In early 1997 I heard about a new road opening that connects northern Quebec with Goose Bay, Labrador. I wrote for more information, and along with a lot of promotional stuff about visiting Newfoundland and Labrador, there was a 3-page brochure announcing the Trans-Labrador Highway, which had recently opened. It described the final 180 miles into Goose Bay as "pit-run gravel." Another section south of Labrador City was described as "under construction and rough". It certainly sounded interesting. I was fairly sure there would be no RVs or pick-up campers to cope with, and very few cars for that matter, making it my kind of ride.
After decided to go, I thought maybe I should do it on a small motorcycle like the 200cc that I once thought about riding to Alaska. This trip would be much shorter than Alaska. I considered the Gold Wing, but I figured 180 miles of deep loose gravel was too much of what the Wing doesn't handle well in, which could take some of the fun out of it. The 3300-mile roundtrip would probably take between one and two weeks. I then thought of taking my old 1974 500cc Triumph Trophy Trail, which held together for six days in the Berkshire woods two years earlier with several legendary New England dirt riders and six European experts. The Triumph idea stuck for a while. I took the 23-year-old bike out of the garage, cleaned up the carburetor and points, and got it running.
I mentioned my plan to a few close friends and learned that several thought it was a great idea. Jake Herzog was the first to express serious interest in joining me. He said he would restore one of his old 500cc Triumphs for the trip. The next to express an interest was Emil Cocce of New Jersey, but he said emphatically he would use his more up-to-date, 350cc dual-sport Suzuki. A few others also expressed a desire to go, including Frank DeGray, on a 650cc Triumph TR6 that he had just restored.
Emil's sudden and tragic death while touring in Virginia began to thin our ranks. The Triumph idea eventually fell apart when my old Trophy Trail wouldn't cooperate on a few fairly long shakedown rides. A month before we were scheduled to leave, I spotted a used 225cc Yamaha Serow that was for sale locally. I quickly bought it with this trip in mind. Jake, in quick succession, jumped at the chance to switch to his Kawasaki KLR650. When the day came to leave, there was just Jake and myself headed for the Canadian border. Frank DeGray was still a "maybe" for joining us the next day in Stratton, Maine.
Day 1 - I left Buchanan for Jake's home on July 17, 1997, having ridden the Yamaha for a total of less than a hundred miles. I soon learned that it was necessary to shift down on most steep hills, even on the highways. The little engine sang soprano as it whirred loudly in one of the lower gears over Storm King Mountain behind West Point. While coming down the north side, it gave out a high-pitched whine as the speed edged over 65 mph. I would swear it was saying, "Hang on old man, we're going to Labrador."
I stopped briefly at Jim Moroney's shop in Newburgh where I had a few close friends. I got some chuckles, and there were at least a few skeptics in the group. Jim said as I was disappearing from their view, “He won’t make it to Albany on that thing.” He added, "You may doubt his sanity, but never his resolve." By the time I passed Phoenicia in the Catskills where people were preparing to "tube the Esopus", I thought maybe I should keep the speed below 55 because the speedometer had a red marking from 55 up. I didn't know what that meant. No one seemed to know much about the actual redline for the bike.
I arrived at Jake's in Slingerlands at 4:30, about a half hour earlier than planned. I wanted to miss any late afternoon thunder-showers, and I wasn't sure of the average daily travel time I could make with the bike, especially in the Catskills. I traveled on a few wet roads, but there was no rain all day. It was a beautiful day at Jake's, with a warm breeze and low humidity. Arlene prepared a great lobster picnic outdoors by their pond in the back field. I turned in at 9:30 while Jake was packing.
Day 2 - We were up before first light, had coffee and croissants at Jake's, and were on the road by 6:00. We rode mostly on superhighways to get around Albany, and we were soon on some of Jake's familiar dirt roads northeast of Troy. We had breakfast at an old country diner in Whitehall, NY, and then traveled on some rough back roads along the state line as we gradually made our way into Vermont. We stopped at one farm where we had to wait while the farmer led his herd of milking cows across the road and through a gate. We went through a second farmyard where Jake slowed down to let another cow cross. As the road cleared for Jake, and we began to move, I turned my head to look at the cow as she sauntered through the gate. When I turned back, I was horrified to see that Jake had suddenly stopped for the farmer's wife, who was leading another cow across at a different spot, less than a hundred feet up the road. There he was, fully stopped, and here I was, closing the gap much too fast. I locked both brakes, but time ran out too quickly. The next thing I knew I had rear-ended Jake, square in the middle. The little Yamaha stood on its front wheel as the rear wheel raised more than an inch off the road and dumped me soundly onto the gravel road. Jake was also knocked off of his bike. I was sure the trip had ended right there. I envisioned the fork and front wheel of the little Serow pushed back to the engine. I slowly picked myself up while Jake picked up both bikes. It was soon evident that the damage to the bikes was minor. The greatest loss was to my K1000 Pentax camera that was attached to my belt with its huge zoom lens attached. I landed on it with all my weight. We both sustained multiple bruises, and I had a few minor abrasions. But we restarted the bikes and were soon on our way.
