Tired of being stuck at home, twiddling your thumbs for the past two years? Me too, along with longtime riding buddy Matt Peachman. We decided to get out there for an early season tour in mid-April, even if the weather wasn’t great …
Day 1: Into The Storm
Until we made our first gas stop, just around the corner from CMG’s old HQ in Sackville, NB, Matt and I didn’t even know where we were riding.
We’d started the day in Saint John, riding towards Moncton on old Route 111, since the Fundy Trail Parkway (the best moto-road in Atlantic Canada these days) was closed for another five weeks, until Victoria Day. We skirted some massive rainclouds, tucked in behind our windscreens through some gusty sections that blew us across the lane, and ended up eating at Burger King and looking at the weather forecast.
I wanted to go to Cape Breton; all week, I’d been logging into Environment Canada, hoping to see sunshine and warm temperatures there. Matt and I could get a run in around the Cabot Trail, then explore some of the island’s other back roads. But Cape Breton’s forecast promised flurries, clouds, and freezing-point temps. We decided to go south, end the day in Halifax, then head towards Yarmouth. If we’d realized how touch-and-go things were about to get, we might have just turned around and headed for home.
The run through Nova Scotia started fine. Exit 3 sent us towards Parrsboro via Route 302/2. Matt had never been this way before; his previous runs here were on the more-twisty Joggins route. I’d done both, but wanted to go via 302 so we’d arrive in Halifax in daylight. Plus, you never know when things are going to go wrong on the road, and the shorter road meant we’d have a little bit of a cushion, if we lost time to some sort of trouble.
The trouble came after we got onto the main Parrsboro-Truro stretch of Route 2 and we hit rain.
Rain’s never fun, but it’s even less fun in early-season single-digit temperatures. Slowly, we started to soak through the edges of our gear. Not ideal, but the rain wasn’t too heavy, and we were coping.
Then, just as we came to Masstown, we rounded a corner … and the ground was white. Hail! We’d just missed the hailstorm, but we had to deal with the consequences. Had we not seen it in time, things would have been very bad. As it was, we had gingerly nurse our bikes around a sharp, guard-railed corner with ice everywhere. We made it back out to the four-lane highway, but things could have been Very Bad, Very Suddenly. As it turned out, we weren’t out of the woods yet.
Matt and I had dodged the worst of the rainclouds all day, but as we got back on the Trans-Canada to head south via the Truro exit, we were hit by one of the worst downpours I’ve ever seen, the kind that leaves you swerving around massive puddles on the highway, to avoid hydroplaning into disaster. Cars slowed down to a standstill, which created its own hazard—more time spent in this aquatic onslaught meant more time being soaked in the cold temperatures, and disparity in speeds meant cagers were slowing down and speeding up all around us. A perfect scenario for an on-the-news-at-six mess, and Matt and I dealt with it by getting into the fast lane and putting the hammer down.
After we cleared the clot of scared drivers, we fired up the comm sets. Should we stop at a Tim Hortons and dry out, or just book it to Halifax? We went for Option 2, and were rewarded along the way with one of the most gorgeous rainbows I’ve ever seen in my life. Fortune, it seems, really does favour the bold.
Day 2: Down Memory Lane
After navigating out of Halifax by what felt like the most complicated route possible, all because we needed gas and a phone charger and then didn’t have any change in our pockets for the bridge toll, it didn’t take long to reach Chester Basin. There, we dipped off the 103 and down Nova Scotia’s Lighthouse Route. We’d run this stretch for most of the day.
This was all familiar territory, sort of. I’d been through here on a bike before but that was all the way back in 2014, with Editor ‘Arris. I enjoyed the scenery along the way, but… Cambridge Dictionary defines “nostalgia” as “a feeling of pleasure and sometimes slight sadness at the same time as you think about things that happened in the past.” I felt both. The run through here with Rob (and Michael Uhlarik, on that trip) was the best road trip we’d ever done, but it was also the last trip I’d done with ‘Is Editorship; after that, we were always too busy to team up for this sort of fun. The scenery, the pavement, even the gas stations and coffee stops through Mahone Bay, LaHave, Liverpool, it brought everything back. A diversion inland on the Ohio Road didn’t help much; Rob and I had skipped this route through Nova Scotia’s forgotten interior region, but I’d spent a lot of time on family vacations down here, as a kid. My nostalgia kicked into overdrive.
