Two friends journey from Portland, Maine to Labrador and back again on motorcycles
Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Happy Valley Goose Bay – 0 miles
June 1, 2018 — Our first stop on a daylong tour of the town was the E.J. Broomfield Arena and the 7th annual Guardian Hamilton Drugs Junior Labrador Soccer Cup. We watched teams of kids and teens from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Churchill Falls and Labrador City kick the ball around, arena football style, in a converted hockey rink.
It was pretty awesome way to play soccer with no out-of-bounds, a short field and plenty of banked passes off the boards. The games were short, too. A big crowd of folks were in the stands watching the truly community event. All the teams were sponsored by local businesses.
I could have stayed there all day but Dean is not a sports fan. He was itching to see some other stuff, especially a museum up in Northwest River. Mike drove us up there to the Labrador Interpretation Centre.
The impressive museum was at the end of the line in the largely Inuit town of Northwest River. It was about a 40 minute drive up Route 520 from where we’d watched the soccer. The exhibits covered the history of Labrador, including the three indigenous peoples (Innu, Inuit and Metis) and white settlers who came later. It was fascinating stuff.
There was also a temporary exhibit I liked a lot by Inuit photographer Jennie Williams. I’m a sucker for good black-and-white photojournalism — and she’s the real deal, documenting her people and their community in Nain, way up on Labrador’s northern coast. Williams has also done projects photographing native peoples who have moved to the city in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
On our way back to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Mike spun us through the Innu community of Sheshatshiu. It’s very different from tidy Northwest River with its museum and hiking trails. Looking through the truck window it seemed desperately poor and disheveled. Trash-strewn yards encircled dilapidated homes where ragged kids played. The community center seemed tired and neglected.
As a tourist, just passing through, I can’t begin to understand the complicated social and economic forces at work in the two towns, separated by a thin strip of water. But the difference between them is one of the most startling things I’ve ever witnessed.
Back in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Mike drove us to every corner of the town and all over the military base. The base is the reason there’s a town. Started in 1942, it was a refueling stop for transatlantic flights during WWII. It was named Goose Bay because there was already a Gander in Newfoundland.
Throughout the Cold War, all sorts of NATO countries had planes and forces based there. The United States had the largest bunch, including secret nuclear weapons. These days, only Canadian forces remain.
Our last stop of the day was at the famous Northern Lights general store. They had everything from bras to bullets — including hunting supplies, camping gear, foul weather clothing, lingerie, and handmade art. I bought a little soapstone carving of a whale tail for my wife. To top it off, there’s a small museum of Labrador military history in the basement.
By the end of the day, Dean and I were exhausted. Sightseeing, it turned out, was hard work. Mike and Liz treated us to another fabulous meal and we went to bed rather early.
Happy Valley-Goose Bay to the Hobo Chateaux – 109 miles
June 2, 2018 — The next day started out cold and dreary. It was raining before we finished packing. We spent a fair amount of time checking various weather apps over breakfast. Some said it would continue to rain, others said it would snow. I was convinced, looking at the temperatures, that it would just be a cold rain. All the forecasts agreed the precipitation would end by mid afternoon.
I was wrong and so were the forecasts.
It started to spit snow as we waved goodbye to Mike, Liz and their warm house. I’m sure they thought we were nuts. Ahead of us, 250 miles along Route 510, lay Port Hope Simpson. With the weather, we knew we probably wouldn’t make it all the way but camping after the rain stopped didn’t seem all that daunting. It seemed like adventure.
As we gassed up at a station in town, we met a guy named Leo. He thought we were just getting into town and told us he had a lodge if we needed a place to stay. We said we were just leaving and he asked us if we were crazy. I said I wasn’t sure, myself.
It alternated between snow and rain as we rode the first 50 miles on a paved road. The snow was melting on contact and not piling up. When the pavement turned to dirt, the sky juice changed to just snow and started to accumulate. Dean and I stopped to make coffee. It was all we could do.
Continuing on, it was clear the temperature was dropping. Everything on us that was wet began to turn to ice — including my helmet shield. Visibility was terrible. I had my heated jacket and gloves running full bore. Soon, we were riding through ruts of slush and crusty mud, no faster than 25mph.
After another couple hours, we stopped for more coffee. When we were done, my bike wouldn’t start. The battery was flat. It dawned on me that I was drawing a lot of juice with the heated gear but not turning enough enough RPMs at my slow pace to keep the system charged. I had to remove the seat and get at the battery so Dean could jump me.
From there on, I kept my heat turned off and really began to feel the cold. My leather Aerostich boots began to leak, too, despite the meany coatings of waterproofing I’d put on before I left Maine. The thermometer on my tank bag said it was 29 degrees. Misery began to set in.
We’d set out for Labrador on the early-ish side of the riding season. We’d known that and done it on purpose, trying to avoid the notorious, unmerciful black flies every travel blog warned us about. We’d certainly succeeded in that. We’d also run right into a raging, freakish June snowstorm.
