Top Tips for Moto Camping

Baddeck CampThe first time I went moto camping, I pulled into Camden Hills Campground in NH and started gathering firewood. A lady from a neighbouring campsite wandered over and, in the process of telling me that I’m supposed to buy the firewood, not gather it, she said something that struck me at the time: “My husband is so jealous!” Okay, normally you don’t want anyone’s wife saying that to you, but in this case I was safe; the jealousy was all for my freedom.

Moto camping is the most liberating experience I can think of. You have all your essential needs in one place—on your motorcycle—and your ADV motorcycle can go pretty much anywhere you point it. The possibilities are infinite; the journey, endless. There is economic freedom, too. I extend my budget by doing all (or most) of my cooking; my bike gets about 25 km/L, so the gas is cheap; and by camping, I avoid paying hundreds of dollars a night for accommodations. And while I haven’t yet tried wild camping (camping on crown land for free), that’s my next step.

But all this freedom comes at a cost. You can be caught in bad weather. You sometimes have to sacrifice comfort. There are animals and other risks to consider. And let’s face it, camping is sometimes a lot of work!

Before I did moto camping, I did quite a lot of canoe camping. These camping tips come from over a decade of canoe camping and four seasons of moto camping. Some are pretty obvious to the experienced camper, but I include them here too for those just starting out.

Dedicate one pannier for food

I like to dedicate generally one pannier for food, one for cooking equipment, and my top wet/dry bag for clothing and other dry items. Dedicating one pannier for food means I can string it from a tree and know that no animals are going to get at it. With moto camping, you don’t have a car to store your food for the night, so you really should string it. Tie a heavy stick onto the end of your rope and throw it over a sturdy horizontal branch, then re-tie to your pannier, hoist, and wrap the rope around the tree. (See photo below.) I’d hate to be in my tent in the middle of the night and have to listen to a bear trying to get inside a pannier that’s still mounted on my bike! I put one of those insulated grocery bags inside my hard pannier. It’s not as efficient as a cooler but will preserve fresh foods a little longer than otherwise.

RB Campsite_web

Nothing smelly in the tent

This one may not be obvious to the newbie, but you shouldn’t have anything in the tent that is smelly and might attract animals. No gum, or toothpaste, or candy, or food of any kind (doh!), or perfume, or suntan lotion, or mint flavoured dental floss. Bears have very good noses. I put all that stuff in the food pannier and string it from a branch. It helps me sleep better knowing it’s all stored safely away.

Set up your tent ASAP

You never know when it’s going to rain, so I suggest setting up your tent ASAP upon arriving at site. That’s your shelter, so you should set it up, just in case. It’s also a lot easier in the daylight than waiting until after dinner when the light is fading. I like to do this even before gathering firewood (or purchasing) and getting food on.

A shot of inspirationBowmore12

There is one thing I like to do even before setting up my tent. As soon as I arrive at site, I have a shot of something to warm the belly. Sometimes it’s scotch; sometimes it’s bourbon; sometimes it’s port. It doesn’t really matter, but after a cold ride, some liquid heat will lubricate the work ahead and add a little glow to the mundane.

Merino Wool

Packing minimalist? Try merino wool. I spend the entire day in merino wool. I sleep in it. I ride in it. I work in it. It breathes in the heat and insulates in the cold. It has anti-bacterial properties, and is super comfortable. I would not suggest 100% merino because it’s not durable enough. Most companies today weave about 5-10% nylon in to the wool to strengthen it. A thin merino wool base layer is sometimes all I need beneath my jacket and compression suit. Merino sheep

Woolen hat and socks

Here in Canada, it can get quite cold at night even in spring and fall, so I always pack smart wool socks and a wool toque. Wool keeps you warm wet or dry, and smart wool has some added properties that help it dry quicker when it does get wet. If it’s cold at night, wearing a toque and socks to bed can make all the difference. As a last resort, pull the sleeping bag over your head and let your breath heat the bag. No, you will not suffocate; there’s plenty of ventilation through the bag to give you sufficient fresh air.

Park your bike facing out from the campground

The first time I moto camped, I pulled in to the site, parked, then the next morning went to do that U-turn to get me out and dropped the bike. The site was on a slight slope which I didn’t notice and my head just wasn’t into it yet. You don’t want that first turn of the day to be a U-turn with the bike fully loaded, so instead, pull the U-turn at the end of the previous day and then the next morning all you have to do is load and ride. Save the U-turns for after the second coffee.

Fallen Bigbea

Use your sweater as a pillow

You don’t need to pack a small camping pillow for the tent. Just use your sweater. I travel with a Sherpa polar fleece sweater that is perfect for around camp in the evening. (It has the cinder burns to show for it.) Then when it’s time to turn in, I just fold it to make a perfect pillow. As a bonus, if it’s unexpectedly cold that night, my sweater is at hand pull on. I’ll do without a pillow if I have to, but I hate being cold.

Get a good headlamp

How did I ever do without? A headlamp is an essential. It may appear nerdy, but then when you’re camping in the middle of nowhere (or have a 3-day camper’s helmet head on), who cares? A headlamp leaves your hands free to cook, gather and chop wood, or pour another wee dram. I recently discovered the benefit of getting a good one. My current one has a red light, which does not attract bugs, and the ability to adjust the brightness of the white light in both intensity and breadth. When you are away from all artificial sources of light and the sun goes down, you’ll be thankful for the best headlamp money can buy. Don’t forget to pack extra batteries.

Use non-perfumed soapBronnerSoap

Get a good biodegradable non-perfumed soap for the dishes, your body, and your hair. Aside from going easy on the environment, a non-perfumed soap will not attract mosquitos and other bugs, not to mention animals. I like Dr. Bronner’s pure-castile soap. I don’t know what castile is and neither does WordPress, apparently, which flags it as a spelling mistake, but this soap kicks butt! A few drops in your scorched pot and it cleans right up (the pot, that is). The label is pretty entertaining too. Also, do not use any product in your hair as this too will attract bugs. You can’t be vain when camping! And going without hair product means your helmet liner will not get greasy and grimy.

Buy fresh food when you can

Maybe because I did so much canoe camping before moto camping, I discovered this one only well into my first long tour. When canoe camping, you plan each meal for every day and take exactly what you need. It never occurred to me that I could simply pick up something fresh at the local grocer while passing through. Yeah, I pack a lot of porridge, pasta, peanut butter, packaged curries, and rice for most of my meals, but one of my best camping meals ever was some fresh fish I bought in Moncton, New Brunswick, bagged salad, and a veggie. I even bought some garlic butter for the fish, something I knew wouldn’t last more than a day but made the meal, since I cooked the fish in it. So don’t forget; even though you’re roughing it, you are riding through civilization often during the day and can pick up fresh food at the supermarket for that night’s dinner.

Fundy Meal

Moto camping requires some planning, courage, and a little extra work, but the rewards well outweigh the costs. There’s nothing like kicking back beside a campfire at the end of a long day of riding, being in a tent during a thunderstorm at night, or crawling out of a tent in the early morning, with mist still hanging on the lake and hearing loons calling through the fog. If you love nature and riding, then moto camping is for you.

Share your favourite camping tips by leaving a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Dude, where’s my bike?!

20190908_140759I’ve been putting the kilometres on Bigby this summer. I’m now over 88,000 K and, to my knowledge (I’m 3rd owner), the rear suspension has never been serviced. I also had a small oil leak coming from the front of the engine, and I wanted to check that all the engine mounting bolts were torqued to spec. I hate doing maintenance during the riding season because I’ve lost the last month of the last two seasons waiting for parts, but I felt in this case, with three jobs needing to be done, I’d dive in.

This was the biggest job I’d ever done, as you can see from the photo above. The entire back half was removed. I mistakenly took off the fuel tank because I’d read you need to in order to reach one of the engine mounting bolts. Ha! As it turned out, that advice was referring to the 650 Classic, I believe, and in the end, it wasn’t necessary. But it also wasn’t that hard. I’d had the subframe lifted before, to get my shock off; the difference was just that all wiring had to be disconnected and the subframe bolts removed. I’d run the bike down to just a few litres of fuel, so my wife helped me lift the tank off. On this bike, the subframe remains attached and both are removed together.

