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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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.

Pepiniere Trail_web

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.

Bear Prints_web

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.

Lumberjack Wetlands_web

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.

Kap plaque_F

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.

Setting Off

Gillespie_photo_bikeIt’s been over a month since my last post and only the third really this season. Yes, I’ve been a bit lazy lately as a writer but only because I’ve been hard-working as a rider. Ideally I like to write about my time on the bike as soon as possible afterwards, but this year a few commitments got in the way. One in fact was some writing for Ontario Tourism’s Ride the North website. I enjoyed that writing, but it’s for a different audience, and I had to do a lot of editing to shape it for that audience. I’ve been looking forward to writing a more extensive treatment of my travels here.

Readers who read my last post on trip planning know that this year I tried something different: my wife and I travelled together—she in the car, and me on the bike. We then separated and I had a short solo trip for another four nights. We decided to circle Georgian Bay counter-clockwise starting at North Bay, spending time on Manitoulin Island, which neither of us had visited before. Now you can take the 401 to Toronto and then head north on the 400 . . . if you are a sucker for pain and like sitting in stop-and-go traffic . . . or you can take the 417 into Ottawa where it turns into the 17 and takes you all the way to North Bay. I’d read about this route in Neil Peart’s book Ghostrider and knew immediately I wanted to do it. So at 10 o’clock—the time my wife and I always seem to depart on road trips, regardless of all other factors—we pulled out of the driveway and headed, of course, to Herb’s Travel Plaza. With a name like that you’d think it was from another century. Certainly the single-engine airplanes in various stages of disrepair and decay at the side of the “plaza” as decoration are. But its quirkiness is part of its charm. Herb’s is the best gas bar the other side of the Ontario border and our designated meeting spot should we get separated in traffic.

After both vehicles were filled we bombed through Ottawa and on to The Little Coffee Shop in Cobden for lunch. Now what do you do when you have packed a lunch but want to buy a coffee and a snack? Do you eat the sandwich in the restaurant with your coffee or eat it before going in, out of respect for the owner? This is always a dilemma for me. Once in Austria, I think it was, I was asked to leave a McDonald’s—a McDONALD’S! of all places, because I pulled out my prepared lunch while my friends ate their Big Macs. That was 30 years ago but the trauma remains today so I usually eat first. There were a few tables outside on the sidewalk and I thought sitting there, as opposed to in the cafe, would be a good compromise. I put my sandwich down and went inside to order, only once inside it was so casual and the owner, who serves behind the counter, so friendly I just asked and before she could answer she said I’d better go rescue my sandwich because a seagull was trying to get through the cellophane. That seemed to settle the matter.

I don’t remember much of the ride into North Bay except that it was hot and long and I was tired and later hungry and that’s probably why I don’t remember much. I was in that auto-pilot “just-get-me-there” mode. Our destination was Restoule Provincial Park, only because it was (suspiciously) the only park not completely booked when we did our planning. When you are camping in the Muskokas, you have to book your campsite six months in advance. Yes, six months! And not just the campground but the specific site! We heard stories during our trip of families strategically getting each family member on a separate computer at the same time, exactly six months prior to the desired date, because that is the earliest you can try, and everyone simultaneously trying to reserve a site. It’s like trying to get concert tickets to Led Zeppelin’s single reunion concert through Ticketmaster. I don’t know if I’m going to be alive six months from now so Restoule it would have to be.

By the time we arrived I had only one thing on my mind: dinner. But as luck would have it, the stove would not light. I’ve had this stove for about three years. I bought it when I bought the bike with moto-camping in mind. And I remember at the time I had a choice between the Optimus Nova+ or the MSR Dragonfly stoves. They are basically the same, or so the salesperson told me, using essentially the same design to burn a variety of liquid fuels (naphtha/white, kerosene, unleaded gas, diesel).

 

And looking at the two, you’d think they are pretty much the same. I bought the Optimus because it looked a little sturdier and packed up slightly smaller. I have to admit it was the wrong choice. Of all the gear I’ve bought for my camping, this stove is the only regrettable choice I’ve made. Aside from a stretch of 12 days during my tour last summer, this stove has acted up in a variety of ways. One repeated way is that the valve gets stuck closed. Then you have to twist the feeder line so much you’re sure it’s going to break until it gives and releases. This time it would not give so it broke instead, which is to say I had to use pliers to open it and stripped the internal brass threads in the process. In the meantime I missed the sunset that my wife was enjoying down at the beach.

