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.

Flying Solo

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The first time I travelled alone I was 21. The year was 1984. At that time, it was a thing, after finishing high school, to backpack across Europe with a Eurorail pass and international hostel membership card, “finding yourself” along the way. After spending some time with family in England, my uncle drove me to the docks at Portsmouth and I caught a ferry across the channel to start my month-long trek of the continent.

I hadn’t slept much the night before. Although this had been a plan for most of the preceding year, I was apprehensive about setting off on my own for the first time in my life, and my aunt, in the usual succinct manner of that side of my family, said “Your mind must have been active.” In reality, I was shitting bricks.

It was a night crossing and we docked the next morning in Le Havre. After getting some breakfast, I managed to figure out, without knowing a word of French, the correct train to Paris. Once in Paris, I started looking for my planned hostel. Even on that first day, I knew intuitively, as any animal does, that safety at night is the top priority. My anxiety grew through the afternoon as I failed to find not only the hostel but also a decent crapper. Armed only with my copy of Let’s Go Europe, I wandered the streets of Paris, asking passerby in English, to no avail. Parisians, I was discovering, have no time for tourists. I was getting worried. If I couldn’t find this hostel, how could I possibly find myself?

It was at that point that the guardian angel of travel, Saint Christopher, smiled on me in the form of a mute. He was a young man, barely a teenager, unable to speak a word of French or English, and the only Parisian with the patience to help me. In a series of completely intelligible gestures and grunts, he communicated that I had to get on not the metro, as I had mistakenly thought, but the commuter train and go three stops before getting off. What I had failed to understand was that the hostel was not in Paris at all but the suburbs on its outskirts. I think he even took me to the correct platform and indicated again the number three with his hand before waving goodbye. That was the only time during that month I felt in trouble, but I’ve never forgotten that young man nor the feeling of being in a bit of a fix while travelling alone.

There’s something unique about travelling solo. Of course there are practical advantages like being able to travel at your own pace, your own route, in your own company, especially if you’re an introvert. Locals are more likely to approach you and strike up a conversation. But the real advantage of travelling solo is that extra edge of danger in having no one to rely on but yourself. Problems with the bike? You’re on your own. Problems navigating? You’re on your own. Personal security? You’re on your own. That may not sound like very much fun, but as Claire Fisher in the pilot episode of Six Feet Under says about crystal meth, the risk of travelling solo makes everything “burn a little brighter.” It’s a drug one can get hooked on. And with the added risk and reward of motorcycle travel, it’s no wonder that today the thing is to find yourself selling everything and travelling solo around the world by bike. The ADV world is filled with folks doing exactly this, or dreaming about it.

There’s little chance of me packing up anytime soon. I love my little cottage-home in Quebec, my job, my wife, and my son. The solo tour for me this year was five days in Northern Ontario doing The Great Legends Tour, a loop from Mattawa to Kapuscasing via Tamiskaming Shores, then back down through Timmons, Sudbury, and North Bay. After a few days at a cottage in Kipawa, I loaded up the bike, said good-bye to my wife, sister, and a friend, and headed north up the 101.

It was a wet ride but the rain didn’t dampen my spirits; I was finally on my own and heading for adventure. The 101 is a two-lane highway that cuts through boreal forest on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. Without any fencing at the sides, you have to stay alert. 101N Forest_webIt climbs as it heads north, opening up into farmland and views of the distant mountains.

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After riding for a few hours, I took my first break at a rest stop in Ville-Marie.

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Shortly after lunch, just north of Saint-Bruno-de-Guigues, I spotted a sign indicating a covered bridge. I knew my destination was all the way up in Moonbeam, but the adventure bug was itching so I decided to venture off my planned route. A gravel road took me to Pont Dénommee—not the most picturesque covered bridge I’d seen, but not knowing what you’re going to get, like a handful of Bits And Bites, is part of the adventure.

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After riding through, I went to pull a U-turn, but I swung too far right to set up, the road crumbled at the edge, and the front tire washed out. After a week of asphalt, I was out of practice off road. With the panniers on, the bike didn’t tip completely over and it was easy to lift again, even still loaded. But it would be a reminder to stay alert always when off roading and a harbinger of things to come.

With my excursion fulfilled, I returned to the 101 and soon crossed back into Ontario on the 65. The rain started and never really let up for the rest of the day. My Klim Dakar pants are not waterproof and sometime that afternoon I decided, before my next tour, I would invest in some waterproof Gore-Tex pants. I also decided I needed a proper motorcycle GPS. My Samsung S5 is water resistant and works okay with GoogleMaps as a crude GPS, but it does not charge whenever the port detects moisture, and a fully charged phone can deplete in a matter of hours when running a GPS app. The phone and the status of its battery would be a thorn in my side the entire trip and lead to a breakdown on my final day. (More on that later.) I’ve been such a good boy this year that Santa owes me, and if a Garmin Montana isn’t under the tree this Christmas, I’m breaking bad.

