That time I traveled the Trans-Labrador Highway

In 2010, colleagues and I spent a week traveling on the all-new Trans-Labrador Highway. It had just been inaugurated, and our mandate was to produce stories to talk about the impact of this new route on Labrador communities. I wrote the story below (initially in French) for Littoral magazine in spring 2011.

“Welcome to the Labrador Coastal Highway”. It’s written there, in big white letters on the green sign. I walk on this road so new that it still has a smell of dust. Behind me is the paved road that leads to Happy Valley-Goose Bay. In front of me, a gravel road that winds through spruce trees. Further on, a brand-new bridge over a wide, sparkling, magnificent river. “The Churchill River,” my colleague tells me. Here I am. I am in Labrador. On the newly-opened Trans-Labrador Highway.

It is difficult to describe my emotions. I have the feeling of going on an adventure, the impression that I am going to set foot where not that many have been before. The impression also to be an impostor, to drive through a place where, until recently, no car had circulated. But we came here with the intention of getting to the end of the road, and that’s what we will do.

The cars drive by us on the Trans-Labrador Highway, leaving behind them a swirl of dust. Some stop to chat with us. “Hitting the road? “. Oh yes, we are driving up to Blanc-Sablon, nothing less! “Be careful, the weather is clear, the road is not too rough, but you never know …”. We take good note of the advice. In any case, nothing presses us. We have the whole day to get to Port Hope Simpson, nearly four hundred kilometres away.

I’m still walking on the road. The sun is warm, the air smells good. My colleague went down by the river to shoot some footage. Close to him, there is a big inukshuk. A reminder that we are in northern territory.

I would like to stay here. To spend the day watching the Churchill River under the sun. But we have to go. Long hours of driving await us. So we drive off, heading for Port Hope Simpson, heading towards the vastness of Labrador.

Churchill River
Walking by the Churchill River

Stopover on the road, to shoot some images, and breathe the fresh air. I close my eyes and listen to the Big Land. The wind, a trickle of water flowing nearby, centennial spruces creaking in the wind … And then, in the distance, a roar. First weak, then becoming louder and louder. I open my eyes. I see a cloud of dust over there on the road. It’s a car approaching.

The road is rather quiet. I think we started counting the cars we met on the Trans-Labrador Highway, but we eventually stopped. Counting cars all day long, it gets boring after a while. Then we meet our first road grader. The construction machine goes back and forth on the gravel of the road to level it and fill the potholes. We stop the car, excited like kids. We take out our video and photo cameras. We want to immortalize this moment. The one where we realize that we are on a road so new that it still needs to be leveled to be passable. But the graders too, we ended up stopping counting them after a while. We saw a lot of them. Repeating tirelessly the same work. Leveling the road. The graders are at the Trans-Labrador Highway what snowplows are at roads during snowstorms. They are everywhere, because without them, the road would simply not be drivable.

Trans-Labrador Highway
An usual sight on the Trans-Labrador Highway

After the grader, it’s a complete construction team that we meet on the road. Workers are busy placing guardrails. They are still rather rare on the Trans-Labrador Highway. Just like signage. There are some signs here and there that indicate that the speed limit is 70km/h. But this is only a suggestion. “The police never patrol the Trans-Labrador Highway,” my colleague explains. “Anyway, everyone knows that if you want to speed, you do it at your own risk on this gravel road.”

And what about the scenery? Between Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Port Hope Simpson, there were spruce trees as far as the eye can see, with sometimes, here and there, a river. Nothing very impressive for a North Shore girl like me.


Somewhere on the road, a sign indicates the exit for Paradise River. Those who made the sign however omitted the “River”. “The exit for paradise is in one kilometre! ” says one of us in the car. Outside, spruce trees. Only spruce trees. It makes us laugh to think that paradise can be in Labrador.

Spruce tress in Labrador
Spruce trees of Labrador

Port Hope Simpson. A small village of about five hundred people (in Labrador, it’s actually considered a big village). I am surprised to see that the streets in Port Hope Simpson are all in gravel too. No asphalt. The houses are arranged in a haphazard way, the streets end up where you do not expect them. We do not see anyone else. It’s supper time.

