Taking our show on the road

Susan Flanagan
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— Telegram image

The art of the road trip is a tricky thing to master. The delicate balance of planning and unforeseen adventure cannot be upset.

Too much of one or too little of the other can mess up the yin and yang of the whole kit and caboodle. My husband and I are polar opposites when it comes to road trip preparation. He leaves everything to chance, including where we’re going; I like everything planned, down to the picnic stops.

As I write, we are in the midst of planning/not planning a road trip to Montreal with a yet undetermined number of children.

Peanuts, you say.

Maybe, but we’re not taking the usual North Sydney, N.S., Grand Falls, N.B., and Granby, Que., route. We are taking the Trans-Labrador Highway.

Ever since No. 1 got news that his summer work term would be with Nalcor in Churchill Falls, we have been excitedly talking about going to visit him up there.

Both my husband and I have been to Churchill Falls before, but that trip was in March with 15-foot snow drifts and tunnelesque roads. It was back in 1998 and involved former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard trying to keep his balance on his new prosthetic leg by holding on to former premier Brian Tobin’s sealskin coat. It was slippery going up the snowbanks to visit Innu elders in their tents.

The then premiers were there to announce a deal to divert two Quebec Rivers into the Smallwood Reservoir and to build two new generators on the Upper Churchill. They also announced a new generating station for Gull Island and $20-million feasibility study for Muskrat Falls.

My husband and I were both journalists, he for The Telegram, I for Newsworld. Since the Quebec and Labrador Innu banded together to block the $100,000 press conference, things got a little dicey as we all scrambled to file reports without much support. I’m talking a dozen planeloads of journalists from Quebec, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador all trying to get visuals back to their stations for the 6 o’clock news. It was a fairly stressful trip.

On our next visit to Churchill Falls we want to relax — feel the heat of the Labrador interior in the summer. We understand there are certain tiny black things that fly that can make life difficult. We will — or I should say, I will thus go armed with mosquito nets and duct tape (to seal pants to socks and sleeves to gloves). I will pack copious amounts of Skin So Soft and a dozen spare tires.

We will pick up a provincial Department of Transportation and Works free satellite phone, preprogrammed with the number for the closest police station. We understand CAA is probably not going to be able to help us much in the Big Land.

The Labrador Highway has just the right number of unforeseen elements for my husband and enough planning for me. We know when our friends drove it last summer, they got a flat and the flies were so thick they refused to budge from the flyless interior of the vehicle. Finally a trucker stopped and asked my friend if she needed help.

“I’ve got a man here with me,” she answered.

“What did you tell him that for?” her worked-every-day-of-his-life-outdoors husband growled.

So they had to face the music/buzzing, tied their hoodies tight around their faces and fixed the flat.

They warned us not to rely on the satellite phone — theirs didn’t work. They described the worst sections of road and told us where the pavement ends.

With this spattering of advice, I’m convinced we will make it. We have in the past completed several successful road trips to and from Ottawa to visit the outlaws and in 2007, we even drove all the way across the United States with 4.5 children of our own and one nephew tossed in for variety for the second half. Travelling with his four children and pregnant wife didn’t seem to freak out my husband. The amount of stuff in the van did rattle him, however, and hours before our departure from Surrey, B.C., he ran out, purchased and licensed an eight-foot trailer so we’d have more space for feet, legs and other body parts.

It was a good idea, really, but I cried when I saw that trailer. The idea of manoeuvring through the Black Hills of South Dakota and up the hairpin turns of Mount Washington with a trailer in tow was not my idea of the perfect road trip. But it worked out OK in the end.

Since we had already adequately explored Washington and Oregon, we decided to dip first into Idaho, where we and our trailer stayed at a stunningly beautiful campground called Twin Rivers.

Our first planned destination was Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana. Eighty years ago this year, Glacier and Waterton Lakes in Alberta joined up to become the first International Peace Park. The Peace Park, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1995), straddles the 49th parallel and is famous for its scenery, wildlife and ecosystem. I had first heard about both parks when I read the non-fiction book, “The Bear’s Embrace,” by Patricia Van Tighem. Not uplifting, but utterly gripping. I had hoped to get there for years. Maybe see a grizzly — from a distance, of course.

Mainly, though, I wanted to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Opened in 1932, this 50-mile feast for the eyes features alpine tundra, glacial lakes and cedar forests. With its spine-chilling switchbacks and rock overhangs so low that vehicles taller than 10 feet cannot pass, I knew my husband would like it as much as me.

When we reached our campground near Apgar Village, we picked up a brochure that explained that vehicle combinations longer than 21 feet (including bumpers; i.e., our trailer) are prohibited, but luckily for us there was a complimentary shuttle bus. It was new and cushy. We could sit back; take in the sights without worrying about running into a big-horned sheep or veering off the road and plunging into the abyss.

