THE TRANS-LABRADOR HIGHWAY 2010
DUAL CARRIAGEWAYS, AIRPORTS AND RAILWAYS ...
... and in the depths of darkest Upper Québec too!
And as I was musing on the absence of significant bends on the road, right on cue round about kilometre 390 came the most significant bend of all - a really sharp left-hander. And here's the lady who lives in the satnav telling me fibs as well. "No bends for 97 miles" - I'm not going to believe another word that she says.
It is in fact a cross-roads and straight on is a sign marked "danger - chantier", to the right is what can only be described as a muddy footpath, and the road swings round hard to the left.
I know that it doesn't quite look like that in the photo but what has happened is that this photo is taken after I have gone round the bend, as it were. I've come round from the right if you see what I mean.
Astonishingly. a kilometre or two further on we hit a paved road. And even more astonishingly at kilometre 394 we hit a dual carriageway. A dual-carriageway up here! Whatever is that all about?
But whatever it is about, it has certainly seen better days - in fact it's flaming awful and I'm not convinced that it's particularly much better than parts of the dirt road that we've been driving on.
And then not half a kilometre further on I encounter all of these temporary acommodation units and maybe the dual carriageway has something to do with this, whatever it might be.
Even stranger is the fact that all around these units are white pipes with bent-over ends, rather like swan-necks, protruding from the ground. Curiouser and curiouser, say I. There's clearly something bizarre going on here.
Now I wonder if this here river has anything to do with these huts and installations. Things like this always look suspicious at the side of rivers, especially in the wilderness where no-one would usually see them.
And just a short while after where these installations were situated, the dual carriageway comes to an end. And I've been messing around on here for 10 minutes taking photographs and generally nosing around a little and despite the dual carrriageway I've not seen another vehicle. This is all so weird.
Next thing I encountered around here was this track that seemed to go down to the river. It looks rather slipway-ish to me, don't you think?
And then I have a sudden momentary recall of memory. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recalled hearing a story about a huge mine that was abandoned and a large town that subsequently disappeared almost overnight somewhere around here in Upper Québec. And indeed this is the place. It's called Gagnon and was home to 4000 people most of whom were connected to an iron-ore mine owned by the Cartier Mining Company.
Falling revenues caused the mine to be closed in the 1980s and by 1985 everything had gone. There was no highway up here in those days - the dual carriageway was simply part of the local street system that began and ended precisely nowhere. It wasn't until a couple of years after the disappearance of the town that the highway arrived and incorporated the abandoned dual-carriageway into its system.
And so maybe it is a slipway for shipping stuff out by water in the days before there was a road up here.
Here I am at kilometre 401 and now you don't need me to tell you what this is, do you? I have never ever in all my life seen anything looking more like an airfield than this. This is a landing strip - I dont care what anyone else says.
But the thing that surprised me about this was that there was as much landing strip behind me as there was in front of me, the runway was quite wide, and the entrance was likewise fairly wide. It's in excellent condition too, seeing as how there's been nothing up here to benefit from it for more than 25 years.
Nothing like a traditional Canadian interior landing strip for a Piper Commanche and three or four passengers. You could have landed Gary Powers and his U2 spy-plane on here.
And in this last 15 minutes or so I have come to seriously regret my wasting time down in Baie Comeau this morning, and not having spent overnight in a motel room at Manic 5. I could easily have spent a couple of hours poking around this old airfield and whatever it was that dual carriageway was servicing.
But there isn't time to muse about all of this right now. I need to be on my way, and the lady who lives in the sat-nav is telling me that the 52nd parallel is just up the road. I wonder what delights are awaiting me there.
A little further down the road from Gagnon, at kilometre 407 to be precise, I cross the 52nd parallel. That puts me on about the same level as Ipswich and Warsaw. The temperature outside is 2°C and I'm back in the snow again.
After all of this time you are probably feeling the need for human company and conversation, if you are of a gregarious nature. And so you will be pleased to learn that in between kilomtres 417 and 418 there is some kind of highway maintenance depot. There are lorries and a few building materials and that kind of thing and so there are probably people too.
