2011 Trans Canada
But good days lay ahead. After a straightforward ride to the ferry, a pleasant evening was spent on board with a group of Canadian armed forces veterans. Beer and tall tales flowed and expedition leader Craig was finally ‘screeched’ – via a tot of the rum based Newfoundland spirit consumed as a night cap.
An early arrival at the Cape Breton port of North Sydney meant that the group were on the road just after dawn and looking for a decent breakfast and fuel stop, as bikes and bodies needed to be stocked up for a day’s ride on one of the world’s iconic routes; the Cabot Trail.
The Trail is essentially a 150 mile circuit of the Cape Breton north coastal area. But what a route it was. Starting with several miles of winding road through villages and alongside a serene coastline, the road soon gains altitude as it weaves its way through a series of tall mountains before swooping down to follow the coastline and then once again taking riders up into the skies through steep hairpins and broadening vistas. The Cabot Trail offered some of the best scenery and mountain riding since British Columbia and provided a fine finish to the last of our ‘regular’ days of the journey.
The final ride to Halifax was marked by high winds and a sense of ‘journeys end’ as we turned our wheels towards the shipping company in Dartmouth which is handling motorcycle transportation back to England on behalf of James Cargo.
With a hotel conveniently located on Halifax’s historic waterfront, the group enjoyed a final meal together, where speeches were made and the highlights of the journey relived.
So now we are slowly departing in ones and twos, a few staying on to enjoy the sights of Halifax, one of Canada’s most interesting and historic cities. Trans Canada 2011 is now concluded, but after a great achievement by our group of riders who have travelled together for almost 7,000 miles. From the Pacific Ocean to the vastness of the Rockies, along the endless highways of the central prairies and into the lakes and forests of the north and east. Then into the remote Labrador along the challenging Trans Labrador Highway before emerging to enjoy the beauty of Atlantic Canada; Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
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But first, an infamous bridge had to be crossed – an unpaved trestle, with a widely spaced metal grid and gaps large enough to swallow the tread on our off road tyres, a few heart stopping moments were experienced by the team. With this early morning ‘wake up’ behind us, we set out onto the piste and into the wilderness.
The going was good and aside from about 50 miles of fairly loose and in some places virgin un-rutted gravel, excellent time was made on this 150 mile stretch to Cartwright Junction, where two years before we had stopped our bike to peer up the then unfinished Trans Lab III, wondering what lay beyond the horizon.
Cartwright Junction is merely an intersection in the trees and with clouds of Blackfly attacking from every quarter, we didn’t hang around for too long before setting out on the old piste towards Port Hope Simpson.
A fast ride across dirt and potholes soon saw us out of the endless trees of the Labrador interior and onto more hilly terrain, with terrific vistas opening as we rode. Views that could only be enjoyed with care, as a largely gravel free road now presented us with a series of new challenges in the form of deep pot holes and large stones.
But there was to be an anti climax. Bright sun and a cloudless sky were to be our companions as we set out onto the gravel and it was not long before we cheerfully realised that much of the pink gravel had gone. We had been told in 2009 that moves were afoot to get rid of the pink porridge and it seems that road crews have been busy since then. A Porridge of loose stone was replaced with an exhilarating and in places quite smooth ride along largely gravel free roads. Odd patches of remaining pink stuff and potholes being the main hazards of the day. This, our final day on the dirt was enjoyed by all and the stunning mountainous scenery could be properly appreciated by all.
And so after a final long uphill stretch, we topped the rise and before us lay the long Atlantic shore, steep marching headlands, the town of Red Bay and the start of the tarmac road. After around 800 miles of dirt roads many were relived to be on a solid surface again.
With only 30 miles to go before reaching the hotel, there was a long sojourn at Red Bay before the group set out onto the coast road towards L’Anse au Clair. A ride that included stunning costal views and long curves and bends as the road rose and fell over the tall headlands.
