Land Sakes!

Sunday, June 22, 2014 Road Junkies 0 Comments

THE BIG CHILL, Chapter 9:  

Days 12 & 13:  Labrador

Dense fog cloaked Highway 430 as we left St. Anthony and Newfoundland's northern coast in the rain Saturday morning, straining to spot any moose that might enter the roadway for a closer look at us.  Perhaps they slept in on Saturday morning because we saw only one, well off the highway, on a stretch of 430 renowned as 'moose alley.'  By the time we reached Flower's Cove, an hour and a half south, the rain had abated, so we paused to check out the Thrombolites Walking Trail (pictured above).

Thrombolites are remnants of bacteria and algae that lived in this spot some 650 million years ago.  In shallow water, huge colonies of microorganisms created layers of biofilm that trapped, bound and cemented grains of limestone together to form rocklike formations, which scientists have named thrombolites.  The only places where thrombolites have been documented are the small coastal village of Flower's Cove (pop. 270) and western Australia.

Apollo ferry
Ten minutes south of the fossils, we arrived in Saint Barbe, where we boarded the Apollo, the Labrador Marine ferry which would transport us across the Strait of Belle Isle to Labrador.  Originally launched from Germany in 1969, the 355-ft. ice-class vessel began service ferrying passengers and vehicles between Sweden and Finland.  This leviathan boasts a capacity of 1,200 passengers, 100 cars and eight tractor trailers.  After 30 years of service among a myriad of European countries from England to Finland, the ferry was purchased by Labrador Marine in 2000 and put into service between Newfoundland and Labrador.

Actually, the ferry made landfall in Blanc Sablon, Quebec, where we picked up the disconnected eastern fragment of QC-138, which took us the two miles to the Labrador border, hooking up with NL-510, the beginning of the fabled Trans Labrador Highway (TLH) and the Labrador Coastal Drive.  Two and a half miles into Labrador, we arrived in L'Anse au Clair (pop. 192), the first in a strand of coastal villages along the TLH as it strings its way up the Belle Isle shoreline.  French fishermen established these hamlets in the early 1700s, as home bases for their fishing concessions granted by Louis XIV (or XV) when this area was considered part of Quebec.

After checking in at the Northern Lights Inn in L'Anse au Clair (no Hilton or Marriott properties here), we continued our exploration northward—on the TLH, of course.  It was the only road available.  About halfway to Forteau (pop. 429), the next town, we spied a guy loading a float plane on a lake between the TLH and the strait.  Backtracking, we found a rutted road leading to the spot.

Load 'er up
Like all the other locals we have encountered in the province, John, the cargo crew/pilot, patiently interrupted his work to answer questions for us tourists.  He was loading supplies to deliver to a remote fishing lodge, where he would transport several fishermen from Toronto the following day.

Prior to 2010, John ran an active business shuttling people, mail, groceries, and other goods from Newfoundland to the more remote Labrador during the winter months when the ferry was unable to get across the strait.  But that year, a new section of the TLH was opened, finally connecting the south coast with central Labrador and stimulating an increase in vehicular traffic.

With a 96% subsidy from the federal and provincial governments, Labrador Marine began operating a winter (January through May) ferry service between Blanc Sablon and Corner Brook, a town farther south on Newfoundland island.  With a greater distance and angular path, pressure on the ferry from the strait's ice cover was reduced.  More often than not during these months, a Coast Guard ice breaker accompanies the ferry on its trek.  Last winter, a covering of ice 2 to 4 feet thick clogged 90% of the strait during the coldest months.

Ferry Apollo follows Coast Guard ice breaker across the Strait of Belle Isle (photo from
So now John is not so busy flying people and cargo back and forth across the strait in winter but manages to stretch out his summer fishing camp earnings over the cold months.  When we commented on how different his lifestyle is from the hectic and crowded pace of Atlanta, John replied, "Yes, I imagine it is.  But I love it here.  And I have a lot more freedom than you do, I'll wager."  We had to agree.

