THE TRANS-LABRADOR HIGHWAY 2010
THE START OF THE TRAIL - BAIE COMEAU to MANIC 2
The Trans-Labrador Highway is always traditionally associated with the town of Baie-Comeau because even though Baie-Comeau is in Québec and a long and arduous way from Labrador as you will soon discover, it has been held to be the starting point of the route and the main supply depot for travellers.
And here you really do need to stock up with fuel and supplies. This is because for a spell of several thousand kilometers, supplies will be somewhat thin on the ground. And when you do find them along your route, they will more than likely be sold at prices that will amaze you.
Mind you, you should not be surprised by this. The logistics of trucking supplies along a thousand kilometres of what under ordinary circumstances would be best described as sub-arctic farm track or otherwise shipping supplies in by sea to remote and isolated coastal communities is not easy and comes at quite a price.
You have been warned.
There are five ways of arriving in Baie-Comeau and it is possible to box the compass by so doing.
i.... you can drop in by air and hire your transport at the airport.
ii... you can drive up along the north bank of the St Lawrence river from the west. This is by far the most popular way to arrive, and how I came here for the first time.
iii.. you can arrive from the north, having completed the Trans-Labrador Highway in the more-unorthodox anti-clockwise direction. The reason why this direction is not very popular is that you either have to fly in to Saint Johns or Gander in Newfoundland and then cross the Strait of Belle Isle, or else you will have to drive several thousand kilometres and endure two ferries, one of which is a long overnight ferry and carries with it the risk of being torpedoed by a German U-boat, simply to put you in a position to start. And of course coming this way you would not have had the benefit of the supplies available at Baie-Comeau.
iv... you can arrive from the south via the ferry across the St Lawrence from Matane (although in the summer you might have a nasty shock as to the price of the crossing and the availability of space on the boat)
v.... you can do as I did the second time I came here, which is to get on the wrong ferry at Matane and find yourself by accident at Godbout, and so follow the north coast of the St Lawrence to Baie-Comeau from the east.
It's always a good plan to sort out some accommodation so that you have a good night's sleep before setting off, and motels in Baie Comeau are comparatively easy to find. There are motels to suit every budget, including mine, and this is where I stayed. It's the Motel du Rosier at the back of the town centre, so if you want to have a walk around the town in the evening you won't have far to go.
$52:99 it cost me for a night, including taxes, and I have no complaints at all about that. Good value for money it was even though it was a little shabby around the edges. I've stayed in much worse places than that. And when I consider what I was obliged to pay in Labrador, it was an absolute bargain.
So I mentioned "supplies" and quite right too. The main shopping area of Baie Comeau is a good few miles outside the town on the road back westwards. Here you will find the supermarkets and the petrol stations and here you will need to make sure that you have sufficient supplies to last you until you return to civilisation (which in most cases will be either back here, Saint John's in Newfoundland or Sydney in Nova Scotia and I bet you think I am joking too) and as much fuel as you can conceivably cram aboard. In some places the fuel stations are as much as 400kms apart and if you fancy going on a little detour or sightseeing trip then it can be much more than that.
It's a useful idea to do your shopping and fuel up the previous evening so that you can make an early start, and I wish that I had done that now - it would have saved me an hour and a half next morning and that much light at the end of the day would have come in quite handy. Don't worry too much about wasting petrol at this end of the journey - the first petrol station along the way is only a mere 200 or so kms up the road
The cheapest fuel that I found in Baie Comeau was at the little Ultramar (in fact Ultramar petrol stations always seemed to come up trumps) out at the shopping centre. It was 105.9 compared to 109.2 that everyone else was asking. The coffee was quite good too, I seem to remember.
And I must be getting to know Casey (for the benefit of readers who have just joined at this page, Casey is the Chrysler PT Cruiser BBKC458 that I had rented especially for the trip) now. I said to the girl that it would probably take about 40 litres to fill it up and it took 40.1 in fact so there you go. I've also learnt a few new words here in Francophone Canada to delight my friends back home. Cents, for example. They aren't cents or even centimes but sous, a coffee machine that is broken down is not en panne or defectuex but brisee and an ounce is an once. Québecois is a weird language, I can tell you.
Once you have fuelled up and stocked up with the groceries, you need to head back towards town, keeping a sharp eye out for the road signs that you need. This is the first one that you should be looking for, and it is here that you need to turn left, so move over into the left-hand lane.
And just look at Casey. A little grubby, methinks. And yet this is nothing compared to how we ended up as we boarded the ferry from Blanc-Sablon over to Newfoundland a week or so later.
You should now be over in the left-hand lane, and it will be this sign that will greet you a mere 50 yards further on. Of course, if you did your shopping and fuelling last night, then you will be coming here from out of the town - the other direction and so you will need to turn right when you see the corresponding sign to this one.
Don't worry about Highway 138. That's the highway that runs along the north bank of the St Lawrence as far as it is possible to go and nothing particular to do with our road. The road that we are looking for is Highway 389 - going north of course.
As I said, if you have come from town, you'll be coming towards the camera and so you will be needing to turn right by the petrol station owned by that well-known Dutch firm of petrol refiners whose oil came originally from Aruba in the Caribbean and which first found its way onto the North American market following the overrunning of the Netherlands by the Germans in 1940.
