Day 6 – The Prairies

Wheat field, Southern Alberta.

As I rode across the open plains of the Southern prairies, I felt like I was riding home.  I guess I am a Prairie Boy at heart.  I think you have to be from the prairies to truly appreciate the huge skies and horizons so distant that you can sense the curvature of the earth in all directions.  Some would say the prairies are flat and boring, but as I rode across the vastness I was reminded of a song celebrating the Prairies that our family friend Karen Howe used to sing around the campfire called “Nothing Like The Freedom”.  The song is by Prairie singer/songwriter Deborah Romeyn and Karen actually provided back-up vocals on the studio release.  It goes:

There’s nothing like the freedom
Looking over miles and miles of land
And it’s something about the prairies
That strangers just don’t understand

You can listen to the full song here, but if you’re not from the prairies, you might not get it.  Interestingly, this song was played on the space shuttle.

Short grass prairie, Southern Alberta.

My ride across the prairies started in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan where I had stopped for the night after riding down from the north.  As I was packing up my bike in the morning, I got into a conversation with a guy who was getting married later that day.  Him and his buddies were decorating three shiny black pick-up trucks for the upcoming wedding procession.  The good ol’ boys were even stringing together dozens of beer cans with twine to be dragged from the back of the trucks.  He told me how people really loved their trucks in Prince Albert.  I had certainly seen plenty of evidence of that as I rode around the city.

“Why get a limo when you can ride in a truck?” he asked, rhetorically in his mind.  He does have a good point though.  He saw my Ontario license plate and told me that one of his buddies had moved out there.  He asked me if it was true that not everyone had a truck in Ontario.  I said there were less trucks for sure.  He nodded, and said: “Yeah my buddy told me that if you are lucky enough to see a truck in Ontario and hear the sound of dual exhaust, you have to stop and savour the moment.” 

Prairie Wedding, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

Snake highway (555), Southern Alberta.  The sign says “Snakes are at risk! Watch for snakes on road next 62 km – Please slow down and save our snakes.”  I did see some dead snakes on the road, but unfortunately no live ones.

One of my favourite stretches of highway of the entire trip was highway 555 in Southeastern Alberta.  The road skirts the northern edge of Canadian Forces Base Suffield which is one of the largest live fire training areas in the Western world at 2690 square km, and as such is largely uninhabited grassland.  On the other side of the 505 is the dramatic Red Deer River valley.  The whole area is teeming with wildlife.  I saw hawks, deer, antelope, coyotes, and yes even dead snakes on the road.  When I saw a magnificent Pronghorn Antelope (that I photographed below) bounding through a field, I felt like I was back on the Serengeti. 

Pronghorn Antelope sighting, Southern Alberta.

I was almost home (Lethbridge, Alberta) as the day came to and end.  I watched the sun go down near Brooks, where I captured this oil well (below).  It felt good to be in Southern Alberta again.

Canada is both easier and more difficult to ride across that some of the other areas I have ridden (i.e. South America, Africa).  Canada is great because you can go on an epic ride without having to cross any borders and safety is not a concern.  Canada is also without a doubt the most pristine country I have ridden through.  However, the challenges come from just how huge yet sparsely populated Canada is.  This makes for great dual sport adventures, but there were many places that were so isolated that fuel was a challenge and where I did not want to think what would happen if I were to break down.  It would take days to get the bike to a mechanic.

Another challenge is the weather.  I rode through some downright nasty weather, the cold rain blowing sideways into my face, chilling me to my core.  You can start a conversation pretty much anywhere in Canada by commenting on the weather.  One thing that seemed universal across the country was just how bad of a summer Canada has had so far.  People seem to be able to count the nice warm sunny days so far this year on one hand.  Canadians endure some of the harshest most unforgiving weather of any inhabited place on Earth for a good part of every year.  We put up with it stoically.  All we ask for in return is July, which is normally glorious with uninterrupted long hot sunny days.  This year we didn’t get July, and we have a right to complain.

