Once Were Vikings Here : Newfoundland

newfoundland motorcycle tour

Fifty thousand years ago glaciers ground their way for the last time across what was to become Newfoundland and Labrador. There was both bad news and good: on one hand, much of what would support growth was stripped from the land. But, on the other, the rubble was deposited in the sea to form the Grand Banks. The Grand Banks attracted fish and the fish attracted people. The people who stayed evolved into a very special breed, living on what is affectionately known as “The Rock,” so even the bad news was good. Assaults by glaciers over the millennia have created an incredible, sometimes austere, one-of-a-kind landscape. The people that inhabit the Island make it one of the most hospitable places one could ever visit, so it’s all good. It’s a rider’s paradise.

newfoundland motorcycle tour

The trip my wife Arlene and I made to Newfoundland and Labrador in the summer of 2008 began by boarding the ferry “Joseph and Clara Smallwood” in North Sydney, Nova Scotia with about 20 other bikes. We had chosen the shorter six-hour run to Channel-Port aux Basques rather than the 14- to 16-hour sailing to Argentia. We wanted to start our journey on the west side where there was no rain, rather than the east. Our first task once aboard was to secure the bike with the provided cinch straps. As Arlene and I wrapped and strapped she quipped, “We’re not in BC anymore, Toto.” These weren’t the protected waters of Georgia Strait between mainland BC and Vancouver Island. Much to my disappointment though, we crossed with nary a ripple and approached Port aux Basques in a magnificent setting sun; a fitting welcome for a first visit.
It was dark when we finished docking and the doors were finally opened. Conveniently our Electra Glide Ultra Classic with loaded trailer in tow was the second bike out of the chute, so we beat the mob to the last room in one of the town’s two motels. Reservations are for sissies.

newfoundland motorcycle tour

 

In the morning we headed north on the Trans Canada, stopping briefly at the tourist information office. The woman there advised us: “Mind the boomp signs M’dear.” (Everybody’s M’dear, M’love or B’y here on The Rock.) “Some be jest a little ripple but days odders ya be wonderin’ if yer coomin’ out de odder side,” said she in that distinctive Newfoundland dialect that some claim to be similar to accents heard in southeast Ireland. But, it seems like a language unto itself, developed in the tiny fishing coves and bays of this geographically isolated land. “Oh, and dis part roight ‘ere,” she said, pointing directly to the sector on the map where we were headed, “dat’s moose capital. Don’t be roidin’ at noight, B’y”.
I was in love with the place already.
We had already been warned of an extremely windy stretch not far from Port aux Basques. We were told it was best to wait if even the semis were parked at the side of the road. There were no semis-in-waiting but it was definitely a wind tunnel for a couple of kilometres.
Once through the gauntlet we settled in, riding through country that reminded us both of Yukon/Alaska with its stunted trees and spare landscape. The mountains were partially shrouded in mist, but we could see they were massive flat-topped blocks with shear sides climbing at least a couple of thousand feet above us. Even though we were intimately familiar with the rugged mountains of BC, we were still in awe of these ancient
massifs. These were much older, worn down in the Glacier Wars but not beaten by a long stretch.
It wasn’t long before we encountered our first moose. She popped up from a steep embankment on our right: “Holycrapamoose!” She was as surprised as us: “Holycrapabike!”

 

There were three empty lanes to play with so we beat a hard left while she performed a leggy Triple Lutz, then slipped and fell. We heard her hit the pavement beside us. It was a close call for all of us, but there would be another a few nights later when, at three in the morning, we were woken by a loud bang as our whole tent trailer shook. Boldly, I grabbed a flashlight and stepped outside the safety of the tent walls. About 10 feet away stood a cow moose with a look of disdain, as if asking “Wut?” She had neatly tiptoed around the tent but in the process took out one of the ropes and a chunk of our fabric fortress with it. Indifferent, she drifted like a ghost into the bush without a sound.

newfoundland motorcycle tour

It’s interesting to note that moose are not native to Newfoundland. After an earlier failed attempt, four moose were introduced here in 1904. The rest is history. An estimated 22,000 moose are taken every year and they are still as common as pine cones.
We didn’t have any particular plan other than to see and do whatever the road would bring to us. Gros Morne National Park offered up more adventure than we could have imagined. Norris Point in Bonne Bay was a gem. There is a boat tour that is a must-see for any visitor. I’d’s de B’y (basically: I’m the Guy) tours the bay where you will see absolutely stunning scenery, learn a lot about local lore and geography and perhaps get “Screeched in”—if they happen to have a cod. We got a taste of human history when we wandered through the cemetery in Norris Point. Poignant epitaphs said it all:
Drowned falling through the
ice: 1835

Born December 25, 1931;
Died December 25, 1931.

