Sunday, August 4, 2013

Labrador City and Quebec

I had spent the night just outside of a little town called Churchill Falls, which is mostly a work town servicing the hydroelectric facilities that I'd just rode past.  I stopped for gas and kept heading west in the direction of Labrador City, though some perfect weather.  There still weren't any fires that I could see, although there were patches that seemed to have been burned in the last few years.

The local governments are working on getting the whole road all the way to Goose Bay paved, but it's happening in increments.  As I went west, the road would change randomly from gravel, to freshly paved, to fully finished, and everything in between.

Perhaps 40 miles outside of Labrador City, I ran into the roadblock that had been mentioned back in Goose Bay.  Apparently, there were still semi-active fire areas ahead, so they were having the police escort people through in convoys.

The wait wasn't too long; after hanging out here for about an hour, the escort vehicles came in from the other direction with their eastbound convoy, and took us through.

On the way we passed a number of fire crews doing fire-crew things, and many patches of forest that were very freshly burned.

Labrador City wasn't much to speak of; it felt like any other town of about 20,000 people.  I got gas, grabbed some food at the McDonalds (which was about twice the price of any golden arches further south; totaled $16 for a meal that costs me about $8 anywhere else), and headed west, into Quebec.

I even allowed myself a bit of self-congratulations.  I'd done it!  I'd done the Trans-Lab highway, dealt with some forest fires, and really it hadn't been that bad.  The hard part was over, from here on south was going to be smooth sailing.  Right?  Heh . . .

Labrador City is quite far north, and it's only over-land link to the south of Canada is Rt 389, a nearly 400 mile stretch all the way down to Baie-Comeau on the St Lawrence Seaway.   There's no other alternatives to get south; there's a rail line that runs along side it, and once you get down to that big circular lake there's some side fire/logging roads you can take, but that's it.  This is the only way south.

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I'd made the silly assumption that this road was going to be paved the whole way; Nope!  Just over the Quebec border from Labrador City is the mining town of Fremont, and from there a good 80 miles south is all gravel/dirt.  Weeeeee!

This wasn't the nice, smooth, fast clay that the southern portion of the Trans-Lab highway from Port Simpson had been; this was heavily trafficked by lots of large trucks, and as a result was washboarded beyond all belief.

It was very twisty, and in many places nicely scenic, and if it had been paved I could have had a lot of fun.  But this was agonizingly rough; the ripples were the entire width of the road, with hardly any smooth sections.  The bike's suspension can cope with a few bumps in a row, but after a few of them in quick succession there's only so much damping the shocks can provide.  It doesn't matter how slow you go, you're still getting your teeth rattled out of your head, and god knew what it was doing to my bent sub-frame and luggage rack.

The road did get paved after maybe 80 miles of some of the worst, most consistent washboarding that I've ever ridden.  I was glad it was over; the bike had developed all sorts of odd rattles and my hands were going numb.  After stopping to check for (and re-tighten) a few more lose bolts, I made it another 20 miles south before getting stopped at another roadblock.

The funny thing about Quebec is just how immediately over the boarder everyone stops speaking English; I would have thought that in this high traffic of an area, with so many workers from all over Canada and lots of transient traffic, most people would be bi-lingual.  And yet how wrong I was; no one at this road block spoke a word of English, leading to the four of us doing a big game of Charades to try and make each other understood.

The only useful thing about English (let's be honest, it's not a very good language) is that it's cherry-picked bits from most of the other western European languages; enough of our English words have french roots and similar meanings that occasionally, one of us could get a bit of information across.  I discovered a useful trick to figuring out which English words come from the French; it's all the words that I can never spell to save my life.  "Passage" ended up being a very useful one, as was "ordinary", "necessary", and "disengage" (which from what I gather, translates to "withdraw"). 

Using some basic combinations of these words, along with lots of arm-waving and pointing, the idea was conveyed (another word that's always underlined in red the first few times I try and type it) that I couldn't go any farther south at the moment; there were fires burning on the side of the road.  I wasn't too bothered by this; this was right next to a large gravel area that looked like it was a common truck parking/resting area where they also stored road work equipment.  While I didn't get any sense from the people in the truck of how long the road was going to be closed for, I had a few days worth of food and water with me; I pulled into the clearing and set up the tent.

(And only dropped the bike in a big sand wash once.  GOD I'm getting sick of picking this heavy beast up.)