At Temiskaming Shores I filled up, then turned onto Highway 11N from the 65. There’s a Tim Horton’s there and it was a welcome stop to warm up if not dry off. From there, I headed north, but instead of angling north-west on the 11, the Great Legends Tour suggests continuing straight north on the 569, then the 624 just before Englehart, then the 672, north and north and north, so that when you finally catch up with the 101, this time on the Ontario side of the border, you’re way up near Matheson and the deciduous trees have disappeared. After a short stint west on 101, soon I was heading north again on the Transcanada Highway 11, but by this time I was happy to be on a major well-maintained highway to crack the throttle. I was keeping my eye out for wildlife, and while I wasn’t sure of the cops situation in these parts, I was watching out for them too. What I wasn’t expecting as I rounded a corner in driving rain was to find a car backing up on the highway! It just goes to show how you can never, ever be complacent on a motorcycle.

Many beginner riders, fearing front-end wash-out, get into the bad habit of using only the rear brake, which accounts for only 10% of stopping power. And many riders with ABS brakes never learn how to modulate the front using two fingers and a gentle initial squeeze until the load is transferred to the contact patch and sufficient friction prevents the tire from washing out. Without the benefit of ABS, I’ve always forced myself to brake properly, emergency or no emergency, to develop muscle memory specifically for the situation I now suddenly found myself in: an unexpected emergency stop on a wet surface at speed. It all might have gone horribly wrong if I hadn’t forced myself to be diligent and demanding with this skill in those early days. This was the payoff. The bike squatted and I quickly slowed without even a skid, then proceeded to gesticulate to the idiot driver in front, not so much a “Fuck you!” but a “What the fuck?” It appeared a construction vehicle had dropped some of its load in the oncoming lane, but to this day, I don’t know why the car in mine had stopped and was backing up. What I do know is I’m glad I learnt emergency braking technique. A lot of people say that motorcycles are dangerous and I won’t deny they are. But learning proper technique, whether with braking, accelerating, cornering, or just viewing the road, will keep you as safe as possible. Bad things happen to newbies who are unprepared.

It was getting on in the day and I still had to get through Cochrane, Driftwood, and Smooth Rock Falls to Moonbeam, angling northwest and now as far north as I’d ever been in my life. There’s not much up in these parts and I’d passed up the opportunity earlier in the day to pick up a little Northern Comfort at the liquor store to warm my belly upon arrival at camp. I regretted that decision now that I was cold and wet. The liquor store in Moonbeam would be closed by the time I arrive, so I chalked that one up as a lesson in poor forethought.

The local council in Moonbeam know how to exploit their name to attract tourism. I’m imagining the council meeting when someone suggests building a flying saucer and placing it at the side of Transcanada Highway to attract tourists. I wonder how that idea first went over? But build they did, and the saucer above is now a local landmark. I, for one, was grateful because Moonbeam is so small you can miss it if you blink. My destination was René Brunelle Provincial Campground just north of Moonbeam. My GPS didn’t say turn right at the flying saucer but it could have. Right on the 581 and soon I was on dirt and soon after at the park gate. The young lady at the gate said my site was one of the good ones, right on the water, and it was! I pitched the tent, had a little supper, then strung the food pannier because there was apparently a bear in the area.

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By now the rain had subsided but I still had a chill from the ride. Without any liquid warmth, I lit a pipe and took a walk through the campground. I didn’t have many good words to say about provincial campgrounds in my last post, but now I’m going to say you just have to get far enough away from Toronto and its resident douchebags for all that to change. The campground was lovely. Here are the unofficial rules, posted by one of the regulars.

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I looped around and as I came back along the lake side of the park I saw between the trees flashes of light in the night sky. Once back at my site, I climbed down to the water and looked across Remi Lake. Every few seconds the sky would light up a diffuse amber, and at first I thought I might be seeing the aurora borealis, or northern lights. It’s not uncommon to see them this far north. But then a bolt of lightening jabbed out from beneath the bank of clouds and I knew it was rather a lightening storm. Nevertheless, the light show was spectacular, and at times like these I don’t want to be alone but sharing the experience with my wife.

I knew what it meant though: more rain was coming. I climbed into my tent and into my sleeping bag, rolled up my sweater and placed it behind my head. As I lay in the dark, I heard the wind pick up and begin to rustle through the upper branches of the huge pines that surrounded me. The rustling grew louder and soon it was a roar and I wasn’t sure if I was hearing wind in the trees or rain on the lake. It was rain, and the storm was a big one, moving toward me. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any louder, the first few drops began to hit the tent.

The Bruce Peninsula

P1030100I grew up hearing of the Bruce Peninsula. My dad sometimes worked at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, and I had friends who either had cottages up there or would spend family vacations on its shores. But it would take me 55 years before I got up there, oddly enough. Like the Torontonian who’s never been up the CN Tower, I took this tourist attraction for granted and felt I had to travel to other climes for a sandy beach and clear water.

My wife and I disembarked the ferry at Tobermory and headed down to Bruce Peninsula National Park. As usual, my guardian angel had saved me the final campsite when I went to reserve a few weeks earlier. (I’m terrible at planning, but things seem to work out.) We had a great site a short walk to the water, but I was miffed that we had to pay an extra $11.50 for the bike. This is consistent with the provincial parks we also stayed at. One person in a car and one person on a bike should not be charged more than the family of twelve that spilled out of an SUV across from us. $11.50 isn’t much, but over a ten-day vacation, it adds up. Parks Canada needs to look at their pricing and come up with something that is more equitable, at least if they want to attract motorcycle tourism. Non-electrical sites like ours cost $23.50 per night, plus the $11.50 for the “additional vehicle,” plus an online reservation fee (mandatory for such a popular campground). It adds up to around $50—a little steep in my opinion for a patch of ground on which to pitch your tent. I get it: supply and demand; they charge what they can. However, not everything has to fit within a free market system, and call me naive, but the experience of camping and enjoying nature should not be a source of revenue for government coffers, our parks promoted as the national treasures they are. They should be maintained with tax dollars and users charged a nominal fee. Okay, I’ll step down from my soap-box now.

