So, it’s done. This is my “there and back again” post. I did this trip between August 17 and August 30, 2012. My motorcycle is a 2008 Honda XL1000VA Varadero. A 6000km solo trip.
Note, I had a lot of trouble with my regular picture service/program when posting the images. As a result they’re just straight pictures, I apologize for the clumsy layout. Where applicable the mouse-over on a picture will bring up some thoughts on the picture.
And we’re off! I had packed the bike the night before and in the morning made a final double check, both that I had all the gear packed and that I indeed needed all of the gear. Not much room on a motorcycle, and the less weight, the better. I’m 6’5″ and about 250lbs, the bike is 680lbs plus all of its accessories and gear. There’s a lot to consider. I made my decisions, however, made sure there was some spare room in case, and off I went.
The weather was wonderful in Toronto but it called for thunderstorms in Montréal and Drummondville. That included putting in the waterproof liner of my riding pants. I made the usual stop for fuel (my bike will go about 430km on a full tank with reasonable throttle operation) and coffee. I’d done this trip numerous times before, it was straightforward.
In Montreal I hit a lot of traffic. Because it had been cool and the weather forecast was calling for thunderstorms past Montreal, I had put in the liner for my riding pants before crossing into Québec. It never rained, but being stuck in traffic with full gear was so hot. By the time I was out of the city that I was drenched in sweat. I had a fun gesticulated conversation with the driver of a large truck. I motioned to the heat rising from the engine that was between my legs, he motioned to how laborious his clutch was. Even with my full-face helmet and sunglasses people could see I was sweating. After an hour, when I merged onto the 25 from the 40, I pulled over to give my destination a call. Traffic wasn’t letting up and I was going to be late. As soon as I’d gotten off my bike on the shoulder and removed my helmet, someone pulled up beside me and asked if I was ok. After a thumbs up and a smile, I made my call, got back on the bike and engaged the awful traffic. As is often the case, a decent contribution to the traffic was caused by selfish idiots who jumped onto merging lanes to get ahead ten car lengths, forcing everyone else to stop to let them in. Here’s a little life tip: if you feel smug, you probably pissed someone off.
Eventually I made it onto the 30 and from there it was easy going. I made it to my destination by late afternoon.
The next day, after a wonderful breakfast, I hit the road. The weather was similar to the previous day and I’d taken out the lining to my jacket and pants. I’d not again use the pant liner for the rest of the trip. At Trois Rivières I moved to the north shore and followed the 40 until the 138 was my only viable option. The skies cleared up and the terrain became more and more hilly, to the point that my ears popped occasionally.
One curious thing, after leaving the main roads, is that there occasional massive flocks of seagulls. I came across at least four of these gatherings. There was nothing to indicate why they were congregating like this. Hitchcock came to mind.
The flora also started to change. Roadside wild flowers became fewer and of fewer species, as with trees. Houses became simpler and businesses more humble. Sometimes they didn’t even have a clear sign indicating what they were, a pattern that would continue as I headed north. There was a decidedly different approach to business and, in some ways, life in general. It is a life of less pretense. People posted things that were important, and to hell with marketing.
I made it to Baie-Comeau by early evening. I stayed in a nice, new B&B. After a shower, I went to a nearby bar/restaurant. As would be for most of the trip, the only readily vegetarian option was pizza. The place was very quiet, as reportedly there was a country music festival down the road (read: 20km). By the time I found this out I’d had a couple of beers so wasn’t fit to ride my bike. I went back to the B&B after a stroll and slept.
The next day was another nice day. I rode into Baie-Comeau proper, passing the Manic 1 dam. It’s quite a small installation. After taking a look, I fueled up, filled the spare fuel containers (two 1 gallon Rotopax), stocked up on water and headed up the 389. I wasn’t sure where I was going to stop for the night. The adventure had begun. All I knew is that I wanted to check out the Manic 5 hydroelectric dam, aiming for the 1:30pm tour. After that, I’d keep riding until I found a spot.
