To Labrador & Back

by Steve Anderson

Story & photos (c) 1998

Part 1

For years, I've enjoyed traveling northward from my Virginia home. Hardly a summer goes by that I don't visit some part of Canada, and I've been far north in both Alaska (Arctic Circle) and Newfoundland (L'Anse aux Meadows). My other experiences led me to think about riding overland to Labrador. I could, of course, take a ferry from Newfoundland, but that would be cheating. I had to ride there even though it was 350 miles -- half of it dirt and gravel -- from the nearest town (save a small border village) in Quebec.

This would be the year to do it. My BMW F650 would be the perfect bike for the long journey on both paved and unpaved roads. The BMW RA rally and the Finger Lakes rally would bracket my ride to the north. I could get the time off work at Morton's BMW and I could afford to go.

Knowing the importance of a good night's sleep before a long journey, I attended an awesome Bonnie Raitt concert Wednesday night, getting home sometime around 2am. Sure, I was tired the next day, but Bonnie is well worth it.

On Thursday, my friend Bill Shaw and I teamed up to ride from the DC metro area to Greenfield, Massachusetts, site of the 25th annual RA rally. We made good time, taking interstates almost the whole way. Bill and I had reserved a motel room for the weekend, so we went there first to settle in. After dumping our stuff, we headed over to the rally site.

We toured the Franklin County fairgrounds, meeting lots of familiar faces, far too many to name. I particularly enjoyed meeting Carol "Skert" Youorski for the first time. We had communicated via e-mail for a bit, and Morton's had donated some stuff for her seminars at the MOA national, but I had never seen her in the flesh. What a treat! I think I scored some points by comparing her to Ms. Raitt.

Starting the day off right means hitting a local diner -- this one in South Deerfield, Massachusetts -- for some grub.

Friday morning, Bill and I took in the "Women Who Ride" seminar conducted by Skert, Florida's Tara Ribas, and rally co-chair Tina Swider. There were very interesting and lively discussions about bike choices, attitudes of male riders, and Carol's specialty, picking up a fallen bike. We moved outside to practice picking up bikes and a number of participants -- male and female -- learned the easy way to do so. Excellent session, way to go, ladies!

Carol "Skert" Youorski demonstrates the easy, backsaving way to lift a fallen bike. After her demonstration, a number of rally attendees -- both men and women -- practiced the same skills.

The rest of the rally weekend was filled with scoping out vendors, going for rides, and devouring too much food and drink. Bill, Brian Horais, and I tried a pancake place mentioned in the rally materials. Excellent food, nice environment, and the owners raise border collies (I've got two of these great dogs). I picked up a "Get Milk Locally" sticker from them for my Jesse bags -- gotta have stickers on those things!

Bill and I rode all the way to Florida during the RA rally -- well, Florida, Massachusetts anyway.

Bill, Brian, and I stumbled across Smith College's back-to-school weekend and spent much time just enjoying the scenery. Every time Brian would mention the attractiveness of a particular young woman, I would ask if she wasn't about his daughter's age. For some reason, he wasn't quite so vocal after that ;-)

In short, the opening weekend of my summer tour was filled with great fun, shared experiences with good friends, and the thrill of meeting even more IBMWR folks. On Sunday, I would leave that behind to head solo to Labrador.

Part 2

Sunday morning saw me pulling out of Greenfield, Mass., and heading up Interstate 91 to one of my favorite diners -- the Miss Bellows Falls -- for breakfast. This original railroad car diner, named for the town in which it resides, is a must for me if I'm anywhere near southeastern Vermont.

One of my favorite diners, the Miss Bellows Falls in the town of the same name. The saddlebags have a few more stickers now!

From Bellows Falls, I made my way north to St. Johnsbury, then turned east toward another favorite haunt of mine -- Mount Washington, New Hampshire. If you haven't been there yet, put it on your list. The incredible scenery going up or down the private, eight-mile, toll road and the views from the top are well worth it. At the valley entrance gate, they have a sign giving the weater conditions -- which can change rapidly -- at the top. Sitting in the 75F sun at the bottom, I contemplated the 45F temperature, 50mph wind report from the top. What the hell, let's do it!

Sundays are crowded at the mountain, so I ended up crawling uphill behind car drivers almost visibly petrified of the road. It IS very narrow with turnouts to let oncoming traffic by on the lane-and-a-half track, dropoffs of more than a thousand feet, and primarily gravel surface, but come on already. As I climbed, I could feel the temperature dropping and was glad I had on my Kilimanjaro jacket/Expedition pants combo. I would certainly be warmer than the t-shirt/jeans/beanie helmet/no gloves guys I saw behind me at the start.

