St. John’s, Newfoundland
“I just don’t think moose hunting and liquor go together,” the Irving Oil cashier at Cape Breton Island blurted out when I paid for my egg salad sandwich. "Last year one shot himself in the ass. The ass. He was so drunk he fell over a log and shot himself in the ass.”
We were on our way to Newfoundland, the Canadian capital of, and maybe the world capital of, moose hunting, by both rifle and motorized vehicle, where Sears advertises, “ Ya got moose, we got freezers.”
One-ton pickup trucks from as far away as Florida were lined up at the North Sydney, Nova Scotia ferry terminal, pulling trailers loaded with supplies including multiple deep freezes for their kill.
The government tourism lady at the terminal, married to a moose hunter and going home to grilled moose meat, told us about an American moose hunter who didn’t eat the meat he shot complaining of the “gamey taste.” “You like the beef with hormones and antibiotics?” she said she asked him. “The stuff that gives girls boobs at 10.”
Everyone was looking for moose, and we were looking to avoid moose.
The warnings were dire. The government estimates there are 125,000 moose on the island, an imported species that has flourished. Local truck drivers, who outfit their tractors with heavy moose guards to the tops of their grills, and high-powered spotlights, warn the animals are big, fast and cause serious vehicular and bodily damage.
The sign on the Trans Canada Highway, which stretches 900 kilometers (560 miles) from Port Aux Basques to St. John’s, warned that last year there were 660 moose collisions. Thousands of dollars have been spent by the Newfoundland and Labrador government on moose fencing to keep the beasts off the largely two lane road and sensors to warn if moose are on the highway. This past week some moose sensors were “out of order.”
Visiting Newfoundland is a trip of a lifetime for me. The name, Newfoundland and Labrador, reminds me of the haunting strains of Celtic music.
Coming from British Columbia, the far westernmost point of Canada was too far from the far easternmost point of Canada to be real, 7770 kilometers (4828 miles) to drive, too far to visit, who knows how many air connections are required. Flying to Hong Kong was easier and cheaper.
Newfoundland and Labrador are unknown knowns to me. I landed in Gander once -- yes, I’m that old -- to refuel on a Trans Atlantic flight, but it’s the years of listening to Canadian radio and TV news and current affairs programs that put me on a first name basis with Corner Brook and Cape Spear, Signal Hill, the Hibernia oil fields, Dildo, Come By Chance, Blomidon and Twillingate.
I expected pristine wilderness, landscapes untouched for millions of years and I found it. I expected a wildness, a moody, broody wildness where multiple layers of clouds spun around the sun changing light to darkness in the middle of the afternoon, creating fire from water.
Not a scrap of white plastic or paper was blowing in the breeze. The breeze is a 25 mph tail wind AND a 35 mph cross wind at the same time seemingly every day of the week.
MacGyver brought us here. He booked our load, drill pipe, out of Houston, Texas bound for a research vessel, which would dock in St. John’s harbour for reprovisioning. A super team run, almost 3,400 driving miles PLUS a six hour ferry ride, the only way onto The Rock. We drove the first leg 2,300 miles from Houston to the Marine Atlantic terminal in North Sydney in 61 hours arriving ten hours before the overnight ferry. Once off the ferry it would take another 12 hours to reach St. John’s harbour.
Everything on the island is expensive, food, cars, building products, everything because it “all comes by truck and ship” the tourism lady at the ferry terminal told us. ”Everyone knows how important trucks are. You will be fine.”
Well, not exactly.
While the locals are friendly, they call everyone “me love” which I prefer over the Southern US habit of people 30 years my junior, calling me “Hon”, or worse Ma’am, but like most of Canada, Newfoundland is NOT truck friendly.
The island may depend on trucks, but cars and RVs can make reservations for the ferry crossing and knock trucks off the ferry, whose drivers are paid when they drive, not when they sit. It’s first come first serve, unless you pay for priority or premium loading, which is a reservation, but absolutely not called a reservation, it’s double the price. A “priority” spot can be booked 48 hours in advance, but the truck must arrive at the terminal four hours before the sailing or forfeit. This information is not on the website. There are two sailings, each day, each way, plus a commercial only sailing. However, on arrival we find out that the commercial sailing is for dropped trailers and Hazardous Materials loads and 12 trucks with drivers. The big ferry takes about 35 tractortrailer units.
The passage to Port Aux Basques is six hours. Transport Canada rules say no one can ride on the car deck. So, when a commercial driver is sitting in the lounge upstairs, she must log Line 4, which is On Duty Not Driving, which takes away from the allowable working and driving hours that day. In order to log Sleeper Berth and take the time off, the driver must buy a Sleeper Berth on the ferry, which we did for $35 and we needed two. If you take a berth, use the shower, it might be your only one for days.
We were off the ferry within ten minutes of docking to start the trek to St.John’s, 12 hours across a windy AND windy, largely two lane road with passing sections.
It’s a tough drive, feels like a full shift of pushups, clutching the steering wheel, overall the road is good. But where the asphalt has crumbled, the bumps are horrendous. Think of driving the West Virginia mountains with a gusty tailwind and a crosswind. These hills are shorter, sharper and steeper with typically a curve on the downgrade. Sixty kilometres past Grand Falls - Windsor at Sandy Lake I passed a Caution Heavy Drifting sign. Snow?
Shit! Shit! Shit! The wind had picked up the tractor and shoved me into the oncoming lane where thankfully there was no oncoming traffic and no one trying to pass me from behind.
We were also warned about the Wreckhouse, a feature on the evening weather report, where 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Port Aux Basques, the winds roar across the valley. A small, really small, government sign advertised a wind warning with winds gusts recorded greater than 200 kph (125 mph) in the area.
“Trucks are pushed over there,” said the Blue On Water hotel desk man. “Knocked over on their side.”
The Rock seriously lacks big truck signage. On two occasions a sign, which was small, hard to read, with the truck specific information at the bottom, covered by the flora and fauna, was, well useless. We took one exit, 20 at Grand Falls - Windsor to an Irving Oil. Once off the Trans Canada the road forked with no further signage. We flipped a coin, turned right, and found ourselves in No Trucks land, pulling a U-turn in someone’s parking lot.
The ferry terminal backs up on both sides when windy weather strikes, but there is no overflow parking, there is no suggested places to park, no map. The system is: Go away, we’ll call you when we’re ready for you. Where? Well it’s up to the drivers to find something.
The truckstops are small. The yards take two to 10 trucks and most fuel stations have restaurants so what little parking there is is littered with passenger cars. One bonehead parked directly in front of the fuel islands and went into lunch. We had to roust him to get back on the road.
Perhaps the craziest thing we discovered is that there is no commercial scale on the entire island for a driver to weigh her load. No Cat Scale, no Flying J-like scale. But there is a Government Weigh Station every 100 miles or so. We had to scale our return load of 43,000 pounds of pipe. A driver where we were loaded pointed up the hill to a concrete plant. There’s a scale up there he said.
They’ll let you use it, he assured us.
What do drivers do normally? we asked. They drive down the road to the first government scale out of St. John’s. If they are overweight they get a ticket and if it’s open the weight master will print a ticket of the truck’s axle weights, which he did for us, in pounds, for free.
While we were “scaling” at the concrete plant, about four miles from downtown St. John's and a half mile from a residential area, 200 yards ahead of us, a moose wandered across the access road.
“Do you see that?” I asked MacGyver. “Is that a moose?”
“Where? Oh yeah, that is a moose,” he said. “That’s a sign we’re staying the night.”