Apr 15, 2009

Riding The Rock(s) - The Newfoundland Rail Trail

Helping to pick up my riding companion’s motorcycle for the second time that day, I seriously began to doubt if we would ever make it. We were only one day in to our off-road excursion all the way across the province of Newfoundland.

It was a long time coming. Planned for several years, we were finally on the trail after riding our 650cc dual sport motorcycles three days from southern Ontario.

This trail was many years in the making, too. You might say it took over 100 years and countless millions to construct it. The T’Railway Provincial Park, part of Canada’s national trail system, exists on the former Newfoundland railway system.

The subtext behind this story and beneath our wheels, goes something like “the rise and fall of the Newfie Bullet.” The “bullet” nickname was most definitely tongue in cheek. The narrow gauge railway wound its way around and through obstacles in a manner unlike modern railways with their welded rails, and gentle slopes and turns.

Originally, Sir John A. Macdonald offered to build Newfoundland a railway, if they agreed to join confederation. He was rebuked, and the railway never got off the ground until 1881. The homegrown rail system brought a sense of national pride and economic development to the colony, opening up the interior and bringing a more diverse economy to this land of fishing villages.

The Newfoundland Railway became part of the CNR when they joined confederation in 1949. Perhaps the promise of a new highway system might have lured voters. The completion of the Trans Canada highway all the way across the province in 1965 was the death knell for the troubled railroad.

The narrow 3’6” gauge, chosen for reasons of economy, ultimately became more expensive to maintain. Equipment brought to Newfoundland had to have their trucks – the wheelsets they ride on – changed to match the uncommon gauge. Also, the decision to route the rail line over the mountains known collectively as the Gaff Topsails resulted in regular slowdowns in the winter when snow would often shut the line down for days.

The last locomotive wheels turned in 1988, with trains assisting in the dismantling of the rail lines. With the conversion of the winding railbed to recreational use, the right of way is still bringing economic diversity to the province in the form of tourism.

With only an outsider’s knowledge of the trail, we knew we were at a disadvantage. Navigational help was in the form of electronic maps for my Garmin GPS which still showed the old rail bed. Using it, and signage set up by the ATV and snowmobile clubs, we figured we had an excellent chance of following the trail. My partner for this adventure, John Jeffery, had more modern city street maps loaded on his GPS. We had all bases covered.

The aforementioned clubs are part of the committee charged by the government to administer and maintain the new T’Railway Park. Spur lines are not officially maintained nor are they a part of the park. Insurance has been let to protect committee members and members of the clubs. As you might expect, certain limitations apply to keep the cost of such insurance to a minimum.

The T’Railway website cautions that highway plated vehicles are prohibited, and this would seem to eliminate dual sport motorcycles. Newfoundland laws, however, recognize dual sports as ATVs, and members of the ATV and snowmobile clubs – and Newfoundlanders in general - welcome motorcycles onto the trail.

Mainly this online warning is to attempt to limit the use of the trail by trucks, Jeeps, and the like. Signs at trail entrances state that “cars and trucks are not allowed.” As we were to find out, this is easier said than done.

On our very first day, while still in view of breathtaking coastline, we encountered our first “prohibited” vehicle – a Chevrolet Cavalier! We were amazed by this, as conditions were less than sterling including deep sand, and he seemed a fair distance in from the nearest road crossing.

Riding on, we began to see the occasional cottage placed along the trail with no other possible access but the trail itself. All those building materials had to be brought in the there somehow, and it certainly wasn’t by ATV!

I learned later that most of these cottages along the trail have existed since the days of rail. Amazingly, the railroad would deliver these people and their building materials to these sites along the rail line. Even more astoundingly, people would ride the rails to their destinations, getting dropped off and picked again after a weekend visit to these remote cottages. Freight and passenger trains shared the rails.

Today, this poses a major problem for recreational users of the trail. We had close encounters with a pickup truck and minivan along the trail. Clearly, this conflict will be a source of ongoing consternation for the T’Railway committee. Cottages are still being built, bought, and sold along the line, and these owners – most of them ATV and snowmobile users themselves – get there with their street-going four wheeler.

Lest this all seem a tad depressing, I should mention that these few encounters happened over the approximately 700km we were actually on the trail. Much more numerous were the positive meetings with locals, and other trail users. Of course the railroad lines always entered the heart of any town along it., and this afforded us the opportunity to interact with many a citizen, and to find good places to eat.

I am blessed with a love of seafood, but John does not share my taste for "le fruit de mer." Boy was he in the wrong place. Early on, during one of our talks with someone connected to the fishery (such a person not entirely hard to locate), we heard some encouraging news. The cod fishery was recovering after years of bans and quotas.

I tried the cod for lunch on the very first day at the Silver Sands restaurant, after we jumped off the trail near Doyles. The only other people in the restaurant were also from Ontario.

It was north of there near Codroy Pond that we encountered some of the worst conditions of the trail, and where John went down twice. Visibility was measured in mere feet due to the overhanging trees and bushes. At one point a three inch branch nailed me hard right in the front of the helmet. Good thing my visor was closed.

Relief of the onslaught could be had if one stayed to the centre of the trail. Unfortunately, this is precisely where the ATVs had built up a ridge of loose gravel. Running over it sent the two ends of our motorcycles going in different directions.

We soon discovered why this section of trail was so bad: it was not being used. An old rail bridge, its center support sinking into the river, had collapsed on one end. There was no warning sign. Fortunately, we were barely above walking speeds when the chasm loomed. We had no choice but to turn around and ride back through the same bad trail to find a way around.

We got on the Trans Canada and I attempted to read my GPS while we both looked off to the side of the road for a trail entrance. Trail markings were few on the west side of the island. Exacerbating the difficulty in finding the trail was the problem that my GPS map did not have the rail line precisely placed. Our pictorial location was east of the rail line by several hundred meters even when we were sitting right on it.

Eventually trial and error led us to the correct trail entrance and we ended our first day at Barachois Pond Provincial Park. We set up the tents and made our way in to Stephenville Crossing, the former site of a WWII American Air Force base, for dinner.

We had covered over 130km on the trail itself, plus some assorted road mileage. We had budgeted each day at 150km to reach St. Johns in time to catch our ferry from Argentia back to the mainland, so we were pleased.

The Dunlop D606 tires, with an extra helping of wicked looking tread blocks, worked beautifully in the sand, but we were still confounded by the gravel.

Barachois Pond Park was clean and well run. Located next to a lake (pond?), the surrounding mountains were simply breathtaking. A suitable end to our thrilling first day.

The second day dawned as sunny and warm as the first, and we counted ourselves lucky. We packed up camp and went back to Stephenville Crossing for breakfast at Hartery’s Restaurant. Hartery’s: good for the arteries! The town had the look of a northern community, with staid apartment blocks and multi-purpose businesses, including the ambulance service and funeral home!

Back on the trail for the second day, we made a useful discovery. If we kept our speeds up, the bikes would skim over the heavy gravel and avoid getting thrown around so much. We stayed in second gear and maintained between 25 and 40 km/h. The looseness was still there, and the bikes moved around a lot beneath us, but the strategy was working.

The motorcycle’s tendency to right itself and ride in a straight line kept us on an even keel, as long as we maintained speed. This required a suspension of fear and a trust in the tire’s ability to find what little traction there was. By the end of the second day we had our trail legs.

Our newfound legs meant we could enjoy the surrounding scenery a little more, and the mountainous western end of the province didn’t disappoint. A high point of the day was an impromptu race we had with a personal watercraft as we rode next to Georges Lake.

We knew that the trail was closed to motorised traffic in the city of Corner Brook, and we rode around on the highway past Marble Mountain ski area to look for it on the other side. We again encountered trouble finding the trail entrance and on the advice of a few we asked, rode to Pasadena to pick it up again. Parts of the trail in this locality were also closed and a very posh looking golf resort community built there.

Back on the trail, we ran into such heavy brush that our preferred trail speeds were impossible, and we had to crawl once again over those nasty center ridges of gravel at walking speed with out feet down. After some time we got back on the highway and rode the last 10km in to Deer Lake.

As one of our goals was to photograph a moose, we took the opportunity to take a picture of the moose at the Irving gas station on the highway. We found real bargain camping, and we felt a few barley pop in town was in order. The trail ran right in front of the bar, we would have no problem picking it up again in the morning.

While we sat there, we saw every manner of recreational user on the trail; walkers, hikers, parents with strollers, ATVs, and motorcycles. Can you imagine such a mix of users along Toronto’s waterfront? It seemed anarchic, so foreign to my experience. We sat there smiling, delighted and amazed such a thing existed.
Our overall mileage for the day was 224kms, with 140 of that on trail.