In 6 days I covered over 4200 km from Toronto to Lethbridge.  I was enjoying the ride so much that it was painful to have to stop.  Even the weather turned nice for the last couple of days.  I wanted to keep going right up to the arctic circle.  But that trip will have to wait. 

You can see more pictures from my Canada Trip here.

Oil well near Brooks, Alberta.


Days 4 & 5 – The North

The ride into the North was the highlight of the trip.  There is such vastness.  You can ride for hours without seeing another vehicle, person, or indeed anything other than wilderness.  It made me feel small.

I decided to head north from Winnipeg after staying with Phil for a night (thanks for the friendly Manitoba hospitality buddy).  I thought I would try to get all the way to Flin Flon, which is probably about a 10 hour ride if you go directly.  However, I dawdled in Riding Mountain National Park.  The park lived up to its name, providing fun gravel roads that meandered through boreal forest and muskeg swamp with impressive views of the surrounding prairie below.

By the time I got to Swan River (with it’s giant swan guarding the entrance to the town), it was already after 9 PM.  I might have stopped for the night, but it was still light!  The northern sunset lasts longer than a prairie good-bye.  A couple of hours later, I was alone in the northern twilight on a deserted road twisting through the muskeg along the swampy shore of Lake Winnipegosis.  Even though it was after 11 PM, the western sky was still aglow.  I felt as if I had ridden onto some other planet, where the only sources of illumination were the lingering twighlight reflecting off the lake, the full moon rising above the trees, and my lone headlight shining on a cracked deserted road constructed by a long lost civilization.

The temperature was dropping quickly as night fell, and yet again I found myself yearning for my electric vest.  It felt like winter.  The illusion was reinforced by the sensation that I was riding through a snowstorm as my headlight reflected off of thick clouds of insects.  It became increasingly difficult to see as my visor accumulated smashed bugs.  When I almost went wide on a corner because of poor visibility, I considered stopping to clean my helmet.  But that would mean taking off my helmet and exposing my naked head to the bloodthirsty swarms.  I decided to press on.  All thoughts of camping in the northern wild vanished instantaneously, and instead I became fixated on making it to The Pas, where Phil had told me there was a “really nice hotel”.  What can I say?  Just because I crossed the frigid Bolivian altiplano and the oven-hot Nubian desert in Sudan does not mean that I would choose to be uncomfortable just on principle.

Unfortunately I ended up having to expose myself to the ravenous clouds of attacking bugs.  I ran out of gas about 20 km short of The Pas.  Luckily I had strapped a Jerry can full of gas to the back of my bike before leaving Winnipeg.  I had almost run out of gas several times on the well-travelled TransCanada highway, and I knew that the concentration of gas stations would only decrease the further I got off the beaten track.  It doesn’t help that the few gas stations that do exist often close at 6 PM.  In the time it took me to refuel my bike, the insects had found their way through every seam and were even inside my helmet, which is the only reason I took it off for the above shot.

When I finally arrived at the Kikiwak Inn in the Opaskwayak Cree Nation near The Pas well after midnight, I was delighted to discover that it was the best value in Canada.  The suites were luxurious and bigger than most people’s condos in downtown Toronto, and it was ridiculously cheap.  Definitely a better option than being bug food.

The next day I rode past the 54th parallel and beyond into Flin Flon, Manitoba.  I have been intrigued with Flin Flon ever since I discovered that it is named after a fictional character from a book that a prospector found in the woods.  I was amused to find a giant statue of the town’s namesake, Fintabetty Flonatin.  It is amazing that some town council actually agreed to pay for Flintabetty’s resurrection.

An oversized statue of Flintabetty Flonatin greets visitors to Flin Flon, Manitoba.

I continued west along beautiful hard packed gravel roads acoss Northern Saskatchewan.  The DRZ loved these roads, and it felt good to raise a cloud of dust along the straightaways with the throttle pinned.

The North is dual sport heaven – empty roads, beautiful scenery, and absurdly long days.  The Yukon’s Dempster highway has definitely moved up on my list of future rides.

Route 165, Northern Saskatchewan.