A short while later, Jake motioned for me to lead. It was where my route sheet took over, but I thought he probably felt safer that way too. My planned route, which we then followed, was over several rough, scenic back roads in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. By the time we reached our overnight stopover in Stratton, VT, we were thankful to be riding modern dual-sport bikes with good suspension, rather than the vintage Triumphs. But I was still aching all over. We also realized that if we had taken the big touring machines we probably would have incurred major cosmetic damage and possibly disabled one or both of the big machines.
The temperature was in the high 80s when we got to Stratton after 380 miles. We celebrated with a few beers and a first-class dinner at a local restaurant. Frank DeGray had said he would join us there, and we looked for him all evening, but he never showed. Our room was hot that night with no air conditioning. We slept with the door wide open, and a box fan set on high in the doorway. The room finally cooled down around 3 AM, but neither of us slept well, due mainly to the heat.
Day 3 - We were up at 4:45, and I walked over to a 24-hour convenience store for coffee and donuts for the two of us. The temperature was in the mid 60s. It was hazy with fog in some of the valleys when we left Stratton. It never got above the 70s all day. The roads approaching Quebec City were wet. I wore my rain suit, which became standard for me for the rest of the trip; if not for the rain, then for the cold up north. Jake wore his modern, high-tech, dual-sport outfit. We stopped at a bank in Quebec City and exchanged currency.
We had a 15-minute ferry ride at Tadoussac, QC, which took us across a scenic fjord. I was glad to be eastbound after seeing a mile-long queue waiting for the westbound ferry. They probably had up to a two-hour wait. Our wait, plus the crossing, was only about 30 minutes. We got to Baie Comeau around 4:30, having traveled 435 miles that day. We learned that Baie Comeau is divided into two sectors. We chose a motel in the west sector before learning that our morning route was five miles farther up the road in the east sector. Even though we rode more miles that day than the first two, it was less tiring because the roads were smoother and the pain from the bruises had eased by then. My gas mileage dropped quite a bit, probably because of the higher speeds and stronger headwinds. I held the speed fairly constant between 55 and 60. Sometimes I could hold as much as 65 on level ground, which must have been well into the redline. Occasionally I would reach 70 or more downhill. When we climbed the several 11% grades, the speed would drop below 40. I added oil to the bike at Baie Comeau and watched the level carefully during the trip because the engine held only a liter, total. Being down only a pint meant I was running at those speeds on only two cups of oil.
Day 4 - I slept like a rock for seven hours, after which we were on the road by 5:15. The electric power in town failed around 5:00, so we left without breakfast - not even coffee. The day started out with bright sunshine and temps in the mid 40s. The first 30 or 40 miles of QC Rte 389 was twisty blacktop through some scenic, hilly countryside. We saw vacation homes around a few of the lakes. About an hour after we started the day, the temperature dropped to around 40. But it then got overcast and began to drizzle.
It was 130 miles to Manic 5, where we saw a hydroelectric power facility with a huge dam and a power station. The Serow ran completely out of gas two miles short of Manic 5. After refueling both bikes from our spare can, we rode 105 miles of gravel to Gagnon, QC. A very light rain kept the dust down. The road was wide and relatively straight with a smooth hard-packed gravel surface. Many of the shoulders were soft with ridges and a few stones. There were some stones up to tennis-ball size in the middle of the road; although it was easy to stay in the tire tracks. We topped off the gas at a small station 62 miles north of Manic 5 in expectation of 165 miles with no gas at all.
