THE TRANS-LABRADOR HIGHWAY 2010
MANIC 2 TO MANIC 5
Having now left Manic 2 behind, I press on northwards. And you have to agree that around here the scenery really is beautiful. I saw a description of this area as being "the Land of Lakes" and they can't be wrong for I reckon that I have seen dozens already.
The rivers aren't all that bad either. At the 40-kilometre mark we encounter the Rivière Georges Tremblay, whoever he was when he was at home, if he ever was. And this is quite spectacular too. I'm going to be struggling for memory with the camera if it keeps up like this.
One way to undertake this journey and to see the countryside would be on a motorbike and sidecar - just like two people who have just come past me in the opposite direction. But then, thinking that, do you know any motorcycles capable of pulling a chair and which have a range of about 450 kms? I don't.
And so as I muse on this point I drive past a sign for Outardes Trois - another hydro-electricity-generating plant. That sign was at the 48 kilometre point, by the way.
Reflecting on this motorcycle business seems to have jogged me back to life again. Round about the 50 kilometre point I'm starting to notice more and more conifers, pines and that kind of thing, and fewer and fewer deciduous trees. I'm clearly moving away from the Maritime climatic zone and entering into some kind of different climatic zone round about here.
Now as far as natural history goes, what I know about it can be written on the back of a postage stamp in very large letters. Im useless. And so I have no idea what anything is, and certainly no idea about whatever this thing is that I observed round about the 60 kilometre mark.
I stopped, turned around, drove back, stopped again, opened Casey's door and alighted, and then took this photo of it. And it didn't even blink, turn round or run away. It simply took no notice of me and carried on eating its leaves.
It even let me take a second photo as well - how about that for a search for stardom?
I was puzzled as to what it might be, and the only thing that would come into my head was that it was a beaver. However I showed the photo later to all kinds of different people and the consensus seems to be that it is a type of porcupine. If you have any other idea, please as would really like to know.
But I recall thinking at the time that if the animal really was a beaver, then I ought to have set a trap for it and a few of its friends and traded the pelts in to a trading post somewhere. I could do with the dosh from half a dozen of them to help me recover the money that I seem to be spending like water.
And the satnav that I bought in Windsor seems to be enjoying this journey. The lady who lives in there seems to have gone to sleep as she hasn't said anything for quite some time. But the display seems to think that there's a right turning coming up in 82 miles. Very good!
And while I was dictating those notes above, I came to a road junction. Manic 3 is 3kms straight on, Outardes 4 is to the left and Manic 5 is 129 kms straight on. I wonder where Hawaii 5-0 is.
At the 95-kilometre marker we come across civilisation - or at least some kind of civilisation. This is the village of Vaillant (or is it Valiant?).
If you peer down there you will note a petrol station, a café and a few other things of interest. But why I am a little dubious about this place is that everywhere seems to have closed down - and been closed down for a while as well. Clearly the benefits of the Trans-Labrador Highway don't seem to be working around here
I said a little earlier that there is an enormous number of hydro-electric power stations around here, and we are not too far from Manic 3 and Outardes 4. The electricity that is generated has to reach civilisation by some means or other and so it's no surprise to see around here a huge cat's cradle of electricity cables and other assorted equipment.
The noise here from the crackling of the cables and equipment was astonishing. I never imagined that so much noise could be generated in such a fashion.
And that's not all of it either. You might think from the above photo that there isn't any room for any more cables and you would seem to be right. That's presumably why they have buried some more cables underground. I really don't dig this, as they used to say in the 1960s.
But make careful note of the buried cables though because they are pretty rare beasts. Everywhere you go in Canada the overhead electricity cables spoil your photograph. Even in the towns back in civilisation where you might think that it makes much more sense to bury them underground
There is some kind of life, however. Here is a road maintenance unit, or at least I imagine that this is what all of this is. And despite it being a metalled road, it could certainly use some maintenance.
One thing puzzles me, though, and that is where do all of the workers live? Either they live here in Vaillant and have to travel to Baie Comeau to do their shopping and so on, or else they live in Baie Comeau or thereabouts and commute up here to work. And won't that be fun in February with 95 kms to travel through the kind of weather that you can have around here?
You can see that they are all prepared for everything though. Here we have two huge piles of road material - the one nearest the camera being some kind of graded roadstone and the other pile being sand, presumably for gritting the roads once the temperature drops. And that's not far off I reckon. It's just as well that they are prepared for winter.
And like I said, you can't take a photograph of anywhere without a pile of electricity cables getting in the way. Everywhere you look, you get an eyeful of them.
In case you are interested, which you ought not to be, having fuelled right up at Baie-Comeau, the next petrol station from this spot is 114 kilometres away. At Manic 5, one assumes.
And so onwards we travel, and our next stop is at kilometre 108. This is an exciting sign to stumble across, is it not? There's no doubt that travel around here can be quite exciting, I should say.
