The Viking Trail and the Loneliest Highway in the World

Published: January 8th 2017
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The clouds and rain persisted up until we reached the majestic Gros Morne National Park, back on the western coast. This world heritage site was carved by glaciers and comprised mountains and picturesque lakes and fjords. Small little villages could be found along the main roads of this vast park. We stayed in one of the Federal campsites, and it was awesome. The weather seemed to be clearing up for the weekend too.

We headed out towards Gros Morne Mountain the next day, with a mission of getting to the top. It was a perfect day when we set out. We gained elevation quickly and soon enough we could see the mountain, about 800 meters tall. The path to the top involved navigating up a steep and rocky gully, and the boulders making up the path could sometimes be precarious. These types of hikes are always a lot of fun, and even Bev, who had seemed a bit concerned when looking at the trail from the base, was doing quite well. Once at the top we had great views of the surrounding park. The entire hike was about 16 kilometers and we were exhausted. On our way back to the camp we explored the pretty town of Rocky Harbour. Chicken was on the menu tonight, cooked over the flames of our fire.

We packed up early and drove down to a nearby fjord right off of Norris Point. There we joined up with a kayaking tour and set out to see some Gros Morne nature from this unique vantage point. We got to see Starfish, Bald Eagles, Jellyfish, as well as magnificent scenery. And the water was so warm. The sky was overcast and this made kayaking more enjoyable because we needn’t have to be inundated with sun rays. After this excursion, it was time to make our way up the Northern Peninsula. Many people we met stated that this region showed a different side of Newfoundland. We stopped to resupply on groceries at Point-aux-Choix, and then carried on a scenic coastal drive until we reached Pistolet Bay Provincial Park a few hours later. It was windy as hell, and I had a tough time getting the fire going. We ended up cooking some meat and potatoes. Luckily the weather held out and we experienced no rain.

The next day we continued to L’Anse-aux-Meadows, the northernmost point in Newfoundland. Along the way we ran into a mother and baby moose crossing the road. Good thing we weren’t going fast or driving at night. We stopped and observed them for a bit. L’Anse-aux-Meadows is the site of the first, and only confirmed, Viking settlement in North America. The story goes that a colony of Vikings living in Greenland started exploring westward and eventually came upon Helluland (thought to be modern day Baffin Island). Finding that this land appeared inhospitable, they headed down along the coast of Markland (Labrador), until reaching L’Anse-aux-Meadows. From there they may have continued down to Vinland (further south towards the Maritimes). The settlement at L’Anse-aux-Meadows was most likely very temporary because of the harsh winters. When Vikings arrived here about a thousand years ago, it marked the completion of human migration around the world. The visitor center had loads of info about this historic settlement and then we walked around to see some unearthed ruins. There was also a recreated site, with Viking actors and other cheesiness. To be fair, the area itself was really nice and afterwards we went to check out some small villages close by. Then we headed to the town of St Anthony to resupply. This was the biggest town on the peninsula so we had to make it count. It’s often a great place to spot icebergs if you come at the right season. Unfortunately this wasn’t it and no icebergs could be seen. But we did notice pods of humpback whales in the bay. They breached and shot water from their blowholes. We then backtracked and proceeded south to the town of St. Barbe. We spent the night in a crappy RV park. I made sure to set up the tarp over our tent as rain was coming.

