Labrador, Trans-Labrador Highway (Part 2) and Churchill Falls, Aug 13, 2008

18 12 2010

Sign at the Beginning of Route 500

This Picture Lasts for 500 Kilometres

We got up pretty early to get a good start on what would be our 2nd stint on the Trans-Labrador Highway (read about the 1st stint here), for we hoped to make it the 524 kilometres to Labrador City that night. Near the beginning we came across the trailer people’s broken trailer abandoned on the middle of the road, and we wondered about their story, but we couldn’t see the people anywhere so we thought about it no more. It’s kind of funny, in both a haha and peculiar way, that when we first ventured out in the Boogie Bus, a country’s breadth ago, driving the full sized van had been a bit precious and intimidating. Now we were careening down a loose dirt highway, with no emergency services in sight, our hind end fishtailing over the soft surface, and we didn’t feel at all concerned. We were lucky that it was a cold and damp day, for the road wasn’t nearly as dusty as it might have been and if we stopped to pee we had a good couple of minutes before the black flies started bothering us. Frequently we saw roadside quarries and Step joked that Lithuania has nothing on Labrador in terms of strategic sand and gravel reserves.

Other than these quarries, the occasional road working crew, scraggly forests, and a rare hunting cabin or 2, the ONLY thing along this part of the highway is a super gimungous hydro-electric development known as Churchill Falls. This part of the highway is known as Route 500, but when it was built in 1992, the people of Churchill Falls nicknamed it the “Freedom Highway”, since before it’s construction the only way in and out was by plane or sled.

Houses of Churchill Falls

Inside the Town Centre

With a population of about 600, Churchill Falls is a real company town. I think the only people there who do not work for Churchill Falls Corporation are the one RCMP man and the guy at the gas station. The town is pretty self contained, with a 2 story building that is the town centre, which has a grocery store, a wee one room “department store” (which didn’t sell stove top espresso makers), a library, a restaurant and hotel, and everybody’s life line, a postal outlet—Sears Catalogue, baby, Churchill Falls’ answer to the mall. There is also one church that is time shared by all the religious denominations, a school for the kids, a gym, sauna, curling rink, and  pool. ”The Company” provides quite a few recreational things for the people—there is even a little ski hill and lift!

We arrived for our midday tour to see somehow the trailer people had made it after all. They had managed to go back to Happy Valley, find a fix-it guy, get their trailer repaired, and make it to Churchill Falls right after us. We were all met at the town centre by a tour guide who took us in a shuttle to one of the outbuildings where we were shown an educational video about the making of Churchill Falls. The video was made in the ‘80’s and had quaint appeal. I won’t get too deeply into it here, but the makings of this facility was quite a miracle of engineering.

A Company Town

The actual falls that the town is named after were once a natural wonder which reportedly rivaled, or surpassed even, the majestic splendor of Niagara Falls, but due to their very remote location no objection was made when the government decided to dam all the waterways from 90 kilometres around, and to divert the falls into 11 mammoth underground turbines. (Well, actually, the Innu that lived there objected very much, but the government did not consult them, and reconciliation for this act is still going on today). So much power is generated at this facility that it is equal to 1.3 billion gallons of oil a day! Some of it goes to Newfoundland and Labrador, some to Maine, but most of it is sold really cheaply to Quebec, which is a bone of contention to the provinces and a court case pops up every couple of decades or so. (This stuff, of course, was not featured in the video).

Red Faction Robin?

After the video we were given hard hats and earplus to wear and taken by shuttle to the facility itself. This is a huge operation and we only saw a small portion of it. It is almost all underground in rough rock tunnels that had been blasted out of granite and we really felt like we were inside a first person shooter video game. In one area we came across an old bus and the tour guide told us if the facility ever flooded everyone was to run to the bus which would take them back to the surface. If they couldn’t get to the bus in time, there is also a waterproof “safe room” which has its own air supply, and enough food and water for 30 people for 30 days. Shiver.

The Get Away Car

Old Timey Message Board

One cool thing we saw in the tour was a display case that had a jar full of notes in it. In days of yore, when the falls were still falls, hardier tourists would occasionally make their way there, and the jar acted like a kind of guestbook, where they could leave a note, such as “Kilroy was here” or their impressions of what they saw.

