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Trans-Labrador Highway: Part Five

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

Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Port Hope Simpson – 252 miles
June 4, 2018 — Before we left Happy Valley-Goose Bay (again) Dean and I stopped at the highway department headquarters to get a report on the road conditions.

The receptionist sent us upstairs to a man’s office. We told him our story. He was quite entertained. I noticed his wall calendar sported a photo of Portland Head Light in Maine. I pointed it out and he related a comic story from the last time he was in Maine.

He was helping his brother-in-law move and got off at the wrong exit. He had no GPS, no cell phone and no map. Some nice folks in Maine helped him find his way again. Suddenly, we didn’t feel so stupid or ill-prepared. We all laughed but maybe for different reasons.

To answer our questions about road conditions, he made a phone call to a highway department garage in Port Hope Simpson. What we heard on our end, went something like this:

“Yeah. Hi ray. This is Bob.” Pause. “Not bad. You?” Listening. “Good, good. Say, I’ve got a couple of motorcyclists here. They want to know if they can get through to your end.” Laughing. “No, I wouldn’t be trying it either.” More laughing. “But they can get through OK? Uh-huh. All right. Talk to you later.” Hangs up the phone. “He said you’re good to go.”

We had egg sandwiches and coffee an A&W restaurant and stopped at a gas station before attempting Route 510 again.

It still wasn’t warm but the sun was bright. I was also able to keep up decent speed and RPMs to keep the heated gear on. Still, we needed roadside coffee to stay alive. On one stop, about 100 miles in, we realized there were a lot of Canadian jays sitting on the ground and in the nearby trees.

All the little birds were looking at us, almost like they were begging dogs. I fished a bag of nuts out of my tank bag, crushed a few and held out my hand. Almost immediately two birds flew down and perched on my motorcycle. Then, they took turns landing on my upturned palm, scooping up cashew bits and flying away.

I gave Dean some and they landed on him as well. It was fun. We scattered a fist full of nuts on the ground before we left the little dirt pull out.

The wind picked up after that and it got colder, down around freezing. I’m sure Dean would have liked to put the hammer down for the final 150 miles to Port Hope Simpson but my bike seemed to handle the sometimes deep gravel at 35mph. It was warmer going a little slower, too. Like I’ve said, Dean is an excellent traveling companion. He didn’t complain.

We didn’t stop for coffee for the final four hours. There was just too much wind and no shelter. The snow from two days before was gone and the road was alright. It alternated between deep gravel, loose pea-sized stone, to dried mud and potholes. That 250 stretch was the longest dirt stretch left on the Trans-Lab route.

My KLR can go just about 300 miles between fuel stops. Dean’s Triumph is not as good on gas and has a smaller tank. We stopped once to give his Tiger a drink from our fuel cans. It was so cold and windy, we didn’t even take our helmets off.

As he dumped the gas in, we could hear a metallic clang and rumble coming up from behind us. A moment later, we caught sight of a school bus jouncing along the road. It pulled over and turned out to be Leo Donald, the man we’d met two days before when we were leaving town the first time.

Inside Leo’s bus was a small living area and a drag racing funny car. A sticker on the window read “Bush Man Drag Racing.” He told us he was headed to St. John’s for some racing. We wished him luck on the drag strip and then he went on ahead. His chariot didn’t look like a very comfortable ride but I was envious of his heated bus just the same.

We pushed on, slow and steady. A lone caribou crossed the road in front of us before vanishing into the spruce on the other side. The sun got lower and the wind got bolder. The trees lit up in the dying light and the sky went from blue to violet. It was beautiful but too cold to stop and take pictures.

At one point, not far from Port Hope Simpson, the road went up a steep grade. Dean was riding ahead and was silhouetted for a moment against the lilac-colored sky as he crested the rise. A few stars were poking through the night veil above him. The sun setting behind us cast a golden glow on the gravel under his tires and the dust cloud behind him. I’ll carry that picture in my mind for the rest of my days. It, alone, was worth the cold day’s ride.

On the other side of the hill, with our destination just up ahead, I had a small scare. Road crews had laid a surface of two-inch stones on top of the road. Maybe to prepare it for pavement, I don’t know. My handlebars jerked side-to-side as the front wheel slipped off the sides of the round-ish stones. I was cold, tired and stiff. I just held on to the tank with my knees and gripped the bars loosely. I got through and we finally got into town, just after dark

To our left, the land fell away, down to the waterfront and most of the town. To our right, up a short hill, a gas station shone like a beacon. We stopped there and filled our tanks.

Inside, in the warmth, we chatted with the ladies behind the counter. They were surprised to see us coming from the west. We gave them the brief version of our story. Just as I got to the part about Wayne flagging Aaron down to tell him we needed help, I glanced down at the counter by the cash register. Right there, looking up at me, was a picture of Wayne. I shouted, “And that’s the guy.”

