Adventure, according to Frank Wolf, happens when things go wrong. The Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker should know. In the past 15 years, he’s taken part in expeditions where the potential for mishap has been high: canoeing across Canada; kayaking a remote whitewater river in Laos; climbing 3,000-metre-high volcanoes in Indonesia; and cycling from Dawson, Y.T., to Nome, Alaska, in the depths of winter. And his most recent journey — a Royal Canadian Geographical Society-supported trans-Nunavik canoeing trip from Nain, N.L., to Kangiqsualujjuaq, Que. — was no exception, thanks to a bloodthirsty winged menace.

Inuit elders in Nain warned Wolf and fellow canoeist Todd McGowan that they didn’t know what they were getting into, that the swarms of blackflies along the 500-metre climb to the top of Labrador Plateau and the waterways they would paddle from there would eat them alive. But the duo always knew the portage would be brutal, says Wolf, and the challenge excited them.

The Inuit, he quickly learned, weren’t exaggerating. With 30°C heat and almost no breeze, the air was thick with hungry blackflies.

“I put a shirt on my head and DEET on my face,” says Wolf, “but the DEET washes off with your sweat.” His face was soon pockmarked with bugs, and his blood-crusted chin was so swollen with bites, he could feel it jiggle. “I was perpetually itchy everywhere. But when you’re focusing on picking the right route up the mountainside, the bugs become secondary.”

Their struggles didn’t end there. Once on top of the plateau, they found many of the rivers and lakes unnavigable, and though they had scaled back their route from 1,400 kilometres to 620, the journey still took a week longer than expected. But their goal in crossing Nunavik was not simply to get to the other side; they wanted to gain a cultural perspective of the region.

For the first two weeks on the plateau, the only signs of humanity on the treeless, moonlike landscape were the occasional remnants of wooden sleds and a couple of mossy inuksuit that blended into the rocky terrain. But then, by luck, they stumbled across an Innu encampment and archaeological site known as Indian House Lake, or Mushuau Nipi (“country of the treeless land”). There, they filmed a traditional caribou hunt and the subsequent gutting and meat preparation.

The traditional knowledge it takes to survive in an inhospitable region, Wolf realized, is what it really means to be connected to the land.

“Nothing worthwhile is easy,” he says. “When you’re out on the land and moving forward, trying not to run out of food and making decisions based on what’s safest, difficulty becomes the norm. You’re tapping into your ancient self, and it’s a very engaging way to live.”

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