Ottawa to Winnipeg, Day 1 West

I force myself to stay in bed for an hour after I wake, excited, which means I’m up at about 5:30. Get dressed, make sure I have keys and wallet, and put sunscreen on face and neck. Aerostich suit, boots, gloves, full-face helmet with dark shield — I’ll be living in this outfit for several days so I take the time to smooth every wrinkle and be comfortable. Outside, it’s cool, slightly cloudy, but the sky is clear to the West, and there has been no rain overnight, so everything is dry.

I pull out of the driveway at 6:20 AM (Friday, July 16, 1999). 12464 Km on the Odometer, but I’m calling it kilometre 0 from this point on in this diary.

The first 100 Km of highway 17 West of Ottawa is familiar territory. My weekend rides usually cover the area around Calabogie, Renfrew, and so on. Beautiful hilly country with twisty roads. So far my bike thinks this is just another typical weekend ride. Frankly, it’s a little dull, as the high-speed run to Arnprior is not the enjoyable part of a Sunday ride, it’s what happens after I turn off toward Calabogie. After 30 minutes, though, I zoom past my normal turn point. Just like that, I’m on a piece of road this bike has never travelled, and the highway and countryside are suddenly new and interesting.

It’s Friday morning, but a little early for traffic commuting into Ottawa to be out, so the road is almost empty of vehicles. Just the odd heavy truck on some professional errand. As the outskirts of the city fall behind, the land on either side seems to open up, buildings and other signs of life move farther from the road, and the trees look less cultivated. It’s quite cool, and there is a hint of left-over fog in the air. It was probably fairly thick a couple of hours ago, and is just about finished burning off now that the sun is up. Now and then I pass a stream or other depression, and clumps of it are still piled up in the shadows. The highway roughly parallels the Ottawa River, but it’s about a kilometre to the north and not visible yet.

The town of Cobden is about an hour out, so I pull into a municipal picnic area, trying to establish a habit of hourly stops right away. The road has crept closer to water, which I assume is the Ottawa river, and Cobden is right on the shore. The picnic area has a beautiful view out over the water, which is mirror-still at this hour. I later learn this isn’t the river, it’s Muskrat Lake, and I will rejoin the river in about 1/2 hour, then will be hugging pretty close to it for the next several hours, leaving it at the town of Mattawa a few hundred Km West of here.

A couple of Winnebagos and a pickup truck look like they spent the night in this stop, and some touristy-looking people are starting to stir, but there is no other activity. One at a time, the RVers stumble over to the washrooms and test the door. No one seems to know if it’s occupied or just locked. I’m the only one here without a 5-piece bathroom in their vehicle, but I wait. Take some pictures, stretch, start to think about coffee.

Heading on, the highway loops around the city of Pembroke and passes through the military base and supporting town at Petawawa. The odd military vehicle is visible parked here and there, and I recall that’s an artillery range over the big earth berm to my left. I assume those little signs on all the trees are warning hikers this would not be a good place to wander around. The road is straight and uninteresting here, but the cool and quiet is pleasant.

After Petawawa, there are a few equally-spaced towns a few minutes apart. Deep River, Chalk River, Rolphton. I stop in Deep River for gas, and fill up at kilometre 180, at 8:30. I know the “second half of the tank” on the GPZ is much smaller than the first (the gas gauge is poorly calibrated — seems to be common) so my general rule is to try to fill up at the halfway point. I’m not there yet but can’t remember if there are other good chances soon. Despite the Iron Butt advice and my best plans, there’s a Tim Horton’s next to the gas station, and the thought of coffee lures me in. So much for separating rest stops from gas stops. As I sip my coffee and munch my bagel, I admire my bike through the window. Does any rider not automatically sit where they can admire their mount when in a restaurant? It’s also running through my mind that another GPZ mailing list member lives in this town, and it would be really neat to happen to bump into him. Doesn’t happen, though. In fact, I haven’t seen another bike yet.

After my rest at Deep River I’m refreshed. The roads are still clear and I’m in that space where I’m comfortable with the bike and not yet tired. I’m finding 100 rather slow, and I gradually pick up speed. The bike wants more, but I know I’m still in a relatively populated area and I’m not interested in a ticket. 120+ is fun, though, and I settle into that range. The highway has come back closer to the river again, so it’s a little more curvy, adding to the enjoyment, and the scenery is still dominated by those high forested hills on the Quebec side. It’s a beautiful morning and a beautiful ride.