As you approach the summit, there's a point where you come around a curve and into the wind. As I did so, the blast coming off the peak nearly blew me off the side of the road. The chill was amazing. Once I corrected, it was an easy -- though cool -- final mile or so to the parking lot at the top. I parked in the lee of a hill and climbed off to shoot some pics. I started to climb up the stairs to the summit, then changed my mind because of the weather. I've done it a dozen times or so, so I wasn't really missing anything.

After making my way back down to the valley, I headed north again with Quebec in my sights. I decided to go through Dixville Notch, sight of an unusual ritual every four years. On election day, the two dozen or so residents line up at midnight to cast the first votes in the country. Hey, it gets them some attention, right?

As you cruise Rt. 26 to the notch, you start winding your way up the mountains. Near the top, there's a "Bump Ahead" sign. I usually don't slow down too much for these, but a sixth sense told me it was a good idea. Good thing, too, as the "bump" was an almost instantaneous transition from nose up the mountain to nose down. I'm convinced if I was doing much more than my 40mph or so, I would've launched the front wheel.

No descendent of Vikings could pass this motorcycle shop without stopping for a photo. Unfortunately, the shop was closed when I rode by and I couldn't get a t-shirt to add to my collection.

I crossed the border near Canaan, NH, and had the pleasure of a prolonged conversation with a Canadian customs official. I think, since it's a small crossing point, he had a LOT of spare time. Usually, I get waved through, but this time I was asked if I had a criminal record, ever been arrested for DUI, etc. He couldn't seem to understand that I was riding to Labrador just to ride there. What did he think I was going to do, smuggle lumber out on my bike ;-)

That night, I stayed at Thetford Mines. I was literally one of three people staying at a 150-room motel. When tourist season ends up there, it ends with a bang.

The Balmoral Hotel in Thetford Mines, Quebec, features a motorcycle-only parking area within sight of the front desk -- a nice touch.

The next day (Monday) I rode deeper into Quebec, passing through Quebec City (BMW dealer Moto Vanier was closed, unfortunately) and blew up the north coast of the St. Lawrence to Baie-Comeau, my stop for the night and jumping-off point for Labrador.

Part 3

As Tuesday arrived, I stared out my motel window at the amazing sky outside the glass. You know the way it is when there's a front coming through? Big cumulus clouds, bright blue sky, and breezy -- that's the way the weather would be for the next couple of days.

I loaded up, grabbed breakfast at -- I'm embarrassed to say -- McDonald's, and headed up Rt. 389. Once clear of town, the scenery reminded me very much of the road to Alaska or most of Newfoundland. The two lanes of mixed-quality asphalt were bordered by huge expanses of pine and spruce, broken up by glacial lakes and marshy wetlands.

About 130 miles up the road, I arrived at Manic 5. The Manicougan River, which roughly parallels the road I was taking, has a series of dams which provide electricity for much of Canada. The fifth one is Manic 5, and is one of the largest in the world. I stopped for gas, as it would be a ways 'til the next opportunity.

Here, the road turned to dirt and gravel for the first time. Those of you who know me well know I'm less than thrilled riding on gravel, dating back to a bad accident in Alaska five years ago. I knew this was coming, however, and I was determined to make my way through. The first several miles were awful. The gravel was deep and loose, the road comprised a long series of narrow, twisty turns, and the trucks were raising huge clouds of dust. Finally, after plowing my front wheel through yet another turn, I pulled to the side and turned the motor off. Time for a mental check.

"Why am I doing this?" I asked, "I don't have to prove anything to anyone." Except myself, I answered. I thought of my friend Paul Taylor, who seemingly can ride across, over, or through anything. He had been very supportive and helped me with info on road conditions in the region. He would encourage me to go on, so I did. Besides, I had discovered on the Internet that you could catch a train back from Labrador City and put your bike in the baggage car. All I had to do was get there!

I knew from reading how to ride in loose stuff, but I'd never really done it as a kid so it was still a little alien. I kept concentrating on keeping power on hard to lift the front wheel out of the deepest parts, and using the throttle to steer the bike. Amazingly enough, the more I did it, the better it worked! After another couple miles of rough stuff, the road started straightening out and -- though now featuring 12% grades -- was easier to ride. I could maintain 50-55mph for much of this stretch, despite high winds and occasional showers.