The hotel is by the water. The air has a sea smell, even if the river here is still far from the ocean. Some boats are swaying smoothly on the waves. The sun sets. The village streets are still quiet, but the smoke coming out of the chimneys proves that it is truly inhabited. Port Hope Simpson is peaceful. Once again, I want to stop time, to freeze forever this image of the night setting on this village that looks so small in the immensity of the landscape. Maybe paradise is indeed in Labrador …

Port Hope Simpson
Port Hope Simpson in the immensity of Labrador

Trees, trees, more trees. Only trees. Miles around. Suddenly, the landscape becomes gray and dull. Twisted and charred trees. Dead. A forest fire left a scar. Miles around. The Big Land suddenly feels oppressive.

Charlottetown is not located on the Trans-Labrador Highway. To get there, you have to take an exit, somewhere between Cartwright-Junction and Port Hope Simpson. And drive deeper into the wilderness of Labrador.

“Charlottetown, hometown of the Labrador Shrimp Festival.” I’m not the one who says it, but the big sign at the entrance of the village. And to prove it, a dozen people are busy at the dock, unloading a fishing boat that just returned from the sea. Filled with shrimp.

Charlottetown, Labrador
Fishing boats in Charlottetown, Labrador

We are here to interview Lisa, acting mayor and employment counselor. An energetic and dedicated woman involved in all kinds of organizations in Charlottetown. Women like Lisa exist in every village across Canada. They hold the vitality of their community on their shoulders.

And the road, in all this? Lisa only has positive things to say at first. The road motivated some people to come back. It brought tourists who were previously rather rare, and it now allows the company of the village to ship its seafood through Labrador. Happy Valley-Goose Bay, its stores, and its hospital are only four or five hours of driving away.

Did the road only bring good things? Not quite … “Something was lost, you know, this strong sense of community, and of security …”. Lisa is nostalgic of a time not so distant, where everything was different. The people of Charlottetown now lock their doors at night. They do not always know who is in town.

Back on the road. We drive by Port Hope Simpson once again, heading to Mary’s Town this time. The road becomes practically undrivable. We have to drive slowly, to avoid the numerous potholes. The car skids often.

Trans-Labrador Highway
Driving through the Big Land

Mary’s Town. “Hometown of the Labrador Crab Festival”. It is written proudly on the big sign at the entrance of the village. School is over for the day. Children ride their bike and race down the streets. At the grocery store, a delivery truck has just arrived. The driver gets out of the vehicle and starts unloading his cargo. The children of Mary’s Town put their bikes aside. Like all children in every village across the country, they have invaded the grocery store to buy sweets. They eat their candies outside, watching carefully the driver emptying the truck. In Mary’s Town, a truck unloading cargo is still a curious sight to watch.

The sun is lower, it’s soon supper time. The children of Mary’s Town pick up their bikes and ride back to their homes. The air is still full of laughter. Full of the smell of the sea. And full of the dust of the road.

Stopover in Mary’s Town

Bare hills. Rocky valleys. Scattered vegetation. The landscape of Labrador is suddenly different. We have left the spruce trees behind us and are now driving through a coastal landscape. The sea is smiling at us with its twinkling waves.

Red Bay, Labrador
The road brought us to the sea

Red Bay. In front of us, the Atlantic Ocean. At the very spot where it flows into the Strait of Belle Isle. But I’m not looking at the sea. My eyes are on the road. Because here, the gravel road becomes a paved road. Many complain that it is full of potholes all the way to Blanc-Sablon, but after miles and miles of gravel road, it feels like we are driving on cotton wool. We park the car on the side of the road and get out, of course, to stretch our legs, and to take a few steps on this wonderful invention that is asphalt.

And then after Red Bay, there is Saint Modeste, L’Anse-au-Loup, Forteau, L’Anse-L’Amour, L’Anse-au-Clair. Names that are more and more French, as if to remind us that we are arriving soon to the Quebec border.

The moment is a little surreal. I left Quebec a few days ago and then traveled over a thousand kilometres. To arrive here. In front of this blue sign, where it says “Bienvenue au Québec”. I feel like I’m back home. Back in my Côte-Nord. Where the sea is, as always, beautiful.

