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Winter intrudes on ‘summer’ vacation along one of loneliest stretches in North America

A Summer to Remember

Winter intrudes on ‘summer’ vacation along one of loneliest stretches in North America

Alone in the wilderness on the road less traveled
Winter intrudes on ‘summer’ vacation along one of loneliest stretches in North America
Caption below.
Photographer: Courtesy John Cropley

Photo: All but bereft of human activity, interior Labrador is one of the darkest places in eastern North America at night. On this evening, a line of fast-moving clouds paints a blur above the aurora borealis.

The low rumble starts a long way off to the east and grows almost to a roar as it draws near.

My mind grasps in the disjointed way it sometimes does when I’m startled from a deep sleep. What am I hearing? Jet engine?

Hydropower dam release? Earthquake?

None of these make sense.

It’s a snowplow! Damn!

As it passes, I realize I can’t see its lights in the predawn dark. My little car is snowed in, well off the road and far from any help. What am I gonna do?

Better question to answer for the reader: Why am I parked beside one of the loneliest roads in North America on a belated summer vacation as winter bears down from the northwest?

The dream

Labrador had always fascinated me when I was younger, a bit of the frozen north that’s not so far north and not on the other side of the continent.

And almost entirely unpopulated.

The summer of 2018 found me with time and circumstances to finally head north and see it: My only child was going off to college and my car was new enough to be dependable yet old enough to take some new scratches without regret. 

Then in August, the springs began to rust and break in my father’s steel trap of a mind, and Labrador looked like it would be a dream deferred while I dealt with his crisis. My brother and I were not able to get him to a safe place and secure his house and affairs until mid-September. 

The first snowflakes were falling in Labrador City by late September — the town averages 170 inches a year and its snow season lasts eight months. The Trans-Labrador Highway is fairly rough in places and mostly very isolated. Some guides warn about getting caught there in snow, others don’t — presumably because no one who didn’t have to make the journey in winter would be foolish enough to try.

But a stretch of marginally OK weather showed up on the forecast in early October. It should be safe to drive the Trans-Labrador Highway one-way, I figured, then sprint for Newfoundland if it got too cold. “The Rock” happened to also be on my bucket list, and winter doesn’t settle in there quite so early, so I’d make the journey a large one-way loop.

Northward ho

Gas cans and water jugs strapped to the roof of the car, I pull out of my driveway Oct. 5 and head north.

Driving from Albany to the Canadian border has never seemed so quick, probably because I know how much more lies beyond the border.

This is purely a driving day, no stops except to fill one tank and empty the other.

The gas station attendant in Saguenay, Quebec, rubs his hands together to warm them and grins at me as I load up with expensive Canadian gas — there’s a language barrier, but I’m guessing the grin is because I’m doing his job. Or maybe because I’m wearing shorts.

It was 75 degrees when I left Albany and it’s 45 here. Many people are already wearing puffy down jackets!

JOHN CROPLEY/Business Editor
The Trans-Labrador Highway stretches south from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, seemingly endless. The 220-mile drive to the next town can take seven hours because the road is mostly unpaved, though that is gradually changing.COURTESY JOHN CROPLEY
The Trans-Labrador Highway stretches south from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, seemingly endless. The 220-mile drive to the next town can take seven hours because the road is mostly unpaved, though that is gradually changing.

That night was my first time sleeping in my car in the cold, in a little waterfront park where overnight parking may or may not have been allowed — the signs are in French.

(Believe it or not, a 6-foot 2-inch traveler can sleep comfortably in the hatchback version of the Subaru Impreza with the back seats down and the front seats forward. You just need an air mattress. And plenty of warm bedding if your destination is Labrador.)

Sunrise over the St. Lawrence River the next day is incomparably but briefly beautiful, gone by the time I turn inland from Baie-Comeau and leave civilization behind. I’m still eight hours from the Trans-Labrador Highway, but Quebec Route 389 is essentially a preview — 300 empty miles, mostly unpaved and almost entirely unpopulated.

The land, the road

Labrador and Newfoundland (the two are a single province, Canada’s youngest) both struggle with population loss. Dozens of small communities were depopulated in the mid-20th century amid a coercive government resettlement campaign intended to save taxpayers the high cost of providing services to these isolated places. A few villages still sit along remote ocean coves, vacant and faded a half-century later.

