Do You Want Black Flies With That Snow?
The run from Ottawa up to Radisson at James Bay is about 1,415 kilometres, give or take a tad. While the southern portion of the trip is done through inhabited lands with the occasional Tim Horton’s and police radar to be experienced, the northern part wends its way through endless stretches of tundra, granite and scrub bush. Not a graffiti’d rockface or poutine wagon to be seen.
To make matters a bit spicy for this lifetime Mike Hailwood fanatic (the greatest motorcycle roadracer of all time), the last 621 kilometres from Matagami to Radisson wind along a private, largely traffic-less and unpoliced Hydro Quebec roadway. In effect you can go as fast as you want for as long as you want. Except there is only one gas station along the route.
This dilemma – throttle vs. mileage – would test me in ways I knew I was lacking, as a disciplined man I am not. So off to Crappy Tire for a couple of those little red plastic gas containers and maybe grab a mini-compressor at the same time.
A few years back and in a rare moment of good decision-making I bought a Kawasaki Concours. This “litre bike” is what is known as a sports-tourer and can behave like a droning Goldwing when punished or like a ripping Ninja when freed. It comes stock with 108 horsepower, hard bags, a shaft drive, good fairing protection and, bless-the-lord, a 27 litre fuel tank.
Since the purchase date I have developed a penchant for the howl the Concours makes when it gets wound-up and I thought a quick zip up to Radisson would be just what was needed to clear out this year’s inventory of life’s petty annoyances. The hell with the mileage thing.
Selecting a travel date in our northern climes is actually pretty easy. You don’t want to go when things are shrieking hot, black flies are at their carnivorous worst and the humidity exceeds that of the Belgian Congo. Conversely, howling white-outs, black ice, and tongue-sticking, sub-zero temperatures often limit the return date of your trip.
As Canadian riders know, this leaves approximately 6 full days in either late September or early May to do anything comfortable on a motorcycle. I chose the former, keenly aware that the James Bay region can produce vicious, perverted weather, usually when it is least needed. Also, it was moose rutting season.
Over a lifetime of motorcycle adventure I had become aware I was a bit of a human lightening rod for bad happenings, so I laid in a litre of emergency Polish Jabruvka vodka, my old Bonzo Dog Band mini-discs (“I’m the Urban Spaceman baby, I can fly - I’m a supersonic guy”), 17 pounds of tools and two big rolls of duct tape. I also took a cell phone that wouldn’t work, thinking that in a crunch I could lie at the side of the road and wave it at a passing logging truck if one should ever happen by.
Saturday morning looms wet and miserable - nighttime lows are close to the freezing mark. The forecast calls for a complete week of this which is fully expected, given that we’ve had a heat-stroking drought all summer. In clever anticipation I am done up like the Michelin Man, replete with liners of green garbage bags and duct-taped pant legs. I flip on “Kama Kama Sutra With Me” and Connie lurches to a start, almost falling as we do a quick and unintentional Gary Nixon powerslide in the damp parking lot.
It should be noted that Connie is a sow of a machine at low speed and that 27 litres of fuel roughly equals the weight of a blacksmith’s anvil. Strategically placed ‘way up high with the tankbag tools there’s nothing for it but to do the Foot Paddle as we lunge our way from each stoplight.
Soon though we get into the rhythm of the road which consists of equal parts wet crotch and numb fingers from the famous Connie “buzz”. Last year I made a similar run up to Natashquan along the north coast of the Bay of St. Lawrence and came back partially emasculated, given the stock, stepped seat, and the abrupt metal wall of the gas tank.
This year was starting better as I had reverted to an “old”, pre-1994 seat and heeded the warnings of the loonie fringe on the Concours Owners Group (COG) newsgroup on how best to package and position “the boys”. The approved technique requires the old arm-plunge-grope-about move at most gas stations but I soon grew oblivious to the startled looks of fellow travellers – this was family.
The blast from Ottawa up to Maniwaki was slimy-swoopy and I quite enjoyed the fog covering my shield which rendered an Impressionist quality to the quick blurs of green and brown which represented the scenery as I zipped past. I had done this highway before so I told myself to enjoy it on memory. I also recalled the numerous police reports of car deaths on this notorious stretch and took shuddering pride when I screeped my way through to the other side. So far so good.
Highway 117 north of Maniwaki leads to the verdant forests and lakes of the massive La Verendrye game preserve, home of moose, bear, trout and the white and green cars of Le Sûreté de Québec (cops). These guys have a great collective sense of humour and seem to delight in doing the quick lights-siren-burble when you pass them going in the other direction at lightspeed but not pulling you over.
The top end of Day 1 winds up in Matagami - my kind of town. You know, where burnouts and beer bottle throwing are the norm on Saturday night and some of the denizens look like they’ve been doing genetic research for Gregor Mendel. Several pickups sported the latest in seasonal fashion in the form of freshly chainsawed moose heads tied to the roof with big ropes.
The next morning I stopped at the obligatory Hydro Quebec security station just outside town and submitted to a brief sanity test. The gardiens looked a little sceptical when they heard of my idea for a quick run up to Radisson, but relented when they saw my extra gas cans and standard blank look of helplessness. The foam coming out of my pantleg probably helped too (hey, I was getting crotch-chapped and all I could find was the Head & Shoulders).