Restoule

Sunset on the beach at Restoule Provincial Park

I can’t remember what we had for dinner that night but my wife worked some magic from the food bag. Lying in the tent later, I used the last ounce of energy to search on my phone for an outdoor store in North Bay or Sudbury. It was the first night of a two-week camping trip and I didn’t have a functional stove. The adventure begins.

Day1-Mtl to Restoule

Day One route: Montreal to Restoule Provincial Park

Trip Planning

MapHow much planning do you do before heading off on a tour? Do you have your entire route determined with accommodations booked, or do you leave a little to chance and exploration? Is your trip fixed in asphalt or is it flexible, able to change when the spirit moves you or weather or some other factor meddles with your plans? There is security in knowing where you’re going and that there’s a reserved room waiting for you at the end of a long day of riding, but there’s risk and excitement in leaving some room for chance; sometimes the most memorable moments are gained through the unexpected.

The answers to these questions lie in your aversion to risk. No one likes risk, but it’s the price we have to pay for adventure. When used as an adjective, as in “adventure motorcycling,” adventure is defined as “designating a type of tourism to exotic, esp. wilderness destinations usu. combined with hiking, canoeing, etc.” (OED). And right after that definition is another, more foreboding definition: “a daring enterprise; a hazardous activity.” My wife thinks I’m crazy going where I want to go, which says a lot about her aversion to risk, although she did marry me, which in itself is risky, and she condones my riding. But generally I think I have a higher threshold for risk, so when we decided to travel together to Manitoulin Island this year, our trip planning itself was an adventure.

We solved the problem in a simple but ingenious way: we’ll travel together for part of the trip—she in the car, me on the bike—with a fairly clear route and campsites reserved for each night. Then I’m going to split off and head further north on my own with no reservations made and Lady Fortune riding pillion. I have a general idea of where I’m going (i.e. north) but having no reservations means I’ll be able to follow my nose or recommendations from locals, explore dirt roads, go at a pace determined by conditions (weather, fatigue, terrain, etc.) and, most of all, live in the moment. I live my life on a schedule 51 weeks of the year; I reserve one for me and the moment.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have any planning to do. I have lots. In fact, because my solo adventure involves some risk, I need to be prepared as well as possible to minimize it.

Packing

Because I’ll be heading into some remote areas, I have to carry everything I might need for possible problems. For me, that starts with my tools. Worst case scenario is getting stuck in the bush somewhere and having to hike it out, or worse, not being able to hike it out. So the bike has to be reliable and I have to be able to fix anything that might break on it. This year I’ve been conscientiously putting together a tool roll and some spare parts and other items that might be needed.

Tools

Primary Tool Roll

I use the Kriega tool roll. I like the extra pocket for doo-dads like fuses, Locktite, tube patches and cement, valve stem tool, etc. I also carry a full set of Torx sockets because my bike is a BMW, almost a full metric set of 3/8″ hex, and a few 1/4″ particular to my bike. I’ve been trying to do all repairs on my bike using these tools so I know I’ve got everything I need. If I have to grab something out of my tool chest that isn’t here, I consider adding it to this set. I also have a Stop & Go electric pump so I can drop and add air to my tires when I do some off-roading or for if I get a puncture. It runs off the bike’s electrical system using a SAE connector.

I have a secondary set of tools, spare parts and materials that stay in the tail compartment. I don’t use these as often, but it’s nice to know they’re there should I need them.

Tools2

Secondary Tool Roll

Tire pressure gauge, spark plug remover, small crescent wrench, Torx multi-tool, stubby Phillips for the battery terminals (it’s the only way to get in there to tighten them), wire-cutters, some extra hardware, an extra hose clamp, safety wire, epoxy putty, extra electrical wire, and a pipe cleaner. Pipe cleaners are incredibly useful. I really should have a few of those. Fortunately, I smoke a pipe so I have a few in my pipe bag.

Not shown, but I will take, is a D.I.D chain-breaker tool, some BIG box wrenches for that (unfortunately, it requires 27mm and 19mm box wrenches, which lie in the bottom of my pannier), a small length of extra chain, and a spare spark plug. I’ve changed my headlamp from the OEM halogen to the Cyclops LED which should be good for the life of the bike, otherwise I would carry an extra bulb. I will also take an extra water pump since that’s the vulnerable part on this bike. I’ve written recently about those issues and know that some guys with the 650GS and its cousins just take an extra pump when touring.

