Sheer Grit And Mild Consternation

The Trans-Labrador Highway is 550km of largely unpaved, bear-inhabited gravel road. Novice biker Ben Owen is tackling this Canadian wilderness solo. Brave lad, we say

My speed was increasing as my confidence grew; 30, 40, 50mph. I could feel the bike move beneath me on the gravel as I loosened up and relaxed. There was something organic about the motion, tyres gripped where they could, stones flew in my wake, the Yamaha almost gliding across the road surface as I remained focused on the route ahead.

The road was the Trans-Labrador Highway (TLH) and this was my first non-asphalt experience in my short history as a biker, let alone an overlander. Finding myself in Labrador came as a bit of a surprise. Never in my token pre-trip plans had I thought about going north from Nova Scotia, but the trip was becoming a bit like the bike: organic.

The fluidity of my travel plans across Canada and the freedom it afforded me was what gripped me in the first few weeks of the journey. Even from day one, after chatting to a barman in Halifax, I was heading north, not south as first intended and I was glad I’d made the choice. Taking local advice was better than pawing over maps and through a guidebook it would seem.

55mph now and with the sun setting behind scattered clouds I started to look for a place to set up camp for the night. Either side of the road was scrub. With few options, none of which offered shelter from passing trucks, I pitched the tent in the fading light on a flat piece of land behind an advertising board, just outside the small settlement of Mary‘s Harbour.

Apart from the sounds I made there was complete silence. Since leaving the petrol station at Red Bay I hadn’t seen a single person or any of the wildlife that Canada is famous for. Just the flesh-eating black flies and now, with the sun down, they had gone, too. In the still night, tucked up in my sleeping bag, I reflected on what had been a varied day’s riding…

A grey and damp morning had kept me in my tent longer than I’d have liked, which saw me miss the early ferry from St Barbe, on New found land’s Viking Trail. When the time came, the crossing itself took just under two hours and the afternoon ferry docked into Blanc Sablon, Quebec, close to four in the afternoon.

With those ominous clouds finally gone the temperature was up to a pleasant level for the post-ferry congestion ride to Labrador’s provincial boarder. I stopped at the visitors’ centre just before it closed to get a map. Looking at it, I figured that it should be an easy route – there’s only one road. It would be impossible to get lost.

Built more to reduce the cost of subsidizing the coastal ferry service linking the remote townships than provide better access to the area, the TLH runs 409km from Red Bay to Cartwright where the gravel road stops and a ferry takes you to Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Once out of town the road picks up again through Churchill Falls and onto Labrador City – a total distance of 526km.

Before I reached the TLH, I enjoyed the last bit of paved road. Following the Atlantic coast, I spotted the odd iceberg off to my right as I passed through small fishing settlements which showed little signs of life. Then the road curved inland where it followed the line cut by a river, twisting its way through the rocky valley before it spat me out on the coast again at the quiet town of Red Bay.

Swatting kamikaze black flies away, I refueled, and with the sun on its way down, I turned my back on the few inhabitants of Red Bay and took in my first few kilometers of the TLH. A population of over 26,000 (2006 Census) means that there are over 11 square kilometers per person in Labrador… ‘That explains the silence,’ I thought to myself as I bedded down in my sleeping bag later that night.

I was in a ‘just keep moving’ phase of the trip. Everyday had seen me pack up in the morning and cover as many daylight miles as possible, stopping for two meals a day and the odd re-fuel. The next morning, my first on the TLH, was no different. With a sock mysteriously missing from the overnight ‘airer’, I dug another pair out of my bag before setting off, the sun shining down and only just starting to warm the day.

As I was up early, I checked out a side road leading to another settlement to see if I could get something to eat. I’d brought no food with me on this trip. I was a victim of the ‘bear stories’ and I’d become afraid of being ravaged while I camped. The previous night’s meal consisted of a packet of crisps and a banana that I picked up from the petrol station the evening before. (I‘d stashed the wrapper and skin some distance away from my tent and retrieved them the next morning – they were untouched. The whereabouts of my stinky sock, on the other hand, remained a mystery. Maybe bears like cheese.

