Travel: Labrador Adventure – 1

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The very start of the T-Rail coming out of Port Aux Basques
Words: Rob Harris. Pictures: Rob Harris (unless otherwise specified)

“Adventure without risk is Disneyland” — Douglas Coupland

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I’m not sure what it is that attracts people to the Trans Labrador Highway. Maybe it’s the fact that it travels through some of the most northerly accessible geography on the eastern seaboard. Or that it’s pretty much all gravel. Or that there is a stretch of over 400km of nothingness.

Well, nothingness in human terms anyway.

It’s a trip that had been on the to-do list for a while now, and with getting a Super Tenere as our long termer last year, that seemed to be the ideal time to do such an adventure.

My old riding pal from my Montreal days, Jim Vernon, was also keen to join me in this adventure, but having recently sold his KLR650, needed a bike to do it on. I was also looking for another adventure bike to do a comparo with the Super Tenere, so we decided on a BMW F800GS, which would give us two similar but different machines to determine the pros and cons on the long haul.

RETREATS, FERRIES AND A TASTE OF NEWFOUNDLAND

Gimpy Jimpy (left) and Editor ‘Arris (right), ready for their grand adventure in ‘Arris’ driveway in Sackville.

Since I’m now located in New Brunswick it made sense for Jim to come my direction, giving him a good 1000 km road trip with which to accustom himself with his new ride.

Chillin’ with Patrick and Angela at the Cabot Trail Motorcycle Retreat

After a day or two of preparations, we hit the road on what was to prove to be one of the few summer-like days we were to have on the east coast. Our destination for the night was the Cabot Trail Motorcycle Retreat, located in Middle River on the Cabot Trail.

I must admit, I was expecting some big bearded tattooed Harley branded dude to be running the place, not two ex-CBC employees that had decided to flee Toronto in 2006 and start a new life running a B&B dedicated to motorcycles at the far end of the east coast.

Patrick and Angela bought the century home that is now their retreat and made their bedroom in the attic, freeing up two bedrooms for guests. As such it has rather limited capacity, so you’d need to book ahead, but the plus side is that once you’re there it’s a cosy home away from home with hosts that love to talk bikes but also have all their teeth (seemingly anyway).

Waiting to board the ferry to Port Aux Basques

It’s much better than spending a lonely night in a nondescript chain motel surfing 52 channels of shit until you eventually nod off. It’s also cheaper than a motel and comes with its own garage to park your bike in; it’s well-recommended for anyone who needs a base to explore the Cabot Trail or, like us, are on your way to Newfoundland and beyond.

Why is it that there’s always more bikes than tie downs? Make sure your baby is well attached as the crossing can get rough.

About an hour from the CTMR is the ferry terminal for Newfoundland, located at North Sydney. Now in my opinion, there’s nothing like a good ferry ride to get you in the adventurous spirit and the ferry to Port Aux Basques is nothing like a good ferry ride (baboom-tisch).

No, it’s fine. Especially when you spend the extra $10 (on top of the regular $85) to get the reserved seating which places you in a restricted access area on the top deck with a guaranteed comfy reclining seat away from the great unwashed. $10 well spent!

The crossing takes between six and eight hours, depending on the weather; ours dumped us out at Port Aux Basques in time for dinner and a bed for the night.

I was expecting the town to be just a ferry terminal with a few houses nearby, but it is actually a sizeable (by Newfie standards) place.

The town of Port Aux Basqes is worth a little tour

If you leave the ferry terminal for the main highway then you’ll miss it all, but take a moment to cruise around and you’ll get your first taste for Newfoundland style with a higgledy-piggledy collection of one- and two-story houses hugging coast and cove as if some god had rolled them out like a handful of dice.

ROCKY HARBOUR

If you’ve looked at a map of Newfoundland you’ll see it looks a little like a clenched fist with the index finger raised (though they’re apparently working on raising the middle finger now that they have oil). Since we were aiming to get to Labrador as directly as possible, that meant taking the highway up the west coast and to the top of the finger (a.k.a. the northern peninsula), where a short ferry ride to Labrador awaited us.

The hope was to be able to do some of that by dirt road, with our first sample coming straight out of Port Aux Basques courtesy of the T-Rail provincial park, which is actually an old abandoned railway that takes you due north to Deer Lake and then east all the way to Saint Johns.

Unfortunately the trail is pretty rough in many places, and I’d been recommended by a friend who had done it the year before to take the first coast-hugging 40 km and forego the rest, unless I liked pushing the Super Tenere more than riding it.

