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Ocean Travel: The Labrador Sea and Nachvak Fjord


At first glance, Labrador seems a lot like Norway -- without the Lapps. Deep fjords pierce the coastline, mountains shoot straight up from the sea, and caribou (reindeer) roam in the interior. But here is where the similarity ends. While the terrain is like Norway's, Labrador's climate is closer to Nunavut's. Even though Norway is further north than Labrador, it has a much warmer climate because of the Gulf Stream and its accompanying warm air masses that keep the fjords and surrounding sea ice-free and fisherman-friendly in winter.

Labrador, however, isn't so lucky. It falls under the influence of the icy Labrador Current. A combination of the Baffin Island Current and the West Greenland Current, the Labrador Current sweeps southward and follows the continental shelf to southern Newfoundland. As a result, the sea's surface temperature along the coast ranges from -1°C in winter to between 0°C and 5°C by August, a sobering reality that has put a lid on Labrador's potential as a recreational water sports hub.

The Labrador Current is also responsible for chaperoning thousands of icebergs from Greenland towards the shipping lanes around southern Newfoundland. It is these mountains and fjords, the icebergs, and sheer beauty of the land that has drawn us to Labrador.

The Start

Our trip officially starts at Hebron, an abandoned Moravian mission built in 1830, about 120 miles north of Nain, Labrador's most northerly community and 225 air miles from Goose Bay.

Here the coastline rises to about 2,000 feet, but well back from shore. We're in the Tundra region of Labrador were summers are short-lived and seldom frost-free. The average temperature is about 10°C, which is low enough to prevent trees from growing any larger than a foot above ground level. And because were above the tree line -- it ends at Nain -- judging distances is often a problem.

The lack of reference points above the tree line is one of the reasons why the Inuit built inuksuits (Inuktitut for "in the image of man"). Anyone traveling across the tundra, especially in winter, finds it almost impossible to accurately determine the distance of objects or landmarks because the land appears almost featureless in the snow. Built about the size of a standing man, an inukshuk is placed at a key location along the sea coast or inland on hilltop so that a traveler will, not only know that he is on the right course, but also he know how far away he is from shore or how long it will take to reach that spot.


Hebron was established in 1830 by the Moravian brethren, a protestant religious fraternity founded in Czechoslovakia in the 15th century. It's named after the Biblical city of Hebron, a Hebrew word for friendship. Hebron was the fourth Moravian mission built on the coast and took six years to build.

Their first foray into the New World was nothing short of disastrous. The Moravians of Great Britain financed a ship to establish their first mission in Labrador in 1752, but their ship beat a retreat back to England after six of the brethren, including their leader Johan Christian Erhardt, were killed shortly after landing near Hopedale. Not exactly the welcoming committee they were expecting.

They didn't mount another venture until 1771, when 14 brethren and sisters sailed after the British Government grudgingly granted the Church 100,000 acres of land along the coast to support their efforts to evangelize and trade with the Inuit. The Moravians landed at Nain and set up their first mission. Within four years another mission was established at Okak, about 150 km to the northward, followed by another at Hopedale in 1782.

With only moderate success for almost 30 years, the Moravians pressed on as only missionaries can, until they had a breakthrough at Hopedale early in the 19th century. Suddenly, there was a great conversion to Christianity and by 1818, and over 600 Inuit had crowded around the three missions. To handle the overflow, the decision to build Hebron was made, but due to logistical delays, the buildings were not completed until 1830.

Each mission had several permanent structures owned by the church. There was also a common dwelling place, buildings for drying and storing fish and furs, a store, and the church itself. The brethren also planted a vegetable garden and laid out a cemetery.

The Coast

From Hebron, our route north hugs the coastline to the eastern end of Nachvak Fjord, about 160 miles distant (50 miles to Saglek Bay and 115 miles to the mouth of the Palmer River at the head of Tallek arm of the Nachvak Fjord). As we progress, the coastline will change dramatically; Mountains will get steeper and tower almost a kilometre overhead from sea's edge. Tidal range is typically 1-3 metres, and even though the bays are sheltered, the coast is quite exposed.

Saglek Bay, and the inner Saglak Fjord is 80 km deep and has been an area of human occupation for nearly 5000 years. In the '50s a radar installation and a paved runway were built on the south shore of Saglak Bay, accompanied by a coterie of nearly 100 U.S. Air Force Personnel, as part of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line. The site was operated until the early '70s, when it was abandoned, made redundant by satellites and long-range missiles. Canada's National Defense built a new automated long-range radar site there in the late '80s and staffed with no more than 10 people -- maintenance and repair personnel, and perhaps an insubordinate soldier or two. Saglak is also a popular fishing spot for char.