With the tank off, I was able to access the suspension linkage easier. The deflection lever and tension struts (“dog bones”) came off easily enough.

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Rear suspension linkage

As usual, I took photos to ensure it all went back together the same way. But now the fun began. The pivot bolt that connects the swingarm to the frame was corroded inside and would not come out. It’s a big 12″ bolt that goes all the way through the bike from one side to the other. I checked the photo in my service manual; the guy is pulling it out with his fingers! Meanwhile, I whacked away with a hammer and drift but it wouldn’t budge.

I tried to get a bar clamp or C-clamp positioned to press it out, but could not get purchase with either; there was too much in the way. Finally I decided I had to lay the bike on its side, pour penetrating oil in the top end, and hope that it worked its way down to where the corrosion was.

 

No luck. I was beginning to feel like this guy who, after losing days trying to get his pivot bolt out, eventually cut the damn swingarm off! But I was not entirely out of options yet. I brought out the big boys: my dad’s old big ball-peen hammer and my sledgehammer. I flipped the ball-peen around to place the round end on the bolt, then, using it as a punch, hit the flat face with the sledge hammer. Slowly, slowly, the bolt surrendered, not to a higher intelligence, but a BFH!

With the swingarm off, I could see what the problem was. One of the bearing was seized. I guess this job was overdue.

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A picture’s worth a thousand whacks!

Of course my local BMW dealership didn’t have any of the needed parts in stock, so it was off to Vermont to pick up an order from MaxBMW. I love those guys! The parts took a week including shipping and came with their signature package of M&M’s included.

I’d never pressed bearings before and didn’t have a bearing press, but a YouTube video showed how you can use a common vice to do the job. You use two or three sockets on each end: one the same size as the bearing to press it out, and a bigger one on the receiving side to press the bearing into. You might need to add a socket on the press side to get the bearing fully out. With a little heat from a blow torch and a bar-clamp pipe as a cheater bar, it was easy. For some, I didn’t even use the heat. Just be sure to centre your press socket carefully to avoid damaging the wall of the swingarm or linkage.

 

I’d put the new bearings in the freezer overnight, so they had contracted and were easy to press in. A little heat helped but wasn’t necessary. Then I greased the whole thing up really well with the best waterproof grease I could find. My manual called for EP2 grease (Extreme Pressure).

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Out with the old, in with the new

With the new bearings in, I turned my attention to the other jobs.  A close inspection of the front of the engine indicated that the oil leak was not coming from either the starter motor O-ring or the clutch cover, as I had suspected, but the crankcase gasket. That’s the seam that runs the entire circumference of the crankcase front to back, holding the two halves together like a clamshell. My service manual indicated that the crankcase bolts are supposed to be 12 Nm, and two at the front were significantly below that spec. While I haven’t yet had the bike up to high revs, when the oil leak happens, I’m confident I’ve found the source. There were also a few other crankcase bolts further back in the engine that needed tightening.

Finally, the third job: the engine mounts. And here is where it became interesting again. I was missing one of the five bolts! Did I remove it earlier and lose it? I remember reading the specific instructions in my manual on where it is located and how it threads into the rear brake line bracket on the opposite side of the bike, but it’s not the kind of bolt one can lose; it’s M10 x 95mm. That’s a 9.5 cm long big bolt! Did I accidentally use it for one of the front engine mount bolts, which I removed to remove part of the frame? I searched the shed. I searched the workshop. I searched the grass in front of the shed. I searched my pockets, my tool bag, my car. I lost a day looking for that bolt, which had now become The Bolt and my wife was sick of hearing about it. To this day, I don’t know what happened to the 5th engine mount bolt. Fortunately, Canadian Tire had an M10 x 110 so I put that in. It’s a little long but will do the job until I get the proper one. Maybe it’s my imagination, but the bike seems less vibey, so perhaps one was missing all along??? Perhaps one day I’ll be cutting the grass and . . . gling! At any rate, I’m glad that all five engine mount bolts are in and torqued to the spec 41 Nm.

20190922_135602

Using a floor jack to position the swingarm

Finally it was time to put the bike back together: the swingarm and linkage went on nicely, including the infamous pivot bolt, which I’d cleaned up and given a liberal amount of grease, including some anti-seize on the nut. Then the rear wheel and then . . . uh! I forgot the chain, so it was either break the chain or remove the swingarm again. I felt like an idiot over that one. That’s a mistake you only make once.

So I removed the swingarm, looped the chain over it, installed it again, plus the rear wheel, the mudguard, chain guide, rear rack, etc. until Bigby was looking himself again. And just in time. I have a reservation for two nights at Mew Lake Campground in Algonquin Park this weekend. I’ll be photographing the fall foliage and writing an article for Ontario Tourism on Highway 60 that winds through the park.

Mechanical work is hard! It’s not just the physical exertion but all the troubleshooting and decision-making involved. Two nights at a campfire with my pipe and some scotch is just what I need to unwind and close the touring season.

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Ready for more adventures

Where has the summer gone?

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Last February, when the snowbanks in front of my house were still 9′ high, my motorcycle club went to the Montreal Moto Show. It’s always a fun event, a way to get over that February hump and into late winter, which is almost spring. But I remember coming back a bit deflated this year. To be honest, looking at all those amazing new bikes, and watching some of my friends buying some of those amazing new bikes, made me a little envious.

I decided then and there to put my limited motorcycle budget into riding the bike I have—touring and training. It’s now end of August and I’ve already put over 10,000 kilometres on the bike, as much as I’ve ever done in an entire season, and we still have the autumn before this season is done. I’ve been riding so much, 650thumper has sat rather dormant, so I thought I’d do a quick update before heading off on my next adventure. And when I have managed to do some writing between trips, it’s been for my paying gig with Northern Ontario Tourism, so I’ll include links to those articles below.

My season began with two articles for Northern Ontario Travel. One was on planning a multi-day group ride, thanks to club members Robin Whyte and Wolf Raaen, who have a lot more experience than me in putting these rides together. Then I was asked to do an article on destinations in the Ottawa area. I already had some ideas for destinations, but one of my earliest rides of the season—sometime in early April—was across the provincial border to get photos for this piece.

PerthCanal_web

Perth, Ontario

Once I was finished with my work for the semester and had visited my dad to celebrate his 90th birthday, I headed off to Vermont for two nights of solitude. In fact, my only post so far this season has been on that ride of The Puppy Dog Route. I went back at the end of July with two riding buddies to do it again.

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Camping at Silver Lake State Park

Another ride early in the season was through the Ontario Highlands. I didn’t even know there were such a thing as highlands in Ontario, but they are kind of north west of Ottawa, up to Bancroft and around Kaladar. It was my first ever overnight club ride, and I became a convert.

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Burnstown, Ontario

That little tour was warm-up to the big club tour for me of the season, along the lower Saint Lawrence River and north shore up to the Manicouagan region. We spent a night in Kamouraska before crossing on the ferry from Rivière du Loup to Baie-Comeau. We did a day ride to Sept-Îsle, and another to the Manic-5 Power Dam, before heading home along the north shore through Tadoussac.

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Near Tadoussac on the Saint-Laurent north shore

Other rides? Less spectacular, but I did visit my dad in Guelph, Ontario, on the bike late summer, and I rode out to Cornwall to write an article on the flat track races there in early August.

Turn3_web

Turn 3, Cornwall Motor Speedway

This weekend I’m heading to Bowmanville to cover the Vintage Road Racing Association races at The Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

I have a few more rides planned for the fall. I’m thinking of participating in the Cromag Campout this year at Silver Lake State Park in Vermont, and I’ll be spending two nights camping in Algonquin Park in search of Tom Thomson and the most spectacular fall leaf viewing in Ontario.

So it’s not because I’ve been idle that 650thumper has been inactive. Oh yeah, and I spent nine days in Nova Scotia with my wife, but not on the bike. 20190718_134813

It’s been a very full summer. I’m ready to sit my butt down and write about it all, but I’ll wring the last of the season out first. Once the snow flies, I’ll have plenty of time to share my adventures.

I wish you all safe and happy autumn riding.