The side road turned into a sleepy town. It was too early for any of the commercial ventures to be open so I turned tail and hit the main road west. Trees lined either side the straight, flat highway cutting a road-sized shape on the horizon and were the only things stopping the vast blue sky above me reaching any further. My confidence was back to the highs of the day before, but I was scuppered by the occasional deep gravel section, which appeared out of nowhere and caught me a little too loose on the bike. With my arms trying to control the front end from completely tank slapping, I twisted the throttle to power out. I was quickly learning that momentum was my friend and the 600cc engine had enough power, even at low revs, to keep me out of hospital.

I’d heard a story back in Newfoundland about an overlander coming a cropper on this section of road only a week earlier. The good news was that he was ok and had been successfully airlifted to St. Johns for medical treatment. But it was enough, along with those deep gravel sections, to keep my confidence and speed in check and I was pleased when I’d reached the town of Cartwright after only a few hours. Stage one was complete.

My luck with timing the ferries continued as I found out that the ferry to Happy Valley-Goose Bay wasn’t until late afternoon and, although I didn’t have a reservation, they should probably be able to squeeze me and the bike on without hassle. With plenty of time to spare I headed to a local café for some much-needed grub.

With breakfast over I turned my attention to the bike. Good intentions to keep the bike in peak condition seemed to have been left behind at Heathrow. With all the dust kicked up after the last couple of days’ riding I got the WD40 and a rag out and started to give the chain a bit of elbow grease.

I was interrupted by a hippy who told me stories of seeing large caribou herds numbering in their thousands while out combing the surface, looking for Labradorite. I was still chatting to him about the semi-precious stone when a BMW 1200GS rolled up. The rider dismounted and walked into the ticket office, presumably to find out about space on the ferry. When he came out, he spotted me and walked over and we got into the usual chat that I’d become accustomed to after a couple of weeks on the bike. My experience of ferry journeys is that these are places where bikers can meet – everyone appears on their own, but they’re all waiting for the same thing and, while waiting, you might as well kill time by walking around the other bikes and chatting to the other travelers.

The chap’s name was Dieter, a Canadian from Ontario. He was doing the ‘Maritime Loop’ – a ride around the eastern most provinces of Canada, encompassing the TLH. Not long afterwards we were joined by another biker – a Quebecois gent on a Honda street bike who was here just to ride across Labrador and down into northern Quebec.

The thought of doing the TLH with its lose, gravelly surface on his road tyres was a little out of my league. I had yet to trust the bike. The first week of the trip had seen me fight a daily mental battle with my natural pessimism. Each day I was worried about something going wrong. ‘This is too good,’ I thought, ‘something awful’s sure to happen to bring the trip to a terrible and abrupt end!’ Riding in Labrador with the uniform scenery of trees and the sharp gravel beneath me fed those negative thoughts, which sent out, I thought, bad vibes over punctures, spills, and getting stranded.

Being occupied with bike maintenance and in the company of other riders there was less time for negative thoughts at the ferry terminal. With the chain cleaned and lubed the car park fast became a hive of activity as the ferry docked and everyone clamoured for those few remaining tickets. Being small, me and the other two bikers were allowed on with little fuss and the three of us drove past the line of cars towards the front. Directed by the stewards, the bikes were soon tied down securely (I had a bit of experience from two crossings already – this trip had been a steep learning curve). Three floors up I settled into a comfortable chair, ignored my immediate surroundings and slept as much as I could, making the 14-hour overnight journey as uneventful as possible.

The rising sun was shining through the port holes and with the sound of shuffling around me, I woke, gathered my few possessions and made my way back to the car deck to start the process of releasing the bike from its rigid state. While there I briefly met another biker – Lee, an American on an 1150GS, who’d got on the ferry at Lewistown and was also doing his own version of the ‘Maritime Loop’.

No time for chit-chat, though, and in the chaos of disembarking we got separated. Once again my stomach was making grumbling noises, so I made my way to Tim Horton’s for a spot of breakie (this coffee chain was fast becoming a favourite of mine). While wrapping things up with a doughnut in true North American fashion I was joined again by Lee who had seen my bike in the car park and we discusses tyre pressures, which although trivial seemed important at the time and common ground.

