July/August 2012 by Jerry Kobalenko
It was one of those epic expedition days that continued long after dark: My partner, 24-year-old Noah Nochasak, and I were pulling heavy sleds on our skis along the frozen George River in northern Quebec. Stubbornly, we were trying to reach a distant outfitter’s cabin where we could dry our equipment after weeks in a tent. Even with a headlamp, it was impossible to see more than 50 feet. We had been travelling for 13 hours. Noah’s leg, tweaked a few days earlier, was aching. We strained to see signs of the cabin in the blackness. Finally, an angled roof outlined against the night sky. We had reached the camp, but after this marathon day, the injury to Noah’s leg became serious and threatened to end the expedition.
Noah Nochasak first e-mailed me in spring, 2011 after hearing about my previous expeditions from a friend in his hometown of Nain, Labrador. His questions about polar bear alarm fences and fibreglass pulks led to long phone conversations. I was intrigued: Noah was the first Inuk I’d ever met who was interested in long-distance, self-propelled travel. For three generations, snowmobiles and motorboats have replaced dog team and foot travel, but the amount of gasoline they require limits how long you can be out there. Besides, machines go so fast that hunters can travel almost anywhere and back within a week. I once went caribou hunting with an Inuit friend, and we snowmobiled 300 kilometres in a single day; we were home in time to watch a movie on television that evening. Friends have told me that they can carry a maximum of six days fuel on a typical qamutiq. Meanwhile, a qajaq can hold a month’s worth of food and supplies, and a sled two months or more. Such long journeys put you in touch with the slow, ancient rhythm of the land.
The previous winter, Noah had tried to snowshoe our current route from Nain to Kangiqsualujjuaq himself. With a young guy’s cockiness, he ignored terrain and simply cut up mountains and down valleys like a surveyor’s line. Trying to be as traditional as possible, he used a short, heavy qamutiq to carry his load. Top-heavy with gear, it tipped over frequently. He also tried to use a seal oil lamp, but an unpressurized stove like this one takes half a day to melt enough drinking water for even one person at 30 below. In the end, he didn’t get far.
His kayaking began more successfully. When we first spoke, he was building his second qajaq. He even found a tree near Nain from which he made a 17-foot keel strip. Over the frame, he stretched and sewed heavy canvas, then applied marine varnish.
By coincidence, my wife Alexandra and I were heading to Labrador that July to qajaq for four weeks. We met Noah in Nain, and he paddled with us for the first two days. Noah seemed like a great guy, and his dreams did not have a lot of ego behind them. He simply seemed to want to pay homage to traditional travel through a series of long journeys. Later that summer, on his first big trip, he kayaked 300 kilometres alone from Nain to Hebron. He didn’t want to travel solo, but like all of us, he sometimes did so because partners, especially Inuit partners, were hard to find.
That fall, I decided to try to help him realize his dream of walking 550 kilometres in winter from Nain to Kangiqsualujjuaq, in Nunavik. The route had mystique for him; his father had often snowmobiled there and described the town as a more old-fashioned community than Nain. I couldn’t teach Noah anything about hunting, snow house building or other traditional skills, but I’d done 16 man hauling expeditions of that length before, and knew what was required physically, mentally and logistically to succeed.
The question was, how would a 55-yearold white guy and a 24-year-old Inuk mesh their ways? I was a typical white adventurer, organized, fit, Type A. I planned expeditions like military campaigns, weighing every morsel of food to the ounce. Noah was more casual, but this time he acquired a few important items of modern gear, such as a fibreglass sled and a good sleeping bag. Although he brought some raw seal and caribou meat, most of our food consisted of granola, freeze-dried dinners and snacks from the local grocery. “When the hunting is poor, you can always bag some Mars Bars at the Northern store,” he joked on Facebook before we left.
We left Nain on February 22. As we hauled through the streets of Nain, well-wishers took photos and gave Noah bon voyage hugs. Our 250-pound loads scraped reluctantly across the cold snow.
Soon, we began our climb up a creek toward Labrador’s interior plateau. We followed an old hunting route known as the Pearly Gates, because of the narrow slot near the top. Beyond, the terrain levelled, trees disappeared and the barrens began. As a High Arctic specialist, I’m used to tundra, but Labrador’s barrens are more violent than the gentle snowfields of Ellesmere Island. In the 1970s, several hunters from Nain died here in a hurricane. It was not a place to take lightly.
