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!

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.

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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.