Nunavik — isolated, raw, beautiful. Join me on a weeklong backcountry excursion through Parc national Kuururjuaq.
In This Nunavik Article You Will Discover:
- Traditional Inuit Culture
- Remote & Beautiful Lands
- Extreme Cold!
Where I’d hoped to see the summit, I find yet another windblown, rock-strewn incline of snow and ice. The mercury has dipped below -20 degrees Celsius, amplified by a near 60 km/h Arctic gale. Heavy breath freezes on my mug; my beard is bejeweled. I pull up my scarf and my sunglasses fog, which instantly solidifies. I prefer wind-whipped skin to tunnel vision.
Stopping to rest, I spin around to a vista so vast and striking it nearly causes my eyes to well up (if the tears wouldn’t freeze where they formed). The icy Koroc River weaves around the foothills of the Torngat Mountains, zigzagging through evergreens that demarcate the taiga-tundra line. Endlessly, a blanket of white contrasts a cobalt sky, fantastically illuminated by a starbursting sun. Forty-four-hundred-square-kilometres of traditional Inuit territory sweep out from here, near the 1,100-metre summit of a nameless peak on the border of Labrador, in Quebec’s Parc national Kuururjuaq. I am in Nunavik. It is April. And I am amazed.
An isolated expanse of land that occupies nearly one-third of Quebec, Nunavik is mostly raw Earth, accessed only via air or, at times, cruise ship. Fourteen communities speckle the land, separated by titanic tundra, scrubby spruce trees, snaking rivers, pothole lakes, the occasional meteorite crater and three national parks.
The second national park to be officially designated, in 2009, Parc national Kuururjuaq is located in Nunavik’s northeast. It stretches from the shores of Ungava Bay, near the town of Kangiqsualujjuaq, and forms a 4,461-sq-km protective bubble around the Koroc River, which flows along the treeline from headwaters in Labrador’s Torngat Mountains. Created to not only shun industrial development, but also to preserve the Inuit way of life within, the only regular signs of human intrusion in Kuururjuaq are a small basecamp midway along the Koroc, a tentsite or two and a smattering of survival caches.
I’ve arrived in Kangiqsualujjuaq on the final days of March. A dozen of us, including parks staff and local guides, will spend the next week scouting a backcountry route through Kuururjuaq, which Nunavik Parks hopes to offer to the public as a 10-day guided ski/snowshoe tour in the spring of 2015. Our five Inuit guides, all from Kangiqsualujjuaq, will play a vital role in our success — not only due to their knowledge of the land, but because Inuit are the only people permitted to carry firearms into the park. Ideally, though, Ned Annanack, Jimmy Chevrier, Jari Leduc, Darrell Emak and Susie Morgan will serve as educators, not polar bear protection, on this expedition.
Hastily, we load a week’s worth of gear onto snowmobiles and Qamutiks (Inuit sleds) — our compressed schedule requires occasional use of machinery — near Kuururjuaq’s entrance-point at the edge of town. At -18 and sunny, it’s bluebird for the Arctic — a relief, as weather delays in this region can last for days. We’re primed with anticipation, but before we can go, Nunavik Parks staffer Jessie Baron hacks off a few chunks of raw meat from a frozen caribou carcass with her well-used hatchet.
“Eat this. It will keep your belly warm,” she says, sending us each off with a slice of red flesh. It thaws and turns bloody in my mouth, allowing me to fully savour this traditional foodstuff. She offers another piece; one is sufficient.
I zip a borrowed parka to my chin. Our armada of snowmobiles sputters to life. And with caribou warming our bellies and goose feathers sealing out the chill, our 12-person team sets off into Parc national Kuururjuaq.
Nothing can prepare you for your first blast of Arctic winter wind. This tempest assaulting my skin, I imagine, has originated somewhere near the North Pole and tumbled for weeks over glaciated Greenland as it advanced toward the coast of Labrador. Then, no doubt, it swirled around 1,600-metre Mount D’Iberville — Eastern Canada’s tallest peak — and funneled into the Koroc Valley, where it gathered tinder-dry crystalline snow from atop metre-thick ice before cutting across my face like a cryogenic cyclone. Riding on the back of a rambling snow-machine, I’m wearing all my ski-gear — plus a polar parka and pants and Baffin boots atop that — and it is just enough.
