Slumming it: Hobo riding in Newfoundland

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Rolling off the ferry last July in St. Barbe, after riding for a week through Labrador, I knew I was in for a rough evening.

The weather was cold and wet and crap. I saw a moose run across the street even before I left town limits. I was in Newfoundland, and it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.

Gravel pit camping

For a long time, there wasn’t much spare money floating around rural Newfoundland, and not many tourist operations. Gravel pit camping was born from a combination of necessity, and frugality.

Here’s how it works: a Newfoundlander will take an RV, camper, whatever, and pull off the road in a disused gravel pit or similar location … and go camping. No need for a swanky campground with pool and camp office! Historically, the government has not really interfered with the practice, so on many roads, particularly the more remote highways, you’ll see clusters of campers parked roadside in convenient pull-off locations.

For the real scoop on what goes on in the gravel pits, see folk singer Buddy Wasisname’s in-depth explanation below:

I’d met some good guys from Quebec on the ferry, riding a combination of adventure bikes and Harley-Davidsons. They’d come through Labrador too (the Harleys were trailered on the gravel sections), and they’d invited me to stay at their motel in St. Barbe. I rolled right past the motel in the rain, because I wanted to get a head start on the next day’s ride. When you’re on a small bike, you’ve got to put in long days, if you want to make big miles.

A half hour north on Rt. 430, the only highway through the region, I was regretting my choice to push on. From what I’d heard on the ferry, most of the other accommodation in the area was already booked up, and I didn’t really have funds for a night indoors anyway.

But it felt like I was riding into a polar vortex, with incredibly cold air sweeping in from the beach along the highway, seeping into every seam of my gear. I definitely wasn’t going to have a good night if I was in a hammock. So what else was there? Where could I find a warm place to stay, on a vagabond’s budget?

I weighed my options while I rode. I knew there was a small airport outside St. Anthony, and I was headed in that general direction. Somewhere there I probably could get my sleeping  bag and bike out of the weather, maybe even find a warm cup of coffee in the morning.

But the air was getting colder. I was getting colder. It was almost dark, and I didn’t know how much farther the airport actually was. I needed another option, and that’s why I nipped off the highway at the first gravel pit camper I saw.

It was an old trailer, parked under a hydro line. Obviously someone had spent some time here in the past; there were garden pots around the “yard.” But it was also obvious that nobody had been here for a long time. The door was unlocked, so I went in, dumped my gear on the table, rolled out my sleeping bag, and crashed on the couch.

The finest of accommodations, for the motojournalist on a budget.

Maybe I was being a bit cheeky, but that’s how it is in the wilds of Canada, especially in Newfoundland, the friendliest of provinces. Many camps are never locked up. If someone is in a jam and needs to stay there, nobody cares as long as you leave everything like you found it.

Up to St. Anthony

The next day dawned foggy and chilly. I lay in my sleeping bag and read Kerouac for a couple of hours, hoping the sun would come out.

It didn’t, so I packed up and headed back up Rt. 430 to St. Anthony. At some points, the fog was thicker than the stiffest winter white-out. I was riding practically blind.

When I turned inland and the fog dissipated, it wasn’t an exciting ride. There’s not much to see on these sorts of roads, once you get away from the coast — just the same rocks and trees that you find everywhere in Canada, plus the odd moose thrown in (which, admittedly, can cause no end of excitement, if you don’t spot them in time). I saw a couple more of them on my morning’s ride, but they stayed at a distance.

Thankfully, I saw Mama Moose in time to avoid her, and even managed to get my camera out to snap a photo before she vanished into the woods.

Finally, I got a warm meal and hot coffee in St. Anthony, and then a quick tour of the fishing docks.

St. Anthony is the quintessential Newfoundland fishing town, maybe one of the best places to see the outport spirit. There are massive fishing boats tied up all around the harbour, set up for hard work away from home. These aren’t just day-tripping boats that make it home every evening for supper. For the crews, the local grocery store advertises a delivery service at the dock: pull in, unload your fish, stock up on food, and head out again. It’s a lifestyle that’s basically vanished all over the rest of Atlantic Canada, even though it’s what built the region.

Just up the street from the docks is the museum and other historical buildings that celebrate St. Anthony’s most famous resident, Sir Wilfred Grenfell. Grenfell was a medical missionary to the fishing families of Newfoundland and Labrador, but his reputation was known throughout the English-speaking world at the end of the Victorian era.

