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Trans-Lab Highway: Part One

Dean in northern Maine with Katahdin behind him. (photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Two friends journey from Portland, Maine to Labrador and back again on motorcycles

In search of adventure
Dean and I had ridden north, into the wilderlands, to see if there was any adventure left in a Trans-Labrador Highway ride. Once known as the longest dirt road in the world, it’s now largely paved. Most of the adventure bikers that once flocked to it have since moved on to other, more remote gravel challenges.

Started in the 1980s, and finished in 2009, the Trans-Lab is a string of routes connecting Quebec’s iron mines in the west with Newfoundland’s iceberg-bound shores in the east. It runs 1,000 miles from Baie Comeau, on the shores of the St. Lawrence, to Blanc Sablon on the Strait of Belle Isle. Technically, the Trans-Lab proper is is just the 300 mile-long Route 500 in the middle, between Labrador City and Happy Valley-Goose Bay. But people rarely remember that detail.

At the start, it was all dirt. But ongoing paving efforts by the Canadians are slowly turning the gravel into smooth, ribbons of blacktop. It’s paved all the way from Labrador City to Happy Valley-Goose Bay and from Red Bay to the ferry in Blanc Sablon. Only the middle section, from Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Red Bay remains dirt.

Adventure found
Paved or not, I’d never been there and I wanted to ride the Trans-Lab, just the same.

Our goal was to ride from Portland, Maine, up through Quebec, across Labrador, down the west Coast of Newfoundland, down the length of Nova Scotia and then take the ferry back to Portland.

I’ve never had trouble finding adventure on two wheels — on dirt or asphalt. I’ve had just as many meaningful experiences on good roads as bad ones. It’s not where I ride so much as how I ride. For me, it’s about letting the road sweep me away from the front door. It’s about being open to possibilities outside my normal routine.

When I’m out there, loaded up and rolling, I just want to find places I’ve never laid eyes on before. If it’s new to me, it’s new enough.

It doesn’t matter if I get there on a rutted gravel track or a smooth, hot-topped byway. I want to talk to strangers, I want to eat their food. I want a beer, and maybe a cigar, at the end of the day. That’s all. If I do those things — while having an open heart and a curious mind — adventure takes care of itself.

I don’t like to hurry, either. I’m a wanderer, a saunterer, an inveterate gawker. I’ve made my living staring at people for the past two decades as a newspaper photojournalist. Looking at things, observing, is my life.

My bike isn’t the adventure, itself, it’s what takes me there. On a bike can get to know a place a lot faster, you can smell the countryside, taste the air. It’s also easier to meet and talk to strangers, to strike up a conversation. Cars put up walls and glass windows. They cut you off from where you are with climate controls and windshield wipers.

As a rider, I’m not interested in how many miles I can do in a day, either. Consecutive saddle hours are not my thing. I’ll never be a member of the Iron Butt Association. I’m not into that kind of pain.

Some folks who ride want bigger, better, faster bikes. They want gnarly terrain to test their skills and their bike’s resilience. That’s what excites them. Slow and steady is my thing — with plenty of coffee and photo breaks.

When riding in a group, or with Dean, I fully expect to get left behind sometimes. That’s OK by me. I’ll get there, eventually, and I’ll probably have a story to tell.

Me, left, and Dean leaving Portland. (photo by Kris Hall)
Me, left, and Dean leaving Portland. (photo by Kris Hall)

A few facts
Dean and I are old friends, though we didn’t hang out together for almost 30 years. Let me explain that sentence: We were in a rock-and-roll band together in high school. He was an excellent drummer with a real commitment to professional sound standards. I owned a bass and had long hair. Together, with our friend, Rob (a super-duper guitar player) we were called Unfinished Business.

After graduation, in 1989, we played some gigs but the band broke up at the end of the summer. I only saw Dean a few times over the next 28 years or so.

When I reconnected with him a few years ago, not only had he become an even nicer, more thoughtful guy than he already was back in the day, he was an adventure rider, too. He was still drumming and owned a sound company. I somehow convinced him to join my current musical project — the Half Moon Jug Band — and go on motorcycle trips with me.