First Aid

First aid might be bracing a broken leg or removing a splinter. You have to be ready for everything. I considered picking up one of those pre-made kits you can get at a pharmacy or outdoor store but decided to put together a personalized one using a Dollar Store pencil case.

FirstAid

First Aid Kit

It contains compression elastic, various cotton bandages, alcohol swabs, two types of medical tape, anti-bacterial cream, arnica montana, Band-Aids, some NSAIDs, tweezers, nail snips, antihistamines, and a few items particular to me: Robax, because I have a vulnerable lower back, and some ear drops, because I’m prone to ear infections. I think I get them when I’ve been wearing the ear plug, which irritates the ear canal, and then I go swimming in less than pure water. So I take Buro-sol, which prevents the infections, and Auralgan, which is the only over-the-counter medication I’ve found that can treat an infection once it gets a grip. I also keep in my tank bag a small tube of Aleve, my weapon of choice these days for headaches. If I don’t drink enough water on hot days, I’m prone to getting a headache, so I like to keep these at hand.

Clothing

Think you’re travelling light? Cut your items in half, then cut in half again. You’re probably close to what I can take on a motoadventure. I need one pannier for food and one for cooking and camping items, so that leaves one 30L wet-dry bag for my clothing and personal items. One advantage of travelling with my wife this year is that I’ll be able to take a few extras for the first part of the trip, then leave them with her when we part. For example, I normally do not take hiking boots. I ride in my adventure boots and change into running shoes at camp that double for, well, running, since I try to keep up my fitness even when touring. What could be better than a short run in fresh air surrounded by pristine wilderness?

Because I have to be so efficient with my packing, I LOVE merino wool. It is the Swiss army knife of fabrics, able to keep you warm when cold and breathe and wick when hot. I usually take one merino T-shirt and one or two synthetic athletic shirts for when it’s really hot. If it’s cold at night, I might wear my merino all day and all night. Ew! you say? Merino also has antibacterial properties. Those New Zealand sheep shall inherit the earth, I think.

I take two pairs of riding pants: kevlar jeans and Klim Dakar off-road pants. I also pack one pair of those thin, nylon outdoor pants. They are cool, keep the bugs off at camp, and I can zip off the lower leg portion to convert them to shorts. Versatile is the name of the game. The same goes for my riding jacket. I’ve considered wearing my Klim Traverse off-road jacket because it’s Gore-Tex so doubles as rain gear, but I’ve decided to wear my Joe Rocket touring jacket just because it has that zip-in liner for when it’s cold. Temperatures can fluctuate dramatically on a bike during the day and my jacket is my only climate control. It also has adequate venting for when it gets hot; I’ve ridden in that jacket when it’s been over 30 degrees Celsius and, although it’s got leather on the important areas, there’s enough textile and venting for hot weather. I’ve also recently upgraded the armour to the best CE2 protection on the market. The only downside is that it’s not waterproof, so I’ll also have to take rain gear. Even with the zip-in liner, I’ll also take a polar fleece sweater which doubles as my pillow when folded. The only other specific riding gear I take (besides my helmet—Doh!) are my two pairs of gloves, one for hot weather and a rainproof gauntlet.

Navigation

My trip-planning began during another trip, about a month ago, to Guelph to visit my parents. I was at an En Route, the Ontario government rest stop cartel, and wandered over from the Horny Tim’s/Bugger King side to the Ontario Tourism side. I asked what they had specifically for motorcycle tourism and was given a few documents. One outlined several circuits in the region, making it easy to decide on a basic plan from which to build a more personalized route. There’s a Manitoulin Island Circle Tour, Georgian Bay Coastal Route (both self-explanatory), and the Great Legends Circle Tour, which brings you as far north as Driftwood, just west of Cochrane. I decided to do all three.

We’ll be camping the whole way, and since the Bruce Peninsula is a popular vacation area for the hoards of Torontonians, we decided to reserve a site for each night. When I head north, I’m expecting the demand to be less so I haven’t made reservations for that section of my trip. In fact, I’m going to try wild camping, which I’ve never done before. You basically find a discrete spot off the main road and pitch there for the night. No fire, no potable water, but I have my stove and purification systems. I also have my bear spray.

