Down the Tshiuetin Line is a mighty good road,
Oh the Tshiuetin Line is that road to ride...
Time for Yours Truly to move on down from Labrador to Quebec and, like a latter-day misplaced Lonnie Donegan, entrust himself to the 'little bit of speed... and little bit of steam' of the North Wind. That's the meaning of the Innu word Tshiuetin, the name of the railway that will take me 220 miles south on the first indigenous-owned line in Canada.
This is the line that entered popular culture with English author Hammond Innes's adventure novel 'The Land God gave to Cain,' and with Newfoundland Showband's country-western song sung to the tune of the American folksong 'Wabash Cannonball.'
Down the Tshiuetin Line is a mighty good road
The Tshiuetin line began life as the Quebec North Shore and Labrador railway (QSN&L), built in the 1950s to link the Quebec port of Sept-Îles on the north shore of the St. Lawrence with the iron ore mines here in Wabush and Labrador City, as well as those further north in Schefferville back in Quebec.
It lost some of its use as mining moved elsewhere, and in 2005 QSN&L sold it to the Innu to provide freight and subsidized passenger service for First Nation communities.
Oh the Tshiuetin line is the road to ride
Once the Tshiuetin came right into Labrador City. No longer. Now you have to take a taxi for $125 to Emeril Junction some 45 miles back along the Trans-Labrador Highway. It is thither that Yours Truly now betakes himself after hauling his case, now weighted down with Rivka's multi-ton collection of Labrador rocks, stones and boulders, across the hotel yard to the taxi.
I can now report that thanks to Madam's load the wheelie topples over when I try to stand it.
We sail on past a car that has crashed into the fir trees, past Grande Ermine Lake, across the broad rapids-rippling Ashuanipi River, and arrive at a forlorn little tin hut, grandly named Emeril Station, on sandy ground in the middle of nowhere decked out with huge construction equipment.
As in any loo in a station in the middle of the most crowded urban setting, this Gawd-forsaken little hut in the middle of the wildest wilderness is beautified with a whole repertoire of graffiti icons, ranging from the harmless, like 'waiting for a train to go to Schefferville,' 'I miss you Pamela Rich,' and 'Family tree (with a tree image), you may not be rich in $$ but you are rich in family' to the much more toxic.
These latter include a picture of a squatting naked woman above the words grosse indienne sale (big dirty Indian woman), and various intimate parts of the female and male anatomy in various stages of interplay with appropriate, or rather inappropriate commentaries. Kilroy of the wildest wilderness was indeed here.
Among the less indecent graffiti
It's an hour and a half before the train's scheduled noon arrival from Schefferville, there's nobody else here, and of course there's no nice station buffet in the bare icon-adorned tin hut. After about an hour, a Quebec family arrives in a camper to drop off some of its members. They offer me a beer - now that's real friendly, but I'm having a dickens of a job understanding their version of Canadian French.
It's 1220 and still no sight of the North Wind. Thank goodness there are others here. At least I won't be abandoned if the Tshiuetin doesn't blow in at all.
It's 1240 and way in the distance along the tracks amid much hooting three glaring headlights appear. For an eternity, and then some, they don't seem to get any closer, but finally the North Wind breezes in and slows even further to a halt.
The train gotta have a little bit of steam
And a little bit of speed
Well if you want to ride you gotta ride it like you find it
The first two passenger cars contain grossly overweight Innu sprawled out sleeping on bed sheets they've draped over two seats apiece. The Innu characteristically have very wide faces, but have they always been this obese? Or is this the result of European-imported diet?
just now we see a change comin down the line
The scenery is superb, and it is on this emergency platform that Yours Truly now pretends he's a president doing a whistle-stop tour - except that there's no whistle stop, let alone cheering crowds, and the guards are not taking kindly to my pretensions.
And then the train go through
They keep on expelling me from my presidential platform, pointing to the sign 'Pour votre securite SVP ne pas rester sur la platforme,' shushing me back inside. They disappear up the train and I'm back on the platform again, greeting the cheering throngs. They're soon back again to expel me once more. This goes on like a film tape on a loop - out, back in, out, back in.
it was cloudy in the west, looked like rain
Paradoxically, they invite me out to snap some especially photo-worthy site. At last I cotton on. It's the French word 'rester,' meaning 'stay,' but translated into English on the sign here as 'stand.' What I'm allowed to do, apparently, is nip out and take a photo and nip back in again, but not stay indefinitely out there to receive my presidential adulation.
The train is very civilized. Each car has a microwave oven and the restaurant car is well stocked with sandwiches and ready-to-heat meals.
A guard walks past with two humongous rolls of toilet paper. Inside the toilet there's a sign in four languages to keep it clean - English, French, Innu, and the squiggles of the Inuttitut syllabary devised by Christian missionaries. But this journey is anything but crappy.
Keep it clean in four languages
We pass low forests, rushing rivers, huge placid lakes, empty fields where timber has been harvested. We wait in a lay-by while a 168-wagon-long iron ore train pulls slowly northwards, empty after delivering its load to Sept-Îles. We enter an area of vast flat rocky expanses, with bright yellow-green lichen shining beneath the fir trees.
Freight train goes north
Forests of huge metal pylons carry Labrador's wealth of hydro-electric power south. Do they have security cameras all over them to guard against terrorist sabotage? Again we stop in lay-byes for two more never-ending north-bound freight trains, then halt at a little tanker station to refuel.
Trees have a rival forest
Blackened charred tree skeletons and calcinated ground to our right bear mute witness to the devastation of forest fires. To the left everything is still bright green, then charred too where the fires jumped the track, too narrow here to serve as a firewall.
Fire licked the tracks
We pass another freight train, this one with cars of railway workers' dormitories and bathrooms and huge maintenance equipment.
Workers' travelling quarters
The landscape becomes more rugged. The hills rise sharply. Blackened tree skeletons mar mile after mile of hilly lake sides. A huge red crag looms over the valley in the very clear shape of a lion's face.
Fire in the river valley
Dusk - the hour of especial enchantment. Mists waft up from the Moisie River. The valley floor floats with diaphanous while veils. Huge craggy hillsides close in, some brilliant emerald, others burned black and skeletal. We pass more, very serious rapids.
Rock of strength
We stop for freight trains more than 200 wagons long, eight all told, of empty iron ore wagons, workers' dormitories, special equipment, and workers' cars fitted with rail wheels for the journey.
Motor cars take to the rails
The trees become taller and more varied the closer we get to Sept-Îles. Inside the carriage there is much wanton laughter from a group of rail workers who got on at an intermediate halt. I can't make out what they're saying with their Canadian French twang.
Another dusk view
It's been worth every minute of it.
Now this here's the story about the Tshiuetin Line
By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.