Monday, August 31, 2009

Leave Taking

Last week, snow showers were forecast for Saglek Bay with low temperatures in the thirties. Wind is always in the forecast, no matter what the season or day of the week. Gary, one of the park rangers at base camp, said the northern lights become more common from mid-August on, as the daylight fades and gives way to darkness.

As we draw nearer to autumn, I find that the magical thrall of this trip begins to fade as well. Last weekend, we brought our daughter Bekah back to college in Washington, D.C and next week Anna begins school as well. Other priorities crowd in and I find that I am giving a great deal of thought to work, mulling over a possible return to active ministry in the Episcopal Church.

And yet, and yet...our trip to the Torngat Mountains still circles round close to my heart and lives on, as I trust it always will.

The Air Inuit Twin Otter took off late from the George River. Aboard were several Inuit elders on their way to park base camp for a week of meetings with park authorities. The Torngat Mountains National Park came about as a result of a land claims agreement between the native people and Parks Canada. They now collaborate in the management of the park. The plane would drop them off at Saglek and we, in turn, would get onboard for the flight back to Kuujjiak. From Kuujjiak we would catch a flight to Montreal, then drive on home to Maine.

At the airport the wind was blowing hard down the valley. Waiting out in the open for an hour or so, we sought refuge out of the cold wherever we could. We were treated to a visit by a herd of caribou that hung-out behind an outbuilding used as a garage for service vehicles and other machinery. Two parked themselves on a ridge overlooking the mountains, standing next to a fuel storage tank reserved for search and rescue missions. With cameras in hand, we slowly approached and were surprised when they showed no interest in moving on, as if posing for a photo with the perfect backdrop of the snow covered Torngats beyond. We zoomed in for shots that excluded the fuel tank, as if the caribou were standing out in the middle of nowhere which, in fact, they were. The bear monitors accompanying us got a good look through the telescopic sights on their rifles, without firing a shot. The caribou finally moseyed on and joined others of their kind up on the hillside.

At last the plane came within view, its landing lights shining brightly in the distance as it came in off the bay for its final approach. With the runway clear of caribou, it came down and landed, dropping off the elders as we stowed our gear aboard. On the flight back to Kuujiak, we all peered through the windows, getting last looks of the mountainous landscape we had just spent a week in. We caught a brief glimpse of the North Arm where we had set-up camp.

The place of spirits. The spirit of the land and of the polar bear and of the ancient peoples who have traversed that place. Such places are rare these days, such untouched places of wilderness where the original face of creation lives on unimpeded. Such is the vision that gave birth to the spiritual impulse, these elemental forces--of wind and mountain and sea- that shaped the soul of humankind. All else that has evolved as religion seems to me mere commentary on this primordial face. We so complicate it with our doctrines and dogmas, when at base it is so simple, yet so awesome.

May we have the grace to be still enough to stand in such places and listen; listen to that which came before us all and will live on long after we have gone, that which is our essential nature and our true home.

Photo Credit: David S. Heald Caribou at Saglek Bay

Monday, August 24, 2009

All Flights Cancelled

"All flights cancelled" came the word at 3:10 PM on Saturday. I was lying in the tent and commenced to take a nap, there being nothing else to do under the circumstances. We had arrived back at park base camp the afternoon before, after the queasy ride on high rolling seas aboard the Robert Bradford. Thankfully, Greg had figured the weather into our departure plans, allowing for one full day to be holed up in inclement weather. The Saglek Bay airport was nothing more than a gravel runway. Being closer to the Labrador Sea by a mile or two, it was vulnerable to the weather and to fog banks coming in from the frigid ocean waters. Word had it that the Air Inuit pilots would not come in unless the cloud ceiling was higher than 1,000 ft.

