By Howard J. Elmer
As you remember from Part 1, my Montreal colleague Eric Descarries, myself and two cameramen were traversing the Trans-Labrador Highway in a 2014 Toyota Tundra 1794 Edition and similar (almost mechanically identical) 2007 Tundra with 70,000 miles already on the odometer. Before we continue the journey, let's detour to some history regarding long-distance roadways.
The Alaska-Canadian Highway, also known as the Alcan Highway, on North America's northwest coast was built during World War II to ship war materials through Canada and across Alaska so they could be safely shipped across the Bering Sea to the Trans-Siberian Railway to war fronts in Eastern Europe.
The Trans-Labrador Highway has a similar story. Construction began in 1943 at the U.S. Air Force base at Goose Bay in what was then Quebec. At that time there was no road across the area that would become the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1949. Everything landed by ship at the end of a 200-mile-long fjord that slices inland from the north Atlantic, which is solid ice nine months a year. That inaccessibility gave birth to the Trans-Labrador Highway.
While the Alcan was built in less than two years, the Trans-Labrador took more than three decades to complete. The first section — through Quebec from the St. Lawrence River — got a real push when iron ore was discovered in eastern Labrador.
Our quest to cover the length of the Trans-Labrador was being done in the two pickup trucks along with a 24-foot trailer; we alternated towing duties between the two vehicles. The trailer acted as a portable storage unit for all our gear: a Yamaha snowmobile, extra parts, gas cans, video equipment, tires and luggage. The extra fuel this combination consumed became a problem as we entered the more remote areas of the highway where fuel stops can be 150 to 250 miles apart. So we always had an extra 15 gallons of fuel in the trailer.
At Labrador City we were already a thousand miles from Toronto, so we had a good handle on the fuel economy. Our average, at that point, was between 14 and 16 mpg. That number puts Toyota's V-8 on par with Ford's and Ram's V-8s.
The EPA lists the trucks at 13/17/15 mpg city/highway/combined. Since both trucks had the 5.7-liter V-8 engine, the old truck gave us the same fuel economy as the 2014 model with or without the trailer.
While towing though, the trailer sucked an extra 7 to 9 mpg off the top. No wonder we ran through fuel so quickly. That's also why every Toyota owner we ran into in Labrador pleaded with us to convince Toyota to offer a larger fuel tank. Labrador isn't called the Big Land for nothing.
The Tundra's fuel tank is 26.4 gallons. Ford offers the largest tank at 36 gallons, while Ram will sell a 1500 with a 32-gallon tank. Chevrolet, like Toyota, only offers a single 26-gallon tank, less than ideal in remote areas we were traveling through. Thankfully, we've heard some rumors that Toyota will offer a larger tank option in the next year or two.
The Trans-Labrador Highway runs east-west, and each year construction and upgrading continues. Running from Labrador City to Churchill Falls, we found mostly pavement with short 5- to 10-mile interruptions of gravel. During this leg the most challenging aspect of the drive was the weather. While we had left a balmy springlike Toronto three days earlier, we were now back into full-blown winter with temperatures dropping to well below zero and dumping snow — lots of snow. When we pulled into our overnight stop in Churchill Falls we were reminded of just how far north we really were. The sign in our rooms read, "Please don't clean game in your room."
The only reason people live in Churchill Falls is because they work at the second largest hydroelectric dam in the world. For us, it was a stop for fuel and sleep, and a place to use our cellphones. It's here that I got a call from the Newfoundland and Labrador ferry service. It was not good news. Ice had jammed the Strait of Belle Isle (aka Labrador Straits), and the Royal Canadian Navy icebreaker was not available for our crossing to Newfoundland.
When I asked when the ferry would be running again, I was told: "When she's good and ready to give up the straits." In this part of the world you can make plans, but Mother Nature trumps all.
Talking to the locals at breakfast it became apparent that spring ferry delays were common, and there was no point in getting anxious. The guy at the next table leaned into me and asked, "Plan B boy — you got a Plan B don't ya?"
Ah, no we didn't.
We packed up and pushed on westward to Goose Bay hoping the ice would break up in the next day or two.
Plan B Emerges
This 179-mile stretch of the Trans-Labrador is rougher because you cross a mountain range and the amount of gravel road increases. When we arrived in Goose Bay we had done about 75 percent of the highway and decided that if the ferry still wasn't running the following day we'd head back to Toronto. Well, the next day came and the woman at the ferry office told me to stop calling her — she'd call me. (The next time she called me to advise us about the ferry, I was already home.)
A storm blew in and we hunkered down in the hotel planning our next move. With the ferry no longer an option, we decided to go for it — we hadn't driven this far just to turn back.