I’ve been experimenting with a couple of GPS apps, namely Maps.me and Sygic Car Navigation, but seriously, they are so far not as convenient as GoogleMaps. GoogleMaps just works. You look up a campsite in Chrome, click “directions” and GoogleMaps opens up and guides you there. And if you’ve downloaded that area in an offline map beforehand, it doesn’t require data to calculate the route and guide you there. Traffic information uses data, but I’m not anticipating much of that in Near Northern Ontario. I’ll probably use GoogleMaps for most of my navigation with a paper map in my tank bag for literally the big picture.

If I happen to slip out of cell service, I carry an old, cheap, Garmin car GPS inherited from my parents. Yeah, in an ideal world I’d have a Zumo or Montana, but neither the world nor my bank accounts are ideal, so the hammy-down GPS will have to suffice this season. It’s not like I’m navigating The Great Trail or anything. That’s next year.

Final Prep

So we have our accommodations set for the first part of the trip. I’ll GoogleMap the distances and make sure they are viable, research some tourist attractions in the area, although I’m more into wilderness than attractions. Still, I like knowing the history the area and what unusual landforms I might be riding past. You wouldn’t want to cruise through Thunder Bay, for example, without noticing Sleeping Giant or stopping by the Terry Fox Memorial.

Then I hold my breath and check the weather forecast. I can’t do anything about it, but it’s nice to know what the highs and lows will be to ensure I’m packing right. If it’s going to be below 10 at night, I might add a woollen hat.

I’m going to save the topic of my moto-camping gear for another blog so I won’t get in to that now. But I lay all the items out on the floor where I can see them to ensure I don’t forget anything essential. It’s much the same as my canoe-camping gear, and it pretty much stays together in storage, but we’ve all been there: you get out in the bush and go to have your tuna pasta and realize you’ve forgotten the can opener. So I lay it out and I make lists. I’ve made so many lists, jotted on the backs of grading rubrics as I think for when I’m free, that I decided finally to do a digital version for perpetuity.

Finally, I make sure the bike is ready. It’s been running great lately so I’m going to leave it alone now except to check all fluid levels and do an oil change. I’m only a few thousand kilometres into my latest oil but I know from last year’s tour to start with fresh oil and avoid having to do it on the road.

Let’s see how this unfolds. Look for a series of blogs in the coming weeks about our adventures. Oh, one essential item I forgot to mention is a digital recorder, at least if you’re interested in keeping a record of sorts. At the end of the day I’m too tired to write so I spend a few minutes in my sleeping bag recounting the highlights of the day, which can lead to some interesting entries. Last year in one such entry I started narrating the dream I was slipping into. If nothing else, it’s nice to listen to those recordings midwinter and relive the ultimate freedom that moto-camping offers.

 

 

 

 

Marine Drive to Peggy’s Cove

Lighthouse

I left Boylston Provincial Park early and headed south along Highway 16 that hugs the coast and curves west. Given how hot it was the day before, I did not make the same mistake but wore my water and dressed lightly. But this is Nova Scotia, after all, and you never know how to dress. In fact, mist hung along the coast and the air was cool, which on the bike is cold. I was freezing. I stopped in Canso for a coffee and to zip the liner into my jacket and change my gloves. I think I might even have turned the heated hand-grips on.

I doubled back along the 16 then turned left onto the 316 that took me west along the southern coast. The ride was magnificent, with inlets and bays on either side of the road.

 

 

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Sections of Marine Drive carve inland through forested terrain as well, and I was keeping a watch for moose and deer. I took a break at the interpretation centre at Goldboro, where I struck up a conversation with a local who told me the local mine had been bought by a large company and was going to re-open. I can’t remember what kind of mine, but given the name, I guess it was gold. He wasn’t too happy about the prospect of massive trucks rolling past his house at all hours of the day.

Shortly after leaving Goldboro, I turned left onto the 211 and caught a ferry across the inlet. Ferry at Issacsville As I started the bike again when we shored, my gas light came on. I was surprised because I thought I had about another 90 km left in the tank, but then remembered I was off by 50 km. My bike doesn’t have a gas gauge, so I have to keep track of how much gas is left in the tank by using the trip odometer; every time I fill up, I reset it so I know where I’m at. At least, that’s what I always intend to do. For some reason, often I forget this crucial step in the filling process. I don’t know why; it just hasn’t become habit yet. And often there’s a distraction of some sort—the receipt doesn’t print, someone starts asking me questions about the bike, I’m dying to take a piss—and only remember after I’m back on the bike riding. Then I have to reset it while riding, which obviously isn’t ideal.

