Wednesday, January 28, 2009

“Hardly Anyone Visits; No One Stays”

Yesterday I posted a little about Mount Shasta. Mount Shasta is in northern California. At something like the opposite end of North America, at the very north-east tip of Canada, there is a mountain range called the Torngat Mountains.

More than just being at the opposite end of North America, the Torngat Mountains are opposite Mount Shasta in another way as well.

Mount Shasta is part of the whole northern California scene. People take vacations there. Corporations sponsor retreats there. Even people like UFO buffs make pilgrimages there. Mount Shasta isn’t just part of civilization, legend has it that the mountain is a fountainhead of civilization, carried over through some great catastrophe from the ancient past.

The Torngat Mountains are on the Atlantic coast, far north and almost impossible to visit. They are wild. More than just being outside civilization, they have witnessed civilization come and go.

In the Nineteenth Century, there were settlements just south of the Torngat Mountains. Inuit people. Christian missionaries. Outposts of the local government. But over time the conditions were found to be so harsh, maintaining supply lines so difficult, that one by one the settlements relocated farther south. The area returned to the wild, reclaimed by polar bears, wolves, caribou and other wildlife of the tundra.

The Torngat Mountains saw civilization approach, over-reach itself and withdraw.


A little more than a decade ago newlyweds George Van Sickle and Stephanie White sailed a small, seventeen foot open boat [!] north along the coast of Labrador and visited the Torngat Mountains. They spent almost two months on the journey. During that time they didn’t see even one other sailboat.

The topic of open boat cruising is interesting in itself and I may someday return to it. Both the topic and the activity. But today I just want to post some of the thoughts of George and Stephanie as they looked back on their visit to the Torngat Mountains:

... Several days later, leaving the white Torngat summits behind, we anchor in front of the abandoned village of Hebron. Until the 1800s, the Inuit lived in small semi-nomadic bands along the coast. Moravian missionaries arrived in the Nineteenth Century, bringing a modicum of European culture. The Inuit came to live in the several mission villages established on the coast. During the 1950s the mission and the government found it too costly to supply these small, remote communities, so everyone moved south to Nain. Hebron was the last village to be abandoned, nearly 40 years ago.

A bull caribou eyes us as we wander through the decaying wood buildings. A rusted windvane records the date: 1832. The cemetery is overgrown by tundra vegetation, most of the graves marked by wooden plaques, long illegible. A few are inscribed stone, and we find Stephanie’s family name of White; on another is my mother’s family name, Cook. We speculate about the lives of these people who once thought, spoke, and toiled at the remote edge of this northern sea.

Perhaps, all along, the lure of Labrador has been the spirit of the Torngat, drawing us to this solitary coast. Poor Torngat, he has the caribou, the polar bear, the wolf and raven. But his people are gone, moved away south, and he is lonely in his icy Arctic mountains by the sea. Hardly anyone visits; no one stays.

The afternoon breeze promises an easy spinnaker run to the south. Behind the barren islands guarding the harbor, a parade of icebergs dot the blue horizon. Even in this cool, brief radiance of summer, there is a long, cold loneliness here. We head back to the boat to pack our gear. Surely, it is the Torngat that we came to see.

George Van Sickle
writing in, “Spirit of the Torngat”
Sail Magazine, May 1996

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