Labrador is the mostly remote and sparsely settled mainland portion of Newfoundland and Labrador. Named for 15th century Portuguese explorer João Fernandes Lavrador, it's “the big land”: vast wilderness areas with abundant wildlife, whales and icebergs, some of the highest peaks east of the Canadian Rockies, and — almost as an afterthought — some widely scattered pockets of human habitation.
This great outdoors is one of Labrador’s prime attractions. Sport fishing and wildlife viewing are popular activities, along with taking in the starkly beautiful scenery. The towns, villages and outports have merit, too. Not just refuelling stops, many have sites or museums that provide glimpses into the culture and history of the region, and the Inuit, First Nation and European influences that shape it. But when moving on, you’ll be quickly reminded it’s a big land. Away from towns and villages, there are hundreds of kilometres of vast, open space where the large caribou herds and other wildlife can roam free — even along the one “beaten path”, the (often-gravel) Trans-Labrador Highway.
|Western Labrador (Labrador City-Wabush, Churchill Falls)|
A resource-rich area; mining and iron ore exploration made Labrador City-Wabush the largest settlement, with more than a third of Labrador's population. To the southwest, the road (and the last remaining passenger rail service in the province) crosses into Québec. To the east, the Churchill River is fed from the headwaters of the enormous Smallwood Reservoir, with massive hydroelectric developments at Churchill Falls and Muskrat Falls.
|Nunatsiavut/North Coast (six small native villages)|
A handful of tiny, remote coastal Innu communities on the northern Atlantic Labrador coast where no roads run. Whatever food and supplies cannot be hunted or gathered by traditional native means arrive by seasonal coastal ferry. In winter, the only access is by aircraft.
|Central Labrador (Happy Valley-Goose Bay)|
Once a busy air force base, Happy Valley-Goose Bay (pop 7,750) remains a vital seaport for supplies headed to more remote points in Labrador; while the Churchill River is attracting new hydroelectric development, many smaller rivers are popular for fly-fishing; trout and Atlantic salmon are plentiful.
|South Coast/Labrador Straits (Cartwright, Port Hope Simpson, Red Bay, Forteau)|
The closest portion of Labrador to the island of Newfoundland. Lighthouses, shipwrecks, ghost towns, even a UNESCO-listed historic Basque whaling station.
Towns and villages
Within Labrador, one can hardly speak of cities in the usual sense. Communities range from small towns to tiny outport fishing villages to remote Innu communities. Here's a list of the important ones, historically and presently:
- Labrador City—Wabush — Mining town and largest population centre in Labrador, with a modest range of dining, accommodation and shopping options. There are a handful of cultural attractions and a variety of summer and winter outdoor activities.
- Churchill Falls — Site of the Churchill Falls hydroelectric station and a small company town. The power station, the third largest in North America by power output, can be toured with advance reservation. There are also sport fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities in the area.
- Happy Valley-Goose Bay — A mostly functional town with some dining and accommodation options, as well as being the departure point for ferries heading north to Nunatsiavut. North West River, 40 km northeast of town, was founded in the 1700s as a French fur trade post and has a small number of attractions, walking trails and outdoor activities.
- Nain, Hopedale and the native villages of Nunatsiavut — The vast and remote Inuit land of northern Labrador with a handful of communities on the coast. Nain is the largest and has a cultural centre. There are a few national historic sites in the small villages and ghost towns.
- Cartwright — Small fishing village with limited tourist amenities. Provides boat access to Eagle River, a destination that has a number of lodges catering to fishing holidays.
- Port Hope Simpson — Small fishing community on the southeastern coast with some outdoor recreation opportunities.
- Forteau (and region) — The southern entry point to Labrador when arriving by ferry from Newfoundland. A number of fishing villages with some cultural attractions, the highest lighthouse in the province and some dining and accommodation options.
- Torngat Mountains National Park covers a huge area of wilderness in Nunatsiavut that extends to Québec's Ungava Peninsula. You'll find caribou herds, polar bears, and the highest peaks east of the Rockies — including Mount Caubvick, which stands 1,652 metres (just over a mile) high.
- Battle Harbour, once a bustling fishing station on an island near Mary's Harbour, is now the site of preserved and restored buildings from three centuries.
