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Wednesday, October 5, 2022
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Riding Newfoundland: Jackson’s Arm to Harbour Breton

Matt’s bike on the road to Grole. Eventually we turned around, as the road got kind of hairy for the big Strom. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

This is Part 2 in a series about Zac’s tour of Newfoundland last summer with longtime riding buddies Matt, Glen and Scott—Part 1 is here.

Every truly great motorcycle trip has a point where it all comes together. A point where you finally hit the scenery you’ve come so far for. A point where the road starts to get good after a long day’s slog on the superslab.

As we passed the Pool’s Cove turnoff on the Bay D’Espoir highway, both those things happened. The magnificent Coast of Bays scenery rose out of the horizon, like something from an epic Hollywood film, and the road changed from a deceptively dangerous straight line into something more curvy, hilly and fun. It was a moment you couldn’t script, the kind you’ll remember for years after the trip ends. It was exactly the kind of moment that makes you want to start moto-touring in the first place.

***

Dawn in the remote outport of Jackson’s Arm saw me tumbling out of my hammock (which had mysteriously sagged closer and closer to the ground over the night), Matt and Scott rising from the comfort of their oversized tents, and Glen rolling out of his impromptu picnic table shelter, thankfully un-gnawed by the local wildlife. Breakfast was instant oatmeal by our smoldering beach campfire, as carloads of curious locals came by our campsite for a quick recon, then leaving as quickly as the came.

I don’t blame them for being curious. Thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, we might have been the first non-Newfoundlanders in Jackson’s Arm in many, many months. I’m sure we were the first come-from-away motorcyclists to end up there since the pandemic started. It’s not the sort of place that most people visit. Perhaps that’s why the locals were curious, but didn’t actually stop to talk—maybe they thought we were crazed runaways from society?

Nothing more Newfoundland-appropriate than a can of Pineapple Crush at a gas station stop. It’s one of those local favourites that has mostly disappeared from the rest of Canada. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

The day started off clear and cold, but as we headed inland, we hit more weird weather; a random dip into a hollow on the road saw the visibility go from 100 percent to near zero, thanks to a random fog bank. Luckily, we all had our Cardos plugged in to warn each other of potential hazards such as this. If you’re going to do a long-distance ride like this with your friends, use a reliable comm set to stay in touch. It’s safer, and you can kill the highway sections with inside jokes and arguments about food stops.

***

It’s about three hours from Jackson’s Arm to Bishop’s Falls, where you turn south off the highway after crossing the Exploits River and take the Bay D’Espoir highway (Route 360) down to the Coast of Bays. From there, it’s at least another hour to the turn-off to Pool’s Cove. After that, the next stop is Harbour Breton.

None of the highway here is very exciting, and these days, the road down to Bay D’Espoir lacks the fatalistic appeal it once held as Canada’s Most Dangerous Highway (as judged by the CAA about a decade ago). Last time I was down here, the pavement was indeed treacherous, with long stretches of potholes worse than you’d find in a third world country. Now, as the industrialists take advantage of the area (the Coast of Bays is filled with fish farms), the roads have been inexplicably, mysteriously improved. At least we didn’t have to worry about rattling our fillings loose, as we tucked in behind our fairings to dodge the wind.

Honestly, I didn’t know if I should be happy about the improved road, or disappointed. While it was far less hairy than Bolivia’s famed Death Road or other similar, sketchy mountainside highways, you certainly felt a sense of accomplishment when you simply survived this highway. Now, the pavement itself is easy, even if the weather is still unpredictable, and a moose could jump in front of you at any second.

After you pass the turn-off to Pool’s Cove, the Coast of Bays rises from the distance, with fog sitting overhead. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
A little further, just before the road enters Harbour Breton, you’ll find some excellent hilly, curvy pavement. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

Hours at speed in heavy winds can be a drag, and when the glorious views of the head of Bay D’Espoir appeared, we were all ready for a break. We parked the bikes, and Glen and I hoofed it across a cloudberry bog to climb the highest rock we could reach.

From that viewpoint, the jagged coastline stretched as far as we could see, surrounded by rolling, rocky hills straight from a Peter Jackson film We were heading into one of Canada’s best-kept secrets, a part of Newfoundland that even most of that province ignores (Everyone we met later that week said, “You stayed where?”).

As we pushed down the last 45 minutes to Harbour Breton, the road became much more interesting, cutting around and through the massive rocks. Coupled with gorgeous scenery, we all knew this was exactly what we’d come to Newfoundland for. Even the police were happy to let us ride onward, with a friendly wave instead of a ticket for our, errrrrr, liberal view of the speed limit.

Harbour Breton is a town of small buildings surrounded by big country. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

The night’s stay was at Harbour Breton Efficiency Units, thanks to Newfoundland’s tourism board. We only had two beds, so Scott and Glen slept on the floor. At least Glen wasn’t under a picnic table this time.

***

It took us a while to get going the next day; we’d had a good night’s sleep, after exploring the town on foot, and after getting up and stocking up on supplies at the grocery store, we had to fix Glen’s Bee-Em-Trouble-You before we went off on the day’s adventures.

The morning saw us riding the edge of the coastal fjords over through Furby’s Cove, Hermitage, on to the turn-off to the re-settled community of Grole. We rode half-way in on a gravel road, parked the bikes, and walked the sketchier final section. We left impressed by the resilience of the Newfoundlanders who had eked out an existence anywhere in this island’s inhospitable terrain, but particularly in awe of the tough people who had lived in Grole through trying times and harsh tragedy before eventually abandoning the town. Even still, these people and their descendants return to the remains of the settlement, as tidy gravesites attest.

The deserted cemetery in Grole is a solemn reminder of just how hard life was in the old outports. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

The previous day’s sun had been replaced by low-hanging cloud, but thankfully no rain. We came out of the Hermitage turn-off with a few hours of daylight left to kill, and wondered what next? Why not try Pool’s Cove?

It was a good choice; it turns out the road to the Bay L’Argent ferry is surprisingly twisty. Unfortunately, our bikes were too big to easily get them aboard this coastal boat, but Matt and I both vowed we’d return someday, to take this cross-the-bay cruise and visit the town of Rencontre East, which has no road into town; the only way in and out is by this boat.

On the way out, Glen and I had one quick detour: A telecom tower jutting from the highest peak in the landscape. Aha! Infrastructure means roads, and that meant we could ride our bikes up for a 360-degree view. Up we went, his big GS chugging away like a tractor while I desperately slipped the clutch on the little KTM 390, trying to fend off the traction control’s intervention on the gravel track (I’d been so excited about tackling this hill that I forgot to turn it off).

It was a brisk ride to the top of the hill, and a very slippery descent, but worth it for the views. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

A few minutes of sweating and wrestling with the bikes, and we ended up with nothing but desolate, rocky wilderness visible for miles in every direction. This was why we went moto-touring, and this hillclimb was the reason why we brought adventure bikes.  We were only halfway through the trip, but we’d already gotten what we came for. We hadn’t forgotten our families or jobs, but thoughts of responsibilities were fading, and we were on top of the world, literally and figuratively.

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