Gagnon is a ghost town right out of "Twilight Zone." There was divided pavement, concrete curbs with indentations for driveways, steel storm-drains, and evidence that there were once streetlight stanchions, although we saw no signs that buildings of any kind ever existed. No foundations or any type of construction materials were visible anywhere. I learned later that it was once a mining town that was dissolved six years earlier, and taken completely apart, picked up, and carried away. Today it exists in name only. There is 55 miles of smooth blacktop road from there to a small town named Fire Lake. The improved blacktop appears out of place as it crosses a high plateau, seemingly from nowhere to nowhere with no traffic. We saw only two other vehicles in the entire 55 miles. It was raining and chilly with temperatures in the low 40s. The landscape consisted of thin northern balsams. A pale-green, lichen-like moss covered the rocks and much of the ground.
The forty miles of gravel from Fire Lake to Mount Wright had some of the worst surface we found anywhere on the trip. It would have been passable with the Gold Wing, but there were millions of huge potholes and a lot of washboard surface with many soft spots. It would be a challenge for any bike. The narrow, low-maintenance dirt road, which the brochure refers to as "under construction", meanders all over the countryside and crosses the railroad tracks several times. The road connects Labrador with the seacoast town of Sept-Iles, QC. I thought the surface was more in need of maintenance than "under construction". We didn't see any construction equipment or work going on anywhere. A heavier rain soon settled in and it got quite chilly.
The road ended near a huge iron mine in Mount Wright. Twenty-five miles of fairly good road then took us past an access road to the town of Fermont, QC, and eventually into Labrador City, NL, a town with nice accommodations and friendly people who spoke English. We stayed at the Two Seasons Inn where the food was good, although a little expensive. There was a wedding reception going on when we arrived. Most of the entrees were priced in the mid $20. I saw Chateau Briand for two at $52. I ordered salmon steak, one of the lower-priced entrees, while Jake opted for Big Jim's Sirloin Steak. There were other restaurants nearby but we were cold and tired, so we chose to stay put in the warmth of the inn. Our first-floor room cost $72 (Canadian) with my Senior Citizen discount, which was the same price we paid in Baie Comeau without a discount, so I figured it wasn't bad.
Day 5 - When we left at 5:30 AM the temperature was 1° Celsius (34° F), with no rain. It didn't take long for the rain to return and for the temperature to drop to around freezing. I wore every bit of clothing I brought, including spare jeans and all of my spare T-shirts. Luckily I brought heavy hi-tech underwear. My fingers felt very cold through the lightweight felt-lined leather Harley mittens that I carried in the bottom of my saddlebag. To justify the pain, we reminded each other jokingly that this is what we came for. By the time we got 50 miles out, we were "cold to the bone" and Jake was wet underneath his outer clothes.
The 150 miles of gravel road to Churchill Falls was in fair shape. It had some washboard surface with a few soft ridges in the center, but for the most part it was a standard Canadian gravel road with a little less maintenance than most. The light rain served to keep the dust down. The scenery was fair, although the road was generally straight and level. Neither of us would go out of our way to come back to ride this piece of road again. There are certainly many more interesting dirt roads closer to home. We made the average time listed in the brochure, which was 3 hours.
Churchill Falls is a small, neat village, owned and operated by the hydroelectric power company. The hydroelectric plant offers tours of the facility when booked in advance. All standard services are available including banking, shopping and a post office. We lingered over a late breakfast at the inn before tackling the main object of our tour, the final 180-mile section of the Trans-Labrador Highway into Happy Valley/Goose Bay. While we were in Labrador City, we heard several comments about how bad it was from there to Goose Bay. Very few people had anything good to say about it. Some mentioned being stuck for hours while construction crews had the road blocked and torn up. Others told us about up to five accidents in a week, and about cars or pickups sliding off the slick surface into the ditches. Everyone we spoke with in Labrador City seemed to be negative about it. In contrast, the people we spoke with at Churchill Falls had very little negative to say. The conversation there centered mostly on the average time to drive it, which was 6 to 8 hours. Some said they made it in 5.
The road started out narrow and fairly straight with only two tire tracks. Vehicles from the opposite direction had to slow down and make room for each other on the single-lane road. We saw no one traveling for the entire distance. One of the first things I noticed was the lack of "pit-run gravel" that the brochure alluded to. I would characterize it more as a narrow, minimum-maintenance gravel road. It got more interesting about 50 miles out, near the Metchin River, where it was twisty and scenic. The rain threatened to wash away some of the surface. We were concerned that if the rain continued to come down like it was, we might have difficulty returning. We even discussed the possibility of having to take a ferry out of Goose Bay if the road got completely washed out.
