Labrador Coastal Drive

Distance - 628km

From L’Anse-au-Clair to Cartwright

The coast of Labrador is a wilderness filled with rugged seacoast, fast running rivers and breathtaking mountain ranges. Here the ancestors of the aboriginal Inuit and Innu lived for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. And it is here that the descendants of European settlers pursue a unique rural coastal lifestyle learned from the native peoples. Change comes slowly here, but change is coming. A road now connects L'Anse au Clair on the Strait of Belle Isle with Cartwright 400 km north on Sandwich Bay.

The ocean here is called Iceberg Alley. Every spring and summer thousands of bergs, ranging in size from bergy bits the size of a car to mountains of ice weighing millions of tonnes, traverse these waters before melting in warmer waters southeast of Newfoundland.

Visitors travelling to coastal Labrador will visit old settlements and enjoy rugged coastal scenery. Massive icebergs are a very common sight on this journey. Here you will find a series of small, isolated communities where you can see how European settlers adapted to a life based mainly on fishing and, later, forestry. About a thousand years ago a Viking travelling to Greenland from Iceland was blown off course and sighted, but did not land, in what we now call Labrador. Later Viking explorers sailed along this coast, noting the stands of timber and a long beach north of present-day Cartwright they called the Wonderstrands.

Labrador is just across the Strait of Belle Isle from Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula. On a clear day it is visible across the 17.6 km-wide channel that funnels the icy Labrador current into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Southern Labrador is the traditional home of the summer fishermen who first travelled from the Island of Newfoundland to the lucrative fishing grounds off its coast centuries ago. Today this area is inhabited by the descendants of those first summer fishermen. This tour will introduce you to this community of friendly, independent spirits and to a region that offers a wilderness experience that you will never forget.

This Labrador tour begins on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, at the Viking Trail community of St. Barbe, where you can take a 90-minute ferry ride across the Strait of Belle Isle to the Labrador-Quebec boundary. During the late spring and early summer, icebergs and floes drift southward to melt in the warmer waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These mountains of floating ice originate in the high Arctic and Greenland and offer spectacular photo opportunities as they drift past Newfoundland and Labrador.

Departing Blanc Sablon (Quebec), the western terminus of the ferry, take Route 510 along the 80-km stretch of paved highway that connects the communities along the southeastern coast of Labrador. The first community you’ll come to in Labrador is L'Anse-au-Clair, just 5 km from Blanc Sablon. It was founded by the French in the early 1700s. While you are visiting this scenic fishing outport, you can check out the local craft store. There’s also a restored early 20th century church which now serves as the regional Visitor Information Centre.

Along the Forteau and Pinware Rivers during the months of July and August, trout and salmon anglers should be prepared to meet their match on the many pools, steadies and rattles. Trout anglers venturing on the far reaches of the Forteau River, and indeed on any of the excellent angling areas in Labrador, should bring a reliable insect repellent to discourage unwanted company. A small provincial park at Pinware River is an ideal base for exploring the entire area.

At nearby L'Anse-Amour is a National Historic Site where archaeologists have uncovered a burial mound that is the oldest known funeral monument in North America. The Maritime Archaic people buried a 12-year-old boy here 7,500 years ago. Aboriginal people lived here as early as 9,000 years ago when it was on the edge of the retreating glaciers. A series of small campsites and burial grounds is all that remains of these early relatives of Paleo-Indian caribou hunters of northeastern North America. The descendants of these early inhabitants of Southern Labrador later fished and hunted whales in the Strait of Belle Isle. The numerous species of fish and seabirds along the coast also supported later bands of Inuit (Eskimos) and even Newfoundland's Beothuks Indians who made their homes here.

At Point Amour you'll find a 109-foot lighthouse, the second tallest in Canada. Built in 1854-58 to aid navigation through the Strait of Belle Isle, the interior has recently been refurbished, and exhibits and an interpretation centre added.

The first European settlers in the Straits came from England, the island of Jersey, and Newfoundland, and in the mid-nineteenth century most arrivals were from Dorset, Devon and Somerset. After that, settlers tended to be Newfoundlanders moving north.

L'Anse-au-Loup, Captstan Island and West St. Modeste are communities whose ancestors first came as `livyers' (meaning, `I live here') from the Island of Newfoundland to permanently settle in what were at first only temporary summer fishing stations along the coast.

During the month of August, Forteau is the home of the annual Labrador Straits Bakeapple Folk Festival. The event is named for the golden-coloured berries, also called cloudberries, that grow in abundance along this coast. They are considered by the locals to be a great delicacy. The four-day festival has lots of berry picking, but the fun also includes baking contests, traditional music, dance, song and storytelling. A variety of distinct craft items are sold during the festival. They range from caribou skin mittens and rug work to tapestries, carvings and colourful embroidered clothing.

