Sunday, January 16, 2011

Atlanticade: It’s Nice to Feel Wanted

“Moncton hosts a number of high profile events and it seems that Atlanticade, perhaps because it’s a local organization, sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. People in city hall never seemed to grasp the concept of this event even though there was a 3.7 million-dollar spin-off last year.
Last year [2009] the city booked the Bon Jovi concert on the same weekend as Atlanticade. Now while this sounds like a great opportunity the reality is that hotel room rates throughout the city get increased for these big concerts and this affects the wallets of those coming to Moncton for the rally. Furthermore, the powers-that-be in city hall never notified Atlanticade organizers and the news of this concert was learned through the grapevine and too late to make scheduling changes for the rally. Every year there seemed to be some municipal issue, but the Bon Jovi concert essentially was the straw that broke the camel’s back."
– interview with Dan Hicks, founder and promoter of Atlanticade.

Divorce is an ugly word, but sometimes a relationship has such irreconcilable differences that there’s no other choice but separation. So the city of Moncton and the Atlanticade rally parted ways last year. But there were other suitors for this motorcycle event and the pretty little city of Saint-Andrews-by-the-Sea was hosting the 4th Annual Atlanticade Rally for the very first time.
Make no mistake about it: it’s nice to feel wanted. John Craig, the mayor of Saint Andrews wanted it. Tim Henderson, the city’s chief administrative officer wanted it. Just as importantly, Karen Young of the Fairmont Algonquin hotel wanted it. The only question was whether riders would travel almost to the border of Maine to attend it.
The Algonquin is a five-star resort hotel that smells of old money, but when I arrived it was all about motorcycles. The blue and white striped Bud Beer tent was set up in one area while bikers lounged in polychrome Adirondack chairs on the front lawn by a makeshift bar. Bikes were parked everywhere and this is where I met Dan Hicks, the promoter of this event.
Atlanticade was taking places from July 1st to 5th. I’d already heard about the Canada Day fireworks extravaganza of the night before from folks encountered along the road earlier today. That certainly was a success, but the vast influx of residents from towns as much as an hour away from Saint Andrews prevented any count estimates of the number of motorcyclist on hand. Today I’d encountered hundreds of bikes on roads along the Fundy coast. It was often hard to distinguish between groups of riders and large numbers of individual riders who happened to be in the same place at the same time and that were going in the same direction. How many of these were simply passing through via Route 1 and how many were attending the rally was impossible to determine.
Dinner was sitting around with the mayor, Heather Ireland and the Biker TV crew, Tim Henderson, and Dan Hicks eating sausages and drinking beer in the gorgeous Kingsbrae Gardens. There were other events going on downtown, but by the time I wandered back to the hotel it was dark and time for bed. However, not for those folks in the blue and white striped tent – with live music they rocked on to who knows when.
Seven AM on Saturday downtown Saint Andrews was practically deserted and I was searching for that first cup of coffee. The morning light was perfect for photography and Water Street with its attractive facades was cordoned off for motorcycle-only parking, but you could count the number of bikes on one hand. However, by high noon both sides of the street were lined by a several thousand scoots parked cheek to jowl for several blocks. Scooters, dirt bikes, chopped Harleys, baggers, Brit bikes, Beemers, crotch rockets, dual sports, and trikes were mixed together in an eclectic jumble that is distinctly Canadian. Up here it’s not important what you ride, only that you do ride.
This tiny city can honestly lay claim to being the prettiest one to be found on the Fundy Coast and possibly even in the entire province. I can’t believe I missed it in the past: probably too much in a hurry to drop down and check it out. There’s a blockhouse at one end of Water Street and a large campground on the other at Indian Point. The National Historic District is composed of street after street of beautiful homes and the Kingsbrae Gardens are gorgeous. Katy’s Cove has a beach; Brandy Cove has the Huntsman Marine Sceince Centre and Aquarium. Minsters Island is accessible during low tide via a tidal road that crosses the ocean floor. This island was where Sir William Van Horne, the builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, constructed his 50-room summer cottage from local sandstone as well as other outbuildings and a unique tidal swimming pool. In other words, there’s plenty to see and do in Saint Andrews.
Just in case local attractions weren’t enough, three guided tours were offered on a daily basis: the Charlotte County Coastal, McAdam Train Station, and International Island. Directions for these were posted for those who wished to travel on their own. Eldridge’s H-D/Honda threw a BBQ on Saturday at their Saint John showroom and some took off on that jaunt. There also was the Charlotte County Treasure Hunt and other touring activities that kept riders on the road day after day in perfect summer weather. There are several operators based in Saint Andrews who offer whale-watching tours and many took to the boats and headed out into the Bay of Fundy. The day was too perfect, so I got on the Street Glide and headed out of town.
In the narrow channel between Eastport, Maine and Deer Island, New Brunswick there is The Old Sow. This is the second-largest whirlpool in the world, a phenomenon that takes place twice a day as the incoming Fundy tide battles against the outflow of the St. Croix River. It’s something I’ve always wanted to see. Arriving at the site, imagine my surprise to find scuba divers suiting up, families on the beach, and the ferry making passage to the U.S. shore! I did get to witness the gyre and numerous “piglet” whirlpools, but it was fairly anti-climatic. However, the roads of Deer Island proved to be a delight to ride and I even had a whitetail dash across my path—how apropos.
There are two ferry routes into New Brunswick from Maine: one from Campobello Island and the other from Eastport. Actually Campobello Island is reached via the International Bridge at Lubec, Maine and Eastport on Moose Island is connected to the mainland by a causeway, but both are linked to Deer Island by ferry. From Deer Island another ferry weaves through the islands to reach the tip of a peninsula at Letete, so this route requires a bit of island hopping. Saint Andrews actually lies directly north and slightly west of Eastport and Lubec, but one has to ride counter-clockwise around Passamaquoddy Bay to reach it. Most people simply make the international crossing at Calais, Maine and go east around the head of the bay on Route 1 and then south on Route 127 to reach Saint Andrews at the very tip of this peninsula. It’s quite scenic regardless of which is chosen.
There were vendors and hundreds of bikes parked at the Arena when I returned to town. More in the parking lot at the Algonquin, and still a couple thousand downtown. Not everyone registered for Atlanticade so it’s difficult to determine how many showed up. I asked the local sheriff and he was of the opinion that 5-6,000 motorcycles were in town. No matter what the “official” count is deemed to be, the 4th Annual Atlanticade turned out to be more successful than any that had been held in Moncton. It seems that everyone had a good time and there were no problems so I expect word-of-mouth will increase attendance next year [2011]. Oh by the way, it will be held in Saint-Andrews-by-the-Sea. It’s nice to feel wanted.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Catch and Release

