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My Nomadic Experiment Part III:

Arctic Circle to Austin, Texas – More North America – The Trans-Labrador Highway

“Traveling–it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibu Battuta



FROM THE ARCTIC Circle I continued north on the Dalton Highway until reaching Coldfoot. There I joined a gathering of Adventure bikers on a restaurant deck celebrating their crossing. I grabbed a longneck, relaxed, and communed with bikers that felt like brothers. Waiting for sunset, someone recalled that above the circle there would be no sunset, if so, very brief.

Across a muddy parking lot in an open field I pitched my tent. Ignoring the daylight, I fell asleep to the soothing roar of an eighteen-wheeler’s diesel who never shut the engine off. I was a world away from where I started and satisfied I accomplished my goal—to ride the infamous Dalton Highway and cross the Arctic Circle.

A helicopter woke me in the morning while landing yards away. Crawling out of my tent I saw a few from the night before loading their bikes. “Heading up to Deadhorse?” one yelled over.

“Nope, head’n back to Fox for a blues band playing at the Howling Dog,” I answered. My Texas friend and I exchanged contact information and from there became long-time friends.

Heading back down the Dalton the sky darkened. With the passing miles I became concerned not wanting to ride the gravel road in a downpour. I reached tarmac at the Richardson Highway and felt safe. Then, the bottom fell out with a deluge. In addition, the smoke from recent forest fires was pulled down to ground level by the hard rain—a peculiar and surreal experience and with my view obstructed by a wall of rain and smoke. To navigate, I followed the road’s edge where asphalt met the growth of weeds and brush. It was disconcerting and dangerous and lasted most of my 70-mile ride back to Fox the entire time wondering—”Is this my day to die?”

Reaching the Howling Dog Saloon, I rented the cabin I gave up two days prior to ride the Dalton. With winter coming it was time to think about heading south and there could be no lollygagging to find myself with too many miles to travel to escape the first cold snap. Planning my return route became as exciting as planning my initial departure.

Leaving Fox, I began my casual weave out of Alaska forced to spend time in the town of Palmer to escape days of rain. From there I made two passes on the spectacular Glenn Highway wanting to see the Mantuka Glacier from every direction. The Glenn offers breathtaking Alaskan views from a well paved road.

To reenter the Lower Forty-Eight, I made the choice to ride the Stewart-Cassiar Highway south instead of continuing on the ALCAN (the Alaska, Canadian Highway). Out of Alaska, I reached Beaver Creek and then the border of the Yukon Territory. Hearing horrific tales of the 114-mile unpaved road to Destruction Bay I was concerned. It was said to be miles of nasty road construction with gravel piles, bumpy washboard, and riddled with potholes. I spent a treacherous day on Brother to survive, then found lodging in Haines Junction where I met bikers with injuries from the horrific road and those, like me, just glad to be alive.  

Reaching the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, I entered British Columbia for the 544-mile road south. British Columbia became my favorite province in Canada as it appeared manicured with pristine natural beauty. I stopped at the Indian Reserve community, Gitanyow, Kitwancool, the home of the Gitxson people. The small obscure neighborhood was home to a collection of carved totems scattered throughout the yards of small asbestos sided houses. It was a captivating curiosity and had me mesmerized while roaming the odd collection of Native American art arranged around lawnmowers, plastic toys, and garbage cans.

I turned west for the town of Stewart where a bartender told me about the Salmon Glacier—”It’s the largest glacier in North America accessible to human traffic,” he told me. I had to go! So, I reenter Alaska at the panhandle and found the unpaved road for the thirteen-mile ride. The glacier was phenomenal and inspired me to leave some ashes of my friend.

From Stewart, I rode east for the Yellowhead Highway turning west for the Inland Passage and the town of Port Rupert located on Kaien Island. It was an isolated area of Canada that I found comfortable and easy with a high population of Asians and the good food they offered.