In retrospect, the entry of my particulars in their database was comforting. Northern Quebec, which covers over 1 million square kilometers, is vast indeed and there are stories about travellers getting Road Madness when they realise how utterly insignificant they really are. Some survive to be rescued. Legend has it that others don’t.
For this particular Mike Hailwood however, it was the point where it all came into focus. Yep, good swoopy road, no police, a powerful bike and no parents for 621 kms. Stop for a quick picture, which might be the last thing the coroner finds and then, like on Mad Sunday at the Isle of Man, awaaaaay we go!
Words can’t describe what happened over the first 381 kms but rest assured that it was fun and I didn’t even come close to killing myself sorta. Set ‘er up at 170 kph and hold it for an hour or so. Stop in the middle of the highway to have a pee in The Big Silence and then jump back on, grinning like a stooge. Lay on some kill-switch backfires when going through rock-cuts and jam the centrestand onto the pavement to provide a meteor shower when things start to get dark. Repeat with the Bonzos blaring until it all becomes a blur.
Moose have a way of spoiling stuff like this and I came upon a trailer (one of 4 vehicles I saw) with the requisite moose head bobbing, mouth agape as if warning me of something on the road ahead.
Later I passed a semi-crushed passenger van, which got me thinking of physics and the energy that would be produced during a high-speed meeting of a 1,600 pound moose and a 900 pound Connie/Hailwood combo. This newly factored prudence and an eye on the gas gauge eventually brought me back to about 140 kph and I settled into my S&S (stunned and slumped) touring mode.
The critical gas station at the cleverly-named “Kilometre 381” was on me when I was well into reserve and I think I doubled the local GDP with my purchase of $29 for the fillup. It was at this point that I had a vision, for there, in all its glory was a white and olive 4X4 pickup truck with a red and blue light rack on the top. Neatly inscribed on the door was “Le Sûreté de Québec”.
“Now what the hell”, I thought angrily. The officer was clad in cammo pants and was armed. He also had a rifle in the rear window which further persuaded me not to ask him if he had a letter of permission from Hydro Quebec or something. I could only figure that he was lost or maybe investigating a moose-related death ‘cause everyone knew this road was hands-off!!!
Upon leaving he pulled up to the highway intersection and I realised that I would be ruined if he turned my way (north toward Radisson). For even if I gave him a head start for a few hours I knew that there would be an inevitable moment later that day where I would see a speck on the road ahead – one that would grow quickly given an extreme rate of closure – one that would have a red/blue light rack on the top - and one that would be going about 87 kph. I then would be forced to match his pace for hours … or pass.
Fortunately, my mewling prayers were answered and he made his way southward. I knew I had to move pronto before he changed his mind. A quick grope to adjust “the boys” drew what seemed to be an admiring glance from an aged Cree lady and in response I mounted up like Zorro, only to almost fall over again with the additional 55 pound fuel load.
The next 240 km stretch to Radisson was even more desolate but I had the mileage thing under control now and was able to taste +200 kph speeds as required. At some nameless point I slowed when I saw ahead 3 figures on the road, thinking they were black bears. But they were thinner and coalesced into local hunters as I got close.
Now most people at a time like that would give a jaunty wave or stop for a quick chat, but not Mike The Bike II, nossir. Instead I mentally went through my stunt repertoire, discarding The Backfire (since they were armed) and dismissing The Locked Rear Brake Smoker as well (just in case I lost it).
Instead, I settled on a variation of the Rollie Free Manoeuvre. Most of you young folks won’t remember the famous picture of Mr. Free setting a Bonneville record (150.313 mph) on his 1948 Black Lightning, but I do. To reduce wind turbulence, Rollie had gone out clad only in swimming trucks and lay flat-out over the tank and rear fender. He was a determined man and had not given in to doubters.
With mere milliseconds to modify the move to account for luggage and tankbag I went for it. I caught a quick glimpse of awe on the part of my audience as I stuck my legs straight out to the side, hunched over the tank and rotated my clutch arm at a 45 degree angle up my back in the terrifying Swimming Pool Shark Hand configuration.
Unmentioned so far in my journal was Conrad’s loosening steering head nut and its gentle but oh so evident headshake at around the 100 kph mark. In the last 3 years I had not found the few minutes needed to tighten it and it was about to give me a reminder.
Like a poisonous Black Mamba hitting an electric cattle fence, Connie went into a machine gun tank-slapper leaving a bold, stuttering pattern of black patches on the tarmac and an accompanying series of tiny smoke plumes and yelps from the front tire. Rollie’s shark hand immediately did a panic dive for the left bar grip and after an eternity, and through sheer horror power, managed to force the machine straight. He did not look back.
After an hour or so my pulse came down this side of 100 and I began the familiar, grim routine of stunt-gone-awry self-reflection. While Halo Goofy immediately went into his standard admonitions (“you better get off that bike right now mister and then get down on your knees…”), Horned Goofy countered, reminding me that things had worked out OK in the end, no-one was hurt or imprisoned, and that I must be one heck of a rider.