But base camp was not a bad place to hang out in. It was like an old-fashioned frontier town, it's main street with tents on either side, with a fast-flowing stream just outside the perimeter of the electric bear fence to provide fresh water. Generators supplied electricity to a large shelter tent used for meetings and social gatherings as well as to the kitchen/dining tent. There were two outhouses within the bear fence to be used when the fence was turned on (between 10 PM and 5 AM) and one outside the perimeter to be used during the day. The base camp helicopter was parked outside the fence, rows of red and black striped jet fuel barrels lined up alongside. The red maple leaf Canadian flag on one side, and the white, blue, and green flag of Nunatsiavut--the self-governing Inuit region of Labrador--depicting an inuksuk--the traditional stone cairn of the Inuit--on the other, marked the entrance to the camp.

The human population of base camp consisted of the Inuit bear monitors, kitchen staff, and several support staff, as well as the Parks Canada Rangers, several research scientists and their students, and a handful of Inuit youth and their counselors there for two weeks of camp. Peter, the helicopter pilot, was there for a two-week stint as well, to be relieved by another pilot when his time was up. Weather permitting, he would make several flights everyday, transporting the researchers to various far-flung points in the park or, as I've already noted, to check-up on hikers in the back country. In my eyes, Peter was a real rock star, piloting that machine with incredible skill and grace, over mountaintops, down valleys, landing on rocky terrain with apparent ease. Onboard the long-liner Robert Bradford, it was a three hour passage from park base camp to our camp at the head of the North Arm. By helicopter, Peter could make it in twenty minutes.

There were presentations by researchers both evenings we were at base camp. Folks would cram into the meeting tent after dinner and watch power-point presentations, enjoying the warmth cast by the gas stove in the corner. The first evening we listened to a presentation on the state of PCB contamination at what was the site of the Royal Canadian Air Force radar base at the mouth of Saglek Bay above the airstrip, operated between 1953 and 1970, and staffed largely by US Air Force personnel. The site was targeted for PCB cleanup in the 1990's. Happily, due to the cleanup and the passage of time, PCB contaminants in the environment have decreased substantially. The second evening, we heard an entertaining presentation by an ethnobotanist on the traditional uses of native plants by the Inuit of Nunavut and Nunatsiavut. As background to the lecture, several of the bear monitors, including John, were out on the land firing their rifles and adjusting their telescopic sights.

One woman researcher, studying for her PhD, was investigating the effects of climate change on native species of berries. Several others were doing research on one aspect or another of climate change. The presence of so many intense, intelligent scientists focusing their energies on the natural world was exhilarating. There was a Canadian college professor present whose area of study is eco-tourism. A young man from Bhutan, a student of eco-tourism in his own country, was also in camp. Our own group was a source of interest and fascination to many, as we were American hikers from Maine (there were no other hikers in camp), and had acquired fame by virtue of our heroic encounter with the polar bear. (Actually, the only hero in our midst that day was John; the only heroine, the bear herself.)

Sunday morning it dawned partly cloudy with blue skies, the clearing wind having come in the night. We made our farewells on the beach and again boarded the Robert Bradford, which ferried us and our gear out the bay and around to the airstrip. Immediately above the runaway there were low-hanging clouds, but the approaches were clear. The Air Inuit Twin Otter was on its way from the George River.

Photo Credit: David S. Heald Dish Towels Hanging Out To Dry At Park Base Camp

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Onboard The Robert Bradford

We were picked-up in the North Arm on Friday by the long-liner Robert Bradford, owned and skippered by brothers Chesley and Joe Webb. That morning, Joe had netted a ringed seal ("natsik" in Inuktituk) and Ches' son Jared baked it in a pie onboard.

When offered some seal, I readily accepted, figuring that the opportunity might not again present itself in this life. I spooned out a hearty helping from the baking dish atop the hot cabin stove and set about the task of eating it. I was urged on by Jared, a young man of large proportions whose round red sea-faring face was all smiles as I dug into the pungent pie. "Do you like it?" he asked. "Mmmh...yeah..." I replied between mouthfuls, not altogether truthfully.

The weather had remained unsettled with occasional showers and the seas were rolling high as we slowly made our way down the fjord and back to the park base camp. The seal was--how should I say?--rather fishy and stringy. And the breaded topping or crust was soaked in dark seal grease. At some point, I vaguely sensed that I best not eat anymore. It might have had something to do with the rolling seas and a vague, though alarmingly persistent, queasiness arising in my belly.

