Labrador Remains a Forgotten Corner, a Place Apart in Icy Wilderness : Canada: Few people have had a kind word for this harsh land, where ice can choke the seas in mid-July and the temperature falls to 50 below in the long winter.

from National Geographic

When the ship arrived at Paradise River, Derm Wakeham stuck his head outside and got a slap of cold wind and rain in the face.

Wakeham, the assistant purser on the Taverner, dashed back inside the heaving ship.

"Paradise River!" he cried. "If this is paradise, I'd hate to see hell."

And that was summertime. As a regular visitor to Labrador, Wakeham knows what to expect, but he seems less than enchanted with the Canadian wilderness that lies east of Quebec and north of the Island of Newfoundland in a forgotten corner of the continent, Robert M. Poole writes in the current National Geographic.

For centuries travelers took one look at this rocky coast and sailed on.

"Worthless country," said Bjarni Herjolfsson, a Norseman who is supposed to have seen Labrador in 986.

"Fit only for wild beasts," said Jacques Cartier, who visited in 1534 while probing for a northern route to Asia. "This must be the land God gave to Cain."

"The most extensive and dreariest wilderness I have ever beheld," said John James Audubon, who came to paint birds in 1833.

Few people, in short, have had a kind word for this harsh land, where ice can choke the seas in mid-July and the temperature falls to 50 below in the long winter. Perhaps because of its bad reputation, Labrador remains essentially as Cartier and Audubon saw it, an inaccessible and austere land of rumpled black mountains, tea-colored rivers and soupy green bogs.

Only one gravel highway, known for its potholes and washouts, links Labrador to the outside world.

"When I drove the Labrador highway to Goose Bay a lot, I got so I could patch a gas tank faster than most people could change a tire," said Francis Clarke, a resident of Churchill Falls.

Clarke's comment would be a complaint anywhere else. But in Labrador, where people don't like things too easy, it's a boast.

Only 30,375 people live in Labrador's 112,000 square miles, which makes it one of the most sparsely populated regions of Canada.

Four settlements hold more than half those people: Labrador City and Wabush, where iron-ore mining is the major business, are adjoining towns carved out of the western wilderness in the 1950s and '60s.

Churchill Falls, a town founded in 1967, is on the site of one of North America's largest hydroelectric projects.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay, built during World War II as an airfield, is now used by German, British and Dutch fighter pilots for low-altitude training.

Aside from a sprinkling of fishing settlements along the coast, the rest of Labrador is lonely country, patrolled by polar bears and wolves, foxes and caribou, black bears and ptarmigan.

"And it is home to some of the toughest and most resourceful humans you will find anywhere," Poole wrote.

"If you survive here, you are entitled to live by your own standards," said Doris Saunders, a Labradorean who edits Them Days magazine.

"This is one of the few challenges left in a world of wimps," said Jack Cooper, an outfitter who introduced Poole to the pleasures of Labrador seven summers ago when he went to fish for brook trout at Cooper's camp on Anne Marie Lake.

"For me, a city-bound angler who spent more time fishing in imagination than water, Jack's place was like paradise found," Poole wrote. "The only way in or out is by chartered aircraft, which brings you down in a chain of lakes and rivers where a grand silence fills every wrinkle of the landscape.

"You often hear the fish, splashing out of the water to grab mayflies on the wing, before you see them.

"These brook trout--sequestered from overfishing and pollution--are among the largest in the world, averaging more than 5 pounds each."

In a recent summer, Poole found that the Trans-Labrador Highway was being resurfaced and improved, which would bring more traffic from populous Quebec, and that utilities were planning yet another big hydroelectric project on the Churchill River, which had already been dammed once, flooding hundreds of acres and forever changing Labrador's vast central plateau.

The Indians and Inuit were engaged in an acrimonious land dispute with fellow citizens, which raised questions about development in Labrador. The iron-ore mines and fishing industry were in a slump, worsening unemployment where jobs were too scarce already.

The separatist spirit of neighboring Quebec, a province threatening divorce from Canada, had seeped over into Labrador.

Although formally part of the province of Newfoundland since joining the Canadian confederation in 1949, Labrador has always been a place apart, separated from Newfoundland by rough seas and temperament, and by the Labradoreans' sense that they carry little political weight in distant St. John's, the provincial capital.

Many people privately wonder what will happen if the Canadian government grants control over most of Labrador to its 1,500 Innu Indians, Poole reports.

Although the names sound similar, the Innu are unrelated to the Inuit, who live along Labrador's northern coast.

Like the Innu, the Inuit also claim rights to Labrador's lands and resources.

The Innu all belong to the Algonquian family. Given the speed of change in the outside world, it is hard to remember that the Innu were still living as nomads just 30 years ago.

Unemployment and alcoholism run high in their primary settlements, where the suicide rates are far above the norm for Canada.

But there are Inuit success stories. Fran Williams is one. Her mission is to keep the Inuit language, Inuktitut, alive. She supervises 20 hours of Inuktitut broadcasting each week.

"We still have very strong family connections. We never look into the future more than a day or two," she said.

"Going out on the land--hunting and fishing--that's a part of our life that will never die out.

"Nobody expects to go back to the way we used to live, but we can have parts of it--caribou, char, bake-apple berries, salmon--that's all we need."

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