Destination: The Rock – A Tantalizing Glimpse of the Rock

Story by Joe Benning// Photos by Simple Pics
July 1 2008

Driving the shores of the Maritimes Whenever you plan an annual ride with a group of friends, some things can be rather challenging. Take, for instance, the simple decision on where you are going to ride. Sometimes that discussion becomes a mental exercise akin to herding cats. As I recall it, the idea for our next year’s ride began with five of us munching down steaks and beer at one of the finest steak joints north of Texas; Mother Webb’s Steakhouse in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Eventually the juicy steaks and ice cold beer filled our bellies and our collective thoughts finally began to coalesce into deciding that next year’s ride would have to be to a place we had never been before.

Our group had made a tradition of taking an annual ride to the Canadian Maritimes. Arnie and I rode Harleys, Tom and Steve rode Hondas, and Tim was riding one of those obscenely fast bikes from a certain European country, which the other four of us swore required regular stops for olive oil at grocery stores. Through the years we had become good friends on our annual excursions, and we always looked forward to these rides. We knew the friendliest people in the world inhabited Canada’s eastern coastal provinces, but the one province we’d never been to was Newfoundland. We stared at our map and focused on that mysterious triangular shaped parcel out in the North Atlantic.

Logistics might be an issue. Since we all worked for a living, time was a critical factor in how far we could ride from our homes in northeastern Vermont before our wives would no longer tolerate our absences. Eight days was about all we could do before we knew we’d have to be back to resume our day jobs, and one of those days was usually cut short so we could mow our neglected lawns. Making it all the way to Newfoundland in that short amount of time was going to be a challenge. All of us were well past our midlife crises ages, so spending twelve hours a day in the saddle was not an option. But the excitement of riding all that coastline was quite intoxicating to a bunch of guys from a place with no oceanfront view. Gradually we became confident we could do it, a confidence no doubt enhanced by the number of amber-coloured beverages we were consuming.

Resolved to make the attempt, we spent a few hours over the next winter calculating distances, trip routes and ferry schedules. We had traditionally planned our trips in early June before the school kids got out for the summer, thus avoiding any concern about overbooked hotels or heavy traffic. In the depths of winter in our homes on the U.S./Canadian border, we just naturally assumed that June would be warm and toasty no matter where we went. Looking back, that was one calculation we should have spent a little more time thinking about.

Brimming with confidence that we had planned everything perfectly, we set out early one Saturday morning and decided to push ourselves as far as we could. For a bunch of guys born before the Beatles invaded America, I’d say reaching St. John, NB from northeastern Vermont in one day was a pretty good start. We didn’t make it there in time to visit Eldridge’s Harley-Davidson (one of our favourite shopping stops), but it was a comfortable place to find lodging and good food for the evening. By the second day we had pulled into North Sydney too late to make a side trip over to visit Fortress of Louisbourg, but we did manage to find a great meal at Joe’s Warehouse Restaurant. (The Fortress is a great place to visit if you are into history; the restaurant is a great place to visit if you like a great steak.)

Early the next morning we had a very short two hundred meter ride from the hotel parking lot down into the cavernous mouth of the ferry, Caribou, that would take us up to Channel-Port aux Basques on the southwesterly tip of Newfoundland. Short as it was, it was also a bit scary. It was all we could do to keep our bikes upright on the slippery metal surface of the ship’s decking. Oil deposits from cars added to the moisture from the morning’s fog made for a pretty slick riding surface, but we managed to arrive safe and sound and ready for a tie down.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of motorcycling across many a body of water via ferry boat. Most of the time there is no need to worry about securing down your bike, but on an ocean voyage like this one, tying fast to the deck is a must. With kickstands down, the deckhands instructed us to tightly secure both the front and rear of our bikes to stanchions bolted into the deck floor. Steve, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, took over from there to make sure we tied them down in proper naval fashion, but I still spent most of the six hour boat ride secretly praying that my bike wouldn’t wiggle loose and cause a naval disaster.

picture of the Newfoundland coast The crossing from North Sydney to Channel-Port aux Basques was a lot of fun. The Caribou carried all the amenities one could need to occupy the time, but my favorite part was just being up on deck surrounded by the deep blue sea. We got to meet our first ‘Newfies,’ our introduction to a people no doubt the friendliest in all of Canada. We also learned that the locals called their homeland ‘The Rock,’ which we’d later learn was for very good reason.

