Ducati: Many Roads of Canada – Meet the Smallwood

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Under pallid florescent light and surrounded by clinical décor, people pace; sallow, tired, arms folded and tense.  In the corner a man braced against the wall rocks to-and-fro.  Elsewhere, another sits on a metal bench, staring blankly forward at nothingness, his legs in a sewing machine jiggle.  At a table a woman works through a book of Sudoku, obsessively penciling, erasing, re-penciling, then flipping to the next page with joyless determination.  This is nightlife at trickle-charge voltage, mental ward commitment, and worse it is voluntary. Welcome to the Argentia, NFL ferry terminal and travel’s half-existence purgatory of waiting.

It’s now 12:25AM.  My fellow inmates and I are have exhausted our coping strategies in travel’s great sleep deprivation experiment.

“Arrive by 1:00”, said the cheery reservations agent over the phone, “the ferry leaves at 2:30 if it’s on time.”  That begs the question, what to do in Placentia?

It’s a tough question.  Placentia is a small town, adjacent to Argentia, on the Southwestern edge of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, has a stunning claim; proportionally it is the second fastest shrinking town in Canada.

The answer to the burning question as I idle through the streets is, “Not much.”

After shooting some video of me sampling Cod tongues, the Restaurant hustled me out the door and promptly closes.  That was at 10:15, 15 minutes after the town rolled up its sidewalks.  That leaves me and my fellow travelers facing a period of time as empty as the expanses around Placentia…  actually those expanses are better off, they are filled with nothing and moose.

Want to make a killing here?  Open an all night anything.  Better, make sure it has beds.

Argentia is no better. In 1940, under the Emergency Powers Defense Act the residents of Argentia were evicted, their land traded from beneath them as part of the war effort.

Argentia became the location of a US Navy base, built under a US-British lend-lease program, which saw US warships loaned to Britain in exchange for British military bases or land in the Western Hemisphere.  It was the death of the place, in exchange for a point in the trans-Atlantic supply line joining North America to Britain, and a base for anti-submarine patrols protecting ships from the German U-boat fleet.

In 1994, Naval Operating Base Argentia was decommissioned and the entire site was transferred to the Government of Canada, then onwards to the provincial government, which received a ghost.

Eventually I concede defeat, and simply head for the Argentia ferry terminal.

It’s the first time in my life I’m four hours early for anything, but at least I’m indoors and warm.  I’m not alone, by 11:00 almost all who are going aboard are in the lot waiting.

Cars start, heaters are cranked to full, warming the interiors and then they are stopped again like fitful metal sleepers.

Inside the terminal under the florescent glare, people sit in the cafeteria blankly looking at a menu of institutional fare no one dares try.  In the downstairs lounge three homeless looking youth have already secured the only sleepable benches in the place.  The rest of us are relegated to arcs of linked chair seating…  not quite benches, not quite chairs, these are their own limbo.

I sprawl out, trying to sleep.  If I have one kryptonite, lack of sleep is it.  I can tough through cold, I can tough through physical exertion, indeed I can tough through 100kms of just about anything…  provided I’ve had sleep.  Today was an early start.

A row back a man starts a strangled gargling snore.  It is disproportionately annoying, dragging me instantly to irrationality.  His snoring has upset the baby, who his wife/pillow is trying to comfort.  Is this how you slip into madness?  The sudden urge to suffocate a man with his own mewling infant.

As I said, I’m better with sleep.  A bit tetchy, I wonder how much one of the vagabond boys wants for their flat bench space.

By 2:30 I’m fastening down the Multistrada to the deck of the MV Joseph and Clara Smallwood with the help of a 20-something deckhand, Eric.  The boat may have only entered service in 1989, but the ravages of the 520km run between Argentia, NL and North Sydney, NS have left it with a distinctly rusty third world charm.

The ferry’s state probably isn’t the honour intended for Joseph Roberts Smallwood and his wife, but perhaps fitting.  Smallwood was the first premier of Newfoundland and a driving force behind its joining the confederation of Canada in 1949, but his career wasn’t exactly tarnish free.

By 3:00 I’m looking at a four-person berth dormitory sleeper that makes steerage look upscale, hostels look opulent and exhaustion look like the only option for rest.  Luckily I’m there, having had a very early start to the day I’ve been up almost 20 hours.  So a 14 hour crossing will let me catch up on some needed sleep.

Ok, a bit more sleep than expected, the Captain has announced that the Smallwood is running on three of its four engines, bumping our estimated transit time to anywhere from 15 to 17 hours.

It’s the sort of thing you just take in stride.  It’s part of the adventure, something you retell to friends with grin and bare it relish.  If everything went smoothly, the ride would be bland and no better than a packaged vacation tour.  Actually, the folks from the tour buses are looking considerably less happy than I.  Perhaps, they were expecting more from the boat?

The Argentia-North Sydney route is seasonal is a seasonal run, and this is the last crossing so most of the facilities have already wound down.

The shower is closed.  The snack bar is closed. The cafeteria is open sporadically, making my late breakfast one of coffee and licorice babies.  Lunch is a muffin because I can’t bring myself to face another round of deep fryer roulette.  The Sahara has more to offer in the way of fresh vegetables and the Gobi more variety.  At this point in the ride I’m pretty used to the funk of my motorcycle gear and make do food, there’s a perverse pride in it even.

The day slides into an oscillation of writing, heading down to the bunk to sleep, and pacing the deck in the sunshine.  If there is one thing the Smallwood has right it is deck space.

Most “modern” ferries don’t have proper deck space at the prow, but on the Smallwood the ocean is yours for the viewing.  Not that there’s a tremendous amount to see, just a horizon stretched in front of you.  Until, finally a thin strip of land graces it – Nova Scotia easing into view.

By 8:00PM the last fall light plays across North Sydney harbour as the Smallwood docks.  Not enough time to ride onwards before dark, I begin searching for a hotel with a comfortable bed, safe parking, and, that all important traveler’s companion, the Weather Channel.  On board rumours were swirling, Kyle is coming and the some folks from the Sault Ste Marie, ON said I should be expecting flurries by the time I ride through… Time is no longer on my side.

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