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Victoria to St John's: the scenic route

That's the plan anyway... to bike across this not-very-small country, using the Trans Canada Trail as much as possible, and hopefully wash up on the Atlantic coast before the summer's over. I can ride a bike and put up a tent so I'm hoping the rest will follow. This is primarily a sight-seeing trip but also a test of grit and a breaker of domestic monotony... apparently it's a good way to pass a few months.

Diary Entries

Friday, 21 September 2007

Location: St John's, NL - The End!

There, it's all done. After 115 days and 10,021 km I've run out of Canada. Powered by sugar and saturated fats I've managed to cross this big and beautiful country, but it was a battle right to the end. More terrible trail, multiple bike ailments and a bridge that just wasn't there all conspired to keep me from St John's. And the end's come at just the right time - the bike is in a pitiful state, my clothes are in tatters, and my sleeping bag has become a biosecurity hazard that will likely be destroyed by the airport authorities when I go to leave.

The ride out of Deer Lake was through 20-odd km of mushy gravel as far as a pretty lake just west of Howley where I stopped for the night. I had a peculiar midnight visit from a weirdo on an ATV but otherwise it was very tranquil. It was just a short ride into Howley in the morning to stock up before heading across the Topsails Plateau - a 100 km stretch to Badger. It was a pretty loose and rocky 100 km though and the day's average speed was an agonising 12.9 km/h. But it was a fine day and there were a few people around, hunters mainly, who dished out all manner of morsels to me. The trade off, as usual, for abysmal trail conditions was pure Canadian wilderness scenery, most notably the four "topsails" - queer rocky formations protruding from otherwise pretty flat, marshy terrain. My head wasn't quite in the constant whirl the guidebook said it would be at the sight of these things but certainly they were quirky enough to justify the ride out there. After 70 km Millertown Junction appeared - a cluster of houses but no store. It was here that I met Walter - "an antique dealer and a Christian, and if you come to my house in Grand Falls tomorrow I'll make it worth your while". Walter was a chatterbox and deprived me of vital daylight for the 30 km run through to Badger and civilisation. It was a ghastly 30 km but I got there just on dark, making for a restaurant where I had a concoction called The Mess, a mountain of chips smothered in assorted fluids, the purchase of which I traded for a tent spot on their lawn.

It was a wet but easy ride into Grand Falls in the morning where I soon found Walter's house. He wasn't home so I peered in the window and could see a stuffed seal, various parts of a boat, antlers from some large animal and lots of other "antiques". So I headed down the trail again and was soon aware of a ute following me. It was Walter. He produced a package containing two cooked trout from Labrador and a jar of blueberries. All very tasty. I carried on through Bishops Falls and into Glenwood where I stopped at a trashy diner and ordered chips. The Newfies aren't the hurrying types though and again I lost the remaining light as I waited for these. But I had to ride on to find somewhere for the tent and in the dark an adequate spot appeared.

That spot seemed to be animal central, with a lot of rustling and stomping in the night. And soon after starting for the day I broke the morning silence with a flurry of expletives at the state of the track which frightened a little black bear out of the bushes and sent him scurrying up the trail in front of me. Very amusing. The trail was quite tolerable for the rest of the day, out through Gander, then Gambo, and on to a spot where there is a final chance to join the road before another long wilderness crossing. My frayed nerves couldn't stand another one of these, especially one that I wasn't going to get through that day, so I sheepishly headed for the highway. This turned out to be a good decision, partly because it ran right through Terra Nova National Park which eventually gave fine views out to sea, but more importantly because I found a broken spoke which could've led to trouble in the bush. Sure enough it was two broken spokes by the end of the day and my supposedly indestructible wheel was on the way out. It was a long limp through to Clarenville the next day where, contrary to what the quidebook said, there was in fact a bike shop. Lucky! A young chap there got me going again and the day ended on the roadside at Arnolds Cove.

After a lunch stop at Whitbourne the next day I figured I was close enough to St John's to return to the trail. This was no gentle reintroduction though. It was immediately rough but scenic enough and I bounced along out to the coast at Holyrood. After dinner there it was back into the loose rubbish, riding along the coast then down to a bridge across an inlet. The bridge wasn't there though. Two big cranes were parked up and had yanked the thing out. This was over ocean though so I wasn't wading through, especially as it was dark by now. But a large power plant backed onto this area and their back gate was wide open so I rode in looking for a short cut around the bridge. Inside there were open doors exposing large panels of flashing lights and switches. I could easily have brought Newfoundland to a standstill but my priority was finding a tent spot. I found the security booth and gave the lady in there a hell of a fright. All those camera monitors around her and she was just nattering on the phone. She was mortified at the sight of me and made a bit of a fuss but let me go when I told my story, saying I could camp just outside their grounds. So that was my final night's spot - in the shadow of three big chimneys.

The final day got off to a bad start - I woke up to a flat tyre and another broken spoke so stayed on the road as far as a town called Paradise where the passing of the 10,000 km mark coincided with a great improvement in trail conditions. I jumped back on for the final run into St John's but that was thwarted by another spoke breaking so, fearing imminent wheel disintegration, I got off and walked the remaining few kms.

