JOURNEY THROUGH LABRADOR by Bernie Howgate

( Chapter 3 )

 

FEBRUARY 12th, 1992

The 'Barrens' are an intimidating place at the best of time. Being the highest point on the trail to Goose Bay, this 30 km. stretch of bald hills between Red Bay and Mary's Harbor offers spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, but little protection from its' elements.

To the north west the smoothed curved coastal hills look like white pin cushions and to the east, the occasional window of color opens to views of a steaming Atlantic boiling under the frigid cold. On the trail, lone twisted trees hide behind boulders and a few stunted ones cling to life in its shallow ridges. Here the wind always blows and surface snow is constantly moving.

That morning, I woke at 6:00 am. My thermometer read -28 degrees Celsius, but felt much colder. This time before sunrise was always the worst. The first task was to smelt snow. Lighting a stove under candle light is an art in itself. But doing it with only nylon gloves for protection is a painful one, and packing up camp wearing heavy mitts was a lesson in slow motion. Every item had its place. A good start was essential for peace of mind. To search for something while on the trail would at the very least be frustrating and at worst lead to frost bite.

Items not essential during the day were packed away in two large duffel bags. Extra clothes, sleeping bag and toiletries in one, tent, thermal mats, stove and extra boots in the other. Both were secured under canvas with a cord on the sled while a third bag containing food provisions, spare stove, thermos flask and gun was secured on top with bunjis for easy access. I was pulling over 120 pounds, but on a wind swept icy surface of the barrens it was no problem to pull.

That morning the sky looked sickly. Low clouds hid the sun. The forecast called for strong northeast winds and a windchill warning was in effect.

By 8:00 am. I was on the snowmobile trail, but by 9:00 am. I was lost. Stopping to readjust cords on the sled. I had taken off my heavy mitts only to watch helplessly as one blew away. First I had to unhook myself from the sled harness, then put on my snow shoes and by the time I had retrieved it, I had lost sight of the next marker. These snowmobile trail markers were my life lines and came in all shapes and sizes. Pyramids of wood marked the high land, painted boulders the low. Wood nailed to trees, old gas tanks strung from branches and anything reflective the rest.

I had with me a compass and 1:50,000 topographical maps of the area, but they were only as good as the person reading them. At this elevation one hill looks very much like the next and with few trees, all pond definition was lost to a white carpet.. At first I thought this would make good practice, but after ten minutes of futile compass readings my fingers felt like lead weights on string. I sat down for five minutes beating them across my shoulders and putting them under my armpits, but most of all I took this time to clear my head. Fear is your worst enemy when you travel alone. Small mistakes, if not checked lead, to fatal ones. You can't make allowances for acts of God, but you can for human ones.I climbed a ridge, took out my binoculars, and immediately spotted a mound of stones: I was back on track.

By noon I had travelled eight kilometers. I was approaching Chateau Pond, the last obstacle before my descent of the 'barrens' and back into the relative shelter of a wooded area. Here I found snowmobile trails going in all directions. I had been told this one-and-one-half kilometer long pond was notorious for 'wipe-outs' and many a local I had been told, had been lost for hours crossing it.

I spent some time searching the opposite shoreline for a diamond marker, but couldn't see it. My map showed a creek to the northeast were I knew the trail left the pond, so I set my compass and headed out on its bearing.

I'd not gone far when I heard a roaring noise. I looked up, but saw no plane. In front the shoreline was still clear. I took out my compass, checked my direction, then returned it to my pocket. All this time the noise got louder. Visibility was still excellent, then a tell-tale burst of wind changed everything. To the north a curtain of white hid all outlines. The wind had no obstacles crossing the pond. There was nothing I could do but brace myself. A cloud of snow was heading in my direction and within seconds my vision shut down. Everything turned a foggy white. Snow like dust was everywhere, it got in my eyes, up my nose and down my throat. The only thing I knew for certain was that my feet were on the ground. I dug deep into my pocket for my compass. I only had my mitts off for a second, but my fingers immediately froze. My eyes were watering and soon my left eye froze shut. For the next twenty minutes. I crawled along on automatic pilot. I don't know if it was naivete or the compass reading that made me feel secure, but moments after the wind died and I saw the diamond snowmobile marker, I was crying uncontrollably

 


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