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Trans-Labrador Highway

Written by  November 1, 2013

Tom and I arrive 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 1000 miles of a combination of new asphalt to potholed gravel and everything in 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 they are a day ahead of us so we fuel up and check our GPS for the next campground which is located near the Manic 2 dam. Our homework told us to fuel up whenever you can 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 & rice, and a beer we stared at 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 a.m. so I rolled over and slept in until 5:30 a.m. Temperature was 54 degrees 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.

We soon stopped at the Manic-5 dam restaurant and ordered breakfast in our best poorly translated French. With much pointing and mime gestures our order was filled as well as our stomachs. There are tours of the dam but we were trying to gain ground on Dave & Blair so we fueled up with $5.96 per 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 were met with our new traveling companion, the gravel road. This continues its winding course through the black spruce forests for about the next 60 miles. This section is mostly smooth and wide as we come 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. There are some sections of deep loose sandy gravel that give us some serious pucker factor as the bikes skitter about.

The major obstacle is 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 is in the lead as the first one of many moving dust storms approaches. He is a few hundred yards ahead of me and I watch as he disappears in the cloud of dust. I pull over as far as I can and stop, ducking my head so my visor will deflect any incoming rocks. We repeat this procedure frequently as we proceed. Some drivers are considerate and slow a little and others just barrel on down the road showering us with dust and rocks.

After battling the gravel road and oncoming traffic for what seems forever we suddenly hit nice new pavement. This takes us from 30-40 mph to a blinding 70 mph and we are hoping that at that speed the wind will blow some of the dust off us. At this speed miles roll quickly under our tires and soon we are back on gravel again only here it is not as well maintained. The road snakes as it crosses railroad tracks 9 times. Each crossing has no signal so it is cross at your own risk. We had a few short 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. Another interesting feature are the wood plank bridges. They are best taken slowly as missing/loose boards could eat your lunch.

As we approach Labrador City we pass a huge iron mining operation and a lake that looks as red as blood. In town we gas up as we have gone about 260 miles since the last fill up. We are tired, filthy, it looks like rain and they are predicting thunderstorms and temperatures in the 40s, so we decide 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 create 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 are on the road early with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-40s. The scenery has changed and is not as pretty. The road is straighter and traffic is almost nonexistent. We refueled at Churchill Falls and continued not taking the time to tour the generating station that is almost 1000 feet underground. All of a sudden there is road construction and we see nice fresh black asphalt, but our giddiness is soon smashed after just a couple of miles when we are returned to more gravel.

While filling up at a station in Goose Bay a guy pulls up in a pickup and sees the camping gear strapped on our filthy bikes. He says he has a bike friendly campground just down the road so we follow 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 can hear from my tent we are all awake early, but it is cold and still raining. We all lay in our tents hoping it will stop but we finally get out pack all our wet gear and head out in a cold lite rain. Backtracking about 20 miles bring us to the junction of highways 500, which we came in on, and 510 that heads east then south down the Atlantic coast. The next fuel is in Port Hope Simpson about 260 gravel miles away. As we climb higher the lite cold rain turns into dense cold fog as we ride into the ground hugging clouds. At times visibility is only about a hundred yards. At least there is no dust. Eventually we ride out of the fog and rain and the road is now dusty again and our bikes have taken on a dirty reddish hue that will soon be replaced by the normal gray dirty hue after the next rain shower.

The road we are now on lacks all the road grader maintenance and the washboard surface and pot holes take their toll on the bikes. My steering dampener has blown a seal and Blair’s fork seals are leaking and his pannier frame has cracked. The 25-35 mph speed we are traveling has my neck sore, my hands cramping and just generally wore out.

At Port Hope Simpson we are at the Atlantic coast and we find the gas station which also sells everything from auto parts, to groceries, to toys, to snow mobiles. There is only one pump and the teller has to come out and read the price off the pump before the next patron can fuel up. We all want to be warm and dry so we inquire if there is a hotel in town. The answer is yes but they really don’t have a sign. Being skeptical, we follow the directions and locate a simple but clean and very well run place that even has a restaurant with a nice ocean view and is complete with table cloths. This seems way too nice for a pack of dirty bikers like us. The lady that has owned it for 38 years is very nice and gives us the local history about the town and its 424 inhabitants, and don’t forget the 24. There is a small store next door and we go there to pick up a few items. It even has a nice selection of movies on VHS tape you can rent. Tom hands the cashier a US $20 and she asks what it is. She hadn’t seen one before. The store manager had seen one but they don’t take foreign currency. Turns out the lady at the hotel owns this store as well.

A couple of other bikes are parked outside as well and we talk to two Kiwis who are on the Yamaha 250’s doing the Trans-Canada route. Since they are from down under where water spins the opposite direction going down the drain, they have 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 is that here the time has shifted up one half hour not the normal one hour we all normally expect going from one time zone to another. This is something we need to remember when trying to catch the ferry.

I fill up my 2L coke/water bottle with the red tinted, due to the iron, water and pack my gear to head the final 135 miles to Blanc-Sablon where we are to catch the ferry to Newfoundland. The road is rough and the ditches are still filled with the past winters snow covered in road grime. At Red Bay we see our first iceberg floating in the ocean and it is here that the gravel finally ends. We check in at the ferry then go back into town and dine at the local grocery store while waiting for the ferry to begin loading.

Everyone we met up there were so 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 is on to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.