Look what’s happened to Labrador

PIERRE BERTON August 20 1955

Look what’s happened to Labrador

PIERRE BERTON August 20 1955

EVER SINCE Jacques Cartier made his oft-quoted remark about, “the land God gave to Cain," a succession of explorers and adventurers have strained for imaginative adjectives to describe the harshness and infertility of the great Labrador peninsula.

This immense block of precambrian rock—half a million square miles in size—surrounded on three aides by some of the coldest known ocean currents, is perhaps the most maligned promontory in the world. The chorus of contempt has been in full throat for four centuries and is only now being tilled by the dawning realization that here, in this ill-favored land of deformed rocks, misshapen trees, appalling canyons, shrieking gales and twisted crags, there lies a horde of treasure richer than the jeweled mountains of Cathay, which Cartier was seeking when he passed Labrador by.

The great peninsula, bisected politically into Newfoundland’s Labrador and Quebec’s Ungava, ranks with Alaska and Arabia as one of the three largest peninsulas in the world. All three have, until recently, been regarded as comparatively sterile, but it is upon Labrador that the greatest abuse has been heaped. “God made the world in five days,” an old Labrador saying goes. “On the sixth day He made Labrador. He spent the seventh day throwing stones at it.”

Cartier remarked that “there was not one cartful of dirt on the whole of it.” Hesketh Prichard, an explorer at the turn of the century, called it “a menacing wilderness” and added that “a desolation more appalling cannot be conceived.” Two of his predecessors were equally emphatic. “A country formed of frightful mountains and unfruitful valleys ... a prodigious heap of barren rock,” reported Lieut. Roger Curtis. Captain George Cartwright, who spent sixteen years on the Labrador coast, echoed his words. “God created this country last of all and threw together there the refuse of his materials as of no use to mankind,” he wrote. Elliott Coues, a naturalist from the semi-tropics, set down his own equally flamboyant impressions: “Fog hangs low and heavy over rock-girdled Labrador. Angry waves, paled with rage, exhaust themselves to encroach upon her stern shores and, baffled, sink back howling into the depths. Winds shriek as they course from crag to crag in a mad career, and the humble mosses that clothe the rocks crouch lower still in fear.”

It cannot be denied that the peninsula has lived up to its billing. One famous American naturalist, Alpheus S. Packard, ventured into the interior to study insect life, but the insects were so fierce they drove him from the country. One explorer of note, Leonidas Hubbard Jr., tried to make his way northwest across the peninsula from Hamilton Inlet on the Atlantic to Ungava Bay on the north coast just after the turn of the century. He starved to death waiting for two comrades to return with aid. The diary he left behind graphically describes the hardships that have faced the unwary traveler in the Labrador wasteland. The final item was written after Hubbard had gnawed through a cariboo-skin moccasin to give him strength to scribble it down: “Tonight or perhaps tomorrow, the weather will improve so I can build a fire, eat the rest of my moccasins and have some more bone broth. Then I can boil my belt and oil-tanned moccasins and a pair of cowhide mittens. They ought to help some. I am not suffering. The acute pangs of hunger have given way to indifference. I’m sleepy ... I think death from starvation is not so bad . . .” 

Undaunted by her husband’s cruel death, Hubbard’s slender and handsome widow, who had waited vainly for him at home, decided to complete the journey that he had attempted. Alone, except for two Indian guides, heavy-skirted and bloomered, with a revolver on her hip and a knife at her belt, this remarkable young woman trekked across a thousand miles of river, bush, rock and tundra to attain her objective and meet the challenge of the land.

Now, half a century later, others are meeting the same challenge. For, paradoxically, the very factors that have I given Labrador its reputation for bleakness and unfriendliness are now proving to be its greatest asset:

-- The harsh climate causes trees to grow with maddening slowness so that the growth rings are too close to distinguish one from another. But this very phenomenon is the reason for the long fibre in the pulpwood that the papermakers cherish. There are enormous stands of these spruce trees across the rockland of Labrador and there’s not much doubt that they will soon be harvested.