The road is actually a great ride for an adventurous dual-sport rider. Of course it’s a long way to come just to ride 180 miles of dirt, which is one of the reasons it's called "Adventure Touring," which had been my thing since the late 1970s. It was certainly what we came for, and we enjoyed it in spite of the rain and cold. The rain caused muddy ruts and a few washouts along the edges, and sometimes a mild washout across the entire road. None are a big deal for a dual-sport bike. It would have taken the Gold Wing longer to get through than the time we made it in. I'm sure that weather conditions could render it impassable for most vehicles. But I suppose in a couple of years it will be greatly improved.
Water covered the entire road at this spot
My failing eyesight was my greatest concern. Being practically blind in one eye and the other being useless, whenever my face shield and glasses got covered with rain, it didn't afford a very good view of anything. Several times, I hit ruts and deep puddles that I didn’t see. My concern then would be to regain control after hitting something. We made the 180 miles from Churchill Falls to Goose Bay in six hours, which included a stop to refill my tank from the spare can, oiling the chain at least once, and stopping for a few photos. I was dry inside my rain suit although Jake was wet to the skin in a few places. His high-tech riding gear wasn't designed for all day in steady rain with a tiny windshield.
We had heard much about the construction on the eastern end, which began about 70 miles from Goose Bay, although we saw only two or three pockets of actual work. We came upon one spot where a bulldozer had the road completely torn up. When the operator saw us coming, he quickly back-bladed a section for us to ride across. The resulting fresh soft soil might have been difficult for a big touring bike. Because of the extremely light traffic, the construction crews weren't using flagmen, so we had to find our way through on our own and hope we didn't take a wrong path.
Arriving at Happy Valley / Goose Bay
We passed the old US Air Force Base at Goose Bay before locating our inn at Happy Valley. We checked into the Labrador Inn, which was our most expensive lodging of the trip. Being tired, cold and wet, we ate at the inn and forewent any sightseeing. The air base was used by the Northeast Air Command (NEAC) for defense and early warning during the Cold War in the 1950s, and later by our U2 reconnaissance planes. We assumed there was a coastal village nearby, but at that point we weren't interested in anything other than warming up, taking a hot shower, getting a meal, and getting some rest. We toasted Emil Cocce in memorial at dinner and figured he was probably looking down on us with a big smile. I walked to the convenience store after dinner for breakfast snacks because we planned to leave before breakfast.
Day 6 - The temperature was in the low 60's when we left the motel at 5:30. We were fully suited even though it wasn’t raining. It was a good bet that it would start soon. It actually started near the first construction activity about 30 miles out. A large piece of machinery was cutting a swath through the trees with a huge cutting wheel that threw chunks of bark and branches all over the place. I caught a piece of something on the end of my toe, which was painful. Around 50 miles out, a huge backhoe was digging on one side of the road and depositing bucket-loads on the other side. We timed our passing in-between swings of the huge bucket.
About 20 miles past the construction, I thought I saw a deep washout across the road in front of me. We were traveling about 40 mph. My clouded, rain-covered face shield blurred my already poor vision. I didn't want to hit the ditch at that speed, so I went for the brakes. Unfortunately I hit them a little too hard, which threw the bike into an immediate broad-slide. It was fully sideways when it hit the relatively minor washout, and it gave me a really ugly departure from the bike, and I landed on my head. Jake said when the bike landed, it hit first on one side and then did a complete somersault and landed on the other side. It’s amazing how much that little machine can take, not to mention my 72-year-old body. I bounced along the ground for a good distance and heard my helmet hit the road three times before I finally stopped tumbling. As Jake was picking me up, he said I was lucky I landed on my head; otherwise I might have really gotten hurt.
The only damage to the bike from the spill was that the brake pedal got bent, which Jake straightened while I sat on a big rock and tried to regain my composure. I actually sustained a slight concussion. We had to stop a few times to rest when I got dizzy and nauseated each time we took off. I picked up a nail in the rear tire only a few miles up the road, which went flat quickly. The flat gave my head the time it needed to clear. The tube had at least one hole in the sidewall in addition to the hole on the face. We used Jake's spare tube rather than trying to patch it. He stuffed the 450x17 tube into the narrow 18-inch tire and he used two of his CO2 cartridges to put about 15 pounds of air in it. Jake did most of the work because I was still dizzy from the concussion. The 15 lbs of air was plenty to get us the remaining 95 miles into Churchill Falls where I got more air.
