The End of Summer

It’s Labour Day weekend, the unofficial end of summer here in Canada. I haven’t heard any geese migrating south yet, but it won’t be long before I do. Patches of yellow leaves have started to appear, and the temperature rarely climbs above the low-twenties. I’ve zipped the quilted liner into my riding jacket.

For me, fall is usually a bit melancholy, but this year it is especially so since my major summer riding plans remained unfulfilled. In my post 20-20 last May, filled with optimism and promise, I outlined my three major plans: to ride the Hamster Trail in New Hampshire, to ride across Canada and back through The United States, and to improve my off-road skills.

As I write this, the Canada-US border is still closed, so the Hamster Trail didn’t happen. There was no club riding in The States, no DirtDaze Rally in August (at least for Canadians), and there will be no Cromag Campout in September. I miss the beautiful dirt roads of Vermont, the state parks, and the good company of our American friends.

By early July, I knew the cross-country tour wasn’t going to happen either. It’s not that it would have been impossible—at least the Canadian leg—but it would have been tainted by the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. My wife and I did some travelling north of Lake Superior in early July and found Tim Horton’s drive through open, but not much else in the way of food on the road. (Not that I have anything against Tim’s! Their employees are heroes, as far as I’m concerned.) The country was still opening up and some things were open, others not, and I had plans to do research toward some travel writing. All things considered, I decided to postpone that dream another year. I’ve had it since I was a teen, so what’s another year, right?

As for the off-road skills, well, there’s still some time for that. Covid can’t stop me taking my bike outside of Montreal and hitting the trails. I did a ride with The Awesome Players in June, but broke my new shock in the process (doh!) and it took a couple of redesigns by Stadium Suspensions to get that fixed. Then my preload adjuster broke, but thanks to my buddy Phil in Ottawa (aka backonthesaddle), that was fixed. Finally the bike is riding well! It’s sitting higher than I ever remember it, even with the preload at base level, and tracking well over bumps and potholes. In fact, it feels better than ever.

My wife says, “Don’t do anything to it. Just ride it!” and I get her point. So I’ve been doing that, going easy on it with some street riding. I’ve been doing day rides with my street club, The West Island Motorcycle Club, including the Telus Ride for Dad, which raises funds for prostate cancer research. This weekend, riding buddy Ray and I scouted a light ADV club ride in the Eastern Townships, ending up at the summit of Mont Orford.

The summer hasn’t been a complete blow out. I’ve kept busy by doing quite a bit of home reno, including painting the exterior of the house and doing odd jobs not done in previous years because I was too busy riding.

If I’ve been quiet on the blog here it’s because there hasn’t been a whole lot to write about except frustration in trying to get the bike fixed and toward Covid. It’s hard, though, to sound off when my wife and I are safe and have stable income.

I’m tempted to take off for a little solo trip somewhere now that I can. I like to get at least one solo trip in each summer. It’s getting cold for camping, but last year I was brave and did a weekend at the end of September in Algonquin Park. We’ll see. For now, I’ve got a set of Kenda Big Blocks sitting in the shed ready to go on as soon as my wheel weights arrive, and I’ve just ordered a new chain and sprockets. My current set has an unbelievable 35,500 kilometres on it and looks like it could do more, so I’m sticking with the same set-up: a gold DID VX2 chain (which is now upgraded to VX3) and JT Sprockets front and back in 15/47 ratio, which provides more torque and higher revs in the low gears than the stock gearing.

Here in Montreal, we are on the road until December, unless we get early snow like last year. The fall presents some of the most pleasant, beautiful riding as the temperatures drop and the trees turn colour. I’ve never had 60/40 knobbies on this bike front and back, so it will be interesting to hit the trails with the new shock and tires and see how the bike handles. Let’s hope I don’t break anything! While the summer was a bit of a bust, the fall still contains some promise.

Off-Roading with The Awesome Players

Awesome

There hasn’t been a lot to write about this summer. Covid-19 has gutted two of my major plans: to ride across Canada, and to do the Hamster Trail in New Hampshire. The most exciting thing of the season so far has been a ride with The Awesome Players.

I started watching their YouTube videos years ago. I have to admit I didn’t get it at first. Why are these guys taking their huge bikes where they’re clearly not meant to go and bashing the hell out of them? Why are they riding beyond their skill set? Then I started doing it myself. It starts with riding dirt roads and easy trails, but soon enough you arrive at a section or a hill climb that is clearly beyond your or your bike’s abilities. Do you turn around? Hell no! The challenge is too alluring and the next thing you know you’re bashing the hell out of your bike too.

I started emailing with Riley, one of The Players, a few years ago. He graciously sent me the location of their famous sandpit. Okay, it’s not “their” pit, but I would understand if he preferred to keep it a secret. These off-road spaces are becoming increasingly rare, and the more activity there is around a site, the more chance the company who owns it will close it off. So I appreciated the tip. He added, “Let me know if you’re going out there sometime and maybe I’ll tag along.” Well it has taken a few years for me to act on that invitation, but we finally rode together a few weeks ago, only it was me tagging along.