Some of the vessels in St. Anthony could use a big of paint and elbow grease.

He combined compassion for the area’s working poor with a reputation for incredible derring-do, with narrow escapes from the elements serving as the backdrop to his deeds of mercy.  I liked his quote in the museum’s entryway: “When two courses are open, take the most venturesome.”

I didn’t like the idea of paying for admission, though, [You cheap bugger! -Ed.] so instead went on to check out the stuffed polar bear in the St. Anthony town hall/library. No doubt its intimidating presence has been used by generations of librarians as an incentive to avoid overdue books …

Vikings!

The sun still wasn’t out, but there was lots of riding left in the day. After lunch, I was at L’Anse-aux-Meadows, a spot I’ve wanted to visit since I was old enough to read about the Viking explorers. This is the site of the first documented landing of Europeans in the Americas (around a thousand years ago, roughly), but it’s so remote that you really have to want to get there, if you’re going to visit.

A group of Viking re-enactors, probably re-enacting a long night at the mead pots, by the look of it.

The side trip to the archaeological site was the best riding of the day, on small, winding roads that went through scenic coves and small fishing towns. I wish I could have spent far more time on these tighter roads, especially because they were much better-suited for my Yamaha WR250R.

As for the former Viking settlement itself, it’s definitely a cool sight, as Parks Canada has recreated a few Viking buildings, including a forge that turns bog ore into iron. Several actors are milling about in period costume and showing tricks the Norsemen used to survive on the barren coast (minus the pillaging and bloodthirstiness, of course).

I wasn’t here long, though, maybe an hour and a half, and then it was time to head back south. The “get home” part of the trip was starting, and I had to backtrack for hours, first through the same boring wooded stretches until I hit Eddies Cove on the coast, then coastal scenery, with lots of wind.

The western coast of Newfoundland is dotted with a long string of fishing towns, each with their own unique story.

In many spots, the road here is barely three metres above sea level, so you’re actually closer to the ocean than when you’re riding the Cabot Trail. Although this was still remote, there were far more towns than in the wilderness of Labrador, and everywhere I stopped, I was surrounded by friendly people who wanted to know my story. It was a great way to make new friends, but by the end of the day, this was starting to cut into my travel time considerably. At least there were regular gas stations, and far fewer insects!

The sun was out now, and my gear was dry. Time to find a camping spot. Problem was, I was facing the same issue I’d faced through this whole trip, from Day 1: On a small bike like a WR250R, the only way to make decent mileage in a day is to put long hours in the saddle, because you can’t just pick up speed to cover distance.

So I pushed on, passing interesting-looking turn-offs. Some led to remote coastal towns, others led into the island’s interior mountains. I was highly curious as to what lay at the end of every one of these small roads, but I didn’t have the time to find out. I kept scooting down the main highway, cutting through miles of muskeg on one side, the beach on the other side.

In these remote stretches, every few minutes I’d come across a dirt road that led from the pavement to the shore. There, fishermen would have a cluster of rough buildings, a few stacks of lobster traps, and a sort-of-boat launch cobbled together from logs. They’d use these buildings to overhaul and store their gear, and at one point, fishermen would have spent their season living in these shacks.

This fishing station was out of business when I arrived, but there were generations’ worth of gear scattered throughout various ramshackle buildings on the beach.

In one of these fishing bases, I found a shed with a big chunk missing out of the wall. I threw my sleeping bag on top of a pile of lobster traps, slung my mosquito net over me, and fell asleep with the sound of the waves crashing just outside my door, hoping I wouldn’t be rousted by an angry fisherman in the morning. I was pretty sure the place was shut down for the end of the season, but I wasn’t 100 per cent positive …

South to the ferry

Thankfully, I woke up and cleared out before anyone showed up. Just like the night before in the gravel pit camper, I don’t think anything bad would have happened if a local had run across me — I probably would have been invited home for dinner, a shower and a proper bed to sleep in.

Our happy hero attempts a self-portrait just before heading out. Note the trap pile, or as Zac calls it, “bed.”