When I clapped eyes on this sign I was thinking that it must relate to something to do with one of the many quarries that are found around here. The north of Québec is one of these places that is well-known for the exploitation of minerals from the earth.
So what with this and Manic 2 and Outardes 4, then dam and blast this road, say I.
Well, I might be a little bit wrong about the idea of quarries, I reckon. Just 1 kilometre further on we come to some major roadworks. And it might be that the blasting and the dynamite has something to do with all of this.
Now I don't know if you have noticed but the traffic lights at the road works just here have a little LED display underneath the 3 other lights. This seems to give the time that is going to elapse before the colours change to the next one.
And who, just a couple of hours earlier, scoffed at the idea of roadworks up here?
At kilometre 127 Casey and I encounter the 50th Parallel. I supposed at the time that this might be significant but I later noticed that the 51st and 52nd parallels were also marked up like this so maybe it isn't.
And just in case you are interested, which I am really sure that you are, the 50th parallel corresponds roughly with Land's End, Frankfurt-am-Main and Prague.
We shudder to a halt just 2 kilometres further on - being brought to a standstill by the first bit of what I can call magnificent scenery. Magnificent it certainly is, with all of this forest and the mountains and the lake, and I started to get all excited about this.
I had heard of the spectacular scenery all along this Highway - in fact this was one of the reasons why I came here - and if it's all like this then I (and you too, dear reader) am going to be in for quite an exciting time. It's looking like we are starting to reach the distant countryside now.
But we haven't quite left civilisation just yet. This is the Association Sportive Manicoutardes about 148 kilometres along the Highway. It's a little private association that occupies a huge lake just here - a lake with a perimeter of about 135 kilometre, would you believe?
Members of the Association might have their own cabin and their own boat on here and come up here at the weekend or on holiday for fishing and that kind of thing, but probably mainly for some peace and quiet.
There's a tiny little shop with a few bits and pieces and the guy will make you a coffee and even make you an appetising snack if you ask him nicely, especially if you have just come from Manic 2 and you are starting to feel peckish or need the loo or a coffee.
The guy in charge was small and extremely garrulous (but then so would you be if you lived out here and had just one passing tourist per week to speak to) and he doesn't think that his facilities will match and Montreal shop or café but as I said to him that if you have come 148 kilometres and theres been nothing else so far, then this is as good as it gets.
And not long after leaving here, maybe 4 or 5 kilometres, I saw another one of these black animals. I managed to have a good peek at his tail and it didn't half look beaverish. But then again, what do I know?
It was round about here that the wind changed direction and it started to blow the clouds in over the top of me. I wonder if that means that we are going to have rain. And just 2 minutes after saying that, we did. Not for long, it has to be said, but I dont think that that will be all of it.
And as we dodged in and out of rainclouds and showers and flurries and that kind of thing, we came across a rainbow. How nice.
At kilometre 180 there is a peche and a domain and all that kind of thing and so one asumes that there might be something in the way of accommodation - private chalets that sort of thing owned by members but I wasn't going to drive I don't know how far down that dirt track to have a look.
Another thing that I noticed was that every so often driving along here I would come across a little house just nestled in the side of the road with a little plot of land. They usually looked realy cute but it must be hell to live out here in the winter, totally isolated like that. And where do you go to the shops? One house that I passed was about 200 kilometres away from Baie Comeau so just imagine running out of bread.
I've seen it said that up here you have 7-month winters, and so I suppose that you spend the other 5 months cutting wood ready for it. There's no real way of working for a living up here unless you are at Manic 5 or something like that, and how would you get there in the snow?
I wonder what on earth has happened here. There are acres and acres of nothing but dead fir trees. I was half-suspecting a forest fire, but I reckon that I would have smelt it, just like that time I went round the back of Flagstaff in Arizona
Here, though, there was no smell at all but clearly something has happened for this devastation went on for mile after mile. Maybe it's like that place in Siberia where a meteorite landed 100 or so years ago.
It was clear though that the weather was looking like it might deteriorate. It had been nice up until the last 15 minutes or so. But here we are, at kilometre 206 and the grey clouds are gathering, we are having more spatterings of rain, and we have another beautiful rainbow.
Everyone knows the myth about finding a crock of gold at the end of a rainbow, but here in Upper Québec Province with all of the mineral wealth, much of which is relatively untapped, you would stand a sporting chance of coming up with something, I'm sure.
And if you notice, in this photograph, no more than two or three deciduous trees, and they have all now lost their leaves. We've definitely left the Maritime climatic zone behind.
And at kilometre 212 or so I have my first glimpse of the huge dam that is Manic 5. This enormous wall of grey concrete sticking up across one of the gorges of the River Manicouagan.
Another thing that is said is that large bodies of water have the effect of moderating the temperatures and often contribute to some kind of microclimate in the immediate vicinity. And maybe this accounts for the reappearance of deciduous trees, complete with leaves, in the immediate vicinity of the dam.
