Meet Roger and Jan, owners of “Hans,” a 2012 Mercedes Benz Sprinter 3500, and a 2013 Ocean One conversion by Advanced-RV. In August 2017, the couple traveled Quebec Route 389 and the Trans-Labrador Highway 500 and 510. This is their adventure.
We left starting in Baie-Comeau, Quebec on Sunday, August 20 on Quebec Route 389, which runs north from Baie-Comeau, QC, 406 kilometers (252 miles) over twisting blacktop and rough gravel road to Fermont, QC, near the border with Newfoundland and Labrador.
We headed for Manic 5, a hydroelectric dam and power plant (the fifth and biggest on the Manicoughan River, thus the name) in the rain. The road was good blacktop pavement, but it twists and turns—and climbs up and down—as it works its way northward from the north coast of the Fleuve Saint-Laurent (Saint Lawrence River) through the heavily forested coastal mountains. We were told that the road twists and turns so much because they had to build it where the ground was solid enough to support the heavy truck traffic to the power plants and mines to the north. Manic 5—or more properly “Barrage Daniel-Johnson Manic Cinq”—draws water from a somewhat uniquely constructed dam that consists of seven arches supported by buttresses to lessen the amount of concrete and fill necessary to hold back the reservoir of water to power the generators. At the time it was constructed in the late 1960s, it was said to have been the largest construction project in North America. It now supplies power to the Province in the winter and New England in the summer.
We had arrived about 5 p.m., just in time for the last tour of the facility and spent the night boondocking at an overlook that gave us a glorious view of the dam lit up for the night.. We refueled at the Manic 5 gas station, a facility with fuel, restaurant, small cabins and gravel parking area for trucks. It’s 209 km from Baie-Comeau, and we purchased 34.09 litres at $1.374ca/litre ($5.2009 USD/gallon – not figuring the conversion anymore, as the US dollar is up against the Canadian dollar but the prices are higher and there is a 15% Harmonized Sales Tax on everything).
Headed out from Manic 5 on a steep, pothole-filled, gravel road we continued 223 km to Relais Gabriel over two and a half hours. The road further along was not too bad, but had lots of grades with washboarding. There was also a lot of road construction—mostly to replace culverts where streams cross the roadway, seemingly in preparation for paving. After lunch, Jan started driving 175 km of pavement to the “former town of Gagnon” and Fire Lake, and from there 67 km of nasty, nasty gravel road but some incredible scenery, especially as we passed the Manicouagon Impact Crater, which is the result of a meteor collision about 214 or so million years ago.
The hard, pitted, narrow road with many sharp turns had numerous railroad crossings, and at each crossing the potholes were numerous and deep so we were reduced to crawling speed. It took 4 hours to go the 242 km (150 miles!) from Gagnon to Fermont, QC, where we spent the night boondocking at a municipal campground.
Across the Border
From Fermont, QC, it is just a short jump past the giant CAT dump truck and around the corner on a paved road to cross the border into Labrador City, NL. We stopped at Tamarack Golf Course before getting into town to play 9 holes at a very well-cared for local course. We stayed overnight in the parking lot behind the Visitor Information Center. In the morning we did some shopping at Canadian Tire and Walmart—the last of those until central Newfoundland, picked up a Satellite Phone in Wabush (to be used in case of emergencies only) and set out in the rain for Churchill Falls on good pavement. Churchill Falls is a government company town owned by NALCOR (the Newfound and Labrador Energy Company). We boondocked overnight in the Town Centre’s parking lot. The next morning we toured the NALCOR power plant. It is entirely underground and built into 3.9 billion year old rock. It produces over twice the power of the Hoover Dam, sending power to the eastern seaboard of CA and US.
We traveled onward over 305 km of good paved highway to Happy Valley – Goose Bay, where we boondocked a couple nights on the beach at an abandoned campground called Gosling Park. There is a very well done Labrador Interpretive Centre at the nearby town of North West River telling the history of Labrador from when the First Peoples came about 10,000 years ago following the retreat of the last glaciers at the end of the Wisconsin Glacial period, then the Aboriginals, the Innu, the Inuit, the Settlers, the Metis to the Resettlement in the 1930s. “Modern” Labrador development didn’t occur until the 1900s because the land was so harsh and the flies so bad (the Trans Labrador Highway is only about 20 years old.) We considered, but did not take, the local supply boat to several native communities on the northeastern coast of Labrador to Nain.
We drove on toward Cartwright, leaving about noon and arriving about 7 p.m. Of the 400km, the first 67km was good pavement, followed by ok gravel road, then 100km of bad washboard and potholed road until the turnoff onto Hwy 516. Then it was 85 km of gravel, to Cartwright. We boondocked in the airport parking lot for the night, then went to the “Experience Labrador” outfitters and took a boat tour to the “Wonderstrand”—so named by the Vikings in about 1400, for its 53km of sand beach. We spent the rest of the time enjoying a rare day of sunshine in the harbor, watching the tide go out and the lights of the town come on.