Ancient burial site (marked by those rocks)
Continuing up the TLH, we drove through Forteau and into L'Anse Amour (pop. 9), located on a pretty little cove and home to an ancient burial mound.  Identified as the L'Anse Amour Burial Site, this pile of rocks is recognized as the earliest known funeral monument in North America, marking the burial place of a child who died about 7,500 years ago.  Within the mound, archaeologists found a small stone burial chamber housing the well-preserved skeleton of a child with some accompanying artifacts including stone spearheads, a walrus tusk and a bone whistle.  The mound is part of a larger historic site which contains remains of many small seal hunting camps built by Maritime Archaic people between 9,000 and 2,000 years ago.

Point Amour Light Station
Just beyond the village on the unpaved road, we came in sight of the Point Amour Lighthouse.  Although roads are a late twentieth century development for most of Labrador, the lighthouse has been serviced by road since it was built in the1850s with lanes leading to two nearby communities with harbors where lighthouse supplies were offloaded.  Winding up a stone spiral staircase, we followed a young docent on a guided tour of the lighthouse.  A couple with twin seven-year-old boys comprised the remainder of our tour group.  These little rounders were bouncing up the stairs, full of energy and questions as we began.  By the time we reached the top of this lengthy climb, even they were flagging.

Model reveals counterintuitive building method with hardest material on inside.
As the model shows, the Point Amour lighthouse was built of limestone quarried nearby.  The limestone surface was covered with brick, and when the harsh weather began to tear at the mortar, a layer of clapboard was added as extra protection.

The lighthouse's 500-watt bulbs can project a distance of 30 miles with a boost from the fresnel lens surrounding the bulbs.  Only one of the four bulbs burns at a time, with another automatically rotating into service should the previous one burn out.

Remnants of the Raleigh
From the lighthouse, we suffered the blustery coastal winds to hike the Raleigh Trail, a grassy path curling its way to the shore and the rusted remains of the HMS Raleigh, victim of the strait's most famous maritime disaster.  The Raleigh was the flagship of the British navy's North American squadron when it was shipwrecked near the lighthouse in 1922.  Swerving to avoid an iceberg a mile and a half off shore, the ship ran into shallow water where rocks ripped a 360-foot gash into the hull, grounding it 200 yards from shore.  According to the lighthouse keeper at the time, the berg was the only one in the strait.

All but eleven members of the 700-man crew survived the catastrophe and made their way to the light station, where they were billeted in every square inch of refuge, including the stairs and landings of the lighthouse. A few years later, the British navy destroyed the shipwreck, leaving behind a few last vestiges of the Raleigh's final fateful voyage.

On the way back to the lighthouse, we found a perfect hiding spot for one of our "Love This Spot" letterboxes.  It's just off the trail and has a nice view of the lighthouse.  Then we called it a day, returning to our hotel in L'Anse au Clair with plans to continue our journey on the TransLabrador Highway the next day, no burden since we had only made it 15 miles up the coast.

West St. Modeste Lighthouse
Sunday morning dawned with partly cloudy skies and a temperature of 41°, reminding us that we have only two more days in this gloriously cool climate before returning home, where today's forecast calls for a high of 92.  Returning to the TLH, we zipped up to Point Amour to continue our coastal drive northward.  The next village was L'Anse au Loup (pop. 550) with a sandy beach and large fish processing plant. Then came West St. Modeste (pop. 120), home to a major French fishing operation in the 1700s.  Across 300-yard channel known locally as The Tickle, lies St. Modeste Island, a small, bare islet that is home to a comely 18-foot lighthouse that guides mariners safely into The Tickle.

Pinware River
A few more miles north we passed through Pinware (pop. 114) and crossed the Pinware River, known for salmon fishing and dense boreal forests.  Along the river, thick stands of conifers are interrupted by outcroppings of large granite boulders deposited by an ancient glacier.  Past the river, as we tracked onto a new section of the highway, the forest gave way to moss-covered tors with only occasional stunted evergreens.  Mosses and lichens added a variety of textures and color to the desolate landscape.

