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Arctic Mountains


The Palmer River into the Torngats

This second leg is the shortest but requires the most effort. Instead of paddling beside the Torngat Mountains we're going right into the heart of them. For about eight days we will ascend the Palmer River valley that leads us to the height of land and the Korok -- a pull, haul, drag, lift, and portage up 850 feet over 25 miles. While many people question our sanity for going up when it's some much easier to go down, we prefer to choose canoe trips by the region rather than the river.

When we began wilderness canoeing over 25 years ago, we'd only paddle stretches of rivers or chains of lakes that were accessible at both ends. Feeling more venturesome, we moved on to doing whole rivers, from headwaters to tidewater.


As we gained more experience and looked further north for canoeing challenges, we discovered that sticking to a river for a whole trip is like a tourist seeing Toronto from the 401 or New York City from the Brooklyn Expressway. We realized that to really experience what an area has to offer we needed to pull off the main highway and use the back roads and side streets. Our 1985 trip was the first true regional canoe trip and we quickly saw the benefits of going overland. It was like another place behind the banks of the river. The animals were more common and the scenery was, in almost every instance, spectacular. We also found ourselves in areas few had ever paddled or carried over -- in some instances, the reasons why no one had been there were either clearly apparent or that no one survived to warn others. Since 1985, we have always looked for ways to add an overland section or height of land crossing to our trips. Many times these overland routes were the main highways of travel and commerce for hundreds, even thousands of years. Today, most are overgrown and forgotten, but when we have the chance to carry across some of the historic routes, it easy to see where the old trail was, the ground packed as hard as concrete from countless feet carrying countless tons of goods and furs carried across so many years ago. Sometimes, you could swear you can hear them.


At the head of the Talleck Arm at the end the Nachvak Fjord, is the mouth of Palmer River. It spills into the ocean with 3,500-foot steep hills on either side. We will most likely stay here for a day or two to re-group, perhaps scramble up a few mountains, and make the changeover to upstream work. Immersion suits are exchanged for quick-drying clothing, the canoes are re-balanced, and canoe ropes are unraveled.

Traveling upstream in canoes, called tracking, can add an interesting, and oftentimes pleasant dimension to any trip. Before starting, though, packs need to be shifted so the canoe is slightly stern heavy. Then, when each man has a firm hold of a rope (loop it around your hand but never tie it off), push the canoe out into the current, playing out the line so that the bow goes out further than the stern. The ideal position for the bow is when the canoe stays stationary in the current without undue tension on the ropes. (Imagine that the current was the wind and your canoe is "tacking" into it.) Without enough of an angle, the canoe will stall and head back to shore; too much and the river will push the canoe broadside and try to swamp it. At this point, it is almost impossible to move without it broaching -- when this happens, the bow man must release the rope and let the bow drift past the stern before the stern man bring the canoe back to shore. Remember, never fight the current. The river always wins. Always.

Once the angle is right, you can start moving ahead, always reading the water for buried rocks and searching out deepwater channels. You adjust the canoe's angle by either pulling the bow in or letting the stern out, always maintaining the proper angle to "tack" upstream. When the water gets too shallow, you'll need to get in and start hauling the canoe (the fur traders called it "Handing") until you clear the obstacle or find deeper water. Using the ropes for downstream travel, to avoid rapids, for example, is called lining. Here, the process is reversed -- the bow is kept closer to the shore while the stern is allowed to "tack" in the current.

Peter Brewster on the portage from Sandy Creek to the Dismal Lakes in August 1991. In the back is a small unnamed lake about halfway to the Dismals. (Photo - Michael Peake)

The Torngats

As we move upstream we will find ourselves in the heart of the Torngats, some of the most durable mountains on the planet and the highest in eastern Canada. The Torngats, and the southern Kaumajet, and Kiglapait ranges with their 70 glaciers (the most southerly on the eastern seaboard), make up the Labrador Highlands that extend almost 400 km from Nain to Cape Chidley. Labrador's other ranges are the Mealy and the Benedict mountains.

The Torngat Range consists of three distinct ranges: the Sorvilaks in the south, the Selamiuts in the middle, and the Torngarsoaks in the north. We're heading into the Selamiut Range, which is home to Mount Caubvick, the Torngat's highest at nearly 1700 m.

According to Inuit legend, the Torngats are ruled by Torngaksoak, the Great Spirit and ruler of the mountains. He is married to Suporuksoak, the Great Wind and ruler of all animals. Torngak lives somewhere in the mountains in a cave defended by giant caribou and is responsible for all man's misfortunes -- if he is not appeased he will bring great misery on the people.


Labrador is old -- compared to the Torngats, the Rockies are geologic pipsqueaks. It's mostly Precambrian (Canadian) Shield, a collection of granites, gneisses, and other igneous and metamorphic rocks, with a little bit of sedimentary and volcanic rock thrown in, that date from 2.7 to about 3.8 billion years ago, a time when the only form of intelligent life can be described as pond scum.

The oldest part of the Shield is composed of at least four fragments of ancient continents, called the Slave, Superior, Churchill and Nain provinces. These fragments collided and fused together nearly 2 billion years ago, creating huge and extensive mountain ranges and laying the foundation of the present day North American continent. Portions of three of these fragments make up most of Labrador, and the collision of the Churchill and Nain provinces created the Torngat Mountains 1.8 billion years ago.

Two younger provinces to the south, Grenville and Makkovik, were created out of 600 to 700 million year's worth of accumulated ocean sediments and eroding continental fragments. The Makkovik province and the older Nain province possess rocks identical to those found in Greenland and in northwestern Europe. These provinces were mostly likely torn apart when tectonic forces spread the ocean floor 100 million years ago, creating the Labrador Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Today, the Labrador Sea has stopped spreading but the Atlantic Ocean continues, pushing South America and Africa a few centimetres apart every year.

All these geologic provinces have undergone periods of intense heating, deformation, and mountain building, called orogenies, at various times over the past 3.8 billion years. The Grenville province, for instance underwent dramatic cycles of volcanic eruptions, depositions, deformations, and uplift as tectonic forces crushed it against older and harder Superior and Churchill provinces, eventually forming a vast Himalaya-like mountain range that ran parallel to the later-arriving Appalachians. Today, the difference in composition and hardness explains why the younger Grenville province's mountains are little more than large hills, and the much older Torngats still have peaks over 1700 metres (5000 feet) after more 1.8 billion years of erosion.


In the more recent geologic past, (the last 2 million years) Labrador been scratched, polished, and gouged by glaciers several times (the last ones left about 10,000 years ago) and what remains is being scoured by the sea and gradually shivered into sand by frost.

The glaciers dug out lake basins, carved deep U-shaped valleys, many of which became fjords when they were flooded by the sea. The rest of the landscape bears the remains of receding glaciers -- moraines are the frozen wakes of moving glaciers, and eskers, the high, winding ridges of sorted sand and gravel, define courses of rivers that ran underneath the sheets of ice. Glaciers acted as vacuums, pickling up every rock and boulder as they moved across the land, and occasionally stopping to dump their load far from the source.

As the glaciers melted, the land, relieved of hundreds of millions of tons of weighing on it, rebounded -- a process that is still occurring 10,000 years after the ice left. As a result, beaches can be seen hundreds of metres away from shore and the bones of marine creatures can be found well inland. We'll let you know if we find anything.

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