Sudden tragedy touches many lives

Michael
Michael Johansen
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After weeks of cold rain and wet snow, the sun finally emerged a few days ago to bring warmth to Labrador. But there were no bright faces alongside the Churchill River. Instead, those who gathered to look out over the deep valley on Wednesday showed nothing but grief.
The Churchill, Labrador's largest river, carries tonnes of water hundreds of kilometres down from the height of land, passing through hydro turbines, long lakes and a score of rapids before
washing up against the Monster's Mountain, as the Innu call a massive rocky knoll about 30 kilometres west of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
The knoll, with the high sandy escarpment that leads to it from the north, forms a partial dam across the bottom of the valley.
The water first swirls in a deep trout-rich lake before squeezing past the massive knoll into a long narrow torrent called Muskrat Falls.
The Innu never liked the Monster's Mountain, but at any rate they could always avoid it because their ancient portage, long used by Innu and settlers alike, follows the southern bank of the river, opposite the nearly impassable knoll and the tremendously steep escarpment.
The knoll may seem menacing, but another danger is more obvious. There is no question of navigating the falls in any kind of a boat. The Churchill drops in two steps in a curved descent. The first is a massive churning rapid that settles down around a curve, but soon makes a final high tumble into a wide round bowl, a deep basin that is rimmed with sand and now still capped with ice.
These days, the old portage is hardly used. The easiest way to get to Muskrat Falls is to take a poorly marked and badly maintained dirt track for a couple of kilometres off the Trans-Labrador Highway. The track was made primarily for the benefit of Hydro workers decades ago, long before the highway was even finished. But it was quickly discovered and adopted by local people and tourists since it gave everyone access to some fantastic views over a wonder of nature.
Muskrat Falls became a popular attraction, where campers could set up tents and launch boats to travel and fish the higher reaches of the Churchill. Few people who have lived in Labrador or visited the region have not been to the spot and seen at least the upper rapids.
The first news that someone - three young men in a boat, in fact - had been caught by the rain-swollen currents and swept over the falls must have sent a chill through anyone who heard it, but especially any Labradorian.
Labrador, as every tragedy shows with much sorrow, is like a small town: it has an area the size of a country, but a population that wouldn't fill one of the larger sports stadiums. Everyone always seems to know everyone else, one way or another. The grief of one can be felt throughout the region, along the age-old lines of friendship and family. The grief of three, at such a time and in such a way, hangs heavy across every shoulder.
They are not just mourning in the communities that were home to the young men, although everywhere everyone's deepest sympathies and best wishes are now aimed their way. The news of the tragedy brought a grief of many that is felt across Labrador - and no doubt beyond.
Muskrat Falls will never seem quite the same. There's no doubt people will continue to visit them and view their beauty and majesty, but now, however, there will be sadness in the sight. Now the falls hold the memory of three young men who had touched many lives before they came to that place.
Now, in passing, they have left deep holes behind.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Churchill

Geographic location: Labrador, Muskrat Falls, Churchill River Happy Valley Goose Bay

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  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad. ~Marcel Proust

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 19:55

    People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad. ~Marcel Proust