Travel: Labrador Adventure – 2

Words: Rob Harris. Pics: Rob Harris & Jim Vernon (unless otherwise specified)

The trip was going well (see part 1). We’d traversed Newfoundland and seen everything we wanted to see, including gorgeous geography, Vikings, and an iceberg over a kilometer long. It was to be in Labrador though that I saw the one thing I really didn’t want to see.

ADVERTISEMENT

We were about 250 km into the Trans Lab’s gravel section trying to make Happy Valley-Goose Bay by day’s end, another 350 km away. The Super Tenere was skimming over pot holes that were known to destroy the locals’ cars and floating over the light sprinkling of gravel that dusted the hard packed road beneath.

It was nirvana to anyone that appreciates the subtleties of a powerful adventure tourer on a loose but predictable surface. My riding buddy Jim was doing likewise behind me somewhere on this bright cloudless Labradorian day.

I had just stopped to try and capture this remote and breathtakingly bleak landscape on flash memory. Since there’s nothing out here, I could hear the growl of the F800GS in the distance, and got in position halfway down the gravel drop-off at the side of the roadway to get a blur of GS in the shot.

Jim appeared and I waved my arm in a motion to keep him going so I could capture a galloping GS in my frame. He duly obliged and I remounted the Super Tenere and played catch up.

And then Jim took the lead …

This part of Labrador, about 100 km west of Port Hope Simpson, is slightly off flat, and although on a map the road looks pretty straight, the ground undulates enough to keep things interesting with mild bends and a the occasional series of stretched out whoops.

With traction control off the rear wheel would spin on demand.

Jim had settled into the GS well, and each hill brow glimpsed the dust trail of a GS that had just capped the next. As a precaution I’d snagged a couple of Cardo communicators so that we could keep in touch, but the range was pretty much limited to 300 m, and even then you needed a good line of sight top get a clear signal, so I was left saying “Jim? Jim? Are you there?” to no-one.

I was having fun with the Super Tenere though. Traction Control was off, and I’d put it into the more hooligan Sport mode so that I could practice spinning the rear wheel through corners and trying to steer from behind rather than the slide prone front.

Occasionally I’d get too happy with the throttle and the 575lb Super Tenere would let loose on the rear with a lurid slide that would quickly reverse directions threatening to go that step beyond the scope of fun and into the realms of non-control.

This would release a solid squirt of adrenaline, slap all my senses with a wet kipper and pound the heart for a few moments before the Super Tenere oscillated back into line with a “you sure you want to do that?” gesture.

The answer, of course, was no, but I did want to get within a blackfly’s mandible of doing that, and practice was the only way to get there. But the Trans Labrador isn’t the place to practice. Despite being a relatively easy stretch of gravel road — as far as gravel roads go that is — it is easy to become blasé about it too.

Endless gravel though a wondrous landscape. The Trans Lab is truly awe inspiring.

After all, this road stretches on for thousands of kilometres and if you keep your speed up, you not only skipover all the irregularities but you make good time too. Good time is of the essence if you want to cover the distances between roofed accommodation and we’d made it our mission to not crack open a tent if we could possibly avoid it. Labrador may be remote, but there are gas-food-lodgings to be found a day’s ride apart if you don’t dilly-dally.

And then it all went CMG …

Sadly it quickly became evident that this was no simple lowside …

Fortunately for us, we were only a 100 km from the last outpost of civilization, replete with small medical centre, when our ‘good story’ moment hit us. There, just over a shallow crest lay the GS on its left side, across the opposite side of the road, Jim was standing but doubled over just beyond.

I was hoping it was a simple lowside, maybe brought on by a soft patch of sand or a darting deer, but two of the bags had been ripped off, with their black shattered parts strewn around the bike.

This wasn’t a simple lowside.

I pulled the Super Tenere over to the side as quickly as I could but it seemed to take forever to get the sidestand down into a firm patch of gravel. If this was an emergency situation, then I may need to be back on it ASAP as the Super Tenere may have to double as the ambulance and having it fall on its side was not the way to treat your only escape vehicle.

Jim sits on the barrier in a lot of pain while I try to work out how to right the GS.

By the time I got to Jim he having trouble regaining his breath but because he was standing and seemingly lucid I assumed he was winded rather than dying. He finally got some air back into his lungs and I helped him remove his helmet.

To my great surprise the 800Gs was still ridable although the crash barrier had grabbed the rear footpeg mount and twisted it and the bike’s subframe in the process. Jim fared a little worse and was not in riding shape.

