The Ride to Port Aux Basques

Yesterday I met a man who was feeding a bran muffin to his dog. Muffins are probably not good for dogs, but the dog didn’t know and he obviously enjoyed bran muffins.

The man was standing outside a coffee shop and his dog, a handsome and very well groomed Pekinese, was sitting on the seat of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. That’s the reason I spoke to them. There are too many burly men of a certain age with pony tails to believe that they are all interesting, but I was intrigued by this odd couple, and we struck up a conversation.

I ride a Ducati “sport-touring” bike. To my peers, Harley’s have as much appeal as eating sand. Though few will admit it, we look down our noses at these behemoths and often consider their riders life-style posers. In varying degrees, everyone has prejudices, and I guess that I am no exception.

But this situation was interesting, and I found the man to be a warm and sympathetic character. He told me that he lives in the neighborhood and showed me a seat/basket and windshield that he had rigged up for the dog, complete with restraint harness and clips. The setup allowed the dog to sit back against his ample stomach and see the road ahead and to either side through the windshield. Damned clever.

ride photo“ We go all over.” he volunteered.

“Where’s all over?” I asked.

“Well, we just came back from Newfoundland,” he replied.

I was surprised. That is quite a pop from Boston. “That’s interesting,” I said, “I just got back from a trip to Newfoundland. We went over to Labrador from northern Newfoundland.”

“We did that last year.” he said. “That’s a great trip. The people are fantastic and the roads are great. We stayed in B&B’s and had a great time.”

“And you took your dog?” I asked.

“Yup, just him and me. We generally go at least to Nova Scotia every year.”

With that he strapped the pup into his basket, fired up the Harley and rode off.

Ships, passing in the night.

As he rode away, I couldn’t help thinking about my preconceptions and prejudices. We have cats and I like dogs, but I would never have a “Peek”. Yet I really like Lhasa Apso and Shih-tzu dogs. Same size. Why don’t I like Peeks? Probably because they don’t appear manly enough. Yet this Peek was the apple of a big guy’s eye and they undoubtedly enjoyed each other’s company. Note to self: Resolve to be more tolerant.

And I don’t really like most Harleys. The V-Rod is the exception. The others remind me of everything I don’t want in a bike. They are big, often unnecessarily noisy, and not easily maneuvered. That often applies to their owners also.

Ride photoOur twelve day ride through the Atlantic Provinces of Canada and Labrador was memorable for many reasons. My friend John Newton, our leader and organizer, is a spirited rider who meticulously prepares his BMW’s and his trips. Only the weather is left to chance. John takes care of the rest. Our riding mates were John’s college friend, a former Air Force pilot, now an IT guy, and a business acquaintance and friend of John’s from Japan who until recently, was a business manager/engineer for Sony. Three engineers riding BMWs and a sales guy on a Ducati.

John, in his preparation notes, advised us that we would encounter all kinds of weather and that I should pack accordingly. He wasn’t wrong. We encountered everything but snow and at times we were uncomfortably hot or cold and simultaneously wet.

On our ninth day out, we had planned to ride about 230 miles to make the 6:30pm ferry from Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland, to Nova Scotia. We had plenty of time and although it was drizzling, we felt that we could be there with several hours to spare. But enroute, John determined that we should visit a beautifully located restaurant just south of Cornerbrook. He took us through back lanes and bumpy roads for lunch. True to his vision, the restaurant had a wonderful view of mountains and sea. And the food was simple but delicious. The detour took us 70 slow miles and three hours out of our way and we now had some pressure to move. Unfortunately the weather also worsened and now we were trying to make time in what had changed from mist and light rain to intermittent fog and heavy rain.

ride photoI have been a weekend rider for years and, like most in that category, the prospect of rain simply meant a change of plans to do something else. The ride to Port Aux Basques was my first ride in heavy rain in 40 years. John was aware of that and our starting pace was about 45 MPH, after a little while the pace crept up and since I was the last rider in the foursome, there were times when I was doing 70 or more just to keep up or pass a truck. Unlike me, my companions were well seasoned riders. They coached me about how to ride in these conditions. Their confidence in themselves and me was the encouragement I needed. They explained that the road had two parallel ruts that filled with water and that riding in those ruts or crossing them often made the bike move in unexpected directions. So avoiding the troughs was a key to not voiding one’s bladder unexpectedly. Not that anyone but I would have noticed or cared.