I met Riley, Marc, and Frédéric at the A & W in Hawkesbury, where most of their videos begin. We decided to head up Scotch Road and I was doing fine until we got to the water crossing. It was here that I discovered that there is very little traction left in my rear Shinko 805. I got halfway across, hit a rock, lost all momentum, and couldn’t get started again, even after hopping off the bike. With a little help from Marc, I got across and up the far bank. That was only an indication of worse to come!

These guys have been riding that area a lot longer than me and I found myself on trails I would never attempt on my own. I was up for the challenge, but was dropping my bike a lot! Fortunately, it was all captured on camera so I will eat my humble pie when that video comes out. What I was quickly discovering was that my bike really isn’t cut out for this kind of riding. In my street club, I have the little bike, but here Bigby was the heaviest at 400 lbs. (The others were on CRF 250 Rallies and a Husky 701, both about 100 lbs lighter.) The clearance on my bike is crappy at about 6 inches, partly because of the BMW engine cage that loses me an inch. But mostly it was that rear tire and my skills that were letting me down, literally. I don’t know how many times I dropped the bike.

But it wasn’t all bad. As the day progressed, we rode some easier trails and I wasn’t struggling as much. I also did a couple of pretty good rocky hill climbs to get to those trails and was proud of that. Riley gave me a little coaching on clutch control that helped. The day ended as it began, with us blasting down Scotch Road, only this time something weird was happening with the handling of the bike. When we arrived back in Hawkesbury, I saw oil under my bike and discovered that my new shock had sprung a leak. To make matters worse, my mudguard was also flopping around because it had cracked during the day.

I limped home and am in the process of repairing the bike. Stadium Suspensions have redesigned the shock, and I’ve glued the mudguard using the superglue bicarb method. I’ll be back on the road soon, and I probably mean literally the road. I’ve come to the conclusion that this old bike just isn’t cut out for hard off-roading. It’s an excellent adventure bike with light off-road capability. I love it for all the same reasons I bought it in the first place; it is a reliable bike that can take me (almost) anywhere, yet small enough to lift on my own should I drop it out in the middle of nowhere. I love how it is balanced and how it handles. It’s an excellent small adventure bike.

But if I’m serious about doing off-roading, I’m going to have to get a smaller bike and save Bigby for what he’s designed for. I guess this is the normal trajectory of an Awesome Player, since most started on big bikes and have gravitated toward smaller ones over the years. Learning skills on a small bike is easier and safer, with less damage to bike or body when things go wrong. Hopefully I’ll soon be back out with The Awesome Players but with a bike more suited for the terrain.

Suspension Upgrade

Life Cycle

If wheels are your legs, then suspension is your joints. Anyone with bad knees or hips will tell you how important healthy joint function is. If you want to make the single-most significant upgrade to your bike, consider looking at the suspension. An upgrade is not cheap, but it’s often well worth the investment.

In my review of the f650GS, I reserved glowing praise for its suspension. It’s good for street riding, but not for much more, and not even for Montreal streets. Since I’ve been doing adventure riding that takes me off-road, I’ve noticed its limitations. I’d often bottom out and bash the skidplate or engine guard, the kickstand, the centre-stand. The underside of the bike was taking a beating. I also found the front to brake-dive on the street and jumping rather than riding over large rocks on the trail. Knowing new suspension is much cheaper than a new bike, I recently decided to upgrade the front and rear suspension.

Front Suspension

Iniminators

Ricor Intiminator Valves

The front suspension on this bike is traditional (i.e. non-inverted) damper rod forks. There’s no adjustment other than changing the weight of the oil, and I’d tried thinner and heavier oils and was underwhelmed with both. Still, if you’re looking for a cheap mod, try a heavier oil. (Stock is 10W.) I guess you could also try playing around with preload by creating new spacers, but preload wasn’t the issue with the front end for me. (I’m only 145 lbs./65 kg.)

The other option is to change the springs to either a heavier spring or a progressive spring. Someone I know who installed progressive springs was also underwhelmed with the results and is now looking into other options. I think progressive springs are a bit like handlebar risers: modifications made popular by word-of-mouth and DIY ease than by the results. (After listening to GS instructors and Chris Birch, I decided to take my risers off.)

From what I’d read, the only way to improve the front significantly on this bike is to change to a valve system using either Race Tech Emulators or Ricor Intiminators. These valves essentially replace the damping rods, converting the suspension to something akin to cartridges. I say akin, because unlike cartridges, there isn’t any compression adjustment at the triple-T. Still, I was hoping to alleviate some of the brake dive and firm up the front end over potholes and rocks.

