BMW day 5: Matane to Madeleine-Centre, QC

When I woke at 7:00 I found that the laundry I had hung out the night before was not dry, so I strapped it on the bike atop one of the drybags that hold my other stuff.  Between 60 MPH wind and sunshine, this usually works well.  I should have expected the clothes wouldn’t dry overnight.  I had forgotten that we were now in a humid coastal climate.  (I’m used to Arizona, where you can leave anything wet out and it will desiccate promptly. Nothing rots in Arizona, it mummifies.)


Quick pack, checkout, then off to the nearby Tim Horton’s again for trip planning.  In Canada there’s a Tim Horton’s in every town with more than one stoplight, and going there is a good excuse to add a donut to breakfast.  The phone said the weather forecast was slightly improved, and we would probably escape the rain today (Thursday) but definitely have a rain day on Friday.  So it was our last chance for great weather. We intended to make the most of it.

We stopped at smoked fish store near hotel to pick up some smoked peppered mackerel and a jar of pickled mussels, then started off along the northern shore of the Gaspé peninsula.  At last we were truly riding the Gaspé!  (First of course, we had to pass the other Tim Hortons in Matane, just about a mile from the first one.)


The coastal ride is very pleasant.  It’s basically a string of small towns, with the Gulf to the north and hills or mountains to the south.  The towns are all quaint in their own ways, and the road never goes far from the shore so you’ve always got a view of the water.  Red lighthouses can be seen at a few points.



The only problem with this ride was the cold wind blowing off the Gulf of St Lawrence.  I was a little hunched over at first, unconsciously responding to the chill.  We added layers and I was still thinking about digging out the neck warmer Eleanor had made.

This area has endorsed wind power in a big way. Shortly after leaving Matane we began to spot wind turbines atop the ridges just inland of the coastal road.  We also saw huge single blades of wind turbines being trucked by. Quebec north of the St. Lawrence has massive hydroelectric power, and Gaspé has apparently decided to join the game by tapping their own natural resource, the wind.  I know some people think they ruin the view of mountain ridges, but when I see those huge white blades slowly sweeping through the air, I think they look majestic and I think of the air pollution they are offsetting.  Too many times I’ve been in national parks where the visibility has been reduced by smog blowing in hundreds of miles from cities that rely on coal for their energy.  At least with wind turbines we can still see the mountains.

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Along the north shore of Gaspé development is sparse, and so are the opportunities for lunch stops.  We finally stopped at a typical little roadside shack (actually a permanently fixed trailer with an enclosed patio and picnic tables out back), which like many of these places was advertising “Frites Maison,” which means home-made French fries.)  We got three thick hamburgers and ate them out at the picnic table.  On this trip we often ate outside even on cool days when other people stayed in.  Being so heavily layered for cycling we’d get hot sitting indoors, and taking off all the gear was just a chore.

In this case we had a bit of a surprise coming.  Right after lunch we took a right turn toward the interior to find a dirt loop, and found that just a quarter mile from the shore it was easily 10-15 degrees warmer.  After a mile Steve led us left onto a dirt trail that went steeply up into the forest and we began to climb into the Chic Choc Mountains for the first time.  Now I was no longer cold but actually starting to think about dropping a layer.

I didn’t have a chance right away, because this trail quickly grabbed our attention.  It narrowed to about 5 feet wide, and continued to climb steeply up over loose rocks and dirt.  There was no time to think about it, we just kept riding up, and I was amazed at how easily the Dakar with its knobby tires climbed like a mule.  When it started to slew in the rocks or get caught in a rut, a slight twist of the throttle would drive it into line again.  This is what these bikes were made to do, and it gave me a great feeling of confidence to actually drive it up a mountainside trail.

This was when we discovered the massive network of ATV/snowmobile trails all over the interior of Gaspé.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  The major dirt roads are numbered like highways, and minor trails have numbers and/or names.  They go everywhere, and you can pick up a map of the full system at many places (gas stations, some stores, tourist bureaus, etc.)  Looking at the map it seems that there are more “off-road” trails than there are actual roads.  The routes have signposts at intersections, and just a single route can meander for fifty miles or more.  We could have spent weeks exploring them all.The only tricky part we discovered was that some of the smaller trails get pretty technical and narrow.  We tried a couple that eventually were just too difficult for motorcycles, with huge exposed tree roots and loose FBRs (Big Rocks).  Still, even a few dead-ends that forced us to make tricky U-turns in a forest were a small price to pay for the other great trails.