— The fierce, impassable rivers that make the peninsula so difficult to navigate by canoe hold locked within them a vast store of hydro-electric power. The myriad lakes, dammed up by ancient glaciers, contain an enormous supply of fresh water waiting to be tapped. There may be as much as twelve million horsepower in Labrador, or about five times the amount generated at the Grand Coulee Dam, the world’s largest hydro project.

-—The naked ocean of rocks which looked so barren and desolate to Cartier are now known to contain the largest single deposit of iron ore in the world—not to mention deposits of copper and other base metals still being probed.

Every schoolboy now knows the story of how Jules Timmins formed the Hollinger-Hanna company and gambled a quarter of a billion dollars on the vast deposits of high-grade iron ore along the Quebec-Labrador border. Not so well known is the fact other huge companies are following in Timmins’ wake, taking similar calculated risks in other sections of the peninsula.

Already a huge company, the British Newfoundland Corporation, backed by Rothschild millions, is exploring a fifty-thousand-mile tract of Labrador under an arrangement with the province of Newfoundland. The company’s objectives include a search for metals and pulpwood, but its main energies are at present focused on the spectacular Grand Falls of the Hamilton River where, it is believed, four million horsepower can be developed at low rates. This enormous and awe-inspiring cataract is reckoned between 245 and 305 feet high (almost twice the height of Niagara); it defies proper measurement because the tall column of spray, visible for fifty miles, obscures its lower portions. The river, frustrated in its former course by glacial dikes, has gnawed its way down through the soft alluvial rubble in a sinuous pathway that leads it back eventually to the old stream bed. Ina couple of dozen miles of this tortuous journey, the level drops twenty-eight hundred feet. It is this section of the river, as swift as a millrace, that the engineers expect to develop if customers for the power (in the form of various metallurgical industries) can be persuaded to establish themselves at the booming little port of Seven Islands on the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

But it is iron that has put Labrador on the map and opened up its gloomy heartland. A decade ago its great interior plateau was populated only by a few scattered bands of Nascapi and Montagnais Indians, plus the odd white trapper and prospector. Today it is seething with life. By fall, Timmins’ Iron Ore Company of Canada will have achieved a production rate of ten million tons of high-grade ore a year, and already a small city, complete with television station, is springing up at Knob Lake, at the core of its mining operations.

This is only part of the iron story. IOC has proved four hundred million tons of ore whose grade runs higher than that of Minnesota’s rich Mesabi Range. It has done no drilling since 1950, but there are undoubtedly millions more tons yet unproved. The ore, in varying grades, continues in a long rusty streak for four hundred miles north to Ungava Bay at the top of the peninsula, and half a dozen companies - in addition to those controlled by the Hollinger interests — have been formed to exploit it under separate concessions granted by the Quebec government. The largest of these are International Iron Ores Limited and Tidewater Iron Ores Limited, both controlled by Cyrus Eaton Associates of Cleveland. They hold 760 square miles of mineral rights within easy reach of good harbors and hydro-electric sites. Minimum estimates place the quantity of ore under their control at thirty billion tons—perhaps the largest single iron deposit in the world. This ore is of a much lower grade than IOC’s rich deposits but Eaton, the Canadian-born financier who earlier developed the Steep Rock Mine on Lake Superior, won’t need to build a costly railway to get the ore out. He can ship it from Ungava Bay directly to European ports whose steel mills are rapidly exhausting European iron supplies. Eaton himself believes that sometime in (he future— it may take a generation several seaports will be opened on the cold margin of the bay.

An Ancient Arm of the Sea

Anyone who flies across Labrador or looks at a map of the peninsula will notice one curious phenomenon: there is an easily recognizable strip in the centre of it, roughly five hundred miles long, running north and south from the west shore of Ungava Bay to a point well below Knob Lake’s iron mines. The strip is marked by the shapes of the lakes and rivers which run in long slender shreds, always in the same direction. This is the geological oddity known as the Labrador Trough, and it is this ancient formation that holds the key to Labrador’s iron.

