so we were dependent exclusively on a short-wave radio for communication. We also knew that at this latitude, and in this part of Labrador, magnetic interference with short-wave radio transmission was as common as a sunrise. Our only certainty was that the radio would not be dependable—and let me quickly note right now that such pessimism was ultimately vindicated. Recognizing the extreme isolation we would encounter we packed a number of items that were well beyond the standard backpacking kit. We also developed a conservative travel plan, engaged in preparations, and adopted some specific safety strategies, over and above our usual good sense.
First and foremost was the decision to have a large party. We had originally planned for six, but circumstance had whittled it down to five. Perhaps under other conditions this many people would seem more like a scout troop on bivouac—over the top for wilderness travel, in my mind. In this case, however, there was a definite comfort in numbers. All of us were experienced wilderness travelers, as well as close friends. If someone went down, there would be people enough to generate and carry out a good response plan.
We decided to avoid the coast and the high potential for polar bears. We would come to within no less than ten miles of the coast at our closest point of travel.
Chastened by a story a backpacking party of four suffering two fatalities on the Koroc River, we also decided not to bring a raft or canoe, either for fishing or travel. That would eliminate an entire arena of risk. To help you understand the impact of hearing about that doomed party, you should know that in seven months of investigation and inquiry, we were only able to identify two parties who, like us, were going into the range on more or less a lark. The fate of the other party was better, but very far from ideal. By plane, they had cached food and supplies at several locations along an eighty-mile route to Hebron from the west. Hebron was a seasonally occupied government facility, roughly a hundred miles south of our planned landing zone. In that enchanting Labrador lilt of language and cadence, the forest official who related the group’s story to us put it this way: “When they got here, they were wearing their jackets on their feet.”
Evidently all the caches had been dug up by black bear. Besides these two parties the only visitors we could document were government people, those who in one way or another were exploring professionally—geologists, fisheries scientists, anthropologists, and archeologists. The fact is even these documented visits seemed few and far between.
The picture is changing. The park now sees several hundred visitors a year. These include researchers, students, contractors, park staff, base camp guests, and cruise ship passengers—about three hundred of the latter. Parks Canada has its administration, visitor reception, and orientation center in Nain, 125 miles south of the park and the closest community to the park in Labrador. The agency also has a satellite office in Kangiqsualujjuaq, in Nunavik, Quebec, a little more than sixty miles west of the park. There is also a satellite visitor reception and orientation facility at the Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station. This is relatively near the southern boundary of the national park and acts as a gateway to the park. Most visitors to the park pass through here. Visitors to the park are increasing, especially as a result of the base camp becoming a new destination for expedition cruise ships and sailboats. As to the park’s “interior,” essentially the entire 150-mile length of mountain range, visitation remains low. In 2006, the first year that records of park visitation were kept, there were twelve people who went on “guided or unguided” visits into the mountain range. In 2011, there were only eighty-five such visitors, in an area larger than Yellowstone Park.
In 1986 the people who seemed to be spending the most time in the range were the archeologists who had been excavating at Nachvak Fjord, about fifteen or twenty miles south of the Komaktorvik Lakes. These guys told stories—harrowing stories of tents being shredded by the winds. As a result of all this foreknowledge, we brought a lot of backup, the kind you would ordinarily never even think about taking on a backpacking trip. Our assigned payload for the single-engine Otter was conservatively estimated at fifteen hundred pounds. Aside from us this allowed for about 125 pounds of supplies and gear per person. Although this seemed a generous allotment, it was quickly budgeted away on the extra supplies and equipment needed to add an element of safety to the enterprise. These included:
- a generous extra two-day ration of food (twenty pounds)
- extra tents and poles
- six gallons of white gas for the stoves (why not?)
- an entire extra set of clothes per man
- two 70m/8mm ropes to assist in river crossings
- a heavy-duty metal footlocker to cache the food
- about two quarts of insect repellent (too much by 63.90 ounces!)
- a shortwave radio for emergency use (with its car battery and cables, about forty pounds)
- medical kit (six pounds)
As someone whose first-aid kit generally is only a few ounces, half of which consists of ibuprofen and antacids, I was particularly impressed that our party’s medical kit weighed six pounds. A couple of us renewed our Red Cross certifications, and we designated one of us to research and put together a doctor’s bag that would be up to the task. He met with his physician for two sessions, stocking up on a whole list of drugs. The medical kit had a pharmacopoeia of drugs, with narcotic painkillers on one end of the spectrum, injectable adrenaline on the other, and everything but the kitchen sink in between. A prescription was written for all those that required such, but with the generosity of the good doctor’s samples we only had to pony up for a few. All of the controlled substances had to be in their original prescription bottles, and we had to declare same when we entered Canada in a convoy of two vehicles. The good doctor also threw in a course of this super-antibiotic. The pills cost about all of $30 each, so he gave them to us only on loan. If someone got a compound fracture or gunshot wound, this would be the go-to medicine. Did I say gunshot wound?
Yes. We brought guns.
At the time we knew nothing of “pepper spray” for bears. In fact it wasn’t until 1986 that the first commercial bear spray went on the market. We just missed noticing it. We brought guns instead. Too bad, because scratching the weaponry off the list would have lightened our packs significantly. The mutual load, along with attendant ammunition, exceeded twenty-five pounds.
