When we last left off, I was telling the story of the ride that *really* changed everything for me – how that particular journey started. I was telling the story of my grandfather Jack, about deciding to take a Russian sidecar motorcycle over 5000km across Canada to attend his memorial.
Going the long way west, longer than I had ever been and chasing a ghost all the way across.
We did it in June, which isn’t really the best month for this kind of trip (Especially that year, as the snow has persisted in the prairies longer than usual.)
When you just say you are going to drive 5000 kilometers it doesn’t seem like such a big deal – I mean people drive across the country every day. These days it isn’t such a huge distance really. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal when you just say the words.
At until you look at a map of the continent, and you see all the spaces between cities and the long curving single road that stretches for much of the distance. You start to twitch when you stare at those spaces and the single line running between destinations, and you begin to understand why mapmakers wrote in notations like “Here there be dragons” and you want to scribble in the odd message like “Here there be Gas” for much the same reason they drew sea monsters.
It’s uncomfortable looking at the spaces between things.
when you look at the those spaces, at the distance of that line, the reality of the trip tends to sink in a little. Or a lot. Or far too much.
Not to mention that the Ural, while new, was still a design not all that far removed from its’ roots in a 1930’s German motorcycle design. It wasn’t fast – about 95kph for cruising speed on the one wheel drive Tourist model we had. And while 2007 was one of the first majorly improved model years in terms of reliability and quality control – we were still talking about a niche motorcycle produced at least partly using machines built during the height of the Soviet regime.
To make things more interesting – I wasn’t exactly an experienced mechanic either. I’d had a few vintage machines and had learned how to do some basic repairs. (For example wiring, carb cleaning, changing brake pads, changing a control cable, etc.)
I’d owned a vintage Vespa which hadn’t exactly been maintenance free and had needed regular cable and other replacements at the side of the road. So I had some idea of how to handle the minor things that could occur. But would I be up for something where I could be a hundred kilometers from the nearest town if I ran into an issue?
I’d be proposing to my wife that we drive in a machine of unknown reliability, across huge stretches of uninhabited places, during a season of changeable weather and for a distance we had never come close to attempting before.
My wife – who ever surprises me – was all for the idea.
We did our research, consulting family who had made the trip many times, buying books and reading ride reports – assembling a spare parts list and figuring out what we would pack for the trip time and time again. We compiled a map with notes, figured out the gas station locations around Lake Superior and northern Ontario and compared this to the range of the Ural – and then added a 10 liter jerry can when we figured out the range of the bike and the distances involved might make things… uncomfortably close.
Due to time constraints, we found a shipping company to haul the rig back – which would allow us to spend more time in BC with our limited vacation.
Unfortunately my daughter was unable to come along – but we found a way to make her a part of the trip. A way to bring her along and make her a part of the story – meet Katie.
Katie is my daughters’ stuffed toy Koala, and she’d be along for every part of the journey.
Katie would be writing status updates for my daughter, and wrote her own diary of the trip from a Koala’s perspective. (Spoiler, Canada is surprisingly bereft of Eucalyptus trees.)
So we had a Russian motorcycle, two experienced scooterists and somewhat inexperienced motorcyclists who both were of questionable sanity, half-assed preparation and a full-assed writer covering the day to day happenings along the way.
Jack was waiting out there for us – somewhere.
Laughing no doubt, every step of the way.
So after all this, months of planning, months of packing and taking apart and re-packing and then overpacking and then panic packing when we realized we were idiots and forgot something important – it all came down to the day we were leaving on the trip.
We’d decided we would head out straight from my work on a Friday, so the Thursday night before we got everything ready to go and my wife packed it onto the Ural and then came to pick me up from work.
Over-packed may have been the appropriate term. Or perhaps massively overloaded. We had 2 netbooks, extra clothes, tent, two sleeping bags, jerrycan of fuel, parts and tools in the trunk, camera gear, and more.
Plus a Koala stuffed in there somewhere, but she didn’t complain at having to share the space.
In hindsight, we could have shared off a fair amount of weight and bulk if we had done a better job of packing and sorting what to bring. But that is one thing that changes after a trip like this – experience is a better teacher than any amount of information gathered from the internet and others.
Though I had no doubt following the wisdom of others kept things from getting truly ridiculous.
My brother, Jonathon came for the first part of the ride up to Barrie -he’d be flying out and meeting us in Victoria later on.
This was especially appropriate actually – as the great motorcycle love of my grandfathers’ life was British motorcycles and specifically the Norton brand.
So what did my brother bring along to escort us on the first part of our trip out of Ontario?
His vintage 1970’s Norton – a gorgeous machine with paint you can eat off of and power to spare. And despite being both vintage and British, possibly less temperamental than the Russian machine we were driving.
Not that I’d ever admit it where he could hear of course.
We were off – sweating in traffic and 30 degree Celsius heat as we crawled through traffic north from Toronto.
My wife started off with the driving – and we swapped out throughout the trip every two hours or so to rest the other driver. Unless it was raining. Or rough going. Or really cold. Then it was somehow always my turn.
Not that I can complain, she’s likely to read this after all.
Ontario was experiencing quite the un-seasonal heat wave at the time and the traffic getting up past Barrie was slower than usual. Leaving on a Friday when hordes of people were desperate to leave the city for cottage country probably wasn’t the finest idea in retrospect.
Plus we had just left one of Canada’s two official seasons: going from Winter to Construction.
But you don’t likely want to hear about the interesting places that sweat was causing fungus to grow, so for the sake of preserving your sensibilities we should take a break from the ride report to go some more into the subject of the trip – my grandfather, Jack.
I’d mentioned in the last installment how he did over 50 years of the Victoria day parade on a Penny Farthing bicycle. Here he is when the then Mayor of Victoria – giving him a ride on his bicycle.
(I’m pretty sure the Mayor should have actually had his eyes open for this, but everyone has their own unique riding style.)
Jack did decades of Victoria Bicycle days – an event held in one of the local parks and involving antique and modern bicycles and enthusiasts – in which he almost always won any content involving a Penny Farthing.
Races, balancing competitions, jousting – he was a natural at anything involving two wheels.
He was also a natural mechanic and builder – building his house after the war, making a boat for the family and fixing everything from cars to motorcycles to just about every neighborhood bicycle.
There were a lot of kids who had a bike because of Jack – and a lot of people he helped with various projects over the years.
Just how many would become evident to me, just a little further into this story.
But before we get to that, we have to get across the continent. Across the unending pines of Northern Ontario, across an ocean of prairie with impossibly large skies, across mountains and trails and rivers.
Before we met the sea, and maybe found Jack.
We ended the first day at Parry Sound. Dropping into bed, exhausted from a busy day and traffic.
But this would be the last time for a while we had to deal with traffic anyways – from here on in it would be the occasional big rig, local travelers, and the occasional person making the long -pilgrimage across the huge expanse that is Canada.
Instead of watching traffic, we’d be watching for other things for the rest of this trip.
We were on the way. Off to Sudbury next, and then the long curve around Lake Superior to Thunder bay, and west from there to Manitoba.
The Russian was ticking, the pavement appearing and falling behind, and we were on our way to a meeting with Jack, through an endless array of trees of stone.
We didn’t quite know what we were in for, but I suspect that’s what makes any adventure – naivety and general incompetence.
And we had no shortage of either.
(To be continued….)