Texas to Labrador (6)

Well, everyone, it’s been a long, exciting, and wonderful time since I have been able to write up my experiences. Yesterday I achieved the last of my major goals, and I am now on the way home. I am in L’Anse-au-Clair, southern Labrador, with a couple of days to spare before the ferry leaves for Rimouski, Quebec, at midnight on Friday. Outside the weather is as you would want Labrador to be: there is a strong wind and a low overcast, and it is, as Pytheas said 2500 years ago of Ultima Thule, impossible to tell where the sea ends and the sky begins. On Sunday (Sept. 5th), I was at the Viking site at L’Anse-aux- Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, and there was a frost warning for the night – it’s a little warmer now, but not much.

The goals I have achieved are: I have ridden from the southernmost point of Canada to the northernmost bit of tar road on the East Coast. I have visited the easternmost point of North America, Cape Spear near St. John’s, Newfoundland, and every provincial capital in Quebec and the Maritimes. I have seen the Viking site at L’Anse-aux-Meadows, and have traversed the south coast of Newfoundland, which is impossible except by bicycle, since the ferries are not cat ferries, and I have visited St. Pierre et Miquelon, the last piece of France on the continent. And, most of all, I have seen the most wonderful scenery and met the most wonderful people all the way along the road. I will break up the following into chapters, for ease of reference for those of you who want to use an atlas to follow the goings on.

NEW BRUNSWICK:

I crossed over into Edmundston from Quebec on Canada Day, July 1st., and made a brief visit to Madawaska, Maine, to mail home the bumph that had accumulated since Iroquois, ONT. Then I cycled down the St. John’s River valley to Fredericton, the Capital, and Monckton. In Monckton the weather was awful, so I rented a car for a day and toured the geological sites in the vicinity – the various tidal bores and the fossil cliffs at Scoggins. Then on into Prince Edward Island.

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND:

I crossed the Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick in a van provided by the bridge authority, since bicycles are not allowed on the bridge, and then proceeded to the Provincial Park near Summerside. Summerside is a delightful town on a broad bay, and their Lobster Festival was in full swing. The first night there I bought fresh mussels from the harbor side and steamed them, sharing some with the young Quebecois at the next camp site, Benoit. Benoit, who had seen me buying my ticket, drove me to the evening performance at the College of Piping. This was a show of Scottish dancing and piping by the students, and was excellent.

The following day I toured the west end of PEI and returned to Summerside in the evening. On this day trip I heard the older generation in one town holding a conversation in mixed French and English, saw a young lady riding a scooter pulled by a pair of Huskies on the biking trail (she was practicing for the winter dog-sled races), visited the ceremonial center of the Maritime MicMac Indians, which was very interesting, and also toured a house in which Lucy Maud Montgomery had lived. These local museums of ninenteenth century life, which are all over the Maritimes, always make me feel a bit spooky, because many of the objects are the same as those that existed in the Victorian house in which I grew up! This is true because, almost until World War I, the trade and cultural connections between the Maritimes and England (or, sometimes, Scotland) were closer than the connections between the Maritimes and Danada or the USA. For example, all the windows in this particular house were made in England.

On my return to Summerside I made friends with several other cyclists who had arrived during the day, and then went off to the Harbor for a Lobster dinner, courtesy of the local Lions Club. The following morning, Daniel and Richard, two Quebecois, and myself left for Cavendish, the center of Ann of Green Gables country. On our way through Summerside we caught a performance of Gaelic music in the muiddle of Main Street, which was closed off for the Festival, by two extraordinarily talebnted teenage sisters. Unfortunately, the Prince Edward Islanders have mad quite an industry of L.M. Montgomery, and her part of the island is somewhat spoiled by touristic developments. However, the way there was through some charming countryside. We all camped on one site in the National Park, and then went off to dinner: on ouir retun we encountered Benoit being told that there was no room left in the park for him,

so we invited him to share outr site, and had q uite a party that evening with the people from Quebec in the next site.

