Ajagutak Hikers: KSP Alumni Join Clara Hughes and Peter Guzman in the Torngat Mountains

By Ocean Lane of Makkovik, Labrador

Last summer, I had the opportunity to spend three incredible weeks in the Torngat Mountains of northern Labrador. I was selected as one of twelve youth to participate in the seventh annual kANGIDLUASUk Student Program (KSP).

With a little luck, determination, and charm, I had the good fortunate of returning to this magical place once again this summer. This time around, I was hired as a Program Leader for KSP, and joined three other KSP alumni from Nunatsiavut and Nunavik on a pilot hiking program.

I was also re-united with two now familiar faces to the Torngats: Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes and her husband Peter Guzman. Clara and Peter hiked for a week in the Torngat Mountains last summer, and then spent time with myself and the other youth in the 2013 kANGIDLUASUk Student Program. The idea for this hike grew from Clara and Peter’s desire to give some of the youth of the program a chance to experience what they had on the land in the Torngats. As Clara wrote in her blog last year, “to be self contained and move through this land is a gift to share with others.”

The idea evolved into a kANGIDLUASUk Pilot Hiking program to re-connect alumni of the Base Camp program with each other, and with the Torngat Mountains. Core financial support for the initiative came from a keen supporter of youth programs in the region, McKeil Marine LtdMountain Equipment Co-op provided all gear necessary to outfit the hike—everything from socks, shoes, and waterproof jackets to sleeping bags and packs—with all gear remaining with the KSP to use for future programming. The Tasiujatsoak Trust, Torngat Mountains National Park, and the Nain Research Centre also supported the initiative through financial and/or in-kind contributions.

Youth were selected. Our gear had arrived. The plan was in place, and Clara and Peter had just finished biking across Canada for four months during Clara’s Big Ride for Mental Health awareness. Now, we just needed to get our hiking legs ready!

It all started with a week of preparation and training on the 21st of July in Nain, Nunatsiavut. We learned how to set-up our tents and how to operate our tiny but powerful backpack stoves. We had a cookout buffet to sample the unique variety of freeze-dried backpacking foods for the first time. We helped Clara make homemade high-energy granola cereal for our trek, and tested our knot tying and tarp set-up skills with Peter. We went on two day-hikes in the Nain area to get a feel for walking with weighted backpacks. Finally, we marveled at our ability to fit all of our food, clothing and gear for the next six-days into our packs as we prepared for our departure.

Before we knew it, we were boarding our Twin Otter charter on July 26th and heading north to the Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station. Here, we would grab a meal and our guide (Andrew Andersen of Parks Canada) along with our bear monitors (Boonie Merkuratsuk and Neekallak Annanack of the Nunatsiavut Group of Companies). We were then shuttled by helicopter up to the Ramah Bay area in Torngat Mountains National Park to start our six-day adventure.

The first day was really hard for me. I don’t think I fully realized what I had gotten myself into until we hit the ground walking, with our loaded packs. We walked 8 km that day, but it was probably the roughest part of the trip for me. I felt out of shape, and all I would think about is quitting. Thankfully, everyone in our group was incredibly supportive of each other, and my amazement to be in such a beautiful place kept me motivated. The landscape was mesmerizing; I couldn’t believe my eyes for most of the first day. Little did we know that this would be our only day of sun for our entire hike!

The temperatures dropped that evening, and then the rain followed. Such is the unpredictable nature of coastal Arctic weather! We packed up and moved on anyway the next morning, setting up camp after walking 10 km.

Then came the fog. It rolled in so thick the next morning that the beauty of the surrounding mountains and valleys vanished, and we could barely see four feet in front of us. Extremely poor visibility and the slippery wet rocks on the ascent that lay ahead of us were hazardous combinations. So we stayed put, hoping for the weather to clear, for the sun to warm us again, for a rainbow.

We ended up spending the next two days in our night-2 camp with the rain and the fog and the two foxes that lived in the area. It was nice to see some wildlife. We couldn’t see much of anything else that surrounded us through the grey curtains of fog.

The first afternoon where we were stuck we set up a tarp with our hiking poles so we could have a dry place to eat, drink tea and wait out the weather. It was difficult being stuck for so long. The weather was depressing; fog, rain, more fog, a little harder rain. Some of us were getting “tarp fever” from being stuck so long, with almost nothing to really do. Thankfully one of the guys in our group brought along a deck of cards.

The second day we were stuck didn’t seem so bad. Our leaders changed plans, deciding to alter the route because of lost time with a pick-up by longliner near a place called Bears Gut. We told stories, jokes, and drank a lot of tea. That night we radioed the Torngat Mountains Base Camp and the youth in this year’s kANGIDLUASUk Student Program “broadcasted” a live musical performance for us with musician Ian Tamblyn. It was so good to have contact with other people, and hearing them sing really lifted our spirits. After hearing from the Student Program, we had so much life and energy that we got a little creative ourselves! We grabbed our cameras, and with what battery power we we had left we made a movie. It was so much fun and we couldn’t stop laughing all night. Later that evening when everyone was in their tents we also started singing; Labradorimiut and O’Canada.  I slept well that night. My heart was happy; I realized where in the world I was, who I was there with, and how lucky I was to be here again this summer.

KSP Base Camp youth and musician Ian Tamblyn sing to the “ajagutak” hikers over VHF radio to lift their spirits in the rain and fog.

The next day it was nice enough for us to pack up and leave. It was still foggy, but not nearly as bad as it was the days before. Now, everything we had was soaking wet, and even though we ate a lot of our food over the past few days, my backpack felt heavier! I had to carry the tent and it was so water-logged it was even hard to pack in its bag. Regardless, everyone was full of energy, eager to leave that campsite and see what else was out there.

The first few kilometers were really tough; I felt like I had to get use to hiking all over again! We continued on across rivers, beside waterfalls, and through a thick forest of birch shrubs. Thankfully it was all downhill, and we were going to be sleeping in dry, warm clothes, on dry, warm beds by the next morning! That was powerful motivation! I couldn’t give up now. I had to finish strong and prove to myself that I could do this.

P7260321_Andrew Andersen

We persevered, and after hiking all day and most of the evening we made it to the longliner that was waiting for us in Bears Gut. The awesome crew had a hot supper made for us and it felt so amazing to put on dry clothes, and warm myself beside the wood stove in the galley of the boat.

But, perhaps the best feeling of all was realizing that we hiked 17.5 km that day! I couldn’t believe it. My heart was burning with incredible pride and satisfaction. What myself and the three other youth accomplished was amazing.

We learned so much during this trip—not just about hiking—but about the land, its history, the animals, the plants, our culture, and about ourselves. We are so connected in today’s world. We need time to disconnect from our technologies, and reconnect with the land and our culture.

Even though the weather never did clear up for us, we realized that we did have a rainbow with us throughout our entire trek. Each in our different brightly coloured jackets, we were the rainbow (ajagutak) on the land, travelling as a team, struggling as a team. As one of our trip leaders Dorothy Angnatok said “without one of the colours, you wouldn’t have a rainbow. We need all the colours—all coats—on board to create the rainbow.”

If I ever had the chance to do something like this again, I would take it in a heartbeat. This experience has changed me and how I look at life, and it has made me grateful for all of the little conveniences we have in our modern society.

– Ocean Lane

P7270324_Andrew Andersen

Photos by Andrew Andersen and Clara Hughes