The roads were very hilly but otherwise fine. They were rough in parts, but what kept me at a slower pace were the abrupt hill crests and tight turns. I just couldn’t see what was coming, and the lanes were narrow. More than once larger trucks came around corners straddling the centre line. It was my first reminder that more than ever before I was on my own and, by and large, only had myself to look after me. When I’m in heavy traffic the dangers are more frequent and expected. Here the wonderful twisty roads threatened to lull me into a complacency that might see me forget that I was vulnerable on a motorcycle.
That being said, as I left Baie-Comeau behind I got my first feeling of freedom, of getting away from it all. The roads were different, the air was different, I had never been here before and I was doing what I wanted to do.
I made it to Manic 5 just as the 1:30 tour left the lobby. I wasn’t happy, for as I arrived one of the tour staff was talking to a gentleman who had fishing questions. I waited as another staff gathered those who had finished registering. While I waited, the man asked about fishing licenses. Then asked where he could get a boat. Then, where he could get a fishing pole. Then… and I waited. The tour associate’s answers were the same, that they had no control over any of it and did not provide an equipment. The man persisted. The tour left, and I waited. After the conversation, she said I’d missed the tour. But I could join them for the second half, a half hour wait instead of the otherwise two-hour wait. I registered. I changed out of my riding gear and waited in the mini museum. At some point, a girl who was out of sight kept yelling “monsieur!” every ten seconds. I walked back to the lobby to see what was up. She was calling me, knowing I was ten metres down the hall, but did not find it fit to walk over to speak to me. I walked to the tour bus, of the large yellow school variety, and as they handed me my headphones. The security guard was kind enough to advise me that I’d almost missed my tour. I responded with an incredulous “really?!” and boarded the bus.
A couple of heads up when visiting Manic 5, no electronic device, except for cameras (which are not allowed within the installations, only outside) are permitted. Also no bags, etc. When entering the bus you leave things within and the driver stays there to guard them. The tour took me to interesting places. The dam is impressively and surprisingly large. All in all, it was worth it and am glad I took the tour. I left after the half I took as the afternoon was moving along and I had a lot of road ahead of me.
When I came across Manic 5 I decided to attempt the first panorama. Now, I was going to keep panoramas off here, then resize them down… but what the heck. You saw one picture of Manic 5 above, here is a massive version (about 8.45Mb file size). Now, I must address the issue of scale. When you open this image, look at the zig-zagging road on the right. Locate the truck. That is a wide-load, heavy truck. When they travel down regular highways they have vehicles leading and trailing them with hazard lights. Here, it looks like a speck.
After crossing the river in front of the dam, the road turns to dirt/gravel. It’s on-and-off paved for a bit, until it’s all gravel. When I did this trip, about half of the Baie-Comeau to Fermont stretch was paved and they’re actively paving more and more of it. I took my time for the first minute or so, keeping at 60km/h and building to about 90-100 for most of it. This was admittedly the first time I did any long stretches of gravel road. Yep. You read that right. The majority of the dirt roads in Québec were nice, hard, packed earth. No thick gravel or, when I was there, freshly graded portions. This made the going a lot easier and a good introduction to the environment. It also introduced me to the dust. After the first large truck passed me, I could see nothing for about three or four seconds. And I mean nothing. The dust was so thick that there was no visibility. From then on, each time a truck passed I made sure there was no one behind me and I stopped until it settled.
On the ride from Toronto to Baie Comeau I cleaned my windshield of bug splatter every second fueling or so. Up here, however, there were almost no insects except for large dragonflies.Nothing hit my windshield. Though one dragonfly, which my memory recalls being at least the size of my hand, flew right into my helmet and was stopped by my sunglasses. It flailed with a deep, loud buzzing for a second or two before plopping out. Oh, the things you experience when on motorcycle.
I fuelled up at Relais Gabriel, the only stop between Manic 5 and Fermont. The roads north of the stop were freshly paved, and continued to be paved until after the old site of the town of Gagnon. As the sun started to set and fatigue was settling in, I started looking for a place to sleep. I didn’t want to stay too close to the road mainly because of the dust. Eventually I found what looked like a side road, then a maintenance trail and after a couple of minutes found myself on a large plateau of slag. Interesting ores and minerals, of no commercial value, was strewn about. I walked around a bit, assailed by dozens of small flies, until decided that this was as good as any other stop.