The environment starts to change again round about kilometre 421 and we encounter an area where there are peat bogs and very few trees. I suppose we are definitely heading into something like an Arctic kind of environment.
There is something significant about the lack of trees in a cold climate but I can't remember now what it is. I suppose that in the absence of a better name then the tundra will have to do right now. The tundra is where the subsoil is frozen for almost all of the year preventing the roots of trees from establishing themselves, and is characterised by mosses and lichens growing on the soil. And right on cue I begin to notice mosses and lichens growing on the soil.
At kilometre 436 I notice the Petite Rivière Manicouagan. I wonder where the Grand Rivière Manicouagan went to.
If you remember just before the Manic 5 dam this morning (was it really as long ago as all that?), I encountered a few square miles of dead and dying conifers. And here, this afternoon I'm encountering some more. And not just a few square miles of them, but an enormous quantity.
I made a little note of when I first came across them - it was kilometre 452. And here at kilometre 456 I'm still amongst them. There must be millions of dead trees here.
I've also noticed yet another little cabin down by the riverside. What a place to live - marooned out here in the tundra miles away from anywhere.
In case you are wondering, I'm not taking any photos of these cabins and I'm also trying my best though not to mark their positions. I reckon that these people should be allowed to live out here in peace wherever they want to and allowed to do whatever it is that they feel like doing without any interruptions from any other people - particularly tourists and sightseers - being curious about their lifestyles.
One of the surprising things that you encounter along here is a railway line. it isn't a passenger line, of course, but a mineral line. It's the Cartier Railway and is owned by the Arcelor-Mittal group of steel-making companies. The group has an iron-ore processing plant at Port Cartier on the St Lawrence and iron ore mines up here on the Canadian Shield and the railway is used to ferry the ore from the mines to the processing plant.
As mines nearer the St Lawrence have become exhausted, the railway has pushed further and further north. This section here was built in the 1970s and runs to Mont Wright, up on the Labrador border near the town of Fermont.
And all of a sudden you come to an extemely sharp right hand bend "it looks like a left-hand bend to me" ...ed for no reason where theres a bit of an old road that goes straight on but that is fenced off by a bit of armco and then a stop sign and then the legendary railway.
Where we are is at kilometre 479, which is the site of the Fire Lake Iron Ore mine. This was another one of the mines badly affected by the collapse of the iron-ore market in the 1980s and despite the fact that this mine had not been open long, it was closed down. However I have heard it mentioned that the geologists are back here, whatever the implications of that will be.
Here also we run out of paved highway and we're back on the dirt track. Labrador City is 109 kilometres from here.
At kilometre 486 the road catches up with the railway line again, or vice versa (well, we have to bring vice into it somewhere, don't we?) and the one follows closely alongside the other for a very short while. And then begins the excitement as we cross back over, and then back over again very shortly afterwards.
The road from here up to the Labrador frontier is described as a route sinueuse - so sinueuse in fact that the local joke is that there are places on the road where you can see your own tail-lights behind you as you drive round some of the bends.
We shall see.
The light is still just about holding out and the scenery is quite spectacular, if not stunning. This is getting to be just how I imagined Newfoundland and Labrador to be, even though we haven't arrived there yet.
I reckon by my calculations that we are at about kilometre 489 but for some reason or others the kilometre signs have become compsicuous by their absence. There's certainly been a change around here in the signage.
And just a kilomtre further on from here we cross back over the railway again - so we'll call that kilometre 490.
Back over the railway again at kilometre 494 and this time there's a signal box, or I suppose it would be a signal cabin, and it's called "Queen". Now that has totally surprised me because we are still in Québec and so it ought surely to be called "Reine". Fancy that!
I wonder what it is supposed to be signalling as I can't see anything around here that looks like a junction or a passing loop as far as I can tell. Furthermore the signal box and the signal are facing the wrong way to be anything to do with the level crossing and in any case the level crossing is a "stop and pass" so it won't be that.
The mystery is solved of course as soon as I return home. "Queen" is one of 18 sidings, each of which begins with a different letter of the alphabet and they are arranged in alphabetic order from south to north, along the route of the railway line. Like all but two of the others, "Queen" is 6,600 feet long and that gives you some idea of the length of the trains that run along the line.