I decided to go with the Ricor Intiminators, mainly for the ease of installation. From what I’ve read, the technology is very similar. Ricor were unfortunately undergoing some restructuring and I had to wait months for my order to arrive, but it finally did last fall. (The company now has a new owner and is shipping again.) Installation was as easy as draining the oil, opening the forks, pulling out the springs, dropping the valves in, and replacing everything. Ricor suggest 5W oil, and strongly suggest Amsoil 5W oil. Little did I know that not all 5W oils have the same viscosity. Unfortunately, Amsoil is not easy to obtain in Canada, so I went with Bel-Ray.

Intiminator Instructions

At first, I was again underwhelmed. Ricor claims that the Intiminators can determine the difference between chassis movement (i.e. brake dive) and wheel movement (i.e. bumps and holes in the road). I imagine the former is much slower than the latter, so it seems possible from an engineering standpoint, but I still had some dive. To be fair, it might have had something to do with my braking. I basically went out on the street and hit the front brake a few times. Proper braking involves shifting your weight backwards and coordinating with the rear brake to get the bike to squat. I’ve since come to notice a difference in braking and an improvement in, if not the elimination of, brake dive.

But that is not the main reason for the upgrade. Once I got the bike up onto dirt roads, I noticed a huge difference in its handling. For once, I was taking corners in the dirt at speed, weighting the outside peg with the front end feeling planted. It’s almost like the valves work better at speed. I wonder also if the oil gets thinner as it heats, which is why Ricor suggests the thinner Amsoil. I decided from this one ride that it was time to buy a neck brace since I was now not poking along on dirt in 2nd gear.

Rear Suspension

OEMRearShock

OEM rear shock

My stock rear shock had over 92K on it and had never been serviced! You can’t service the OEM shock on this bike easily. That’s because there isn’t a valve to re-pressurize it. I found someone who could tap a valve, but that plus regular service would be $450. I also needed a stiffer spring since, with all my gear, I’m under recommended SAG by about 2 centimetres, even with the preload fully wound. A new spring is $230. All totalled, I was up close to the price of a new shock, and one that is much better.

740HR1

Stadium Suspensions HR1

I decided to go with Stadium Suspensions, a local manufacturer in Quebec that specializes in off-road suspensions. Going with a service instead of mail-order from one of the big manufacturers meant I could get the shock custom built. Thierry at Stadium was super helpful. He asked for me to weigh my gear, which I found was 70 lbs.! I guess that’s a lot compared to the minimalists, but that included one pannier full mostly of food and another with cooking gear, since that’s how I tour. A third large wet-dry duffle on the back and all my riding gear meant a lot of preload. One nice feature of Stadium is that they were able to incorporate my OEM preload adjuster into the new shock, which is a nice touch. No messing around under the bike with a wrench!

I went with their mid-level shock, the 740HR1. The big advantage of the HR1 over their base model (and my OEM) is the remote reservoir for the nitrogen gas. In a conventional shock with oil and nitrogen in the same compartment, when the shock is working hard all day, such as with off-roading, the oil can heat up to the point where it starts to mix with the gas and froths, creating compression fade. And because my bike shares the same frame with the Dakar version, which has a remote reservoir, there was already a cradle on my frame for easy installation.

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Reservoir with compression adjustment knob and, just above, the OEM preload adjuster knob.

Yes, I have to loosen those ring clamps to change my oil filter, but that’s the price I will pay every 7,000 kilometres. It’s actually a pretty neat set-up. Tierry at Stadium had owned a 650GS so already had the designs for this shock on file.

Dialling In

I had three adjustments with this shock: preload, rebound, and compression.

Preload: There are a ton of videos online on how to set rider sag. Basically, you want to unweight the rear (using a centre-stand or pulling the bike onto its sidestand) and measure from the axle up to a fixed point. Then sit on the bike with your feet on the pegs (you might need to balance against a wall or, as I did, a fence) and measure again. Don’t forget to wear all your gear. The difference between your first and second measurement should be about 1/3 of the stroke. My bike has a 165mm stroke, so I was aiming for about 55mm. Stadium had chosen the perfect spring rate and it was exactly on the mark. Nice!

I generally leave the preload at Base unless my wife decides to come for a ride. I haven’t toured with the new shock, but I’ll be setting SAG again with all gear loaded before I head off.

Rebound & Compression: The way Stadium explain it, rebound is how easy or hard it is for the shock to extend; compression is how easy or hard it is for the shock to—duh!—compress. To my surprise, when I started playing around with these settings, I found rebound more significant.

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Rebound damping adjustment on Stadium’s shocks. CW=faster; CCW=slower

Crank up the compression setting on the remote reservoir and you feel the bumps, for sure, but crank up the rebound to its hardest setting and you feel like you have no suspension. Perhaps that’s why Stadium suggests starting with the softest setting and adjusting upwards to preference. I found that at the easiest setting, the bike was bouncy. For Montreal roads and off-roading (pretty much one and the same), I’ve landed somewhere in the mid-range.

