The first time I travelled alone I was 21. The year was 1984. At that time, it was a thing, after finishing high school, to backpack across Europe with a Eurorail pass and international hostel membership card, “finding yourself” along the way. After spending some time with family in England, my uncle drove me to the docks at Portsmouth and I caught a ferry across the channel to start my month-long trek of the continent.
I hadn’t slept much the night before. Although this had been a plan for most of the preceding year, I was apprehensive about setting off on my own for the first time in my life, and my aunt, in the usual succinct manner of that side of my family, said “Your mind must have been active.” In reality, I was shitting bricks.
It was a night crossing and we docked the next morning in Le Havre. After getting some breakfast, I managed to figure out, without knowing a word of French, the correct train to Paris. Once in Paris, I started looking for my planned hostel. Even on that first day, I knew intuitively, as any animal does, that safety at night is the top priority. My anxiety grew through the afternoon as I failed to find not only the hostel but also a decent crapper. Armed only with my copy of Let’s Go Europe, I wandered the streets of Paris, asking passerby in English, to no avail. Parisians, I was discovering, have no time for tourists. I was getting worried. If I couldn’t find this hostel, how could I possibly find myself?
It was at that point that the guardian angel of travel, Saint Christopher, smiled on me in the form of a mute. He was a young man, barely a teenager, unable to speak a word of French or English, and the only Parisian with the patience to help me. In a series of completely intelligible gestures and grunts, he communicated that I had to get on not the metro, as I had mistakenly thought, but the commuter train and go three stops before getting off. What I had failed to understand was that the hostel was not in Paris at all but the suburbs on its outskirts. I think he even took me to the correct platform and indicated again the number three with his hand before waving goodbye. That was the only time during that month I felt in trouble, but I’ve never forgotten that young man nor the feeling of being in a bit of a fix while travelling alone.
There’s something unique about travelling solo. Of course there are practical advantages like being able to travel at your own pace, your own route, in your own company, especially if you’re an introvert. Locals are more likely to approach you and strike up a conversation. But the real advantage of travelling solo is that extra edge of danger in having no one to rely on but yourself. Problems with the bike? You’re on your own. Problems navigating? You’re on your own. Personal security? You’re on your own. That may not sound like very much fun, but as Claire Fisher in the pilot episode of Six Feet Under says about crystal meth, the risk of travelling solo makes everything “burn a little brighter.” It’s a drug one can get hooked on. And with the added risk and reward of motorcycle travel, it’s no wonder that today the thing is to find yourself selling everything and travelling solo around the world by bike. The ADV world is filled with folks doing exactly this, or dreaming about it.
There’s little chance of me packing up anytime soon. I love my little cottage-home in Quebec, my job, my wife, and my son. The solo tour for me this year was five days in Northern Ontario doing The Great Legends Tour, a loop from Mattawa to Kapuscasing via Tamiskaming Shores, then back down through Timmons, Sudbury, and North Bay. After a few days at a cottage in Kipawa, I loaded up the bike, said good-bye to my wife, sister, and a friend, and headed north up the 101.
It was a wet ride but the rain didn’t dampen my spirits; I was finally on my own and heading for adventure. The 101 is a two-lane highway that cuts through boreal forest on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. Without any fencing at the sides, you have to stay alert. It climbs as it heads north, opening up into farmland and views of the distant mountains.
After riding for a few hours, I took my first break at a rest stop in Ville-Marie.
Shortly after lunch, just north of Saint-Bruno-de-Guigues, I spotted a sign indicating a covered bridge. I knew my destination was all the way up in Moonbeam, but the adventure bug was itching so I decided to venture off my planned route. A gravel road took me to Pont Dénommee—not the most picturesque covered bridge I’d seen, but not knowing what you’re going to get, like a handful of Bits And Bites, is part of the adventure.
After riding through, I went to pull a U-turn, but I swung too far right to set up, the road crumbled at the edge, and the front tire washed out. After a week of asphalt, I was out of practice off road. With the panniers on, the bike didn’t tip completely over and it was easy to lift again, even still loaded. But it would be a reminder to stay alert always when off roading and a harbinger of things to come.
With my excursion fulfilled, I returned to the 101 and soon crossed back into Ontario on the 65. The rain started and never really let up for the rest of the day. My Klim Dakar pants are not waterproof and sometime that afternoon I decided, before my next tour, I would invest in some waterproof Gore-Tex pants. I also decided I needed a proper motorcycle GPS. My Samsung S5 is water resistant and works okay with GoogleMaps as a crude GPS, but it does not charge whenever the port detects moisture, and a fully charged phone can deplete in a matter of hours when running a GPS app. The phone and the status of its battery would be a thorn in my side the entire trip and lead to a breakdown on my final day. (More on that later.) I’ve been such a good boy this year that Santa owes me, and if a Garmin Montana isn’t under the tree this Christmas, I’m breaking bad.