I remembered the Bonine--"for all-day non-drowsy motion sickness relief"-- that I had tucked away in my fanny pack, having previously used it to good effect on our charter flight into the park aboard the Beechcraft King Air. I popped in two tablets of the raspberry flavored chewable pills. Then I gingerly stepped over and strategically positioned myself over the port side of the boat. Fixing my gaze on the horizon, I tasted the greasy seal meat as it rose up in my throat, now mixed with gastric juices. My head swam.

"How much further can it be?" I moaned inwardly. I was certain that I had turned a bilious shade of green. My tent-mate Josh was feeling no better and took refuge up on the deck of the cabin, with the fresh air blowing over the bow full on his face.

At long last I caught a blessed glimpse of the park base camp as we entered the long bay with calmer, sheltered waters ahead. Gary, a park ranger, warmly greeted us when we disembarked. Several of the bear monitors helped us haul our gear up to the tents. Terra firma never felt so good.

It was time for supper. In the mess tent, folks were already lining up for boiled caribou ribs.

Photo Credit: David S. Heald Robert Bradford Anchored In The Bay At Park Base Camp

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Things That Go Bump In The Night

Several have asked whether I was scared or apprehensive after our encounter with the polar bear on our first day in the wilderness. My answer was "no," because I had complete confidence, not in the electric bear fence, but in John, our Inuit guide and bear monitor.

That being said, we were all vigilant and got in the habit of scanning the horizon whenever we walked about. Speaking for myself, I was most watchful in attending to "nature's call." The prospect of being caught with my pants down by a black bear while doing my "business" away from camp was sufficiently unnerving so as to sharpen my senses. With my awareness thus heightened, I soon came to relish these delicious moments of solitude in a spectacular natural setting.

One incident, however, got my blood pressure and heart rate right up there. Thursday morning, the park helicopter flew down the North Arm and touched down in the grassy meadow behind our camp. Jacko, John's brother and a park ranger, bowing low under the whirling blade of the copter, jogged over and handed John a candy bar. And, oh, by the way, he said, he had seen a large male polar bear in the next bay over. Better keep your eyes open. Off went Jacko and the machine gracefully lifted off, circled round, and sped down the valley and away. Silence.

We went about the day's activities--a long hike down the valley in the rain. Back at camp, I noticed that our tent was leaking, with little pools of water collecting in one corner and out in the center between our sleeping bags. I alerted Josh, my tent mate, and we in turn spoke with Greg, our gear guy extraordinaire from Chewonki. Greg erected a second fly on poles over the existing one, and fastened the corners down tight with stakes and rocks.

Now, as an aside, Josh is a big guy. Not tall mind you, but BIG. Not fat big but muscle big. This guy garnishes his morning cereal with steel bolts. By profession, he's a fitness trainer, so it's his job to stay in shape. With telephone pole arms and tree trunk legs, he weighs in at well over two hundred pounds, heavier than me, despite my being several inches taller. On our hikes, I was gratified to be able--more or less-to keep up with the guy.

That night it continued to rain and the wind picked-up considerably, with gusts in the forties. It was dark. Wicked dark. I was slumbering away peacefully when "WHACK"--Josh's side of the tent was violently concussed by God Knows What. Josh was airborne and landed in my lap shouting: "Jesus Christ!!! What the f--- was that!!!" We later confessed that, at that moment, we both thought we were dead meat and expected that the huge clawed paw of a ravenous male polar bear was about to be thrust through the side of the tent, eviscerating us as it swept all away in its wake.

Benson called from the next tent: "Are you guys all right?" As I had had the wind knocked out of me by a guy who could have been a tackle for the New England Patriots, I caught my breath and gasped that we were O.K. "But what the f--- was that???" I yelped. It turned out to be the second fly, sprung loose from its moorings in a gust of wind, slapping hard against the tent. It was now flapping about wildly, making a racket. I also had to pee, badly. But was I going to venture forth into the black of that rainy night and run into God Knows What? No way. Bladder be damned, I was going to stay put.

