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, Blanc-Sablon to Red Bay, Aug 9 & 10, 2008

9 04 2010

Labrador: the Big Land with Nothing on it

Blanc-Sablon is really in Quebec, but it’s literally around the corner from Labrador. To get there, we had to take about a 2 hour ferry ride from St. Barbe, Newfoundland, on the good ship MV Apollo. There was no other way for us to get to the southeast coast of Labrador, as the road doesn’t connect into Quebec and terminates at Cartwright. Labrador is a huge chunk of real estate with not much on it, even roads, so a dedicated traveler could really go down every  road. We didn’t because we didn’t get to Northern Labrador, but we did travel a great deal of it.

The Land God Gave to Cain?

The road from Blanc-Sablon to Red Bay is known as the Labrador Coastal Drive and is peppered with little communities whose population is usually around a couple of hundred or less. Once we left Blanc-Sablon, our first stop was the visitor’s centre in l’Anse au Claire, which was in an old refurbished church that overlooked a nice sandy beach. Even though the weather was gray and chilly for August, we saw a couple getting married on the beach. Inside the visitor centre there were quite a few displays, and I bought a little book about the plants of Labrador. It was here we saw for the first of many times what Jacques Cartier wrote when he first saw Labrador; “The land should not be called New Land, being composed of stones and horrible rugged rocks…. I did not see one cartload of earth and yet I landed in many places… there is nothing but moss and short, stunted shrub. I am rather inclined to believe that this is the land God gave to Cain”. Labradorians seem really proud of that.

Burial Mound at l'Anse Amour

The House Next to the Lighthouse at Point Amour

From there it was a short drive to l’Anse Amour. The only thing—and I do mean the only thing—in L’Anse Amour is the oldest known funeral monument in the “new world”. It’s about 7500 years old and it’s the grave site of an adolescent kid. Despite the fact it is one of the few tourist attractions of Labrador, there is not much fanfare about it—just a plaque explaining what it is. Around the corner from that, and within walking distance, is Point Amour. Point Amour has a single digit population, and they must all live in the house next to the lighthouse because that was the only house I saw.  The lighthouse is the second tallest in Canada, and has a lot more to look at than a funeral mound. We climbed to the top and while we were there we saw a whale right off the shore from where we were!

Step in Front of the Lighthouse at Point Amour

The lighthouse has a whole room dedicated to shipwrecks that happened in the Labrador Straits—the water is rough so there have been a lot of them. It also has a “living heritage museum” where we caught the tail end of a story involving chickens accidentally being plucked alive and the sweaters that were subsequently knit for them. I had a very good talk with one museum lady about the plants of the area. She drinks Juniper tea every day for her health. The Juniper plants are different from the Juniper trees in BC. They are bushes that grow low to the ground. She also got me to try some Alexander, which is a bushy little plant that grows near the sea that the locals eat for greens. It was bitterlicious! When we left the lighthouse we walked around a bit and I tried to identify the different plants using the botanical guide.

I think the largest town along this part of the Labrador coast is l’Anse au Loup, and it has a liquor store inside the Marine supply place, where the girl working behind the counter looked about 14. We like to buy locally produced products, and we bought some Ragged Rock Rum, even though neither of us like rum, and a bottle of Rodrigues Blueberry wine and another of Blueberry/Blackcurrent wine. We didn’t have great expectations for the wine, (which, it turned out, was actually produced in Newfoundland), and didn’t drink it until much later, and when we did we were pleasantly surprised by the excellent quality of it, and wished we had bought more.

Like Newfoundland, Labrador doesn’t grow a lot of produce but they do have really a lot of wild berries. We happened to be in l’Anse au Loup for the tail end of their annual Bakeapple Festival. The Big Deal of l’Anse au Loup is the arena, which is the only indoor recreational area for that whole part of the coast, and that night there was to be the Bakeapple dance! We decided to go make dinner and then attend this dance.