The Puppy Dog Route: Part 2, Silver Lake to Derby, VT

Knowing it was a long way home, I started earlier on my second morning. I was off my site by 9 and soon onto another dirt road that crosses beneath Interstate 89 before hooking north. I popped out in Chelsea and found this quaint cafe to have a coffee and second breakfast.

Chelsea Cafe

North Common Arts Collective and Cafe in Chelsea, VT

I struck up a conversation with the owner, Carrie. She taught special needs students for years and so we had a lot to share about the state of teaching today. She also said her husband has a GS. I have to admit that my first thought was rather cynical, that he is probably one of the umpteen 1200GS owners whose bikes never leave the asphalt. Then she told me about a trip she took on the back of the bike through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, and I knew my prejudice was wrong.

“Your husband must be no slouch as a rider,” I said, “since it’s hard enough to ride that terrain with gear let alone a pillion.” When she heard I’m Canadian, she said he also races vintage motorcycles and normally would be heading to Calabogie (just west of Ottawa) the next weekend for the race there. So I was doubly wrong.

“You should stop by and meet him,” she said. “He loves to talk about motorcycles. He’ll be in the barn working on one of his bikes,” and she gave me directions.

The conversation continued and somehow, I can’t remember how, her son’s work came up. He and a friend have a YouTube show called On Two Wheels.

“I love On Two Wheels!” I exclaimed. Turns out her son is Zack Courts, and Zack grew up riding the roads around Chelsea, Vermont. I’m a big fan of Zack and Ari’s work. I’ve watched pretty much every episode of On Two Wheels and Zack’s MC Commute, and learnt a lot from Ari’s MC Garage. I enjoyed Zack’s article in Cycle World last fall on touring to Deadhorse, a bucket list destination of mine. There was great lamenting amongst the online community when they announced their final episode, but fortunately their new show, Throttle Out, is available on motortrendondemand.com. Okay, so we have to pay for it (after the free trial), but I’m of the mind that you get what you pay for, and the creators of good work ought to be compensated.

So now I was intimidated. Riding is definitely in their family, and I felt out of my league.

I have one New Year’s Resolution this year. I’m not a big fan of resolutions, finding them more restrictive than liberating, but this year I did come up with one simple goal that has served me well. It’s to not decline opportunities when they present themselves. I am conservative by nature, perhaps a bit shy, and so I tend to decline invitations that take me out of my comfort zone. But life is for living and I’ve found that it’s the times when I push past that initial inhibition that the real memorable moments in life occur. So when I had settled my bill and headed out to my bike, and Carrie came out and said she was going home, I decided to follow her to the house to meet her husband, Tim Courts.

Tim came out of the barn and introduced himself. I could immediately see the resemblance to Zack. He invited me back into the workshop where he had some classic BMWs. After chatting for a while, he said he has been thinking of getting a smaller bike and expressed an interest in my little 650.

“Take it for a spin,” I offered. Then when he seemed reluctant, I made the gaff of suggesting removing some of the luggage on the tailplate and seat.

“Oh, that’s not going to bother me,” he replied. We chatted some more and Tim seemed interested in this Puppy Dog Route I was riding. He suggested we ride the next section together, he on my bike and me on his. So we did.

It was easily 30 degrees celsius (90F) and I watched him pull on a one-piece Aerostitch riding suit that reminded me of what my dad used to wear to snowblow the driveway. I’d been riding with my compression shirt armour under only an off-road shirt, and while he got his bike out to the road from the barn, I sheepishly pulled on my jacket.

I’d been wrong about his bike too. It wasn’t a modern 1200GS with all the rider aids but the original GS, a 1983 R80 with a Dakar tank. I have to admit that the prospect of riding off-road with an experienced rider on a bike twice the size of mine was a bit intimidating. When I started it up, it rattled and shook. If I released the throttle, it sounded like it was going to stall. Before I could locate the choke, we were off, Tim leading the way.

We headed through town, turned left, and were on dirt. And to my surprise, I kept up. Maybe he was going easy on me. We road for a while, Tim following the printed directions on my tank bag, me trying to get used to the rear drum brake. After a while we stopped and switched back and continued on. I’m glad we switched when we did because it so happened that the next section was what the route organizers call a “hero section.” We turned off some connecting asphalt onto a Class 4 single lane road and started a hill climb that got steeper and steeper. It was muddy, with washout ruts, large rocks, and ledges! I got hung up on one of the ledges and stalled. Tim cruised past with a smile, or was it a giggle? When we got to a plateau we stopped and he said, “I didn’t expect it to be this technical,” to which I replied, “Neither did I!” It had been pretty tame so far all the way from the Massachusetts border, so I was surprised. At any rate, it was a lot of fun, and riding a technical section of trail with such an experienced and expert rider was the highlight of the trip for me. My only regret is that I was enjoying the riding so much I forgot to get a photo of Tim on his old airhead before we parted. We exchanged contact info so there will be a next time. I’m officially in love with Vermont dirt roads so will be back ASAP.

I continued on toward the border. The roads from Silver Lake to Derby are not as heavily forested as at the beginning in Massachusetts, but there are still some dreams homes on manicured properties. This one made me stop, pull a U-turn, and take a photo.

House

Dream homes, if you’re into that.

At times the route opens up, cutting through farmland and rolling hills.

Yellow Hills

Picture postcard views on the PDR

It was getting late and I was tempted to jump onto the asphalt, but I can be stubborn about my goals, and I’d set one to ride the entire route. I was only a few kilometres from the border now but the GPS took me on a circuitous route that eventually led to a view back over the state I had just traversed. I stopped and took a photo and said goodbye to Vermont, for now.

Leaving Vermont

Saying goodbye to Vermont, just kilometres from the border.

I’d like to thank the BMW Motorcycle Club of Vermont for putting the route together and making the GPX files available to the public. Vermont roads are not gravel but hard-packed dirt, making them easy for anyone with even an 80/20 tire. There are surprisingly few potholes and washboard. There are a few challenging sections, but nothing a little bravado can’t get you through. Of course weather conditions will change the terrain considerably, but if you’re looking for a quiet ride through picturesque farmland accompanied by all the farm smells and quaint rural life, the PDR is one way to explore without the risk of getting lost. Unless, of course, you want to get lost. Vermont would be a good place to do so.

The Puppy Dog Route: Part 1, Greenfield, MA to Silver Lake, VT

Trail and Bike

I’m a teacher, and toward the end of term, when stress levels reached their peak, I remember saying to myself, “When this term is over, I’m going to take off on my own for two nights.” I enjoy my work and I like giving to my students, but I also need once in a while to retreat and recenter. I imagined sitting by a fire at a campground and smoking my pipe and decompressing. I decided to try to ride the complete Puppy Dog Route.

The Puppy Dog Route is a series of connected dirt roads that take you from the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border, the entire length of the state of Vermont. I don’t know why it’s called the Puppy Dog Route. It was put together by the good folks of the BMW Motorcycle Owners of Vermont and revised and updated as recently as 2018. It’s about 90% dirt with just enough asphalt to connect the dirt roads. GPX files and turn-by-turn directions are available here.

After a few delays in early June, I finally headed off and rode down to Woodford State Park on Highway 9. It’s a quiet campground—so quiet it’s self-administered on an honour system; you put your $20 in an envelope and deposit it at the front gate. Nice!

It was hot ride down, so when I arrived the first thing I did was go for a glorious swim in the lake. Those swim classes through the winter paid off. Then I walked back to my site and sat and had a glass of the local porter I’d just bought at the general store in Bennington. I could hear some kids from a camp across the lake playing in the water, some small birds in the surrounding trees, a distant woodpecker, and then some geese flew into the lake, making a racket upon landing, as they do. I wrote in my journal at the picnic table and was blissfully happy for one, perfect moment. For an introverted nature lover, it doesn’t get any better than this.

picnic table

(Almost) all of a man’s needs on one picnic table.

The next morning I packed up camp and rode the rest of Highway 9 east out to Interstate 91. Highway 9 is a fantastic road that takes you through the Green Mountain National Forest, with some breathtaking views.