His left arm wasn’t working and after a few very painful minutes the jacket was peeled from its owner to reveal a rather droopy left shoulder with a distinct bump atop. I checked for any other signs of damage (none obvious) and told Jim that I thought he’d broken his collarbone.

His now visorless helmet and less-than-pristine jacket boere the scars of a big thump and a tumble. The crash scene further testified to a mother of all wobbles (the wiggle tracks are plain to see in the photo) with it all coming to a stop courtesy of the large metal barrier at the other side of the road.

It’s this impact that tore off and ripped apart the saddlebag, aided by the fact that he hit the barrier from the opposing direction, with each metal overlap acting like blades on a giant cheese grater. The bag probably saved Jim’s leg from a similar fate and the barrier saved him from launching off the edge of the raised highway, down a rock-strewn ditch and into some hard trees below.

In effect, it had likely saved his life.

Crash barriers overlap to be smooth in the direction of travel. Trouble is they also act as a cheese-grater in the opposite direction.

After taking off the bag, it appeared that the barrier’s posts caught the passenger footpeg, which pretzeled backward, bending the subframe and likely tossing bike (and rider) onto its side onto the road.

The skid marks tell it all. Jim’s personal skid marks tell it in more detail but we thought we’d spare the reader that image.

All in all, a hair width’s away from a real tragedy, but still just the start of a logistical nightmare.

Jim was still in shock but he was seemingly okay save for a gimpy shoulder and the associated after-effects of a rightous beating. I dragged the GS best I could to the side of the road but there was no way that I could right it alone on the slick gravel road.

I remember Darlene telling me at L’Anse Aux Meadows that you get into the mindset that you’re some brave adventurer, traversing this wild and dangerous trail across remote Labrador when all of a sudden an old guy in a Prius passes you. I didn’t recall passing many cars before the crash, but there was some traffic, so maybe help wasn’t that far off.

Thankfully she was right, for not more that five minutes after sitting Jim down, the first car came by and stopped to help.

“Well what the fuck am I supposed to do with this”. Help arrived (courtesy of Francis (centre) but getting the bike loaded up was another matter. Jim (right) finds out that his adrenaline has worn off when he tries to get in the truck!

It was a couple in a pick-up on their way to catch the next ferry to Newfoundland and after a quick check of Jim (at this point he was steadily working his way through a pack of smokes) we righted the GS. Just then another pick up pulled over; this time it’s a guy from Quebec who just decided to take off and ride the Trans Lab in his week off work. Like you do …

This is your enemy! Study it carefully so you know what is trying to kill you bite by bite. Photo: www.orkin.com

With the extra help there was no need for the couple to stay and miss the ferry and so we loaded Jim into Francis’s truck to go back to Port Hope Simpson and its medical center. Unfortunately we weren’t able to lift the GS high enough to get it into the back of the pick-up, so we loaded Jim’s battered luggage and I elected to stay behind in the hopes of finding an alternate vehicle before tracking them down at PHS.

And so there I was, surrounded by a veritable cloud of blackflies in the baking Labrador summer sun.

Blackflies are every bit as bad as you hear and they are absolutely bloody relentless. I’d already felt the slash of the blackfly (and slash they do ­– stretching the skin first with their teeth before slicing into it with their mandibles to release the blood) literally as soon as I got off the ferry into Labrador the day before.

But once bitten, twice shy and I was prepared and lathered my exposed skin in bug repellent and kept my gear on to cover the rest. This seemed to create a magical two-inch no fly zone around my head, but as the minutes pass the cloud just grew and grew until I had a colony of the fuckers in a fixed orbit waiting out the repellent.

The Super Tenere was ready if I needed to flee from the flies, but then what of the GS?

I spent the next two hours waving down any and all the vehicles that passed in the hope that one of them would be able to get the GS out of there before my minuscule satellite cloud decided to hold their noses and fly into my no fly zone.

A forestry ranger happened to stop and together we managed to heave the GS into the back of his truck and play catch up with Jim.

My saviour came in the form of a Labrador Forestry Ranger who radioed ahead for a tow truck. We waited for 15 minutes and then he asked how much the bike weighs. I guess at 500 lbs (a little optimistic) and so we tried to lift it up onto the tailgate of his truck. After much huffing and puffing we got the front wheel up and then shoved it in just enough that a rope would keep her from tipping out.

The once proud GS was now a sad shadow of its former self, arse sticking out of the truck like that of a slain moose. I ponder for a moment the phone call to BMW that has to happen when I’m back in civilization, but amidst all that has just happened it’s something that can be stressed about later.

Ironically, despite the shit beating that the GS just received, it was still in rideable — albeit rough — condition. Sadly the same could not be said of Jim.

