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The Final Frontier

by Chris McKee
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The Trans-Labrador Special

Given the demanding terrain Wayne Baltzer covers each and every week of the year, you might think there's a pretty special truck spec'd for the run, but you'd be wrong. It's a standard-issue 2003 Freightliner Classic XL with just a few extra features designed for the harsh environment, like 4.11 rear ends to make the hills a bit easier to climb. He runs a 475 Cat with a 13-speed, 40,000-lb rear axles on a 46,000-lb suspension, and a 14,000-lb front axle.

Eassons specs Bandag retread drive tires and Michelin steer tires. They switch between winter and summer tires to get the best rubber for the conditions. In winter, they run Bandag's 'winter deep' tread on the drives (they last about 120,000 km), and Michelin XZA1s on the steer axle, chosen for their ability on ice.

In the summer, Eassons switches to Bandag 'drive trac deep' treads. They last about 70,000 km. On the front you'll find Michelin XZY3s, chosen for their resistance to cuts and chips.

One particular precaution they take is to cover all the nylon air lines under the truck with
rubber tubing. Left exposed to the environment, they're sand-blasted by the gravel and will develop holes within three return trips.

Needless to say, this route is very tough on equipment, so Wayne and the maintenance crew at Eassons take extra care on the PM front. Aside from the extra maintenance requirements, Wayne says the tire chains may be the truck's most important piece of rigging.

"You have to have a good set of chains for this route," he says. He carries both regular chains and 'On-Spot' chains that lower under his drive wheels at the flick of a switch. And come winter, they're on more often than not.



If your dispatcher asked you to make a run from Moncton to Toronto or from Vancouver to Regina on nothing but dirt road and bedrock, you would probably tell the voice on the other end of the phone where to stick it. Wayne Baltzer, on the other hand, wouldn't even blink.

Wayne has been a company driver with Eassons Transport of Berwick, N.S. for the past 28 years. His regular run consists of navigating the pothole-filled dirt roads of northern Quebec and Labrador, and he's been at it for the past five years, hauling meat from Moncton, N.B. to Labrador City and Goose Bay, Nfld. He runs about 2000 dirt-road miles every week in his 2003 Freightliner, and he intends to stick with the run until he retires.

The first stage of Wayne's journey takes him to Baie Comeau, Que. It's rather monotonous and much like any other trip, with the exception of a two-hour ferry ride across the St. Lawrence River. Wayne usually spends his first night at the ferry terminal in Matane, Que., grabbing the ferry to the north shore the following morning. That's where the real fun begins.

Quebec's Highway 389, Labrador's only year-round lifeline to the rest of civilization, winds north for just under 600 km. That portion of the trip begins with an unassuming left turn as Wayne passes through the eastern outskirts of Baie Comeau.

The road to Labrador is paved for the first couple of hundred kilometers and travellers along the way are treated to the awesome sights of Hydro Quebec's massive Manic 5 Dam at the head of the Manicouagan Reservoir on the Manic River. "The Pavement Ends Here" is the slogan on the post cards of Manic 5 and it isn't a joke. After climbing an 18% grade to reach the top of the dam, the road begins to change. A little narrower with many steep hills and sharp turns, the asphalt tapers off.

With a little over 400 km remaining to Labrador City, this is where the journey begins to get tedious.

"After Manic 5, I usually have to reduce speed quite a bit and end up averaging no more than 60 km/h the rest of the way to Lab City," he says.

By the time Wayne returns to Manic 5 after making the round trip to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, he will have traveled roughly 1600 km on nothing but dirt roads. "The farther north I go, the narrower and rougher the road becomes," Wayne says.

There is only one small town, called Fermont, and a few mining communities on this stretch of road before it winds out of Quebec and into the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Beyond Manic 5, there isn't much requiring the Quebec government to spend a lot of money in upkeep. To say that road maintenance is not a priority is something of an understatement.

Many trucks on their way up to Labrador have fallen victim to icy slopes and the narrow road. "It's certainly not hard to put it in the rhubarb on these roads," says Wayne. "There have been many mishaps along Highway 389 over the years involving cars, but mostly trucks."

A small diner halfway along the Highway 389 keeps a photo album documenting some of the accidents that have occurred along that stretch of road. So far, knock on wood, Wayne has made the weekly journey unscathed. In fact, he has logged close to 4 million career miles, accident free, since he started trucking in 1968.

The landscape of north-eastern Quebec is much what one might expect: rugged and mountainous. The majority of the vegetation is made up of stunted black spruce trees. The narrow road cutting through the wilderness is the only reminder of civilization.

