Travel: Labrador – on a rat KLR650

WORDS & PICTURES: Chris Landers.

INTRODUCTION

By Editor ‘Arris

I met Chris while waiting for the ferry from Newfoundland’s St Barbe over to Blanc Sablan, which albeit in Quebec is actually right on the border with Labrador and the start of what was supposed to be the CMG Great Trans Lab Adventure.

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Of course, as you have already seen, the CMG Adventure truly lived up to its name and a retreat was sounded after Private Vernon got tank slapped by the Germans and ended up with a separated shoulder.

As a result we were unable to spin great yarns of the Trans Lab (save for the first few hundred kilometers), so I decided to rope Chris into telling us all about just what we had missed – he having successfully navigated the whole thing on a rat KLR650 with nothing other than a can of soup and a handful of zip ties.

Okay, maybe a little more, but he still put CMG to shame. Writes a good story too …

LABRADOR ON A RAT KLR650

By Chris Landers

Labrador: You’ll have to do some digging, if you want to learn about the area beyond the stereotypes of blizzards and starvation. You should still probably bring soup, but you can leave the snowshoes at home, during the summer.

I didn’t know what to expect when I went to Labrador, but I don’t think that was entirely my fault.

Guidebooks to “Newfoundland and Labrador” really only call themselves that because it’s the name of the province, devoting more space to the restaurants of St. John’s than to the enormous land mass to the north.

Of course, if you ever get run out of food, you can hope to run across a friendly lighthouse keeper.

The only sources of information I could find were motorcycle ride reports and old explorer’s notebooks. The former told me I should get knobby tires, the latter that my three-week trip would probably end with me starving to death. I brought some soup …

I’m not exactly a slouch. I’ve put around 30,000 miles on my KLR in the two years I’ve owned it, but my off-road experience is pretty limited. A friend of mine, over beers, once told me he was going to circumnavigate the globe in a kayak. I asked if he had ever paddled a kayak before, and he looked at me seriously and said, “Around the world is a long way. I’ll learn.”

Before I got on the Trans-Labrador Highway, I hadn’t ridden much gravel. But I learned.

LEAVING NEWFOUNDLAND

If a picture is worth a thousand words, does the price go up when it’s a million-dollar view?

The ferry to Labrador ran three hours late, thanks to a rain and windstorm I rode through to make the scheduled departure. While I waited, I talked to the other motorcyclists heading for Labrador.

It was a different crowd than the chrome-and-half-helmet bunch who’d shared the ferry from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland. Now it was all adventure bikes, headed for the long gravel road. There was a retired dentist from South Africa, who had been just about everywhere, and Rob and Jim, who claimed to be from a Canadian motorcycle magazine, although I was a little suspicious. Every traveler is familiar with the old “I-edit-a-motorcycle-magazine” scam, still common in these smaller port towns, and something seemed a little off about Rob’s Canadian accent. Jim, who didn’t say anything at all, was clearly the one to watch out for.

The fighting had long died down by the time Chris ended up snapping this pic in Battle Harbour.

The road north from Red Bay is where the gravel starts – a nasty, potholed piece of work, randomly strewn with gravel, and it will give a motorcycle’s suspension a good test. There are people who will tell you it’s the worst part of the road across Labrador, but those people are liars and not to be trusted –even an overloaded KLR with stock suspension will float over the bumps easily.

After a brief foray to Battle Harbour, an old fishing village on an island just off the coast, I found myself at the Cartwright junction – one of the few intersections along the TLH. Before the Trans Lab was finished in 2009, travellers had to take a ferry from Cartwright to Goose Bay, but now few people have reason to go to Cartwright,.

So I decided to head north and check out the northernmost point on the East Coast accessible by road and see if there was anything left at Cartwright, arriving in time for dinner at the town’s only remaining restaurant (a sure sign of glory days past).

I ran into a group of motorcyclists at the restaurant the next day who had come from Goose Bay. They had started out as twelve, but only four of them made it to Cartwright as planned. They’d left two in the hospital and the others were still somewhere back in Goose. I decided not to tell my wife that when I called home.

There might not be much going on in Cartwright, but it’s a great place to camp.

I headed back to the junction, and took a right for Goose Bay. This stretch marked my first encounter with the natural enemy of the Trans-Labrador motorcyclist – the grader. All day long, for reasons known only to them, they work to rearrange the gravel, heaping it in piles along the road.

There is tremendous disagreement among riders about the difficulty of the TLH. I think that’s largely down to the disarray left by the graders, who will scrape the road clean, then cover it with a thin layer of gravel, leaving a surface, in the words of a biker I met in Red Bay, “like marbles on terracotta.”

Up north, the rules of the road are to follow the tracks in the gravel, and make sure a truck doesn’t run you over.

There is no rhyme or reason to any of it, and as traffic passes over the road, the process begins again. They leave a surface unlike anything I’ve ever ridden on, and the general wisdom seems to be to follow the tracks of previous vehicles, where the gravel has been pushed aside, and to avoid the lines of heaped up gravel, particularly in the center of the road.