Our third day on The Rock, a Friday, brought rain with the morning light, and we packed quickly and went to the Irving on the highway for some breakfast, then on to the trail. We were 20km into it when we got to a Dam and seemingly the end to this section of trail. Two Deer Lake employees came along and told us of the bypass, a “small” water crossing at the bottom of the dam. We went down to discover the rain had made this crossing into a rather treacherous wade though water over a foot deep near the sand bar, and running into murky unknown depths further in. It was a no go.

We rode back to Deer Lake on an old dirt road leading to the bottom of a massive spillway at the hydro generating station. We needed to get to the other side of Grand Lake, so it was back on the road to pick up the trail again in Howley. There, we met some German folk in a B.C. plated RV. The world was getting smaller and smaller.

The next section would take us further from civilization than on any other part of the trail. It was a 100km inland trek over a mountain range. This part of the original rail line was a major impediment, as elevations neared 600 meters and would see snow longer than on other parts of the rail line.

Before entering the mountains, the trail was shared with a logging road feeding several logging areas. Exactly how the logging trucks were to stay off this section of trail was going to require some further study. It was wide and smooth, and highways speeds were possible.

Not the highest in Newfoundland – mountains in Gros Morne National Park surpass the 800m mark – the Mizzen Topsail and Main Topsail (a native Newfoundlander would pronounce it TOP-suhl) Mountains, known collectively as the Gaff Topsails are striking in their beauty. Massive boulders are strewn haphazardly through meadows of moss and black cedar, lending a mysterious air as we rode between cathedral-like rocky peaks wreathed by mist. We saw evidence of moose on the mountain, but still our photographic prey eluded us

The rain had lightened some. The coolness of the air was a welcome change from the first two hot and sweaty days. The trail surface was sufficiently poor as to require us to stand on the pegs almost constantly since day one, with legs and arms pumping as the bike danced and weaved below. This was exhausting, and we took breaks every 30 minutes or so.

On the way down and back into heavier tree cover approaching Millertown Junction, a sign heralded a mountain spring, and we took the opportunity to stop and refill the water bottles. .

We had covered 70km of this section in about four hours, and never saw another living being. Truly marvelous. Not to say there weren’t signs of civilization. We rode past several groups of cottages, including at the peak of the Main Topsail.
After lunch and a stop to refuel and lube the chains in Badger, we hit the trail once again for Grand Falls-Windsor. On the map, it looked like the halfway point across and so seemed like a suitable destination. We had covered 217km of which about 135km were on the trail.

The rain had picked up again, so we found a hotel. The attached restaurant had a peculiar sign at the door which threw us, reading EXIT next to the restaurant name. We looked around for the entrance, but this was the only one. I suppose we were exiting the hotel.

I had some excellent steamed mussels in garlic butter. Afterwards we dropped in to the bar at the other end of the hotel and enjoyed some local entertainment. I felt low on energy and retired after a beer, while John stayed. He ended up getting approached by some of the friendly locals on a night out and was dragged to a few other bars until the wee hours.

Back on the trail in the morning, things were a little worse. Trail surfaces had declined in this area, and now the constant potholes were filled with water. It wasn’t fun. At least the rain kept the dust down.

In the community of Norris Arm, the trail was again multi-use. All forms of transportation short of cars and trucks were allowed. It was even paved. Most communities welcomed the boost the trail provided. All along the trail, there were signs advertising this restaurant or that hotel, much like you would see on a highway.

I had been noticing something peculiar for a while and in Norris Arm mentioned it to John. Every time I nodded at someone while riding the trail, they would shake their heads. At first I took this as some sort of admonishment. He began to notice it too. This turned out to be another idiosyncrasy of Newfoundlanders. This was a sort of hello, or “what a’ y’at.” - said fast enough to meld into two syllables.

Trails here are heavily grown in. More often than not, my mirrors would end up pointing at my crotch. The hand guards really helped protect my hands, but they were also taking a beating. I noticed the bolt threaded into the end of the handlebar holding the hand guard on the right side was turned almost all the way out. We tightened it up using a tool John retrieved from under the kitchen sink in one of his bags.

As he tended to be quicker, John pretty much led most of the trail sections. I usually only saw him on the straighter sections. Near Glenwood, I saw him pull to the side for a stopped ATV and I thought he was going to pass it at more or less full speed. I didn’t slow down much, we had finally managed to regain our 40km/h average. I realized a bit late that he in fact stopped to talk. I piled on the brakes, but on the wet surface, the tires simply began to slide. I let go of the front brake to steer the bike to the side of him, but there wasn’t enough room to come alongside on the tight trail. So I scrubbed my remaining speed by steering the bike sideways into a skid and ramming a loaded saddlebag into the back of his bike with my front wheel buried in the bushes.
By the time we got to Gambo, my camera wouldn’t work; kept telling me to change the batteries. They weren’t that old. The first two corner stores in Gambo I tried had only AAA batteries, which I thought was strange. The third place had el-cheapo carbon batteries and so I threw them in. The camera still didn’t work. I concluded it was dead, and we resumed picture taking with John’s camera. In St. John’s, I finally tried some decent batteries and found that in fact my camera had just eaten though a set of batteries quickly, probably from being left on in the top case.

Still in Gambo, I discovered that my drive chain seemed to be stretching. I then over-tightened it, and had to stop again before leaving to re-adjust it. The chain tension adjusting mechanism on the KLR650 is a smooth sliding system that leaves a lot of room for error as the axle can move a good ways before the guide moves. The Suzuki’s system seemed more precise and allowed for accurate setting of wheel alignment.

We were about to enter Terra Nova National Park and the sun was going to be setting in an hour or so. We were diverging from the highway and would be in the bush when it got dark if we continued on. As it was still raining, the best option seemed to be another hotel. We decided to hop back on the highway in the northern reaches of the park and ride south to Clarenville. I thought this would result in a moose sighting, as they are plentiful in the park, but still nothing.

We covered 286km on our fourth day, 200km of which was trail. It was a good thing I had the GPS to keep track of this, as my speedometer cable was now broken, first victim of the trail.

I had noticed something as we rode further east. It seemed that the trail, and Newfoundland in general, was a microcosm of North America. Settled first and highly populated in the east, things got more rough and more remote the further west you were. Overall, we were seeing more trail users, the trail marking were better, and trail conditions improved in the east.

The trail should have been a little easier as we were entering the Avalon Peninsula. It was evident that much more grooming was being done. However, the incessant potholes were filled from one side of the trail to the other, forcing us to just slog right through. We were under a stalled weather pattern.

We stopped for lunch in Whitbourne and began to analyze our options for the Sunday night. My brother was in Mount Pearl, near St. John’s, with his wife so I called him. He found us a room in the Conception Bay South area, setting up our day’s destination. There was also a music festival going on nearby. That would give us the chance to sample some traditional Newfoundland music. That left our sixth and final day a shorter one riding into St. John’s.

We left Whitbourne, after a brief detour up to Dildo for a picture opportunity. On this section enroute to Conception Bay, conditions were pretty good and we could maintain a steady 50km/h. Hidden by the uniform dirt and gravel surfaces, was a pit in the trail at least five feet deep, and perhaps 10 feet across. I was almost on top of it before I noticed, giving me little time to reduce speed. I could only chop the throttle to get some engine braking effect.

I’m sure I entered the hole doing over 30km/h. Luckily, the transitions down into and up out of the hole were reasonably smooth. Still, the bike bottomed hard, and launched me out with the engine racing, rear tire off the ground. I then heard a rubbing and thought a tire was flat. Stopping, it turned out a saddlebag strap had broken, and both left and right bags had fallen into the rear wheel. We strapped them back on with a nylon strap from John’s tickle trunk and on we went.

The last section past Holyrood was interesting as the rail line followed the water, sandwiching us between a boardwalk and the sandy beach in high winds and steady rain. We were up on the pegs trying to negotiate the large stones of this section. Nothing smaller than a grapefruit, they were wet and slippery, and we had an audience. There were people mere feet away on the boardwalk watching us. We picked our way through, feeling like trials riders, fortunately not dropping them in front of our spectators. After passing this interesting beach section, we got back on the road for the last few kilometers to the motel.

We enjoyed the music at the festival. We were so close to St. John’s, we were proud of coming this far, and celebrated our success with a local Quidi Vidi brew. Total distance for the day was 215kms, of which 164 were on the trail.

The next morning, it was 5 celcius and raining a bit harder. We easily found the trail, but this section was mostly near residential and commercial properties, and forced us across many roads. It was time consuming stopping so often, and the hassle was made worse by the KLR’s rough engine response. It began stalling frequently. Water had gotten into the engine, either by the low hanging carburetor breathing tube, a known KLR issue, or from a load of bad gas. John’s bike was working fine. We had been buying gas at the same stations, so I assumed it was the former.

After getting a ride from another helpful local fellow to a gas station for gas line antifreeze, it eventually fired. Checking our maps once again, we realized we were in for a few dozen kilometers of more criss-crossing residential roads, back yard laundry displays, and industrial complexes. We decided our rail trail excursion had come to a close.