His picture was on the cover of a CD. Turns out Wayne’s a singer of the folk and country sort. He’s got a warm, friendly voice and the disc is a sweet collection of mostly mellow love songs. The album was titled “Camp 12 Favourites.” The liner notes say their songs he and his friends play at cabin parties at Camp 12. I imagine them, guitars in hand, singing away inside a snug little hideaway not much different than the one that kept us warm on the road.

The cashier said Wayne comes to town twice a week to buy lobsters. Then he takes them back to Happy Valley-Goose Bay to sell.

As we were asking directions to the town hotel a man in the store said he’d lead us there. We followed his truck tail lights down the hill and into town. The Alexis Hotel was right on the water. As we pulled in and waved goodbye to the man, a woman was just unlocking the front office. She told us she was on her way home when she saw us pull into the store. She guessed we’d be looking for a room.

She checked us in and sold us some sandwiches. In our room, we celebrated with hot showers, the last of Mike’s Coors Lights. Outside, the wind howled and the sea tossed. Inside, we slept with all the blankets over us.

It was a cold windy day on our ride through the open country to Red Bay, Labrador. (photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Port Hope Simpson to L’Anse-au-Clair – 139 miles
June 5, 2018 — Morning came and we went downstairs for breakfast. The wind was still up. The same lady that checked us in the night before was working solo, waiting tables, cooking and checking people — mostly truckers — out. It took two hours to order, receive and eat breakfast. The coffee was the worst I’ve ever tasted. I’d guess they made it with sea water.

Dean and I spent the rest of the day on a miserable ride across the coastal highlands, down to the south coast. It was, by far, the most unpleasant part of the whole trip. The stunted spruce and low hills that had greeted us since Quebec were gone. The land was flat and open with no trees or even bushes. Nothing stopped the Arctic wind from lashing us at full speed.

My KLR650 shuddered in the headwind. I couldn’t keep in in high gear. It wobbled in the crosswind, too, making me dart into the wrong lane.

I fell into an awful mood and even snapped at Dean a few times. The wind was deafening as it blew across my helmet. Its icy fingers found every gap in my clothing. We didn’t stop for coffee or pictures even once.

The dirt section of Route 510 came to an end just outside Port Hope Simpson. With the wind, against us, we made terrible time even though the road was smooth all the way to Red Bay. When we got there, we stopped for coffee at a little tourist dive next to a small museum.

The former Basque whaling settlement of Red bay, Labrador. (photo by Troy R. Bennett)

I called the Newfoundland ferry up ahead in Blanc Sablon. It was just over the line in Quebec, and therefore, we thought, in the Eastern time zone. We thought that would give us an extra hour to get there and make the ferry. But it turned out that sliver of Quebec is in the Atlantic time zone, just like Labrador. What’s more, the ferry actually operated on the special Newfoundland time zone, which is a half hour ahead of Atlantic. That meant we had a half hour less than we thought — instead of an hour more. Even if we hurried, we couldn’t catch the afternoon boat. We were stuck in Labrador till morning.

Since we couldn’t leave, Dean and I took time to see the museum. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Red Bay was an important Basque whaling station. It gets its name from the pink granite cliffs surrounding its excellent natural harbor. The bay itself is an important historical site containing many shipwrecks.

From there, the paved road was bad. It was patched and re-patched, rough and twisted. There was some shelter from the wind, though. I was grateful for that.

As we came down the road near Pinware we caught sight of an iceberg out in the water. It was far off but it brightened my mood. It was the first I’d ever seen. To celebrate, we stopped and had coffee.

Finally, mercifully, we stopped at the Northern Lights Hotel in L’Anse-au-Clair. We located some Molson at a nearby store and found a sunny spot on the porch, out of the wind. There, we smoked cigars and relaxed.

Later we had a mediocre meal in the dining room. Through the wall, I could hear some musical entertainment in the bar. By the time we got over there, the singer was just packing up her guitar. There was nobody there but a man and a tipsy lady at the bar. Dean said he could use a shot of scotch. The closest they had was Johnny Walker Red Label. It tasted like mouthwash.

As we grimaced, the tipsy woman said we looked like Yogi Bear and his sidekick Boo Boo. We chuckled and played along, doing our best cartoon impressions. Then she asked us what we were doing in Labrador.

We gave her the short version of the Hobo Chateaux story.

“You two deserve the dumbest-people-of-the-year award,” she said, with a drunken sneer.

“You know,” I said. “Ever since we got to Labrador, people had been so nice, we weren’t sure there were any assholes in the entire place — but now we know there are. Thanks for clearing that up for us.”

We were early to bed that night. We had an 8 a.m. ferry to catch in another time zone just down the road.

The high point of the day was spotting our first iceberg. (photo by Troy R. Bennett)

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