My pessimistic side was once again winning the day and with Lee gone I started o worry about fuel. ‘My 23-litre tank should get me to Churchill Falls with a little to spare, shouldn’t it?’ I reasoned. Then I went and bought a gallon jerry can – just in case.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay is a much larger town than Cartwright (it had a Tim Hortons!), but no more than a couple of streets with enough industry to support the amalgamated Canadian Air Base (Goose Bay) and the original inhabitants (Happy Valley), and undoubtedly boosted by the construction work going on. The process of paving the TLH had begun.

Logically they’d begun near the end, and the road to Churchill Falls started o­ with a fresh layer of the black stuff . The dust kicked up by the construction was immense. Huge plumes lingered in the warm, still air, considerably reducing visibility and leaving small particles to penetrate my full-face helmet and stab my eyes. It wasn’t too long before I emerged from the dust cloud half blinded and glad, for once, to be rid of the asphalt. From here on in it was going to be gravel.

Those dust clouds sporadically continued, kicked up by the occasional truck hauling material to the work site and had me momentarily reducing my speed as I covered my eyes to lessen the impact. Apart from those moments the riding was fairly straight forward. Again my speed represented my confidence – hovering around 60mph. Knowledge that there were other bikers on the road was reassuring. It was comforting to see that, although I was alone doing this crossing, there was back-up somewhere. In fact there seemed to be a bit of camaraderie among all of the road users – waves were swapped by passing vehicles and I stopped every time I saw a car on the side of the road to check if everything was ok and to o­ er assistance if needed, hoping my eagerness to assist would be good for the trip’s karma.

Occasionally I stopped to rest and take a picture. The scenery hadn’t really changed since leaving Red Bay a couple of days before. This trip wasn’t about the amazing snow-capped rock formations, though, nor the stunning vistas. It was about the wilderness, the vastness of the area; the challenge of completing the Trans Labrador Highway solo.

Straight roads meant that you could see what was up ahead miles before it reached the front wheel, and I spotted the back end of a Beamer in the distance. I caught up with Dieter as the gravel petered out and the asphalt started up again, signaling our arrival into Churchill Falls. Dieter and I set up camp just by the lake and had a quiet dinner in the only restaurant in town which was empty save the two of us.

Churchill Falls was a ghost town. We saw Lee’s bike outside the hotel, but no sign of the Quebecois gent who had obviously stuck to his crazy plan and made it past Churchill Falls, if not the whole way to Labrador City. With little else to do with the sun down, I plugged myself into my iPod and nodded o­ , tired after the day’s ride.

The following morning under a monotonous grey sky I broke out my small camping stove and Dieter cooked us up some of his homemade porridge mix to fend o­ the early morning chill before hitting the road again. We stopped at the now-depleted Churchill River for a quick photo shoot and then separated; my youthful exuberance and naivety outpacing Dieter’s more considered sedate speeds.

The view from either side of the road was unchanged from the previous day’s, but the surface had reduced to hard stone – the gravel swept aside revealing jagged and smooth rocks in equal numbers. Reducing my speed I picked my way through to increase the chances of dodging the bigger, sharper rocks protruding from the road’s surface. The good news was that with the heavier air the dust which had hampered vision the day before was gone. You still had to keep an eye out for trucks and make adjustments to your line, but this could be done half a mile beforehand probably even more as the road was still as straight as an arrow.

The black flies which had pestered me at every stop before had gone too. When I stopped to put on my waterproof layer– that blanket grey cloud was get- ting darker, increasing the chance of rain with every mile I travelled west – Dieter caught me up and a mini reunion ensued as Lee turned up out of the blue. A quick photo shoot for the memories and we soon separated due to our di­ffering speeds.

Then came the rain. It had been threatening all day, so it came as no surprise. I was just glad that it held o­ till the afternoon and that the downpour came with only an hour left of the day’s ride. Taking a sip of hot co­ffee at a gas station was well needed by the time I arrived in Labrador City, soaked through and already looking forward to a shower. Tonight was not a night to pitch a tent; a more self-congratulating luxury evening was required.