We rode the short distance to the capital and the rail museum, mile zero of the Trans Canada Trail, and the logical conclusion to our journey across Newfoundland. We then proceeded to Cape Spear, the eastern-most point of land in North America, just to punctuate our finish.

The last section of trail in Mount Pearl and St. John’s is closed to motorized traffic so our last day was more symbolism than real trail riding. If we had had more time, the spur line down to the ferry in Argentia would have been fun also. Our only moose sighting was the sculpture in Deer Lake.

Aside from the closed bridge, the only sections of the trail we couldn’t ride on were in the cities of Corner Brook and St. John’s/Mount Pearl. Other municipalities are debating taking control of the rail trail in order to close it to motorized traffic. Conception Bay South is one such area actively involved in this debate.

One can understand their intentions. However, if the trail were to be closed in more areas, something would be lost that makes the T’Railway a special experience.

On the other side of the debate is the sheer pervasiveness of the ATV culture in most towns and villages. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that if you don’t live in the two aforementioned cities, you probably own an ATV. This fact, coupled with the number of cottages and camps located along the trail, assures a strong lobby whose collective voice will be for the status quo. This will likely be the case, so long as no one gets run over by a pickup

On our final evening on the rock, we were made welcome by my brother’s wife’s family for some honest to goodness home cooking, a real change after restaurant food and corner store fluff.

It felt like the end, but really wasn’t. We were looking at a 14 hour ferry ride, followed by 2000 kms of riding to get home. Since these bikes forced us into the slow lane, we followed the curved roads home. They were all paved roads and good fun to ride, but compared to the rail trail, the reward just wasn’t there.

Apr 9, 2009

Taking The Road Less Traveled - Trans Labrador Highway

New roads are built all the time. Some times, roads are built to replace old roads, such as the new four-lane TCH in New Brunswick. Some roads are built to service planned new construction of communities or suburbs. But in Labrador, they do things a little differently. In the summer of 2003, they put the finishing touches on a road to service communities that have been inhabited for decades. All of a sudden, Labrador's highway system has been lengthened by over 60%!

With that in mind, the Trans-Labrador highway is something of a misnomer. Dirt and gravel from end to end, it's in worse condition than some roads I've been on in Ontario that don't even make it onto some maps. But a highway it is, and to many communities on Labrador's East Coast, it's brought fundamental changes to commerce and to their very way of life. No longer stockpiled for the winter when the ferries can't run through the ice, goods now arrive in a timely fashion via trucks. Travel no longer requires waiting for the occasional ferries which take days to reach civilization.

Yet despite the completion of highway 510, one cannot yet ride all the way through Labrador. A twelve hour long ferry runs between Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Cartwright. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador eventually plan on completing this section. This new highway also does not serve all of the communities along the east coast. Some remain isolated by ferry travel alone, creating the potential for a new definition of “lane envy.”

A new frontier has been created for the adventurous traveler. Those most likely to gravitate to the canned vacations of cruise lines and theme parks need not apply. Some folks, like me, would prefer to roll our own and see what there is to see in the nooks and crannies of this great land. And perhaps increased tourist traffic will help to alleviate the negative effects of the declining fishery.

Labrador is definitely not on the radar screens of most potential tourists. Heck, prior to this trip, I didn't know that it has its own flag, distinct from that of Newfoundland the Island. So this year, after my purchase of the dual purpose (or what they used to call street and trail) Kawasaki KLR 650, I could not refuse the beckoning of this new Canadian frontier.

This is how I found myself in Moncton watching a great mass of stationary weather raining down upon my planned route through Nova Scotia and Newfoundland on my way to Labrador. I wanted to leave from Red Bay, and ride the glory trail to road's end in Cartwright. It only seemed fitting. The weatherman was telling me otherwise, for if I could just escape New Brunswick's rain clouds, I had clear skies north through Quebec to Labrador. So I reversed my planned route and off I went northbound in the driving rain.

Somewhere between Campbellton, New Brunswick, and Matane, Quebec it finally did stop raining. On this Friday morning in early August, I gladly left behind what turned out to be the last rain I would encounter as I made my way through the rugged Gaspe Peninsula. The ferry from Matane to Baie-Comeau is the first of four ferries I would take on this trip. In the waiting, I had lost several days so I was glad to finally be on the move.

Much like the small town of Shawinigan downriver, Baie-Comeau spawned one of Canada's Prime Ministers. But instead of looking for the yellow brick road (or mega-dollar patronage handouts as the case may be), I opted to gas up and immediately head north into the hurricane of route 389. While the hurricane metaphor might be stretching it a bit, I was definitely no longer in Kansas, Toto. Highway 389 presented a tilt-a-whirl ride of elevation and directional changes as it romped over heavily wooded hills and around deep blue lakes and rivers.

The KLR is known as a reasonably capable off-road bike. One of its unsung virtues is its capabilities as a back road burner. While highway 389 is mostly gravel, the first two hundred kilometers north from Baie-Comeau is paved. The KLR, despite its tall perch and dual sport tires, was capable of coaxing wide grins. The soft suspension soaked up the numerous frost-heaved and poorly patched sections while admirably holding a line through the corners.

My arrival at Manic-5 signaled the end of paved roads, and the start of 1200 kilometers of gravel and dirt. The site of a positively massive hydro development, this is also one of only two gas stations on this 600 km stretch. Tours can be arranged at this site, the largest multiple arch-and-buttress dam in the world. I held off, as the underground hydro station in Labrador held greater fascination.

The next gas station, the Relais Gabriel, is further north, snuggled up against a crater known as Reservoir Manicougan. Created by a meteorite strike over 200 million years ago, at 60 miles, it is tied for the fifth largest meteorite crater in the world. This large round eye, complete with lashes, stared back at me from my GPS screen as I rode further north. I refueled here, eyeing a tanker delivering fuel - usually a recipe for bad gas as this can stir up dirt and moisture in the underground tanks. For the next 250km, you will see moderate sized mountains covered with endless tracts of evergreens, and little else.

It had been a long ride in partial rain up 'till then. After refueling, I began to look for a place to set up my tent as the sun would soon disappear over the crater. Finding flat ground in this rocky expanse proved difficult, but I finally found what I was looking for in the form of a gravel pit. I slept well despite the fact that my Canadian Tire tent apparently did not sport the no-see-um mesh that higher quality tents usually do. I felt safe, though. What were the chances of another meteorite striking the same place?

Saturday morning greeted me with yet more gravel, but the skies were clearer and I could feel the heat of the sun for the first time in over a week. Road conditions seemed to be deteriorating the further north I went. The former town of Gagnon provided brief respite from both the gravel and the rolling hills of spruce and occasional pine. This former mining town was literally disassembled and moved away. All that is left are the empty streets, complete with curbs. Not one single structure was left behind, an eerie sight.

The last stretch of highway 389 to Fermont, Quebec, and the Labrador border, about 150km, was simply horrid. Large rocks were scattered loosely amongst copious ruts, robbing me of the confidence to ride at reasonable speeds. Relentless washboard hammered the KLR's chassis, and the road repeatedly criss-crossed the rail line, leaving large gaps big enough to swallow a motorcycle tire. If this wasn't bad enough, my fears of bad gas seemed to come true when the bike began to hesitate occasionally. The pavement resumed just before the Labrador border.

A friend who formerly lived in Labrador City had warned that the roads I would ride in Labrador were some of the worst I was ever likely to encounter. The fact that the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary instituted a program to loan out emergency satellite phones to tourists driving through from Lab City to Goose Bay seemed to provide further evidence of road conditions; the dearth of services and traffic on these roads also being a factor.

I pulled into the police station in Lab City to inquire about the sat phone loaner program. While it did provide peace of mind, the gee whiz factor of the phone was too large to ignore. Though the phones were actually at the hotels, the road information provided by the officers was invaluable.

Pulling away from the cop shop, the engine was revving higher than expected. The clutch was slipping due to what seemed to be a sticking clutch cable. The handle became difficult to operate and a broken cable became an imminent possibility. In need of emergency lubrication, I sought out a motorcycle shop - any motorcycle shop - and was happy to find the Polaris/Yamaha dealer in neighboring Wabush. My sticking cable turned out to be a lever pivot in need of lubrication. This was a relief, but I lubed the cable anyway. I was still worried about my engine hesitation problem

I found a restaurant late on this hot and sunny Saturday afternoon and had a tasty seafood platter as I contemplated my next move. I felt like staying in this nice town and maybe touring the Wabush mine. The Labrador City mine is the largest open pit iron ore mine in the world, and the Wabush mine is not much smaller.

I looked at the Goose Bay ferry schedule. The next departure was Sunday evening at 7, followed by another Tuesday, also at 7PM. A Tuesday ferry seemed too late as this was a 12 hour journey and I still had to ride highway 510 to Red Bay, take a ferry to Newfoundland, and eventually another ferry to the mainland on my way back to Moncton and eventually Ontario. I had to do all this in what was my last week off. Catching that ferry from Goose Bay to Cartwright Sunday at 7PM seemed the best solution.