Right after the tent was set up, rain drops started falling. I threw the things I’d need for the night into the tent and settled in. The skies opened and it rained all night, sometimes hard enough for the sound of the drops hitting the taut tent material to wake me up.
When I got up the next morning, I packed and rolled and folded everything within the tent, ready to pounce and load up the bike and start moving before I got too wet from standing about. Just as I opened the tent’s door the rain let up. It was strange.
I got back on the 389 towards Fermont. It drizzled most of the morning, accented by some decent showers. The paved road eventually ended. I had been cautioned that this next bit would be memorable. As I approached the mining areas, the roads started to wind, a lot. Combined with frequent changes in elevation, I couldn’t tell what was over the crest of a hill or around a corner, which impeded the progress. In addition, the rain had made the dirt roads very slick. What should have taken an hour took almost three.
As the morning got into proper swing, more and more trucks joined me on the road. Large pick up trucks, dump trucks, wide load trucks. Most kept to their side of the road.
After a negotiating this stretch, I found paved roads again near Mount Wright. There was a lot of mining activity. Endless trucks of al types, helicopters; it felt like a beehive. The hard rain kept me going. This is one thing with this trip, looking back I see lots of opportunities for certain interesting pictures, but at the time, my mind was on keeping the bike upright, keeping track of what was going on and staying dry.
Once I passed Mount Wright (which is no longer a mount, but a 200m deep pit), the trucks I followed kicked up a muddy mist in the rain. It coated my windshield, my visor… everything. I could not get close enough to pass without being completely covered – even after a few kilometres. Eventually I made it through, and the weather let up a bit.
Labrador City is a mining town. The vast majority of all vehicles were pick-up or utility trucks with the small triangular orange flags. About 2/3 of all Labrador inhabitants are in Lab City, 20,000 or so. It has one mall. Many people had iPhones with the sturdiest, largest case I’ve ever seen on any phone.
Speaking of cell phones, that evening the rain came back, this time with thunder and lightning. Power went out for about two hours. Strange thing (for me, a city boy) is that even the cell phone network went down during this time. Everything. Kaput. Out. Though that surprise says more about me than Labrador.
I woke up to a dry and lovely morning. After a Tim Hortons breakfast (at quick search I did not find anywhere else that offered a breakfast) I fueled up. I would find out some time later that instead of charging me $24.46 for fuel, they charged me $246.46. Lovely. That’s what I get for not paying attention and being too eager to see what’s next.
The roads were paved for approximately 165kms east of Lab City. For that stretch the going was predictably easy and mellow. Here are two panorama pictures (one is about 9Mb, the other 5Mb) to try and give an impression of being there.
The easy going only went so far. Then it was back to the gravel. Unlike the stretched in Québec, here there was no consistency. Soft here, hard there. Thick gravel here, bare earth there. Sometimes it seemed hard, but was soft and vice versa. Keeping in the tracks left by other vehicles was key, as expected. Except that a track I’d follow would disappear and the nearest option would be three feet to one side, with thick gravel between me and the safety line. It took me a few tries to establish a predictable and manageable technique to drift into a new track. Doing this at 60km/h is fine, but at 100km/h it’s a little… sketchier. I admittedly almost lost control twice in rougher patches until I established a decent technique.
After a couple of hours, just as the roads met notable hills, the skies darkened and opened. The rain was immediate and hard, the thunder distant and approaching. It took about fifteen seconds before the rain on my windshield made seeing tracks impossible. Up on the pegs I went, standing up and looking over the windshield, cool rain on my neck. 40km/h, 60km/h and, eventually, 80km/h in torrential rain. Suddenly the ground got soft. Very soft. Scarily soft. I lost my track at 80km/h and next thing I knew I was six feet to the left, in the oncoming lane near the top of a hill with no visibility over its crest. I applied the rear brake gently – bad idea. Stupid idea. Why? Why did I apply the brakes?! The back started to fishtail, the front was wanting to go opposite of where the back was going. I fell into my seat and, extending my left leg (WHY DID I DO THAT?! It’s not a dirt bike, it’s a 700lb beast…) was ready for a muddy, harsh fall. Somehow I stayed up. I don’t know how, but I did. I got back on the correct side of the road and prudently, timidly picked up speed. I glanced back and I was leaving a 3-5cm deep rut. This was softer than I had thought, it was freshly graded.