The stones told stories of a very harsh life. We were beginning to develop a deep respect for these people. Hard life and hard work alone however, makes Jack a dull b’y. And B’y, I’ll tell ya, dull they’re not. Isolation and long winters tend to hone and diversify musical talent. Add a generous dose of sly wit (contrary to the traditional jokes), a slosh of Screech and you have a recipe for the second best night of your life. Kitchen parties—a Newfie staple—have given birth to a brand of entertainment the rest of the world could only imagine. More than three hours of “Anchors Aweigh,” a local Rocky Harbour band, left us almost bleeding from continual laughter. And sometimes crying to the strains of a soulful ballad. Music in the Maritimes is the tie that binds and that tie was strong everywhere we went in Newfoundland and Labrador.
A tour of West Pond, hiking, and rollicking plays at the Theatre Festival in Cow Head rounded out the Things To Entertain Us in Gros Morne National Park. We had to be careful we didn’t get stuck there however, knowing there was more up the road.

newfoundland motorcycle tour

HIGHWAY 430 LEADS UP THE Northern Peninsula and is designated The Viking Trail because of the historic sites, monuments, parks and the “medley of coastal villages” such as Main Brook, St. Anthony, and Port au Choix that all represent one chapter or another in the milennium-old Viking saga in this province. At Newfoundland’s northernmost tip, near St. Anthony, is the archaeological crown jewel, L’Anse aux Meadows. Discovered in 1960, this 1,000-year-old former Norse encampment is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with reconstructed sod huts and hiking trails that offer dramatic views of the ocean that brought Viking sailors to these shores 500 years before Columbus ever set sail on his journey to the New World. Strolling among the replica buildings, locals in period dress interpret the tools and the Viking way of life to visitors.
As we headed north up the peninsula we passed the tremendous blocks that are the northern end of the Appalachian Mountains. Newfoundland, along with the rest of the North American eastern seaboard, is part of a rogue slab of land originating near what is now Africa. As the deck chairs of the earth’s crust were being shuffled billions of years ago, this chunk slammed into what is now North America, creating the mountain chain that runs its entire length. Purely for our enjoyment, the tectonic boundary placed mountains on our right and the sea on our left, making the ride to St. Anthony at the tip of the Northern Peninsula nothing short of non-stop spectacular.

newfoundland motorcycle tour

Along the way we were treated to small towns or villages that in our west-coast eyes were as scenic as anything we’ve seen. “Salt Box” is what they call the spare, square, unadorned homes where stacks of lobster traps or other maritime paraphernalia are typically stored nearby. Often, alongside the road there are vegetable gardens with no attendant houses in sight. The seaside location of many houses is so rocky there is not enough soil for a garden, so folks pick a likely spot beside the road, never having to fear that it be raided—except by errant moose or caribou. Tuckamore trees are found along the entire length of the coast. Gnarly little bushes bent by the prevailing wind, they are tough and resilient and I couldn’t help thinking they were the perfect metaphor for the people along this coast.
We camped at St. Anthony for several days and at that only scratched the surface of things to see and do. Unfortunately we were a tad late in end-July to catch the annual iceberg flow. Nevertheless, we weren’t disappointed. Taking in local colour is one of our pastimes and it was abundant here.
Our wedding anniversary is in July, so we are usually on the road (as we were on our honeymoon) and have done some pretty unique things to celebrate. We decided whale watching with a salty fun-loving father and son team from St. Anthony, followed up by a Viking feast would fit the bill this year.
The feast introduced us to abundant Newfie fare including a salt beef stew called Jigg’s Dinner (my favourite), cod tongues and scruncheons. Though I thought scruncheons might be some horrible thing from under a rock, they are actually delicious bits of fat pork to fry the tongues in. There was salt caplin, which are like anchovies, except the whole fish, and pancakes with bakeapple jam. In case there’s some doubt, bakeapples are berries, they have nothing to do with apples. In my ignorance I always thought that Newfie Screech was moonshine. In truth it’s Jamaican rum. More accurately, it’s smuggled Jamaican rum. We washed our feast down with the government’s version of the same.