Following one of the more open sections, we came up a large mudhole.  Steve and Eric skirted it widely, but I tried to follow existing ruts (a mistake) and inevitably I crashed … in the mud.  The water was about four inches deep, and my Nikon and iPad were once again in the pannier that disappeared into the mud.

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So we did the usual routine, all three of us tugging on the bike (while standing in mud ourselves) to pull it up and assess the damage.  Fortunately, being soft mud there was no damage except for a lot of mud souvenirs.  Remember the clean laundry I strapped to the top of my dry bags?  Yeah. But the Nikon and the iPad were fine, again.

After this episode I moved the iPad to one of the top drybags. I left the Nikon where it was (wrapped in plastic) because I used it a lot and I couldn’t quickly access it if it was in a drybag.

This trail turned out to be worth the effort.  It ended up at a spectacular overlook and paraglider launch site.

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Looks like Hawaii in the photo, doesn’t it?  Near the center is the tiny snack bar where we had lunch.  Hard to believe that it was so much colder down below.  Up in the mountains it was a balmy 75 degrees or so.  Eric took a break while we were up there.  Meanwhile I assessed my personal mud situation (not pretty) and dropped a layer of clothing.  There was nothing to do about the mud on my exterior layer.

We crossed that mud pond again on the way out, but this time we all drove right through the middle of it and it was much easier.  The bikes were well mucked up by now, but at least nobody took a swim.

A few minutes later while making a U-turn on a hill, Steve caught a wheel in a rut and dropped his bike.  That made the score 2-2.  (Yeah, you better believe I’m keeping score. We’re brothers.)

After picking up his bike, we threw the bikes into 1st gear and engine-braked all the way back down to the Gulf.  About halfway down we spotted a black bear cub by the side of the road.  That was our first major wildlife sighting.

For the rest of the afternoon we continued up the coastal road, just taking in the scenery.  We tried a few other side trips up into the mountains but nothing worked out as well as the first route.  That’s OK, the road was good, there was no significant traffic, and we occasionally found something odd like a pair of partially sunken ships anchored and awaiting salvage just a few feet from the roadway.


We wrapped up the day early, in Madeleine-Centre at Hotel/Motel du Rocher et Chalets.  Again, being off-season there appeared to be no other guests, but the restaurant was open and they were glad to put us in a “chalet” (which I would call a cabin in the US) for about $70.  These chalets were right on the Gulf of St Lawrence, and we were able to ride the bikes on the grass right up to the back porch to unload our stuff.  There turned out to be no hot water in the first chalet (it was still winterized) so we got moved to a pair of chalets further down the row, and that way I scored my own place for the night.


With a last sunny afternoon, I took the opportunity to wash my laundry (again) and lay it out in the sun to dry.  Steve and Eric got some snacks in town. The bugs were (mostly) not biting, so we hung out on the porch for a couple of hours, talking, eating the smoked seafood we’d bought that morning in Matane, and watching the tide go out.  It was a gorgeous evening.

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We chose a motel for this evening instead of camping because the weather report said the rain would arrive overnight, and we didn’t want to be stuck with wet tents in the morning.  At this point we figured we’d probably continue to stay in motels through the weekend, and avoid dirt roads.  On Friday we’d have to break out all the warm stuff and the rain suits, for the ride to Gaspé.

Once again I found that this tiny town on the north coast of a barely populated peninsula has awesome cellular service.  I was getting four bars while sitting on the porch, and sending Eleanor iPhone pictures like the one above.  But this ready availability of cellular means we were using more data than I had hoped. We’ve been doing map searches, restaurant searches, hotel reservations, weather checks, and running a tracking app so that my family can see where we are. I bought 100 mb of data for $25 from Verizon and got a message during dinner that I had burned it up, so they dinged me for another $25.   I’m going to start connecting to free motel/restaurant wifi from now on, like Steve and Eric have been doing, to save bandwidth on the remainder of the trip.

Today’s route (not including dirt side trips):

BMW day 4: Baie Comeau – Matane by ferry

I woke up feeling much better about life than the night before, but still wasn’t sure about the seven hour trip up to Manic 5.  Technically I was off the hook because Steve had already conceded it, but I knew if I changed my mind in the morning Eric would probably agree and we could still do it.  It was a stunningly beautiful day with almost perfect riding weather, so I had some guilt about leading the campaign to drop Manic 5.

