Serendipity on Newfoundland

May 25 – 30, 2013

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Why did I want to go to Newfoundland in the first place? It was all about the ride, nature, and photography. After my “Saddle Sore 1000” the year before, I was ready to take it to the next level: a longer trip and a destination worth exploring with my camera. I don’t remember how exactly St. John’s entered the picture, but I do remember reading an article about it in one of those in-flight magazines. St. John’s is the oldest city in Canada and the easternmost in North America. A real corner stone! After hours of browsing maps and articles over the course of many months, the idea for the trip somehow solidified. As it turns out, St. John’s is quite reachable in two days and provides a nice challenging ride. Taking a ferry, during the night – falling asleep in Nova Scotia and waking up on Newfoundland – was quite appealing to me and seemed like an efficient use of my time. Marine Atlantic, the company that runs the ferry  service, must have had my plans in mind when they came up with their schedule! It would also be my first ferry trip with a motorcycle. I was planning on staying 1 or 2 full days in St. John’s. At least I would relax and catch up on sleep. Little did I know …

I mentioned my Saddle Sore 1000. That was on the fourth of July, 2012. I became a member of the IBA, the Iron Butt Association, by completing and documenting one of their rides. For the Saddle Sore 1000 you ride a 1000 miles or more in 24 hours. You need eyewitnesses in the beginning and the end, maintain a log book, keep receipts, etc., to prove that you really did it. That’s when I got hooked on the challenge of safe, long distance riding. A step up from the Saddle Sore 1000 is the Saddle Soar 1500 –  1500 miles in less than 36 hours. Could I complete this as part of my journey to St. John’s? Not really. The total riding distance was just short of 1500 miles. And I could not just overshoot a little and continue East without drowning (remember the “easternmost” point?). In addition, the fixed schedule of the ferry, is a quite a constraint when trying to pull off a Saddle Sore 1500. Who cares about another certificate from the IBA?

The idea for the Newfoundland trip was floating in my head since the summer of 2012, yet I did not make it happen that year. In hindsight I know why: failing to plan means planning to fail. You have to put your trips on the calendar! Lesson learned. When my original plans for the Memorial Day weekend in 2013 fell through, I quickly penciled in “St. John’s”. Now I was really getting excited!

Preparations

First, I needed a new helmet with better ventilation and a shield on top that makes riding in sun glare easier. The Araj XD4 seemed like the best choice. It arrived on May 6, 2013. Next, the bike needed new tires. They got mounted on May 17, 2013, at my dealership, SecondWind. Was the bike ready now? It better be, after all it’s a BMW. Finally, I needed a tank bag for my photo gear. There are some dedicated photo tank bags, but none of them are specifically made for my bike. The alternative is a tank bag made for my bike that lacks the photo features. I decided to go for the best fitting bag, even though I needed to somehow equip it for my photo gear. The bag arrived only a few days before I left, and it was not until the very last evening that I fitted it with foam to convert it into a photo bag. The whole week before Memorial Day was quite busy in the office, so when I came home on Friday night, it seemed like a very daunting task to pack, get enough sleep, and still leave early in the morning. I managed to pack, but the night was really too short.

Day 1: To North Sydney, NS

I started riding at 3:12 in the morning of May 25, 2013. Super excited! 🙂

Ready to Ride!
Ready to Ride!

The weather was far from ideal. I had to cope with rain, very heavy at times, for most of the day. I took the same route through Maine as last year during my Saddle Sore 1000. I stopped at the same gas stations and ate at the same Dunkin Donuts in Orono, ME; I think I even parked in the same spot there. That’s how boring I can be. I ordered a bagel and hot coffee to try to warm up from the inside and to warm my hands on the cup. I occupied the bathroom a little longer than usual, because the hand dryer felt so good. I had water in my boots, like last time, but it wasn’t so bad that I had to take them off and pour it out. I was just uncomfortably cold and wet.

Pit stop in Orono, ME
Pit stop in Orono, ME

Still, everything seemed awfully familiar. I think it was in Nova Scotia when it stopped raining. I pulled over to get gas and food at a Petro Canada station, when I saw the first dry patch of asphalt that day. It looked so good, I had to take a photo. Soon, though, the rain was back and it followed me all the way to the ferry.