Green Mountains

Lookout on Highway 9 to The Green Mountains

The PDR begins in Greenfield, MA. You turn off a main road onto a residential road and in about one kilometre is turns into dirt and the fun begins.

Starting Out

Starting out in Greenfield, MA.

At the beginning, I was so enamoured I was stopping every few kilometres to take a photo. Then I realized at this pace I’d never make it back to my native country and had to be more selective. But it was beautiful! The surface was hard-packed and easy to ride on. Trees line the road with sunlight streaking through. The road follows a stream, and every once in a while there is a quintessential cedar shingle Colonial home. In my helmet, I exclaimed aloud “Oh my God,” then rounded a corner to a more beautiful view and said “OHH my God,” then rounded another corner and “ARE YOU KIDDING ME!”

I think I’ve found my ideal ride, at least at this time in my life. I like the twisties as much as the next rider, don’t get me wrong. And yeah, I like speed. I also like the challenge of a technical section of a trail, the pull of torque as you crack the throttle, feel the rear tire grab, and power up a steep hill. But I’m beginning to see the limitations of my bike for both technical terrain and speed. It doesn’t have the clearance or the suspension for serious off-roading, and it starts to buzz like its namesake (Bigby) over 110 km/hr, at 5,500 rpm.. What it seems best designed for is enjoying dirt roads where a Harley or Indian or crotch rocket fears to tread. It’s at home in either the Bavarian or Green Mountain forests.

I came to a covered bridge and decided that was a good place to take a break.

Covered BridgeSoon some more riders caught up to me with the same idea. I met Nigel and his dad and a few friends on their classic BMWs. Nigel has a 1977 R100 RS, and his dad has a 1980’s era BMW. Someone else in the group has the new Royal Enfield Himalayan.

Nigel

Nigel and his R100 RS. Just when I was beginning to think that my bike is old!

One of the things I like about riding solo is that people talk to you. Nigel is from Connecticut and this opening section of the PDR is part of their regular loop over from that state. I expressed my appreciation for these dirt roads and he said, “the state is full of them.” I wondered if I’d died back on Highway 9 and this was heaven.

I wasn’t even into Vermont yet so pressed on. Soon I was getting pretty familiar with cornering on dirt and was sliding out the back end. A whole day of riding on dirt and you understand the importance of getting your weight out over the contact patch so you don’t low-side. So when seated, that means leaning toward the opposite handle-grip of the corner (i.e. turning right? lean toward the left grip). The route just kept getting prettier.

 

Mass

Following the Stream

Picturesque views on the PDR

My destination for tonight was Silver Lake State Park. This is the midway point of the route and home of Cromag Campout each September. If you are doing the route over two days, as I was, I would advise to set off earlier than my 11:00 a.m. start in Greenfield because it’s a long ride. You are rarely out of 2nd gear, so although the distance isn’t far, it takes a good 8 hours. This is where perhaps the route itinerary is a bit off; I think it says 6+ hours to get to Silver Lake, but I was riding pretty hard all day with few breaks and pulled in around 8 p.m.. I had just enough time to pitch tent before the light faded. A nice neighbouring camper came over with some kindling to help me start my fire. I love campers, and I’ve never met an American who isn’t friendly.

I think the international perception of Americans is very different from the in-person reality. You have to visit to see what I mean. I pause, looking at my GPS, and an American is there, offering directions. The young sales clerk at the general store sees me staring into the beer fridge a little long and comes over to suggest his favourite local porter. I stop to eat an apple and a kid comes by on his pit bike to see if I’m okay. Even the state trooper bids me a good morning at the gas station.

Campsite

Silver Lake State Park

This belief would be confirmed in the most exciting way the next day with a chance encounter.

Remise en Forme

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Google translates it as “fitness.” Literally, it might be “put back in shape.” I’ve seen it translated more liberally as “Spring Refresher.” The Remise en Forme is a day of exercises to regain muscle memory of the technical elements of riding. Watching street riders, you may not easily see that riding a motorcycle is a skill, let alone athletic, but off-road riding involves a whole set of skills as well as a certain level of physical fitness. After a winter of watching Dakar reruns on the couch, it’s a good idea to remind the body by targeting specific skills with specific exercises of what it knew how to do last fall.

I belong to two clubs that offer a Remise, so I had the pleasure of refreshing myself twice, so to speak, in May—once with MotoTrail Aventure, and once with the BMW Moto Club of Quebec. I had the same BMW-certified instructor for both, and he was incredible. He has represented Canada twice in the GS Trophy contest. Say no more. He demonstrated all the exercises flawlessly without even a dab (i.e. touching a foot down), and he did it on Michelin Anakee (street) tires when we were all struggling on knobbies.

Here are some of the exercises we did, roughly in the order done:

  1. The Walk-Around. (Engines off.) Have a partner assist you by being ready to catch your bike should it begin to fall. Start by standing beside your bike and find its balance point. Now let go and move to another part of the bike. At no time should you hold the bike with more than the fingers of one hand. Move entirely around the bike, 360 degrees, releasing and catching different parts (windscreen, tail-rack, etc.), ending up back beside the bike where you started. This exercise helps remind you that all of those 500 lbs can be zero when the bike is perfectly balanced. Also to breathe when you are nervous.
  2. The Friction Point. Sit with your bike idling in first gear, clutch in. Gently ease out the lever until the bike inches slowly forward. Now stop using the rear brake while pulling in the clutch lever no more than 1/8″. Ease out again and repeat. This exercise helps you discover the friction point. Much of off-road riding occurs at the friction point with the clutch lever moving no more than 1/8″. If you pull the clutch lever in all the way when you want to slow down, you will not be ready to recover quickly enough if you need to accelerate.
  3. Circus Riding. Okay, he didn’t call this one that, but that’s what it reminded me of. We played follow the leader in a wide circle, doing what the lead rider, the instructor, did. All riding was done standing up except where indicated. He rode with one hand (throttle hand, obviously); he rode with one foot on the peg, then the other foot. Then he sat down, swung his right leg over the bike and put the right foot on the left peg and stood up again. Then he sat down, swung his legs over the seat, and stood up with his left foot on the right peg. Then he sat down and swung his left leg over the seat to straddle the bike again. Then he hopped off the bike and walked beside it a few paces. Then he hopped back on, Roy Rodgers style, like mounting a horse. All this was done at slow speed without stopping, the bikes in 1st gear. This exercise teaches you that you and the bike are independent but together you have to remain in balance. I was reminded of this exercise later in the day when we got into slippery terrain and I had to allow the bike to move around beneath me. It’s all about balance, balance, balance!
  4. Peg-Weighting. A lot of turning in off-roading is done “with the boots,” not the handlebars. You weight the peg on the side of the direction you want to turn. You have to bend your knees and stick your butt to the outside of the corner to counterbalance the bike. We slalomed through a series of cones, then looped around to start again. I was doing this okay but the assistant instructor told me to brace my outside knee against the bike and to use the knee to straighten the bike if needed. This little tip was ground-breaking for me. It gave me more control over the balance of the bike when hanging off it in tight low-speed turns. This exercise reminded us that you don’t steer in low-traction zones with the handlebars but the pegs, and you keep your weight out over the contact patch or the bike might low-side on you.
  5. Parallel Lines. A variation of the above exercise is to add a straight section where you have to ride between two lines (straps or string) about 6″ apart. This is to simulate when you have to ride between two fallen logs, or across a bridge with only 2 x 6’s running lengthwise, or along a ledge. Vision is everything. You look at your entry point but once you enter you look up at your destination. Don’t look down! Look straight ahead. This exercise teaches you how to ride along a narrow path. 
  6. The Full-Lock Turn. Place four cones about 10 meters apart in a square. You have to ride into the square and turn full lock within the cones one full circle before exiting. Again, body positioning and vision here are the keys. You have to stand up, brace your outside knee against the bike for leverage, get your butt well out to the side, and swivel your head and especially look where you want to turn. You should be looking toward the centre of your riding circle at all times except for the very end when you look toward the exit before leaving. Practice clockwise and counter-clockwise turns. It’s pretty obvious, but this exercise practices sharp turns on the trail or U-turns on single-lane gravel roads.
  7. Hill climbs and descents. The secret to both is body positioning. In one version, we had to move our weight back because it was a sandy hill and the bike needed traction to get up. In the other, it was a grassy hill and we were told to lean forward or the bike might flip going up. So it really depends on the type of terrain. For both, you coast to the top because you don’t know what is over the crest. It could be your fallen buddy or, as was the case with me in Cape Breton, a cliff! A variation is to stop halfway up the hill if your buddy in front has fallen before cresting. Then you stall the bike using the rear brake, release the clutch, let the engine hold the bike on the hill and, bit-by-bit, roll the bike back down by feathering the clutch. Don’t panic and pull in the clutch or you’ll end up on your back! Don’t forget to look behind you in case there are trees or logs to avoid. For descents, weight is always at the back and we were advised to use the rear brake.
  8. Water Crossings. Our instructor said water crossings are mostly psychological because you can’t see what you are riding over. The same principles of riding apply: look up toward your destination, feather the clutch at the friction point, and don’t squeeze the bike with your knees. The latter is important because if you hit a hidden rock the bike might be thrown sideways and you have to be ready to counterbalance.
  9. Emergency Braking. Ride about 40 km/hr into a small square of cones and brake as quickly as possible. It’s all about body positioning. Weight and butt back, arms outstretched, then stomp on rear brake, and gently squeeze the front brake lever. Contrary to what I had been taught elsewhere, this instructor said to pull in the front brake lever fully, not all at once, but gradually. Yes, the front might lock up, but with your butt back and your arms outstretched, you can “wrestle” the front end to keep the bike up and you modulate braking as needed (back off slightly when it locks). You want to be right at the point of static friction, when the tire begins to skid. Because most braking occurs with the front brake, this technique will result in faster stopping.