I booked a room down the road at the hotel in Churchill Falls for Saturday night as I was in desperate need of a shower. I would have all day Sunday to ride the 300 kilometers from there to Goose Bay. After filling up, I hoped I had seen the last of the hesitation. With my satellite phone packed away in a saddlebag I headed out into the moonscape of the Labrador interior.

While not particularly far north, latitudes are similar to those of Edmonton in the west, winters are cold and snowfall exceeds 15 feet. Geography is flat rock and low trees, with few lakes or rivers to break up the monotony. The road was very straight and boring and its surface remained washboard, loose rock, and ruts. Embedded rocks jutting out into my intended wheel path demanded constant attention. To make matters worse, the engine continued its misbehavin' ways, cutting out half a dozen times.

On top of the hazards presented by the road itself, the presence of other road users dictated constant scanning of the mirrors and road ahead. I seemed to be the only one bothered by the atrocious road conditions. Cars, pickups, campers, and tractor trailers all sailed by me at very 401-like speeds. Getting pelted with rocks was a regular occurrence. I always made sure my helmet visor was closed. Labrador had not seen recent rain, and the dust stirred up by a passing vehicle was positively blinding. Occasionally, a breeze carried off the cloud in a reasonable time, but more often than not, I was left blind for a minute or more. Imagine the carnage should a second truck not see me in the ensuing hurricane of dust. I began to pull over to let other vehicles go by, jogging along at the edge of the road until I could see. This 250 km section took almost five hours and I was wiped by the end.

Churchill Falls is a true company town, with all services and homes owned by the crown corporation Churchill Falls Labrador Inc. When employees retire, they must move out. The falls are no longer anything to look at, all water being diverted to this massive generating station. You can't come to Labrador without taking a tour of this amazing underground facility. The entire station, over 5000 megawatts worth, is cut into solid granite over 1000 feet below the surface. After my Sunday morning tour, I checked out of the hotel, signing out another sat phone.

While gassing up to leave, I discovered that the rubber mounting trim around my left hand mirror had worked loose on the road to town. I attempted in vain to return it to position, hoping it would not work completely loose, as the mirror would fall out. My trim was not the only casualty of the rough roads. A family with a camper was at the gas station looking to buy a trailer tire. They had a flat, installed the spare, and then the other tire went flat. The flat mounted on the rear of the trailer looked like two ragged discs, the tread completely gone. Still full of wonderment from the tour, it was high noon on Sunday when I left Churchill Falls behind.

The engine didn't run any better with new gas, but then it didn't get any worse either, and I wanted to make that ferry. Fortunately, the 300 km section from Churchill Falls to Happy Valley-Goose Bay was the smoothest section of the whole Trans Labrador highway.

After returning the phone to the hotel in Goose Bay, I headed for the ferry. As I inched forward in line, another problem with the bike surfaced. The forks had acquired a great deal of “stiction.” Braking to a halt behind the car in front, the forks would dive and stay down. Getting back on the gas to move forward again, the forks would pop up and stay up. This up and down cycle repeated itself every time I moved forward. Compounding the stress, as I rode onto the ferry ramp, the engine hesitated for an even longer duration than usual. This time, I happened to be glancing at the gauges. I saw the tachometer drop down to zero. It seemed my problem was electrical, and not the engine after all. I had to while away my 12 hour ferry ride thinking about the problem, unable to work on it down on the vehicle deck. I brought my sleeping bag and pillow up to the lounge to get some rest.

As the ferry left Goose Bay, a dozen or more young men on personal watercraft played in and around the wake left by the ferry. Squid is a term often used to describe hotshots on sportbikes, but never did the term apply so well as to these guys. They would speed toward the two meter-high wake, getting huge air as they ramped over. Some were obviously well-practiced, landing properly, their legs absorbing the shock and momentum of the landing. Others not so, even landing upside down in a frothy spray. While quite alarming to witness, they always rolled over and were going again very quickly.

I went down to the bike to retrieve my cameras, but by the time I got back, they were all gone. A large crowd of people had gathered on deck to watch them, and I asked one fellow why the squids had left. He explained that after someone had ramped over the boat's wake, he was left floating on the water unconscious after his jet ski landed on top of him. At least they all had the sense to wear flotation devices.

Once the sun went down, in turns I spent time sleeping in a recliner, and walking the decks. It was a mild night, with a clear sky. I noted with much satisfaction that this was the first time since coming to Labrador that I could go outside without being swarmed by blackflies. I had hoped to see the northern lights, but it was the wrong time of year for that.

I arrived at Cartwright on a sunny Monday morning. Expecting a rugged and rocky coastline, I was pleasantly surprised by the rolling olive hills of the mainland and surrounding islands. With a sense of reverence, I rode down the ramp to a place where few North Americans have visited. I looked for any evidence of changes made to accommodate the new traffic they would be expecting. Most of the street signs appeared new. It was obvious from the layout and grading of roads that much work had been done in recent months. Although the area near the dock was paved to facilitate fork truck traffic, not a single road was paved in town, all sporting fresh gravel. I glimpsed a hardware store on aptly named “Back Road” and stopped there to investigate my hesitating engine.

Removing the saddlebags, I noticed the tremendous scuffing they had inflicted upon the decals on the sidecovers, victims of the washboard surfaces. Removing them and the seat allowed access to the bike's electrical guts. I cleaned various connectors, and replaced the two glass fuses with new ones purchased from the hardware store. Looking around further, I decided to check the fuse I added in the line feeding my heated clothing. It was blown. The splice where I lengthened this wire had worn through and had shorted this fuse out. Could this be what was causing my hesitation? Was that last final hesitation riding up onto the ferry what finally blew this fuse? I sure hoped so. I repaired the frayed wire and put the bike back together.

After stopping to mail some postcards, I waved farewell to this town, wishing it well on its joining the network of roads that will bring with it much change. I headed out with eager anticipation of the spanking new highway.

There's good news and bad news about highway 510. The good news is that the surface is not washboard and rutted like other sections of the Trans Labrador highway. The bad news is that there are still pockets of ongoing road construction. There were large areas of loose sand and gravel. Running into these sections at normal riding speeds was a puckering experience. I was fortunate for the lack of traffic as I swerved wildly at times, powering through on the gas.

The road runs inland, not towards nearby coastal communities south of Cartwright as you would expect. The first few hundred kilometers showcased more trees and rock, enough to last a lifetime. Subtle changes in the colour of the road surface reflected the hills surrounding it. Whenever I detected a transition of texture or hue, I would invariably see the source of this new material in a nearby excavation site.

Much like other sections of gravel road in Labrador, dust was a major problem. I stopped near Port Hope Simpson to refill. Walking in to the store for a stick of Caribou jerky, I did a convincing impression of Pig Pen of the cartoon Peanuts. Wherever I walked, clouds of dust billowed to fill the air around me. Every surface of both bike and rider were covered in a patina of light brown filth.

Soon, trees became shrub and moss as the craggy south coast of Labrador neared. I found myself at the end of my gravel travel and in the village of Red Bay. With plenty of daylight left, I cruised up to the Parks Canada interpretation center in full tourist mode. Red Bay is the site where 500 years before, the Basque people of what is now the Spanish and French coast opened up shop. Considered to be the first industrial operation in North America, they processed whales for oil.

Locating a local B&B, I checked in and then went for some supper. On my way, I regretted leaving my riding pants behind. Storm clouds quickly obscured the sun, and I was soaked in a manner of minutes. I dined on more excellent local seafood. Leaving the restaurant afterwards, I partook of one of my favourite pastimes - license plate patrol. Besides my own Ontario plate, there were examples from Alberta and Arizona. In my absence, two couples had also checked in to the B&B. During the commercial breaks of a particularly gory episode of CSI Miami on satellite, they explained that they were retired and full time RVers. What a life.

Tuesday morning dawn brought with it more glorious sunshine, the promise of warm weather was in the air and on the satellite TV weather channel. After a breakfast of bacon, and local partridgeberry jam on home made toast, I was off.

Funny as it seems, the south coast of Labrador is completely dependant upon its neighbor, Quebec, for basic services. With all the power being generated to the north, this section is supplied by Hydro Quebec, and is known by locals to be quite unreliable. Worse still, to get from Labrador to the island of Newfoundland, you have to drive to Quebec to take the ferry.

But what a ride it is. This one hour romp hugs the coast with a sinewy ribbon of excellent blacktop that by itself would have made the whole trip worthwhile. It was still very early. To my left, the low sun and its blinding reflection off the calm waters of the Straight of Belle Isle plunged me into near total darkness as I rode into the shadows of the numerous rock cuts surrounding the road. The curvy paths up to teetering cliffs and the inevitable dizzying plunges back down to sea level left me yelling and swearing epithets the whole way. I could have ridden back and forth over this road all day.

