Witness the birth of a national park (Page 1 of 3)
A wilderness trekker explores the genesis of the next jewel in the Parks Canada crown: Labrador’s Mealy Mountains
By Jerry Kobalenko
|Granite hills surrounding an inland fiord lake in Labrador’s English Mountains. Blackflies diminish on the water, making rafting a good way to explore the shoreline. (Photo: Jerry Kobalenko)|
|Locate the Mealy Mountains (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)|
I am camped on the shore of a fiord lake in
Labrador’s Mealy Mountains, in the heart of what will
soon be Canada’s newest national park reserve. The
lake has no name on topographic maps, but the Innu
here call it Cave Creature Lake. According to legend,
human-like creatures live in a grotto at one end. They have
two-dimensional faces and eyes on one side, like a flounder.
I haven’t seen these beings, but then, such spirits never
reveal themselves to akaneshau
— white people.
Plenty of other creatures, however, are less choosy about
keeping me company. Summer in the Mealy Mountains is
blackfly season. In a lifetime of northern travel, I have never
seen so many. What Canadian explorer and map-maker A. P.
Low called “the gay festive mosquito” remains largely absent
from this high country, but about 10,000 blackflies clamber
madly over me on this warm and windless July afternoon.
Clouds more of them rise at every step. Little wonder that only
gormless travellers like myself venture here in summer. Locals,
far smarter, traditionally fish the breezy coast until September.
Only then do they head into the interior by canoe, to reach
their trapping grounds by November, when the fur is prime.
When I had tried to enlist some former trappers to join me
on this summer excursion, each one had suddenly remembered
either a prior commitment or a leg injury.
There is an essential contradiction about Labrador. To an
outsider, it feels like the deepest wilderness. You can walk the
interior for 500 kilometres, as I have, and not see a soul. But
every unnamed lake, every point of land, every bald-topped
granite hill has a name and a history and is part of a fabric that has sustained Innu, Inuit, Métis and European settlers
for centuries. Even the remote range where I am camped,
the English Mountains, served as winter caribou hunting
grounds for the coastal Inuit of Rigolet.
|First Nations displaced by new parks tell their story|
For years, I have wanted to visit the English Mountains.
They are the roof of the Mealy Mountains, topping out at
almost 1,200 metres, and they are fiendishly inaccessible. No
outfitters run tours here. No roads pass anywhere near them.
They are guarded on three sides by tractless forest and on the
fourth by string bogs. Hiking in would be what you might
charitably call an interesting experience. The only practical
ingress is by air, and that’s how I’ve come here. Gudrid
Hutchings, the manager of Rifflin’ Hitch Lodge, an elite fishing
sanctuary on the nearby Eagle River, kindly agreed to drop
me off by helicopter during one of the regular supply runs.
The kingly view from 200 metres in the air gives a very different impression of the Mealy Mountains from groundlevel
reality. As the helicopter climbs the escarpment on the Lake Melville side, waterfalls spill down slick black slopes,
flashing like burning magnesium in the sunshine. The many cliffs reinforce local warnings about how easy it is to fall off
some precipice in bad winter light. Nevertheless, the subalpine landscape looks inviting, like seemingly decent hiking terrain.
As we approach the English Mountains, snow appears on the highlands. The origin of the name Mealy is not certain,
although one theory links it to an old word meaning “spotted,” because of these snow patches that linger into August.
The Innu call the Mealys akamiuapishku. Pronounced kamiwa-pushku, it means, somewhat similarly, Across White Rock.
The 40-minute flight from Happy Valley-Goose Bay excites me about my travel prospects for the next four days. I pick
Cave Creature Lake as a base more because of its beauty than its legends. It is also close to a snow-flecked pyramid that pilot
Darin Silver has informally judged as the highest peak in the Mealys simply by flying around the area and watching
his altimeter. A venturi wind, as Silver calls it, rips down the narrow inland fiord. We land and unload, the helicopter
leaves, I set up my tent in peace — and then the wind stops.
When many of us think of national parks we imagine familiar icons like Banff, which tries to balance
protection of the area with hosting three million visitors a year. But many of the newer northern parks see few
tourists. Ellesmere Island’s Quttinirpaaq National Park, the
second largest park in Canada (after Wood Buffalo in Alberta/Northwest Territories), can get just eight or nine
hikers a year. Such parks exist for reasons other than recreation.
The Mealy Mountains have been under consideration as a national park since the 1970s. They represent one of
39 distinct Canadian ecosystems; in this case, the East Coast Boreal Region. The mountains may not erupt 1,000 metres
directly out of the open ocean, as they do in Torngat Mountains — Labrador’s first national park — far to the
north, but the English Mountains feel like Labrador’s version of Gros Morne, in Newfoundland: ancient sugarloaf granite
riven by deep interior fiords, the haunt of wolves and caribou.
Beyond representing an ecosystem, a new national park has to be politically possible. That’s more of a challenge than
it used to be. Western models like Banff were created when residents had little input. Politicians and bureaucrats inked
in a park on the map, and nearby communities relocated or adapted to the restrictions. Today’s parks — especially northern
parks with rich histories of land use where traditional activities remain part of daily life — are custom-made to
consider the needs of the local people who know them best.