Although I had very little experience with firearms, as was the case with nearly all of us, there were several considerations that prompted us to bring them. One of these was illustrated by an archeologist who told of a black bear that showed up—a very odd occurrence for its species this far north. Completely ignoring all the archeological team’s efforts at dissuasion, the bear was poised to trash their tent on the basis of some fascinating smell. “It’s the same as their attacking you,” the scientist said. “If they get your tent, you are in real jeopardy. I had to shoot it.” Another contingency that was pointed out was the off chance of some rabid fox coming into your camp. You don’t want to be throwing Sierra cups at it, or trying to club it with a rod case. But at the very top of the list were polar bear. Six out of six of the people with whom we talked, and who had first-hand personal experience in the range, said, “Bring guns.”
The domain of the polar bear resembles that of the arctic char: circumpolar. Unlike other bear, they are nearly exclusively carnivorous. They feed mostly on seal. There is some debate as to which is the world’s largest carnivore, this guy or the Kodiak bear. There is no debate whatsoever that seventeen hundred pounds, looming ten feet in the air, is something to think about. It is also the case that years ago the popular conception of the polar bear to which we were subject was considerably more bloodthirsty, incorporating the idea that they would actually hunt you. It is a fact that a very hungry polar bear will go for you, but in truth there have been extremely few human fatalities documented to have been the work of polar bear.
Of course, there are only a few foolhardy people like us who come around their playgrounds. And where’s a starving bear going to be? Answer: wandering inland, away from his usual hunting grounds on the ice floes, and sharing the terrain with us.
In the end we took the advice of the Fisheries officials who said that they would never make the trip into the Torngat without a gun, and to cover all circumstances we took three. In fact we borrowed these guns from friends and relatives, and took instruction in firearm operation and safety from them as well. Today, with the Torngat’s newly minted national park status, visitors are prohibited from bringing firearms into the range, but one can hire an Inuit guide who is authorized to carry a gun. On our trip we had to apply for firearms permits from the Department of Forest and Lands. Basically these officials were ensuring that we didn’t go in there with something that didn’t meet the stated need: protection.
To the uninitiated like myself, “a .44 Magnum” is the make-my-day, kick-ass weapon that allegedly can take out the engine block of an oncoming car. Yet the .44 Ruger carbine just barely made the grade. “Marginal,” the official quipped about the application for this gun. The World War II-era M1 rifle got rave reviews though. Designed to be lethal at four hundred yards or more, it passed the grade with flying colors. The damn thing weighed ten pounds. Then there was the Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun. It was a sawed-off version; with its vented black barrel and pistol grip, it looked like a movie prop. With a deer slug in it instead of shot, it was designed for close-range use as a bear stopper. Along with its ammunition, it alone was probably another twelve pounds to lug around.
As we had hoped, we didn’t have to chamber a single shell during the entire trip.
There was one final arena of risk—financial. The single-engine Otter was at the limit of what we could afford for an aircraft, and it flew without radar or elaborate instrumentation. We would be flying VFR, or visual flight rules, and in this mode the pilots of these planes need to see where they are going in order to navigate and land. Since there were no weather reports available from the Torngat Mountains, there was no way of knowing what the weather would be at a destination more than three hundred miles away. The heavy weather, to which the Torngat Range is routinely subject, made it a fifty-fifty shot that a landing would even be possible. In 1986 dollars, the two bush flights were going to cost us $5,000. We would be gambling the first $2,500 that the weather in this mountain range would allow for a landing. The losing scenario would be leaving Schefferville and flying two or three hundred miles north only to be turned back by foul weather. This would see us back in Schefferville with an air travel bill of $2,500 and not enough money to make the second try, which required another two round-trip flights.
There was a silver lining if we made it in on the first flight. The outfitter will repeatedly try to fetch you, and even if he has to try five or six times, you will only get charged once.
We flew into Schefferville on commercial air from Montreal. Schefferville was established as a mining town and has a current population of 202 souls. It lies at the northern edge of North American civilization, and its character fits that frontier role perfectly. Perhaps nothing was more telling about the goings-on about town than the single grocery store, which was absolutely memorable for its layout and contents. It had a single aisle that followed the perimeter of the store. Against its exterior wall were stacked and displayed a thin representation of the kinds of items and amenities that you’d expect to find in any grocery store, only this one was nine hundred miles north of Boston. The pathway around the store’s perimeter was about six feet wide. Occupying the center of the store, and I mean the entire remaining area, were cases upon cases of beer. It was stacked from floor to nine-foot ceiling, forming a giant multicolored cube more than twenty feet on a side. Over the course of the caribou hunt and the balance of Shefferville’s “tourist season,” it would slowly dissipate its inventory of Labatt, Molson, Brador, and others, so that at season’s end it would just be a large vacant space.
Claude, a fellow that our airplane outfitter had arranged to transport us around Greater Schefferville, met us at the airport. He was driving an ancient school bus. His English was equal to our French, which was pretty close to zero, but we muddled through. He was to take us first to the outfitter, Jean, and then on to a camp that we had rented for the night.
The lake that was the base for our outfitter also was the base of operations for a competing outfitter, and the first thing we noticed in our outfitter’s open office space was a large telescope trained at their competitor’s dock. When we looked through it, we could see not only all the goings-on their dock, but also that they had an equally large telescope that was trained right back at Air Schefferville and us.