We broke camp and rode to the local Tim Horton’s (a Canadian institution much like Dunkin Donuts but as prevalent as Starbucks) to discuss our options again, over breakfast.  While eating, I tried to read the local papers in French and gradually gleaned that there had been a major prison escape near Quebec City, where three dangerous felons were picked up by a helicopter right from the prison yard.  Steve suggested that escaped felons like to hide in the woods, and that we’d better be on the lookout …

I mentioned to Steve that because I had declined to go to Manic 5 I wouldn’t object to any future rides he suggested.  This was my way of throwing him a bone for the disappointment, but even as I said it I realized what a terrifying commitment I had just made.  Who knew what he had in mind?  My total dirt bike experience amounted to a single ride of about 30 miles two years prior.  But the words came out of my mouth and I couldn’t take it back.  I could only hope for him to take it easy on us, which was—if you know my brother—a foolish thing to wish for.

We finally decided to stay around Baie Comeau and try some local rides that looked interesting, and then (as a compromise) take a short trip up Rt 389, which leads to Manic 5, but stop at a point 23 km up at Manic 2.  Manic 2 is smaller but still impressive, and again the tour wouldn’t start until June 24 so we’d just be looking at the outside.

We had thought we’d change our ferry reservation to take the 2 pm boat from Gadbout but it was already booked solid and couldn’t squeeze in three motorcycles.  So we opted to stick with the evening ferry from Baie Comeau, which meant we had a full day to kill.  While we were in wifi range at Tim Horton’s I booked a hotel in Matane for the night, since the ferry wouldn’t get us in until 10:30 and rain was a possibility in the morning.

While exploring points south of town in Baie Comeau, we found an intriguing unnamed road through a bog that seemed to go nowhere.  No signs, no houses or businesses, just a strip of dirt heading off towards a forest.  This was the kind of thing we were looking for, so off we went.


Rich rides sandy road

Gradually the road declined to a rutted single-lane of sand, and we had a few tough moments.  Eric and I got through one nasty spot with great effort and some luck, but Steve crashed there.  It was about 150 miles from “where Rich dropped the bike,” so we’re even.


After picking up Steve’s bike, the road eventually declined into a track through a forest, which got tougher and tougher to ride.  I stopped and pulled up a satellite image on my phone and it looked like the trail was going to peter out somewhere, but we plowed on ahead anyway, amidst a growing crowd of interested mosquitoes.

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Eventually, however, the trail did end and then we had another challenge to get the bikes turned around on a loose slope the width of a hiking path. Perhaps the best thing I can saw about this part was that we encountered several off-road challenges that increased our confidence in the bikes and taught us a little about handling them. Nobody dropped anything in the forest, so it was a success.

Our second exploration never went off pavement, but we found a beautiful point by a nature preserve where the road ended.  There was a little wooden pavilion there, so we stopped for lunch, explored the beach (found some strange gray/blue clay that never seemed to dry out) and talked about great trips we’d had in the past.  It was just perfect weather for hanging out.  No bugs here, and for the entire hour or so we saw only one car.


Well, after lunch it was time to loop back up to Baie Comeau and ride Rt 389 up to Manic 2.  And once again Quebec surprised me.  The road was amazing on this sunny day: smooth pavement, lots of sweeping curves, no traffic, and great scenery of lakes and rivers all along.  No flattish boringness here—this was the sort of ride that motorcyclists live for.  So now I really felt bad about skipping the big trip to Manic 5, but it was too late by this time to make the full trip.


At Manic 2 we found a great view from a bridge downstream.  As with Manic 5, there were no tours before June 24, so we turned around there and tried some side dirt roads just to see where they went.  They went forever, dotted with vacation homes alongside each one of the many lakes in this area. After nearly an hour of wandering we realized we could ride dirt all day and never find the end, but it was time to start heading back to Baie Comeau for dinner and the ferry.

Back in town, we chilled out for the afternoon at local pub.  Pizza, beers for the other two guys (I’m not a beer drinker nor do I drink much soda, so I had a lot of iced tea on this trip), and more talk.  Eric mentioned how it takes a few days to get into the trip and we all agreed, but sitting here in the sun on the patio at a far away pub, with little time pressure, we were really feeling the relaxation.

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After dinner we still had a lot of time to kill, so —what else?— we got ice cream, and then headed to the ferry dock early.  Our ship, the MV Camille-Marcoux,  came in at 7:20, we boarded at 7:45, and by 8:00 pm we were slowly gliding through dead calm waters out of the harbor and across 62 km of open water at the entrance to the Gulf of St Lawrence.  I say “Gulf” because now we were well beyond the river and seaway, and deep into salt water leading to the Atlantic Ocean.

