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Guide's Report

By Geoffrey Peake

The many worries of a guide

Monday, July 16, 2001


Campsite: North Head 58º 55.43'N, 63º 09.37'W
Barometer 29.98 in
Distance Today: 35 km
Total: 92 km

Andrew came by the tent at 6:30 and in his most polite voice tried to wake me up. Now, I am not a morning person-especially after five hours of sleep, but the night before I had mentioned we needed to make another early start. Apparently Andrew was the only one who actually took me seriously. Somehow, we all managed to shake the sleep off and get packed up -- by then the sun was brilliantly streaming down on Bear's Gut and we finally had a chance to see what it looks like in daylight. The mountains on the far shore were steep knife-edged ridges; this place, like so much of coastal Labrador, bears the scars of glaciation.

One of the amazing things about being on trip is that you enter a completely different perception of time. Although it has only been a little over 48 hours since we were dropped off at the Saglek airstrip, it seems like weeks. This is because no two days are the same, and (like yesterday) some days can be very long indeed.

For those of you who are wondering what thought process go through my head, as Chief Guide, on your average day, let me say this: I worry a lot. This is the first time our group has done any significant ocean paddling (although I have done lots myself on the West Coast). Paddling on the ocean is always a tricky proposition, and some might argue that the Labrador Sea is a hell of a place to start learning. My job as Chief Guide is to make sure that we keep to our schedule and, most of all, be safe. There are a whole host of factors to consider when paddling on the ocean that you never have to think about when paddling on a lake. For example, tides. Unlike Ungava, the tides along this portion of the coast are fairly small, but there is still a noticeable effect that can help or hinder you, depending on whether the tide is rising or falling. Obviously you want to have the water flowing in your favour if possible.

Peter Brewster and Andrew Macdonald pass by some of the towering seaside cliffs we paddled by north of Saglek Bay. Michael Peake photo.
There is also the matter of wind. This is probably our biggest worry on this section of coast because it doesn't take a lot of wind to generate wave action, and big waves are definitely something you want to avoid. Today, most of the distance we traveled is fairly steep shoreline with poor landing spots, so you have to consider the potential for wind before you commit yourself to a steep section of shoreline. Add to this that when wind and tide move in opposite directions they tend to produce steep, choppy waves, and you can see that a simple trip up the coast becomes more complicated on the ocean because it is a more complex environment.

Another thing to consider is fresh water. Every campsite we choose must have a source of water because we have not yet developed the ability to drink salt water (we're working on it). We are able to carry 20 liters in water bags, but still need to camp at a place that has water in case we are pinned down by the wind and run out.

So, most of my day is spent thinking when and where we are going and whether or not it will be safe. This shoreline in indented with deep bays that we have to cross, and the temptation is to always to take the most direct route. But the longer the crossing, the more likely you may be caught far from shore in the event of a sudden windstorm (which is a common occurrence up here) so you have to weigh the risks. A good case in point came right near the end of the day at Ramah Bay which is very deep but can be crossed at its mouth by a five kilometre crossing. At our standard paddling rate, this would take us almost an hour, and when we reached the bay this evening, the rest of the group looked to me to make a decision. So far we've been playing things pretty safe and keeping our crossings to a maximum of three kilometres, but the water was almost perfectly calm this evening and so we decided to head across the full width of the bay, which would save us almost ten kilometres of paddling the more cautious way. Everything went well and we crossed in mirror calm conditions, but in general long crossings are something you want to avoid up here.

Tonight we are camped on a shelf of flat rock with a natural breakwater that blunts the swells coming in off the open ocean. This is a beautiful site, with a flat mossy area back from the high tide line perfect for tents. We are far from the first people to use this site, however; behind our tents we found rocks arranged in circles -- sure signs of tent rings, and two large sheets of slate that Inuit would use like a griddle to cook fish. I suspect these rings could date back a thousand years or more. Under one rock I found pieces of Ramah Chert, a hard glass-like rock that was prized for its ability to be sharpened and used for arrows and spears.

Despite all my worry about the weather and paddling conditions, we have had incredible fortune thus far -- no wind, calm waters. As close to perfect as you'll get around here. From camp tonight we can see the full sweep of the ocean to the east, and ten kilometres to the north Gulch Cape, the last large headland we have to round tomorrow. After that point we'll be able to head down Nachvak Fiord and leave the open ocean behind us. Although I will miss the open water, and the amazing coastline we've seen so far, I will be able to relax a bit knowing we have passed through the most unpredictable section of the trip.

Nature Journal: We saw two small whales today, which I suspect to be Minke Whales. They looked to be about 20 feet long with a small dorsal fin on the back, and are dark coloured. They only came up for a few seconds at a time so we have no visual record.

Tonight we had a chance to read some of the comments people have posted to the site. You have to remember that we do not actually view the site ourselves because our phone transfer rate is a measly 4800 baud and way too slow to view web pages. To be honest I haven't seen most of the pictures Michael has filed or read Peter's columns. To all our well-wishers, we thank you for taking the time to drop us a line and we'll do our best to reply when we have the time.

I'm writing a lot tonight because I feel like I haven't had a chance to write -- I just haven't found the time. To those of you who want to hear some more history of this area I promise you it's coming -- just be patient. The one thought that amazes me the most about this land is that, as forbidding and barren as it seems, it was home for countless centuries to the Inuit, and they were able to live off the land, surviving only by their ability as hunters to procure food and their incredibly resourcefulness and ingenuity in adapting to conditions that would defeat us utterly.

We'll be up again early tomorrow and hope to get around the Gulch Cape early in the day. Michael tells me the pressure is dropping, and those telltale high cirrus clouds tell me our good weather allowance may be used up for a while. As long as it's not too windy or rough, though, we can travel. If we can make it into Nachvak Fiord tomorrow then we'll be back on schedule. I can only express gratitude that we've been able to see this incredibly raw and rugged section of coastline at its most benign. Looking up at those sheer cliffs today, I tried to imagine how it would look with 15 metre waves pounding in from the north-east. Definitely no place for a canoe!

Well, it's midnight again and I should get some rest...


360 pix

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