Motorcycle Trip to Yellowknife, North West Territories
- A Brush With Road Madness
The time has come to travel while the oatmeal-eaters tarry at their fort. To this end, I have chosen a train of stout dogs to pull a toboggan of trade goods. We are eager to proceed and the dogs are baying at their tethers.
Alexander Henry, Cumberland House, Manitoba, 1797
Background Phase: Alexander had it right, I think. In your life you either get out on the road as often as you can or you hang around your own personal fort, staring at the inside walls and eating porridge ‘cause they say you'll live longer.
Since entering my near-dotage, I have gotten in the habit of taking my motorcycle on yearly trips to remote Canadian locations. Last fall, for example, I decided to sample the highly-acclaimed and private James Bay Road which had been built by Quebec Hydro to service its networks of hydroelectric dams in northern Quebec.
The road had acquired cult status on some motorcycle newsgroups and, according to internet legend, was a 600 kilometre (360 mile) curvy masterpiece that was well-paved and had neither speed limits nor police presence. It also had only one gas station at the halfway point.
I nipped up there from my Ottawa home and managed a multi-day blitz at speeds that would melt a police radar camera. I saw but a handful of vehicles during my stint and, surprisingly, managed to destroy neither my bike nor my own, 55 year-old, chick-magnet bod, although there were a few scares along the way.
After this tour, it took me several months to get my pulse rate back under control, for the occasional spooky flashback to pass, and for the idiotic grimace-grin to be wiped from my face. It wasn’t until late in the trip that some Cree guys told me that the rumours of no cops/no speed limits were patently untrue, meaning that I was regularly 100 kph (60 mph) or so over the limit, making me subject to immediate arrest and transportation to Syria.
Well, no use crying over spilled milk, it was time to figure out this year’s run. Naturally, it would have to up the ante over last year’s in terms of stupidity and discomfort.
First, however, some background. I belong to a small group of motorcyclists who are not attracted to group tours on massively comfortable 2-wheeled winnebagos. Instead we do what is called “sports touring”, which is code for riding powerful motorcycles for long distances at illegal speeds in a semi-constant state of alarm and discomfort. While this sounds like good challenging fun, it actually carries with it an unstated entry fee which will be redeemed instantly upon even the slightest mechanical failure or error in road judgement.
Like many of the guys in our group I have fallen multiple times, torn chunks from my appendages and been a dependable customer at the fracture clinic at several hospitals. My worst mishap, which was actually bicycle-related, resulted in a spiral fracture of my shift-leg that also severed all the connecting ligaments, leaving my shifting foot pointing at a 90 degree angle from where it usually aims. The fact that this happened in a remote location permitted me a good period of time to reflect upon my misbegotten ways before I was rescued by someone that happened by. Ironically, they were lost and looking for directions (which they got).
My current ride is a Kawasaki Concours which can do the deed with the best of them and has a theoretical top speed of about 290 kilometres per hour (175 mph). The Concours is perky and can accelerate from a stop to 100 kph (60 mph) in just over three seconds, which is about the time it took you to read the first half of this sentence. It can bring serious trouble in the blink of an eye if you are not constantly vigilant, and the thought of mixing this brahma bull with booze and/or dope is spooky indeed. Those must be done separately, for the sheer aesthetic pleasure.
The Concours can behave like a droning, boring motorhome when in 4-lane, superslab mode or like a giant, ripping chainsaw when you crank it up. It comes stock with 108 horsepower, has hard saddlebags which each can carry 24 beer, has a zero-maintenance shaft drive and features a massive 27 litre fuel tank. Ironically, it looks a bit staid and conservative, which helps immeasurably when discussing matters with the local constabulary or otherwise trying to pretend it wasn’t you that just did THAT.
I had previously ridden across Canada, done Quebec and the Maritimes several times and knew most of Ontario like the back of my throttle hand. Unfortunately, there had been a mix-up some years back with the police services community and, in the aftermath of 9/11, it seemed that attempting to cajole my way past a computer-equipped and armed USA border station might not be in the best interests of either party. This left The North.
I had friends in Whitehorse, Yukon, but I’d already been up the Alaska Highway during a misspent and flower-powered youth. By process of elimination, Yellowknife, North West Territories was determined to be a worthy destination and I set out doing a ride-feasibility study.
I tend toward things impulsive, so my study was concluded in less than 5 minutes when I confirmed that the highway north through Alberta and to the highly-touted Wild Cat Café in Yellowknife was indeed finally paved all the way. Caution was thrown to the wind and I began to pronounce my decision to all within listening range.
This included the Concours Owners Group (COG) which is an internet community of about 2,200 lost souls who seem to have no other purpose in life than to ride (usually quickly), to wrench their steeds, to exchange pleasantries and technical tidbits on-line or at rallies, and generally to carouse and create mayhem as best they can. It was probable that I would encounter trouble on this trip and it was sorta comforting to know that there were at least a handful of loonies scattered about the continent who, quite possibly, could be implored to drop out of their lives temporarily in order to race a few thousand miles to help me trace an electrical fault, fix a blown shock or drag Connie out from under a Wood Bison (more on that one later). In fact, they would probably like it.
Upon reflection however, I realised that the round trip would be about 12,000 kilometres (7,000 miles) from Ottawa, that I would spend about $800 on gas during some 40 fill-ups and that, even if I didn’t ride like I stole it (unlikely), I would still need a fresh set of costly tires partway through the trip. I suppressed any thoughts that dealt with how my battered and historically-fractured carcass would deal with such punishment. The brain was another story but that could be quelled by nightly dollops of Polish Zabruvka (Big Buffalo) vodka around the fire. Or so I thought.
These matters began to pale a bit, however, when my research began to raise other…issues. One resulted from reading a news release about the “bear problem” in the north and hearing from a friend at work how his BMW motorcycle had been attacked by 2 grizzlies at a stop on the Alaska Highway a few weeks before. Here’s a clip from the NWT government’s website.
If a Bear Charges
A bear charges at high speed on all four legs. Many charges are bluffs. Bears often stop or veer to the side at the last minute. However, if contact appears unavoidable, you have three options: shoot to kill if you have a gun; play dead if you are attacked by a grizzly; or fight back if attacked by a black bear.
Shooting a Bear:
The right moment to squeeze the trigger depends on your nerve, experience with a firearm, and how fast the bear is approaching. The decision can be made only by the person facing the bear, and must be made quickly.
An accurate shot fired at close range has a greater chance of killing a bear than one fired from farther away. The first shot is the most important. If you must kill a bear, aim for the shoulder if the bear is broadside, or the back of the neck between the shoulders if the bear is facing you. Avoid head shots - they often do not kill a bear. Do not stop to check the results of your shot. Keep firing until the bear is still. Try to kill the bear cleanly and quickly - a wounded bear is very dangerous.
Playing dead may prevent serious injury if you are attacked by a grizzly bear. Do not play dead during a black bear attack or if a grizzly bear is treating you as prey. Playing dead will help protect your vital areas, and the bear may leave if you appear harmless+.
There are two recommended positions: lie on your side, curled into a ball, legs drawn tightly to your chest, hands clasped behind your neck; lie flat on the ground, face down, fingers intertwined behind your neck. Stay in these positions even if moved. Do not resist or struggle - it may intensify the attack. Look around cautiously, and be sure the bear is gone before moving.
If a black bear attacks you or a grizzly bear shows signs that it considers you prey, and you do not have a firearm, do not play dead. Act aggressively. Defend yourself with whatever means are available. You want to appear dominant and frighten the bear. Jump up and down, shout, and wave your arms. It may help to raise your jacket or pack to make you look bigger.
I had been running a grudge against the bear population since that time at my brother’s camp a few years back when I had accidentally confronted a big one on the porch. I’m not sure who was more startled, as the bear took off with a lunge that I could feel through the flooring and I jumped back into the cabin with a shriek that would have qualified me for lead soprano in Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkries”.
I ran into two more of them a few weeks later but this time I had the shotgun which I used with great drama to scare them up the hillside just north of the cabin. My Lab meanwhile ran about in great circles looking for geese. Since that time I had been bear-wary and took particular morbid interest in reading the periodic news reports of bear attacks, maulings and other assorted urso-horrors.
When I went through the NWT advisory a second time I rapidly homed in on what was needed. Riding with weapons wasn’t in the cards because, after all, I am a peaceful Canadian. This left the “playing dead” and “fighting back” ploys to figure out and maybe rehearse. I knew I had an ace up my sleeve on the former, due to years of government training and experience (“lie on your side and curl up in a ball”), but the latter left me in a bit of a quandary.
Ordinarily I would use one of my brothers for bear fighting practice (taking role turns just to be fair) but they both lived several hours away and I would need something regular if I wanted to work myself into a fighting peak before I left. Also, I wanted to avoid injury and those two would probably get into the swing of things when it was their turn to be “The Grizzly”.
I decided instead to spend as much time as I could harassing staff at work in hope of acclimatising myself should The Moment ever arise (“…jump up and down, shout and wave your arms.”). This way I would not be caught unprepared.
Preparation Phase: One of the nice things about being a guy is that you don’t really give a crap what you look like when you’re travelling. As such, packing was a relatively simple exercise which was light on the fashion apparel but heavy on the tools, books and beer.
Meanwhile, my route planning was shallow and cavalier as is my practice. A mere 1,000 kilometres a day for 2 weeks or so should get me there and back, I mused. And in true intrepid fashion I eschewed musical or radio accompaniment in favour of some foam ear plugs whose muffled drone should help with the Inner Dialogue. These decisions proved to be ill-thought-out.
Starting Point - Ottawa, ON
N 45.19 degrees
W 75.40 degrees
Elevation 381 feet
Odometer 43,651 km
The final sleep is finished and the big day is here. One final run through the checklist just to make sure I had almost everything:
1. final desperation pee? Completed.
2. drop an aspirin and a hard candy? Yes indeedee, peach to be exact.
3. hop on Connie and adjust “the boys”? Affirmative - gear up!
4. balaclava, armoured jacket, gauntlets, ear plugs, helmet, sunglasses? Aye Sir! 5. gobble down a few more handfuls of chocolate-covered coffee beans to bring on the right snarl! Chomp chomp.
6. quick digital shot for the coroner? Click.
7. final peek around since you may never be back? Dramatic staredown with 6 year old neighbour.
8. fire up the big sireeeen and roll out!
Day One – Ottawa to Lake Superior Provincial Park (Agawa Bay)
Agawa Bay Elevation = 614'
N 47.19 degrees
W 84.36 degrees
Day one started poorly.
The first incident happened just outside Mattawa Ontario, on the first day of my mission and in my mind anyways, it constituted a gross abuse of power.
I had pulled off the Trans-Canada a few moments before for an emergency leak up some old logging road. With the transaction completed to the satisfaction of the pee-ee and various crows, I manhandled Connie around on the gravel, pulled up to the intersection, signalled dutifully and proceeded to merge lawfully with oncoming traffic.