Further on, we stop to warm our hands. Ghost-white ptarmigan scuttle about the river valley and Jari dispatches a few with his .22; they will be our appetizer tonight. Hunting is generally a no-no inside national parks, but Nunavik is Inuit homeland. Kuururjuaq’s boundaries keep industry at bay and regulate tourism activities — but park or no park, it matters not to the traditional peoples of the land. They have been sustaining themselves here for 4,500 years, and places like Kuururjuaq will ensure these traditions continue without the presence of nickel mines and commercial hunt camps.
Soon, it’s time to ski. We strip off our parkas at Alipaak, ancient fishing grounds about 12 km from our destination: a tentsite alongside the Koroc River called Qamanialuk. Today will be to stretch our legs, to feel the Arctic snow and, for me, to immerse for the first time in this foreign landscape.
The sun beats on our backs, but it is even cooler in the park than it had been in town. Without our thick parkas, we have to begin moving quickly — to get our blood flowing — but not so quickly that we perspire too much. In the Arctic, one must be cognizant of many things. If you get cold, that’s a problem. If you overheat and get sweaty, that will soon be a problem too. This is why general tourists cannot simply “visit” Kuururjuaq, particularly in winter. Unguided travellers must prove to Nunavik Parks that they have significant, relevant experience. Personal locator beacons are mandatory. Evacuation insurance is strongly recommended. Nunavik Parks’ staff has the authority and willingness to turn away unprepared trekkers — which is why most choose to travel via guided packages, like the potential route we now scout.
The snow squeaks beneath our skis as we kick-slide forward. Our guides zoom off down the valley, making haste to Qamanialuk, save Ned, who occasionally circles back to check our progress. He keeps just far enough away to give us the illusion of solitude, though we know he can swoop in like a superhero should a wayward bear poke its neck through the spruce trees.
Ah, the trees — there are more than I had pictured. We are at the edge of the taiga; the greenery dissipates mere metres to the north. But inside the valley, it is a verdant ecosystem. The Arctic spring has almost arrived and most of the boughs have shed their snow, perking upwards in the longer days to come.
The sun soon dips low, casting elongated shadows across the pallid ground and reflecting off flanking cliff-faces, crumbled and striated with icicles. Occasionally, the exposed river has me scrambling like Bambi, but mostly it is a serene ski, each of us absorbing the environment in our own way. In the twilight, Ned scoots up and points to a promontory with his fur-trimmed mitts.
“Just behind,” he calls out as he putters past. Ahead, perhaps twice as far off as he had indicated, Ned’s snowmobile tracks finally curve to the trees. Some 50 km from town, Qamanialuk is tucked just off the riverbank — a triad of Inuit tents glowing in the darkness, each with a smoking chimney poking from its peak.
Within the main tent, Susie sautés ptarmigan wings atop a woodstove aglow in orange. It is a welcoming, smoky, steamy mess: woodfire, sizzling game bird and sweaty mid-layers drying above the stove. Susie passes around a plate of ptarmigan wings and bannock. I destroy it — nakurmiik means thank-you in Inuttitut, Susie’s only language. Now 72 years old, Susie was born a nomad somewhere in northern Labrador and lived as such until she was about 16, at which time her family settled in George River (Kangiqsualujjuaq). Via stories translated from Inuttitut by Darrell, she tells of her youth spent hunting in Labrador and fishing just across the river from where we camp tonight.
Satiated, I curl into a billowy sleeping bag. Susie tosses her mat near mine and tucks herself into a sleep-system that looks half-as-warm. The stove burns out and an Arctic chill descends overtop, cold as starlight. I huddle into the bag and let the thick silence take me away.
It is surely -25 in the tent when I wake. My breath condenses like cigar smoke and frosts the rim of my mummy bag. I stay bundled and allow the newly fired stove to radiate at least an inkling of heat before I dare squirm out. To my right, septuagenarian Susie tosses off her blanket and jumps to life without complaint.
Our guides have reconnoitered today’s route. It is mostly exposed ice between Qamanialuk and the park’s base-camp, a comfy cabin called Korluktok. It’s effectively unskiable. We’ll need to make the 40-odd-km trip via Ski-Doo if we hope to stay on schedule. And we have to depart before the sun warms the day; a section ahead shows the first signs of break-up. (Just last week, I’m told, a snowmobile crashed through the surface.) But we can’t leave before Susie has a chance to dash onto the river and jig up some Arctic char. She doesn’t sit still long.