- Red Bay, the remains of a 16th-century Basque whaling outpost located 65 km northeast of Forteau; it's now UNESCO-listed and a National Historic Site of Canada.
- Mealy Mountains National Park
Labrador is part of the Canadian mainland while Newfoundland is an island in the Atlantic Ocean. In practice, however, the Trans-Canada Highway to St. John's is beaten-path while Labrador is remote and isolated, a collection of wide-open spaces, small native communities, abundant wildlife and the occasional incursion of small-town commerce to support remote mining, hydroelectric and resource exploration. In some places, one can travel by road and see nothing but open space, moose, caribou and hundreds of kilometres of gravel highway stretching far beyond the horizon - no villages, no fuel or other services, nothing but wilderness. In others, there is no road at all and the connection to the outside world is a seasonal coastal ferry.
Labrador is a vast and distant land, a place of huge open spaces, towering mountains and rugged Atlantic coastline where wildlife runs free across seemingly-limitless open spaces in harsh, unforgiving sub-Arctic conditions. Central Labrador's largely unpopulated interior lands are considered by some to be the last unspoiled land in North America, while Inuit-governed Nunatsiavut's five remote native coastal villages are spread across more than 72,000 km² from Rigolet to Nain and from the Arctic to a portion of the Atlantic coast. The southern coastal areas have long been the home of tiny subsistence fishery villages or "outports"; a historic Basque whaling station remains as an archaelogical site at Red Bay and other nations (including the Portuguese) had established a fisheries presence centuries ago.
While Labrador is believed to be the Markland visited by the Norseman Leif Ericson in the 11th century and remains a site of first contact between peoples; getting there is not easy. One can take Quebec Route 389, hundreds of kilometres of gravel highway (and the occasional one-lane bridge), from the Manic 5 hydroelectric site in the remote Manicouagan region of Quebec, crossing from the tiny mining village of Fermont into Labrador City. One can take a weekly coastal ferry from Sept-Îles and Anticosti; this stops in every tiny settlement on 450 km of Québec "north coast" with no roads before finally reaching the Québec-Labrador border at Blanc Sablon. One can travel between settlements by air in a tiny bush plane, or arrive by sea on a coastal ferry. The shortest of these crossings runs from Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula across the Strait of Belle Isle to Blanc Sablon, from which one picks up the Trans-Labrador Highway through Forteau.
Much of Labrador (from Labrador City to Churchill Falls, Goose Bay, Cartwright and north to Nunatsiavut) is in the Atlantic time zone (GMT-4, DST: GMT-3), half an hour behind Newfoundland time. Black Tickle (a dying population-130 fishery outport on the Island of Ponds) and all points southward (Port Hope Simpson to Forteau) use Newfoundland's time zone.
While the languages of Native peoples are still widely spoken (as first languages) for much of the Native population, English is the main language of most people and a majority can speak it to some degree.
Flying to Labrador requires a good deal of change and an affinity for small aircraft. Outside Goose Bay and Labrador West, informal is the best way to describe Labrador airports.
You can get to Labrador from any Atlantic province or Quebec. Major airports with direct flights to Labrador include Montreal (YUL IATA), Halifax (YHZ IATA) and St. John's (YYT IATA). You will be likely be dealing with Air Canada or PAL Airlines from out-of-province or to the Island of Newfoundland. Air Labrador does short-run flights in Labrador, the Quebec North Shore and St. Anthony. These flights are expensive. Unless booked well in advance, a flight is upwards of $700, one way.
For the private aviator, Labrador is home to stunning geography and clear blue sky.
The only overland road from Quebec to Labrador, Quebec Route 389, is a very long and difficult highway heading north from Baie-Comeau. Beyond the Manic 5 dam, the road is only partially paved; on a long stretch leading to the border at Fermont/Labrador City, there is only one stop for services. Gagnon, Québec is a ghost town, dismantled in 1985. Winding gravel roads with single-lane bridges are common in this largely unpopulated sector.