Dieters bike had gone by the time I surfaced the next morning, the rain hadn’t. With the Trans Labrador Highway complete the rest of the trip should be easy, surely? Not really, as it turned out. The road was still unpaved, less gravel, more compacted soil and with the heavy rain it made for an interesting ride. Crisscrossing the railway line, which was still under operation and formerly used to support the iron ore mining in northern Quebec, I approached the town of Gagnon, a ghost town since its abandonment in 1985.

After a while the rain cleared and the sun came out as the asphalt picked up again. Glorious sunshine didn’t stop me gawping at the outrageous cost of fuel, which until now had been high, but reasonable (120 percent of city cost). Reaching the Manic 5 Dam (another record breaking feat of engineering) with some 300km on today’s clock it was still another 200km of twisty roads to Baie-Comeau and populous.

I look back on those four days, my first foray into o­ -roading, with a smile on my face. The Trans-Labrador Highway was a life-changing experience – from the terrain to the people I met and everything in between and I still subconsciously scratch the parts of my body that were attacked by the black flies!

BLACK FLIES

Plaguing me at every stop since I crossed over into Labrador, black flies seemingly came out of nowhere and I started to question whether they waiting for me or were they the same ones from the last stop that’d just followed me down the road? Black flies are only active during daylight hours for the summer months, lasting until September given the right conditions for them. These critters like to crawl on your skin, find a spot and bite a chunk out of it so to get at the tasty blood beneath. Tactics for dealing with them range from tucking your trousers into your socks, wearing a ‘bug hat’ (hat with netting) and good old bug-spray.

DAM, THAT’S POWERFUL!

Way back in 1894 the Churchill River was recognised as a great source of hydro-electric power, but given its geographical location, long distance transmission requirements and a lack of a large enough market, plans were shelved. Throughout the early 1960s political obstacles were overcome and, with the development of a transmission line, construction eventually started in July 1967 lasting for five years and commissioned in 1971. Churchill Falls’ eleven turbines can generate 5,248MW making it the second largest in Canada and at the time of construction the largest underground power station in the world. Tours of the facility are available three times a day.

WHEN TO GO

Obviously, summer is the best time to travel across Labrador, being in northern Canada it can get a bit cold. From June to October the road should be open with little disruption, earlier than that in the spring there is a period where the frost melts from the road enforcing a closure. The road can be dangerous or impossible to travel due to snow cover and storms for the rest of the year. For up-to-date information on the conditions of the TLH and other roads within Newfoundland and Labrador visit http://www.roads.gov.nl.ca/.

WHO’S RIDING?

Previously stuck in the working world, I escaped after being deemed surplus to requirements and, with a bit of cash on me, decided to take the opportunity to travel. Stumbling across the HUBB after a random Google search, I thought, ‘Why not do it by motorbike?’ I’ve avoided the office for over two years now and am currently in Peru, thinking about an oil change!

LABRADORITE

With its Labradorecence (shiny colours from large crystals) this semi-precious stone was ­first found in 1770 in the northern region of Labrador near the town of Nain (it has also been reported to be found in Norway and the former USSR too). The stone is said to help see clearly during meditation, stimulate imagination and develop enthusiasm

The Bike

Make: Yamaha

Model: XT600E

Year: 2002

Mods: Acerbis handgaurds, Acerbis 23litre fuel tank and CRD Bashplate. Other than that it’s a very original bike.

Why this bike? It didn’t take more than an afternoon reading the HUBB to realise that the Yamaha was the bike for me. I toyed with the idea of a smaller bike, but the 600 is relatively cheap, uncomplicated, reliable and big enough for long distance riding. I’ve done 30,000 miles on it virtually hassle free – that engine keeps on ticking over!

THE TLH IS COMPLETE!

I did this trip in late July 2009 and, at the time, the section of gravel road from Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Cartwright Junction was still under construction and not ready for public use. But as of April 2010 that section of road is now open – completing the Trans Labrador Highway! This means that you can ride from Blanc Sablon (Quebec) across Labrador to Baie-Comeau (back to Quebec) without having to board a ferry. For more see, www.tlhwy.com