BLOWN AWAY: MOTORCYCLING IN A HURRICANE

News item from September 15, 1996:

Hurricane Hortense, the first hurricane to directly strike Nova Scotia while at hurricane strength since Blanche in 1975, struck the Nova Scotian coast as a Category 1 hurricane. $3 million were inflicted to Nova Scotia by Hortense after strong winds, heavy rain, and power outages.[20]. After re-entering the Atlantic, Hortense began to substantially strengthen and peaked as a 140 mph (220 km/h) Category 4 hurricane early on September 13. “

In September of 1996 Brenda and I took off on our 1993 BMW R100GS/PD for a trip from our Kentucky home to Nova Scotia to sightsee and to ride the legendary Cabot Trail route. It was as good as it’s press. We circumnavigated the entirety of the island, poking into little towns and staying wherever we found lodging. When the time came to head back, we headed for Yarmouth to catch the ferry over to the mainland.

In those pre-smartphone, pre-ubiquitous-internet days, we didn’t have daily up-to-date weather information. Our traveling style meant that we took our rain gear and rode in whatever conditions nature gave us. (Brenda has said that it “wasn’t really a vacation if we weren’t wet and cold at some point”) When we got to Yarmouth we learned of the imminent strike of the hurricane and that the ferry was canceled. We, along with a lot of other folks, formed a long line to get motel rooms. I tied the motorcycle to a rail along a wall in an alcove at the motel and we waited.

For that night and the next day we sat in the motel room, listening to the winds howling, the rain lashing the windows and occasionally venturing out to see if the bike was still there. Finally the word came that the ferry would go tomorrow…but it wouldn’t take motorcycles which were more likely to be tossed around in the still-high seas. But, we learned, there was another ferry, a shorter crossing, leaving from Digby about 70 miles up the coast that would take bikes.

In what turned out to be one of the least well-thought-out decisions in my long history of such, we left in the morning, headed for Digby.

The hurricane wasn’t finished. The main storm may have moved out to sea, but the leftovers were still powerful. I should have noticed that there were no other vehicles on the road. Brenda, ever the best passenger, was clinging on the back, pressed against me so that we were as one unit on the bike. I found that the only way I could make forward progress was to tack back and forth across the road as the wind would take us from one side to the other and I could slowly turn and make my way back across , often with the tires skittering, rinse and repeat. The “rinse” part was very real, as the rain was still coming nearly horizontal from the left. At one point I briefly looked away from the wet asphalt in front of the wheel to see the waves crashing on the shore just off to our left, brown as mud and so high that I had to bend my neck back to see the crest. It was, in a word, terrifying. Other than that glimpse, my memory of the ride is only of the few feet of pavement in front, looking more like a roiling stream than a road, trying my best to keep us upright and moving without falling.

If I had possessed enough brain power to divert any away from the immediate predicament I had put us in, I would have mustered the sense to go back to Yarmouth….but I didn’t.

Several hours later, having sine-wave traversed perhaps three times the actual straight-line distance, at a snail’s pace, we saw Digby appearing like a mirage ahead. The rain was beginning to lessen and the winds had slacked off to merely “awful”. We took the first place that had a B&B sign and got a little room on the second floor of a house near a restaurant. Like many such rooms we have stayed in on our travels, this one had been reclaimed from an alcove beneath the slope of the roof, not much space and a bit short of headroom, but it was dry and close to food, which met all of our requirements of the moment.

That evening we ate Digby scallops (some say the finest of the genre to be had) in a little restaurant next to the pier where the boats come in to unload them. I recall it to be one of the best meals of my life, though it is possible that the memory is colored by the relief in being there alive after the journey. One of my favorite quotes, often attributed to Churchill, goes something like “nothing is quite so exhilarating as being shot at without result”.

The next morning at 6 AM we met the ferry to load up for the crossing. At the dock with us were two guys on Honda Gold Wings, “old guys” we thought, all the way up into their 70’s. They had waited out the hurricane here, now ready to continue their trip. We were inspired by their eagerness to get on with motorcycle travel in their golden years.

In 2019 we returned to Digby on a trip up into New Brunswick, but this time on a sidecar rig and in much, much better weather. Now retired, we are in the same age range as the Gold Wing guys we met at the ferry, and like them, still traveling. The ride from Yarmouth was uneventful and calm, giving me a chance to see the scenery that was totally outside my narrowed view in 1996. The beach where I saw the monster muddy waves is now as placid as a postcard picture. The restaurant where we ate the wonderful scallops is still there, but now expanded with a deck overlooking the harbor. The scallops are still wonderful.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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