The next morning, it became apparent that everyone was awakened by the ruckus in the night. The story went through many iterations throughout the day. Its most amazing feature was that a two hundred pound plus man could actually go airborne from fright. Take it from me, it's true.

Photo Credit: David Heald Tents in Camp, North Arm, Saglek Fjord

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Our camp at the head of the North Arm of Saglek Fjord was on a grassy terrace situated above a rocky beach. Behind us, to the north, a valley crisscrossed by streams headed far into the heart of the Torngat Mountains. All around us, cliffs rose abruptly out of the sea to heights of almost 3,000 feet. High above, the ridgelines extend as far as the eye can see and catch the first rays of the morning sun and warmly glow in the arctic twilight late into the evening.

One could contentedly sit for hours, gazing down the length of the North Arm or up at the cliffs rising to the ridgelines or peering deep into the valley behind. Our immediate environment of grass meadows and alder and willow thickets showed signs of long human habitation, from tent circles to cairn gravesites to food caches. In the midst of what is much of the year an inhospitable environment, there is a delightful array of wildflowers. Due to the short summer, these plants must grow, flower and produce seeds fast. We were there at the peak of this brief season.

We were fortunate to have among our number Don Hudson, President of the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset, ME. Not only is Don a veteran of camping excursions far into the North, but he has his PhD in botany, with extensive study of arctic plants to boot. I made a point of watching him closely and asking lots of questions. Due to reconstructive surgery of his ankle several months ago, Don was somewhat hindered in his ability to hike extensively over considerable distances. He hobbled his "good" ankle after a day-long hike over rocky terrain, negotiating willow thickets and fording rapid-flowing streams.

Mid-week he chose to stay close to camp, venturing out with his Nikon and macro lens, exploring the beach, grassy meadows, and--under the wary distant eye of our bear monitor, John--rummaging about in the willow thickets on the lower mountainsides. For hours he crouched down low or crawled along on his belly, taking shots of wildflowers and other plants, no doubt oblivious to the passage of time.

One day, I detained him long enough to repeat for me a number of the more common species, which I jotted down in my journal--Labrador Tea (two species), one with small, narrow leaves, another broader and bushier; low-growing birches; Lapland Rosebay; bearberry willow (gone to seed); mountain cranberry; alpine billberry; river beauty; sandwort; yellow mountain-saxifrage; artic harebell, etc.. Sometimes he had difficulty remembering the common name for these plants, preferring instead the Latin names, which he reeled off with astonishing recall.

On a windy, rainy, cold afternoon he stood overlooking the North Arm and the great expanse of mountains and spontaneously, with gloved hand, pointed at every plant within sight and effortlessly named them with a dramatic voice befitting that of God at the beginning of Creation. That this scriptural allusion from the Book of Genesis occurred to him there can be no doubt--Don's father was a Methodist preacher. We stood in awe before him as he turned to every point of the compass, his voice building, his passion more and more evident with every grand declaration. Creation, indeed, was good.

On our last day in Labrador, back at the park base camp, while the rest of us went on a hike over the nearby terrain with a group of Inuit youth, Don pulled out his hardback tome of arctic flora and wrote down every plant he had seen, some eighty-five species in all. He reviewed his work on the First Air flight from Kuujjiak to Montreal, blissfully sipping on a Molson Golden Ale.

Thanks, Don, for your abiding passion and love of the natural world.

Photo Credit: David S. Heald River Beauty

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Our Inuit Friend

As firearms are not permitted in the Torngat Mountains, park officials encourage visitors to engage the services of an Inuit guide. The wisdom of such advice was made evident on our first day in the park. If John Merkuratsuk had not been with us when we encountered the starving polar bear, things could have turned out differently, to the physical detriment of not only the bear but to ourselves.

