How to ride Labrador

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Just 1,000 miles from New York City, Labrador is one of the most sparsely populated places in North America. It’s crossed by a single road — the Trans-Labrador Highway — which is covered in dirt and gravel with pavement only making the occasional appearance in and around the few towns. Riding through Quebec on the way there or back, it’s possible to string together around 900 miles of continuous dirt. You’ve seen all our feature content on our ride there, now here’s how to do it yourself.

Also included is a 47-image gallery of Grant’s b-roll from the trip.


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Rather than put together a laborious how-to manual (you all know how to read a map and ride a bike, right?) we’ll simply share the wisdom we learned during our two week trip. Above is a rough map of our route, we rode north through Nova Scotia, up to Newfoundland, then east-to-west through Labrador.

— If you’re riding through Maine there’s one thing you can’t miss: Stud Mill Road. Owned by a logging company it runs roughly between Bangor and the Canadian border, so it’s more or less on your way. Unregulated by speed limits or even police patrols, it’s 85 miles of remote dirt road with lots of elevation changes and some fun corners. Watch out for the logging trucks that run through at high speed, the road was built for them.

— Pick up your flare pistol after you get to Canada. There’s a little general store in North Sydney that has them for a decent price. Also, North Sydney will be the last place before Quebec that you’ll be able to get food that is remotely tasty, so fatten up. For the rest to the journey, you’ll lie to yourself that the slop you’re eating is good, we did.

— You only need to reserve one ferry in advance: the one that runs between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. We took the shorter North Sydney to Port Aux Basques route, which takes about five hours. It also makes sense to reserve a motel room in Port aux Basques ahead of time. We saw people turned away both from the ferry and from motels on the other side. If it doesn’t bust the budget, a room on the ferry is also a nice luxury as everyone else on board will be super annoying.

— Don’t waste time in Newfoundland. We only saw the west coast, which is very pretty but largely unexceptional since you’re going some place nicer. Ever seen Trailer Park Boys? That pretty much describes what you’ll see in every town as you ride through. Allow two days to get through from south to north, two nights if you arrive late in Port Aux Basques.

— Green Point is a good half way point between Port Aux Basques and the ferry at St. Barbe. The campsite there is cheap and stunningly beautiful. Buy food in advance, there’s nothing close. No reservations needed, just turn up, put some money in the box and camp. Be ready for local teenagers who travel in packs and use the campsites to party away from the parents. They couldn’t give rat’s ass about your lame needs to enjoy the sounds of nature, you smelly old American hippy.

— You don’t need to worry about speeding tickets whilst in Newfoundland. We had a civilian pull us over to compliment us on how fast we were riding.

— Skip the T’Rail. We figured the old railway track that parallels the route north of Port Aux Basques would be a fun diversion, but it’s covered in very deep gravel or very soft sand, making for very slow going on big, heavy bikes. The sights are just as good from the road.

— Tourist tax is rife in Newfoundland, try not to be too incredibly shocked at what they’re going to charge you for a night in a smelly motel or for a plate of microwaved potatoes.

— You don’t need to reserve the ferry from St. Barbe to Blanc Sablon and don’t bother calling in advance, the manatee (Newfoundland’s most common land mammal) that operates the ferry’s telephone will just say something indecipherable, but unmistakably rude if you do. The ferry office opens two hours ahead of a sailing, be there early.

— The bar at the St. Barbe ferry office waters down its whiskey.

— Ratchet straps are your best friend. The ferry loading process for either crossing is a bit shambolic and it seems to be hit or miss whether or not they’ll have straps for you. Pack your own and this won’t be a problem. Two per bike is plenty and you only need the thin ones, they’re more than strong enough. As an added benefit, ratchet straps can double as a tow line or even a laborious winch in an emergency.

— If you take an afternoon crossing to Blanc Sablon, book a motel ahead of time. There’s only one restaurant in town — a Greco Pizza — don’t order any seafood, it arrives in the plastic pot it was frozen and microwaved in.

— Black Horse beer is brewed locally in Labrador and very good.

— There’s a gas station that sells snowmobile and ATV gear in L’anse Au Loup, just north of Blanc Sablon. If you’ve discovered you’re not happy with any of your gear, this is the last place to buy a new helmet, gloves or anything else. More importantly they also happen to the last and only place sell good scotch. Stock up.

— When you get to Red Bay, stop at the gas station/general store and air your tires down to 18psi or so. This is the end of the pavement, turn left and uphill. Make sure you have gas.

— You don’t need knobblies to ride the Trans-Lab, but if you’re really insistent on packing them, they would help on certain sections. Street tires are mostly fine, just air them down for an increased footprint.

— You’re not going to be able to buy a new tire in that odd size your bike’s manufacturer insisted on while you’re up here, so pack a good tire repair kit, and know how to use it. An air pump would be a good idea too, we brought this tiny foot pump from Twisted Throttle. Spare tubes if your bike needs ‘em.