This was the easy part -- more than 100 miles of packed dirt and gravel north of Manic 5. Strong winds and occasional showers made the ride even more interesting.

This gravel segment lasted about 125 miles or so, then all of a sudden you hit pavement at Gagnon. Or should I say the ghost of Gagnon? All that's left of this deserted mining town is a road, sidewalks with cutouts for driveways, and the ghostly remains of a once-thriving small town. Blowing down the paved boulevard, it was hard not to think what it must have been like living literally in the middle of nowhere.

After about 50 miles of paved bliss, Rt. 389 turns once more into gravel. This final section features the deep gravel of the first few miles, combined with multiple crossings of railroad tracks. This part was the worst. I settled in at around 35mph and held on as the F650 skittered across the ruts and potholes. I kept thinking that I just needed to make it through this, then I could take the train back.

Eventually, I made it through to a large mine, which signaled the end of the gravel. From there, it was about 20 miles to the walled city of Fermont, PQ. "Walled" might not be the best adjective, since in actuality the town itself IS the wall. Almost every structure -- homes, businesses, shopping mall, etc. -- is built into one continuous building maybe 1/2 mile long and 4 or 5 stories high. This is their solution to the bitter cold winters and swarms of summer insects. It reminded me a bit of Eastern Bloc construction, except the Fermontians use brighter colors. I refilled my fuel tank (4.5 gallons in a 4.6 gallon tank!) and traveled the last few miles to Labrador City, stopping only to snap the requisite shots of the bike at the "Welcome to Newfoundland-Labrador" sign.

The reason for my trip -- crossing into Labrador by road, dirt road at that. I felt a pretty strong sense of accomplishment at this point.

Pulling into town, I headed for the train station to make reservations for the ride back. I found a guy counting the day's receipts and inquired about reservations for me and the bike. "Oh, we don't do that anymore," was his casual reply. I was crushed. Turns out they haven't offered this service for more than a year, despite what the official Newfoundland tourism website says. Gotta make those phone calls for up-to-date info.

After feeling sorry for myself for a few minutes, I resigned myself to the fact that I would be riding back after all. Time for a room and dinner. I rode into Wabush, the last outpost before the dirt road to Happy Valley/Goose Bay. I got a room at an old hotel there and enjoyed the buffet at a 24-hour Chinese restaurant. Go figure. Tomorrow's another day and another ride.

Part 4

I awoke on Wednesday to a completely fogged-in Labrador. I could not see across the street from my hotel room. Looks like time for a leisurely breakfast, as I wasn't about to battle gravel, trucks, AND no visibility.

Around 10am, I loaded up and started south. I refilled my tank at Fermont, and pointed the bike towards Baie-Comeau. On the return trip, the gravel parts that were relatively easy going up were worse, the bad parts were now decent. It seems they grade the road almost daily, so conditions change all the time.

Along the way, you cross a couple of wooden plank bridges spanning small rivers. These can be interesting in the rain or if you don't see them coming.

By late afternoon, I was back at Manic 5 and the end of the gravel. As I rode onto the pavement, I literally shouted "Woo-hoo!" inside my helmet. I snapped a picture of the road sign signifying winding road for the next 200 or so kilometers, and mused at the affection we have for just a few miles of twisty pavement. This was riding!

A couple hours later, I was back at the Comfort Inn in Baie-Comeau, the same place I stayed Monday night. Despite the fact that the staff spoke only French and I spoke almost none, I felt strangely at home.

You know those cowboy movies where the guy rides into town and knocks the dust off his clothes? That's what I looked like after my ride to Labrador and back. I patted the sleeves of my Kilimanjaro and watched in amusement as the accumulated dirt of two provinces flew off into space.

After a shower and some dinner, I watched tv for awhile. The Weather Channel was predicting rain for lower Quebec, so chances were the dust wouldn't be on my riding gear for long.

Thursday brought a long ride from Baie-Comeau all the way to Plattsburgh, NY. I passed through Quebec City again, made my way around Montreal, and then headed south. Two hours of steady rain laundered my riding gear, though I pulled off for awhile to escape a thunder-and-lightning demonstration by hanging out under the overhang of a repair garage in rural Quebec. As I approached the U.S. border, I remembered Jim Colburn had given me a Cuban cigar at the RA rally and it was still in my saddlebag. Any trepidation I had about smuggling disappeared as the customs agent let me through with only a cursory check of my ID.

The Super 8 in Plattsburgh was a welcome sight, as they had a laundry room off the lobby for guests to use. I spent the evening washing clothes and chatting up the attractive assistant manager. She and I watched tv and had dinner together in the lobby. It was a very pleasant way to come back into the states.

