Tuesday, June 21
Another gray day dawned for us, continuing a pattern that had established itself since the second day of our trip. We didn't care quite so much about the weather this morning, since it would be primarily taken up with activities that did not involve being outside - namely, our tour of the Churchill Falls generating station.
The result of promotion by notable Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood, the Churchill Falls power project was promoted and planned in the 1950s, but for various reasons was only started in 1967. An impressive feature of the generating station is that it's main machine hall is carved 1,000 feet underground, deep in solid bedrock. The reservoir feeding the station is also interesting, in that it is created by a wide-ranging series of dikes, rather than a single dam. Churchill Falls is the second-largest hydro-electric plant in Canada, with nearly 5,500 megawatts of capacity. And, it is only a few hundred megawatts less than the biggest one, near James Bay (just to be complete with the rankings, Churchill falls is the third-largest hydro-electric plant in North America, and the second-largest underground station in the world).
Our tour started at 9:30am, and we were about 30 kilometres outside of the town. The person with whom we had made our tour reservations had recommended we take the short walk down to Churchill Falls itself, at a spot several kilometres west of town. All of this meant that we had to get started early, and so we were up and rolling out of our makeshift gravel pit campsite at 6:30 am.
About 20 kilometres west of the town of Churchill Falls, we came to the crossing of the Churchill River itself. Here, a trail leads south to a viewpoint overlooking the start of Beaudoin Canyon, and the location of Churchill Falls itself. The distance is short, and over a wide, graded path, and it only took us about twenty minutes to briskly walk to the overlook.
Churchill River Bridge
The falls are nice - impressive, even -- but what is more impressive is how puny the falls and the flow of water look when compared against the wide spread of bare rock on either side of the water. This spread of bare rock shows the size of the riverbed before the diversion of the Churchill River into the generating station. It must have been a truly monstrous waterfall, and it is no suprise to think that all of that water could generate the massive power output that the Churchill Falls plant is capable of.
If you are interested in reading more about our Churchill Falls hike, along with extra pictures not in this main narrative, please click here
After viewing the falls, we hurried back to the car and continued east, soon arriving at the small townsite of Churchill Falls. We searched for -- and quickly found -- the one and only multi-purpose town center building, and went in for a spot of breakfast before our tour guide arrived to pick us up at 9:30am.
Overview of Churchill Falls Station
A blue Nalcor energy van showed in front of the town center right at 9:30am. Our guide -- Vanessa -- came in and greeted us, and soon we were on our way. It was to be a private tour: we were the only two people on the schedule for the morning tour.
Vanessa first toured us around the townsite, explaining that Nalcor (which stands for Newfoundland and Labrador Corporation - the provincial energy corporation) built this townsite exclusively for running the Churchill Falls plant. Save for a few exceptions (the RCMP, a doctor, etc), everyone who lives in Churchill Falls either works for or is a family relative of someone who works for Nalcor. The town has a sort of artifical look to it, in that all of the housing is built from a limited set of architectural plans. Vanessa explained how who gets how nice of a house is determined by a combination of rank, job function and experience.
After a short intro video and talk at an administration building, we were off to the generating station itself. Passing under the triple 735 kiloVolt transmission lines near the station (735 kV lines are very rare and difficult-to-engineer), we arrived at the entrance to the generating station. On a big sign at the entrace is the Churchill Falls / Nalcor logo, along with a very neat real-time display of the energy being generated by the station. At the time we drove by, that amount was three thousand, five hundred and nine megawatts -- well below the maximum output of around five thousand, five hundred. Apparently, some of the generators were offline for scheduled maintenance.
Generating Station above-ground building
We had to present our identification and sign-in at security, then proceeded into the main above-ground building. There, after donning safety helmets, we entered an elevator with a most curious display: it showed not the current floor, but the current elevation below ground level, in feet. As we descended, the numbers increased, eventually stopping at 900 or so. We emerged into a brightly-lit, cement-floored tunnel, with bare, rock-hewn walls and ceiling. This was the access corridor to the transformer gallery. A faint electrical buzz grew louder as we approached.
Station information display
The first of two large door structures brought us into a small room where we inserted ear plugs. The electrical hum was louder now, but not yet at hurtful levels. That would change when we entered the gallery, Vanessa told us; we were careful to ensure that the little foam plugs were well installed in our ear canals.
Transformer Chamber Access Tunnel
The inner doors were then opened, and we walked into the expanse of the transformer gallery. The angry buzz coming through our earplugs was much louder now, testifying to the immense amount of power. The walls of the gallery are unfinished, and the marks of the original excavation are still visible. In places on the walls are small boreholes and sensors meant to detect excessive pressure from the trillions of tons of water pushing down from the reservoir above.
We stopped in front of one of the angrily buzzing transformers. Huge and green, it showed no outward movement, but inside, 15,000 volts of electricity from one of the plant's generators was being converted into 230,000 volts. I was impressed by the permanent-looking 5-foot high brick wall around the base of the transformer. Apparently it is dismantled and rebuilt each time the transformer is removed for maintenance.
Normally, the tour would have us continue all the way down the transformer gallery, and then down a sloping accessway into the generator gallery. However, maintainence in the generator gallery blocked access partway along, so we had to return the way we came and come in on the elevator side.
The generator gallery, unlike the transformer gallery, is completely 'finished'. You would not know that this room was one thousand feet underground unless you had prior knowledge. In it, eleven transformers turn the rushing waters of the Churchill River into megawatts of electricity. We stopped at a generator that was partially dismantled, looking at its inner workings.
Generator control and monitoring
With our tour over, Vanessa guided us back to the elevator and back to the surface, where we gave back our brightly-colored vests and our helmets. We then were driven back to Churchill Fall's town center, where we thanked Vanessa and made our way back to our vehicle. As one final suggestion, Vanessa suggested that we take a side trip down an access to road to the banks of the Churchill River not far out of town. The area reminded her of her home province of New Brunswick, she said.
Churchill Falls, Labrador
We took Vanessa up on her suggestion, and made our way down a winding gravel side-road to a river access point. The Churchill River flows through a fairly steeply-hilled valley, creating a nice scene. Just a few hundred metres away, we could see a bit of roiling water, indicating the point at which the water coming through the generating station emptied back into the river.
Long stretch of wilderness
Returning back to the Trans-Labrador, we continued our journey east. On the outskirts of town, we were greeted with a large orange sign warning us that we had a 300 km stretch of no services. Our tank was full from a fillup in Churchill Falls, we had some snacks and some cold soda pop in the cooler. Ready!
Unlike the drive east out of Labrador City, the Trans-Labrador returned to dirt immediately as we exited Churchill Falls. However, there were signs of major roadwork everywhere - lots of heavy duty machinery and evidence of major changes - blasting lines, rock cuts and grading. Just like earlier sections, it appeared as if the highway department was hard at work getting the highway ready for paving, and I would not be surprised if this stretch was paved sometime within the next few years.
The weather, which had for days been gray, drizzly and gloomy, finally started to change for the better. As we continued east, the weather changed abruptly in the space of about 30 minutes, going from overcast to completely clear and sunny. It was a welcome change, and it was very nice to see the wilderness of the north with bright sunshine and blue skies.