Across Labrador by Road and Ferry
The interior of Labrador is a vast wilderness with recent pockets of modern industrialization in Wabush/Labrador City, Churchill Falls and Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Those who come this way will find an outdoor lover's paradise. There are thousands of pristine lakes teeming with trout, hundreds of rivers that will test your boating skills and kilometre after kilometre of forests and barren ground filled with game. Labrador has an area of 293,347 square kilometres and a population of only about 30,000 permanent residents.
Only recently have western and central Labrador become accessible to motor vehicles. Every year, as the road system is expanded, more and more of this wild and wonderful part of the world is opened up. It is now possible to drive from Baie Comeau in Quebec to Labrador City and Wabush in western Labrador, then drive across Labrador to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, take a ferry to Cartwright, drive south 411 km to Blanc Sablon, take the ferry from there to St. Barbe on Newfoundland’s northwest coast, and then take a ferry from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia.
To begin this adventure, take partially paved Quebec Route 389 from Baie Comeau on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River and drive 581 kilometres through some incredibly beautiful countryside, passing through the Quebec communities of Manic V and Fermont, and into Labrador. The drive takes about 8.5 hours. You can also take a train from Sept Isles, Quebec, Labrador City/Wabush. This train is owned by the Iron Ore Company of Canada and primarily hauls iron ore pellets.
Western Labrador is known for its mining. The largest open-pit iron ore mining, concentrate and pelletizing mineral operation in North America is located at Labrador City, the heart of industrial Labrador. Since 1958, Labrador City and Wabush have grown from work camps to modern towns with many services and amenities usually found in much larger centres.
Labrador West offers visitors excellent summer sports and outdoor recreational activities which include some of the world's best angling. The Labrador City/Wabush area has facilities that attract curlers and golfers from all over. This part of Labrador also provides serious ski buffs with unparalleled downhill and cross-country action. The Smokey Mountain Alpine Ski Club and the Menihek Nordic Ski Club offer facilities that will please everyone from beginners to experts. The Nordic Ski Club is a world-class facility that has twice hosted World Cup events.
A major attraction every March is the Labrador 125 International Sled Dog Race. Although only a few years old, this annual event has rapidly developed a reputation as a challenge for even experienced mushers who have competed in the Iditarod and other races in northern Canada and Alaska.
Another recent addition to winter fun is the annual snowmobile festival sponsored by the White Wolf Snowmobile Club. This large club has trail groomers making trails all over the area, taking riders out into the wilderness to enjoy the scenery and, most years, to look at the world's largest caribou herd. This Quebec-Labrador herd migrates across provincial boundaries each year - hence its name - and numbers about 450,000 animals.
Route 500 is called The Freedom Road because it frees Labradorians to drive to larger centres and other provinces. For decades they were restricted to air, ferry or train travel because there were no roads out of Labrador. But the Freedom Road is no superhighway. From Labrador West to Churchill Falls it's 238 km of good gravel road. Average driving time is about three hours. The road between Churchill Falls and Happy Valley-Goose Bay has now been upgraded. It will take you an average of four to five hours to cover the 288 kilometres.
At Churchill Falls there is a modern town with services, accommodations and some very interesting attractions to visit. The community was built around one of the wonders of the modern world. At this point in its course, the waters of the Churchill River fall over 300 m in a 32-km section, which made it ideal for one of the world's largest hydroelectric generating stations. The water was diverted into underground facilities where the huge turbines produce 5,225 megawatts of power. Tours of this huge operation can be arranged at the town office.
A lot has changed in Labrador since World War II. Happy Valley-Goose Bay was made a transatlantic aircraft ferry facility by the wartime governments of the United States, Canada and Great Britain. Military activity had been decreasing substantially since World War II, but in recent years American, British, German and Dutch Air Forces have used the area as a base for low-level flight training. Happy Valley-Goose Bay is the major distribution centre of goods for coastal Labrador and it is the location of government offices for the region.
Some say that this part of the world is at its best during the winter months. The country is spectacular and there's lots to do - ice-fishing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and tobogganing - just to name a few. Downhill enthusiasts will love the Snow Goose Mountain Ski Club with its long runs and great apres-ski hospitality, while the Birch Brook Nordic Club draws raves from cross-country enthusiasts.
Two other communities accessible by road from Happy Valley-Goose Bay are Sheshatshui and North West River, the former International Grenfell Association headquarters for Labrador. This community was the home of Donald Smith (later Lord Strathcona), the Hudson Bay factor in Lake Melville who went on to become a driving force in the Company and earned distinction for his part as mediator in the Canadian Riel uprising. The present road through the community follows the horse trail Smith constructed to court his wife during Sunday afternoon carriage drives.
Modern day North West River is home to the descendants of the English, French and Scots who first made a living here as hunters and trappers. Sheshatshui is home to the Montagnais Innu, descendants of Labrador's once nomadic interior caribou hunters.
From Cartwright a new gravel road heads south, first through the interior and then along the coast south of Charlottetown. The main road is Route 510, and there are side trips possible to Charlottetown on Route 514, and St. Lewis on Route 515. See the Coastal Labrador Drive for details of the area between Cartwright and Blanc Sablon.