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Walter Rodgers

Labrador: lure of 'the land God gave Cain'

Not much grows in Labrador – except for a bounty crop of black flies. But returning visitors eventually discover that Labrador’s environment is less about punishment and more about character.

By Walter Rodgers / August 4, 2010

Wulff Lake, Newfoundland and Labrador

When he arrived in the 16th century, French explorer Jacques Cartier called Labrador “the land God gave Cain.”

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At first glance, this barren, buggy stretch of coastal land at the northeastern tip of North America does seem to be fitting exile for a biblical murderer.

But those who dare to make a return trip eventually discover that Labrador’s environment is less about punishment and more about character.

Though well south of the Arctic Circle, parts of Labrador are officially classified as polar tundra climate. The growing season passes in the blink of an eye – not that much can grow. If ever there was any arable soil in these environs, the glaciers swept it a thousand miles south long ago.

What’s left of Labrador is the Precambrian Shield, a crown of granite and gneiss that covers much of the province. The climate’s so severe at this latitude that only a few types of tree dare grow. Most are stunted.

Black flies are everywhere

Arguably, the only sustainable agriculture here is the bountiful black fly crop. These gnats don’t just bite, like American mosquitoes: They literally chew a hole in your skin. (I just squished one as I write this at the fishing lodge.) They have long been a defensive barrier dissuading outsiders, large-scale commercial development, and modernity.

The suffering of the early French and British explorers who walked these parts without insect repellent or nets is beyond imagining. For them, there was no escaping this T. rex of the insect world. I once tried to calculate whether there were more stars in the universe or black flies in Canada. Stars came out on top, but not by much.

One needs to be sturdy to live at this latitude. As soon as black fly season passes, Mother Nature sends forth the “stout,” a local name for a giant late-summer insect that’s like a cross between a horsefly and a hornet. Stout can drive a moose mad – let alone mere men.

“You either love it here or you don’t,” says Brenda Hay, a nurse who travels among Inuit villages from Goose Bay up “the north coast” to well beyond the timberline. “People don’t stay if they don’t love it.”

Why does she stay? “Good, clean living,” she says.

I discovered “the land God gave Cain” 15 years ago, and I’ve returned every summer since.

In the summer of 1995, Terry Shultz, a friend I’ve known from elementary school days, invited me here for Atlantic salmon fishing.