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After we set up camp, we decided to head back into Tobermory because it looked pretty cool as we disembarked from the ferry. I had a hunch there’d be a microbrewery there and my gut rarely lets me down!

Tobermory Brewing

We sat on the terrace, as it’s called in Quebec, and I had a cherry porter, my wife, an amber lager. We struck up a conversation with a couple about our age at the next table. They lived the other side of the bay but had once lived in Montreal—that is, until the first referendum in 1980. Shortly thereafter, he was tasked with the job of moving the company to a place with “better conditions for investment,” as he diplomatically put it. It was interesting meeting people who had fled Quebec, so to speak, after the first referendum. I arrived in 1990 and heard of the exodus, but here were two people directly affected. I would have liked to ask them more about that experience, but hey, we were on vacation, and who wants to talk politics while on vacation, especially on a terrace overlooking a beautiful harbour while drinking exquisite beer on a hot summer day.

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When we got back to camp, there was only enough time to cook and eat dinner and then wander down to the water for the sunset (see photo above).

The next day, we hiked out to The Grotto, a spectacular swimming location with clear emerald water. It’s a little cold—okay, a lot cold!—but like at Bridal Veil Falls, we forced ourselves in and were happy we did; the experience was exhilarating and the highlight of this segment of our trip. One of the benefits of Georgian Bay is that, unlike Lake Ontario and, sadly, many of the other Great Lakes, it isn’t polluted from industry. The water is so clear and pure that you can see shipwrecks lying on the bottom—not at The Grotto, but at Tobermory, the “shipwreck capital of Canada.” After, we climbed the trail up to Indian Head for a good view of the bay and The Grotto. Note that due to its popularity, parking for The Grotto is now by reservation only in four-hour time slots. If you camp at the park, you can access it by foot and, at around noon, have the place pretty much to yourself as one group leaves before the next arrives. But frankly, we didn’t mind the others there. It’s not overcrowded and some young’ns encouraged us into the frigid water.

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When we returned to camp, we discovered that our electric cooler had flattened the car battery. (Note to self: you can’t leave it plugged in when the car is turned off.) I was surprised that that little fan and compressor could flatten it in a few hours, but they did. I saw some people just pulling out of their site and asked for a boost. They obliged, and then there was nothing else to do but drive for an ice cream to charge the battery.

The next day we headed around the southern tip of Georgian Bay, taking the scenic Highway 1 from Wiarton to Owen Sound, then Highway 26 through The Blue Mountains, Collingwood, and Wasaga Beach—iconic vacation spots dotting the southern shoreline. Then it was up the east coast, heading into Bobby Orr territory, Parry Sound, where we stopped for dinner. The vibe now was very different from Manitoulin Island. Muskoka is a shortish drive from Toronto, whereas Manitoulin is separated by the ferry crossing. Consequently, where Manitoulin is quiet, remote, and humble, Muskoka is popular, developed, and privileged. We were tired and hungry so found a Boston Pizza, which is a safe if boring option. There was cruise ship in port across the harbour, and as we waited for our table, a family dressed to the 9’s crossed the street and got into a car. Once seated inside, we were surrounded by large-screen TVs showing sports, and I couldn’t help remembering a little wistfully the deck and picnic tables at Lake Huron Fish & Chips. There are some very nice smaller towns in Muskoka like Orillia, Severn Bridge, and Gravenhurst, but sadly the region seems to have lost the charm I once knew and to which The Group of Seven were drawn.

We were happy to get to our campground, Sturgeon Bay Provincial Park, just north of Parry Sound. While checking in, we were shown a rattlesnake that had just been caught by a staff member. It was in a 10 gallon pale and not a happy camper, so to speak, its tail red and rattling. It was an ominous start to our stay that was borne out at 2:00 a.m. by a loud party happening at a nearby campsite—the usual youngish folks talking and laughing loudly (i.e. drunkenly), as if they were not surrounded by tents filled with people trying to sleep. Yeah, I could have asked them to keep it down, but when alcohol is involved, I tend to avoid confrontation. We’d had a similar experience at Sandbanks Provincial Park, another Ontario campground, earlier in the summer and had learned to bring the office phone number into the tent with us. Unfortunately, when we phoned, it went to voice mail.

The next morning we spoke to staff upon leaving. They said that the night warden does a final round at 1:00 a.m. before she leaves for the night. If anything happens after that, she would not be aware of it. Was it a coincidence that the party got loud at 2:00 a.m.? Probably not. Unfortunately, some people use the Muskoka parks as their weekend playground to party without any regard for others who might be there to enjoy nature. Ironically, the Ontario Parks newsletter you receive upon registering is filled with rules and regulations and fines—page after page, in table format—but those regulations are not worth the cheap newspaper they’re printed on if they are not enforced. The staff were apologetic, but ineffectual.