We asked many questions to Karen, the tour guide. I asked if there was a lot of staff turn over and she said there was hardly any, and in fact, people would not retire because if they weren’t working anymore they were not entitled to a house, and they would have to leave the community. So instead, they just work until they die. I am personally amazed and puzzled by this. On one hand I can see the appeal of living in such a village for it’s close community ties and knowability, but on the other hand living in such a small, remote place I can only imagine cabin fever of such intensity it would drive a person insane. However, the people who actually live there seem to really love their lives there, so who am I to say?

Wild Electric Raspberry Surprise


Karen told us the night before she had picked over a gallon of wild raspberries, and she told us where they were growing. We had lunch in the van and headed over. The raspberries were in a fairly extensive field near the transfer station. They were plentiful and delicious. Step contends them to be the most delicious raspberries he’s ever had. I went back to the van to get another container and was surprised to get an electrical shock when I touched the door. I touched it again and got another shock. There was so much electricity in the air the van was electrified! This was also bombarding us. “We have to get out of here!” I said to Step, “Our brains are being electrocuted.”

We left, wondering what the effect of having such electrical power around you day after day would do in the long term. I have no idea if the residents of Churchill Falls suffer more than their share of cancers or whatnot, statistically speaking. If they do have health problems because of the intense electricity, they are not saying.

We had to cross what was once the Churchill River, now a trickle, on a vast expanse of river rock bed.

Churchill Trickle

I tried to get a glass of water, but none came out of our tap. We came up with the ridiculous hypothesis that the electricity in the air had somehow fried the motor of the pump, but later when we landed in Labrador City and assessed the situation, it turned out that the rocks of the highway had broken of the tap head on the underside of the van, and we had merely drained our tank along the highway as we drove.

We still had 5 gallons of backup water and it was only another couple of hundred kilometres to Labrador City/Wabush, where we had a dinner date. On the way there, we saw the trailer people camping in a quarry, and I wondered how they would survive a night of Labradorian black flies. We did not see the trailer people again, so maybe they didn’t.

The Surpisingly Vivid Colours of the Trans-Labrador Highway


Labrador, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Aug 12 & 13, 2008

27 11 2010

Amazing Taxidermy at Northern Lights

Welcome to the Heart of Labrador

In spite of being the largest urban development in Central Labrador, Happy Valley-Goose Bay has a population of less than 8000 people. Yes, it is a town so small it still uses 7 digit dialing. So there is not much there, but what is there is all very interesting and we were able to spend a whole day there without running out of things to do. Goose Bay used to be a huge military base, is now a smallish military base, and Happy Valley is a town of civilians. We arrived very early in the morning, but the Daybreak Café was open (because it was daybreak!) so we were able to get a decent bacon and egg breakfast. My placemat advertised “Goosestock: Just Like Woodstock, but without the 60’s”

We had come to Happy Valley-Goose Bay to visit Step’s university friend, Larry, but Larry had to be away on business so instead we would be hosted by his wife, Germaine. We checked in before she went to work and got advice on good places to go in town.

A Typical Commercial Building in Happy Valley

Happy Valley-Goose Bay has all kinds of quirky stores, such as Uncle Ern’s Meat & Treats, which sells specialty foods like President’s Choice General Tao Chicken flavoured chips, and Peak Freens. Then there’s Uncle Sam’s Butcher Shop (I am starting to see a theme here) which sells all kinds of Caribou products, but which was closed when we tried to shop there because they had run out of meat. There was a sign in the window who said they would re-open when Caribou season started.

The Love Shack of Northern Lights

Exterior of Northern Lights

By far the most interesting shop, though, was Northern Lights, a kind of independent department store that is Happy Valley’s answer to WalMart. Northern Lights is 2 floors! On the first floor there is a kind of clothing department featuring, among other things, a large selection of down parkas, and with a special section for prom dresses. Another large section is devoted to cheesy souvenirs, some of which bordered on politically incorrect, and then there is a separate room which had sex gear, and even a little area that was a head shop with bongs and the like. I bought a few issues of “Them Days”, which is a ‘zine full of people recollecting early life in Labrador. We saw a lot of places selling Them Days in Happy Valley, but I don’t remember seeing it for sale anywhere else in Labrador, which is curious because it’s a very popular, collectible publication.

