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June 16 - June 24, 2003: We did a lot of driving between the dates of June 16 to June 24 but our decision to take the long way to Newfoundland was an excellent one. We traveled north from Baie Comeau, PQ into Labrador and then through to Happy Valley-Goose Bay (a.k.a The Goose). From there we took a ferry to Cartwright and then drove the final stretch to Red Bay (on the Labrador coast) on a brand new but unfinished gravel road. Although the trip was long and dusty (there is not much pavement in that corner of the country), the remoteness and the harsh beauty made it a memorable one. It is a part of Canada not many are fortunate enough to visit and it was well worth going! Below are a few maps and the story of this adventure which was definitely one of the highlights of our Cross-Canada tour!

The Maps...

Labrador overall

Baie-Comeau to Lab. City

Labrador City to Goose Bay

Ferry route

Labrador coastal drive

The Story...

   Any trip to Labrador from the Quebec side starts in Baie Comeau and heads North along Highway 389. About 210 km into the journey is Manic 5, the first of many of Quebec's dammed up rivers that we were to encounter on this trip. From Manic 5 up, Highway 389 is predominately gravel but has a mix of everything from poor asphalt, to poor gravel to good gravel (all with porcupines along the side). Although there are no real towns of any sort until Fermont (just West of Labrador City) there are a few pit stops which provide a bit of food and expensive gas.  

     The 550 kms (or so) to Labrador City took us through at least three major landscape types. As we wound north through soft forested mountains and soft plateau areas we found ourselves in progressively harsher terrain seeming devoid of anything except stunted trees, moss and mile upon mile of sand and gravel with the occasional large chunk of rock thrown in. I am not a geologist but it looked like the world's biggest dump of glacial till. The worst part of the road is a stretch after the abandoned town of Gagnon (once a thriving mining town, it was removed by the mining company when the mine closed - only the sidewalks and streets provide hints of what once was). The 67km took us over 1.5 hours. I have seen better logging roads!

     In all of its various forms it is beautiful country.. BIG country with BIG landscapes. As mile after mile passed without any significant human presence (and we were simply driving between two towns) we got a real sense of the size of our country. Despite the fact that the drive was a long one (it took us over 8 hours) the varied landscape made it an interesting one.

     Porcupines were all over the place. They didn't move very quickly and had an awkward sort of gait as the lumbered off the road (if they bothered to move at all) as you passed by. I guess you don't have to move to fast if you are covered in quills!


     After 8.5 hours and approximately 570 kms from Baie Comeau to Labrador City, we pulled into Sylvain and Tammy Godbout's house in Labrador City. After the dust of Highway 389 I have never been so happy to see a vacuum cleaner. Sylvain, Tammy and the boys made us feel very much at home as we availed ourselves to everything from their vacuum to their high-speed internet connection. The boys in the photo are Derek, Steaven, and Daymond Godbout.


     From Labrador City, another 250 km of dirt road brought us to Churchill Falls, which is yet another mega-hydro project. This one was really neat in that no huge dams are required (although something like 88 km of diking was built). Basically, there is a huge plateau with water on the top. Where the vast majority of this once flowed off the plateau at Churchill Falls it is now directed into an underground power station producing something like 7 million horse power. It boggles the mind! The town is a company town. All the buildings are owned by the hydro company and a person can live there only if they work for the company. All housing and electricity is paid for by the company. You can camp anywhere around town (no one seems to care where - we parked behind a community wood working shed) and the people are very friendly. The power plant offers an excellent, free tour (although heavy on the propaganda).


   We discovered that Happy Valley - Goose Bay is locally termed The Goose (as in... we are going to the Goose). The Goose is another 280 km or so from Churchill Falls and although the gravel roads were excellent, there is nothing along them. I mean nothing! No gas, services, buildings, houses, side roads, let alone people for almost three hundred kilometers. Nothing - which, as far as I am concerned, is great. Unless we happened to get a flat tire 100 km into the day, which is exactly what we did. We got that changed and then spent the next 200 kms praying we wouldn't get another as that would then mean we were Stuck (with a capital 'S'). We would have had to wait for a Goose bound vehicle, send Carol in with the tire and then she would have had to work her way back to me on a Labrador City bound vehicle. We were looking at a day and half to do that. Anyway, we were lucky and got to The Goose 10 minutes before the only tire shop in town closed for the weekend - which was good as we had booked the 7:00 am Monday morning ferry (there are only two per week, the next being Friday). The tire shop fellows gave a disapproving look at the sorry state of all four tires but when I explained we were to get a substantial discount on tires (my uncle works at Michelin) providing we could nurse these ones back to Nova Scotia, they understood completely. One surprise we had on the drive was the sudden change of scenery just before Goose Bay. Where it had mainly been boggy with stunted coniferous trees the land suddenly opened up with tall, lush deciduous trees. It felt for a bit like we were having a country drive in the forests of southern Ontario!  

   The dust, the dust, oh my the dust. Everything was covered in 800 kms of dust. It shook out of every corner of everything. By this point we had decided our camper was a complete piece of junk. We had lost count of the issues it had had. We were up to nine or ten things broken in the short time we had been traveling - and it started well before dirt roads. Some would say the dirt roads didn't help but the truck had been banging along like everything else and we had no problems there. These campers are likely adequate for a small family on the annual two week vacation but to actually use them.... they are not designed to be actually used. We were frustrated to the point of wanting to sell it but we had based our trip on this truck + camper plan. Changing such a major component mid-stream would present a huge challenge. The question was should we sell in the coming fall or wait until the end of the trip?  

