Sunday, July 7, 2013

Newfoundland, and the Trans-Canada Adventure Trail.

The ferry ride from Nova Scotia to Argentia in Newfoundland disembarked at a little before 10am Newfie time; Just to give themselves yet another reason to be seemingly the butt of all jokes in Canada, Newfoundland has it's own special little timezone that's a half-hour offset from the traditional time zones.  Argentia is little more than a port facility; even the nearby town of Placentia is barely more than a speck.  I and burned miles for a couple hours to get to the eastern edge of Newfoundland, and the port town of St John, the largest city on the island.

I didn't have much specific reason to be in St John; I got some basic supplies, but I didn't have much interest in exploring any of the culture or history (as interesting as it might have been).  I was here because in this city is the easternmost terminus of the TCAT; the Trans-Canada Adventure Trail.

The TCAT is the culmination of over seven years of effort from a group of motorcyclists from across Canada, who have use their knowledge of local areas and hand-held GPS units to put together an unofficial, but continuous off-road trail stretching from the extreme edge of eastern Canada, in Newfoundland, to the western tip of Victoria Island.  They rode the routes themselves, recording sections on their personal GPS units and have now stitched them together into a continuous path all the way across the continent.  Using abandoned rail lines, fire services roads, power company maintenance tracks, and any other sort of path that they could find, the entire 10,000+ mile path uses only a few hundred miles of pavement.  Everything else is gravel, clay or dirt.

It shares a portion of the path with the Trans-Canada Trail, which is an official walking/hiking trail that also goes most of the way across Canada (although there are some breaks).  Both of these, the TCAT and the TAT, share the same official starting location; the railway museum in downtown St John.

Unfortunately for me, the first few miles of the trail that runs through the city itself is restricted to foot and bicycle traffic only; numerous signs and barriers explicitly prohibited motorized use.

I could have probably taken my bike down it anyway, but I didn't feel like being a jerk and there were quite a number of cyclists and joggers on it anyway.  No place for a big street bike, so I slabbed it roughly 15 miles outside of town, and joined up with the trail again where it seemed much more suited to motorized use.

For most of Newfoundland, the trail follows a decommissioned rail line that has been torn up and replace with gravel; while it does pass through many urban centers, you're often riding quite literally through people's back yards.  And often on fresh gravel (ARG!)

These areas, just east of St John, varied wildly in terms of how technical they were.  Sometimes it was bumpy but passable, although more and more often I found myself encourtering highly technical areas that made me seriously reconsider what I was trying to do.

It's not that I mind water and mud puddles, it's that they stretch on and on and on for MILES.  Imagine a street with large speedbumps every 15 feet; that's what much of this was like.  You couldn't make any sort of speed or decent time because you're constantly picking a path through at 10mph.  Although I prefer those water puddles to the long stretches of lose rock.

This stuff kicked my ass; I dropped the bike once and had to push it over twice, after getting the rear wheel buried.  If it had been solid or tightly packed it wouldn't have been so bad, but everything was so lose that it slid out from under you.  This was the first time that I started to wish I'd spent the $400 on a steering damper; that wish would become more and more frequent as the trail went on.

I think it was here that I lost my first item of the trip; my 48oz water bottle seemed to go AWOL.  Not sure what happened to it, but I'm betting it either bounced out or fell out at one of the numerous drops/tip overs.

After very nearly not making it out of that large lose rock section, I admitted to myself that perhaps a 500lb+ bike wasn't going to be able to do every single inch of the trail; there was no shame in skipping small sections if the alternative was to destroy the motorcycle.

The farther away from towns I got, the longer the sections were that I had to go at a time; when in town there were frequent cross-streets that I could jump onto, but as I got into the boonies they became more and more infrequent.  Blessedly the trail smooth out some and there was less lose rock, although there was often long mud patches.

For the most part, the TCAT runs fairly close to the Trans-Canada Highway, so in a sense you're rarely actually that far from civilization. I almost always had a cell signal, and there were frequent enough crossings and intersections of the highway that if I did get stranded, I wasn't more than a day's walk from help.

The farther east I went, the prettier things became.  There were frequent skirtings of lakes and streams, and aside from the occasional cabin, I was quite alone. 

As nice as the weather and scenery was, this was also VERY slow going, much slower than I had been anticipating.  I don't have much off-road experience; I can pick my way down a path for a few hundred yards when looking for someplace to camp, but doing tens and hundreds of miles of unimproved roads is a different story.  I'd been hoping to make it across Newfoundland in three or four days; this didn't seem likely.

