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Trans-Labrador Highway: Part Two

Two friends journey from Portland, Maine to Labrador and back again on motorcycles

Relais Gabriel to Labrador City – 173 Miles
May 29, 2018 — The next day dawned clear and cold. The sky was a painful blue. Sunglasses were a must. After a hot breakfast, and a farewell in French, we headed north on a paved road.

Our thermometer said it was in the 50s but it felt colder. An icy wind chased us, blowing in gusts. The road was slightly raised and unsheltered. We passed no buildings as we sped along. The regular roadside evergreens dwindled into smaller, gnarled black spruce and we saw a dark fox scuttle across the road ahead of us.

Rushing water was everywhere. Trickles seeped from hillocks. Gushing streams squeezed under bridges at regular intervals.

About and hour out of Relais Gabriel, the roadside sprouted battered curbs and sidewalks. There were no houses, or buildings of any kind, beyond them. Just a brown tangle of bracken, flailing in the wind. Then an esplanade split the pavement into two lanes. Dry grass rippled down its center. Brown manhole covers marked portals to a long-forgotten sewer.

We’d come to the ghost town of Gagnon on the shores of Barbel Lake.

The Quebec Cartier Mining Company started building Gagnon in 1957 to house workers digging iron ore at the nearby Jeannine Lake Mine. A few years later, 4,000 miners, and their families, called it home. Gagnon had churches, a town hall, schools, an arena and even a hospital.

There was no road, however, and everything had to be flown in and out.

René Coicou, a mechanic at the mine, was elected mayor of Gagnon in 1973. Born in Haiti, Coicou was the first black mayor in Quebec history. He was still in office in October 1984 when he had to call a special town meeting to tell residents the mine was shutting down and their town would be razed to the ground the next year.

The last residents flew out on June 30, 1985 and the town vanished from the map. According to an article I read, the cemetery was never relocated. I didn’t see any graves. But even now, Gagnon has a definite melancholic air.

Two years after the town was dismantled, the Quebec government built Route 389, connecting Baie Comeau to Labrador. They used Gagnon’s main street as part of the route. That’s where we were.

We looked around, trying to imagine the town, kids playing, people shopping. I couldn’t do it. All I heard was the moaning wind. All I saw were the remnants of a town, long gone.

The smooth, straight road gave way to dusty, dirt twists and bends just south of Fire Lake, where there’s still an active mine. Our path snaked to-and-fro over a rail line a full dozen times as we rode past gargantuan slag heaps, dug out of the Earth over decades of mining. You could see the piles of pulverized stones far away in the distance, where they looked like mountains. Mile-long trains with open ore cars, waiting to get filled, idled on the sidings.

I thought about sprinkling some of Fishbones’ ashes on the rail line but decided against it. It was windy and desolate and nowhere a hobo would want to be left beside the tracks.

About 10 miles shy of the mining settlement of Fermont, I realized I had to go — right now. It was an emergency. I radioed to Dean and we pulled over. Grabbing my TP roll, I dashed over the top of a small pile of dirt beside the road. I almost stumbled down the other side but caught myself. It was a good thing because it was a long way down. The dirt pile had been left on the edge of long, steep gravel slope dotted with boulders and twisted hunks of old steel culvert.

I went down a little way, dropped my drawers, turned my back to the slope below, grabbed a large rock and held on tight. I was just in the nick of time.

It didn’t take long but it took a lot of TP. When I fished the cleanup operation, I dropped the wad. I’d intended to kick some dirt over the evidence before I left, but while I was getting my pants on, a blast of wind raced up the slope from the valley below. It got hold of the soiled TP and rolled the wad up the slope. As it summited the dirt pile, it mounted to the sky and unfurled like one of those banners towed behind a plane. The message read: Don’t go down there.

Leaving the road a few miles later, we looped into the town of Fermont. It was, originally, a company town, owned by the mining company. There was a smattering of houses and buildings to one side of one enormous structure. The huge building houses apartments, stores, schools, bars, a hotel, restaurants, a supermarket, a swimming pool and — we heard — a strip club. It’s the better part of a mile long and acts as a windbreak for the buildings on the leeward side.

We stayed in town just long enough to get Dean some gas and take a picture by the biggest dump truck I’ve ever seen.

A vast blue road sign let us know when we finally hit the Labrador border and the start of Route 500, the Trans-Lab Highway. We took a picture of that, too. From there, it wasn’t far to Labrador City where we checked into the Two Seasons Hotel. It wasn’t cheap but the local Blue Star beer in the bar was priced just right.

Labrador City at last. (photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Labrador City to the Raft River – 142 miles
May 30, 2018 — We left Labrador City in the cold sun after a breakfast of eggs, toast, bacon and coffee. Riding west on good pavement, we started to see serious patches of leftover snow mixed in with the unchanged landscape of rocks, black spruce, water and low-rise hills. A steady trickle of trucks rumbled past us, headed east. We also pulled over and let a lot of them go by us on their way to Churchill Falls.

The wind blustered enough to keep us chilled all day. Our cure was more roadside coffee. We brewed one batch on a gravel shoulder next to the Miron River. A good many of the bridged water courses were marked with signposted names. Otherwise, there’d be no way to tell them apart, they’re so regular and numerous. I’d guess half the land in Labrador is actually water — stream, river, bog, lake or pond.

We sat by the Miron River bank, drank the coffee and puffed our briars. Out of the wind, in the clear-skied sun, it was a kind of heaven. The sound of the water was mesmerizing. The taste of black coffee and pipe smoke were a comfort. In those moments, I didn’t care if I ever saw television, a smartphone or a computer screen again. Complete contentment was achieved.

Those kinds of moments never last for long. It’s in our human nature. Thoughts creep in, more complicated desires and entanglements take over. Lovely as it was, we knew we had to keep moving west. And we did.

On our bikes again, we said goodbye to the Miron River.

A few hours later, we started to get close to the company town Churchill Falls and its giant hydroelectric power station. After talking it over, we decided we didn’t want to sleep there for the night. Instead, we thought we’d knock off early for the day and find a place to camp, west of town.

The roadside spot we found was a lot like the Miron River. It was a gravel turnout on the south side of the road next to the Raft River. A row of bushes next to the road sheltered the spot, a little. On the other side, a low, tree-capped hill kept the wind at bay. The main draw was the sound of the water.

We spent the next hour setting up camp and collecting firewood. There was plenty of deadfall on the edge of the hill. Heaps of dried brush lay beside the road, too, where bushes had been cut back the year before. Across the road there was a small dugout sand pit with some ancient, dry logs and stumps. We hauled some of those over, too.

Soon, we had a merry fire. We sat for a long time, smoking and drinking Molson beer we’d brought from Labrador City. Snowbank remnants by the treeline kept it cold for us. The wind died down. It clouded over and warmed up a bit.

The light was still lingering when when I finally crawled into my tent around 10 p.m. I fell asleep fast, with the sound of the rushing water filling my ears.

Our camp on the Raft River in Labrador. (photo by Troy R. Bennett)

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