These trains can be as long as 150 wagons pulled by as many as 5 locomotives, an all-up weight of about 19,000 tons. So the estimate that I made a few years back of one locomotive per quarter-mile is surprisingly accurate. Of the other two sidings by the way, Fox siding is 12,090 feet and Love siding is a whopping 14,200 feet.
Meanwhile, back at "Queen" there is absolutely no doubt about it. The signalman has a wonderful view from out of his cabin window, always assuming of course that there is a signalman there on duty.
And if there is, it must certainly be a lonely job. The kind of job where your training would be carried out on the terraces at Crewe Alexandra. At least, that's where Robinson Crusoe did his training for his lonely life on a desert island.
But getting back into Casey I notice that it is 17:45 and the light is going fast. Another 10 minutes and I won't be able to see anything at all and it is still another 30 miles or so to Fermont I reckon. I am bitterly regretting all that messing around at Baie Comeau this morning - I should have prepared myself yesterday afternoon and set off up here at 1st light.
And I've just passed the 500 kilometre mark (the kilometre posts are still here but they seem to be set at 5-kilometre intervals rather than 2-kilometre intervals) and there's nothing significant or special about the marker here, which is something of a disappointment. In fact it is a shame. You would have thought that they would have had a party or something for me. When you think about it - including stops for fuel, photography and negotiating some really poor roads in a Chrysler PT Cruiser - 500 kilometres and more up here in a day is pretty impressive going.
At kilometre 509 I pass another signal cabin and although it's becoming too dark to really go out an take photos I notice that this one seems to be covering a passing loop, then end of which is near kilometre 511, and so I go out to record one for posterity.
As an aside, it's the northbound empty trains that use the loops. Where necessary, they have to give way to the loaded southbound trains. The 16 shorter sidings are thus switched at the southern end only and are sprung at the northern end. The two longer ones are switched at both ends.
Round the next bend or two we cross back over the railway line. This road is certainly living up to its reputation.
In fact we cross over the railway line again at kilometre 519 and then shortly afterwards encounter some rocks at the side of the road with famous cartoon characters painted on them. How strange. It's a shame that it's now too dark for me to take any photographs of them.
At kilometre 523 I cross over the railway again at a really sinuous crossing where I am obliged to give way to a huge lorry coming towards me, carrying what looked like a huge piece of mining equipment. I don't know where that has been, and I don't know where it's going either.
But this is the first heavy plant lorry that I have seen, I've not seen any ore carriers either, and despite the warnings at the beginning of the highway I haven't seen any timber wagons either. Apart from this, all that I have seen in the way of lorries has been trucks pulling box-bodied trailers, the kind that would deliver the goods to the local supermarket.
And with the gloom really closing in right now, I just about manage to catch a glimpse of the hills around here. And never mind gold or iron ore, from what I can just about make out it looks like plenty of snow in them there hills. I might be able to manage a better look and even a photograph tomorrow. It should make a really good photograph if I can manage to get back up here.
We still haven't finished out journey yet though - not by a long way. At kilometre 525 it's back over the railway once more and then we cross a really narrow single track bridge over the Rivière aux Pékans, whatever a pékan might be. And then, It's almost immediately right back over the railway line again. You know, I'd love to see a train on this railway line but I cant see anything right now except the road and the outlines of anything silhouetted against the slightly paler sky.
And oh - ohhhhhhhhh - here at round about kilometre 541 there's a huge pile of lights in the distance. Urban settlement type of lights, that kind of thing. It seems that I have at last arrived at some kind of civilisation.
Yes, the closer I get to the lights, the more convinced I am that this is civilisation. And what also catches my eye is a whole wall of the most enormous truck tyres here a that I have ever seen. I'd hate to see the trucks that would run on these - well in fact yes I would like to see them. They must be huge.
And as I come over the top and start to descend into the valley where Fermont is, I notice that it's snowing quite heavily. How strange that it wasn't snowing up on the top where I've just come from.
It's pretty ominous, this. If this snow keeps up I'll have to shovel myself out of here tomorrow and I don't fancy that one bit.
Mind you, at least there are what look like snow poles just here. You probably noticed them in the photo.