Labrador Caravan

June 16, 2007
Baie Comeau to the north

Baie Comeau made everyone crabby. Arriving in town, Kim discovered a problem with his van, and his only concern was to head to an auto parts store to pick up what he needed to fix it. While he worked under his van in the Napa Auto Parts parking lot, the rest of us headed to a supermarket, where I annoyed folks by slowly selecting four pounds of cherries one at a time. The only campground in town was pretty far away, and we were all annoyed to drive what seemed like miles back where we’d come from to find

it. I’d hoped to share dinner with Kim and Phil, but they were both shut in their vans by the time I was ready to join them. I’d decided to do our laundry while there was the opportunity, and ended up staying up far later than I’d hoped waiting for the inefficient machine to get my jeans dry so I could pile everything up in the van and go to sleep.

The next day was no better. Kim’s van was fixed, but now Phil’s needed some repairs, and we dawdled around the campground waiting for him. Then, following Kim and his GPS, we all breezed past Canadian Tire where Phil wanted to run some errands, and past the supermarkets where Kim still needed to stock up on groceries. Frustrated, I pulled ahead of the other vans and headed us into a small shopping center on the east side of town, ordered Kim into the grocery store, and set out to find out

where we could fill our propane tanks. That set us on a wild goose chase to a service station that only filled removable canisters, to the wholesale propane depot, and finally to the retail propane vendor just past the grocery store where we’d been an hour earlier. And then at two in the afternoon, when we finally headed up the road out of Baie Comeau, I missed the turnoff and had gone five miles in the wrong direction before I realized that the others were no longer following me and I discerned my mistake.

So we were all in fine spirits by the time Kim took us into a small clearing by the side of a lake for a very late lunch. It helped a bit to dive into the surprisingly warm water and swim halfway across, but I was followed by a swarm of blackflies that I couldn’t escape even by diving underwater and swimming as far as I could hold my breath. Back on shore, I found Kim and Phil were hiding in their vans eating solitary meals, trying to keep away from the tiny biting bugs that buzzed frenetically around us and crawled into our hair (those of us with hair, that is).

We reached the end of the paved road by six or so, at one of the largest dams in North America. That road was built because of the dam, and was lined with huge pylons and thick electric cables, all part of Quebec Hydro’s domination of electricity supply in eastern Canada. I wanted to stop there for the night and camp on the pavement overlooking the dam and the river below it. I don’t like forests, they make me feel claustrophobic. But the guys overruled me, anxious to cover more miles before we stopped for the night, and hoping for a lovely camping spot beside a lake. Oh well, they were probably right that we would have gotten arrested as terrorists had the Hydro Quebec security folks found three old VW vans parked next to their fence.

So we continued up the road, now on gravel that blew huge clouds of dust as we crunched along. Kim was in front, unofficially given responsibility for finding us a place to camp with our promise that we’d follow wherever he turned off and

not complain about it. And he did find us a spot by a lake, though I’m not sure lovely is the word for it. In fact, it was so infested with blackflies that after one step out of the van I retreated indoors, shutting the windows and slapping madly at the bugs that had managed to invade my home in the few seconds it took me to get inside. I don’t know what the others did that evening; I didn’t emerge from my van until we left the next morning. I DON’T like blackflies.

Next morning we headed out with scarcely a word to each other, afraid to give the blackflies any more opportunities to suck our blood. With Kim continuing in the lead, we continued up the dirt road, dodging the spray of pebbles following the trucks barreling south and trying to keep out of each other’s dust clouds. To either side of the road were forests. Miles and miles and miles of forests, endless forests. No side roads, no views of splendid lakes, no caribou or moose, just gravel road and dust clouds ahead of us and dense forest to the right and left.

Following the advice we’d gotten from everyone we talked to, we stopped to fill our tanks every time we had the chance. There aren’t a lot of gas stations along Quebec Route 389, so if you want to get where you are going, you fill up at all of them. Don’t even ask about the price, it doesn’t matter, take whatever you can get. So at kilometer 320 we pulled into the vast open space and scattering of small dismal buildings that is Relais Gabriel, a hotel, restaurant, shop, and way station for people traveling to and from Labrador. After filling the tank, I bought some dreadful coffee and got to talking to some other folks milling around.

And so I heard the news. Or should I say, The News?

The ferries weren’t running in Goose Bay.

The folks I talked to live further up the road in Lab City, five hundred kilometers from Goose Bay, and were on their way to vacations in Newfoundland. Via Baie Comeau, Gaspé, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the ferry to Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland. Fifteen hundred kilometers. Not via the nearby Goose Bay and the ferry to Cartwright that we planned to take.

There were too many icebergs in the bay, and the earliest the ferry company thought they might get the boats moving was June 24. But July was a possibility as well. Their advice to the residents of Lab City – if you don’t want to spend your whole vacation waiting in Goose Bay for a ferry, drive down to Nova Scotia and take the ferry there. First priority once the ferries do start running goes to commercial traffic, not vacationers, so with only two boats a week under the best of circumstances, it could be a long wait.

We were thunderstruck.

Phil muttered and sputtered about those damned fool ferry operators, afraid of a few bergy bits, and went off to smoke a cigarette in his van.

Kim fumed about heading up to Lab City anyway, just so we could make it to Labrador, and stomped off, furious.

I laughed. My approach to unexpected adversity, the instant adjustment. “Okay, what’s this trip all about now?” Drop the plan we’d worked on for six months, let’s start from scratch and decide what we wanted to do on our vacation in Canada.

No more need to hurry, so we piled an assortment of food and maps onto a picnic table and ate lunch while considering roads and towns and alternate options. Kim realized it made no sense to drive further north, burning fuel and risking a cracked windshield or worse on the gravel road. He figured he’d head to Gaspé, and was anxious to get back to Baie Comeau in time to catch a ferry across the wide St. Lawrence that evening.

Phil, whose schedule was open, decided he was going to go on to Goose Bay, spend some quiet time drinking beer with the locals, and wait for the ferries to run.

I figured I’d head back to Baie Comeau, then work out where to go next.

So sadly, I said good-bye to Phil. So many months of emailing each other about this trip to Labrador, and we didn’t even get to spend a week traveling together. He pulled out a present he’d planned to give me at the end of the trip, a Canadian flag, and I hung it on the back of my bicycle, where it would flap madly in the wind as I drove. I took a lot of pictures of him in his van, ready to head north towards Lab City.

And then I followed Kim back onto the road, leaving Phil behind at Relais Gabriel.

Driving south, I decided to head further up the north shore of the St. Lawrence instead of heading straight to Gaspé. There were great seabirds to see in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and I hoped maybe we could catch the coastal boat up to Blanc Sablon and then the ferry to St. Barbe instead of having to drive around to Nova Scotia to take the ferry from North Sidney.

But then a VW pulled ahead of me – Phil! I pulled over on the road laughing. He had gone just a few kilometers up the road and realized that he didn’t want to sit by himself for weeks in Goose Bay hoping for a ferry, he’d much rather keep traveling with us. He wanted to head up the north shore of the St. Lawrence as well. So he’d turned around, figuring it wouldn’t take long to catch up to us.

So we headed back together to Baie Comeau. Kim took off ahead of us, and did catch that ferry to Gaspé – at least as far as we know – but at least for the moment Phil and I were traveling together again.

And that was the end of the Labrador Caravan.

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