From the archives: Originally published December 26, 2017
Eric Foster remembers gassing up, downing a mouthful of Gatorade and taking a picture of a beautiful flower. After that, Foster got back on his motorcycle and took off down the road. He was nearly 900 miles north of Montreal and 300 miles from his goal.
Foster wrestled his bike through thick, marbled gravel on a highway made for Hydro Quebec trucks. He got it up to 50 mph and clicked it into sixth gear. The engine revs lowered. That was good for conserving gas. He still had a long way to go.
Then, somebody changed the channel.
He woke up on a gurney 10 hours later with no memory of how he got there. First responders were taking him to a plane. They were flying him to a hospital in Montreal.
“It was, literally, from there to there,” Foster said. “Changing the channel is the best way to explain it. Here we are, two years later, and I haven’t recovered any more than a couple of flashes.”
He doesn’t remember the crash, his flaming motorcycle or the people who found him lying in the road hours after his accident. He also doesn’t recall them stabilizing him at a Hydro Quebec dam or getting flown to Montreal.
That’s why this summer, Foster set out again to find his saviors, thank them and reach the end of the road he never finished.
‘A challenge guy’
Foster, 45, is a lanky, 6-foot-something, lifelong resident of Benton. He, and his wife of 22 years, Lynda, have one son. Foster makes a living teaching long-haul truckers how to stay safe on the road.
Since he was a kid, Foster has ridden motorcycles, from crotch rockets to dirt bikes. His current passion is adventure bikes. They’re built for long hauls over rough terrain.
Explaining why he took his red, Triumph Tiger motorcycle way up there, on the Trans-Taiga Road, is simple for Foster.
“Just to say I did it. I’m a challenge guy,” Foster said. “I love a good challenge, and that was on the map, essentially in my backyard. I thought, ‘I can do this.’ It literally is the furthest place in North America you can get from a town, by road, and how many people can say that they’ve done that?”
He set out on his quest, with friend Brian Barber, in June of 2015. Barber is from Rhode Island and they’ve been friends for a decade. They met through their mutual love of dirt riding and adventure.
The Trans-Taiga Road is 414 miles of deep, tire-munching chunks of jagged gravel where staying upright on two wheels is a constant struggle. It wasn’t made with motorcycles in mind. The road exists only for Hydro Quebec trucks to reach massive power generating dam projects on the La Grande and Caniapiscau Rivers. There are no facilities and few people. It’s mostly bears, moose and wolves. Bogs, dotted with stunted spruce and pine, rule the landscape.
“At the end of the road, there’s a whole lot of nothing,” he said, grinning. “You travel 450 miles of — I won’t say the worst riding I’ve ever done — but the worst prolonged riding I’ve ever done. It never ends.”
After 60 or so miles on the Trans-Taiga, Barber decided he’d had enough of the bad conditions and turned back. After making plans to meet his friend in a few days, Foster pushed on, alone.
“I’m a little bit stubborn,” he said, “I’d been planning for a year to make it to the end of this road and I was going to make it to the end of the road.”
Foster made it another 50 miles before his channel changed.
Smoke in the distance
To this day, Foster doesn’t know exactly what happened. But the road got the better of him and he crashed. He probably went end-over-end a few times before landing in the scrubby bushes. His bike caught fire and the flames spread to the undergrowth. Six extra gallons of gas he’d strapped to the front of his bike fueled the flames.
Those flames probably saved Foster’s life.
Two men, Leonard Chiskamish and David Pachano, from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi, spotted the smoke from several miles away. The pair work for the Cree Trappers Association and drive the road at least once a week. Following the black cloud, they found Foster sitting on the side of the road.
“I had laid there for approximately four hours,” Foster said.
When they approached him, the trappers could see Foster had his helmet off but he was barely conscious and not making sense.
“He kept asking us where he was,” Chiskamish said. “He looked really bad.”
Chiskamish and Pachano covered Foster with a blanket. They tried to keep him still, though they were wary of the fire just a few feet away.
“The bike was burning hard and we could hear explosions,” Chiskamish said.
Meanwhile, some Hydro Quebec workers also showed up. They radioed to first responders at the third La Grande River dam. The trappers stayed with Foster until paramedics arrived about 45 minutes later. The first responders then brought him to their small medical facility at the dam. There, a nurse practitioner stabilized him and checked for serious injuries. Four hours later, they loaded him on a plane bound for Montreal.
Yves Marchand, a Hydro Quebec security officer, was the only person at the dam who spoke much English. He translated for the nurse once Foster came around.
“He had blood and sand all over his face,” Marchand said. “I washed his face.”
Marchand remembers Foster repeating himself over and over at first.
“He was like a goldfish,” Marchand said. “His mind kept resetting. He’d say, ‘Where am I? My wife’s going to kill me, and I think I have a major concussion.’ Then there’d be a 10-minute delay and he’d start all over again.”
Foster kept asking how bad his bike was.
“It’s blown to smithereens, man,” Marchand would patiently tell him.
Marchand also had the grim duty of calling Foster’s wife, Lynda.