Finally it was time to put all these skills together on some trail riding. We played follow the leader and there was a mixture of sand, mud, rocky terrain, some rock ledges, ruts from rainfall runoff, water crossings, and single-track. It was a ton of fun! By the end of the day we were tired but ready for the season.

The take-aways for me:

  • Vision is everything. He said vision is 90% of riding. Always look to where you want to go. It sounds so obvious but when you come upon an obstacle, like even some rocky terrain, your natural reaction will be to look down at the front wheel. You must resist the urge, trust the bike will roll over anything, and look up, further down the trail.
  • Contrary to dirt-bike riding, don’t squeeze the bike with your knees. With these big bikes, you aren’t going to hold them up with your knees. Instead, bow your legs and create space between the inside of your thighs and the bike. This space allows the bike to move around beneath you as it slips and slides over low-traction terrain or is bounced over rocky terrain. Thinking of the circus act balancing practice, you will be fine if you and the bike together remain balanced over the centre-line of gravity.
  • On the same topic, body positioning is crucial. Contrary to street riding, in which you squeeze the tank with your knees and remain fairly static on the bike, off-roading requires a lot of movement on the bike. The first remise I was still feeling the effects of a pulled back and had difficulty reacting quickly enough to changing circumstances. The second I was fully mobile and did much better. Don’t be afraid to get up there on the pegs and move around—back, forth, to the sides.
  • Breathe and relax when you come to a challenging obstacle. As in all sport, tensing up is counterproductive, and breathing is the simplest way to get the body to relax.

One of the reasons I like off-roading is that it involves the development of skills and so has become yet another ambition to pursue. I love pushing myself, especially physically these days, and the Remise is a great way to brush up those skills at the start of a new season. A big thank you to Moto Trail Aventure and the BMW Club Québec, and especially the instructors who have volunteered their time and expertise.

 

First Ride

Lakeshore

What’s your first ride? I mean the first one of the year? Do you have a favourite go to ride you do when the bike first comes out of storage? I do.

My first road ride ever—when my group at the school finally left the lot and headed out onto the road—was down 55th Avenue in Lachine to Lakeshore Blvd. We’d been warned about the right turn onto Lakeshore and had been practising for it with counterbalancing turns winding through cones. But once on Lakeshore Blvd., it was a perfectly slow, easy ride, with lots of stops signs along the way to practice braking and gearing. It also happens to be pretty scenic too with a view out over Lac Saint Louis. At some point we headed up to the highway and zoomed back to the lot, but Lakeshore, with its signs that read “If you’re in a hurry, take the highway,” was a safe beginning.

Even before I had my road licence and was supposed to ride accompanied by someone with a full licence, I snuck out with my new bike. I headed down to Lakeshore Blvd. and took that all the way around the western tip of the Island of Montreal, going through Pointe-Claire, Beaconsfield, Beaurepaire, Baie D’Urfe, Sainte-Anne’s, through swanky Senneville and along Gouin a little. Then I went across the bridge to Ile Bizard and looped it before making my way back home.

It’s an easy, easy ride, and that’s what you want the first time out, when muscle memory is weak and you have to refamiliarize yourself with the controls. It doesn’t take long for it all to come back, but if you’re going to make a mistake, you want to make it at low speed, in second gear. I lost the last two months of last season waiting for parts, so last week, when I got the bike out of storage, I actually hadn’t ridden for six months. I’d just installed new brake lines so, before pulling out of the driveway, I pulled the front brake lever and tried to move the bike. It’s a simple test they make you do at the licensing bureau before you do the road test to ensure your brakes are working. The bike should nose-dive, but this time it didn’t. It rolled. “Damn, the brakes aren’t working!” I thought, “Why aren’t they working?” Then I realized I was pulling the clutch lever, not the brake. That’s why you want an easy, slow-speed ride for your first. 

There’s another reason you want a slow ride. Usually for me, getting the bike out of storage means doing some work on it. There’s already some work that I do to put it into storage, like change the oil and take out the battery; but getting it out of storage almost inevitably means adding something to it that I’ve bought over the winter. This year, like I said, it was some steel-braided brake lines, but also new pads, and some Rox handlebar risers. These are pretty easy mods, but there’s a chance I’ve overlooked something—a nut not completely tightened, or the controls affected by the risers (yes, I tested at idle full-lock both ways, but you can’t be too safe)—and you don’t want to discover at highway speeds that you forgot to tighten the wheel lug nut, now do you? I give my bike a good look over before I head off, but still . . . A friend recently forgot to tighten her oil cap completely after doing an oil change, so oil was dripping down onto her exhaust pipe and smoking. It’s simple mistake, but oil on the tires could be dangerous. Your easy first ride reduces the risk of those innocuous mistakes becoming disastrous.

Sticking close to home also helps should you encounter a problem with the bike. I’ve limped home from a short distance with my temperature light flicking on and off. As my confidence in the bike grows, so does my distance from home and my speeds. After I did my Lakeshore route last week, I headed off to Ontario on Sunday with a small group. Yeah, there’s safety in numbers too. Although my first ride has always been solo, it’s not a bad idea for it to be in a group.

It feels so good to be back on the road. Six months! It puts a sparkle in the eye and a spring in the step of every rider. As I write this from Montreal, Canada, a snowstorm has blown in, but it’s the last of the winter, I’m sure. The forecast for the next few weeks is above freezing so the riding season officially begins tomorrow. Have a safe season, and if you have a favourite first ride, tell me about it.

 

Make Your Own Heated Jacket For Under $50

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The riding season is just around the corner, and remembering those cold early- and late-season rides last year, I decided to get some heated gear during the off season. But a heated jacket can easily run over $200, so I decided to try making my own.

I started by buying the heating pads on eBay for a grand total of $7.39 (all amounts mentioned are Canadian), including shipping and handling. I don’t know how a company can make something, anything, and ship it halfway around the world for that cost, and I probably don’t want to know. The shipping is slow, by boat, so allow several weeks. Still, at that price, I’m not going to hold it against the seller.

You can get them in configurations of 7 small pads or 3 large pads. For the sake of simplicity, I went with the latter. 20190322_100526I figured I’d place one pad horizontally across my upper back to heat my lungs (similar to a chamois in quality winter coats), and two lower, vertically over my kidneys. I’m no biologist, but I remember my Grade 6 teacher saying that if you protect the essential organs, the extremities will be fine.