Nachvak Fjord, considered one of the most spectacular fjords in the world, is nearly 20 km deep and 2 km wide. At its eastern end it divides into two arms, the Tasiuyak and the Tallek -- which is where we're headed. The fjord has the highest mountains in Labrador, including Mount Razerback guarding the mouth on the north shore, and Mount Caubvak, the highest in eastern Canada, looms on the south shore, inland from the Tallek Arm.

The Hudson's Bay Company operated a post directly across from Tallek arm from 1865 until around 1905.


The Labrador Current's high fresh water content means that it freezes faster and at a higher temperature than surrounding sea water. During Labrador's cold winters, wherever this fresh water mingles with seawater, sea ice and "landfast" ice (ice attached to the shore) forms and remains from the start of November till the end of May. Some sea and landfast ice, however, can survive several summers, and it would be a summer HACC canoe trip if we didn't meet up with ice.

The Labrador Current's fresh water content comes from the melting glaciers and snows of the arctic, as well as from the thousands of icebergs it chaperones to southern waters -- more than 2,000 icebergs pass Cape Chidley at the top of Labrador every year, but few make it to the Grand Banks off southern Newfoundland, rarely beyond. One infamous berg sank the world's largest liner off Newfoundland... and raised the world's largest ego in Hollywood. [See JAM! Showbiz's Titantic page.]

Dr Stephan Bruneau, of Tatham Offshore Canada, a Newfoundland pipeline company, is a leading iceberg expert, and is responsible for keeping track of bergs that drift down the coast toward Newfoundland. He has kindly provided us with his list of iceberg FAQs.

Marine Life

While much of Labrador's famed marine life has been depleted, the area is still one of the richest areas in Canada.

The waters off the coast are home to nearly 90 species of fish and host important Atlantic cod, Atlantic salmon, Arctic char and capelin spawning areas. The decline in capelin may be one of the reasons for the dramatic crash of northern cod. The capelin, however, appear to have rebounded and, to a limited degree, so have the cod. Other fish include plaice, halibut and redfish, as well as shrimp and snow crab.

White-sided dolphins, and northern bottlenose, sperm, blue, fin, sei, humpback, pilot and killer whales, and especially minke whales are summer visitors to the area. Bowhead and narwhal winter off the northern Labrador coast. Beluga whales are seen sporadically, as well.

While walrus have only been spotted at one location in the past 20 years on our route, Harbour seals are common, as are grey seals (the subject of a mid-'70s Elton John song), hooded seals, and harp seals. And where there are seals, there is Nanook, the polar bear.

Polar Bears

Polar bears are the largest land carnivore, and the most potentially dangerous animal any wilderness traveler can encounter -- they are the only ones that will track down humans like a cat does a mouse. Fortunately for canoeists, they will go to great lengths to snag a seal and Labrador has plenty of these oily polar bear hors d'oeuvres. The animal's keen sense of smell can probably detect a seal's breathing hole buried under 90 cm of snow and ice from over a kilometre away.

Adult males, by the age of eight to tens years, measure 240-260 cm (8 to 81/2 ft) in length and weigh 500-600 kg (1100 to 1300 lbs). Adult females are about half the size of males and reach adult size by their fifth or sixth year when they weigh 200-300 kg (440 to 660 lbs). The polar bears of Labrador are part of the Davis Strait population, estimated to be 1,200 animals. Few bears are on the Labrador coast at one time, as they usually drift southward on pack ice and come ashore between around August to return northward along the coast.

Polar bears are creatures that demand the utmost respect and distance, and while we do not expect to see many, if any, we will always be on watch. The chance of us meeting up with a polar bear decreases dramatically once we move inland during the second leg our trip -- unless, of course, the dreaded land seals are migrating northward (kidding!).


The prevailing wind is from the west, and the severity of the weather depends on two static summer weather systems -- primarily a large low-pressure region north of Ungava Bay and, to a lesser degree, the North Atlantic anticyclone between Bermuda and the Azores.

The steep fjords and mountains create their own micro-weather patterns, sometimes with katabatic winds. These occur when an air mass over a cold plateau cools and, because of its increased density, is pushed by gravity over the edge of the plateau and funneled to the lower elevations through narrow fjords and mountain valleys, picking up speed as it descends. Katabatic winds speeds can vary from light breezes (4-5 km/hr) to intense gusts (90 to 185 km/hr) in an instant and can last several hours or days. Because of these unpredictable and unrelenting winds, the Labrador coast has pinned canoeists to the shore like butterflies in a lepidopterist's collection.

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