The road from Labrador City-Wabush to Goose Bay (Route 500) was completely paved by mid-2015. The highway continues just outside of Goose Bay as a gravel road (Route 510) to the coast. The 2009 gravel portion between Goose Bay and Cartwright Junction (no services) is over 300 km, plus another 100 km to the next fuel station in either Cartwright or Port Hope Simpson. (That's a 410 km gap between gas stations.) The road is paved again past Red Bay until its terminus at Blanc Sablon, where ferries cross to Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula. Beyond Blanc Sablon, the road soon reaches an impasse (or dead end) at Vieux-Fort.
It is not possible to continue overland to Sept-Îles as a road simply does not exist from Vieux-Fort to Kegashka (450 km westward). The few villages in that section are supplied by outport ferry or small aircraft.
From the south travel to Labrador is by ferry from St. Barbe, Newfoundland to Blanc Sablon, Quebec. It is then approx 5 kilometres east to the Labrador border. The winter ferry service takes a longer path, weather permitting, Blanc Sablon to Corner Brook, instead of landing in St. Barbe on Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula.
An old American folk song (first recorded 1929) tells of a fictional "Wabash Cannonball"; as countless musicians followed the same refrain, this train's tale got taller with every retelling. "From the great Atlantic Ocean to the wide Pacific Shore, From sunny California to icebound Labrador..." began one version, which has the train call at a long list of cities from New York and Chicago to the California shore, "travelling through the jungle" and as far as Mexico.
Indeed, since the narrow-gauge "Newfie Bullet" line was removed in the 1980s, Labrador is the only point in the province with any rail service. A train from Sept-Îles to Schefferville crosses briefly into Labrador then back into Québec.
The line ends at a seaport in Sept-Îles with no connection to the rest of the North American rail network. (Onward freight is carried more than 200 km by railcar ferry to Matane on the St. Lawrence south shore; the closest mainline passenger station is in Rimouski.) Service is limited. The passenger train no longer stops in Labrador City, although freight trains still carry iron ore from Wabush. Instead, they flag stop at a place they call Emeril Junction which is in the middle of nowhere: on the Trans-Labrador Highway, but a 45-minute drive from the city. There is no cell phone signal, no populated place at this location and no services. Unless someone is waiting for you, it is completely useless.
The native train still runs because, quite simply, there is no other way in or out of Schefferville overland. There is no road.
Options are limited. The only major road for anything other than local traffic is the Trans-Labrador Highway through Labrador City (food, fuel and repairs, lodging, shopping mall, airport) and Churchill Falls (company town with food, fuel, lodging, no repairs) to Goose Bay (food, fuel and repairs, lodging, air and sea ports); the road then continues south to Port Hope Simpson (fuel and repairs, lodging) with a 90 km branch leading to Cartwright (food, fuel, campground, no bank, no roadside assistance). The main road follows the coast through Red Bay (national historic site, small inn with restaurant, no fuel or grocer) to Forteau (food, fuel, lodging) and Blanc Sablon (ferry to Newfoundland island).
The other options are ships (coastal ferries) and small bush planes. Many coastal communities, including all of Nunatsiavut, have no road. Their supplies arrive by a seasonal coastal ferry from Goose Bay or Lewisporte, the Nunatsiavut Marine "Northern Ranger", to be stockpiled for the long, bitterly-cold sub-Arctic Labrador winter.
Harbours are often blocked by ice until late spring or even the first few days of summer, leaving very tiny, very loud Twin Otters as the only year-round way into many isolated Labrador communities. Provincial Airlines or Air Labrador operate scheduled services up and down the coast, which are not inexpensive and often just as costly as the initial flight into the province from some distant region.
Local taxis and airport hire cars are only likely to be available in the largest towns, Labrador City-Wabush and Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Within the smallest villages (such as Cartwright or Port Hope Simpson) it is possible to reach most locations on foot.
On the open road? Expect hundreds of kilometres of uninhabited territory, wilderness and open space along the Trans-Labrador Highway with no towns and no services. Keep a full tank of fuel, a full-size spare tire and tools and enough supplies to survive for several hours or more if stranded in sub-Arctic conditions. It's often hundreds of kilometres to the next town and the only way to call for roadside assistance may well be by satellite telephone.
