Labrador Coastal Boats

Part 1: Charlottetown-Norman Bay-Pinsent Arm-Williams Harbour

There’s a mix of permanent communities and summer fishing stations along this part of the coast. The coastal boat stops at the four permanent settlements. The fishing stations were places where fishermen from Newfoundland, who couldn’t get a fishing berth (a place to fish) along the coast where they lived, went north in summer to catch and salt cod. Sometimes the whole family went along and lived aboard the family’s boat, or built summer quarters next to the flakes where fish was cured. This was called the floater fishery and it lasted for more than two centuries, declining only in the 1980s. Over time some of the floaters stayed and became livyers - people who live in a place year round.

From Charlottetown you can catch the coastal boat north to Norman Bay. This used to be a wintering station for people from the nearby coast until the 1960s. One family resisted efforts to have them resettle to larger communities, and they were eventually joined by a few others, who kept the tiny village alive, commuting to Charlottetown for supplies by speedboat when the water was free of ice, and via snowmobile in winter. Now they can take the coastal boat during the shipping season.

Pinsent Arm is about 20 kilometres southeast of Charlottetown, and although it was a winter residence for some stationers on and off from the 1860s onward, it was permanently settled only in the 1950s, and was electrified only in 1985 when a diesel generator was installed.

William's Harbour is south of Pinsent Arm and 35 km east of Port Hope Simpson This is another community whose status has changed from summer fishing station to permanent settlement. Migratory fishermen from England first fished here in the 1700s, and the harbour was settled in the 1840s, declining and increasing with the fortunes of the fishery. The establishment of a fish plant in the late 1970s persuaded residents to abandon their winter place at nearby Rexon’s Cove and move to Williams Harbour permanently.

Part 2: Cartwright to Happy Valley-Goose Bay

The ferry from Cartwright, to Happy Valley-Goose Bay traverses the narrow waterway of Hamilton Inlet that connects the ocean to Lake Melville. It was probably here that Norse rovers Thorvald Eiriksson and Thorfinn Karlsefni landed on their journey westward to undiscovered lands. Some people believe that the Lake Melville area was the Markland - the Land of Forests - of the Viking sagas. Eiriksson’s description of a river that flowed east to west fits the English River which flows into the south side of Lake Melville.

The ferry ride takes about 12 hours and is a good opportunity to do some shipboard bird-watching. Among the birds you might see from on deck are Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin, Northern Gannet, Red-necked Phalarope, Great Black-Backed Gull, Black-Legged Kittiwake, Jaegers, Arctic Tern, and Common Murre.

From the mouth of Hamilton Inlet on Groswater Bay it’s 240 km to the head of Lake Melville at Happy Valley-Goose Bay. At its narrowest the inlet is only two or three kilometres wide, but then opens into Lake Melville, a salt water lake that’s also the drainage basin for the Churchill and other rivers.

Aboriginal people were living here when Europeans began exploring in the 16th century, and after a period of initial conflict, a fur trading relationship was established. A fishery developed in the 19th century, and in 1898 a regular coastal boat service was established between Newfoundland and Lake Melville

Part 3: The North Coast

Happy Valley-Goose Bay is the home port for the coastal steamer service along the rugged north coast. Reservations for this trip must be made in advance, as only a limited number of berths are available. Most people who use the coastal boat are residents, and the vessel also brings cargo to half a dozen isolated and widely separated communities north to Nain.

The first stop is on the shores of Hamilton Inlet at Rigolet a community with a long - and continuing - history of fur trapping and fishing. This small town was a fur trading centre, first for the French and later the English, starting in the eighteenth century. The Hudson Bay Company took over the post in 1836. Except for a brief period during World War II when this was the site of a Canadian Army Base, life has not changed here for two centuries. In fact, the Blakes, Olivers, Groves, Shepards and other families trace their arrival in Rigolet to before 1800 and can tell visitors how their ancestors lived. Just ask. The town is also well-known for various craft items made from a special grass that grows in the area.

The coastal boat now takes a southern detour to Cartwright and Black Tickle before heading north. Black Tickle, on Island of Ponds, is a year-round settlement and a fishing community. It was founded in the mid-19th century by a group of British naval seamen who jumped ship. Some of the winter residents are stationers who go fishing elsewhere on the coast in summer.

The boat stops again at Cartwright before heading for the north coast.

Makkovik was first settled in the early part of the 19th century by a Norwegian fur trader, Torsten Andersen, and his Labrador wife, Mary Thomas. By 1896, the settlement had grown enough for the Moravian Missions to build a church complex that was in use until 1948. Life here has not changed significantly through the centuries. The people still fish and hunt and carry on many aspects of their traditional culture. At the retail outlet you will be able to purchase duffle parkas, mittens and slippers as well as bone jewellery, antler buttons and other fine examples of native crafts.

Just north of Makkovik, at the head of Kaipokok Bay is Postville. While this small town began its life as a fur trading post in 1843 and a Quebec merchant, D.R. Stewart, is listed as its first settler, people have been coming to Postville for thousands of years. The Dorset Eskimo, who lived along this coast almost 4,000 years ago, came here every spring to fish and to hunt.

Further up the coast at Hopedale you can visit the Hopedale Mission, the oldest wooden frame building east of Quebec. This structure, now a National Historic Site, includes a church, a store, a residence for missionaries, a storehouse and several small huts that were used to house the visiting native people. It has stood on this site since 1782 when the Moravian Church was granted permission by the British Government to establish a mission in this remote community.

The Innu who have lived at Davis Inlet since the 1960s moved to a completely new community 15 kilometres away on Sango Bay called Natuashish in 2003. After calling at Sango Bay, the boat heads for Voisey’s Bay where a huge nickel deposit is being developed.

The northernmost community - and the last stop for the coastal boat - is Nain where a Moravian Mission was established in 1771. Craftsmen in this community are justifiably famous for their soapstone carvings.

Long-abandoned Hebron was once one of the most northerly communities on the north Labrador coast. A Moravian Mission station was constructed here from 1829 to 1831 but the main buildings - the church, the mission house and the store - were not inhabited until 1837. The station was abandoned in 1959 but, since that time, the structure has been stabilized. Visitors are invited to tour this National Historic Site. You’ll have to make arrangements with a local outfitter for a boat trip to Hebron or other northern areas.

At the very tip of Labrador you will marvel at such sights as the stark and ruggedly beautiful Torngat Mountains. The northern tundra region and the mountains of the Torngat Ranges regularly attract experienced naturalists and mountain climbers of international acclaim. If you have the skill and the spirit, this is the vacation for you. A new national park reserve is being established in this area and should be in service in five years.

You can also reach coastal Labrador by regularly scheduled air service or air charter.

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