Dean’s got a 2011 Triumph Tiger XC. It’s 800cc and has all sorts of bells and whistles. I’ve got a 2007 Kawasaki KLR650 with one cylinder and plenty of dings and scratches. The bikes are not evenly matched, at all. They’re a little like a lute and a bagpipe. Somehow (mostly via Dean’s easy going demeanor and patience) we make it work.

My KLR650 with Katahdin in the background.

Portland to Dexter – 141 miles
May 25, 2018 — We left Portland at four o’clock in the afternoon. It was was a Friday and the traffic was killer, for Maine, anyway. Our destination was my in-laws’ house in Dexter. Taking Interstate 295 out of town, heading north, Dean and I soon got onto the back roads via Route 9. Then, we zig-zagged our way to Skowhegan, sometimes known, comically, as Skow Vegas.

Like a lot of Maine towns straddling rivers, a shuttered mill stands in the center of town. Though it’s seen better days, Skowhegan has also seen worse. It’s still gritty but with a defiant, artsy streak.
We stopped at a well-known pedestrian bridge spanning the Kennebec River. The sun was sinking but it was still warm. We laughed at an anatomically correct wooden mermaid sculpture nearby and then got back on the road to Dexter.

My in-laws, Connie and Dennis live on a dirt road in the wooded outskirts of the town. Dexter also has a closed-down mill. It’s where they used to make Dexter shoes.

We arrived as twilight settled on the world. After a bite to eat, Dean and I settled in for a sleep.

Dexter to Fort Kent – 283 miles
May 26, 2018 — Getting up early, Connie treated us to a homemade breakfast. Before leaving, she gave us another, slightly odd, but much more meaningful gift: Some of her father’s ashes.

To understand the gift, you have to know who her father — my wife’s grandfather — was. His name was Irving L. Stevens. He had many jobs in his lifetime from radio repairman in the U.S. Army, to machinist and also inventor of the famous (in Maine) Irving’s Fly Dope.

To most people, though, he was best known as Fishbones, King of the Hobos. Born on the Maine coast, he’d spent the better part of the Great Depression riding the rails, looking for work. He picked up the Fishbones moniker because he was so skinny and hungry.

In 1988, he was elected King of the Hobos at the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. The yearly conclave is where old travellers, now mostly settled, can meet once a year to reminisce, sing songs and tell stories about the old days.

Fishbones was an excellent harmonica player, storyteller and writer. He authored several books of prose and poetry. Till the day he died, you could address a letter to him in Corinna, Maine — with just a picture of a fish and two crossed bones — and it would and the post office would deliver it.

After the Great Depression, Fishbones joined the Army Air Corps, then he got married and had a family. He never went back to the hobo life but he always enjoyed a good adventure. Even if it was just on an afternoon hike.

My wife tells tales of him climbing a mountain once without food or water. He only carried a few copies of one of his books about hoboing. When he got hungry or thirsty, he’d just befriend a stranger on the trail, charming them and trading books and stories for water and a bite to eat.

When he passed away in the spring of 1999, the New York Times published an obituary. Since then, his family has been spreading his ashes around, on adventures big and small.

That’s why Connie gave us some ashes to take along. Like me, Fishbones had never been to Labrador. This way, he’d get to go on another adventure.

The cremains were in a plastic bottle made for children’s bubbles. That seemed perfect.

We left Connie and Dennis at 8:30 a.m. and went into Dexter’s minute downtown to buy a bag of coffee. The store didn’t open till nine, so we waited outside in some lawn chairs. After shopping, Dean’s bike — a 2011 Triumph Tiger 800 — wouldn’t start. After some trouble shooting, it turned out to be a loose battery cable.

We were rolling by ten.

Lonely Route 11 took us north to lunch in Millinocket. Just outside of town, we stopped at the now defunct strip club/motel combo called La Casa. For years it operated there, in an unorganized township between two towns that hated it. But because it was in neither, they could never shut it down.

When we were there, it was definitely closed and slated for demolition. I read that a gun store and shooting range were planned for the property.