The next morning it was raining, and Daniel and friends decided to ride back to where their car was parked and cut short their holiday. I pedaled on alone towards Charlottetown on a road that turned out to be extraordinarily hilly for a generally flat island. About half way along, a man came out to empty his garbage as I cyclewd laboriously uphill past his house, and casually remarked that I had “chosen the hilliest road on the island”!

In Charlottetown I stayed at the University dormitory, where the peace of the first evening was somewhat disturbed by the presence of dozens of Rugby teams from all over Maritime Canada, there for a tournament. I walked down to the center of town and did the usual touristic things, including touring the Province House (Capitol). Here I discovered that Newfoundland had been an independent dominion until it went bankrupt in 1923 and returned to being a British colony, a status it retained in my childhood and until it joined Canada in 1949. I also spent the evening at a pub listening to, and occasionally joining in with, the band, which included someone I had heard perform at the Park Service campfire at Cavendish.

The next morning I set off against a headwind to go to Souris, from where the ferry leaves for Les Iles de la Madeleine, which are a part of Quebec lying in the Gulf of St. Lawrence north of PEI. About 10 mioles out I realized that, if I really hurried, I could catch the ferry that day, instead of having to spend the night in Souris. So I piled on all speed, and, totally exhausted, reached the ferry terminal about 15 mninutes after departure time. However, the boat, which I had been warching anxiously for the last ten miles, had not left,and I got on board. I immediately realised that I had ridden her before, I think from Sodertalje in Sweden to Visby in Gotland.

LES ILES DE LA MADELEINE:

Woderful place – each islabd is the cap on a salt dome thousands of feet high, and salt is mined underneath the sea from the northernmost island. However, the weather was terrible, and I abandoned the attempt to see the northernmost islands. The islands are hilly and the villages sometimes resemble those in the foothills of the Swiss Alps.

NOVA SCOTIA:

Pictou is where the Highland Scots landed, and also where the ferry from PEI comes in. The Scots arrived in the Hector, a vessel which seems to have been a very old converted Dutch barge, never intended for an Atlantic crossing.

At Truro I went White Wwater Rafting on the standing waves generated by the tidal bore in the Shubenacadie River: this was quite a thrill.

In Halifax I caught the Tall Ships, and then cycled up to Cape Breton along the east shore.

There I met a young French Canadian couple with whom I cycled for 3 days, crossing into Cape Breton. I did the Cabot Trail in the rain and cold, and then wrote my last very sketchy report while held up by rain on the east coast of Cap Breton, having completed the Cabot Trail the day before. The rain continued for two days, during which I was under canvas, and the second day was the only entirely “wasted” day of the whole trip. However, that morning two other very bedraggled cyclists rode into camp: a Scottish girl, Lucy McNee, and a young French Canadian who was crossing Canada from east to west, an unusual ride because it is against the prevailing winds. Both he and Lucy were wearing open sandals to ride in the rain: their claim was that this was better because one’s feet dried once the rain stopped, whereas sneakers like mine remained wet for the entire day or longer. I later bought a pair of open sandals and found this to be true, but I had left the purchase too late in the year, and the temperatures had become uncomfortably low to be riding with exposed feet. The young French Canadian left early in the morning with the rain still pouring down: Lucy and I waited until the next day, Sunday, and left together. We visited the Gaelic College at St. Anne’s together, and then parted, Lucy riding towards Halifax and me towards North Sydney and the boat for Newfoundland. The Gaelic College was sad in that it only functioned as a museum and a center for short language courses during the summer: it did not have the funds to remain opren as an institution of learning all year round.

After leaving Lucy I struggled across Kelley’s Mtn (240 m/760 feet) and then cruised on into North Sydney, casually stopping in at the ferry terminal to enquire about sailing times. On finding that a boat was due to leave within the half hour, I made a quick decision to get on it – that blew any opportunity to visit Louisbourg (Ah, well, there’s next time….).

NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR:

The ferry arrived lan hour late, at half past midnight, in Port-aux-Basques. I have no good lights on the bike and it was moonless and drizzling. I managed to make it 3 miles to the local all-night Tim Horton’s (a Canadian chain of coffee shops), and on enquiry there it appeared that there was nowhere to stay that was both affordable and accessible, so the lady on night shift at the Tim’s offered me the back seat of her car till 6.00 a.m. I spent a cramped and uncomfortable night, but slept OK.

When awoken at 6.00 a.m. in “the cold grey light” of a drizzling dawn I looked around and thought, “God, what have I got myself into here?” Dark rock, black rock, and then some more rock, with not a blade of grass or any other living thing in sight. So I cruised on into town and looked around: the “town” was a series of little peninsulas jutting out into an angry sea, with huge breakers crashing in from all sides to almost meet each other, separated only it seemed by fragile wooden houses. Eventually a grocery store opened and I bought some food, got some cash from an ATM, and headed out to Rose Blanche into a big headwind. Hills, rocks, moorland. :In the middle of nowhere a friendly fellow with what seemed to be a speech impediment who came out from digging in a precariously perched graveyard to inquire of me my business. Threatening rain. A head wind. Not looking good. But I finally got to the isolated ferry dock at Rose Blanche, with a 3-hour wait for the boat to leave. Since there were no houses there, I 0set off on the steep footpath over the hill to see the actual village. Half-way up was another precariously perched graveyard, with all the stones leaning downhill due to soil creep, and I walked through this only to see an old lady covered from head to toe in clothes and a mesh veil picking something out of the sphagnum bog on the other side.

Before I was half-way over to ask her what she was harvesting, I knew: cloudberries, although she called them “bakeapples” when I asked. Ah, Newfoundland had taken a sudden turn for the better! Although the lady didn’t seem pleased that I had encroached on “her” cloudberry bog, and she also had this curious speech impediment. No consonants at all, and sudden bursts of a few words separated by pregnant pauses. Where had I heard this before? Oh, yes, on the Iles de la Madeleine! I found out gradually that everyone on the South Coast speaks like this – it also comes out as a growl, so that they often sound like Captain Hook in “Peter Pan”. I think originally it was a Devonshire accent of some kind.

The boat, a 41-year old converted coastguard cutter, got as far as Grand Bruit, popn. 32, that night. The name comes from a waterfall in the middle of town, whose sound can be heard all over town. An older couple returning home from shopping in Port aux Basques offered me a room in their home for the night – there was nowhere else to stay. There was, however, an old fishing shack labeled the Crammalot Inn, where the entire population of the village gathered that night for a birthday party, drinking Newfie Rum and beer and listening to Newfie songs. I got enmeshed with the Ancient Mariner, a grey-bearded fellow from “out away” who was younger than I, and nailed me with “and after this trip, what is the meaning of it all?” And wouldn’t let me go: no matter how banal I tried to make it all seem, he kept saying “Finally I connect with someone, someone who knows what the important questions are”. In some people, rum talks that way!

The next day an Italian couple, who had spent the night under canvas behind the church, materialized on the quay, and off we all set on the “Sound of Islay”, a vessel that I think I had ridden on across the Kyle of Lochalsh back in 1962. She was going out of service for a refit in St. John’s, so she missed several ports but did the whole trip to Hermitage in one day, normally a 2-3 day excursion. Quite a group of people riding on her were going back to reunions in or near the communities they had been born in: the whole coast is littered with abandoned places – the government carried out a series of resettlements into larger communities in the 1960s and 70s.

This coast is glorious: a series of cliffs up to 1400 feet high form a wall which is broken by the mouths of fjords, some wide, some so narrow you can only see them from a certain angle. Nothing grows near the sea and the swell was breaking 70 feet in the air. Every so often the boat steers into a narrow opening and there is a small community of brightly-colored houses built on the bare rock, sometimes on rock faces so steep you’d think it impossible. Each is a gem, but the best were Grand Bruit and Francois, neither accessible by road. Neither has streets, just boardwalks wide enough for an ATV winding between the houses.