These pads are 5V and draw 8.5 W—enough to keep me warm but not so much as to tax my electrical system. (I can power this from a battery pack in the inner pocket or plug into my bike using an Optimate USB adapter.) Optimate

This plugs directly into an SAE lead from the battery (for my battery tender) and will handle the conversion from 12V to 5. I’m not including this in the cost of the jacket because I already had it to charge my phone.

I then bought an inexpensive jacket from Mark’s Work Sweatshop (here in Quebec, called L’Équipeur). I was fortunate to find the one pictured above on the liquidation rack for $35. You want it fairly snug since it’s going under your riding jacket and close to your body without dead air space—a known insulator (Grade 6 Physics). Wallfart and Wieners are other good places to try for a cheap vest or jacket. If you get one with a quilted back, your sewing won’t show as much.

The final item was some material to cover the pads once sewn in. I didn’t want to open up the jacket and sew the pads inside the lining for two reasons. First, that would have been a lot of work, and second, I wanted all the quilted insulating material on the “outside” of the pads. So I decided to sew them on the inside of the jacket and cover them with material, and the cheapest material I could think of is a section of a thin, athletic T-shirt I bought from Goodwill for $5.

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I started by pinning the pads in the jacket where I want them.

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I then dug out the sewing machine my mother gave me (God rest her soul) and threaded it with black thread. I can’t help you with the sewing part of this job except to say two contradictory things: a) it’s not as difficult as you may think, and b) read the manual and struggle through your first project; it gets easier. I think of sewing like typing: an essential skill that will pay dividends many times over in the future.

Anyway, you have to be careful when sewing because you don’t want to hit any of the thin wire in or connecting the pads and break it, ruining your pads. Fortunately, the company provides a good inch of sewing material as border.

Once the pads were sewn in, I cut the shirt, pinned it over top, and chalked my sewing line so, again, I wouldn’t accidentally hit any wires. Make sure all wires are tucked inside. You have to leave a gap in sewing the new lining for the cord to exit the lining.

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You can see on the right where I’ve placed two pins horizontally. That’s my marker to stop sewing, and where the cord exits. All was going well until I sewed one of the sleeves to the jacket (Doh!). How to use a stitch-ripper is another essential skill.

After sewing all the way around (minus the port), I cut the excess material away. This is the finished product.

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My jacket has the added feature of an inside pocket with a headphone port. I threaded the USB plug through so I can use a battery pack in the pocket when I’m off the bike. The pads have three settings: high, medium, and low. There’s also a timer setting to shut off automatically after 30 minutes.

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I’ve tested the jacket using a battery pack and it works great! I might not be quite ready to mass produce these, but I’m ready for those cold April rides.

Total cost: Jacket $35 + pads $7 + T-shirt $5 = $47

 

The Wish List, 2019

Moto Santa

If I’m going to get my wish list to Santa before Christmas, I’d better send it now. This year has been a tough one for a few reasons, but mostly because my mom died in the fall. That threw everything off, including my blog writing. I just didn’t have the appetite to write, or ride, or do any of my other interests. But the midwinter holiday and the turn of the new year is as good an opportunity as any to turn the corner and start to look forward to the warmer weather and the chance to ride again. Here are a few things I’d like to get for the 2019 season.

But first, let’s take a look at what didn’t make it off my wish list last year.

  • Upper crash bars: check
  • Inline fuel filter: check
  • Flexible front flashers: check
  • Chain-breaker: check
  • Wheel lug/tire iron wrench: check
  • New front tire: check
  • Body armour: check (not Leat but Knox)

So the only two items that didn’t make it off my 2018 wish list were the Garmin Montana GPS, for the second year running, and the Sea-to-Summit mattress.

Garmin Montana 650

The GPS is a must this year; I can’t put it off anymore. As you know if you read my last post, I actually suffered a breakdown on my tour this summer from using a phone GPS. The port on the phone is just not built to withstand the demands of off-road riding—the vibrations, the moisture, the drain on the battery. I ended up jeopardizing my bike’s battery which led to the breakdown. And if you’re doing any serious off-roading, you’re often going to be outside of cell service. This is a fairly big-ticket item so I’ve been avoiding it, but fortunately, I’ve been doing some writing for Ontario Tourism and the money earned from that writing will offset the cost this year.

There is a new 680, but the 650 will be more than enough for my purposes and maybe I’ll get a deal on a discontinued model. I’m so tired of trying to use GoogleMaps to plan my rides! It works okay to get you there but you don’t have much choice in the route (just “avoid motorways,” “avoid toll roads,” and “avoid ferries.”) I’m looking forward to being able to use BaseCamp to plan rides on my computer and import tracks to the GPS. It’s also going to open up a whole new world of off-road track sharing through forums. The Montana is the most popular off-road GPS on the market, with topographical maps, the ability to geocache photos, dual map capability, a micro SD card slot, and many more features that I’ll probably never use. Best of all, it’s rugged.

A Lithium Battery

Shorai

Shorai LFX14L5-BS12

I’ve also decided it’s time to retire my old wet cell battery. I actually got two when I bought the bike. One died about a year ago, and the second is now getting weak. The battery on my bike is known to lose fluid because it’s right next to the upper oil tank, so it gets hot. Also, you have to remove all the plastics on the bike to check and to maintain the battery, so a low maintenance battery would be a huge benefit. I’ve decided to try a lithium battery. I heard about them on Adventure Rider Radio but had concerns about using a lithium battery in a cold climate like Canada’s. However, I’ve heard on forums that it shouldn’t be a problem. You just turn the electrics on for a minute or two to let the battery warm up before hitting the starter. I won’t have to worry about this one boiling dry, as my current one did outside of Mattawa, and an added huge benefit is that it’s much lighter than a wet battery. It’s the easiest way to shed several pounds up high on my bike.

Ricor Intiminator Fork Valves

Intiminators

41mm Ricor Intiminator Valves

This past year, I lost the preload adjuster on the rear shock. I think what happened was the new Holan upper crash bars install too close to the adjuster. The bars use the same mounting point, and I think the adjuster threads got strained from the tip-overs and eventually stripped. I was lucky to find a generous soul willing to swap me his adjuster for mine, but in doing some research on this item, I discovered that many riders find the suspension on my f650GS too soft, especially for off-roading. I’m not a big guy, so I don’t find the rear too soft, but the front end does dive under braking, and for the past while I’ve had a clunking noise coming from the forks on certain types of bumps. I was going to rebuild the forks this summer, replacing the bushings, so I’ve decided to install some Ricor Intiminators at the same time to firm up the front end. They don’t look like much, but these babies have something called Inertia Active Technology. Developed over a twenty year span, this technology can distinguish between chassis motion (fork dive) and wheel motion (bumps in the road). It allows the wheel to move and stay in contact with the road but doesn’t allow the forks to compress when front brake is applied. How, you ask? You’ll have to read the details of the technology at their site. The bottom line is that you get a cushy ride on the road without the fork dive under braking, and better handling off road. According to many comments on user forums, the suspension on my bike is its greatest weakness, so I’m looking forward to improving the front end.

 

K & N Air Filter

KandN

This one is kind of a no-brainer, which makes me wonder what took me so long to make the switch from paper to cloth air filters. Okay, I do remember reading up on foam filters when I first got the bike, but what I read was that the OEM paper filter protects better than foam. And that is true, partially. Dry foam filters have holes upwards of 90 microns in size, too big to stop sand, which can penetrate your engine and do nasty stuff to it. But an oiled foam filter will protect your engine just fine, and most dirt bikes and off-road bikes like KTMs use oiled foam filters. However, too much oil results in loss of power because not enough air is getting in to mix with the fuel. Recently I discovered the K & N cloth filter which protects as well as OEM but is reusable like foam. It’s also zero maintenance (no oil to administer) and is reusable; just clean in soapy water, rinse, and dry each year. Sounds like the best option for me. Goodbye disposable paper filters.

