- Written by Dan
Whether you come to trek, climb, camp, kayak, raft, fish or wildlife view, there's no disputing this is a land where adventure reigns!
Our beautiful big blue planet is decorated with wild spaces from pole to pole. Those who live on the edges of these wildernesses are hardy souls who invariably have made their peace with nature, and live not at odds with the testing conditions, but in harmony.
Then there are those visitors who seek out these wild spots to test their resilience: to purge the inertia of routine, or to see how they stand up against nature or against their forebearers, or perhaps, most of all, against themselves.
Canada is blessed to be in abundance with such testing grounds—so when opXpeditions set out for some serious domestic peregrinations, we needed look no further than Nunavik: the vast and unspoiled wilds of northern Québec.
Nunavik is one of the world’s last truly wild places. Occupying the northernmost third of the province, the area is a wonderland of the untamed, with Arctic and sub-Arctic virginal vistas, taiga, tundra, forests, cliffs, mountains, rivers, ocean and unforgettable challenges. Rich with history, boasting a unique culture and some of the most spectacular photographic opportunities in the world, Team Outpost was at its most expeditionary in just picking a launching point and route.
The Absolutely Incredible Nunavik Landscape
Having pawed over topographical maps and consulting with Nunavik Parks, Team Outpost found it was utterly spoiled for choice—but eventually carved out an expedition to explore the 4,461-square-kilometre Kuururjuaq National Park that is situated near the northern tip of the Québec-Labrador Peninsula. Team Outpost Kuururjuaq tested its mettle along the mighty Koroc River that runs through this land, and on the precipitous slopes of Québec’s highest peak, Mont D’Iberville. An expedition of a lifetime, with whispers of other wonders and challenges that beckon adventurers to this stunning Canadian outpost.
Stretching from Labrador and the towering Torngat Mountains in the east, to Hudson Bay in the west and north to the Hudson Strait, there are barely 12,000 inhabitants (known as Nunavimmiut) spread across 507,000 square kilometres, making Nunavik one of the most sparsely populated places on Earth. Yet for all its magnificent solitude and isolation, it is a remarkably accessible place. Although not connected by roads or even rail—and only briefly by water during the ice-free summer months—Nunavik is just a few hours from Montreal by air: Air Inuit, an Inuit-owned scheduled carrier servicing the region, and First Air, which services many northern Canadian areas, both fly here.
Once above the 55th parallel, in the land of white nights and the Northern Lights, of spectacular scenery and wildlife so abundant you’d be forgiven for thinking you were the first person to ever trespass its domain, you get to decide whether to hike, climb, kayak, canoe, raft, ski, snowshoe, snowmobile or dog-sled—or just avail yourself of the gracious hospitality and world-famous art of the Nunavimmiut communities.
Chatting With Local Inuit Elders
Nunavik’s vast coastline is dotted with small villages. Ranging in population from as low as roughly 200 people to more than 2,000, all of the communities provide access not only to its national parks and all the adventure beyond, but also to everyday Inuit life. It’s still commonplace to see families heading out to hunt on land or water—ever-respectful of wildlife populations and wary of the elements—as they have done forever, and to see Elders gather. Skins dry on wooden racks outside homes, while great blocks of soapstone sit half-carved beside snowmobiles and ATVs. The outfitters and guides who take travellers along the coast or into the interior are local residents who know the tides, seasons, migration patterns, weather and wildlife here like the back of their own hands.
Outfitting began here many years ago primarily as support for sportsmen, scientists and surveyors seeking access to the wilderness. Local residents who had spent their entire lives hunting, fishing and simply surviving on the land were the perfect guides on whose expertise outsiders could rely.
As interest in outdoor activities grew, so the outfitters adapted to become advisors, master-guides and equipment suppliers for those looking to venture off the beaten path for excitement, adventure and research. Today, there are dozens of outfitters across Nunavik who can handle any challenge from simply shuttling visitors to and from the parks, to planning, equipping and accompanying ambitious expeditions. They can also catch an Arctic char quicker than you can bait a hook, prepare it in the field better than a gourmet chef, and share it over an evening’s campfire in the spirit and manner of their ancestors. And, if that isn’t enough, they can, oh so crucially, spot a polar bear long before the bear spots you!