      I’d just left Manitou Falls, a vast cataract filled with tea-colored water whipped to a creamy white froth amid thunder and ground tremors. The woodland path to the falls was through a boreal forest with a carpet of mosses as thick as any found in the temperate rainforest around Mount Rainier. The pink granite bedrock was flecked with white and black and splattered with lichens in day-glow colors of green, orange, and red.I’d never seen anything like it without chemical enhancement.
    Running late, I fitted my earplugs and pulled onto smooth pavement. Perhaps I was preoccupied with thoughts about what I had just seen or perhaps the earplugs deadened my sense of movement through space, but when I crested the hill the approaching driver spotted me at the same time I spied him. On came the blue and red strobes as I sneaked a quick peak at the speedometer.
     My license is clean and their radio phone – yes, with the big black handset (cell phones don’t work this far east on the Côte Nord)—was having problems with reception. So they decided to let me go. But first they brought out their camera and requested that I take a photo of them with the T-Rex. A trophy shot, like those of huge Atlantic salmon with men and women dressed in khaki and poles in hand that are posted in hotels and service stations along this coast.
     “Just keep it under 115 and you’ll be okay,” I was admonished.
     It was with the gratitude of a landed trout in a catch-and-release stream that I continued my way up the coastal highway with one eye on the speedometer.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Motorcycle Touring in The Charlevoix

     The number of motorcycles on the road today in The Charlevoix would make a rally organizer jealous. Hundreds of bikes crossed the thin slice of space-time that represents my travels today.How many passed through Baie-Saint-Paul in the course of the day is anyone’s guess, but this region still remains almost unknown to U.S. riders.
     Most of my day was spent eating. Like Italians, everyone here who is not eating seems to be talking about the highlights of their last meal or the anticipation of the next. My “light” breakfast included 12-grain bread, chocolate bread, and fresh croissants with three types of homemade preserves. Okay, it also included a couple of eggs over easy, orange juice, coffee, and assortment of fresh fruit and berries. My friends were concerned that I wasn’t eating enough! The Charlevoix is foodie heaven.
     Even the most boring of the three primary routes that cut across this ancient meteorite impact crater would be considered a premier touring road almost anywhere in the United States—the River Route is consider to be one of the top ten scenic highways in Canada.
     Most of my morning was spent with Guy Paquette, one of the finest contemporary painters in this country. I’d always admired his work – at least that which I had seen in galleries – but his more personal creations are on a totally different level than his very-much-in-demand (and very pricey) work. Just to add icing on the cake, I like this guy.
      So between eating and hanging out in an artist’s retreat I really didn’t have that much time to cruise the roads of the Charlevoix today, hence my reference to a thin slice of space-time and my surprise at the number of bikes on the road. Now this is hearsay, but it comes from Manon, who is President of the Saguenay H.O.G. chapter and one of only two women in Canada to hold such an office: almost 33% of Quebec motorcycle registrations are women riders (compared to a U.S. average of 12.9%). My observations are that more than a quarter of all bikes are carrying two people. This is May and snow is visible on most mountain peaks – just wait until summer starts!
       All good things must come to an end. So I finish my glass of Chilean wine, pack the T-Rex, and head east on Route 138 seeking the end of the road. It will take me three days to get there.

