Oak & Sterling

There and back again…

After traveling over 4,000 kilometers, spending more than 46 hours on the road and riding for 6 days, I found myself back in a place I thought I left for good.

I left my job as the editor of the Whitecourt Star and Mayerthorpe Freelancer in January 2017 and decided to travel the world a little bit. When I came back to Ontario I was happy to come back to my creature comforts. I setup my TV and got back to gaming on my Sony PlayStation 4. I enjoyed watching movies on my surround sound theatre, and listening to music. But after a couple of weeks I started to get restless.

Joblessness is the worst.

I wanted to do something with my time before I started my summer job in June. I have always wanted to go on a road trip on a motorcycle, and I figured there’s no time like the present to do so. My 1975 CB550 is a good bike, but it’s old and I figured any issues while on the road would be more of a hassle to resolve because sourcing parts and mechanics who knew older bikes would be tricky. So I bought another bike, though not much younger and with essentially the exact same mileage.

The bike: A 1991 Honda Nighthawk 750.

The plan: Go west.

The mission: To spend Canada’s sesquicentennial year of Confederation on the road and get to know more of Canada.

The timeline: Leave at the beginning of May and spend a week on the road, three weeks in Alberta, and a week heading back in the beginning of June.

I packed up my gear and loaded up the bike and got ready to leave. I have done the drive west from Ontario to Alberta twice through the U.S.A. and back east through the U.S.A. once. The second time back I drove through Canada staying north of the Great Lakes via northern Ontario.

I figured I would try the same route west since I am somewhat familiar with the route now, and since I’m still a relatively new rider, using an unfamiliar bike, better safe than sorry.

I left on May 2, 2017 and made it to Windsor Ontario late that night. It was pouring rain over Brampton and Mississauga and I was soaked. I headed west on Highway 403 wearing three layers of clothes to try and keep warm and dry. But I was frozen and exhausted. The ride was very windy and keeping the bike under control while feeling freezing cold was difficult. When I reached the hotel in Windsor, I was beat and just passed out as soon as I got in.

The weather the next day wasn’t looking good and I was so exhausted, I decided to spend an extra night and just rest.

I also ran into an administrative issue with my bike involving me being an Albertan and buying a bike in Ontario. Service Ontario has always been a hassle to deal with my whole life and again they proved to be just as incompetent and misdirect customers. I’ll explain the issue in another post.

I decided to go back to the drawing board and try again later once I had my vehicle registration concerns dealt with. I didn’t consider it a failure, more like a tactical retreat. I was determined to convert this into a learning experience and try again.

One issue I wanted to tackle was my kit. I have never done this before and I felt I had too much. I weighed everything and excluding the 10 litres of gas, I was carrying about 70 pounds worth of kit. This needed to be reduced.

I had gifts for people in Whitecourt, about 5 days worth of clothes, lots of warm clothes and rain gear, about 3 MRE ration packs, tools, tent, sleeping bag, basic survival equipment (knife, hatchet, matches, rope). So I trimmed that down by about half and decided to do without the jerry can of gas.

This is what my bike looked like on my first attempt.

As you can see, a lot of kit which was stacked far back and up high, not ideal for a well balanced bike.

I determined a few things: I was carrying too much kit which was draining my energy. Every input into the bike requires strength and skill and the heavier the bike, the more energy it takes. Also, I realized the windshield wasn’t setup properly for me and was instead directing all of the wind at my forehead causing severe helmet vibrations, noise, and strain on my neck.

I took off the windscreen and while there is more wind on my torso, it’s more evenly spread and more manageable. My kit was also much lighter and took up less space.

This was my kit setup the second time around. I was wearing the backpack from Brampton to Muskegon, Michigan, but took it off from Muskegon to Milwaukee. I prefer riding with it off.

Day 1: Brampton to Milwaukee via the Lake Express ferry. The ferry would take around 2 hours to cross Lake Michigan, but would cut out 4 hours of riding which would avoid fatigue, which was my main concern. The ferry was very expensive however. About $90 USD per person and another $50 for my bike.

I traveled west on Highway 401 to Sarnia, crossed the border into Michigan and continued west on the Interstate 69 to Lansing and then I-96 to Muskegon. I was running behind schedule because of bad traffic on Highway 410 South and Highway 401 West. The 400 series highways in Toronto are horrible and always delayed with accidents and construction and volume.

I left approximately 0930hrs and reached at 1630hrs. The Lake Express ferry was due to leave at 1645 to Milwaukee and when I arrived the check-in counter notified me that the ferry has already left. I wasn’t the only person who was given the bad news. I was irritated but not much I could do. The staff let me stay in the building to use their free wi-fi which was nice. It was also air conditioned and had water fountains so I rested for a bit and ate some snacks.

From Muskegon to my destination in Milwaukee was about 467 kilometres away. I planned my route and left around 1730hrs and reached my friend’s place around 2230hrs. I was driving fast and it took about 5 hours in total.

Day 1 was a total of 12 hours on the road and I covered a distance of approximately 1,100 kilometres. I was incredibly exhausted so passed out immediately.

Day 2: The next morning I looked at my route and decided I should spend an extra night and then leave. I went to Don and Roy’s just west of Milwaukee and had my chain serviced. They took my bike in right away and cleaned, adjusted and lubricated the chain for $28 USD. I was in and out in probably 45 minutes. I headed downtown to the Milwaukee Public Market and ate some cheese and sausages and caramels and then visited the Harley Davidson Museum. I’m not normally a Harley fan, but any classic bike is beautiful and almost any Harley is a classic.