We conveyed a bank check in the amount of $5,000 Canadian to Jean, President of Air Schefferville. Arrangements were confirmed for us to leave at 5:45 a.m. For the several pilots that flew for the company, this trip was a real plum of a job and they were hitting on Jean to assign it to them. None of them had ever been into the Torngat Range, including the winning pilot, Roger, who had more than thirty years of flying experience in northern Quebec. Real, a young native Innu who identified himself as a Montagnais, was the up-and-coming alpha-pilot in the outfitter’s squadron, and so he got “the go” for the pickup. Accounting for a forty-five-minute reserve tank, and being conservative in all matters, the flight plan would include a refueling stop that we would never see. After we were dropped at our destination, the pilot would not fly directly back to Schefferville, but rather eighty miles southwest to George River (now called Kangiqsualujjuaq). Here the pilot would take on fuel from a supply that was maintained there and then head home. On the return trip, the pilot would fly first to George River, where he would take on a full load of fuel. He’d then fly to pick us up, and then fly directly back to Schefferville. We could sense that the pilots were as excited as we were.
Although predictions were for clear skies for the next day, when we arrived at the house camp that we had arranged for, there was slight drizzle coming down. We quickly disembarked from the yellow school bus. Claude presented me with a handwritten bill on his transportation stationery. I paid the agreed price in cash, as the outfitter suggested. We started to unload the gear, first on the ground to empty the bus so Claude could be on his way, and thence to the porch to which he had directed us. Claude said something as he pulled away in the bus, and we waved goodbye. As we loaded the last of the gear onto the porch, we found the door to the camp locked. It was then that Claude reappeared (where did he come from?) and, as best we could make out, identified himself as the owner of the camp. He gave me another handwritten bill on his camp stationery, and as the unofficial treasurer of this trout-fishing expedition, I paid him again in cash.
We were all bushed because we had been traveling since 3:30 a.m., and up before that. It was only eight at night, but we crashed after eating some lunch from the packs.
The stars were brightly on display when we rose early that next morning. We suited up and loaded the gear onto Claude’s bus, which he drove to the camp exactly on time. Claude then ferried us to the town’s restaurant, which was just a hop, skip, and jump away from our outfitter’s base. Using sign language he communicated that he would take our gear to the base, and then load it on the plane. He handed me another bill (the process was getting familiar now) and I paid cash.
The restaurant consisted of four or five six-person picnic benches set against a wall and aisle to allow movement, a restroom at the end of the building, and a door to the unseen kitchen. At the wall end of each table was a tray of standard condiments, but unique in my experience was also a six-slice toaster, a loaf of bread, and a large slab of butter, as well as massive jars of peanut butter and jam. The waitress appeared and poured five coffees. Smiling but ignoring both the inquiries about decaf and about orange juice, she disappeared into the kitchen door. We sat and exchanged excited remarks about the impending flight, the great weather that the morning sky portended, and so on. As three minutes became five, and we still hadn’t seen a menu, nor a second cup of coffee—not to mention decaf or OJ—uneasiness spread among us. If it was taking this long to see a menu, then how long might it take to get breakfast? It was ten minutes after five, and the sky was brightening. Just as we were about to charge the kitchen door to demand service the waitress appeared, miraculously juggling five hot plates. On each plate were three eggs, over easy, several slices of bacon, and a heap of home fries. We cheered and dove into the breakfast that we all would have ordered anyhow . . . well, except for the OJ and decaf. How did they know?
When the waitress, who also spoke no English, came with the check I joked with her in front of our crew, as I reached for yet more cash, “Where’s Claude, I’m about to dispense some cash?” Evidently she understood some of what I said. She paused, and then went into the kitchen and retrieved Claude, who had just returned and donned kitchen whites to work in the restaurant that we would learn he also owned. We all howled laughing—perhaps Claude most of all—as I paid the breakfast bill in cash.
As we walked to the air base, we could see the colorful Otter, painted bright yellow with blue and red stripes. It was parked sidelong against the shore. Its bay door was open and all our gear was being fork-lifted into it. This plane is sometimes referred to as the one-ton truck of the north, and there’s good reason: it has a payload that approaches three thousand pounds. Naturally such heavy loads will shorten its range, so the outfitter allowed us only fifteen hundred pounds. We met our pilot, Roger. He was a pleasant man of few words; I judged him to be in his late fifties or early sixties. Roger had been flying in this part of Quebec for more than thirty years. The customary destination for anglers or hunters out of Schefferville was the George River area, about 250 miles due north. We were headed 325 miles northeast of where the Otter was sitting right now, and in his entire career Roger had never flown that far north. This was his first rip to the Torngat Mountains, too.
The preliminaries were as limited as the seatbelts, of which I recall there were none. Roger would fly VFR. This was the basis of our gamble. With more than three hundred miles to go, we had no clue on what the mountain weather in the Torngat was doing, and if you can’t see to navigate, land, or take off, that’s it; you turn around and come home without putting a line in the water. We were all excited, as the sky was CAVU—clear and visibility unlimited. Roger’s method of navigation employed his compass and a large aeronautical chart, which he had expertly folded, such that he was looking at a one-foot square representation of the terrain below. With his thumb on our immediate location, he would fly to the next recognizable point on his map, put his thumb on that, and repeat that, taking occasion now and then to refold the map so that it again presented a view of the terrain that lay ahead.