Baie-Comeau to Matane ferry

Inside the ferry we were given yellow nylon ropes to “tie down” the bikes.  These were a bit of insurance against tipping over, but wouldn’t do much in heavy seas.  Fortunately we saw no waves taller than our own wake as we cruised the water for two hours and twenty minutes.  The ship was roomy enough that it was like being on a budget cruise.  Most of the passengers snagged reclining chairs in the front of the ship and fell asleep watching some movie in French, but it was nice enough on deck that we spent most of our time up top, watching the sun set.


At 10:30 we rode off the ship in the dark, our first ride in the dark.  I hadn’t ridden an motorcycle in the dark since 1986, so it was a bit weird at first.  The hotel I’d booked at dinner the night before was only a quarter mile from the dock, so it wasn’t long before we were settled at hotel, sucking up the free wifi, and doing the usual pre-bedtime motel routine.

Part of my packing plan was to bring shirts and underwear that would be easy to wash in the bathroom sink with a little liquid soap (polyester and silk fabrics are great for this; no need to get special “travel underwear”).  But I couldn’t pack a lot of clothes so it was already time to do a quick laundry and hang things up to dry in the shower.  That process took all of five minutes, perfect by bachelor travel standards.

At this point there was no question that a storm was going to hit us tomorrow.  We looked at the radar but really there was nothing to be done about it.  Our wet-weather gear would be tested, but the trip had to continue.  Meanwhile, back to bed.  It was my turn to sleep on the floor, and I finally got in my sleeping bag around 11:30 pm, wondering (as I did every night) what the next day would bring.

BMW day 3: Saguenay to Baie Comeau, QC

Despite the loudness of the birds in the forest, it was a good first night in the tent.  I realized that even though the tent was less comfortable than a hotel room, I liked it better overall.  I like being camped in my own little space, with my lamp and sleeping bag and a good book on the Kindle.  The birds finally got quiet at some point late in the night, and it was very peaceful when we all emerged from the tents around 6 a.m.

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Being that it was still fairly buggy, the trick after my Clif bar breakfast was to take a shower at the bathhouse and get back in motorcycle gear before the black flies descended.  I didn’t want to oil up with DEET again right after washing all that stinky stuff off.   I managed this feat and we had everything packed up and ready to hit the road by 8 a.m.  As we passed out the campground gate (which was still locked) we found the office hadn’t yet opened, so we made a note to call later to pay for our night’s stay.  It really was off-season here.

Our location was alongside the river and near the highway, but not near any restaurants at all.  Unless we backtracked to Saguenay, the nearest meal would be in Tadoussac, 72 miles along the “Route Fjord” (Rt 172).  It was a chilly but clear morning and I didn’t mind the winding ride past the big rocky outcrops at all, covering miles until we could stop for a real breakfast.
Tadoussac QC

This turned out to be at a cute Victorian house converted into “Cafe Boheme,” as seen above.  The breakfast was massive and good.  I sent a photo of it to Eleanor and she wrote back, “I won’t worry about your meals anymore.”  (But little did we know that the quality of meals was destined to go generally downward after this.)  We met some visitors from Montreal who told us about an upcoming music festival in Tadoussac, which explained why trucks were unloading pallets of beer at the church across the street.

In his constant quest to find dirt to ride on, Steve led us through a few side trips around the town, including some sand dunes overlooking the St Lawrence.  I had never ridden in sand before, and found it was pretty much like you’d expect: tricky. I was pleased that I managed to keep the bike upright through this little adventure, but also humbled because I knew it was probably just the beginning of the tough riding we’d do—and last night’s bike drop was still fresh in my mind.  We were, as Steve would point out, only “72 miles from where Rich dropped the bike.”

The weather wasn’t warming up after Tadoussac, so we stopped off to add some layers by a waterfall that we discovered while paralleling the north shore of the St. Lawrence.  Clothing layering is the key to comfortable riding, so we all packed a very flexible arrangement of clothes to meet all the weather we might encounter.  For the coldest possible situation I had many layers: a full set of polypropylene long underwear, heavy socks, long sleeve shirt, a lightweight Primaloft jacket, wind/dust/rain liner, armored motorcycle jacket and pants, neck warmer, gloves, and a full BMW rain suit in bright yellow.   Today I was fine without the long underwear but I definitely needed the Primaloft jacket and wind liner under my motorcycle jacket, as a cool breeze blew down from the north.

