One of the things that was on our to-do list while in Newfoundland was the T’Railway. Before the Trans Canada Highway linked St. John’s to Port aux Basques and everything in between, the island’s transportation relied on a railway, which was in operation for some long 90 years – from 1898 to 1988. As the paved highway replaced the railroad, the latter was disassembled and converted into a multi-use recreational trail, a provincial park to be precise. How nuts you have to be to attempt to go for it on a motorcycle is up for debate. Previous accounts of such adventurous trail riding included everything from plain gravel roads to knee deep water crossings with rocks the size of microwave ovens thrown in for good measure. What can one possibly expect with something like this?
The trail follows the highway fairly closely on the stretch between Port aux Basques and Deer Lake, and also does not veer too much between Gander and St. John’s. With that in mind we thought that it would maximize the amount of fun to be had if we start at Deer Lake and head east by the trail from there. The further you are from the civilization, the less likely things are to seem familiar. And new is always better*. (* – some conditions apply.)
The day was cloudy, but the chances of rain were not too high. We said good bye to Gros Morne and headed south on 430 to Deer Lake. There we fuelled up, filled up a couple of small extra fuel canisters and got a few extra bottles of water. In the grand scheme of things, even though it was not going to be as remote as the middle of the Sahara desert, extra fuel and water never hurts. With the help of the GPS tracks other riders made available online (graveltravel.ca), we quickly found the trail and headed out, with the intention of making it to Grand Falls-Windsor by evening.
The trail greeted us with some large puddles every few metres. Fortunately, there hasn’t been too much rain lately, or they could turn into full blown ponds. Excess water on the trail was my biggest concern. Newfoundland and rain go very much hand in hand, and you never know how much of the rainwater could stay in the numerous creeks and flood our passage. I did not want to get so deep into it that my waterproof boots would fill up from the top ;). This turned out to not be a problem, there was hardly anything bigger than just puddles. We figured you can cross those slowly on the edge, where the water is shallow or absent, but eventually I got more confident and just headed straight through the middle, picking up huge waves and having way more fun than I anticipated.
We travelled at an average speed of 20-25km/h, which was unreasonably slow for the distance we planned to cover, but we hoped things would speed up as we got used to it. Then about 7km in we found our true nemesis – deep loose large sized gravel. This stuff is worse to ride in than sand. It’s indescribable, but pictures tell some of the story. The SV650 took it a little too fast and slid to the side. That’s what you get for having all that “power”, laughed my 250cc engine.
After picking up the bike we found no major damage to fairings, lights or the rider, but the chain was kind of loose. In fact, it was off the sprocket. Make that two, it was off both sprockets. In preparation for the trip we carefully compiled a toolbox with stuff we might need to fix things on the road. Did we have the right sized socket to take off the front sprocket cover and put the chain back on? Yes. Did it fit into the narrow recess that separated one of the bolts from the outside world? No!
After mucking around a bit, trying to put the chain on without taking the cover off, we decided that I would make a run back to Deer Lake and get the required tools. Thankfully there was an alternative road that intersected the trail just 50m from the incident site and lead all the way back into town. It was unpaved, but in much better condition than the trail we were on.
Just as I was putting my helmet on, we saw an ATV approach on that side road and flagged it down hoping he had an 8mm socket in a 1/4″ drive (the nerve!). The man was not excited to travel in that fun gravel towards us and ultimately couldn’t help us because he left his own tools at home and had nothing like that. He barely made it out of there himself after making an 8 point turn to head back to the side road. So off I went, back to Deer Lake.
The road was beautiful! It ran along a large water reservoir and was framed in typical Newfie purple and white wildflowers. On the T’Railway I was so involved in watching the road, I was barely looking around, but this ride could actually be enjoyed for the scenery.
In the meantime, Alex pushed his bike to that road, and when I got back with the tools, we got on to fixing the bike. It took a while, and the local flies were trying to eat us in the process, but eventually we fixed the chain and put everything back as it was.
Here I want to thank Bell Canada for making sure we had excellent data coverage throughout the trip. I don’t think I ever saw my phone display the dreaded “No Service” message to me. The chain repair would not be possible without some very helpful Youtube videos on the subject, and accessing those videos would not be possible without a data connection. It took us a good 3 hours, including the head scratching and the extra trip to the parts shop, but we managed to do it, it actually worked and did not implode when test riding it. True story.