We were flying at around eight thousand feet, hitting a little headwind, and cruising at a ground speed of around 100 miles per hour. The landscape beneath us was unlike any we had seen. Thousands of post-glacial lakes, large and small, passed below us. The trees grew shorter and became sparsely scattered, and as we got farther north, more and more glacially raked bedrock was revealed. There was just so much water on this land. It was as if one demigod had unloaded a cosmic-sized shotgun on it, while another used it for a north-south scratching post and a third came by and emptied its cosmic water bucket on it. Yet a fourth demigod turned its attentions here and seeded this region with brook trout the size of toolboxes, but we were passing all of this by.
We were more than two hours into the flight when we could discern an ominous-looking bank of clouds straight ahead of us to the northeast. It was about a hundred miles off. Roger identified that as the Torngat range, and our hearts sank as we thought that the cloudbank portended an aborted landing that would force us to return. You can’t put your thumb on something you can’t see, and with peaks topping out above 4,000 feet, you can’t drop down very far to get a look. We had all quieted down as we contemplated all the negatives involved in turning back. We had no plan B, because landing in Quebec was not an option. In this part of the province a guide was required, and we wanted no part of that. Roger was paying no attention to us. He might have even appreciated the quiet break from our excited banter; undeterred, he just continued on, with his thumb slowly advancing northward on the aeronautical chart.
In about an hour’s time we reached the cloudbank. Even those of us at the back of the plane knew when that happened because after almost three and a half hours of smooth flight, we were being heavily buffeted by winds. The good part . . . the excellent part . . . was that the cloud cover was broken enough so that Roger could see where he was going. As we descended from 8,500 feet, the heavy mountain winds had the Otter going through its paces, tail first veering left, then veering right. Disorienting flashes of alpine landscape appeared, then disappeared, as the broken clouds whizzed by below us. All of a sudden, we plunged beneath the clouds and headed down the throat of a narrow lake valley. The wind jostled our craft. Exhilaration mixed with nervousness. Roger looked as much the juggler as the pilot, as he worked first the flaps, then the rudder, then the throttle in a flurry of skillful maneuvers. We landed on the two-foot whitecaps of a three-mile-long glacial lake. In our haste to get the hell out of the plane, we directed Roger to a prominence on the lake’s northwest shore. There was a more or less flat rock beach that initially looked inviting. It was a location that we would regret for more than one reason.
The water and wind were fierce, so we unloaded our gear quickly. The scenery was distractingly spectacular. The lake, which had no name, was a deep sapphire blue with necklaces of whitecaps and foam being lifted and whisked along the length of the lake. Roger had his camera out before anyone. He took some pictures, shook our hands, and wished us good luck. For some time we had tried to anticipate the feelings of abandonment and isolation that we thought might come as the plane disappeared from view. We had imagined the slow fade of the aircraft’s drone. When at last the moment came, we felt the isolation but the expected slow fade of the Otter’s drone did not happen. The whistle of a fierce wind immediately eclipsed the sound of its engine, long before the plane disappeared over a snowcapped 4,000-foot ridge.
It took more than two hours to arrange the camp. The lion’s share of this was spent setting up and anchoring the two VE 25 tents. Each had ten anchor points. We buried the stakes of a half dozen of these anchor points under a pile of rocks. Just as we got things under control, the wind gave out and we relaxed with lunch.
We didn’t waste time. We strung up the rods and started pounding the waters of this unnamed lake with everything we had: streamers, wets, dries, lures, plugs, spinners, and . . . well, no luck. The lake even laid down for us, but we didn’t see a ripple. We knew better than to make a snap judgment about whether there were fish in the lake, but the seed of doubt had been planted.The scenery was breathtaking: sheer rock walls laced with wispy waterfalls amid a backdrop of snowcapped peaks. It was like living in a painting. To the east we could see a hundred square miles of undulating moraines and treeless glacial till. At its edge, but not quite visible from our vantage point lay a tongue of the Atlantic Ocean that is so far north, and so different in character from waters to the south, that it had its own identity—the Labrador Sea.
It was only a matter of a few hours before the first caribou wandered into camp, and offered an interesting distraction from the lack of fish. It was a magnificent bull with a rack the size of an apple tree. He stopped dead and looked at us sidelong and sniffed the air, bewildered. We must have been quite a sight for him. He postured, splaying apart his hind legs; he lowered his head at us and urinated. His bravado and proximity were unsettling. Either thinking better of it, or having made his point, the caribou turned and sauntered into the lake. He swam more than a mile before returning to shore, an impressive feat in water with a temperature of 39 degrees Fahrenheit.
We saw caribou up close every day of our visit. We would come upon them as we hiked or they would wander into our camps. Cows with calves were the most common. Sometimes they would prance a short distance away immediately, at other times the animals would all but ignore us. It was evident that we were the first people that these animals had ever seen.
We put down the rods around 9 p.m., and ate supper as we watched the last of the day’s light fade and be replaced by the colorful and shimmering curtain of greens, reds, and blues of the northern lights. We sat in awe. The air was quiet and a comfortable fifty degrees. The last of the light faded sometime after 10 p.m. We went into the bags, looking forward to our first full day in the mountains, and a change of luck in the fish department.
Dawn was soon in coming. The night sky started to brighten sometime around 3 a.m., but we managed to stay in the bags for a couple more hours before rousting ourselves to action and oatmeal. A couple members of our party were going to work the lake’s northwest perimeter as far as they could go. A sheer rock wall that ran right into the lake, about halfway around, prohibited traveling a complete circuit. The rest of us headed toward the lake’s outlet with intentions of fishing there, as well as assaulting the unnamed river that had its source here. We were eager for our first char.