The T-Rail trail offers some great views just out of Port Aux Basques. (photo: Jim Vernon)

I didn’t fancy that much, so I did as was told and was rewarded with a trail that offered the ocean to the left and dramatic flat-topped mountains to my right. It is slow going though, as the trail has seen its surface carved out by quads to make a series of whoops that never really seem to end.

No cars or trucks, but the ATVs do make the T-Rail into an endless series of whoops.

The fun and games came to a sudden stop when the Super Ten refused to start with a telltale brrr, click, click of a dying battery. Now bump starting a fully ladened bike is tricky enough on asphalt. On gravel and sand with the flatness of an old railway bed, it’s exhausting. We did finally manage to get it fired up though and exited the trail just around the corner where it thoughtfully decided to cross the main highway and allow us to beeline it to Corner Brook and the nearest Yamaha dealership.

The very helpful chaps at Twin Peaks Motorsport had us equipped with a new battery and charger so that we could charge it up that night and not have to wait the five hours for them to do it there.

Just north of Corner Brook came our second chance to take some trails, as well as offering us a shortcut by Deer Lake and directly to Gros Morne National ParK. And what a spectacular short cut it was – wide, easy gravel that meandered over hill and around lakes that ended all too soon, but a useful taste of what was ahead in Labrador.

Being a National Park, Gros Morne sadly does not offer any trail options for motorcycles, but the pavement through it is all curves and hills and can be done at a good rate of knots to add to the fun. Since it’s also a touristy area it offers a good choice of accommodation, especially in the park’s main town of Rocky Harbour, which is where we rested for the night.

L’ANSE AUX MEADOWS

Jim wasn’t happy having to change a tire, especially when we hadn’t even started the Trans Lab.

It’s never a happy moment to come outside and see a bike sitting like a sad puppy that just shat on your rug, tire flat as a pancake. We weren’t expecting any flats until Labrador but the GS’s tire had somehow been pricked which gave Jim something to do while I fitted the new battery to the Super Ten.

The inner tube was obviously to blame!

Unusually, the puncture wasn’t actually caused by a sharp object, rather by a defective tube that had been creased and developed two small slits as a result. Thankfully we’d packed spares and were back on the road and a straight shot up the Newfie finger to the Viking settlement of L’Anse Aux Meadows.

Once out of Gros Morne, highway 430 is a pretty straight stretch of road but it is a true coastal road. Not one of these “it looks coastal from a map but you rarely see the coast” roads. No, the 430 pretty much hugs the coast until the last, when it swings west and inland to the town of St Anthonys.

This is where the icebergs come to die. If only everything died so gracefully.

It’s a shame that the summer here is so short because this would be the perfect place to live on the ocean without costing one arm and two legs. Short, gnarly windswept trees dot the coast and lay testament to the harsh climate that also helps to keep the desolation that makes it all so attractive.

“And then Thor struck the cylinder with his war hammer with such wroth as it would not fire”. Listening to Viking tales in L’Anse Aux Meadows.  (photo: Jim Vernon)

If you do this trip and are short on time, then you can jump on the ferry at St Barb, but that would miss out the northeastern tip of the peninsula that boasts of L’Anse Aux Meadows and overlooks the Atlantic and its “Iceberg Ally”.

Luckily for us it was the peak of the iceberg season, though that also meant that all the accommodation was fully booked in St Anthony too.

We eventually found a cheap and slightly tacky motel on the road to L’Anse Aux Meadows, which would give us a good early start the next day. It was on the way there that I spotted my first iceberg. The coast here is gouged by numerous coves and it’s in these coves that many of the icebergs get caught, slowly whittled away by the warmer water — death by a thousand drops.

A big chunk of white ice sat lonely in a bay of blue. It was more impressive than I had ever imagined and when we finally booked into Motel Brown Water I was on the phone and booking us on the next day’s iceberg tour.

The next day we nipped up to the northern point of Newfoundland to explore the old Viking settlement of l’Anse Aux Meadows. It’s run by Parks Canada and comprises of a great exhibition centre and a partially reconstructed village with real life Vikings doing their stuff.

Well, maybe not real life as I soon found out when one of them broke out of his script and started talking about his Honda Shadow 1100. That may have been to most surreal moment of the tour – sitting in a hut round a fire, surrounded by swords, axes and shields trying to work out why this guy’s bike was cutting out on one cylinder.

Happy to have survived the Trans Labrador Highway, but Darlene (right) had some repairs to do to her 650GS as a result.