— The best approach to riding on the gravel is just to stay off the front brake and don’t do anything sudden. Steer for the areas where cars and trucks have brushed away the loose stuff. The surface will change constantly, keep an eye on it. Relax, it’s not that bad. Until it is.

— Labrador’s coast, north from Blanc Sablon to Port Hope Simpson, is the most scenic, friendliest part of the whole region. Take time to explore side roads and find local gems.

— The natural harbors that towns along here are built on frequently see humpback whales and other sea life as well as icebergs. Ask the locals for the best times and best places.

— If you’re planning to camp, do so along the coast, the ocean breeze keeps the black flies off.

— We’re not going to tell you about our super secret campsite because we want to go back there, but it shouldn’t be unique in being completely amazing. Spend some time talking to locals, exploring and pouring over your map and you’ll be rewarded.

— Pack a jerry can, even if your bike has the tank range to make the 225-mile distance that’s the longest between two gas stations, a little extra fuel will allow you peace of mind while exploring side roads and just messing around. Some gas stations are closed on Sundays, so it helps with that too.

— Port Hope Simpson is an absolute shit hole, but it’s the last stop on the route before that big mileage up to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, which takes pretty much a full day, so you have to stay here. They know that and will charge you a premium as a result. There’s a gas station on the highway a little north of town, fuel up there instead of at the motel.

— Everyone you encounter throughout the entire trip will warn you not to ride at night because of the moose. We didn’t see any, so just keep an eye out.

— We didn’t keep track of our mileage very well and got a bit confused looking for the entrance to Phase III, the new section between Labrador’s coast and Happy Valley-Goose Bay that opened last December. Don’t be idiots like us, just keep riding north from Port Hope Simpson and you can’t miss the gigantic sign and T-junction, just ride straight.

— There’s nowhere to stop and no services, buildings or anything else on Phase III, pack lunch.

— A CamelBak will keep you hydrated, which means you’ll be able to concentrate on riding. You need to concentrate, drink lots of water.

— You don’t need a dirt bike or even an adventure tourer to ride Labrador, just bring something reliable and that you don’t mind getting dirty or damaged.

— You need to prepare for weather extremes. During our trip we saw everything from 95 degrees and sunny to 45 degrees and torrential thunderstorms. It could have been worse, it could have snowed this far north, even in late August. Good gear will regulate your temperature and keep you dry, allowing you to concentrate on riding.

— Happy Valley-Goose Bay is probably the one place in Labrador that you should take care to lock your bike and luggage.

— Between Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Labrador City is where you will encounter the most truck traffic. When it’s dry, they kick up so much dust that it obscures the entire road. Slow down and move to your right, the trucks don’t care about you.

— a WiFi-capable mobile device is your best bet for communicating with the outside world. There’s not much in the way of cell signal anywhere, but virtually every motel, gas station and general store has an accessible network.

— Dress for a crash. You can find yourself a long way from the nearest hospital on a road that doesn’t get much traffic ever, so the chances of someone finding you injured in a ditch and getting you to a hospital quickly are slim. There’s virtually no cell service anywhere in Labrador.

— Also prepare for mechanical failure. Bring some common spare parts for your bike and things like fuses and bulbs. If you have a problem, you’re likely going to have to fix it yourself.

— Make sure you know how to use your tools and work on your bike before you leave, practice ahead of time.

— The most intriguing prospects for exploring inland Labrador away from the Trans-Lab are around Churchill Falls. Two long roads run north from the town to remote dikes or other uninhabited facilities and we’re told there’s also some good riding south of the town. Find a local with a bike and ask them for suggestions.

— Pack a head net, it’s the only way to keep the flies mostly off.

— The building that looks like a pub on the little hill in Labrador City is a children’s recreation facility, not a bar. they’ll look at you very odd if you just walk right in. The bar is actually in a strip mall another block up the hill.

— Get a good night’s sleep before riding south on 389 into Quebec. It’s truly epic riding and you’ll want to make the most of it.

— Once you’re on 389 you’re in French-speaking Quebec. We know you’re tired, but don’t pull a Wes and Grant (It was just Wes) and blunder into places shouting in English. It took us like two days to realize we weren’t being understood and needed to try another language. (That’s what happens when you whack your head.)

— Be prepared to spend some time at the American border. Anyone who rides motorcycles to a foreign country just for the hell of it is clearly a terrorist.

— Ride Labrador while you still can, they’ve got plans to pave the entire Trans-Lab and work has already started.

— Free maps and guide material are available from the Newfoundland and Labrador tourist board, they take about two weeks to arrive.

  • http://www.smartcycleshopper.com/author/doug-dalsing/ DougD

    Question about strapping a bike down for transport/ferry crossing: Should I place the bike’s weight on the kick stand and then strap it down, or should I keep the bike upright and tighten the straps so the bike is pulled to the ground evenly on both sides?

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Evenly on both sides. You want the bike resting tightly on the suspension, not the side or center stand.

  • Turf

    Even grant’s b-roll is awesome Kudo’s mate

  • http://www.thisblueheaven.com Mark D

    “You don’t need a dirt bike or even an adventure tourer to ride Labrador, just bring something reliable and that you don’t mind getting dirty or damaged.” – Well, damn, that’s great news. So the Pirelis Scorpions deflated did the trick (get-off notwithstanding)?

