On a cold February morning in Nain, Labrador, Noah Nochasak and I drag our fibreglass sleds along the snowy streets toward the edge of town. Our footsteps squeak on the hardpack as snowmobiles speed past. Now and then, someone emerges from a house to hug Noah and wish him good luck. Then the last house disappears, and the only sign of humanity is the snowmobile trail used for "wooding"—gathering firewood. Twenty years ago, it was also a caribou-hunting route, before the George River herd plummeted from almost a million animals to fewer than 20,000. Now this climb from sea level to Labrador's interior plateau sees little use.
We are something of an odd couple. Noah is Inuit, 24 years old and setting out on his first major expedition. I'm white and middle-aged with 16 sledding treks under my belt. Together, we'll spend the next month and a half travelling the land on foot. This trip—350 miles across Labrador's interior plateau from Nain to Kangiqsualujjuaq (pronounced Kang gik soo al oo joo ak) in northern Quebec—is Noah's dream.
He was born in Nain but, after his parents divorced, grew up with his mother, a schoolteacher who followed her job to various northern communities. It was only after Noah returned home from studying civil engineering in Ottawa that he became fascinated by tales of traditional travel. He himself can't say exactly why.
The reasons behind our chosen route are easier to explain. Noah's father enjoys long-distance snowmobile travel; several times, he has done the three-day ride from Nain to Kangiqsualujjuaq. The route means nothing to most southerners, but in this part of the North, it has a certain resonance. Every Inuk in both towns has heard the true story of the 18-year-old girl who in the 1940s walked from Kangiqsualujjuaq to Nain to escape her deranged father, who had tried to kill her. She slept in snowbanks and scrounged food from the stingy land.
In the winter of 2011, Noah also tried to do the trip alone, but didn't get far. His wooden sled was heavy and often tipped over, his traditional seal-oil lamp took forever to melt water, and when he tried to cook inside the tent, a flare-up melted a hole in the roof. After this first attempt, he figured he needed a partner, but no Inuit friends or acquaintances wanted to join him. Someone told him of my past manhauling journeys in Labrador, and he emailed me for advice. That fall, I offered to join him on his walk. It struck me as a pure, lovely, amateur journey. Noah dubs our project Tukimuatvut, an Inuktitut word meaning, "We're going in the right direction."
Into the White Winds
We begin by climbing along a frozen creek lined by spruce trees. Spillover through cracks in the ice has created a sloped skating rink that forces us to wear cleats on our boots for traction. We hope that the coming weeks will bring mostly effortless walking on windblown snow, but we carry skis, snowshoes and even waterproof overboots to handle whatever the Arctic might throw at us.
Sledding will never be a spectator sport—viewed by others, it is one monotonous step after another. Even for the sledder, the interesting stuff is internal. On sunny and calm days, the Arctic landscape elevates the spirit to something approaching pure happiness. More often, biting winds force you to encase yourself in parka hood, mask and goggles, and to stare down at your feet, except for brief glances up to navigate.
On the fourth day, we leave the trees behind. We are now in "meaner country," as Noah puts it. Violent winds, no shelter. Uneasy dreams plague us as we enter the 120-mile stretch of barrens.
Noah prides himself on his physical fitness. But he exercises like a typical untutored 24-year-old: one day he'll snowshoe 25 miles, then he won't do much for a week or so. I've never been an elite athlete and am more than 30 years older than Noah, but I understand the need for daily workouts to avoid repetitive stress injuries on long-distance journeys. "You're a real professional," Noah comments. "Fast."
This pleases me, although I figure I'll start out stronger than Noah but equalize with him later, as the young man's quicker powers of recovery kick in.
In late February, temperatures remain frigid. Clear nights bottom out between -25° and -40° F. Often, green and white northern lights swirl madly overhead. We sleep soundly in our Arctic-grade sleeping bags. During the day, however, Noah's flimsy nylon jacket, borrowed from a friend at the last minute, makes life difficult for him in the wind. I know from my own early expeditions that you can get by with less-than-optimal gear. You just suffer more.
Inuit often say little around outsiders, but Noah can be positively chatty. He tells me everything from Inuit jokes—"They say white people have 100 words for 'lawn'"—to who are the best seamstresses or mechanics in Nain, and how his previous boss was such a townie that "he thought a .243 was a 12-gauge."
Noah doesn't have a girlfriend, and hopes he might find one in Kangiqsualujjuaq. Sometimes he practises his Inuktitut pickup lines in the tent: "Do you have a boyfriend?" "Do you want a family?" He is looking for a girl who might enjoy long-distance sledding and kayaking. "Don't set the bar too high," I advise.
He longs for a reason to stay in Kangiqsualujjuaq and learn Inuktitut better. "It's hard to learn the language in Nain anymore," he says. He admires his grandfather, or atatsiak, who speaks only Inuktitut. Noah, in part because of his upbringing elsewhere, struggles with the language, especially with his atatsiak's rich vocabulary. Unfortunately, his atatsiak has also been in the habit of drinking heavily ever since he lost his wife and seven of his children in a fire years ago. On that terrible night, he managed to push one child, Noah's father, out the window before the fire consumed his family.
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