After that, we rolled on up an even lonelier stretch of Route 11. We saw a couple moose and met two Harley bikers from Massachusetts at a store. They said they were riding north and then taking a road over to Vermont before they hit Canada. We didn’t have the heart to tell them there was no such road.

We were due to stay at a friend’s house in Fort Kent on the Canadian border. She was out of town but said she’d leave her guest apartment unlocked for us. Before heading there, we detoured east to Madawaska.

Madawaska is considered by bikers doing the Four Corners Ride to be one of the four corners of the United States. The others are Key West, Florida, San Ysidro, California and Blaine, Washington. Among the four, Madawaska is the only one with a park dedicated to the ride.

The park was created by Joe LeChance. He had the idea and raised the money to turn an empty parcel overlooking the St. John river into an attraction. I’d been there before but Dean hadn’t. We chatted with Joe and then went into his gift shop to buy the requisite “been there” sticker for our bikes.

That would turn out to be a giant problem for me, though I didn’t know it yet.

We stuck our two-dollar stickers, said goodbye to Joe and motored a half-hour back to Fort Kent. We might have stayed longer at the park but a nearby paper mill, just over the border in Canada was belching out fumes strong enough to make us nauseated. It smelled like an unholy mix of rotten eggs, burt coffee and boiling paint. Joe didn’t seem to notice. Maybe you get used to it when you live there.

At our friend’s house, we settled in, petted her cat and then got ready to go to the movies. There’s a branch of the University of Maine there but Fort Kent is not a big town. It does have a little, two-screen cinema, though. We wanted to see the new Star Wars flick about young Han Solo.

As we were getting ready to saddle up, I couldn’t find my wallet. It was gone.

My heart drained out through my boots. How would I continue the trip with no money, license, proof of insurance or credit cards? Did I lose it somewhere on the road? That would be a disaster.

After calming down and thinking a little straighter, I realized I must have left it in Joe’s gift shop. There was no way to tell except ride back there in the morning. The problem was, we had to catch a ferry at Matane, Quebec the next day at 1:30 p.m. In the morning, we’d have to ride back to Madawaska and get the mess sorted out fast in order to make the crossing.

There wasn’t much to do about it at that hour. So, Dean treated me to the movie and popcorn. The flick was OK and the bed I slept in was comfy but I still tossed and turned all night.

Dean on the ferry from Matane, across the St. Lawrence, to Baie Comeau. (photo by Troy R. Bennett)
Dean on the ferry from Matane, across the St. Lawrence, to Baie Comeau. (photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Fort Kent to Baie Comeau – 192 miles
May 27, 2018 — We were up and out the door by a quarter-past-six. We were at the gift shop before 7 a.m. The temperature was 37 degrees.

Cupping my hands around my face I leaned on the window, fogging it up. I could just see the corner of my wallet, sticking out from behind a brochure rack on the counter. Yes!

The gift shop wasn’t due to open for hours but it’s lucky I’m friendly and knew Joe’s whole name. It’s also lucky that Joe had a landline with a listed number. I called, waking him and his wife up early. It was a Sunday morning. He was gracious, though, and showed up 10 minutes later, bleary-eyed.

He opened the door and I stunned him with a big hug.

We crossed the border into Edmundston, New Brunswick right there in Madawaska. Both Dean and I were detained for a few extra questions but we were not searched. We asked the border agent where he would go for breakfast. He gave us our passports back and directed us to a delightful little joint. It was delicious.

The sky was blue, the sun shone and we rode good roads to Matane, Quebec.

On the way, at a store, we met a man on a bike named Philip. He was a local teacher and said the Trans-Lab was on his bucket list. He used to live in China and his wife was from there. He said, after seven years in New Brunswick, she’d finally learned French. It was her third language.

The ferry ride across the St. Lawrence River was placid and sunny. Our bikes were loaded on last and they gave us straps top lash them to the rail on the open deck. I took a nap on the floor next to mine and awoke with a sunburned face.

When we tried to drive off the ferry — we were the last two vehicles off — we handed the man our tickets. He said, in broken English that they were just reservation slips. We were supposed to have gone upstairs and paid the fee during the crossing. As he said this, he pointed to a sign in French. It was probably the instructions.