    Did you guys bring anything to clean your air filters? Seems like a long and dusty road.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Probably wouldn’t need to during the trip, but obviously before and after would be a good idea.

      Knobblies would have helped a little in avoiding the crash, but riding slower would probably have helped more.

  • Devin

    I just drove a lot of the 300 series highways in Quebec a few weeks ago – what a blast. A little North-West of where you rode puts you right in the middle of the Laurentide Mountain Range which is fantastic riding.

    Just do it in the fall after tourist season.

    The only french you’ll need to know is “froid biere”.

  • markbvt

    Christ, you guys need to chill out. You must have started the trip with crappy attitudes, because if you’d approached Newfoundland with an open mind you might have found some great riding and some of the friendliest people on earth.

    As for Labrador, having ridden the Trans-Lab twice, I can say that while you CAN ride it on a streetbike with street tires, you’ll have a lot more fun if you ride it on something somewhat dirt-capable with knobby-ish tires. I had a lot more fun on it on my XR650L than on my V-Strom. There were a couple of guys who did it on sport-tourers earlier this year, but both bikes incurred damage, and one of them crashed repeatedly.

    I would also stress that conditions on the Trans-Lab are wildly variable. You could get there and find the gravel nicely scraped off the road base, allowing 70mph speeds on a streetbike, or you could find deep, freshly-graded gravel the whole way that makes for a sketchy ride even on a dirtbike. Realistically, it’ll be a combination of both — but whether it’s more of one or the other will change on a daily basis, which makes it impossible to predict. In other words, plan for the worst.

    Also, you can pick up a free emergency satellite phone at the start of the Trans-Lab and return it at the other end (it’s programmed for 911 calls only — and it doesn’t cover Rt 389, since that’s in Quebec).

    Oh yeah — the ferries all have plenty of tie-down straps. Just ask one of the crew, if they’re not already standing next to you with straps in hand.

    One more thing, since you guys admit you weren’t tracking mileage: the distance between gas stations in Port Hope Simpson and Happy Valley-Goose Bay via Phase III is 260 miles, not 225. GSA riders will be fine; most everyone else should carry a jerry can just in case.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

      I was totally expecting “friendliest people on earth” but what I mostly got for smiling and saying Howdy was a sideways glare and a curt response at best. Not what I was told to expect at all. However, all the folks from Blanc Sablon up till Port Hope Simpson may as well have been my childhood neighbors I’ve known all my life.

      And absolutely agreed on the shifting road conditions. Sometimes the graders would make the road glass smooth, other times they’d utterly destroy the surface for miles.

      • markbvt

        Huh, luck of the draw, I suppose. Nearly all the folks we met in Newfoundland were awesome. And you’re right, coastal Labrador as well. We had a great chat with some local teens in Port Hope Simpson about what it’s like to live there, how many more bikes have been through since Phase III opened, etc. In most US towns these kids would probably have given us attitude at best, or even tried to hassle us.

        Interactions with other people riding the Trans-Lab proved to be a lot of fun as well. Touring motorcyclists tend to be a good group of people to begin with; ones tackling the Trans-Lab are a pretty interesting bunch.

        • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

          Yeah, we were very surprised as we’d always heard the friendliest-people-ever thing about Newfies too, but we didn’t meet a single one while we were there. I don’t think it’s us as we’re pretty nice guys, but everywhere we went, everyone was unbelievably nasty.

          Actually I’ll take that back, the woman charging us a fortune for watered-down whiskey in St. Barbe was at least polite about it.

          All that changed once we got to Labrador though, people there were very nice.

        • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

          The kids working the motel/snackstore/gas pump were nice but waitress at the motel in Port Hope Simpson scoffed at me when I smiled and said, “Excuse me, ma’am, can I have some more coffee, please?” Then she made a face and walked off and never returned to my table that was just under the signed photo of George Bush Sr. from his trip in 1999, commenting how nice his stay was.

          It was 8am and there were 2 other people in the dining room. I had to go into the kitchen to ask where I could get the check and pay.

          • Devin

            The tax on liquor is heinous in Newfoundland, which may be why the whiskey was served as such. Sticking to beer on the rock is usualy the way to go.

            Also, I am in disbelief that you did not meet the friendliest people on earth.

  • SRAnderson

    I remember reading this a couple years go….got enraged, then rediscovered it on the RideApart site. Ok…so I’m actually a Newfoundlander, and I’ve also done the Trans-Labrador…solo. I can assure you, if you guys got attitude in Newfoundland, you bloody well were giving it first. Newfoundlanders are amazingly friendly, but they don’t suffer fools lightly. If you show up with a chip on your shoulder and a superior attitude, you’re going to have a very bad time. Why don’t you park the attitude, get back on a bike, and go explore the island, you might enjoy yourself. You never know…you might actually see some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, and encounter some fine dining…if you can take your head out of your @ss long enough to realize it.