Aboard ship we remained dressed in our biker gear. Lots of folks struck up conversations with us about our travels and suggested places we would want to see. Tom asked one local if there were black flies on the island at this time of year. The very friendly local responded, “Oh yes, and the black flies on The Rock are so big they mate with the seagulls.”

I was on deck when the ship’s intercom announced that we were to proceed below to our vehicles and prepare to disembark. The deck door slammed shut behind me, giving me momentary relief from the furious cold wind that was creating knots out of the few strands of hair left on my head. To say it was windy would be an understatement of major proportions. When they opened the bow doors to let the vehicles leave, the wind howled right down through the ship and right through my leathers, letting us know our first ride in Newfoundland was going to be quite frigid.

After six hours of boat travel I had completely forgotten that I’d left my bike in gear (pursuant to the deckhand’s instructions) and promptly launched myself forward as soon as I hit the starter button. Thankfully I was far enough from the bike in front of me that no damage was done. With a red face I exited the ship and disembarked onto The Rock. It was immediately apparent that ‘The Rock’ was well named. The town of Channel-Port aux Basques was perched on a windswept rocky coastline. All forms of vegetation appeared to be stunted and growing sideways, leaning over from the constant wind.

Our original plan was to ride up the west coast to see the Viking ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. If we had time we would work our way over to the seafaring city of St. John’s so Arnie and I could get a t-shirt from Cycle City, the island’s only Harley-Davidson dealer. But the best made plans of any motorcycle trip tend to fall apart immediately in the face of weather extremes, and with windblown rain and spitting snow blasting our faces before we cleared the ship’s hull, some members of our crew (who shall remain unnamed) decided to mutiny. They insisted on stopping right there in Channel-Port aux Basques and finding a warm room. In all fairness, none of us expected the gale force blast of Arctic air that we’d run into that first day of June. We had obviously miscalculated at least one factor in our pre-trip calculations.

In virtually every group ride, one person usually takes over the role of road captain. It is up to that person to do most of the logistical planning, like urging the group to finish their coffees and get on their bikes while generally keeping everybody together and thinking alike. On this trip that role fell upon me. Recognizing that stopping this early would completely scuttle any attempt to see the rest of the island, I used my best diplomatic skills to convince the boys to put on a couple of hundred kilometres before we found a room. The mutineers reluctantly agreed to give it a go.

Almost immediately out of town the weather gods smiled on our determination to carry on. The storm cell hovering over the south side of town broke before we got to the north side. I won’t say the weather was great, in fact the cold wind was still blowing so strong that it would have blown us over if it wasn’t a dead-on headwind. But riding into a good headwind is always much easier without rain or snow mixed in.

The Trans Canada Highway, aka Route 1, carried us north and the topography flattened out, at least that part along the ocean on which we were riding. To our east stood Table Mountain, its 518 metre height looked absolutely immense against the bowling alley flat marshlands and stunted growth forest leading up to it. Known as a geological oddity, it has featured gale force winds exceeding 160 km/h. In the valley below is a place called Wreckhouse, where the winds can become so fierce that they have been said to blow trains right off their tracks. In fact, a local farmer named Lauchie McDougall was once employed to contact the railroad whenever the winds created unsafe conditions for train travel, earning himself the moniker of “The Human Wind Gauge.”

Along a lonely stretch of highway right beside the ocean there appeared a very large parking lot. We took a break there and wondered why a blanket of asphalt the size of any Wal-Mart parking area was out there in the middle of nowhere. We realized later that it was placed there so transport trucks could park next to each other to wait for the winds to die down.

As Route 1 turned inland it followed the Grand Codroy River’s North Branch. Stopping for a rest break, Tom wanted to know if any of us had seen the cougar. Steve sheepishly had to admit he thought he did too, but a cougar in Newfoundland is apparently a very rare sighting. So rare that most locals thought Tom had lost his marbles, but Tom is an experienced hunter so we weren’t going to razz him too much, other than suggest a change in his prescription lenses might be in order.

The scenery was quite pleasant but by the time we reached Corner Brook the frosty wind had taken its toll. A sky full of clouds featured brief glimpses of blue, but it looked and felt an awful lot like it could dump a blizzard at any moment. The hills around the town were still covered in snow. We pulled in at the Comfort Inn and the wind was so strong that we had to park the bikes with the kickstands on the leeward side so they wouldn’t be blown over. Tim, who’s Ducati offered precious little cargo space, washed his socks and skivvies in his hotel room’s sink. He then strung up a bungee cord out the window as a clothesline to hang them out to dry. Within just a few minutes they were frozen solid in the frigid wind.