In this case, it was 50 km into my next segment before I remembered. I made a mental note to add 50 km onto whatever the odometer is reading, then promptly forgot . . . until the gas light came on 50 km “early.” Now I’m in the middle of nowhere running on reserve. I rode for a while but there were no signs that a town was near so I stopped to consult my phone/GPS. Not only was there no gas station, there was no cell service. I was beginning to worry. I had a litre extra on the back of the bike that was good for another 30 km. Then what? I guess start walking.

Just then a guy pulled out of a driveway in his truck. I waved him down and asked where the nearest gas station is. To my relief, I was close. I just had to go a little further, turn left at the T-junction onto Highway 7, and there are two in Sherbrooke. Boy, was I happy to pull into that first station; I’d dodged another gas scare. On this day, I abandoned my goal of finding a nice lunch spot and sat on a public bench at the gas station, de-stressing with my Lunch of Champions.

Lunch spot

The ride in the afternoon was along Highway 7. It really is, as Eat, Sleep, Ride describes, “twisties galore.” But now inland, it was hot, and it got hotter as I neared the end of Marine Drive in Dartmouth. I stopped in Lawrencetown to see the famous beach and, a little further on, the kite-surfers.

Lawrencetown

Kite Surfers

By the time I entered Cole Harbour, thinking of hockey, it was easily 30 degrees Celcius and who-knows-what on the humidex scale, probably upper 30s. Then I hit traffic. Ugh! It was rush hour so I decided to skirt Dartmouth and followed a route that looped over the top through Bedford on the 213 that took me to within 15 minutes of Peggy’s Cove at Wayside Campground.

I’d found Wayside online when I changed my plans at Baddeck and decided to visit Peggy’s Cove. The reviews said it was a campground run by the same family for generations and was very family-oriented. In fact, one reviewer had given it a bad review because his group had apparently been refused a site on the suspicion that they were there to party. (Is that a negative or positive review? I guess it depends on if you like peace and quiet at a campground.) At any rate, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I pulled up on my motorcycle. I was greeted at the office by several of said family members sitting on the porch. The manager was super friendly, and as I was filling out the paperwork, her son showed me a photo on his phone of a cousin’s BMW ADV bike (I think it was the 800GS) and told me a story of an aborted trip to Alaska. Seems I would not be refused a site for being a trouble-maker biker, and good thing too because I was hot and exhausted. The manager clearly knew a thing or two herself about bikes because she warned me about the rocky hill to get to some of the tent sites on the plateau.

Remembering my dismount mishap at Deer Island, I made sure to concentrate right until the kickstand is down. Not long after it was, another camper named Walter wandered over from his RV and handed me a cold can of beer. I’d say he must have read my mind, but his knowing my needs actually has a simpler explanation. Turns out he used to ride a Kawasaki KLR 650, so knows every biker’s first thought at the end of a long, hot ride. He was retired military from the Air Force, and he and his wife Barb summer in Nova Scotia.

The next day I woke up early (like, 6 a.m.), and although I planned to leave that day, I decided to drop everything and head to Peggy’s Cove after a quick breakfast. I have to admit, I wasn’t all that drawn to Peggy’s Cove, but thought I should check it out because it was such an iconic tourist spot. I envisioned busloads of tourists crawling over the rocks (if the sea doesn’t wash them off first) and tacky tourist shops filled with plastic replica lighthouses. Thankfully, that vision was entirely wrong! It’s actually a very pretty little fishing village that has been carefully preserved. I did manage to catch the lighthouse before the throngs, and the image above is my proof.

The rest of the village is almost as pretty.

 

 

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The memorial to the passengers of Swissair Flight 111 is also tastefully done. It’s just on the other side of the cove in a quiet spot more suiting to reflection and remembrance. Two disks are placed on end and angled such that if you look down them, one points to Bayswater and the other out to the crash site on the horizon. The three geographical points, including Peggy’s Cove, form a triangle that was instrumental in the investigation as the area covering the debris field.

I’m sure the final moments of those unfortunate passengers were terrifying, but there are few prettier places to leave this Earth in bodily form. I’m glad I went to Peggy’s Cove. My prejudice of it and private campgrounds like Wayside were happily quashed.