That rut and disrupted sand was where I struggled to get footing enough to get the thing back up
When I set up mid-day, there were about 10 other semi trucks all parked on the other side of the clearing; sometime in the evening though, they all pulled out and headed off, I'm assuming back north.  "Huh", I thought. "I wonder if they know something I don't?  I'm sure someone would tell me if I wasn't supposed to be here".

I spent the night here, and sometime early the next morning I heard what sounded like more trucks heading by on the road.  I took this as an indication that the fires were out, and the road was open again.  Great!  I packed up the tent, and got back on the road going south.

Huh . . . getting pretty hazy from smoke.  But there was still this grader working the sides of the road; surely they would have pulled him out if there was any danger?

Whatever my situation, I wasn't as poorly off as this poor sod. 

Looked like the wheel had just come off; I didn't take too close of a look, but the wheel studs all seemed intact.  Did someone just forget to tighten the lug nuts?

I didn't make it very far south; after only about 15 miles, with the air VERY quickly getting worse, I came across another roadblock.

I'm not going to lie; the part of me that has zero concern for my own safety and well-being was very tempted to skirt around them and keep going south, to try and find out exactly how bad these supposed fires were.  (Whatever that part of your brain is that generates a fear-of-death, I apparently don't have it.)

Against my more adventurous judgement, I decided not to try and push my luck, and instead checked in at the highway work camp next to the tractor road block and asked them the situation.  One of the guys there did speak some English, and when combined with my creatively broken attempts at French, we managed to communicate. 

Apparently they were very surprised to see me; officially, the road was closed all the way back north in Labrador City.  I wasn't supposed to be here, in fact no one was.  But they were friendly enough about it, and kindly refilled my water bottles while telling me about the situation as it stood.  They said reports were that the fire was getting closer, and they advised me to head all the way back north; in this area, they usually don't fight forest fires.  There's so little human infrastructure that they can let them burn without much risk, and that was apparently the plan for this area; just let the fire burn itself out.

I thanked them and headed a back north a little bit, but I had no intention of going back to Labrador City; I did NOT want to deal with that horrible washboarded road again.  So instead, I set up the tent on the banks of one of the rivers next to the road and settled in.  My thought was to hang out there for the next few days and wait it out; surely they'd re-open the road soon, and I then I could continue south.  This was at about 11am, and I crawled into the tent and dozed off for a nap.

A few hours later I awoke to a whooping emergency siren, and someone shouting angrily in French.  I shook off the sleep and was immediately struck by just how strong the smoke smell now was; my eyes were stinging and it was sometimes difficult to suppress fits of coughing.

I stuck my head out of the tent to see some mounties on the bridge above me, two officers yelling in my direction.  Surely they were . . . uh, yelling at someone else?

Nope, it was me.  They switched to English as soon as they realized I wasn't French, and the ensuring conversation went something along the lines of:

"ARE YOU STUPID?!*  WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE!?  The fire is less than 3km away and heading in this direction, you need to get out of here NOW!"

(*it's odd just how many of my interactions with law enforcement begin or end with them telling me that I'm stupid)

I heeded their warnings and quickly tossed everything onto the bike, and headed north.  I guess I did have to go back to Labrador City; the mounties made that clear in no uncertain terms that they didn't want to see me in this area any more.  As much as I wanted to try and stick it out, the air quality was getting very, very bad.

So all the way back north I went; back across the washboarding, back to Labrador City.  :(

It was almost 5pm by the time I got back, and I stopped in at the tourist info center on my way back into town.  We made small talk as I used their internet to try and get solid information on the fire's status; I'd heard all sorts of rumors from locals and road workers, including a particularly worrying one that said one of the large wooden bridges to the south had burned and it would be at least a week or two before they could get a temporary structure in place.  Real, solid, reliable information was in very short supply.

However, in talking with the people at the info center, they said that I was welcome to pitch my tent behind their building for the night.  I happily took advantage of this; not only was it a pretty safe looking spot to camp, but I could also still access the building's wi-fi from inside the tent.  There is nothing quite so luxurious as internet access while sitting in a tent.

I settled in for the night, happy in my tent.  Electricity, running water, those are minor luxuries that I can do without, but I do love me some internet.