All too soon, I had crossed the border back into Quebec, and waited in line for my third ferry ride. I lined up next to the K1200LT of a Tennessean who had taken this same ferry over from Newfoundland the day before. He lamented not riding further into Labrador, but I assured him his bike was wholly unsuited for the task.

Calculating ferry times was confusing. Since leaving New Brunswick, I had crossed through half a dozen time zones. New Brunswick operated in Atlantic time, Quebec on Eastern time. Western Labrador was back on Atlantic time, but after getting off the Goose Bay-Cartwright ferry, the eastern shores of Labrador were in the Newfoundland time zone. To make matters worse, Blanc-Sablon, where the ferry left Quebec for Newfoundland, was back on Eastern time like the rest of Quebec - but the ferry operated on Newfoundland time! I had been asking folks what time it was for days, setting and resetting my watch and GPS.

On the island, the wind seemed to be quite brisk. Leaving the small town of St. Barbe, I was suddenly faced with something I had not had in well over a thousand kilometers: choice. I could head south on highway 430 towards Gros Morne park and Corner Brook, or I could go north. I chose north and the Viking ruins of L'Anse aux Meadows. Along the way, I risked a blowout on the sharp coastal rocks as I attempted to get down to a rocky “beach” for a few pictures. This activity proved occasionally frightening as the fragile piles of rock shifted and broke beneath me. Once a tourist, always a tourist.

L'Anse aux Meadows is an interesting site for history buffs. The Viking folks were here fishing the abundant waters a millennium ago, 500 hundred years before the Basque. The pillaging of the local sea life seems to have always been a fact of life - cod fish anyone?

While at the museum, I thought I would do something quite uncharacteristic; I called ahead to Marine Atlantic to book a ferry out of Port aux Basques. To my surprise, they were all booked up until Friday morning, but I booked anyway. This worried me as I was hoping to cross much earlier.

I camped in nearby Viking RV Park that night. Almost everything for miles has the word Viking in it, even the road. I packed up and set out on a sunny but even more windy Wednesday morning for parts south. The rain and cloud of the previous week was seemingly long gone, replaced by a relentless gale. There were times that the wind off the water threatened to blow me into the weeds. I met up with my Tennessean friend yet again and we shared a breakfast table, watching as his bike tottered alarmingly in the wind. We separated again and I continued on toward Gros Morne National Park.

The road along the coast held fascination. Fenced off vegetable gardens were visible along the roadside. Arable land being in short supply, locals have taken to claiming sections near the roads, fencing them off and decorating the posts with plastic bags to ward off moose and other potential raiders. I also saw my one and only iceberg along this route.

When the coffee came a callin', I stopped and went down over an embankment to do my bit to raise the global oceanic levels. Returning to the bike, I thought I would take the opportunity to lube the chain. To my dismay, the wind had not only claimed the piece of wood I was using to prop underneath my swingarm, but also a rag I had tied to the gas can. I looked around and found a weathered old piece of wood that could have been pre-war - WW I that is - to raise the rear tire for lubing purposes.

I spent a bit of time looking over the bike right on the shoulder of the TCH, and noted with satisfaction that my engine hesitation had ceased.

I arrived to calmer winds and eye catching mountains in Gros Morne National Park. Tooling around in Rocky Harbour, I discovered a dirt trail that invited. I followed it in several kilometers, dodging rocks and deep water-filled holes along the way to the local water supply reservoir. A fun little side trip I would never have attempted on my larger Honda ST1100.

The sun had meanwhile advanced across the sky, and I pondered my next move. I thought about camping in the park that night, exploring the old rocks of the Tablelands, and then sampling the trails of the T-Railway Provincial Park on my way south to the ferry on Thursday. Not really a park at all, this abandoned railway bed has been converted to a multi-use resource. I had been interested in riding this thousand kilometer trail ever since I bought the KLR.

I had hoped to get back to the mainland Thursday so that I had lots of time to get back to Ontario by the end of the week. Leaving Port aux Basques on a six hour ferry late Thursday or Friday morning would leave me with little time to spare. I opted to try to catch the midnight sailing to North Sydney, Nova Scotia, on Wednesday night. I would have to come back to the old railway bed on another trip.

Lining up, I chatted to a young couple from British Columbia on two Yamaha cruisers who were on their trip of a lifetime. They seemed to be enjoying themselves fully, despite being somewhat frustrated by the limited sailing times and poor information offered by the telephone operators at Marine Atlantic.

My fourth and final ferry offered up a duo in the lounge performing traditional Newfoundland music, and during the all night excursion, a happy, festive atmosphere reigned- at least until folks retired to their sleeping quarters. As this was essentially the terminus of my own trip, I lingered over an adult beverage while the music lulled me into a pleasantly drowsy state. I capped off the night with a few winks in a lounge chair, my Aerostich jacket keeping me warm doing blanket duty.

Once again sunny, Thursday morning carried me through the lovely Cape Breton interior. I wasn't ready to end my vacation just yet, though. I detoured north at Antigonish and rode the Sunrise Trail on routes 337 and 245. Known as the Mini Cabot Trail, it is an exceptional example of the great riding available in Nova Scotia. It was here I spotted the home of yet another former Prime Minister of Canada.

Well, sort of. I snapped off a picture of the mailbox at the home of none other than John A. MacDonald himself (Canada'a first Prime Minister), a fitting end to my uniquely Canadian discovery tour.


The entire Trans Labrador highway is scheduled to be complete in 2009, eliminating the need to take the ferry from Goose Bay to Cartwright.

Apr 8, 2009

2005 Iron Butt Rally

From its inception in the 80’s, the Iron Butt rally has attracted an eclectic but determined subset of touring riders in North America and from around the globe. They are drawn to the challenge of dragging themselves and an overloaded motorcycle around much of the United States and Canada for eleven days fueled by raw grit, greasy fast food, and pay-at-the-pump gas.

But why put oneself though the agony of 11 weary days in the saddle? The real reason seems rooted in the competitive nature of the event. After all, you don’t need to spend US$1550 (the entry fee for the rally), plus travel expenses, to plan and execute an 11 thousand mile ride.

Stumbling on a few articles on the rally in 1997, I immediately got the itch. I bought my ST1100 in 1998 and started doing smaller solo rides such as the Saddlesore 1000, the Iron Butt Association’s “beginner” ride of 1000 miles in 24 hours. I finally rode “the big dance” in 2001, finishing in 32nd place.

The rally has changed little over the years. Initially held annually, it later ran every two years when the number of competitors rose to 100. Current rallies still run about 100 riders, which doesn’t quench the huge pent up demand. Only a small fraction of applicants win the lottery held to pick entrants. I wasn’t picked in 2003, but felt like a million bucks when I received word of my successful entry in 2005.

A million bucks is precisely what I wished for after coming home the rally in September and the bills started coming in. For if the rally has changed little over the years, the motorcycles and equipment certainly have.

In the months leading up the rally, I realized my old monochrome StreetPilot had to go. It was slow, outdated and outclassed by modern units such as the Garmin 276c I bought. With auto routing, large and bright TFT LCD screen, fast scrolling and searching, and handy voice prompting, it had the smarts to guide me anywhere I cared to go.

But add up the cost of the unit, high capacity memory card, detailed maps on DVD, and RAM mount, and just watch a G-note come and go. However, I wouldn’t have placed as highly without it.

After all that, I decided to also use the old GPS during the rally as backup. My old unit displayed a large-scale overview map, which also contained a clock display. In order to keep track of constantly changing time zones, it was permanently set to Mountain Daylight Time, the zone that the starting city of Denver lies within. I wrote down each entry in the bonus sheets with the same zone, and I didn’t want to be late to the finish, either!

Most competitors were also carrying laptop computers, and I was no exception. I used mine for email when a phone line was available, route planning at checkpoints, and for loading new maps, waypoints, and routes into the GPS. Having a larger screen also made doing what-if calculations faster and easier than doing all that right on the GPS screen.
Auxiliary lights are de rigueur and many motorcycles in the 2005 rally had more than one pair. Costs for lighting can quickly add up when you spec out set of HID (high intensity discharge) lights, and then augment the primary headlight with HID auxiliary lights as well.

Here I didn’t go as crazy as some. I used generic plastic-bodied spot beams from UAP/NAPA. The reflectors are large, the key to good light output, and I installed 100W halogen bulbs. Going this route, I saved at least $300 over a pair of PIAAs. Replacing one after a tipover won’t bring tears to my eyes.

My Gerbing heated jacket liner and gloves (think warm) and Aerostich suit (think dry) complete the safety and comfort equation. With Gore-Tex lining, the ‘Stich eliminates the need for a rain suit. Gore-Tex lined boots anchor my personal gear, ensuring dry feet under all conditions.