Catching Fresh Arctic Char
Kuururjuaq is one of four national parks in Nunavik and along with two Nunavik park projects, these areas have all been earmarked for their exceptional features, and a wilderness deemed worthy not just of preservation but of being nurtured to host visitors. Using their own highly experienced staff, expert local outfitters and each park’s basic infrastructure, Nunavik Parks has created unforgettable year-round experiences that allow travellers not only access to these areas but to explore and enjoy them safely, and fully supported, with minimal impact to the environment.
Just south of the 60th parallel, on the tip of the Québec-Labrador Peninsula, Kuururjuaq is one of the continent’s greatest wilderness regions. Its eastern edges are dominated by the Torngat, the highest mountain range in eastern mainland Canada, with the park’s Mont D’Iberville its highest peak. With the assistance of Nunavik Parks, adventurers can climb the park’s mountains and foothills, traverse its tundra or explore its mighty Koroc River as it makes its way to Ungava Bay.
The Koroc has some of the best and most pristine whitewater fun in Canada. The river stretches 100 kilometres along, churning and boiling through steep cliffs and rolling plains, all beneath the starry Nunavik sky with the Torngats in the distance. Whether kayaking or rafting, it’s unlikely you will see another soul during your journey—but you may glimpse the haunting silhouettes of Arctic fox on the ridges above. In late afternoon, after a day expertly led over roaring rapids or lolling on tranquil, crystal clear waters, river guides take you ashore on golden sand banks and help you fish for char, salmon or trout for dinner, while the embers of your campfire drift into the very still night sky.
Kayaking the Legendary Koroc River
Stopping to Enjoy the View
To access Kuururjuaq, you must fly to the community of Kangiqsualujjuaq, also known as George River. Surrounded by mountains and perched on the mouth of the river at Ungava Bay, this village of less than a thousand is also one of Nunavik’s most scenic. Before taking the short flight to one of the park’s gravel airstrips to begin your experience, it is mandatory to attend a safety briefing in the park office in town. Here you can also shop for Inuit art, or arrange to head out on the land for a few days with an Inuit family.
If whitewater is not for you, Kuururjuaq’s hiking is every bit as spectacular. Amid boreal forest, sweeping tundra, soaring rock faces and tumbling waterfalls, journeys of a few days to several weeks are spent trekking in a land rich with ancient history and alive with Inuit myths and legends. Local guides share their stories, and bring the landscape to life, as you cross icy rivers and trek ridgelines with breathtaking views. The park also has a new camp at Korluktok Falls, about midway along the Koroc River; emergency shelters in specific places; and the ability to set up Inuit camps, with bunk beds and stoves, along route. Guides are always equipped with communication devices in the event of an emergency. You can visit archaeological sites that testify to thousands of years of human habitation, and keep eyes peeled for
glimpses of black bears, caribou, foxes, hares and occasionally even polar bears.
Vast Trekking Distances
For the unstoppable, the 1,646-metre Mont D’Iberville politely beckons. Only first conquered in 1973, the highest mainland peak in Canada east of the Rockies is accessible for anyone with the skill, fitness and determination to try—and the good weather to succeed. Tackling the mountain should never be underestimated, despite the fact only certain sections of some routes are considered technical. (Of course, some of its precipitously narrow ridges and near-vertical drops can cause even the least vertigo-susceptible to go weak in the knees!)
The actual climb can be done in a day from base camp and back again; but the mountain’s remoteness and the unpredictable elements mean most expeditions are planned for at least a week. Reaching the summit is physically taxing, but the views across the Koroc River Valley, Québec and Labrador, and out to the Labrador Sea, are as equal a reward as simply knowing you’re among the few to have succeeded.
Almost to the Summit of Mont D'Iberville
At the Summit of Mont D'Iberville
Several hundred kilometres northwest sits Nunavik’s first national park, Pingualuit, on the Ungava Peninsula. Located well above the tree-line, the park also offers outstanding hiking in summer and skiing in winter. The centrepiece of the park is one of Canada’s least known national treasures: Pingualuit Crater. Long a place of peace for local Inuit, called “The Crystal Eye of Nunavik,” the crater looms 160 metres above the tundra. More than a million years ago, a meteorite impacted here, creating today’s almost perfectly circular crater nearly 3.5 kilometres in diameter, and home to the 267-metre deep Pingualuk Lake, one of the deepest bodies of water in the country and one of the world’s most pure water sources.
