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