Klim Carlsbad Pants

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Santa came a little early this year with some Klim Carlsbad pants for me, so this one is not officially on my wish list. I love my Klim Dakar pants; nothing is more flexible and durable for off-road riding than the Dakars. But they are not waterproof. That’s just not the way they are designed. They are designed to pull through overhanging thorny brush without tearing, and to allow maximum airflow when it’s not, so not waterproof and not for adventure touring. I’ve been desiring a Gore-Tex pant that will keep me cool in the heat and dry in the storms. No stopping under bridges to pull on rain gear, no trying to anticipate weather—just ride rain or shine and remove guessing from your day. I saw these on sale 43% off their regular price about a month ago and jumped before Fort Nine sold out of my size.

Steel-Braided Brake Lines

Single Front Line

Last year I accidentally damaged my rear brake line while fixing my rear shock. I’ve decided I might as well take the opportunity to upgrade to steel lines which are better for off-roading anyway. Galfer lines are made in the USA, are model specific, and have teflon inner coating to avoid deterioration. There are even colour options for both the line and mounting hardware. I’ve already got new front and rear disc pads waiting to be installed, so I’ll be doing a complete brake rebuild in the spring.

That’s it. A suspension upgrade, a lithium battery, and (finally!) a motorcycle GPS top my wish list for this year. But like last year and every year, my main wish is continued health. A friend of mine is currently battling brain cancer and wasn’t able to ride last year. He’s recently had a setback and will be spending Christmas in the hospital. I’m thinking of him a lot and would gladly forego all these goodies and more for his health, but unfortunately there are no deals like that available in life. You have to count your blessings, and bless each day you have to live. However messed up this world is, experiencing all it has to offer is and always will be the most wonderful gift of all.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you and yours.

Bears, Mines, Batteries: Cochrane, Sudbury, Mattawa

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Street woodcarving in Mattawa, Ontario

After playing in the dirt around Moonbeam, I decided to head over to Cochrane to check out the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat. It’s the world’s largest and only human care facility dedicated to polar bears. They are located on 7 hectares of natural terrain and currently have three resident polar bears. I’m not a fan of zoos but these bears can’t survive in the wild and require human care; they were all either born in captivity or orphaned. The Habitat also advocates and educates towards protecting polar bears and their natural spaces.

It was an easy ride east along Highway 11 from my campground in Moonbeam to Cochrane. I stopped at Smoothy’s in Smooth Rock Falls for gas and breakfast.

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Smoothy’s Family Restaurant; Smooth Rock Falls, ON

Okay, they don’t win the award for most original name, but Smoothy’s was just what I was looking for: a classic diner where I could get an inexpensive bacon & egg breakfast with fried potatoes on the side. In the booth next to me were four retired men speaking French. In fact, pretty much all I’d heard this trip was French—in Iroquois Falls, in Moonbeam, in Kapuskasing. I’d never realized how big the Franco-Ontarian population is! A few Anglicisms had crept into their French, but I was surprised that the language and culture seems to be surviving just fine without any Bill 101 and its ridiculous sign laws or restricted access to education in English like we have in Quebec. Having said that, I must add that this past fall the new premier of Ontario decided to cut the French Commissioner position, a slap in the face of Franco-Ontarians and a sign of how vulnerable the French population is outside Quebec. Fortunately, Premier Ford reversed his decision a short time later, I don’t know whether due to pressure from Prime Minister Trudeau, public outcry, or common sense, once someone showed him the numbers and how such a decision would hurt him in the next election.

Another interesting cultural observation I had while up north was this billboard that I kept seeing.

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I’ve never seen anything like it around Montreal or southwestern Ontario. I’m not sure who the target population is, whether residential school survivors or men in general, but I think it’s high time we begin to discuss men’s issues, including sexual abuse.

With both bike and belly full, I pushed on to the Polar Bear Habitat in Cochrane. I arrived mid-morning and a tour had just started. “Run through to the first building and you can catch up to the group,” the lady at the entrance advised. So I did, only partway between buildings I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of two bears against the fence. They were huge! And exactly as you would expect with that distinctive long neck and pointed head, and not expect. Their fur is not so much white as golden, and their eyes and ears seem so small compared to their massive bodies, no doubt evolved to cope with blinding, blowing snow. I just stood there and watched them for a minute before heading in to catch up with the tour.

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The Habitat currently has three bears on location: Ganuk, Henry, and Inukshuk. Inukshuk, whose mother was shot when he was just four months old, is the father of Henry, bred when Inukshuk was at Zoo Sauvage in St Felicien, Quebec. Each bear has a unique personality and food favourites.

The facility is impressive, with natural and artificial areas, and a pool with a glass wall so you can see the bears swim underwater if they are in the mood. There are interactive learning stations for the kids and lots of information available on the walls and other exhibits for the studious, but really, everyone mostly just wants to look at the bears. They are magnificent!

Our guide reminded us that although they look cute and cuddly, the bears are dangerous and no one is ever alone with them on the inside of the fence which, we were told, is unbelievably more to keep people out than the bears in! They have had instances of people climbing in, I guess like the idiot videoed recently swimming nude with the sharks at Ripley’s Zoo in Toronto. Some people have the most warped sense of judgment when playing Truth or Dare after a few beers.

When the bears decided to head down to the natural pond, disappearing into the trees, I decided to step back in time a hundred years and headed over to Heritage Village. (Visitors to the Polar Bear Habitat also have access to Heritage Village and a snowmobile museum.) The village looks authentic and has been used for film sets. It includes a general store, butcher’s shop, doctor’s office, blacksmith’s shop, fire station, schoolhouse, and trapper’s cabin.

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No rollerball razors here. You can almost smell the lather and tonic.

While not the impetus of my visit, the Heritage Museum was interesting. It’s one thing to learn about history from a textbook or historical movie and another to see the physical artifacts of another era and another way of life. The buildings have been authentically decorated to assist the imagination in conjuring an ordinary day in the life of early 20th-Century citizens. When I returned to the bears, one of them was being fed strawberries through the fence.

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Staff feed the bear while children watch on.

Before leaving, I wandered into the snowmobile museum. I imagine Cochrane has quite the snowmobile culture during the winter months, and it’s a good idea to preserve some of these machines here for posterity. Each is labelled with year, model, and owner name.

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Each represents the cutting-edge technology of its day.

I started back toward camp but this time, as I passed through Smooth Rock Falls, I saw a sign for Lookout Road. Assuming it led to its namesake, I pulled off and headed up a dirt road; it was the adventure bug again. At the fork in the road, I went left and the road slowly deteriorated into a trail.

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Another promising trail to follow. Would it lead to the lookout?

I was on my own and without a Spot device, so venturing along an unknown trail deeper into the bush was both exciting and unnerving. My worst fear was that I might find myself in a situation from which I couldn’t get back to the road, kind of like what almost happened when I had my off on the Lumberjack Trail, but hey, Lyndon Poskitt and many others are adventuring around the world solo so I figured I’d venture a little further along this trail. There were some muddy sections and some hills but my curiosity pulled me deeper, farther away from the road. The trail opened up into a meadow at one point, and then descended again into the trees, leading to this muddy puddle blocking the way.

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End of the line for this solo rider.

I wasn’t so much worried about going down those logs into the water as getting back. If I hadn’t been on my own, I would have gone for it, but since discretion is the better part of valour, I decided to turn back here.

Once I got back to the Y in the road, I realized that the lookout was just a hundred yards further along to the right. Doh!

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The view was worth every misdirected inch to reach it.

The next day I started home. I had about 1000 km to cover in two days. I took the 11 east to the 655 south, which took me into Timmons. Traffic through Timmons was stop and go but there was no time to stop because I was trying to reach Dynamic Earth before it closed. After my experience in the coal mine at Springfield, NS, I wanted to go down into another, and Dynamic Earth offers a tour into the nickel mine there.

A little jog along the 101 at Timmons and soon I was on the 144 south. The 144 is another of Ontario’s great roads to ride. It’s a two-lane highway that cuts through precambrian rock as it descends down toward Sudbury. There’s a mixture of straight sections but the real fun is with the large sweepers. The highway is immaculately maintained with no pot-holes or tar snakes to worry you, and surrounding scenery is pure bush, so enjoy but keep your eye out for wildlife.