We were immeasurably enriched by John's presence among us. Not only was he our bear monitor, but he became our friend and companion. Utterly self-reliant, he was yet quick to offer help and support every step of the way. As we set up camp, John hefted heavy rocks from the beach to act as anchors to secure the tents from the almost constant winds gusting down the North Arm of Saglek Fjord. He was ever vigilant, scanning the horizon for any further threats from wildlife. When we hiked, he walked ahead of us with his rifle, or behind, if he felt the territory warranted it. He pointed out the fresh tracks of wolves and black bears and other creatures along the stream beds, judging when they had last passed by.

Even though he smoked, he kept up a quick hiking pace, nimbly and agilely negotiating the rocky terrain. He wore no high-tech gear like the rest of us. A baseball cap, a hooded sweatshirt, wind pants, boots and heavy duty rain gear sufficed. On rainy days he wore a pair of rubber waders. When we had to stop at stream crossings to take off boots and socks, or slowly step from slippery rock to slippery rock tentatively balanced on trekking poles, John forged on in his waders. Sometimes he would toss small boulders into the stream to create secure foot holds for the rest of us following behind. Back at camp, he would fetch water for cooking before any of us noticed that there was a need.

Early one morning, after a day of rain, I watched him down on the beach picking up two large driftwood boards and propping them up slant-wise between boulders. He strung a piece of old black fish netting between the boards to make a clothes line for our soaked gear. Another day, I saw him squatting down on his lime green crocs, intently studying a pile of tangled fish net and slowly and painstakingly unravelling it, hoping to reuse it to catch arctic char.

He had a wry, understated sense of humor that emerged more and more as the week went on. The second day, after a long hike, we returned to camp and found that the electric bear fence was not working. John sat down cross-legged on the ground, and with Greg Shute, re-read the instructions, trying to figure out what the problem might be. It was finally determined that the energizer was poorly grounded in the rocky soil. After considerable trial and error (by grabbing hold of the fence wire to see if we would be shocked--how else are you going to figure it out?), it was re-positioned in such a way that it worked...sort of. I asked John if he thought that the fence would actually deter a polar bear. He smiled and, as he walked away, said: "No comment."

John, reticent and private by nature, tolerated our frequently asked questions about Inuit culture and language. Steve Hyde carried 3X5 cards in his breast pocket and could often be found asking John what the word was for such-and-so, then jotting it down with his pen and tucking it away. By the end of the week, we had all learned a few words of Inuktituk. On the way back to the park base camp aboard the long-liner Robert Bradford, one of us spotted a large yellowish-white object on shore. Alerted, John held up his binoculars, gazed intently for a few moments, then yelled: "Nanuk!" The boat swiftly changed course to draw closer in to land. The huge male polar bear, estimated to weigh-in at 1,500 pounds or more, spotted us, lumbered down the shore, then stepped into the water and slowly swam away.

For the most part, John kept his own company, content to sit on the bench he had made out of a beach board balanced on two piles of rocks, gazing out the North Arm, the mountains rising up a thousand feet or more all around, his barrel-shaped coffee mug and rifle placed within reach beside him. I will always remember him this way. Although he lived with his family in Nain for much of the year, it was clear that John's true home is that vast wilderness place. He knew it intimately, respected it completely, and instinctively embodied his interdependence with it all.

Back at the park base camp the day before our departure, when he returned to his own semi-permanent tent and hung-out with the other Inuit bear monitors, I missed his close presence in a visceral way. He still looked out for us though, coming by early to make sure that we knew that breakfast was on.

Photo Credit: David Heald John Sitting on His Bench

Monday, August 10, 2009

Wildlife Encounters Are Likely

I've already shared with several of you the story of our unfortunate encounter with a starving polar bear on our first day in the Torngat Mountains National Park in northernmost Labrador. Here's the story for those of you whom I have not yet spoken with.

On our first day in the Torngat Mountains, we were ferried from the base camp of the park out to the North Arm of Saglek Fjord aboard a long-liner fishing boat. When we arrived at our destination three hours later it was approaching 10:30 PM. Although it is still twilight at that hour in the far north, we decided to remain aboard the Robert Bradford, rolling out our sleeping bags on the deck and bedding down for the night.