Day 9

Next day, Bigbea gets an oil change in Moncton and we head to Fundy National Park.

Goodbye Cape Breton

Great Bras D'Or

Great Bras d’Or Lake overlooking Boularderie Island

One of the nice things about travelling solo is that you can play it by ear, so to speak. My wife likes to have a trip planned out before leaving home, with reservations for each night made weeks in advance. I decided to reserve when needed (i.e. weekends) and keep the week open and flexible. Yeah, the trade-off is that when the sun is setting and you don’t have a place yet to lay your head, it can be stressful.

I had planned to go from Baddeck to Meat Cove, a campground at the eastern tip of Cape Breton. It’s a pretty spectacular place and popular amongst bikers, if only to be able to boast about doing the dirt road required to get there. My wife and I were there with our dog a few years ago. The campsites are literally on the precipice of cliffs overlooking the ocean and we were worried our dog would make a false step and plummet to his death. But when we were there we realized that, as a border collie, he is in his element. Meat Cove is like the true highlands (not that I’ve ever been there)—rugged, raw, and a bit dangerous. Just the type of terrain to herd sheep.

But I digress. I did not return to Meat Cove this time. When I left Montreal, I had 3000 km before I needed an oil change. Surely enough, I thought, to get me there and back. Except it took 3000 km to get to Cape Breton so I started to look for a place that services BMWs. Turns out there are none in Nova Scotia, but a biker forum pointed me to a mom and pop operation in Moncton called Adriann’s, so I decided to start heading that way instead of further east. Besides, I’d already done the Cabot Trail, and going to Meat Cove and back would basically mean riding it again.

First I had to go to Sydney to the nearest Best Buy. The micro-USB cord I use to charge my phone off the bike when riding was acting up. Sydney is a port industry city and a fine place to pass through when picking up a phone cord but I wouldn’t want to live there. In fact, it appears that most places that were built on mining and are now transitioning to something else are not very nice. I picked up Highway 4, the same Old Highway 4 I took to get to Cape Breton, at Sydney and took it back to the causeway. It was hot and I had decided that morning to not use my fuel pack, which was a bad decision. A fuel pack is a 3-litre bag of water you carry on your back either under or over your jacket. There’s a tube you can tuck under the chin of your helmet to sip water all day. It’s great, but 3 litres of water starts to feel like 30 after a several hours, so in the interests of comfort, knowing I had a long day ahead, I packed it instead of wearing it and bundgied a Nalgene to my bags instead. I chose the wrong day to choose comfort over hydration. Lesson learned: I made a note to myself that the discomfort of carrying water is preferable to the pain of a 2-day headache, which is what happens when I get dehydrated. To make matters worse, I suffered my first sleeve bee sting. And the traffic was bad getting off the causeway because the trucks have to be weighed..

But once off, things improved. I turned left at the first junction onto the 344. This is the beginning of Marine Drive, 7 hours of twisties and the best motorcycle route in NS according to Eat, Sleep, Ride. By this time I was looking for a lunch spot, and I pride myself on finding good ones. Heading along the 344, I saw a sign for Port Shoreham Beach Provincial Park and decided to check it out. It led me to another magnificent lunch spot.

Beach

It also provided an opportunity finally to swim a bit in the ocean and cool off. There were even change rooms.

By this time it was getting on in the afternoon, so back at the parking lot, I asked someone if there was a campground nearby. Boy, did I luck out! She used to work for the tourism bureau and recommended “the most beautiful provincial campground in Nova Scotia,” just a little further along the 344 at Boylston. You climb and climb up from the road to a spectacular view of the bay.

Boyston PPSites are administered on an honour system at a whopping $21.60 a night tax included. They are grassy and private and quiet. If you’re ever in the area, be sure to stay at Boylston. She then proceeded to tell me where to find a micro-brewery pub with “the best fish and chips in the province.” If I hadn’t already been married, I might have proposed.

With my site chosen and the tent up, I rode into Guysborough to The Rare Bird. The terrace was open out back and it looked out onto the wharf where they have live music. A young man was playing an acoustic version of Green Day’s “Time of Your Life,” and I couldn’t help thinking, as I sipped my amber ale, I am having the time of my life.

Guysborough

Day 8

Next day: finishing Marine Drive and going to Peggy’s Cove.