Although we had assessed that our camp’s location was not ideal, we gained a fuller appreciation of that assessment as we sallied forth toward the east and the lake’s outlet. In our haste to get out of the plane and off the lake, we had given ourselves a solid mile of steep talus and rock rubble to negotiate. There was only one way out of camp and that was this nasty walk, along a stretch of broken rock that was pitched at 45 degrees, trying to roll you into the lake. It took nearly an hour to do this, and we had to take this route for every day-hike and fishing trip we took.
Negotiating the one-mile talus slope out of camp was even a lousier chore with a full pack, but it gave me plenty of time to contemplate the river crossing we would need to make, in order to take a more direct route, rather than follow the river. I suspect that at only 5’6”, I was contemplating the crossing more than the others were. For thrills and spills there is nothing quite like fording a glacial river with a full pack. You walk out toward depths that can only be estimated. Swift water is waiting to topple you; it wants to take you and your entire kit for a hundred-yard wet ride . . . or worse. After a minute or so your legs are operating more by memory rather than actual feel, as they deaden in the frigid water. As you pass that dreaded point of nut-sack depth and your testicles jump for the ceiling—well, the game is on. You are pumping forward like a fucking moose, but still moving sideways as well, as the current warps your trajectory, while it tries to knock you over. If you’ve been careful in your assessment of the crossing, you are successful. The depth of the stream decreases, the current eases and you reach the far bank, with only the lower part of your pack dripping water . . . and you have planned your packing accordingly. Not only are you high, dry, and safe, but you’ve just saved some miles of pack-sweat. In an era when ordering “extra spicy” is touted as adventure, fording a frigid river can offer a taste of the real thing.One day’s fishing became two, and then three, without our seeing so much as a flash or a splash. We had climbed a nearby peak, for part of one day, but other than that we were engaged in a sustained effort at finding some fish. Finding none, we concluded it was well nigh time to move on. Our base camp lake and associated river were barren. Disappointed but undaunted, we followed through on the plan to head to the Komaktorvik Lakes, about a twelve-mile walk south. We struck camp on day four, leaving behind the radio, as well as all the extra supplies we had stocked in. (The radio had yet to work for us. We had promised Air Schefferville a daily radio check-in the first part of the trip, but the earth’s magnetic field conspired against its success. There was no cause for concern; we had expected as much.) We packed up for an eight-day excursion.
We were well prepared, with ropes if needed, but as it turned out the only real challenge was the temperature of the river water, combined with its wide extent at our crossing point. It was well before ski poles had made their entrée into the world of backpackers. We were as usual using our metal rod cases as walking sticks, and now as a third leg as we crossed the unnamed river, which flowed from the unnamed lake. When we reached the other side of the ford, the feeling in our legs . . . the very sensation of our legs was 100 percent equivalent to the rod cases—zero.
Although it was only twelve miles to our destination, we had allowed for a couple of days to do it. The hiking was dry, but not a fun walk, as would be the case with nearly any off-trail route. That night we camped on the “plains,” on the seaward side of the range. We got a good taste of the kind of wind this place could offer up. The howl of the wind and the snapping of the tent fly kept us up past midnight, and presented a scene that is clear in my mind now, twenty-five years after the fact. Rain had come down hard on the tents for nearly an hour, while the winds continued to blow. Finally the wind ebbed and the rain stopped. Within short minutes I emerged barefoot on the caribou moss, which was uncannily dry. Either the wind was making the rain sound like more than what it was, or, as was my guess, the wind had dried it up like a hair dryer.
The sky I looked upon was clearly divided into two even regimes. The division had a clean edge, as if an architect’s T-square had drawn it. On one side was a funereal black, opaque mass of sky. On the other was the firmament with its tens of thousands of pinpricks of light, and star clouds that represented billions more. This part of the sky was not only alive with the conventional celestial twinkling, but the aurora borealis played wildly on it. It is a phenomenon that always throws me off balance, as I expect that it should be accompanied by some kind of noise. It is because of this perceptual dissonance that I am all the more awed by it. It is at times like these, in remote places, that the mind tends to go a little primitive, and one wonders if one of us had given insult to Torngarsoak, and what that might portend.
We arrived at the Komaktorvik Lakes in the early afternoon of the following day. After all this sense of wilderness it was a bit shocking to see barrels of airplane fuel stacked on the shore of the lower lake. There was also a Zodiac raft, minus the motor, in storage there. It wasn’t out of its original packaging, and the government printing on the material read 1971, meaning the raft was apparently unvisited for almost fifteen years! I had heard that it was not uncommon in the arctic to find abandoned caches of goods or trash, but it was something to behold.
The weather had been pleasant enough. The air temperature seemed to have hovered on either side of 60 degrees Fahrenheit for both the days and the nights. There were constant breezes though; you might describe them as moderate and variable, enough to keep the bugs off. At the lower lake, not too far from the outlet, was a small plot of land whose topography offered some shelter from these winds, in it least a couple of directions. There were a few low-growing alder bushes near the camp, and there was some actual grass underfoot.
It is remarkable the reaction that seeing “grass” can have on you, after miles, and indeed days of just seeing caribou moss, lichen, and bare rock. Grass jumps out of this landscape as if it had a neon sign on it. It immediately grabs all of your attention. The most interesting feature about it is that it seems to be associated with animal life. We only saw grass in three places during our entire trip. The first instance was a large mound of earth that wolves had been using for their dens. Although unoccupied (we assumed) at the time of our visit, it was definitely active. It was covered in and surrounded by grass, and one can picture the cycle of soil buildup, as these dens had been in use for decades, perhaps even hundreds of years. In the case of the grass around the inviting campsite at the foot of the lake, we had the sense that it was the result of human visitation.