The following morning saw a brief ride, in fog, to the ferry, where we embarked for the 90 minute journey to Newfoundland. We left Labrador with great memories of riding the lonely roads through that almost primordial place and a few of us stood at the stern of the ship watching this land of mystery disappear into the gathering mists.
Newfoundland greeted the group with rain. Lots of rain. The 150 mile ride to Rocky Harbour held no real challenges, but the mist and rain meant that the dramatic Long Range and Gross Morne mountains were hidden from view as we rode. Fortunately, comfortable accommodations and a chance to dry out in Rocky Harbour offered some compensation – plus the first draft beer for well over a week; enjoyed by all, some more excessively than others.
The rain persisted and the long ride to Trinity from Rocky Harbour was one of mere mileage munching as everyone hunkered down and focused on getting the day out of the way. Once again Newfoundland’s splendour was hidden from view as we rode.
Trinity lies on the pretty Bonavista Peninsular and is the oldest ‘proper’ town on the North American continent. A wet arrival to the 1960s style ‘Heidi-Hi’ cabins just outside the old town meant that the focus was on having showers and getting our kit dry, but the weather rewarded us by clearing up well before dusk allowing a pleasant walk into Trinity and an opportunity to admire its beautiful location and historic buildings.
‘Disco Dave’ as he is now known (see note about Rocky Harbour) had a chance encounter with one of Trinity’s restaurateurs and this resulted in an excellent meal of Cod in an lovely harbour side location.
With clear but windy weather, Newfoundland could finally be properly enjoyed and terrific vistas opened up as we headed south and east onto the Avalon Peninsular. Long views over the hills and out to sea reminding us of the west coast of Ireland and the Bodmin area of Cornwall.
We regrouped for the final ride to Cape Spear, the most easterly point in the whole of the Americas and the focus of our journey since we left Vancouver on July 23rd. A triumphant group of riders turned the final bend to arrive at the point which marks the end of the easterly trail. Handshakes and smiles all round, plus a group photo marked the occasion.
We are now in St John’s and the group is enjoying a well-deserved day off after their great coast to coast achievement. Ahead lies the ferry to Nova Scotia and the Cabot Trail – another much anticipated part of our journey – before we finally arrive in Halifax and the end of our long, but fantastic journey. More from me when we reach Halifax. Back to top
A Tale from the Labrador Highway.
Our last evening in Tadoussac was tainted with anticipation of the road ahead. All knew that the genteel comforts of the Hotel Georges were to be swapped for the more rugged journey up to Baie Comeau and onwards into the dark and mysterious Labrador territory.
The road immediately deteriorated into well worn and rutted tarmac, which wound its way upwards through stunning mountain and forest scenery, the road gaining altitude at every turn as it climbs its way to the higher glacial ‘plateau’ which is Labrador itself. The pace quickened as climbing turns were replaced with the roller coaster ride across high ridges in the land which marks the route through this remote place, before we arrived at the end of the tarmac and our stop for the day: Manic 5.
Manic Cinq is a huge truck stop and motel which serves the crews who maintain and service the important Manicougan Dam. This vast hydro facility serves much of Quebec and draws its water from a vast and flooded ancient meteorite strike, which has left a crater covering several hundred square miles. The amount of water we are talking about here must be truly astronomical.
Manic 5 also serves as a natural stop on the route to Labrador City and beyond, both for the heavy semi-trailer units and also for the increasing number of overland travellers.
Food was served in the ‘canteen’, a basic but well stocked restaurant, with basic but hearty fare and portions to sustain even the largest of the truckers and contractors who eat there. Our evening was spent in idle discussion and watching the movements of huge vehicles in and out of the facility and swapping tall tales with our fellow guests at this surprisingly comfortable motel.
The following day was our first on the dirt. A short tarmac ride to the dam, up a steep winding hill and that was it – the dirt and gravel stretched out ahead, the surface which has been our companion for the last four days.