Blanc-Sablon, Quebec
Sunset over the Lower North Shore

In Blanc-Sablon, the road has always been an important subject of discussion. People here talk about the road to Labrador, of course, since it has brought many tourists to Blanc-Sablon. And they talk about the road in Québec, Highway 138, that Blanc-Sablon is still waiting. And even more impatiently than before. The impact of the Trans-Labrador Highway on the villages of Labrador is visible. And this impact, the people of Québec’s Lower North Shore also want to live it. So they are waiting and hoping that one day, Highway 138 will connect Blanc-Sablon to the rest of the province.

At the village grocery store, customers talk of the Trans-Labrador Highway as if it was the road of freedom. It is now possible for people from Blanc-Sablon, Quebeckers, to travel to their province by car. Except that do so, they have to drive thousands of kilometres. Through Labrador.

The mayor insists on the irony of the station. It was the Government of Newfoundland that opened up the village of Blanc-Sablon. Which might be the reason that many here often feel more Newfoundlanders than Quebeckers. During the day, my colleagues and I have fun trying to spot the Québec blue-and-white provincial flag in the village. There are some, but they are less common than the white, green and blue flag of Labrador.

Tourists are now arriving from Newfoundland by ferry (which links Blanc-Sablon to Saint Barbe). They are more numerous than ever in the shops, the hotels and the restaurants of the small municipality, where they stop before heading on the perilous Trans-Labrador Highway. Blanc-Sablon has never seen so many visitors. North attracts, like a magnet.

But Blanc-Sablon is also looking west. Towards its province. Waiting.

Blanc Sablon
Welcome to Blanc-Sablon, gateway to Labrador

Chilly morning. Forteau is still sleeping while I am trying to kill time until my colleagues wake up. We have to hit the road again in a few hours. Head back to Happy Valley-Goose Bay. And the end of our journey. I look at the scenery, already nostalgic. I want to enjoy it all before it becomes just a memory. I want to breathe again and again the air of Labrador.

I want to stroll slowly in the stillness of the morning. Far from the road which I have seen enough. The barren hills seem to me a little spooky under the mist. I decide to walk towards the sea.

The trail that goes to the beach winds through the dunes, between which I discover different cemeteries, of different religious allegiance. The wind of the sea waltzes between the tombs. The air smells salty. The waves are singing a soft melody.

In Labrador, the deceased are given the best place to spend eternity.

On the water, some fishermen are busy in their boat. I watch them while strolling on the beach. In a few hours, the sea will erase my footprints in the sand. It will erase the traces of my presence in Labrador.

A car door slams in the distance. My colleagues are awake. They are already piling up the luggage in the vehicle. We have to go.

Back on the road, this time in the opposite direction. L’Anse-au-Loup and its pastry shop. Saint-Modeste. Red Bay. The gravel road. Mary’s Town. Port Hope Simpson. Spruce trees. For the first time since the beginning of the trip, it’s raining. The weather is gloomy. Like my mood.

Cartwright. The final destination of our trip. Somewhere between Port Hope Simpson and Happy Valley-Goose Bay. To reach Cartwright, you have to exit the Trans-Labrador Highway. And drive several kilometers in the middle of nowhere.

It’s raining and the road is slippery. Dangerous even. A car in front of ours drives slowly. And refuses to let us pass. We express our frustration out loud. This is the first time we meet a driver who is not courteous on the Trans-Labrador Highway. Because, although it is not written and official, there is an etiquette for drivers who use the road. Since we are bored, we start stating these rules out loud. Slow down when you cross a vehicle on the road. Say hi to the tireless drivers of the graders. Stop if you see someone on the road who seems to have mechanical problems. If a car follows you and seems to drive faster, slow down and let it pass. This rule, the driver of the vehicle in front of us definitely does not seem to know.

We are a little tired and frustrated when we finally get to Cartwright. It’s still raining. Not surprising then that at first, Cartwright seems rather unimpressive. A few cottages scattered among the spruce trees. Muddy streets. The village restaurant is empty, and the waitress seems bored. She offers us the specialty of the restaurant. Fried chicken. I suddenly cannot wait to be done with Cartwright.