Weather was on our minds this day.  There wasn’t much to distract us between Tadoussac and Baie Comeau, and the reports I was getting on the phone told us that the nice weather would disappear by Friday, just when we planned to be touring Gaspé.


Since there were few detours, we covered the distance to Baie Comeau by 3:00 pm.  The rest of the afternoon was blown wandering around town trying to find the ferry dock (which we missed initially because of a road construction detour), and the campground.  Steve thought he had all the key points pegged in his GPS but the coordinates stored there brought us to a Hyundai dealership.  We tried Google Maps and it sent us on another wild goose chase.  A paper map also had the campground in the wrong place. Finally we just followed a road sign and got there with no problem, which just shows that low tech is sometimes best.

Before heading to the campground, we dropped in on the ferry dock to reserve a ride across the Seaway to Matane, QC for the next day.  The choice was either the 2:00 pm ferry from Godbout, a tiny outpost 60 km further northeast, or an 8:00 pm ferry from Baie Comeau.  We had to weigh this carefully, since Steve’s plan for the next day was a huge ride up to Manic 5 and back. We booked the 8:00 ferry for the next day, and headed to the campground to set up for the night.

Manic 5 is an enormous hydroelectric dam on the Manicouagan River, which is a sought-after destination by many adventure riders.  The trip is 221 km each way (136 miles from our campground), and the average speed is about 40 MPH. At the dam’s location we would find a little motel, a restaurant, a gas station, and not much else—and then we’d have to run around and come all the way back to Baie Comeau. That’s a total of seven hours of riding time round-trip.

We had already over 700 miles in three days, and I was tired and not particularly psyched to face seven hours of riding in one day to see a dam.  Once again I was envisioning a fairly flat and uninteresting ride through Quebec wilderness—based on the dull ride up to Baie Comeau.  I had been willing to do the long ride in order to take a tour of the interior of the dam, but it turned out that dam tours didn’t start until June 24 (that “off season” thing had bit us again), and this took a lot of the incentive out for me.

Steve didn’t care about the tour, and in fact didn’t even know there was one.  He just wanted the ride.  It seemed early in the trip for a rebellion, but I was really tired at that point and said I would rather just wait in Baie Comeau for them to come back.  We debated it for a while, and finally that evening over dinner at some forgettable restaurant in town Steve “took one for the team” and said we could skip it.  But he was bummed out about it.


Back at the camp we were not entirely happy either.  The campground wouldn’t let us pitch three tents on one site, and charged us CDN$66 for two sites, which was nearly what we would have paid for a hotel room in town.  It was one of those places kind of like a KOA: a bit self-important, pricey, a curious mixture of “camping” and Motel 6, staffed gate with electronic keycards, and lock-down at 9 p.m.  The tent sites were strange too, comprised of little clearings in a forest with recent grass sod. The black flies were fairly friendly, so it was another DEET night for all of us.

The electricity in the tent camping loop was turned off so I couldn’t recharge my stuff, but I got a quick charge during dinner (I learned to look for booths with obvious power outlets nearby), and later discovered that the campground bathroom had power too.  So I plugged the iPhone and helmet intercom in while I showered, and hoped that after a good night’s sleep I’d have a better perspective on the day ahead.

BMW day 2: Beaupre to Saguenay, QC

When we started planning this trip a year ago, one of the tips we got was to ride along the north shore of the St Lawrence River, heading east from Quebec City, so that’s how our first day went.  The tip was good: this quickly became much more scenic riding than we had seen before, starting through the villages in the Beaupre area, and then up and down mountains along the St Lawrence.  These mountains are not very tall, peaking out around 780 meters, but I was surprised that they were there at all.  I had expected a flat river valley, and instead we were getting views and many 8-9% grades, with a few reach 12-15%.

We’d roll up the mountains and back down to river level, then up again.  At the higher points we got clear views of the St Lawrence and already it was obvious how the river had widened into the St Lawrence Seaway.  It was as wide as Lake Champlain in no time, so I began to understand why there are no bridges crossing the water north of Quebec City.

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This choice to follow the north side of the river had other repercussions.  Mainly, we’d have to find another way to cross the river again eventually to get to Gaspé.  But also, it opened up the possibility of some side trips further into northern Quebec, which added to the temptation to make the trip very long. Those choices would come later; for now, we had open road along the river and all the scenery we could handle.