Riding the Yellowhead, I headed for an anticipated goal—The Canadian Rockies and the Icefields Parkway. Reaching the town of Jasper at the top of the parkway it offered a vantage point for day rides to pristine lakes and monolithic peaks. Jasper was a fun town for food, drink, and live acoustic music. Leaving, I began the Icefields Parkway for the 125-mile ride south to Lake Louise, Alberta in Banff National Park. I agreed with a comment I heard —”The Canadian Rockies is North America’s best kept secret.” And to see them on a motorcycle is an experience that cannot be expressed with words. I was satisfying dreams to visit places I only knew from books, pictures, and movies.

Reentering the Lower Forty-Eight at Chief Joseph, Montana the border officer said, “Be careful up ahead, cows are on the road. Welcome back to the States.” Clueless about my direction I contacted my uncle in Eugene, Oregon about a meet-up. Before I retired he and I met yearly for annual bicycle trip with another friend. So, we all three made plans to meet in Lake Chelan, Washington and share some road time in a month.

I needed a break from my nomadic life. The next place, followed by the next place was making me feel jaded. My approach to the road needed some tweaking. Constant transition was overloading my senses. Yea—sensory overload—too much travel and too little time to process. Adjustment was needed to preserve My Nomadic Experiment.

Until we met in Washington I wandered while exploring small towns like Cut Bank, Montana, Cody, Wyoming, Victor, Idaho and many in between. I enjoyed my anonymity as a visitor observing the mystery of the day as it unfolded.

I met my uncle and friend in Lake Chelan. At that stage of the trip they were with their wives and all looked fresh and ready for fun. But I felt weathered, road-worn, and a bit weary. Plus, socially awkward from miles of solo travel. As our trip progressed, I was on a motorcycle and my uncle and friend were in a vehicle—what a bad idea. I had to compromise from my norm—I don’t like compromise!

We traveled to Seattle, then to Glacier National Park, followed by a magical location in Wyoming called Medicine Wheel; an archeological place of spirituality for ancient people who used a circular arrangement of stones for Vision Quest and to message the Gods or possibly aliens. I left the ashes of my friend in the circle—how could I not?

We began a slow meander west for Rapid City, South Dakota to end our trip. A trip that was a challenge for me, having to admit that traveling with others was stressful. I had been solo too long and liked traveling solo. Saying goodbye, I felt a load float from my shoulders. Needing some real down time, I rented an adobe house in Taos, New Mexico for two-weeks and then a small apartment in Austin, Texas for two-months. Serious about writing my first book, I needed isolation and downtime. In Taos I began the first in My Nomadic Experiment series: To the Arctic Circle.

Austin got old, not enjoying the populated hipster city working hard to stay weird. I packed up and parked Brother in my cousin’s husband’s tractor warehouse in Farmersville, Texas. After a short family visit I flew to Costa Rica for two-months to write and surf. There, I researched my next adventure knowing it had to be something big after crossing the Arctic Circle on the Dalton. My pursuit led me to the Trans-Labrador Highway, a 714-mile mostly unpaved road through Newfoundland-Labrador. Hell, the ride to get there would be an adventure and more time to explore North America. I was pumped—to the degree that I considered leaving the Costa Rica paradise early to get back to Brother.

Back to the States, I grabbed Brother for the faraway location of Labrador City where the Trans-Labrador Highway began. Still winter, I stalled my approach north and headed south for border towns I only knew from the nightly news. I made a short visit to Langtry, Texas, the home of Judge Roy Bean, the Law West of the Pecos—an American legend.

Then I began a trepidatious move north reaching Gunnison, Colorado to be snowed in for a week. Getting there I made two mountain passes where it snowed so hard I almost lost sight of the road. Adventure! — I’m not saying I’m an adventure junky but admit that danger makes me feel intensely alive.

The snow stopped, so I continued north for the Great Lake States; Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin: states I had been curious about. I investigated each state for good roads and an exploration of the lakes they bordered. In particular, I enjoyed the UP; the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There, in the town of Munising, I received the news of my uncle’s passing. Having just been with him on that awkward three-man road trip, now, at age seventy-one, he was gone. It was gut-shot that made me sad and feel helpless. Road time made me feel invincible but my uncle’s death made me feel human.

