The Labrador Revelation

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Margaret Atwood scans the coast of Labrador, looking for birds and bears

What does Margaret Atwood know about Labrador that the rest of us should?

Having visited The Big Land several times aboard Adventure Canada voyages, the author of The Labrador Fiasco has had the unusual experience of having seen this extraordinary region of Canada first hand. With her keen eyes, the veteran birder and traveller is a valued addition to the wildlife-spotting team aboard the Ocean Endeavour.

Many Canadians, if they think of Labrador at all, think of it as a backwater of the already-distant province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

But Atwood and her fellow voyagers know that Labrador has a unique culture and diverse history all its own. Numerous First Peoples made their homes here in a rich history dating back thousands of years. Thule, Maritime Archaic, and paleoeskimo artifacts abound. Ramah chert from this ‘remote’ region was traded widely across eastern North America. Today, the region is home to Inuit, concentrated on the coastal region, with Innu communities at Sheshatshiu and Davis Inlet.

Viking explorers reached these shores, which they called Markland, by 1000 AD. They were the first of the European visitors. Red Bay, Canada’s newest UNESCO world heritage site, was home to a Basque whaling station through the 1500s that comprised the New World’s first export industry.

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Adventure Canada geologist David Bathe and explorer Milbry Polk in Red Bay

Portuguese, Spaniards, English and French all plied the Labrador Sea for whale and fish. Later came Moravian missionaries from Germany, whose abandoned outposts now dot the coast. The resettlement of the people of Hebron and other missions is a painful chapter in Labrador history. Medical missionary Wilfrid Grenfell’s humanitarian work drew volunteers from around the world, and sent many Labradorians for training abroad.

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Remains of the abandoned Moravian mission at Hebron, Labrador

Today’s visitors to the Labrador coast are often shocked to realize the scale of Labrador: 294,330 sq km, more than twice the area of Newfoundland. And much of that is rugged mountain coastline, where the human spirit is humbled by geography rendered sublime.

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The Ocean Endeavour in Eclipse Harbour, Nunatsiavut, Labrador

A mere one percent of Labrador is developed. The region’s largest city has fewer than 10,000 citizens. There are few roads in the south, and none in the north.

Ships and boats are still the best way—often the only way—to visit the extraordinary locations that dot the virtually unpopulated coastline along the Labrador Sea.

Yet the biggest thing about The Big Land is the people. Hardy, thoughtful, hard-working, and welcoming, the people of Nunatsiavut are survivors—there are many hard stories here—whose hardship has not hardened their hearts.

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Brass band welcome, Nain, Labrador

From the brass band playing from the wharf in Nain, to the bear guard scanning the landscape of Nachvak Fiord, to the culturalist revisiting her abandoned home at Hebron, to the grandfather welcoming his toddler granddaughter from Toronto, the people of the Labrador coast show themselves at every turn to be the most welcoming of hosts.

Among a myriad of surprises and aha! moments, that’s the Labrador revelation. Perhaps that’s what keeps travellers like Ms. Atwood coming back time and again.

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Exploring Torngat Mountains National Park by Zodiac

Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Adventure Canada present , June 29-July 11, 2016.

All photographs by David Newland.

9 things you didn’t know about Newfoundland and Labrador

Battle Harbour, Labrador - Photo by John Chambers

Battle Harbour, Labrador – Photo by John Chambers

As of the 2014 season, Adventure Canada has been operating in Newfoundland and Labrador for twenty years. Over that time, we’ve learned to appreciate some of the unique, and lesser-known features of Canada’s easternmost province. Here are a few.

1. The Miawpukek First Nation in Conne River, Newfoundland, is one of the most economically successful First Nations in Canada. This Mi’kmaw community places a high value on traditional values, including canoe-building and handicrafts.

2. Gros Morne National Park helped change our understanding of the world. The park’s outstanding geology includes visible protrusions of the Earth’s mantle, and crust, which led to insights into tectonic plate theory and continental drift.

3. L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland is the site of the only authenticated Norse settlement on the North American mainland. Now a National Historic Site, the location was discovered by closely studying the text of ancient Viking sagas.

4. Red Bay, Labrador, is Canada’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site. For several decades in the 1500s Red Bay was home to a thriving whaling station, seasonally run by Basques whalers. Multiple shipwrecks from the era lie in the harbour.

5. Battle Harbour, Labrador preserves a classic cod fishing station, with superbly kept wharves, warehouses, ‘flakes’ (drying racks), a working general store, church and houses. Battle Harbour is a living museum of the traditional salt cod industry.

6. Ever wonder what the Wonderstrands were? Two pristine sandy stretches of 20km and 25km along the eastern shore of Labrador are the leading contenders for the phenomenal beaches mentioned by Norse explorers.