After well over an hour I got out of the rain. The road was dry again. I felt a singular sense of relief.
Only later did I discover that this was the stretch that saw one rider go down for good only a few weeks before. Well, I had made it. But it wasn’t over. Just west of Happy Valley-Goose Bay I hit pavement again. Beautiful, predictable, even pavement. There as something else though, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
What was it? It wasn’t the paved road… It wasn’t the sky, or a sound. After about 20 minutes it hit me. Birch trees! There were actual deciduous trees here! That might sound strange, but it isn’t after a few days of those scraggly pines. I felt like I was back in the civilized world, where there people about. It felt … good. I was getting tired. Very tired. That storm did a number on me and although my body wasn’t too badly along, my brain just wanted to shut down. Just have it end and rest. I was almost at the next hotel. I took breaks every 30-45 minutes to play it safe.
After a simple night in a simple hotel, I went around the town a bit. Thinking back I should have taken a picture of this… or that… and… well. Here I am now. It’s in my brain. For some reason, though, this angry steam roller made me stop.
I fueled up, checked my tire pressure, added a bit of oil to my bike and headed back west for a few kilometers before the turn-off to head south. The paved road only went east-west. As soon as I veered off I was back on gravel. My brain started to protest, but I took a picture of a road sign instead of listening to it. I sensed that it would be a long day, but after this, I had two days to rest in Cartwright. Just had to keep focusing on the road, find nice tracks, manage my speed and play it safe.
After about an hour, I hit another freshly graded stretch. Very freshly graded.
It was only five minutes down the road that I located the culprit. These workers are dedicated and do a wonderful job, I’m sure but… dammit I wish they didn’t grade the roads. The hard, rutted roads suited my bike much better.
Soon enough I was back on the regular roads. I took breaks every hour, hour and a half. There were fewer vehicles here. Now, these four pictures that follow are posted in the sequence in which they were taken. Each picture was taken about five minutes apart (feel free to check the exif data). The weather changes fast in Labrador. I sure enjoyed the good when I had it.
One thing I had read before coming up here was that I would be alone. There are many things that one reads, understands and stores in a manner to anticipate what’s to come. When it does come, however, it can be surprising. The feeling of… alone-ness was remarkable and hit me often. It hit me quite hard when I came by this wreck on the side of the highway. The tires were stripped off (which let me know it had been there a while and people had investigated, rather than recently crashed), I’m not sure what was the deal. I took a picture and continued on my way.
I took more breaks that day. Why? Because I could. I wanted to. I was tired. The clouds were nice. I thought I heard a bird. I. Just. Did.
After a while the trees were fewer, the plains larger, the roads straighter. I felt more relaxed. The realization of how alone I was is strange to convey. With it came an unexpected feeling of safety, of comfort not unlike how safe I feel in my own bedroom. Here I was, thousands of kilometres from home. There wasn’t another soul about, there was no food or fuel for hundreds of kilometres. There was no support mechanism, no safety net. Yet things were ok. No, not ok. Things were good. I was here, me, alone. I was making decisions for me. I was doing things for me. Life is good.
There wasn’t much wildlife. I only saw little critters that looked halfway between a chipmunk and a squirrel and these little quail-like fellas (whose fight-or-flight mechanism was… well… slow). Though part of me would have liked to have seen Caribou, large birds of prey, the Rabbit of Caerbannog… it’s probably better it went the way it did. Nothing to … well, kill me as I trundled about on gravel highways on a motorcycle.
