Crossroads in the transCanadian Forest


After the death of her husband, Phila Hoopes rediscovers hope and purpose in the struggle and the sacred land of the Innu people.

I think I first realized I really wasn’t in suburbia anymore when Jan launched into her instructions: what to do if she were injured, unconscious, or worse during our camping trip in the Labradorean wilderness—what to do if I were suddenly responsible for the safety of us both, 80 kilometers from civilization, on the far eastern edge of the trans-Canadian boreal forest, home to moose, bear, wolf, and wolverine, among less intimidating wildlife.

''Picea mariana'' - NOAA photo

Seeing my stunned look, she smiled and said, “The survival manual is in the glove compartment in the truck.” I gulped and nodded.

But this was why I’d come to the wilderness: to test my limits, six months after the illness and death of my husband just before our twentieth wedding anniversary. My entire life was in flux, fogged with a sense of futility.

The question was, Could I find a new source of hope and purpose?

While I rested after my 15-hour journey from Baltimore to Happy Valley–Goose Bay, my host, columnist and activist Jan Dymond, oriented me to life in this remote subarctic town in south-central Labrador, a combined military installation, civilian town, and center of government services for the aboriginal Innu and Inuit peoples. Accessible only by air, ferry, and a 900-kilometer gravel highway, it’s a place where three cultures negotiate a delicate rapprochement under near frontier conditions.

Jan’s housing development perched at the edge of the old-growth forest, a wilderness dominated by black spruce and birch and carpeted with caribou moss—all apparently growing in a bed of glacial sand. This was no municipal park. Wolves and bears occasionally claimed wandering pets, and bones from a human mauled by some predator were found earlier in the spring. Jan warned me against venturing far into the forest alone.

But this was also sacred land—nutshimit to the Innu—and this sacredness was what I sought.

The next day, as we bumped and bounced down the unpaved Trans-Labrador Highway to our campsite, I could understand why Jan said the Innu people viewed the forest with reverence. Its green presence brooded around us, broken only by the occasional cabin, fire scar, or sandpit from road crews’ digging.

Finally, after 80 teeth-rattling kilometers, we arrived and set up camp in the two-room cabin, deep in the woods near the Pinus River. Seeking kindling for our woodstove, I walked a short distance into the surrounding forest. Spruce needles and birch leaves shimmered in the sun; the air was heavy with the scent of earth and plant life. Here, I felt, I was simply a living being within the greater whole. Whether as predator, prey, or witness, my existence served a purpose. I placed my hands on the earth and felt them tingling with life.

Following a fresh trail behind the cabin after dinner, I measured my own footprint beside that of a moose and felt dwarfed. Farther on was a large pile of scat filled with scraps of fur. Jan told me, “That was a wolf passing through—not too long ago either.” A twig cracked in the shadows ahead, which sent us hurrying back to the cabin.

We spent the days exploring the forest together; visiting Gull Island, where the barren, sandy bottom of the diverted Churchill River stretched for acres around us; and hiking the banks of the Pinus. Jan strolled ahead, watching for bears, while I scrambled like a monkey over the shifting river rocks, hoping to avoid a dunking.

“You think too much about what you’re doing,” said Jan. “Trust your body and connect with the earth.” Following her advice, I was surprised to find myself walking (more or less) upright.

Through the long twilights, while the sunset lingered until nearly midnight, Jan and I talked about the loss that had driven me to Labrador and how I could restructure my life in its wake. As a friend of the local Innu women, who had led their people to defend the wilderness, Jan knew how to respond to me.

Nineteen times between 1988 and 1990, these women marched with their families onto the Goose Bay Airport runways, protesting round-the-clock reconnaissance flights that disrupted the wildlife and the traditional subsistence hunting and fishing. They were ignored by the authorities, falsely accused, and even imprisoned. Nevertheless, the flights finally stopped. The women’s campaign to save the wilderness continues today, combating the hydroelectric dam project at Gull Island and the worsening pollution in the Churchill River.

Years ago Jan had offered them her public relations guidance and connections in support but was rebuffed. The Innu women merged their media savvy with a process based on spirit, council decisions, and a deep connection with the land. Jan’s offerings, by contrast, had appeared facile, even arrogant, and she learned to step back, respectfully watch and listen, and provide only the help that was specifically requested.

As she drew closer to the Innu women, Jan learned reverence not only for nutshimit but also for its natural cycles of death and rebirth—an awareness that all living things, even ecosystems and cultures, reach an end and that the key is not necessarily to live long but to live well.

I began to see my husband’s death at midlife, and my frenetic need to change the world, with new eyes.

Hearing Jan’s stories, I saw the enduring power of these women, a fierce and balanced power that puts not just its life, not just its words, but its spirit on the line to protect the source of its strength.

This was the life-changing lesson that I brought home with me. And as I walk the woods and stony riverbanks near my home, it is this earth connection that gives me hope.

Last modified: February 2, 2012

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