Years before, I had noted a weak spot in the Ontario Highway Traffic Act as it pertains to vehicle acceleration rates. Simply put, the Act is silent on this matter (as my legal friends would say), which I took as offering me, at all times, the unfettered ability, nay, duty, to rip off from every standing start at the most horrifying rate I can manage, speed-shifting as I hit redline in each gear, and then suddenly lock up everything when I close on the speed limit. It should be noted here that the posted speed limit and my own personal, professional riding limit differ by about 40-60 kph (25-35 mph) depending on how frisky I feel.
In this case I had barely gotten into third gear when I was startled to see flashing red and blue strobe lights ahead and in the oncoming lane. Sensing an oncoming emergency vehicle I pulled to the far right of my lane to facilitate his passing, but he was having none of it. He squealed his Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) car to a halt and pointed directly at my face. He looked concerned and I couldn't figure out why. Maybe he was on the way to a domestic and got lost. Maybe he had pulled me over to ask directions. Hmmmm, maybe not.
Constable Mitchell: [blank stare] “Know how fast you were going?”
Idiot Rider: [helpless look] “umm…not sure…just...ummm…getting out of…..second gear….”
Constable Mitchell: [more blank] “You were going 129 kph. That’s 49 over.”
Idiot: [suckface look] “jeeeeeezz…I definitely…ummm…shouldn’t have... ummm… done…that….”
Constable Mitchell: [staring] “The fine for that is $295 and you lose 4 points. Plus your insurance company will be notified.”
Idiot: [sudden fear of The Insurance Lady who ranks right up there with The Librarian on The Scared Index] “jeeeeezzzz !!...ummmmm …..jeeeeeez!….”
Constable Mitchell: [struts back to patrol car]
Reflective Rider: [squints into mirror big time] “Shitballs, shitballs, SHITBALLS! I am COOKED!!!... and this is just the first morning. Aieeee caramba tabernaKOLA!!!!”
[endless wait under hot sun]
Constable Mitchell: [eventually returns] “I’m letting you off with 25 over – no points. Slow down or you’re going to kill yourself”
Recovering Rider: [1/2 contrite, 1/2 smug] “That’s nothing! Ummm….I mean…umm... thanks…man.”
I wait for him to pull away and go bust some other poor sucker and then digest what has happened. I realise I possibly am fully fucked, for if I return to my terrible ways (and I would) then the tickets would mount, and there would be no slacking off when the successive lawmen and women realised that I could not stop myself. Maybe they would need to Tazer me a few times so I would get the message… and that’s when the trouble would start.
Mulling these ideas over, I check to see that Constable Mitchell had left in the other direction and then powered Connie up in Revenge Acceleration Mode. Yes, shake this premature horror by blasting away as fast as Connie could rip. Like the Honda song on fast forward we tore…”first gear it’s all right, second gear, hold on tight, third gear, get it…”
Heart-pounding, panic-breaking, howling-tire, smoking-fork-bottoming mother-of-all- filthy-pigdogging-mothers-of-sows it was ANOTHER of the buggers and YES, I was just at that instant hitting the same spot that Mitchell didn’t like one bit. Nail the speed limit and watch time stand still. Closer, closer, yet closer he came, but in slow motion. Watch his hand, watch his lights…no eye contact…no eye contact…pray…
Sweet Jehovah I can’t bear it. Yes…we passed…now laser squint into the mirrors. Is he turning???? Is he turning???? No…no…no…NO! Thank the Big Biker in the Sky for that one!
As the pulse slows slightly the big Connie gets back into the grove and starts to strain at the reins. Let her rip a bit and…CHRISTLY HELL…ANOTHER ONE!!!! I’m going to SUE!!!!! Another blast of massive panic braking and then the slowmotion endurance wait and YES…you squeak through yet again!!
As the heart went back into its socket my mind raced. Maybe they were just playing with me and howling with laughter into their mikes as I passed each in succession. I doubted there were even 3 OPP cars in the entire area, let alone on the outskirts of downtown Mattawa, Ontario (population 2,538).
Turns out I was about 2 miles from the town limits when the whole stroke-thumping cavalcade went by. I needed gas so I pulled into “Gauthier Garage”, I also needed to take another leak, but that just wasn’t going to happen until I got out of this OPP beehive and was once more with police who acted in a reasonable manner or better still, stayed in the donut shop. Sheeesh.
Mister Gauthier himself aided me at the pumps and as I pulled off my helmet he started to chat:
Gauthier: [neat French accent] “How’s it going?”.
Idiot Rider: “Not great, I just got nailed for speeding”
Gauthier: [smiling] “Yeah, I know?”.
Idiot: [staring] “...What do you mean, it just happened like 1 minute ago?”
Gauthier: [gazing across the lot at rusty pickup truck] “Oh, Robert was following you and saw you get pulled over. How fast were you going?”.
Idiot: [murmers] “129”
Gauthier: [shouts to Robert and unidentified passengers in truck] “129!”.
From Inside Truck: “Aaaiiiieeeee!!!!!!!”
Idiot Rider: [louder] “But he knocked it down to 105”
Gauthier: [2nd shout to truck] “He knocked it down [dramatic pause] 105!!!!!”.
From Inside Truck: “Mmmmm!!!!!!!” [smiling eye contact with Robert]
Gauthier: [confidentially] “That was Chris Mitchell that got you. He used to play junior hockey for us but then moved to North Bay. One of Bobby Mitchell’s kids. He’s a good boy”.
Idiot: [staring protest voice] “What about those other 2 cars? Is that normal for you guys to have 3 cops in town?!?”
Gauthier: [shocked] “Where have you been man? This is Friday of the long weekend and the OPP have been announcing Operation Full Force for about a week. Zero Tolerance! Zero Tolerance!!”
I left on that note, bewildered and set back in only my first morning. How could I ever be comfortable over the next 2 weeks knowing that the resumption of further speeding patterns (and resumptions there definitely would be) had the potential to draw compounding speeding tickets and points losses? My throttle hand started to shake and cramp under the stress.
I plotted, I pondered, my brain hurt, but then I came up with the biggee. I would simply drop into OPP Headquarters in North Bay (it was on my route) and see if they had some sort of exemption program for veteran, high-speed riders who clearly should be permitted to ride at whatever speed they deem, in their professional and superior opinion, to be appropriate for the circumstances! I had a lifetime of forms completion under my belt and I knew with certainty I could fire up a rationale piece replete with documentation and testimonials that would make a police superintendent weep.
In the interim, I placed my summons in the left inside breast pocket of my riding jacket, covering my wallet and driver's licence. I posed that this would shield the swipe strip on my licence card, rendering further police radar attacks inoperable much in the way that a western sherriff's badge would often stop a heart-bound bullet. I liked this image and immediately resumed my personal riding speed, warm in the belief that my ticket/talisman would preclude any further rude interruptions to my mission. The hell with wasting time on the exemption angle.
With that settled I got back into the groove. The Ottawa Valley is a cool riding place and the Trans-Canada highway sweeps you north, following the river to its source up beyond Mattawa. Lots of mixed forests, rivers, lakes and outcroppings of the Canadian Shield, a massive pre-cambrian granite semi-circle that wraps around Hudson Bay and covers about 2 million square miles of bush and tundra.
Things go smoothly up the rest of the Valley (“Holy Liftin’!!”) and over to North Bay on the eastern shore of Lake Nipissing. Too much damn traffic and lights for my liking, but finally we get freed and scoot along over to Sault Saint Marie. Lovely vistas of Lake Huron accompany us on the south side as we drift through bush and the occasional hay field. Many police cars going the other way and I began to worry that the Mitchell family might have more than one cop amongst its membership. Maybe they had a ticket contest going and were on the lookout for guys going fast on bikes.
It wasn’t until 1960 that the 5,000 mile Trans-Canada highway was completed that connected eastern Canada (Ontario, Quebec and Down Home) with the west. It would appear that some rough patches of the existing 46 year-old road have survived, meaning that Connie was a'jumpin' and a'hoppin' on occasion.
The ride north from Soo to my camping spot was fabulous as there were no police cars even though I did get caught up in a bit of competition with 2 American Gold Wing loonies (of all things sacred!). They hung in for a while but then Connie put her head down and away we sparked. Overnight in Lake Superior Provincial Park at the Agawa Bay campground and enjoy the stunning power and beauty of this, the world's biggest inland ocean.
Day Two – Lake Superior Provincial Park to Great T’underin’ Bay (Lake Shebandewan)
Lake Shebandewan, ON
N 48.39 degrees
W 90.17 degrees
Elevation 725 feet
God was on a roll when he did the north-of-Superior stuff. Magnificent granite cliffs, the scariest lake in the world, especially during the November gales (google Edmund Fitzgerald if you want some details), fine sand beaches, surf, and a wonderful twisty highway with continuing little in the way of a police presence.
Between Soo and Tee Bay there are 2 sections that God dedicated to fast bikes. The first runs about 150 miles(!) up from the start to Wawa (yes, stop and getcher picture taken with the giant goose) and the second goes for about the same distance, resuming at Marathon and continues up past Nipigon. The in between part is bare rock and dense bush punctuated by the occasional moose or bear and the wondrous town of White Lake which, at 62 below, wins the prize for being the coldest spot in Ontario. Best leave the winter tour for somebody else.
This day I enjoyed the segment yet another time and managed to make it a bit past Great T'underin' Bay (as the Newfs would say) and to the cottage of my good buddies Stew and Scapa – not their real names I think. In the north however, there is no such thing as cottage – the word “camp” is used instead. So stay on your toes or be forever branded as someone from “down east” (cursed Toronto), which in itself is not the “down east” used by Torontonians since, in that center of horror, it denotes one as being from the Atlantic provinces.
If there is a heaven then it must be very much like “camp”. Perched high on a hill overlooking a northern lake, hearing loons cry across the waters, seeing bald eagles soar overhead, seeing drunken people fish and pull out nice pickerel, hearing the cries of those emerging in a stunned fashion from the sauna (every camp in the north must have a sauna – this is based on the Finnish Compact that was negotiated when we brought gangs of them over after the war), pigging out on BBQ and beer, and going on the nightly booze cruise.
This latter tradition involves the use of pontoon boats and plenty of suds. In this case we also added “Jimmy”, a 4 month old, deranged goldie/lab cross that had 3 forward gears – chewing something to tatters; racing about and tumbling end-over-end; or, (wait for it) humping its favourite blanket for hours on end. I kid you not on the latter since we had a stellar, non-stop performance for the full-cruise. Talk about dedication!
The black rum went down well around the campfire and tales of hippie lore and excess were exchanged amidst cries of shock and astonishment. One advantage of frying your brain on a regular basis over the years is that you get to re-relish tales of addled heroism from yesteryear that previously were embedded in the brain cells that have since turned into grey ooze.
A deep, well-drugged rum-sleep and then, a few hours later, a lovely sauna and breakfast to get the day moving. Renewed cautions from Stew about moose on the highway and vague directions about how to find The Donkey Trail.