Riding these roads is exhausting for someone not conditioned to them, as I'm not; to have any control of the bike, you've got to be standing up on the pegs and letting your legs act as part of the suspension.  It's fine for short sections, but soon I found myself having to stay on the pegs for tens of miles at a stretch.  I was burning so many more calories than I was used to that I stopped at a small little town that had a tiny spec of a cafe, and paid for lunch.

Some areas were more densely populated than I though; much seemed popular with hunters and fishers, and I saw quite a few cabins and pickup trucks with bed campers and fifth-wheel RVs.  Camping was pretty easy; there's enough clearings and areas just off the side of the trail that I could pick one at random. 

And as a bit of a reward for my first day of significant off-pavement travel, I had some dead cow for dinner.

The next day, two days even, were more of the same; the trail varied from decently maintained gravel road, to double-track, and everywhere in between.

There were so many giant puddles that I ended up getting pretty wet, and my boots were soaked through.  It's best not to try and go slow through this stuff; speed is good.  Keep your weight back, give it lots of gas and keep your eyes on the horizon, and trust that the laws of physics will get you through it.  It works, but throws up enormous walls of spray.  Remember to keep your visor shut, lest you end up with a face full of muddy puddle water (It only took this happening 4-5 times before I figured that out!)

Not part of the trail, this was a side section.  And if it hadn't been for that pretty deep water crossing, I might have been tempted to give it a try; that looks like a fun hill climb.
The trail can be deceptive; some areas are smooth enough and free enough of gravel that as I got more confident, I could start to maintain upwards of 30mph.  But these speeds still feel ludicrously fast, because you never know what sort of giant wash-out is coming just around the corner.  If you're lucky, you'll have a few seconds to prepare and chose a line through it, if there is a line.

Camping that night was at yet another little clearing directly off the trail.  The going had been much easier than the first day, and I'd made almost 200 miles.  Maybe I was getting the hang of this whole adventure-riding thing!

The next day dawned . . . smoggy.  Smog?  It wasn't normal clouds; the color was different and it seemed much lower.

In just the last two or three days, I'd gotten markedly better at handling this thing off road.  I don't have much if any dirt experience; I'm not one of those lucky kids who got to grow up on a farm and ride quads and dirt bikes all day.  I was stuck in an endless suburban hellhole, and while I turned green with envy when I'd read stories about kids my age who had their own motorcycles, they weren't an option for me.  So when I finally got my first bike at age 25, I didn't have those years of dirt riding experience already under my belt.

The hardest thing to get used to as someone who came from the street is how much the bike moves around underneath you; you can't fight it, you just have to let it do it's thing and trust that it'll all work out.  In almost every situation, for every bad condition, the answer is more throttle, and more speed.  The speed helps carry you through the lose stuff, and staying on the throttle keeps the bike's weight over the rear wheel.  It sounds simple in theory, but when you're on a 500lb bike with 100lbs of crap strapped to it, staring doing a trail of endless loose gravel, it's much scarier to put into practice.

The question doesn't become "where can I get traction to accelerate" as "where can I get traction to brake and bleed off speed".  You're on the gas so constantly to get through the lose stuff that your biggest worry becomes accumulating too much speed; sometimes I'd find myself coming out of washes doing almost 50mph, which on these sort of roads is terrifying.

But I did see my first bear of the trip!  That little black dot all the way up in the distance?  Totally a bear!

But the bane of my existence, what I hated more than anything else, was the never-ending whoops that had been beaten into the road.

Endless stretches, tens of miles long, of deep undulations that were just about as long as the bike's wheel base.  These went on for tens of miles at a time, for hour after hour after hour.  The only speeds over this were going to be 5mph, picking your way slowing through and around it, sometimes skirting the extreme edge of the path with brushes and trees scraping on the saddlebags, or 40mph+, gassing it and letting the suspension do the work of soaking it all up.  I'd gotten WAY more confident and much better at handling it in the last few days, but it's still scary as shit and brutal on the bike; this is a dual sport, not a supermotocross.  When I stopped to camp for the night, I went over the bike and found that due to the constant pounding and vibration, half the bolts in the tail section had worked themselves loose.

Most disturbingly, I'd lost BOTH of the lower tail section bolts.

These are very critical bolts; they take all of the weight of the rear subframe, which in turn takes my weight and the weight of all the luggage.  Even being without one was bad, but somehow BOTH of them had worked themselves out.  This was not good, and I needed to get back to pavement immediately and get this stuff re-attached.  But I wasn't anywhere near pavement; Howley, the nearest town, was still the better part of 30 miles ahead of me, and there wasn't anything behind me for about the same distance.

