Oak & Sterling

Murphy’s Law is real

When I tell others about my first motorcycle road trip it sounds cool. I rode out to Jasper National Park, drank by a campfire, slept in a tent, met some European travelers and traded with them for Swiss chocolates, ate brunch in Jasper the next morning and rode home.

You can’t talk about a road trip on a motorcycle without imagining the movie Easy Rider. The quintessential motorcycle road trip movie (Sorry Joshua Jackson). This road trip was nothing like that. There was a lot of time spent walking and running and frantically phoning and texting people for help.

It was a freak weekend in mid-October, 2015. Temperatures in Central Alberta were dipping close to zero degrees Celsius, but the weekend of October 17 and 18 was forecast to reach 16 degrees Celsius during the day. The other reason it was a freak weekend was because I had Saturday and Sunday off. The job I was working at the time was so busy and short-staffed that I would average 50 to 60-hour work weeks and get one day off roughly every three weeks. Having two days off back-to-back was rare, so rain or shine I was determined to make something of this weekend.

While I was sitting at home on Friday night thinking of what to do with my weekend, I decided that I hadn’t been to Jasper National Park since the summer of 2013 and maybe I could pack my tent and sleeping bag and spend a night there. I had also recently made a friend that lived in Jasper so I could give her a shout when I got there. Sounds like a plan.

Luckily for me, about a month back I had just bought my first motorcycle and had just obtained my full motorcycle licence a couple of weeks prior. I figured why not take my new bike on a road trip? I’m a relatively experience driver. I’ve driven from southeast Ontario to central Alberta and back more than once in a car, which is about 3,700 kilometres. I’m sure I can do Woodlands County to Jasper National Park, after all it’s only about 270 kilometres and the road is quite easy in a car. The route is simple. Travel west on Highway 43 North (the highway is actually travels NW and SE) to Highway 32 South, turn south on Highway 32 until it ends at Highway 16 which is the Yellowhead highway starting in Manitoba. Turn west on the Yellowhead and it takes you straight into Jasper.

That weekend I learned that riding a motorcycle is a lot more exhausting than driving a car, and what’s normally a three-hour-long drive in a car took me about nine hours on my motorcycle.

My landlady loaned me her sleeping bag and a cotton liner. I have a four-person tent which is huge but it was a freebie from my sister so “that’ll do”. I strapped the sleeping bag and tent to my bike with a bungee cord, loaded up some basic kit in my 15-year-old DaKine skateboarding backpack, and hit the road at about 10 a.m.

My 1975 Honda CB550 which I bought for $1,500 in Lloydminster, AB. You can see the frost on my car windows. It was about 2°C at the time.

I had traveled about 4 kilometres before I pulled over and ran into my first two problems. My bike started howling like a wailing banshee and I was frozen stiff and could barely operate the clutch lever.

I pulled over and frantically texted my friend Will Stewart telling him about the sound. I thought maybe a bearing was failing because I didn’t let it warm up. After some roadside googling, I figured out it was the tachometer which is mechanically driven, requires regular oiling or it can seize up. I unscrewed the tach cable and decided to drive to McDonalds and get some food and warm up. I ate some hashbrowns and sat and watched the temperature on my phone, and at 11 a.m. decided it would be warm enough to risk it.

I turned south on Highway 32 and the wind and cold was just fierce. That highway is a particularly risky highway because there are no shoulders to pull over, and it’s a major corridor for moose, elk, deer, cougars and logging trucks. A few cars here and there, but I was the only bike on the road as most people had already winterized their bikes for the season. I rode with my high beams on to make myself as visible as possible. Most log trucks actually move to give you as much space as possible. In my experience it’s actually SUV and minivans that give the least amount of space and are always passing at dangerous times.

About an hour later I reached Edson, AB, which is about 100 km south of Whitecourt. Fuelled up at Shell, ate some value menu cheeseburgers at McDonalds, and hit the road. Once you reach Edson you can get glimpses of the mountains. I also started to notice a few other motorcycles on the Yellowhead. A good sign. Hinton was the next stop and was about 80 km further west.