The Sandbanks experience earlier was so bad that we considered leaving and trying to find a hotel in the middle of the night. We later applied for a refund, a process that involves sending away a form to Ottawa, but we haven’t heard back yet, and I don’t expect now we will. I did not write any of this in my blog for Ontario Tourism, for obvious reasons, but Ontario Parks gets a one star rating from me. Their campgrounds are too popular, too expensive, and unregulated.

We hightailed it out of Ontario the next day. We had an invitation to stay at a cottage in Kipawa, Quebec, and it was just what we needed: two nights of cottage heaven before I headed north on a little solo ADV tour.

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Have you had a bad experience at a campground? Let me know positive or negative by leaving a comment. I’m always happy to hear from my readers!

Magical Manitoulin

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The bride wearing her veil

Last year was my first long bike tour and I got my yah-yahs out, riding and riding, all day, every day. I put over 5000 kms on the bike in 11 days. It was all about the riding and I loved every minute of it. But this year, at least for the first leg with wife and car, I slowed down and spent some time off the bike. It was a lesson learned. I’ve since heard on ARR about the importance of time off the bike. You can accidentally ride right past some amazing things if you don’t slow down, and at my age, my body can use the break. So I left the bike at camp and we explored Manitoulin Island in the air-conditioned car.

First stop was Bridal Veil Falls, a popular tourist location. There are change rooms and a very short hike to the falls. The water is cold but, as always, it’s fine once you’re in. As you can see, you can climb behind the falls and even swim under them. Swimming under is a little unnerving at first. The water pounds down from its drop of fifty feet like your malfunctioning Waterpik shower massage. But if you go quickly, before you know it you’re on the other side. I coaxed Marilyn through them and it was some good old-fashioned fun like being a kid again.

Then we hiked the trail that follows the river and came out at an outdoor market where we bought a few gifts from a local woodworker. But a guy can only spend so much time at a market. Soon my eye caught a hot-rod sitting in a garage and I wandered over. It was a 1930-something Willard and they guy had mounted a WWI German helmet on his air cleaner. (Sorry, no photo). I struck up a conversation with the owner, and then  another guy came wandering over, and next thing we knew there was a bro-party in the garage while the ladies shopped in the market. Gender roles are not so fluid on Manitoulin.

I’m glad I went because you never know when you’re going to learn something important. Apparently this guy had burnt out one distributor and couldn’t figure out why, and the other guy said it was because he had the wrong spark plugs in. Don’t venture out of spec on spark plugs, I learnt. The bigger gap taxes the wires and electrical system that have to run higher current. I asked about the iridium plugs I put in Bigby and this dude said it probably wasn’t a good idea. So back to OEM it will be as soon as I’m home.

From there, we explored the island, checking out the other campgrounds, just for comparison. They seemed more children-friendly but we were definitely happy to be at Providence Bay. After lunch we went to Misery Bay, where you can hike along the shoreline. Now there’s a story about the name and apparently it was coined by someone scything grass in the heat when a boat pulled up and asked for the name of the bay. The poor fellow joked “Misery Bay” and it stuck.

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Misery Bay

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The distinctive alvar rock particular to Manitoulin

That night we made a final trip down to the beach to do some stargazing. There aren’t any major cities nearby, so the sky was brilliant. My wife said something akin to what Eve says to Adam in John Milton’s Paradise Lost when stargazing:

“But wherefore all night long shine these? for whom / This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?”

She didn’t say it quite like that, but the essence was the same: What’s the purpose of all this beauty, for who’s eyes? I didn’t make the mistake Adam made with an arrogant “Oh, never mind your pretty little head over that,” but agreed it does seem to be a waste if no one looks up. If you go to Manitoulin, bring a star chart; it’s the perfect place to find the constellations and learn your way around the northern sky. The sound of the waves on the beach is a bonus.

The next day we had to leave. We’d bought our ferry crossing in advance to be sure we got the one we wanted. So after a bacon & egg breakfast at the dock, we watched the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry pull in to port. 20180719_125907

I tied Bigby down in the hold as Marilyn parked the car, then we met on deck to say good-bye for now to magical Manitoulin Island.

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Bigby tied down in the hold

 

Next: we get a site at Bruce Peninsula National Park, go for a beer in Tobermory, then a hike and a swim at The Grotto.

Restoule to Providence Bay

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Heading west on the 522

You know those days when nothing goes well and you are out of sorts and feel the world is your enemy? Of course you do. We’ve all had them, thankfully not very often. When I had one of those days growing up, my dad used to advise me just to go to bed and “it would all be different in the morning.” That simple advice has proven true several times over the years, no less in the difference between Day 1 and Day 2 of our holiday.

We started the day with coffees at the beach, which is about as fine a way to start your day as I can imagine. (I managed to get the stove to work sufficiently to heat some water for the coffee.) So while I missed the sunset the night before, I caught the morning light in my collapsable lawn chair.

