Reader’s Stories: East Coast Adventure

Words and photos: Cathy Merriman

INTRO – Editor ‘arris



Cathy Merriman used to live in the Centre of the Universe (Toronto) where she could be occasionally spotted at one of the Toronto CMG Pub Nights, or more frequently on the CMG Soapbox (where she is still an active poster).

When her job gave her the opportunity to check out the East Coast, she jumped at it—especially when it could be done on her BMW F650. The following story is Cathy’s account of the ride over there from Toronto and her exploration of some of the gems that Canada’s East Coast has to offer.

Oh, and it was her first big bike trip to boot.

Four weeks worth of crap and a BMW F650adventure awaits!

In spring 2001, when my boss asked me to spend two weeks in July working from our Halifax office, I instantly knew how I would get there from my home in Toronto. I planned a trip with added vacation time, that would keep me away from home for nearly four weeks on my BMW F650, living out of my bike luggage, which would contain everything from camping gear to my laptop computer.

This was my first trip of this length and distance, as it was only my second season riding. I was excited about it, but when I set off on the first day, I felt a little nervous about the new sensation of riding with 70 additional pounds of luggage on the bike.

After a quick stop in Ottawa on the first night, my adventure really began in Québec City, where I spent a couple of days with friends experiencing the ten-day Festival d’Été.

I love Quebec City’s scenic charms, but finding myself stopped in traffic on a 45-degree uphill slope on the bike with 70lbs of luggage just as the rain started to pour was not fun. I also experienced the impossibility of parking in Old Quebec while circling one-way streets, crater-like street construction, and slippery cobblestones. I finally found a safe parking place almost directly in front of my friends’ home.

The daunting streets of Quebec City.

After a couple of days in Quebec City, I headed off for the far east of Canada along the St. Lawrence River, following Quebec Road 132 as it hugged the south shore. The north shore is nicer, but I had relatives to visit on the south shore, and a free bed’s a free bed.

On my last day in Quebec, not far from Kamouraska, I saw an intriguing sculpted figure at the end of a path in a farm field. I nearly rode by, but I was on holiday, and decided I should stop and appreciate the unexpected. I stopped on the narrow, sloping gravel shoulder. Before I could pop the bike onto the centrestand, its tall side stand, 70lbs of luggage and gravity all colluded with the sloped shoulder, and next thing I knew the bike was on its side in the ditch!

The nice man who helped me pick it up (and who discreetly ignored my foul language) said he thought I looked funny—like an alien or something—and took a photo of me near the sculpture that started the whole ordeal. It turns out that his friend had sculpted “the sower” and placed it right in this field, with a dedication on a plaque to all sowers, a.k.a farmers.

Post bike topple, foul language, alien looking photo.

Unfortunately, the day would only get worse as I headed south on Quebec Road 289 towards New Brunswick. I was soon engulfed in a heavy fog as I wound through dense, unpopulated forest. The fog eventually cleared and I had a couple of nice hours before the serious rain started, forcing me to give up on secondary roads and stick with the Trans Canada. This was the kind of rain that brought an opaque tidal wave of water—taller than me—with every passing transport truck. And there were a lot of trucks.

After a ten-hour day, I was really glad to get to a cozy place where red wine, home cooking and a free bed awaited.

The next day proved to be an uneventful one, arriving in Halifax at precisely the time I had planned. Although I had been to Halifax several times before by plane or train, I couldn’t help but feel pleased with myself as I got off the bike and walked up the street where my friends lived. I was in Halifax, and the arrival was magical. I had gotten there by motorcycle—and all by myself! It was a perfect moment that I don’t expect to ever recapture on future trips.

A PEI state of mind.

After a few days of office work I was dispatched for a meeting in Charlottetown. A later-than-planned departure for PEI on Thursday evening had me headed at a quick pace down the 104 to New Brunswick and the Confederation Bridge. I kept in mind the crepuscular habits of white-tailed deer, as I thought of the important balance between getting to PEI before dark, and not hitting a deer.

On Highway 16 leading to the bridge, I was witness to a most spectacular sunset. As I rode along, a vast flaming panorama filled the sky ahead. I turned my head to the rear to be awed by all the rest of the sky aglow in purple and a fuchsia like I’ve never seen before. This was a full-sky, 360-degree sunset—a real Omnimax experience you just can’t get in a car.

It was 9 p.m. by the time I got to the Confederation Bridge. The sunset had calmed down somewhat, but perched high on the seat of my F650, I had a fantastic view of the glowing ocean, the entire length of the bridge, and two provinces.

The endangered Piping Plover
Photo: J. Waddell

My ‘meeting’ the next day involved hiking along ten kilometres of gorgeous PEI beaches with some researchers studying an endangered bird species. At the end of the day, I still had a couple of hours to explore by bike, so I chose a point on the map that looked interesting and headed for it. Part of the route was over deep, freshly laid gravel, which made it just that much more interesting. I was rewarded by a nice coastal view including an offshore lighthouse and some sunbathing local youths, who seemed a little surprised to see me show up on my bike.