Day Three – Great T’underin’ Bay to Winnipeg, Manitoba
N 47.51 degrees
W 97.02 degrees
Elevation 762 feet
It seemed like I was only gone a few minutes from camp when I spied a great plaque on the roadside. As I pulled in to see what it said, several turkey vultures and a bald eagle leaped into the air from a feast they were having at the roadside ditch. As I passed I saw what appeared to be a freshly killed black bear, entrails glistening in a fast-rider-warning manner. Obviously somebody had had their early morning drive along this highway interrupted in an unforgettable way.
The roadside stop marked the Arctic Watershed. All waters north and west of this elevation somehow made their way thousands of miles up into Hudsons Bay or directly into the Arctic Ocean. I pondered this for a moment and then gave it a break. It was a bit too big for my brain that early in the morning.
I had taken the southern route towards the Ontario-Manitoba border, heading for Fort Frances where most people would head so they could then turn north to Kenora along the Lake of the Woods. I had a different plan however - one whose essence began some 26 years before.
I recall reading in the early 80's about a new highway that would be built to connect the southern route with the stinky town of Dryden up on the Trans-Canada highway. Essentially, the new highway was to connect no-where with no-where and the folly of the waste of tax dollars drew the ire of most of the population of north-western Ontario who annointed the road as “The Donkey Trail”. Well, maybe there was at least one purpose for this expenditure of millions of dollars. Maybe its sole purpose was to rest idle some 2 and ½ decades until a single, highspeed motorcyclist had a chance to sample its wares.
It took me a while to find the intersection but then we started to get on famously. Pretty-well zero traffic, a good surfaced roadway, oodles of ups and downs that would make an anaconda envious and one idiot ripping away and murmuring to himself with a Brit accent. Of course it took me well out of my way, but these sacrifices are needed when such a splendid opportunity presents itself. I actually had to back off at a few points in the ride due to Connie's increasing tendency to scrape her pegs. I stopped later in Dryden and banged a few pounds of air into the rear shock and things came around in good order after that.
The drone along the Trans-Canada was pretty bad. Truck traffic had increased enormously since I'd last been this way last and I found myself either slumping along at the speed limit(!) or scaring myself silly by passing several 18-wheelers at a time along the curves of the highway. It was a relief to get to the Manitoba border and its 4 lane divided highway.
I wasted zero time in cranking things back up and became mildly amused by how many people actually drove at the speed limit in this province. This amusement turned into concern when I started to pass sports-bikes droning along at 100 kph on the button. Man, these people are real wimps up here, I remembered thinking to myself. Some actually seemed to be making signs to me and a few of the bikers appeared to be forming their fingers into an “O” in front of their face shields for some indecipherable reason. Boy, strange people indeed!
I bedded down for the night but at about 3 in the morning I bolted upright in my tent. PHOTO RADAR!!!!!!!!! Aiiiieeeeeeeeee!!!!!! No, they couldn't have god-damn radar cameras out here. Could they? The more I thought, the more it fit together. And the more it fit together the more my pulse raced. Shit! I had done about 140 kph for several hours in the province so far. Could I have gone through a photo radar unit?!? Maybe two?!? My panic increased. What if I started to get dozens of summons in the mail when I got home?!? Was there a cap or statute of limitations on this stuff?!? Oh no...the Insurance Lady!!!!
Next morning at dawn I confirmed with a trucker at the gas bar that, yes indeed, Manitoba had a very widespread, merciless photo radar infrastructure and I was very probably totally cooked. I rode away with a puke feeling in my lower extremities. There was only one way to deal with this stuff and that was to head for the back roads and let 'er rip again. Forget lawyers, points, penalties, fines and gigantic insurance premiums – just go for it today and let tomorrow figure itself out.
Our roadway paralleled the CNR line on its way west and I had a few moments enjoyment riding beside a great long freight train. I sorta get the competitive itch at times like this and usually give Connie a goose, but the battle is unfair and time must be made to understand the fundamental purpose of a sister means of transportation.
Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada’s very first Prime Minister (1867) and he was reputed to be a feisty sort who relished nothing more than a train ride, a scrap or a bottle. I recall one story of Sir John A. when he was doing a train-stop electioneering tour with his Liberal counterpart.
At one small town the train pulled up at the station and a crowd gathered around the caboose to hear the politicians rip into each other. As the Liberal began, the crowd hushed as Prime Minister lurched about behind him, two sheets to the wind. Suddenly, Sir John hunched forward and vomited onto the floor. The crowd was silenced immediately and the Liberal cut his caustic criticism short with a gesture that implied “see what I mean about this man?”.
Undeterred, the PM wobbled to the podium and uttered a short but famous line.
“I don’t know about you fine people, but whenever I hear a Liberal speech it just turns my stomach!”
The crowd roared their approval, the train whistle shrieked and the PM flopped back in his seat, waving weakly as the train pulled out to its next stop.
Day Four – The Peg to Regina, Skatch-yeeeeew-ann
N 50.29 degrees
W 104.32 degrees
Elevation 1987 feet
Any series of day-long rides across the prairies are apt to lead to periodic, light touches of Road Madness, and this was to be no exception. As a matter of definition, Road Madness begins when you stop being aware you are riding and having a dilly of a time and, instead, you lose yourself and start to dwell on and ponder deep and ill-defined matters. For example, one might begin to see Manitoba and Saskatchewan not as bountiful crop lands but instead as the world's biggest drag strip.
Once you make this paradigm transition the rest is easy. Yes, there are the lanes and the safety strip between them (the Trans-Canada). Over there are the scoring booths and staging lights (weight scales areas), the officials that sanction the meet (cops), and your fellow competitors (mini-van occupants whom you are set to stomp into cow flaps).
Lean forward so Connie doesn't wheelie too much off the line, watches the revs climb...wait for the staging lights....and then BANG down the hammer and race away, speed-shifting at a furious pace!!! Then enter the cool-down area and brake gently, dropping the chute out back all the while listening to the calm Brit announcer call off your record-setting E.T. And Top End. Then slow down, only to suddenly fire back up yet again before They can intervene.
After watching two 18-wheelers come the closest I have ever seen to annihilating each other I stopped in Portage la Prariie for a coffee and a quick reference to the road map. I was damned if I was going to continue my trip on a straight prairie highway and I was itching for something to start, maybe some twisties that would eventually lead me to the Qu'Appelle River valley just east of Regina. I heard stories about this neat cut into the middle of the flatlands and had seen the valley many times as I'd passed overhead in a jet plane. This time I was going in for a ground-level big bite.
I was joined in the Tim Horton's parking lot by 2 Crow Indian guys who told me they'd been sleeping in the bush, waiting for some housing to open up. We had some XL “4X4's” (yep, “double-double” has been replaced in Manitoba) and shot the breeze. Like most natives that I know, they were self-deprecating, humble and witty as hell. Neither had been to Yellowknife and wondered about riding along with me. I mused on this one for a while and then had to turn them down, considering that 2 passengers would definitely screw up Connie's aerodynamics and lessen her top speed. But I was tempted, even if just to see how far we would get.
As I cut away from town in a north-west direction I recalled younger, more eventful days when taking multi-passengers on a motorcycle was standard fare. Usually this was done on the way home from high school or from the Algonquin Tavern with a full load on. To ensure we would evade police interest, the passengers would simply slip under the jacket of each guy in front. This also solved the no-helmet quandary effectively, even if it did occasionally mean riding past a cop car with 1 helmet-head, a giant hunchback torso hidden under the jacket(s) and 6 or so legs trying to be inconspicuous. I can't remember ever getting stopped.
I began to pass strange things on the road. First was an old school bus, packed to the hilt with “Fireworks!!!”. I had just got a gold credit card from American Express for the trip and thought deeply about buying the whole she-bang and then setting it off all at once while Connie and I did burn-outs and wheelies in front. There was also an election lawn sign up for a guy named “Inky” something and I thought about calling him to see if he might want to get in on the action for the photo op if not for the thrills and chills.
Later I saw several snowmobile trailers that also had a “for sale” sign on them and further, in all its camo'd majesty, was an entire battle tank turret, complete with gun. I sought purpose in all this and eventually realised it was another sign from God. Somehow He wanted me to go to Hollywood and kill Oprah and that bellerin' asshole, Dr. Phil. The solution had been placed under my nose and I had almost missed the clues.
Here's how it would work.
First, I needed to get back to Portage and find those Crow guys and Inky. I would explain the 6-legged Hunchback to them and they would mount up behind me without question so we could go shopping. Then they would use my gold card to purchase all the necessary ingredients. The tank turret would be affixed atop a snowmobile trailer and loaded to the brim with the most lethal stuff from the fireworks bus. This assemblage would then be hooked up to Connie, Inky would stand on Connie's passenger seat to orchestrate things, the Indians would get into the turret and we would turn south, straight down to the North Dakota border.
This we would pass without incident or even slowing down. Instead, I would call ahead to the outpost, describing Inky and my diplomatic immunity (well, I had a government passport that might work). I would also fax them a copy of the Jay Treaty which, arguably, allows natives unhindered passage at the USA/Canada frontier. The armed border guards would wave us through and then we would make a beeline for California.
Once there, it would be a simple matter to locate Oprah's Hollywood studio, take numerous ranging shots and then give 'er shit!!! Boom, they wouldn't know what hit them, and we would make sure to time it during one of their live shows, so we could write a book and live off the fortunes after the fact. Then dump the weaponry, make a quick run back to Manitoba to drop off my accomplices and then on with the trip. I couldn't see any problem with this but then I got lost and had to return my thinking prowess to finding the Qu'appelle Valley.
Eventually God took pity on me and I enjoyed a wonderful ride along the river, which seemed quite out of place right smack in the middle of the prairies. The roadway rose and plunged and twisted along in a nice fashion. Connie got back into the groove and we actually started to use some of the tread up toward the tire sidewalls. You might not realize it, but it is tough trying to take in wonderous scenery at the same time that you are riding like a moron and taking Connie close to her limits. But nobody said it was going to be easy.
I took one of my “shortcuts” into Regina which typically got me immersed somehow in an industrial area just north of the city. I saw some cars going down a laneway toward what appeared to be a factory and thought I'd follow them. Maybe I could ask directions when they were parking. However, the path started to narrow a bit and ended ahead at some type of security gate. The car guys had their arms out the windows, swipe cards at the ready.
I started to turn around, slightly pissed, but then saw that the gate had some type of grilled speaker where presumably, one could ask questions of a remote attendant in an office somewhere. I pulled up and began shouting questions like “D'arcy's house...where is it? I need a brew!” but then realized that my helmet and balaclava must have muffled my enquiries to the point of being indecipherable. Furthermore, my ear plugs and helmet rendered me almost unable to hear anything incoming as well.