At Temiskaming Shores I filled up, then turned onto Highway 11N from the 65. There’s a Tim Horton’s there and it was a welcome stop to warm up if not dry off. From there, I headed north, but instead of angling north-west on the 11, the Great Legends Tour suggests continuing straight north on the 569, then the 624 just before Englehart, then the 672, north and north and north, so that when you finally catch up with the 101, this time on the Ontario side of the border, you’re way up near Matheson and the deciduous trees have disappeared. After a short stint west on 101, soon I was heading north again on the Transcanada Highway 11, but by this time I was happy to be on a major well-maintained highway to crack the throttle. I was keeping my eye out for wildlife, and while I wasn’t sure of the cops situation in these parts, I was watching out for them too. What I wasn’t expecting as I rounded a corner in driving rain was to find a car backing up on the highway! It just goes to show how you can never, ever be complacent on a motorcycle.
Many beginner riders, fearing front-end wash-out, get into the bad habit of using only the rear brake, which accounts for only 10% of stopping power. And many riders with ABS brakes never learn how to modulate the front using two fingers and a gentle initial squeeze until the load is transferred to the contact patch and sufficient friction prevents the tire from washing out. Without the benefit of ABS, I’ve always forced myself to brake properly, emergency or no emergency, to develop muscle memory specifically for the situation I now suddenly found myself in: an unexpected emergency stop on a wet surface at speed. It all might have gone horribly wrong if I hadn’t forced myself to be diligent and demanding with this skill in those early days. This was the payoff. The bike squatted and I quickly slowed without even a skid, then proceeded to gesticulate to the idiot driver in front, not so much a “Fuck you!” but a “What the fuck?” It appeared a construction vehicle had dropped some of its load in the oncoming lane, but to this day, I don’t know why the car in mine had stopped and was backing up. What I do know is I’m glad I learnt emergency braking technique. A lot of people say that motorcycles are dangerous and I won’t deny they are. But learning proper technique, whether with braking, accelerating, cornering, or just viewing the road, will keep you as safe as possible. Bad things happen to newbies who are unprepared.
It was getting on in the day and I still had to get through Cochrane, Driftwood, and Smooth Rock Falls to Moonbeam, angling northwest and now as far north as I’d ever been in my life. There’s not much up in these parts and I’d passed up the opportunity earlier in the day to pick up a little Northern Comfort at the liquor store to warm my belly upon arrival at camp. I regretted that decision now that I was cold and wet. The liquor store in Moonbeam would be closed by the time I arrive, so I chalked that one up as a lesson in poor forethought.
The local council in Moonbeam know how to exploit their name to attract tourism. I’m imagining the council meeting when someone suggests building a flying saucer and placing it at the side of Transcanada Highway to attract tourists. I wonder how that idea first went over? But build they did, and the saucer above is now a local landmark. I, for one, was grateful because Moonbeam is so small you can miss it if you blink. My destination was René Brunelle Provincial Campground just north of Moonbeam. My GPS didn’t say turn right at the flying saucer but it could have. Right on the 581 and soon I was on dirt and soon after at the park gate. The young lady at the gate said my site was one of the good ones, right on the water, and it was! I pitched the tent, had a little supper, then strung the food pannier because there was apparently a bear in the area.
By now the rain had subsided but I still had a chill from the ride. Without any liquid warmth, I lit a pipe and took a walk through the campground. I didn’t have many good words to say about provincial campgrounds in my last post, but now I’m going to say you just have to get far enough away from Toronto and its resident douchebags for all that to change. The campground was lovely. Here are the unofficial rules, posted by one of the regulars.
I looped around and as I came back along the lake side of the park I saw between the trees flashes of light in the night sky. Once back at my site, I climbed down to the water and looked across Remi Lake. Every few seconds the sky would light up a diffuse amber, and at first I thought I might be seeing the aurora borealis, or northern lights. It’s not uncommon to see them this far north. But then a bolt of lightening jabbed out from beneath the bank of clouds and I knew it was rather a lightening storm. Nevertheless, the light show was spectacular, and at times like these I don’t want to be alone but sharing the experience with my wife.
I knew what it meant though: more rain was coming. I climbed into my tent and into my sleeping bag, rolled up my sweater and placed it behind my head. As I lay in the dark, I heard the wind pick up and begin to rustle through the upper branches of the huge pines that surrounded me. The rustling grew louder and soon it was a roar and I wasn’t sure if I was hearing wind in the trees or rain on the lake. It was rain, and the storm was a big one, moving toward me. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any louder, the first few drops began to hit the tent.