We shared the road with large trucks. Generally the highway was two lanes with intermittent three lane passing zones for each direction. In these zones the bikes could pass many slower moving cars. Of course the first bike set the pace, and John was excellent at judging just how many cars we could all pass with reasonable safety. But the transport trucks, we later learned, were on a mission to catch a “truck only” ferry that left one hour before ours. So we shared a common goal; stay in the fast lane when available and go like hell.

Drivers of small cars or riders of bikes know better than most that a truck displaces a lot of air. In the rain, it also displaces a lot of water. When a truck passes you in a car, you move the wiper stalk up a notch and grip the wheel a little tighter. On a motorcycle, there are no wipers and you couldn’t be gripping the handles any harder if you tried. The oncoming trucks are moving you around, and the trucks you pass are also moving you around. And visibility is intermittent.

ride photoForty miles from Port Aux Basques the road became flat. That was the signal for the conditions to change from terrible to terrifying. The dark sea was on one side and plains reached to distant cloud-enshrouded mountains on the other. The skies ahead blackened, the wind picked up and the approaching storm clouds switched off the lights. The fog was gone, replaced by torrential rain and huge wind gusts. The noise of the bike was lost. I could see my headlight picking up the reflections off the taillight and the helmet of the rider fifteen feet ahead. That was my world... encapsulated by the wind noise and the rain pelting my visor. The approaching and passing trucks moved everything out of focus for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only seconds. A sign on the side of the road read: “Wind gusts of up to 220 KPH have been recorded in the next 26 K zone.” Instinctively, you look quickly at the odometer to determine when this will be over.

Our choices were few... stop by the side of the road and wait for the storm to pass or ride through it. But really, there were no choices. We could not stop by the side of the road as there was no shelter and we would have been blown over. So we rode.

I have never experienced conditions like that in a car, let alone a bike. We were cold and soaked to the skin. Terrifying, yet, in a perverse way amazingly exciting. This was a challenge! Reaction and focus became all. John had determined that an optimum speed was 55 MPH and that was quicker than everything but the trucks. They were easily doing 70 and would sit on a rear wheel, high beams on if you were in the way. Their lights filling my mirrors and illuminate the bike ahead. At some point I realized that this is what it is all about. Fear never went completely away, choices did. First came a sense of dull resignation and then a determination, or perhaps it was an anger that fueled the energy to grab the situation by the scruff of the neck and make it work. Focus, react, focus, react, the sequence repeated over and over again. Each signpost showing the diminishing distance to Port Aux Basques and safety.

ride photoThis is what it must be like to run with the bulls in Pamplona, or jump out of a plane, or brake too late for a corner on a bike, lean like hell, cross the white line and pray no one is coming the other way round the turn. Or any situation where people purposely put themselves in danger for no good reason. Was it primal? What does it say about our alleged sense of self preservation that we flirt with the consequences engendered by an unnecessary challenge? It was all pointless and stupid, but it was also exhilarating. For 25 minutes that felt like hours, I felt more focused, alive and lucky than I can ever remember.

As you may have determined, everyone made it through to Port aux Basques. We stopped at a Tim Horton’s Donut shop near the ferry terminal. We were the only ones there and the staff was most generous with towels and accommodations. We spread our wet gear on the tables and sat by the window drinking hot coffee and looking out at the waning daylight and the diminishing storm. Other riders soon joined us. First came three young guys on “lean-over” Japanese sport bikes. They were equally happy to be there and the noise level increased as they exchanged scary tales first with each other and then with us. They were followed by nine guys riding Harleys and other types of cruisers. Water now pooled on the floor and the place smelled of coffee, wet leather and sweet donuts. Everyone was soaked, loud and exhilarated. Was it the coffee or were we just excited to be sharing a personal triumph with others who would understand it?

ride photoThere is a line I love from a Gordon Lightfoot song about the wreck of the great lakes ship, the Edmond Fitzgerald. It ran through my mind all that afternoon: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes, when the winds of November come early?” It doesn’t go to Newfoundland.

We all rode back to the ferry and crossed to Nova Scotia together. We chatted with several of those brother riders and found that we have a lot in common. And those big Harley cruisers do look very comfortable.

But I’m still not convinced that giving a dog a muffin is a good idea.