Iceberg near Labrador

Ancient, Wild Labrador

Dr. Ralph Eshelman|January 19, 2006|Blog Post

Dr. Ralph Eshelman is a specialist in maritime history, polar exploration, and paleontology. He has served as geologist and historian for Zegrahm Expeditions and has traveled extensively through Greenland and Labrador. In our Q & A below, he offers us insight into the wonders of seldom-visited Labrador.

Labrador is often referred to as "a last great wilderness frontier." What gives it this designation? Labrador is largely unpopulated by humans except along the coast and, even there, hamlets are widely dispersed. Nain is considered the northernmost municipality in Labrador, yetit is located along the central coast and has a population of only about 1,000 people. Inland Labrador is still largely unexplored. One can venture into dramatic fjordlands, walk on isolated beaches described by the Norse in their sagas, follow rugged coastlines, and visit vast interior regions covered by tundra and mountainous expanses. All of these places have remained largely unchanged over thousands of years. Polar bear and caribou freely roam here and multitudes of fish, birds, whales, and seals live and feed along the coast.

Geologically, Labrador can claim some of the oldest rocks on earth. How does the geology here differ from other places? Newfoundland and Labrador have been called "Earth's Geological Showcase." Rocks dating nearly four billion years are found in Northern Labrador, among the very oldest on Earth. Rounded and smoothed by prehistoric glaciers, the rocks are twisted and folded by eons of geological tectonic pressure and exposed by glacial erosion. Here one may literally walk on the craton (undisturbed continental plate, or basement rock) of the rarely exposed root of the North American continent.

Vast numbers of wild- and marine life inhabit Labrador and its waters. What kinds of animals can travelers expect to see? The Arctic waters support enormous populations of marine life--some of the richest found on Earth. Due to nutrient-rich upwelling waters at the edge of the continental shelf, thousands of fish, birds, and marine mammals come here to feed. Visitors often see beluga, humpback, or sperm whales, and the unicorn-like narwhals. Along the shoreline seals are a common sight. On the water's surface, and in the sky, puffins, gannets, and guillemots feed. Thousands of northern fulmars and black-legged kittiwakes nest on spectacular cliff walls and rocky outcrops. On land we may see muskox and caribou, and polar bear sightings are always a possibility on land and on ice floes. Being north of the tree line, the magnificent tundra landscape shows off its bounty: plants ripe with berries, the glistening of sundew plants, wildflowers in bloom, and brilliantly colored lichens that cover many of the ancient rocks.

The human history of Labrador is a fascinating one. What cultures live, and have lived, here? Labrador has been home to aboriginal peoples for over 9,000 years. Among them are the Thule who were once dependent on the resources of the sea, and the Innu who relied heavily on the annual fall caribou hunt in the interior but spent the summers along the coast. The first Europeans to see Labrador were probably the Norse. By the 1540s the Basque had come to Labrador to hunt whales. British and French settlers arrived in the 1700s. Moravians, fleeing religious persecution in Europe, began establishing missions in Northern Labrador in the 1770s. Today, Labrador is a mix of all these cultures and more, a place where subsistence hunting is still an integral way of life.

The northern Atlantic has a rich maritime history. How does Labrador fit into this? New theories on the discovery and settlement of the New World suggest maritime peoples may have come by boat from Europe, following the same track down the coast of Labrador as did the Norse about 1000 years ago. Entire native groups were nearly totally dependent on the sea for their sustenance. While later Europeans such as the Spanish and English came to the Americas for furs, gold, and land, those attracted to Newfoundland and Labrador came principally for their fish. John Cabot reported Europeans fishing along the coast of Labrador in 1497. Europeans may very well have been fishing these shores before Christopher Columbus' heralded voyages. Here the cod became the king of fish. While the industry is not as lucrative today as compared to its past, fishing still is an important maritime tradition in Labrador.

What are the highlighted reasons to make the journey to Labrador? Some of the grandest scenery in the Arctic can be found along the coasts of Greenland, Labrador, and Baffin Island. The Labrador Current carries icebergs southward into the Labrador Sea, lending it the moniker, "Iceberg Alley." In 1859, artist Frederick Edwin Church traveled to Labrador; his painting, The Icebergs captivated the public's imagination (most of whom had never before seen an iceberg).

It is also a rare privilege to visit villages populated by Inuit subsistence hunters, caribou herders, and fishermen. The local fish markets are bustling and photogenic, as is the work of skilled artisans who carve ivory and beautiful locally quarried rock. The Moravian missions from the late 1700s leave their stories for us in buildings abandoned only in 1957. Labrador is truly a land of superlatives and a wonderful combination of spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife, and fascinating history.

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