But first an easy 60 miles to Relais Gabriel and coffee at the quirky little café. Then through deeper gravel to the ghost town of Gagnon, where all that remains of an old mining settlement is the layout of roads and pavements. Some chose to stop for a ‘brew up’ while the rest of us pushed ahead and onto a 50 mile stretch of old tarmac to Fire Lake, another long -disappeared settlement. This asphalt respite led us through a breath-taking landscape of high forested plateaus with darker ridges of land marching off to the east and north. The ubiquitous Jackpine forest was now somewhat stunted in height due to the ferocious winters which afflict the Labrador.
After this, the challenge really started. The piste from Fire Lake is both rutted and sandy with lots of sand and loose gravel to catch out the unwary. It also twists and turns across one of the iron ore railway lines. All found it to be a tricky challenge and pushed ahead with care, hoping for a straighter track and a more even surface.
Towards the end of the section, the landscape, which until now had been a mixture of rising and falling terrain, with the road winding around small hills, opened out to reveal a scene of environmental destruction as iron ore is extracted on a mega industrial scale at the settlement of Fermont (quite literally named ‘ferrous mountain’. Mont Wright itself is slowly vanishing as iron is extracted and the ‘spoil’ piled up in vast smooth blankets of poisoned ground. A nearby lake and adjacent rivers all ran red with iron pollution, all life dead within reach of the vile flow.
We stayed at the Two Seasons Hotel (the two seasons being winter and August!) grateful to be back in English speaking territory, but miffed at losing another hour as we crossed east into another time zone. We learned that the Trans Labrador is now undergoing a huge construction programme, with the aim of tarmacking the entire route between Labrador City and Goose Bay by 2014. The rate of work means that this could be last year where the majority of this section is still dirt. Tarmac will certainly help to open the area to people and business, but not all welcome this proposed taming of one of the world’s last great wildernesses.
We set off the following morning towards Churchill Falls, a company town which serves another hydro facility, this time one which lies deep underground, with vast turbines powering much of lower Canada and parts of New York State. 60 miles of new tarmac certainly added a fresh perspective to the TLH and the smooth road (now called Highway 510) allows the rider to better appreciate the dark beauty and latent menace of the Labrador, but somehow, something seemed to be missing from the overall challenge of the paved stretch.
But we were soon to be back into dirt. Good quality dirt road and light gravel which took us to Churchill Falls, the occasional encounter with road works and the more frequent activities of graders, which ground up the surface and created gravel ‘berms’, to keep us on our toes.
Then the ride to Goose Bay. An easier ride than during our research trip in 2009, it seems that most of the deep gravel which had slowed our progress so much before has now been ‘graded’ away. We speculated that this was to help the numerous surveying crews to determine what the hard surface of the piste is like as they prepare plans for the tarmacking crews. In any case, the lack of gravel along large sections of the route allowed for great progress to be made and for some the exciting ride of their lives.
Goose Bay is where we are currently enjoying a day off the bikes, with the group exploring what this ‘frontier’ town has to offer. Developed around the RAF base in the late 1930s, Goose Bay and its partner town Happy Valley, is a vibrant community with plenty to see and do in the immediate area. Fierce winters means that most buildings look like cargo containers or warehouses from the outside, but inside are often small shopping centres or well stocked shops and other civic amenities.
Tomorrow, we depart for Port Hope Simpson, which is a stone’s throw from the Atlantic coast. We will be riding the Trans Labrador III, the new gravel highway which finally linked the whole Trans Labrador route when it was opened last year. Anticipation of this fresh and exciting part of the journey is high among the group, as is anticipation of seeing the ocean for the first time since Vancouver. Back to top
The team has soldiered on regardless and found various ways to amuse ourselves on the journey – not least, the giving of nicknames. We now have Red Leader (Leighton, due to his amazing aircraft-type bike lights), Husqvarna Dave (think buzz-saws), Wireless Rogers (the local phone network) and Seven of Nine (who was riding seventh of the nine bikes) amongst our number.