Just as the excitement was building from approaching the halfway mark and seeing mountains, it was promptly snuffed out. About 20 km out of Hinton, I was passing a car on the left and just as I was giving it gas, I stopped accelerating. I twisted the throttle and nothing, I was slowing down in the passing lane and all the lights on the console were off. The bike was completely off. I made the hand signal that I was stopping and managed to pull over. A biker passed me and turned to look but he continued.

I tried everything to get it started but the kick-starter and electric started weren’t working and the battery wasn’t turning on. I got off and placed my helmet on the ground behind my bike to signal that I need assistance.

Helmet on the ground behind your motorcycle is supposed to signal that you need help. No one stopped… but I also didn’t flag anyone down so I didn’t seem like I was in distress.

I texted Will again and he said to check the fuses. So I popped off the panel and checked. Sure enough, the main fuse had blown. Luckily for me I studied computer engineering in high school so I’m reasonably handy with tools and electronics.

There are three fuses on a CB550’s main fuse box (not sure if there is a second fuse box). This was the 15A main fuse which had blown. It was just after 1 p.m. and I was only half way there. If I had driven in my car I would have already reached.

Now what was I supposed to do? Luckily inside the fuse box cover are some spare fuses and there was one 15 amp fuse. I plugged it in and the bike came to life. Kitted back up and hit the road again.

As I reached Hinton I pulled over at another Shell gas station to fuel up because I know fuel in Jasper can be expensive. I pulled off the Yellowhead and just as I pulled into the gas station the bike shut off again. The main fuse had blown again.

I asked the gas station attendant if he had old glass fuses and he said no so I asked where there was a parts store nearby and he gave me directions to NAPA Auto, so I parked my bike and asked him to keep an eye out on it and started walking.

While walking I checked with the Husky as they sometimes carry odds and ends but they didn’t have any. The temperature was approaching double digits now as it was about noon. I kept walking and decided to try another auto shop on the way. The guy was on the phone and took a long time to get off before asking me if I needed assistance. He then said he’ll ask the guys in the shop and then disappeared for about 10 minutes and came back and said no. I kept walking to NAPA Auto which was more of the same, staff apparently don’t know how to triage and prioritize service. They can only work on one task as a time it seems. So I found some fuses that were a little long, but figured I should just take these and see what I can do. I bought some with a higher amp rating in case the 15A fuses kept blowing. I had lost a lot of time by now, I was tired and losing patience.

I got back to my bike and the Shell attendant came out to talk to me and said I could just put a wire across as a jumper and keep riding. But with my knowledge of electronics, I said I don’t want to do that just yet. I managed to squeeze in the oversized fuse and hit the road to Jasper.

The ride to Jasper was nice and I entered the park at approximately 3:30 p.m. It was October so the sun was rapidly setting and the temperature was going to start dropping too.

I had kept in touch with my friend in Jasper and let her know my troubles and an updated ETA after leaving Hinton.

I reached the town of Jasper and saw Courtenay with a friend. Just as a pulled into a parking spot, my bike shut off AGAIN. This time I was desperate. I knew Jasper did Harley Davidson rentals so I went to their shop. Maybe they knew a mechanic? But it was Saturday and the shop was closed. I called them and someone answered and said she will try and see if she can help me but she may not be able to get help over the weekend. I decided it was time to go to NAPA Auto in Jasper and get some tools.

It was 4:50 p.m. and NAPA closed at 5 p.m., and I was about 700 metres away. I phoned NAPA and told them I’m on my way over, I have an emergency and please don’t close. This employee was a lot more helpful than the ones in Hinton and she showed me where everything was.

I got more fuses, 12 gauge wire, and electrical tape.

I got back to my bike, told Courtenay I wanted to get to my campsite ASAP and setup my tent before sunset (keep in mind when you’re surrounded by mountains, it gets dark before sunset).

The bike fired up, I reached my campsite around 6 p.m.

Fill this out and drop it into a box and they take the payment out later when they empty the box. $36.20 to camp for one night plus the cost to use their firewood.