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Morning coffee and journaling at Restoule Prov. Park

When the camp was packed and we’d had a light breakfast, we headed back to the 534 where I bought some gas at the general store. I love general stores! and not just because they sell gas and my gas light was on. They seem to harken back to a simpler time with their hardwood floors, deli counters, rows of tools and hardware next to rows of food items, the postcard racks, ice-cream freezers, and the friendly service, all to local a.m. radio. But even at the general store you cannot avoid the seniors buying their Scratch & Lose cards, so paying for my gas took a little longer than I wanted.

Once back on the road, we headed east on the 534 to the 524 South which brought us to the 522. The 522 is a beautiful stretch of road and, not surprisingly, we passed a few bikers going the other way. It curves through wetlands and forested areas with impressive rock formations lining the road. The sky is huge!

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Big sky over the 522

Once we hit Highway 69, we headed north into Sudbury in search of a new stove. I’d looked up Ramakkos the night before and it had good reviews. It was conveniently located just off the Trans-Canada Highway so not out of our way. I don’t know what I was hoping for, but I took my existing stove in to show them, hoping they could somehow fix it. And to their credit, they actually did try. Their stove expert, Brad, took it apart and made sure the needle and lines were clear, which I suspect is the issue 95% of the time. Unfortunately, I was the 5% whose stove could not be fixed with a hearty blow. After some deliberation, I bought the MSR Dragonfly, the classic liquid fuel stove that Ewan and Charlie took from London to New York. Yeah, it sounds like a jet taking off, but so does the person snoring at your neighbouring campsite, so even Steven, I say. The valve system is much better made and more precise than the Optimus. The simmer capability of this stove is legendary, and Brad from Ramakkos says he actually does baking in the bush with it! At the time of this writing, I’ve been using it pretty steadily for the two weeks on the bike and another four-night canoe camp and it is amazing. Never again the hassles of the stove that have plagued my trips in the past.

I was tempted to look around Ramakkos a little longer—it was such an amazing store—but the budget was already busted with the new stove so it was back to the Trans-Canada Highway and west out of Sudbury. They were building a parallel highway, or expanding the existing, and for a long stretch it looked like a mining operation. No wonder since there is so much rock up there they have to dig through to build a freeway. That stretch of construction was the only blip in an otherwise perfect day. It was a dusty, slow drive until we hit McKerrow and headed south on Highway 6. Highway 6 has a perfect surface and large sweeping curves that cut through different types of rock, and as you descend, it’s like you’re riding down through the eons, travelling back into deep time when the earth’s surface was forming and glaciers covered much of it. I saw at the sides of the road shale, slate, and granite, and later on Manitoulin Island the unusual alvars, with its pock marks, as if someone had pressed their fingers into it while still forming. If you’re into rocks, the Canadian Shield is waiting for you.

I’d read about a lookout on Highway 6 just north of Little Current. I couldn’t find the lookout but we stopped on Birch Island at this small boat launch for a break and to take in the view.

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Rest stop at Birch Island

When you come onto Manitoulin Island from the north, it’s not apparent that you are coming onto an island. Yes, there are a few small bridges, and apparently the swing bridge at Little Current is the one that separates Manitoulin from the northern mainland. But there’s no Confederation Bridge or anything like that, and the next thing you know you’re on the island amid farmland and glowing canola fields.

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Canola fields on Manitoulin Island

The destination for today was Providence Bay Tent & Trailer Park, a privately owned campground that’s right across the street from Lake Huron. My wife had not had a good night’s sleep the night before with racoons sniffing around the tent so was already wary of another night of camping, but the proprietor said the waves would lull her to sleep and she was right! She gave us the best site in the park, right next to the water, close enough that later that night we crawled out of the tent and made our way down to the water for some star gazing.

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Campsite at Providence Bay Tent & Trailer Park

But first it was dinner, and my wife had found Lake Huron Fish & Chips during her research for the holiday. There are few things I like more than good quality fish & chips, and Lake Huron gets two thumbs up from me. There’s a sundeck to eat outside, and the young staff there have a pretty cool playlist going. When we are travelling, my wife and I try to do much of our own cooking to save money, but this place was so good we went back the next night and tried the other type of fish, a local whitefish.

Fully sated, there was nothing more to do in our perfect day except go for a stroll along the shoreline at dusk.

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Providence Bay, Lake Huron

There’s a long boardwalk that takes you into a community centre where you can buy ice cream or a souvenir. I saw a T-shirt there that read “I’m on island time.” There’s definitely a slower pace to life on Manitoulin Island; it’s the perfect antidote to the rat race. Earlier in the day, we had passed Twin Peaks B & B, and as we lay in the tent listening to the waves and recollecting the day, we joked about how this day was the parallel universe day to the evil previous one. (You’ll only get this joke if you’re familiar with the David Lynch series.) Yes, camping can sometimes be hard. It’s a lifestyle of extreme highs and lows, but I figure the lows are the price you have to pay for the highs, and in the end, as Manitoulin Island had so far proven, the highs far outweigh the lows.

Next up, a day on the island.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

David Percival’s BMW Museum

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Knowing that I ride a BMW, a colleague said to me last year, “I should put you in touch with a friend of mine. He knows someone who has a collection of BMW bikes.” My colleague is from Maine, where David Percival lives and stores his collection. David discovered BMW bikes while serving in the US Army and stationed in Germany in the late 1950’s. Prior to that time, he had thought motorcycles were dirty, always dripping oil. Then he saw a BMW and his mind changed. Here was a bike that not only didn’t drip oil but also was beautifully designed and engineered. He was taken.