But then came Montreal. A huge metropolitan sprawl meant we had to ride in as a group which was hard work on those busy roads. However, the reward was to discover an incredibly cosmopolitan city which seems to offer everything and is completely bilingual. The old town was a real delight and everyone enjoyed a balmy evening stroll through busy streets, treated to the spectacle of the annual Fashion Festival which meant there were pavement entertainers everywhere and a real carnival atmosphere.
Thanks to Monsieur Bibeau, we had the whole afternoon free to explore Quebec and its delights. We had arrived during the “Festival de la Nouvelle France”, a historic celebration which meant the town was busier than usual but there was a lot to see and do. It was still scorchingly hot but everyone enjoyed visiting the old Citadelle and promenading on the Boardwalk in the evening. There were many little restaurants offering “Bieres & Brunch”, and then there was our particular favourite, “Le Café Fart”.
The following morning, however, dawned grey and showery and as we faced only a short ride that day we had a leisurely breakfast and many of the team chose to spend the morning at the local launderette - after 6 days on the road we had all started to run out of clean clothes. As we rode out of Quebec at lunchtime the rain started to fall. If there is anything worse than riding on wet cobbles, it has to be riding on wet cobbles on brand new off-road tyres down a very steep hill wearing boots with steel plates under the toes!
This afternoon we are all making final preparations for our journey north and off road into the remote Labrador territory, buying provisions and extra fuel and doing final checks on our bikes and equipment. Our next stop will be at Manic 5, to visit the Daniel Johnson dam, before setting out onto the piste and into the remote region, sometimes called the land God gave to Cain. Back to top
On the Road Again
“…And I can’t wait to get on the road again…
Going places that I’ve never seen
Seeing things that I may never see again
And I can’t wait to get on the road again….”
So sang the man with the guitar as we supped Desperados (beer, tequila and triple sec with lime juice) at the bar at Waskesiu Lake, watched the sun slide down through a thick cloud of enormous dragonflies and talked about our next day’s ride, looking forward to the delights of our first dirt roads. We’d all enjoyed a day of rest at this beautiful lakeside resort and had caught up with laundry, email and blogs, and some of the group had enjoyed meeting some Canadian Legion Riders who had ridden for 3 hours from North Battleford specially to talk to Ian, Gary and Sam who are members of the Royal British Legion Riders Branch (RBLR). Legion Riders are all on active service or are Veterans who combine their passion for motorcycling with fundraising.
The following morning we set off early for Flin Flon, a fairly remote mining town with a pioneering feel. The dirt roads made a nice change, slightly slippery in places from several days of rain, but nothing we couldn’t deal with. The rain had also caused one creek to overflow across the road, which meant an impromptu “river crossing” for all of us. It was quite deep, and some of us discovered our boots are not entirely waterproof. We were lucky – one day later and the road would be closed whilst they dug a culvert, which would have cost us hours of delay.
After leaving Flin Flon (where they really did say “you should’ve told us you were coming and we’d have laid on a dancing band”!) we headed out onto the plains, the flatlands, the badlands, the bread-basket – whatever you choose to call it. It’s big, it’s flat, and there are hardly any trees but for all that it’s quite spectacular. The local saying is that if you live on the plains you can watch your dog run away for days. In some places the road was dead straight for hours, just an up-and-down rollercoaster with as much as 4 miles between crests of hills, and the side wind was fierce. Every truck passing us in the opposite direction pushed us across the tarmac with a huge WHUMP of air. In fact one of our group, who had stopped by the side of the road for a moment, was actually knocked over by a whump of air, bike and all!
We all arrived hot and windblown at Sioux Narrows after a very long and thirsty ride but were soon revived by an ice cold beer and, for some, a swim in the crystal waters of the lake. The temptation to just jump in the water with all our bike kit on was almost overwhelming but we did manage to change into our swimming costumes first.