With Ned piloting my sled, we traverse the sheer ice — our snowmobiles spin their treads and the Qamutiks fishtail atop a frictionless surface. Making our way to Korluktok, we stop at several significant spots, as identified on Kuururjuaq’s map by local elders: hunting grounds, archeological sites, nomadic campsites and, finally, the cabin’s namesake, Korluktok Falls — the furthest char can swim upriver in summertime. (A nice view for us; four millennia of fishing heritage for our guides.)
After a chilly previous night, Korluktok is a welcome sight: bunkbeds, kitchen, composting toilets, solar power and oil stoves. In this relative luxury, we congregate for lunch. Susie fillets and flash-fries the morning’s char and plates it next to a pile of bannock while we melt snow for our dehydrated camp food.
“I don’t eat that,” Ned says, poking a bag of rehydrated minestrone. “It tastes like poison.”
He’s right. Pass the bannock, please.
Our mission today: scout an alpine snowshoe itinerary in the hills adjacent to Korluktok. And with Darrell at the lead, we trod from camp, across the Koroc River and toward the foothills on its southern edge.
The snow is exhaustingly deep within the riverside woodland of black spruce — even our shod feet sink knee-deep as we break trail. Darrell occasionally lights a cigarette, seemingly unaffected by the exertion. He later jests that the smoke, “helps him climb.” But watching him stomp away from me, I can’t really argue.
Rising out of the river system, Darrell leads us along a ridge that overlooks the Koroc Valley. Below, Korluktok is a speck in an impossibly immense area. To the northeast, the Torngats — “Land of Spirits” — curve with the horizon. At this moment, within the entire park, there may be, perhaps, one other party. I feel alone in the best possible way. Unburdened, focused Zen-like on the task: moving through the snow, staying warm, breathing deep. Weather changes by the minute. I strip off a layer in the protected forest, then hunker down when the wind blasts us on the exposed mountainside. We spend hours route-finding this way, eventually rediscovering the river, our camp and the heat of an oil stove.
At dinner, we listen to Susie’s translated tales. She and her sister, who is of similar age, still regularly head out on multi-day hunting or fishing trips. In her younger days, she once solo-trekked for three weeks through more than 350 km of mountainous terrain between Nain and Kangiqsualujjuaq. Her stories illuminate the cultural and sociological transitions Inuit communities today face. Elders like Susie had been born in tents to nomadic tribes; their grandchildren have iPhones. Communities such as Kangiqsualujjuaq are connected to the world via satellite Internet; bounties from bear, seal and caribou subsistence hunts are still shared amongst residents via communal freezer. The challenge is to keep tradition strong while embracing change.
“The elders guided us,” Darrell remarks. “Now we are the guides.”
A pale moon precedes the brightest sun of the week — ideal conditions to head further into the park, to an area near “Rivers That Look Like Tears” and an alpine path leading up 500 vertical metres to the border of Labrador. To the Inuit, the mountainous area we’ll tackle is loosely dubbed “Caribou’s Big Hill.” Today, it is our big hill.
We Ski-Doo northeast. Halfway, we stop at a place where the river ice is transparent — though a metre-and-a-half thick, it’s like a windowpane to the river stones below. Past that, and in juxtaposition, the turbulent Koroc has weakened its solidity. Bubbling spouts of water pockmark an opaque, greying icepack. As we pass overtop, our snowmobile sinks a couple of inches into the softened sheet — just enough to send my heart into palpitations. Last year, on May 1, Ned’s sled crashed through the ice and he barely escaped with his life. Alone, he walked for three days back to town with little more than a .22 on his back, shooting ptarmigan to stave off starvation.
Always the group’s jokester, Ned notices my tense reaction to the slush.
“We’re going to go through!” he yells. Oh, hilarity.
We will be without support for much of today’s trek, so when we arrive at the staging point, Ned and Jari do a quick perimeter scan to ensure the hillside is bear-free. (As much as one can be sure, that is.) Here, north of the treeline, Kuururjuaq has become what I expected: tundra, domelike mountains and barren Precambrian stone jutting through wind-sculpted snow. Jari describes it as, “Like the surface of the moon.”
At the start of the climb, the temperature is about -20. With each step, though, comes more exposure. My sweat freezes. My stubble is ice. I climb over three false-summits before reaching the ridge-walk, which impresses with an infinite Arctic view and eventually curves downslope on the west side of the mountain. The shelter of a van-sized boulder provides respite to remove my snowshoes for the last push. The peak is almost blasted clean; strewn with polygon rubble and what snow remains is compact enough to walk over. Atop Caribou’s Big Hill, gusts hit 60 km/h and bite like a hornet’s sting.
