Sunset at Campobello

What a spring! I barely rode my bike in April, thanks to what felt like chronic hypothermia, induced by my ride home from Toronto on the BMW C650 GT. Then, in May, New Brunswick was hit by record flooding, including my neighbourhood. The water was so deep I had to canoe into my workshop for tools. Not ideal riding conditions for sure.

Cleanup work from the flood meant it was June before I could find enough time to leave home for a proper ride. So where to go? Why not Campobello Island, the one place in Canada that you have to have a passport to visit for much of the year, as you must enter the island from the US when the summer ferry isn’t running? It’s close, it’s different, and I’ve never been there before — time to pack the bike and go! 

The bike for this trip is my ’96 Suzuki RF900R, the sport tourer I rode home from Toronto on a very challenging late-November trip last year. I think I’ve got the gremlins sorted, but this trip is going to be a bit of a shakedown test, to see if it works as well as I need.

This is the best bike for the job!

After years of packing too much stuff onto my Suzuki DR350’s anorexic tail section, I’m glad to have the RF900R’s generously-proportioned backside to carry my camping equipment. Strap on the Wolfman Beta, cram in my sleeping bag and my tent and … hrm. There’s not much room for clothes. Guess I should have sprung for the expensive, ultra-compact camping gear. No worries, I only have time for an overnight trip anyway.

Roadside in Lubec, Maine, the easternmost town in the US, and the gateway to Campobello Island.

Throw on the Aerostich, head down the driveway and go meet up with longtime riding buddy Glen. A rip down the four-lane, and then we’re quickly diverting to Rt. 790, the old coastal highway: it’s scenic, but still cruiser country. Then another side trip down the remote Seelys Cove Road brings us to proper twisties, a real hoot if you don’t mind mid-corner frost heaves. It wouldn’t be much fun on a real sportbike, but the RF’s relatively cushy suspension handles it. This is the life!

And it gets even better when Glen and I split up, him heading home to parental responsibilities and yard work and myself blasting toward the US border, away from parental responsibilities and yard work. If you need a break from Dad duty, I highly recommend a proper sport tourer.

This is the worst bike for the job!

Alas, once through the border, the RF’s limitations show up: It can handle a moderately bumpy road, but Maine’s Rt 1 is torn up for miles, leaving me to battle loose gravel on sporty tires. And while I’m not averse to  higher speeds on New Brunswick backroads due to minimal police presence, it’s a different deal in Maine, so I hesitate to truly crack open the throttle on the smooth sections. Maybe my DR350 would have been a better choice?

Still, the miles zip by and soon I’m in Lubec, half-frozen from the onshore breeze that’s been cutting through all afternoon. Time to stop and eat, and hey, there’s an interesting-looking chip wagon! Becky’s Fish and Chips is low on fine china and there’s no black-tie waiter, but the haddock is the very best, and so is the sunset on the water. Sure beats mowing the lawn, or whatever else I was supposed to do that evening.

Becky’s Fish and Chips proved to far excel the usual grim standards held by chip wagons. Nothing like a good piece of haddock to fill you up after a cold ride.

Campobello is only a couple of minutes away after supper. It’s an island outpost with no ferry service for most of the year, and only accessible then by a land bridge from Maine (in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s  day, it was only accessible by boat — the bridge came in the 1960s).

It’s just 14 km by 5 km, has a permanent population under 1,000, and there’s no logical reason for it to be part of Canada, especially because it’s most famous for being the site of FDR’s summer home. It’s an oddball corner of New Brunswick, and not too many people make it there. In a past life in the commercial fishery, I sailed around it, but never made it to land. Now, after 12 years of living just up the road, I’ll finally set foot on the island.

Crossing from the US back into Canada, the border guard looks at me, quickly decides there’s no way I have an AK-47 packed into my motorcycle luggage and waves me through. And now, I’m on Campobello Island, taking in the scenery but also looking for stealth camping opportunities as the sun sets on the water. The scenery is beautiful, and I’d love nothing more than to camp on the west side of the island and watch the sun sink into the waves, but I don’t want attention from the locals so I head to the other, less populated, side of Campobello to pitch my tent.

A succession of diversions down remote side roads eventually means another gravel road excursion on the RF900R. Sorry, Suzuki, I’ll treat you better in the morning, I promise. Thankfully, the only wear and tear is some road dust; I find a remote campsite close to a beach and listen to the waves as I fall asleep in my tent, just me and FDR’s polio-ridden ghost.

This is the best bike for the job!

It’s properly cold when I wake up, so I laze around in my sleeping bag and listen to lobster boats hauling their traps offshore. Not long ago, that was my spring routine as well, and I’m enjoying the chance to lay in a tent while those poor buggers are up to their elbows in rotten bait and slime eels.

It’s a quiet day in the woods; over the course of an hour, I only hear one vehicle drive by. Much quieter than home, where I’d be making breakfast for the kids by now.

A while later, the sun is cutting into the cold enough to persuade me to pack up camp and ride out, where I make a shocking discovery: Campobello has amazing roads.

The Maritimes are known for bumpy rural roads, and New Brunswick’s are the worst. But Campobello, with its lack of truck traffic, has beautiful pavement, with no potholes. And it’s pretty curvy, too, as the roads meander around coves and ancient property boundaries. This is a great place to ride, and surely there are no animals here on this smallish island, so I can really lay the hammer down, right? Wrong — almost as soon as this thought passes through my mind, one of the biggest does I’ve ever seen jumps on the road beside me. Oh well, I guess it would be unneighbourly to rip through a quiet community like this, anyway. It’s a shame, because it’s so hard to find pavement in New Brunswick that’s suited for a sportbike like the RF900R.

