Last-Chance Adventure on the Trans-Labrador Highway
story and photography by Jeff McQueen
Are you interested in an exciting dual-sport trip to a remote destination that isn’t 10,000 miles away? Do you like gravel roads, lots of saddle time and challenging riding? A ride on the Trans-Labrador Highway (TLH) will take you as far north as you can go on two wheels in Eastern Canada, and will give you bragging rights to a special trip. Although you won’t be the first to ride this great loop, compared to other North American adventure plums such as Alaska’s Haul Road to Prudhoe Bay, you will be among a very small group of riders.
Better make plans soon! The heart of this trip is the 650 miles of remote gravel road that stretch from Eastern Quebec all the way across Labrador. Two things threaten to take much of the “adventure” out of this ride. Paving is scheduled to begin in the next year, and a bridge and newly built paved-road section will eliminate the 13-hour ferry ride now required to complete the trip. These changes will certainly bring development along with them to a roadway that is currently remote. Labrador is the size of New England but has only 30,000 people, and most of them are in two towns. It’s so remote the government provides free satellite phones for travelers at both ends of the TLH. Going in April through October will avoid snow, but not black flies, and it rains a lot.
Wherever you start, most riders will pass through Quebec, as I did after a quick highway blast up from Massachusetts. It’s still easy to enter Canada, but plan on packing a passport. The old city of Quebec is quaint, filled with street performers, some reasonable hotels and great restaurants. I arrived in the first week of September without a reservation and stayed in a small hotel overlooking the St. Lawrence.
Departing Quebec and heading northeast on Route 138 along the St. Lawrence, after 25 miles the development disappears and sweeping views of the water are around every corner. The road surface is good, with high-speed sweepers and lots of grade changes. Canadians don’t dawdle on the road and the light traffic let me make good progress. At midday I hit the Saguenay River, which has a free ferry every 15 minutes and gets you across faster than many toll booths I’ve waited for. Farther north the road passes through several small villages that could provide coffee, food and other amusements. But I was too excited to get off the bike, and pressed on the 250 miles to Baie-Comeau. The last two hours were cold and raining. Fortunately my gear is dialed in, waterproof from head-to-toe with Widder electrics, and my Suzuki V-Strom has a big shield and hand protectors.
Leaving Baie-Comeau the next morning the road dives north into the wilderness and you immediately feel like you’re heading away from civilization. Route 389 is called the rock and roll highway because it rocks and rolls up and down and is twisty heaven through the forest. The only traffic was Suburbans filled with workers heading to the giant hydroelectric facilities to the north, and going fast enough to make me push to keep them off my tail. The “Beware of Moose” signs are serious—I even came upon a recently killed animal right after one sign. The logging trucks wear massive moose guards over their grilles—hitting a 1,000-pound animal at 65 mph is serious business.
The high-speed fun ends abruptly at Manic 5, the Hydro facility. A sign says “Labrador City,” where I turned onto a gravel road that felt like I was riding on the beach. My 875 pounds of bike, gear and rider were fishtailing, and the front wheel hunted back and forth looking for a solid bite. And I was thinking “650 miles of this—no way.” A few miles out the road hardened up and I was off. I had run into one of the many obstacles that would repeat itself over the next 650 miles: freshly graded gravel. The highway folks put down 6 inches of the stuff and wait for traffic to compact it. On this road that job can take days and days, and two narrow wheels are a lousy way to compact gravel.
As you get closer to Labrador the trees are smaller, and the rolling hills with low growth begin to seem like tundra. The last 50 miles before Labrador City was a mix of soft sections, potholes, slick damp clay and a light rain. Some of the washboard sections had me down to 15 mph and pounded my GPS onto its side on its Techmount and dislodged my spare gas can. I arrived in Labrador City after 300 miles ready for dinner and an early bed. Unfortunately, all of the contractors in Labrador had the same idea—they were there for a convention and there wasn’t a bed to be had. But as often happens with motorcycle adventure, as I was stopped asking for directions a guy walked up who had seen my Massachusetts plate. “You’re looking for a room, aren’t you? Well, there aren’t any!” He invited me to share his. It turned out he lived 20 miles away from me and was doing the same trip on a BMW F650 Dakar.
Labrador City sits on the western border of Labrador. The Trans-Labrador Highway, also known as the Freedom Road, begins here and runs 350 miles east, dead-ending at a ferry ride that takes you to the last 200 miles of it. It is a two-lane dirt road, the only road, and there is one town in the middle of the whole 350 miles where you can get gas and a place to sleep. That is Churchill Falls, a company town where everything is owned by one mining company. The road was only completed in the last 10 years so it traverses a lot of land that hasn’t had many people on it. It feels a long way from home.
Some people will go anywhere on a motorcycle, and I’ve heard of the TLH being ridden on a sportbike with street tires. My choice was a Suzuki DL1000 V-Strom with Metzeler Tourance tires. Even with this dual-sport rubber, I envied the Beemer group I met who were on more aggressive Continental TKC80s. I think most people would be happier on a lighter motorcycle, with the most dirt-oriented rubber they can run. My Jesse bags were great and the mounting system stood up to a real beating. The temperature range during my 11 days in September was 38-80 degrees, so my heated grips and Widder vest were very useful on a few days. I carried basic tools, a CyclePump and plug kit, as well as 2.5 extra gallons of gas to add to the V-Strom’s 5.8 gallons. The longest distance between gas stations is 175 miles, but I liked the comfort of that extra gas. And I did miss one chance to fill the tank and had to resort to the extra can.
Although the dirt riding begins in Quebec before Labrador, the ride on the TLH is usually made in three days. The challenge is that the surface is always changing from wear and repair. Riding it you learn to evaluate the surface in the distance from the subtle shades and colors of the dirt. The hardest sections were covered with 4 inches of loose 1-inch stone, which made the front tire feel like I was riding on a ski. Close to the end of the road at Goose Bay, I felt like the riding was really hard and the bike was at its limit for stability.
Goose Bay is the end of the road, but not the end of the trip in Labrador. The town has a giant military air base where many commercial American planes were diverted on 9/11. Hundreds of stranded passengers were taken into schools and private homes for several days. Many of these Americans returned to Labrador over the next few years and brought millions of dollars in donations to the people, schools and hospitals. It’s a great untold story. From Goose Bay I got on the twice-weekly ferry and traveled overnight along the shore to Cartwright and the last piece of road in Labrador.
We hit Cartwright at 5:30 a.m. and I rode off the ship into the early glow of sunrise. Like the rest of Labrador there is only one road, and it stretches the last 210 miles to Blanc Sablon and the ferry to Newfoundland. With one road everyone finds each other sooner of later, and soon I hooked up with the BMW group and the solo rider who had shared his room. Heavy motorcycles don’t like soft surfaces—they wallow. The bike gets more stable if you ride at higher speeds, but if you still crash do you want to do it at 60 or 30 mph? I struggled with that one, but my right hand definitely saved me over and over. When the pavement returned at the very end I saw two guys get off their bikes and kiss the road.
A short ferry ride took me over to Newfoundland, an enormous place that is a destination in itself. My clock was ticking and I had more than 1,100 miles, two ferry rides and the U.S. border crossing to knock off before arriving home in Massachusetts. Don’t wait too long to tackle the TLH—this is a last chance adventure.
For info on accommodations, ferry schedules, restaurants, shopping, etc., contact the Viking Trail Tourist Association at (800) 563-6353 or www.vikingtrail.org. Ask for the guidebook.
[From the June 2007 issue of Rider]