We had left the condo without breakfast, so after an hour or two of riding we stopped in Baie St Paul to find something. I should explain at this point that my brother’s views on food and my own don’t align very well.  He is perfectly happy skipping breakfast, eating a egg-muffin-sausage things at McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s when he can, subsisting entirely on chicken wings for weeks at a time, etc.  Having been ruined by Eleanor’s cooking and culinary tastes, I like variety and my mood is somewhat affected by what I eat.  Plus, I’m allergic to certain food additives, so when eating out I tend to lean toward vegetarian cuisine, which can be hard to find in remote areas.

This is not the first time we’ve traveled together, so I knew what to expect and figured that the best way to get along would be to supplement my bag with a few snacks.  I packed 14 Clif bars to fill in the gaps between meals, because I like them and they are incredibly durable even after being stuffed in a pack for days.  I also brought a dozen or so flavored drink mix packets and a 1-liter Nalgene bottle, so I’d always have something to drink even if the local water tasted like moldy frogs.  I hate getting out on the road without breakfast, so this bit of gear saved my day quite a few times, including this day, because we ended up at McDonald’s in Baie St Paul.

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In the parking lot Steve adjusted the drive chain on his bike again, to remove some tightness. He had thought it was too loose that morning before we started, but it turned out he was fooled somewhat by the fact that the bike had no weight on it.  He also was a little worried about the chain lube, which didn’t seem to be holding up.  This would turn out to be an issue for most of the trip.

Turning northwest at the small town of St Simeon we picked up Rt 170 toward Saguenay.  This side trip was the first of several that I didn’t expect much from, but again I was surprised at the beauty of the terrain.  The Saguenay River sits not in a valley but rather in a mountainous area with lakes, lofty crags of rock and gorgeous forested hills.

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It even has a fjord, “The Fjord of Saguenay” at Petit-Saguenay, which we motored to (a small 3 km detour off the main route). I was becoming more impressed by this area of Quebec by the hour.

I was also surprised by the fact that there was cell service everywhere, when I had expected to be completely out of touch.  This was a bit disappointing, since it made the areas seem less “remote” than I would have liked to pretend, and also because my phone was filling up with emails that I didn’t want to see.  So I ignored the emails and took advantage of the cell coverage to send Eleanor a few pictures from the area.  You really can’t capture the Fjord of Saguenay in a single photo, even a panorama, so it’s one of those experiences best had in person, but I tried to convey it to Eleanor anyway.

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At this point we were all starting to feel like we were on vacation, at last.  No worries, no hurries, let’s just find a nice lunch spot in  L’Anse-Saint-Jean by the harbor and try a lox sandwich with gigantic bowls of coffee.  Then rode over to check out a covered bridge, and then down a dirt road to get a better view of some waterfalls (“chutes”) near the border of the Parc national du Saguenay.

Further down the road we tried the main entrance to the national park and discovered that camping wasn’t scheduled to open until next week!  Things start late up here in northern Quebec, and the camping/tourist season kicks off in late June.  We were definitely in the “off season,” a fact we were destined to re-discover numerous times.  Fortunately, the very kind agent at the gate helped us by calling ahead and verifying we could go to a commercial campground (Parc Aventures Cap Jeseux), even after hours.  This took a lengthy phone call in French, so we were grateful for her help.  This was also a scene to be repeated several times: clueless Americans with pathetic command of French, saved by patient local bi-linguals.

At this point it was getting late in the day.  We had to stop and throw on another layer as dinnertime approached.  In Saguenay we finally reached the first bridge crossing the river, so we grabbed a little dinner to go, and headed southeast on Rt 172 toward St Fulgence to the campground our friendly gate agent had located for us.

This turned out to be the biggest adventure of the day. The entrance road was dirt, long and wavy like a Möbius strip. At the end of a long day, with dusk approaching it was a small challenge for me to navigate through the loose rocks and steep grades (easily 20% in some places), but it was also great fun.  The gate at the campground was locked, which we expected since we’d been told the campground office would be closed when we arrived, but we just rode around it and headed to the rustic (“camping sauvage”) area to settle in.

Not so easy, as it turned out.  First we couldn’t find the “sauvage” area in the maze of narrow roads and trails in this immense forested area.  Then, we discovered that the black flies in this area were absolutely nightmarish.  The campsites were just small clearings in the forest for tents, and to reach them we would have to run the gauntlet of black flies to get to them and set up our tents.  The clouds of bugs were so bad that we had to keep our helmets on for protection, while stopped to have a conference about what to do.