The Italians, Mariella and Perluigi, and I rode across the next peninsula to Pool’s Cove, where we spent the night in the abandoned school’s playground and then boarded a ferry converted from the Sir Wilfred Grenfell Foundation’s hospital ship. This was handy, because at our first stop we picked up a lady who was well into labour, and the vessel still had a sick bay offering her some privacy. We then piled on all steam (all 9 knots of it) to Bay l’Argent, where the ambulance was waiting and whisked her off to hospital. Never did find out what happened, but I hope that she and the baby were all right.

We three set off down the Burin Peninsula, another wild and treeless expanse of incredibly beautiful moorland. Just before Marystown we passed a drill-ship under construction in Mooring Cove – the only sign of heavy industry that I saw in Newfoundland.

We spent a night in the only hay field I had seen to date, near Winterland, and then separated, since I was going to St. Pierre, and they were not. I went round the Burin Peninsula in a clockwise direction, stopping at the mining museum in the town of St. Lawrence. There had been fluorspar mines here in the 1920s-1960s: these had, for the most part, been undercapitalized and therefore ill-ventilated. A very large number of the miners had developed silicosis, and then there had been a large number of lung-cancer cases, which were eventually traced to a high radon content in the mine air. Whole families had died early from the disease. A sad tale.

I camped in Fortune, and the next morning took the Ferry to St. Pierre, a nice little boat, but they stashed my bike where it got soaked with salt water for the first time. St. Pierre was interesting: a real town – row houses, not individual homes. The result, of course, has been a series of disastrous fires through the years. It also was taken and retaken by the Brits and French 9 times between 1696 and 1814, and the town burned and people carted away each time. However, it is beautiful, and the French Government is pouring money in, and I had a great French meal.

On the boat back I met an older German chap from Ontario and his New Zealand-born wife. He specializes in photographing geological material, especially fossils, so we visited the world type site of the Cambrian-preCambrian boundary at Fortune Head. We didn’t have a guide and didn’t know exactly what we were looking for, so it was a bit of a bust, but very interesting anyway.

Then up to St. John’s, which I think is one of the three most beautiful cities in North America. It surrounds a gem of a harbor whose fjord-like entrance is only a couple of hundred feet wide. From the top of Signal Hill at the entrance the view is spectacular, and the walk up is an entrancement. Cape Spear to the south is the easternmost point in North America, and is formed very appropriately of a late Precambrian conglomerate with the appearance and hardness of a “super-concrete”. Again, a thing of incredible beauty, looking from it or towards it from St. John’s. St. John’s, like St. Pierre, is built of abutting rows of brightly-painted wooden row houses, and has similarly suffered a number a disastrous fires through the years. A walk through it is a continually changing kaleidoscope of colored fragments of streetscape, especially after a late-night visit to George Street, which has 20-odd bars in a few blocks, like Austin’s Sixth Street. The Johnson GeoCenter in St. John’s is the best Geological Museum I have ever seen, and I spent several hours there in the company of one of their enthusiastic assistants making discoveries on the bare rock face along one side of their main hall.

I rented a car in St. John’s and drove the perimeter of part of the Avalon Peninsula: an experience not to be missed, from Petty Harbor, which is reminiscent of a Manx fishing village, to the Puffin Islands off Bauline East, to the exquisitely beautiful Brigus, where I heard a concert of Newfie music, and the ancient settlements of Cupids (1611 – got to be the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in N. Am.) and Avalon (at Ferryland, founded by Lord Baltimore in 1621 and apparently extremely wealthy in the late 1600s – the archaeologists have found more than a million artifacts there including gold and imported fine pottery, etc.). However, because of the driving rain and thick fog I was unable to see much of the countryside, and unable to visit the Precambrian soft-bodied fossil site at Mistaken Point.