He began riding BMWs with German riders and even started racing as the “monkey” (i.e. passenger) in a sidecar outfit. He started collecting BMW motorcycles in the 1970s. The result to date is a collection of over 100 bikes, the second largest private collection in the world. He has every model from the first BMW motorcycle, the R-32, built in 1923, to the R-90S, built in 1976. He is only missing two bikes, the R-37 and R-16. But let’s not focus on the negative. It’s an impressive collection, and last Saturday I led a small group of riders from my club down to meet David, look at his bikes, and hear their stories.

David lives in Andover, Maine, a few hours south of Sherbrooke. It’s a four-hour ride from Montreal so we left early and took the freeway down into the Eastern Townships. Once we crossed the border, we found ourselves on Highway 26, a twisting road that snakes through northern Maine. A deer crossed in front of me to remind me to take it easy and keep a close eye out at the sides of the road. We arrived in Andover at 1:00, starving, and decided to eat lunch before visiting David. But he found us first. He’d seen (or heard) us pass by his place and found us at the local park, eating the sandwiches we’d prepared to save time.

The first thing David showed us was his workshop. I was drooling. Since I don’t have a wide-angle lens on my phone, it takes three photos to capture the entire workshop. Here’s one, alongside a photo of my workshop, for comparative purposes.

Guess which one is David’s?

I won’t try to provide an exposé here of David’s collection. For that, see this issue of BMW Magazine and this article and photos by bfbrawn. I’ll just show you a few of my highlights, hopefully to whet your interest in visiting David. He loves to tell the stories of these bikes and is very generous with his time!

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One of the highlights of the collection, the R-32, the first BMW motorcycle (1923). 

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David with one of his prized bikes. 

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Wikipedia says the first GS, which refers to either Gelände/Straße (German: off-road/road) or Gelände Sport, is the R-80, first built in 1980. But here is a GS built in 1974! Obviously it was an experimental model. It’s 1000cc and has 109 HP. You can see the characteristic GS look from its inception: tank shape, telescopic forks with gaiters, wide saddle. Note the handle on the left for putting the bike on its centre-stand.

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Sidecar

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When Germany was split after WWII, the BMW factories in East Germany still made BMW bikes. A copyright lawsuit put an end to that, so they were rebranded under Eisenacher Motorenwerk. Here is a rare bike from that company behind the iron curtain. As you can see, the logo has a striking similarity to the original BMW logo. The company, however, could not keep up and continued to use pre-war technology in their bikes.

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This is a very small sample of David’s bikes. I didn’t take a lot of photos because I was too busy admiring them and listening to David. But it’s a very impressive collection, all lovingly restored. If you are interested in organizing a visit with your club or organization, shoot me a line and I’ll send you David’s email address. He books up early for the summer, so you are probably looking at next season for a visit. I feel privileged to have seen these rare machines and to have relived, through David’s stories, a part of motorsport history.

 

DirtDaze 2018

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There’s a particular look my wife has when I’ve been talking about bikes too long (i.e. about 5 minutes). It’s the same sort of look I suspect one has when looking at the boss’s baby photos, or when listening to the minutia of someone’s genealogy: a look of polite indifference. Then I know it’s time to change the topic. One thing among many that I like about DirtDaze is that it’s bikes! bikes! bikes! all weekend long. You talk about bikes at breakfast. You ride bikes during the day. You talk about bikes at dinner. You ride bikes again in the evening. And you talk about bikes at the bonfire. If you’ve got the jones for bikes, you can get your fix at DirtDaze.

This year was my second time down at Lake Luzerne. You can read about my first experience here. This year I was going with a lowered windscreen and, more importantly, knobby tires, so Bigby was more off-road ready. I had also since done an off road course and been practising my skills, so I was especially looking forward to the weekend. I had the bike packed and literally left from the college when the last essay was graded. DirtDaze is my conditioned stimulus for the beginning of summer and time to relax and have fun. I whooped into my helmet as I headed down the 15 Thursday evening toward the border.

That morning, with the bike fully loaded, I had looked at my headlight as the bike warmed up. That doesn’t look right, I thought. It was very dim. But I was already late for work so climbed on and rode away. Thinking about it later that morning, I realized the headlamp was burnt out. Oh well, I thought, all my riding is during the day . . . I thought. In fact, taking the 9 instead of the interstate resulted in me riding the final 45 minutes or so in the dark. Fortunately, I had a high beam or I never would have made it into camp. The Painted Pony Ranch, which hosts the rally, is on a back road with no streetlights, and even if I’d managed to find the ranch I surely would have run over somebody’s tent while finding a spot to pitch my own. My apologies to all those drivers I blinded with high beams. It was an auspicious start to the weekend.

After my tent was up and prepped, I wandered up to the bonfire and sat down beside some folks from the Rochester area. They invited me to ride with them the next day, and since DirtDaze is all about community and group rides, I took them up on their offer. If someone’s willing to lead, I’ll surely follow. So the next morning, James, Cody, Nick, Carlos, and I headed off on a ride with James leading; he had some rides from previous years saved on his GPS. Our first stop was a trail that had a mix of sand and mud leading to a challenging rocky hill climb. Almost all of us made it to the top. Or some of us almost made it to the top. Let me say that all of us made it . . . almost to the top. Little did I know this hill climb would be literally and figuratively the high point of my weekend.