A quick gulp of water, a Clif bar, and I was headed back south, through more coastal towns. They all look the same, but they all have different stories. A stop in Parson’s Pond told of the oil exploration around the town, in the early days of petroleum-powered engines. A stop at the Snack Shack a little farther down the road delivered not just great coffee, but also a partridgeberry tea biscuit. Good luck finding that in Toronto! The locals were busy arguing about lobster prices, the offshore winds, and the DFO. You probably wouldn’t hear that in Toronto, either.

Eventually the scenery started changing, because I was getting close to Gros Morne National Park. Sadly, the wide-open highways here were pretty hard on the underpowered WR, but there were some great roads around the fjord, and even better views, as long as I wasn’t stuck behind a gawker in a car (which I invariably was, since I didn’t have enough horsepower to pass them).

Sometimes when you stop in Newfoundland, you’ll see instant coffee is the best you can get your hands on. Other times, you can get a decent brew, and a partridgeberry biscuit to eat while you write notes.

Day’s end got me all the way to Steadybrook, where I stayed with some family. It was my first civilized night since I’d left home.

I changed my oil in the Wal-Mart parking lot in the morning, with the store employees locking me out so I couldn’t dump my oily rags in their waste bin. I forgave their unfriendliness, certainly atypical of my Newfoundland experience, and took one last joyride, down the twisty, hilly run along the Humber River and Blow-Me-Down Mountains, to one last remote outport.

This sort of road is the best part of riding in Newfoundland. There were plenty more I wanted to explore, but I had a ferry to catch, so I turned the bike to Port-Aux-Basques, battling heavy winds the whole way. Although the light 250 was blowing all over the highway, this wasn’t all bad: by the time I got to the ferry, I was so exhausted that I was actually able to pass out and fall asleep on the boat’s floor (which is firmly against ferry regulations, but that didn’t seem to stop anyone). The next morning saw me back in Nova Scotia, and for all intents and purposes, the Trans-Lab trip was over.

The gorgeous Tablelands in Gros Morne. This kind of big scenery is rare on the east coast, but it’s everywhere in Newfoundland.

Was it all worth it?

I’ve been thinking about this trip a lot lately, and I really miss two things.

First off, I miss the big scenery. Most of Atlantic Canada has great coastal views, and scenic farms, but that’s pretty much it. In western Newfoundland, there’s an oversized feeling to the landscape, something you normally don’t experience until you get to the western side of the continent. The Gros Morne fjord, the Tablelands range, the Long Range mountains — everywhere I went, there were ATV roads or hiking trails that led off into the wilderness, and I was consumed with curiosity as to what lay at the end of those paths.

But even more, I miss the simplicity of life on the road. For days, ever since I’d left home, the only real constraint on my schedule had been the sun. Life was pared down to the essentials: Gas, food, coffee. Find a dry, warm place at the end of the day, even if it was an old fishing shed or gravel pit camper. Repeat as necessary.

It might not be the most glamorous way to travel, but it worked for me.  And now that it’s winter, with a whole year to plan ahead for, I’m wondering: Where next?

7 COMMENTS

  1. Nice story Zac. I also travel by WR250R and sleep in hammocks. One trick I learned for warming up after a bone chilling ride to survive a cool night you need to try. Bring along a large water bag. Use some sticks in a small folding wood stove for free fuel and heat up lots of water for the water bag. Stuff that bag in your sleeping bag and you’ll be toasty warm soon. I use the MSR dromedary but I am sure there are cheaper options. Just make sure it doesn’t leak. Once you get cold you can’t warm back up no matter how much down and fleece you have without an external source of heat like this.

    • Sometimes I seriously consider buying a sidecar and bringing along a hot tent setup. I could travel year round like this …

  2. Zac – If I was thinking about purchasing a WR250R, I would definitely have second thoughts after reading through your well-written and nicely documented adventure. I plan to visit these areas this summer. Is the WR250R underpowered? Not for a 250cc single cylinder bike. Just check out the the dyno charts available online that compare its output with other 250cc dual-sports. Strangely – I’ve never had the issues with power that you have had with your bike. Something seems off with it. I’ve ridden all day – on Interstates at 70 mph+ and still always had lots of throttle left to pass quickly and then see 80 mph+ on the GPS. The official top speed for the bike is 90 mph! Is the WR250R small? No – it’s tall and super roomy. That’s why tall riders like it. But it’s displacement is relatively small by today’s standards. Here are some additional thoughts:

