Polar Bears and Paddling: an interview with AKOR Expedition on their seemingly impossible 1600 km journey

In the summer of 2018, six lifelong paddling friends from Quebec began a trip unlike any other. Over 65 days, they traveled 1600 kilometers to connect the inland town of Schefferville to the Inuit village of Nain. By modern knowledge, they are the first team to complete this route.

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Throughout their journey, Expedition AKOR sought to capture to beauty of northern Canada and increase scientific knowledge about the effects of climate change in such a vulnerable environment, as well as gain a deeper understanding of Inuit history and culture.

I spoke with Nicolas, one of the members of Expedition AKOR, about this incredible journey: the challenges of paddling along a polar bear highway, the significant archeological discoveries, how climate change threatens indigenous knowledge, and more.

Attempting the seemingly impossible

Expedition Akor-6[1]-minWhat began as a crazy dream evolved into a half-serious idea, and finally culminated into the seemingly impossible. Expedition AKOR sought to paddle from the inland town of Schefferville, cross the Torngat Mountains, and paddle to the coastal town of Nain, a route that, according to modern knowledge, had never been attempted before.

But first, AKOR needed to determine if the route was seemingly impossible, or literally impossible. To answer this, the team sought the knowledge of Inuit living in northern Quebec and northern Labrador, an area known to Inuit as Nunavik.

“It starts with ‘is it actually doable?’” Nicolas told me. “We didn’t have many resources, but we had invaluble knowledge from the natives. We started asking them if it was doable. Up until the very last moment, we got people saying no. Just from the weather, we would have to walk for weeks on the ice.”

Expedition Akor-4[1]-minWalking on ice may not be as enjoyable as paddling, but it was still technically doable. So AKOR would do just that. For the first 160 km of their journey they would walk, pulling their boats along with them.

This was the first of many challenges the team faced. Over 65 days and 1600 km in total distance covered, AKOR walked over 160 km on frozen lakes, completed an 8 km portage through a mountain range, paddled 130 km upstream and finally canoed in the unpredictable waters of the North Atlantic.

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But when asked what the hardest challenge was, Nicolas was quick to answer. “Oh, the coast. The Labrador Coast. Definitely, with no hesitation.”

“Emotionally it’s hard because you’ve been dreaming of that moment for so long but it’s hard. The land, it’s very hostile. You have to paddle as strong as you can for as long as you can as soon as you have some good weather.” Nicolas, however, has a slightly different definition of ‘good weather’ than most of us.

“Good weather means that it’s not too windy. Even if it’s raining, snowing, even if it’s cold, you just paddle. You don’t know when the wind will rise. And it can rise for days, or weeks, so when the wind is good you go out and paddle. We averaged 35 km a day, but often did as many as 50.

“To reach Nain we did 70 km of paddling. On an ocean.”

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They first reached the Atlantic by way of Nachvak Fiord, an area as isolated and remote as they come. “Even Inuit, the large majority have never been. It’s too far from the northern village Nain. If something happens over there, you’re by yourself.”

By ‘something happening’, Nicolas is referring to encounters with polar bears, something the team experienced regularly. “You’re by yourself, but it’s a polar bear highway.”

“You have to do night watch because you never know when there’s going to be a polar bear roaming around the tents. That actually happened. Three times we had to wake up very quickly because there was a polar bear 15 m from our tents.”

“Ten polar bears [over three weeks] is actually a pretty small number on the coast. We met Inuit who encountered 15 a day in the fiord. And we didn’t see one [in the fiord]. So the real question is how many actually saw us on the water? And that’s creepy. That’s really creepy.”

“You feel quite small. You have cliffs that are 3000 feet dominating you, the waves crashing, icebergs floating around you. When you combine it with the history of Inuit that used to live there with polar bears, they lived in such an extreme environment, very cold and very hostile.”

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A glimpse into prehistoric Nunavik

It’s known that there have been people in the Canadian North for thousands of years – before Inuit, there were Thule and before that Dorset, and even pre-Dorset. Beyond the knowledge passed down through generations and held by Inuit communities today, we don’t know much about the history of people in the north.

Nicolas and the team, however, made discoveries that contribute to increasing that knowledge.

“On the coast, every campsite we found, and by campsite I mean a tiny place where there wasn’t a cliff and there was a bit of fresh water, we found old tent rings. We found artifacts from potentially pre-Dorset, Dorset, Thule and Inuit cultures that lived across the land.”

“One day I remember we found nearly a hundred old tent rings and houses in the same spot – we were in the middle of a prehistoric village. We found ten graves, with well-preserved bones. These people buried their loved ones, they would have had the same feelings we do now in 2018. You start to have a big respect for the culture. We struggled just to cross that region, and they used to live there.”

Nicolas and the team found more than twenty sites like that. They sent photos and locations of three of them to archaeological teams in Labrador and awaited the results. “None of the sites were known!” Nicolas told me. “That’s real discovery. There’s so much history there.”

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An uncertain future for Nunavik and its people

As we inch towards greater certainty about the history of Nunavik, we become less certain of its future. Climate change threatens to disrupt the arctic in unthinkable ways. Even now, change is being seen.

“We talked with lots of Inuit. They can compare with how it was when they were kids, or how it was when their parents were young, or their grandparents. They have the knowledge, and they say there’s less sea ice in the winter; in the summer, it’s definitely warmer.”

A significant threat is what rising temperatures do to sea ice, Nicolas explains. “Paths on the sea ice, they can’t tell that their trails are secure. They used to be able to say ‘that river [or] that lake is frozen for sure’. Nowadays, they go there and sometimes it’s not as frozen as they thought. Some people lose their material, their equipment, and, in rare cases, their life. It’s very sad. They’re losing their traditional knowledge. They have to adapt. It’s very hard.”

I asked Nicolas about the affects of climate change on wildlife; he told me it’s hard to say from a single trip, but gave an example of a species in decline. “The Golden Days of caribou on the George River are done. Once there were hundreds of thousands, mountains covered in caribou, it was the largest herd in Eastern Canada. Now there’s 5,500 in the George herd. The one we saw was alone, and it looked pretty sick and weak.” While we can’t say for certain that this is the result of climate change, it’s definitely a possibility.

Expedition AKOR hopes trips like theirs can help communicate the cultural and ecological significance of the arctic, and encourage people to think about the ways society is threatening such a unique and vibrate environment. “It’s a kind of overload. With all the icebergs, the polar bears and the whales, seals and caribou, you try to take it all in and it’s hard. There’s a reason we do this.”

You can read more about Expedition AKOR on their website.

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