It is dry!
It is dry!

I arrived at the ferry terminal pretty much as scheduled. The lady at the checkpoint was very nice and patient. It always takes so much longer traveling by motorcycle, especially when you are soaked and cold. You have to stop the engine, take the gloves off, take the helmet off, pull the earplugs out (without losing them), and get your passport out. Now you get your tickets and instructions and then have to do all  the above steps in the reverse order. Many lanes of the parking lot were already filled with dozens of cars and trucks. I got assigned a lane that still was completely empty. All of a sudden I was in the first row. Nice! I had just parked my bike and taken off my helmet when I was told that I would board first, in just a couple minutes. “Stay at your bike and don’t go away” the guy said. It felt a little weird. As if they needed somebody to test if the ferry can hold any load at all – maybe they didn’t want to sacrifice a car or truck? As I learned later, that’s the way they always do it. Motorcycles first. I made it onto the ship just fine, but was a little nervous going over all these big wet and slippery metal plates. One of the guys from the crew assigned me a parking spot and even helped me secure the bike with 4 heavy-duty tie downs.

Riding onto the ferry
Riding onto the ferry
Ready to leave the port. Where are all the cars?
Ready to leave the port. Where are all the cars?

Then I went upstairs to the room with assigned seating – lots of reclining chairs. I changed into dry clothes and went to eat. When I came back, only a few more people were in there. I had more than enough space and could spread out my gear so that it can dry overnight.

Will my great dry out over night?
My “bedroom”

Those reclining chairs were pretty comfortable, I slept very well.

Day 2:
From Channel-Port aux Basques
to St. John’s, NL

Breakfast the next morning was decent. And my gear was dry, but the joy did not last very long. The rain must have followed me over to the island. Soon after getting off the ferry and leaving Channel-Port aux Basques it began to pour . This time it was also very, very windy. It was literally raining horizontally; the wind gusts were unpredictable. After a while, though, I learned to read the wind from the cars ahead. When the car in front of me got blown over to the right or left, I knew the same would happen to me a few seconds later. Most of the time, this forecast of sorts was pretty accurate. Twice I could not react fast enough and ended up in the other lane; fortunately, there was no oncoming traffic. The only reason there was traffic at all, was because of the ferry. All the cars and trucks were getting on the road at the same time. The farther I got away from the ferry, the less traffic there was. Soon, I was alone on the road again. Newfoundland is quite mountainous. As you ride through it, the weather can change fast. All of a sudden the rain stopped, I could feel and see the temperature rising. The rear view mirrors were fogging up…  And then it hit me like a wall. I was in the middle of the thickest fog. No car, no lights in front of me, all I could do is ride very slowly and stay just to the left of the white line that separates the lane from the shoulder. A while later, the fog cleared and it was raining again.

Pit Stop
Pit Stop

After several pit stops and not even 600 miles, I arrived in St. John’s. My navigation system helped me to get straight to my final destination. It was still bright outside when I parked the bike in front of the Bed & Breakfast at 8pm. Feeling a sense of accomplishment, I started unpacking and moving into what would be my home for the next three nights.

Arrived!
Arrived!

Staying in a Bed & Breakfast was a very good decision. After two straight days of riding I was in need of some social interaction. First I met Earl, the owner of the place. I asked him for some dinner recommendations (where do the locals go?). I checked out some of those places. Most were packed with people. I really wanted to eat at The Yellow Belly, but there was a 20 minute waiting time for a table. I was way too tired and hungry for waiting. So, I left and kept looking for other places. I ended up in the Keg Steakhouse, not exactly a place where the locals go, but the Burger I ate was very good.

When I came home from dinner that night, I met Ruth and Jim from Alberta, who were on a trip to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. They  planned on staying  in St. John’s for a few days, and then renting an RV to tour the rest of the island.

Day 3: St. John’s

I met everybody the next morning at the breakfast table…

Helen prepared a heavenly breakfast for us. She was a lovely lady and made sure we were well fed and had enough to drink. Helen also was a great conversationalist and got us all involved in the discussions at the breakfast table.