Once back at the exhibition centre I found Jim chatting to some other riders that had just traversed the Tran Lab coming the other way. I even knew one of them — Darlene Ing — who had ridden the Mad Bastard Rally a couple of years before. Small world!

Looking more like a strip of white land, this is actually a 1 km long iceberg.

Sadly she had managed to high-side her F650GS on the Trans Lab while trying to negotiate a sandy berm left by the graders. Her bike had suffered a broken instrument cluster and some scuffing, but otherwise bike and rider were in good shape. All in all it had been a relatively simple crash, which makes for a good story, but when you add the remoteness of the Trans Lab, even a simple tumble could lead to some very serious consequences.

After lunch we parted ways and headed into St Anthonys for our tour of the bergs and totally lucked out by just so happening to be there while a large 1+km long iceberg happened to be passing by. Honestly, it was almost too big, looking more like a large white island than an iceberg, but very impressive nonetheless.

TO LABRADOR

No adventure ride is complete with at least one day of heavy rain. St Anthonys duly obliged.

Oh man, when it gets wet, it gets really wet! We’d even decided to go for the later 3:30 ferry crossing so we could try and wait out the storm, but when our time came to leave the storm was lashing worse than ever. Add to that a howling cross wind that meant we had to ride at a 10-degree angle, and our track back along the 430 to St Barbe was adventurous, but in the wrong sense.

You meet the nicest people on Labrador ferries … Chris (centre) and his rat KLR in the foreground.  (photo: Strange South African)

To add insult to injury my Joe Rocket “waterproof” inserts failed me and I was soaked and shivering by the time we came to the terminal, only to find out that the strong winds meant that they had delayed the crossing until 6 pm.

This proved to be a blessing in disguise as right across the street was a laundrette where we could dry our soaked clothes.

One of the aspects of this route that I hadn’t considered was that north of Deer Lake there’s only one road. This means that you invariably meet other riders coming the other way, or going your way when you hit a bottleneck like a ferry.

It was on this ferry that I met up with two other riders. A rather strange South African on a V-Strom and a very likeable American called Chris on a rat KLR650 who proved to be good company as we crossed the Gulf of St Lawrence.

Blackfles rejoice – fresh meat from Newfoundland!

Once over, an obligatory stop at the “Welcome to Labrador” was our first and brutal encounter with the scourge of Labrador – the blackfly! In the 30 seconds that I removed my lid to take the shot above I had been engulfed by the little fuckers and bitten three times on my head.

Just off the ferry and racing to our accommodation for the night.

I don’t know where these buggers hide but they’re ever present and relentless. Oddly though, Newfoundland — a mere 30 km across the water to the south — seems relatively free of the diminutive bastards.

Now, blackflies aside, Labrador is just spectacular. It’s bleak and barren with few if any trees near the coast, but it’s carpeted in a greenery that fails to sprout into anything large. It reminds me of Britain where the once-forested island has been cleared over the centuries to make it one huge garden.

In Labrador it’s the breath of mother nature that has kept the trees at bay leaving the features of the land on display in its naked beauty. Add to that the golden evening light and long shadows from the setting sun, a dark blue sea and a twisty rolling road and you have a heavenly place … as long as you don’t actually stop!

That night we stayed at a B&B in L’Anse Au Loup and awoke to a cloudless sky and a swarm of blackflies. The bastards had obviously been waiting for us all night and despite my best efforts to get on the road without a bite it was almost immediately that I heard the high frequency whine in my ear, followed by the searing heat of the bite. Grrr.

Now the real adventure was about to begin! The start of the Trans Labrador Highway proper.  (photo: Jim Vernon)

The road here is still paved and remains so all the way to Red Bay, where we took the opportunity to gas up (never pass a gas station in Labrador) and pondered whether we needed to sign up for a satellite phone (a free service, provided there are any left).

And why not; after all, the road ahead is all gravel, civilization sparse and full of rabid polar bears (go with me here)?

Little did I know I would be very happy I did.

In Part 2; It was all so much fun until it went horribly CMG. Jim discovers the sharp end of the high speed wobble/barrier equation.


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.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I’m sitting in an office on the west coast of the US reading this and longing to be back home in Newfoundland.  The first part was a great read, and I can’t wait for part 2.  Any chance of getting higher resolution images of the pics in the gallery? 

  2. Great story…looking forward to Part II.   The blackflies that greeted you in Labrador are known; as you probably know now, as the Labrador Airforce! They drink fly repellent like coffee to! lol

  3. That really seems to be an adventure. Frankly, I never really got the whole adventure bike thing till I read this article. Now it makes me want to get one and go plonking about in desolate places.

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