Then I was there. I reached the Trans Canada Trail Mile 0 sign, sat down and was overcome with... hunger. That's all I felt, just hungry. Tim Horton's soon took care of that but there was still work to be done. I needed to find the Atlantic having stupidly told myself in Victoria that I would have a swim at St John's. And I had to empty the little bottle of Pacific water that has been taped to my bike since Victoria. The destination for this was Quidi Vidi, chosen for no reason other than I liked the name. Turns out it was a lovely spot with no one around to watch me perform my dopey rituals. I had to ditch the bike and scramble over some rocks before slipping into water which I would describe as icy fresh. I was out of there very smartly but full-body immersion had been performed and the job was done. The odometer stood at 20.7 km. You must believe me that that actually meant 10,020.7, since it reverted to zero after the long-anticipated 9999.9 moment. The day ended with an obligatory dose of Screech at one of the infamous George St pubs, washed down with more benign beverages. And I spotted two similarly gaunt figures at the cheap and nasty motel I'm at who sure enough had also just come in from a trans Canada ride. So much to talk about!

So now it's back to Vancouver and then to work I suppose. And probably to the dentist as well to see how much damage all that Coke's done. And I really must do a bicycle maintenance course. Then I can start planning the next adventure...

Friday, 14 September 2007

Location: Deer Lake, NL

It seems the fifth and final ferry ride of the trip has delivered me to the island of doom. Newfoundland, The Rock, is home to bike-breaking trails and vile weather which are hindering my assault on the finish line. It is a wild place but it is very beautiful, with massive rocky protrusions everywhere and endless forest that's full of wildlife. And hunters. It's a bad place to be a moose. The moose population here is descended from four individuals. Some would have you believe the human population is descended from as many people. But that is unkind. I have only met perfectly-formed Newfies. And good friendly folks they are too.

I rolled off the ferry at Port aux Basques ready for a full day of trail riding but hadn't counted on the chattiness of the locals so it was two hours before I was moving. Once the fog had lifted it was a nice day and I was eventually riding across marshes, through forest and out to the coast, bumping along a wide ledge, peering down to the clear water of the Gulf of St Lawrence on one side and up to the Long Range Mountains on the other. Very nice scenery. I passed a place known as Wreckhouse where the mountainous terrain can fire wind through at such high speed that it blows trucks off the road. It failed to dislodge me though. Not that it was very windy that day. I was not pleased to find a crack in my rim after just 30 km so I pretended I hadn't see it and rode on. I thought better of it 10 km later though and pulled off the trail to start on the long haul by road to the next town with a bike shop, Corner Brook, 170 km away. This was very disappointing but there was some consolation in watching the 9000th km come and go, and it also meant a swifter passage to the tiny town of Robinsons where I was pleased to find a pub. In there was a telly and on that was the US Open final. I had a cheeseburger that had no cheese on it but it didn't matter, good things were happening on court, and after another glorious Federer victory I camped in a field across the road from the pub.

In the morning I decided that if I had to buy a new rim I may as well wreck the other one first so I jumped back on the trail for another 20 km. This took me over some trestles that were in their original condition with nice big gaps between the sleepers to step over. Eventually I came to an intersection with a road and stopped for another rim inspection. Not good - two more cracks. I was deciding if I should take this road or not when gun shots rang out in the forest I was about to enter. Great. Moose-hunting season had started and every trigger-happy Newfie in the land was having a crack. It struck me as being a few too many shots to be coming from the barrel of a careful and accurate hunter so it was back to the road for a 90 km limp on a wobbly wheel into Corner Brook where I raced down a big hill to camp in a riverside park.

It was back up the hill to the bike shop in the morning. Would they rebuild me a wheel? No, try the shop at the bottom of the hill. Back down the big hill. How would you like to rebuild a wheel? Not likely, try the shop at the top of the hill. Back up the hill. How about you sell me a ready-made wheel? Okay. I'm told this is indestructible. It had better be - it cost plenty. I escaped town at 2pm and was back on the road for Deer Lake. The rain had arrived but I decided to set off on a lengthy detour for Gros Morne National Park that night. It was quite a miserable ride and I was half thinking I was about due for something good to happen when a big old black bear lumbered across the road 200 m ahead. What a magnificent sight! This big fellow in full profile against the gloomy evening forest was quite a spectacle. Fantastic stuff. The rain got worse but I rode on until after dark to Wiltondale where I put the tent up beside a petrol station. We don't get wind here, the lady in there told me. Well that night came very close to being a repeat of the PEI disappearing tent incident. Such awful wind meaning not much sleep.

My destination for the next day was a mere 40 km to the town of Rocky Harbour. A pretty hilly 40 km as it turned out, but the same wind that hammered my tent all night was going the same way as me so I was soon bringing my longest showerless streak to a close in a cosy hostel. It was a nice ride in spite of the conditions. All the overnight rain meant the rivers were raging and water was gushing out of the hillsides. The Newfies, like the Nova Scotians before them, are apologetic about the weather, saying this is the worst summer in a long time, but for all the misery it brings to the biker, this horrid weather seems to suit the dramatic landscape. I was hoping to take a boat ride that day on Western Brook Pond, the park's starring feature, but it was cancelled so I had to hang around Rocky Harbour until the next day.

And that was worth it. Western Brook Pond was not like any pond I'd seen before. Actually it is a land-locked fiord. Therefore it is not really a fiord at all as it is full of fresh water. Whatever it is it was very impressive. It was another rotten day but I thought being in between two sheer 600 m cliffs might offer some shelter. No, it was the perfect wind-enhancer. This made for some interesting effects though, the most spectacular being the waterfalls trying to flow off the cliff faces being blown straight back in the air so that they looked like plumes of smoke. Strange things happen in Newfoundland.

The wind had eased by this morning and what was left of it had kindly decided to blow back towards Deer Lake so I was taken there pretty quickly. And that's where I am now, ready to do battle with the trail again. There is a long wilderness stretch coming up so I'm hoping the bike holds together. I have a tough new rim and a tough new hub but questionable spokes holding the two together. Oh well, here goes...


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