After a week of sight-seeing, regrouping and reorganizing based at the quaint Downtown Hostel in St. John’s I set out for Gros Morne and L’Anse aux Meadows, reluctantly having to retrace my inbound route for 120 miles to the quaintly-named community of Goobies because there is only one road across Newfoundland, the TransCanada Highway.

On the way into St. John’s I had stayed at Whitbourne, where I had noticed that my rear tire, the Kevlar one, had completely worn through. I replaced it, and bought a new spare in St. John’s. As luck would have it, I stayed in Whitbourne on the way back, and again noticed a problem with my rear tire. Investigation revealed that the casing had split and it was ballooning, and so had to be replaced. Also on the way in, my Odometer had failed, apparently due to an electrical problem caused by the heavy rain that I was cycling through. The same on the way back. So, on the way west I stopped at a sports shop in Gander to buy a new tyre and check the odometer. I took the battery out of the odometer to test it, and lost all my data. The battery was good, however. I was crushed, but fortunately had written down my mileage that morning, so really nothing was lost. The odometer worked sporadically until I got to Sheppardville, near Dear Lake, so I stopped at Dear Lake, where there was a brand-new bike shop, and we checked everything and found that the odometer sensor on the front forks was loose. We fixed that and there has been nop trouble since.

In Dear Lake I was again stuck for a day due to continuous heavy rain and very low temperatures (2 deg. C), so I caught on my e-mail, and did some souvenir shopping, and sent off some mail. Then on to Gros Morne, again in the rain. Just before the entrance to Gros Morne National Park I was run off the road by a logging truck overtaking another one on a steep uphill grade on the two-lane road. I was forced to dismount and get off onto the shoulder.

I arrived at Woody Point, in the Gros Morne park, completely saturated, and stayed in the hostel there, which was a gigantic ex-Community Center, of which I was the only occupant. Since it was now cold enough for the heat to be on, I had no trouble dsrying everything out but my tent, which I had left packed on the bike and could not reach without getting soaking wet again myself. The next day dawned sullen and foggy, but I had to see the Tablelands, a large area of peridotitic oceanic upper mantle which had been pushed up and over the edge of North America during the closure of the Iapetus Ocean 240 million years ago. Here nothing much grows, due to the presence of toxic elements and lack of nutrient elements in the Peridotite, and there are extensive boulder fields. I took a bus up to the beginning of the trail, and spend an enjoyable two hours there photographing geologic features and botanical wonders such as group of carnivorous pitcher plants.

Then I came down and took a boat tour of Bonne Bay – this had been highly recommended to me, and indeed we saw a whale, cormorants, bald eagles, and magnificent fjord scenery.

Woody Point was settled by people sent out by a fishing company based in Sturminster Newton, Dorset, and the people there still have a Dorset accent. It is amazing to me that such tiny communities in England had such far-ranging trading activities, and I am sure that today they have been mainly forgotten in that part of England.

I stayed the next night in the hostel at Rocky Harbor, and went out in the evening with the Japanese post- doc with whom I shared a room to here a band, “Anchors Aweigh!” perform at the local hotel. Two of the four band members turned out to be the captain and mate of the boat on which I had toured Bonne Bay, and they were a very good band. A good time was had by all!

