At the base of the Wapussakatoo Mountains

Paul Sparkes
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“The Northwest Territories and Yukon, embracing the Arctic, make up more than one third the area of all Canada — with only 37,000 people! What problems — but what opportunities and challenges!”
—Trevor Lloyd, writing 50 years ago. Lloyd (b.1906) was chairman of McGill’s Department of Geography.

A booklet published 45 years ago in Labrador West is a photo-story of that challenge being met. The booklet marked Labrador City’s “first decade of growth.” Across only a few pages you see an explosion within a swath of wilderness as mining starts; you see brutally heavy machinery moving in to dispel the covering of earth from the ore; then there are stacks of lumber, a frame to shape a concrete retaining wall; houses and stores advance upon the landscape and a community is born. A dimly-lit sitting room, a glowing fireplace and a group of friends holding a round of drinks suggests that outside it is winter in Canada’s Near North.

The annual snowfall in Labrador West was said in 1969 to average 170 inches. The average yearly snowfall in St. John’s is 132 inches. —Submitted photo

If the hackneyed phrase “taming the wilderness” ever had meaning, this is it.

You don’t need me to tell you that this is the threshold of a different world. The Near North, the Subarctic, the Arctic … they have their own creatures, their own flora and their own rules. There was a time when for trial, tribulation and trauma, nothing could excel the Arctic. Tales of exploration gone wrong, tales of men isolated by immense wastes of ice, snow and ocean were certain to attract the reader and the listener. Neophytes and adventurers went there and, by one means or another, their stories of horror trickled back. Death by drowning beneath ice, last notes scribbled in the hopes that someone would find them in their frozen tombs … ships crushed by ice and sliding beneath the waves leaving men destitute upon the ice.

But we persisted. We boldly went where men had gone and died. When the pre-eminent Canadian geologist A.P. Low (1861-1942) flagged iron ore in what was to become Newfoundland’s Labrador West, it was only a matter of time — and guts. Other keen observers, and non-professionals at that, also “knew” there was iron in those hills.

 

We knew it was there

In his 1910 book “Labrador — Its Discovery, Exploration & Development,” William G. Gosling (St. John’s businessman and mayor) commented, “although Labrador abounds in iron, no workable deposits have yet been made known. The Grand Falls of the Hamilton River are one of the wonders of North America, and contain a stupendous water-power, which perhaps some day may be used for the generation of electricity.”

Today, that statement is more than a century in the past. But within a generation of Gosling’s conjecture both of those gifts from nature were being worked. The mines in Labrador West opened less than 50 years after Gosling’s statement. The falls to which he referred were ultimately harnessed. The huge facility there went into full power generation in 1971.

 

Our civilizing influence

It might be said that we have tamed the North. But that is not quite right. It remains hostile.

Today we may fly over it, or encroach upon it in vessels equipped to push ice beneath their bows while in their bellies they carry our warm bunks, lush larders and our technology. But we have not tamed or conquered that region.

The 1969 booklet almost proudly gives the vital stats of a typical Labrador winter: “Precipitation in the form of snow reaches a yearly average of 170 inches and a maximum depth of 60 inches. Snow cover usually lasts 200 days.” Let me point out, 60 inches is five feet, or just over 1.5 metres. That is real winter. Two hundred days with snow all around leaves 165 for what are taken in the climatically civilized parts of the world to be the snow-free seasons — spring, summer and fall. As the Newfoundlander might say, “Yeah, right!”

“From the beginning,” says the booklet, “steps were taken to combat isolation.” Apart from the railway which linked Labrador West with the Quebec north shore and so on to Sept-Îles, both Eastern Provincial Airways and Quebec Air began servicing Labrador City/Wabush in 1960. At the 10-year mark, 1969, air service became daily. The booklet, edited by Michael Vickers, was introduced by William Campbell who chaired the board of trustees of the community’s municipal body — a local improvement district at the time.

The booklet (a class act by the way) was a town project. While photos were contributed by many people of the town, most were taken by J.L. Biron exclusively for the publication. In his small introduction, Campbell wrote, “to attract and retain employees in a northern area such as ours, it is essential that the best possible services be provided. … Labrador City has been carefully planned from the beginning ...”

 There is a pronounced feeling of youthfulness throughout the 48 pages, and not surprisingly. This was a new and big venture for Newfoundland and skilled people with a venturing spirit came. You might say that they put a human face on Lloyd’s words at the top of this column. Photos show a line of snowmobiles. There are snow shoes, skis and there are winter carnival parades.

The town lies “near the base of the Wapussakatoo Mountains in southwestern Labrador,” we are told.

For a province indelibly attached to saltwater and a coastline, this inhabited part of Labrador West is very “inland.”

“In early 1960,” the booklet says, “Labrador City contained 27 families, 447 men living in company accommodations and 27 single ladies.” In 1969, the population was 8,500, one quarter of whom were under the age of 16. The population figure in 2013 was 9,354. The IOCC mining operation inLabrador West marked its 50th year in 2005.

Footnote

In reading around for this column, I encountered the following little note. It has nothing to do with Labrador West, but it cannot be lost on the cutting room floor:

In his book “Arctic Dreams” (1986) author Barry Lopez describes the muskox and how it seems beautifully adapted to its Arctic environment — not simply existing there, but thriving in a state of peaceful co-existence.

Lopez told of an explorer in Greenland who “once terrified himself” by seeking shelter from a storm by approaching what he took to be hummocks of earth.

As he climbed up on the “piles” they stood up! It was a group of muskox, their dark, woolly coats all but obscured by snow as they

huddled until the blizzard should pass.

 

 

Geographic location: Labrador West, Arctic, Newfoundland Grand Falls Hamilton River North America Quebec Sept-Îles Wabush Greenland

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  • W McLean
    May 12, 2014 - 17:41

    There's a Labrador West in Newfoundland?