The other hazard of the TLH is the traffic– mostly trucks speeding past with God-knows-what (caribou, I like to imagine). They give no quarter, and kick up a blinding, choking dust cloud. I took to pulling over until they passed, running the risk of being rear-ended in the ensuing dust storm and trying to avoid the deep gravel at the side of the road.

The news about the crashes from the group I’d met in Cartwright had put a bit of fear in me and I death-gripped the 300 km stretch between Cartwright and Goose Bay, dodging killer trucks and graders.

A GOOSE, CHURCHILL AND THE LAB

Even KLR riders are well-advised to strap on a jerry can, in this land without frequent service stations.

Goose Bay is one of the larger ‘cities’ in Labrador, with a population of around 8,000 and made for a good place to stop for the night before diverting off the TLH to Northwest River.

This was where one of my favorite explorers, Leonidas Hubbard, had left to make an attempt on crossing the Labrador interior, and the museum there, in the building of the former Hudson Bay Trading outpost, has a collection of artifacts that includes the remains of his last meal — a boiled shoe.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay is much more accessible these days; you don’t have to shimmy down a rope into a waiting boat for a ride to town.

The town is connected by a bridge to the mainland. Until the 1980s it was a cable car, and when the car broke down, you had to climb down a rope to a waiting boat to complete the crossing. Everyone seems to agree that the new system is an improvement.

After wandering around town a bit, I ended up in Sheshatshiu, the Innu community across the river. Sadly, it’s a bit run down with most of the houses sporting plywood covered windows, and the streets are full of kids tearing around on ATVs and dirt bikes.

I was invited to take part in a sweat lodge ceremony with a couple of Innu guys my age, one of whom was receiving his ceremonial pipe. I asked him about the pipe’s significance and he pointed to the dark, blanket-covered tent and said “Going in there, without one of these, is like going into battle unarmed.”

After a fit of clumsiness where I overturned a bowl of berries that were crucial to the whole affair, they put me in charge of carrying the glowing hot rocks into the tent on a pitchfork. They were trying to make me feel better, but it did seem like poor delegating of responsibility. I didn’t burn down the tent but I now have a good burn from a hot pitchfork to remember it by.

The next town on the map is Churchill Falls, a company town pretty well fully owned by Nalcor.

In Cochrane’s Pub, one of Churchill Falls’ few business not owned by Nalcor.

The large town center building houses the hotel, restaurant, grocery store, library, post office, school, theater, and (I am told) a curling rink, although I couldn’t find it. It also has showers and free wifi. However, I must admit, the clean, ordered streets, and the prefab houses with their manicured lawns, are, frankly, a bit creepy.

However, other than the people who were paid to deal with travellers, the town seemed empty. No one was using the skate park behind the town center, or the playground, and bicycles propped up by the sides of houses made me wonder if the rapture had occurred while I was on the road.

Underground in Churchill Falls.

There are signs everywhere warning against bad behaviour (I particularly liked the ones in the restaurant, warning that patrons would be charged for breaking the furniture). I set up camp on the town beach and headed to the bar, one of the only businesses not owned by Nalcor, to see if any furniture was being smashed.

Cochrane’s Pub was inhabited entirely by road workers, who live in camps outside town and make the trip in to get hammered and hit on the bartender, who wasn’t doing anything to discourage them. Wearing a skin-tight, off-the-shoulder dress and high-heeled black boots in a neon-lit room full of drunken, dust-covered men, she looked a little like a human sacrifice, albeit one who got good tips.

When the second bartender arrived for her shift, she wandered to my side of the bar to avoid the attention of a young road worker who had lapsed into a sort of guttural incoherence of sexual innuendo. It turned out she had grown up in Churchill Falls, her father worked at the power plant. He was retiring soon, and she was sad about it, because if you didn’t work for the company, you had to leave town. I was glad to hear that at least someone liked the town.

In the parking lot at the town center the next day, you could see the toll taken by the Trans-Labrador Highway on the vehicles trying to cross it. A man was trying to figure out what to do about a broken axle on his trailer, while another waited for $2100 tow to get the truck back to Labrador City after a large rock had destroyed the underside of his pickup truck.

I went over the bike and lubed my chain, which is when I noticed that one of the connecting links was broken on one side (chain issues being a common problem on my KLR). There wasn’t much I could do about it, except head for Lab City and hope I could find one there. I didn’t stop much on the way, or change speed for that matter, and I forgot to go by the dump at Churchill Falls, where the locals said I could see a big black bear.

Ride through Labrador, and you might not be the only one with a camera.

Thankfully, the chain held, and a couple of motorcyclists at a gas station in Labrador City led me to Duley’s Family Campground, a gloriously disorganized and friendly place to wait for the motorcycle shop to open in the morning. Paul, the owner of the place, offered to drive me into town the next day to get a new chain, although he warned me that he’d been waiting for two weeks for an inner tube.

I spent the evening talking to my neighbour at the campground, and he told me stories from his days on the road crew, and about Lab City, which is going through a mining boom, and can’t build houses fast enough for the influx of new workers.