The next morning it was on towards Battle Harbour, and back over 85km of ok gravel, then another 100km of washboard, dodging potholes and embedded rocks, to St. Mary’s Harbour where we boondocked in the Visitors Centre parking lot before going on to Battle Harbour for the next day and night. Battle Harbour is the site of a very successful and busy cod fishery business from the 1500s until the Cod Moratorium. Imposed by the Newfoundland government on a temporary basis in 1952 but still active, this moratorium essentially ended the cod fishing industry in Newfound and Labrador.
Battle Harbour is now a National Historic District/Heritage Site: “[A] restored salt fish premises and community on an island in the Labrador Sea, with virtually no modern distractions…” There are, however, guided walking tours, whale watching boat tours, hiking trails, wonderful accommodations and gourmet meals prepared by women who lived on the island until “Resettlement” of remote Labrador communities in the 1970s. This is a must-see place to spend a day and night, or better, 2 or 3 days.
After a wonderful breakfast of homemade waffles with Partridge Berry jam and maple syrup (all meals are prepared onsite with local ingredients as much as possible), we travelled on about 90 km to Red Bay, site of early Basque whaling operations from the 1600s, where paved roads were welcomed again.
We drove on to the historic L’Anse-Amour lighthouse and then L’Anse-au-Clair, where we dropped off our unused sat-phone and crossed back into Quebec. We just caught the evening ferry at Blanc Sablon over to St Barbe, Newfoundland, on August 30—10 days after we left Bair-Comeau.
In the End
I said that we “welcomed” the paved roads at Red Bay, but not fondly, for the rest of our time in Labrador and Newfoundland, we had to be ever vigilant to dodge cracks and pits and potholes and rough transitions at bridges—even on the Trans Canada Highway in NFLD. The maximum posted speed limit on the TCH is 100 km/h, most roads had 70 or 80 km/h, and back roads had posted limits of 50 km/h or less. And we rarely drove that fast with our house on wheels because of all the dodging we had to do to stay in our seats and keep the dishes quiet.
According to my Fuel Buddy app, we covered about 2,245 km (1,395 miles), using about 318.8 ltr (84.22 gallons) of diesel, at a cost of 512.19 CAD ($410.82 USD). That figures to 16.55 mpg. Good tires are a necessity. We have new Michelin Defenders, and together with a good suspension system (the VB Air suspension that ARV installs) the roads were bearable.
The dust was bad on the dirt roads, covering Hans and crusting our bicycles. Some people we spoke with later, who had made the same TLH crossing, spent a couple hours cleaning dust from all the nooks and crannies in their Class C RVs, but our Sprinter with ARV’s added insulation was quite dust-free on the inside. We suffered no great harm despite the shaking (but the 600km of gravel wore through the fiberglass tray that holds our drain hose as the only visible casualty).
It was a wonderful trip in a far away place, and an adventure we would recommend to all travelers. However, it is a trip we would not make again until the roads are paved—and then with some reservations. The provincial government in Newfoundland, promise that the whole highway will be paved by 2020, but the people in Labrador tell us that they have been hearing promises of pavement for many election cycles and will believe it when they see it.
Also some suggestions: leave the bikes at home because of the dust, because the roads are bad and narrow and because there are no bike paths in NL. Take your fishing gear as Labrador is said to have some of the best fishing in the world, and there are many places where lakes and rivers meet the road. And lastly, plan the week to take the boat to Nain—we couldn’t figure how to deal with leaving Hans alone for that much time.
The adventure to Labrador is off the beaten path … but we wish we could have gone to the even more rugged and beautiful places far off the highway, accessible only by ski-doo, boats and bush planes.
After we left Labrador we spent all of September on the island of Newfoundland, which is an ancient land of friendly people, unique beauty and interest: from the site at L’Anse aux Meadows where Lief Erickson landed in 1000 A.D; to Gros Mourne National Park where you can walk on the earth’s Mantle; to the many coves and inlets on along the coasts such as Twillingate and Fogo Island and the site of one of the “Four Corners Of The World” (according to the Flat Earth Society;) to Gander in central NFLD, the site of the largest airport in the world in the early days of transoceanic flight; to Bona Vista where John Cabot landed in 1497 opening the land to European fisheries and still vital communities; to Saint John’s, the capital city at the eastern-most point of North America.
It is a land well worth visiting and more accessible than Labrador – but not without challenging pothole-filled roads. When visiting Newfoundland however do not miss the chance to take the ferry over from St. Barbe, NFLD to Blanc Sablon, QC, to visit the Cote Nord and from there the road on up into Southeastern Labrador – to Red Bay and up to Battle Harbour – is in good shape and well worth the few hour’s drive to be “Lost and Found” in Labrador as the NL Traveller’s Guide puts it!
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