ArcTrain Summer School – Day 8: Humans in the North

Part of the gravel part of road 389 that goes from the Fire lake mine to the Mont Wright mine and Fermont. Credit: Jens Weiser

This is our last day in Station Uapishka, already! After two full days with the guides of Attitude Nordique, we decided to explore the North on our own. One part of the group went for a day hike climbing to the top of Uapishka (Groulx) mountains, to visit the tundra once more and binge eat nordic berries. The other part embarked in an expedition going even further north, to Fermont and Labrador.

The 389 road that we took from Baie-Comeau to Uapishka goes ever on and on, meandering through the boreal forest, in between marshes and rocky summits. Our first stop was the ghost town of Gagnon. From 1959 to 1985, a few thousand people lived there, working in an iron mine nearby. What was once a thriving main street, with an arena, schools and restaurants, is now an empty landscape. Only the sidewalks remain, giving a quite surreal impression when they appear out of nowhere. Under a flag of the city, a few pictures and a (very poetic) information panel give the rare passerby a perspective on what the life once was in the town. Living in such a mining city is very uncertain: when the iron ore is depleted, the company closes and so does the town.

We see part of the wall on the right and the inner city with its bright coloured houses on the left. Credit: Junjie Wu

But the mining continues elsewhere and when another mine opened, the people followed. Our next stop was Fermont, 180 km further north on the 389. Before getting to the city, we were first welcomed by the impressive sight of the Fire lake mine, with its dug out mountains and massive piles of rocks. From there, the road is unpaved and weaves around the railroad that brings the ore and mining products to Port-Cartier, on the St-Lawrence gulf, way down south. After one hour of driving on this rough road, on the other side of a stream red from the mining residues, the huge Mont Wright mine appeared and, a bit further, Fermont.

Build in the 70s, the city is renown for its 1.3 km-long wall building. In addition to housing most of the shops and housing units of the town, it also protects the inner city buildings from the strong winds that constantly blow in those regions. Behind the wall, the bright colored houses and the cute streets give a very lively feeling, but somehow, it also feels empty. We passed the school yard at recess time and saw tens of kids playing and shouting, but we almost met no adults. That is in fact not that surprising, because the majority of the inhabitants work in the mines or plants in the surroundings, but gives a really surreal feeling to the town. Again, we were reminded of the fragility of the life in the north, what happened in Gagnon could also happen in Fermont, if the mining company was to close! (Interesting fact: Arcelor Mittal, the iron ore company, owns 95% of the housing units in Fermont!)

Not only humans can change the landscape drastically. The grey forest in the picture was completely devastated by the eastern spruce budworm. Credit: Jens Weiser

In order to check more boxes on our bucket list, we pushed the expedition forward to Labrador City. When we include the neighboring town Wabush and Fermont, the region hosts around 12 000 people. Labrador city is the largest and acts as a service center, with many shopping chains more common in the south. After a short stop at the very popular Tim Hortons and to fill up the tank with gas, we headed back to Uapishka, hoping to get there for dinner.

Humans in the north are constantly in this dual relationship with nature. On one side they have to adapt to have a comfortable life, building structures like the Fermont wall. On the other, they have such a high impact on the environment, reshaping whole landscapes with their mines and forestry industry. But nature is still thriving as we were reminded by the birds and the wolf (!) we met on the way.

And miners or lumberjacks are not the only ones living up there: the group hiking up the mountains met a hermit living at the base of trail!

Written by Junjie Wu and Pascal Bourgault

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