From Costa Rica and beyond

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Of Gravel Roads and Frontier Towns

It's about time my travel/riding blog be updated. I am now back in Vermont, where after just a couple days my lawn is mowed and raked and my house clean and livable. The school year will start very soon, so why not procrastinate by writing one last blog entry?

The previous entry left off in Port Hope Simpson where I enjoyed a comfortable night in a B & B, before traversing 225 miles of gravel (and 252 miles to the next gas station!) to Goose Bay/Happy Valley. So how was the ride? The ride was rather uneventful and a bit anti-climactic. The weather was good - sunny and neither too hot nor cold. There were occasional crosswinds to contend with. The road was good too. It was very well maintained. Probably every 50 miles or so I encountered a grader methodically plowing the road. Early in the day, one caught them in the beginning stages of their work, leveling the surface and pushing the extra dirt and stones to the middle of the road. Riding that freshly plowed surface was great as there were fewer stones and thus less fish-tailing of the bike. Later in the day, the graders plowed the middle and spread the gravel evenly back across the two lanes, which made for a smooth, but very rocky surface.

I made good time zipping along as fast as 60mph. I stopped for a couple bathroom and snacking breaks, but otherwise had no need or incentive to stop. A breath-taking view could have halted me, but the view was very consistent: scraggly black fir trees either blocking further views if on flat terrain or dominating views if the road crested a hill. There were, of course, a few streams and a couple small lakes. Other travelers on the road ranged from normal cars, tractor-trailers, and even a German overland vehicle with giant wheels (and spares) and seemingly equipped to survive a nuclear holocaust and the rapture. The plates indicated they were from Aachen.

As I approached the end of the gravel portion, my bike stalled and rolled to a stop. I still had not driven 220 miles. My bike usually has a range of about 240 miles and that's without the extra 2.5 gallons I had already put in my tank from my jerry can. Yikes!!! I switched the lever to the reserve tank and rolled on...this time a bit more slowly so as to conserve fuel. I was relieved somewhat to reach pavement, then to cross the broad Churchill River. I was extremely relieved to finally reach a gas station! How could my bike consume so much fuel?!?

Happy Valley/Goose Bay are consolidated towns that (as I've learned is the norm) look way less frontier-like than most people imagine. Walmart is there, the Canadian automotive equivalent to Walmart, Canadian Tire, is also there. There are a couple motorcycle dealers, as motorcycles and ATVs are very popular in this part of the world. Fast food restaurants like Tim Hortons are also represented. My number one priority there was to get my new sprockets and chain for my bike. Having made really good time, I pulled up at Frenchy's Motorcycles with 1.5 hours until closing time. All my parts were there. Thanks to their helpful crew, I was gone by 5:30. My worries about a broken or slipping chain were also gone. A stop at the tourism office did not convince me to stick around. The wish to visit my parents and friends in Michigan and to get back to Vermont at a reasonable time also urged me onward. I drove another two hours west on  the paved portion of 500 and found a nice spot just off the road for some brookside camping.

Black flies and mosquitos awaited me, but I was ready this time. I dismounted my bike and grabbed first thing for my netting and the DEET. What a difference DEET makes. I sprayed it over my clothing, on the netting, and by the entrance to the tent. I could now relax, fix up another helping of ramen noodles with turkey chunks, and watch a mama bird tutor her two young on how to snatch black flies in mid-air. Such sweet schadenfreude! Sleep eluded me that night though. As soon as the sun disappeared, the cold air rolled into my tent and put my sleeping bag (rated for 40F, I believe) to the test. I was cold! In my half-sleep I complained about the sleeping bag, not knowing that temperatures went down to about 38F that night. Of course, the clear skies that allowed that to happen also warmed my tent up nicely in the morning. I didn't get up until 10am. What a rough life!

The paving process is actively underway on 500. I suspect it will all be paved by next year. On this day, though, I had another 120 or so miles of gravel to cross...and dust to breathe. It was a dry day. The 500 has more traffic than the 510. Construction vehicles (for the paving work) kicked up so much dust that one simply could not see anything as they passed. The dust and grit got in my helmet, everything! Shortly after blindly passing a pick-up/trailer combo (which kicked stones up at me), my bike again rolled to a stop. No WAY!! I had already poured the 2.5 extra gallons in the tank. How could I be out of fuel? I had traveled perhaps 160 miles from Happy Valley/Goose Bay. I hailed a passing car and asked them if they had any extra fuel. They did and eagerly handed me their can. I opened the tank and...saw that there was still ample fuel. Ruh roh! I returned the can and sent them on their way. What could the problem be? Perhaps the fuel pump or fuel filter. I knew I wasn't too far from Churchill Falls, so I was mentally preparing to push my bike, if need be. I tried the ignition one last time fired right up. Whew!!