Camp was pitched quickly and we headed immediately for the lakeshore with the rods at the ready. We were momentarily stopped in our tracks as we debated the identity of what we finally agreed was a seal. This critter thought it worthwhile to travel up fifteen miles of river to fish the lake, so we were encouraged.
We were not disappointed. Feisty char, some that topped twenty inches, were looking for us, just like we had been looking for them. Those of us who were fishing flies were using a variety of large wets, including many classic patterns, like breadcrusts, coachmen, or orange fish hawks, as well as streamers, especially #10-#4 black ghosts and grey ghosts; we were just casting with floating lines and stripping in. Every fifth or sixth cast would get slammed and the fight would be on. We had heard that char were tough to catch on flies, so we had brought spinning tackle as well, and a couple of our party were using that to good effect with just about anything they clipped on. Being cousins of lakers as well as brookies, we had wondered how they would rate as fighters. Lakers, to my mind, are a disappointing lot. They may hit like a locomotive, but after a little fuss, they come in rather easily considering that they tend to run so large. We were elated to learn that the char got that locomotive hit from their porky cousins, but also got the stamina and go-nuts fight that a brookie will offer.
The fishing went on until our arms got tired and our stomachs started to growl. We didn’t even break for lunch. The shadows from the 4,000-foot walls that hemmed in the lake were just starting to stretch themselves across the lake, around 7:30 or so, when we headed back to camp for grub and to gloat in the glow of success. We were all agreed that if there were any fish to be eaten, we would save that for the tail end of our visit, so as not to draw in the P-bears. (It is my understanding that in recent years there has been a real spike in the numbers of bears encountered, especially along the coast.) The angling victory warranted a special toast that night. This was accomplished with double-jiggers of “Glen Chevron” added to mugs of instant decaf coffee. Glen Chevron was some madman’s idea of saving space and minimizing the number of containers we would carry. Let’s put it all in one. The mixture was contained in a one-liter Nalgene bottle, intended to provide a few nights comfort. We managed to nurse it for all of one night. It contained Glenmorangie scotch, some kind of sugar cane moonshine from Mexico, and green Chartreuse. The Chartreuse was 55 percent alcohol. The moonshine had an alcohol content equal to Everclear, about 75 percent, and the Glenmorangie . . . well that was just flavoring, as well as filler to lower the alcohol content and guard against blindness. It tasted like shit, but we slept the sleep of babes.
The next day some of us made our way down the Komaktorvik River to explore and fish. A couple of the boys, who were not yet quite done catching twenty-inch fish, remained at the lake exercising their arms and listening to the song of line ripping from a reel. It would be the last day that they, or any of us, would bother fishing the lake. We soon found that the fish in the Komaktorvik River absolutely dwarfed the landlocked specimens that were wearing us out at the lake. They also presented some unique challenges in getting to them and landing them.
The region we were in, as well as a large part of Canada itself, lies on the “Canadian Shield” an area of largely igneous rock that dates from a half billion to more than four billion years ago. It has been uplifted, worked over, and eroded many times. As the water left the lake’s outlet and accelerated, it had cut a canyon into this ancient base rock and plunged. A thunderous fall of whitewater materialized from the turquoise flow above. Here we watched huge char trying to leap the six- or eight-foot falls. They surged up through that opaque curtain of whitewater that a river assumes when it decides to go vertical. From this froth, the fish would magically appear now and then, as they broke free of the river entirely and leapt upward. Most made it. A few lay dead on the adjoining rockworks, victims of their miscalculation.
From here on down, for about five or six hundred feet, the river ran through a narrow gorge that was about fifty feet across. It was here that the char were arriving and staging, as they prepared for the next step of their journey. Many of these fish were thirty inches or better. There was no going down into the gorge. It was sheer walls and side-to-side deep water. We could see the chars’ shapes—sometimes stationary, where they found some good holding water behind a rock, and sometimes moving swiftly upstream with a purpose.
As you walked downstream along the lip of the gorge, the distance between you and the river level gradually decreased, such that at about six hundred feet from its head, you were once again at river level. This was a fortunate topographic feature that allowed us to catch the char. We would cast from the ledges of the gorge. Then, when we hooked up, we had to encourage that fish to run downstream. We would then run like maniacs along the gorge’s edges, holding the rod as high as we could.
Two things became very obvious: one, this technique worked, and two, the guys who were fishing with spinning tackle had a huge advantage over those of us who persisted with a fly. In the end the fly rods were put down, because to get even a heavily weighted streamer or a wooly bugger down on these tuna, you needed to add an insane amount of weight, say a third to a half-ounce . . . maybe more . . . who’s counting? You can only rationalize fishing like this for so long when you are forced to admit: I am no longer fishing with a “fly.” The bonus on this change is that I could relax about one of these lunkers tearing an expensive fly line from my reel by snapping my rarely visited backing.
