Bugs, dust, sand, gravel and vast solitudes are inescapable realities of riding solo on the Trans Labrador Highway. Yet, there’s another side: instant camraderie of fellow riders, and the unflinching hospitality of those who call the great north country their home.
The Long, Lonely Road
Story & photos by Darryl Oakley
Feeling like a fish out of water, I was desperately gasping for some air, momentarily surrounded with thick, suffocating Labrador dust. You wanted the Trans Labrador, you got it, I cursed to myself, spitting grit and wrestling my heavily loaded motorcycle to the shoulder of the remote road for the umpteenth time.
It was still early morning, but already six tractor-trailer rigs had overtaken me, each one leaving me wallowing in a sea of dust. Try as I might to stay ahead, the soft sand/gravel mix forced me to go easy on this road. I simply couldn’t compete with the speed of the big rigs. I had no choice but to pull over when the massive grill of a big rig appeared in my rear view mirror.
To make things worse, not a breath of wind was around to help dissipate the dust cloud. It just hung in the air like thick coastal fog, taking its own sweet time to settle out. Finally, after a few minutes of non-stop spitting and hacking, the dust settled enough for me to breathe again, and also allowed me to look around and observe that I wasn’t alone. Countless numbers of mosquitoes were currently calling the one square metre that I was occupying, home. Apparently they were not as restricted as I with the thick dust, and proceeded to do their best to suck every last drop of blood out of me.
Frustrated, I stomped around in my dusty hell, waiting for visibility to return. Swatting at the voracious little beasts but having zero impact, I probably looked like Mr. Bean in the process—arms and legs flailing in all directions. Good comedy in middle-of-nowhere Labrador. Soon enough, with large mosquito welts now marking the narrow ring of exposed skin around my neck where the bottom of my helmet and top of my riding jacket meet, I eased the Kawasaki versatile system into the soft rut-everlasting and trundled off. As always, it was a huge relief to leave behind the swarm of mosquitoes, for the time being anyway.
THE TRANS LABRADOR HIGHWAY IS a long, lonely road winding through rolling northern taiga landscape consisting mostly of old-growth, stunted black spruce blanketed with a carpet of pale yellow reindeer lichen. It is a stark, but beautiful northern scene and I appreciated it even more when a forester mentioned that the tiny two-metre black spruce trees are considered to be old growth—some as old as 120 years.
The entire journey starts and ends in Quebec, from Baie-Comeau to Blanc Sablon the distance is just under 1,800 kilometres. Approximately one quarter of the route is now paved, and the rest is gravel highway ranging from excellent high-speed hardpan to soft sand/gravel mix that is capable of causing you some headaches if you don’t slow down. In Port Hope Simpson, gas station owner Tom Penny showed me a BMW 1200GS he had just purchased from an American insurance company after it was crashed by its original owner from Texas and the insurance company determined it simply wasn’t worth the cost to ship it south. The Texan himself was recovering from the crash in St. Anthony, Newfoundland with a broken femur and ruptured spleen.
Prior to starting my journey on the Trans-Labrador I spent a day in Baie-Comeau getting my Kawasaki Versys serviced with an oil change and installing a rear knobby. It was a stroke of good luck that the local Kawasaki dealer was willing to do the service work with only a few minutes to closing, and even better luck when another rider appeared outside covered in dust, having just exited the infamous highway. I was all ears as the rider filled me in on the “personality” of the Trans-Lab. He warned me that it would be a “high speed hoot” in some sections, but slow going at 40 kmh in softer sections. He also mentioned that full aggressive knobbies were a good idea. Turns out, the advice was pretty good, but a bit optimistic as I spent many hours plowing through soft sand/gravel at 30.
MANIC FIVE IS ONE OF THE WORLD’S largest buttress dams. Located about 200 km north of Baie-Comeau, it stands over 200 metres tall and spans 1,300 in width. The dam impounds the Manicougan River, which has subsequently filled the earth’s fifth largest confirmed impact crater. After spending the morning enjoying the paved twisties leading to this Goliath structure, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the road skirts the base of the dam, and then winds up a hillside. I had wanted to see the dam up close and I got my wish. It would be the first of many monster projects that I would see located along this road—whether they be hydro-electric or open pit mines, they are all on a massive scale. Big land, big sky, big projects!
One hundred or so kilometres later on the Trans Labrador, I had ingested enough dirt and pulled over for tractor-trailer rigs enough times to seriously ponder the question: “Are we having fun yet”? I was about to answer that question starting with a capital “N” when out of the dust cloud appeared another rider heading in the same direction as me. Turns out, a man named Denis was shuttling a brand new Triumph Tiger 800 from Quebec City (where he purchased the motorcycle), to his home in Labrador City. Free of any heavy luggage, he could easily have raced ahead, but insisted on riding shotgun—just to make sure I got through some soft sections of the road and arrived in his home turf in one piece. The fact that he offered to follow me gave me a much-needed boost. An added bonus was the tour of the new Tiger that I received while we gassed up at Relaes Gabriel. A very bike with a signature howl I will never tire of hearing. For a brief moment, the impromptu motorcycle show allowed me to escape the drudgery of the soft road and the swarms of blood-sucking bugs.
