Friday, May 26, 2000

Baie Comeau-Labrador City-Goose Bay

June 15:   We faced a rated 8 hour drive to Labrador City.  That's 215 miles of "winding narrow paved road" and 155 miles of "gravel, straight, beware construction".   There would be 3 stretches with no structures or gasoline for well over 100 miles.  We booked a room in Labrador City, where English is the primary language.  Click on:  Road to Labrador City

Here we went from tourist mode to adventure mode.  The sign means "211 kilometers (133 miles) to the next gasoline.

There were tremendous contrasts in what turned out to be the 372 mile drive from Baie Comeau to Labrador City.  The first 3 hours were on a narrow sinuous paved road through beautiful forest with countless roadside ponds and  a few big lakes.
This is typical of the only road to Goose Bay from Baie Comeau.  The sign means "Road very sinuous for 10 miles".  Actually it was very curvy for well over 100 miles.  Then the road was straighter and flatter, but the surface was worse, sometimes narrower.

Manic 5 dam in the wilderness, one of world's biggest of its type
Manic 5 dam, a little closer

These are photos of the (click) Manic 5 dam, the fifth dam on the former Manicouagan River, which has several world superlatives..  If you click on that, also click on its slide show.

Translated sign: "Route 389.  This is the road to
Manic #5 dam and Fermont, the last town in Quebec. 
Road barred by red lights in case of forest fire".

It will take centuries for the burned soil to be replaced.  It's tough for
trees to survive here anyway, as we get closer to the
 northern tree line, where they don't grow at all.

As we advanced northward there were patches of snow on the hills.  The trees were ever shorter as we approached the northern tree line, until they were so short they aren't worth harvesting, and it's not worth extinguishing "forest" fires.   As the photo shows, fires often consume much of the thin soil accumulated over a mere 4,500 years since the great glaciers left Labrador, leaving only rocks.   Notice how scrawny are the unburned trees.

On the unpaved sections of the road, as when we drove the  Dempster Highway (click) we pulled way to the right when we met a big truck, to avoid a broken windshield from flying rocks, and to creep until the road became visible again.   If one pulls way over too early for an oncoming big truck going very fast it is apt to stay in the center of the road, so nothing is gained.  Hence one avoids pulling over until the last safe short interval. The road pictured is much better than the average gravel road on this drive.  Driving requires the utmost concentration for constantly changing conditions.   A front wheel can "catch" in loose gravel, causing the car to swerve out of control as it would in snow.   Sometimes we could move at 60 mph, sometimes at 15 mph.   A constant rattle-roar indicated the underside of our car was being sandblasted by gravel.

Near the end of our day's journey we crossed 9 times the railroad from Sept Iles (Seven Islands, Quebec) to Labrador City, built to extract iron ore from one of world's richest deposits.   Just 50 years before I had worked as a junior engineer on the original construction.   It was even wilder country then, with wolves howling at night.  Wolves are still there, as is one of the world's largest caribou herds and many moose.

We passed a huge iron ore extraction facility just where the day's bad dirt road became smooth pavement the rest of the way to Labrador City. We soon entered Labrador and arrived in the City.   Only 9000 people live there, but it has a Walmart.

We had accommodation problems again.   Our paid phone reservation had been for a ground floor room, but the Inn was full and Marge was forced to climb 2 steep flights to our chamber.   We would have to break up the "9 hour" drive to Goose Bay by an overnight at Churchill Falls, but the one inn there was fully booked for the next night.  Our Two Seasons Inn was also booked full for the next night, as apparently was every other accommodation in this town.  We were too tired to rise early enough to drive the whole 9 hours before dark.  Temperatures are near freezing in June nights this far north, and would we have to sleep in our cold car ?

June 16:  The management apologized profusely for the stair problem, and found they had a spare ground floor room for the night.  Hallelujah !  So today we caught up on sleep, saw the little town, and prepared to get an early start the next day..

Labrador City with adjacent Wabush is a drab company town with one traffic light and fewer than ten thousand residents.   The company is IOC (Iron Ore of Canada), a subsidiary of Rio Tinto.   There is a  remarkable uniformity of residences.  All are tidy trailers or duplexes in uniform arrangements, except for a half dozen apparent executive homes at the highest point, by the water tower.   We had supper at the "fanciest" restaurant/hotel in town, Chinese owned, $16.50 plus 13% tax for a great buffet.   At the entrance was a room for patrons to park their muddy boots.