We tried wandering around a little to find a less buggy area, and in the process of making a U-turn on a slight grade, I lost my footing and dropped the bike.

Rich's first drop

Let me explain “dropping the bike” for those of you who haven’t ridden motorcycles.  First of all, you don’t want to do this, but it happens, especially to dirt riders.  The Dakar is a little tall for me, so when stopped I can only touch the ground with the balls of my feet, and consequently I have to be careful about maneuvering from a stop.  When the ground is uneven, or when turning around using my feet on a slope, it’s easy to lose grip and then 600 pounds of top-heavy motorcycle start to lean.  When that happens, you’re done.  It’s going down.

A minor drop on dirt like this doesn’t hurt the bike, but my Nikon and iPad were in the pannier on the bottom side.  The iPad sustained a nice dent on the keyboard case but otherwise everything survived fine.  The Nikon is tough as nails … as you’ll see in later blog entries.  I also was uninjured because it’s easy and instinctive to get out of the way as the bike is headed down.

With the luggage on the rack, we can’t lift the bikes solo, so every time we had a drop, it took at least two people to get the bike back up. Being solo we’d have to unload all the luggage and then lift it using a special technique that you can see me demonstrating here.

This began a small tradition where Steve referred to all places as “XX feet from where Rich dropped the bike.”  We eventually found the RV camping area (dirt sites with occasional water spigots and 15 amp power outlets) and it was much less buggy, so we picked a spot (all the sites were empty), slapped on a coating of DEET, and set up camp.

Dinner with the bugs was uneventful.  The DEET worked pretty well, so our only real problem was an aggressive squirrel that I had to shoo away a few times.  My dinner got smashed when the bike fell, but even smashed pasta tastes fine. Steve had his first poutine of the trip.  (Poutine: French fries and cheese curds, covered with gravy, beloved by Quebecers)  The usual nightly routine began (checking maps, charging devices, etc.) and we briefly discussed the possibility of a campfire, but instead we took a walk to find some strange alternate accommodations available in the campground, the “Dome” and the “Spheres” and the “Tree Houses.”

The Spheres

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That evening I brought up the point that we’d already traveled 500 miles and we were only two days out.  Turns out that Steve planned for two weeks but never really concerned himself with the total mileage.  At this point I estimated we might exceed 2,000 miles on the trip, which was sort of off-putting because I’d just spent 40 hours driving 2,000 miles from Tucson to Jackson Center, OH, and another 600 or so miles after that to Vermont.  And that’s a lot of miles to sit on the slightly uncomfortable seats of a BMW F650GS.

But hey, we were committed, so there wasn’t any point in griping about it.  We were all ready to accept whatever was coming. It was the spirit of the trip.

That night the forest came alive with birds calling, so many and so loudly that it felt like we were sleeping in a bird aviary for the first few hours.  I actually had to put in my earplugs to get past their chatter and screech … and then got a few hours of sleep before dawn hit the tent fabric at 4:00 a.m.

BMW day 1: Vermont to Beaupre, QC

It takes a while to “get into” a trip like this.  First you’ve got to adjust to the sensations of riding on the motorcycle for long distances.  On a motorcycle you aren’t just passing through the countryside—you feel and smell everything in a way that is impossible in a car.  If it’s cold, you stop to put on a layer.  When there are bugs, they smack on the visor right in your field of view.  If there’s a skunk, you can’t hit “recirc” on the climate control to avoid it.  If the road is potholed, you count on the agility of the bike to swerve around the holes, or take your lumps.

Fortunately, we smelled more lilacs blooming than skunks or manure, and the roads were fine, and the weather was sunny.

Last trip before departure

The other adjustment is more mental.  We had two weeks blocked out, and no fixed agenda.  We had to shift our own minds to the mode of exploration without deadlines or major expectations.  Undoubtedly in the coming days we would have mechanical problems, bad weather, changes of heart, uncomfortable situations, language barriers, etc.  But also we’d find adventures of unexpected kinds, and there would be no rush at any time, so the important thing was to just mentally slow down and (literally) smell the lilacs.