The trough represents an ancient arm of the sea—a shallow inlet a hundred miles in width that invaded the precambrian rockland in Proterozoic times, before life existed on the face of the earth. The sea swept down from the north, almost splitting the peninsula in two, and there it lay for millions of years, eroding the soft sandstones and muds that flanked it. These sediments formed an enormous weighty layer thousands of feet thick. The top eight hundred feet consisted of iron and silica (the substance contained in sand) in bands of varying widths. How these iron deposits were formed is still something of a mystery: all that is known is that at this period, all over the world, a set of conditions existed that allowed iron and silica to be deposited in this manner. In South America, in India, in the United States, where the Mesabi Range was building, and along the shores of Lake Superior, iron oxides were being laid down in this way.

Then new forces came into play. The ocean retreated and the soft sediments were caught as in a vice between the granite teeth of the Canadian Shield. As the earth’s crust cooled and wrinkled, enormous pressures from the northeast squeezed the softer rock against the unyielding buttress to the south. Caught in these natural forceps the floor of the trough warped and buckled and split until it was forced up into a mountain range. Over the ages the mountains were gnawed away by the teeth of time, until the land was again as flat as a billiard table. But the ceaseless rains, washing down through the crevices in the soft rocks, had leached away the surface silica, leaving almost pure iron behind. Without this historic washing action, the iron of Labrador would be scarcely worth mining.

Wherever the water could get at the rock there are high-grade deposits. The very process that produced the ore has made it easy to mine: because the water action took place in pockets and fissures near the surface, the ore can be dug without tunneling, by an open-cut process. Because the silica has been washed out of it, the ore is porous—like a cheese full of holes—which means it crumbles and digs easily.

Exploration parties in the vicinity of Ungava Bay, far to the north of the richest iron deposits, are now beginning to suspect that the geological upheaval that shaped the land brought more than iron. In the days when the mountains were heaved up great faults split the rock on the northeast side of the t rough, in the area where the pressure was greatest. It was as if the lid had been removed from a bubbling caldron. Up through these crevasses from the molten womb of the world, in the form of hot solutions and steaming vapors, came various metals, notably copper. Concentrated in tiny fractures in the rocks, they cooled and formed deposits. These deposits are now slowly coming to light in the area of Chimo, the old Hudson’s Bay Company fort on Ungava Bay.

The first man to outline the shape of the trough and to suspect the presence of iron in Labrador-Ungava was a remarkable Canadian government geologist named A. P. Low, a hefty scientist whose curiosity was as prodigious as his physical stamina. Low stands today as the only man who has crossed the peninsula from north to south and from east to west by foot, canoe and snowshoe. He trekked over seven thousand miles of country, living off the land like a native and scribbling ceaselessly in his notebook. One year he and a fellow surveyor probed deep into the heart of the peninsula and then fell to arguing about who was the proper leader of the expedition. Finally Low decided to settle the dispute. "I’ll walk to Ottawa and find out,” he said. And he did— in three weeks.

On his journeys through Labrador, Low produced complete notes on mineral wealth, power sites (he wintered at the Grand Falls), topography, fish, flowers, birds and mammals. And in 1893 he noted the presence of an iron formation along the great trough.

But it was more than half a century before anyone bothered about the iron that Low reported. Other geologists, most of them looking for gold, found more definite showings. One of the mines now being worked by the Iron Ore Company was actually discovered in 1929 by two Montreal geologists. But there was little reaction. Then in 1936 there was that familiar touch of romance that seems to precede all great northern mining developments: the gnarled Indian chief emerging from the interior with his piece of "pretty rock.” The rock looked pretty indeed to Dr. Joseph Hetty, the burly geologist who has since become known as Mr. Labrador. It was dark blue in color and it was almost solid iron. Thus began the now-familiar chain of circumstances that led eventually to Jules Timmins’ quarter-billion-dollar gamble to open up the dark, foreboding "land of Cain.”

