Trans-Lab Adventure 2018 Part Three: The Raft River to Happy Valley-Goose Bay

The Raft River to Happy Valley-Goose Bay – 213 miles

May 31, 2018 — I woke to the sound of rain pattering on my tent. It wasn’t torrentail. I got up. Dean and I huddled around his Jetboil, not talking much, till the coffee was ready. The rain let up and we packed our things.

Before we left, we went down to the river and, kneeling on a large, flat rock, washed our faces and hands. The water was bracing. It couldn’t have been more than a few degrees above freezing. Then, I gave Dean Fishbones’ bottle. It had been a perfect hobo campsite. Dean said some words and sprinkled him into the Raft River. The water carried him down stream and into the ages.

Around 50 miles down the road, we hit Churchill Falls. It’s a funny name for the town, since there’s no falls — not anymore. In 1970, they diverted the Churchill River into a series of giant tubes leading to power generating turbines. Once the water has done it’s electricity-making, it’s spit back out into the water course. The river diversion leaves the 245-foot “falls” mostly dry.

The town is one of the last truly company towns in North America. The Churchill Falls Labrador Corporation Limited owns everything. It’s got a humungus, central building, like Fermont in Quebec, though not nearly as large. It did have an eatery, hotel and supermarket inside.

We made our way there, first. Inside, we found the bathroom and the restaurant. I had fried chicken and onion rings. Dean had an open faced turkey sandwich with a surprise bone in the middle. We were the only ones there. During a lull in the conversation, I heard something like nails on a chalkboard.

It was the sound of Donald Trump’s voice.

I got up to see where it was coming from. Around the corner, it turned out, was a wall-mounted television tuned to a Canadian news channel. The big story was new aluminum tariffs and tension between the United States and Canada.

Tension between our two countries — for no good reason — is bad enough. But to have to endure the sound of political pundits and politicians that far from home, after a night on the Raft River, was too much. I lost my appetite and almost didn’t finish my o-rings. Needless to say, we didn’t linger in the restaurant.

Wandering around the colossal building, we found a gift shop and post office. I sent a card home and Dean bought tchotchkes. Then, after a return visit to the restrooms for good measure, we went to the supermarket for road snacks.

As we were stowing our snacks, a four-door work truck parked next to us. Inside, was a load of hard-hatted men, smoking cigarettes. They asked where we were from. We told them. Then, they asked us to tell our president to drop the steel and aluminum tariff shenanigans before someone got hurt. They were good natured but not joking.

We promised to phone Trump with the request as soon as we got home. It sure is embarrassing to be lumped in with American politicians when traveling abroad.

Labrador’s Route 500, which is the actual Trans-Labrador Highway, stretches into the distance just outside Happy Valley-Goose Bay. (Photo by Troy R. Bennett)

We got gas from a friendly young station attendant, who asked us a lot of good questions about New England, and left town.

For three hours we rode over the same, snow-patched landscape as before. Then, after more roadside coffee and cigarillos, our path started to descend. The rocks and stunted spruce gave way to leafless birch tall evergreens and glacial sand. It got warmer, too. We were coming into the Happy Valley.

Then, without ceremony, Route 500 — the true Trans-Lab Highway — came to an end. At a junction, Route 510 went left, toward Northwest River and the Hamilton River Road led right, into Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Pausing just a moment, we turned right. Before we got into the town, proper, I stopped to make a phone call. We’d been given Liz and Mike’s number by a friend of a friend with assurances they’d take care of us.

I got Liz on the phone and she gave me directions to their house. As we tooled into town, I noticed a bike pull out of a side street and start tailing us. It was blue, maybe a Suzuki V-Strom, and followed us clear across town.

When we pulled off the main street, into the Mike and Liz’s  residential neighborhood, the bike stayed with us. I wondered what was going on.

When we stopped, just in front of our destination, it pulled up alongside of me. Just then, Mike came striding out of his yard to welcome us. Before Mike reached me, the man on the bike asked us if we needed a place to stay. He’d heard about our trip on the forum. When he spotted us, he figured out who we were.

I just had time to tell him that we were meeting folks just now. I turned to say hello to Mike as he reached me and the man on the blue bike left. I never got his name but I don’t suppose I’ll forget his friendly gesture. It was impressive.

Liz (from left) Dean, me and Mike. (Photo by Mike)

Mike and Liz could not have been more welcoming, giving us lots of wonderful food and plenty of beer. We went from strangers to old friends in about two hours. After dinner, it was decided we’d stay a day with them and rest a little. Mike had the next day (Friday) off and would show us around.

Dean and I went to sleep that night in a finished room above the garage. It was a palace. We had no trouble dropping off to dreamland. Mike and Liz’s energy, conversation and amazing hospitality had left us fat, happy and a little dazed.

Soccer players compete for the Junior Lab Cup in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. (Photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Happy Valley Goose Bay – 0 miles

June 1, 2018 — Our first stop on a daylong tour of the town was the E.J. Broomfield Arena and the 7th annual Guardian Hamilton Drugs Junior Labrador Soccer Cup. We watched teams of kids and teens from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Churchill Falls and Labrador City kick the ball around, arena football style, in a converted hockey rink.

It was pretty awesome way to play soccer with no out-of-bounds, a short field and plenty of banked passes off the boards. The games were short, too. A big crowd of folks were in the stands watching the truly community event. All the teams were sponsored by local businesses.

A girl watches the action in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. (Photo by Troy R. Bennett)
I could have hung out there all day. (Photo by some kid I handed my phone to)

I could have stayed there all day but Dean is not a sports fan. He was itching to see some other stuff, especially a museum up in Northwest River. Mike drove us up there to the Labrador Interpretation Centre.

The impressive museum was at the end of the line in the largely Inuit town of Northwest River. It was about a 40 minute drive up Route 520 from where we’d watched the soccer. The exhibits covered the history of Labrador, including the three indigenous peoples (Innu, Inuit and Metis) and white settlers who came later. It was fascinating stuff.

There was also a temporary exhibit I liked a lot by Inuit photographer Jennie Williams. I’m a sucker for good black-and-white photojournalism — and she’s the real deal, documenting her people and their community in Nain, way up on Labrador’s northern coast. Williams has also done projects photographing native peoples who have moved to the city in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

On our way back to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Mike spun us through the Innu community of Sheshatshiu. It’s very different from tidy Northwest River with its museum and hiking trails. Looking through the truck window it seemed desperately poor and disheveled. Trash-strewn yards encircled dilapidated homes where ragged kids played. The community center seemed tired and neglected.

As a tourist, just passing through, I can’t begin to understand the complicated social and economic forces at work in the two towns, separated by a thin strip of water. But the difference between them is one of the most startling things I’ve ever witnessed.

You could see the wide Churchill River from atop a hill in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. We crossed the bridge the next day. (Photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Back in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Mike drove us to every corner of the town and all over the military base. The base is the reason there’s a town. Started in 1942, it was a refueling stop for transatlantic flights during WWII. It was named Goose Bay because there was already a Gander in Newfoundland.

Throughout the Cold War, all sorts of NATO countries had planes and forces based there. The United States had the largest bunch, including secret nuclear weapons. These days, only Canadian forces remain.

Our last stop of the day was at the famous Northern Lights general store. They had everything from bras to bullets — including hunting supplies, camping gear, foul weather clothing, lingerie, and handmade art. I bought a little soapstone carving of a whale tail for my wife. To top it off, there’s a small museum of Labrador military history in the basement.

By the end of the day, Dean and I were exhausted. Sightseeing, it turned out, was hard work. Mike and Liz treated us to another fabulous meal and we went to bed rather early.

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