Eventually the fork in the road came. Either continue south to permanently paved roads or veer northeast to Cartwright. I veered.
Now, I mentioned the dust earlier. Here’s an example of it coming my way. Needless to say, I stashed my camera away rather fast to prevent too much dust intrusion into it.
I really took my time. I was tired. My brain did not want to keep going. This made me go a little slower, pay more attention to details, watch my speed and, as a result, ignore anything but the road in front of me. This is the mental state that I had hoped to avoid, avoid by taking more breaks… Ah well. I eventually made it to Cartwright. I was tired. Sore. I needed a hot shower and a long sleep with no alarm clock on the other side.
Rest. No riding save for taking a jaunt into town (wearing my street shoes and jeans!). The maximum distance I was going to travel was… 3kms!
The town had one road with a couple of stores, the old cemetery (pre-1900s), the new cemetery and the flagstaff.
On the little info brochure the lady at the hotel handed me there was the “flagstaff”. I decided to go take a look.
First, there was a path which was that was lined by stones pained in the colours of Labrador’s flag.
This let to the top of a wonderful hill that had… a flagstaff. And a gazebo.
Why do I seem so happy there? Well, here are two panoramas from the top of the flagstaff hill to try and convey. It was… fantastic.
On my way back to the hotel I stopped by the local grocery store. Outside was an RCMP constable waiting for his partner. We struck up a conversation. He was surprised I was doing it alone, asked about my bike, we talked about road grading… The small talk most people engaged when they spoke to me. Then his partner emerged and we talked about recent events, including the accident I mentioned above. He had been responsible for handling the exhibits after the crash. Small world. Then again it is Labrador. Immense in geography, intimate in human relationships.
Back at the hotel, I struck up a conversation with someone I’d seen in the restaurant and the lobby. He had a KLR and often rode the dirt highways. He shared advice, I shared my newbie experiences which made him laugh. I was glad to get his perspective. He did warn me that by Red Bay the gravel was not blast rock but beach pebbles and that these had been the cause of much frustration to all motorcyclists. Hrm.
Back on the road. This would be the last stretch of gravel road. I was looking forward to the relative safety and predictability of paved roads, but also knew that it would be the end of the adventure in a few ways. The feeling of insularity that had developed from apprehensive to comforting would be gone.
Nearing Red Bay the gravel was sparser but more prominent. As the gentleman the day before, this stretch was tough. It was like riding on marbles, the bike suddenly shifted right and left here and there. The earth beneath was hard and slippery. I was close to safety but not there yet. I’d come this far keeping only the rubber on the ground and I was not about to let that change.
The topography changed. There were very few trees and far more and larger rocks. It reminded me of pictures of the Scottish Highlands. Elevation changes increased, the road was no longer straight. The sky was overcast and low, almost fog. The wind was slow, the air cool. The ambiance was fantastic.
Eventually, to my left, I spotted white buildings. Red Bay. (The last picture below is a rather large one for your enjoyment.)
I’d done it. Somehow. No bike issue, no tire trouble, no going over the handlebars, no caribou, no ditches. I’d survived the Trans-Labrador highway. To the numerous people in my personal life and at work who had expressed diplomatic apprehension, followed by statements questioning my ability to complete this, the spirit behind Shakespeare’s Saint Crispen’s Day speech strangely came to mind. At that moment of hitting asphalt I was openly and… exuberantly glad they weren’t there. I was glad they made their estimation of me clear. It made it all that more special. This was for me. I did this for me. This post is because I don’t really want to talk about it, but I hope that these memories have some value in some way. By writing them down I’m distancing myself from what’s being said, I’m not involved in conveying it directly. I just typed it up and pressed “publish”.
In any case, I rode into town and checked out the interpretation centres. It’s an old Basque whaling town from the 1500s. Whalers restaurant was the best food I’d had on the trip. It also has a tourist store that sells “I Survived the Labrador Highway” t-shirts.
From here the road was right on the coast. A sign indicating a lighthouse convinced me to take a detour. Halfway there I found a small platform with a few information signs. Ends up that it was a burial mound, one of the earliest on the continent. Then, the lighthouse. Then back on the road. Taking in sights, putting shape to a world still, in many ways, foreign to me.