Seeing how we did not want to repeat the repair process again or gamble with a new issue on that stretch of the trail, we decided to stay off the T’Railway and head to our destination by the Trans Canada Highway. We made our way back to Deer Lake by the newly found easier road and continued casually on the highway. We could check out the coastal communities north of the highway with all the extra time we now have, says I. Ok, but there is this other entrance point to T’Railway from another town an hour out of Deer Lake, says he… You can see where this is going.
We turned off the TCH to highway 401 and found our trail in a village of Howley. This time there would be a stretch of about 100km before the trail meets another road. We took a look at it, and the thing appeared much better than the crash site at Deer Lake, so we proceeded. We got much better speed this time, around 40km/h average. This might just work out.
This time we even stopped several times for photos. The landscape was very beautiful, and for much of the path it was fairly open and unobstructed. There was an occasional drizzle, but not enough to bother putting on rain jackets, which was great. The gravel was alternating between better and worse. The potholes, sometimes with water, sometimes dry were sprinkled liberally throughout, and worst of all, a huge section in the middle of the trail had a sort of “median” track divider made of loose medium sized gravel, which turned the fairly wide trail into two single tracks side by side. Switching between the two tracks was tricky, but sometimes had to be done to avoid particularly nasty obstacles. It was tricky enough that I dropped my bike a couple of times, but all of those were at low speed (and once when I was stopped to take a picture), so there was barely a scratch on the bike to show for it. Nothing that needed road side repair, so I rate that as a glowing success.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, there was a sign that said something about motorcycle being prohibited, and violators facing fines and prosecution. Too late.
It was by no means easy. In fact, it felt pretty damn challenging. But somehow, a certain amount of survival instinct kicked in and I just kept going. Somewhere in that middle of nowhere, bouncing up and down on my not-quite-optimal suspension and just trying to keep everything straight and loose and together, it occurred to me that there is probably nothing I can’t do. Aside from the physically impossible things, like travelling back in time, there is not much a person cannot do if they only give it a shot. Sure, if you think hard enough you can probably come up with something you cannot do, but 99.9% of the time, the things we think are too hard or impossible are completely doable. 99.9% of the things we regularly come up with and dismiss are actually obtainable, they are just not easy. Those were the things running through my mind as I was dodging cantaloup-sized rocks, running through the middle of puddles, and looking in my mirrors checking if my luggage fell off.
The drizzle was making the rocks slippery, but at least it was no downpour. We should give a special sacrifice to the Viking gods for that. The scenery was very beautiful and quite unlike anything we saw on the Viking trail or in Gros Morne. Rivers, lakes, wooden bridges (in very good condition, especially compared to the road surface), meadows, marshes, big boulders scattered around the grass, a couple of rocky low mountains.
We eventually made it to Millertown Junction, a tiny settlement on the trail that did not look particularly inhabited. There we switched to another unpaved road, which, according to Google Maps, led to the highway. It was a shorter path that led to Badger, a town 30km away from Grand Falls-Windsor, but I’m pretty sure we travelled through the best parts of the T’Railway already, so I didn’t mind dropping out early. It was hard packed dirt, much easier to handle.
On one of the hills we were coming up and saw a moose coming down on our side but in the opposite direction. There was a guy on an ATV with a big grin on his face slowly following it down and enjoying the lack of creativity the moose employed in getting away. Alex was not in the mood to play chicken with a moose so he honked, the moose woke up from its trans, and went off into the bushes. The guy on the ATV proceeded to head in our direction and his wide moustache covered grin didn’t change as he greeted us. All signs of civilization approaching.
We stopped at the gas station on the TCH in Badger to cool off and then headed to our hotel, which was conveniently just off the highway in Grand Falls-Windsor. More importantly, it had an onsite restaurant where we had a celebratory dinner highlighted by Twillingate blueberry blended wine. Oh well, who am I kidding – after skipping lunch, the real highlight was the pork tenderloin, not the wine 😉 Off to sleep in a large soft bed, it was a day we will not soon forget.