Shortly after we descended and started riding on asphalt again, disaster struck in the worst possible way. No, I didn’t crash and die. Worse: my temperature light came on and the bike overheated. If you’ve read my previous post, you’ll know that I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my cooling system. I feared the worst, but we started with the simplest and easiest. We tightened all the hoses and started the bike again. The temp light came on. We bled the system and started the bike. The temp light came on. We took the thermostat out and started the bike. The temp light came on. Finally, we took the water pump cover off and I spun the impeller freely with my finger; the impeller was not engaged with the drive gear. I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was another stripped gear, and in the worst possible place!

Carlos got on his phone. MaxBMW in New Hampshire could ship the part overnight to the Painted Pony Ranch. James gave me a tow back to camp. By dinner, I already had two offers for a lift back to Burlington and one to Plattsburgh. Marilyn could get a trailer down there to bring me and Bigby across the border. There was hope and help, but I was pretty discouraged.

That evening I phoned my wife. She said afterwards that she’d never heard me so down. In truth, I was considering selling Bigby, but don’t tell her that. It would have broken my heart, but if she’s not reliable, I can’t trust her to take me where I plan to go. I wandered through the campsite, looking at the different bikes, thinking of what my next one might be. I was considering the Kawasaki KLR, the ubiquitous adventure bike that’s built like a tank and hasn’t changed in over 30 years. In fact, Christian Dutcher, the DirtDaze Director, lent me his KLR Friday afternoon when he heard mine was out for the count. I liked it a lot. If I couldn’t afford an Africa Twin (and who am I kidding . . . I can’t afford one), then a used KLR would definitely be an option. Someone at the bonfire was singing the praises of Suzuki. Any Japanese bike, for that matter, would be more reliable and cheaper to run and maintain than a BMW. I went to bed dreading the next day. If I got the bike running again, I would cut my weekend short and limp home, then take the bike into BMW and pay through the nose for them to figure out why the pump keeps failing.

The next morning, James, Nick and I started taking the bike apart. We laid it on its side to minimize how much oil we would lose. Here, my previous experience with the job was helpful and we had the clutch cover off in no time. I expected to find a stripped gear, was surprised to find it intact but spinning freely on the spindle. The cross-pin that engages the gear had come out! It seems that I had never completely seated the gear when I installed it in May. It had engaged sufficiently to ride to work several times and even do some light off roading in Quebec, but that rocky hill climb must have dislodged things. I was relieved to know that the failure was all mine, not a design flaw or chronic problem with the bike. In the parlance of my students, “My bad!”

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James in foreground, Nick and Cody, Danny in back. The clutch is covered with paper towel to prevent milkweed falling into it.

The rest of the day was spent mostly waiting for my shipment with the new gear. I struck up a conversation with Danny from Montreal. Danny had injured his ankle unfortunately early in the weekend and was laid up. We made plans to do some off roading in Quebec once his ankle heals. I also wandered over to the Beta tent and tried a trials bike, which was very interesting. But my mind was really only on one thing: fixing my bike and getting back to Montreal.

Finally, at 3 o’clock, the part arrived. This time we took the new gear and, rather than tap it onto the cross-pin using a hammer and socket, as I had done, James pressed it on with his thumbs. (The bike being on its side facilitated this.) There was an audible snap as it clicked into place, and we were all confident it was on properly this time. Then it was just a matter of putting the bike back together and refilling the fluids. MaxBMW had shipped a litre of oil and I filled the rad with water. I ran the bike and the temperature light did NOT come on. I gave it a ride around the area to be sure. A few adjustments to the clutch cable and shifter and Bigby was good as new. What a relief!

I asked the boys what their favourite beer is, then bought 3 6s which we proceeded to kill at the bonfire on the final night. Sometime into my fourth, or was it my fifth, beer it occurred to me the gear came out not in the worst possible place but the best. If you’re going to suffer a breakdown, it’s best to do it on a ride with two mechanical engineers and within a community of riders who have each other’s back. I know I kind of ruined the morning for these people who had invited a stranger onto their ride, but they stuck with me to the end, even helping with the repairs. I have to thank Carlos for finding the part, James and Nick for their mechanical help, Cody for her patience and understanding, Christian for lending me his bike so I didn’t lose a day, Ken for his offer of a lift back to the border, and the lady at the gate the entire weekend (I didn’t even catch her name, to my embarrassment), who watched all day for the FedEx truck and even reimbursed me for the guided ride I missed.

And that’s really what DirtDaze is all about. It’s an off-road rally, but at its heart is a community of riders that could serve as a model for all communities: good people, having fun, helping those in need. The riding is pretty good too.

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Double, Double Toil and Trouble

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People sometimes ask me, “Where did you learn how to fix your bike?” I answer, “I didn’t. I’m still learning.” Being a DIY guy is a never-ending process. But the start is usually the same: an oil change. The first thing I did with my 650GS is change the oil and coolant, and because we live in the YouTube era, I lucked out and found a great how-to video by Kirk of the BMW Motorrad Club of Northern Illinois doing this very service on my exact bike! I love Haynes Manuals, but there’s nothing like seeing someone do it “in person.”