“It’s one of the worst things I’ve had to do,” said Marchand, who has a wife and two young children at home.
She was was in her office in Vermont when the call came.
“They called me and said, ‘There’s a police officer on the phone that needs to speak to you,’” she said, her voice cracking while recalling the moment.
Marchand told her Eric was in critical condition, had a head injury and was on his way to a Montreal hospital. That’s all he knew, he said.
“I wanted to hug her,” said Marchand
She was on her way to Montreal the next day.
Back in the saddle
When Lynda arrived, she learned the full extent of his injuries. His left leg was broken in two places below the knee. He’d also broken two ribs and fractured a vertebrae between his shoulder blades. His chin and lip were slashed with deep cuts. The concussion had erased 10 hours from his memory.
Eric’s friends, including Barber, drove all the way back to the crash site. They recovered the blackened remains of his bike from the burnt-out bushes where it lay. He still has melted pieces of it, along with his mangled helmet.
Eric spent ten days in the Canadian hospital before going home on crutches. But he’s not much for sitting around. He spent only a short time convalescing on his couch before going back to work. He was still in pain but he was moving. That was better.
Nine weeks after his crash, with his left leg still in a brace, Eric rode a new Triumph Tiger home from the dealer in Augusta.
“I knew, fairly quickly, that I was going to have to try it again — and I’m sure my wife did, too,” he said.
She did, indeed.
Lynda was not surprised by Foster’s desire to finish what he started.
“He’s been adventurous since I met him. It was one of the appeals,” she said with a laugh. “I know it’s his passion and I’m against taking that away from somebody — the risk or not. I’ll always be nervous but, like I said, it’s his passion.”
Eric had a setback the next summer, though. His leg didn’t heal right and it snapped while he and Lynda were on a joyride. He was just holding the bike up at a stop when it gave way. He toppled over, pinned under the bike. They were again in the middle of nowhere, on the back side of Flagstaff Lake. He had to to lay there for quite a while before help came. It was frustrating, starting all over but his goal never faded.
He thought about it all winter.
Finally, on June 3, Eric, Barber and a third friend set out for the Trans-Taiga again. Six days later, with the sky spitting snow, he found the spot where he went down. It was two years, to the day, since the fiery crash that almost took his life.
“I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find the site,” Eric said.
But it turned out to be easy. Signs of fire were still visible. Plus, Marchand had left a makeshift tombstone marking the spot where Eric’s bike died. He’d also piled up melted plastic bits from Eric’s old bike. Those weren’t the only markers, though.
“As I got a little bit closer, I found a pair of my pants and a pair of my underwear (hanging) in a tree,” Eric said, “none the worse for wear.”
It turns out, news of Eric’s crash spread far and wide among other adventure riders on the internet. His crash site and underwear have become a shrine. They’re a waymark for other pilgrim bikers in search of the Trans-Taiga’s end.
Giving thanks and the end of the road
While in the area, Eric met up with Marchand, the Cree trappers and others that helped save him. Marchand, who is one of the rare people taller than Eric, met him with an enthusiastic bear hug.
“It was very emotional for me,” said Marchand, “seeing him upright, with all his mind.”
Marchand gave Eric a tour of the facility at the dam where they first met. He thought it might jog his memory. It didn’t. Eric still couldn’t recall any of it. But he was grateful.
Chiskamish said he was surprised to see Foster, given what had happened to him two years before.
“I thought he would never come back here,” said Chiskamish. “I was really happy to see him on his bike again.”
Months after meeting his saviors, Eric still has a hard time explaining how much finding them meant to him.
“It’s very humbling, the amount of people that came together when I needed help,” Eric said. “I don’t want to sound dramatic but those guys were there for me in my darkest hour. To be able to see somebody that had done so much for (me) and actually come back and say thank you, it was very satisfying to do that, to close the loop.”
Marchand said he never expected to see Eric again, but he was glad he did.
“I felt like crying when they left,” he said.
After meeting his saviors, Eric and his two friends continued on for a couple days to the end of the road. As he predicted, there was nothing there but a dam. There was no party and no celebration, only a few pictures. He wrote his name on a blue road sign and left.
“Hell of a feeling,” Eric said. “It just felt really good after three years of planning to make it there. It almost killed me. It was just the accomplishment of saying, ‘I finally made it.’”
After conquering the Trans-Taiga, Eric slipped into something he says felt a lot like depression.
He remembers being there, well north of nowhere, thinking, “OK, what’s next. Where do I go?”
The next big ride
Looking at the map now, at isolated places he can ride to in a week’s vacation, Eric doesn’t see much. He’s already been to Labrador, Newfoundland and northern Quebec. Naturally, his eyes are creeping west, to the deserts. He’s just got to figure out how to get that much time off work.
In the meantime, Eric is keeping his adventure riding skills sharp on the back roads and goat paths of Maine. He said he regrets what he put his family and Barber through but he has to keep on riding. It’s in his blood, his heart.
Still, he knows he’s lucky to be riding at all.
“I’m still seeing sunrises,” he said, sounding surprised.