Friday, the sun was shining as I rode through the Adirondacks towards Watkins Glen, NY, site of the Finger Lakes rally. Every time I pass through the Adirondacks, I make a stop in Saranac Lake, a small town set beside a beautiful lake. As I ate my breakfast at a picnic table along the lakefront, an older gentleman approached and mentioned my Virginia plates. Turns out he lives in Arlington, a suburb of Washington, DC, where I had my first two apartments.

George (I forget his last name) and I talked for awhile. He explained that he was born in Saranac Lake some 72 years ago. His father had gotten a job in Washington during WWII, and this was George's first time back since the family moved to Virginia in the '40s. His father went on to become the manager of a large bakery in NE DC where they make Wonder Bread to this day. George described how the town had changed, where he and the other kids would swim and ice skate, and so on.

He also talked about how Albert Einstein would vacation in Saranac Lake during the summer. George and the other kids would be hanging out on the beach, and Einstein would take a small sailboat a couple hundred yards out into the lake to think. He would toss anchor and then just sit, thinking and writing, until he started to lose light. At that point, one of the lifeguards would usually have to paddle out and tow the genius back into shore. Turns out he didn't know how to make his way ashore unless the wind was just right. I love it!

After chatting like this for 30 minutes or so, George and I said our goodbyes and we both headed out -- him to find more memories of his youth, me to make my way across the state.

You can see some funny things taking the blue roads instead of the superhighways.

I got to Watkins Glen in the early evening and grabbed a cot in the bunkhouse reserved by BMWBMW for the rally. It felt good to see friends again.

Part 5

I've been going to the Finger Lakes rally for most of the last ten years or so, and I've seen and done an awful lot there. This Labor Day weekend, I found myself looking hard for something new to do. I believe next year, I'll take in the Sherando Lake rally closer to home. Life needs a little variety now and then.

I did tour the National Warplane Museum in Horseheads (brand new in July and highly recommended), got in a few nice rides, and saw a lot of old friends. I made the mistake of trying on Paul Kanetsky's System IV helmet and now I think I need one. It's only money, right?

This museum opened in July of 1998 and features a variety of historic fighters and bombers, plus an on-site restoration facility. It's well worth the nominal cost to visit and take the tour.

On Sunday, I rode into Elmira, picked up the Sunday NY Times, and returned to the campground. It was very relaxing sitting in the shade and catching up on the news.

The vintage car museum in Watkins Glen includes this pristine gullwing Mercedes 300SL.

After a short nap, I had dinner with Paul and his son Jeff, then hung out for a bit with my bunkmates. A couple of them were going to head out to Williamsport, PA, later in the evening to break up the return trip. As I listened to my weather radio predicting thunderstorms for Sunday evening and Monday, that started to sound like a plan.

I packed up my gear and rolled out around 7:30pm. Two hours later, I was at Williamsport and, not feeling particularly tired, decided to keep going. It was a cool, dry night with plenty of moon and not much traffic. Harrisburg was only another hour or so, I'll stop there.

Roll into Harrisburg, still not tired. Frederick, MD, is only another hour or so and I keep riding. When I reach Frederick, I'm still doing OK, and I'm now only a couple of hours from home -- I HAVE to keep going, right? I rolled into my garage just after 2am Monday.

I spent a few minutes unloading my gear, then cleaned up and hit the sack. After sleeping in until 10am, I got up and had a very productive day off. Later on, watching the news, I saw what kind of fearsome conditions those leaving Monday morning faced -- heavy rain, lightning, hail, high winds -- and I considered myself fortunate for having made the decision I did.

SUMMARY

The trip was great. I put about 3900 miles on the F650 in a little over a week, during which time the bike averaged 50mpg and never missed a beat. To me, it proved itself as a very capable vehicle for almost any use. I am SO glad I bought it! The mods I've made -- Sargent seat, Jesse bags, tankbag, metal skidplate and radiator guard, heated grips, higher wattage headlight, and more -- have made this terrific bike even better.

Travel always makes me feel better. I love seeing new places, meeting new people, and even trying to figure out how to speak French. There are frequently challenges to face while traveling (unless you opt for a tour package -- ugh!) and we are more interesting people when we face them and gain insight into other cultures.

I'm hopeful I will be able to fulfill my dream of motorcycling in Europe next summer. I've been there several times, but never by bike. Each year brings another "trip of a lifetime" and I wouldn't have it any other way :-)