All this equipment draws plenty of power, and requires lots of room to mount and stow. Serious competitors were riding the newest touring motorcycles with their litre-plus engines and high output alternators. Quite a few made special bike purchases after being drawn for the rally, and many of these started the rally only recently having completed an abbreviated break in.

My high mileage ST1100 was competing in its second ‘Butt, and had over 300,000 kilometers on the clock when I arrived at the starting hotel, the Doubletree Denver, before the August 22nd start.

Of course all these expenses just got me to the starting line. I doubt all this talk of expense will discourage any readers seriously contemplating this rally. I wasn’t.

The rally format changed a little this year. The first checkpoint was right back in the starting city of Denver, followed by one more checkpoint in Maine. In the past there were three checkpoints, each in far-flung corners of the US.

The scavenger hunt nature of the event remained as challenging as ever. A lighthouse and water theme gave rally master Lisa Landry plenty of ammunition with which to challenge us. Or one could say the rope was long enough for each of us to hang ourselves.

As always, there were many more bonuses offered on the menu of choices for each leg than could possibly be visited within the time allowed. The combinations and arrangement of these were designed not be easy to just scoop up in a simple loop. Making it more difficult was the fact that almost all of the bonuses (bonii?) were daylight only where a picture was to be taken with the numbered rally flag in the Polaroid snapshot.

My favourite example of this is the Yellowstone park triplet offered in the first leg. Three big bonuses were clumped together within the park. They sure looked attractive, and Yellowstone was just close enough to get to before nightfall on the first day. The rally started at 9AM and there were precious few big-point bonuses available to riders on day one.

I resisted this enticement. Yes I could have gotten to the park by nightfall, but each was in different sections of this very large and busy park. One traffic tie up would put the whole trio out of reach.

Instead, I bagged a single large bonus in Nebraska (yes there is a lighthouse in Nebraska!) just a few hours into the rally, and spent the rest of the first day riding to put me in the vicinity of a very large bonus in New Mexico the next morning at daybreak.

The gambit worked. I had heard of several riders who got caught in heavy traffic in the park and had to blow off all three bonuses as the sun set while they stewed in their own juices. Sure they could have waited to morning light to take the three required pictures, but they would have just sat all night and then wasted the next day getting to the Pacific coast where all the big points were. Instead, they spent the night riding to the coast to begin their bonus hunt at first light with no bonuses under their belts to show for their efforts.

Very tricky, Lisa, very tricky indeed!

After New Mexico, I battled heat and dehydration though Arizona and southern California just south of Death Valley, snagging a bonus for taking a picture of a sign at the bottom of the world’s tallest flagpole. The base of the pole was over 300 feet below sea level, and stretched up to sea level. San Diego brought welcome cool air and a nice fat bonus that evening, coupled with a beautiful sunset over the water.

I strolled the shops in Coronado near San Diego looking for bottled water and a pair of sunglasses as mine had packed it in during the day’s desert heat, just two days into the rally. That night on the coast in Los Angeles, I took a picture of a sign at the entrance to a gated community, one of the few nighttime bonuses offered. The GPS routed me though the complicated series of freeways like a native.

I continued north up the California coast and into Oregon before turning east and heading back to Denver. A massive jam-up in Portland at afternoon rush hour forced me onto the shoulder for miles. My riding suit, tall whip antenna, and airliner dashboard layout lent an official look and no one bothered me.

Back in Denver I found myself in the top half of the field. I was surprised to learn that some riders went to Key West, Florida and New Brunswick during this three and a half day leg. They were able to snag very large bonuses for their extreme efforts, but were eclipsed by riders who collected the numerous bonuses on the west coast. And those long rides left them over-tired for the remainder of the rally, where they dropped in the standings.

We retired to our rooms that evening with bonus sheets in hand for the Denver to Maine leg. While we could leave at any time, I tried to get some sleep after route planning and loading my GPS with maps from my laptop computer.

At two in the morning, I was still wide awake. I dressed, collected my things, left the room key on the table and walked down to the bike.

Fifteen minutes after leaving the lights of Denver behind, my headlights went out on I70 eastbound. I was in the dark; my aux lights were triggered from the headlight circuit and as a result were also kaput.

Sitting on the shoulder, with nothing but the moon and a flashlight to give me sight, I decided not to go after the fuse. Instead, using CB radio, I contacted the next trucker to drive by, asking for guidance to the next truck stop that my GPS told me was less than 20 miles away. A lit parking lot was definitely a more suitable workspace than the breezy and exposed interstate shoulder.

Later on that day in a choking Kansas heat, I stopped at a highway service center for gas. While points are not given for miles ridden, having a complete fuel log accompanied by detailed fuel receipts are worth quite a few points.

The receipt the pump spat out did not have the location printed on it. I politely asked the cashier in the store if the cash register receipt had location. I was treated to a rant triggered by the rude treatment of another motorcyclist, who was obviously another Iron Butt competitor. He had berated her for the unfortunate lack of printed location on the store’s receipts.

I eventually left the store with a printout that had all the needed information, and I carried with it a sense of frustration and disappointment with my unknown fellow rider. No amount of apologies (and I gave her quite a few) could repair the damage that one inconsiderate person had done to our sport.

Much rain and fog that night in the mountains of West Virginia only dampened my spirits further. I slowed my pace, but being passed at imprudent speeds by three Aerostich wearing riders on GPS-equipped bikes had me wondering further whether I really belonged in this rally.

Does one have to be rude and unsafe to be competitive?

After the rain, I began debating with myself about how much time I had left on this leg to ride to my planned bonus locations, having already abandoned one. After mentally going back and forth a few times, I did decide to attempt the biggest points along my path. I knew this indecision was fatigue induced and vowed to get more sleep at the Maine checkpoint, where the timing was right to obtain bonus points offered for resting.

I had scheduled a tire and oil change at Reynolds Motorsports, the site of the Maine checkpoint, and showed up there after a very nice sleep in a motel. I handed my bike over to the service department, got my paperwork in order, and went to the scoring desk. Much to my surprise, I had gained a few positions and was now in the top third.

The last bonus listing had bonuses all over Canada and the United States, including several hard to reach ones on the west coast that were worth big points. While planning my route, yet another discovery left me with a feeling of disappointment. Many competitors had teams of helpers planning the route for them while they slept. These pit crews were also loading routes, waypoints, and maps into the GPS of their riders, and arranging service to the bike as well. I had to do all of this myself, taking away from valuable nap time.

I disagreed with this practice, as it detracts from the purity of the one rider versus another nature of the event. It was not forbidden under the rules, but still cheating I thought, and yet another negative strike against for this rally that had been captivating me for eight years.

My decision to ride into Canada on the final leg was made a little easier by the fact that hurricane Katrina was starting to lash the gulf coast near New Orleans. I am from Moncton, New Brunswick, and had spent much time in Prince Edward Island, places I would visit on this leg. I also planned to ride to Campbellton, NB, where my wife Jane grew up.

I smiled when I realized I could snag yet another rest bonus in Moncton on my way by. I parked and slept in my old driveway, and slept very soundly in my family home for five hours, waking only after the extremely rude Screaming Meanie trucker alarm timed itself out.

Off I went to PEI, visiting another lighthouse, and also visiting my grandmother’s gravesite and some long time family friends. Heck, I don’t find myself on the island all that often so I might as well take advantage.

Another rally master trick caught up a fellow rider here on the island. Most of the bonuses required a picture with the rider’s numbered flag visible in the picture in front of the bonus subject. This one also required the rider’s motorcycle in the shot. At the Campbellton stop, rider Duke Dunsford lamented he didn’t read the instructions and as a result had let the 10,000 point bonus slip away as his photo did not include his 250cc Kawasaki Ninja.

Later on in Quebec, I entered into a massive storm system dumping huge amounts of rain. This turned out to be the remnants of hurricane Katrina heading north. It made riding very difficult, with strong winds and hard driving rain. If this is merely a remnant, the storm must have been bad. And of course it was.

I got tired near Montreal and stopped to rest. Not finding overhead shelter, I laid down on a picnic table, with the rain coming down as strong as ever. I tried to lay on my side with my helmet turned down to prevent rain from splashing me in the face. It was only partly effective. I did get some sleep, but it wasn’t enough.

I had hoped to snag a trio of bonuses in Vermont on my way past, but I would get there in the dark and have to wait hours in the rain for the required daylight. I blew them off.

I was on my to Sault, Michigan, but I didn’t leave the rain behind until nearly Sudbury. It was a relief. Despite the waterproof suit, I was still soaked down to my underwear. Due to the heat, I didn’t close my suit completely. I left the front zipper down slightly. Only the occasional drop of water entered, but over the course of 12 hours of this, it was enough to soak me.

I met up with Dean Tanji, Brian Boberick, and Steve Hobart at another lighthouse on the northern shores of Lake Michigan, and we all enjoyed a meal and some camaraderie in nearby Escanaba, Michigan, as we were less than two days from the end of the rally. After a much needed shower and sleep (and another rest bonus), I felt surprisingly good, despite the shock of prices at the pumps. The sun was shining, and I was on target to reach the remaining bonus.

