The ship’s intercom crackled to life. “Good morning! It’s 6:06 am,” announced our expedition leader apologetically, “it’s early but off the port side we’ve spotted our first polar bear!”
This apex predator was one reason I came to one of Canada’s newest parks, Torngat Mountains National Park on Labrador’s east coast, and I sprung from my berth as fast as a four-year old on a Christmas morning. I slipped into warm clothing, doors slamming nearby suggesting other One Ocean Expedition passengers weren’t stopping to change, and sprinted to the bridge.
Overnight the ship had sailed into Saglek Fjord, the waterway piercing 9,700 square kilometers of wilderness. The tallest mountains east of the Rockies framed glassy indigo waters, the reflection of scree slopes providing double the mountainous beauty. I’d hopscotched across Canadian airspace before boarding this once-a-year voyage. After five days of chugging northward, we’d reached the place topping my bucket list and I pulsed with excitement.
The ship’s naturalist had binoculars trained on buff-coloured boulders near shore. “Over there,” he pointed a few hundred meters from the ship’s railing, “the bear’s near the water, moving from left to right.” Barely visible to the naked eye, my binoculars revealed a white bear striding quickly over and around some of Canada’s oldest rocks.
This national park – a gift from the Inuit to Canada as part of the 2005 Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement – is the only place in the country where you can see polar bears and black bears sharing habitat on the same day. While I had yet to spot a black bear, this white bear was a reminder I was in bruin country. To go ashore here you need an Inuit bear guide; although armed, success to them means preventing human-bear encounters and never having to shoot a bear.
Torngat Mountains National Park is Canada’s only park that is 100% Inuit operated and managed. Torngat comes from the Inuktitut word Tongait that means “place of spirits” and although Inuit are allowed to hunt and fish in Atlantic Canada’s largest national park, people hope tourism will generate new economic activity.
As I shivered in the morning air, I felt privileged to be one of only a few hundred tourists who visit perhaps Canada’s most remote coast (access is by expedition cruise ship or charter flight to Parks Canada’s base camp). The bear glanced at our floating hotel, a ribbon of pajama and fleece-clad travelers along the deck staring back, and scrambled higher up the mountain.
It continued its desperate summer search for food and I headed inside to a mountain of scrambled eggs and pastries. Our diets were different but on this day we shared the same landscape.
One Ocean Expeditions (OOE) is a Canadian company offering polar and maritime expedition cruises. Managing director Andrew Prossin grew up in Cape Breton and will move provisioning activities for OOE Arctic and east coast-bound vessels to Sydney, Nova Scotia when the cruise ship terminal adds a second berth (completion targeted for 2019). OOE supports Canadian geographic exploration and participated in the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition resulting in the discovery of Sir John Franklin’s vessel HMS Erebus.