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