Sure enough, when I woke up at five in the morning, rain was sprinkling the tent. Bev and I were up fast and soon packing up all of our stuff. We then crossed the street and waited in line to buy some ferry tickets. We had decided to try something bold, and attempt to return home through Labrador. Known as the Big Land, Labrador comprises the mainland of the Newfoundland & Labrador province. It has an area of close to 300 000 square kilometers, but there are only about thirty thousand people. Our ferry crossing of the Strait of Belle Isle took about an hour and a half, amidst the heavy rain. We arrived at the small town of Blanc-Sablon, which rested right on the border of Quebec and Labrador. Technically I was back in my home province, but only for a few minutes before crossing into Labrador. For now at least, Route 510 was paved and we headed north along the one and only main road in this part of the province. The visibility due to rain had become pretty bad, so we stopped at a Robbins coffee shop in the town of L’Anse-aux-Claire. We also picked up a free Satellite phone, which the provincial government allowed to anyone planning on driving through the region, so long as it was returned on the other side. They do this for safety because of the vast distances without any form of communication along the way. We continued on and stopped in L’Anse-aux-Loup and went for a walk in the dreary weather. We saw the lighthouse and some remains of old shipwrecks. I was noticing small bites around me at this point and true to the rumours, the black flies were descending on us. Summer is black fly season here and we were already noticing the effects. We carried on to Red Bay. Fog was rolling in fast. We walked along the shore and saw old fossilized whale bones. Centuries ago, Basque sailors made the long journey here to hunt whale and extract the highly valued oils within. Due to this Red Bay is a designated National Historic Site. Unfortunately, the section of paved road we were enjoying ended at Red Bay and the gravel section of our coastal drive started. This part of the gravel road was terrible, with potholes and up heaves strewn about. We quickly began to question our sanity at attempting this journey. Bev was driving and stressed, reducing speeds to try to avoid a flat tire or other damage. Eventually the condition of the road improved somewhat, and we got better used to it. The drive itself was uneventful as we headed up the coast and then started heading inland. The area was heavily forested with countless small lakes along the way. I found the nature relaxing but there really was nothing else to see, because there was nothing else. We had ample food and water, an extra full size tire and a space saver, and an extra canister of gas. We put on some tunes and just enjoyed the bumpy ride. From time to time we stopped for bathroom breaks and had to make it fast because of the carnivorous black flies! We reached the town of Port Hope Simpson by late afternoon and got a room at the Alexis Hotel. Yeah we were taking a little break from camping on this night. We ordered pizza at the hotel and just spent the evening relaxing.

We made sure our gas tank was filled before taking off the next day. We had 320 kilometers before reaching the town of Happy Valley – Goose Bay. As far as we knew, it would be all gravel. I was behind the wheel this time. We set out on the seemingly endless and lonely road through the wilderness. We would occasionally see an eighteen wheeler, pickup truck or car. Sometimes we’d see a large maintenance truck regrading parts of the gravel. The road itself, by this time of year, was packed down quite well and seemed to be maintained a lot better than I was expecting. Our first mishap of this journey happened early. An oncoming dump truck was passing us and a rock flew at the windshield, leaving a crack about the size of a quarter. Although we learned to make it a habit to put the windshield wipers into high gear the moment anything passed us, fate had it for this rock to get us. We continued for a few hours, never seeing any signs of human life away from this main road. Although there were plenty of signs of black fly life. The minute the car slowed down, we’d see them swarming! We were greeted with a nice surprise about 70 kilometers to Happy Valley. All of a sudden the gravel road turned into the most beautiful asphalt and we glided happily along. Until that moment I don’t think I ever realized how much I’ve taken asphalt for granted as a driver. We reached Happy Valley by late afternoon and decided to visit the information center that was still open. We chatted with a young local who manned the center, and learned some pretty cool things about this town of 7000 people, as well at many things about Labrador itself. He then gave us a suggestion, as to where we might be able to camp. We drove north to a place called Gosling Park. It seemed that there might have been a commercial campsite there at one point, but now there wasn’t much left of anything. We decided to set up the tent right on the beach of the lake.