Just across from our motel are a couple of houses with boats and float planes parked on the water, which looks just like a picture-postcard. It’s scorching hot but later this evening we plan to BBQ under the trees after our rest day. Some of the group have gone fishing on the lake and hope to bring us some fish for the grill. John and Marion have gone for a stroll, complete with brollies for protection from the sun – very English! As I type, several others are splashing about in the lake and there is laundry a-plenty draped across the bikes drying in the sunshine. Tomorrow, early, we set off for Kakabeka Falls… Back to top
Mountains and Prairies
After several days in Vancouver, the group was champing at the bit to get started on the ride. So there was no difficulty in ‘mustering the troops‘ for the early morning departure from our base near picturesque Stanley Park, the stream of 11 bikes heading over the huge suspension bridge which took us northwards to the skiing resort Whistler and beyond.
Our team is the usual great mix of people and characters who all share the love of long distance motorcycle travel. Gary and Sam are our only non BMW GS riders, riding the route on a pair of carefully prepared Triumph Tigers. Andy, Paul and Tony are GlobeBusters veterans tackling this new adventure in the ‘GB’ portfolio. Jackie is riding her first major expedition, having ‘signed on’ after her husband completed the GlobeBusters Trans Americas expedition. John and Marion are also on their first major transcontinental ride. Dave keeps us amused with jokes and anecdotes and Leighton constantly amazes the group with the technology fitted to his bike. All are supported by Barbara and myself, with Ian bringing up the rear in the monster V8 support truck.
The road to Jasper the following day included the obligatory stop at Mount Robson, which towers its shaggy peaks over the entire region, proclaiming its vast welcome to the Rocky Mountains. For once the clouds on the peak parted to reveal its full glory. Jasper itself sits at a mountain crossroads, where the traveller either heads east to Edmonton or South down the Icefields Parkway to Banff – which after a good barbeque and a night’s sleep is where we headed.
So many superlatives have been written about the Icefields route that it is difficult to find something new to say. The route must surely rank among the top ten of the world’s great rides and includes breath-taking mountain scenes and numerous glaciers, both small and large, which sometimes tower over the roadway. Ancient clashes of tectonic plates created the high Rockies and the vast forces involved can be clearly seen in the shape of the ranges as we rode. We had a great stroke of luck with the weather, which was sunny and dry all day, allowing the full splendour of the Rockies to be properly appreciated.
Not so, the following day. Lowering skies and heavy rain marked the start of our ride from Banff to Drumheller. Bundled in waterproofs the group made steady progress east out of the mountains and out into the plains east of Calgary.
An additional excursion to the ghost town of Wayne proved to be a popular choice that day. Wayne is an old mining town, which went into decline, leaving a few houses, a ‘western’ style hotel and shop. But the setting is magnificent – an ancient river valley, reached by a narrow winding road which took us across numerous ‘trestle’ bridges. The hotel itself has a great history of pioneering lifestyles and serves beer from quart jam jars on Wednesdays.
A few miles further on was our base for the night. Drumheller is set in the same area of deep and dramatic river valleys and is a major regional centre. But Drumheller’s main claim to fame is the sheer density of dinosaur bones which have been recovered around the town and immediate area and it now boasts a major international centre and museum of palaeontology. Dinosaur reminders are on every street corner and an obligatory group shot was taken by what the town claims to be the world’s largest dinosaur. I bet Disney has a larger one …
Yesterday, we set out into the prairies ‘proper’. A long 400 plus mile ride across the vast open and flat emptiness of eastern Alberta and Saskatchewan. This was a day of well-paced riding and maintaining a steady average in order to ‘crunch’ the miles. Endless miles of cereal crops left little to catch the eye, but the living skies above reminded us how small we humans are in the great scheme of things. The sky is truly enormous on the prairie and it was possible to watch weather systems form and dissipate as we rode.
