Thursday, August 14, 2014

Trans-Labrador Highway and Newfoundland

Okay... so only 1300km or so of this 8200km ride was gravel, but never-the-less:

I have been planning to run the Labrador Highway ever since I found about it a few years ago. It is a very remote highway with few services, and more than 1300km of it is gravel. In fact, that last portion which connects Happy Valley Goose Bay to the coast has only been open for a few years.

This was an extremely grueling journey with over 8200km (5000+ miles) ridden in 9 days of riding, gone for 11 days (took two days rest to change oil, get screeched in, and see St. Johns.)

Here is the entire route with markers placed at the beginning and end of each riding day:

Day One - Home to Sainte-Émélie-de-l'Énergie, QC

I started early on Sunday, August 3rd with the intention of avoiding all big cities and the 401. To do this, I headed up to Bancroft to avoid the 401, over to Renfrew to avoid Ottawa, up through Mont Tremblant and stayed in a hostel in Sainte-Émélie-de-l'Énergie, QC. I really shouldn't run the GPS in 'shortest distance' mode, as the video below shows the 'road' it took me down. The roadblock was only 300m from my next turn so I was considering going around it through the forest, but I thought that wouldn't be a good idea being in the middle of nowhere, probably a 700lb bike with all of my gear on it, and no cellular phone reception (and no idea who to call for help).

Here is the video, and before anyone asks, the reason I stayed in the centre of the trail was my cases were slapping the trees.

Day Two - Sainte-Émélie-de-l'Énergie to Forestville, QC

I left the hostel early in the morning and decided to take the back roads through Shawinigan (birth place of Jean Chretien), and up through Alma, down to Chicoutimi, and along highway 172.

And a picture from along the road somewhere on the way up to Alma. I ended this day at a hotel in Forestville, Qc.

Day 3, Forestville to Churchill Falls, Labrador, and the start of the gravel.

From Forestville I had to run about 100km East until Baie-Comeau, QC, then you turn North into the true wilderness and isolation. It is around 200km from Baie-Comeau until the end of the pavement at Manic 5, a big hydro electric dam.

From Manic 5 to Labrador City is nearly all gravel, and some of it is fairly rough. The only stop I wanted to make was at the Manicouagan Reservoir, which is that big eye in the map in Quebec. This is a 214 million year old crater from a 5km wide asteroid that really would have shaken things up at the time. It doesn't look much different than any other lake in person though.

Right around this time I was stopped on the road for some construction, I looked around and there were two wolves mucking about on the road behind me, probably about 100m or so. I went to get the camera, but they buggered off too fast.

From Manic 5 to Labrador City is about 369km of gravel with nothing in between, so spare fuel was definitely needed. The video below shows how the gravel is -- packed for the most part, but there can be long stretches that are either pot-holed and washboard, or freshly graded and very loose.

I then got to Labrador City, and being it was early in the day I decided to keep motoring to Churchill Falls. I was also supposed to pick up a satellite phone that Labrador lends out here, but I was in too much of a rush to get more miles behind me and decided not to bother.

I finally arrived at Churchill Falls, which is basically a company town for a large hydro operation. I soon found out that the only hotel in town was full as was the lodge just outside of town -- good thing I had my tent! The black flies were horrendous and just as I finished setting up my tent it started to rain. As I was sitting in my tiny tent keeping dry and drinking one of the beers that I bought at the gas station some guy called to me from outside. I thought I was in shit for pitching a tent where I did, but rather it was just a hydro worker who happens to be a motorcyclist and active on the Adventure Rider forum.

Mike, the hydro worker adventure rider, invited me up to the bar (actually it is the bar/restaurant/hotel/library/town hall all in one), and I thought it was better to be in the bar than in my tiny wet tent, so I took him up on the offer. I ended up meeting a bunch of hydro workers up there, nearly all of them from St. Johns, and are all friendly fellas. Here is a shot looking towards this all in one building in this company town:

Day Four - Churchill Falls to Blanc Sablon
I was a little bit hung over as a result of drinking with Newfies, but I had a lot of ground to cover with aspirations to make it at least to Port Hope Simpson

I ended up pushing on a lot further than I had planned, because I just wanted to get the gravel over with -- I was tired of it. Most of the gravel was well packed and smooth and I could easily ride at 100kph. Other parts, not so much. The 100km leading to Port Hope Simpson was horribly pot-holed and washboard. As a result I had to ride between 60 to 70kph or I feared my bike would rattle apart. I saw two black bears along this stretch of road.

Even worse though was the section I encountered after Port Hope Simpson. It was a really wind swept area with no trees, and road crews were working on the road. For a section of about 80km the road was very loose gravel. I first attempted to plow through the gravel at about 80kph, as I have read some reports that people were having the best success with that method, but I didn't. I nearly crashed twice -- first I riding along when a truck came over the hill so I veered right into some loose gravel with fist size rocks on top. I don't know what happened, but I suspect the rocks knocked my front wheel off course and I was beginning to get what is called a 'tank slapper' where the handlebars violently slam from one side to another until you crash.

