Two friends journey from Portland, Maine to Labrador and back again on motorcycles
L’Anse-au-Clair to Rocky Harbour — 148 miles
June 6, 2018 — The ferry was called the MV Apollo and it had seen better days. Caked in rust, it had a pronounced list to the port side, I thought. It did have a cheap, hot breakfast and plenty of coffee on board and that made it OK in my book.
It rumbled away from the Labrador coast and we started to make our way across the Strait of Belle Isle toward St. Barbe on the coast of Newfoundland. As the boat wove its way among the floating ice chunks, I Googled its history via the onboard WiFi.
The first thing I discovered was that the boat was older than me. It first went into service in Sweden in 1970. Since then, it had barely had a day off, ferrying people and cargo in Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, England and the Bahamas before landing in Labrador.
Also, I learned it got stuck in the ice the year before with 70 people on board. Right about then, there was a deep bang and the boat shivered as we hit a particularly large piece of ice. I stopped reading and turned my phone off.
It was notably warmer when we rolled off the Apollo in Newfoundland. The sun was out and the wind had mercifully died down. The first thing we did was gas up at a little store. The delightful ladies tending to things inside said “me love” at the end of every phrase. It felt great to finally be in Newfoundland, though a little sad we only had a two days to get to the ferry at the other end.
The rest of the day was a welcome respite from the high drama of the previous few. We had a good lunch at a quirky roadside bar, we stopped and looked at some funky sea arches, we snaked through the dazzling hills of Gros Morne National Park. Nothing went wrong. I wasn’t cold.
We stopped for the night in the little tourist enclave of Rocky Harbour. We checked into a cabin situated next to a bar. After we unpacked, Dean and I strolled over for a bite and a pint. It was a pleasant joint, as tourist cantinas go, but a little too tidy and ordered to be authentic.
After a few rounds, a woman asked if we were staying for the show. If so, we’d have to buy a ticket. It turned out there was a kind of traditional music and storytelling cabaret going on that night. We didn’t feel quite up to it, though. We opted for Molson cans and cigars around the fire pit by the cabins.
Later, I fell asleep reading.
Rocky Harbour to Port aux Basques – 220 miles
June 7, 2018 — More fair weather greeted us in the morning as we rode south, through the last of Gros Morne, toward west coast metropolis of Corner Brook. There wasn’t a ton of sun but it wasn’t raining or freezing, either. In the park, we saw budding trees and a moose.
In Corner Brook, for lunch, we finally had some of Mary Brown’s Chicken and Taters. Everyone who’d heard of Dean’s love for St. Hubert’s chicken had been recommending it. It seems like there’s a little inter-province chicken rivalry between Mary Brown and St. Hubert.
In any case, Ms. Brown did not disappoint. Dean had the three piece box and I had a sandwich. In the interest of keeping the peace, Dean refused to say whether he liked it better that St. Hubert’s chicken, though.well
Most of the day was spent with our hands on the handlebars, trying to make the evening ferry to Nova Scotia. We did stop for coffee in Stephenville Crossing but that was the sole excitement of the afternoon. After that it was just a long, deserted stretch of Highway 1 running the length of a semi-scenic valley.
We got to the port in the fading light of late afternoon. The road came down from a high overlook to the ferry terminal. It was quite lovely for an industrial scene. Maybe I was just happy to be done with the long day’s ride, but the sky was a striking, deep blue.
We ate a small meal with the truckers in terminal cafeteria before we loaded into the boat. We found our cabin without much trouble and then headed for the bar.
I heard singing coming from an outside deck and went to investigate, finding a young man with a guitar. He was entertaining some bikers from Nova Scotia. I joined in, singing some harmony on a couple songs I knew. Then he handed me his guitar. I think I sang “Proud Mary” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Later, well belowdecks, Dean and I turned in for the night. I didn’t sleep very well. The ferry slowly rocked and creaked. I wondered how far we were from where the Titanic sank.
Port aux Basques to Windsor – 263 miles
June 8, 2018 — We rolled off the overnight ferry in North Sydney, Nova Scotia right into a weekday traffic hell. It was not pleasant on my KLR650. We took Trans-Canada Highway 105 to the west side of Bras D’or Lake and the town of Baddeck. Dean, ever the history buff wanted to see the Alexander Graham Bell museum there.
Bell is most famous for inventing the telephone, which he did in Boston. The museum in Nova Scotia is dedicated to the things he tinkered with while at his summer home. There was some interesting stuff about hydrofoils but it was not the most scintillating museum I’ve ever seen. Museums are like movies, you can’t tell if they’re worth your time and money till they’ve already got your time and money.
After the museum, we stayed on the big Highway 105 till I nearly got killed.
It’s a highway, with highway speeds but it only has one lane in either direction. Passing isn’t allowed except for odd intervals where the lanes split in two. At those points, there’s a mad rush for the passing lane and lots of jockeying for position. At one spot, where the lanes merged back together at the top of a hill a trailer truck forced me out of the right lane, into a narrow strip of breakdown lane between its man-eating retreads and the guardrail.