Waking up early the next morning, we were treated to an incredible sunrise over the lake. We made breakfast and then took off just as the devilish black flies began to emerge. Our goal for this day was to reach Labrador City, about 500 km away on the Trans-Labrador highway. The good news was that the road between us and there was now fully paved. This made our drive considerably easier compared to the previous day, as well as a little more relaxed. We listened to music and ate snacks as we gazed off at the wilderness. Although there was still hardly anything around, I think the fact that this stretch was paved made it seem as though there was more civilization. We still had our sat phone just in case. About halfway into the drive, we passed by Churchill Falls, known for its enormous hydroelectric plants. Massive electric towers followed us towards Lab City. A few hours later we reached the town of Wabush, just next to Lab City, and returned our borrowed satellite phone at the designated hotel. I had an interesting conversation with the hotel concierge and then we headed into Lab City. Large iron ore deposits can be found here and this is how Lab City emerged a few decades back. This city has a Wal-Mart, famous fast food chains, and a few grocery stores. Back to civilization for the time being. We resupplied and then visited a nearby lake, simply because Bev got excited when she noticed while looking at the map, that it was called Beverley Lake. We headed west again and reached the provincial border, and just like that we left the Big Land and where now back in Quebec. A few kilometers away was the town of Fermont and we found a campsite there. The black flies were so brutal that we had to wear head nets while preparing supper. I got a large fire going, and the owner of the place told me I could grab loads of wood from a pile as I needed (or at least that’s what I assumed!). Needless to say I made a very large fire. It was a cold night with the temperature dipping to about six degrees centigrade. But something quite unexpected happened. Bev pointed it out while I was consumed with staring at the fire. In the sky to our east, green light was dancing among the stars. We stared for some time, and realized that, at least for us, it isn’t often you get to see the Aurora Borealis.

We were now tasked with surviving Route 389 all the way to Baie-Comeau. This notorious highway has a mix of paved and unpaved sections, and certain parts contain sharp turns, rapid elevation gains, and poor surface area. From km 567 to 495, the highway is quite accident prone. Many locals have been urging the government that it badly needs realignment, although I believe that work has already begun to improve it. I took it easy over this section and gave large berth to passing trucks. We heard stories of many people getting flat tires in this section so while I drove; Bev looked far and pointed out anything that could cause a puncture. I happily avoided anything suspect. The sky was cloudy and we had rain often. While there were emergency phones, they were few and far between. We reached the halfway point several hours later, and skirted the eastern edge of the Manicouagan Crater. It is thought that about 214 million years ago, a 5 km asteroid made impact and excavated the crater. Several decades ago, the dams had been constructed and the area has been flooded with water. Hydro-Quebec has several hydroelectricity plants coming down along the Manicouagan River. The most famous one is known as Manic-Cinq, and we stopped there and had a free presentation of the history of the facility. We decided to forego the tour of the plant itself, because we still had several hundred kilometers to drive and it was already mid afternoon. We continued south amidst beautiful nature and noticed that the weather was becoming ever warmer, and the black flies ever sparser. Finally we emerged from Route 389, and were greeted by the town of Baie-Comeau. The weather forecast had said that it was supposed to be a beautiful evening, but all I saw were menacing black clouds. Soon enough, the skies opened up and a violent thundershower began. We looked at each other and decided that we’d just go for some comfort and found a cheap motel. We went out and got some rotisserie chicken for dinner.

It was a beautiful morning when we prepared breakfast outside the motel. Then we headed down along the north shore on Route 138. Along the way we stopped in a few pretty villages, and reached Tadoussac and crossed the Saguenay River by ferry. The terrain began to get very hilly after this, and the scenery was intensely beautiful. Quebec is a vast but stunning province. We reached Quebec City by the afternoon and set up our tent at a campsite close to the city center. We then walked around the Old City in the early evening and enjoyed the atmosphere. Although I had cycled into Quebec City on my way out to Nova Scotia, I didn’t take the time to really sight see, so I was making up for it now. Apart from getting some ice cream, we didn’t really buy anything else in town and just strolled around. We stopped at a grocery store and picked up some fish, and once back at the campsite made our final dinner over the fire. It was a bittersweet moment.

The next morning we took down the tent for the final time on this trip. After preparing our usual breakfast, we were off towards Montreal. Exploring Canada has never been this much fun. It’s a big country but it’s fair to say that we were both thrilled to have the opportunity to experience the parts that we did. The distance from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia (where Bev met up with me after my cycling trip) to home was about 6000 kilometers! There’s still a lot more to discover, but that’ll be for another tale.

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