    1. Maybe consider re-gearing the WR with a stock countershaft and a 47T in the rear.
    2. While expensive – a Madstad screen provides full coverage and seems to help lots with highway wind and aerodynamics and may improve your top speed.
    3. I find that the WR does tend to be sensitive to winds – but so so are a lot of lightweight motorcycles. Granted because the WR is so tall and has a pretty formidable side profile – this may make it a bit more vulnerable to gusts.
    4. I’ve never had difficulty passing other traffic on our rural highways. The only time that I might have some difficulty passing rapidly is if traffic is moving at over 110km/hr. But I don’t travel at that speed in our 90km/hr zones. If the WR can’t pass them – then they are traveling way too fast for me to need to pass them anyway.
    5. When people ask me how long it takes to travel on the WR – I tell them that it takes a little more time because I tend to need fuel a bit sooner (200 Km range with 3.1 gallon IMS tank) than most and the seat isn’t comfortable enough to stay on the bike beyond that range anyway. It has nothing to do with speed. A bike with a 90 mph listed top speed should have no problem cruising all day at 100km/hr on our 90km/hr roadways.
    6. The biggest fans of my WR250R have traditionally been KLR650 riders. When group riding, they are often the ones that are shocked by the amount of “jump” the WR250R has when overtaking at highways speeds and have conceded how difficult it can be to keep pace climbing long and steep highway grades.

    Of course my WR250R is not perfect. Not by a long shot. Still – I’m just very confused how your impression of the WR250R can be so much different than the one I have of the bike.

    • My guess is

      1. I probably weigh 20-40 lb more than you and had a lot of luggage on it. I don’t find it too bad if it’s just me, no luggage. I’ve had the bike up to p’raps 145 km/h (on a closed track, of course!). But add in all my camping gear plus tools, plus whatever else is in the luggage, plus double the amount of fuel, and that all adds up.
      2. I’m generally used to riding my 350 or 650, which are not too much heavier weight-wise, but have much, much more grunt. In fact, I think my 350 might be lighter (although it doesn’t feel lighter).

      I like my WR, it’s my bike I choose to ride most of the time, and I’m happy for what it is. However, in areas here where there’s only one way in and out, and traffic is traveling 110 km/h+ on that highway, it feels a bit weedy. The big grades on the Trans Can are certainly not ideal for it, when it’s loaded down.

      • Zac – if you have um hypothetically had it up to 145 km/hr on a flat straight – then that sounds about right. I weigh about 200 lbs. And typically load the WR with a 55L top case and 30L saddles, cot, and large tankbag. So I’m at about 100 lbs of extra gear and I still have no issues.

        As mentioned, I would suggest a 47T rear if you haven’t tried that previously. I might be able to send one out to you if you wish. That will get the WR right into the meat of its powerband at 103 km/hr (GPS) out on the highway and you will have an easier time pushing the wind – especially if you have lots of heavy gear as well. Take advantage of all that peaky power. With an 11,500 RPM redline you have tons of headroom. At 103 km/hr with the 47T you are sitting at 7500 RPM – so there is still 4000 left for those highway overtakes. And much closer to the 8200 RPM torque peak. And it should have immediate pull if you need to crank on it at that speed. That’s the gearing I had when I rode it to Arkansas from Thunder Bay (on MT21s no less..) riding lots of slab. This gearing will also make tight trail riding at slow speeds a bit better.

        I’ve ridden a few DR650s and KLR650s. They definitely feel more like freight trains and have tons of torque at lower RPMs that certainly pulls strong. But I haven’t ridden one that wasn’t a paint-shaker at 100 km/hr (vibes were too ridiculously extreme to ride any faster than that). My WR is several orders of magnitude smoother and refined at that speed, so I’d much, much rather tour long days with the WR for that reason. Respect to those who can tour with the DR and KLRs though.

  3. It’s not as common as it once was, but you were not wrong to stop for the night in the camper i think. I know of a few places where the door is unlocked and if you find yourself in a pinch, your welcome to stay. Clean up after yourself, and if you see a pen and paper on the table, leave a thank you. My dad and uncles got a cabin in the woods only accessible by float plane or snowmobile. There’s a big piece of craft paper on the wall, carpenters pencil on the counter, leave your name and date. It’s well wrote up. Glad you like the ride through the Park. It’s one of places my son and I like to run. With any luck we can both be home the same time and get out for a spin the summer.

    Cheers

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