My previous crossings of Labrador’s barrens were sprints of 50 kilometres across narrow sections, limiting exposure to two or three days. But here, the barrens stretched almost 200 kilometres to the George River. We had to be conservative: We camped only where we could nail our tent solidly to windblown ice, and we patiently sat out too-windy days. You can fight ahead for a few kilometres when it’s -25°C with a 40 kilometre per hour wind, but the effort is more than the distance is worth. In our 18 days on the barrens, we were tent bound for four days – unusual for Arctic travel, where a single layover day is rare.
Before the expedition, I wondered how a 24-year-old would handle man hauling. Arctic travel requires patience and doggedness, not adrenalin. But Noah’s patience, if anything, went deeper than mine. He had inherited that marvelous Inuit acceptance of conditions beyond one’s control.“An elder told me once, never complain when you’re out on the land,” he said.
“The hardest part,” Noah admitted later, “is how hard we had to work for so little mileage. One day it took us nine hours to cover 18 kilometres. It takes half an hour to cover that distance by snowmobile.”
I navigate with map and compass almost exclusively, relying on a GPS only for backup. But it’s hard to identify subtle landmarks while wearing goggles and face mask, when it’s too cold to stop. Our route looked like a beeline on the map, but in practical terms it meandered drunkenly around low knolls and along small ponds or creeks that, masked by snow, looked no different from the surrounding tundra.
A trip of several weeks quickly ceases to feel like a trip, with a remembered beginning and an approaching end. It feels like you’ve been doing this daily routine for years. We each had our tasks: I set up the tent and did the cooking; Noah banked the tent with snow and chopped ice for drinking water. Soon, the chores become automatic. “We’re like a married couple, except our marriage lasts only a month and a half,” said Noah.
After nearly three weeks on the barrens, a long downhill led us to the frozen George River, just north of what explorers called Indian House Lake, a traditional summer centre for Innu nomads. On the downhill, Noah’s sled overtook him and wrenched his leg. The injury felt minor at the time but it had serious consequences later.
The George River extended all the way to our destination, Kangiqsualujjuaq – the former George River Post. The forest resumed along the shore and we spent each night in exquisite calm, among black spruce trees.
In summer, the George River is popular with anglers who come for the trout and salmon fishing. Occasionally, we passed outfitters’ cabins. Typical for the north, they were left unlocked, and we slept in them.
The epic day to reach the first of these cabins aggravated the damage to Noah’s leg. He tried to favour it, but then the other leg began to trouble him. The problem escalated from inconvenience to crisis. We had to shorten our hours. Twice, we rested for two days. I wasn’t sure whether we’d be able to complete the trip. Fortunately, by wrapping both legs in bandages every morning and limiting our travel to seven or eight hours a day, Noah’s injuries didn’t worsen.
Then my turn to struggle came. At a lodge we spent two days with volunteers for the Cain’s Quest snowmobile race. Perhaps I picked up a stomach bug from one of them, because I couldn’t eat for the next four days. For the first two days, I was able to travel, but for the last two, I lay in the tent. Eventually, my appetite returned.
Expeditions with new partners are blind dates: they can be preludes to a lifelong relationship, or they can be disasters. Despite the age difference, Noah and I got along famously. I admired his mental toughness and unwavering dedication to his dream, while he came to look on the physical abilities of older guys in a new light. He made me feel very much like a respected elder, imparting the wisdom of the trail to an avid learner.
In early April we reached the mouth of the George River and ran into the formidable tidal ice of Ungava Bay, home to some of the highest tides in the world. Bad weather continued to bedevil us. On this 44-day trek, we had had just four sunny, windless days.
Usually I pull into a village at the end of a journey and maybe one sleepy dog looks up briefly before going back to sleep. But Noah’s quest had captured the imagination of people in Nunatsiavut and Nunavik. As we approached town, a fire engine’s siren summoned residents of Kangiqsualujjuaq to the beach. Almost half the town of 900 came out to greet us. The local Canadian Rangers fired celebratory shots in the air. The mayor, Kitty Annanack, greeted us officially. Then we shook hands with a long line of people. It took an hour.
Personally, I never had a desire to man haul from Nain to Kangiqsualujjuaq. This route was Noah’s dream, but my part in it gave me one of the most remarkable travel experiences of my life. Best of all, Noah’s passion may inspire other Inuit to take to the land again, as their great-grandfathers and ancestors did so well, for so many centuries.