River roads and rain: A weekend in Maine

In 1858, John Hanning Speke discovered the source of the Nile. In 2014, James Contos discovered the source of the Amazon. And in 2015, I decided it was time to see the source of the St. John River, or at least get as close as I could. I loaded down CMG’s long-termer BMW R 1200 GS and hit the road.


The first sign that all might not go rosy on this trip came at nightfall, Friday. To this point, it had been the perfect ride: decently curvy roads and a sunny, wind-free day that showed off the St. John River perfectly.

But now, I’d just dodged three deer, night was coming fast, and I was in moose country. I needed a place to sling my hammock. Unfortunately, the elderly gentleman I asked for permission to camp on his property ended up looking at me like I was an escapee from a bikesploitation flick. He directed me to a nearby swampy, bug-infested woods, no doubt hoping to dissuade me from my freewheeling nomadic lifestyle.

I pitched camp so quickly the bugs barely knew I was there; I fell asleep swinging peacefully in the hammock, wondering if I was going to wake to clouds or sunshine.

An unexpected find; the Little Tobique River has a few kilometres of glorious riding, some of the best in New Brunswick, before it ends all too soon.

Getting started

The trip started at lunchtime on a sunny summer Friday, as I left the office early and headed from Saint John up the east side of the St. John River, dodging potholes and slower riders. A couple of cable ferries later and I was zooming through Route 102’s farm country, then doglegging over the river again to get to Route 105.

Traffic was almost non-existent, except for a patch around Fredericton. The city slickers were mostly gone by the time I reached Mactaquac, and from there I had more time to assess 105, a road with which I’d developed a bumpy relationship.

The last time I’d come through here was years ago; at that time, it seemed the locals had voted the wrong way in a provincial election, then suffered the consequences of not having their roads maintained. I was happy to note a change in the regime had brought repairs. I was stopped a few times by flagmen, but the miles of resurfaced chip seal north of Fredericton meant I didn’t have to worry about blowing a tire in a pothole.

The secondary roads along the St. John River are a highly underrated ride, especially on a calm, warm summer night.

And it was a good day to be worry-free. The sun was scorching hot, the river was full of boaters, and villagers were out enjoying the summer evening. I tried the requisite tourist attractions—had my photo taken on the world’s longest covered bridge in Hartland, saw the world’s largest axe in Nackawic—and headed for Grand Falls, my destination for the night.

A chance meeting at a gas station sent me searching for a route inland from the river instead, toward Plaster Rock, home of the World Pond Hockey Championship. I’d planned on camping next to the river, but was told the farmland was beautiful and worth checking out. Sure enough, the road along the Little Tobique was like something from Appalachia, and the farmland beyond was pretty, but then deer started popping out of the ditches at dusk. With 424 kilometres down since lunch, I called it a day.

In my makeshift camp I declared détente with the bugs and waited to see what morning would bring.

The world-famous motojournalist makes sure he got the shot. This is about as far as you can follow the St. John River on pavement, although if you want to ride the gravel roads, you can travel upriver much further.

Here comes the rain

Saturday dawned with gray skies, but no rain — yet. I broke camp, followed straight roads to Grand Falls, NB, where I searched in vain for a local eatery, settling for Burger King. As I rode north on Route 144 the rain started.

The day before, I felt a connection to the waterway, but here, the road was high above the river and the views were less appealing. I took the Fort Kent border crossing and went down the south side of the river through northern Maine, hoping the scenery and weather would improve.

Here, the local industries revolve around the outdoors. As I explored farther upriver, deeper into the woods, every driveway had at least one 4×4 with a CB radio antenna — a vital tool for guides running bear dogs.

Soon, I reached my first objective of the weekend: the end of Maine’s Route 161. In this region, the river that powers much of New Brunswick and washes out communities in the spring freshet is narrow enough to skip a stone across. I took some photos, but ended up discarding my plan to go for a dip; the rain and mosquitoes discouraged any sort of frolic in the river. I pointed the bike back in the direction I came from, toward Limestone, where I’d been told there was a weekend of land speed racing to take in, thanks to the Loring Timing Association’s semi-regular high-speed invasion of the abandoned Loring Air Force Base.

Riding through the small towns of Madawaska and Van Buren, I noticed a difference between the people here and the average Mainer. There’s no talk of “lobstah” and “chowdah”; instead, French is spoken everywhere. Even English-speakers have a Gallic inflection, and Madawaska flies Acadian flags.

While the eastern end of the New Brunswick-Maine border presents an almost ludicrous degree of disparity between two populations separated only by a river, this region could be just another community in northern New Brunswick. The roads travel through endless potato fields, which did little to dispel the illusion I was still in my home province, especially when I discovered the farmers are selling the spuds to New Brunswick’s billionaire McCain family.

The scenery held nothing  but fields and villages for some time; the rain damped an otherwise pretty landscape where views of the river are more subdued. But when I got to Loring Air Force Base, disaster struck. I’d been given the wrong date, and there was no land speed racing that weekend — the event was still a week away! With no streamlined Hayabusas to ogle, I scouted around the derelict air base and discovered its museum, where I talked with former servicemen who toiled at Loring in days gone by.