The group of four were all headed to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for the one remaining bonus and we rode together that far, after which Brian and I split off to take a shortcut heading back to the barn. With the end of the stress of the last 11 days in sight, my mood lightened considerably. Something akin to the elation I had felt on my first Iron Butt in 2001 crept in to sweep away the disenchantment I had been feeling. Before long, I had decided that yes, I could one day ride this rally again. Styx said it best: “Too much time on my hands.”

The final run through Nebraska mirrored my initial ride to Denver. It was cold and dark in the high elevations approaching the foothills of the Rockies. My Gerbing heated jacket liner was on a low setting to take the chill off. Whether that was from the temperatures or the excitement of finishing this massive ride I don’t know.

It seemed like an eternity since I had last seen the Doubltree Hotel in Denver. I had been to both coasts, and my old stompin’ grounds of New Brunswick. Pulling in at about 5AM, I was elated to see two friendly faces from home, Marlene and Michael from the Zen Riders club.

Park the bike: check, engine stop: check, sidestand: check. Everything was deliberate and in slow motion like in a dream. I was handed a bottle of water and was the recipient of numerous handshakes and hugs. But there was still business to attend to. Paperwork and photographs for the last leg from Maine (how many days ago was that?) needed to be organized and presented to the scoring table.

Part of being a successful Iron Butt Rally competitor is having the ability to keep one’s mind on the task at hand regardless of distractions and road weariness. However, with the end of the ride came a difficulty in focusing. I tried to concentrate with images of the last eleven days moving in front of my mind’s eye like I was riding a train. I knew if I just got this paperwork out of the way, I could check in to the hotel and enjoy eight hours in a bed.

After being scored, I was encouraged by my results.

Not wishing to bite off more than I could chew, I had not set an overly aggressive ride, but also had not left much slack time in my routes. Once the rally had started and I was on the bike and rolling, I had kept to the program, and didn’t make any mistakes. And the bike didn’t break.

At the banquet that night, I was quite certain I had improved upon my previous 32nd place finish, but wasn’t sure. As the places were called out in descending order, my heart raced as 32nd place was called out, then 30th, and still I had not heard my name. I eventually took my turn in front of the room to accept my plaque as 25th place finisher, with enough points for a gold medal!

The biggest story of the rally was Jim Owen of Pennsylvania. He was so far ahead of everyone else at the checkpoints, it was commonly understood he would win. It was a foregone conclusion. Then on the second last day of the rally, his BMW broke down and he went from front-runner to DNF. Nevertheless, he received a standing ovation at the finisher’s banquet from the hundreds in attendance.

Putting in a strong ride on his Honda ST1300 was Shane Smith of Mississippi. Despite his house being almost completely washed away by Katrina, his family urged him to continue. He became the winner after Jim dropped out, ending BMW’s stranglehold on the top spot.

Overshadowing the winner’s circle was the specter of what might have been had one Don Arthur competed. Vice-admiral Arthur, Surgeon General of the United States Navy, had spent the last year scooping up top finishes in numerous rallies and was widely expected to finish at or near the top of the Iron Butt Rally. On his way to Denver, an oblivious driver turned left right directly into his path. He t-boned the car, ending up seriously hurt and back at the Navy hospital in Bethesda, Maryland he commanded.

It is said that postpartum, a woman’s body forgets the pain of birth. I had this bouncing baby finisher’s plaque, and what remained was positive memories of faces, places, long roads, fog-shrouded lighthouses, the flash of a Polaroid camera, and the desire to ride the Iron Butt again.

Apr 7, 2009

Mexico 2003

wo years ago, in February of 2001, I stood next to my motorcycle at a gas station in McAllen, Texas, just across the border from Reynosa in Mexico. A man walking by asked where I was going on this grey, drizzly morning. I told him I was riding into Mexico. He wondered why on earth would I want to go there. I answered that I had never been there before. That pretty much sums up in a few words why I often ride great distances on my 1998 Honda ST1100. I did have another motive in this case, my wife's father lives in Patzcuaro, a few hundred kilometers from Mexico City.

However, due to an ill-fitting helmet, big miles were definitely not part of that trip, unless you count the ride down there hauling the ST on a trailer. Even that part didn't go smoothly. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the drive back, I skidded on black ice and collided with a disabled car on the side of the road. Ever have that feeling that you should have just stayed at home and vegged out on the couch?

A few weeks after my crash, I flew from Canada down to Tulsa to retrieve my repaired truck. After buying a new trailer to replace the one I wrecked, I picked up my bike which had received a clean bill of health from a local dealer. While finishing my trip home, I knew I would ride into Mexico again. I hate failure. My stubborn side simply will not lie down and accept such random acts of disappointment.

Indeed, the cold temperatures and relentless snow of southwestern Ontario in January, 2003, found me planning this trip all over again. My trip to Mexico actually started on the corner of Wharncliffe and Wonderland roads in London, at my dealer, Hully Gully. They were having an open house, and I had agreed to display my bike there. It meant leaving a day later than planned, but I always enjoy these things. There was a possibility that I could extend my trip a day on the other end if I was enjoying myself too much down south.

After the fun of the open house, I was loaded on the trailer for the 3000 kilometer trip to Texas. It was Saturday, February 1st, 6PM. I was concerned a high terrorist alert plus the shuttle Columbia disaster over Texas would make my travel difficult. In the end, only my tired state slowed me down as I made my way south behind the wheel of my Chevrolet Tracker.

Southern Illinois - I hadn't seen a landscape without snow in months.

I planned this trip south to avoid Oklahoma, and not just because that state drips with negative karma. After my accident two years ago, the state trooper on the scene wrote me a ticket which I had promptly forgotten about. In the weeks before this trip, I had received the ticket again in the mail with a warning that a warrant for my arrest would be issued if I didn't pay up. Not looking for trouble, especially in today's atmosphere of paranoid border crossings, I decided I would pay it. This I did, once arriving in Texas on a sunny and oh-so-warm Monday afternoon. I bought return postage for the S.A.S.E. they would use to send me the receipt, and mailed that along with my money order to Okie.

Arriving in south Texas.

Once making contact with my friend Tomas Perez in Mission, near McAllen, and unloading the bike at his house, we went for a short ride. He allowed me a stint on his new ST1300ABS, a very nice motorcycle. Tuesday morning I was set to ride over into Mexico to begin my trip.

This would be a good time to inform you of the paperwork requirements of entering Mexico, and to pass along a warning. Along with a passport and driver's license, one must purchase three documents to ride into the interior zone of Mexico. Those three things are a tourist permit, daily insurance for your vehicle, and a temporary importation certificate. This certificate is your bond that you will leave with your vehicle, and not sell it while you are in Mexico. And now for the warning: do not leave Mexico without canceling your importation certificate at the Banjercito office.

The infamous "Permiso de Importacion Temporal de Vehiculos."

My trip of 2001 once again came back to haunt me, for I had not cancelled that permit. Instead, I had dropped it into a box at the border on my way out of Mexico, thinking this would suffice. Naturally, they had questions. Fortunately, I had answers. I also had the same bike I used in 2001, with permit sticker still displayed on the windshield. This was extremely fortunate for me. I might have been fined and turned away at the border had I not been able to prove I returned with my bike two years ago. While all this was going on, I noticed a heavily laden KTM out in the parking lot. Eventually, I saw the rider. I was surprised to see that he was wearing the very same suit I was, a blue Aerostich Darien.

All of this legal and linguistic wrangling took a fair bit of time, and before I knew it, my Tuesday morning was shot. Ah well, I had my fuel cell mounted for extra range, and a helmet that did not give me migraines, so progress promised to be swift.

Mexican roads had not changed significantly in the two intervening years. City streets tended toward the atrocious side, while the toll highways were the equal of anything seen in Canada or the US. The free-use highways slotted right down the middle of these two extremes, but had the major disadvantage of taking one straight through the aforementioned cities. I opted for the expensive tolls at the beginning of my ride towards Torreon, where I had turned around two years ago.

This answers the question we've all been asking:
Where is Eric Estrada these days?

With feelings of deja-vu, I stopped in Torreon as night was falling, and stayed in the same hotel I stayed at two years ago. I liked the security of its courtyard and locked gate, and it had a charming architecture which perhaps tried a bit too hard to be the typical colonial ideal.

Torreon is a major centre. The big three automakers and all the fast food operators familiar to North Americans have a presence there, and the streets are better maintained than most, although a detour on my entrance to the city had me doubting this. This detour had me (and dozens of honking, belching cars) on such bad roads, that I couldn't help but wonder how bad the closed section was.