Our Campsite near l'Anse au Loup

We found an inactive quarry near l’Anse au Loup that would make a fine overnight camp spot, and we cooked a bit of veggie stir fry, but because of the quality of vegetables we had been getting, it wasn’t a very good meal. Even though we were near the water there were a lot of black flies and mosquitoes about so we just stayed in the van most of the time. The only other wildlife we saw was a beautiful red fox who was hanging outside the van, circling, leaving and coming back. Foxes are littler beggars, so I guess it was hoping for some scraps. I tried to get a picture, but it was too wily for me.

We assumed, wrongly, that there wasn’t that much to do in l’Anse au Loup and that people would get to the dance fairly early, but hardly anyone was there yet. After spending 3 weeks in Newfoundland we had become used to the friendliness of Newfoundlanders but we were met by the Labradorians with detached indifference. They weren’t rude or anything, they just seemed absolutely uncurious and unimpressed by our touristy presence. This turned out to be a common circumstance all throughout Labrador, and we would later find out it was because of the Labradorian customs of social etiquette—their house is your house, and you are expected to make yourself completely at home, including helping yourself to the fridge, and it would be rude to make a fuss over you because that would imply that your presence was special and not just a matter of course. Something like that. At the time I thought maybe it was because Labradorians are so hardy and self-sufficient they think people like us are lameass softies. But whatever it was, they weren’t at all unfriendly, just not effusive or overly conversational with us.

Greatest Hits Album by Trooper

We shared a moose burger and then as the place started filling up the band played rock covers and we danced a bit. I guess there aren’t a lot of garage bands in Labrador because the musicians were from Newfoundland. I had my first and only minutes of homesickness on the Cross Canada Boogie Bus Adventure of 2008 when the band played “Here for a Good Time” by Trooper.  It’s a song about Vancouver and right then I felt very far away from home. That only lasted the duration of the song, though, and when that ended I was again glad to be where I was.

We slept in the Foxes quarry and it was too bad the black flies made stargazing for any amount of time impossible because you never saw such a sky! There’s no pollution of light or industry and the sky was totally clear that night and you could see a kabillion gazillion stars. In the morning we breakfasted at the Oceanview Resort in West St. Modeste . The menu had a lot of fish on it, and wild Caribou steak, and because it was the tail end of the Bakeapple Festival, I had a square made with oatmeal and bakeapples for dessert. Then we spent a lot of time in the lobby using the payphone, because Step’s cell phone service had conked out long ago, and who knew when we would next have access to a phone?

A Lone House on the Coast of Labrador

Step Standing Next to Whale Fin Bones

The communities started being more spaced out and we were driving through big expanses of scrubby wilderness until we got to Red Bay. In the 1500’s, Red Bay had a really serious whaling concern going on with the Basque people. In fact, the Basque’s have been considered responsible for the almost extinction of the North Atlantic Right Whale (so called because it was the “right” whale to hunt), but this has recently been questioned as not being accurate. Anyway, it was a hot spot for this kind of activity, and the first known industrial enterprise was set up here. Across from the town of Red Bay is a little island called Saddle Island that has the archeological sites. One spot had these massive, in ground boiling vats where the whale blubber was melted down for oil. (The stench must have been quite incredible). There is a cemetery there with a lot of Basque fishermen buried in it. Also, there is an old galleon sunk in the ocean there, ironically very near another ship skeleton that ran aground on the island maybe in the 1960’s.

We didn’t actually go on to Saddle Island—we just looked at it across the water—but we still saw a lot because of the museums are on the mainland. The first is called a “Orientation Centre” that just has some whale fin bones and a 400 year old somewhat restored fishing boat called a “chulapa”. You only pay one fee—I think we paid something like $7 each— to go into the orientation centre and that entitles you to go to the Interpretive Centre as well. The Basque whaling operation was so huge there are a lot of artifacts surviving from that time which makes the interpretive centre very interesting, and you can really get a clear picture of what life was like for these hunters. We spent quite a bit of time there.

Red Bay, Labrador

Red Bay itself is a charming little town, and it’s also at the tail end of the Labrador Coastal Drive, and that’s where the pavement ends. From here we embarked on the most rugged part of our cross Canada adventure, the 958 kilometres of gravel road winding through northern wilderness that is known as the Trans-Labrador Highway.

The Trans-Labrador Highway Begins