IOC was opening new iron mines and laying more railroad track.  Heavy equipment abounded.  Old people seemingly went elsewhere to retire, so the many walkers and bikers looked most middle-aged or younger.   Gasoline cost $1.157/liter, vs. $0.924/liter in New Brunswick (about USA $4  per USA gallon).  Everything consumed here and at Goose Bay must be imported, except for fish, and some vegetables and milk from two farms near Goose.
There remained two problems for us to overcome:
**   We needed a room for 2 nights in Goose Bay.
**   A motorcyclist warned us that 50 kilometers ("clicks", or 31 miles) of the new dirt road through the hills from Goose Bay to Cartwright, a key reason for this trip, is impossible for us, with miles of big rocks only navigable by 4WD SUVs and big trucks, very slowly.   He said his friend wrecked his bike there this week, and another friend pitched off his Harley and broke a leg.  Our breakfast waitress agreed.  However, we figured if we drove very slowly we should be able to get through that stretch intact in 3 hours.   Then a young woman told us she drove a pickup through that in the reverse direction, and found it quite bad but driveable at 25 kph ("men aren't always patient", she said).

Things were looking up.  We booked a room for the next 2 nights at Goose Bay.   This far north near the summer solstice the nights are short.  Approximate sunrise was 5:00 AM, sunset 10:00 PM.

June 17:  We drove 354 miles to Goose Bay, all gravel road except about 14 miles of pavement.  There were many patches of winter snow near the road.   The permafrost line and tree (no tree) line is less than a hundred miles north of here.   The only facilities enroute were at (click:)  Churchill Falls, where we stopped for lunch.   We regretted not having the time to tour the "largest underground powerhouse in the world".  Labrador wants to sell some of their tremendous power to the USA, but Quebec wants 80% of the profits if the transmission lines go through their province, so Labrador is planning a  more expensive line through Newfoundland to the States that will circumvent Quebec.

From Maine to the sub-Arctic by Prius in one easy (?) week !

That means it's 184 miles to the next gasoline, toilet, candy bar, etc.
The road is beautifully and expensively engineered, with deep fills and rock cuts, excellent guard rails and culverts, good width and banking, but all gravel for 340 miles, 444 kilometers.  They intended to pave 50 kilometers at each end each year, but have fallen behind, so about 2018 one should be able to drive on pavement all the way from Labrador City to Goose Bay.   No traffic police are needed or present, for if one drives too fast it can be very inconvenient or expensive to get a mechanic or tow truck from 200 miles away.   I got up to 60 mph once, but usually went about 40 mph.   The Prius has a convenient button to show kph instead of mph.

Same thing in English, "Indian", "Eskimo" and  French.

Notice the white tracking collar on the bear's neck.

June 18:  Near the  beginning of this blog I wrote that Canadians are friendly, but the most friendly are the furthest east.   This morning as we entered the restaurant for breakfast, there was only one other customer there, a young woman about 30.   No words were exchanged.   During breakfast our waitress said to us, "Your breakfast is all paid for, by the woman who just left.  She heard you are visitors".  I'm still choked up by her gesture.   I imagine she would say, "Pass it on".

As for the road to Cartwright, we heard again, "You can't get there from here": smashed oil pans, etc..  But "The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer (tomorrow)".

We figured that if we couldn't get through on the road to Cartwright, we could have us and car shipped there.  However, by Internet confirmed by phone, we found that:
*  The earliest ferry space available was July 4.
*  We could show up at the boat and hope for a cancelled spot, but its departure had been delayed a week by sea ice conditions at Cartwright.  Later the boat was delayed another week, to July.  

June 19:  By chance we met here a semi-retired Vermont couple we had met at Labrador City.   They invited us to eat supper with them at the local air base, famous from World War II.   We found the cafeteria crowded with the crew and passengers of a Delta jet from Ireland that had lost 1 of its 2 engines over the Atlantic.  They were awaiting a plane that was coming to retrieve them.   There was such a hubbub that we were told supper was free, to be paid by Delta.    The couple, Phil and Cormetia, paid for all 4 of us anyway.   Their paid reservation on the boat out Sunday was no good, because the boat wasn't going, so they would have to try muddling through the infamous new road, as we would.   They lost a tire to a rock day before, so we hoped they wouldn't have to limp a long distance on the spare "toy tire" again. 

The distance to the next gas station etc. was to be the greatest yet: 245 miles. 

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