I stopped at the Tim’s just outside of Sudbury. It had been raining and again my phone was not charging. I gave it a quick charge at Tim’s, but I had to keep it short if I was going to catch a tour. I didn’t want to do the tour the next morning since I had a long way still to reach my home in Montreal. As I pulled out of Tim’s and cracked the throttle, the bike lurched and the tachometer suddenly read twice what the bike was revving. It was up in the red! I’d only seen this once before and didn’t know what it meant but did what I had done that first time: I hit the kill switch, let the ECU sort itself out, and restarted. Everything was fine and I got to the mine in time to catch the last tour of the day.

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Big Nickel at Dynamic Earth

We were given hardhats and descended 7 stories underground where the temperature is about 13C (55F). The tour takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes and shows visitors what mining was like from the earliest days at the turn of the century to today.

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In the footsteps of Sudbury’s miners.

The young guide was knowledgeable and informative, and the tour was animated with video installations and mock explosions. I could see how technology has evolved over the century to create a safer and more efficient work environment. Canada also has evolved over the century and now its economy is more diversified than before, but the country is renowned for its natural resources. It was opened by the fur trade, with forestry and mining the other big resources that followed. I’m glad I experienced this important part of Canadian history while I was at one of the country’s largest mines. The Sudbury mine has over 5,000 kilometres of tunnels; placed end to end, you could drive from Sudbury to Vancouver underground!

When we returned above, it was late in the afternoon and I was tired from the race down from Moonbeam. Although Dynamic Earth has a lot more to offer than the mine, I decided that was enough for one day and headed to a campground I’d found online. While en route my bike did that lurching tachometer thing again, and then my phone finally died. Fortunately, I’d packed a car GPS as a backup and it got me there.

The next morning I left Sudbury and headed east along the 17, the Trans Canada Highway, into North Bay. I decided that the 533, although out of my way, was just too good to pass up, so I turned north onto the 63. As I did, I saw a woman rider by the side of the road on her phone. Naturally, I stopped to see if she needed some help. The chain had come off her Kawasaki 650 Ninja. She was trying to reach the local garage but no one there was answering. She told me her male friend did all the maintenance on the bike for her and she didn’t have a clue how to tighten the chain. I’m always surprised that some riders, male or female, don’t know how to do the basics. It just seems that you would always be so vulnerable, but then again, I guess the vast majority of drivers don’t know even how to jump-start a car, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

I tightened everything up for her and headed on my way, not knowing that soon I’d be in the same situation. As I was enjoying the 533 east, the bike surged and the tach jumped to double again. This time, rather than resetting the ECU with the kill switch, as I’d done before, I decided just to let the bike run as is; I knew the engine wasn’t revving that high—the tachometer was giving a false reading—so I kept going. The 533 is the twistiest piece of road I’ve ever ridden and a lot of fun, but I soon decided to take it easy since the bike was surging and lurching more and I couldn’t trust it. As I came down into Mattawa it stalled. I restarted it and drove another hundred yards and then it died again. As I rode the main strip in Mattawa, it died on me several more times and then I couldn’t restart it so I coasted in to a spot at the side of the road beside an entrance. As I did, I noticed a BMW 1200GS on the other side of the entrance, so we were the BMW bookends of this particular drive.

No sooner had I removed my top bag and dug out my tools than I heard a voice say “You’re missing a cylinder.” It was the owner of the 1200 and he introduced himself as John. He hadn’t seen me limp into town so I explained the situation. Being an ADV rider himself, he naturally said I could crash at his place in North Bay if needed and use his tools to fix the bike. He thought it might be the regulator. I thought it was a plugged fuel filter. I stripped the bike of the plastics and pulled the cover off the fuel supply, cleaned the filter and put everything back. The bike started and idled okay. Only before setting off, I had the voice of the Jack Nicholson character in the movie Bucket List in my head, “Never pass up a bathroom,” so I killed the engine and took care of business. When I returned to the bike, it wouldn’t start. Dead battery. Completely dead. Things were going from bad to worse.

I asked John for a push to bump start the bike. We must have been a sight heading up the main drag, me on the bike, he pushing from the back. The bike started but I couldn’t keep it running. As soon as the revs dropped to idle it died. Then we couldn’t start it at all. Fortunately my spot was still vacant so I coasted back, stripped the bike again, and removed the battery. John suggested I take it to the garage on the corner and get a quick charge on it.

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Curb-side maintenance on Bigby.

Now I had an hour to kill so I grabbed some poutine from the local chip stand and watched the lumberjack races. It was Voyageur Days in Mattawa.

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Audience participation at Voyageur Days

I wandered up to the local Tim’s and, while walking back, saw John as he was heading back to North Bay. He repeated his offer if I couldn’t solve my problems.

When I got to the garage, the owner-mechanic was gone.

“He went to the fights,” the young lady running the gas bar said.

“The what?”

“The fights. There are fights tonight.”

I was trying to imagine what kind of fights would be in Mattawa but eventually just helped myself to my battery, which was still on the charger. It was $10 for the charge.

I got back to my bike and installed the battery, replaced all the plastics and loaded the bike again. Now was the moment of truth. I turned the key and hit the starter: the bike made a grunt. Hmm . . . I guess I’m staying in North Bay tonight. Then I hit the starter again and it fired! It idled!

I know now what the problem was. I had been charging my phone off the battery throughout the trip, sometimes even when the bike wasn’t running because I needed it. I should have known that the battery is only for starting the bike, not a portable power supply. All that charging had boiled three of the cells dry. The morning of my problems, it was cold and I had the phone charging and the hand warmers on high. The charging system couldn’t keep up and the battery got further drained. When the battery dies, the instrument panel starts doing crazy things and the ECU acts up. The single source of my problems—the surging, the weird tach readings, the eventual non-starting—was a weak battery.

I now finally started heading home. At that time, I still wasn’t sure if the regulator was acting up and if the battery would drain while riding to Montreal. I kept a constant speed and didn’t ask much of the bike. I stopped only twice. Both times I kept the bike running because I wasn’t sure it would start again. I even kept the bike idling while filling it. Who’s going to stop me?

Just outside of Ottawa, I nipped into a convenience store to use the bathroom. When I came back outside, a brown liquid was pouring from underneath the bike. Problems on top of problems! My first thought was oil leak. I dipped my fingers into the puddle; it smelt like gasoline. Perhaps I overfilled it? Did it have something to do with not turning off the bike while filling? I wasn’t sure but now had extra incentive to get home. Fortunately, when I straightened the bike up off the side stand, the flow of brown liquid stopped. If I could keep the bike relatively upright, I could get home. I’ve never had such a stressful ride!

Again, I now know what was happening. Earlier in the summer, I’d had the bike on its side for the better part of a day. Oil had drained into the air box and the brownish liquid draining from beneath the bike was from the drain tube. I’m still not sure why it smelled like gas or why it was only draining now, but it was not coming from the engine.  It was draining from the air box.

I pressed onward, ever closer to home, keeping an eye on my instrument panel, half-expecting the oil light to come on. Each kilometre, I thought, was one less kilometre my wife would have to travel with a trailer to pick me and Bigby up. I was hoping to keep a steady speed all the way, but as luck would have it, the major highway passing through Ottawa was closed! It was stop and go traffic for miles as we were rerouted through downtown Ottawa, adding hours onto my trip. What a day!

Once back on the highway, it was smooth-riding. As I approached the border into Quebec, I could see lightening flashes in the distance ahead. Riding into a thunderstorm seemed the perfect climax to a stressful day, but thankfully it opened up just as I pulled into my driveway. My guardian angel had gotten me home again—and not a moment too soon.

Riding an old bike has its disadvantages, for sure, but I have to admit that the problems of the day were more my fault than the bike’s. I depleted the battery by using it to charge my phone, and I forgot to clean the airbox after the bike had been on its side. In the end, I was super lucky that Bigby conked out where he did, in Mattawa, with a mechanic on duty and John for support and advice, not on the 533 where there isn’t even cell service.

Each time I tour, I learn a little more about the bike and about riding. I’m building my knowledge in lower-risk places close to help. And each year I venture a little further off the asphalt. I’m already planning next year’s tour that will take me deeper into the bush and into more challenging terrain. Who knows where I might end up? I don’t know where I’m headed but I almost always enjoy the ride.