On the bus sat a man with seven of his nine children. They hailed from Salt Lake City, Utah and although we did not share the same set of beliefs, we hit it off. We didn’t ask if he had more than one spouse and he didn’t ask us, either.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road is pretty spectacular. If we had just seen that and flown home then, it would have been a more than satisfying road trip. The shuttle bus took us to the highest peak in Glacier, Logan Pass (6,646 feet), and then let us out at a trailhead where we hiked the snow-capped mountains to Hidden Lake, past grazing mountain goats and receding glaciers.

The park is exceptional in that, unlike Wyoming’s Yellowstone or Alberta’s Banff, the crowds are not there.

This is mainly because the park is a destination in itself and not a road to elsewhere, so the usual tour buses do not appear.

The following day we went rafting just outside the park entrance. The six and a half of us weren’t the only ones in the raft so the guide split us up, alternating us between other paddlers. I was in the back with the then-youngest tethered to the floor next to me. The bigger boys were up front where I could see them with my husband. No. 3 was opposite me.

“Whatever happens, don’t stop paddling,” said our guide. “And even if you fall in, do not let go of your paddle.”

We were perhaps two thirds of the way downstream when I watched No. 2 fly out of the raft, into the white water and disappear into the Flathead River. My husband, seated ahead of No. 2, was oblivious.

“We’ve got a swimmer!” howled the guide. “First one of the season.”

He sounded like a reality show host. He screamed at the left paddlers to do this and the right paddlers to do that. Forward paddle. Back paddle. It was all gibberish to me. I was in suspended animation, even when I saw my son resurface — still a good distance away. To his credit, the guide got our raft over to him and shouted at whoever was closest to grab the straps on his life vest and drag him onboard.

“You held onto your paddle,” he yelled, clapping my son on the back.

He was wet and cold but otherwise none the worse for wear. Since I was more shaken than him, I was delighted to hop onto dry land. We picked up our rafting pictures, bade farewell to Glacier and started the mega trek across Montana.

I thought it was a long drive to the Port aux Basques ferry from the east end of St. John’s. They call Montana Big Sky Country. They should have called it Unending Highway country.

It took a long time to reach Wyoming. We lost cellphone coverage, which was delightful except for the fact that we were closing a real estate deal back home, a house we bought via email. Our lawyer had made 16 calls to our out-of-service cellphone during the cross Montana leg. Something about our bank releasing the funds. Nothing serious, heh heh.

Luckily, before coverage disappeared we had made an important call to the first place we stayed at back in B.C. About an hour across the Canadian border, No. 4 discovered that her favourite stuffed toy, Fluffy Puffy, a dollar-store dog that could belly dance, had been left in an Osoyoos motel. Not an auspicious start to a 27-day roadtrip.

However, a phone call later, the lady on the desk promised to ship Fluffy Puffy on to our new St. John’s address. All I had to do was give up my credit card number and hope for the best.


Crossing Montana, we decided to stay in the capital, Helena, and take in the Fourth of July fireworks that evening.

After two nights of camping, we bit the bullet and pulled into a hotel. We had no trouble parking, even with the trailer. In fact, the streets were deserted. It was like Stavanger Drive on Labour Day. It didn’t seem possible that there was no traffic. Where was everyone?

As happens on May 24th weekend here, the majority of the population had hit the highway Friday to head to surrounding lakes and campgrounds or to spend the long weekend at their cabins. The result? We got upgraded to the governor’s chic two-bedroom suite and had a luxurious indoor/outdoor swimming pool all to ourselves. I think we saw maybe two other couples in the whole place, the highlight of which was a sweeping circular staircase in the main lobby.

The downside was no fireworks, but we were tired and climbed into our plush beds and went to sleep.

This is how I picture Labrador. No crowds. No fireworks. Cosy beds. Indoor/outdoor swimming pools. Well, maybe everything won’t be exactly the same as the Red Lion Colonial Hotel in Montana, but it’ll be fun. Just us and the children and flies.

If anyone has any Trans-Labrador Highway tips, send them along. You might be responsible for saving a road trip that has the potential to go sideways.


Susan Flanagan is a writer who remembers fondly her only road trip beyond Terra Nova with her parents and siblings: to Pasadena on the west coast of Newfoundland to stay in the cabin of one of her father’s business associates. Only three of eight children accompanied her parents and all survived. Susan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca


Organizations: Trans-Labrador Highway, The Telegram, Department of Transportation and Works CAA Black Hills UNESCO

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Montana Montreal North Sydney Grand Falls Gull Island Ontario Alberta Sun Road Ottawa United States Surrey South Dakota Mount Washington Wyoming Oregon Idaho Twin Rivers Glacier National Park International Peace Park Apgar Village Salt Lake City, Utah Hidden Lake Yellowstone Banff Flathead River Port aux Basques Osoyoos Pasadena

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