Turning northwards again after Saskatoon, grasslands began to be replaced with trees as the landscape started to give way to the lakes and woods of the north. Black skies lay ahead, but the rain didn’t finally hit until we reached Prince Albert and the final 50 miles to our lakeside destination.
The group are finding much to give pleasure, both individually and together, with evenings filled with tales of the day’s ride, some taller than the others!
After a day of enjoying the pleasures of Waskesiu Lake, tomorrow we head into the wild North Country and the mining town of Flin Flon before turning to the south again. A region of “huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’” as folks say in these parts - before launching into yet another tall tale about an encounter with a bear. On that note, our bear count is much higher on this trip and all have seen the noble beasts on more than one occasion. The memorable sighting for us all was the Black Bear ‘mom’ and her two cubs which were foraging by the side of the road near Lake Louise in the Rockies. Majestic Elks, with their imposing antlers have also been on the itinerary, adding yet more local colour for our group. Back to top
“No.” said the hatchet-faced customs officer. “But …” I tried. “No.” was the reply. “Surely we can ….” I ventured. “No.” came a further stony response. “How about if we ...” “NO!”.
I pursed my lips, exasperated. Randy, our shipping agent in Vancouver shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.
We were attempting to import the 11 bikes which comprise our team for the 2011 Trans Canada GlobeBusters expedition, a fairly straightforward job complicated by the elderly customs officer who had at some point in her career had been awarded the exalted semi retirement position of ‘receptionist’, a position offering great power over whoever attempted to gain an audience with the customs team within the Canada Excise offices in the imposing BC Hydro building in downtown Vancouver. In our case an attempt to circumvent the archaic system of ‘appointments’ for import paperwork.
Salvation came in the form of a younger female officer who appeared from behind a screen and said, “Hell, let ‘em in, we’re not busy.” Hatchet face shot a viperous look at her colleague and waved us into the inner sanctum.
Things then started moving. Randy and I had the necessary paperwork and powers of attorney over client bikes and it was starting to look as though our ‘on spec’ visit to Customs was going to pay off. That was until the officer on the case, looked up and said. “your cargo is from the UK? Then it will need a soil inspection.”
A new one on me and also on Randy, who looked incredulous while I remarked that this requirement had not been necessary when Barbara and I had air freighted our bikes to Vancouver in 2009. Customs seem to have had a sense of humour extraction since then as well.
But the ever tightening noose of international bureaucracy could not be circumvented this time and it was a soil inspection for us. Happily though, import papers were stamped, so aside from the oddly inappropriate inspection, the bikes were in and 36 hours later were reunited with their relieved owners, who had been steadily arriving in Vancouver alone or in small groups.
Today we had a ‘shakedown’ ride to Grouse Mountain, which offers stunning views over the city – at least when not covered in clouds. But the ride was a chance to escape city humidity and make sure that bikes and equipment are all set for the start of our 6,800 mile Canada crossing which starts tomorrow at 8am. (23rd July). Spirits are high as we anticipate the start of the adventure.
We’ve a great team of people for Trans Canada, the majority of whom are riding BMW GS models, though we also have two Triumph Tigers. You’ll hear more about them in future updates. Our journey now takes us northwards and into the Rocky Mountains for a few days, before we start the long trek eastwards across the great plains and prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The weather forecast and news has been full of the great heat-wave that is currently afflicting parts of the USA and Canada. We will have to wait and see if our ride encounters the extreme heat that has been reported, but all are prepared for just about every climatic eventuality given the huge variances in temperature and general weather which is encountered on this expedition.
Vancouver is always a delight to visit. A richly varied and cosmopolitan city, there is much that Britain can learn from this amazingly optimistic and forward looking place. Though how the popular ‘herb and garlic’ bagels became ‘urban-garlic’ is surely a matter of deep local lore. We can’t wait to see what rural-garlic bagels look like … Back to top