But I digress
"And not for the first time - or the last time either"... ed
I mentioned yesterday the railway that runs around the back of Baie Comeau. And the first thing that you do when you turn eastwards towards Sept-Iles and Labrador City is to cross over the railway line. I've now been over this crossing a dozen or so times, but I've yet to see a train on it.
About a mile further on past the railway crossing you'll will see another significant road sign. This is the left turning for Fermont, which is the last town in Québec, and then Newfoundland and Labrador, written in French of course.
It might interest you to know that in order to reach Newfoundland you will be driving over more than 1500 kilometres of some of the worst and ceetainly the loneliest roads in the world. These are certainly things that you need to constantly keep in the forefront of your mind.
And here's another thing too that is important.
You'll see this sign just before you turn left onto Highway 389, and you need to take a good note of what it's telling you. Here, you'll see that there is no light flashing, and so you may assume that the road is open all the way along at the time that you are looking at the sign.
If one of the lights is flashing, then it's indicating that that section of the road is closed to traffic.
But don't forget that this information is only current at the time that you are looking at the sign. When you arrive at the sections indicated, you might find completely different road conditions to what you have been led to believe might exist when you were standing on this spot.
Once you turn to the left, along Highway 389, you'll see another sign of some significance.
"Next Petrol 211 kms" and so you have been warned, just in case you haven't read my notes up to here.
And 211 kms? A mere cockstride compared to what you will encounter later on.
Now these signs are of some significance too, and I'll explain what that significance is. They are kilometre posts along Highway 389 and are measured from where that road leaves Highway 138. I say kilometre posts but they are actually set at 2kms apart. And why they are significant is that I make considerable reference to places along the highway and I give the kilometre reading as best as I can by reference to the marker posts.
But even that can lead to confusion, as you will also find out later on. Nothing is easy around here, you know.
Here at the 4 kilometre point the route can surprise you, with moose, road workers and timber lorries. - road workers and timber lorries. And of course the route will surprise all of the locals by having Strawberry Moose on it. They haven't encountered him yet.
My money is on the timber lorries. I bet that this road won't ever see a workman on it in a hundred years I reckon unless there is a load of government money going begging and they have nothing else to do with it. And so I wrote at the time.
But have a look at the moose sign. It has bullet holes in it. Obviously the local hunters cant wait to get going at the local wildlife. I hope Strawberry Moose is going to be ok.
There are lakes and trees and hills and all that kind of thing along the highway that ordinarily I would stop and photograph but I reckon that this is going to be one of these roads where you could stop every 30 seconds and photogrsph something. However I'm looking to be doing an average of at least 300 kms each day and I really can't afford to do this kind of thing. I also have to plan my stops as to where there is likely to be a motel, and so should you. They don't grow on trees around here.
This by the way is Lac Denise, round about kilometre 15 I reckon. And there were loads of other lakes that were just as beautiful, if not even more so, but the problem was that the sun was right on them at this time of the morning.
Having dealt with nature, there is the man-made scenery to contend with. This is Manic 2, one of a series of dams that are found along this road in Quebec. We are at about 21.5 kilometres along the highway just here by the way.
Hydro-electricity is big business round here and so there are all kinds of dams and so on along here. There are several Manics along here, the furthest away being Manic 5, as well as a whole series of Outardes up here. You would think that electricity would therefore be quite cheap with all of this. I'm in no position to say, of course, but the locals I spoke to as I travelled further around the route were complaining to me about the cost of the electricity.
When I say by the way that there is a Manic 5, which we shall be visiting in due course, there is no Manic 4. Although there were plans for a Manic 4 dam and its site was actually marked out, the engineers discovered (luckily in time) that the lake from the Manic 3 dam would actually flood the site of the dam at Manic 4 and so they didn't build it.
If you are wondering where Manic 1 is, then if you came to Baie Comeau from the direction of Québec, you drove past it a few kilometres before you arrived at the shopping centre.
You are also probably wondering (as I was) about the significance of the word Manic. But it is nothing sinister. The river whose valley we are following right now is the River Manicouagan and so it's a good guess to suggest that Manic is a diminution of that. I suppose it saves on the cost of the signboards.
Hydro-electricity is a somewhat controversial method of generating electricity. Many people think of hydro electricity as renewable energy and to a certain extent it is. There is always going to be water, especially around here as no-one is ever going to stop the rain or the meltwater up here so in that respect its going to be quite renewable.
The trouble is that these huge dams eventually silt up as the soil that's brought down in the river can't escape downstream. In fact all of the lakes that were created by the dams that they built in the USA in the 1930s under the New Deal have lost a considerable amount of their capacity because of this silting.
With the silt not reaching lower down the valleys, the fields and the soil further downstream are not being refreshed, and there's not much in the way of soil around here so it will need all the help it can get.
There are other arguments in favour of hydro-electricity of course. The question of employment must not be overlooked. They need all the help they can get in this respect around here. They must also make use of whatever natural resources they have in order to bring some money ino the area. There isn't much in the way of farmland or anything else of value around here that is creating wealth.
But enough of me giving the lectures. It's time to be moving on.