Camping in luxury? Maybe not, but the price was right, and I went to sleep listening to the waves crash on the shore behind the substation. I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less.

Instead, I throttle back and meander from wharf to wharf for the morning. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours. The scenery here is gorgeous, with all the good parts of Charlotte County (crashing waves, quaint houses, busy fishermen, weatherbeaten shipwrecks) with very, very little of the bad (I only see one trash-filled redneck yard). It’s the kind of place I always think I’d like to move to when I retire.

But if I retire here, it would always be hard to fit in. I grew up on a larger island, and no matter how long you’ve lived in a place like that, you’re always “from away” if you weren’t born there. On Campobello, I’d always be “from away,” at best. At worst, I’d be a “scrag,” a term the locals throw at irritating tourists (which two local girls explain to me at breakfast in a local eatery, with a bit of shock that I’ve even heard the word).

While I’m waiting for my order, another traveling rider stops in, so I invite him to eat with me. Turns out his wildlife story is far worse than my encounter with the deer. While out for a nature hike, he managed to get a little too close to a peregrine falcon nest, and Momma divebombed him, cutting his head and stealing his glasses. Earlier in the day, a moose decided to stomp around his campground. As wild as all this sounds, it still seemed he was glad to be away from his day job as a lawyer, preferring the dangers of the wild to dealing with courtrooms.

After breakfast, we both end up at FDR’s cottage, which is apparently a much safer pastime than moto-camping. We get a very enjoyable tour without being threatened by any animals, and without even being asked to donate to the cottage’s upkeep. I’d highly recommend this side jaunt if you’re into history, as it gives interesting insight into one of the foremost leaders of the 20th century.

“FDR was here.” The main reason most people end up on Campobello is to visit Roosevelt Cottage, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt held a summer residence for many years. This is where he fought his famous battle with polio.

And now, it’s time to go. I haul out the map and make a decision: I really, really want to detour down Maine’s Rt. 191 on the way home, but a look at my watch says it’s not possible. The parental responsibilities and yard work I managed to escape the day before are still waiting for me, and it’s time to ride home.

I’ve already explored enough for today; 191 and the area’s other twisties will have to wait for another trip. And here, once again, the big 900 proves its worth: with grim thoughts of ticket-happy State Police pushed far from my mind, I put the hammer down, and head home. The interesting roads will be there when I have time later this summer, and like Roosevelt’s famous contemporary General Douglas MacArthur once said, “I shall return.”

11 thoughts on “Sunset at Campobello”

  1. Hey, Zac,
    I made very good use of your “last business card” and went to the CMG site.

    Looks like a lot a great stuff here. Blows away the print magazines (mostly ads) I get in the Boston states.

    Let me get this right… you get to ride around to places like Cape Breton, (or Campobello) write about the trip AND GET PAID FOR IT!
    Ha, what am I missing here? When I grow up I want your job!

    I hope you get a chance to give the Red Shoe in Mabou a mention. I plan my trips to CB around the Shoe for great meals, great staff and even better entertainment.

    Look forward to going through the rest of the CMG site.

    Thanks again.

    Ride safe.
    Bob Ryan
    Cape Cod, MA
    (2018 GS)

      1. Chickened out and went south to Yarmouth then over to Fredericton. Just hit some fog, rain and wind – no snow. Just like home, but less traffic !
        Ride safe

          1. Maybe… ferry to highway 7 to 177 to 102 stopped in gagetown on to tc 2 to 105 to oromoncto then to Fredericton. Nice ride next to your recently flooded river.

            Next day 640 to highway 3 to st Stephen towards Maine rt 9 and home. What a nice quiet ride, until Bangor of course.

            After trip to Colorado I’ll be back to the maritimes headed to St. John’s NL in August but instead of original plan of via Yarmouth i want to try some more NB roads and I’ll go via miramichi. I know, not a direct route but I wanna see if highway 108 has been fixed.

            See ya on the road somewhere.

            Ride safe

            Bob r

            1. I’m on 177.

              Send me a note next time you’re around.

              I know some of the decent roads around here, but you’ve probably been on them before anyway …

              1. So I probably did pass your place.

                I’m sure you know dozens of NB mc friendly roads I’ve never been on, more than I’ll ever find on my own. ( I really ought to invest in a roadmap of NB.)

                I trip over stuff like cape enrage rd (a couple of years ago.) and I’m sure I’ve missed more great roads than I’ve found.

                I’ll let you know next time I’m in NB. We’ll tear up a couple of crooked roads. Safely of course, at or below the suggested posted speed limit!

                Regards

                Bob r

  2. Nice write-up Zac. My wife and I did a day tour of Campobello on a pair of 50cc scooters a few years back. For a small island it has many roads, from pave, to gravel, to dirt, to ride on. Beautiful landscape, seascape, great food, and friendly people. The pace of the scooters matched nicely with the pace of daily life on the island. I highly recommend the excursion if one can swing it.

  3. Zac, I grew up in St Andrews and we use to travel to Campobello to play HS BBAll. The fisherman had “big steel boats” to fish on the grand banks. When Grand Manan HS played Campobello they would travel by boat instead of driving around. I also think that, back in the day, all the babies were born in Lubec and they had dual citizenship (if that exists now I have no idea).
    Thanks for the write up.

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