Camping season was closed at the time, so it works on an honour system where you pick a campsite, register yourself paying for however many nights and firewood if you want, and leave your credit card info and drop it into a box. I had called Parks Canada before to talk to them and ask how camping works out of season and the person told me not to worry, it’s off-season so there will be many spots available.

Much to my surprise, the parking lot was packed full of campers and only two spots were left in the campground! I parked my bike, filled out the forms and went to setup camp.

First I setup my tent, and then got the fire going. Courtenay gave me the number of a pizza place and I ordered pizza. I was too tired to risk going back into town. I got my fire going, ate pizza and drank some whisky, probably Lagavulin 16 or something.

1975 Honda CB550, tent, fire, peated whisky and pizza. What more could you ask for?

While I was waiting for Courtenay and her friend to come, I decided to try and snooze a little and enjoy the fire. But I couldn’t rest because every few minutes a large diesel RV would drive by. It seems I wasn’t the only one who decided to take advantage of this fair weather. I could even hear all the noise of families setting up. When I went to get more firewood, it was like a festival or something, everyone had their RVs extended and kids were running around. I was thankful I got my spot when I did.

I threw some more wood on the fire and tried to snooze some more, but one RV pulled up and blinded me with its lights. Then a voice with a German accent said “Excuse me?”. I got up and this woman was standing there, she said the parking lot is full of campers and since I only have a bike, they asked if they could use my parking spot (just to the right in the picture is another space for a larger vehicle if I had one). She insisted on paying for half the fees and I said no it’s fine, just park there. So they parked their RV and came out and chatted with me for a bit. They offered me dinner but I said no thanks, I had just eaten. But since I refused money and food they kept insisting on offering me something. Finally they offered Swiss chocolates and without hesitation I said yes. It turns out they were Swiss and they come to Canada often and rent an RV and spend their summers going north to places like Dawson City and Whitehorse. The guy’s name was Ours (which is the French word for Bear and he confirmed it did mean bear) but I can’t remember his wife’s name. We chatted for a bit and I asked him to help me carry wood and he did.

I told him my friends are coming so there may be some people chatting and they didn’t mind. They ate dinner and went to bed. Courtenay arrived with her friend Michelle, we had a drink and Michelle made fun of my socks and then gave me a pile of wood she had in her car. Fair trade.

We kept it quiet and I packed it in for the night.

At night I started to ponder about my bike. I don’t know much about bikes and I know a little about cars and electronics. I figured I’ll do some basic scientific methodology and see what I come up with. This main fuse problem never happened when I first got the bike, and the only thing different was that I’m carrying a load on the bike. I know the frame is the ground on the bike, so maybe the metal hooks on the bungee cords are causing a short somewhere?

Morning campfire to take the chill out. Bungee cords getting ready for wrapping.
Always travel with a knife. This is a Buck hunting knife I bought off my landlord for $20. It is engraved with NOWSCO 1990 for when he retired.

The next morning I woke up, rekindled the fire with some embers, and decided to wrap the metal hooks with electrical tape.

I packed up my kit and met Courtenay and Michelle for brunch in Jasper and hoped for the best.

Some of the Swiss chocolate that the travelers gave me.
Courtenay (left) and Michelle (right). They were taking a photo of me because I looked like a mess. But to me it looked like they were just taking selfies.


After brunch I said bye to them and hoped that I solved my problem with my bike. I still had fistfuls of fuses and a roll of wire if trouble persisted.

I eventually made it home to East Mountain Rd. in Woodlands County and it seems the ground was the problem.

That’s the story of my first ever motorcycle road trip. It was quite the mission, but worth it.

Lessons learned: There’s no time like the present. Computer engineering class was a good decision. Ask friends for help. Be nice to travelers and be prepared to make trades.

I’m now planning a trip to Alberta on my new(er) motorcycle and I will take a tent and sleeping bag and write and shoot photos along the way.

Always stop to enjoy the sights. Isn’t it beautiful? Also some mountains in the background.

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