I told Dean I’d had enough. Let’s pick a destination and I’ll meet you there later via the back roads. He agreed and we Googled a motel in Windsor. Dean got there way before me but I had a pleasant afternoon and didn’t come close to dying even once.
The motel was called the Downeast. It was awesome, clean and had a classic 70s vibe. The manager said he used to live in the United States in the 60s and he was in a jug band. Nearby was a gas station, a breakfast joint, a Chinese restaurant, a car wash and an auto parts store. The spot had everything.
As we sat in front of our room, enjoying cigars and Molson Canadian, a party broke out in the room next door. A young man was just returning from a boxing tournament where he’d won his match. We toasted him and wished him the best.
Later, we ate some pretty bad pizza and watched TV — regular motel behavior, no matter what country you’re in.
Windsor to Yarmouth – 199 miles
June 9, 2018 — After decent breakfast we decided to split up for our final day in Nova Scotia. Dean wanted to head to Yarmouth via the south coast and I was interested in the north. We picked motel and promised to meet there at the end of the day.
I dubbed around on the backroads all morning and found a little place called Harbourville. The famously large Bay of Fundy tide was out when I got there so all the tied up fishing boats were sitting on the harbor’s gravel bottom. I looked around, bought a soda at the store and ate some jerky I’d made and brought from home.
Before I left, I climbed a ladder on the pier, down to the bottom of the harbor. It seemed like a good place to leave some of Fishbones’ ashes behind. I poured some into the trickle coming through from a creek on the hill above. I wished him fair winds and following seas.
Who knows where those big, powerful tides will take him.
Back on my bike, I took the slow roads around Annapolis Royal, Digby to Weymouth. From there I took sleepy Route 1 around the western arc of the Nova Scotia coast. I found a little shingled beach in one small town where an older gent had driven his truck right out onto it.
His tailgate was down and a row of plump, pumpkin-sized stones was lined up on it. He was leaning there, smoking a cigarette. I said hello and he greeted me back.
“What are you up to,” I asked.
“My wife’s collecting for a rock garden,” he said, waving his hand toward the water.
I looked in that direction and saw a matching older lady bent over, inspecting stones. He and I chatted for a minute or two and I took a picture of my bike in the golden, failing light.
When I got to the motel on the outskirts of Yarmouth, Dean had been there for hours. I tried to get him to come into Yarmouth town proper for eats but he was too pooped. I got takeout and brought him some instead.
The man at the pizza joint where I procured the food saw my Portland Sea Dogs hat and knew it was a Boston Red Sox farm team. We talked baseball while his crew made my food. With the sandwiches in my saddle bags, I took a long loop around the town. It looked pleasant, like I’d want to spend some time resting there. It wasn’t to be, though. We had tickets for the early morning ferry back to Portland and the end of our journey.
Yarmouth to Portland — 6 miles
June 10, 2018 — We woke up and made coffee early. The morning was beautiful with birds chirping and a light breeze through the new, spring leaves. The boat was just three miles down the road.
We checked into the ferry and were led aboard with a hand full of Canadian motorcycles and a few cars. The load was just a smidgen of what the ferry’s vehicle deck could hold. It was like parking in an empty warehouse.
The ferry, called The Cat, was an immense catamaran, propelled by jets of water, rather than propellers. Inside, it was bright and new. We zipped across the Gulf of Maine in just a few hours.
When The Cat service first started, years ago. It was criticized for being dangerous. It moved so fast, people said it would be running over fishing boats and whales left and right. I don’t know about that but about half way across, the boat definitely shook with a tremendous thud. I don’t know if it was an odd wave, a whale or a lobster boat but we didn’t slow down.
It was a pretty glorious feeling to sail back into my sundrenched hometown, past Portland Head Light and Spring Point. After a quick customs check and a bit of traffic downtown, we rode the final three miles to my house. It was over. We’d made it.
Our final mileage total clocked in at 2,682 miles.
I was back at work the next morning, like nothing happened.
Answering a trick question
Our central question at the start of the trip was: Is there any adventure left on the Trans-Lab Highway now that it’s mostly paved?
It was a trick question. We knew the answer was “yes” before we left. When you’re travelling on two wheels, you don’t have to look for adventure, adventure will find you.
The thing is, you know adventure is coming but you don’t know where you’ll be when it catches up with you. It found us from the start, when Connie gave us Fishbones to ride shotgun. It continued through my lost wallet episode, to the Dean’s French lessons at Relais Gabriel, to Mike’s amazing tour of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Stumbling on the snowbound Hobo Chateaux in the nick of time, getting rescued by Aaron and Kendall and then finding Wayne Finlay’s CD were just continuations of the adventure. The ferocious cold, the time zone mix up and getting forced off the road in Nova Scotia were part of it, too.
While on an adventure, it’s worth remembering that it’s a privilege — even the parts that stink. Having the health, the money and the time for travel, just for fun, is something lots of folks don’t have. So, I try and savor the journey, even the setbacks and glitches, the good weather and the bad. They’re all part of the adventure — because in the same way you never know when adventure will find you, you never know when it will come to an end, either.
Everything, and everybody, has an expiration date. We should plan accordingly.
Life itself is the adventure when you’re on a motorcycle. Get out the map, pick a destination and ride there.