By RYAN KING
PORT AUX BASQUES — Many of us dream of having an adventure, but very few of us act on it. This year marks the 30th anniversary of when seven local men took to the (then) recently decommissioned railway on ATVs and rode from St. John’s to Port aux Basques. The trip started on July 13, 1991, and lasted 11 days until July 24.
The group of seven friends included Don Hann, who was the mayor at the time, Jim Baggs, Alan Norman, Aaron Hewitt, Melvin Yetman, Frank Pike, and David Butt. Butt still has his photos and journals from the trip, keepsakes of an exciting and memorable trip.
The plan was to leave from Port aux Basques, bringing the ATVs to St. John’s, and come back this way along the rail bed. The idea itself was raised by a local resident, Willard Kettle.
“He just sort of popped the idea to someone, who popped the idea to us, and we grabbed ahold of it. We were prepared to do something about it. And why were we prepared to do something about it? Each of us were outdoor people, and each of us being a bike enthusiast – whether it was a trike, or a quad,” recalled Butt.
In 1991, there were severe cutbacks by the government for the provincial healthcare program. The group saw this as an opportunity to do some good using their adventure. They were aware that the Charles LeGrow foundation was often running fundraisers, and the group wanted to canvass door to door to sponsor the trip. This was not to pay for the trip, which would be paid for by out-of-pocket expenses themselves, but to raise money for the foundation.
“The response was over $12,000. The day that we arrived back here we were met by the foundation members, as well as the town, CFGN at the time, and the Gulf News. The Canadian Legion was there as well, and they passed over $2,000 as well. So, we gave over almost $15,000 to the foundation,” said Butt.
Beyond raising funds for local healthcare, there were other motivations.
“We wanted to come across the island, and we feel as if we were the first ones to have ever have done that. Because at that time they were removing the railway ties, and the spikes, and the iron plates, and so on, and a lot of that was still in place,” said Butt.
Indeed, it was no easy journey.
“We encountered a number of places where we had a lot of problems in respect to the railway ties being upheaved and crossed over and so on, and we had to get around this. We also had to deal with many flat tires, punctured tires, because of the spikes that were left there,” said Butt.
To prepare for the trip, the group formed a planning committee. They conducted official meetings with Butt as the chairman. Each man was given responsibilities for the trip and out of the committee meetings came the name for the group, Trikers for Life.
“The name Trikers for Life was chosen because at that time, there were a lot of trikes on the go, quads were just coming on. We were using trikes or quads for our trip, and seeing that it was related to the hospital, we thought that we would have some sort of catchy phrase, and that’s what we called ourselves, Trikers for Life,” said Butt.
With the preparations and organizing done, the group packed up their gear and boarded the bus.
They left Port aux Basques on the morning of Saturday, July 13, and arrived in St. John’s around 10:00 P.M. The next day they went to the Day & Ross depot, meeting a friend of Butt’s, Gideon Lawrence.
Lawrence was from Port aux Basques, and was managing the trucking company that offered their services. The trikers got their ATVs unloaded and began preparing for the next day to ready and pack the vehicles for the long trip home.
“We had to have our sleeping bags, because we planned on spending each night in a tent. Canadian Tire donated a lovey tent, I must say. But of the nine or ten nights that we were on the road, I think we spent two nights in a tent. And one of those we spent at my cabin, and at another cabin we got caught by a terrible thunder storm – lightning and thunder. We just didn’t feel like pitching a tent. And then we came across an old cabin along near the railway bed and we broke in. We stayed there. Of course, the rest of the nights, the Holiday Inns took care of us. Complimentary,” shared Butt.
One major obstacle to maintaining the trip’s schedule was the number of vehicle breakdowns.
“We ran into a couple of mechanical problems, but we got that corrected by knowing who to reach while we were in Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor. People were able to refer us onto dealerships, Honda dealerships, or whatever; Kawasaki, and so on, to correct whatever problems that we had. Also, Don Hann and Jim Baggs were very mechanically minded, and they were able to correct a number of problems too. We did have a number of punctures in the tires because of the spikes,” recalled Butt.
A journal entry on July 18 expressed Butt’s frustration with these issues:
“Trouble again with Alan’s bike, same as day before. Alan very disappointed and disgusted with it. He’ll see to it again while in Gander. Very slow going. I can’t emphasize enough how slow. Bloody spikes jutting out everywhere. Very concerned over tires,” wrote Butt.
A journal entry on July 19 detailed one of the many mechanical issues the group had to overcome:
“My bike had wheel bearing problems. All four of them replaced. Mechanic Art Woolfrey was puzzled with Al’s problem, but eventually did stumble onto problem of loose connections around fuse box,” wrote Butt.
Even 30 years later, Butt can clearly recall how problematic the track was.
“Our second biggest obstacle to deal with would’ve been the railway ties. You trying to go along, and you’re on a narrow railway track, and you got railway ties crisscrossed this way and that. You can’t drive over it, but you try to go around it, and you’re down in the ditches. And you had to stop and move the ties manually,” said Butt.
Another journal entry on July 20 focused on the time lost to clearing all the debris.
“Railway ties, spikes, and iron plates began again after Glenwood. Extremely slow going again,” wrote Butt.
Confrontations with wildlife was not a concern for them. However, the group did get to see plenty of animals along the way.
“We did see a number of moose. We’d seen a number of broods of partridge. And caribou. We saw most of that on the Gaff Topsails. And the Gaff Topsails, if you’re aware of Newfoundland, that’s the highest point for the railway bed. And it’s the spot where the Newfie Bullet used to be. You used to get stuck maybe every winter on the Gaff Topsails because of snowfall, but that was maybe the most scenic and the greatest memory of the trip was on the Gaff Topsails. Beautiful area up there. Beautiful. I’d love to go back there again actually,” said Butt.
The scenery impressed Butt so much that it prompted a more favourable journal entry on July 22:
“Gaff Topsails – what can I say? The best of what we have seen to date! In fact, we would like to make another trip back to Howley and then travel on to the Gaff by bike. Saw two moose and at least 30-50 caribou. Seemed as if the ground was crawling with caribou – even though it may only have been a trickle of what’s up there. We also saw what we consider to be excellent fishing holes! Would loved to have tried some. Could not do so because of our hurry to get to Corner Brook,” wrote Butt.
The group’s arrival back in Port aux Basques on July 24 included a celebratory welcome by the town.Butt thought it a fitting conclusion to their adventure across the island to document in his journal.
“All of us stopped before arriving at the terminal, spread our bikes across in one line and then approached the station. We had friends, family, members of the Canadian Legion, Town Council, Hospital Foundation there to give us applause and offer their congratulations. Following this we drove our bikes across the CN parking lot and came directly to my drive way where we left our bikes to pack up later. All the boys came up on my patio for a few drinks.”