Entering Canada

Our first day was one of our longest, at nearly 300 miles from Shelburne, VT to Beaupre, QC (Canada).  Steve led us on long and winding detours through backroads of Vermont that I’ve never seen before (and I grew up here).  That is part of the point of motorcycling the countryside, of course, so we didn’t mind but we did decide that future days should be shorter.  It took us three hours just to reach the tiny border crossing at Richford, VT, which I suppose we could have done in half the time if we had tried a more direct route.  The border crossing was uneventful, and there wasn’t much going on in the countryside south of Quebec City (an area referred to as the Eastern Townships) so we planned to move through with few stops. We just wanted to get past Quebec City in the first day, because until then it wasn’t going to feel like a trip to us.

One key piece of technology we used was a headset intercom on each helmet. These used Bluetooth wireless to connect to each other, and to our cell phones, and (in Steve’s case) a motorcycle GPS.  Just by tapping on a button on the side of my helmet I could call up either Steve or Eric and have a conversation while riding. This proved to be very useful, although the headsets weren’t entirely reliable.

The really neat bit about this was that the headset connected to my iPhone, so I could listen to music as we rode, take phone calls, or even send and receive text messages.  I was able to hear the announcement chime when I had a text message, and say “Siri, read my messages”.  Listening to the phone reading my text messages to me while riding through the northern Vermont countryside, it felt like the future that I had always expected as a kid had finally arrived. All that was missing was some way to make the motorcycle fly.

When we planned the trip, staying in touch with the outside world was not a high priority for us.  I went to considerable lengths to get everyone I work with to understand that I would NOT be reachable, and fully expected that somewhere in northern Quebec I would enter massive dead zones of phone coverage.  This turned out not to be true, as Bell Mobility has excellent coverage all the way around the Gaspé peninsula, better in fact than I got in Maine and New Hampshire.

For this possibility I had purchased a Canadian calling plan from Verizon Wireless  ($15 for 1,000 minutes & unlimited texting, plus $25 per 100 megabytes of data), and it turned out to be extraordinarily useful.  We used my phone daily to check weather, share pictures with family, and book hotels. Steve and Eric didn’t buy a Canadian phone plan, so they only used their phones on free wifi at hotels and restaurants, which also worked well because wifi was available just about everywhere.

Quebec City cafe

Toward the end of the first day we made a brief stop in Quebec City’s old town.  Our trip plan called for cruising along the north side of the St Lawrence River, and Quebec City was the obvious place to cross.  After that (going northeast), there are no bridges crossing the river. We parked on the street in town and grabbed a couple of cold smoothies at a sidewalk cafe.  I got stuck with paying for them and was shocked to find they were $7 apiece with tax.  OK, never again. This was to be our only stop in a large city for the entire trip, and we were fine with that.  We took a quick cruise through the historic Chateau Frontenac for Eric’s benefit, and headed out of town to Beaupre.

Steve’s wife, Carolyn, is from Quebec City, so she did some quick scouting online and booked our first night’s hotel: a ski condo that “sleeps 4” for only $85.  Seemed like a bargain until we found out that the only way it could sleep four would be if two people would share a double bed and the other two would share a small pull-out couch, AND that Carolyn booked it for the wrong weekend. Fortunately nobody was renting ski condos in June, so we had no problem re-booking for the same unit on the correct night.

Bedtime at hotel

That night we worked out a routine. We’d take turns breaking out a sleeping pad and bag, and sleep on the floor for the night.  Steve was the first “floor man.”  We also brought earplugs because snoring was definitely going to be a problem.  (The photo above is from the nicest motel we booked on the entire trip, the Baie Bleu in Carleton-sur-Mer.  Most places weren’t so pleasant.  That’s me on the floor, reading a book on Kindle using my iPhone.)

Chain adjustment #1

Everything came off the bikes and got carted into the condo, then we started re-charging stuff (helmet intercoms, phones, iPad).  Since we had to unpack almost everything every night, the room quickly filled up with our stuff, and we just got used to it.  Each one of us would stake out a little sector and spread the stuff out.  Then we’d think about where to get dinner, do any bike maintenance (Steve adjusted and lubed his chain almost daily), wash the bugs off the helmet visors, shower, do a little laundry in the sink if we had a motel room, plan the next day, and I’d type up notes on the iPad.

Quebec condo rental

There wasn’t really a lot of spare time with all this going on, so our evenings were generally quiet and we didn’t have time for campfires or nighttime explorations. This evening, for example, we just walked to a nearby restaurant and ordered whatever they had, using our anemic French.  After that, it was time to collapse into bed and try to get rested for whatever lay ahead.  The trip was finally happening.