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The cruise deep into Canada's endless wilderness that will help you reset your life

Gavin Bell
Saglek Fjord in Torngat Mountains National Park: a place of spirits - © 2017 Karsten Bidstrup

There’s nobody here. No people, no houses, no roads, and absolutely no chance of internet or phone signals. There is only endless wilderness: a ragged saw-tooth skyline of mountains rearing imperiously above dark fjords.

The Spirit Mountains of northern Labrador are the stuff myths and legends are made of. From the decks of Spitsbergen passengers gaze in awe and silence at ranks of time-ravaged lords of nature with icy crowns holding court over a billion years of solitude. This is what adventure cruising on small ships is all about – taking travellers to wild places virtually impossible to reach otherwise.

Canadian immigration officers have been trying for two days to reach us by flying to a remote Cold War airstrip built by the Americans in 1950, but their light aircraft has been grounded by high winds. And this is summer.

Our ship with barely 100 passengers sailed from a small harbour in Greenland to Saglek Fjord on the southern edge of the Torngat Mountains National Park, whose name derives from an Inuktitut word meaning “place of spirits”.

Its only regular visitors are Inuit hunters tracking caribou and polar bears. A seasonal base camp set up last summer attracted fewer than a dozen intrepid trekkers, who promptly hired Inuit bear guards. On a sightseeing trip by a Zodiac boat we find out why. Dark dots moving on a hillside turn out to be a large black bear and her cubs foraging for food.

Savouring the final minutes of daylight in Newfoundland from the deck Credit: Karsten Bidstrup

The comforts and facilities of a well-run ship heighten the pleasure of cruising in high latitudes. Observing icebergs from an open-deck hot tub, champagne glass in hand, adds a wondrous new dimension to the experience.

Our route south along the Labrador coast to Newfoundland retraced an epic voyage in 1000AD by Vikings who enjoyed no such luxuries. They did, however, discover America, 500 years before Columbus.

The lands they found on their expedition from Greenland have barely changed. Small settlements of wooden clapboard houses clustered around natural harbours barely impinge on panoramas of hills and deep forests. There are no roads to most of them and links to the outside world are seasonal, by boats in summer and snowmobiles in winter. The spirit of the Norsemen survives in descendants of Inuit and European hunters and fishermen who succeeded them, living on the wild edge of Atlantic Canada with community bonds that defy the harshest conditions nature can throw at them.

Clapboard houses in Battle Harbour on the Labrador coast Credit: Karsten Bidstrup

An advantage of small cruise vessels is that they don’t overwhelm ports of call with tidal waves of tourists. There are not many of us, and on shore excursions we split into small groups for guided tours, or wander around on our own.

So on a rickety old quay in Makkovik (population 360), I pass time with a lean, wiry character in T-shirt and skip cap, looking younger than his 67 years, who discourses on a life of seasonal fishing and carpentry before ice-bound winters plunge temperatures to minus 40F. “When I was a boy every family had a boat and everybody fished – that was the best life you could have,” he says.

In recent years they have been hit hard by moratoriums on cod and salmon, but every family is still allowed one net for domestic food, and his is out today. “I love it here,” he says. “I guess it’s the freedom. I’m right on the sea, I can fish it in summer and ski on it in winter. I could never live anywhere else. I’ve got two boats and three dogs. If I went somewhere else, where would I put them?”

They may not have cinemas, theatres and supermarkets in the scattered settlements of Nunatsiavut, Labrador’s autonomous Inuit homeland, but there is a sense of peace and freedom that many urban dwellers would envy.

It's easy to spot whales while cruising around Labrador Credit: Andreas Kalvig Anderson

On the rare occasions cruise ships call, knitters, soapstone carvers and artists gather to sell work created from, or inspired by, local wildlife. My wife is now pootling around the house in handsome slippers fashioned from caribou pelt and rabbit fur by the wife of an Inuit fisherman.

The longest boardwalk in North America doesn’t really go anywhere. It is a whimsical five-mile meander along the wooded shores of a broad Labrador inlet from Rigolet, an old fur trading post, to a pile of stones that was an 18th-century Inuit hunting camp.

It is an enchanting stroll between wood and water that refreshes the mind and lifts the spirit, and our little group has a couple of amiable companions carrying shotguns because there are bears in the woods.

One of them is Derrick Pottle, a trapper and soapstone carver who learned hunting skills from his father and is passing them on to his seven year-old son. In between discussing the medicinal properties of plants we encounter, he says: “You can never be prepared enough for a bear. It don’t make no difference what colour hide a bear’s wearing – black, white or brown – they all kill, that’s how they survive. ”But then, so do people.

Derek hunts lynx for meat, and wolves, pine martins and otters for pelts that are fashioned into hats and coats to pay for winter fuel. “Go to the store and look at the prices and see why people harvest the land,” he says.

Red Bay is a former whaling town, now a Unesco World Heritage site Credit: Camille Seaman

Most days our ship slows to keep pace with humpbacks, minke, pilot and sei whales, all of them presumably grateful that the great Basque whaling fleets of the 16th and 17th centuries are long gone.

At the height of the slaughter, more than 2,000 ships converged each summer on Red Bay, a natural harbour that has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

It is a small community of brightly painted clapboard houses and wharf stores, dominated by a handsome church and an interpretation centre on a hilltop whose prize exhibit is a well-preserved chalupa whaling boat. The best exhibit I saw in the centre was from its windows, of a minke whale cruising serenely around the bay, identified with the help of a marine biologist.

Adventure cruises come with experts who can tell you everything you could possibly wish to know about what you see en route, from bears and birds to icebergs.

On our visit to l’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, we were accompanied by Benedicte Ingstad, daughter of the Norwegian couple who made the historic discovery of this Viking settlement on Newfoundland in 1960.

A replica [settlement] has been created of wooden houses with turf roofs, complete with locals in old Norse costumes engaged in domestic activities and relating tales from Viking sagas.

On a fine summer day the grasslands by a ragged coast of rocks, bays and islets is idyllic. Buttercups and wild iris stir in a fresh breeze beneath blue skies, and it’s easy to imagine the Norsemen surveying the cove with joy and relief after their hazardous voyage.

A natural haven for escaping stress: Woody Point, Gros Morne National Park Credit: iStock

A few miles down the west coast we drop anchor at Woody Point, a renovated 19th-century fishing outpost in the heart of Gros Morne National Park, a spectacular wilderness of table mountains and boreal forests where geologists confirmed the theory of plate tectonics.

A morning walk through foothills leads to a stream of clear water amid banks of bluebells, where I wandered off alone to contemplate the stillness of impassive rocks of ages.

Locals call this place the “holding ground”, a term which is used by fishermen for sheltered bays where anchors hold in stormy weather. It denotes a natural haven for escaping the stresses and strains of modern life, a place to be grounded. Along the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland, there are many of them to call your own.

The essentials

'The Northwest Passage: in the wake of the Great Explorers' is a 20-day cruise with Hurtigruten on board MS Fram. It has similar themes of heritage, culture and exploration and departs Edmonton on August 30, 2020. From £13,337, excluding flights.

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