View Charlevoix Motorcycle Roads Quebec in a larger map

Saturday, May 22, 2010

La Baie to La Malbaie

     The Saguenay fjord is not a place for a road and there are only a few places where tributaries have cut their way to the river and former fishing villages now reel in tourists. Sainte-Rose-du-Nord is one of these. The roads into these small villages are dramatic themselves, although I can only imagine the height of tourist season the ensuing traffic jams in these cul-de-sacs.
     Between Sainte-Rose-du-Nord and Sacré-Coeur this highway follows a glacially gouged valley and a famous salmon fishing river, the Sainte Marguerite. In other places this gorgeous valley would be called a “notch” or a “canyon” and would be considered a major tourist attraction. Here the fjord gets the publicity, Route 170 on the west side of the river has the major truck traffic, and Route 172 remains a touring secret to most of the world. I don’t stop to take a photo: I’m having too much fun with the T-Rex on smooth asphalt.
     It’s another narrow road with several very narrow, quite tight, hairpin turns that leads down to the tiny marina. Again, it’s worth the effort. There is another road—Chemin de l’Anse-Creusse—that goes to Sacré-Coeur, but the low clearance on the T-Rex isn’t designed for rough pavement and I pass it by, this time.
     Tadoussac is busy. Long lines for the ferry crossing to Baie Sainte-Catherine means I’m on the third boat. The T-Rex always draws a crowd and this time is no exception.
     I meet my riding buddy, François Gariepy, on the other side and we west to La Malbaie. From La Baie to La Malbaie today’s ride should be called. There are more stories than can be fit into this short space. Another time I will schedule a day of riding followed by another of writing. This seems to be the only way such wonderful touring will find its way into print.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Laurentian Spring

     Snow in the mountains; ice on the lake. Spring came early to Canada and most of us have been riding since early March but it’s now late May and the last vestiges of winter cling to the northern shores of these mountain lakes and lie hidden in the deep boreal shade along the roadside. Accompanied by Ross, Raynald, and Manon I’m headed south on Route 381 from La Baie on the Saguenay River to Baie-St-Paul on the St. Lawrence.
     This is a motorcycle-touring road: narrow, only a couple of hamlets, and great scenery. Like all northern roads this one has its rough spots interspersed with flawless asphalt and it is shared with trucks moving cargo and timber. Unlike Route 175, the steep grades reach 19% so the only trucks on Route 381 are those that absolutely have to use it.
Spring has arrived in Baie-St-Paul and we peel off the layers to sit comfortably on the patio of Chez Bouquet to enjoy lunch with my riding buddy Francois Gariepy. This is a town to savor, but lunch is all we have time for. Mounting up we opt for the River Route (362), one of the top ten scenic roads in Canada.
     We make it no farther than the village of Les Eboulements where we stop at the old forge and chocolate makers. The forge was established at the end of the 19th century and continued in operation until 1980. The chocolates are made in the house, but this is not ordinary chocolatier: they hand make over 80 different chocolates using cacao from around the world. They offer a chocolate-coated education of the cacao bean and the Belgian tradition of turning it into the world’s favorite confection.
     Francois leaves us in Port-au-Persil while we continue to St. Simeon. We’re not taking the ferry across the St. Lawrence to Riviere-du-Loup today. We turn north on Route 170, through the Saguenay Park that borders the famous fjord. It’s another fine touring road, but to catch a glimpse of the fjord requires turning onto one of the few roads that lead to its shores. We make the detour in Petite Saguenay and follow the river through the deep canyon to reach the fjord. It’s a beautiful sight and photos just don’t do it justice.
     We make it back to La Baie just after 6 PM. It’s been thoroughly enjoyable ten-hour ride in the company of friends. Tomorrow I go solo and head down the eastern side of the fjord to Tadoussac.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Touring Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec

     I know how to read a map scale, but the sense of distance remains an illusion until you find yourself actually riding these roads.  It took an entire day to circumvent Lac-Saint-Jean.  Blue sky and new leaves on the trees coupled with rushing river cascades and waterfalls made for some great sightseeing. 
It snowed here last week and the fiddleheads are just coming up.  Such events are almost ancient history farther south in Montreal.  The tourist season is at least a month away, but residents were out taking advantage of the hot sunshine.  Bicyclists and scantily clad rollerblading enthusiasts; sun worshipers on the pristine sands of Pointe Tallion; and so many motorcycles on the road that one couldn’t be blamed for thinking that a rally was taking place in the vicinity.  In other words, it was a perfect day for a motorcycle ride.
Guided by Ross on this red Honda GL1800 and trailed by Ray on this big black Harley bagger with my bumblebee yellow T-Rex sandwiched between them we were a sight.  The stratification by brand (and even model) that so prevalent in the U.S. doesn’t exist up here.  I saw Harleys riding with Honda scooters and KTM’s.  What’s important is not what you ride, but that you do ride.  It’s a nice sense of inclusion that we would do well to emulated south of the 45th Parallel.
Naturally we hit the tourism high points – Ouiatchouan Falls in the ghost town of Val-Jalbert, lunch at Zoo Sauvage (this is not a local nightclub, but a premier wildlife zoo) – and made quick stops at a couple of popular motorcycle service shops.  There are dramatic waterfalls and cascades in this region and we passed by most, but did manage to stop a three or four to enable me to practice some photography.  With Ross guiding I was freed from having to navigate while reaping the benefits of riding the best motorcycle touring roads around the lake.  Ray is the kind of guy that everyone takes a liking to and he took on the role of explaining the nature of the T-Rex to the people who came over to check it out every time we stopped.  Fortunately I will be graced with their company on tomorrow’s long journey through the Charlevoix Region and back by way of the Saguenay fjord. I’m looking forward to it already, but it requires an early start so most of my packing has to be done tonight.  I best get on with the job.

In the Saguenay

     Quebec City has become one of my favorite places to visit. This one was measured in hours and with some reluctance I left my abode at Auberge Saint-Antoine and wound up and through the old city to reach Route 175.
     The dangerous two-lane Route 175 from Quebec City to Chicoutimi is being transformed into the divided four-lane Autoroute 73. It will be a beautiful road when completed, but now it’s just 200 kilometers of construction. I’ve noticed particular outcroppings and individual boulders that bulldozers and earthmoving equipment have carefully worked around and where streams have been channeled for form waterfalls. There’s no hiding mile after mile of high fences built to deter moose, but nothing is 100%. In the meridian between the north and south lanes stood a seemingly bewildered moose. The south lanes were still crushed stone and yellow machines worked nearby but this cow was oblivious to them. Somehow a path had been cut through the boreal forest and this prehistoric beast was stymied by the change. For me it was a warning: if there are moose about during the day, this was not a road to be traveled at night on a motorcycle.
     I easily find my biker-friendly hotel, La Saguenéenne. Regis Nadeau has been a presence at motorcycle shows in Montreal and Quebec City long before most people even thought about motorcycle tourism, but I’ve been unable to accept his invitation to stay at La Saguenéenne until now. There are more motorcycles on Quebec roads than in most regions in the states and the warm spring weather (last week it snowed) has everyone out. On a Tuesday during the day I saw more motorcycles on the road than during a nice weekend in Vermont.
     My guides for today are Nancy Donnelly of Tourisme Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and members of the Saguenay H.O.G. chapter. They know the roads and this provides me with an opportunity to drive and sightsee without having to navigate. This afternoon is just a shake down for tomorrow when members of the chapter are leading me the sights around Lac-Saint-Jean. This is the inside tour, with a couple of special requests thrown in.
     The Alma Bridge – the first aluminum bridge to be built in the world—spans the Saguenay River. In fact, this is where the river begins; I will follow it to the Saint Lawrence River not once, but twice in the next couple of days. Atlantic tides somehow intrude deep into the Quebec heartland. Here, a hundred kilometers from the St. Lawrence and hundreds more to the ocean, tide run 4 meters high and the river teems with shrimp and all that prey on them.
     We make a run to La Baie Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! is reputed to be an old French expression for a dead end and the bay was mistaken by early explorers as a continuation of the river. I think the proper pronunciation is more of in the vein of a sudden realization than that of a funny joke.
     Off we go to the locally famous cheese maker for cheddar curds. It’s worth the trip. The landscape reminds me of Vermont and the cheese is delicious.
     This is all for today. Thursday will be a full day of exploration. Right now it’s time for a cold beer and dinner with my new found friends.