Faced with no real choice, I kept going east.  I knew I had to take it slow, but in some sections you simply can't go slow; speed keeps the bike stable, and keeps you up and alive.

More random whoops and potholes, more lose gravel piles.  It's manageable; you just have to pick either the left or right wheel track, and hope there's no bad potholes.  And again, you've got to keep that speed up; as long as you don't suck at motorcycles, it'll keep you upright.

As long as you don't suck at motorcycles.

I suck at motorcycles.
One split second.  My concentration lapsed for one split second as I glanced down to see how the saddlebags and subframe were doing, and when I looked back up my front wheel was in the center gravel pile.  I panicked, and did the worst thing I possibly could; I target fixated on the gravel berm, and probably tried to slow down.

And that was it.  The front wheel washed out, dug in and flung the bike over onto the other side, I came off and landed on my shoulder and hip, sliding down the trail after the bike.

This was bad.  Because the rear subframe bolts were missing, when the weight of the bike landed on the bag it dug in and bent the whole rear frame out of true.

I was okay, mostly, and after a few minutes a couple on two quads that I'd passed earlier came along.  They saw what happened and offered to take my luggage for me into the nearest town, still the better part of 25 miles (of rough trail) away.

This was IMMENSELY wonderful of them; taking off all the luggage kept as much weight off the tail section as possible, and prevented the damage from getting any worse.  We slowly made it into Howley, where I could get back on the pavement and off the rough trail.  The town is tiny, just a spec really, but they did have a tiny general store which sold enough nuts and bolts that I could bodge something together.  For some reason, EVERYTHING in Canada is SAE measurements, even though all the distance markers on the highway are metric.  This being a metric bike, they didn't have direct replacement bolts, but I was able to make something with with an under-sized standard bolt.  The subframe is still badly tweaked, but at least using an long bolt and nut, I was able to jackscrew it back mostly into place.

Better than nothing.
I took the pavement to the next town of Deer Lake, but it wasn't much in the way of size, so I kept going on the highway to Corner Brook.  It's the biggest town in the eastern part of Newfoundland, and the tourist info place directed me to a local auto body place.

Through some delicate and refined techniques that involved a really big mallet, they were able to bash the saddlebags mostly back into shape, and get the frame straight enough that I could at least bolt it back together.  It's still not true, but it's better and should at least take weight again.

There was another problem; the frame was still bent enough that the remote reservoir for the rear shock had been rubbing on the swingarm.

I was able to get it mounted on the other side of the passenger footpeg, and it's solid enough but now VERY unprotected.  Any sort of an off at speed now will rip it off, and then I'll be in REAL trouble. 

As much as I don't want to admit defeat, I have to throw in the towel; the Trans-Canada Adventure Trail beat me.  I'm sticking to mostly pavement for the rest of the trip.  I have no doubt that a more skilled rider could have done it, and if I hadn't been trying to make good time, I probably would have been okay as well.  But this is completely the wrong motorcycle for it; it's too heavy, especially with all the crap I'm carrying, and doesn't have the suspension travel to deal with the endless abuse.  The ergonomics aren't conductive to standing for such extended periods of time, or I'm just too tall; I'm hunched over too much and that puts the weight too far forward on the front wheel, and with the seat bag I wasn't able to shift my weight far back enough when needed.

To anyone reading this considering trying the TCAT on a 650 twin dual-sport, think long and hard about it.  At minimum, get soft luggage, not hard luggage; it'll deal with the crashes and drops much better.  I think a more ideal bike for this would be a 400cc single (DRZ-400S) , or maybe a 650cc single (KLR, any of the KTMs, DR, etc). 

The V-strom is a great bike, and for me in this trip it's still the best on the market, but it's not a dirt bike, as much as I might try and treat it like one.


  1. wow.

    So, sounds like twofiddys might be in order!

  2. Too awesome. I need an adventure :)

  3. Tsaven, great blog post and fun adventure - whew yes challenging trails for Vstrom. Stay in Newfoundland as long as you can. Gaila and I visited there last August and September - it is amazing place that is very unique with so many kind people. Did you camp in the middle of St. John's and poke around a bit? We enjoyed our few days there after the remoteness of Labrador. Ride well. If you care to check out some of our Newfie experience it is here:

  4. Great blog, I enjoyed reading it! It was cool to see pics of familiar places from the perspective of a tourist! Haha. Just wanted to add in that St. John's is on the eastern most part of the province and Corner Brook is actually on the West side of the island and as you traveled along the trail you were heading westward! Looks like you had a great adventure and stay safe riding, shiny side up man! Cheers!