Black Flies and Loathing in Labrador

Zac’s just coming off the end of a trip through Labrador on his Yamaha WR250R (see previous stories here and here). He’s made it to the island of Newfoundland, and claims the following account is how things went in the Labrador wilderness – Ed.

Friday, July 12

11 AM—Coming across the border on Quebec’s Rt. 389, I was soaked to the skin. My hands were burning from setting the heated grips at their highest, to ward off the cold. But as soon as I saw Labrador’s Welcome to the Big Land sign, I was smiling in my helmet. I pulled up, jumped off the bike, and almost did a dance and hugged the sign. I’d been aiming to get here for years, but never really expected it would happen. Now “someday” had become “today,” and for a minute, I didn’t feel the miserable weather at all.

The Big Sign at the start of the Big Land. Finally, I’d reached my goal, after years of dreaming, months of planning, and an initial failed attempt.

I looked at all the stickers on the sign, and wished I’d brought my own to place with all the other adventurers. Then it was back on the bike for another cold, soggy 10 km into Labrador City. Why, oh why, did I leave my heated vest at home?

3:30 PM—It had been smooth sailing out of Lab City for the past hour, but my butt was aching and I needed to pee. I decided to attempt an experiment.

In Quebec, when the bugs started to get bad, I would pull over to the side of the road, and time how long it took the insects to find me. Near a settlement, the flies were buzzing me in 10 seconds. Further into the wilderness, it took as long as 45 seconds.

Zac ponders the foolishness of visiting Labrador in peak black fly season. If only he had had the sense to visit via Jeep, like Mark did …

Noting there weren’t many dead bugs on my windshield, I wondered if the flies aren’t active here yet. I pulled over to see, but didn’t need to start the timer. A cloud of horseflies was immediately on me. As I staggered into the brush to pee, they were joined by black flies and mosquitos, combining to form nature’s ultimate vicious tag team. Zipping up my pants, I saw some fly into my underwear. I hoped the uncomfortable Yamaha seat would squash them into oblivion, before they shredded me.

6 PM—I rolled into Churchill Falls looking for gas, food, and maybe a place to stay to dry out.

This is a company town, owned and operated for the sole purpose of staffing the nearby hydroelectric  power plant. The company hotel was full, and the restaurant looked like a long wait for an inflated bill. I decided to push out of town, getting fuel at Ultramar, probably the only business that’s not owned by the electric company. The gas station was filled with bored-looking, complaining teenagers, stocking up on junk food; they’re still too young to buy hard liquor, which seems to be the other fuel that keeps this place in business.

You can count on three constant sights in Labrador: rocks, trees, and power transmission lines.

But a stop at the power plant’s gates and a chat with the friendly security staff had me rolling down a gravel road to a riverside campsite, complete with a screened-in gazebo. As I unpacked my gear for the night, a local couple pulled in with a massive camper. They invited me in, and we talked until late in the night, swatting mosquito after mosquito as I learned about life in Labrador.

I was in love with this quiet campsite, even if I did have to sleep under a bug net inside the gazebo, the mosquitos were so bad. I delayed departure until lunch the next day, happy to enjoy being around nice scenery and friendly people. This is the sort of discovery that makes life on the road worth it.

Saturday, July 13

5 PM—I left Churchill Falls early afternoon, but almost wished I’d stayed. Except for a fruitless trout fishing attempt, this day was nothing but a soggy, foggy slog to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, albeit on a perfectly paved road. Would the sun ever come out? Even if there was something to see besides rocks and trees, I couldn’t enjoy it. My visor was covered in slop all day.

9:30 PM—I was 120 km out of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and had been riding on gravel for about 20 km. It was getting dark, and I noticed lots of bear poop on the road. Surely there would be somewhere decent to hang my Hennessy hammock — maybe a roadside work camp? I wanted to push past town after supper, to make the next day’s riding easier, but now I realized that was a mistake. I should have sucked it up and paid for a motel. At least I’d have been dry then.

I realized if I didn’t pull over soon, I’d be past the point of making good decisions, and it’d be hard to make camp. In the absence of a proper pull-off, I tried for a rocky roadside embankment, and dropped the bike when it couldn’t haul its overloaded self up the hill.

I stripped off the bags and set up my hammock in the heavy mist. Jumping in, I realized to my horror that I camped right on a mosquito mega-colony. Outside my hammock, there were hundreds under the rain fly. A couple of dozen, at least, made it inside with me.

Worst campsite ever: wet, and full of bugs. That is what happens if you leave things until the last minute.

I used the flashlight to lure them, then smashed them viciously against the inside walls. By the time I was done, the interior looked like the aftermath of a battle from Starship Troopers.

It was hard to fall asleep, partly because I worried a bear might decide to raid my luggage for a midnight snack, and partly because my hammock sagged enough to bump me into a boulder all night long.

Sunday, July 14

8 AM—As I packed the bike to head down the remainder of the 250-km gravel section, the angry horde of mosquitos swarmed me again. I flailed wildly at them as I strapped the bags down, heading out for another damp morning’s ride. A kilometre down the road, I had to pull over and remove my helmet, to empty out the mosquitos I’d trapped there during my hasty exit.

Stopping for a fishing expedition at a roadside stream. I had big plans to catch big fish on this trip, but only ended up with small brook trout.

10:30 AM—The gravel road had been great so far, about 150 km in. The WR easily ran highway speeds on this well-kept road. It was much easier going than the gravel section in Quebec. The only tough spots were where construction traffic had cut greasy ruts into the road, and there had certainly been lots of construction. I felt sorry for the flaggers, who must have been be going mad inside their bug suits.

