Trans Labrador Highway
Graham Swain takes to the open roads of the Trans Labrador Highway in search of the Big Wide Open and The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)
By Graham Swain on 12 April 2008 in Travel Articles
Nothing beats the sense of freedom or captures the imagination quite like barrelling full throttle down a wide-open highway that stretches into the horizon to the rhythm of your favourite road trip music.
The Trans Labrador Highway, a newly constructed 1000km highway that cuts through rugged virgin Canadian territory is like a gift from the Gods for anyone who wants to burn some serious rubber along some pretty isolated gravel roads
It nestles just above Newfoundland on Canada’s wild and woolly East Coast, on the verge of the western world. From here, where the day dawns first, it is easy to access ‘The Big Wide Open’ and the ‘Northern Lights’.
Everything about Labrador is enormous. The world’s largest ocean current meets here; the world’s largest sea bird lives here; the largest concentration of humpback whales congregate here and every year a series of massive icebergs parade here.
I started my drive at Labrador City, a mining city that feels like a temporary outback town with its low-level timber houses set in manicured grass plots, within grid work streets. Dropping off the tarmac on the city outskirts to head south offers a solid-gold driving experience that ranks alongside Route 66 USA, Alaska Highway and Stuart Highway in Australia.
After three glorious hours and 238 km of driving over loose gravel, across the backbone of the continent, the route crosses the once mighty Churchill River on the Brinco Bridge to ‘Churchill Falls’. The land here is unspoilt, raw and untamed, and where moose gently amble across the road or stand in all their huge magnificence, commanding you to slow down and gently drive by.
Churchill Falls is home to a massive hydro–electric dam project - the largest underground powerhouse in the world. The only hotel in town, ‘The Churchill Falls Inn’ can arrange underground tours of the project. The town itself has a very temporary ‘Lego’ feel of uniformity to it. Slant clapperboard houses, solely occupied by the 300 ‘Hydro Company’ workers, who apart from a payment of $100 per month, live rent free. Aside from the privately owned hotel with attendant supermarket, there is only a gas station and bar/shop.
A further three hours and 288km of more hilly and picturesque driving through great panoramic vistas I arrived at Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a merger of two towns, yet with only 8000 people and a motley mix of architecture.
Their claim to fame is located at number 5 Wing Goose Bay – an address that houses a strategic US air force base and where the longest runway in the world still exists. The site, chosen because it is one of the most sparsely settled areas of Canada, was an invaluable base for the British during the Falklands and Gulf War conflicts for our Vulcan Bombers. I took a look around the base and found one still standing proudly, as a monument, along with immense hangar buildings, a control tower, outbuildings, all still looking powerful and impressive, but eerily deserted.
The road south from Happy Valley-Goose Bay is currently under construction (projected completion late 2008), so leaving the ‘wheels’ behind I took the overnight ferry to Cartwright. The ‘Northern Ranger’, a supply cargo ship, has no great luxury for the few passengers it carries. The best it could offer was inactive TV’s in the functional cabins, no evening dining facilities, although the basic and clean en-suite facilities did have a certain quintessential charm.
Principally a fishing village dotted with low level bungalows, Cartwright may be small in population (580), but it’s a tight-knit community and punches way above it’s weight. It needs to, as the soon to be completed highway will by-pass the town by 90km, and so will be easy to miss.
Local Guide Tom Barrett seduced me with a boat trip across the bay to ‘Porcupine Strand’, part of a deserted 50km strip of beach that compelled an unapologetic urban rat like myself to disappear into its geographical void. An empty yellow strip of sand bisecting a vast scenic domain between water and land, struck me as the greatest form of escapism. We ‘mugged up (made a brew)’ as we cooked on an open fire on Sandy Point and sat watching the sunset across vivid blue rippling waters. The broad sweep of Canada’s beauty was obvious enough, but it takes a day such as this to truly grasp what this great land is truly about; its epic desolation was riveting.
On the highway there were times when I felt I was the only person on it - such was its emptiness. The 186 km across to Port Hope Simpson was ‘a whole lot of nothing’ - an exhilarating snaking road. All I had to do was indulge in two of the great redneck pastimes: drivin’ ‘n’ lookin’, on the ultimate speed-restriction-free experience.The timber constructed Alexis Hotel set by the waters edge provided a comfortable night’s sleep and veranda breakfast in the morning.