Labrador City-Wabush is a mining community and tours may be reserved in advance; in Churchill Falls, visitors may see one of the largest hydroelectric dams in Canada. (Churchill Falls info and reservations: +1 709 925-3335)
Muskrat Falls was an impressive sight west of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, but development of a major hydroelectric plant has taken over the area; work crews (and the occasional group of protesters) are an obstacle to any visitors expecting access by the normal route off the Trans-Labrador Highway.
Goose Bay (5 Wing, RCAF) used to be a busy USAF and NATO fighter training facility; much of that infrastructure still stands and a hundred troops remain on-post. North West River, commonly referred to as 'Striver, and the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation are 35 km (on paved road!) north of Goose Bay.
A former Basque whaling camp at Red Bay is an archaelogical site, museum and UNESCO heritage site. Old villages, shipwrecks and lighthouses may be seen in some coastal locations in southern Labrador, along with one of North America's oldest burial sites.
See the aurora borealis or "northern lights", fish for trout and Atlantic salmon on pristine and undisturbed rivers (fly fishing in summer, ice fishing in winter). See native crafts being made. Join a sightseeing tour by boat or even by aircraft to watch birds, icebergs, whales and wildlife.
Visit national parks, including the Mealy Mountains (near Cartwright) and Torngat Mountains National Park (in the northern wilderness of native Nunatsiavut). Gather wild berries. Take to the trails on skis, snowmobile and snowshoes in the winter; hike and swim in the summer. Engage in wildlife watching and nature photography. Try your hand at canoeing or kayaking... or even try outrunning the local blackflies before you are eaten alive.
Most mass-produced items are manufactured elsewhere and imported great distances, making them more expensive in Labrador than in destinations on the beaten path. In larger centres like Labrador City, there are malls and national chains just like any other town of comparable size. A small village is likely to only have one or a small handful of merchants.
There are a few locally-produced items which may be worth bringing home:
- Jams, syrups and preserves from local berries (bakeapple, partridgeberry and blueberry).
- Seafood can be shipped in frozen cargo to a few points relatively close to the region, such as Natashquan, Sept-Îles or Rimouski.
- Native and local crafts are popular. Native artisans create stone and caribou antler carvings, handmade slippers, seal skins, woven baskets and bowls. Artistic items such as jewellery, carvings, pottery, quilts and patches, paintings, postcards and photos make good souvenirs.
- Clothing, traditional cotton duck cossacks and outerwear are likely to be warm enough and sturdy enough to stand up to Labrador's sub-Arctic winters.
Labrador City, as the largest community in Labrador, has a mix of well-known regional and international chains, as well as a few independent or family-operated restaurants. There's a McDonald's, there's a shopping mall, much like other communities closer to the beaten path.
Churchill Falls is a company town with most services concentrated in the one main community centre building. The Midway Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as fast-food fare. There's also a well-stocked market.
Happy Valley-Goose Bay: KFC, Burger King, A&W, Mary Brown's, Pizza Delight, and standard bar/grill fare at the bar/grills. There is a co-op market as well as a second supermarket offering surprisingly fresh produce, great cuts of meat, and standard pre-prepared food. Compared to the rest of the country, they are both small and expensive but you will find most of what you are looking for.
Towns other than these have limited options, usually either a small grocer or general store, a modest restaurant attached to some other business (such as cabins or a country inn), a small takeaway or a tiny liquor store operated as a sideline in some other local business. Forteau has a grocer and bakery.
There are some local foods which are specific to the province or region; these may include wild game (such as caribou), local seafood, berries (such as "bakeapples" or cloudberries) and desserts or baked goods prepared with local ingredients. Native peoples will have their own traditions for local foodstuffs.
There is little or no agriculture in Labrador due to rocky soil and an impractically short growing season; this leaves many foodstuffs and supplies to be imported great distances from other regions, often leading to limited selection and inflated prices - a problem that only worsens as one heads further northward beyond the end of the road network and toward the Arctic.
In the few major towns, roadhouses with hard liquors, Molson or Labatt beer and plenty of country music are common. In smaller coastal outports, a free-standing bar or pub is rare; the bar usually operates as a sideline to a travel-oriented business such as a hotel or eatery.
