Opinion: The Labrador option

Riding season is almost here, and we’re getting serious now about some of the trips we’re planning for this year. Zac wants to finally ride the Labrador loop, heading up to Newfoundland to cross over on the short ferry to the mainland, then up to Goose Bay, over to Labrador City and down through Quebec to Baie-Comeau and home. Good luck to him. He asked if I wanted to come along too and I politely declined.

I drove this route in the other direction four years ago, following behind a guy named Dave Graham on his BMW R1200GS. Dave and I met through CMG when Editor ‘Arris put out a call for anyone who wanted to ride the route and have their luggage carried separately, because I would be driving it in a Jeep Grand Cherokee for the Toronto Star. I was taking the “other” route to Newfoundland, from Toronto to St. John’s.

If you’re going to travel on the Labrador Loop, be prepared to get a bit grubby.

Adventure riders love these kinds of roads. They’re too rough for Gold Wings and too uncomfortable for most regular motorcycles, but they’re on the bucket list for many riders who want a challenge. Much of the Labrador route is certainly a challenge. The road north from Baie-Comeau, Route 389, is actually the best part of it: it begins as paved and winding for 200 km to the massive Manic 5 dam, then unpaved and winding for another 100 km to the truck stop of Relais-Gabriel, then paved and smooth and fabulous for another 150 km or so past the eerie ghost town of Gagnon, then total unpaved, winding crap for the final 100 km to the Labrador border.

Dave Graham on the fabulous stretch of Quebec Hwy 389, somewhere north of the Gagnon ghost town.

I met Dave and his wife Manuella for the first time at our motel in Baie-Comeau. The deal was that he’d ride ahead on his bike with whatever fit comfortably in his luggage, and I’d carry his tools and tires and even a tow-hitch, just in case. We’d travel separately all the way through to Newfoundland, but the bike would always be ahead. If he ran into problems, I’d drive up behind soon enough. Also, if it was raining, Manuella would ride along with me, in warm, dry comfort, with the heated leather seats turned to the max.

The first morning out of Baie-Comeau, it poured with rain. Dave put on his gear and Manuella made a bee-line for the Jeep. I don’t blame her. There was no part of me at that moment that wanted to be on that bike in the cold, wet deluge.

And also on Hwy. 389, near the dam. Not so fabulous.

When the rain eventually stopped and the road dried out, somewhere around the dam, Dave waited for us and Manuella switched to the motorcycle. This was a smart way to do things. The road had been truly slippery, and we’d seen Dave’s tires sliding around on the sloppy dirt. He was reasonably experienced in poor conditions but no Clinton Smout, and the big bike was much easier to control without a passenger on the pillion. And Manuella, too, was happy to be in the comfortable 4WD Jeep.

Manuella helps Dave stretch his lower back. There were no such cramping problems with the Jeep’s heated seats.

We travelled this way all the way through to the island of Newfoundland, with Manuella switching back and forth whenever the weather turned. The road from Labrador City to Goose Bay was recently paved; it was smooth and straight and monotonous, cutting its way through endless stubby black trees. I was carrying a copy of Lure of the Labrador Wild, about the first, unsuccessful exploration of the area by westerners barely a hundred years earlier, and the irony of the road’s existence was not lost. One time, I stopped beside a river for a break, and the blackflies that descended in seconds left bites on my scalp that lasted for weeks. Then the next day, the road south from Goose Bay was basically one big construction site, and the rain held up for hours. The road washed out near Port Hope Simpson, where we stayed the night, and then improved down to the coast, where the pavement finally resumed all the way to the ferry.

Mark pauses for a break in Labrador to play croquet – well, why not? – and to feed the local blackflies.

So yes, the Labrador route is a challenge, and will remain so until the length of the road is paved. The week before we came through, a rider had hit a gravel rut at speed and launched himself into the ditch – he was flown home by air ambulance with serious injuries. When Editor ‘Arris tried the route himself in 2011 with his friend Jim, a crash ended their ride on the first day.

Even so, Zac’s keen to do it. There’s some road for everyone, I guess, and Canada has more than its fair share of challenges: the new road to Tuk, the Cassiar Highway, the Nahanni Loop, even the Trans-Taiga Road, which claims to be the most remote road in North America. If these are your thing, just make sure you’re well prepared beforehand. It wouldn’t hurt to have a Jeep following you, either. Maybe I’ll be in it, with windshield wipers and heated seats.

The road is out there. You just have to fire up your motorcycle and go look for it.

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