Episode 11: The Torngat Diaries - Aboard the Robert Bradford

The longliner is sitting in Saglek Bay, waiting for us to board. No wind here to rustle the surface of the water, and after a deep long breath I feel prepared to go. A small red boat takes me out to the Robert Bradford (the longliner); Joe Webb (who is co-captain) is there, silent while he turns the knob of the engine, the only sound on this crisp perfect morning. On deck is a man with a baseball cap and cool shades, and just as that’s semi-registering in my mind strong hands grab my heavy backpack and camera equipment and start loading them on the boat. In just minutes we are ready to leave—the rhythmic sound of the engine starts to rumble, the longliner moves slowly toward the open ocean, and the still surface of the fjord is now broken by our sliding waves.

It’s a five-hour boat ride up the coast from Saglek Bay (where Base Camp is located) to Nachvak Fjord, where we’ll launch our Torngat trek. (It’s August 16 at 7:20 a.m., and our GPS position is 58.454315/-62.796693). Beams of sun start to make the air warmer, and the clouds are literally drifting out of the sky, giving the gift of clear blue across what feels like an endless horizon. We are travelling at 9 knots per hour and our direction is north. Soon, the Labrador Sea starts roiling ever so slightly, and the rocking of the boat increases.

As I’m staring into the horizon from the deck, suddenly Joe looks over at us and says, “Over there.” Almost as if in slow motion, we spot a few polar bears looking at us from the shore—though at first they’re hard to see, the rocks they’re hanging near are burned white from the elements, and Joe and Eli have to keep pointing them out to me. “There, can you see them?”

First time I’ve ever seen a polar bear, and I have to say wow, they’re spectacular! (I’m from Italy—coastal Mediterranean Italy—and seeing a polar bear is the polar opposite of my experience.) I grab the telephoto because to the naked eye they’re just too far in the distance, and then…Pow! As I’m looking through the lens one stands up on his hind legs, his longish body completely stretched out. I can see him perfectly, and I swear he’s looking right at me!

Polar bears are extremely alert and sensitive to their surroundings, says Eli, scouting out their environments, always sniffing around, so to speak, to see what’s going on. The sound of our engine bubbles loudly in this otherwise stone-silent land and has caught their attention.

Eli says that because things are changing up here and further north—the weather, the ice flow, food availability—the polar bears here are migrating southward down Labrador, and are swimming longer distances in their search for food, going so far south as the coastline of Newfoundland.

Incredible. As Joe’s longliner motors up the coast the bears are back down on all fours, having turned their backs, they begin to walk away.