ON Y VA

You can’t look out your front window and scope out an iceberg just anywhere.

Turns out that the shop had a chain that fit, and I changed it out in the parking lot as the rain fell before heading out. I didn’t think about it much then, but I was about to leave Labrador for the province of Quebec. Once over, the road changes from the long straightaways of western Labrador to a twisty mountain road, still gravel, but with passing over wooden bridges and back-and-forth across train tracks.

The first sight of Quebec is the huge mound of tailings from the Fermont Mines, and a lake coloured an unearthly pink that my camera couldn’t quite capture. It was a bit of a shock, after the pristine wilderness of Labrador, and the road was suddenly filled with wide load trucks taking prefab houses to Lab City. This section was also the most fun, as my newfound gravel experience let me speed through the turns, counting the latitude lines heading south..

Along the way I stopped at the Manicouagan impact crater, the so-called “eye of Quebec” which is one of a series of 23 million-year-old craters from a meteor that broke up before it hit the Earth, throwing up a mountain of debris in the center (from the ground it just looks like quite a nice lake) .

It was dark when I got to the Motel de L’Energie near the massive Manic 5 dam, and I got a room for the night, taxing my high school French to ask the landlady why there was a mattress blocking the door to my room. I couldn’t remember the words for door, room, or mattress. I was lucky I wasn’t arrested.

This is Quebec’s Manicougan meteor crater. Our man in the field arrived too late to photograph the actual impact.

The next morning, I chatted with a motorcyclist on a BMW from Quebec who said he had found himself with a few days free, and was going to run the TLH from one end to the other and back. We talked for a while, but I didn’t get his name.

I learned later that it was Duc Dufour, the president of Harley-Davidson Montreal. Tragically, he died the next day on the TLH, apparently running off the road and into a pile of rocks after clipping a bicyclist, who was not seriously hurt. That is the latest story I heard anyway. I hate to draw a lesson from anyone’s tragedy, but to me it’s a reminder of the unpredictability of the TLH, where an experienced rider can pay the ultimate price, while a yahoo like me escapes unscathed.

LEAVING THE BIG LAND

The key to surviving the Trans Lab? For Chris, it was riding a survival bike, seen here at the massive Manic 5 dam.

I didn’t know about Dufour then, but as the gravel ended and the pavement began, signifying the encroachment of civilization, I was struck with a real sadness to be leaving Labrador behind. Before I left, someone had told me that in Labrador they treat you as a traveler, not a tourist, and I found that to be very true.

I was glad that I had gone when I did, though, because like the road, Labrador is constantly changing. As Labrador City expands and Cartwright shrinks, as the road crews work to extend the pavement, and as places like Muskrat Falls become construction sites and dams, the Labrador I saw won’t be there the next time I go. Only Churchill Falls, the weird little suburbia in the middle of nowhere, will likely be the same.

Just like no two riders have the same experience on the gravel, no two visitors, I think, have the same experience of the Big Land. I didn’t set out, the way I think some riders do, to put a checkmark next to the Labrador box on a list of roads I have ridden, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little proud of the sticker on my tank that says “I Survived the Trans-Labrador Highway.” I went to Labrador by myself, I took my time and I saw as much as I could, and I left wanting to go back.

Back home, in a land full of gas stations and beer.

The next morning I woke up late and rode through the night back to Baltimore. At fifteen minutes to last call, I had covered 630 miles and was taking the exit to my local pub to savour my first beer back at home. I was about a mile from the bar when the new chain finally fell off.


Gallery

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19 thoughts on “Travel: Labrador – on a rat KLR650”

  1. A fine read.

    My dad works for SNC. He’s spent a lot of time the past three years up in Lab City.
    If you think that area’s booming now, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Expect the population to grow by at least 1000%. And for dozens of  mining towns and tailing piles to sprout like mushrooms.

  2. great story Chris … amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t do power slides and slow down and enjoy the moment … eh Robert?

  3. Excellent piece of Moto Journalism! I’ve never Ridden the Trans Lab (niether have the skills nor the right kind of motorcycle), but have driven across it many times when visiting Labrador for work and am constantly awed by the land, it’s people and wildlife. I’ve even enjoyed talking to some motorcycle adventurers I’ve encountered while in Churchill Falls … always fascinating!
    The Trans Lab is sure to be paved end-to-end within the next 10 years, so to those 2-wheelers who want to experience it before then, GO, but for gawd’s sake BE CAREFUL!!
    See you down the Road! 

  4. Thanks for the kind words, everybody. It really was a great trip. You should all stop what you’re doing right now and go to Labrador. Actually, wait until it’s a little warmer.

  5. This guy needs to write a piece on riding cross the US like a WW1 British pilot! The original was “Across America by motor-cycle”  by Shepherd, C. K
     (1922)

  6. Nice write-up.  I’ve considered doing the TLH, but then figured I might not particularly enjoy riding that much gravel road.  I guess it’s a great memory, though – as long as you survive.

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