The speaker crackled with some strange zaps and garbles so I turned and rode away, shaking my head. As I did so, I noticed the roadway was actually corodoned with frost fencing topped with razor wire. Down the road a bit was a sign that said “Regina Correctional Institution – Authorized Personnel Only”. After a quick glance into the mirrors, it was time to give Connie a touch of throttle, for it probably wouldn't take them much time to punch in Connie's plate and have the bells and whistles go off on the Mitchell Bros. (tm) police network laptops.
I finally discovered my buddy's place and was soon crouched by a big screen TV watching Regina get pummelled by the Calgary Stampeders and sipping on a nice cool one. I noted that it was quite chilly in the house – when questioned, buddy tightened a bit and then advised me that it was 61 degrees Fahrenheit and had been for the last 7 years. Apparently this had something to do with his lovely wife's increased sensitivity to heat and other things possibly related to the ageing process.
We spent the evening drinking wine around an outdoor fire and recounting historical acts of suicidal stupidity and nonsense that would make the “Jackass” movie crowd bow their heads in embarrassment at their puny efforts. Slept under 23 pounds of blankets and my breath was visible. It was cosy and great to be with good people.
Day Five – Regina to Vegreville, Alberta
N 47.19 degrees
W 84.36 degrees
Elevation 614 feet
Day 5 started poorly in a manner quite different to the poor start suffered on Day 1.
Simply put, Connie fell off her kickstand whilst I was fucking with her load, crashing to the ground and breaking off a footpeg. In hindsight, this setback changed the tempo of the rest of the trip and lead to a number of unexpected future events, including one close encounter with several cast members from "Naughty Schoolgirls Meet The Fratboys".
I immediately knew God had a hand in this, probably to pay me back for previously writing a song called “Kickstand Crash” that poked fun at Connie's unfortunate habit of falling over whenever she felt like it, often uphill, always in soft dirt, and sometime while actually being watched.
I will spare you the shocking cursing and moaning that ensued, the futile ride to the Regina Kawasaki dealer for a non-existent replacement peg, a disjointed call to the Edmonton Kawasaki dealer instead, who promised me they would air-order the part and have it waiting within 24 hours if I would be so good as to ride a full day or two with only 1 footpeg across the prairies over to their shop.
Some of you newer riders haven't had the pleasure of riding battered motorcycles for long periods but I have. As such, I prepared for 1 or 2 days in the Three-Legged Dog riding position. I had twice before been driven to using the Dog and I wasn't looking forward to this third experience.
The Dog stance involves both hands on the respective grips, left leg on the shifter peg and right leg, abnormally, pushed 'way back to the right passenger peg. Initially, there is a tendency to fight the Three-Legged Dog, as it causes the rider to lean at a 45 degree angle to the machine and to acquire leg cramps after a few hours. As well, the body weight moves more heavily onto the right grip to which the throttle is attached. This in turn causes the bike to go faster than normal. But fighting the Dog leads nowhere – you must go with the flow. Yes, you must become the Dog itself, otherwise you go mad.
Dismounting after a day or two of the Three Legged Dog is a bit more disjointed than usual and it is common to almost fall over when pulling in for gas as you also have absolutely no use of the rear brake. Walking is an even more haphazard affair, as the right leg starts to only take a half step with every stride while the left, compensating nicely does 1 and ½ steps per stride. This works well when, say, going around the circumference of a hill (clockwise only, mind), but is less majestic on the flat.
Imagine the poor proprietor of an isolated prairie gas station watching such a man and machine approach. The first, uncertain landing attempt is waved off and the duo round the pumps for a better parking position. Neither the stop nor the dismount is smooth.
Perhaps the rider has been drinking or using non-prescription drugs. Again. Eventually the gas fills the tank and the rider begins a very queer side-hopping motion as he comes into the store to pay. In fact, he veers off course a bit and has to do a double-jumping type of manoeuvre to get aligned. He seems to be muttering to himself, in code.
In the store the paying interaction goes OK but the discourse doesn't work. Could this be attributed to the fact that the rider, once again, has forgotten to remove the earplugs, balaclava and helmet that turn incoming sounds into underwater moaning? Could the constant Connie engine ringing in his ears, bloodshot eyes, and facial twitch make him look even stupider than usual?
Pull into Vegreville. Does this place have a nickname or what? I got so self-conscious about pronouncing the name that I soon began to say "ViagraVille", despite all my worries. This had last happened about 15 years ago when I had to present a guest speaker at a conference. His name was William Annis...
Day Six – Vegreville to Grande Prairie, Alberta
Grande Prarie, ALTA
N 55.11 degrees
W 118.47 degrees
Elevation 2,206 feet
Breakfast in Viagraville was interesting. I was seated within earshot of 4 farmers who had watched me do the 3-Legged Dog into the restaurant but were too polite to ask questions – I was ready to murmur “Korea...” if push came to shove, but it didn't.
They were having a dilly of a conversation. Three were dressed in familiar overalls and baseball caps while the 4th had on a leisure suit from the 60's. He was pronouncing on the fact that “...only a damn fool could lose his arm in a combine... only a damn fool...”, while the others nodded and got on with their toast and coffee.
Topics followed in rapid succession, crop prices, those idiots in Ottawa (head down a bit) and the upcoming Viagraville “Pony Rodeo”, which lost me. Finally they were getting ready to move out when one mentioned he had to paint the shed. This caused a brief silence and I looked over more closely. After a decent interval, one of the farmers muttered, “there's only one paint you want to use when you paint a shed”. The others stopped in their movements and then three recited slowly, separating the syllables “...yep...Ben...Jamin... Moore...”. The 4th nodded as if in prayer.
The ride to Echo Cycles in Edmonton took another ½ day, but it drove deep into my spirit the poison pin of the 3-Legged Dog. Like Frodo after the stabbing, the marrow in my bones started to ache and then ebb and flow. I was starting to leave my skull and ride above the body.
Eventually I made it to the bike shop after getting off at the wrong exit and riding clear across some sketchy parts of town ("Keep Prostitutes Out of Our Neighbourhood!"). This with no balance and no rear brake if you need reminding.
Miracle of miracles but the part actually had been air-shipped from Toronto to Edmonton (2,000 miles or so) in the space of 24 hours. I was elated and quickly put on a sidewalk clinic on how to replace the shift-side peg bracket to several kids and an old lady while two dogs fornicated in the abandoned lot across the street. Connie's are renown for their ability to tip over without provocation and this was my 3rd time replacing the same part.
As I pulled away, I concentrated on my schedule, which was now in tatters. Maybe God did this for a reason. My brow furrowed and some smoke was produced within my helmet – then I had it! Yes, He wants me to go to the Rockies! They are just over there and I can probably catch a sideroad that will eventually get me back on the original track that heads due north.
As you approach Jasper in the town of Hinton you will see a very cool roadsign. It indicates that those wanting to take the “Scenic Highway to Alaska” need simply turn right at the next intersection. It neglects to mention that Alaska lies well beyond Yukon, which itself is a thousand or so kilometres north. Nevertheless, I liked the sentiment and immediately powered up, passing over the fantastic, glacier-blue Athabaska River and staring the climb along Highway 40, skirting Jasper National Park and entering into a vast elk preserve. I saw 2 dead ones within the first few miles as well as a Bighorn ram, which must say something about the preserve's success rate.
I took it relatively easy for the first half of the run, noting that there was only one gas station between here and Grande Prairie. Also, and perhaps unreasonably, I continued to fear a run-in with other members of the Mitchell Boys, whose law enforcement clan I started to imagine webbed across Canada and ensured a constant look-out for the usual suspects. I bet there was even an RCMP sister in the mix.
The ride along the side of this mountain chain was indescribable and the road was in great shape, having limitless turns, climbs and seemingly endless plunges down into shady valleys.
I gassed up in Grande Cache where I ran into a Honda ST 1300 rider who laughed at my radar/cops worries. “Run as hard as you want. There's nothing up there except elk and bears until you get to Grande Prarie. Watch it at around 6 though, the logger and mining boys are coming off shift into town and they are thirsty”.
I fired Connie up and away we went. First at around 140 kph, then up to 160 which had a nice feel to it and then, when the highway started to really get winding, up to 180 with bursts beyond, especially on lonnnng descents. Connie started to do a nice gentle weave above 180 or so, probably due to the load weight and also the screwed up airflow thanks to the mountains of tools, beer and books I was toting. After a while, we steadied up at 170 and had a blast.
Tremendous scenery, a fantastic bike and total freedom. Who needs heaven when you've got this at your command?
I pulled into Grande Prairie, Alberta expecting to find the same sleepy little town I had been through some 30 years before but it seem to have been paved over and replaced with box stores, massive malls, non-stop logging trucks and innumerable crews from the burgeoning oil and gas sector. The town population was listed as 43,000 I think, which had to be a lie – the place was BOOMING.
I rolled into the first cheepo motel I could find only to find that “every hotel and motel room in town is taken”. Apparently the housing industry couldn’t keep up with Alberta’s economic boom and, although there were oodles of high-paying jobs, places to sleep were few and far between.
I guess I must have looked more vacant than my usual stunned and helpless self because the office lady took pity on me and said she’d phone around to see if anything could be found. “It won’t be pretty”, she added.
After a number of calls she hit on Suzie at the “Prairie Nook” who said she had an unexpected vacancy that she could hold for about 30 seconds if I could blitz over there right away. As I left the lady smiled and reminded me “it won’t be pretty”.
I followed her directions and rode down a few hellish-looking back alleys between what seemed to be either toxic waste dumps or movie sets for “The Alien”. I rounded the final corner and saw ahead what appeared to be a penitentiary and, yes, the inmates were obviously out for their allotment of fresh air time.
The place was done up in a nice turquoise paint theme which was offset with a touch of rust every so often. In marked contrast, the balcony, doors and the bars over the windows were a cute blood colour. Groups of my fellow inmates stopped drinking momentarily and stared down at me from their perches as I pulled in.
There was a line-up at the front desk of what appeared to be either mental patients eager for their daily electric shock treatment or survivors from a bombing mission gone awry. I nodded and murmured polite nothings as I edged through the throng in hopes of locating Suzie and was eventually successful.
The fee and key negotiation went more smoothly than anticipated, probably because I was the only one they had probably ever seen who possessed a charge card. This magic piece of plastic had me back on my bike within seconds and I wheeled over to “the addition out the back”, once again falling under the scrutiny of the Prarie Nook’s denizens.
As I unloaded Connie and made my way up to my upper level I studied the boys near my suite. I nodded and made brief eye contact in the gruff manly way that they expected, but I was puzzled a bit by their familiarity. Then it struck me - I was one of them! Maybe not as young, but certainly every bit as road-worn, battered, stupid looking and dirty. I was home.
Several came over to make bike talk and I puffed up a bit, explaining I was a “senior member” of the Concours Owners Group and was doing a little shakedown run to see if there was much of interest should the COG army decide they just might mosey up this way. I provoked cries of astonishment and admiration as I murmured modestly that I actually was going to take a little ride further up the road to Yellowknife next…yep, from Ottawa, Ontario, a mere 6,000 kilometers away. Then, a quick blast back.
