From below a crumpled brim of a dripping rain hat, I watched my soggy boots find their hold among the wavering arctic grasses. The foggy wind barreled so furiously up the Branigan Fjord that keeping one’s head up and eyes out for any extended period was next to impossible. I (along with the rest of the group) had surrendered my gaze downward, breaking only for a quick upward glance every few minutes as we hiked on.
This rhythm continued for another half mile until I lifted my head to find Ephrem, our Inuit bear guard, staring at the adjacent ridgeline. Before I could ask what he spotted, he mumbled, “Nanook” (polar bear), and directed his eyes ever so slightly to a large white figure a couple of hundred feet up from the fjord floor and about a quarter of a mile to our left. “Nanook,” I whispered in return, as the bear’s white body, elongated legs, rotund belly, and black nose became increasingly visible through the shifting, grey fog.
This is a good moment to stop and consider how I came to find myself at the top of the world staring into the gaze of a polar bear. As a member of the faculty at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, I enjoy the privilege of teaching as well as organizing some Global Field Studies programs. Every Global Field Study program sets out with a curriculum in mind and a mission related to the place we visit.
Ephrem kept hiking, rifle still slung across his chest: he wasn’t concerned. Two students stopped on either side of my pack. “Bear,” I shouted through the roaring gusts, as I pointed to the white creature, who, with a surprisingly long and skinny neck, was now staring directly down at the three of us with its dripping wet face. “Ephrem knows,” I said to reassure the students. “We’re safe.” After a few brief and silent moments observing this magnificent animal, we kept hiking, stopping frequently to witness its grandeur and trying to take in this surreal experience.
We had departed Sterling in mid-July and arrived in the bustling French-speaking city of Montreal, wherein we checked ten backpacks and nearly five hundred pounds of food, split between ten additional checkboxes. With a short flight over to Newfoundland and a final arrival in Goose Bay in southern Labrador, we had reached the outpost for our northern adventures. The next day, we boarded a cargo ferry named the “Northern Ranger” which is owned and operated by the Nunatsiavut Government, the newly formed (2005) Labrador Inuit government. The ferry took us as far north into the Labrador settlement areas as people resided.
During this two and a half day excursion, we cruised along the provincial coastline visiting various Inuit and Innu towns (Rigolet, Makkovik, Postville, Hopedale, and Natuashish) where we met carvers, museum curators, shopkeepers, and fellow travelers. The boat skirted in and out of rocky granitic islands as we watched the treeline undulate up and down elevation gradients and numerous waterfalls spit fresh water into the salty Labrador Sea. Docking in bays gave us several opportunities to explore arctic coastal beaches and spot various sea birds.
The course of travel was due north, straight into the southern flowing Labrador Current that brings pieces of calved glaciers down from Greenland and Baffin Island. Both locals and scientists refer to the smallest of these floating glacial remnants affectionately as “bergy bits”; a handful of these “bits” were spotted from the boat’s deck. When not visiting towns, we had classes on the ecology, geography, and prehistory of Labrador, peppered with readings and discussions on Inuit history and life ways, as well as cultural differences. Besides reading and discussion assignments, students created maps of the areas we had journeyed through. By the time we arrived in Nain, the most northern settlement and our home for ten days, we had traveled almost 550 miles of Labrador coastline.
Upon arrival to Nain, we immersed ourselves in the daily and seasonal happenings of this busy town. Established in 1771 by German Moravian missionaries, this predominantly Inuit community is the largest on the coast with roughly 1,800 residents and is the most northern settlement of the Newfoundland and Labrador Canadian province.
Although located at the same latitude as Scotland, Nain is a mostly arctic environment with discontinuous permafrost, tundra vegetation, and a daily average temperature during the year of just 26°F. This cold ecosystem is created by a number of large scale processes, including its location on the south trending Labrador Current, prevailing westerly weather systems that sweep across Canada bringing chilly temperatures, and its proximity to the Icelandic low pressure cell that delivers persistent precipitation in the form of both snow and rain.
The town serves as the administrative capital for the newly established Labrador Inuit government called Nunatsiavut, meaning “Our Beautiful Land” in the Inuktitut language. Created in 2005 with the historical land claims agreement act between Labrador Inuit, the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the federal Canadian government, Nunatsiavut has recently secured pathways towards greater self-governance and cultural autonomy. The modern community showcases a number of mixed economies and subsistence practices, and includes a heavy reliance on “country foods,” or local foods hunted and gathered from the land.
A focus on increasing its cash economy has brought forth new tourism businesses, mining operations, and global partners. Devoted to maintaining its cultural identity and promoting a vibrant community, the residents have established numerous social programs and initiatives. This includes the community freezer program, a food bank of “country foods” which regularly offers arctic char, moose, seal, and berries to anyone in the area and “Aullak, sangilivallianginnatuk” (Going off, Growing strong) an “outreach program to enhance youth mental health by supporting social and cultural connections while improving food security” which includes regular camping and hunting trips for local teens. Our ten days in Nain allowed us to investigate and experience the rich ecological, geopolitical, and social landscapes of this very special place.