     Happy Valley - Goose Bay was a nice place (with a tire shop thankfully). We had expected it to have a coastal feel (ie. the salt water smell and the associated boats) but it didn't and looking at the map more closely we could see why - it is actually inland quite a ways and situated on the end of a long lake. The high-light of our stay was an accidental visit to Mud Lake which was an adventure in itself and provided a close up of Labrador that most visitors don't get to see. We had arrived in time for the annual Mud Lake Festival and were trying to make our way over to Mud Lake but got to the boat launch (it is a bit confusing... we also wondered why we needed a boat to get to a lake but trust us you do) only to find the festival was almost over and the boat doing the shuttles to the lake had possibly run out of gas (we weren't sure). While bumbling around the launch area we ran into Jordon, one of about permanent 12 Mud Lake residents/families. He offered to take us over in his boat which was great and the normally 5 minute boat ride stretched into 45 minutes as we discussed this and that, got an excellent tour of the place and heard some interesting stories about growing up in Mud Lake (growing up in South Porcupine is positively cosmopolitan by comparison). Mud Lake itself is a tiny community of 12 permanent residences, a few summer residences, a small church, a community center, a one room school house with 9 students and 2 teachers, no cars, no roads and a bunch of boats. There are a few days in both spring and fall where the locals are land-locked due to freeze/thaw. An interesting time... and an interesting time getting back as we had no boat. Thanks goes to Jordan for added the touch needed to turn our boat ride into the highlight of our Goose Bay visit!

   We really noticed a different type of tourist in this part of the country. Gone were the $80,000 RVs being towed by $60,000 Dodge pickups. Instead we had a great mix of motor-cycle tourists (on Enduro's), Americans in clapped out Toyota Tercels, Jeeps pulling trailers and other nifty sorts. We started to run into the same folks over and over and a little traveling community began to develop.  

   The ferry from Goose Bay used to run all the way to Lewisport, Newfoundland but during our trip they were putting a road in (ie. it wasn't finished) to connect Cartwright, Labrador with the southern part of Labrador. As a result, the ferry now only went from Goose Bay to Cartwright and we had to make our own way down the partially finished road to the Blanc Sablanc ferry which finally brought us over to the island itself. Not as convenient and it meant more gravel roads but at least it gave us a feel for some of the Labrador coast. Interestingly enough, the locals we talked to in the Cartwright area weren't completely happy with the new road. A lot of them wondered why they needed it and if it would bring benefits or just trouble! In either case, the truncated ferry journey to Cartwright was still a new experience and the whole town showed up to watch the cars/trucks roll off (it was only the 5th time the big ferry had ever docked there). Even though it is a shortened ride, it is still a 12 hour journey which we were glad of. Most of the ferry ride is actually in Lake Melville, which is a really big lake emptying into the ocean. At the end of the lake, the ferry nips around a bend to get out to the ocean. The scenery is thus fantastic as rather than wide open ocean, it is like a big lake cruise and you can see the shore on either side. The Mealy mountains to the south are especially interesting. People watching on the ferry is another great pastime (you have 12 hours after all). One third of the passengers were sleeping (they have seen it all before), one third didn't care and the other third (including our little group of traveling tourists) were huddled on the deck watching icebergs, looking for whales and passing binoculars and cameras back and forth. We didn't see any whales but we did see some caribou. It was a bit odd having our first caribou sighting from a boat but that is what happened. It was interesting to see them out enjoying the sunny day and sunning themselves on the wind-swept and rocky shore as we huddled on the deck trying to stay warm! It was a fun ferry... very casual and the first ferry we had to turn around inside of, then back up so we could go out the same way we came in!  


   As the ferry dumped us off in Cartwright we had little choice but to drive from there to Red Bay. As I mentioned before, Cartwright was brand new to this ferry thing and they had very little set up in the way of amenities. Gas and accommodations were in very limited supply (i.e one small hotel, one gas pump). One of our traveling gang asked to sleep in the church and ended up staying in the pastor's house! We moved down to Port Hope Simpson and found that the road was truly not finished (so why they stopped the ferry at Cartwright was a bit of a mystery). Although most of the road was great, the middle 50 km still had logging machines on it and it was slow, slow, slow! After arriving around 11:00 pm in Port Hope Simpson we camped beside the fire hall for the night. We found the parts of the Labrador coast that were just opening up with this new road had an uncertain feel to them, at least in regards to tourists and travelers. It was almost like they weren't ready for it and they weren't even sure they wanted it. There were no real campgrounds (we just put down where we wanted) and you had to watch your gas gauge (and flat tires) closely. All this is great in my opinion. It is nice to have places that are a bit of an effort to get to... you don't get shoe-horned between generator running motor-homes in a campground type environment and you have more chances for interaction with a bit of the local culture (and not just the knick-knack shops so prolific in the over-run areas). Once you have the caravan lines of motor-homes 25 deep on your doorstep, then the place loses some of its charm. Anyway.... again more beautiful scenery on the way down to Red Bay - big, rocky, rolling flatness covered with green moss and shrubs only 1 foot high - with nothing else, not even a tree. Snow was still around in many spots. In the end, we made it to Red Bay and thus completed over 1000 km of dirt roads. As much as I loved them, we were so happy to have our feet back on pavement. The photo shows the truck parked on the part of the road in Red Bay where the gravel turns back to pavement. As you can see Carol is pretty happy about it.  

From the shores of Labrador one doesn't have much choice but to board a boat. This is precisely what we did and headed off to Newfoundland happy to be back on paved roads!

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