6:30 a.m.: Early mornings and I struck a deal years ago. I won’t bother it if it doesn’t get in the way of my sleep. Alas, today is different. I know full well that the world is conspiring against me. A postal strike means my journey to Red Bay starts with loading 540-odd Northern Pen papers and boxes of Where It’s At guides into my trusty steed “Steve,” my mechanically challenged 1999 Mazda Protégé. I’ve never been one to tempt the travelling time lords so I set off extra early into the cruel, rain-soaked morning along Route 430 to St. Barbe to catch my 10:30 a.m. ferry, about 120 kilometres away. Not only do I get to write the paper but for the past two weeks I’ve delivered them to the kind folk across the Strait of Belle Isle. Last week was a doddle aboard the MV Apollo, but today is different. Today it is the MV Astron and an elaborate itinerary designed by the creators of “The Amazing Race.”
8:30 a.m.: With suspension bulging, Steve and I lurch to St. Barbe with all the speed of a drunken three-legged cheetah. Total wildlife count: 21 saturated and noticeably unimpressed moose, an indecisive meadow vole and, what at first glance looked like a coyote cleverly disguised as a grey rock but which instead turned out to be a cleverly disguised rock masquerading as a coyote. Friendly service always makes a bad situation better so the beaming smiles of Labrador Marine staff are welcome — so too the news that I have secured a plane seat. It’s not so much luck as it was a request, coupled with the fact the Astron can only accommodate 12 passengers. My hunch to get away early has paid off and will suitably satiate my desire to experience all the luxury on offer by the Department of Transportation and Works’ contingency plan. After all the criticism, I feel it is my duty to get first-hand experience of how it all works. After driving Steve onto the wharf and leaving him to go solo, the next leg of my journey is a shuttle bus … but not to the previously advertised Sandy Cove. To St. Anthony airport, 70 km back up the coast. I probably should have mentioned something about Steve’s sticky starter motor. Oh well.
9:07 a.m.: Is there such thing as déjà vu in reverse? Because I have the distinct feeling I have just driven this road — except in the opposite direction. Wildlife count: one baby moose, a bald eagle near Eddies Cove West, a man standing in the middle of the road taking a photo of said eagle, but no deceptive roadside rockery (maybe it was a coyote after all). The delightful shuttle bus driver and I talk about the fishery as Katie Perry seeps from the CD player. I repress the feeling to spark a sing-a-long.
10:10 a.m.: It’s hard to believe I’ve travelled 189 km to catch a ferry yet I’m still in a car. The extra driving has given me time to ponder the big questions in life like: if you pass the same moose on the same journey do you get to count it twice in your final tally? Because I know that baby moose was foraging at the same garden when I passed it earlier this morning. Does that make it 22 moose?
10:22 a.m.: Arrive at the airport. Dark black coffee always has a way of making my world seem a little less peculiar. A photo of the Queen hanging on the wall of St. Anthony airport reveals she has unusually plump fingers. One of the airport staff tells me the “ferry” will be ready for boarding in five minutes. I can’t help but guffaw loudly startling him and me both. I do hope a Steampunk-inspired zephyr descends from on high. Maybe that coffee wasn’t such a good idea.
10:31 a.m.: Possibly the best airport experience to date. This is what it must feel like to be a rock star with a private jet, or Danny Williams. No queues, no baggage checks, just a stroll onto the tarmac greeted by a friendly pilot, who guides us on board the Beech King Air A100 Air Labrador charter at the very same time Steve is steaming out of St. Barbe. My joke about the front two passengers providing inflight entertainment for the other five of us falls flat. Brian, an Ontarian travelling with his girlfriend Julie, makes a quip asking when meal service begins, which receieved raucous laughter from all. Mental note: Must work on being funnier.
10:36 a.m.: The A100 has more grunt than Steve and we get airborne. My ears won’t pop so I stick my fingers in my ears and imitate a goldfish to try and equalize the pressure. The wings dip into murky grayness occasionally disappearing from sight. Today’s flight time — 20 minutes. The A100 is a luxury craft offering more leg room than any economy ticket afforded before and I have my very own ash tray that flips out from the brown faux leather wall. The brown reminds me of coffee and that I should have gone to the washroom before take off. I should be able to hold on as long as we don’t hit any turbulence.
