Voyage on a Ship with the Inuit Along the Coast of Labrador, Canada
My message is directed to travelers who may find merit in the 5-day voyage of a working ship known as the Northern Ranger. Briefly put, this vessel—except during the ice-bound dead of winter— sails from Goose Bay, New Foundland north along a coast indented with bays, deep inlets, and uncounted islands. It fetches up those coming and going at a series of six villages that co-exist with nature in a remote and roadless back of beyond.
The Northern Ranger, a spotless vessel, resplendent in her blue and white colors, has a length of 220 feet and, with its crew of 21, moves along the Labrador coast carrying cargo (building material, food, ski-mobiles) and passengers. When fully booked the ship has space for about 50 cabin class passengers, plus an additional few in a compartment with reclining chairs.
This is a voyage without frills. There is no cocktail lounge, no shuffleboard, and no dining room with glittering napery. But what it does have is a crew that excels in maritime hospitality. The captain welcomed us to his bridge, the engineer to his engine room, and the stewards looked after our needs cheerfully. While the food in the cafeteria was not gourmet, it was satisfying.
My son and I were the only people traveling for pleasure, but the other passengers— a pair of Canadian officials, a family of three Inuits, and about 12 village locals—were more than congenial.
Still, perhaps best of all was our cabin. It was a comfortable refuge—fully plumbed—and was the scene of indolent reading, a fitting place to restore ourselves before the evening meal, and where at night we fell asleep to the usually gentle roll of the ship.
The Northern Ranger departs Goose Bay and steams down the 100-mile-length of saltwater Lake Melville and makes its first stop at an Inuit village called Rigolet (population about 500). From there the ship loops its way into fjord-like inlets to five other small communities, all of them set in the austere grandeur of this lonesome land. In order of appearance they are: Makkovik, Postville, Hopedale, Natuashish, and finally Nain. Nain, the northernmost community in Labrador has a population of some 1,200, and compared to the other villages is a metropolis. Here there’s a small hotel, a health care center, a fish processing plant, some mining activity, and the administrative center for Labrador’s Inuit Association.
Here too, as is true of the other villages, these mostly Inuit people have a culture that’s deeply rooted in the land and sea. It’s a traditional culture, and with pride they do their best to maintain the resources of this vast land—caribou, bear, geese, ducks, seals, salmon, trout, land plants—and they promise to save this legacy for future generations.
But, because of exposure to the outside world and to modern technology the Inuit culture has been watered down. Now many of these folks, while supplementing their income by hunting and fishing, either work for—or are dependent on—the Canadian government, and some of them living in crowded, poorly heated homes are involved in alcohol and drug abuse. Still, the same thing has happened elsewhere in the world. It has happened in places where proud indigenous people have tried to keep one foot in the traditional past, the other in the world of modern technology. Some of them make it. Some of them don’t.
Fortunately for all concerned, many of the Inuits have made it. And for the traveler moving among these people there are lessons to be learned. This unusual voyage will provide the questions, and at least some of the answers.