For compression, that’s a little easier. I keep it in the mid-range except for when I go off-roading. Then I make it harder (to compress), which saves some damage to my stands and engine guard and prevents the shock from bottoming.

I still had some adjustment to do on the front too. I found the shocks still a bit stiff for rocky terrain, so I mail-ordered some Amsoil 5W oil, and based on this advice from suspension guru Dave Moss, I measured using height rather than volume. I also put a little less oil in to, as he says, ease up the middle part of the stroke to adjust for my weight. Recommended height is 120mm and I went with 130. I’ve only done one day of off-roading with this set-up but the front end is getting better and better. I might try even less oil next oil change.

The season is young and there is plenty of off-roading still to come. In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll be tweaking the suspension more, including tire pressure, which is another important setting. Do I adjust every time I go off-road or, as Jimmy Lewis does, just keep it at 28 psi for road and dirt? Of course, no expense or type of suspension can make up for crappy skills, so I’ll be tweaking them too. At least now I have a bike that I feel confident to do some serious dirt riding on.

Have you ever played around with your suspension settings? Do you know what your recommended rider SAG is? If not, the RaceTech database has the info you need. Just use the Product Search feature; you’ll be surprised at how much comes up! Before you upgrade, just make sure you are getting the most out of your current system. Devoting a little time to this will result in many hours of more enjoyable and safer riding.

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photo credit: Ray Bourgeois

20-20

 

Kevin_cropHindsight may be 20-20 but nobody can predict the future. This Covid-19 has thrown us all for a loop, and we still don’t know how the story will end. It’s hard to make plans for the summer when everything is so up in the air, but I am a Gen-Xer. We grew up with the threat of nuclear war hanging over our heads and still managed to make it to school each day, even hold a few tentative plans for the near future. A little pandemic isn’t going to stop me planning the riding season set to begin.

mushroom

Obviously, much of this is pending how the pandemic plays out, so I’ve made some educated guesses. The regions are starting to open now and the stores and schools will be in a few weeks. It looks like we will be starting to loosen social distancing restrictions in the near future, although I think everyone is going to be wary of close proximity in confined spaces for some time to come.

For that reason, I think most of my riding this summer will be either solo or with a few riding buddies, cognizant of minimizing contact and risk. I’m okay with that. Riding is already a pretty solitary activity even when shared. I love solo touring, but as I said in my last post, I love club riding too. Here are my tentative plans for this summer amid this weird year so far.

Touring

The first little tour I’m going to do is down into Vermont and New Hampshire for a few nights once the border re-opens. Last year I rode the Puppy Dog Route on my own in June and it was just the thing to recenter after being stretched out of shape by 100 students, each wanting a piece of me. This year I will try the Hamster Ride, which is the same sort of thing as Puppy Dog but in New Hampshire instead of Vermont. It’s a series of dirt roads traversing a good part of the state up to the Canadian Border. I love dirt roads, state parks, the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, and the secondary highways of the northeastern states. I think Bigby and I will attempt Mount Washington while passing nearby, but I won’t be putting any “This bike climbed Mount Washington” sticker on my pannier. That’s boasting. Besides, it makes you question the reliability of any vehicle that feels the need to advertise the accomplishment.

MtWashington

Photo Credit: Ted Dillard

I don’t have any other small tours planned, but Marilyn and I will be doing some day trips together. To beat cabin fever, we’ve done a few rides along the river these past few weeks. We go in the late afternoon and it’s a slow, easy ride west as the sun sparkles off the water. Marilyn says she thinks she’s caught the motorcycle bug. The other day while doing some routine maintenance on the bike, I noticed my rear brake pads were finished, so I’m waiting on new pads to arrive in the mail. Now she’s asking, “When are those pads arriving because I want to go for another ride?” Finally, she might be getting the appeal, and as long as we don’t get caught in a rainstorm, I think I’ll be able to cultivate that interest into a simmering passion. We will pack day lunches and head off on our own small adventures.

But The Big One, the tour I’m most looking forward to, is the cross-country one I’ve wanted to do since I was 19. I thought it might be this summer, but then our dog got sick, so it was put on hold; then sadly our dog died, so the possibility was back on; but then Covid hit, so now I’m not sure. But all going well, I’ll be heading across Canada sometime in July. I’ll head up toward Ottawa on Highway 417 which turns into the 17 after Ottawa, then I’ll just keep going, westward, through Chalk River, Mattawa, North Bay, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and just keep going, as far as Bigby will take me. I’ve never driven across the country, so this is going to be a real discovery for me of the country I grew up in and call home.