A Display of Incredible Nature

Wild Beasts of Labrador

Downstairs at Northern Lights is even more exciting. On this floor is the camping and hunting gear, and there are all sorts of great displays featuring taxidermed bears hanging around rivers and things like that. Speaking of taxidermi, Holy Kamoli! A lot of room in the basement of Northern Lights is taken up by dozens of taxidermed beasts. Bobcats and beavers and wolves, oh my! Plus, there is a private military museum which you pay by donation and which Step spent some time on. There are also some military machines in a vacant, grassy lot next door. (We ran into the broken trailer people there, who were pretty much doing what we were doing, looking around Labrador. I’m glad we ran into them, because we wanted to do a tour at Churchill Falls the next day and so did they, but we didn’t know we had to phone ahead. Because we found that out through them, we were able to notify Churchill Falls and our tour plan was saved! There will be more about that adventure in the next blog entry).

Tiki Bar at the Hamilton Hotel

Happy Valley has a visitor centre where we went, mainly to find out where we could get a satellite phone to take on the Trans Labrador Highway with us, in case we ran into any trouble. The answer was The Hamilton Hotel across the street. Like a lot of the commercial buildings in the town, Hamilton Hotel was a prefab metal building with few or no windows, (during winter that probably helps to keep heat inside). But that doesn’t stop them from having a fully pimped out Tiki Bar! Sadly, we couldn’t hang out there because they were closed to finish renovations. It’s nice, though, that in the bitter winter of Labrador, there’s a Hamilton Oasis of Palm Frond.

We went food shopping at NorthMart, which is like a wee Great Canadian Super Store. I tried to buy some yogurt. You know, some fermented milk. We had given up on organic long before Labrador, but now there was not one option of plain, unprocessed yoghurt. The friendly sales lady tried to help, though, and recommended an Activia Snack pack with a variety of flavours. Being Foodarians, we decided to forgo yoghurt consumption for now. We also had a hard time selecting any vegetables, as the ones for sale were kind of tired. There was some Earthbound Organic celery that didn’t look too bad, though, and some sprouts which we figured would be fresh because they were sprouts. When we got to the checkout to pay, the cashier needed a price check on sprouts, and while we waited she asked us what they were, and how did we eat them? East Coast and West Coast, we are all one country but pantries apart.

An Interesting Magazine

Them Days had their own building so we went in a checked it out. You can buy back issues of the ‘zine there, or check out their archival stuff if you are interested in the history of Labrador. They had all kinds of pictures on their walls and one was particularly chilling, showing the back of a figure wrapped in a blanket and just utterly, completely covered in bugs. The title of the picture is “Mosquito Day”. Brrrrr.

Germaine and Larry live right on the Hamilton River, with their 2 children who also weren’t around for our visit. Germaine made us Caribou steaks for dinner, and we caught up on Boogie Bus housework and laundry. We didn’t see Germaine the next morning and we were in the house alone. We showered and got ready for our drive to Churchill Falls. I was outside by the van when Step came out for the last time and asked me if everything was packed up from the house and I said “yes”. Just as the door was locking irrevocably behind him, I recalled our stovetop espresso pot was by the kitchen sink. Time slowed down. “Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!” I cried in sub tone slow motion. But it was too late. Our coffee maker was inside the house and we were outside. And there was nowhere where we could purchase another stovetop espresso pot. We drove to the end of the pavement and the beginning of the next leg of the Trans-Labrador Highway. And there we were, 1,113 dirt paved kilometres to the next Canadian Tire, and no coffee pot.