Seeing the massive open pit mines at Fermont and Labrador City was both a relief and a shock for me. Relief that I could enjoy some respite from the loose gravel for a while, and shock at the sheer size of these open pit operations. Caterpillar ore haulers were slowly lumbering along on the bare mountain ridges, looking like a scene out of some Sci-Fi thriller. The landscape may look bleak with the development of an iron-ore open pit mine, but later while sipping an iced cappuccino at Tim Horton’s in Labrador City, several local motorcyclists filled me in on the economic impact of this large project.
“Twenty billion in development money is about to go into this iron-ore deposit,” said one rider. “This is the future of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
“This place is like Fort McMurray, Alberta in the early ‘80s,” said another. “It’s a busy little place that’s about to get a lot busier.” Heading east toward Churchill Falls, I noticed that the gravel road was maintained to a much higher degree than what I had experienced in Quebec. Talk among motorcyclists is the plan for Labrador to eventually pave the highway to Labrador City from the coast. Judging from all the maintenance activity and paving crews around, I concluded it would probably happen sooner rather than later.
IT’S AN INFREQUENT EVENT, SO when other riders are approaching on the Trans Labrador you can be sure that everyone will pull over and exchange greetings. I saw the headlight approaching through the dust and managed to ease over to my side of the road for an impromptu roadside travelers meeting. Turns out, John Ha was riding a BMW 1200GS, and was in need of a good chat just as much as I.
“Jessie and I are from New York City,” said John. “ Jessie is a few miles behind me, but should be along any moment.”
John was showing me all the high-tech gadgetry on his bike when we heard Jessie Harris approaching. “That will be Jessie,” said John. “He’s riding a new Moto Guzzi Stelvio—this is his first big adventure ride.”Seconds later, John and I were witness to a wonderful symphony of music as Jessie initially roared past in a cloud of dust, but having noticed that John had stopped, came off throttle to a deep Guzzi booming sound as he braked hard, spraying gravel everywhere. “That’s pure music to my ears,” I said to Jessie as we shook hands and introduced ourselves as the dust settled in the evening sun.
Having met at the halfway point of the Trans-Labrador highway, John, Jessie and I shared as much detail on our respective travels as possible; what the road conditions were like and where to be extra cautious; what the weather was like; we recommended places to stay and things to see (and to avoid). The practical information is always appreciated and allows for better trip planning, but the real value is the connection with fellow riders. It was an emotional boost that kept me energized on these remote roads.
Several days later, after camping on the lawn of the local church in Churchill Falls, and watching military aircraft come and go at the Goose Bay airport, I filled up my extra gas cans and cruised onto the most remote stretch of Trans Labrador yet: some 420 km of gravel between gas stops.
I was nervous, but also excited because this stretch of road would take me to the tiny coastal villages that I heard so much about, and couldn’t wait to explore.
A journey through Labrador, one of the last great wilderness areas on the planet, would not be complete without exploring the coastal route. Sparsely populated—at times I felt like I had all of Labrador’s 300,000 sq/km. to myself, the small villages all have a long history living off the land. It is not an easy life either, but these folks are the real deal: tough, salt-of-the-earth people with the biggest hearts. I was alone on this trip, but I was never really alone. Locals were always extending their generosity to me and asking how it was all going. They truly cared about my well-being, seeming to understand the levels of exhaustion I was experiencing at times. I felt like I was with family, at home in BC.
After spending a day exploring Cartwright, St.Lewis and Mary’s Harbor I rolled into Red Bay just in time to gas up before the convenience store closed for the evening. While gassing up, a local fisherman called Marvin came over and introduced himself. Because he had such a strong Labrador dialect, I struggled to understand what he meant when he said what sounded like the letters “D” and “N”. Finally, in an effort to show me what he was getting at, he pointed to the mouth of Red Bay’s harbour. In stunned disbelief, I found myself staring at a dozen or so Humpback whales that had just arrived at the harbour edge on their long migration north. What Marvin had been trying to tell me was, “There’re in!”
Later, while sitting on the edge of the harbour watching the whales breach in the distance, I realized that all the bugs, dust, and endless tundra roads I had experienced on the Trans Labrador were essential parts of the Canadian wilderness, and this spectacle now unfolding was yet another part of the glorious equation.
By Darryl Oakley Canadian Biker