Priest Carving copy

Mattawa, ON., Gateway to the West

The plan is to meet Marilyn somewhere out west (she will fly) and we’ll visit her sister-in-law in Washington State. I may be tempted to ride a portion of Highway 101, the Pacific Coast Highway, while I’m close, and that’s why I want to do this in July, although the heat will be worst then; I want to have the flexibility that no fixed deadline provides, and I have to be back to work in August. Then I’m going to come back through The United States, checking out their national parks. I’ve never seen the midwest, or The Grand Canyon, or Yosemite, or much of The States to be honest. So I’ll be discovering that country too, camping all along the way.

I’m considering doing some of this on dirt, either some BDR sections (Backcountry Discovery Routes) or a part of the TAT (Trans America Trail). There’s a lot to plan, but now that my work is done, I have the time to start.

Club Riding

I won’t be going on any tours with the club like I did last year, but I’ll do some day rides in the Montreal area. These are easy rides of 350 km/day or so into the surrounding regions with a few forays across the border. See my last post on the benefits of club riding. This year will be muted by social distancing, but motorcyclists are used to managing risk.

I’ve decided to lead a couple of dirt rides for the club. We are primarily an asphalt club but there are now a few members with ADV or ADV-styled bikes and even some cruisers who aren’t afraid of dirt. Often on club rides, I’d see an interesting dirt road leading off into the woods and I’d be dying to go exploring. I’m betting there are a few others who feel the same. Ideally, I’d like to offer these as an optional portion of a larger club ride, with a plan to meet the group for lunch. I’m going to call these 50/50 rides (50% road, 50% dirt). With my new Cardo PacTalk comm unit, club riding will be a whole new experience for me this year.

Group_ride_1web

Off-Roading

I cannot tell a lie. What I am most looking forward to this season is developing my off-road skills. It’s been a few years now since I took some beginner courses to get me started and I’m ready to take my skills to the next level. I’ve purchased Chris Birch’s Say No to Slow set of instructional videos on Vimeo and have been watching them while I wait for the brake pads to arrive. I can’t wait to get out there and try some of what Chris is saying.

Why pay for something that is free on YouTube, you ask? In a previous post, I listed some of my favourite online teaching channels, and I still think those are excellent resources. But Chris goes into a lot more detail than most of those, and more importantly, he covers the boring fundamentals that those channels can’t afford or choose not to cover, and that’s what I need. Yeah, everybody wants to learn how to wheelie and drift (but not at the same time!), but I’m more interested in things like bike set-up, foot placement, body positioning, and cornering in the dirt, which are covered in the video series. I was surprised that the entire set of 12 videos is under $50 Canadian. I don’t have any affiliation with the production team. I just know good pedagogy when I see it and what I need now most is guided self-practice.

There is a sandpit just over the border in Ontario I practice at, and a network of trails and Class 4 roads not much further starting in Hawkesbury. My bike has a new rear shock—one capable of some serious dirt—and Ricor Intiminator valves in the front forks,  so the suspension has just been upgraded to dirt-worthy. It’s got good crash protection, as do I with my new Leatt STX neck brace. We’re ready.

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The STX is for street and adventure riding. The wider scapula wings do not conflict with your back protector and you do not need integrated body armour.

Are you ready? It’s been a crappy spring for weather but the double-digits are just around the corner. Is your bike ready? I’ll be writing an article for my new paying gig, Riders Plus, on how to get started maintaining your bike. So get your tools out and let’s change the coolant, the brake fluid, the oil, check your tire pressures, and get ready for a new season. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Riding makes everything a whole lot better, especially when shared in the company of friends. If you want to escape the bad news for a day or more, there’s nothing quite like a fast motorcycle to help you do it.

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Bigby, ready for the 2020 season.

The Puppy Dog Trail, 2.0

Rest Stop

The first time I did The Puppy Dog Route, I enjoyed it so much my recurring thought was that I should be sharing it with someone. “I should lead a ride down through here,” I kept thinking. “I should show others how amazing this is!” And so, when plans to tour northern Ontario with a couple of riding buddies fell through, I suggested we change the route to the beautiful dirt roads of Vermont.

Originally, the plan was to do a section of The Puppy Dog in Vermont and a section of The Hamster Ride in New Hampshire, working our way back toward the Canadian border. We also had plans to ride Bayley-Hazen, a military road that dates back to the American War of Independence. But we soon realized that our plans were a tad ambitious. Riding dirt all day in the heat of high summer is hard, so in the end we ended up doing sections of Puppy Dog with some asphalt mixed in to cool off and save time.

My riding buddies were Danny and Mike, whom I met at the 2018 Dirt Daze Rally in Lake Luzerne, NY. In truth, I only met Danny, who unfortunately had suffered an injury early in the weekend, as had my bike, so we were laid up together, so to speak. He and Mike had come down from Montreal, and while I never actually met Mike at the rally, the contact was made, and we ended up riding together later in the season.