While the highway had been a mix of pavement and gravel to this point, the last leg from Goose Bay to Red Bay was all gravel, ruts and frozen, slushy dirt.
This is the newest section of the road, open only since 2011. Known as the south coast section of the Trans-Labrador, it is 400 miles of the most gnarly, potholed, mud-bogged road we have ever encountered. And while we assume someday it will be paved, it was an absolute torture in a pickup and the perfect test for the vehicles we brought here.
To make things more interesting, the temperature suddenly shot up into the high 30s, speeding up the melt of the rather dramatic snowdrifts. Now we had ourselves a test. What was a solid ice road started to thaw at an alarming rate. How bad the roads were was brought home to us by our own transit. On the first day the frost was still in the road, so we mostly dealt with surface water. On the second day, running back to Goose Bay, the mud was already 6 to 10 inches deep in places and water-filled potholes were more than 18 inches deep. On the morning of the third day, pulling out of Goose Bay and passing the entry to the south coast road, a large emergency sign flashed "ROAD CLOSED" at anyone dumb enough to attempt the run.
As you can see in our photos, we left the trailer behind in Goose Bay. We were spooked by locals who kept telling us that there was no chance our trailer — with its 6 inches of ground clearance — would make it. So we unhitched the dead weight and left it behind in the care of a local hotel. We didn't doubt the locals' advice, and by this point only half the lights on the trailer worked — we'd torn out the wires at the back and the high marker lights had simply shaken themselves to death.
Until now both trucks had remained on the road, staying out of trouble and negating our use of the tow straps, jacks and tools we brought along for emergencies. That changed when a ditch swallowed up the passenger-side wheels of the 2014 Tundra. (We're pretty sure the Toyota engineers never factored in this kind of situation when designing the truck.) We later learned that in the spring plows push the snow banks way out over the ditches so the water won't run onto the road. Unfortunately this creates a wide, very solid-looking section of groomed snow sitting over a hidden 10-foot ditch. I went to make a U-turn and the truck went down into the ravine like the Titanic.
To its credit the truck was nearly able to climb out by itself, but the more we tried, the deeper the wheels sank until it was in danger of tipping onto its side.
Thankfully the recovery hooks on the front of the Tundra are easy to access. A quick tug from the 2007 model in its four-wheel-drive low-range setting had all four wheels of the 2014 model back on the road without damaging either truck.
We made it to Red Bay on the Atlantic Coast, and it was a welcome sight. A patch of ocean blue mixed with bobbing ice. While this should have been the end, it now simply marked the halfway point. We stopped just long enough to shoot some photos and then we began the 1,770-mile slog back to Toronto.
In total, the trip took 10 days to complete and saw us cover more than 3,600 miles.
A curious sight on the highway in this area was the speed limit sign: 70 kilometers per hour (about 45 mph) is the suggestion. This on a road where you see another vehicle once an hour — perhaps. I mention this because when we decided to do the whole trip to Red Bay and back, we also knew we had only one extra day to play with. Everyone in our crew had commitments waiting. A leisurely drive was not in the cards. So we drove (as I wish I could every day) as fast as the road would allow; sometimes that was 20 mph, and at other times it was 90 mph. As a result, this punishing pace and pounding finally netted our first, and only, malfunction.
During the last leg the 4-High symbol in the center gauge of the '07 starting flashing along with the antilock braking system and traction control lights. Nothing seemed wrong until we discovered that the transfer case would no longer shift into four-wheel drive when asked. We did some preliminary checks of the fuses and relays, but couldn't locate the problem.
Later we learned that we had cracked the housing on the front-wheel ABS sensor — it was repaired at a glass shop with some high-strength glue and zip ties.
Thankfully the '07 traversed the south shore road just fine in two-wheel-drive mode. However, without the vehicle stability control working it was tiring to constantly steer to counteract the tendency for the back end to step out as the front end pushed mud. Meanwhile, in the 2014, the VSC would occasionally cut power and apply brakes to keep the truck going in a straight line. While I've found this annoying on normal roads, with hour after hour at high speeds on the challenging Trans-Labrador the VSC took the pressure off the driver as it nipped any oversteer conditions before they turned into a nasty slide.
Once the vehicles were fully repaired, we turned southwest, bound for home. We ran down the road back into Quebec, where the highway improved as a layer of new (much colder) snow filled in many of the potholes. We then spent three sleep-deprived days covering the same ground that took us five days on the trip out. The last push was 17 straight hours from Baie-Comeau, Quebec, to Toronto.
This is a trip we won't soon forget — in fact, it might be a while before I make fun of a manufacturer's off-road test track again.
To see more photos and several videos they made along the way, click here.
Cars.com photos by Howard J. Elmer