Day 3 – Lake Superior

Lake Superior

I got off to a bit of a late start on Day 3 because the night before found me at the poker table in the Sault until past 4 AM.  It was fun to play some no-limit Texas Hold’em against the locals.  There was a 20ish kid who worked as a security guard because “you can’t find a decent job in this town”.  Another young guy, by his own assertion, had the most boring job on the planet.  He said he spent 10 hours a day leveling wood chips (or was it lumber?).  There was a young 25ish woman from Eliott Lake, here on a mini-vacation with her mother.  I asked what Eliott Lake was like, having never been there myself.  This sparked a discussion at the table about how awful of a place Eliott Lake was. 

“That town is full of retirees.  It’s where you go to wait to die,” somebody said.  Someone else added:

“It’s worse than death.”  Everyone laughed at this, including the young woman here on a temporary escape from there.  But at the end she was more sighing than laughing.  I asked her what kept her there, and she said her 3 kids, aged 6, 2, and 1.  That would do it.  This was mommy’s night out, and she was making the most of it – that is until her Aces got cracked and she busted out of the game.

I busted out myself quite early in the night when I lost with an Ace-high flush to a straight flush.  I had Qh-Th in the big blind and the flop came down 2h-4h-6c giving me a four flush.  There had been a raise preflop so the pot was already decent with four people in.  It was checked to an older gentleman on the button who made a standard bet.  I decided that this was a good opportunity to push all-in because I thought I could get him to fold a lot of hands and I had a lot of outs if I was called.  Everyone folded except the old man, who called rather quickly.  Oh-oh.  He had the straight already with 5h-3h!  The turn was a blank.  When the Ace of hearts landed on the river, completing my flush, I thought I had won.  That is until the old man jumped up and yelled straight flush!  Well, what can you do except buy in again?

I made a good chunk of my money back against the security guard kid much later in the night.  I had 6-6 in the big blind.  The kid raised in first position and the wood-chip leveler called in mid position.  Everyone else folded.  I don’t normally like to play small pocket pairs out of position in 3-handed pots, but I called the raise to see what developed on the flop because I had a good feel for the way people were playing.  The flop came down Jc-8c-5d, completely missing me.  I was ready to be done with the hand, but then the kid over-bet the pot and the wood-chip leveler folded, leaving me heads-up.  Suddenly I had a read that the kid probably had two high-cards and not a big pair, and moreover I knew that he was a good enough player to fold a few good hands.  He might even fold a hand like 10-10. 

I decided to raise all-in against him.  Folding would have been alright.  The only clear mistake would have been just calling and then facing another tough decision on the turn when likely another overcard to my pair would come off and the Kid would almost surely bet again with anything.  The kid thought for awhile and then folded A-K face-up!  I love it when poker works out that way.  I ended up leaving the table even which is a good result considering how the evening started.  Stupid straight flush.

When I finally hit the road the next day it was already around noon and it was dark, cold, and threatening to rain (or maybe snow?).  I did not regret sleeping through the morning.  The clouds lifted shortly after I came upon the dazzling shore of Lake Superior.  The TransCanada highway, carved out of the rugged Canadian shield, hugs the rocky shore of Lake Superior between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay, Ontario, making this an incredibly scenic ride for hours on end.  So how does the ride along Lake Superior compare to that around some of the World’s other Great Lakes?

Left to right: Lake Superior, Canada; Lago Titicaca, Peru; Lake Malawi, Malawi.

Well, Lake Superior may not be situated at over 4000 metres on the altiplano of South America or in a lush tropical valley in East Africa, but it has a rugged beauty that is all its own.  I felt like I was riding into a Group of Seven painting. 

Left: Fred Varley: ‘Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay’ (1921)
Right: Franklin Carmichael: ‘Lake Wabagishik’ (1928)

The highway twists and turns through the bedrock and I spent a good part of the day leaning over the frothy waves crashing into the rocks below.  At one point I flew around a corner and had the startling illusion that I was going to sail right into the lake. 