The best way to get back to Halifax from Charlottetown was, naturally, by taking a weekend detour around the Cabot Trail. The next morning, I raced to catch an early ferry from Wood Islands, PEI to Caribou, Nova Scotia. A few hours after getting up, with the day still young ahead of me, I was at last on Cape Breton and heading north on 19, also known as the Caillie Trail. The Caillie Trail is beautiful in its own way, but just amazing once it joins the famous Cabot Trail.

The Nova Scotia Folk Art Museum … no, not really.

At one point, as I crested a hill, I drew in my breath in delight as I saw the most marvellous display of Nova Scotia folk art. I am a fan of kitschy things and brightly coloured objects. The prices were very good, as the sign said, and I was all ready to have them ship a few unique objects back to my home. Unfortunately, I only had $3 with me, and they didn’t take credit cards, so I continued on without any trinkets. I wasn’t going to backtrack on this trip, but next time, I’ll know where to go if I need a two-foot-long red wooden lobster or a polka-dotted cat.

The open, sunny scenery on the Cabot Trail between Margaree Harbour and Chéticamp was accented by brightly painted wooden houses perched on the slopes above the ocean. This was a contrast to the more rugged and earthy tones of the Trail once it entered Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Here, the land rose up and the colours became more elemental. Dark grey road, deep green forests, red rock and soil, and that blue-green ocean gleaming in the sun.

A F650, a waterproof topcase and a tentwhat more could a girl want?

The road and the views were exhilarating. At times, focusing on the twists and hairpin turns made it difficult to appreciate the scenery, but there were numerous pull-off points where I could stop and gaze back in wonder at the slopes I had just climbed. Photos never quite do it justice. At one such stopping point, a convoy of bikes—one of many on this sunny July weekend—wound up the hill, past me, and one Goldwing in the group had strapped on a souvenir lobster trap, something usually reserved for the top of tourists’ minivans and motor homes.

Saturday night, about ten hours after I had left Charlottetown, I found myself at Bay St. Lawrence, at the northern tip of Cape Breton. I was at a small private campground at the end of a steep gravel road, perched a couple of hundred feet above the ocean, with a fishing village below and a mountain behind. As the sun sank, the pilot whales were feeding, breaking the silence of the evening with their sharp breaths each time they surfaced. I nibbled on some ripe blueberries picked from the slope behind my tent, and didn’t wish to be anywhere else on the planet.

The “jumping mouse” campground.

The next morning, I took it slowly on the road back to the Cabot Trail, since I was still in a mellow early morning mode—well, I hadn’t had my caffeine, the road was pretty rough, the early light was worth savouring, and those deer were out and about again. On the southbound ride, I followed the Trail as it wound into and out of the National Park, stopping near Ingonish for an excellent breakfast.

The twisting descent of the mountain at Cape Smoky made me feel like I was in a Roadrunner cartoon—the cliffs were so unreal. I expected to see Wile E. Coyote go plunging by me, as the hairpin turns suspended me above the cliffs. I was happy that there was no traffic ahead or behind, as I flipped the bike from side to side in first gear for the full 1000 feet or so of the descent.

This was to be another long, but rewarding day’s ride. There was over 400km of Cabot Trail and the coastal Marine Drive back to Halifax.

One happy camper.

I spent another week working in Halifax, before starting my return trip to Ontario via the Annapolis Valley. It is not nearly as dramatic as the Cabot Trail, but still quite charming. Since I had hours to kill before the 9 p.m. ferry across the Bay of Fundy and on to New Brunswick, I explored the regional 300-series roads that criss-cross the North Mountain range. Back and forth I went, from seaside village harbour to apple orchard and back to ocean again, with steep twisties in between each time.

Eventually I made it to Digby and the ferry terminal. The moonlit ferry ride seemed like a fitting farewell to my maritime tour.

After a day and a half of uneventful riding through Maine and New Hampshire, I found myself at a Vermont motel where I had arranged to meet with some of the CMG crew from Toronto, who were out testing a trio of BMWs. I had enjoyed my solo touring, but now it was nice to have some company, even though each of the BMW boxers had almost twice the horsepower of my F650 and a more experienced, aggressive rider on board. Nonetheless, Vermont was beautiful to ride in, despite the evil heat wave that engulfed the latter couple of days of our trip as we headed reluctantly back to Ontario on the August long weekend.

Many people I met on the trip seemed incredulous talking to me. I wasn’t sure if they found it more surprising that I was a woman on a bike, that I was travelling alone, or that I had come all the way from Ontario. Maybe it was a combination of the three. I definitely got the feeling that people were envious of my freedom. I tried to be sympathetic to them–-but of course I was having the most fun!

My boss had sent me to Halifax as a test run for a transfer to our Atlantic regional office. That part of the trip was a success, evidenced by the fact that one year later I moved to Halifax where I am currently living.

It was also a success on the biking side. I bought my bike in January 2001 with 17,000km on the odometer. After my second season, including five provinces, four states and 6,200km, I doubled the mileage on the bike. I’m convinced the bike was happier for it. I know I sure was.


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