The next morning, after a breakfast of eggs and bacon prepared by the crew of the boat, our gear was brought ashore in a motorized launch. We set about the task of setting up the electric bear fence around the campsite. Within minutes, Ches, the Captain of the long-liner shouted from the boat: "Bear in the water!"

Out in the North Arm we could distinctly see the white head of a polar bear as the bear swam toward the boat, leaving a long wake as it paddled through the water. Perhaps having picked up the scent of frying eggs, it was intent on having a morning meal. The Captain fired a warning shot in the water to dissuade the bear from coming too close and it veered off toward the shoreline. Meanwhile, several of us had climbed aboard the launch and went out to photograph the bear, assuming that it would soon be changing course and heading back out the North Arm to the bay beyond. Instead, it continued toward the shore and emerged from the water, making its way to the beach just below our campsite situated on a grassy plateau at the top of a steep bluff.

John Merkuratsuk, our Inuit guide and bear monitor, fired warning shots at the bear's feet with his rifle, all without effect. Greg Shute, with us from the Chewonki Foundation, threw a flare down onto the beach, again in hopes of dissuading the bear from approaching further. The bear ignored these deterrents and methodically climbed the bluff into the camp. Several of us who had been in the camp, beyond the sight of the bear, had run to the edge of the grassy plateau into a low-lying stand of willow shrubs. Aware that the bear could not be persuaded to depart and was showing signs of predatory behavior, Ches shouted ashore: "Shoot the bear!"

John, ever calm and collected despite a rifle that jammed repeatedly, shot the bear. Now wounded, the bear ran from the campsite. When it was clear, John shot again. The bear collapsed thirty or forty yards beyond. John followed, got down on one knee and, taking careful aim, shot again. When he had confirmed that the bear was dead, we followed behind.

Park officials arrived within minutes, by boat and helicopter, having been radioed by Ches aboard the Robert Bradford. They assured us that, despite our having been traumatized and grief-stricken by an outcome that, moments before we could not have foreseen and certainly did not desire, we had followed the right course of action. This was the first such incident within park boundaries.

Later examination of digital photos revealed that only 18 minutes and 34 seconds had transpired between having first seen the bear in the water and its death on the plateau above the beach. A subsequent postmortem of the bear at base camp provided evidence that the bear had, in fact, been starving--its stomach was empty, with only a few tape worms found. There was no meat on its bones and its fur was falling out in hunks. Other signs suggested that she was five or six years old and had previously given birth to at least one litter of cubs.

Before she was taken aboard the Robert Bradford to be transported to base camp, we gathered around the bear in a circle, feeling the need to offer a ceremony of some kind and to mark what had just occurred. In turn, we each spoke of what was on our hearts. Steve Hyde bent down and touched the bear's head in blessing. I followed and did the same, feeling the warmth still in the bear, the life force seemingly still lingering.

In coming to the Torngat Mountains, we entered a wilderness landscape largely untouched by humans. We were aware of the risks that the terrain, remoteness, and wildlife represented. We were mere sojourners on the land, visitors passing through. I have never before had the experience of such a vast wilderness in which we humans are passing over, passing through, touching down, but never staying for long. It makes sense that the Inuit were themselves nomads, settling in for a season, then moving on, leaving only traces, and their dead in stone cairns; the land and its creatures are always predominant, no mere backdrop for human agendas and schemes.

There is no subduing this land, no domesticating it, and therein resides its sacredness. This wild terrain is a force to be reckoned with, a "place of spirits", that which we may approach, but reverently, and with suitable awe. It is the "mysterium tremendum et fascinans" of which Rudolf Otto writes in his book The Idea of the Holy--that which at once attracts and compels, as well as fills one with a sense of overwhelming mystery, even if at times a dark mystery.

The bear humbled us our first morning on the land. There is that which we cannot foresee nor adequately plan for. And my life is forever changed. It is an experience that doesn't--even now, safely back at home-- rest comfortably with me. It continues to haunt me and to have its own life. It beckons me on toward I know not what.

Photo Credit: Don Hudson The Bear Making its Way Along the Beach Toward Camp