On my way to the hotel, I was startled when I noticed a police vehicle in my rear view with the red and blue lights flashing. My heart leapt into my throat as I pulled over, visions of decrepit Mexican jails flashed before my eyes. Relief washed over me as I watched him pass me by. Then I noticed that the police all drive around with their red and blue roof lights going all the time, ignored by other motorists. It seems they simply like the way they look, and leave them on. When on an emergency, they turn on the siren, which sounds like a European high-low type.

My hotel was right across the street from a large grocery store. I stocked up on bottled water and snacks, and purchased a TelMex calling card. After calling home to my wife, it was off to bed.

Day two in Mexico didn't start out much better than day one had. I forgot to remove the lock I applied to the right front brake disc the night before, and managed to tip the bike over as a result. After getting help to right the bike from the desk clerk, I was off.

Things warmed up nicely as I continued south along highway 49. I recorded temperatures in excess of 30°C, under blue skies criss-crossed by a few wispy clouds. Cactus was plentiful amongst the dry scrub bushes of the sparse landscape. At one point, my reverie was interrupted by two tumbleweeds making a frenetic trip across the highway, driven by crosswinds from the west.

What really made me smile, however, was noticing on my StreetPilot GPS that I had passed through the tropic of cancer (latitude 23.5 degrees north) in the state of Zacatecas. Its capital city, also called Zacatecas, is truly a feast for the eyes. Densely populated, it is built between peaks of the western Sierra Madre mountain range. I thought its combination of modern and old world architecture a tantalizing mix, often distracting me from the road. Everywhere I looked, colourful buildings lined narrow, spiraling roads.

Zacatecas from the surrounding hills.

The corridor up and down toll highway 49 towards Mexico City contains many industrial parks and manufacturing plants. Looking like prisons, these plants are surrounded with high fences topped with barbed wire. Workers' housing units line the barren land within walking distance around the plants, packed tightly like rows of corn. Houses appear little more than boxes, some made from mud and straw. Cheap labour seems to be Mexico's primary crop and export.

Leaving the industrial corridor at highways 45 and turning south towards Morelia, conditions seem to go from bad to worse. Without an economy propped up by nearby manufacturing, many towns are stuck in perpetual poverty. Only main streets are paved and street signs are often hand painted and attached to buildings that crowd the narrow lanes.

And the gas station bathrooms aren't much better.

A prime example of this is Valle de Santiago on highway 43 just north of Morelia. On its outskirts, I saw a sign indicating an alternate truck route around the town. I eagerly turn down this street hoping to avoid the slog through yet another crowded “centro.” I realize this is no ring road as I encounter a full size tractor trailer stuck trying to make an impossible turn around a tight corner. It towers above the shacks which block its path, and could surely knock down a whole city block in first gear.

I veered left, looking for a way around the blockage, only to get lost in a maze of one way and dead end streets whose surfaces would make you average rock quarry look as smooth as a gymnasium floor. Pretty soon, I was on the “bypass,” a cobblestone affair surely built before the last century - or maybe even the one before that! When I think of cobblestone, I think of charming lanes in quaint European villages, made of smooth stone in a neat pattern. I've dubbed the Mexican version “hobblestones.” After bobbing and bouncing the loaded ST1100 over the large and uneven rocks for a few kilometers, I glanced at the GPS for a way out. It indicated several more kilometers of this. I turned off and back towards town.

I entered the town center and instantly realized I had jumped out of the frying pan and right into the proverbial fire. The one lane “main street” was jammed with people, donkey-propelled carts, and smoking cars so old they disappeared from your local junk yard decades ago. Eventually, I adopted the method used by other motorcyclists of simply riding down the side of the road. Pedestrians wisely backed away and waited for me to pass. This was the only access to the city of Morelia to the south.

I eventually wended my way through Morelia and on to Patzcuaro on highway 14. I had estimated I would be there at 6PM, but conditions put me in after 7:30.

My wife's father, Roland, who was waiting for me in the town square since 4:30 I later found out, had gone home as it had started to cool off. At 6000 ft elevation, it was the coldest it had been all day, around 15°C. I walked around looking for him, but had no luck. I found a hotel with a secure courtyard, and checked in. My small room cost 220 pesos, or about US$20.00 After putting my bags in the room, I covered the bike, set the alarm, and put the disc lock on - after applying a homemade sign in front of the ignition lock to remove it.

I went walking around in a t-shirt, while most of the locals were wearing jackets and hats; this was their winter after all. The square was very busy on this Wednesday night, with sidewalk hawkers and food stands lining all four sides. Not trusting the cleanliness of roadside food, I walked into a nice sit down restaurant decorated with copper place settings and colourful woven wall coverings.

The waiter walked over and I issued a sturdy “uno cerveza por favour - Corona,” fulfilling a primary entry on my itinerary. My spanish or perhaps my appearance gave me away, as he came back with my beer and an english menu. I ordered the Patzcuero Chicken, a dish with tasty enchiladas, chicken thigh, and somewhat dry and bland carrots and turnip. The total, including the barly pop, was a reasonable 75 pesos, or under US$8.00. I went back to my room and fell asleep quickly.

I was awake before light, wondering when and if Roland would come to town to meet me. I decided I would head back home. It was Thursday morning, I was 4000 kilometers from home, and I had to be back to work Sunday night. I pulled open the map and spread it out on the overly firm queen-size bed. There was no way in hell I would pass through Valle de Santiago again. I decided to detour through Salvatierra and Celeya on my way to Queretaro where the free highway 57 starts north. I made the changes to the route in my StreetPilot and packed up the bike.

I chose a different route while leaving Patzcuaro in the dark, and wound up on another hobblestone road. I would have been upset if not for the nice decorations on display. Presumably leftovers from the Christmas season, streamers and banners were hung on shanties and shacks and across the road. I saw not a single string of lights in this poor area if town.

My detour on highway 57 through Salvatierra ended up being a pleasant romp through rolling hills in a fertile valley. I think I saw more cropland in ten minutes than I had in my two previous days in Mexico. The road was also a surprise. It was a four-lane divided highway with good quality pavement, and wasn't clogged with traffic.

Buying tequila at the drive-in liquor store in Celeya.

I soon encountered the first of six military checkpoints in the northbound lanes. Ignoring the tequila I bought, they were looking for guns and drugs being smuggled from Mexico City north to the U.S. As a motorcycling gringo, I had an easy time, although on several occasions, soldiers carrying automatic rifles unpacked all of my bags to look in each.

I quickly learned that producing my passport would speed these checkpoints. Pulling it out, the top-ranking officer on hand would hold out his hand for it. After reviewing it and handing it back, this officer would inevitably wave his hand, indicating I could leave. The others would simply stop what they were doing, and I would go.

A roadside stand selling copper goods.

The sights were much better along this “libre” highway than the toll roads. Roadside markets appeared occasionally, like an oasis in the desert. Copper and beaded trinkets were popular among Mexican artisans. Other tasty treats for the eyes included pottery, porcelain, and of all things black velvet art. Each state also had a series of signs along the roadway indicating the condition of its roads. I was encouraged to find that my roads that day would all be “bueno.”

Bueno, senior!

Its getting warm out here.

Mid-afternoon in the central plains turned downright hot, and I appeared to be entering a desert-like environment with few stops. When the opportunity arose, I decided to stop for gas at a state-owned Pemex station on highway 101. That turned out to be my best tankful of the trip. I had already ridden 636 kilometers that day, and still had 10 liters in the tank.

Continuing north, brown rusty peaks began to appear over the horizon. Crossing over the eastern ridges of the Sierra Madres between Tula and Ciudad Victoria proved to be the absolute highlight of my trip. Mostly excellent quality switchbacks tempted me to leave behind some of the metal underneath my footpegs. Unfortunately, the sheer drops and lack of guardrails were a deterrent. The massive peaks that towered above rivaled a good many of what the Rockies can muster, especially as those fourth gear corners turned to third and second gear corners.

Switchback curves visible on mountainside in the distance.

Steep roads climbing up.

Looking down over the edge of the pavement.

As seen on many roads in North America, locals have erected crosses at the sites of automotive gore. One such turn, preceded by many signs with big red letters of warning, contained more than a dozen. I didn't count them, as that would likely have resulted in one more. Looking the other way towards the outside of the curve, the cliff began where the road surface ended - without any shoulder.

As the road flattened out, I kept looking back towards the peaks I was leaving behind, as I often find myself doing. It's sort of like watching the credits after a good movie. I was also watching my last day in Mexico slip away. I was so engrossed by the twisty tarmac, I didn't notice the sun slipping behind the mountains to the west.

Crackers, potato chips, and water. Mmmmm.

I was still several hours from the U.S border, and was not thrilled with the prospect of riding in Mexico after dark. I had lost track of the number of animals I had seen on the roadways.

Horse grazing in the median.

I was pleased with myself, when after several hours of mild and breezy riding under a starry sky, I was successfully canceling my importation certificate and riding back into the U.S. It may have been -20 degrees and snowing back in Canada, but this warm winter ride would be safely tucked away in my mind, ready to relive at a moment's notice.