Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Traversing the Trans-Lab Highway

Beginning the Trans-Lab Highway out of Red Bay, Labrador

After three days of hard driving, we have completed the entire Trans-Labrador Highway, including the Labrador Coastal Trail, the Trans-Lab, and Highway 389 (which constitutes Quebec’s section of the road).  The trail essentially begins at the ferry landing in Blanc-Sablon through Labrador and ending at Baie Comeau, Quebec.   The drive is over 1,110 miles in length, mostly gravel, and very remote.  Basically, it is the equivalent of driving from Los Angeles, California, to San Antonio, Texas, on a road that is approximately 70-75% gravel.

For the benefit of our readers, we thought that we would split this post into two sections.    The post below gives more detailed specifics about the highway for those wishing to travel it themselves.  This post will offer our reflections and experiences.

We consider the Coastal Trail section of the entire highway to be the most interesting.  There are many historical sites and hikes to discover between the ferry landing at Blanc-Sablon and Red Bay, including the Point Armour lighthouse, the Maritime Archaic burial site, and the whaling exhibit.  Also, the communities between the ferry landing and Red Bay offer many amenities and local fare to be enjoyed. This section of the road also offers the greatest opportunity to connect with the folks living in the surrounding communities and learn their stories, much like traveling on the Dempster Highway.

We left Red Bay around 9:30 on Friday morning, under heavy clouds and fog.  The typography turned very unique and remote almost immediately.  The terrain outside of Red Bay is high tundra, scattered with enormous boulders, covered in short spruce or lichen, and featuring many lakes and ponds.  The road travels along the Mealy Mountain range.  Signs are posted along this section forbidding hunting of the threatened Mealy Mountain Range Caribou herd. (In the past this herd has been quite healthy, but lately the number of caribou across Labrador has substantially declined, and the forestry people are trying to figure out why.)
Rocky terrain outside of Red Bay, Labrador
Gravel road out of Red Bay
No Hunting the Caribou sign in a variety of languages.
Typography out of Red Bay
The Coastal Trail also offers several side trips, including the trip that we took down to St. Lewis and Iceberg Alley (Route 513).  We visited the lookout point in St. Lewis and did, in fact, see several icebergs floating in the far distance.  We also took the 4-wheel drive up American Hill Road to the Deep Water Walking Trail.  The view from this vantage point was spectacular. 

Distant icebergs of "Iceberg Alley"
View of St. Lewis, Labrador
St. Lewis is the furtherest east you can drive in Canada.
Had we not lingered as long as we did on Route 513, we could have easily made Goose Bay in one day.  But as evening approached, we opted to boondock in a rest area.  We had been previously warned that gnats and black flies were atrocious on this road.  The day was warm and sunny, and the gnats and black flies were wicked.  We were glad to be able to crawl inside the camper to get away from them.

The sunset was lovely.  That night, the temperature plummeted.  We heard several loud bangs, almost like that of a shotgun.  David soon figured out that the bridge we were parked next to was popping and cracking as it moved, adjusting to the temperature.

Sunset on the Trans-Lab
Boondocked on the Trans-Lab
On Saturday we continued our drive and saw our first black bear along the roadside.  I pulled out the camera and was able to take only two shots before another vehicle passed us, scaring the little bear into the woods.  It was the first vehicle we had seen all day!

Bear near Goose Bay, Labrador
We arrived in Goose Bay early in the afternoon.  The town has quite a history.  It once was a refueling stop for WWII pilots ferrying planes and supplies to Europe during the war.  We discovered that Goose Bay seems split into two sections.  Take a left at the intersection to visit the older part of town or a right to visit the newer section.  The newer section boasts a Tim Horton’s (great coffee), a new medical facility, and cheaper gasoline. 

Goose Bay, Labrador
Thankfully, the town also has good water.  Our water tank was running extremely low.  We had been fearful of refilling it because of all of the boil orders we had encountered throughout the Cape Breton area of Nova Scotia, all through Newfoundland, and on the Labrador Coastal Trail.

We set up camp before three that afternoon at the Goose River Lodge and Campground, about eight clicks north of town, past the ferry terminal.  They had great WiFi access, and we welcomed the clean showers.  During the night, another front moved through the area, bringing heavy rain.

The rain continued throughout Sunday as we drove the Trans-Labrador section of the highway.  The Trans-Lab is the new section of the highway between Goose Bay and Churchill Falls.  There is an older section of highway just outside of Goose Bay, but it quickly runs out and turns into gravel again. We ran into much construction in this area with road crews paving various sections.  Graders maintained the vast gravel sections.  Scars from building the road were quite visible with huge gravel and rock pits along the route as well as large construction camps to house the crews. 

View near Goose Bay, Labrador
We encountered very few other vehicles during the day’s drive.  This section of the Trans-Lab is primarily cut through black spruce with no communities along the route. There are also very few opportunities to access the many beautiful lakes along this route, however, the future may make this section a sportsman’s paradise… if the black flies and gnats don’t run everyone away.