The next day, brought an invite to experience a typical local Sunday lunch at Curl’s B&B with Geraldine and her family. It was a feast of wild duck, chicken, assorted vegetables, pastry and peas pudding and to finish bake apple and cloudberry (a locally grown fruit) cheesecake. In a surreal moment during lunch, Julia the youngest daughter (12) arrived clutching five codfish, nearly as big as her, that she had dived for in ‘Deep Water Creek’. No one except me batted an eyelid, as this was as normal as popping to the local store for provisions.
At St Mary’s Harbour I caught the small ferry for the short shuttle to one of the highlights of the trip: ‘Battle Harbour’. Steeped in history it was in effect the capital of Labrador in the 18th and 19th century. Now a working museum it is a monument to when it was the main port of Labrador providing quality salt cod worldwide, known as ‘Labrador Cure’. As we skirted the immense flank of ‘Great Caribou Island’, great gulls swooped around us and promenaded on deck with nary a care to our presence; in the distance Humpback Whales drifted lazily.
The intimate harbour set a feast before my eyes. A multitude of ancient houses, sheds, a general store and stone church, nestling up the hill-rise. Wide sweeps of grass and cloud shadows chased over the luxuriant thicket grass in between, as the Inn sign swung in the breeze with spirally paths winding in between these unspoilt places. The biggest attraction in Battle Harbour is the overnight stay. An ornate bed and creaky floorboards in the ancient Inn, coupled with resplendent gas lighting, wood stove and antique furnishing in the Isaac Smith cottage. In between these extremes were also a 20-person bunkhouse; RCMP station and a more ordered Grenfell Cottage.
One of the magical moments of the whole trip presented itself that night. Sitting in a wooden rocking chair on the Inn veranda I drank coffee in the crisp pure night air and settled down to watch the heavens. I looked up to the sky in awe as the ‘Northern Lights’ performed their marvellous acrobatics of multi-coloured hues dancing and darting in a maelstrom of activity and fervour. Staring at the blaze in the night sky, it looked like the roof of God’s cathedral; I’d never seen so many stars.
Next day with a heavy heart I left Battle Harbour behind and headed back to St Mary’s Harbour along what will eventually (by 2016) be the paved section of the road known as the ‘Labrador Coastal Drive’. It was an enthralling last leg of 174km to Blanc Sablon (where Quebec meets Labrador). A long rustic red granite rocky shoreline, twisting through laid back out-posts clinging to the very edge of the cliffs, capes and coves and fast flowing salmon rivers.
Steeped in history this last section comprises monuments to the past, National Historic Sites, Atlantic Canada’s tallest lighthouse, a string of villages where you can dine on fresh crab and caribou burgers and a profusion of seabirds and whales that draw naturally from around the world. Like a roller coaster the route dips and dives around tricky curves as it hugs the coast. It was difficult to concentrate on the road because every turn presented me with an ocean view of vast magnitude.
With foot down and throttle open, I realised that I could never get bored here. This is one of Canada’s last great wildernesses where inland wildlife roam in spectacular numbers. All that summer daylight (15 hours) and big blue skies gave me an all consuming feeling of calm; a watch is pretty redundant in these parts, it is easy to lose track of time when gazing at such grandeur.
Homeward-bound I stopped off at a bar in Churchill Falls where I met a colourful local called Alonzo Drover. “In Spain”, he said “they have Siesta, Up here we don’t have anything with quite the same urgency”. Then instinctively he added “Take special care you do not fall in love with this place.” But for me it was too late.
More information www.travelcanada.ca. Tel 0207 389 9983
Time Zone: Labrador is in the Atlantic Time Zone which is Greenwich Mean Time -4 hours, it also observes Daylight Savings between the months of April and October when the difference is GMT -3 hours.
Climate: Labrador tends to be cool with average July temperatures between 10 and 13 degrees Celsius and January about -18 degrees Celsius, it can be as cold as -51 degrees Celsius in Western Labrador. The annual precipitation varies from about 40 inches in the south east to 20 inches in the extreme north. The annual snowfall is around five metres.
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