At first glance, this phrase of Cartier’s seems apt, for Labrador is an unearthly land. The mountains have a weirdness about them and so have the forests and the rivers. The strangely shaped geological features produce a sensation of the uncanny. As for the climate, it has to be endured to be believed.

The Labrador peninsula is actually a great rigid block of precambrian rock, more than a billion years old, a cornerpost of the continent, its schists and granites, gneisses and basalts compressed and deformed out of all recognition by the terrible pressures they have been subjected to over the eons of geological time. Scoured almost bare of soil by the glaciers of the Ice Ages, its surface is carpeted in a foot-thick blanket of moss and lichen and that fragrant and familiar shrub known as Labrador tea which turns bright orange in the fall. From this spongy floor the gaunt trees protrude like posts, many of them almost devoid of leaves, branches or needles, growing so slowly that it takes them almost a century to reach their full height.

Through the rocks the rivers cut in dizzy gorges, many of them a thousand feet deep, for the peninsula has slowly been rising over the ages as the rivers work their way down. It is this downward erosive action that has produced the bare jagged peaks of the Torngats at the northeastern tip of the peninsula. The word means "evil spirit” in Eskimo, and evil they look, horn-shaped and razor-backed, stretching in a long gap-toothed line for a hundred and fifty miles, bejeweled with ice cornices, decked with green lakes and gouged by immense glacial gullies.

Farther to the south there is another mountain range, equally terrible, equally majestic. These are really mountain stubs, created by molten rock fountaining up from the womb of the earth within the vitals of earlier mountains. The outer flesh of crystalline rock has long since been torn away by the elements so that only the ebony core remains, bare of vegetation. This rock is called gabbro and it contains a feldspar of great beauty known as "labradorite” whose glassy surface, prism-fashion, breaks up white light into a rainbow of colors. It is undoubtedly this phenomenon that has caused the Indians to whisper of flashing rocks and fire mountains along the height of land. One explorer once tried to market the labradorite as a precious gem, but Tiffany’s found it too brittle to work with.

An Immense Dome of Ice

There are parts of Labrador that are almost three-quarters water, for this is old glacier country and the glacial rubble has dammed the ancient watercourses so that there is no recognizable pattern of drainage. Thus the rivers seem to run in all directions, twisting and corkscrewing around obstacles left in the wake of the receding ice sheet. Vast sections of the peninsula, especially toward the southeast, are pocked with kames and kettles. The kames are round little knolls of glacial till; the kettles are bowls in the earth that mark the last resting place of scattered ice blocks—remnants of the great glacier. Because these hummocks and hollows are scarcely scratched by erosion, many geographers believe that this was the final domain of the Labrador Icecap, the immense dome of ice, two miles thick, that covered the peninsula in the Pleistocene Age, a million years ago. Some believe that it is only a brief two thousand years since the glacier vanished from this corner of the peninsula.

The climate is so harsh that it is sometimes hard to believe that the glacier has vanished at all. Labrador is no closer to the Arctic than northern Saskatchewan or the warm valleys of British Columbia or the entire cultivable portion of the USSR; yet its climate is wholly Arctic and sub-Arctic. With the possible exception of eastern Siberia no other region of Arctic climate extends so far south. It has only one frost-free month, July, although the latitude of its heartland compares with that of Dublin, Liverpool, Hamburg and Berlin. For the great peninsula is caught between two natural refrigerators. A river of ice, the Labrador Current, pours down from the Arctic to cool the eastern coastline. A stream of polar air sweeps across from northwest Canada, growing colder over the frigid surface of Hudson Ray to chill the Labrador interior. The plateau itself, two thousand feet above the sea and almost devoid of obstacles, is swept by icy winds that can reach a hundred miles an hour. On one winter’s day this year the winds at the iron mines near Knob Lake averaged sixty miles an hour over a twenty-four-hour period.

