JOURNEY THROUGH LABRADOR by Bernie Howgate

( Chapter 5 )

 

 

MARCH 8th

I've now completed what everyone has told me is the wildest and most spectacular section to date from Norman's Bay to Black Tickle.

The groomed snowmobile trail I've been following since Mary's Harbor stopped in the coastal community of Norman's Bay. I was now entering polar bear country. From here on until Porcupine Bay, 80 km. north, there was a very real danger of meeting them. I would have to cross three frozen bays, follow the spectacular deeply wooded Squasho Run and cross two dangerous barrens. There were now no trail markers to guide me and, I prayed the weather would stay clear. When the sun shines even the barrens look inviting, but when the sun is hidden behind dark clouds, Labrador looks a desperate place. When you're on your own you have to hold something back for safety's sake. Weather changes fast on the east coast and its hard to relax and enjoy the views when survival is uppermost in your mind.

The coastal cold surprisingly didn't bother me and the biting northerly winds were more my friend than my enemy. It swept the ponds clear, crusted the snow and could make breaking trail as easy as walking on pavement. In fact, I preferred it that way. The real problem during the day was over heating. When walking I always tried to stay cool. I dressed top to bottom in a thin layer of polypropylene underwear, wore a 'pile' sweater and relied upon 'gortex' windbreaker trousers and jacket. Only in the evening when making camp did I put on my heavy 'down' parka on, and so far had not used my heavily insulated trousers. I had a pair of arctic boots with double felt liners, but proffered to walk in a cheap pair of leather mukluks. And although the temperature always hovered around -20 degrees Celsius, I always felt comfortable in them.

My day would begin at first light. Those first ninety minutes were always the worst. Then my poor fingers froze as they went about their many tasks, operating their stove, dismantling my tent and packing my sled. I'd learned early on that once my heavy mitts were off, you had to have a plan of action. There was nothing worse than forgetting something and having no sooner brought life back to fingers than having to expose them again to the frigid cold.

My life now was governed by routines and, I dreaded change. At Peter's Hill, Just north of Squasho Run, I had to unload the sled and make two trips to the top. Simple enough, yet the thought of doing it depressed me out of all proportion with the importance and difficulty of the task.

At Partridge Bay, I risked what looked like bad ice rather than portage around the bay away from my set course. The development of obsessive rituals and set goals were two symptoms of my solitude, another was day-dreaming.

When walking your mind wanders like your feet. An old lover pops into your mind, twists, curls, then falls out of view. Sometimes an old song replays itself. For no particular reason during this trip, I had adopted the Cowboy Junkies. I often craved exotic foods and sometimes to pacify myself would play out a restaurant scene and struggle to recall every morsel. On more than one occasion, I caught myself talking to shadows. If you day-dream best in a soft armchair listening to classical music, Labrador isn't the place for you.

The highlight of my day was the evening meal. Nothing was enough. Variety mattered little to me, and I confess that I tended to eat like a small child. Eating first what I like best and then making a whole meal out of it. During the day I ate chocolate bars, and in the evening whatever menu of freeze dried food popped into my hand. My fluid requirements were three liters a day. I drank like a fish in the morning, stored it like a camel during the day, then topped it up again in the evening.

On the third day from Norman's Bay the weather changed direction. From Shoal Bay to Black Bear Bay I had a southeasterly tail wind. Florida was coming north and by mid-day I was jacketless. The sun had a sickly halo around it. I'd seen this phenomena before and it always meant snow. Fresh snow at best is like powder and at worst like grains of sand. There's nothing worse for your moral than breaking a trail with snow shoes pulling a 120 pound dead weight behind you. All signs of trail are obliterated. It can hide bad ice and cover the dangerous tidal slob that appear in the bays.

All day I travelled as if chased by the devil himself. Snow storms can last for days and I wanted to reach shelter before it fell. By late afternoon the sun had shattered into a thousand fragments. You couldn't see where the sky began and the land stopped and by the time I made camp in the thick wood along Open Bay, it had started to fall.

The next morning, I woke before daybreak. Half the tent was lost to a snow drift. The weather was turning ugly. That morning the weather forecast was full of blizzard warnings. Black Tickle would have to wait. I spent forever digging myself and my equipment out, then set off at top speed for Porcupine Bay and the shelter of its government cabin.

 


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