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Guide's Report

By Geoffrey Peake

Bears, caribou and whales

Wednesday, July 18, 2001


Campsite: Nachvak Fjord 59º 03 89'N, 63º 38.10W
Distance Today: 16 km
Total: 146 km

Today we caught our last glimpse of the Labrador Sea as we turned westward and headed toward the heart of the Torngat Mountains. The landscape and environment changes as we move away from the exposed coast. Gravel bars and beaches, which are almost totally absent on the open coast, can be found almost everywhere. The constant swell of the open ocean which so often made landing a tricky proposition, is now behind us as well, as are the icebergs as well.

Undoubtedly the biggest change lies in the proliferation of animal life that seems to thrive in these sheltered bays and fiords. Within minutes of setting off today we saw our first big herd of caribou moving slowly up and over a mountainside -- a mottled collection of perhaps two hundred animal; bulls and cows in the midst of losing their winter coat, young calves struggling to keep pace as they climbed up a thousand-foot hill within minutes. The Torngats are the traditional calving grounds for the George River herd, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands of animals.

We rode the rising tide down the inlet, following close to shore as Minke whales swam alongside, surfacing every few minutes to catch a breath. We rounded the corner and stopped at a perfect cobble beach that looked ideal as a campsite. We walked up and found a proliferation of tent rings, food caches, and stone shelters -- signs of habitation going back thousands of years. Briefly we considered the idea of camping here because it was such an idyllic site; Andrew and I went to scout for water, and found a meager supply dripping from the rocks at the end of the beach. In the end, we decided to continue paddling -- a decision that in hindsight was fortunate. One kilometre past, we again spotted the same herd of caribou descending the hillside, and paddled closer for a better view. Sean and I were perhaps 50 meters from shore when suddenly a large polar bear rose from his slumber and ambled away. Then we spotted a female bear with cubs entering the water just beyond.

From the very beginning of this trip we have been prepared to see Polar Bears. Several people had told us that bears can be found in both Nachvak and Saglek this time of the year, as they spend the summer and fall foraging for food as best they can before the ice returns. Unlike Black and even Grizzly bears, who generally will avoid contact with people, Polar Bears are naturally inquisitive and do not display the same alarm when they encounter people. We have equipped ourselves with a variety of bear scare products -- air horns, pepper spray, bear bangers -- and, if needed, a gun for our protection. Yet with all this preparation and knowledge, it is difficult to explain the sense of awe, and fear, that comes with seeing a Polar Bear (well, actually four bears) in the wild. Even more than the weather, they are the one hazard on this trip we cannot control. Had we decided to camp at that spot there is a good chance that we would have had the female and her two cubs walking right though our camp -- or maybe they would have gone the other way. This is just one of the realities you face when you travel through a land that still actually has living creatures in it, and one of the reasons we came up here in the first place.

Still, the best strategy is prudent avoidance. Soon after we left the bears, we crossed to the other side of the inlet and camped. As we move up the fjord and away from the open ocean, our odds of seeing Polar Bears will slowly diminish. Tonight, as I write, the whales are surfacing off shore again. Today has definitely been a day to remember...

360 pix

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