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.

9 comments:

  1. Great write up and more informative than all the other sources I've looked through. A group of 5 of us from Omaha, NE are looking forward to reliving some of your and John's adventure on the Rock.

    Frank Tabor
    Omaha

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Frank. It was truly an amazing experience. Since our trip, some bridges have been closed to check and improve safety as some were declared to be unstable. I am unsure about the progress of this work.

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  3. thanks for this, most interesting. I've hiked part of the trail but it needs a lot of work re way stations, etc.

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  4. Enjoyed reading of your adventure. I'm planning to take my KLR there in July, leave it at relatives and ride the trail in sections over a few months.

    gerry

    Spokane wa

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  5. Loved your description of the rail. I am thinking about biking the last 200km into St. John's on my mountain bike in September. Do you think this is do-able?
    Thanks,
    Paul
    Seoul, Korea (Formerly St. John's)

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  6. 9-2-2010
    Great report. Missed the trail in 2009 when we did the maritime Provinces and Trans Lab Hwy. Want to go back just for this trail, and a closer look at "The Rock". Hope its as good as your report indicates.
    Doug
    Vine Valley, NY

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  7. codroy bridges are done, one just past is still out

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  8. Looks like you had a great trip. Nice writing as well. I've done the trail a few times now but on ATV. The nice thing about ATVs is that you can bring more items.

    Two of my friends with KLR 650s asked me what I thought about the possibility of them doing the trip with their bikes. I forwarded them a link to your website.

    www.newfoundlandtrailway.blogspot.com

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  9. I bicycled the Trailway in July 2013 and wrote it up here:

    http://theslowbiker.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/across-newfoundland-by-fatbike/

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