I was happy to meet some off-roaders from the Montreal area. You shouldn’t really be riding off-road alone, partly because doing so is dangerous, but more importantly, because it’s a lot easier to lift your bike with the help of a buddy. Those who have been following my blog know about the trouble I’ve gotten myself into riding alone in remote areas. Mike works in the construction industry, so at the end of last July, during the constructor’s holiday, as it’s known here in Quebec, the three of us headed off for three nights of moto-camping in Vermont—Mike on his Honda Africa Twin, Danny on his new Triumph Scrambler 1200XE, and me, with half the power, on my BMW f650GS.

I had downloaded the GPS file for Bayley-Hazen into my phone and we picked it up soon after crossing the Canada-US border. We rode it for several kilometres and it was pretty amazing, but soon my GPS got confused and took us out to a highway. “This doesn’t look like an 18th-Century road,” I thought, so I pulled off to consult with the boys. My phone showed the snaking route for what we had just done, then suddenly a line straight as the crow flies to the destination. It was my first time using a GPS track downloaded from the internet, and I concluded that tracks only work in one direction. They are a series of turn-by-turn directions that take you from Point A to Point B but not Point B to Point A. And since the track I got was south to north, it didn’t work. If anyone knows a link to the north-south route of Bayley-Hazen, please drop me a line either in the comments section below or via the Contact page.

It was swelteringly hot—so hot that you really can’t stop moving—so a quick decision was made to abandon Bayley-Hazen and jump onto the Puppy Dog, which wasn’t far away. Soon we were back in the shade of those Vermont dirt roads. Now that we knew where we were going, we stopped for a break and to water the old growth trees lining the road. Danny noticed a vine as thick as a rope hanging from one of them. A little pruning off the end with a hatchet and we had a swing.

Vine Swing

Boys will be boys.

I don’t have the premium version of WordPress that supports embedded videos, so go here to see how this turned out.

The ride is hard-parked dirt with a variety of forested rural roads, open valleys, switchbacks through dense forest, covered bridges, with some river and lake views as well. If that sounds pretty ideal, it is. You don’t really need an adventure bike to do this ride, but it helps. It’s nice to be able to stand up for some of the hill climbs, and there are some more technical sections that require the clearance of an ADV bike. But generally the ride is easy and undemanding. Danny and I rode it with 85/15 tires.

3 Bridges

The PDR takes you through four covered bridges, including this one in Guilford.

We love Vermont’s state parks almost as much as its dirt roads. They are well maintained, and the sites have lots of privacy, as you can see from the photo below. They are also not expensive compared to what I’ve paid in Ontario. Despite all this, we didn’t have much trouble finding a site even without a reservation on the weekend. Either they are the best kept secret or Vermont has more campgrounds per capita than Ontario and Quebec. The second night we made it down to Fort Drummer State Park near the southern border of Vermont and near the end of the route. For our third night, we stayed at Silver Lake State Park, which is about halfway up the state in Barnard. As a bonus, it is located on . . . you guessed it, Silver Lake, and it’s nice to go for a swim after a hot day of riding.

Mt Ascutney

Mount Ascutney State Park

Mike had said at outset that he likes general country stores, as do I, so as we passed one while riding Highway 100 in Weston, we pulled in. Little did we know what we were getting into. Walking into The Vermont Country Store is like walking into another century. This family-run business prides itself on stocking items dating back to when it first opened in 1946. Where else is checkers the game of the week and there’s a section labelled Apothecary? But the real fun is in the toy department. I saw games there that I did not think were still available, like Etch-a-Sketch, Kerplunk, Lite-Brite, and Operation. There were paddle-balls, which I had to try, and fail at, miserably, and Slinkys, and other hand toys too. The entire store is like a department store from the mid-20th-Century with clothing, candy, soaps, and “sundry items,” to borrow a phrase from that era. It was a blast from the past. I walked out with a “nightshirt,” a term I’ve only ever heard my dad say and Alistair Sim wear as Scrooge.

Apothecary

Apothecary section of The Vermont Country Store. Photo credit: Getty Images

Another fun rest stop was in Chelsea, just north of Silver Lake on the PDR. Okay, it doesn’t have The Vermont Country Store but it does have Will’s General Store, where you can pet the cat sleeping on top the fridge, rent a movie on something called a DVD, buy marbles and firecrackers, and then set off said firecrackers outside until the locals start peering through their front windows at you.

Wills Store

Will’s General Store in Chelsea, Vermont.

While we were disturbing the peace, another group of ADV riders came along. When they saw us they decided to take a break and introduce themselves. It turned out that they are Canadian too, from the Ottawa area, and were doing the PDR the other direction with the plan to complete it by the end of the day. And we thought we were being ambitious!

Chelsea Bikes

Lots of mighty KLRs in this group, and fellow blogger ADV Joe.

