Drive as far as you can into northeastern Canada, and then take the ship farther

Bil Bowden

On Sunday a week ago, I was wandering around in jeans, hiking boots and a jacket to keep off the cold.

And I'm the one who's nutty for heading north on vacation?

Granted, this short jaunt into northeastern Canada was merely a short respite from Pennsylvania's July stickiness. But there's something intriguing  about absorbing as much cold as possible and storing it in your bones.

But, as much as travel is about weather and dodging 90 degree temps, it's the curiosity of a new place, new people and new lifestyles. The idea was simple-- drive as far north as I could, and then take a boat another 500 miles. Welcome to Nain, Labrador.

Labrador is a destination not plastered all over TV, magazines and internet travel sites. It's like Alaska a few decades ago-- before Priceline or Expedia. ID=86976680

Now, Labrador is so far off the beaten path, it's been joked that Canadians don't even know where it is. Americans think it borders Ecuador in South America.  And that's understandable. It doesn't have a lot of economic pull and tourists haven't discovered it yet either. It's as big as Arizona, but it's population is less than half of York city's. Because there is no cell coverage in Labrador, the government gives drivers returnable satellite phones to call police in case of emergency.

If you want to enjoy a quiet vacation, surrounded only by things of green and water and learn something along the way, Labrador/Newfoundland is the place to go. Getting there is the problem.

T-shirts in gas station bragged "I survived Canada 389". Gas in Relais Gabriel was $6.52 a gallon-- so, no T-shirt.  There's about 700 miles of sometimes very winding road (much of it dirt) from Baie Comeau on the north of the Saint Lawrence River to Goose Bay.  And Baie Comeau is six hours northeast of Quebec City. But once in Goose Bay, life is easy. You're covered in road dust, but it's easy.

"Goose" was founded/invented in 1941 as a Canadian Air Force base, and still boasts a space shuttle alternative runway. Unfortunately, Goose's value as an air base has fallen off with both Germany and Italy cancelling flight training contracts, and the future is not looking rosy for the base. However, a huge and very controversial hydro plant, Muskrat Falls, is due to start up in 2017 about 20 miles outside of Goose, which may offset any military loss.ID=86976684

Goose has almost no tourist facilities, and city hall even sent me to the wrong side of town for the information office. There were no history books to speak of, aside from dozens of "Them Times" books, a series of well-done local booklets. The town's history since 1941 and including 911 stories was no where to be found. These are very friendly folks who never expect tourists to rumble over 700 miles of questionable road to their Red Lion-sized town.

There is no McDonalds or similar fast food place. Tim Horton's-- Tim sells more food than McDonald's throughout Canada-- is the place to be for dinner. Tim's is more Canadian than hot dogs in the states, and it was started by, of course, a hockey player of the same name.

Just 25 miles outside Goose is North West River, a charming place with smiling folks and armies of mosquitoes. The Labrador Interpretation Centre's motto is 'The Past is Where We Come From' and tells a captivating story about the area's aboriginal people. The museum is top notch and its staff is even better.

From Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada website --What is the difference between First Nations, Inuit and Métis in Canada?  While there are many differences between First Nations, Métis and Inuit, these names refer to the three main groups of peoples who are the traditional inhabitants of this land. First Nations are those peoples who historically lived in North America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, below the Arctic. Inuit historically lived along the coastal edge and on the islands of Canada’s far north. The Métis descend from the historical joining of First Nations members and Europeans. The Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of Aboriginal people: Indians (now known as First Nations people), Métis and Inuit. These are three distinct peoples with unique heritages, languages, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs.

ID=86976686But it's from Goose Bay that that the MV Northern Ranger, a 235-foot freighter/passenger ship with a passenger capacity of 131, left on June 27 for its first 2016 trip north to the Inuit town of Nain, more than 500 miles away. The boat was scheduled to depart a week earlier, but pack ice made it impossible to get through, another understandable glitch. Ice just broke up a couple weeks ago.  Goose has an average low temperature of below freezing eight months of the year. The average summer high is 68, in Nain, only 60.