At just about the 100-mile mark, from the 510 turnoff in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, we came upon a roadside cabin. It wasn’t much to look at, about 10 feet square, wooden and built on an old trailer frame that looked like it hadn’t rolled in a long time.
We decided to pitch our shelter tarp and tent on its leeward side. It offered a small bit of protection from the wind and now driving snow. Getting off our bikes, I tried the doorknob, just in case. It was locked.
There was a window, and the door didn’t look all that sturdy but we thought it would be wrong to break in and do damage. We didn’t want to be over-privileged, ugly Americans who thought the world owed them a debt. We’d get by on our own, without commiting a crime in a foreign country. Nobody had forced us to be out there. If we were uncomfortable, it was by our own doing. We’d suck it up and do the right thing.
Besides, we were prepared to camp. We had insulated pads, decent tents and thick sleeping bags.
Dean set up his tent, which was bigger than mine, and I strung a tarp between the trailer and one of our bikes. Under the tarp, we made a meal and had a nip of Scotch from Dean’s flask. We knew we probably shouldn’t eat that close to our tent. It was not good bear safety protocol but there was no other place to string up the tarp.
I got out my radio to see if we could get a weather report. I couldn’t tune in a single AM, FM or shortwave station. I still don’t know why. We felt completely isolated. We hadn’t passed a truck in hours and there was nobody on the road now.
The wind began to dart in all directions, flapping our tarp like a bedsheet on a clothesline. I was cold and my feet were wet. There wasn’t much else to do but get in my sleeping bag and go to sleep.
In my bag, I still couldn’t get warm. I started to shiver. What we were doing started to feel dangerous. I knew the shakes were the first signs of hypothermia.
In my mind, I could see the online newspaper headlines: Dumb Americans freeze to death outside perfectly good cabin in Labrador. I imagined the vicious comments under the story about what idiotic numbskulls we were. What were they doing out there in the first place? Why didn’t they just get in the damned cabin?
I could hear the smart-assed cable news anchors: And now, in today’s “news of the inexplicable,” Canadian authorities ay they’ve found the frozen remains of two American motorcyclists outside a cabin on a remote stretch of road in Labrador. They seemed to have died from exposure and over-politeness.
“Well, I guess they won’t make that mistake again,” the anchor would say before introducing the weather lady.
It wouldn’t be enough to be dead, we’d be mocked as well.
We had a Spot satellite emergency beacon with us. I could press the S.O.S. button but then first responders would mount a dangerous rescue operation. Once they found us they’d want to know why in hell we hadn’t just knocked the cabin door down. Then they’d give us a big, fat bill for thousands of dollars.
I could feel a scream welling up inside.
Instead of letting it out, I said, “Dean, we gotta’ get in that cabin.”
He didn’t argue. Five minutes later, I was boosting him through the window. It turned out to be plexiglass and popped out without much effort.
Then Dean unlocked the door saying, “There’s a stove in here — firewood, too.”
It was full of water but, using a handy red Solo cup, Dean bailed it out. I lit a fire while he took the tent down and threw all our gear in the cabin. Ten minutes after that, we had it so hot in there, I had to open the door.
The cabin was painted battleship gray inside. The stove was a homemade affair. It looked like half a barrel with legs. The pipe went straight through the roof. There were three bunks and a table.
On one wall were shelves holding cans of Vienna sausage and a large assortment of cold medicine and painkillers. They all expired around 2010. A calendar on the wall showed March 2008. Written in pencil, on the 22nd, was. “going home.”
It didn’t seem like anyone had been back since.
We felt relieved. We broke out some cans of Coors Light that Mike had given us for the road. We sipped a few and smoked our pipes. We’d gone from miserable to contented in less than an hour. The tiny cabin felt like a life-saving oasis in a cold desert of snow and spruce. We started calling in the Hobo Chateaux. Dean went to sleep and I read for a while, listening to the wind whistle around the eaves.
The Hobo Chateaux to Nowhere – 3 miles
June 3, 2018 — Dean woke me early with coffee. He was antsy to get going. The snow had stopped. Blue skies had returned with the dawning light, still low and golden.
The road was covered in patches of wind-blown snow. There were no tracks, no one had gone by in the night. Dean was convinced we were on a kind of high spot in the landscape and there’d be less now once we went down toward Port Hope Simpson on the coast.
If I’d been alone, I probably would have sat tight there for a day. But having a partner gives you confidence, so we packed up. I left a note of thanks and a few bucks for the firewood on the table, in case anyone ever came back.
Dean’s bike started easy. I couldn’t get the key to turn in my ignition. It was jammed with ice and snow. I used Dean’s tiny blow torch of a lighter to heat it enough to free it. Thankfully, I didn’t melt anything important. It started right up but didn’t idle very well. Everything was wet or under a glaze of ice.