One of them flooded his KLR upon restarting, and while the motorcyclist’s code of honour is never to leave a motorcyclist stranded, we had to get going up toward the border; it was our last day and we wanted to get home before dark. He wasn’t alone, however, and Danny, who had a KLR for years, was confident that it would be running in no time. Those things are unbreakable. We decided, in the interests of time, to leave the PDR soon afterwards and ride up through Smuggler’s Notch, which is always nice and had been closed through the early season for maintenance.

Riding solo has its advantages, but so does group riding. The tricky part of group riding is finding the right fellow riders. You have to be compatible not only in riding but also in personality, which is not easy. Mike and Danny have been riding together for a while, so I was a little apprehensive going into this since I was the new kid on the block. There’s also that saying about two being company and three a crowd. Of course I can only speak for myself, but I think we are a good fit. I hope this is the first of many trips together.

GreenMtn View

View of the Green Mountains from the PDR south of Chelsea.

The PDR is luxury adventure touring. The riding provides a taste of dirt but is relatively easy. You are never far from amenities or asphalt, and can pop out anytime to refuel the bike or the body, or to cool off by riding Vermont’s equally enjoyable secondary highways and backroads. The campgrounds are great, and Americans are always friendly and helpful. The only thing it’s lacking is some more sustained technical terrain, and by the end of the weekend we were hankering for a rocky hill climb or water crossing. Perhaps next summer we will do that planned trip to northern Ontario or a section of The Trans-Canada Adventure Trail. With the mid-winter holiday over, it’s almost time to start planning for next season.

Silver Lake Camp

L to R at Silver Lake State Park: Mike and Danny.

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.

 

Bears, Mines, Batteries: Cochrane, Sudbury, Mattawa

Native Carving_web

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.

smoothy-s-restaurant

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.

The Lumberjack Trail

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Voyageur Days. Mattawa, ON

What’s your ideal ride? For some, it’s a winding road like Tail of the Dragon; for others, it’s a single-track or ATV trail cutting through dense forest. Mine is some combination of both—a winding dirt road with some technical sections that challenge, like hill-climbs, mud, even the occasional water crossing. That’s what I was looking for when I decided to do some off-roading in Northern Ontario this summer.

I enjoyed looping Georgian Bay with my wife, and I enjoyed the rest stop in Kipawa, Quebec, at a cottage. I enjoyed the ride up to Moonbeam, albeit in the rain. But what I had really been looking forward to is a full day in the dirt, and this was the day I could finally do it.

The violent rainstorm of the night before had subsided by the time I crawled out of my tent. After my breakfast of champions, porridge, I geared up and headed to the park gate. I figured the attendant would be familiar with the area and able to direct me to the trailhead of The Lumberjack Trail, a 26 km. loop from Moonbeam to Kapuskasing I’d found online at an interactive trip planner.

Lumberjack Trail

Lumberjack Kapuskasing-Moonbeam Loop

I rode down to the gate, pulled a U-turn and parked. When I entered the kiosk, the young lady was staring into her phone. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “Good morning. Do you know where I could pick up The Lumberjack Trail?”

Teenaged attendant: (looks up from phone) “The what?”

Me: “The Lumberjack Trail. It’s an off-road trail that goes from here to Kapuskasing. I saw it online.”

Teenaged attendant: (goes back to phone) “Ok Google, what’s The Lumberjack Trail?”

Me: “You don’t know it?”

Attendant: “There’s a lot of trails around here. Basically it’s the only thing to do. Me and my friends go on them on the weekends.”

Me: “Oh, so you ride off-road too?”

Attendant: “No we go in cars. Anything.”

Me: “Well, it’s supposed to go right past here.”

Attendant: “There’s a really pretty one. It’s a . . . a pépinière. Oh, how do you call it in English? Ok Google . . .”

Me: “A nursery.”

Attendant: “Yes. There are a lot of pine trees. But I don’t know how to find it. Try the Tourist Information.”

So off I rode, back to the flying saucer, pondering whether I should ask for directions to the Lumberjack Trail, the Pépinière Trail, the Nursery Trail, or a pine grove?

Once there, I was quickly directed to the trailhead. It turns out that you follow Nursery Road and it takes you straight there.

Nursury Trailhead

This looked promising

A short ways in, the trail became sandy and I found the pine trees.

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The Nursery Trail

It was open and easy, but with sand and some small hills to make it a Goldilocks level of difficulty. Unfortunately, it ended too soon. I arrived at a T-junction to a gravel road. Knowing that left leads back to the main road, I turned right and found myself on an open, flat, fairly straight dirt road. Silt Road

The surroundings were pretty enough, but the riding was not very challenging. I was a bit disappointed. It was too easy. It’s actually hard to find a trail with just the right amount of challenge for your particular skill level, and where the Nursery Trail had at least some sand, this road was dry and hard-packed. I was bombing along in third gear, not even standing, thinking “This is too easy” when I hit a section still wet from the rainstorm the previous night. Everything suddenly went sideways—literally. A truck or larger vehicle of some kind had come through before me and left tire grooves. I started to lose the back end, went sideways, got cross-rutted, whiskey throttled towards the trees, and went down high-side, hard. It was my hardest fall yet.