Step is Interested in Military History

Labrador, Cartwright to Happy Valley-Goose Bay via MV Sir Robert Bond, Aug 11 & 12, 2008

16 10 2010

Boarding the MV Sir Robert Bond

I am devoting a whole post to our trip on the MV Sir Robert Bond because it was our most distinctive ferry trip in Canada so far, not in a good way, and one which I doubt (and hope) will never be surpassed. Cartwright does not have a ferry terminal parking lot, so a couple of hours before our 5pm departure an announcement over a loudspeaker prompted all the vehicles to proceed willy-nilly to the loading bay of the ship, where ferry workers then sort of fitted them in the best they could, sometimes replacing the driver of the vehicle in order to back it in or otherwise squeeze it on (we met some people on the ship who’s trailer tent was broken this way, but they said it wasn’t the workers’ fault, and they had to break it or leave it).

Once we were on the Sir Robert Bond, around 5ish, we noticed a posting of meal service hours that stated dinner was served only between 4pm and 6pm. This was somewhat puzzling as nobody was  even on the boat at 4pm, and it looked like some might not be on it at 6 either, the way things were loading. After dumping our stuff in our 2 bunk stateroom (thank you, Step, for having the amazing foresight to get a room) we went as directly to the cafeteria as we could, which was not very, since the Sir Robert Bond has all kinds of narrow corridors, lounges, and staircases. The whole ship reeked of despair and kerosene. We found the cafeteria in the bowels of the boat, with low ceilings and a lot of pipes overhead. We may have been luckier to have not found the dining room at all, it turned out. For SOME REASON not even I can fathom, I selected a wilted brown salad which turned out to be inedible, a side of previously frozen vegetables which were so chewy they may have started as wooden coffee table ornaments, and one of the two entrees offered, fries and chicken wings. Step, to my alarm, ordered the grey, oily beef chow mein. This was served to us on metal trays by a silent, dermatologically challenged youth in white, and we paid a scowly older woman who merely grunted at our pleasantries. As we sat down at our plastic chairs I said to Step “I feel like I’m in jail, but I’m having to pay!”. The only thing edible on our plates were the fries, although I did choke down a carrot medallion and a few chicken wings as well. (Subsequently on our travels, when we told people of our trip on the Sir Robert Bond, they inevitably would ask “How was the food?”, and we found out any experienced Robert Bond goer packs a lunch. I can only imagine no one warned out because it’s some kind of perverse Newfoundland and Labrador insider joke to make you eat it. Why? Why? I did not know NLers could be so cruel).

Dining Hall of the Sir Robert Bond

Instructions in our State Room

We hadn’t showered for a really, really long time, so when we got our parole from the “Dining” Room, we got some thin little towels from our stateroom and headed for the washroom, where my shower stall had clogged pipes, and the water started sloshing into the main floor fairly shortly. Nonetheless, I was grateful for the desperately needed shower, even though our towels wouldn’t dry again after that, so our stateroom smelled of DAMP despair and kerosene for the rest of the trip. This was still preferable to the crowded mini lounges with loud TV’s on the SitCom channels, where many travelers spent the night.

Not everything about the Sir Robert Bond experience was bad, though. It was old but everything was really clean. Also, it has wireless internet! Yahoo! And there was a lot of outdoor space you could walk around in, and people were friendly. It was kind of stormy but even so people went outside, (maybe because the ship was smelly and crowded?) and we met the broken trailer people who I wish I could remember their names because we saw them many times in the next few days. They speculated the trip was way behind schedule because the Captain was avoiding the storms, which made sense to us.

Fresh Air!

There is also a bar on the ship, where we had a packaged snack, a drink, and some computer screen time. The woman at the bar concession was from Newfoundland and really chatty. She told me the black berry I had eaten on Flagstaff Hill might have had a worm in it, and that locals only eat the berry after the first frost because of the worm, but the worm wouldn’t hurt me. Ugh. (this wasn’t like succulent Pacific Northwest blackberries that grow on brambles, but a small, round berry that grows on bushes near the ground).

After a restless night, we had coffee in the dining car, but no food, and we docked at Happy Valley-Goose Bay. We had been on the Sir Robert Bond for 15 hours, and it felt miraculous to be back in the Boogie Bus. I swore to never complain about BC Ferries again.

People Hang out on the deck of the MV Sir Robert Bond