Like everyone, I was well prepared with spinning tackle. I had borrowed mine and spent a handsome fortune on lures. It had been about thirty years since I had purchased my last set of lures, spinners, and plugs, and I couldn’t believe that spin fishermen could afford to fork out this kind of money. I tied my own flies, and lost most of them in the course of a season, usually in the bushes. Make no mistake about it though—I had a spin tackle box that was loaded with every manner of lure. I should note, however, that in every case, the Labrador law restricted these lures to a single hook.
Except for a single stinker of a fifteen-incher, the fish we would catch would measure between twenty-four and thirty-three inches. It was quite a ballet that the five of us were doing on those cliffs. Fish on! Whoever was hooked up would then need to work that fish downstream to where the cliff disappeared into the riverbed, where there was a wide expanse of relatively flat water. Here the river braided, and you could continue the fight with your feet in the river. We called this area the Landing Zone.
Depending on where you were in the line along the north side of the gorge, the trip downstream could be as much as six hundred feet. Sometimes it was a race, as when one of these hogs would decide to take you to the Landing Zone in a hurry. The higher “in the line” you were upstream, the more of us there were to dance around to get downstream to the Landing Zone. We would all reel in as quickly as possible, and get the hell out of the way. Then the lucky wild-eyed bugger, with a shit-eating grin ear to ear, would sprint along the gorge’s table edge, in a mostly vain effort at keeping his 8-pound-test intact. This did not always go as planned. We were breaking off lures left and right.
I am happy to report that some of these break-offs happened when more than one of us would hook up. Boy, then the fun would really begin. It was difficult enough coaxing one of the fish downstream, never mind when two or more of these fish were on the line. It was mayhem. The fish were just beautiful! Most were still silvery from their trip to the seas, and if you had to unhook one by handling it, you could feel the enormous power and muscle of these fluid torpedoes. These were the progenitors of our beloved brook trout! We were awed.
We passed a couple more days fishing “the Cliffs” along this stretch of river, and although the run seemed to slow, we were still seeing plenty of action and breaking off many fish with our lightweight tackle. Into the fourth day we did some exploring, and for one thing discovered the reason that there were no fish in our base camp lake. The lake we landed at was barren because of the presence of a forty- or fifty-foot waterfall that made this particular branch of the Komaktorvik River impassible to the char.
A more important discovery, however, rivaled the heavenly fishing.
In the course of looking for some other place to catch fish, we stumbled upon something that we immediately recognized as worthy of inspection. The first cue to the eye was grass. There were patches of it here and there on a relatively small, flat piece of earth. When we approached these there was a remarkable surprise. Among them we found six distinct man-made structures. Five of these structures consisted of rings of rocks, each forming around what would have been a low wall around a central space. You could also estimate that these walls may have been between two or three feet high, although the rocks had nearly all tumbled down. The site had not seen use in many years, as much of the jumbled rock seemed to be already melting anonymously into the surrounding landscape. It was the grass that gave it away.
The sixth structure was very different, and the most interesting. Its core feature was a “cave” that was formed when a boulder the size of a Volvo station wagon was left behind by a glacier. It was deposited and balanced just perfectly over two cousin-sized boulders that met at one end. In this manner a very small cave was created. At its mouth, additional rocks suggested a former wall here too. The cave had a blackened ceiling and in its ultimate recess were the remnants of a cooking fire. In the fire pit were bits of charcoal and bones. We were just blown away.
We debated whether it would be okay to take a small sample of the charcoal and bones. After all, it had been more than fifteen years since anyone had returned to this area, at least if we were to judge by the dates on the fuel cache. Concluding (or perhaps rationalizing) that we would be of service if we grabbed a small handful of this ancient campfire’s contents, we filled a pint-sized Ziploc with bits of charcoal and a couple of pieces of bone. Our naïve expectation was that someone could carbon-date the fire. In fact we were later told that for the dating accuracy involved here we would likely need about 10 pounds of charcoal. (The more recent the sample, the more charcoal required. And because this area was completely glaciated, we were counting hundreds, not thousands, of years.) We also took photographs.
Upon our return stateside we would have a meeting with anthropologists at the University of Vermont, after which we conveyed the material (as well as photographs and a precisely marked topographic map) to Dr. William Fitzhugh at the Smithsonian Institution. We would be scolded by him for breaking the law and taking the material in the first place, but also assured that he would negotiate with the Canadian authorities on our behalf. He predicted a positive outcome. We would learn that it was a significant find, in that it was previously unknown. The fact that there were six of these structures made this site relatively prominent and indicated that this was a place were several families gathered to hunt or fish on a seasonal basis. The structures themselves had a name. They were called qarmats, and they consisted of these low rock walls, over which skins were placed to form a shelter. The last time that anyone used this site was from two hundred to five hundred years prior to our visit. We would all take satisfaction that our little find would become a footnote in someone’s dissertation. At some point—when money was no object to the Canadian government—someone would put a team together to come and excavate this site.
On that afternoon we were luckier with the archeology than the fishing, and there’s only so much time you can spend gawking at an array of rocks on a grassy flat. We returned to where the fishing was good and continued to have luck. By that day we could see that the pace was slowing, as the migrant fish were fewer and those that had tarried were focused more and more on amorous endeavors, and less interested in striking at our lures. In a way it was a good thing, because during the final day of fishing the Komaktorvik River we ran completely out of lures. These great fish had taken everything we had to offer. In the end, we were cutting up some of the heavy-gauge aluminum foil from our MSR stoves’ windscreens to make lures. We wrapped these pliable metal sheets around small oblong rocks, incorporating the spinning line and our single hook in the process. These imposters worked just as well as the store-bought stuff. In fact we were able to get down to places and reach fish that had eluded the decidedly lighter lures we had been using.