The next morning I set out up the west coast of the Northern Peninsula toward L’Anse aux Meadows, into a strong headwind. However, I made 85 miles and was again rained on heavily. The next day another 80 miles to Flowers Point, where I stayed at a wonderful B&B, again wet through, and was thoroughly dried out by the hostess. Then on for the last leg to L’Anse aux Meadows. However, in the middle of a very heavy rain about 40 miles short of my final goal, disaster occurred: I felt a slight jar on the bike and almost immediately realized that a spole had broken. I twisted the spoke, on the cog side of the rear wheel of course, around a neighboring one, and kept riding. A couple of kilometers further along a pickup stopped and offered me a lift into St. Anthony’s, and I agreed. These wonderful people took me all around St. Anthony’s looking for a place to repair the spoke, but all were closed, since it was the Saturday of labor Day weekend. So they dropped me off at another nice B&B, where I thawed and dried out and pondered what to do. I decided to keep going: the nearest bike shop in Newfoundland was in Deer lake, 300 miles away, but I only had about 200 miles of riding to finish my trip. So early next morning I was up in the near-freezing temperatures truing the wheel, removing the broken spoke, and lubricating the chain, and then off towards L’Anse aux Meadows. I intended to go to church in St.Lunaire-Griguet, but I had not left enough time to get there, and the head winds ensured that I would not bem able to make it up. So I hid the bike in some roadside bushes and hitrch-hiked back to the Anglican church in St. Anthony, and enjoyed a very nice service and a fine sermon. Then the Minister’s husband drove me back to the bike, and off I went to L’Anse aux Meadows, arriving at journey’s end (noo.1) at about 2.30 p.m.

The Viking settlement was well worth the struggle through rain and cold and broken spoke to get there: the interpretation center is very well done, and the guides very knowledgeable. The site has been reburied but the outlines of the Viking buildings are clear, and the reconstructions are well done. A few things strike one: the unspoken fact underlying the saga accouynts that it took about 80 days to reach this area from the Greenland colony (at least, that is what it took a replica knarr a few years ago, and I am sure that the Vikings would have taken the same amount of time. Therefore they HAD to winter over, and

when the natives proved hostile it would have been clear that only could survive. Then there is the absolute paucity of the material remains: they amount to a lot of wood chips from boat repair, a few nails made in Europe (based presumably on trace-element analysis of the iron, a few pieces of carved wood, including one that is definitely of European pine, a few needles of bone and spindle whorls, and a solitary bronze pin of Viking type. There are no bones of domestic animals, even though the sagas say that the Vikings brought cattle with them. On the other hand there is a butternut shell which must have come from near the mouth of the St. Lawrence, since that is the furthest north they have ever grown, even in better climatic times. The present thinking is that this was a base camp, used for wintering over, for ship repair, and for expeditions further south. But even so, the lack of material remains to me is astonishing, and suggests that Snorri Sturlason was not quite the rich merchant that the sagas say he was. Incidentally, a forge was one of the main things found and a small smelter for smelting bog iron, which is abundant locally: this iron was again used for ship’s nails.

After spending the night (for which there was a frost warning, appropriately enough) at another delightful B&B, at Hay Cove, adjacent to L’Anse aux Meadows, I started back towards Flowers Cove and the ferry to Labrador. I managed to ride all of the road that I had missed due to the lift I had been given, with a head wind that gusted up to perhaps 40 miles an hour, and occasionally brought me to a complete stop. Eventually, with heavy rain threatening and falling temperatures, I flagged a lift the rest of the way into Flowers Cove. After checking into the same B&B I set off on foot to see the local geological sight – an occurrence of large Cambrian thrombolites or stromatolites. Wrong decision: the rain came down in wind- driven sheets and saturated me in seconds – once again Maggie at the B&B had to dry out all my clothes and my shoes!

The next morning, Tuesday, I was on the 8.00 a.m. ferry for Labrador, and by 4.00 p.m. was in Red Bay photographing the bike at the end of the road. I had ridden up gingerly, because the road was rough in places and very hilly, but no more spokes broke, and I spend the night there. The weather was very appropriate – 2 degrees C, rain and fog. But the scenery up here is spectacular, and today the wetaher is sunny and I can enjoy it.

Tomorrow night I will board the ferry from Blanc Sablon to Rimouski, a three-day trip. In Rimouski I will have the spoke fixed and the the derailleur adjusted and everything cleaned up, and then head for the USA. I will go to the nearest town with a bike dshop and a bus station, box up the bike, and head back to Texas. See y’all!