At Churchill Falls, the gravel ends (or begins). The town's raison d'etre is the giant hydroelectric generating station located there. This town is truly a company town. Nalcor owns everything except the gas station. Employees and their families live in company owned houses (and pay about $100 rent per month). There is no real downtown. Instead there is a big building (I though it was a school with sort of modernist architecture) which houses a public library, a grocery store, a restaurant, a small hotel, etc. Of course, I didn't realize this at first. In my quest to find the downtown (and some food and maybe a garage!), I stopped at a house where a man was working outside. He turned out to be the town planner (a company employee) and a mechanic with all the right tools. He helped me clean the bike's air filter. As we did that, it dawned on me what the actual problem was. The dust was plugging the valve that allows air to flow into the tank, as the fuel is consumed. When air can't enter the tank, a vacuum is created and the fuel stops flowing. What a relief! Dale told me about the town and how it is to work there. I was impressed to learn that every employee and family member who lives there gets two allowances of $2200 to go on vacation away from Churchill Falls. When you retire, you have three months to get out of there before new tenants move in. Dale also urged me to tour the generating facility - something I had been hoping to do.

Say what you will about massive hydroelectric projects, the engineering is remarkable. This 5500 megawatt facility is located in a massive underground slab of granite. So as not to destabilize the granite, it was all bored out by hand and machine - no dynamite. Eleven tunnels funnel water to turbines that turn generators at very high speeds. The power is sent mostly to Quebec which consumes some and sends the rest to the northeastern US.

After an interesting tour (along with a Canadian and a German rider), I ate a Donair Supreme (a hybrid Doener and pizza) and called friends I had met in Gros Morne. They live just two hours from Churchill Falls in Wabush (right next to the better known Labrador City). Helene answered the phone and said I was very welcome to stay with them and with two French hitch-hikers they had met.

Labrador City and Wabush also defy the image of frontier towns. The streets are paved. Houses and neighborhoods are generally nice and neat. Again, fast food chains and big box stores thrive there just like everywhere else. These towns are not company towns like Churchill Falls, but they are industrial towns - iron ore is the business up there. Right now, that business is humming, both figuratively and literally. The mines with their giant trucks and cranes and the processing facilities can be heard around the clock seven days a week. One particular mine has an automated train that goes back and forth sounding its horn every five seconds non-stop. This sounds awful, but where Wayne and Helene live, one can just barely hear these sounds. There are, of course, some oddities about these towns. The homes, originally paid for by the companies, are very homogenous. Modest homes are quite expensive, as there is no new property available - it's all owned by the companies which have mining rights. Many of the people working in the service sector are Philippinos who will typically stay a few years and build up their savings. I didn't sense much cultural friction there. Some anger, however, is directed toward "Fifo's" - Men who Fly In and then Fly Out for short term jobs. They don't have a stake in the community. Helene, however, noted that some anger toward them is totally unfounded. She once heard two women in a store complain that Fifos were to blame for the lack of tampons in one of the local stores (almost all Fifos are men).

I stayed two nights with Wayne and Helene, their son, Phil, as well as a couple young relatives who are summer-jobbing up there and of course the French couple. Wayne and Helene enjoy a full house - and it was fun! We ate very well and had a great time chatting late into the night. They gave some of us a tour of the nearby Quebec town, Fermont (iron mountain), with its imposing building (housing everything from stores to residential apartments to a strip club) called "The Wall". Wayne, an avid rider, got out his BMW 1200gs Adventure and led me on a ride up some very treacherous trails for some great views over the cities and countryside. From there, one could also see just how close the Summer's forest fires had come. About 2 miles is all that separated the town from the fires. The local population had been evacuated and roads were closed. I was lucky to arrive a couple weeks after the disaster.

From Labrador City, the road turns south into Quebec and eventually down to the city Baie-Comeau on the Saint Lawrence River. Much of the northernmost section of this road is gravel. Making the first 50 miles or so worse are all the curves in the road. Turning on gravel is not fun. The apparent lack of any reason for most of these curves made me wonder cynically if there was some Quebecois philosophy behind what the roadsigns labeled 'sinuousness'. Eventually the road straightened. Soon I was on pavement again...and then off it again. The highlights of this 1.25 day ride south were the Michouagan Reservoir (a ring lake that fills a giant, ancient meteorite crater) and the dam that created the reservoir, Manic 5. The latter must be an engineering marvel. It's facade (or downstream face) is composed of giant concrete arches whose supports stretch downward and forward. They appear to prop up the rest of the dam like flying buttresses on a cathedral. Here too, there are not many gas stations. But by now, I was figuring out that the lower mileage I had experienced was not due to any problem with my bike, but due to driving over gravel at relatively high speeds, wheels a-spinnin'.

After one last night tenting at the side of a lake, I was back on major roads heading west. The northern shore of the Saint Lawrence has some quaint towns. I sped on to Quebec City where I visited Sylvain and Suzanne who had loaned me a sleeping pad when mine failed in Gros Morne. They kindly hosted me that night. I loved both their apartment (which in typical Quebec fashion has graceful exterior wrought iron stairs up to their second story front door) and their slightly gentrified neighbourhood, Limoilou, with its good eateries and strong socially and environmentally conscious ethic. Big Agnes did not manage to get a replacement pad to their home in time for me - not by a long shot.

That was, for me, the end of this summer's grand adventure. My bike and I put on a lot more miles (highway miles) heading to Michigan to see my parents (Arlene and Ted) and friends (Cara and Mike, Tracy and Dennis). I was lucky to be able to visit a number of friends as I rode eastward (Marilyn) and westward (Jess and Jesse, Elfi and Maxime).

It was another great trip. Considering a trip to the Maritimes? I highly recommend it.

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