I started my day getting on a ferry to Newfoundland. Uneventful. One of the deckhands gave me a hard time for not having my own cargo straps, making it sound like they had none. When I told him that I’d called before leaving on my trip and that they were going to be provided, he made a list of “what-ifs” and then went to grab two cargo straps and threw them on the floor by my front tire. Lovely.
The waters were calm. Cell reception from Newfoundland reached some parts of Blanc Sablon, and on the ferry became reliable. I caught up on a few things as I stared out at the calm waters. After disembarking (or, as some people like to say, de-ship), I checked my tires, oil, etc. a second time that day for good measure and hit the Newfoundland roads.
Gros Morne National Park. Breathtaking. One of the few things that makes one realize that its descriptions are not marketing hype overstating the experience to lure in people, but a matter-of-fact description. I really can’t do it justice and the pictures I took did not convey the immense scale of every feature. The mountains, the cliffs, the forests…
In Cornerbrook I encountered my first traffic light since Baie Comeau. Had quite an impact encountering one, and in a strange way was the one thing that really signaled the end of my adventure. I still had some wonderful roads to travel, but now I was touring like a tourist. There would be fuel every 100kms, there would be food when I was hungry, there would be help if something happened.
I hit highway 1, part of the Trans-Canadian highway and headed south to Port aux Basque.
It was quite windy, pushing me about here and there, but still a much easier battle than Labrador. When I arrived at Port-aux-Basque, it was a little confusing. The roads are small and unconventionally routed. Here a large overpass to the ferry, there a narrow road without a clear destination. I found the B&B easily enough and had a walk ’round. Like Labrador, almost every house was a prefabricated affair and… somewhat depressing.
The next morning I moseyed on down to the ferry. One of the attendants checked my ticket, and as he assigned me to a waiting line he extended both his index fingers and asked, “one and one makes..?” When I responded two, he frowned and asked again. When I didn’t answer (I was trying to figure out the riddle) he said “11!” and… I made my way to line 11.
There were two Japanese gentlemen there. One had a 1984 (or so) BMW that he kept in Boston. Every year he’d fly in from Tokyo and explore North America. This time he brought a friend who had rented a Honda Shadow. They were also traveling with two gentlemen, one from the Boston area and the other from Nebraska. They were checking every imaginable bolt on the Shadow as they kept falling off. Ends up that it was a rental motorcycle that had been clearly crashed (not dropped, crashed) at least once. They had purchased a bag of standard metric bolts for the bike and had been replacing them, some numerous times. When I asked if the LocTite didn’t work, one of the gentlemen looked at the bike, then at me, paused and simply replied “no… we just replace the bolts”.
The crossing was long but pleasant. Definitely not as calm as the previous one. The only place where one could go outside, though, was a smoker’s area which was… heavily used by smokers. The ship itself had been bought second-hand from a Finnish company. There were only a few clues to its previous life, such as the water tap in the cafeteria reading “vesi”. The food was… horrible. And there was almost no choice.
I landed late afternoon in North Sydney and decided to forget the nearby campground and just keep going until I got tired. This was familiar ground as I’d been through here two years before when I did the Cabor Trail on bike. I made it to Port Hawkesbury as the sun set, found a hotel and crashed.
I was tired. I need a break. But more road lain ahead.
The Varadero is excellent at gobbling up the kilometres. Measuring distances by the number of fuel tanks (about 430kms per tank, fully laden) I made it, albeit through a rather long thunderstorm.
Now this was a long day… about 750kms on mostly 80km/h roads that I knew had quite a bit of construction. There were to be few breaks and a need to ignore whatever complaints my body and mind were to bring.
I made it to my destination, sore and fatigued. When I turned the engine off, I had to wait a few long seconds before I could figure out in which order I had to move my muscles to dismount my motorycle. But I’d made it.
Home. Careful not to be too complacent on familiar roads, I headed home.
After a fortnight away, I made it home.