I considered my options as the rain continued in fits. I would have liked to further investigate the base. It’s a menacing feeling, being in a facility that once housed nuclear-equipped B52s. The crumbling structures look similar to photos I’ve seen of decommissioned Cold War bases in the former USSR, relics of past tensions that threaten now to resurface. But I decided to see more of northern Maine, and headed south on Route 164.

Lies in country music

Sometimes, a road you don’t expect to be much more than a connector turns out to be a pleasant surprise. I pencil Maine’s Rt. 164 into that category. It has plenty of straights, but at the end of them there are tight 90-degree turns, meaning a fun corner at the end of every high-speed run. Then, just as the road straightened on Route 227, I got into a chain of steep hills — up, down, up, down — with my Beemer serving as an impromptu rollercoaster, but without having to worry about whether my seatmate would barf up a corn dog on my shoulder.

On Route 11, I looked up and the sky had changed. I faced threatening clouds that were almost black at midday. I stopped for a boil-up of tea, and as I packed the stove away and hit the road, a deluge of Biblical proportions started. Despite a flow of water that defeated my visor and dripped down my face, I reached the outskirts of Houlton, where I unexpectedly encountered an Amish buggy rolling toward me in the downpour. Perhaps envious of my iron horse, the sodden driver didn’t bother to return my wave.

It was an eerie feeling, riding around the deserted air force base, that once housed enough bombs to flatten cities.

Outside Houlton, briefly outrunning the rain, I asked for directions to Route 2A. A Jeep-load of overweight locals gave me a set of instructions, smirking and wishing me good luck. Miles down the road, I found out why. In the middle of a downpour, they’d given me directions that took me away from my destination. Thankfully, I was soon headed the right way when I saw a roadside diner that offered shelter, packed with a mixture of locals and a crew of camp counselors from just across the border. At a distance, they were indistinguishable; the cool kids are wearing the same plaid shirts as farmers and woodsmen these days, so you can only tell them apart by their haircuts.

A bowl of chowdah and a plate of deep-fried fiddleheads later, the rain hadn’t relented, so I continued down 2A, wondering if this was my stupidest move yet.

I may not have found danger in the Haynesville woods, contrary to the country song, but I did find deep-fried fiddleheads, which are every bit as disgusting as they sound.

I chose 2A because it’s a road with a reputation for danger, going back to Dick Curless’ 1965 country hit “A Tombstone Every Mile.” It sounded like it could be a twisty ride — not ideal in the middle of a monsoon.

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), it seems the song was all hype. The only reason I could see for truckers dying on this road is boredom; what remains of the route is fairly straight. The rain finally ended, giving the mosquitoes just enough time to come out of the woods and harass me as I set up my Hennessy Hammock alongside a bubbling creek. Such are the joys of life in the northeast. This was a 624-km day, so falling asleep was no problem.

In the middle of the night, I woke to the sound of a pickup truck roaring through the woods by my campsite, but I fell back asleep before I could recall too many movies featuring hapless travelers and drunken hooligans with shotguns. Thankfully, nobody found  or disturbed my campsite.

Take a seat! … Actually, don’t, the museum’s proprietor might not like it.

Sunday dawned foggy as I hit the road. The locals in Lincoln’s Timberhouse diner were more helpful than the rascals from the day before, directing me away from bad roads en route to Bangor. From there, I was on familiar ground, opening up the Beemer on the dips and bends of Route 9, happy to have sunshine and dry pavement at last. This is one of Maine’s oldest highways, and it’s made for motorcycling at speed. Just keep an eye out for the Staties.

In Calais, I had a choice: superslab it home, or take the scenic coastal route? I don’t get much opportunity to take in Charlotte County’s scenery, so the coastal route it was. Minutes later, I was regretting my decision as the clouds returned. I pounded out the remaining miles in a downpour. At day’s end, I had 490 kilometres on the odometer, and again, most of it in the rain.

Charlotte County, NB: More boats than people. Or close to it.

As I cruised home, I reflected on the scenery. The coastline consists of a string of fishing ports, each one filled with brightly painted vessels. This is a region I’m always looking for a chance to explore, yet I wasn’t enjoying it. I started to blame the precipitation, then stopped myself.

Any day on a motorcycle is a good day, and I accomplished my goals that weekend. These roads were all small entries on my travel checklist, but I could cross them off now. Ultimately, that’s a great way to spend any weekend, with or without sunshine.


GALLERY

Check out all the pics that go with this story!

11 thoughts on “River roads and rain: A weekend in Maine”

  1. I would have suggested on backtracking to Fort Kent after your visit to Madawaska / 4 corners park and taking Maine route 11 all the way to just North of Bangor. One of the prettiest, crooked roads with great elevations and little to no traffic in the state. PS, ditto on the fried fiddleheads, much better choices at Grammys.

    1. Yeah, I met some “bikers” who suggested that the next day, but I didn’t have time to backtrack at that point. Plus, I was still getting massive rain storms.

      I’ll def go back to Grammys again. But I’ll try something else.

    2. I think next time I go, I’ll try to hit the races in Limestone, then take 161 north, then 11 back south. The river roads aren’t that interesting north of there anyway.

  2. I’ve never had deep-fried fiddleheads. Steamed, with butter and lemon or vinegar, sure, but never fried. Any good?

    1. Yes. Can you imagine the damage if one of those hit your house, falling from 20,000 feet? 😊

      The base had a lot of other cool stuff to see. It was also the site of one of the east coast most famous UFO sightings.

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