Goose Bay is at the southwestern end of Lake Melville, a fjord about 150 miles long, as much as 12 miles wide and 400 feet deep. Freight like four wheelers, snowmobiles, boats, groceries, building supplies is loaded. Fourteen tourists, four from the U.S., the rest Canadians, make their way up the noisy steps to the boat. Moments later, the Ranger is on its way to supply the six aboriginal towns along Labrador's northern coast. Some burgs have been out of some supplies for three months. Wooden pallets loaded with Coca-Cola and other sodas were among supplies delivered.

Built 30 years ago, the Ranger is no longer the gleaming ship it was once. It is showing its age, although it's been refitted with mechanicals. But small things show that the Ranger has lived a long time. Holes in walls where hooks or accessories once hung, the number of times it's been painted can be measured on handrails, Masking tape is still hiding the last coat. Dials in rooms have no cap with which to turn them. Portholes are fogged over and unknown crud is building between the two glass panes. The cafeteria food was good, and the soup excellent. But, we didn't expect the Queen Mary II or a luxury cruise. It's a freighter first, and we were happy with that description. It's unlikely anyone was surprised or disappointed by the accommodations.ID=86976688

Clipping along at about 15 miles an hour, the Ranger is scheduled to reach Nain in 2 1/2 days. But, once the ship turns north out of the 150-mile long Lake Melville, ice blocks the way.

Well, it wasn't blocking, just impeding. The boat slowed to just two MPH, snaking through the ice fields, crawling around the largest floes and icebergs.

It was a surprise to our little group of tourists. We went to bed on calm, quiet and clear waters and awoke to ice fields as far as we could see.

It was a Titanic moment.

We weren't expecting this. We had heard that ice might keep us out of Nain, but ice had instead appeared almost as soon as we turned north. But the crew took it in stride. It might extend our trip, they announced, but it's not a problem. We do this all the time.

The tourists tried to be brave.

The ice lasted for a couple days, and we even anchored one night in a quiet harbor to get out of the ice and start fresh in the morning. At that point, this 131-person capacity ship had only this Gang of 14 tourists on board. We called the harbor our 'campsite'.

ID=86976690The six towns along the route-- Rigolet, Makkovik, Postville, Hopedale,  Natuashish and Nain--have a combined population of 3,600, about the same as York County's Thomasville.  That the Canadian government runs a ship the entire summer to supply these tiny towns is rather remarkable. Aboriginal people want to continue their way of life, and that's why they choose to live far away from population centers. And their way of life continues today with fishing, hunting of caribou and seal, but also includes pickup trucks, snowmobiles, wi-fi, soda and four wheelers dropped off by the Ranger.

People here were amazingly friendly, and the Gang of 14 who took the season's first round trip -- many aboriginals use the ship like we use a taxi-- were treated like rock stars. They greeted us warmly, talked about their towns, let us take family pictures, gave us souvenir canvas bags, we visited their town halls and museums, and they offered some of the day's fish catch that was later cooked in the ship's cafeteria.

Since the Ranger was more than a day behind schedule, we didn't spend much time in any of the towns. But, it's a primarily a freighter and the passengers were along for the ride.  And, the towns were tiny-- only 180 people called Postville home-- so there often wasn't much to see. Natuashish, formerly Davis Inlet, was beyond a quick walk from the wharf.

We missed Hopedale and the work that is being done to rebuild the original Moravian Church, since northbound and southbound stops were both at night. And we missed walking on North America's longest boardwalk at 8.4 kilometers-- eat your heart out Atlantic City-- along the shore at Makkovik. There just wasn't enough time.

We ran into the ice again on the return trip south to Goose Bay, but it didn't bring the same nervousness it did earlier.

By now, we were veteran Northern Rangers.ID=86976692