We traveled most of this section in the rain, which slowed us up substantially but also reduced the dust.  The only campground east of Labrador City was reported to be closed, so we traveled on until nearly dusk.  We had read that the Duley Lake Family Campground west of Lab City would be a good place to stop with lots of room available.

Evidently much had changed since the original report on the Duley Campground.  When we arrived, we were shocked to find literally hundreds and hundreds of trailers and fifth-wheels crammed in this campground.  It may have at one time been a “family” campground with lake access, but now it was a worker’s camp, filled with people unable to find or afford housing within Lab City.  In some places the rigs were no more than an arm’s-breadth apart.  It was a complete hodgepodge of people, vehicles, rigs, discarded items, and garbage.  With no other options, we spent the night.  When we awoke in the morning, the camp was empty, with no people or vehicles, only rigs.  Everyone had gone off to work.

We returned to Lab City to fill up with gasoline.  The gas station sits next to a Walmart and another Tim Horton’s that had a line of over 40 vehicles in their drive-thru.  David told the gas attendant, “Boy, this is a busy place.”  

The attendant offered information.  He said that there were five working iron ore mines in a 23-mile radius of Lab City.  He said that lots of folks had flocked here “in anticipation of big money.”

As we drove out of town, we saw helicopters carrying loads of goods to work sites.  Dozens of pickup trucks were on the roadway, waving tall flags above their cabs so that they could be seen over heavy equipment.  What was most striking was a flattened mountaintop, obviously rich in iron ore, now being brought to the ground. 

We pulled over to get a better view and take a few photos.  The first photo shows the flattened mountain.  I turned west barely 45 degrees to take the second photo to show the landscape’s actual beauty.  Even through the dense clouds and misty rain, the difference is drastic.

An iron ore mountain goes down near Labrador City, Labrador
View near Labrador City, Labrador
We traveled on and soon hit Highway 389, the Quebec side of the highway.  Fermont is the first town on this section of highway and is a company-built mining town.  We drove into Fermont for travel information.  The entire town seemed sterile and cold, lacking the character of community with its tall metal buildings to house and service the workers and mining operations.  A huge earthmover was displayed in the park as we came into town.  Here are a few photos:
Entering Quebec on Highway 389
Fermont, Quebec
Earth Mover in Fermont, Quebec
Ten miles past Fermont, the pavement ended next to an enormous mining facility.  We traveled beside railroad tracks, water retention ponds, and hills of reclamation areas.  For those who want to preserve this country as a wilderness, it was a sober reminder that each one of us contributes to this type of operation whenever we purchase an item containing iron.  Yet, for those who want to provide jobs so people can support their families and purchase goods containing iron to support our way of life, these mines are a necessary first step in the manufacturing process. It is a paradox not easy to balance at times.

Highway 389 is definitely a working road supporting the hydroelectric and mining operations.  The road is quite heavily traveled for being so remote, mostly with workers driving pickup trucks or tractor-trailer rigs delivering goods.  The road is well established, however, much of it remains unpaved.  Even the paved sections tend to be very rough, as one might expect from a road that sees so many heavy loads.  Road crews worked diligently, even on this Sunday morning, to improve various sections of the highway.  Once we would hit the new or re-topped pavement, it definitely felt like a blessing.

We drove past an enormous dam along the Manicougan River.  Below it is the largest underground hydroelectric facility in the world.  In fact, there are five hydroelectric facilities along this river, each beginning with the name Manic followed by a number for its sequence in river.  The first facility we passed was called “Manic Five.” The road continued along the Manicougan River through beautiful valleys and forest land with occasional high tension power lines crisscrossing the country side, taking the hydroelectric power to the various cities in Quebec.  It was again a reminder of the balance between wilderness and human comforts.
Dam over Minicougan River at Manic 5, Quebec
The rain finally subsided, but it was past 5 pm, and we were still nearly an hour out of Baie Comeau where the Trans-Lab ended.  Rather than risk not being able to find a campsite, we stopped at the “Manic Two” campground to take a look.  It was lovely, clean, and nestled in the trees, alongside a beautiful lake with a dozen ducklings paddling around.

We chose a campsite tucked into some trees down a hill near the lake.  We were certainly glad to have the cover when the wind gusted at gale force later that night.  Waves on the little lake drove against the shoreline and sounded more like those you might hear on the Gulf of Mexico than a small lake.  The camper rocked in the wind, but we were safe and warm.

The next morning, we drove the remaining 45 minutes into Baie Comeau.  We went immediately to a Tim Horton’s to buy their largest cup of coffee.  I sat outside with Roxanne while Dave went in to get coffee.  When he returned, he told me that he wasn’t certain what he had ordered.  We were now in French-speaking Quebec.

We stopped at the visitor’s center for camping and national park information.  We were ready to pull up and rest for a few days.  Roxanne was also more than ready to be released from her back seat prison.  The sun was shining again, and we had high hopes that the national park we planned to visit would have lots of animals to photograph.

1 comment:

  1. We have done this trip, before the Cartwright-Goose Bay section was completed and also when GB was still an active military training site. Stayed at Duley Lake when it was still a provincial park and were disgusted on a second trip to find it had become a DUMP!