I rolled into Radisson cold and disembodied - time for a brew and bench-racing with the local boys over at the Boreal Bar.
I failed to take the highly-touted tour of the hydro plant at Radisson simply because I had read that the intro to the tour took over an hour in an auditorium. Since I cannot sit still for more than 3 minutes at a time without jumping about or making impulsive catcalls I avoided the opportunity. But I got a brochure.
The next day’s ride back to the Kilometre 381 was above freezing and the drizzle was only moderately numbing so I cranked it up to shorten the ride and help de-carbon the cylinder heads. At the 123 km mark (almost exactly the furthest distance between the two gas stations) Connie died.
Not your clattering, flaming death that I had grown used to with my old Norton (“The Antichrist”), nor the seized, screeching suicide as performed by my venerable but oil-less CL 450 Honda, but instead a mild, somewhat bored capitulation.
Now, I’ve been in a few different situations in my time, including the wild dog pack chase in southern Manchuria, the armed-soldier-passport-seizure thing in Africa, the bar extraction in the Balearic Islands after accidentally ingesting a litre or so of a poisonous and deeply hallucinogenic wormwood concoction, and the Ontario Provincial Police-escorted descent from the top of the Sioux Lookout water tower with Fast Eddie Flicker. But this was a new one.
My first move was instinctive. I groaned off Connie, stood in the middle of the road gazing pathetically from horizon to horizon and proceeded to take a leak with one hand and scratch my ass with the other. Despite these symbolic inducements, Connie remained motionless - mute and with its eye closed.
There had been an unfortunate spate of news articles over the summer about bear attacks in the North. As well, I had heard stories of moose acting in a frenzied manner during rutting season. It was a good thing I didn’t permit either of these topics to move into my higher consciousness at the time as I probably would have dipped into the Road Madness Zone.
It took about 20 minutes to strip Connie down to where I could start to have a peek at things. “Mechanical, electrical or fuel… mechanical, electrical or fuel”. I repeated this mantra over and over and I got increasingly more desperate as the sun and temperature dropped and the bears raged against the rutting moose just outside my field of vision for primary eating rights.
I am better with a hammer than a wiring diagram and could only whine and sway from side to side as I went through what I knew were going to be empty motions. But Jah Himself must have been looking down at the time because a loose battery bolt (positive) rattled at me when I removed the plastic cover.
Closer examination showed that some UTTER conehead had used what appeared to be Vaseline to lubricate the new battery terminal when I couldn’t find the lithium grease last May. With a curse of contempt for the human condition I gave Connie the paddles of life and she fired back up like one of those fat opera ladies with the stupid Viking war outfit on.
A few hours later I stopped at the requisite Kilometre 381 gas bar looking for someone to impress with my accomplishments, but there were only 2 Cree guys from Eastmain looking under the hood of their truck. They wandered over and we had a nice chat.
“Hey, where you from, eh?”
“Why would you come up here this time of year?”.
“Well, truth to tell, I needed to ride this highway since it has no police and no speed limit”.
They stared at me for a few minutes and then started chuckling. “Where did you hear that from?”.
“Well…ummm…it was on the Internet.”
“There’s more cops up here than down south, and they don’t fool around with speeders”, one stated.
“Last sports car guy they caught they just took his keys and left him. He was never found, but they came back and got his car in the spring for auction”, the other added, thoughtfully.
I laughed with them...uneasily. I had heard of the Isolation Death but had dismissed it as malarkey. I had also seen 2-3 signs on the road that said “Maximum 100” but assumed they were someone’s idea of a joke or were erected prior to Canada’s conversion to the metric system.
“We’re not pulling your leg man. Those Quebec police guys drive those white and green trucks and they are mean. You should be really careful around them”, they added, helpfully.
I was shattered and it was time to go…maybe more modestly.
The rest of the trip was sombre as I reflected on the possible fine for doing 110 kph over the limit - I decided the Isolation Death would be preferable. It was also relatively uneventful except for my last stop at the Stinson gas station in Calabogie. This is the terminus of Highway 511 - a curvy masterpiece near Ottawa that attracts loonie bikers from far and wide. But it somehow seemed effete after the James Bay Road.Two boy-racers wandered over to gape at the dirty, battle-weary Connie and its dirty, battle-weary pilot. Their shiny one piece leathers, boots, gloves and helmets probably were worth more in total than my trusty steed. They took in the tools, frayed tires and spare gas canisters.
“Where you been?”, they began, quizzically.
"Radisson...up the James Bay hydro road”, I murmured, as if they were asking me how it felt to win the 1979 Isle Of Man Senior TT on my comeback Ducati.
“Isn’t that WAY up north?.” Eyes getting a bit bigger.
“Yep, about 1,400 kilometers each way.” Another manly and modest concession.
“What the hell were you doing up there?” Reverence grows.
I hesitated, then couldn’t help myself... “It’s the world’s longest race course - no cops, no speed limits - only 1 gas station.” I gazed away, getting that faraway ‘Nam look.
Who am I to ruin a Legend?