Tom and I arrived at Baie-Comeau, Canada, located on the Fleuve St. Laurent
(St. Lawrence Seaway) in late afternoon, mid-June 2013, where we were to meet up with Dave and Blair to ride the Trans-Labrador Highway. This highway is roughly 1,000 miles of a combination of new asphalt, potholed gravel and everything between. It is in the process of being all paved, so this will be one of the last years in its current rough state.
It turns out Dave and Blair were a day ahead of Tom and me, so we fueled up and checked our GPS for the next campground, which was located near the Manic 2 Dam. Our homework told us to fuel up whenever we could, and we were reminded by a sign stating the next fuel was 210 km (130 miles) up the road. The campground was only 20 resplendent miles away. With our tents set, a nice hot shower, some freeze-dried Mexican chicken and rice and a beer, we started our $4 firewood campfire as the temperature dropped into the 50s and we were pestered by various flying insects.
I woke up as the morning light illuminated the walls of my tent. Then I looked at my watch and it was only 4:15, so I rolled over and slept in until 5:30. The temperature was 54° F as we rolled out in a dead calm, partly cloudy morning. The road was paved, smooth and curvy with only a few trucks going the other way. The many lakes were mirrors reflecting their majestic scenery. This went on for the next 118 miles as we headed north and passed the 50th Parallel.
MORE PHOTOS IN GALLERY AT BOTTOM OF PAGE
We soon stopped at the Manic-5 dam restaurant and ordered breakfast in our best poorly enunciated French. With much pointing and mime gesturing, our order was filled as well as our stomachs. There are tours of the dam, but we were trying to gain ground on Dave and Blair, so we fueled up with $5.96/gallon regular and kept the wheels rolling.
After a quick pause due to road work at the base of the dam, we headed up a few steep, rocky switch backs to the top of the dam, where we met our new traveling companion, the gravel road. This continued its winding course through the black spruce forests for about the next 60 miles. This section is mostly smooth and wide, as we came upon several road graders maintaining the road as well as putting a wheel trap of a nice little windrow of soft sand and gravel designed to grab your front tire and throw you into the ditch. Some sections of deep, loose, sandy gravel gave us some serious pucker factor as the bikes skittered about.
The major obstacle was the oncoming tractor-trailers carrying everything from lumber to equipment. They go fast and you can see them coming because of the giant “pig pen” dust storms they create. Tom was in the lead as the first one of many moving dust storms approached. He was a few hundred yards ahead of me, and I watched as he disappeared in the cloud of dust. I pulled over as far as I could and stopped, ducking my head so my visor would deflect any incoming rocks. We repeated this procedure frequently as we proceeded. Some drivers were considerate and slowed down a little, and others just barreled on down the road, showering us with dust and rocks.
After battling the gravel road and oncoming traffic for what seemed like forever, we suddenly hit nice, new pavement. This took us from 30–40 mph to a blinding 70 mph and we were hoping that at that speed the wind would blow some of the dust off us. At this speed the miles rolled quickly under our tires and soon we were back on gravel again—only here it was not as well maintained. The road snakes as it crosses railroad tracks nine times. Each crossing has no signal, so it is cross at your own risk. We had a few brief, light showers, which really helped knock down some of the dust; but it also made the rubber between the railroad tracks at the crossings very slippery. Other interesting features are the wood-plank bridges. They are best taken slowly, as missing/loose boards could eat your lunch.
As we approached Labrador City, we passed a huge iron mining operation and a lake that looks as red as blood. In town we gassed up, as we had gone about 260 miles since the last fill up. We were tired and filthy, it looked like rain and they were predicting thunderstorms and temperatures in the 40s, so we decided to get a hotel room. The room was $152 and I had a 12-inch pizza for $27. The local beer was good, but expensive as well. This remote city accessed only by plane and miles of gravel roads, combined with local high-paying iron mining jobs, creates Economics 101 supply-and-demand pricing.
It is here in Labrador City that the actual Trans-Labrador begins and Route 389 ends. Tom got word that Dave and Blair were in Churchill Falls, about 150 gravel miles ahead of us, so we were on the road early with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-40s. The scenery changed and was not as pretty. The road was straighter, and the traffic was almost nonexistent. We refueled at Churchill Falls and continued, not taking the time to tour the generating station that is almost 1,000 feet underground. All of a sudden there was road construction and we saw nice, fresh black asphalt, but our giddiness was soon smashed after just a couple of miles when we returned to more gravel.
While we were filling up at a station in Goose Bay, a guy pulled up in a pickup and saw the camping gear strapped on our filthy bikes. He said he had a bike-friendly campground just down the road, so we followed him only to run into Dave and Blair going the other direction. They had just been to the campground and found no one there. We set up camp for the night and had another freeze-dried dinner. We washed it down with bourbon and Tennessee whisky while sitting in the huge garage portion of Tom’s Redverz tent, avoiding the cold 45° F rain falling outside.
From the sounds I could hear from my tent, we were all awake early, but it was cold and still raining. We all lay in our tents hoping it would stop, but we finally got out all of our rain gear and headed out in a cold, light rain. Backtracking about 20 miles brought us to the junction of highways 500, which we came in on, and 510 that heads east and then south down the Atlantic Coast. The next fuel was in Port Hope Simpson, about 260 gravel miles away. As we climbed higher, the light, cold rain turned into dense, cold fog as we rode into the ground-hugging clouds. At times visibility was only about a hundred yards. At least there was no dust. Eventually we rode out of the fog and rain, and the road was now dusty again and our bikes had taken on a dirty reddish hue that would soon be replaced by the normal gray dirty hue after the next rain shower.
The road we were now on lacked all the road grader maintenance, and the washboard surface and potholes took their toll on the bikes. My steering dampener blew a seal and Blair’s fork seals were leaking and his pannier frame had cracked. The 25–35 mph speed we were traveling had my neck sore, my hands cramping and just generally worn out.
A couple of other bikes were parked outside as well, and we talked to two Kiwis who were on the Yamaha 250s doing the Trans-Canada route. Since they were from Down Under, where water spins the opposite direction going down the drain, they had little signs stuck on their mirrors saying “Keep Right” to remind them that we drive on the other side of the road up here. Another interesting note was that here the time had shifted up one half-hour, not the normal one hour we all normally expected going from one time zone to another. This was something we needed to remember when trying to catch the ferry.
I filled up my two-liter Coke/water bottle with the red-tinted (due to the iron) water and packed my gear to head the final 135 miles to Blanc-Sablon, where we were to catch the ferry to Newfoundland. The road was rough and the ditches were still filled with the past winter’s snow covered in road grime. At Red Bay we saw our first iceberg floating in the ocean, and it was here that the gravel finally ended. We checked in at the ferry, then went back into town and dined at the local grocery store while waiting for the ferry to begin loading.
Everyone we met up there was very accommodating and helpful. The road will be all paved in the next few years, and I’m sure that will bring much tourism and business to the area. Well, from here it was on to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.