We still had the bulk of the island to see, but with no let up in the icy cold wind the next morning, none of us felt like riding our bikes. We therefore did the unthinkable—we rented a van! Leaving our bikes at the hotel we drove up through Gros Morne National Park. The park offers spectacular scenery that rivals that of any motorcycle ride anywhere, even if you have to see it from inside a rental van. By the time we arrived in Daniel’s Harbour for lunch we had passed no less than five moose, saw the remains of one shipwreck and climbed all over a picturesque geological rock outcropping called “The Arches.” We were most embarrassed when two women on bicycles loaded with camping gear peddled their way by, saying they were on a tour of the whole island. They must not have thought we were ‘real bikers.’

When we entered the little restaurant in Daniel’s Harbour we were pretty hungry. Other than the staff and one nice little elderly lady, we were the only ones there. The elderly lady, probably recognizing the chance to make a Loonie or two, came over to introduce herself and ask if we’d like to purchase a sample CD of local music. Tom, being a sucker for such low budget promotional pitches, shelled out the ten bucks she wanted just before she admitted it was actually a recording made by her son. Tom stuffed his new purchase into his pocket telling her we would listen to it on the ride back down to Corner Brook.

Fish hut on the coast of Newfoundland After lunch we piled back into the van and collectively agreed we were never going to make L’Anse aux Meadows, much less the rest of the island. The icy wind continued to howl and the weather forecasters were predicting frigid temperatures for the rest of the week. We had simply picked the wrong time of year to be riding in Newfoundland and there was nothing we could do except head for warmer climes. We were all disappointed, having only seen a small portion of The Rock. We also knew we’d be embarrassed to have to admit to our biker friends that a fair portion of what we did see was from the inside of a rental van and thought it best not to ever mention those two women bicyclists putting us to shame.

A few kilometers down the road we remembered that Tom had that new CD. Anxious to at least experience some local culture, we unwrapped it and plugged it into the van’s CD player. Imagine our surprise when, fully expecting some foot-stomping seafaring songs or some Acadian fiddle reels, the speakers started blaring accordion polka music! For a brief moment all our jaws dropped in shock as we looked at Tom. He had either been swindled or he hadn’t read the fine print. And then somebody started giggling. The change in our moods was remarkably sudden. Picture this; five burly bikers laughing so hard they were crying, bouncing up and down in a rental van to the beat of blaring accordion polka music. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life!

We arrived in Corner Brook and returned the rental van with our sides still aching from laughing so hard. As we rode south the winds slackened. Knowing we’d arrive in Channel-Port aux Basques well in advance of the ferryboat’s departure time, we decided to take a short ride along the southern coast. What a smart move! A gorgeous seaside ride along Route 470 brought us through several tiny towns that clung to the rocky coastline. Each town had its own fleet of colourful fishing boats rocking in the water as stacks of weathered lobster traps stood mutely awaiting their next day’s work underwater. The smell of the sea mingled with the dusky scent of marsh grasses and tidal pools along a road that twisted and turned following the coastline. A small single story shack in Margaree served up some great fish sandwiches, and then we headed over to Rose Blanche to see a stone lighthouse that is a must-see for anyone with a camera. Perched atop a rocky outcropping, its granite walls stood fast against an incredibly deep blue sea. Back in Channel-Port aux Basques we still had time to kill, so we parked the bikes within eyesight of the ferry entrance to await the arrival of the Caribou.

A pool table and the local brews kept us occupied as we tapped our feet to the music being played over the bar’s sound system. Maybe it was the groove we were in from that great ride to Rose Blanche, or maybe it was the superb local beer, but we all agreed that the music we were hearing was putting a great end to our first visit to Newfoundland. Jamming acoustic guitars and lyrics about sailors from small towns had us all feeling like we had been tantalized by our first glimpse of The Rock. The bartender told us we were listening to a local band. Unfortunately she only had one demonstration CD and she would not sell it. But by the time we returned home the band, Great Big Sea, had figured out the marketing techniques necessary for some Vermonters to purchase their music over the internet. Every time I hear one of their songs now I can’t help but laugh about five black leather-clad motorcyclists jumping up and down in a rental van on the scenic west coast of Newfoundland. MMM

Special thanks to Simple Pics for providing us with these great photos of fishing villages. Simple Pics is located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Illustration by Julie Draper, Grand Forks, BC.

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