Now he’s a dad, CMG’s News Editor Zac Kurylyk keeps remembering the good old days when he had the freedom to just swing a leg over the seat of a motorcycle and take off for a week. He keeps talking about this great trip he made to Newfoundland in 2012, so we asked him to write it all down and tell us the story.
It turns out it wasn’t such a great trip after all. – Ed.
It’s suppertime, and I’m headed down Rt. 210 on Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula, on a late September day, on a Honda NC700X. My head’s hunched to get out of the windblast and fog, but my helmet’s visor is misted in vapour, thanks to the endless cloud bank.
This is a race against sundown, trying to find a campground before dark. I don’t want to camp in a roadside bog and that’s all I can see through the fog that’s closing in. Sometimes there’s a stone outcrop, but no trees to hang my hammock, and the ground’s too rocky for tent pegs or a comfortable sleep. This is hard, hard country. I can ride for many miles with few signs of civilization.
It’s been a long day, between gas stops, a visit to the historic Barbour fishing village, and a few hundred kilometres of highway. I’m worn out, but the greatest danger now isn’t fatigue – it’s moose.
I hope there’s a campground in Marystown. It’s a hustle to get there before dark, but the white crosses hammered into the roadside are a sad reminder of the threat. I know how many of those motorists met their ends: in a collision with Alces alces, the largest member of the deer family, a moving 500 kg roadblock that I just won’t see in time at this speed, thanks to the fog.
I tuck in behind a car, hoping it will offer some measure of safety, but it’s driving so slowly that if I don’t pass, I’ll never hope to find a campground before closing time. I wince, make the pass, and scan the ditches as I ride on south, working the gearbox to keep the engine in its sweet spot, making maximum power, hurtling blindly through the mist.
There were no moose on the road, more luck than anything. I reached Marystown after dark but found an open campground just outside town, with a warm shower and a golden beach. I strung up the hammock in the dark and climbed in, vowing to slow down tomorrow.
I was angry with myself for poor planning – and not for the first time on this trip. It was the same the day before, a 400-kilometre ride from Harbour Breton on the southern coast to Newtown on the northern coast, when I’d almost run out of sunlight before finding a tenting spot in an abandoned air cadet camp down the road in Greenspond. It all worked out and I made the most of the daylight, seeing mile after mile of rugged coastline, but I’d nearly needed to bed down in a ditch at day’s end.
And the day before that I’d had another too-fast evening ride down the Bay D’Espoir Highway. This stretch is the most dangerous road in Canada, according to the CAA, likely due to moose and caribou wandering onto the road, combined with endless potholes. Signs warned of 10-, 20-, and even 30-kilometre stretches of treacherous pavement. Flogging the cycle to reach my destination before dark. I’d bottomed out my suspension and put a hole in my saddlebag.
This is my first solo motorcycle trip and I realized my goals were too ambitious. I couldn’t keep it up – I was making poor choices, and I’d pay with my life if I didn’t slow down and keep a better watch for moose.
But it’s the age-old problem: If I slowed down, I couldn’t see all I wanted to see. The whole point of this trip was to explore the corners of the province I missed on family vacations as a kid. I only had eight days on this island, and I wanted to explore as much of the coastline as possible between Cornerbrook and St. Johns, while still seeing some family members.
So I was averaging about 500 kms a day – not a ridiculous distance, but if you add in lengthy stops for photos and gas, and a mid-day break for catching up on my CMG workload, I was short on time. The fog kept frost at bay, but the temperatures were chilly and the days short. After a couple of days of gale-force winds and heavy rains, and the stress of keeping a constant watch for moose and potholes, I was wearing out.
Reluctantly, I revised my plans to allow for more stop, less go. I’d find a campsite earlier in the day, with no more riding past sundown looking for accommodations. If that meant less sight-seeing, so be it. There’s no point in cramming more scenery in if it can’t be enjoyed, and it’s hard to enjoy the scenery if you’re dead. As Clint Eastwood put it, a man’s got to know his limitations, and I realized mine.
GRAND BANK AND BEYOND
In the morning, I packed up camp and hit the road, finally enjoying a day without fog or strong winds. I was surprised to find Marystown is a community with urban sprawl. Once you leave the Trans-Canada Highway, most of Newfoundland’s businesses are mom-and-pop affairs, but here, the refinery project outside town brought new money that’s spent at Wal-Mart, Tim Hortons, and all the other hallmarks of progress.
The old jobs are mostly gone and so are the old ways, but there are still some that remain: down at the wharf, a crew of weary scallop draggers were unloading their catch. Hours offshore, sloshing around in cramped quarters had left them tired and longing for their bed at home, but they were still kind enough to offer me a few scallops.
I never did meet a grumpy Newfoundlander, though I met many who wanted to talk about my trip. The retirees idling on the wharf were always interested in life on the mainland, and when they heard I’ve spent time working on commercial fishing boats, they were even more eager to talk. I was accepted, to a degree – not quite one of them, but also not an ignorant city dweller.