I wandered up to my room before questioning got tough or they noticed my facial tick. Just as I closed my door there was a polite knock and I opened it to find a pretty, young lady who I wrongly assumed was Suzie’s daughter or something.
Young Lady: [sweetly] “Hi, I’m your next door neighbour, just dropped by to say hi.”
Hogboy: [cleverly] “ummm…ummm…that’s very nice of you – I’m…ummm…your neighbour too.”
Young Lady: [sweetly again] “That’s a nice motorcycle you have there. Where you from?”
Hogboy: [explains with numerous “ummmms”] “You work here?”
Young Lady: [serious] “Oh no, I work over there [nods towards factory-like building].”
Hogboy: [curious in a mechanical sense] “What do you ummm…ummm…make over there anyways?”
Young Lady: [sweetly] “Oh, about $600 a night.”
Hogboy: [not so cleverly] “ummm…ummm…Wow, what do you do?”
Young Lady: [sweetly] “Oh, I’m in the entertainment business. We’re doing a show called “Naughty Schoolgirls meet the Fratboys (I kid you not – author)”
Hogboy: [not so cleverly] “So is that…like…a play?”
At this point a face that looks remarkably like Mike Tyson’s fist peers around the corner. A small hole in the fist opens and a sound like a crow is emitted.
Crow: "Whatchew you doin' with him!”
Young Lady: “Oh, he was just asking me about the show.”
Crow: [suspicious] “What’s he meddlin' with it fer?”
Young Lady [undeterred] “I think he’s cute…[to me] Would you like to be in the show?”
Hogboy: [lost] “ummm…in what... umm... capacity?”
Young Lady: “You could be…like…like [inspiration] Our Father!!! Yes, our father. And you could come in when we were with the Frat Boys and…get mad …yeah…real mad!!!”
Crow: [quiet but sinister] “The we could tie 'im up...”
Young Lady [undeterred] “Yeah! And then dance around him while he gets into a rage!!!!!”
Hogboy: [coming to] “ummm…I’m not really the...ahhh... tieing-up kind of guy…sorta…ummm.”
Crow: [with sudden malice] “Let’s get out of here. He creeps me out.”
Young Lady [hurt look] “We’re on at 11:00 if you change your mind.”
Hogboy [fading] “...at night?!”
With that they wandered away, but I was left a bit troubled. I recalled the time as a kid that my big brother and his buddies had staked me out in the backyard and had written the “F” word on my naked upper torso with sun tan oil. They had also chased down one of my friends in grade school and rolled him up in an old tarp and then hung him from a chainlink fence with big ropes for an hour or so. I had trouble with the whole idea of getting tied up ever since.
I was completely unconscious as 11:00 neared, but not for long. WHAMMMO!!! THUMP…THUMP…SUB-WOOOFER THUMP…YOUR HEART IS TRASHED…THUMP..!!!!!!!
I flew out of bed and ran to the window expecting to see a mushroom cloud or something but it was just The Corral comin’ alive!!! The lot was filled to the brim with trucks and there were crowds of men smoking, drinking and wrasslin'. I returned to bed and popped in my ear plugs to lessen the sounds of urban warfare.
Day Seven – The Corral to Hay River, NWT
Hay River NWT
N 47.19 degrees
W 84.36 degrees
Elevation 453 feet
With the exception of a nice, twisty little wind through the Peace River valley, the run to the North West Territories' border was almost due north and as straight as Hans Blix. This was fine for the first hour or so, as early morning mists rise and the body and bike both come up to operating temperature. However, the straight line thing begins to pale rather quickly after that and the true rider begins to squirm about, hoping and praying that some twisties will magically materialize or some foreign-looking dude in a jet black Lamborghini will pull alongside and point ahead with his racing gloves.
Those of you who have never ridden a motorcycle (never a “motorbike” if you please) are missing out on a whole new dimension of the planet Earth. A run up a highway like this in a car concentrates on inner pleasures like music, news, things to sip at and chomp on but also gives you time to worry about the boss, the wife or the bank account.
A straight highway in a car is sought after because, simply put, cars lean the wrong way. Yep, go get your ultra expensive Ferrari or Porsche and watch yourself brace against the turn, head and upper torso banging against the door when things get dicey. Then drone straight on after the apex and fiddle with the temperature controls while you watch a filtered movie of your trip through various flat screens otherwise known as windows.
A motorcycle on the other hand flies quite like an airplane that skims but a few feet above the ground. You don't watch your own movie on a bike, you direct and star in it and nobody, aside from an armed police officer or two, can tell you what and what not to do.
If it's cold out then you are cold, if it rains you get wet, if you ride through the Rockies you just crank the neck a bit and stare straight up at the majesty of it all. You smell the smells, catch the wind, dodge debris on the road, and wave to kids and hitchhikers, with whom all motorcyclists have an unwritten bond.
As you prepare to enter turns you zip the throttle a few times, braking and down-shifting just so and then you crank the bike over, keeping a steady hand on the gas as you skim inches above the pavement streaming below. As you start to straighten up at the turn exit you get hard on the gas and the bike JUMPS forward. As you continue to shift up and accelerate hard you are ppp-pulled back on the seat and you get the great sensation of being tied to an endless, huge rubber band. That stupid grin comes up and then things start to blur a bit as your velocity brings you within range of the Canadian Criminal Code. Again.
But things are different in the Prairies.
I ponder this great dilemma and open the mind to the LSD-25 softened cortexes of yesteryear searching for a solution. As we moan along the mind twists and folds into itself as one initiates some of the standard defence techniques used when going in an endless straight line.
Flip the killswitch to trigger neat backfires, jam the centrestand on the pavement to cause a huge arc of sparks that are visible in the mirrors, lay flat on the bike, letting the legs dangle out the back so that the toes of one's boots skip and jump as they occasionally touch down. You can also see how far you can go with your eyes closed.
I began recounting epic stories that featured heroes of my youth. Space Captain Big Al Dyno for whom I served as First Mate during the year in which he warp-jumped to the Other Side; Lobo, whose headlong power plunge through the windshield of my car left him with an exposed skull, a new nickname, and a life that was doomed; Big Joe, whose penchant for tracer bullets, Drambuie and Wagner never seemed to pale, as he too went Sky Fishing. Ah, those were the days!
As I went through my mental workout I found that Connie, unaccountably, had begun to roam about in her lane. First to the painted line and then over to near the side of the road...and back again. I picked up on this rhythm and joined in, tentatively at first and then with growing gusto. I squinted down the highway but could see nothing for what seemed like the next 50 miles. A serious laser scan in Connie's big mirrors produced the same result out the back, so the way was clear in all directions.
At first, we stayed within our lane, doing big, lazy slaloms as we both revelled in the sensations. Then things began to heat up a bit. Why stay in just one lane? God had clearly set out two lanes, had totally removed all traffic within a hundred square miles or so, and had blessed us with a fine surface with excellent traction characteristics. So... over we went across both lanes. This permitted much better performance and higher speeds to be used.
At first I kept scanning ahead and behind. I even went so far as to crank my head about, checking the skies for police or military aircraft but there were only big billowing cumulo-nimbus floaters, egging us on in their serenity. So we cranked it up, and up, and then a little bit more. FASTER!!!
To eliminate boredom and routine we started to include every 20th dotted line as an “apex” and we continued to swoop back and forth across the entire roadway. I got excited and began to commentate inside my helmet with a proper British accent about “the Canadian boy...first time out at the Isle of Man...riding the big, powerful Concours...putting on a show for the crowd...”.
After about 45 minutes I recognized that I was approaching my habitual how-is-it-that-I-always-manage-to-do-something-stupid point. About 10 minutes before, Connie had started to produce the occasional quick-grinding noise as she touched her peg down and arc'd some sparks on each "turn". Maybe it was time to grow up for a change and stop the typical goofing around...at least for the next ½ hour or so.
As I underwent this timeless inner argument I glanced in the mirrors, only to catch a glimpse of HEADLIGHTS. Yes! About 200 meters behind there definitely was a vehicle. It was more than probable that there were humans inside the vehicle, some perhaps with handcuffs and maybe one of those dash-mounted mini-cams that we see on TV shows like “Reckless Disregard” which always seem to wind-up with some guy like me getting pounded or sprayed by big southern cops.
As many times as I've been in flagrantly guilty circumstances just like these, I never seem to react in a proper, innocent manner. In fact, I become reckless and jerk about, looking anything but like a citizen simply going about his business. This in turn creates suspicion, alarm, and ultimately contempt in the mind of the typical law enforcement officer.
But this time was going to be different. After all, I was a Senior Member of the Concours Owners Group (not that they had much to do with that, since the designation is simply a function of how many inane postings I'd made on their website). But the ordinary cop in northern Alberta would have no way to know that now, would he??
So I screeped on the brakes and jumped into my Professional Motorcycle Road Tester persona, glancing down at the machine, wiggling her about and putting on my best mime of a pro trying to assess handling characteristics. I frowned several times inside my helmet to add to the imagery and then pretended to punch some data into the dash-mounted computer I had (the trip meter, in actual fact).
I veered, I peered, I moved about on the seat, perplexed at the wild handling problems I was sent to assess and overcome, much like Chuck Yeager in the first X-plane. Every once in a while I'd take a lightning glance in the mirrors, praying that I would not see the dreaded red/blue strobes banging away. Finally I just gave up, droning along at the speed limit, once more in a straight line. He had me el flagrante and all he had to do was punch the button on the big sireen to make it all fall down.
After an eternity of silence I began to tire of being afraid and decided to take things into my own hands. I slowed suddenly and began waving him by. I turned in my seat to make eye contact with my tormentor but was completely blown away to find an empty road behind me. Yep, nobody was there.
Wow, I practically JUMPED in my seat!!! The fact that there wasn't a sideroad in the last 30 miles lent to this disappearing mystery and I concluded that this was God yet again having some fun with me, or maybe it was yet another of my recurring flashbacks, or “mushbacks” as my man Brown Dog says (as a living example of what can go wrong genetically if you keep gobbling magic mushrooms, pot and booze well into your seventies).
I learned from this scare and immediately resumed a high rate of speed. If they were going to get me, they were going to get me, so I might as well have some fun in the meantime. Meanwhile, I closed on the NWT border and my overnight spot at Hay River, on the southern banks of the mighty Great Slave Lake, 2nd biggest on the planet.
I had started to worry about the whole ferry thing at this point, since I needed the ferry to a), get to Yellowknife and, b), get back across the MacKenzie River, biggest and baddest in North America aside from the Mighty Miss-Iss-Sip and named after the famous Explorer, Alexander MacKenzie.
My worries were based on some of the patchy “research” I had conducted prior to the start of my trip when I accessed the territorial website of the NWT department of roads and highways. Here is a typical entry or two:
Peel River ferry service at Km 74 of the Dempster Highway has resumed. Service was suspended on Wednesday because heavy rains raised water levels and put logs and other floating debris into the river that posed a hazard to the cable on the ferry. Updated information on the status of NWT public highways and ferries is also available on the Department of Transportation's toll-free line at 1-800-661-0750.