As our days passed in Inuit community, we took every opportunity offered to us from the land and its people. We played musical chairs with the elders and attended a “boil up” in an old canvas tent where we feasted on musk ox soup. Invitations to speak to our group were extended far and wide. We found ourselves intently listening to stories and perspectives from the town AngajukKaK (mayor), local nurses, shopkeepers, elders, social workers, conservation officers, park employees, police officers, carvers, and residents. Services at the Moravian and Pentecostal churches were attended, competitive ping pong games were played with local teenagers, and students volunteered their creative and physical energy for an elder outreach program.
We oriented ourselves to the land by taking day hikes over spectacular mountain peaks and around stunning coastal shores. Students gathered mussels and edible greens for our meals and caught fish in the evening after class. A focus on individual research projects gave students the chance to meet with local community members and understand complex local and global systems. Research topics included investigating the construction and relevance of traditional clothing, how health and wellness is perceived in Inuit lifeways, the role of motherhood in a contemporary arctic village, the evolution and change in transportation, and competing ecological understandings of harvested mammals.
This course was part of Sterling College’s inaugural Global Field Studies program. Although global courses are not new to the school, the structure and inclusivity of these travels are groundbreaking. The program is financially supported by all, as students pay a comprehensive fee each semester, part of which underwrites this endeavor. In doing so, each student is allotted a position on two of these courses throughout their tenure at Sterling. There is no additional charge for enrollment in courses; this means no extra plane ticket costs or lodging fees. This leveling mechanism ensures that each student, albeit their financial background, has the opportunity to travel and learn in a foreign destination. Sterling faculty create and implement the courses traveling, teaching, and learning alongside their students.
The Global Field Studies program is immersion- and field-based, and offers a uniquely holistic pedagogy where students live within the complex ecological and social systems they are studying. Due to the inherent, interlocking facets of culture and landscape that are explored in these courses, students from all our academic majors find relevance in the learning journey. These crossroads of academic disciplines provide a diverse and complementary learning and living environment for each individual. During our time in Nain, I watched Ecology and Sustainable Agriculture students identify and harvest local plants together, Outdoor Education and Environmental Humanities students discuss the psychology of dog sledding, and all students gain deeper insights on global challenges such as the local impacts of climate change and globalization. In keeping with the mission of the Global Field Studies program, this particular course was designed to be academically integrative, field-based, and additive to Sterling’s current curricula and community values.
The Labrador location was chosen by faculty member Anne Morse who has traveled throughout this land with her geologist father since she was just a baby. Faculty member Laura Beebe was excited to collaborate on this trip as her graduate studies in Circumpolar Geography and former career experiences as a Park Ranger and naturalist in arctic Alaska had well prepared her for such an undertaking. The course was constructed to best replicate the “northern experience” – traveling from southern cities to increasingly smaller and more remote northern towns and outposts. Students were given a singular opportunity to not only visit vastly different eco- and cultural systems but to also witness a newly established aboriginal government, innovative models of environmental stewardship and food security, a rapidly warming arctic, and history making in action.
The final leg of our journey took us by bush plane another 120 miles north and into Torngat Mountains National Park. Created in 2005 with the signature of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Act, the park is Canada’s forty-second and means “place of spirits” in the local language. The unit encompasses the Labrador Inuit homeland and was established as a co-management relationship between the Inuit, the provincial government, and the federal government. Exclusive hunting and gathering rights throughout the Torngat region are granted to the Inuit, and jobs are slated for beneficiaries (or Labrador Inuit). This unique collaboration is the first of its kind and serves as a case study for other aboriginal peoples across the world.
During our time in the Torngats, we backpacked across glacially fed streams, navigated through thick fog and even thicker willow bushes, climbed ancient mountain passes, and camped beneath the famous aurora borealis. Traveling beside two local Inuit hunters, who served as bear guards, offered a truly unique wilderness experience. Boonie, a fifty-something hunter with a jolly disposition, served to not only protect us from bears but also offered stories of her family’s history with this place. Her mom was even born on the banks of the Nakvik Brook where we began our backpack. Our second bear guard was Ephrem – a shy 22-year-old hunter and soapstone carver from Nain, he also happened to be Boonie’s nephew.
The backpacking trip we completed offered us the chance of a lifetime to be “out on the land,” a place wherein all the stories, readings, observations, and investigations of the last several weeks began living and breathing within our own bodies, minds, and spirits. This northern place offered us underserved gifts of life altering insights about ourselves, rich new understandings of a world beyond the Green Mountains, and even a polar bear escort to help us on our way home, which now seemed to be a little bit larger in scope and scale.
By design, these courses are immersive, and students live within the landscapes and cultures they are visiting. They camp, stay in the homes of locals, share hostels with other travelers, or reside in small field stations. They buy food from neighborhood markets, harvest from the land, and open their dinner table to new and old friends from the region. Using various transportation modes, students have the opportunity to converse with fellow travelers and start to understand the complex, global systems of commerce and travel. These modes often include ferries, bush planes, buses, and even feet. When hiking or biking through a new landscape, students get to witness ecological changes due to topography, aspect, and water availability. When investigating the ways that cultures are created, maintained, and modified, students are exposed to various competing views around the same concepts. While in northern Labrador, we heard from many different Inuit individuals who were for, against, and impartial to building a road that would link all the villages of the area. By participating in the ecological and cultural systems of the place, we see the multiple interconnections that make up the area we are visiting. In this sense, we are truly interdisciplinary.