I met a young couple from the French island of St. Pierre, just South off the coast of Newfoundland. The husband was French, grew up near Paris, and moved to the island later in life. His wife was Asian. They had come to St. John’s to pick up their sailboat, which was due to arrive the next day on a cargo ship from the Netherlands. The sailboat was an old Ketch with a steel hull. The previous owner has sailed  it for many decades. He was actually on his way to St. John’s to pass the boat’s key to the new owners. In hindsight, I wish I could have witnessed that ceremony.

Debra had also arrived the night before from South Alabama (near Mobile). She worked as a flight attendant for United Airlines and had her own photography business. Her husband passed away 7 years ago and she was still trying to re-build her life. Both her children are grown-ups: her daughter lives in Belfast and her son is in the Marines.

Paul was from Seattle. He worked for Boeing and was the past president of the IEEE aerospace association. Paul teaches System Design. He came to St. John’s because the University had invited him to speak that night. We had a very interesting conversation during and after breakfast (two engineers talking …). He invited me to his speech at the University and even contacted the organizer of the event about the dress code when I brought up that I’m just on a motorcycle trip and certainly did not bring any clothes appropriate enough for that evening. Even though he assured me that it would not be a problem no matter what I was wearing – I still could not bring myself to go. I spent time out and about instead.

Wild Things
Wild Things

After the long breakfast, I was on my own again. I grabbed my camera, and walked downtown. The location of the Bed & Breakfast was perfect, very close to all the stores and restaurants. I was strolling through town, took a few photos, and met even more people. “Wild Things” was a nice little souvenir store. Lisa A. Snow was the owner. She was enjoying the sunshine and trying to fix the paint job on the outside of her store. Lisa was a local artist. She painted and tried to make a living from selling her paintings. Some of her artwork was on display in the store.

Lisa
Lisa

By the way, she said she is completely computer-illiterate, but knows somebody who has an email address (the touring company upstairs). She allowed me to take some pictures of her and said I could send them upstairs. They would let her know when the email arrived and show her the pictures. See, most people find a way to deal with new technologies. Also working in the store was a young girl who is somehow related to the the lady that runs the touring company upstairs. She was very helpful and gave me some ideas about what I should do in the area with my time remaining. She also told me that she grew up in a village in the South Central region of Newfoundland. It took her close to 8 hours to travel to the village where her parents live, but it is much easier now that there is a road. In the past, she said, the village was only accessible by boat. Still today, there are villages on Newfoundland only accessible by boat.

Lunch

When it was time for lunch, I could not easily decide where to eat. Too many options. I ended up at “Fixed Coffee and Baking”. I had a large Latte and a small bagel sandwich with Prosciutto and Mozzarella. Can you believe that set me back by $12.50?

Lunch
Lunch

Yes, food, and many other things as well, are pretty expensive on Newfoundland. Considering that not much grows there (other than Rhubarb, I was told), everything needs to be brought to the island by either airplane or boat. Still, the coffee and the bagel were very tasty and I enjoyed sitting and eating outside.

Signal Hill
Signal Hill

After lunch I went back “home”, changed into my motorcycle gear, and rode over to Signal Hill. That was a place with an awesome view of St. John’s, the harbor, the waterfront, and the ocean. I learned that you can turn a big ship around quite quickly! A big tanker approached the coast and I was going to watch it as it enters the harbor. Instead of getting in to the harbor, though, this tanker starting making donuts on the ocean! And then the harbor police showed up…

"Donuts" on the ocean
“Donuts” on the ocean

I bumped into Debra at Signal Hill. We had a nice chat and took some photos together. After a while, we each went our own ways. Before I left Signal Hill, however, a guy from Texas walked over to me, asking questions about my bike and where I’m from. It turned out, he rode a BMW as well. What a nice community! My next destinations were Quiddy Viddy, Cape Spear, and Maddox Cove. Quiddy Viddy was nothing to rave about. It could very well be, though, that I missed it. Others’ descriptions were too dissimilar from what I saw. I think my navigation system was playing games with me.