The flight of Icarus

Jim gets his own personal jet to St Anthony. Arris has to ride.

Backtracking after such a mishap is never a fun ride, made less so by the need to follow a slow moving truck all the while trying to keep out of its dust cloud and taking every hit and jolt from the pot holes that we’d just perfectly skimmed over a few hours before.

Jim had to hand his sticker back.

As we unloaded the injured GS at the local garage, Francis drew up to get gas. He’d just left Jim who was being loaded onto an airplane so that he could be medivac’d to the nearest hospital in Newfoundland.

Apparently they suspected a dislocated shoulder but didn’t want to take any chances and so passed him onto the nearest equipped place that just so happened to be in St Anthony, a short flight across the Strait of Belle Isle.

At times like this it’s hard to come up with a sensible plan. There was no way to contact Jim and so no way to confer, the only logical option being to follow the injured comrade and reassess then. Sadly although a short flight, it was a rather longer trip by ground and sea and another day before the long backtrack would see me back in St Anthony.

Labrador is lots of this. The 180 degree view was the last time I stopped to take a shot before returning to Newfoundland.

However, it’s moments like this, moments where you find yourself outside the normal realm of being in control, that you have no alternative but to rely on the kindness of strangers.

And this is the view from above. Jim snaps a pic from his personal jet.

That stranger turned out to be Francis. A man with an empty pickup truck on his way back home to … Montreal. It was where Jim lived and where we needed to get the bike back and Francis was more then happy to help. And the five guys hanging around the garage were more than happy to help get the GS loaded onto the bed.

It was the least I could do to pay to fill Francis’s tank, buy him dinner and cover his bed at the B&B, though he declined any more payment when I tried to buy his ferry ticket, signalling that I’d done enough gratitude for a journey he was making anyhow.

Riding into St Anthony the following afternoon, I’d managed to contact Jim and we’d arranged to meet at one of the two local hotels and sure enough, there he sat on the curb outside the Hotel North.

One last stop to admire Newfoundland before catching the fett back to the mainland.

The damage was limited to a dislocated shoulder and some deep bruising, which added a limp to the insult, but the result was that we still needed to get Jim back home. A two day ride to Chez ‘Arris in Sackville on the back of the Super Tenere was ruled out as soon as we found a direct flight to Montreal, from Deer Lake – 400 km and six hours to the south.

Getting the night ferry out of Port Aux basques

It was a no-brainer but it signalled the absolute end to any attempt on the Trans Lab this time around. I had wondered if I might be able to find some other adventurists going that way who I could join. We’d already met a couple of riders when we’d crossed over on the ferry and so there would likely be more.

I didn’t much fancy going it alone though, Jim’s battered body brought home just how important it is to have backup on trips like this and then there was the pain of retracing the 650 km back to the crash point, never mind the additional 2,000 km after that.

No, it was less than a 1,000 km back home on the way we’d originally come, and all I wanted to do now was to get home, unwind and get that awful call to BMW Canada over with.

The Trans Labrador Highway had well and truly kicked our arses and taught us an all-important lesson in respect of the unexpected. It was only a few weeks later that I heard the news that Duc Dufour, manager of Harley Davidson of Montreal and a stalwart of the Quebec riding community was not so fortunate in his attempt at the Trans Lab.

All in all Jim was lucky to escape with this little reminder of the whole ordeal.

Caught up in the dust cloud of a passing truck he collided with a bicyclist and died of the resulting injuries. No novice to riding, Duc’s death rammed home the risk that comes with such an adventure.

Nevertheless, plans for our 2013 second attempt are already being laid.

A big thank you to Francis for stopping to pick up Jim and taking the GS back to Montreal. The forestry ranger for getting the GS to Port Hope Simpson. The medical staff in Newfoundland and Labrador for patching Jim up. And last but not least, BMW for being, err … ‘understanding’ on how sometimes things just go ‘orribly CMG!


Gallery

Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.

5 thoughts on “Travel: Labrador Adventure – 2”

  1. I love to ride and been doing so for 35 years – BUT I could never figure out why any one would head north. Give me the heat – Give me something to look at while riding.
    Great article though. And after reading it I will NEVER head in that dirrection —— EVER…..
    I live to far North as it is…

    Rob
    Halifax NS

  2.  Hi….
    I know the road well….. never drove it on the Ninja but several times in a Volvo and a Buick.    The flies are indescribable as is the remote beauty of the road.   And the friendly people.    The GS was not the first BMW to bite the dust.    I’ve seen Harleys and Urals come through HV-GB when I lived there.
    Better luck next time

    Don Lockhart
    Port Elgin

Join the conversation!