Here at Manic 5 is a petrol station and motel, and something of a little shop and so on. It's a stop that is recognised by travellers on the Trans-Labrador Highway and it's a good place to cram in some fuel, seeing as you are now 213 kilometres away from Baie Comeau and 107 kilometres from the next fuel stop, which just happens to be an isolated pump up-country somewhere.
But if you just heard a loud thud in the background, that is because I've just paid for the fuel. Not at 108.4 cents per litre like back at Baie Comeau, and nothing like it either. In fact it was a whopping 132.4 cents.
But without getting too carried away of course, you need to remember that it is still the same wages for an attendant whether he or she serves 1 customer in a day or 100 customers in a day. Not only that, here we are 213 kilometres away from the nearest petrol station in one direction and 107 kilometres from the nearest petrol station in the other direction and the costs of the haulage of a tanker-load of fuel up to here must be astronomical. I don't suppose that there are all that many customers here so the owners have to make their living from the few who go past. If there wasn't any fuel up here we would have been even more upset but nevertheless it takes some getting used to, seeing fuel prices like this in North America.
Like I said, there's a motel here but I can't give you any indication of the price as I forgot to ask - too busy recovering from the fuel shock. But I am kicking myself severely all the same. I arrived in Baie Comeau in mid-afternoon yesterday and spent a lot of the time just mooching around. And then wasted some more time this morning stocking up with supplies and fuel.
If I had had any sense at all, I would have stocked up with supplies and fuel as soon as I arrived and then pushed on to here for the evening. The days are getting shorter all the time and I'll be needing the light later on.
So seeing as we are here, what can I tell you about Manic 5? The first thing of course is that it isn't called Manic 5. Its correct title is the Daniel Johnson Dam, named after the President of Quebec who was supposed to perform the opening ceremony on 26th September 1968. Unfortunately, but with the most impeccable sense of timing, he died on the very morning of the ceremony.
Construction of the dam had begun in 1959. It is just over 700 feet tall and contains not far short of 3 million cubic metres of concrete.
The story is that when they built the dam they needed to dig some tunnels through the western side of the mountain to divert the river, to stop it backfilling the construction site. This here is a tunnel through the western side of the mountain and it's therefore a pretty good assumption that this might be the exit of the diverted river.
Of course it might be something else completely, such as the overflow from the dam.
The area was first surveyed just after World War I and it was then that the astonishing force of the river was calculated. Engineers were keen even then to harness the energy but with nothing out here at the time and no access at all it wasn't thought to be a viable project.
But the desperate search for minerals during World War II and the subsequent discovery of iron right up here rekindled the idea and in 1955 a more up-to-date survey showed that the Manicouagan River had possibly the most potential in the whole of Canada, as far as electricity generation is concerned.
Once the engineers were hooked on the idea, the highway was brought up to here and the construction began.
And this looks like it might be it - the end of the paved highway, right at the side of the concrete barrage at kilometre 214. Most of the road traffic from Baie Comeau, the light cars and that sort of thing, would only be going as far as here.
There isn't anything else to speak of further on that would be of much interest that would make it worthwhile to pave the highway for tourists in cars such as Casey. Whatever other vehicles that would want to pass by this point would be the sort that could stand on their own four wheels.
There's a piece of ground at the side of the road half-way up the bank that makes a decent place to stop and leave the car for a quick look at the dam wall.
Because of the optical illusion of the side-on effect you can't really see it very well, and because of the chain-link fence you can't go any closer to it to take a better photograph, but the dam is actually a little over 1400 metres from side to side. You'll just have to take my word for it that it was all pretty impressive, and come out to see it for yourselves.
The artificial lakes that are constructed behind barrages come in three sizes, "big", "huge" and "Jesus!" And the one here at Manic 5 is definitely a "Jesus!" lake. The basis of the lake is believed to be the crater caused by an asteroid colliding with Earth in the ancient past.
You can see by looking at the far shoreline that the water level is somewhat on the low side. I imagine that in July and August with all of the meltwater from upriver the level would be much higher than today. And it's a shame that the photo can't do justice to the view.
But why the fence? who on earth would be up here in the first place, let alone wanting to do something nasty to the water in the lake? It's privacy gone totally stark-staring crazy. And not to mention the fact that I had that uncomfortable feeling, something similar to Arthur Hunnicutt in El Dorado with that "kind of feeling that I get when there's an injun around and I can't see him", only in my case it wasn't an injun but a Closed-Circuit Television "security" camera.
We hadn't quite lost the paved highway, by the way. I kept running onto small patches of pavement on one side of the road and then that gradually petered out and that was my lot.
After that I drove right over what could only be a huge sluice gate, with a most impressive view but it's a one-track road, there were trucks coming the other way and there wasn't anywhere to pull over for photography purposes. And by the time there was somewhere to pull over, the view had long gone. And according to the satnav there's a left turn in 192 miles.
I always wanted to know that.