The slowing down of the fishing and the critical depletion in tackle made our planned departure and return to our base camp easier to take. The route we elected allowed us to pass a couple of higher-elevation lakes above 2,400 feet. En route we passed a flat circular area that was clearly man-made, and it was almost tempting to drop one of the tents in it. Whoever was setting up camp here many years ago was hunting this land, and we could share the precise space. But, the Torngat is a harsh place, and camping here would have been effectively indistinguishable from bivouacking on some 12,000-foot ridge in the Rockies—not a good idea.
The only thing I can recall about our campsite, on our return to base camp, was the barren and flat topography. You had to walk a half mile to get any sense of privacy when you had to take a crap. Of course, this was a situation that provoked extended conversation and merriment, because most of us lacked the ambition for such a long walk. We camped at the foot of the first lake that guarded the valley of our base camp, and were off the next morning eager to return to base, and relax for the pick-up on the following day. As we headed back into that unnamed valley the weather was rolling in on us from the southwest. It had an ominous look, a “here-to-stay” feel. We just made it into camp and got the tents up when the wind freshened and it started to rain.
* * *
God bless the North Face VE 25! It held us safe, even though it needed some assistance now and then. Like when the wind, failing to tear it from its tethers, decided to reshape the geodesic dome into an oblong pancake. At those moments we would be on our backs and using our arms and legs to support the straining aluminum wands. It held together and we were staying dry. During a remarkable, one would almost say miraculous, lull in the wind, we managed to take direction and inspiration from the ancient campsites we had seen; we built a low rock wall around the base of each tent. When the wind freshened again, it was unable to get under the tents and rip them from their anchors.
In the final twelve hours or so, the wind ebbed to the point of merely whistling, instead of freight train howling. At any rate, the tent frame went back on self-patrol and we could catch up on sleep. By 9 a.m. of our third morning back at base camp the weather had cleared and we made the first and only successful radio contact. In a quirk of earth’s magnetism and the strange play of radio waves, our transmission was being picked up somewhere in Ohio, and transmitted to Schefferville from there. We in turn were getting an intelligible transmission from Ohio. The message: our pilot was airborne and we should see him in a couple of hours. We packed our bags.Two days can pass slowly in a windblown tent. Using the Beaufort Scale as a guide, I’m guessing most of the time there were sustained winds running between 30 and 40 miles per hour, gusting at times to near hurricane force. Over the next forty-eight hours we would only exit the tent to respond to nature’s calls. Many of those trips were adventures in and of themselves, with to-and-fro travel accomplished on all fours, and the business itself requiring quite a balancing act, as well as a good anchor rock on which to keep a hold.
In two hours’ time we were packed and ready to go. After so many days of wilderness silence, the high drone of the Otter was distinctly captivating long before it cleared the peaks that surrounded us. An orange flare was launched, not because the pilot wouldn’t see our obvious colorful group in such a barren landscape, but more in celebration. And, damn, we’re men and didn’t get to shoot a gun for the whole trip, so we were going to make something go boom.
Our pickup pilot, Réal, was a Montagnais Indian. He emerged from the cockpit of the floatplane as it bumped against the steep gravel beach. Throwing us the ropes he jumped deftly to the shore.
“I have given promise to my grandmother—to bring her a rock from this place” he announced. He took only a moment to select an unremarkable ten-pound specimen and loaded it on the plane.
“Before I take you, I drink the water from here, no?” Réal was beaming. Clearly he was as impressed with our surroundings as we were. He and his brother had just flown more than three hundred miles to find us.
“You guys go alpeen?” he asked, motioning to the 4,000-foot peaks that hemmed us in on three sides.
“No, just backpacking.”
“Hunt the caribou?” He pointed to our guns.
“No, we were fishing.” We pointed to the rods and made gestures with our hands and arms to indicate the size of the catch.
“My people used to hunt the caribou in this place. You bring back the feesh?”
“No, we put them back in the river.” We could tell we were confusing him.
The puzzled look on his face evaporated as he hopped back onto the floats of the gaudily painted, 1951-vintage aircraft that had brought us here. He energetically began pumping water out of the pontoons for the takeoff. By now Réal’s brother, who spoke no English, had made an appearance and was about to load our gear. We joined in the brief work of stowing the five hundred pounds of equipment and the remaining six or seven pounds of food. Réal took his drink from the clear, sapphire lake that was our runway. Minutes later we were airborne. We would learn that these mountains were a special place for Réal’s tribe. Now he, his brother, and his grandmother were among the few living Montagnais who had seen the Torngat Mountains. For us, headed for home, the mountain range was already returning to the stuff of dreams.
We had heard Torngarsoak, the god of the mountains, was sometimes a mischievous god. Perhaps it is true because he had one last trick up his sleeve, and it was right out of an Abbott and Costello movie. A little more than two hours into the return flight, as we sat lined up like paratroopers in the plane’s body, we saw something shocking. Some of us nearest the cockpit saw the aeronautical chart that Réal’s brother was holding near a half-open window sucked from his hands. It was out the window without a goodbye to him, although some of us farther in the back saw it flutter “goodbye” to us, as it whizzed by the window. We freaked. There was lots of nervous laughter. We looked to Réal for his reaction . . . his plan.
“Don’t worry,” he smiled “We’re close to home now.”