Artic Red River Ferry to Start Seasonal Service Today Wednesday, May 31, 2006 The Arctic Red River ferry at Km 143 of the Dempster Highway near Tsiigehtchic will begin seasonal operations today at 5 p.m. MV Louis Cardinal will operate a daily, on-demand schedule of crossings from 9:30 a.m. to 12:45 a.m. Motorists are advised they may experience delays due to soft landings. The Peel River ferry at Km 74 of the Dempster Highway near Fort McPherson will likely resume operations this weekend if high water levels subside. The Department of Transportation advises motorists to watch for and slow down at the soft landings. Information on the current status of the NWT’s public highways, ice crossings and ferry services is available on the department’s toll-free line at 1-800-661-0750.
The reference to “ice crossing” got my facial tick going again and took me back to the few years I'd spent in Northwestern Ontario as a young civil servant where I had had the great pleasure of being able to visit and work with many of the Cree people who lived in the 25-30 remote fly-in reserves in that area. While it was a wonderful experience, it also had numerous dangers and a stiff mortality rate for people who were forced to rely on float- and ski-plane service to do business, go to the hospital, hit the disco in Sioux Lookout, etc.
The highway report above reminded me of the time where I decided it would be a great adventure to travel a few hundred kilometers alone up the ice “road” north of Pickle Lake and deliver a used pickup truck to a Cree buddy of mine. We were to meet at the airport shed in Weagamow Lake, assuming my mission was successful and he didn’t get killed riding his snowmobile several hundred kilometers from Sandy Lake to meet me.
Despite 2 crashes through the ice, the loss of one set of tire chains, plunges through snow banks at the side of the road, getting almost irrevocably stuck out in the middle of a vast lake with no-one around for miles, and the arrival of several Cree snowmobilers with shovels, the meeting occurred and the truck was delivered.
I actually caught the “sked” back to Pickle Lake (a Hawker-Siddley 748 that looked as if it was in “Lost Horizons” and offered the only passenger (me) his choice of seating among crates of supplies and building materials). The stewardess wore a snowmobile suit and read People magazine as we skimmed over the frozen north.
After landing I got snowed into the Winston Hotel in Pickle for a few days, which wasn’t bad considering the liquor store was opened when we arrived and the hotel had the very first 24 hour movie channel I ever saw. My Cree buddies, meanwhile got caught on the ice road and hunkered down in snow quansa houses for the duration – no big deal to them!
Day Eight - Hay River to Yellowknife and Back
N 62.28 degrees
W 114.23 degrees
Elevation 590 feet
Yellowknife is WAY up there and is about 300 miles from the Arctic Circle. Connie could have made it up to the Circle in a day if she had tire spikes and wanted to use the winter road along the Mackenzie up to Norman Wells, but the timing was all wrong.
“So what's the best way to do the gas thing from here to Yellowknife?” I was chatting with a guy about my age who was walking past the Ptarmigan Inn on the way to God knows where at 6 in the morning. He was a Dene Indian and clearly knew these parts 'way better than I ever would.
“Well, you just go down the highway about 100 miles until you see a sign for the Ft. Providence ferry. They take you across the MacKenzie River for free. On the other side is a gas station where you need to top up your tank. Next stop on the highway is 150 miles north in Yellowknife. Fill up there and then do the reverse on your return trip. You don't want to run out of gas up there.”
We'd been chatting for a few minutes and this man still couldn't quite get over the fact that I intended to ride up to Yellowknife and then come back, in the same day. He was a patient, composed looking man and was clearly bemused with this stupid white guy who was doing this major grind for no clear purpose other than to get it done.
He patted me on the shoulder as he walked off then yelled over his shoulder an afterthought. “Watch out for the bison on the highway!”
A little more than an hour later I slowed from my customary poor gas mileage pace as I saw a sign ahead - “Ft. Providence Ferry – Turn Right 1 KM”. I followed the roadway as it descended to the shoreline of the MacKenzie River and was a bit surprised on 2 counts. First, the mighty MacKenzie was pretty wide and moving very fast. Second, there was no ferry, no dockyard and no buildings.
I pulled up at the end of the gravel trail and squinted across the river. After a few moments I saw a white speck that seemed to be travelling downriver against the current. Upon closer inspection, I surmised that this was indeed the Ft. Providence ferry and that its bass-ackward approach to crossing the river was simply the best way of contending with the fierce current.
As it got closer I noted that it had a grand total of 1 passenger vehicle – a big Cat bulldozer with a local guy sitting high in the cab. He waved as he got closer. These guys obviously had the whole landing/crossing thing figured out, but for the life off me I couldn't see how it was going to work. Where were they going to land? How was a motorcycle and old fart rider supposed to get on that thing?
Within seconds it became clear. The ferry spun at the last minute and dropped a landing ramp that had big steam-shovel-like teeth on its leading edge. The captain roared the ship directly into the gravel landing zone, digging in deep. With a yell and a wave, the Cat Dude fired up and proceeded to clear away the great mound of dirt and gravel that had been piled up during the landing. He finished quickly and waved me aboard with a big smile. He then fired up the Cat and pulled up beside me on the ferry. The captain dutifully laid on the loud pedal and away we shuddered, sideways and over to the other shore.
The Cat guy came over and we had a muffled, cold, windy exchange. “Make sure you fill up across the river. You don't want to run out of fuel up here”.
I asked him if he had a brother in Hay River and he grinned. “I got lots of brothers!”.
The landing was done in mirror image to the one I'd just witnessed and within 1-2 minutes I was rolling of the landing ramp. I waved to the captain and the Cat Dude. I couldn't hear their response but my lip-reading wasn't too bad at that point. It looked something like “Don't hit any bison!”.
I filled up in a muddy pit of a gas station and paid the proprietor who simply stared at me throughout the transaction. As I left, he pointed at a sign inside his glass door that had a picture of a herd of bisons. He shook his head.
It didn't take long for me to get my first glimpse of a bison herd. Well, maybe herd isn't the right word as there were only about 6-8 of them. But what they lacked in numbers they made up in bulk and attitude.
According to the NWT department of natural resources, “Wood bison, northern cousins of the plains bison, are North America's largest land mammals. They can be recognized by their huge heads, large shoulder humps and shaggy brown fur on their shoulders and front legs. Both sexes have short black horns. Females have straight horns while male horns curve slightly inward. Males are larger than females and can reach 3.8 metres in length and more than 1.8 metres in height. Wood bison are massive creatures ranging in weight from 550 -1000 kilograms”. That's truck size folks - 12 feet long and 2,200 pounds.
They were chomping away at the side of the road and didn't seem totally comfortable with the off-balance clown on the motorcycle who had pulled over ahead of them and who had started to take pictures. The big 2 at the front of the group started to amble towards the stationary bike and then move quicker and I was reminded of the roadsigns I had seen elsewhere in my travels.
“Danger, Wild Animals - Do Not Feed or Approach - Stay In Your Vehicle!!”
I moved off in a cautionary manner, ready to test Connie's low-end acceleration against that of North America's largest monsters.
I saw several more herds on the way to my objective but soon they started to become familiar. I would note that the world's biggest roadsigns exist in the North West Territories warning drivers of bison dangers. They seem to be about 30 feet by 20 feet and are white with an enormous black profile of the Big Boys. I didn't want to think of riding at night or in the fog along this patch.
The final few hundred miles to Yellowknife skirt the Great Slave Lake to the west, exposing the rider to stiff, freezing winds coming in off the white-capped lake. This caused Connie and me to ride constantly canted over at about a 30 degree angle which was novel for the first few minutes and then got old real quick. Unfortunately we had no choice but to ride the buggerface out for an hour or two which compounded the effects of the Dog and The Madness to the point where I started to despair, realizing all at once that everything we had gone through so far would have to be repeated in reverse in its whole stupid entirety on the ride home.
Luckily, RCMP coverage of this highway was known to be zero so we were able to get up to the higher velocity range which helped with getting the bugger over with. The highway seemed endless and the surrounding vista consisted of rock, scrub brush, mini trees that would be at home in a Japanese garden, and periodic sand patches. My favourite bird, the gorgeous Magpie, had disappeared and been replaced by enormous Ravens who seemed to want to fly along on our great adventure.
About 50 miles out of Yellowknife we came across the most recent stretch of paved highway which allowed the final linkage to be made with Alberta. This was the key link that got me up here in the first place. Unfortunately, it seemed to have been constructed by a crew more familiar with motocross tracks than passenger roadways and it was lethal.
We hit the first super-surprise fucking WHOOP at about 140 kph and were immediately flung heaven-bound!! Coonie's wheels left the earth, the rider's ass left the seat, and the soon-to-be-corpse's heart left the body cavity all within a milli-second of impact. I make great yelps and squeals at times like this and I regret never having been able to record them for a proper post-mortem review with impartial scrutineers.
BANG!! back down on the ground, slither and skip toward the rock-lined ditch, gently start to get on the brakes, struggling with directional control and WHAMMO-WHEEE!!! Off we go again!! My heart was in my mouth and my nether regions were nowhere to be found, having been drawn into the Great Lower Pucker Vortex yet again.
Eventually we got squared away and Connie was reigned in to about 70 kph. Walking speed. We ride over about 10 of these jumps and then crank it back up again as it seems to smooth out. Ahead I could see a truck that seemed to be flashing its headlights in warning. As we closed, I realised this was simply a product of it being flung up and down like us.
About 50 miles of this. And if you go down here boy, nobody will find you until spring, if ever.
We finally get into Yellowknife after a long delay – one that I hadn't planned, and one that might find us back in Ft. Providence AFTER the last ferry of the day had shut down. Me, Connie, and the Wood Bisons.
Yellowknife is a strange place, perched on the northern edge of the Great Slave's white-capped black frigid water, hemmed in by sand deposits, black muskeg bogs and pink granite outcroppings. My father had done some gold prospecting up here after the war and it seems that the old part of this goldmining town hasn't changed much since then. Out on N'dilo Island there were still dirt roads, tarpaper shacks and log cabins, Indian kids, huge black ravens and lots of boats, dogs and seaplanes.
Downtown had a few highrise office buildings, traffic lights and a gas station that I was badly in need of. A kid in dirty coveralls came out to get the pumps going and then noticed Connie's plate.
“Ontario, eh? Whereabouts?” He was bored.
“Ottawa actually.” Finally somebody to be impressed with my ordeal.
“Oh, I'm from Stittsville.” (a few miles from my house). With that he wandered back into the shack to resume reading his heavy metal magazine.
I was too tired to pursue this and wheeled Connie down to the Wild Cat Cafe. This famous and ancient log building, with its menu of bison, muskox, beaver and bear had been our original destination but now that we were here it seemed an anti-climax. I didn't have the energy to even get off Connie and instead snapped a few shots and then wheeled back onto the highway, past the Yellowknife Golf Course (you don't want to know) and back towards the gas pump and ferry at Ft. Providence.