Lighthouse on Cape Spear
Lighthouse on Cape Spear

Cape Spear, not too far from St. John’s, was the easternmost point of North America. You could feel Europe from there, but not see it. I tried. I even climbed up the hill, but it did not make a difference. 🙂

Easternmost point of North America
Easternmost point of North America

Next stop: Maddox Cove. It was a lovely, quaint village. It was there where I ate the best Fish and Chips of my life, sitting in the garden of a small restaurant. Hmm, maybe they can open a culinary school for Brits?

Maddox Cove
Maddox Cove
Fish and Chips
Fish and Chips

Another GS was riding by. He was waving, but did not stop. What’s wrong with him? Maybe he did not see my bike.

When I returned to the Bed and Breakfast, Debra was sitting in the living room reading on her tablet. We chatted for a while and then decided to go out for a drink. 15 minutes later we were on our way to the Yellow Belly. The Yellow Belly is a micro brewery and pub in downtown St. John’s. It is one of the places that Earl recommended the night before. We got a small table by the window. Neither of us was really hungry, so we started trying different beers and each settled on our favorite. I chose an IPA and Debra had …. I don’t remember what. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and we completely forgot about the time. We did order some food eventually – cheesecake. So, we had beer and cheesecake for dinner! We were the last people leaving the Yellow Belly. Oh, no – the waitress was! What a nice evening!

Day 4: Conception Bay

The next morning we all met at the breakfast table again. The young couple from the French Island of St. Pierre had already left. Instead, there was an elderly couple from the same island. Very nice people. Now I know 4 out of the 6000 people living there! I wondered what it feels like to them to travel to Newfoundland from their small island.

Helen fixed us the most delicious Blueberry Pancakes. With Blueberries so big, so juicy, so tasty, and so potent, they literally exploded when I stuck my knife in there – and made a big mess. Shirt and pants were decorated. Quite an embarrassment. And I still had to wear the blueberries for the rest of the day! That’s what you get when you pack lightly. Ever since, blueberry pancakes are a favorite of mine. Each time I have them, it’s an opportunity to practice eating without making a mess.

I was getting ready to go on a day trip on my bike to the west side of Conception Bay, when Debra said she was going there too. It started raining a little bit, so we ended up going together in her rental car. The rain stopped and it turned out to be the most wonderful day of photo shooting, conversations, and a picnic.

Scenic places
Scenic places
In Briggs
In Briggs

I don’t think we left any road or bay unexplored in this area. It was pretty late by the time we were back. Debra and I finished the evening with a bottle of wine and chatted into the night, way beyond my bed time.

Day 5: From St. John’s
to Channel-Port aux Basques

The next morning was difficult. I did not really want to leave, but I had to. Nothing was packed. The bike was not ready; I had to stop for gas and air. The navigation system was crazy and kept rebooting. Road construction in town slowed me down before I could get going. It was much later than excepted. Once I was finally on the highway, however, things got better and my mood improved. The breeze felt nice on my face. It was a sunny day. I could wear my sunglasses. They always make everything look nicer, warmer, and more colorful. They are my “good mood glasses”. I made decent progress. With very little traffic and no police around I took advantage of the fastest cars on the road and followed. Interestingly enough, I ended up getting gas mostly at the same gas stations as on the way up. Funny how that works. Once I reached Gander, which is pretty much the only town on the way across Newfoundland, I decided to stop at the tourist information. I wanted to get the latest update on icebergs on “iceberg alley”, as the Northern coast of Newfoundland is called, and also find out how many hours a detour up North would set me back by. I decided to do it. Even though the detour would eat up most of my contingency time and gas stops would have to be really short for the rest of the day, I decided seeing an iceberg is worth the risk. Off I went, heading North to Twillingate Island. The trip was very scenic and when I finally found the “iceberg”, I could not stop laughing about how small it was. I guess I should have known. It was shown on the maps in the exact same location for quite a while, so it was melting away.

Iceberg in Twillingate
Iceberg in Twillingate

Anyway, I did not regret my detour at all, even though I was under a lot of time pressure for the rest of the day, almost ran out of gas, and was quite scared about colliding with a moose once it started getting dark.