But I couldn’t spend too much time woolgathering. The Ohio Road (Route 203) is one of the worst, most dangerous stretches of pavement in Nova Scotia; indeed, Rob and I skipped it on our 2014 trip on the tourism department’s advice, and I was surprised to see it hadn’t been fixed since. The first few kilometres at the Shelburne end are actually pretty good; smooth pavement, and lots of corners. Then, it gets very, very bad, with massive ruts and potholes carved into the asphalt by mining trucks.
This road skirts around the southern end of the Tobeatic Game Reserve, through remote, scrubby, empty wilderness. You can hop onto gravel road networks in here, taking you to abandoned gold mines and other interesting sights, but Matt and I wanted to end the day in Yarmouth. A turn south in Carleton, a side trip to the Cape Forchu lighthouse (maybe the best unknown moto-road in Nova Scotia), and the day ended at the Rodd Hotel downtown, with supper at the Muddy Rudder just down the street. Just like when Rob and Michael and I were here last time.
It wasn’t quite the same, though. Looking around, you could tell Yarmouth had been hit hard by COVID’s economic fallout. This outpost has always relied on fishing and tourism, and while lobsters are even more expensive than usual, two years of missed revenue from travelers has left Yarmouth looking more empty than ever. But the people here are hard-working and tough, and with The Cat super-ferry back in business, there seemed to be plenty of hope for a bounce-back this year. Atlantic Canada always has a grim outlook on the present, but you couldn’t make a go of it here without hope for the future.
Day 3: Run For The Boat
The day started at the local cultural hotspot: McDonald’s.
So often, you hear people poo-pooing chain restaurants and fast food when they go on a trip, eschewing multi-national corporations in favour of independent, locally-owned shops. The reality is, locals in Yarmouth start their Sundays with breakfast at McDonald’s, and so did we. I daresay we got a better taste of local accents and working class culture than we would have at a trendy indy bistro. Maybe that isn’t a good thing, but it was pretty funny listening to locals complain about their high school teacher from five decades back instead of the so-often-artificial snobbery that accompanies a local coffee shop catering to people who think their dining choices make them better than others.
We headed for Clarks Harbour that morning, once again enjoying the coastal twists and turns of Route 3. Nova Scotia’s well-paved and curvy Lighthouse Route is much better than the battered seaside routes in New Brunswick, or the straightish stretches that run along PEI’s beaches. The South Shore and the Eastern Shore above it don’t have the same cachet as the Cabot Trail, but if you’re headed east, they’re worth tacking on to your trip.
Clarks Harbour is on Cape Sable Island (not to be confused with Sable Island, the Graveyard of the Atlantic). It’s a bit out of the way, and easy to miss on a ride-through, but the gorgeous scenery of the fishermen’s houses mixed with sandy beaches and rocky reefs makes this well worth a stop.
But we didn’t stick around enjoying the view. We had a choice: Ride all the way home to Saint John via the highway, or zip across the bottom of Nova Scotia via back roads, to grab a spot on the Digby ferry, cutting eight hours or more of superslab riding time. The back road route sounded a lot more fun, so we worked our way over to Route 340, and put the hammer down, so we wouldn’t miss the boat.
Like the connected Ohio Road, Route 340 is another of Nova Scotia’s forgotten routes, the pavement only given cursory maintenance. It’s a fun stretch to ride, though; lots of hills, some corners, and a mix of lakes, trees and small farms that constantly changes the view.
This is what rural Atlantic Canada used to look like, when I was a kid, before supply management politics funneled increasingly more money into some pockets while leaving others empty. There’s no McMansions here, no multi-unit condos; frankly, it looks like there’s no money, period. I doubt this area has seen any significant investment in the past 30 years. Most houses were built by baby boomers before then, and those boomers probably still live in them. There’s not much going on in this area, but that’s OK. The people who live here know how to make a living and survive in their homes, just like their parents did, and their parents before that. At the end of the day, isn’t that enough?
And speaking of the end: After exiting Route 340 after Weymouth, and taking a quick diversion along St. Mary’s Bay, Matt and I boarded the Fundy Rose for Saint John. A proper way to end the trip; every good ride should start or end with a ferry, and after three days of cold spring air cutting through our riding gear, a relaxed ride home, watching out the window for whales (still a bit too early, sadly), this was just the thing for winding down, getting ready for another workweek … and planning the next trip.