Lure of the Labrador Wild
By Conor Mihell
On a rocky, unnamed river on the Labrador plateau, an overcast morning of hard upstream canoeing becomes a big bird day around noon. We’re feeling discouraged by a morning of cold feet and slow progress when we pull off on a boulder bar and light a driftwood fire for lunch and tea. That’s when my partner, Kate, notices something flitting in the dense alders along the river’s edge. “Wilson’s warbler, see?” she whispers, handing me the binoculars. Kate has honed her birding skills with stints at bird observatories across Canada. As a beginner birder, I marvel at the speed with which she calls out IDs - just as I’m stunned by the yellow breast and jet-black cap of the Wilson’s, magnified by crisp 10-power optics and bursting out of the drab surroundings.
Before long Kate wrests the bins from my hands. She glasses a thicket on the opposite shore. “Blackpoll warbler,” she announces, describing a tiny, half-ounce, black and white beauty with a high-pitched call that migrates to its subarctic breeding grounds from as far away as the Caribbean. I take a glimpse while Kate slices up our fry bread for lunch, her eyes alertly scanning for more birds. Suddenly, I’m less distracted by my numb feet and the clouds of blackflies seething for access to my exposed skin. I can’t wait for what she’ll show me next.
"We followed a route of lakes and rivers in a vast swath of undeveloped public land, portaging on sinuous eskers, camping in places where few have stayed before..."
My passion for long-distance canoe trips in northern Canada was inspired by an unlikely source. Around the turn of the 20th century, scientists from Carnegie Museum launched biological reconnaissance expeditions to the hinterlands of northern Quebec and Labrador, thousands of miles north of the museum’s Pittsburgh headquarters, to document the area’s birds, wildlife and plants. More than 50 Carnegie expeditions involved Indigenous guides and hard travel by snowshoe and canoe—and occurred long before Canadian geologists and engineers came to measure the landscape’s capacity for mines and hydroelectricity. These exploits have been largely forgotten, relegated to a 1963 Carnegie publication called Birds of the Labrador Peninsula. This obscure hardcover is a go-to source in planning my summer adventures; I was captivated by the audacity of the Carnegie journeys from an adventure perspective before I started birding with Kate.
No doubt our predecessors were tougher than us, venturing into this hard country with sketchy maps and basic food and gear. But for four weeks we got a taste of their lifestyle, paddling and portaging (that is, lugging our stuff overland) upstream and downstream and dealing with epic mosquitoes and blackflies. We followed a route of lakes and rivers in a vast swath of undeveloped public land, portaging on sinuous eskers, camping in places where few have stayed before, and encountering no other humans for the duration of our trip. In the process we experienced the same solitude, struggles and mercurial weather described in the Carnegie reports.
"There’s no greater joy than to feel small in a vast land, to live simply and be overwhelmed by a curiosity for the world around you."
We observed many of the same species of wildlife, too - black bears and caribou, diminutive warblers, busy-body sandpipers, charismatic Canada jays, wailing loons and soaring bald eagles - but we certainly viewed them through far better optics that travelled in the top of our pack.Now, back on the river, our cups of tea have cooled to air temperature as we trade magnified sightings of aerial insectivores: Acrobatic Bohemian waxwings effortlessly hawking flies above the river at treetop level and, far higher up, common nighthawks dive-bombing like fighter jets. With so much activity around us it’s hard to make time to finish our lunch—let alone pack up our gear and carry on upstream. Later that evening, sitting close to a smoky fire, the hardships of the day dissolve as we tally the eight new bird sightings in our trip logbook, which will eventually add up to nearly 60 species at journey’s end.
I love the way a wilderness expedition challenges at all levels: Physically, emotionally and intellectually. There’s no greater joy than to feel small in a vast land, to live simply and be overwhelmed by a curiosity for the world around you. I wonder if maybe the Carnegie mandate was more in line with mine and Kate’s: To venture self-propelled in some of the wildest places on the planet and be awed at what we see.
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Conor Mihell is an award-winning science, environment, outdoor adventure, and lifestyle writer. He’s been nominated for multiple Canadian National Magazine Awards, winning gold in 2012 and has earned two Northern Lights Awards for Travel Writing Excellence and was recognized by the Ontario Tourism Summit for Travel Writing. With over 15 Years Experience in Print and Digital Media, he’s been published in some of the largest media outlets in Canada and the U.S., including SIERRA, Cottage Life, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, ON Nature, Explore, Canoe & Kayak, Canadian Geographic, the Globe and Mail, Paddling Magazine, and Mensjournal.com.