My first thought as I lay on the ground was, “Well, the gear worked.” I had invested earlier in the season in some excellent protection specifically for off-roading. My Knox Venture Shirt, Forcefield Limb Tubes, and Klim D30 hip pads all did their job. I got up without even a bruise. My second thought was for the bike. If there was something broken, it was going to be difficult to get it out. I noticed that the folding levers I had also invested in had done their job. The clutch lever was folded up, saving the lever from breaking off. I lifted the bike and took a look. Nothing was broken or cracked; the crash bars had done their job too. There were some new scratches on the windscreen and front cowling near the headlamp, but nothing more. Oh well, new honour badges, I thought.

My concern now was getting the bike back on the road. I was lucky: if I’d gone a few feet further I might have lost it into a ditch and then would have needed a winch to get it out.

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Once I lifted the bike, I realized it was going to be difficult to get it back onto the road.

The front end was partially into the ditch and it would take some rocking and cursing to get it back a few feet to where I could carefully walk it back onto the road, making sure the front tire didn’t slide down.

I looked back at my skid marks and played amateur accident inspector.

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You can see where it all went wrong.

I tried to ride on but the silty dirt, when wet, is like glue and gums up the tires instantly. It was like riding on ball bearings, or rather, trying to ride on ball bearings.

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Slow-going in the wet silt

The ride now certainly wasn’t too easy. I basically had to do the Harley waddle, foot by foot, hoping it would get drier. I tried riding along the edge of the road in the long grass, thinking the grass would provide some grip, but the problem then was that I couldn’t see what I was riding over or where the ditch was. I dropped the bike a second time and began to wonder how I was going to get out of there. Would it be like this all the way to Kapuskasing?!

Then I had an idea: I knew that in sand you put your weight to the back to unweight the front tire. This helps prevent the front from washing out, which is when you go down. Maybe the same technique applied to all low-traction terrain, including mud. I tried and it worked! The front tire didn’t wash out as easily, even, to my surprise, climbed up out of some small ruts when needed. I had stumbled upon a new off-road skill.

When the road dried out, I was able to sit down, but kept my butt well back, over the rear tire. It all suddenly made sense why those Dakar riders always sit so far back. Now I was able to go at a better pace. The rest of the road wasn’t as wet as that section and, although open and straight, turned out to be just challenging enough. I stopped a few times when I saw some interesting paw prints.

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Bear prints. I also saw wolf and hare tracks.

When I felt I was past the worst of it, I stopped for lunch and took in the surrounding wetlands.

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Wetlands north of René Brunelle Provincial Park

I popped out in Kapuskasing next to the Shell station on Highway 11. Although there was a sense of incompletion in only doing one half of the loop, I decided that was enough excitement for one day and headed into town to find the LCBO and something to enjoy back at camp. I wanted to explore the town a bit and was glad I did. Kapuskasing has an iconic ring of Canadiana to it.

I had the impression that it was bigger than it is, but there isn’t much in these parts that is big. These one-industry towns in the north are built on mining or forestry and are pretty remote. I rode through the town centre, which is a roundabout, and landed at the train station, the heart of all Canadian towns.

P1030264Surrounding the station were archival photos of the town and area, and I discovered that Kapuskasing had been the site of an internment camp during WWI. Primarily Ukrainian immigrants were shamefully sent there to work in a government-run experimental farm studying the viability of farming on clay. Later in the war it was a POW camp.

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A plaque outside the train station commemorates the Kapuskasing Internment Camp, 1914-1920

I love Canada and am a proud Canadian, but every nation has its dirty little secrets hidden in untaught history classes. Currently in Quebec, some teachers have expressed serious concern that the role of minorities is overlooked in the current history curriculum. I believe that a little less Upper and Lower Canada and the harmonious relationship with Indigenous Peoples, and a little more on the Indian Residential Schools (IRS), the internment camps of law-abiding citizens during both world wars, and the not-so-quiet actions of the FLQ in the 70’s would go a long way toward real truth and reconciliation among its diverse peoples.

I left the station and rode to the City Hall, then parked and walked out to a gazebo overlooking the river and mill. I came across this plaque about the Garden City and Model Town, and it occurred to me how much promise and hope there must have been in Kapuskasing at one time.

Garden City

Maybe Kapuskasing is iconic. It could be symbolic of how the country seemed when Europeans began settling here—pristine, pure, wild—like the blank page awaiting our best intentions. But intentions are just a start. The real work happens after the first draft, when we see all our mistakes and how we can make it so much better.