Transiting The Trans Labrador Highway & Canadian Atlantic Provinces (Part 2)
Having snaked our way up the side of Manic 5 we were underway for real on our TLH adventure. It had been a beautiful ride so far, but it had been an all pavement ride up to this point and we were really looking forward to a bit more challenging terrain to ride. We were about to experience some and find out what the TLH had in store for us.
As we made our way northward, the rain decreased in intensity and the low clouds began to lift a bit. We were able to see a bit more of our surroundings and enjoy the very green forests that encroached from all directions. The rain could do little to dampen our spirits as we soldiered on deeper into the forests of Labrador. Yes, we were really heading into the wilderness and we were loving it. The gravel road undulated and swooped up and down, sometimes with fairly steep grades. The gravel varied from hard packed to loose and piled, so we had to stay alert, but it was not hugely difficult riding. In fact, the rain was doing us somewhat of a favor and keeping the dust to zero.
After about two hours on the road and not a single car coming from the other direction, we were really in riding nirvana. All this to ourselves, lush green surrounded us, the grey misty skies embraced us and softened all the features to a gauzy dreamlike condition. If you could ride a motorcycle and enter a trance at the same time, now would be the time to do it, it was just that peaceful. Just when we thought that we were the last two people on earth (or at least in Labrador) as we crested a hill, we were reminded that we were still surrounded by “civilization” no matter how isolated we thought we were.
To the right side of the road atop an orange pole stood tall, thin, blazing red beacon with unlit yellow and green lights. It stood there silently with another square little box counting down the minutes and seconds as if it were waiting for something big to happen. Could this really be? A traffic signal in the middle of nowhere on the TLH? Indeed it was and it was the first of its kind seen by this city boy. It was a time controlled traffic signal and it was waiting for us and telling us to wait until it counted down to zero. But it was quite strange. Ahead we could only see sodden gravel road and varying shades of green trees, for what appeared to be a half mile. We still didn’t know what it was doing there but we waited somewhat impatiently for the countdown to end and the light to turn green.
In fact, it took so long that a car pulled up beside us and turned off its engine to wait as well. It’s occupants rolled down their windows and offered us some of the nuts they were munching on and we chatted a few minutes about our trip and where were from and where we were headed. They told us that up ahead, we would find some construction where the road would narrow to a single lane and that’s why we were being held, so that traffic coming the other way would have time to pass the construction and pass us. After the allotted time had passed we would be free to go and the folks on the other end would have to wait until we had passed by the timing of the traffic signal. When the light finally turned green, we wished our new friends well and let them go first since we were in no rush to get anywhere and they were headed for Labrador City, quite a distance away.
One of the “highlights” of the trip was to pass through the vanished town of Gagnon, Quebec. Gagnon provided us with one of the most eerie feelings we’ve ever had. Gagnon was founded by the Québec Cartier Mining Company to mine iron ore at Jeannine Lake. Construction of the pilot plant began in the winter of 1957. By August of that year, the plant had processed a thousand tons of ore. On January 28, 1960, the town was incorporated as Ville de Gagnon and named after Onésime Gagnon, the first Minister of Mining in Quebec. Thereafter it grew rapidly to 1300 inhabitants and by the end of that year, Gagnon had more than 4000 residents. It had an airport, churches, schools, a town hall, an arena, a hospital, and a large commercial centre, despite being isolated and only accessible by aircraft
In 1974, mining began at Fire Lake, some 80 kilometres (50 mi) north-east. By the mid-1980s however, the mine was no longer turning a profit and the mines were closed. More startlingly, the town fully was fully dismantled in 1985. All buildings and nearly all of the streets were demolished. The town’s main street is all that remains and it became part of Route 389 two years after the town’s closure. Eerily, that section of road retains a boulevard configuration, complete with a median, sidewalks, and sewers, despite being deep in the wilderness, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest active community, It was a very strange and unsettling feeling having traveled many miles on damp gravel to arrive at a paved section of road, complete with dividers and sidewalks, and see nothing around you but brush and trees. You could only stare and wonder, “What happened to all the people who used to live here and where are they now?”
We stopped for a brief time but needed to move on since we had planned a fairly long day and had planned to bed down in were bedding down in Labrador City. As we headed further north, towards Fermont, the mining town that led to the closure of Gagnon, the road began a set of twists and turns and multiple rail crossings. Despite the fact that you are many miles from any large city, there are plenty of trains traversing these tracks and you must be very careful at the crossings to ensure that there is not a train coming. While we completed this section in a single day, three separate trains passed by us.
Another hazard of the TLH is the “dreaded” road grader. Traveling at low speeds, the transit the TLH for hundreds of miles evening out potholes and adding a slight crown to the road to assist in drainage. While this is excellent for the four wheeled variety of vehicles, it can lead to more difficult riding for the two wheel variety. The graders often leave an in or two of soft mixed soil in their wake as well as very significant mixed gravel berms that can make negotiating the road quite difficult. The graders have gained a significant notoriety among the two wheeled adventure riding community and although their wake is not generally deadly, it can bite the unsuspecting if you turn your back on them as we’ll find out in Part 3.