7. Rigolet, on the Labrador coast, has a unique place in literature: a fictional, future version of the hamlet (called Rigo), appears in the novel The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. In our time, the area is a haven for minke and humpback whales.

8. The ghost settlement of Okak, Labrador straddles the tree line – and two cultures as well. The site was home to a Moravian mission from 1776 to 1919, and at its heyday was the centre of a large Labrador Inuit presence in the area.

9. Torngat Mountains National Park in Nunatsiavut, the semi-autonomous Inuit region of northern Labrador, contains Canada’s highest peaks east of the Rockies, framing dramatic fiords. The Torngats teem with wildlife, including polar bears and caribou.

Visit Newfoundland and Labrador on these Adventure Canada trips:

Newfoundland and Wild Labrador, June 29-July 12, 2014
Greenland and Wild Labrador, September 11-24, 2014

Picturesque Newfoundland

One passenger aboard our recent Newfoundland Circumnavigation had an amazing story to tell. Keen photographer John Chambers had earned his passage with a picture.

That’s right: John was the winner of the 2012 edition of Photolife‘s annual photo contest, “The World We Live In” in the Amateur category. You may have seen his extraordinary Arctic wolf portrait on the cover of the contest issue of the magazine – it’s sublime.

John was an enthusiastic traveller, leaping at every opportunity to grab great shots. He was kind enough to share some of his favourites with us here.

St. John's is a beautiful and fascinating city, one of North America's oldest.

St. John’s is a beautiful and fascinating city, one of North America’s oldest.

Rock formations south of St. John's near Bay Bulls are spectacular.

Rock formations south of St. John’s near Bay Bulls are spectacular.

Fogo Island was once considered one of the four corners of the Earth.

Fogo Island was once considered one of the four corners of the Earth.

The restored fish station at Battle Harbour is a national treasure.

The restored fish station at Battle Harbour is a national treasure.

Reconstructed Viking sod house, circa 1000 A.D.

Reconstructed Viking sod house, c. 1000 A.D. at L’Anse Aux Meadows.

Castle Island off the Labrador coast is famed for its columnar basalt.

Castle Island off the Labrador coast is famed for its columnar basalt.

Saddle Island, at Red Bay, once housed a Basque whaling station.

Saddle Island, at Red Bay, once housed a Basque whaling station.

Spruce stacked to dry in traditional fashion.

Spruce stacked to dry in traditional fashion in Red Bay, Labrador.

Gros Morne National Park is considered 'The Galapagos of Geology'

Gros Morne National Park is considered ‘The Galapagos of Geology’

The tiny outport of Francois is only accessible by boat.

The tiny outport of Francois is only accessible by boat.

The Sea Adventurer proudly flies the AC flag.

The Sea Adventurer proudly flies the AC flag.

Tiny St. Pierre preserves the culture and heritage of France.

Tiny St. Pierre preserves the culture and heritage of France.

The easternmost point in Canada.

The easternmost point in Canada, Cape Spear.

St. John's features one of the world's great ocean harbours.

St. John’s features one of the world’s great ocean harbours.

Enter this year’s edition of The World We Live In, sponsored by Adventure Canada, and you too could win one of many spectacular prizes.

Congratulations, Red Bay!

Photo: Alex Drainville / Flickr

Photo: Alex Drainville / Flickr

It’s a very important moment for one of our favourite regions in the world: Labrador has its first World Heritage Site.

Red Bay Basque Whaling Station, located in Red Bay, Labrador, represents an important episode in Canadian history. For several decades in the 16th century, Basques from Spain and France used Red Bay during annual whaling hunts. Though today’s town site was built on top of the original site (obscuring some of the archeology), important artifacts have been identified, including parts of wharves, and the remains of vessels in the harbour.

Since 1978, one of Canada’s most comprehensive marine archeological endeavours has pieced together artifacts, and drawn a revealing picture of whaling life during the 1600s. A recovered chalupa, or small whaling craft, meticulously conserved, is among the items of interest at the Red Bay National Heritage Site Visitor Centre.

With the UNESCO announcement in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Saturday morning, Red Bay became the third site in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador to make the prestigious list. Gros Morne National Park and L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site have previously been named to UNESCO’s list, along with 16 other sites across Canada.

For Red Bay, a town of only 200 inhabitants, joining the global list is a matter of pride, prestige—and hopefully, some attention from travellers. We can certainly recommend a visit: Red Bay is an important destination for our Newfoundland and Labrador tours.

We’re glad the UNESCO decision highlights the importance of this fascinating, little-known part of the country, with its direct links to a little-known story from our collective past. Congratulations, Red Bay!

Visit Red Bay on our Newfoundland Circumnavigation 2013 and Newfoundland & Wild Labrador 2014 adventures.