Before it got dark, though, I came across something very unexpected. Was there really a blue duck on the road in front of me? Yes, indeed! As I came closer, I noticed a German license plate. Am I dreaming? I’m in Canada, right? A blue duck from Germany with Hannover license plate on the Trans-Canada Highway in Newfoundland!? What is going on? The “duck’, by the way, is a Citroën 2CV – just in case you were wondering. I was already late and a little stressed out over missing my ferry, and now there is this duck on the road. A duck with a German license plate! I was crawling along behind it for a few seconds. What should I do? I had no contingencies in my schedule anymore. Any delay from now on could cause me to miss the ferry. Should I just pass and ignore it? I can’t do that. When you see a blue duck on the Trans-Canada Highway and it has a German license plate, you have to stop it and find out what’s going on, no matter what. So I passed, slowed down in front of it, and signaled the driver to pull over. It did not seem to work at first, so I started pointing at my “D” sticker on the back of my bike, hoping he would get my “Hey, I’m German too!”. Finally, I saw the blinker come on and he stopped.

The Duck
The Duck

It turned out, it was Robert from Hannover, living his dream. A car mechanic by trade, he always wanted to drive a duck that he souped-up himself across the Trans-Canada Highway. All the way from St. John’s, NL to Vancouver, BC. Since ducks don’t swim, he shipped it across the Atlantic. It arrived in Baltimore, from where Robert drove it to St. John’s, where he started the ride of his life. He kindly offered to make us some coffee (in the breakdown lane of the TCH), but I was too nervous about my schedule, so I sadly declined.

Robert and I
Robert and I

Robert was asking if I saw the big car fire way back there. Which car fire? I had no idea what he was talking about. I then realized that I must have missed it as part of my detour North to Twillingate Island. I had skipped a brief section of the TCH when I returned from Twillingate and re-joined it West of Gander. That section is where the car fire was.

From home, I followed the rest of Robert’s epic trip on his blog. You can read the whole story here. Robert also wrote about the car fire and how we met.

Closer to dusk, I saw moose next to the road twice. I wanted to stop to take photos so badly, but I didn’t, because of my schedule. Riding in the darkness and going fast was a little nerve-racking in an area where you know are lots of moose and everybody always warns you about them. I was lucky. All went well. It was an awesome day and I safely arrived at the ferry just when boarding started. This was my first day of the trip without rain. It was also my last.

Sunset over Newfoundland
Sunset over Newfoundland

When you go on a trip that involves a ferry ride, you should travel by motorcycle whenever you can. Why? It’s like traveling First Class without paying more. Motorcycles always board first. The deck is still empty, you have time to secure your bike, unpack, and go upstairs. There is no line at the food stands and you can be done eating by the time cars roll onto the ferry. In my case: I could have been asleep before we left port, but I chose to write some emails first. Yes, on the way back I had my own 2-bed cabin with my own bathroom. Way to ferry!

Day 6: Going Home

The ride from North Sydney, NS back to home in MA was borderline torture. First, it was raining heavily again. Then, in Maine, it became too hot (over 90°F) for the gear I was wearing. I did not even have enough space on the bike to store some layers that I would have liked to take off. In the afternoon, getting closer to home, traffic got denser and denser and with every hour I got more tired. Not a good combination. This all culminated in me getting stuck in road construction on I495 late at night. I lost over an hour because of that. It got so bad, I even left the highway, trying to find some back roads, only to get stuck in road construction again. Welcome to Massachusetts! I was very exhausted when I reached home at 11pm, but also happy that I made it and that I was safe.

The next morning, I took the bike and went to the office. I did not think for even a second about taking the car. Besides having been at work all day, something felt very different. Oh yes, I haven’t been at a gas station all day long! 🙂

The Aftermath

I really outgrew my BMW 1200GS. The frequent pit stops due to the relatively short range of the bike became a little frustrating. Side-loading cases (where half of the luggage falls out when you open them) were not my favorites anymore. It was during that trip that I realized I definitely needed a GS Adventure if I wanted to go on more trips like that. I love Canada! Canadians are very friendly and down-to-earth, especially on Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Some of the landscapes are breathtaking. It is beautiful and never boring. The trip was too short. It felt rushed. I need to come back. I need to take more time. Debra and I stayed friends for a little longer, but then lost touch. What stays are the memories.

To view some of my Photos from Newfoundland, click here.