From there, I changed my brake pads. Brakes! you say. Don’t you want to get those done by a professional? I know, there’s an emotional component to brakes, but the fact is, they’re really not that complicated—a disc squeezed between two asbestos-lined pads.  When time came (40K) for valve adjustment, I did a bunch of research and plunged in. Each time I start a job I don’t know where I’m going but I figure it out along the way. As the American poet Theodore Roethke says, “I learn by going where I have to go.” And each time I go, I learn more about my bike.

Sometimes the journey is made longer because you don’t know what the cause of your troubles is. All you’ve got are the symptoms. In those cases, your diagnosis is easily half the work. Now if you are an experienced mechanic, you’ve seen it all and you can make an educated guess and save yourself a lot of time. Or you have a machine that costs the equivalent of my monthly wage and does the diagnosis for you. But if you’re a DIY guy on a budget, and this is the first time you’ve experienced these symptoms, you’ve only got the Fault Finding section of your service manual, the brain hive of a good user forum, and your intuition. Using these three tools in the right combination is the most useful wrench in your toolkit.

So when my bike overheated last fall after a little tip-over in sand, spewing boiling coolant out the overflow reservoir, I packed my bags and stepped out for a new journey, one that would prove to be especially long.

I don’t know how the editors of service manuals order the list of probable causes to certain problems. Do they list them in order of most probable to least, cheapest and simplest to expensive and complicated, or some combination of both? Since I’m on a tight budget, I tipped the scales toward cheapest fix first. Top of my list, then, were things like coolant level low, radiator pressure cap defective, thermostat stuck open or closed. So I started there, specifically with the thermostat. I took it out and tested it, sticking it in a pot of water on the stove with a thermometer. It opened just fine at the temp it was supposed to but didn’t close once the water cooled. Hmm . . . Could this be the problem? So off I went to BMW for a new thermostat. At $65, it’s got to be one of the cheapest parts on this bike, so I was hopeful I’d found the problem.

I put the new thermostat in and rode one block and the temp light came on. Damn!

Next I focused on the fan. Was it running when the bike overheated? I couldn’t remember so I texted my riding buddy. He couldn’t remember hearing it running either. Maybe there’s a problem with my fan, then? I connected it directly to the battery. It worked. Good, I guess. Maybe the sensor that turns on the fan is defective? My neighbours must have been wondering what I was doing with my camping stove out on the driveway beside the bike, but I had taken the sensor out of the engine block and was heating it in a pot of water, as I did with the thermostat on the stove. The fan did not turn on. So off I went to BMW for a new sensor. I was confident I’d found the problem.

I put the new sensor in, started the bike and ran it up to temp. The fan turned on. Great! Then I rode one block and the temp light came on. Damn!

Turns out the sensor works by pressure as well as temperature, so heating it alone would not trip it. On the plus side, the fan was turning on, so I knew that system at least was working properly.

The most recent time the temp light came on I noticed some coolant dripping from the bottom corner of the radiator. I surrendered to what I was dreading and denying: the radiator must be leaking. At $600 for a new one, this brings us to the point in the journey where I decide to stick the bike into winter storage early and avoid the problem, at least until spring.

It’s been a pretty brutal winter here in Montreal. Finally spring came, I bought the new rad, installed it, rode one block and the temp light came on. Damn! Double damn!

I’m not going to say the rad wasn’t broken, because I think it was. It was bent from the tip-over and clearly leaking, or so my wallet says. So my problem is . . . shall we say, multifaceted. I little sleuthing on my favourite forum uncovered that the water pump on my bike tends to go at around 50-60,000 kilometres. My bike now has 63,000. I knew this before buying the rad, but because it’s quite an involved process to get to the pump, and because the rad was leaking, I thought it was a long-shot that the pump would go at the same time as the rad. But go it did. When I finally got the pump apart, which involved taking the clutch cover off, the gear that drives the impeller was stripped.

Believe it or not, I was actually happy to see this, for at least then I knew what the cause of my problem was.

How was I to know that both the radiator and the pump were broken? And the pump issue seems to be unrelated to the tip-over. There’s been an effort on the forum to try to get to the bottom of what’s causing the stripped gears but there doesn’t seem to be any consistency. For some guys, it happens out of the blue with no apparent cause; for others, it’s after a drop. My guess is that the impeller shaft gets worn and starts to wobble. Sometimes this results in the seals leaking, sometimes the gears stripping. At any rate, it seems to be the Achilles heel of this bike. Now I know.

With the bike back together again and all fluids replaced, I rode off and the temp light did not come on. Now I’m ready for another season and my journey can be of the real kind.

I enjoy working on the bike, or any kind of manual work, actually. Okay, sometimes there are frustrations, like when I couldn’t figure out how to get the clutch cover off with the oil return line in the way. But that too is just a matter of knowledge. I struggled for a while, then went on the forum and read that some guys loosen the exhaust manifold bolts just enough to drop the exhaust pipe out of the way. I’m looking forward to the time when I know this bike so well that the troubleshooting part will be a no-brainer and I’ll know the route before starting a job. Until then, patience and persistence are my travelling companions. 20180422_145248