The goldfish and the castle

Michael Johansen
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When the weather turns bad it turns fast. A lot of snow was forecast for the day of my first trip this season by snowmobile to my cabin, but it was not an abnormal amount for Labrador. Like a fool I didn't worry.

The cabin isn't far, only 30 kilometres due west of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. In spring, summer and autumn I can get there after a half-hour drive up old forestry roads and another half-hour hike through dense bush.

It became more difficult towards the end of November. A sizable snowfall (followed by an afternoon of rain) made driving a wheeled vehicle up those dirt roads and wading through soft but crusty snow virtually impossible.

It was time to dig my old Bravo out of its snowbank and drag it to a mechanic to have the engine remounted.

I've looked forward to this since June because with a snowmobile and komatik I would no longer have to carry everything, all materials and supplies, on my back. On this first trip I brought something the cabin desperately needed: a heavy, airtight woodstove.

I felt ready. True, the Bravo lacked a windshield, but I was only making a short trip, so how important could it be? Quite, as it turned out.

I had no trouble following the old road out of the valley up to 5 Wing Goose Bay, but that's when the good times ended. I usually don't get lost easily, but for some reason I've always had difficulty finding my way through the maze the military has been building in the woods behind the base for the past six decades.

Every road looks the same. Every T-shaped intersection (and there are many of them) seems to force me in the wrong direction. The few signs only indicate the way to places within the labyrinth. None point the way out.

Consequently, I anticipated a delay while I drove through the area, but I expected it to be short. I had not expected to be blinded by a storm.

The snow had started to fall when I was speeding along the river and by the time I got behind the base it was coming down thickly, blotting out all landmarks.

Without a windshield, my goggles became uselessly encrusted with ice and without protection my bare eyeballs were constantly assaulted by hard, flinty flakes.

I chose one wrong road after another until I found myself at the closed gates of the base's main firing range, which was far off my route. I drove around the whole fenced-in area before heading off in what I thought was the right direction - only to eventually find myself facing the very same fence a second time.

I didn't recognize it at first, since my original tracks were already buried in new snow, so I actually thought I was getting somewhere as I followed the fence a second time - until I got back to the gate.

I left it again in what was certainly the right direction, found a groomed trail, pinpointed my actual location a second time and with renewed confidence continued on my way through the growing storm - only to end up back at the very same fence a third time.

After that I finally got out of the maze and with great satisfaction roared up Dome Mountain, beyond which lay the clear trail to the neighbourhood of my cabin.

But I knew it was probably too late. I stopped the machine near the top and, with my bruised and painful eyes, squinted at my watch. I saw I'd wasted so much time circling the Dakota Firing Range I had only a few minutes before sunset. To continue in high winds over deepening snow into the frigid night was clearly suicidal, so I turned around and sought shelter in town.

The moral of this story is one I tell to all visitors, but one I also need to relearn time after time: don't take Labrador for granted. Carelessness can kill. If you don't prepare for the worst, the worst will surely happen.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Geographic location: Labrador, Goose Bay, Happy Valley Dome Mountain

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