A rider's first reaction in this situation is to get off the gas and slow down, but that is the wrong one. From my dirt-bike days I new that I had to get the front end under control and the best way to do that is the give the bike throttle so it can straighten out. It worked. I gassed it a bit and the bars came under control, then I slowed down. About 15 minutes down the road I got into some very loose gravel once again and my front end tried to dive out from under me, I again gassed it a bit and got out of the trouble, but then resolved to do the rest of that loose patch at 50kph or less. Now, to make matters worse, I was going much slower than the other traffic on the road -- which consisted of monster mining dump trucks, pickups, and tractor trailers. As they could handle the loose stuff easily they blasted right by me stirring up huge clouds of dust that in some cases I had to come to a complete stop until the dust passed. I never felt so happy as when that road turned to pavement. Here are a few shots of the road when it was not so terrible to drive:

Day 5 -- Ferry from Blanc Sablon and a tour up to L'anse Aux Meadows

First thing I had to do on this day was somehow get on the ferry that I didn't have reservations for. No problem, so I thought, it's just a bike. Well... their process is a little more arduous than I thought. The ferry was to depart at 10:30am. I read on the board that the office opens 2 hours prior to departure. For some reason I couldn't sleep well, so I figured I would go to the office early in case other people had the same idea as me, and when I arrived there were already 4 pickups and 3 tractor trailers waiting ahead of me.

So... what a convoluted process. I waited from 6:30am until 8:30am in a line so I could get a number. Once I got a number I had to wait until 9:30am to find out if my number was going to get me on the boat, then at 10am once everything worked out for me I got to ride down to the dock and wait for loading instructions. Two riders behind me did not get on the ferry, even though I am sure there was room for two more bikes. Those two left behind had the option of waiting and trying the same procedure again on the 13:30 ferry, or they could go the long way back around.

On the ferry I met up with two other riders -- actually there were four in their group, two got left behind at the ferry office. Randy from Oakville and Bret from Indiana also had just completed the Labrador highway. Randy was going elsewhere, so Bret and I decided to ride together up to L'anse Aux Meadows which is where evidence for a Viking settlement exists from about 1000 years ago. Riding wise this was a short day, as 1/2 of it was wasted trying to get on the ferry and then the 1.5 hour ferry ride.

Day 6 -- St. Barbe to St. Johns, Newfoundland.

On day 6 I didn't take a lot of pictures. I rode through Gros Morne National Park, which is amazing, unfortunately it started raining just before I got to the park. I did make some video, but it isn't much to watch due to the rain. Unfortunately pretty much my whole ride to St. Johns was in rain -- it was miserable.

Day 7 -- Day of Rest.

I looked back at what I had accomplished, saw it was good, and decided to take a day of rest. Just kidding -- actually a friend of mine in St. Johns took me out on a fishing boat. While it was too rough to go out of the harbour to view any whales or icebergs, it was a good platform to view St. Johns. After the boat ride we went out to Cape Spear, which is the Eastern most point of North America, and then went up to Battery Hill. Later that evening I got screeched in -- and that's what the pictures of me kissing a cod is all about.

This is me getting ready to kiss the cod:

And the kiss in process -- now I am an honourary Newfie as I spoke like a Newfie, drank like a Newfie, and kissed liked a Newfie!

Day 8 - The Irish Loop

Took another easy day -- just a 300km ride on the Irish Loop, part of it very rainy, and then spent the rest of the day getting my bike ready for the journey back. No pics, just rode.

Day 9 - St. Johns to Port Aux Basques

I probably should have just taken the longer ferry from Argentia to Nova Scotia, but I figured 16 hours on a ferry is too much and I would go stir-crazy. Also I wanted to see Newfoundland from Deer Lake down, and I came here to ride, not to sit on a ferry. Day 9 was another rainy day though... rain the whole way from St. Johns to Grand Falls/Windsor and left me wet for the day.

Day 10 - The Cabot Trail, Meat Cove, to Saint John, New Brunswick.

The Cabot Trail is amazing. Easily one of the best roads I have ever been on. It winds through mountains while skirting along the coast. I didn't take any pictures, but I made some video although the video doesn't do this road any justice. I highly recommend going to drive/ride this route.

Day 11 - Saint John to home.

I had originally planned to take the scenic route on the way home winding through the mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire, unfortunately the rain came again, soaked me through, and I was down to my last set of dry clothes. I was also getting tired of being on the road so I made the decision to just take the quickest route home (from when I made this decision in Maine), so I rode straight up to Montreal, bypassed it on route 30, then took the 401 all the way home... after more than 6 hours in heavy rain, and 17 hours on the bike. No pictures or video -- just riding all day long.