In Grand Bank, an old-fashioned town full of old captains’ houses overlooking the water, it was time for another gas stop. These breaks were the bane of my existence on this trip because the borrowed Honda NC700X had its fuel-fill opening beneath the bike’s passenger seat, with all my luggage strapped directly overhead. Every time I fuelled up, I had to unpack all my week’s gear (solemnly swearing to never, ever bring so much extra equipment ever again) before I could start pumping gas. With the gas tank filled, the saddlebags, dry bags, camera tripod and hammock all got strapped down again, and I rode off around the corner, along the bottom of The Boot, to find the Sailor’s Museum.
The museum was filled with exhibits detailing the importance of the sea to Newfoundland’s early colonists, and I thought about it as I rode along the Burin. I rode counter-clockwise, the ocean on my right hand and the interior to my left. Inland, the terrain was either barren and boulder-strewn or filled with softwood, with no signs of agriculture. It’s probably almost the same as it was 400 years ago, with little to attract settlers.
The towns, however, are nothing like their former selves. They’re tucked into coves and harbours to connect the inhabitants with their lifeline, the sea, but they’re dying communities. The ocean provided not only a livelihood, but also a means of travel between communities, and now the fisheries are ending and the new highways have moved families – sometimes whole communities – up the road toward a more comfortable existence in the larger towns. A paycheck at the refinery is a much surer thing than sitting around waiting for the cod fishery to return, even if it means turning your back on hundreds of years of heritage.
But it’s still a pretty ride. The sun sparkled off the ocean breakers and there were no police to be seen on the roads. I felt I could ride as fast as I wanted, but mindful of the previous day, I dialled back the speed all the same. At the bottom of the Burin, I turned north, made for the Trans-Canada, and ended with family in St. Johns for a couple of days of relaxation and exploration on foot.
The ride wasn’t over yet, though. I got back on the bike and took a couple of rides around to the top and bottom of the Avalon Peninsula, through more boulder-strewn barrens and fragile coastal towns. Again, the message was clear: Newfoundland’s destiny is tied to the ocean and its communities are all based around harbours. Inland, there’s nothing but miles of softwood jungle or barren, mossy plains, covered in boulders and low bushes. It would be near impossible to make a living in those conditions.
The plus side of all this empty ground is that I felt I could ride as fast as I wanted. There were no traffic patrols once I left St. Johns’ suburbs, with only the wildlife and potholes being deterrents to speed. Every few miles, the road dipped into a cove filled with houses, then rose out the other side through more miles of wasteland, until I made the circle back to St. Johns.
And finally, it was time to go home, back across the island on the Trans-Canada for 900 km to Port Aux Basques. And here, my resolve to take it easy faltered: I really wanted to see the Baccalieu Trail, on the peninsula between Conception Bay and Trinity Bay. I knew it was a bad idea to add the extra mileage, but it started well. The road’s curves were entertaining and the scenery was memorable, but then it started to rain — and it didn’t stop. It rained steadily all day, and there wasn’t enough time to stop and enjoy the scenery. At day’s end, I rolled into Cornerbrook soaking wet and once again close to hypothermia. The lesson I’d ignored at the start of the day was driven home once again: Ride within your limits.
Today, in the dash down from Cornerbrook for the ferry, the rain is gone but the wind’s picked up. Low mountains on each side of the road send great blasts of air tearing across the highway. Sometimes, the gusts can be strong enough to push tractor-trailers into the ditch, but thankfully, it’s not that brisk today.
As I ride through Wreckhouse, there’s a dead bear on the roadside, killed the night before by a truck. I stop to look at it. It’s man vs. nature in this province, and this time, man won. But man hasn’t always come out on top in Newfoundland. It’s a place where you have to survive or you have to leave. My week in the saddle battling wind, rain, and fog on my first big solo trip has taught me that sometimes I can face off against nature and win, but other times, it’s better to back off before nature hits back, hard. I survived the weather, learned a bit about roadcraft, and I’ll be back someday — and I’ll be better prepared.
Check out all the pics that go with this story!
Recognize anything? 🙂
Terrific article, and great photos. I’ve never been to NL but can relate to much of your story from the many annual solo bike tours I’ve done. There is no better way to sort through life’s entanglements than wafting along the road on a motorcycle.
I would love to do NL again. Maybe we should make it a CMG destination? Rob and Jim did some of it back about five years ago, but they never ventured west of Deer Lake I don’t think.
If that happens I’ll need to know. 🙂
FYI inland you’re making a living in the woods working for the pulp and paper industry. At least the forests get replanted..
Thanks Zac, making me homesick. I haven’t been down to Burin since the early ’90’s.
I really enjoyed the scenery down there. I was hoping to return soon, but haven’t had the time to get back since. Might do western NL this summer.