As Quebec’s Arctic north begins to open its doors to tourists, Phoebe Smith voyages to Nunavik to discover Inuit life and woodland caribou in Canada’s greatest wilderness…

“There, a caribou – do you see it?” asked Suzie as I trained my eyes on the green thicket on the opposite riverbank. As hard as I tried I couldn’t see the deer for the trees. This was not a good start to my wildlife-watching trip to Nunavik.

I was in the depths of the Torngat Mountains somewhere on the border between the national park of the same name, and the adjacent Parc national Kuururjuaq in Québec. Made up of gargantuan fjords and glaciated valleys, and a smattering of peaks so tall and serrated you’d think they’d been borrowed from the Himalaya, between them the two parks span the length of the Labrador Peninsula.

Torngat Mountains National Park, Canada

But these are not your normal national parks. There are no roads, no designated campsites, no signposted trails or “you are here” maps – these parks offers true immersion in the outdoors. Even the nearest visitor centre is 100km away back in the community of Kangiqsualujjuaq.

And I hadn’t even begun my journey there; I had started in the gateway to this whole region – Kuujjuaq – accessed by a two-hour flight from Montréal. Up until now, other than a handful of intrepid Canadian tourists, the only visitors here have been temporary construction or oil workers, but all that is about to change: the government have begun investing money in tourism.

On arrival I met Allan, an Inuit man who had lived here since birth. “Most kids leave when they finish high school,” he explained as he drove me around his hometown, pointing out the power plant (the whole community is run on generators), one of two general stores (where you can buy anything from a loaf of bread to a Skidoo snowmobile or a three piece suite) and the collection of traditional tents where teens like to stay with their friends in the summer to experience how their ancestors used to live. “They like to go to college in Montréal or Québec to experience life away from Nunavik,” he said. “But most of them come back. The town is growing all the time – things are changing.”

Kuujjuaq is changing. There are now two hotels in town. Originally built to house the temporary workers from “down south”, the demand is such that they are now adding a second storey to one and updating the furnishings and décor, hoping to entice tourists.

Polar bear, Nunavik, Canada

Later that evening excitement was brewing in the one restaurant in town as word got around that overseas visitors were here. The owner of the general store came over to say hello and the waitress took it as an opportunity to try out her English (in schools here they are taught Inuktitut first, then can choose between French and English). While fish was the main thing on the menu, the elusive caribou also featured. Having seen the animal so readily available to eat in the town, the live variety was something I was desperate to see.

The visitor centre, a 45min flight away at Kangiqsualujjuaq, offered a promising start. There was an impressive exhibition of animals I might see in Parc national Kuururjuaq, from wolves to polar bears, and golden eagles to (hopefully) caribou.

Here I met Suzie Morgan, an Inuit elder who used to live out in the heart of the Torngats. She grew up there with her family and explained how every year they would follow the Koroc River from east to west with the seasons. On the Labrador Sea they would feast on seals – eating their meat, using blubber for cooking oil and the fur to craft waterproof boots to keep their feet dry. When the seals migrated they would head inland, stalking the caribou herds as they moved through the forests, sometimes meeting other Inuit families as they went, moving constantly.

Photo: Neil S Price

Now Suzie lives in town and has a house with electric, heating and satellite TV, but she agreed to accompany me on the flight into Torngat to see her old stomping ground. As we bounced on the thermals above the peaks she gestured down to a bend in the river. It looked like any of the others we passed, but for her it marked the spot where all the Inuit families used to meet up once a year for a celebration.

We descended towards a dense forest. Within seconds we were landing amongst the undergrowth and came to a stop in the middle of nowhere. Here Suzie lead us down to the river where she remembered her father heading into the mountains to hunt caribou – before she spotted one herself and pointed it out to me – which I still couldn’t see.

She proceeded to open a basket containing a frozen Arctic char and sliced it, offering it out to us. I asked her if it was hard living out here.

Woodland Caribou, Canada

“But there is everything you need,” she replied, gesturing to the plants that surrounded her. “From food to eat, to water to drink, materials for clothes and medicine if you get sick, nature provides it all for us. You just need to know what you’re looking at.”

And, as I listened to more of her tales, I stared over at the river once more. In between the thick woodland I began to make out the shape of a caribou. It’s white fur giving it away. The longer I looked the more began to emerge. One by one they cautiously stomped through the bushes. A place that at first seemed to offer nothing but a lonely wilderness was now, slowly, revealing itself to be full of life.  I couldn’t help but smile – this was only the beginning.

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