At the end of the paved section of Route 510 is Red Bay, where the site of one of the earliest industrial complexes in the New World - a Basque whaling station - has been declared a National Historic Site. Archaeologists have discovered several shipwrecks from the period of 1550- 1600 when this was the world whaling capital, supplying Europe with oil for lamps and soap.

Archaeologists have uncovered an astounding number of tools and personal effects that confirm European habitation of this coast during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of these are now conserved in the Interpretation Centre. Self-guided tours of nearby Saddle Island, where the main station was located, are available during the summer months.

From Red Bay you can now drive north to Mary's Harbour, Port Hope Simpson, Charlottetown and Cartwright, which is 323 km north of Red Bay.

People who live in communities and were linked to the outside world only by coastal boat, aircraft, snowmobile or ATV are now getting used to driving to larger centres to shop, and are seeing more visitors, explorers who want to see what is essentially virgin tourist territory.

Battle Harbour was a fishing port as early as the 1750s, and was one of the first European settlements along the coast. In the 19th and 20th centuries it was a major centre for the floater fishery from Newfoundland, and in 1893 Dr. Wilfred Grenfell had established his first Labrador hospital here.

Many of Battle Harbour's old commercial and public buildings survived the fire, and in the 1990s a major restoration program helped preserve what is the most intact fishery outport in the province. The modernization that swept Newfoundland and Labrador in the decades after Confederation in 1949 bypassed Battle Harbour and so left a priceless built heritage virtually intact. You can reach Battle Harbour by boat from Mary's Harbour in summer, and there are accommodations and tours available.

Port Hope Simpson, a logging community and one of the newest towns in the province, was founded only in 1934 when a sawmill was constructed to cut pit props in the extensive forests near the town. People have fished near here since the mid-1800s. Charlottetown evolved into a permanent settlement from a collection of smaller coastal villages that had depended on fishing and trapping. Around 1949 the current location was chosen because it had lots of timber, fresh water and flat land for a future airstrip. The man who named the town, Ben Powell, wanted it to become the capital of St. Michael's Bay in the same way that Charlottetown became the capital of Prince Edward Island.

You can also reach the Strait of Belle Isle area on the Quebec coastal freighter that serves ports along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River between Natashquan at the end of Quebec Route 138 and Blanc Sablon. This boat calls at nine ports over a two-day period.

Despite their isolation, most of these communities were settled two centuries ago by fishermen from Newfoundland and Europe. Lodge Bay, for instance, became a winter station for the fishermen of nearby Cape St. Charles in the 18th century. Just up the coast is Mary's Harbour, which has grown to a major centre this century.

Nearby Battle Harbour has been fished since at least 1759 and is one of the oldest European settlements on the Labrador coast. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was a major centre for `floater' fishermen from Newfoundland who sailed to Labrador to catch and salt cod in the summer. In 1893 Dr. Wilfred Grenfell established his first hospital here to serve people on the coast, and in 1905 the first lighthouse in Labrador was constructed on nearby Double Island. The community declined following a major fire in 1930 and was resettled in 1966 to nearby Mary's Harbour. Now a summer fishing station, Battle Harbour has been restored to its 1800s form. Some of the old buildings, such as an 1850s church, still stand, and summer accommodations are available for travellers.

Just north of Mary's Harbour the main road swings inland away from the coast and through the wilderness, while a new road connecting St. Lewis, Route 513. stretches 30 km to the east. Route 510 meets the coast again at Port Hope Simpson, one of the newer communities in this area. The town was established by John Hope Simpson, who started a logging business here in the 1930s.

Another new settlement founded because of vast timber stands in the area is Charlottetown, which dates from the middle of this century. You can reach it via route 514 from Route 510. The coastal scenery here is beautiful. This heavily wooded area contrasts sharply with northern Labrador where tundra dominates the landscape. Offshore is the Gannet Islands Ecological Reserve, the largest razorbill colony in North America and a major breeding colony for murres, puffins, and black-legged kittiwakes.

The new road ends at Cartwright, although there are plans to build another road from here to Happy Valley-Goose Bay over the next decade. For the time being, the connection between the two will be a ferry. A separate coastal boat (no cars) will connect tiny communities between Cartwright and Pinsent's Arm.

Cartwright was named for Capt. George Cartwright, a merchant adventurer who lived along the coast for about a decade in the late 1700s. Cartwright had better relations with the Inuit than his contemporaries. Cartwright was the subject of a 1990s novel called The Afterlife of George Cartwright, which was nominated for a Governor-General's Award for Canadian fiction. The community which bears his name is a major service centre for the coast.

A great adventure along this part of the coast is a trip on the groomed snowmobile trails that connect the communities of southeast Labrador in the winter.

The ferry from Cartwright to Happy Valley-Goose Bay traverses the narrow waterway of Hamilton Inlet that connects the ocean to Lake Melville. It was probably here that Norse rovers Thorvald Eiriksson and Thorfinn Karlsefni landed on their journey westward to undiscovered lands. Some people believe that the Lake Melville area was the Markland - the Land of Forests - of the Viking sagas.

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