Beyond that, there’s the reality that the work is hard and the income inconsistent in an economy based largely on natural resources.

Many people have moved away without being forced.

Labrador has only about 27,000 residents in its 113,000 square miles, two-thirds of them in the five largest towns.

It still has a number of small communities, mostly along the coast. Those that sit beyond the end of the roads are home mostly to Inuit or other aboriginal peoples. Airstrips and infrequent coastal packet ships are their link to the rest of the world.

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The interior of Labrador is a whole ’nother place. In recent decades, the Trans-Labrador Highway has opened up the interior to commercial traffic and recreational travelers like me, but there’s still nothing there. It’s devoid of signs of human life except for the power lines bringing hydropower electricity out of the wilderness toward civilization, and except of course for the road itself.

It’s so isolated that the provincial government offers through travelers free loan of a satellite phone.

If you can imagine 580 miles of Interstate 90 from Albany, N.Y., to Toledo, Ohio, as a two-lane road, with a rough gravel surface for a significant portion of its length, passing through a wilderness with just two small towns and zero farms or suburbs along the way, that’s what the most isolated stretch of the Trans-Labrador Highway is like. Trees, streams and ponds, with one small city and one little town.

Add another 300 miles of emptiness along Route 389 in Quebec and another 200 miles with sporadic fishing villages along the coastal stretch of the Trans-Labrador Highway — this was my 1,100-mile drive to and through Labrador.

You’ll see some hunting camps and even some year-round residences along the road close to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, an Air Force town. But for the most part there is only the boreal forest.

 

It’s a road that can be brutally hard on cars and unforgiving of driver error, but it’s gradually being paved as time and money allow.

I pull out of Labrador City with my borrowed phone, several pounds of beef jerky and brownies, and more than a dozen audio books on a flash drive. What could go wrong?

Risk and reward

That first night along the Trans-Labrador Highway is the low point of the trip, an improvised and only partly successful attempt to beat cold and hunger in a gravel pit 100 yards off the road.

I knew butane stoves don’t work well in the cold; I didn’t know they absolutely refuse to work below 32 degrees. I’ve got a bottle of propane but I’d be foolish to try to figure out how to connect it in the dark.

Interior Labrador would hit minus-42 a couple of months later, but on this October night it only gets down to 28 degrees.

There’s not even one car per hour on the road. It’s so utterly quiet I can count the variations in my low-grade tinnitus as I drift off to sleep.

When that snowplow rumbles past before dawn, there’s not even an inch of snow, but it’s an icy crust frozen onto the windows. With the moisture from my breath frozen inside the windows, it’s impossible to see out and my half-awake brain concludes I’m buried in a snowdrift.

Not so. It takes a while to thaw and scrape the windows, but I don’t need to shovel any snow from around the car, which has just 5 inches of ground clearance.

I pull out onto the slick highway, carefully, and turn east.

If the previous night was a low point, this morning is a high point.

Aside from the treacherous road conditions, this is everything I’d hoped for in Labrador: empty wilderness and dramatic autumn light. I crest a high hill and there’s a shaft of sunlight piercing the gray clouds. Every inch of the wide valley below is cast in chiaroscuro, light glinting off the pothole ponds and icy roadway, the dark green trees going black and the golden trees blazing in the light.

On the other side of the valley I crest another steep hill and the snow suddenly is gone — this is as far as the squall reached. After about an hour creeping along at 20 mph, I can open it up a bit.

The inhabitants

I don’t see a lot of wildlife on this journey, probably because I stick to the road most of the time.

It’s not the same experience as seeing a caribou or moose or bear, but I do get to go face-to-face with a Canada jay, aka a camp robber.

While I’m making breakfast one morning, this fearless gray cousin of the blue jay inspects me closely before calling two friends over and pecking up all the oats I spilled.

I also don’t see a lot of people in Labrador, for obvious reasons. There can be no chitchat with the server in the restaurant or the desk clerk at the hotel if you skip the few restaurants and hotels that exist.