We dismounted, whipped off our helmets and ran upstairs to pay while they held the oncoming cars are bay. It took about five minutes and we kept apologizing in English and our (very) limited French. They didn’t seem too perturbed.

Riding up into Baie Comeau, we found the semi-deserted Motel Boreal. Across the road was St. Hubert’s Chicken. This was a major selling point for Dean. He’s a big fan of the Quebec chicken chain, and poulet in general.

We walked over, bought some grub, then stopped into a store for some beer. An hour later we were full and enjoying cigars outside.

Route 389 in Quebec. (photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Baie Comeau to Relais Gabriel – 199 miles
May 28, 2018 — In the morning, it was pouring rain. We didn’t hurry packing up. The forecast called for it to give way to just drizzle, which it did. We finally got going at 11 a.m., taking Route 389 north. Our destination was Relais Gabriel.

The first stretch of road was paved with many filled potholes. It was narrow and twisted through rock-strewn, forested hills. We pulled over to let trucks pass at regular intervals. It was a new experience for Dean but old hat for me and my 2007 KLR650. To his credit, he’d already adapted to my slow, wandering style of adventure without complaint. Dean is an excellent traveling partner. He’s calm and doesn’t get rattled by stuff that doesn’t matter.

We passed the Manic-2 and Manic-3 hydroelectric dams on the Manicouagan River. Manic-1 was back near Baie Comeau. After number two, we had a roadside revelation: Coffee.

Chilled and damp, we made it right on the side of the road. The temperature was in the high 40s but the roadside brew instantly revived us. Over the next two weeks, we’d drink gallons and gallons of the stuff. It seemed to ward off fear, depression, exhaustion, cold and probably even scurvy.

After the coffee, we went on with new vigour. At one point the road went up a long, straight rise. Up ahead we could see a mother bear and cub crossing the road. We stopped and let them pass.

Before long, the huge Manic-5 loomed up ahead of us at the end of a valley just as the road turned to dirt. The road leads right up to it and then takes a steep, sharp right turn into switchbacks. When you’re right underneath it, the dam is all you can see.

Built between 1959 and 1970, the 702-foot high dam holds back the Manicouagan River, filling the enormous Manicouagan Reservoir. It’s so big, it can be seen from space. With a central island, it definitely looks ocular and is known as the Eye of Quebec.

After the dam, the road continues as dirt, all the way to Relais Gabriel. It alternated between loose and hard-packed gravel. The final stretch of the day was muddy. My bike got a little squirrely but I kept it upright.

Shortly before arriving at our destination, we caught a glimpse of the reservoir through the trees and heavy mist. Then a side trail appeared. We followed it down to the shore. The lake was still mostly ice and slush. Fog lay close, all around us. It was dead quiet. We immediately knew what to do.

We got Fishbones’ bottle out of my tank bag. I poured some ashes into my hand and blew on them. He turned into powder and mixed with the fog on the Eye of Quebec.

From the Eye, it wasn’t far to Relais Gabriel. There’s no town there, just a truckstop with rooms for rent over the restaurant. We arrived a little after six o’clock. In the tiny restaurant, Monel cooked us a tasty meal. She didn’t speak any English at all but Dean has a fair grasp of the food portion of French. Plus, he’s always game to learn more. It’s fun to travel with him in Quebec. Just by giving the language a good try, he makes lots of friends and generates even more smiles.

One time, on a different trip, he charmed an older lady at a hotel desk. I’m positive she was just about to give him her room key when I butted in by accident.

Dean and Monel got along famously, too. There was only one thing they couldn’t get straight between them as she handed us towels and our room key. So she acted it out and we all had a laugh. First she mimed taking a shower, complete with a shampoo. Then she opened an imaginary shower curtain and stepped out, tracing an invisible square on the floor with her finger. Finally, we got it: Bath matt. She wanted to make sure we knew where it was.

It was still light out when we were all settled into our tiny, modest room. So, we walked around the compound, enjoying beer and a cigars. The beer had made it all the way from Baie Comeau without leaking. It was a good bit of luck at the close of the day.

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