Beginning my move east for Quebec I got sidetracked by the 2016 NBA finals and was reluctant to enter Canada for fear they didn’t air the games. For that reason, I got a room in a roadhouse in upstate New York spending a week writing while waiting for the final games.

Leaving, I made my first time visit to Niagara Falls and found the iconic natural wonder on the US, Canadian border to be everything I thought it would. From there I reached Quebec City and rented a basement apartment for two-weeks hearing too much about the city to not give it time. I met friendly people in a nearby pub which was socially a plus. Touring the old city was like a visit to Europe with French food and Old World architecture. Time passed quickly and I left having made several French-Canadian friends.

To reach the Trans-Labrador highway I rode to Baie-Comeau, Quebec – 270 miles up the Saint Lawrence River. Research had opened my eyes to the adventure I was taking on. Warnings were similar to those of the Dalton Highway with plenty of reason to be afraid. The road was more desolate than the Dalton with less traffic for help if a mishap occurred. Adventure was what I was after but it sounded scary, especially after seeing photos and videos of downed motorcycles. If shit happened you were on your own for whatever creative resolve you would devise. Excited, yet fearful, I headed up the big river until reaching the road for QC 389, a road into the wilderness of northern Quebec.

In Baie-Comeau I was lucky to meet a solo biker who had just completed the Trans-Lab and now heading back to his home in New Brunswick. Over pizza and pitchers of beer he shared his summary of the long, lonely, mostly unpaved road. Meeting the man was a gift from the Universe.

I woke in the morning to a beautiful day. The idea of rain had been a worry knowing the unpaved portions of dirt and gravel would be a dangerous nightmare if wet. Heading north, my plan was to reach Manic-5 (Manic-Cinque-in French) 131 miles north; an outpost supporting Hydro-Quebec’s Daniel Johnson dam and the Manicouagan Reservoir. Once the dam was the largest in the world until China constructed one bigger.

Just out of Baie-Comeau I met another Adventure biker on his way to Labrador City. He told  me he was a motorcycle racer and expressed his excitement for the paved road to Manic-5. “It’s touted the most challenging road in Canada,” he said. Taking off­ I had to agree. It consisted of challenging twisties and rolls and drops through wooded areas that opened to broad vistas of the Manicouagan River that we paralleled, near and far.

Reaching Manic-5, I filled my gas tank, said goodbye to the bike racer, and rented a small trailer in a complex with a store and a cafeteria. I unloaded and then walked the exterior of the monolithic dam. Following, I had dinner in the cafeteria with a crowd of French speaking men.

In the morning I left for Labrador City 226-miles north. To the other side of the dam the road turned to gravel where I experienced a feeling of how very deep and alone I was in northern Canada and how I was making a slow approach to the top of the world. I felt a chill as I rewarded my accolades for making a plan and following through—a plan from a simple question—”What next?”

I rode along Lake Manicouagan that circled Rene’-Levasseur Island. Because of the perfect circle of the lake it was named the “Eye of Quebec” because from a satellite it looked like a creepy eye. As I expected, it was created by an impact crater that occurred millions of years ago in a worldwide meteor shower.

Continuing into the wilderness, I was amazed at the long, straight road with views from one hill down to a trough then climbing to the next hill in a continual link to the horizon. Getting off Brother, I stood between walls of conifers cut away for the road. I spread the ashes of my friend knowing what his response would be—”Man! Look at where we are!”

Ten miles before Labrador City I crossed the border into Newfoundland-Labrador then entered a city that wasn’t a city at all. Finding a motel, I met other bikers traveling in the opposite direction. At the motel bar we shared drafts of Molson and details of the road. Adventure bikers—we love talking rides and destinations.

I began the Trans-Labrador Highway from Labrador City heading east on a well paved black top with 324-miles to reach Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The road was long and straight with a slight roll and few curves. The landscape was open and green with bogs, small lakes, and Christmas tree like conifers. Midway, I had lunch in Churchill Falls in a complex for those employed to maintain the Churchill Falls Generating Station.

