The last stint of the Trans Labrador Highway was about 580 kilometres and took us mostly through what we call Northern Quebec, (but if you look on a map it’s really middlin’ Quebec), and was by far the most active part of the highway in terms of traffic and things to see. We also got some of the most beautiful and amazing picture of our trip on this portion, but maybe not in a conventional sense.
Once we left Labrador City we only had to go about 10 minutes down the highway and we were in Quebec again. Here, the highway changes name from Route 500 to Route 389. Almost instantly we came across the mining town of Fermont. We didn’t spend a lot of time there, but we did note a few interesting features. One was an enormous truck, much bigger than a monster truck, which was on display at the entrance of the town. (We didn’t know yet, but later in our Cross Canada adventure we would encounter an even much bigger truck. At this time, we were amazed that a truck even this size could exist). The other was a residential building 4 stories high and at least a full kilometre long, that was built that way to act as a wind and snow break for the town. In the winter, the people who live in the building never have to leave it. It’s a triumph of urban planning! We drove through the town quickly, but other than those 2 things there wasn’t much to see.
Right outside the town is the Mont-Wright iron ore mine, where most of the people of Fermont work. It is giant and plateaued, and much of the mountains have been eaten away. I can’t say it wasn’t beautiful in an industrial way. There was traffic and dust, and I took one of my favourite photos, this one of a train emerging from a cloud of dust. The highway got really twisty and we crossed the same rail track 17 times. There was even a stop sign! Dust. It was hot and we had to keep the windows closed. This is when the joy of celery sticks, bought in Happy Valley, trimmed, and chilled in the fridge, asserts itself. Yes, celery had never been so good.
Once we got away from the mine we were able to open our windows again, but we frequently had to re-close them because another truck came by. Some of those trucks were driven very recklessly, too, careening around unbanked, unpaved curves with full trailers of logs or whatever fishtailing behind them. Later, we found out this is one of Canada’s most dangerous roads.
After 3 hours of gravel highway, we came to the ghost town of Gagnon. Gagnon was the company mining town until everything was moved to Fermont, and not even any buildings are left, just a little stretch of pavement, a chunk of sidewalk, and a drain grate. For a ghost town in the middle of nowhere, there were sure a lot of people around. We saw about 4 parked cars and one mystery sight of one car being towed with a chain by another car. We don’t know what all those people were doing, but we just guessed they were fishing.
From here the highway has mostly hydro-electric projects, mainly the 7 Manic dams and generating stations (there are 7 but you only see 3 along the road). Some are huge but none rival Churchill Falls in scale or inaccessibility. The Manic dams are so named, I believe, for the Manicouagan river and lake. Manicouagan Lake is really a man flooded reservoir in one of the largest asteroid impact craters on Earth. If you look on a map you can see it is massive, almost perfectly round and has an almost as big round island in the middle, so it actually looks like an island with a moat around it. Astronauts in space can see it with their naked eyes and sometimes call it the “Eye of Quebec”. We were curious to go to its shore but there is no easy way to get to it so we had to content ourselves with glimpses from the van, and I’m not sure we got any of those, either.
The other thing on this part of the highway is the gas station in Relais-Gabriel. The gas station is the only thing there. You must buy gas; if you want to get anywhere else but there you have no choice. The gas, as you can imagine, is extremely expensive. There are also a little cafe and corner store, and cabins that travelers can rent. I have no idea why anyone would want to stay there, but I guess some do. I wonder often and a lot, what would it be like to be the family that runs that gas station. You would see a million strangers and have no neighbours. And probably each one of those strangers would complain about the price of your gas.
We saw one of the smaller dams and then we came to the Daddy Dam, Manic 5 (now known as Daniel-Johnson Dam). This is the largest multiple-arch-and-buttress dam in the world. The pictures we took can tell you more about this wonder of engineering than my words can. Here, the road became paved and we knew we were approaching civilisation again because there we all kinds of regular cars around, and in front of the dam there are motel rooms, a corner store, and a cafeteria style restaurant. Step stopped to use the pay phone to sort out some school stuff for the fall.
It was dark and as we got closer to the end of the highway there started to be things like campgrounds and other amenities, so we stopped in at one near Manic 2 and spent the night. The next morning I took a shower and there must have been something unfamiliar in the water because after the shower I was unbearably itchy for hours. We stopped to gander at Manic 2, which was no Manic 5 but still a wonder to behold. It turned out we had camped pretty close to the end of Route 389, and in no time we were in Baie Comeau. After so many weeks in remote towns, company towns, scrubby wilderness, really long gravel roads, and no cellphone signals, to suddenly burst out into this averagely urban town on the paved shore of the St. Lawrence felt oddly relieving, and we headed straight to the local Canadian Tire to get a new coffee pot.