We set off, riding in first gear. I thought for sure I’d go down, plodding through the snow. I didn’t but my rear tire felt like it was wallowing and fishtailing. It felt wobbly, too, just like I had a flat tire.
Which I did.
We only made it about three miles when I realized it. Pulling to the side of the road, I got off my bike and swore a blue streak. I blurted a full tilt tirade for several minutes. Dean, trooper that he is, did not freak out and let me have my wild, fist-shaking say at the universe.
As if in response, the sky clouded over. The warm sun disappeared.
After I calmed down, we made a plan to take the tire off, bring it back to the cabin, warm it up and put in a new tube. That proved harder than we thought. My rear brake assembly was caked in thick ice and the cold was making my hands less than coordinated.
We modified the plan to just go back to the cabin and get the fire going again, first. Maybe we’d push the bike back there and work on it, or maybe the sun would break out and melt the ice. We also thought we might flag down someone with a truck who could take my bike to Port Hope Simpson. Surely, we could find someone there with a garage we could borrow.
Dean took some of my stuff to the cabin on his bike and I walked. I needed to blow off some steam. He had the Hobo Chateaux all toasty by the time I got there.
We decided to wait by the road in 10 minute shifts. While one of us got warm in the cabin, the other would try and flag down a likely truck headed east.
The first one to come along was towing a trailer. My heart leaped. The trailer was full, though. The older gent driving said his name was Wayne Finlay. He was going to Port Hope Simpson but had no room for us. He did say there used to be a guy there with a flatbed tow truck but he thought maybe it was currently broke down. He might be able to find the guy but it would cost beaucoup bucks to get him to come 150 miles to where we were.
We said thanks but decided to just wait and see what happened. A couple cars came by, going the wrong way. One lady stopped and told us to be wary of a huge, hungry-looking bear she’d just seen crossing the road. It had probably just woken up for the season in a bad mood.
She wanted to help us somehow, so she gave us the only things she had in her car: Two bottles of water and a box of tissues.
I tried to stay focused on what we had going for us. We had plenty of food, coffee and snow to melt for water. We could have sat there for a week without starving. The cabin had plenty of firewood, if we were careful with it, to last for days.
After the bear warning, we decided to both stay in the cabin for a while. I read and Dean cooked some eggs he had in a pan he found hanging on the wall.
Maybe an hour after the lady left us, a large four-wheel-drive truck pulled up next to the Hobo Chateaux. Out stepped a mountain of a man, probably a head taller than me, with a long, jet-black beard.
He shouted hello and said he’d seen my bike down the road and was hoping he’d find us OK. The man said his name was Aaron. He and his partner — her name was Kendall and she was still in the truck — were forest firefighters stationed in Port Hope Simpson. They were headed to Happy Valley-Goose Bay for some training.
Something about them made us feel comfortable at once. Aaron offred to take us back to Mike and Liz’s house. It was not the way we wanted to be going but we accepted the kind offer and started packing.
Before we left the Hobo Chateaux, we sprinkled some of Fishbones in the stove. That little shack had been a perfect hobo hideaway, sheltering us poor, unfortunate strangers in that strange land. The fire wasn’t quite out yet and I imagine some of him went up the chimney, out into the Labrador sky. Still, more of if him will sit in the bottom of the stove till someone else lights it up and gets warm on a cold day in the unknown future.
Aaron told us there was a foot or more of snow back the way he’d come and we probably would have had to turnaround when we got to it anyway. It seemed that no matter what, we weren’t going to get to Port Hope Simpson that day.
The three of us lifted my bike into his truck and we set off. Dean rode his bike in front of the truck and I rode in the heated cab. We traversed the 100 miles in less than two hours while I chatted with our saviors.
Aaron and Kendall were from St. Anthony, Newfoundland but spent each fire season in Labrador. They said Wayne Finlay had actually flagged them down on the road because they were in a big pickup truck. Wayne had told them we needed help and a ride to town. So, they’d been on the lookout for two Americans holed up in a cabin.
During the ride, Aaron asked me a lot of questions about my KLR. He’d been looking at some used bikes — liking the KLR prices — and was interested in getting one. I did my best to sing its praises. On the way, the sun started shining again.
Without cell phone coverage we were unable to let Mike and Liz know we were coming. Instead, we showed up out of the blue. They were astonished but as welcoming forever. The six of us chatted in their driveway for a while and it turned out the two couples had some friends in common. It’s a small world, even though it’s so big.
We waved them goodbye with a hundred thank yous. I changed the tube in the comfort of Mike’s heated garage while Dean sipped more Coors Light and warmed up, sitting in a sunbeam like a cat. He’d hauled some serious ass on the way back and was chilled and tired.
We thanked Mike and Liz many more times and treated them to some takeout pizza for supper. We were asleep before our heads hit the pillows.