F. K. Hutton, an old Labrador hand, has written of the howling northwest wind, the attuarnek of the Eskimos which "storms along with a ceaseless roar over the frozen plains and valleys and fills the air with powdered snow as thick as a London fog.” No living thing, says Hutton, can face it and on some days the air is so thick that a traveler cannot see his own dogs.

When I visited Labrador last June, the rest of Canada, including large portions of the Mackenzie and Yukon valleys, was enjoying early summer. But there were still patches of snow on the low blue hills and long fingers of ice on the cold lakes of the interior plateau.

I rode across this bleak tableland on one of the trains of the new Quebec North Shore and Labrador railroad (a subsidiary of Hollinger-Hanna). The rails run for three hundred and sixty miles to the new town of Schefferville on the shores of Knob Lake, where the iron mines are situated. We started out at seven in the morning and reached the iron country fourteen hours later, traveling on a small passenger train pulled by an orange diesel locomotive.

We had hardly traveled a dozen miles across the grey expanse of muskeg and stunted spruce before we reached the outer edges of the great Laurentian Scarp, a granite barrier three thousand feet high that walls off the interior of the peninsula from the outside world. Bored into the face of this natural bastion was a tunnel, dripping with water, through which the train plunged. Half a mile farther on, a pinpoint of light appeared and we burst from the bowels of the mountain to find ourselves suspended in mid-air seven hundred feet above the canyon of the Moisie River. The train snorted across the slender orange trestle and then clung to the dynamited flanks of the sheer rock cliffs, climbing wearily for mile after mile toward the plateau of iron.

We had entered an unearthly world, half fairyland, half purgatory. Here were boiling rivers, harsh canyons, piles of granite rubble blasted from the hills and camel-backed mountains with sheer faces that seemed to have been split by a giant cleaver. Here among the spiky black spruce were thin mists of deciduous green where the birch and larches heralded the onset of spring. And from the rocky heights above a thousand waterfalls dropped in lacy cascades. Indeed, there was water everywhere. The black cliffs were wet with it; the forests gurgled with it; foaming torrents poured under the railway culverts and tumbled down the steep slopes. Falls, still imprisoned in the grip of a dying winter, hung like enormous icicles from the granite bluffs. And far below, the river hissed and roared as it cut its way through the mountain barrier.

Slowly the train heaved itself out of the gorge-and-river country and we found ourselves sliding across the table top of the great Labrador plateau in a monotonous land of lakes and muskeg, moss and lichen, harsh brown sand, soiled patches of snow and a single species of tree: the black, stunted spruce whose twisted body seems racked continually by some inner torture. Most of Labrador’s half-million square miles looks exactly like this.

By late afternoon we had entered a dead-grey land-—a burned country where the very lichens had been charred from the rocks and the trees were ashen poles rising from a lifeless terrain.  There are thousands of square miles of this burned country on the peninsula, more perhaps than anywhere else in the north, for it takes a century or more to renew the charred foliage.  Burned areas reported by Low in 1893 are still unforested today. In the middle of the last century, an observant Canadian explorer, Professor Henry Youle Hind, came upon an enormous burned desert on the plateau above the Moisie River —the same country through which the railroad now cuts. Appalled at the hundreds of miles of ruined forests he suddenly recalled reading about the queer "dark days” that had fallen over eastern Canada fifty or sixty years before. The darkness had extended from Montreal to Fredericton, N.B. It was so dark on some days that it was impossible to read a newspaper at ten in the morning. Eye-witnesses wrote that the darkness seemed to come out of Labrador. At Seven Islands the atmosphere had gone red and fiery and the sea water turned black as ink. The scientists of the day blamed a volcano somewhere in the unexplored midriff of the peninsula but later research has uncovered no recent volcanic evidence. Hind reasoned, probably correctly, that the real answer lay in these thousands of acres of smoldering caribou moss, ignited by spontaneous combustion, and sending up dense black clouds of smoke and ashes.