Me sitting on an old Harley Davidson motorcycle at the museum in Milwaukee Wisconsin.

Day 3: I woke up around 0630 hours and ate a solid breakfast of peanut butter on toast and Turkish coffee and left around 0800hrs from Milwaukee. I decided I would try and stay on schedule and attempt driving to Winnipeg. The drive is relatively boring beyond along the I-94, but portions of Wisconsin have some interesting sandstone formations which are probably carved from the last glacial retreat.

I was running behind schedule and started noticing my bike’s mileage was dropping so I had to stop frequently to test. I left Canada averaging 20 to 22 kilometres per litre, and now I wasn’t able to get any better than 18.5 km/L. This was concerning me. It was freezing cold and raining near Madison, WI, but I made it through to Minneapolis. I stopped for gas and coffee at McDonalds. I ordered a medium double-double and the cashier was a bit confused and clarified that I meant two creams and two sugars. Apparently only Canadians say double-double.

Travel tip: On a motorcycle, lots of people stop to chat which delays you quite a bit.

A guy stopped to chat with me and told me the weather was 46 degrees Farenheit, and cold through Minnesota but warmer and clear from Fargo onward. He said he worked at the Grand Forks air force base and frequently visited Winnipeg to watch hockey games.

I carried on to Fargo. On the way, I pulled off the highway near a small town called Avon. The road ended in an incredibly beautiful college campus which was full of students walking around and old buildings crammed tightly with trees everywhere. Turns out it was St. John’s University and the front entrance had a massive structure at the front with a big cross which could be seen from miles away as soon as I got off the highway. I asked for directions to the nearest gas station and was told I wasn’t far from a town called Avon. He was right, it was nearby and I filled up gas and continued to Fargo. In Fargo I filled up gas and continued to Grand Forks, filled gas there and picked up some pipe tobacco for dirt cheap compared to Canadian prices and then continued to Winnipeg.

Once you hit North Dakota you turn off the I-94 onto Highway 29 north. Highway 29 has a 75 mph speed limit which I decided to take advantage of and just get the hell out of the USA and to my next stop. I was averaging between 120 to 130 kmh on the bike.

Crossed back into Canada at the border. I have a modular helmet so I just flipped the front up and went through the process. The Canada Border Services agent said other agents might ask me to remove my helmet but he was fine with it this time.

I reached my friend’s place in Winnipeg around 2200 hours. Which means I was driving 14 hours and over 1273 kilometres meant I averaged only 91 kmh with breaks for food and gas and stretching.

The rest of the trip was pretty straight forward, I broke the days down into shorter bits.

Day 4: Winnipeg to Regina. 559 km which took 5.5 hours in total.

I woke up around 6:30 a.m. and started off the morning with more peanut butter and Turkish Coffee and had to get my oil changed and chain serviced. I found an Indian Motorcycle shop west of Winnipeg on my way out. They changed my oil and did a brief inspection and cleaned and waxed my chain. I asked them if I could see my oil and the mechanic was just pouring it out when I asked so they quickly stopped and showed me the oil. It looked fine and he said the oil looks normal. I had done approximately 4,000 kilometres since the last oil change. They put in 10w-40 mineral oil and I supplied the filter. The mechanic said the rear sprocket is not wearing properly, but I’ll be fine for the whole road trip there and back. The ride on the prairies is straight and flat and there’s nothing to mention.

I reached Regina and my friend let me into her apartment. I rested and then went to the Swiss Chalet where she works and had a beer, steak dinner and cheesecake. Went home and passed out around 2130hrs.

Day 5: Woke up and had Turkish coffee and peanut butter and hit the road to Medicine Hat, AB. The ride starts to get hilly and it’s a little more picturesque entering Alberta.

Drove approximately 476 km over 6.25 hours. I tried going slower to see if it helps my mileage, but it just got worse. I was now averaging 16 km/L. Worse than my CB550. With stops, I averaged 76 kmh.

Reached Medicine Hat and stopped at my friend’s place again. Had dinner, drank some beers and passed out.

Day 6: Woke up early again, this time my friend made eggs and sausages, had some Turkish Coffee and of course some peanut butter and toast.

Left around 0830hrs and reached Drumheller at 1130hrs. Met with some friends in Drumheller for lunch and then continued on to Whitecourt. The ride to Drumheller was mostly flat and boring, but incredibly windy. Drumheller looked really nice but didn’t have time to stay and just got back on the road.

I need to come back here one day and explore.

I meandered through some small highways and made it to Highway 2 in Ponoka. Turned north on the highway until Edmonton and then turned west on the Yellowhead Highway to Highway 43 and turned north to Whitecourt.

Day 6 was a total of 716 kilometres and took 8.75 hours, averaging 82 kmh with gas and rests but not including the long lunch break.

I reached Whitecourt and was fairly tired and covered with dead bugs.

I was glad to be back in the Boreal forest.

I didn’t go into detail for the journey out west, but from here on I will start my trip with more detailed blogging about my adventures on the road.

I am celebrating Canada’s 150th year of Confederation by riding east from Woodlands County, Alberta back to Ontario.

Stay tuned for more…

(Top picture: A panorama I took near Swift Current, SK. The prairies are really flat.)

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