It rained that night, in some patches quite heavily.  This wasn't an issue, but silly me had left my helmet hanging on the bike overnight; in the morning, it was full of three inches of collected rainwater.  Oops.

Oddly, one of the ladies working at the info center had her hair dryer with her, and after taking the soaked lining out of the helmet and wringing it out, I manged to get it dry enough that I probably wasn't going to get TB by putting int on my head for a few hours.  Information on the road closure was still conflicting, but the overnight rain gave me hope; hopefully it had rained far though south to deal with the fire.  Sometime around 1pm, I packed up the tent and loaded the bike, yet AGAIN passing over the 80 miles of bad washboarded Rt 389 south from Labrador City.

My guesses about the rain putting the fires out turned out to be accurate; the road was open!  I almost did a jig as I passed the sites of the road blocks that I'd run into over the last couple of days, and pushed south as quickly as I could.  It wasn't long before I came to the sections that I had previously been camped very close to.

I'm not well versed in fire sciences, but something tells me that when the ground is still smoking, the burn must have been very recent.

I don't think this are was always as uninhabited as it is now; at one point I passed through what seemed to be the remnants (yet another french word I can't spell) of a town.  There were no side streets anymore, but the road had a central divider and all along the sides, you could see where the curbs and sidewalks once were.

The farther south I went the hillier and clearer it became.  There had been some lingering smog at the beginning of the day up north, but down here it seemed I was out of the fire zone. 

I set up the tent that night in a large gravel clearing off the side of the highway, which seemed to have been used by many other people to camp previously, judging by the fire rings.

The next day gave me more perfect weather, and glorious lack of forest fires.  The road was twisty, hilly and beautiful, although not always paved.  There were large sections that were gravel or hard-packed clay, but it was blessedly smoother than the 80 miles due south from Labrador City had been.

Oddly, for large sections the clay/gravel was SMOOTHER than the pavement; the asphalt was in many sections so badly rutted, warped and cracked that it felt like I could have been riding over small boulders.

Gosh it was pretty though.  Most/all of the human infrastructure in this part of Canada is to service the many hydroelectric dams in the area; there's copious reservoirs (yet another french word.  Half the time, I can't even get close enough on this one for spell-check to help.  It, like the cops, just looks at me like I'm brain damaged, and then gives up), dams and pretty views.

That's a big dam!  I wish they'd let me on that dam road on top of the dam, I could take some really nice dam pictures.  Or maybe take a dam tour?  Dam!

Yay, warning signs!
The more warning signs you see, the more enjoyable the ride.  Or the more suffering you'll experience.  Either way, you should come out of it with some good stories.

I spent almost that whole day pushing farther south; it was odd to get closer and closer to civilization again.  I got to Baie-Comeau sometime mid-afternoon, and promptly celebrated in proper Canadian fashion.

As much as the language barrier can be frustrating, I really enjoy Quebec.  It has an odd quirky quality about it; even in the small little run-down towns you might pass through, people still take care of their properties and houses, and take the time to made art out of whatever they seem to have.

My first attempts at camping this night didn't go very well.  I saw a gravel/rock trail leading off the main road and heading up a quite steep hill, and disappearing over the ridge.  I hadn't learned my lesson in Newfoundland, apparently; I still have the instinct of "Hey, I wonder if I can get this heavy bike over that!"

Fortunately, I could.  Lots of throttle, keep the weight forward and your eyes up, DON'T TRY AND STOP, and let physics sort it all out.

Unfortunately, once I got up here I found there was no place to camp, at all.  Somehow I got it turned around, and went back down what had to be a 25% grade without dropping it.

Okay, let's try again!  Warning signs are always a good indicator that there's something interesting this way, even if I have no clue what they say.

Okay, let me translate.  "Your GPS unit is stupid, and getting lost is much more fun.  Come this way to get nice and lost!"
I followed a side road, to another side road, and after making a bunch of wrong turns . . . well, it turns out that enough wrongs do make a right.

I found myself . . . here.  On a 300+ food sand dune overlooking the St Lawrence Seaway.

Oh man, other kids always have better toys.

 Oh, wait you mean that I can camp here for free?  I have to spend the night here? Well I guess if you're going to twist my arm about it, I can suffer this view.

1 comment:

  1. Great pictures! How do you find your gas mileage? I've considered taking my Vulcan and a few necessities and going camping around the island as well. Do you ever find it loanly or is the peace just right?