"Traveling up through Quebec is the hardest part of the trip," Wayne remarks. "Once you get to Labrador it's a different world. The roads certainly aren't any better, but I know everyone up there and they're very laid back and friendly. I don't even have to worry about locking my trailer when I'm in Lab City. The people are great."

Labrador City
Some time during the late hours on the second day of his journey, after covering just under 600 km in 10 hours, Wayne usually pulls into Labrador City. Located about 1200 km from Moncton, this city of roughly 9000 people is the center of civilization in western Labrador. Located next to a chain of hills containing rich iron ore deposits, the community was built around mining. It's not as desolate as you may think. It houses a McDonalds restaurant among many other 'modern' amenities. It's at this point in the journey that Wayne usually bunks down for the night: end of day two.

Since Eassons contracts a local delivery company to peddle the freight in Labrador City, Wayne doesn't spend much time in town. Typically, the third day of his journey consists of making a few deliveries, picking up whatever empty pallets remain after unloading, and heading east for the eight-hour, 555-km trip east to Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Highway 500, the Trans Labrador Highway, opened in the summer of 1992 creating a direct link between Labrador City and Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and from there to the island of Newfoundland (via ferry from Goose Bay), and to numerous Labrador coastal communities. Supplies to southern, western, and central communities that were previously shipped by rail and coastal boat can now be trucked year-round through Labrador City. The result was a boon to local trucking, distribution. and warehousing operations there.

The Trans Labrador Highway is the epitome of a dirt road. Covered with sand, deep mud and jagged bedrock during the summer months, it's a sheet of ice during the winter. The provincial government is toying with the idea of chip-sealing a portion of the highway as an experiment next summer. Chip-seal consists of a thin layer of stones set in tar. It has a rough appearance when first spread, but wears smooth and begins to resemble pavement as more traffic drives over it.

Wayne prefers to travel the highway during the winter months as the layer of ice over the dirt and gravel makes for smoother travel. It is too cold to use salt on the roads and sand tends to blow off rather quickly. Instead, the ice surface is grooved to give vehicles better traction. Another potential hazard on the Trans Lab Highway is the fact that it's often over-plowed, making it difficult to judge how far over you can go without sinking into the ditch.

This makes for some interesting moments when faced with oncoming traffic, especially other trucks. Wayne says he seldom encounters more than eight or 10 vehicles on any given journey across the Trans Lab. Truckers tend to look out for one another on this stretch of road -- the wilderness of central Labrador is not a place where anybody would want to be stranded.

This is about as rugged as it gets. Hundreds of lakes dot the landscape, surrounded by small black spruce trees. There are rocks, rocks, and more rocks, mostly surrounded by other rocks, and a few of those runtish trees. Caribou are a common site but there's no time for sightseeing. Conditions demand Wayne's full attention.

"The conditions may turn some drivers right off of doing this run, but I forget about that when I think about traffic and lengthy border delays and all the other nonsense I'd be dealing with if I was running into the U.S.," he says. "You need to have a great deal of patience on this trip and it also takes some guts to run this road. The first time I made the run, I wondered just what I had got myself into."

The halfway point of the journey across the Trans Labrador Highway is the community of Churchill Falls. In the vastness of Central Labrador, Churchill Falls is a landmark. Much the same as Labrador City was built around mining, Churchill Falls was built around a huge hydroelectric dam near the community. Newfoundland Hydro and Hydro Quebec jointly own the town of roughly 600 people, most of whom are employees of the power companies.

The landscape approaching Happy Valley-Goose Bay presents larger hills and much steeper grades, which tend to slow him down considerably. But Wayne eventually pulls into town with another successful trip across Labrador under his belt. Happy Valley-Goose Bay is the largest community in Labrador's east, with about 9000 people. It provides a link to Labrador's coastal communities, such as Nain, via air service. It is also linked to the island of Newfoundland by a seasonal ferry service. Happy Valley-Goose Bay is perhaps most famous for its air force base. Thousands of servicemen from across Canada and Europe have been stationed at CFB Goose Bay over the years.

After a day spent in Goose Bay delivering his load of meat products to local grocery stores, CFB Goose Bay, and wholesalers that supply the coastal communities, Wayne turns around and makes his way back to Moncton, only to begin his journey all over again the following week.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Wayne says enthusiastically. "It's an interesting place to work because nature is always changing things up there. You have to be a nature lover to appreciate coming up here every week."

You also have to be a pretty capable truck driver.