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Stepping Stones & Polar Bears:

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A Wilderness Paddling Expedition along the Labrador Coast


By Nigel Foster and Kristin Nelson


Tutjat (Stepping Stones) is the Inuit name for the islands in Hudson Strait north of Labrador. Legend tells how the Inuit once followed these stepping stones and discovered people living on Baffin Island.

In 1981, I set out alone from Iqaluit on Baffin Island in an attempt to kayak this route south. Crossing from Baffin Island via the Lower Savage Islands to Resolution Island, I launched across the 40-mile-wide Hudson Strait to the Button Islands. I barely made it alive.

I was trapped in my tent for days on end by fall storms, 300 miles from the closest village. Pushing onward in a brief spell of good weather, by incredible chance I ran into an oil tanker and hitched a ride south to Nova Scotia.

In 2004, I returned with my ex-girlfriend Kristin Nelson to try to finish the trip. We set off from Kuujjuaq, Ungava Bay, more than 300 miles to the southwest of the Button Islands, after the pack-ice cleared in July. We had crammed food for five weeks into our two sea kayaks, hoping this would be enough to last us to the next village, which would be at the end of our 675-mile wilderness journey.

The phenomenal tides of Ungava Bay, on a par with those in the Bay of Fundy, combined with a low-lying coastline of bare rock, mudflats and boulder fields with no trees or manmade structures, made navigation quite challenging. Added to that were the polar bears, ever-watchful and incredibly well-camouflaged despite their great size and white fur. Finally we reached the place where I had met the oil tanker, the place where I would pick up my original route. We rounded the tip of Labrador and crept along the base of the Torngat Mountains and, although we still were encountering polar bears, we swapped the tidal challenges for fog and sudden violent squalls.

The challenges were only part of the excitement. At night we were treated to the snaking displays of the aurora borealis. We heard the haunting calls of loons in the fog, the crash of breaking icebergs and the footsteps of caribou. We spotted stone tools near ancient village sites and overgrown grave slabs where Moravian missionaries once encouraged the Inuit to come to the now-vanished mission stations.

Occasionally we met people and gradually came to understand why this land is uninhabited and what the future has to hold for the people who were displaced.

It was a wonderful trip despite the scary moments. It was especially rewarding for me to complete, with Kristin, what I had begun alone so many years before. But people often ask about Kristin; “What happened between you to make her your ex-girlfriend?” Well, we got married.

Next week’s presentation:
“Cycling for Kindness: A 12-inch Journey From Our Head Back to Our Heart.”

This is the 20th anniversary of the Traveler’s Journal, presented by the Peninsula Trails Coalition. All money raised is used to buy food and project materials for volunteers working on Olympic Discovery Trail projects. For more information, call Dave Shreffler at 683-1734.


 

 

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