We meet the mayor at the municipal office. On the wall a map of Cartwright. Hand-drawn. And in a corner, a sign: “You have the right to keep silence and to ask for a lawyer”. The mayor points to the ceiling. Traces of bars. We are in the old municipal prison.

Welcome to Cartwright, Labrador

The mayor of Cartwright does not speak warmly about the road. She is worried about the future of her municipality. Until the arrival of the road, Cartwright was the only link between Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the Eastern Coast of Labrador. The village is home to the ferry that connects western and eastern Labrador. Now that there is the road, there is no need to come here and wait for the boat. In Cartwright, the Trans-Labrador Highway reinforced the sense of isolation that existed before.

And how does one adequately protect this huge territory now that the whole world can access it? The mayor asks the question but has no answer.

We do the interview outside. Feet in the mud. Fingers chilled by the wind. In front of the camera, the mayor is less pessimistic than she was in the municipal office. The road will bring to Cartwright the revival it needs. There are exciting projects for the village. Cartwright just have to figure out the best way to take advantage of those kilometres of gravel.

Perhaps to be forgiven for having been a bit pessimistic earlier, the mayor gives us a tour of the village. She brings us on the waterfront. In the bay, the gray waves are breaking on the shore. The mountains are hiding in the mist. The wind howls. The sky is threatening to burst. On the edge of the water, there too, is an old cemetery. Wooden crosses in the wild grass. Like straight out of another era. It seems that the Vikings once sailed along this coast. They then returned home to tell everyone they had discovered a corner of paradise, a beautiful bay, sandy beaches. My colleagues and the mayor walk further away. I stay in the old cemetery. Alone, with the wind and the wooden crosses with names now illegible. The rain is falling harder now, whipping my face. There are some plastic flowers in front of a small grave. Purple. A touch of color in this gray day. In this gray village.

Cemetery in Cartwright
A cemetery by the sea

Before our departure, the mayor takes us to the village gift shop. Outside, there is a small group. Among them, representatives of German tourism companies. Very interested in offering organized tours to Labrador. The road now open, Labrador is truly accessible to the world.

While everyone is discussing Labrador’s beautiful tourism future, I go inside the gift shop. I browse through hand-knit clothing, beautiful Innu craftsmanship and postcards. The lady at the cash register asks me where I come from. Such a simple question, to which I never know what to answer. With a smile, she asks me what brought me to Cartwright. I’m searching for my words, but I’m having trouble explaining why I’m here. It seems to me that I left Happy Valley-Goose Bay a thousand years ago. I even feel like I’ve forgotten why I came here. To talk about the Trans-Labrador Highway, yes, but is that it? The lady, still smiling, asks me if I enjoyed my time in Labrador. To this question, no hesitation: “Labrador is truly beautiful.”

The lady gives me my change. “It was nice talking to you. I hope you’ll come back!” Oh yes, I’ll come back, I promise. Once out of the store, I realize the incongruity of my answer. Me, coming back to Cartwright, Labrador? It’s already an incredible chance that I’m here today. Will there really be another opportunity to come back? To travel hundreds of kilometres to return to this lost corner of Labrador? I know there is little chance … But I like to believe in a possible return. It makes it less painful to leave.

Trans-Labrador Highway
The long way back

I look at this long ribbon of gravel stretching through the landscape while we shoot our last images of the Trans-Labrador Highway. I suddenly remember the lyrics of this French song by Québecois singer Claude Dubois, Le Labrador:

“Un millier d’hommes sur la neige
N’ont pas d’endroit où retourner
Ils sont figés là sans connaître
Ils n’ont que du Sud à penser”

(A thousand men on the snow
Have no place to return
They are frozen there without knowing
And of the South, only have thoughts)

The South is now there, at the end of the road. Okay, Baie-Comeau, Quebec City and Montreal, it’s still a long way off. But here distances do not matter.

Shortly before we arrived in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the sky turned into a bright red, while the sun was slowly setting behind the dancing spruce trees. The scenery became so beautiful that we were unable to utter a single word.

Labrador was taunting us one last time: you thought you saw everything while traveling the Trans-Labrador Highway, but you have only seen a tiny part of my immensity …

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