WE FELT SAD TO LEAVE ST. ANTHONY, having enjoyed our stay so much, but we saw a chance to at least set foot on Labrador merely by hooking a short ride on the Strait of Belle Isle Ferry ride which sets sail from St. Barbe, Newfoundland, and lands at Blanc-Sablon, Quebec, only a kilometre or two down the road from Labrador. We’re not normally ones to dash through a place quickly and say we were there, but that is exactly what we did this time. Better that than nothing, we felt. More of a dual sport destination, Labrador is mainly gravel roads. Touring tires and a trailer aren’t fun on gravel, but there are about 80 kilometres of paved road. We stayed in L’Anse au Claire (in truth; L’anse au Foggy) for a night, and then rode to Red Bay, originally an ancient Basque whaling station. As much as Newfoundland’s coast seemed rugged and glacier-carved, Labrador is even more so. Starkly beautiful, the tiny portion that we visited is strewn with glacial erratics (boulders in the middle of nowhere) and defined by dramatic coastal headlands. Waiting for the return ferry in the afternoon, we visited with fishermen on the dock to round out our far-too-brief stay. This was a “been there, didn’t really do that” foray, but we got a taste of the place, and the blackflies got a taste of us.

ON OUR RETURN SOUTH ALONG the coast we noticed an oil leak from the transmission shaft seal. Having parked only on gravel for the past several days, we had no idea how long it had been leaking or how badly. Our original plan was to sightsee our way east to St. John’s. We altered that to highballing straight through. A couple hundred kilometres further along, a saddlebag/muffler support bracket broke (thanks, I’m sure, to rough roads earlier in Quebec). Bungee cords and zap straps got us mobile again, however with an even greater sense of caution.
Our tentative tour followed the TCH through The Rock’s heavily forested interior, tantalizing us with signs to places like Nicky’s Nose Cove, Tickle Harbour, Come By Chance, Goobies, Noggin Cove and Black Duck. The route traces the path of the famed “Newfie Bullet,” Newfoundland’s beloved but now-defunct, narrow gauge, not-so-fast railroad.
“Plan B” was to visit our way back after repairs but that, too, was thwarted. The Harley dealership in St. John’s—the only one on the Island—was unwilling to help us with our problems within a reasonable time. We could have dumped oil endlessly into the transmission but the broken bracket situation was getting worse. We decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Considering that Newfoundland wasn’t going anywhere, we made plans to catch the long ferry from Argentia to North Sydney, Nova Scotia knowing we could make repairs in neighbouring Sydney.
Having witnessed our plight with the dealer, a couple who were local HOG members graciously offered us a place to stay. After confirming the ferry for the next day, we decided to take them up on their offer. We were welcome to arrive any time because their doors were never locked, they said. Because we were so close, we first made a very cautious trip to Cape Spear, North America’s easternmost point of land and the site of the oldest surviving lighthouse in Newfoundland and Labrador.
At the brooding Cape, we watched humpback whales dive and breach while we marveled at the fact we were now standing 1,000 miles closer to Europe than to our home in British Columbia. That evening we enjoyed the company and humour of our very fine hosts, Paul and Brenda. In the morning before heading to the ferry, we were treated to a whirlwind tour of St. John’s and saw things we never would have seen on our own in a week. Our visit was short but very sweet with the two of them and we still can’t thank them enough.
The Newfoundland and Labrador flag is blue for the sea, white for the snow and ice, red for human effort, and gold to symbolize confidence, strength, genuineness and integrity. In our travels, though cut short, we saw ample evidence of all the above. Prior to visiting we had no idea what to expect from the land or the people. We couldn’t have had a more pleasant surprise. We were there just short of three weeks, but caught only a mere whiff of the place. We will be back to finish what we started.