Happy with my progress, I pulled over for another trout fishing session. I was eventually rewarded with two brookies that were embarrassingly small, but fit handily in my undersized pan. Thankfully, there was enough breeze that the bugs didn’t bother me much while I ate.

1 PM—The gravel section ended and I met the paving crews working their way into the wilderness from Port Hope Simpson. I also met the biggest black bear I’ve ever seen, chomping away at bushes in the ditch, completely unconcerned at the construction workers and their many attempts to chase him/her away. I’m glad Mr./Mrs. Bear wasn’t in my campsite last night. That might have been a bit much to handle.

3 PM—I decided to press on instead of stopping in Port Hope Simpson, as I originally planned. I was rewarded with incredible scenery, replacing the blah rocks-and-trees wilderness of earlier, and the riding was a bit more interesting as well. The road from St. Mary’s River onward goes up and down through the gorgeously rugged barrens. It was the most beautiful country yet this trip, especially when I got to Red Bay and the ocean added to the mix. But when I pulled over for a photo, I was swarmed by the biggest cloud of black flies I’ve ever seen. What do they even survive off, here in the barrens? Surely the occasional picture-snapping tourist isn’t enough to keep them alive.

Beautiful Red Bay is best experienced without the insects. The ancient Basque whaling site intrigued me, but even this seaside town was infested with hordes of flies and mosquitos.

At supper, the waitress said the flies are the worst they’ve been in years. Guess I should have come last month and dealt with the snow instead. [Or made the journey in a Jeep, like I did. – Ed.]

Monday, July 15

1 PM—An uncharacteristically costly overnight stay at the provincial campground offered a chance to shower, instead of a chilly river swim. Feeling capable of mixing with polite society, I pulled down a dirt road and mingled with the tourists at the L’Anse Amour lighthouse.

The lighthouse was interesting, along with its displays, but the best parts were the sun and the wind, which drove away the fog and the bugs.

The small but excellent onsite museum is filled with details of interesting characters from the Labrador coast’s history, emphasizing the brave and bold. People like the early Basque whalers, who crossed the Atlantic to get here even before Jacques Cartier, making a living in the dangerous seas. Or people like the migrant Newfoundland fishermen and their families, who set up temporary homes here every year, barely keeping body and soul together despite long days of backbreaking labour. Or people like the British naval sailors who wrecked an almost-new light cruiser on the shore here, over a salmon fishing expedition gone wrong. You have to be brave and bold to survive up here, but not necessarily bright.

The most northern sections of Rt. 138 are incredibly fun and scenic.

3 PM—I had two hours before I had to get to the ferry, so I headed back south, down the short section of Quebec’s Rt. 138 that runs along the coast. I expected ugly towns and potholed, boring road. What I got was one of the best stretches of street riding in Atlantic Canada. The villages are mostly nestled in beautiful cover, and the road sections between them are curvy and scenic, as they cut up, down and around the barrens.

This was the best riding I’d had since Quebec’s Rt. 389, and it got me back in motorcycle mode, and out of tourist mode. I was sad to have to run back to the ferry, and this was enough to make me plan to return again.

How often do you get the chance to watch whales and icebergs in the same place?

Along the way, I spotted one of the season’s late icebergs, blown into shore and surrounded by whales. It was almost surreal, seeing all that in one place. And as I strapped my bike into the ferry hold, I wondered if I’d ever come back to ride the long, unexciting stretch through the middle of Labrador. Maybe, maybe not. Once it’s all paved (most likely in 2-3 years), that 1,000-ish kilometres through nothing will lose its adventurous appeal.

These kids were selling fresh-baked cookies, the best-tasting food I had had all week. And at 50 cents apiece, a bargain!

But the stuff at either end — the curves of 389, the massive dam at Manic 5, the challenging gravel in Quebec, and the beautiful coastal barrens of Labrador, the small fishing towns packed with history going back to the earliest white settlers, the whales, the icebergs, the incredible twisties of Rt 138 in the north — that will all be there for years to come, and I’d very much like to see it again.

If you get a chance, you should, too. Just make sure you go before, or after, bug season, and bring a heated vest. [Or a Jeep. -Ed.]

13 thoughts on “Black Flies and Loathing in Labrador”

  1. Two of us enjoyed this ride in June more than a few Moons ago. In and out to Happy Valley/Goose Bay pre chip seal or asphalt, most enjoyable. Bit of snow here and there and a bit tough on the Motos but very few bugs 👍

  2. you probably didn’t think of this but … you could have borrowed dudes jeep … ha ha … I have a friend who did this run twice and his experience was somewhat better I think. Timing and luck is everything.

  3. Jeez come out west , B.C. to Utah and the states west of , I rarely ever set up a tent. Beautiful night skies, not much rain. Aftervreading your report I got no desire to travel by bike there. FRANK, Kelowna BC.

    1. Zac’s Labrador tour story.
      Brought to you by British Columbia’s Tourism dept. 😉

      I guess if you’ve covered all other parts of North America, then by all means go to Labrador.

      1. I really would go back, but the timing would be different, and I’d like to see the stuff on the side roads to the north. It just wasn’t in the cards this time, thanks to the bugs.

    1. Hahahahah

      I just had bad luck.

      The weather was actually worse in Newfoundland in many parts, and was really no worse than I’d experienced in the rest of Atlantic Canada.

      The bugs were bad, but avoidable if you go earlier, or later.

    2. Yes but our people are nice friendly trustworthy and ” got your back”. Theyd help any person in a second and invite you into their home. Its north east coast hospitality and warmth that perhaps lacks in the west. Just saying.

    1. Thanks, amigo. Won’t be rushing out to tour on a 250 again anytime soon, but the only real problem with the bike was that I had no option but to run busy highways sometimes.

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