Pingualuit offers trekking in an environment of stirring remoteness and contemplative isolation, where the biggest test might not be in finding your way but in finding your will to return to civilization. The interpretation and visitor centre in the nearby community of Kangiqsujuaq provides background on the area’s ecology, ancient history and spiritual importance, before travellers take the 20-minute flight into the park. To the north, the Puvirnituq River carves its way through a spectacular canyon of sheer cliffs before emptying into Hudson Bay, while elsewhere the predominately flat terrain makes it one of the region’s best spots for wildlife viewing—there are vast herds of caribou, fox and wolves.
Pingualuit Crater / Photo Courtesy of Nunavik Parks
Despite the hardships of an Arctic winter, Nunavik is open for business year round. Summer begins in June, and is marked by almost endless daylight, the spectacle of caribou migration and rivers teeming with fish, tundra rampant with wild flowers, and slopes and plains coloured by blueberries, mountain cranberries, black crowberries and cloudberries. For trekking fanatics, summer is the time to be in Nunavik.
And yet, winter has more than a passing appeal as the Aurora Borealis dance overhead, and ice-locked, snow-covered lands present stunning cross-country ski opportunities. Pingualuit’s skiing also makes the region every bit as alluring in winter and spring. The terrain is a backcountry skier’s paradise; and instead of flying in, Nunavik Parks transports winter visitors (about 75 to 100 kilometres) by snowmobile to their expeditioning launching point.
Accommodation out on the snowy tundra is in heated full-service camps, with the opportunity to sleep in a genuine igloo, which of course, you can help to build. To cap off the winter experience, the park offers some of Québec’s greatest views of the Northern Lights—which means any photographer headed north should not plan on sleeping. Ever!
Northern Lights / Photo Courtesy of Nunavik Parks
Given the success of Nunavik’s three national parks in protecting its unique environment while facilitating the interests of adventurers, efforts are now underway to create more protected areas as well as provide greater travel infrastructure. In 2014, Ulittaniujalik National Park is slated to be created; and this past summer, in July 2013, Tursujuq became a reality. Located on the eastern coast of Hudson Bay, in an area rich with salmon, harbour seals and belugas, this massive 26,107-square-kilometre park is one of North America’s biggest.
One of the park’s outstanding highlights is the phenomenal Clearwater Lakes: two water-filled connected meteor craters separated only by a dotted line of islands, thereby creating a gigantic, watery figure eight. Combined, they are Québec’s second largest natural lake. Between the park’s plentiful waterways, its boreal forest and tundra, and archaeology sites dating back more than 3,000 years, spectacular land and water experiences can be had for hikers, canoeists, explorers and other adventurers. And, being a new park, there are plenty of opportunities for original expeditioning.
Further work continues in both Pingualuit and Kuururjuaq—while one of the most exciting developments is the Ulittaniujalik National Park Project. Located south of Kuururjuaq, just inland from Ungava Bay, the 5,272-square-kilometre area will protect a lengthy portion of the George River, while its crown jewel will be the towering Pic Pyramide.
Also under development is the Baie-aux-Feuilles National Park Project, located in southwestern Ungava Bay, 40 kilometres northwest of Kuujjuaq. This proposed park is intended to protect a section of the spectacular Ungava Bay coastline, including its inlets and bays—all a potential wonderland for kayakers, boaters and land-borne explorers. The region is rich in wildlife, and home to some of the highest tides on the planet, ones that can reach up to 20 metres.
People have lived in Nunavik for thousands of years, testing themselves against a harsh climate, even as they were captivated by the mesmerizing wilderness. Local Inuit continue to hunt the land and ply the water—but now they share their home with those of us from the south who want to explore, adventure and test our own selves in this last frontier.
To raft a river, hike a valley, climb a mountain or ski the tundra, knowing there is no other human soul within miles, is a rare privilege these days within our world. But one which Nunavik extends to all who have the spirit, the desire, the appreciation.
Nunavik`s Pristine Landscape