10:40 a.m.: We hit turbulence. Well, we hit a bump as we emerge through the top of the marshmallow clog (that’s cloud and fog) and rise majestically into the wild blue yonder. I discover that the Polaroid window cover spins in a psychedelic swirl of colours to give the illusion of an eclipse. I spin it continuously for a few minutes until I start feeling sick. I find that I have two air sickness bags. Excellent.
10:45 a.m.: As quickly as we rise, we descend. If only all international flights could be this quick. The Polaroid window floods the land below with unnatural colour, the eerie tinge of the water leads me to believe either Willy Wonka’s factory, or a rainbow, just exploded.
10:55 a.m.: Another shuttle bus is waiting for us and couriers us through the quaint village of Blanc Sablon to the ferry terminal. We can’t fit everyone in so we leave two behind, but they’ll catch up.
11:10 a.m.: Now it’s a waiting game. I get talking to Julie who tells me that the ferry/bus/air/bus/ferry won’t taint her month-long journey to Southern Labrador. In fact, she thinks it was quite the adventure. I wander off to check out an iceberg floating in the harbour and watch as a marmot tries to mug a seagull. On the horizon the MV Astron emerges from the clog.
12:18 p.m.: Huzzah. The MV Astron swings her stern to dock and I can see Steve. I wave. He doesn’t wave back. I’m not surprised.
12:30 p.m.: A nice gent drives Steve right to me. Now that’s service. Thankfully my work can begin. Tomorrow, I get to go back from whence I came but this time I’m taking the boat so I can avoid déjà vu déjà vu. At least tonight I can watch the Canucks win the Stanley Cup.
12:02 p.m.: Arrive at the Blanc Sablon ferry terminal right on time for check-in for my 1 p.m. ferry ruing the fact that the Canucks lost and the news the ferry is just leaving St. Barbe. The good news is it’s a beautiful day so I take a wander along the beach soaking up some much needed Vitamin D.
1:30 p.m.: As the Astron docks, I run into Julie and Blain again. We talk scuba diving in Cuba and poverty in Indonesia. A crowd starts milling about the dock waiting for their cars to be driven to them. It’s not without its hassels however. Heavily laden campervans need extra timber under their tires so as not to bottom out.
2:03 p.m.: Cars and trucks start to move onto the ships. Because of the way she docks, trucks and trailers have to be reversed on. After we’re all on, we follow the freshly painted signs up to our deck.
2:45 p.m.: “We’re not designed to carry passengers,” a crew member tells us as we cram into the brightly postered “Designated Passenger Lounge.” We’re informed we are confined to this deck. It is beginning to feel like we are the cast of “Lost,” 12 strangers on board a freighter headed into iceberg-prone waters (I am the hairy one). A Discovery channel show about dredging and the megaships involved takes our minds off the journey ahead. Travel time is 90 minutes. The sun blazing away makes me want to be on deck but there’s no way out.
3 p.m.: Can you still get keelhauled for disobeying a direct order? I ponder the question as cabin fever sets in. I set off for a wander around our special passenger deck, a journey that takes 39 steps. I toy with the idea of escaping onto the deck for some fresh air and shuffleboard with cocktails served in pineapples, but I refrain. I do find some amusement in the manufacturer’s name of the immersion suits we are expected to wear if the ship goes down. Fitz-Wright. Hilarious.
3:30 p.m.: The new show on Discovery channel is “Prison Escape” which does nothing for my cabin fever so I set off again. The tourists are loving their adventure and share travel tips with each other. Truck drivers on the other hand are less enthused about the delays. The chef is banging about in the kitchen but he’s not cooking for us, although it does smell delightful.
4:50 p.m.: Finally, we arrive and disembark. Better late than never, I say. I bid farewell to Julie and Blain and the MV Astron, hopefully for the very last time. As a tourist the MV Astron and associated travel was a fantastic adventure, something that all the tourists attest to. Businesses and regular travellers on the other hand, well, that’s a different story.
6.20 p.m.: I make it back for the grand finale of our community radio program, Groovin’ with the Graneys, an all-Australian music program that has been running as part of the Iceberg Festival. I queue up AC/DC’s Highway to Hell.