When the sun started to get low and wash the racetrack with a golden glow, I was having as much fun as I’d had on a motorcycle since South Africa.  I had the throttle pinned, the bike leaning into perfectly banked corners, and a big grin on my face.  I almost forgot how unbelievably cold it was and how I wished I had my electric vest despite my two sweaters and two jackets.

I am not going to say whether Superior is better than Malawi or Titicaca, but I will say that it is by far the most pristine.  The crystal clear waves splashing on the bedrock of the Canadian shield with pine covered hills stretching to the horizon is a scene that feels as if it has remained unchanged since the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago.

The sun sets over Lake Superior and the TransCanada highway.

The Canada tour begins

I am finally off on my two-wheeled trip across the Canadian heartland.  It is only day 2 and I’ve already almost run out of gas twice.  On the last trip I made it all the way to South Africa before running out of gas for the first time.  What is going on?  Well for one, I will admit that I have a little bit more packed onto my bike than Macher would approve of.  But in my defense I am going to be living away for 6 weeks of electives.  So I have some books, more clothes than I have an excuse for, and even this computer.  The extra weight, combined with a strong headwind, and cruising at 125-130 km/h on the 400 resulted in the bike sputtering out at only 150 km since the last fill!  I thought I would at least make it 200 km before going into reserve.

Almost out of gas in the middle of nowhere.  I had to resort to my Garmin GPS while still only a couple of hours outside of Toronto to try to find the closest gas station.

Unfortunately the nearest gas station turned out to be a 30 km backtrack.  According to the GPS, the next gas station in my direction was over 80 km away.  It shames me to have had to break the number one rule of motorcycle touring so soon on my trip (“Thous shalt not backtrack”).  It was either that or hitchhiking though.

I almost ran out of gas later on because I didn’t realize that after about 6 or 7 PM almost all of the gas stations would be closed.  I had to ride the last 150 kilometres into Sudbury at 85 km/h to try and conserve fuel.  Luckily I made it to 223 km before switching to reserve.  I wanted to reward myself for the cold night ride into Sudbury (I had a late departure and it was just befoe 10 PM by the time I got there) with a nice steak dinner before finding a place to spend the night. 

Unfortunately, everything seemed to be closed.  I eventually stopped at a Travelodge with a Perkins restaurant attached and when I asked if the restaurant was still open the attendant looked at me like I was crazy. 

“Is there anything open in Sudbury where I could eat at this hour?” I asked.

“At ten o’clock at night?  You really want to eat at ten o’clock?  There is nothing open except for maybe the Tim Horton’s drive thru.”

Next I asked if there was a place to camp nearby and he really looked at me like I was speaking another language.  I guess people don’t normally come to Sudbury to camp.  I used the GPS to find a tavern hoping that perhaps they would serve some bar food.  In the end I ended up at a fine bar called the “Smiling Buddha” with a great beer selection and an open kitchen.  So to set the record straight – yes you can eat at 10 PM or even midnight in Sudbury.  And you can wash your meal down with a bottle of Unibroue “La Fin du Monde” if you should so choose.

I ended up splurging for a fine room at the Quality Inn just down the street.  When I woke up this (late) morning, it was as dark as Mordor outside and threatening to deluge.  Riding through Sudbury in the dim daylight on the ride out I felt as though I actually was in Mordor.  Cool.

Nickel Mine (aka Mordor), Sudbury, ON.

Because of my late start on Day 1, I was hoping to make it all the way to Thunder Bay on Day 2.  Alas, I had another late start (or put another way a wonderful sleep).  My decision to stop in Sault Ste Marie was made much easier by the horrible weather.  It has been cold and raining all day.  I wish I had my electric vest.  Without an electric vest, the ride to Thunder Bay in the cold downpour would be miserable indeed.  Also I have been told that the north shore of Lake Superior is beautiful, and I would like to do the ride in nice weather during the day (which will hopefully be the case tomorrow).

The rain stopped for a few minutes today so I snapped this picture of the Busy Bee Restaurant where I had a hearty Lumberjack Breakfast and coffee on the TransCanada about 50 km or so west of Sudbury.