Beer and spirits for takeaway are usually available, as the province will designate an existing local merchant as an "agency" to sell bottled spirits as a sideline (alongside other merchandise, from groceries to snowmobiles) where a village is too small to support a free-standing provincial liquor store.
As Nunatsiavut is a series of native communities, each village imposes its own restrictions. Nain has one bar (a hotel lounge). Beer (but not hard liquor) can be purchased for takeaway in Nain or Hopedale. Natuashish has voted to ban alcohol from the village entirely to curb substance abuse.
There are hotels in Labrador City, Churchill Falls, Goose Bay, Port Hope Simpson and Forteau; most of these are small, local independents with no substantial presence from the major international chains. Each of the five active Nunatsiavut villages has a small inn, lodge or accommodation of some form, although space tends to be limited. A few small villages on the highway may have camping or RV/caravan facilities; these are highly seasonal in Labrador's harsh climate. The peak season runs from mid-June to the end of August.
One lone innkeeper with some token accommodation (such as five or six rooms) may often be the only option in the smallest villages, if there's anything. Be sure to have your lodging already planned and reserved before you leave, as it may be a long drive to the next town if the lodge is not open, or is full.
Outfitters or tour operators may bundle accommodations with various multi-day activities; a half-dozen outfitters camps offer fishing trips to off-the-grid locations on the Eagle River, west of Cartwright. These are usually fly-in (by float plane) or reachable by small watercraft.
As of January 2017, Labrador has Rogers coverage (and therefore GSM) only in Happy Valley Goose Bay and Labrador City. There is also a one remote Lynx Mobility site in Natuashish. Bell covers just a small local area within Goose Bay, Churchill Falls and Labrador City with 3G UMTS (WCDMA, HSPA). Anywhere else, including hundreds of kilometres of open road, there is nothing... not even mobile 1-1-2 or 9-1-1.
The provincial government does lend satellite phones with limited capability (enough to summon police if stranded on the Trans-Labrador Highway); out-of-province travellers will need a credit card as a deposit to borrow these.
Wi-Fi does occasionally turn up in lodging establishments in some very out-of-the-way places (such as tiny motels or even fishing outfitters' camps which are off the grid and miles from the nearest road). In the most isolated locations, these networks are fed from satellite-based connections.
Labrador is host to a diverse population of Euro-Canadians and native people (Inuit, Innu, Métis); in isolated or remote areas such as Nunatsiavut (under native self-government since 2005) the traditional native ways remain strong. As in any other place, it's best to respect the local culture.
Be sure to leave each village with a full tank of fuel (or even a spare can, as it is possible that distances may be too great for lower kmpl/mpg cars). Distances between filling stations can be as much as 410 km and the Trans-Labrador Highway in a sub-Arctic winter at -30⁰C is not a nice place to be stranded for several hours. Bring a first aid kit as the only hospital may be hundreds of kilometres away (Labrador City and Goose Bay have small hospitals; a few other villages have a clinic with a nurse or nurse practitioner). Bring tools, spare parts and duct tape for emergency repairs where no assistance is available. Marine epoxy can be essential to patch punctures in gas tanks and fuel lines from rocks, especially in lower riding cars. A full-size spare tire, jack and tools are a necessity as rough gravel roads routinely damage tires and vehicles. Roadside assistance and repairs might not be available outside Labrador City, Goose Bay, Port Hope Simpson and a few points in or around Forteau.
Route 500 (Labrador City to Goose Bay) is entirely paved, as of mid-2015; the same is not true of Route 510 through Cartwright Junction or Quebec Route 389 from the Manic 5 hydroelectric dam to Fermont/Labrador City. While some roads are newly-paved and highway speeds are possible, others are washboarded rocky roads that can shake a car apart or send it into a ditch. Always drive at a safe speed, even if the locals do not. As elsewhere in the province, collisions with moose can be deadly; hitting other fauna (from caribou to porcupines) can disable cars in varying ways. The 9-1-1 emergency number is available in major centres (such as Labrador City); in smaller communities, individual seven-digit local numbers are needed to reach individual emergency services.
Lastly, keep your distance from dangerous animals such as black bears; any cornered animals readily react in an unpredictable or hostile manner.