I noticed that I had subconsciously begun to flash my turn signal at attractions I deemed noteworthy along the highway. I'm not sure why or when I started doing this and had no idea how it looked to fellow travellers. I was beat.
Back along the motocross stretch and around the west end of the lake until I just had to pull over. I pulled into a truck resting area and paced for 20 minutes or so, muttering in an unknown language. As I was ready to re-mount I was greeted by a van driver who told me he was driving out of Yellowknife for the first time in seven years. I stared at him and couldn't think of a reply. As he left he told me that he had never seen anyone jump a motorcycle on the highway before. He thought it was “neat”.
I made the ferry but this time the Cat driver was a young lady of about 18 or so. Only in the north.
Day Nine – Hay Fever, NWT to High Prairie, Alberta
Hay River NWT
N 47.19 degrees
W 84.36 degrees
Elevation 453 feet
I think this was the day where I got my first big blast of Road Madness. I guess it had been incubating for a while, but it came back with a vengence.
First, I was zipping along the highway in a muddled, zoned-out brain world and then suddenly I found myself sitting, Indian-style behind my bike. I had somehow got ahold of a black magic marker from my tank bag and had already completed a very nice black diamond figure on one of my bright yellow dry bags in which I had stashed my books, spare clothing and bear spray. Within the diamond I had neatly inscribed “Goon On Board”. To balance the messaging, on the brake side of the bag I had drawn another black diamond and within this one the words “Stay Back 500 Meters” had been inscribed.
For the life of me I couldn't even remember stopping, let alone dipping into my left hemisphere. This shook me a bit, but I felt warmed by what I had completed and decided to leave them. Over the next week of rain and heavy dew the text deteriorated to the point where the 1st box read “Go... On... Bo”. The other just said “Sta...”.
Prairie folks are an odd sort and have several predilections that may startle the first-time visitor. First, you have to take your duties as a pedestrian seriously. Walking down a sidewalk is fine, but any move toward the roadway, no matter how insignificant or unintentional will quickly draw traffic to a complete stop. Drivers will smile at you through the windshield and make gestures to let you know they have all the time in the world to wait while you cross the road, even if you don't want to. Then of course, you must because that is the only way they are ever going to move again.
I witnessed an international example of this phenomenon one winter night in Edmonton when I happened to be following about 10-12 young American kids along a downtown street. They seemed to be high-school age and possibly were up for a sports tournament or something. I was close enough to overhear their conversations and it soon became clear that 2 of the kids had had drivers stop for them on a major road in the city. They became so excited they ran back and got the rest of the gang to show them this amazing bit of western driving protocol.
One led the group and prepared them for the timing. “OK, get ready. OK here comes some traffic...now everybody pretend to walk towards the road”. Naturally the cars stopped and the guys screamed with laughter and started to do jumping high-fives. “Can you believe it?!? Can you believe it?!?” They proceeded down the street, crossing back and forth whenever traffic afforded them a repeat opportunity, roaring with laughter and waving with the bemused Albertans.
I made this mistake in Lloydminster and then again later in the trip in High Level. On both occasions I had got caught snoozing along a sidewalk and was forced to cross and then go several blocks out of my way just to avoid seeming uncultured.
Another trait of the flat-landers involves using code words for nearby towns and cities. I have never heard this much anywhere else in the world, but in Saskatchewan you go down to Moose Lips (not Moose Jaw), or you hop over to Lloyd (Lloydminster), catch the sideroad at Speedy Creek (Swift Current), get gas at in Saska-Bush (Saskatoon), visit the legislature in The Queen City (Regina - there's also one that you heard in health class that rhymes nicely), shop in Winterpeg (or The Peg), get some beer in Vegreville (go ahead, give it a whirl), see the Flames in Cowgary (yep) or Deadmonton (yep again), which are of course separated by Dead Rear (Red Deer), or even get stopped by the police in PLAP (Portage la Prairie).
The rest of this day is just a blur in my mind, but something unexpected was going on.
Day Ten – High Guys to Prince Albert, Skatchewanna-wanna-wanna
High Prarie, ALTA
N 55.25 degrees
W 116.28 degrees
Elevation 1,991 feet
At some point during the Madness Onset I became very aware that I was no longer riding a motorcycle that was moving at a very fast clip. Instead, it was the Earth that was spinning on its axis at about 1,000 mph under us that was causing Connie’s wheels to whirr about. In fact, bike and rider were actually stationary.
I was flummoxed that I had not grasped this essential piece of physics during all my decades of riding, but now that I had, it all became simple.
I dwelt on this a few hours before realizing that the Earth spins towards the east which was the direction in which we were headed. However, eventually I grasped that if this fact were correct, it would mean that Connie’s wheels would be auto-spun in reverse. This caused confusion, so I left the topic for the time being and turned to a related problem that had occupied my mind periodically over the last few decades – The Perpetual Motion Machine.
I had designed such a machine on paper in my youth but it had been dismissed by a friend who went on to become a physicist. Road Madness had permitted me to realise that this probably was a ploy on his part and that he and maybe the Mossad had spirited away my concept for use in a military setting. Damn them!
I revisited the cobwebbed brainwave.
First, get a long motorcycle chain with 2 sprockets at either end. Attach a series of empty but sealed beer bottles every so often along the chain loop. Hook up some axles and immerse ½ the loop in a lake and watch ‘er go! Yep, the weight of the bottles and chain would cause them to drop into the lake (gravity). However, the emptiness of the bottle would cause them to rise back toward the surface once they’d turned past the bottom sprocket (flotation). It would never stop.
I exulted in my brilliance and was eager to get home so I could fire it back up again but then promptly forgot what I was thinking about as I passed yet more cows. It was time to calculate in my mind the global volume of methane that was produced via cow farts. My brow furrowed, as did that of Bruce Cockburn at the same time, but he probably didn't know why.
I know when I'm getting circular and lost when I start doing mathematical calculations of inane things. Converting metric to imperial and back again is inbred in motorcyclists and drug dealers. Similarly, temperature conversions from Fahrenheit to Celsius start to become enjoyable when the only other thing happening in your world involves exploring the legislative possibilities of having natural-born idiots weaned from society at large and then tortured and euthanized rather than promoted continually so that they become executive managers at work.
Speaking of determinations, I was able to provoke a minor incident in Prince Albert (“PA” of course) at the local fast food shack when I purchased some meal grease for $3.45. A young lady who had more metal in her face than I had on my bike provided me my burger with an excellent bag-folding flourish but then was thrown into astonishment when the cash register failed to tell her how much change she should give me.
Senior metal girls were summoned to the tizzy. The word “like” was used with abandon. Finally, the supervisor made an appearance. Woe unto them! What were they to do?
Watching all this was a farmer in maybe his 70s. I figured this guy learned his arithmetic the real way, and probably could have spewed out crop linear tonnage of cripto-fossilate fertilizer per magna bushel in the time it would take me to burp. He looked at me and then looked at them. I was absorbed, dim, and unable to talk.
Finally, the supervisor proclaims “Give him $1.55!!!”. She looked at me but I refused the bait even as she stared at me for acceptance. When she handed me the coins I pocketed them silently and turned away, causing her suddenly to exclaim “See!....I don’t know why I can’t do that stuff at school!
As I passed, the farmer whispered to me, “Leaders of Tomorrow”. As I wandered back to my hotel room (“take me back to Ottawa with you”, the homesick, aged check-in lady had suggested), I noted dully that Connie had not fallen off her stand. As I turn in for the night I flip around to the Weather Channel and leave it on all night, muted. It had become my friend.
Day Eleven – Prince Albert to Selkirk, 'Toba
Prince Albert, SASK
N 53.13 degrees
W 105.41 degrees
Elevation 1,405 feet
Up in the morning and shake out the boots upside down to ensure there are no rattlers, then off to load pack-mule Connie. I give her the once over and wonder how many people see that the shift-side and the brake-side peg brackets are new and old, respectively. As inane as this might be, I know at least 2,200 COG guys and gals that would note this and mutter their observation to me, probably in a snide, insider fashion.
I headed a bit north, seeking lands I'd never seen before and roads that would be agreeable. I passed through some of the most wonderful towns imaginable. Melfort, Watson, Canora and up toward Duck Mountain. Prisons surely to the teenagers, but glory to travelers and old folks.
As I ripped through Duck Mountain provincial park in northern Manitoba I gloried in the wondrous forests, lakes and rivers, the occasional sighting of fox, ducks and birds of prey and the super twistie roadway without one bit of police radar tainting it. As a matter of fact, the whole layout took me back some years prior to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin when my bosom buddy, Brown Dog, and I took in the AMA Superbike race featuring the incomparable Freddy Spencer, Miguel DuHamel and Wayne Rainey, amongst others.
The race itself was only one highlight of the entire debauched weekend where we camped with a few thousand crazy bikers, light up some "Hi-Waiyan" spliffs and shared some high-alcohol "Bray Dore" beer with our deprived and depraved southern cousins. At one point near the end of the weekend we were shuffling off from the course in traffic in my VW Rabbit when a sudden opening onto the track appeared and, like slow-motion magic, there we were somehow winding-up the little baby along the straights and twisities of one of the greatest racecourses in the world.
While I handled the driving and honking chores, Brownie focused on the thumping stereo to ensure we shared "Friggin' In The Riggin (There Was Fuck All Else to Do)'" with the multitudes. For some reason, many turned back to the track when they heard us screeching about and we were greeted with the proper amount of respect and waving. I guess they thought we were some of the pros, winding down after the event.
My ride meanwhile, carried me closer and closer to the vast network of Manitoba's lakes area and I neatly split across Lake Manitoba and headed for Lake Winnipeg and the infamous Gimli Airport. I had been fascinated by this area for several years and there were several reasons for this.
First, it is an area that few people outside of Manitoba actually visit as it is off the beaten track and this had its own intrinsic fascination for me. Second, the countryside had been settled a century or so ago by waves of European immigrants fleeing the turmoil and horrors unfolding in that part of the world. Foremost among them were the Scandinavians who blessed the area with towns such as Reykjavic, Arborg and Norway House.
I considered it a personal goal to visit the town of Gimli from which one of my buddies, whom I will call Thorvald The Impaler, originates. Finally, the Gimli Airport is the spot where that brand-spanking-new Air Canada 767, later known as “The Gimli Glider”, was forced to emergency land after running out of fuel. Seems the new metric measurement system in Canada lead to a little mix-up at the pump when the plane departed from Toronto on its way west and the boys had to dead-stick it onto the strip, despite the fact that the local kart club was running some races at the time.
It took me a while to find the strip as I wound up getting lost a few times, once at a massive whiskey distilling plant whose sireeeen call almost overcame my better instincts. However, I finally located the airport and was hoping I could get close enough to get the lay of the land, replay events in my mind and maybe get a decent picture or two.