The 180 miles from Goose Bay took us about seven hours, which included my accident and working on the tire. The rain was lighter than on our eastbound trip, and the road surface was in better shape. The ride would have been a blast had I not dampened the joy by crashing and getting the flat. We had lunch at Churchill Falls and made the 150 miles into Labrador City in three hours. I had a headache most of the way, and my ears rang for hours. I had pain in my neck where I ruptured a disk a few years earlier in a more serious end-o crash with the Gold Wing on an oil spill in the back roads near home. I haven't had many accidents, but the few that I had were memorable. I stopped using the face shield before we reached Labrador City, and decided to tolerate the cold and rain on my face rather than risk another bad scene.
Day 7 - It was 40° and raining when we left Labrador City, although the sky looked promising for a change. I had breakfast in the room, having picked up a few cereal bars and orange juice at the local convenience store the night before. Jake carried his breakfast, and ate it about an hour later. It was cold for the first 100 miles, especially on my bare face. Near the end of the rough 40-mile section, where we crossed the railroad tracks several times, we saw an 18-wheel semi that apparently went into a turn too fast and overturned in the ditch. The engine was stone cold, so it had been there for a while. It would take a heavy-duty hook to set it upright and haul it away. It appeared from the skid marks that someone had already tried in vain to move it. We stopped briefly to look it over, and Jake took a few photos.
We had a full breakfast at a truck-stop north of Manic 5. Being in Quebec where so many people speak only French, they enlisted the assistance of the only English-speaking woman in the place to wait on us. As we were getting gas later, Jake suggested we catch an earlier ferry to the Gaspe Peninsula. My original plan was to leave Godbout, QC on an 8 AM ferry the following morning for Gaspe. I remembered seeing a 2:00 ferry listed on the schedule that left from Baie Comeau rather than Godbout. We figured there was still time to make that one if stepped up the pace. So we rode the next 125 miles of mostly twisty macadam in only 2 hours. The Yamaha sang soprano all the way. It actually ran better than it did a week earlier when I left home. But after getting there, we found only a few maintenance workers painting lines in the queuing area. I rechecked my schedule and saw that the 2:00 ferry ran only on Mondays and Fridays.
We peeled off a few layers of clothes and decided to skip the Gaspe Peninsula tour and head home the way we came, making it a much shorter trip. We both had chores waiting, and we had already done what we came for, so after a late lunch in Baie Comeau, we rode 140 miles to Tadoussac, making it a total of almost 500 miles that day, a third of which was dirt. In my wildest dreams I would never have believed I could accomplish that on a 225cc dirt bike a day after landing on my head. It took its toll though, because I was beat, and I still had a headache. It was also on this trip that I came down with dermatitis herpetiformis, a form of Celiac Disease that causes painful blister-type sores on the butt.
Day 8 - The temperature was in the low 40s when we boarded the ferry across the fjord, which left at 5:30 AM. As we stood near the railing, we could see a water spout from a whale near the mouth of the fjord in the St. Lawrence River. While we were on QC Rte 138, which was a busy 2-lane highway, It was also a trucker's route. I would often get bogged down as low as 30 mph climbing the steep 11% grades, during which time any huge semis following me would have to do the same because of the double yellow line. As soon as I would crest the hill and start down the other side, my speed would return quickly to 65 or 70 with the truck close to my rear fender, looking to pass. Once, while I was clocking nearly 70 on one of those down-hills with a huge semi very close behind, looking for his chance to pass, my main tank suddenly ran out. It was like I hit the brakes. The truck was only a few feet behind me. The distance between us closed quickly to only inches, as I could hear his air brakes and the screeching of tires as I reached for the reserve gas valve. Jake, who was behind the truck, thought I was a goner. It was like an eternity before the reserve gas began to flow. Meanwhile, the truck driver was probably cursing me out. Jake also had a few choice words for me afterward. We stopped for breakfast at a McDonald’s in Baie St. Paul, and we used super-highways to bypass the expected morning traffic in Quebec City. Later, we had lunch at an old restaurant in Jackman, Maine, and stopped for the night in Gorham, NH after 420 miles that day.
Day 9 - The temperature was in the 40s when we left Gorham. The final day included an excellent gravel road over Jefferson Notch near Randolph, NH; a really nice series of twisty, scenic roads through New Hampshire and Vermont; and an enjoyable ride on another gravel road over Lincoln Gap, VT. We agreed that it's tough to beat a ride through the picturesque New England countryside and its villages. The weather was perfect for it. It made me wonder as I have many times in the past why we travel thousands of miles in search of great scenery, when we have some of the best, right here in our own back yard.
The Next chapter is: 14 AK7 - Robyn's Graduation