From this vantage point, the park’s 446,000 hectares seems a conservative estimate. The Koroc River carves a prodigious swath and prominences jut skyward 500 metres or more on either side. The foothills of the Torngats repeat, mountains beyond mountains, until they vanish from sight. Nunavik means “great land.” In typical Inuit subtlety, “great” is an understatement.
I begin the descent by dancing overtop a precarious section — a steep sheet of ice finishing in a garden of primordial stone. A slip here would be like careening across a cheese grater. Beyond the slope, I can see the specks of our guides and their snow machines; shadows in the Arctic tremendous. By the time our group congregates back at these shadows, though, the sun is threatening to vanish. And without even a meager amount of solar heat, sweaty bodies cool quickly. Even Susie is soon shaking off the chill.
“You can have my gloves if you are cold,” Ned says during a rest stop on the way back to camp. I refuse, but I’m moved by the offer. Some people claim they’ll give you the shirt off their back. But Ned, like most other Inuk, would actually offer his only pair of gloves because his guest might be chilly.
It is the most epic day yet. Each of us is thoroughly exhausted, but elated to be telling tales and filling our bellies with bannock back at Korluktok. We ask Darrell to inquire if Susie had a nice day in the park as well. A short exchange in Inuttitut follows.
“She says, ‘it was OK,’” Darrell relates. (What I call bucket-list adventure, Susie simply calls home.)
Later, I bundle up to watch the Northern Lights streak atop the Torngats. They pulse in ribbons of green, fading at times to an ethereal glow then beaming once again in giant ripples, like mountains of malachite. It is little wonder why the Inuit are so proud of their home. Beneath dancing auroras, under a dome of stars, in the palpable northern silence and amidst air so crisp it feels like you could break it with a slice of your hand, there is a sense of calm more powerful than even the Arctic chill. Four days in Nunavik and I have begun to feel at home myself.
Kuururjuaq’s potential for exploration is never-ending. Suitably, park reps conclude the 2015 tour package will be a-go, denoting the official success of our trip. But this was a foregone conclusion. Nunavik Parks could run a dozen different trips and it would still be a mere introduction to this land.
Our final full day sees us skiing right from the cabin, following the Koroc northeastward to a massive plateau. We ski across snow as gritty as salt with no destination in mind — seeing just to see, going just to go. To my right, a giant crack in a pyramid-shaped prominence looms large — our guides call it “The Butt Crack.” Ahead, the plateau sinks into a valley big enough to be a park of its own. We hope for a caribou sighting, but settle for one more amazing panorama.
Heading back, we scout along the valleyside in search of a 3,000-year-old Pre-Dorset food cache said to be hidden atop one of three hills on the Koroc’s northern bank. We don’t find it. But at least we eliminate where it isn’t.
We return toward Korluktok in the dying light — our group spreads out, each again enjoying personal time in the Arctic. I push across the frozen river, my skis creaking on the crisp snow, then rattling across exposed ice. Crystals cascade against my legs. The Koroc moans in the cooling temperatures. The wind whines as it hits riverside spruce. The sun pierces orange-and-yellow rays through nimbus clouds. I am conversing contentedly with the Land of Spirits.
At nightfall, we join our hosts at a bonfire in the woods. Though it is at least -25, the flame is warm enough for me to open my jacket and remove my gloves. Above, the moon is a sliver and the stars are almost as bright. I listen to stories of life in Kangiqsualujjuaq — of our hosts’ love of this land and what the Koroc Valley provides: food, clothing and mindfulness. They speak of the upcoming goose-hunting season, when freezers and stew pots are full; their preference of winter over summer (“no mosquitoes!”); the taste of seal meat; Ski-Doo maintenance; trilingualism. We listen to the wood crackle, smell the burning pitch and watch sparks swirl above the treetops and vanish in a damson sky.
With the fire as embers, I wander back to the cabin. The new moon shines just enough light for me to distinguish trees from snow. From a clearing, I see the Northern Lights again — this time the auroras form a faint loop in the sky, like an eye in the centre of the universe. We are molecular in this land. We are privileged to be here. We are privileged to learn from our Inuit guides. We are privileged to call this Canada.
I am in Nunavik. It is April. And I am amazed.
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This article appeared in Explore Magazine, Winter 2014. See more here: http://www.explore-mag.com/Winter_Backcountry_Adventure_in_Nunavik.