Saturday, April 25, 2015

Wolf Quest Part XI

Where was I? Muskrat Falls. Yes, I jumped ahead a little to the diversionary hike to Muskrat Falls. Those falls are between Churchill Falls and Goose Bay, and the reason I skipped ahead is because I was driving on a single dirt road and there is almost nothing to see since it is flat, and mosquitoes are voracious and it's raining, and the van has only three speeds: slow, faster, and highway speed....oh, that reminds me. I lost a speed in Fermont, Quebec on the day after I went on that night hike over the Hematite mine.

I think I mentioned that I was suddenly having trouble with the idle and the general performance of the van. How it survived the trip from Cabo San Lucas to Labrador City is a near miracle since I really didn't put too much effort into servicing the van since I didn't have a spare dollar to invest in new spark plug wires or shit like that. And the van had spent the previous winter completely covered in snow, thereby ensuring all the wire insulation had been used by squirrels and mice to build nests. But the van made it all the way to Labrador City, then back to Fermont, Quebec and on the road back to Labrador City the engine suddenly sputtered and died. Fuck! It started again but I could tell something was wrong. There was a clear stumbling between first and second gear. But once I got up to cruising speed of 50mph everything seemed to be fine. I went to the Ford dealership there that was basically a contractor for the mining company and they said I could have an appointment in a month. None of them were impressed at all with the fact a 1969 Ford Econoline was in the parking lot of the northernmost Ford Dealership in Canada. No. That fact and $2 bought me a doughnut at Tim Horton's. So, I was on my own and looking at about 400 miles of a dirt road to Happy Valley Goose Bay, with a single gas station at the hydro-electric plant at Churchill Falls. I did not know it at the time, but I had lost the 2nd gear transmission band and the stumbling I felt was the unlined metal trying to grip the 2nd gear drum. With no lining on the band, the metal simply carved some deep grooves in that drum each time it tried to shift gears, but didn't stop the drum, which is what causes 2nd gear. So the van would start in 1st gear, and then around 18 mph would become confused because the band would try to clamp onto the 2nd gear drum, but the drum would overpower the unlined metal drum, some carving would go on as the transmission would slip and slide back to 1st gear, and finally I would reach 30mph (in first gear) and then the RPMs and fluid pressure would enable the 3rd gear high speed band to engage and I would surge forward in 3rd gear. I did not know this at the time and tried many different solutions to fix the problem but it didn't improve. I wasn't even sure it was the transmission causing the problem. Since I was equally far from Quebec City as I was from Goose Bay I figured it made no difference and even though the drive-ability of the van had never been worse in 3 years of ownership, I filled the tank up and left Labrador City.

There is not much between Lab City and Churchill Falls. Lots of Mosquitoes, moose, ravens, rain. I camped on the side of the road in logging trails. I was going so slowly that I would be overtaken every day by a solo bicycle rider as he was riding around the northern horn. I forget his name, but he was one of those incredibly fit people who had no ill effect from pedaling for 10 hours a day for months on end in rain and snow, camping, swatting mosquitoes, filtering water from rivers. He was traveling about as fast as I was with my two gears. Hell, the bicycle had 21 gears. I had two.

I toured the hydro-electric plant as it's absolutely the only activity for 400 miles. Amusingly, I was on the elevator that descends about 300 feet into solid rock underneath the Churchill River into the hydro-electric plant and there were about 4 people on the company tour with me and one of them said, "Hey, aren't you the wolf guy?"

Because the Labrador Aurora newspaper is a weekly newspaper and it's the only newspaper in that neck of the world. Since I was on the front page all the tourists on the Labrador Highway who picked up that newspaper would read about my wolf quest at least for the next week. It was a strange experience to be recognized that far off the map but I did have a chance to talk about arctic wolves and people were as uninterested then as they are now. They wished me luck on my trip to Ellesmere Island. I think there was slightly less skepticism of my trip because anyone who can get to Churchill Falls could conceivably get to Ellesmere Island. And since most people couldn't point to Ellesmere Island on a map they gave me credit for the attempt.

Churchill Falls has free RV parking with hydro-electric power. I remember thinking that all the vehicles should be electric, but the rigors of Labrador kind of make it unfeasible. Eventually, they will have 4x4 electric trucks or ATVs, but not when I was there. I mean, they have as much electricity as they want but they all use big 8 cylinder gas trucks to get around. I think the lesson is that progress comes slower than we like to think it does. Computers and the global communication tool of the internet has to be the single most amazing innovation ever, but it was easier than putting pure electric 4x4 trucks near the Arctic Circle's hydro-electric plant. Which tells you how hard it would be to have reliable electric vehicles that far north. It's noteworthy that in the winter one must plug in their vehicle to both keep their battery electrolyte from freezing and also to keep the oil pan warm or else the oil becomes sludge and will seize an engine. So, what kind of havoc would 30 below zero weather play with an all electric truck with one big battery? Furthermore, I think there were electric vehicles as part of the company fleet, but not the tour truck nor the security vehicles. I camped at the free parking and fixed my computer keyboard, which had finally succumbed to life in the van. During the previous winter the wood stove had allowed me some comfortable hours in the evening, but if I didn't keep the fire going then it would soon be about 3 degrees in the van and all the moisture from my face would freeze to the roof, my toothpaste would freeze, my bottles of piss would freeze, my lips would freeze, my eyeballs would freeze. I had a good sleeping bag, rated for 30 below zero, but getting out of that warm sleeping bag into what felt like a meat freezer was hell. Well, all those temperature extremes killed my keyboard and I had to fix it with some fancy methods I don't want to explain here.

Churchill Falls is the first place I ever had Poutain, which is a dish of French Fries covered with cheese and gravy and eaten with a fork. It was kind of gross, but I had it at the insistence of the bicycle tourer who showed up in Churchill Falls at the same time I was, and I'd met him in Fermont. So, we were both going about 40 miles a day and at that rate it would take a decade to reach Ellesmere Island.

I continued on through the mosquito infested land, stopping only to visit Muskrat Falls and pay my respects to Spirit Mountain, unaware I was visiting a location that would become the next great hydro-electric plant on Churchill River. I was puzzled by these great mine shafts periodically dug into the land and have recently learned these are actually installed water pumps to alleviate erosion from the upstream side of Spirit Mountain, because if that spit of land is broken through by the water then the entire river will simply bypass the $8 Billion electric plant, and that will force the company to rebuild the river bank, so the pumps mitigate the erosion by forcing the water through channels under the mountain.

Onward to Happy Valley, the van did only have first and third gear but those two gears were working great so at a top speed of 48 MPH I rolled into Happy Valley, Labrador, the extreme opposite corner of the continent connected by roads from Cabo San Lucas. And also the location where my van could go no further on the Wolf Quest. I would have to get on a boat to Ellesmere Island from Happy Valley.

My beard protected me from the bees
If I remember right, I rolled into Happy Valley on July 1st 2011 and found a quiet park with no one around and settled in for a quiet evening with the wood stove roasting hot dogs and some bread and beans. I think I was in the middle of my weekly sponge bath when I noticed people streaming past the van, gawking at the chimney belching smoke, marveling at the expired California registration sticker and plates. I look out the window and of course I had picked the exact location of the town's yearly Canada Day celebration, and my timing was a few hours before they all arrived for the festivities. Maybe they thought I was part of the show. So, I skipped shaving and went out to watch the fireworks. And that's where this chapter ends.

Here are links to the installments of the Wolf Quest

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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.