Oasis on the edge of Labrador

Michael Johansen
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First, a smooth and steady thrust makes the initial resistance give way. Pull back and thrust again, a little faster and harder. Establish a rhythm, make one stroke after another ever quicker.
Breathing becomes laboured, sweat beads on forehead, as the strokes come faster and faster until finally the log is sawed right through and a fresh chunk of firewood falls to the ground.

No time to rest. Time only to shift the log on the sawhorse and to start the bow-saw blade cutting a new gash through the wood.

This is how one pays for a night’s lodging at a unique artists’ colony found along the road to Labrador. Located in the shadows of the Groulx Mountains — now known by their original Innu name, Uapishka — a camp consisting of a few log cabins (each designed and constructed in highly imaginative ways) sits at the base of a 15-kilometre trail that leads to the tallest mountains in this part of the Ungava Peninsula. Two of the cabins offer simple bunks for one-night stays and allow those headed for the mountains to meet others going the same way.

The host (a Montcerf, Que., man named Jacques) demands only three things of his lodgers: first, one hour of some kind work for the community; second, replacement firewood gathered by cutting down some trees, carrying the logs to camp, sawing them up, splitting the chunks, further splitting some of the chunks for kindling, and stacking all the wood by the stove inside the main guest cabin (these tasks are itemized on the prominently posted “Tarif d’hebergement”); and third, a thorough cleaning of the cabin for the next visitors.

In a region where hotels usually charge well over $100 per night, a few hours of physical labour is an extraordinarily good deal. It is, however, not available to everyone. Jacques has imposed one more requirement on anyone who wants a night in a bunk: the cabin is only meant for “randonneurs pedestres” — that is, for the hikers and skiers who intend to follow the Monts Groulx trail. Of course, that’s hardly an onerous price to pay, given the vistas to which the challenging footpath brings anyone who enjoys a strenuous climb up steep hills to gaze down deep valleys and out over the mainly primordial forest that still covers the glacier-scoured countryside.

The hike to the top of the highest peak (Mount Veyrier at 1,104 metres) normally requires an overnight stay along the way, but it’s not necessary to commit to the whole endeavour in order to enjoy what the colony offers. It’s not even necessary to spend the night. To appreciate what is truly unique about the place, one need only park in the dirt lot beside Route 389 and walk along the lively brook a few quick steps into the woods.

Strange things soon appear among the trees: a rusty water pump attached to a standing trunk, a large bird made of driftwood and chewed-up dog bones, the vicious gaping six-metre jaws of a “crocogator” (a musical harp as tall as two men), a dancing girl whose modesty is protected only by juice-can lids, a huge smiling face, and many more odd and wonderful things than can be listed, or even described.

By now, one is in the middle of the Allee de l’Art Borescent — a name that can’t really be translated, but suggests human art melding with the natural boreal forest.

Carvers from all over Quebec visit the colony every year to add more pieces to the large woodland collection.

This year, a panel holding

four stained-glass windows was installed beside the river. The water reflects sunlight against the back of colourful panes showing well-known scenes like the Northern Lights over snow, Inukshuk greeting a yellow dawn, and a campfire burning under a bright moon.

The stream is not loud enough to drown out the noisy trucks that use the nearby highway in ever-increasing numbers, but the colony nevertheless provides even the briefest of visitors a restful respite from the long, stressful road.

After a day’s drive north of the St. Lawrence, or almost two days from central Labrador, Uapishka is truly an oasis in the wilderness.

Michael Johansen is a writer

living in Labrador.

Geographic location: Labrador, Montcerf, Quebec

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