New section of 510 north of Pinware
At the end of the pavement, we arrived in the town of Red Bay (pop. 194), founded as the base for a major Basque whaling operation around 1550.  Exhibits at the Red Bay National Historic Site museum relate the story of Selma Barkham, a transplanted British historian, who theorized that coastal Labrador had once been a center of Basque whaling.  As an independent researcher, she combed archives in Spain and located historic documents bearing out her assumptions.  In the 1970s, under her guidance, Canadian archaeologists found well-preserved evidence, both on land and submerged in the harbor, proving that Red Bay had been one of the largest Basque whaling ports of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

A 16th century chalupa boat recovered from the waters of Red Bay harbor
Beyond Red Bay, the TransLabrador  continues as an unpaved road.  Until its construction, a project begun in the 1990s, travel between communities in the Labrador Straits relied on boats in summer and snowmobiles in winter. North of Cartwright, a handful of widespread villages still have no road connections.  Because of the harsh winters and sparse population in much of the area served by the TLH, most of the highway is surfaced with well-packed gravel, which is re-graded in late spring each year.

Red Bay harbor
From Red Bay, the road continues north near the coast a further 50 miles before turning west to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a 300-mile span of gravel away.  Beyond Goose Bay, the mostly unpaved road continues another 325 miles to Labrador City at the Quebec border.  For those who contemplate undertaking these long stretches through the vast wilderness of interior Labrador, the provincial government publishes a user guide with tips for survival.  Among the advice offered:
  • Bring at least two full-sized spare tires mounted on rims.    
  • Slow down when a vehicle passes you in either direction to reduce the chance of a rock cracking your windshield. 
  • Slow down when passing other vehicles to lessen the chance of striking them with mud or flying rocks.
  • Caribou often cross the road in large numbers.
The guide also offers this little dose of reality:
The road is narrow, has soft shoulders, high embankments, and steep hills. There are lengthy stretches of gravel surface with sharp rocks, potholes, washboard, and, depending on the weather, clouds of dust or slick mud.  Watch out for dangerous curves and loose gravel.  (User Guide for the TransLabrador Highway)
In fact, this part of Labrador is so remote that the provincial government offers a free satellite phone lending service because there is no cellular service along the TLH in this area.  Satellite phones are preprogrammed to call the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, which will coordinate the appropriate emergency response.
Newly re-routed section of the TLH north of Red Bay
We drove just a few miles north of Red Bay to experience the rugged road.  Since the nearest town, Lodge Bay, was some 50 miles away and our rental car agreement nullified insurance coverage for such sections of the TLH, we dared not go further.  And besides, we wanted to dip down into Quebec, something which would have to be done today since we're booked on tomorrow's 8 a.m. ferry crossing back to Newfoundland.

Retracing our route down the coast, the TLH became Quebec Route 138 when we crossed the border into Quebec.  We were setting out on the far eastern fragment of this major route which traverses most of the province.  The Quebec government is in the midst of a massive ten-year project to build missing sections to complete Route 138 from Blanc Sablon to Quebec's border with New York State almost 1,000 miles away.  Between Old Fort and the current terminus of the western section at Kegaska lie the final 150 miles of challenging terrain to bridge.

Brador Falls, just south of Blanc Sablon
We drove southwest some 45 miles from Blanc Sablon to the end of the road at the unincorporated village of Old Fort, a ruggedly beautiful mostly uninhabited coastal drive.  Finally we headed back north to L'Anse au Clair to pack up for our morning departure from the big land, the beginning of the end of our trip as we return to Deer Lake for our flight out of the province.

The ferry's wake
Vehicles load into the aft and exit the bow. 
Red Bay
TransLabrador Highway north of Red Bay