As I closed on one of the gates I was a bit surprised to realise there seemed to be no-one about. Yep, the place was deserted except for a great number of parked cars, a few silhouettes in the tower and a number of very cool airplanes, including one of those Canso waterbombers that scoop up great loads of H2O for later deposit on any of the forest fires that plague much of northern Canada.
Well, there was nothing for it but to ride out directly onto the main runway and peer up and down its lengths, imagining 2 completely freaked-out pilots trying to side-slip a 120 tonne monstrous and powerless jetliner down onto this tiny strip amidst what appeared to be a number of ants zipping around in fine racing fashion. I became smitten with the idea of a re-enactment and started to run Connie up to speed down the southern approach. Yes, we WERE the 767 and THERE was the end of the strip! We accelerated hard, touched a decent top speed and then screeeped on the brakes, plunging down onto our Kawasaki nose gear, just barely shy of the grass cutoff. Wheeeew! THAT was close.
I must admit that I was startled by the complete absence of security checkpoints at this spot, especially in the post 9-11 world. Surely steps had been taken to ensure that any future unauthorised aircraft attempting to penetrate such a sensitive area would be immediately and without warning harpooned out of the sky by members of the Gimli Icelandic Heritage Guard, but apparently not. Or maybe I just caught them at a bad time.
Enough of the pondering. We executed a quick dragbike take-off back to the gate, hunkered down over the bars and then out onto the southbound highway before anybody started a chase. We needed to get down to Stony Mountain Penitentiary before it got dark and we didn't have much time.
Federal penitentiaries are places that you do not want to be. I had had occasion to visit Kingston Maximum Security Pen a few years back as part of an evaluation course I was on and the whole experience raised the hair on the back of my neck to the point, 25 years later, where they still haven't come down. But Smoky Mountain was close and I wanted just to catch a glimpse, if only for the sake of morbid curiosity.
I had indirectly known some guys who spent a few years inside this place for trying to bring some pot back across the border at Pigeon River, Minnesota. I'd heard their story before they got out and then ran into them at a rather wild affair a gang of us had had at Kangus Sauna in Thunder Bay. I spent time talking to one of the “cons” over a few beers and he seemed to have become more than a bit disjointed - no pun intended. I thought an honour ride-by would be in order and maybe give me a long distance insight into the horror of it all.
I stayed at a small motel in Selkirk for the night after what seemed to be a bit of a mix-up with the night clerk. During our room negotiations she seemed jumpy and even a bit afraid of something. I tried to sooth her with kind words and thoughtful expressions but they didn't work.
As I passed Connie on the way out I noted dimly that her windshield had an accumulation of bugs that was several centimetres thick and that this had attracted a decent throng of hornets and small birds. Later, when I got into my room I peered at myself in the mirror and got a bit of a shock.
Staring back at me was the face of a stranger. A demented one.
I guess I'd been gobbling those chocolate-coated coffee beans that Sainte Isabel had turned me on to a bit too much, as my nostrils seemed to have permanently flared like those football players who wear those little band-aids across the top of their noses. I had great, bloodshot red eyes that were bugging out of my skull in a nice manner, and there were 2 salty-white weep marks running down from each eye as a result of wind-induced tearing that most riders are familiar with. I had acquired a slight twitch in my left eye and my hands shook like someone with palsy. My riding gear was filthy but otherwise I thought I was looking pretty good.
The motel had an internet connection and I felt it timely to send a note to the COG newsgroup reminding them that I was undergoing some Road Madness but had not accrued serious injury or arrest to date. I received back a few hooting posts of derision and insult which made me feel better.
Back to my room for the Weather Channel and a beer or 2 with the guy next door who was from Antigonish, Nova Scotia. We talked about photo radar, cars stopping for pedestrians and demented women for a while but then it was time to go unconscious and hope my body would re-boot overnight.
Day Twelve – Selkirk to Marathon, Ontari-ari-ari-OH
N 47.51 degrees
W 97.02 degrees
Elevation 762 feet
I remember nothing of this day. My notes are meaningless scribbles.
Day Thirteen (will this never end?) – Marathon to Haliburton
N 48.76 degrees
W 86.41 degrees
Elevation 600 feet
I had intended to ride non-stop from MaraStink to Ottawa but the Road Madness God played me like a top yet again. Things started OK in the morning except it was cold as hell and the mists from Gitchee-Goomee made riding at a good clip dicey. When your vision is limited to about 100 meters ahead and you are going, say, 140 kph, you must stay right on the tips of your toes to watch out for stray moose (warning signs EVERYWHERE), gigantic logging trucks snailing their way up serious inclines, and other pre-coffeed tourists who are bimboing along with little regard for The Urban Spaceman.
As I closed on Wawa I decided to cut over to an alternate route through Chapleau that hopefully would rid me of my ever-growing fear of the Mitchell Boys, mists and traffic and the need to stop-and-go my way through the Soo. This worked much better than anticipated and I eventually found myself dropping down to an eventually merge with the Trans-Canada back at Iron Bridge.
The last 1/3 of the highway was about as close as you could get to the Isle of Man without a pint of Guiness and a bowler hat. Swoops and turns, ever-changing-radius turns, banks and occasional jumps provoke Brit-accented cries of astonishment and glee from inside the space helmet. I enjoyed the ride tremendously but soon had to pull over into a truck-pull off to fight the ever-increasing impulse to go fully fetal and close my eyes forever. There was a race between my brain, hands and torso to see who could go into terminal cramp mode first.
As I'd been doing for the last few days, I stopped, groaned off Connie like Jed Clampett and slowly paced from one end of the pull-off to the other, trying all the while to stand erect. To add spice to the therapy I decided to do some Pimp Walking. Years ago, several of my buddies and I became enamoured with the king of professional wrestling, Sweet Daddy Siki. The Siki Strut soon became a standard in our teenage idiot repertoire and we added numerous variations over the years.
I had worked up to some Level Seven struts when I did a major James Brown spin-about, only to see 3 trucks plunging down the hill and passing where I stood, stunned and naked to their scrutiny. They had USA plates and towed big fishing boats. I avoided eye contact and was relieved they didn't pull over to see if I was OK.
I realized around mid-afternoon that there was no way in hell I was going to make it home on this day unless I really turned up the wick. Even then it would have been over 1,000 miles which is a tough slog when you're fresh and fit. When you are grappling with the terminal effects of Road Madness and some residual Dog it is pretty well out of the question, unless you don't mind getting way out on The Edge and staying there for a few hours.
In Espanola I met a Honda 600RR rider who was in worse shape than me. He had actually ridden this repli-roadracer out to Golden BC and was almost back. The torturous riding position of this hunched-over little sucker had clearly driven him beyond sanity and he was pacing up and down with his throttle arm straight up in the air over his head seeking relief. But he knew there was none to be had.
He told me he never would have started if he had known how bad it would be. He then stared at me as I softly recounted stories of Madness and The Dog to him. He nodded in a solemn manner and his back-and-forth pacing slowed. He knew.
At that point, just to compound things, it had started to drizzle and then rain, meaning that traction was at a premium, especially if the posted speed limit was something that had been provoking increasing sneers of distain over the last two weeks. As it got dark I entered the Muskoka Lakes area of Ontario which at most times is composed of gorgeous cliffs of the Canadian Shield, timeless racing rivers and rapids, and serene, forest-bounded crystal clear lakes.
Mired in a fog of dark and wet stupidity however, there is little to be aware of other than roadsigns that warn of twisty roads and moose. It is easy to get into trouble on a powerful bike in conditions like this. Traction, like reflexes, is markedly reduced and a too-quick squirt on the gas can bring the back end around suddenly and not too many people can get into slides in the wet without doing the Big Sparkler.
I couldn't conceive of falling in my condition so I left Connie in 6th and just sorta power-torqued my way out of corners. After a while my anxiety diminished and I started to enjoy things a bit. Soon the Mike Hailwood narrator voice was heard inside my helmet and time folded and compressed. Around 10 or so I arrived at the deserted logging road that lead to my brother's cabin. It was a mile long test of ruts, puddles and rocks. Stuff that seemed almost beyond my ken at this point.
As I slipped, slithered and foot-paddled my way through these tortures it seems certain that great big Connie and great big me were destined for a crash. If so, I doubted I could have picked up the fully-loaded machine alone, which meant something that I couldn't quite get my head around.
At times like these I try to comfort myself by recounting other horrors I or others I knew had been through. I challenged myself in the Classic Greek manner.
Had I not served under The Mighty Captain Dyno and got back aboard the “HMCS Watch This!” after being washed into Georgian Bay just before the great gale? Was I not the man in a thousand who had lived through the icy plunge off the Alaska Highway and into the Kathleen River with Stephen Lobotomy?
If not me, who then was it that was questioned by the Hong Kong security forces and subsequently released as an “international fraud expert”?? The horrifying dog-pack chase in Manchuria? The Wyoming State Troopers with the binoculars who had witnessed Browner and my “reckless” mountain descent in the Rockies? The accidental gulping of the bottle of hallucinogenic mescal in Mexico?
These pale beside the Rhodesian Poacher story that a friend of mine had been involved in during his term as a security advisor in that country a few years ago. Seems a European fella and a few local guys had jeeped up a very narrow and long trail to go crocodile hunting with hand grenades. One accidentaly went off before being thrown and blew the guy's hand off. The local folks ran away and the white guy was left to tourniquet himself and then back out along a 20-some mile long trail before turning around and getting to the closest hospital.
Stirred by the nth internal telling of this story (it also came in handy during endless management meetings at work) I reached down deep and Connie and I spun our way up the last rocky, wet hillclimb. As I creaked off the machine I muttered something like, “One goddam step for man, one goddam last blast with Road Madness”. I then cracked a beer or 5 and paced up and down the cabin deck in the rain for 1-2 hours groaning and moaning. I was totally unable to sit.
Day Fourteen – Haliburton to Royal Ontario Psychiatric Hospital (Ottawa)
N 45.08 degrees
W 78.11 degrees
Elevation 1,066 feet
I decided to leave my body to science and planned to stop at the Royal Ottawa on the return home but I missed the off-ramp. That was about the most memorable happening of the last leg of the trip.
Post-Mortem – Ottawa, ON
N 45.19 degrees
W 75.40 degrees
Elevation 381 feet
It took me about 3 or 4 days to return to a semi-normal state after my ride. However, some things simply cannot be shook so quickly. For example, I went out on my bicycle for a short ride along the Ottawa River Parkway one morning and as I came around a gentle bend in the road I saw an RCMP cruiser slowly coming at me – I immediately stopped pedalling and HIT!!! the brakes for all they were worth. The constable (a Mitchell?) looked a bit startled as we passed as he'd probably never seen anybody go from 20 kilometers per hour to zero in such a short distance on a bicycle. After a while, my pulse returned to normal.
It took a further few weeks for my white hands to get some circulation back, for the Dog-cursed walking rhythm to end, and for the Connie ear-ringing to fade.
It was time to plan next year's ride. Maybe Labrador. Or North Korea.