A long ore train, pulled by three locomotives, passed us by, speeding south. Each of its open cars was piled high with red-brown iron ore. In the fourteen-hour trip we passed six of these trains. Each pulled one hundred and five cars. Each car held one hundred tons of iron ore, moving to the sea at the rate of ten million tons a year.

We were entering the iron country. The trees were growing sparser and more stunted, the ice was growing thicker on the lakes and the soil was growing redder. By dusk we reached Knob Lake, the end of the line, and the following morning I set out to view the surrounding country.

The community itself is still in crucible. Bulldozers are everywhere, ripping into the soil and leveling out new blocks. Schools and churches are a-building. Telephone poles are sprouting up beside the new three-bedroom homes of polished cedar siding. Plans are now laid to open a television station by Christmas. Owned by the company for the entertainment of its employees, it will be the most northerly TV outlet on the continent. It is designed to show films only, but already there is talk of purchasing cameras and doing local production.

A guide drove me out a few miles through the grey-stick forest and then, suddenly, we entered upon a world of flaming crimson. We stood on the rim of a blood-red crater gouged out by some of the world’s largest steam shovels and, for the first few moments, it seemed as if we were on the lip of the inferno itself. But there were no embers here, only a brilliant expanse of high-grade iron ore, stretching off almost to the horizon in a multitude of colors — alizarin crimson, burnt orange, deep purple, blue-black, oxblood, yellow and scarlet. What we were looking at, mainly, was an enormous deposit of rust—as if a million steel girders had been allowed to decompose for a century and the result dumped here in a mighty heap. Other deposits, darker red, consisted of haematite, which is simply jeweler’s rouge, used to polish brass and silver.

The land about us was a monochrome of red. The hills in the foreground were red. The water lay in pools as red as blood. The men themselves were red, caked with the red dust that rose in clouds and permeated everything so that clothing, trucks, buildings and foliage were layered in a thin veneer of crimson. It was a relief to look off beyond the craters to the blue Labrador sky line, flecked with cool patches of snow. But even here one could see the red roads winding off through the thin forests.

Below us, the great shovels were gouging into the soft face of the crater in ten-ton gulps. Enormous diesel trucks, belching clouds of blue exhaust, strained and groaned up the inclines, each loaded with thirty-five tons of ore. From the moment the shovel scoops it up, this ore scarcely stops moving until it reaches the steel mills of the United States. The trucks dump it into a hopper where it is screened and from here an endless belt pours it into the waiting ore cars. The cars begin moving almost immediately down the railroad to Seven Islands. Here they are seized in steel jaws and turned turtle into another belt which carries the ore to a freighter which, loaded in a few hours, moves off at once up the St. Lawrence to the lakes or down the gulf to the Atlantic coast.

Jutting out into one of the crimson craters (there are three large mines in operation in the vicinity of Knob Lake) was a small peninsula of land and on it the remains of a log city. This was the original iron town of Burnt Creek, originally planned as the community around which the mines would be based. But a group of geologists, testing out a new drill on the main street, discovered that Burnt Creek was sitting on a rich ore deposit. The town was shifted and now the ore diggers have munched their way to within a few feet of the main street. Before summer’s end the street will have vanished into the pit. Thus, in a few brief months, the swift human erosion has clawed the face of the land more terribly than a million years of glacial scouring.

In such manner has the great peninsula begun to fulfill its promise. Thus far it is scarcely scratched. So, although it is one of the world’s oldest lands, its future really lies ahead of it. That future is certainly a bright one but, as I flew off again from Knob Lake and saw from the air the crimson pits pocking the black rockland like hot festering sores, I could not help but remark that, in one sense at least, the land still looked as if it belonged to Cain.