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.

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

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.

I had spent the previous six months covering multiple suicide bombings in Israel, often broadcasting live from the sites of murderous attacks by fanatics who believed they were doing the will of Allah.

Salmon fishing's healing effect

It was only amid the calm of catching Atlantic salmon with friends that I realized the toll of reporting on so much carnage: I hadn’t laughed in six months.

Others before me have discovered the cleansing and healing effects of wading into subarctic rivers up to your chest and casting a small salmon fly at large fish in waters that dance, sparkle, and sing about you.

Salmon fishing is not a prerequisite for loving the north country. But you do have to see the charm in places called Cut Throat Island, White Bear Islands, Devil’s Lookout Island, George Deers Nap, and Indian Tickle.

Labrador has long purged dark visions from the minds of men of war. Generations of ranking US and Canadian generals, many of them veterans of World War II and the Korean War, came here over the past half century after discovering Labrador’s provincial mystique while working on the northerly radar stations that helped defend North America from Soviet bombers during the cold war.

Even in 2010, Labrador’s year-round residents testify that life often remains pretty close to the margins. Such primal living may account for the north country’s pull on some people.

Licenses here limit hunters to two caribou. So many men buy a second license in their wife’s name. With those two permits, Labradoreans can shoot four caribou, filling a freezer. But here’s the rub: Hunting caribou, as one friend told me, can mean camping in a sleeping bag at minus 52 degrees Fahrenheit waiting for a herd to come near.

Salmon fishing is easier – and more reverential. Most fish are returned alive. In sport fishing, killing a salmon smacks of sin.

There’s an important lesson to be learned from catching these fish. During their spawning runs, salmon don’t eat. So why do they bite? Mostly irritation. I remind myself that if the fish didn’t lose its temper, and kept its mouth shut, it wouldn’t get hooked.

Terry and I spent one of the best days of our lives salmon fishing here. In 24 hours, we hooked 16 Atlantic salmon a piece. At the end of the day our arms ached. But I remember him saying, “Walt, we’re at the top of our game.” And we were. So we made a pact that when we turned 90 we’d come back to fish this river.

To my mind, and to more than a few others, God was more than a little generous with Cain.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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