I entered Happy Valley-Goose Bay in a steady rain and found a room where other Adventure bikers were staying for the same reason—to ride the Trans-Lab. The 400-plus miles to the termination in Blanc Sablon, Quebec was all gravel and said to be the most dangerous section.

I grabbed a sandwich, chips, and beer from a filing station and sat with the door open as the rain ended. Stepping outside, I mingled with other bikers, some jacked for the experience and some concerned. “My friend has not ridden much gravel,” one biker told me while nodded over at a French-Canadian with what looked to be an antique BMW. It was small, shiny, and not the best choice for off-road. It was certainly not the best place to cut your teeth with off-road motorcycling.

The sound of motorcycle engines woke me in the morning. Out the window I saw bikers loading to head out. I let them go, having no plans to ride the full length in one day. My plan was to stop in Port Hope Simpson about 250-miles east. Adventure bikers were running for the Trans-Lab having heard plans to pave the road. It was a “Bucket List” item for most and once covered with asphalt, not so much. I was lucky with my random plan that got me to the road before modern times ruined something else.

The Trans-Lab from Happy Valley-Goose Bay began with a two-mile paved portion where they began paving the road. Dropping off to gravel, I was pleased to find it not too thick and dry with some sections mostly dirt. There’s an art to riding on gravel that requires a relaxed mentality that is somewhat Zen. Tensing your shoulders, tightening your grip, and eating the seat with your butt will not change the road condition. There was a mantra I would repeat in difficult sections when the bike would drift sideways—”The rear wheel follows the front wheel. The rear wheel follows the front wheel…” It got me through.

Keeping my speed at 45 to 50, I was pleased with my progress. Hearing motorcycles from behind, the four-man group that woke me hours ago blew past at 80-miles per hour, at least. They must have stopped for breakfast then got on the Trans-Lab after me. Riding with such reckless abandonment to safety was nothing I would do as a solo rider. I minimized my risk in case things were to go awry.

After several stops to stand and appreciate the empty landscape, I saw the dust of two motorcycles up ahead. At 45 miles per hour I was gaining on them quickly and noticed it was the two bikers I met, one the French BMW off-roader novice. We pulled to the side of the road where the French biker remained on his seat holding the grips with a million-mile stare. His friend and I dismounted where he told me with a grim expression, “He’s scared as hell and slowing us down.” It reminded me why I rode alone as I felt the guy’s pain and had the impression he would be one to ride with the recklessness as those four who passed earlier.

Reaching Port Hope Simpson, I found a room, a gas pump, and a cafe for fish and chips. I felt good about the ride and relaxed about the remaining 150-miles.

I loaded Brother in the morning and got back on the Trans-Lab. Easy day—I thought. But NO! — I was shocked! There was a fresh pour of thick gravel leaving Port Hope Simpson. It was a jolt knowing I may be wrestling the road all day at 20 to 30 miles an hour. WTF—I thought! Today was going to be a breeze and now… Every moment was a concentrated effort for stability and control. I was looking for truck tire tracks where the gravel was compressed. Time passed and the day was a disappointing struggle. That’s adventure and it’s up to you to Man Up! I thought about the French guy on his pretty BMW and his shock and struggle. Thick gravel captures the front wheel and makes it wobble. It’s disturbing and difficult to relax with no option to not tense up. It made me laugh and remind myself—”This was your choice, Man!”

I reached pavement in Red Bay with a “Whew, we did it, Brother!” With less than 50 miles to Blanc Sablon I stopped for lunch with a view of a historical fishing village on the Strait of Belle Isle. Conscious of how far I had traveled and my accomplishment to ride the Trans-Labrador Highway and the Dalton Highway I admitted there may be no end to My Nomadic Experiment.

I ordered fish and chips again.   

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Morgan Stafford currently lives in Staunton, Virginia in between his travels in the UK, Europe, and Turkey. His three books of his My Nomadic Experiment series can be found on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle.

To the Arctic Circle
My Nomadic Experiment / BOOK I

Arctic Circle to Austin, Texas
My Nomadic Experiment / BOOK II

The Trans-Labrador Highway
My Nomadic Experiment / BOOK III