I speak to perhaps a dozen people in four days. And those few I do talk to seem mostly to be men and women of few words.

In several visits over 27 years, I’ve found the natives of nearby Nova Scotia friendly and talkative, and those I later meet in Newfoundland seem the same.

The Labrador folks I meet are a bit more reserved, none more so than the local man I meet in Cartwright.

The end of the road

Cartwright is the northeastern-most point in North America that you can drive to on a real road. The 60-mile spur leading to it is the newest part of the Trans-Labrador Highway, completed in 2002. For 227 years before that, Europeans and their descendants sailed or flew there.

If there was a point to this whole drive, a destination, Cartwright was it. I would stand atop the 500-foot hill east of town and gaze out on the North Atlantic, almost two thirds of the way from Albany to Greenland.

I assume the road to the top was in better shape before the U.S. Air Force abandoned its radar station up there in 1968.

It is not suited for a low-slung car now.

I realize this very soon after starting up the hill, but as if I needed an omen, that local guy comes around the bend, slowly dragging an

ATV with no wheels on a chain behind his pickup truck.

I motion him to stop. Is the road like this for its entire length, I ask.

“Rofflethewayep,” he says.

I rephrase my question: Do you think I can make it to the top?

“Rofflethewayep,” he says again.

OK thanks, I say. He nods and sets off again.

And that’s the extent of our conversation. He seems utterly nonplussed by me, as if he sees a little car with New York plates trying to rock-crawl up this hill every other Monday.

Some people up this way speak with a bit of a brogue. His brogue was thicker, and the cigarette between his teeth didn’t help.

I try to guess what a rofflethewayep might be.

Then it hits me: “rough all the way up.” So I hike up.

At the top, I would be able to see forever, were it not for the squall coming off the ocean.

The buildings at Cartwright Air Station were interconnected by passageways to protect the airmen from winters that are far worse than the wind and sleet pummeling and peppering me now. A few foundations are all that remain.

The concrete pillars that once supported a radar dome stand on the highest knoll like the columns of a ruined Greek temple.

And that’s about it.

It is at once exhilarating and anticlimactic to stand here.

I’ll do a lot and see a lot in the next seven days, but it’s essentially all a drive home from here.

The coast

There are things I couldn’t do in Labrador because of timing, weather and safety concerns. Under no circumstances will I set out kayaking alone in cold, choppy water, for example. Mont Harfang in eastern Quebec begged to be hiked, but it was snowy on top and isolated — every part of climbing it screamed “127 Hours.”

I missed out on touring the great underground hydropower plant in Churchill Falls because it was a Sunday.

Despite not getting the full Labrador experience, I feel no need to see the interior again. But I’d return to see the southern coast if I ever get the chance. I missed a lot of it in the dark on my last night and couldn’t see the rest the next morning  because I was rushing to catch the ferry to Newfoundland. I’d already missed the first boat and there was only one other sailing that day.

I confess to the ticket clerk that I have no clue what time it is, thanks to the weird time zones, and I don’t want to miss the last boat.

Newfoundland and Labrador is one and a half hours ahead of New York, she tells me; here in Blanc-Sablon, we’re in Quebec, which is one hour ahead. But the ferry operates on Newfoundland time, m’dear.

I smile as she calls me m’dear. She’s a Newfie, with that friendly manner I’ll see more of in Newfoundland. But it’s an embarrassed smile — I still have no clue how long I’ve got to eat a late breakfast and take my last few photos.

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Just be in Lane 9 in three hours and you’ll be fine, m’darling, she says.

As we set sail it’s pouring rain and the wind is whipping the Strait of Belle Isle into whitecaps and rollers, but the ferry is big enough to smooth them out. It rocks me nearly to sleep on the ride over to Newfoundland.

It wasn’t my plan, but I would spend more time in Newfoundland than I did Labrador, thanks to the weather.

I saw more sights in Newfoundland and ate much better there, as well. (Three delicious words: “fried cod tongues.”)

But I gradually tired of the drive in Newfoundland in a way I hadn’t in Labrador.

Here’s the thing: In Newfoundland, the road was a way to get from point to point on the journey.

In Labrador, the road was the whole point of the journey.

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