Mattawa has come up a little sooner than I expected (even though the GPS has been faithfully telling me exactly where I am and exactly where it is). About 10 Km from Mattawa I come around a corner to find, and pass, a provincial police car just pulling out of some side street. Actually, it doesn’t look like a street, just some place he turned around. He certainly saw me and I don’t think conspicuously slamming on the brakes is a good idea, so I just scrub some speed back to about 100, then gradually down a bit more to 95 or so. (Pinning it exactly on 90 has always seemed a dumb reaction to me — no one goes that speed and it’s like writing “I’m Guilty” all over your back.) Now, lets see if he had a problem with my speed as I passed him, or is he just going somewhere. He’s behind me, a little way back, but in no hurry, no lights on, etc. Whew.

The last 9 Km into town seem to take a long time at this speed. As always when travelling, I slow down to religiously obey the in-town speeds, as they drop to 70, 60, and then 50. Oops, a change of plans. I guess the cop was waiting to see if I planned to stop in town anyway; as soon as it’s apparent that I don’t, his roof lights come on. I immediately pull onto the wide shoulders. Helmet off first so he can see I’m human, not 14, and not upset. We chat as I dig paperwork out of a deep pocket. Yes, I was “going a little fast back there” — it’s a beautiful day, the roads were clear, and I was pushing it a bit. I confess completely, but also point out that I always slow to the posted speeds in towns, as he just saw me do in his. That’s it — “slow it down a bit”, as he’s required to say. Then, he wants to talk about the bike. Admires the hard bags, is it heavy to manoeuvre, how far am I going, etc. We chat for a few minutes & part, no ticket, no hassle. Despite all the stories I read, I’ve never had a cop turn into a jerk when I’m polite and reasonable. (The reason I usually wave at cop cars when I see them.) This fellow was certainly more than fair, and we had a pleasant chat about riding.

A couple of mental notes as I remount. My policy of strict speed obedience in towns has saved me again. This guy is probably one of maybe two officers that cover this area. This is his town, and he takes it personally if some out-of-towner is making it unsafe for his neighbours. Hmm… I passed him turning around in a convenient spot just about exactly 10 Km from the town. I bet that’s a general practice with these guys — set up a patrol route that extends about 10 Km outside the town on either side; slow speeders down before they enter the town, rather than having them enter at unsafe speeds and then catching them. So I’m adding to my habit: obey the speeds inside town, and get back down close to posted speeds once I get within about 10 Km of a town.

While I was digging in my tank bag I noticed my tube of sunscreen isn’t where it should be. Now I remember putting it on the counter back home, after applying it, where I wouldn’t forget it, then forgetting it. While I’m in town I get some more in a convenience store. Tourist prices apply, though, so it better be good stuff. It’s 10:00 and I’m at Km 287. My tank is just above half, so I decide not to stop again to fill it. I’ll get gas in North Bay. I stay at the speed limits through town and for about 10 Km the other side. Sure enough, my new friend is in a parking lot about 6 Km to the west of town, and I wave as I go past. I doubt he saw me.

My decision to delay gas until North Bay is bugging me. I remember from previous trips that there is no gas on the highway — I must turn off onto one of the main cross-streets, and I remember that it’s not obvious which one. I’ll just have to watch carefully.

The air is getting hazy and the day is getting warm. It looks like the beginning of a heat haze, and it’s looking like the afternoon will be a scorcher. Mattawa was where I parted company with the Ottawa River, and the road is changing. Not twisty, and long rolling hills are developing; half- to one- kilometre between peaks. It’s not challenging riding, but it’s interesting in an easy-going kind of way.

Over the next hill there are flagmen (yes, male) and I see construction up ahead, and they are stopping traffic to control flow around the asphalt machine. I remember when construction on the Trans-Canada was a constant pain, and you had to drive through miles of it. The roads are less used now, and made from better materials, so construction crews are infrequent. I slow to a stop to let the oncoming traffic use the shared lane. It’s a welcome relief to flip my visor up, put my feet down, and relax. I wait until there is a vehicle completely stopped behind me, then put the bike in neutral and lean back. About 5 minutes and the flag people stop the other traffic and wave us through. It’s amazing how good a 5-minute rest feels, even without getting off the bike.

As I pull into North Bay I remind myself this is a big city, and I need to get my big city reflexes turned back on. The highway becomes divided and passes easily through town. I’m looking up the exits for the street with all the gas stations and, sure enough, I’m leaving town before I find it. Damn, this always happens in this town. I do not feel like doubling back. Oh well, 1/4 tank will get me to Sturgeon Falls, where I know there are gas stations right on the highway. And it’s amazing what extra confidence the knowledge of that spare gallon brings.

The road from North Bay, through Sturgeon Falls, to Sudbury is a single perfect straight line. This is not interesting, and I just wait for it to pass. Finally, however, I note some single headlights coming toward me (that are not obviously cars with a light out.)

Lots of big cruisers. As they get closer it’s clear they’re all Harleys, big ones with the riders in proper costume, and mostly 2-up. Right, I think I heard about a HOG rally in Sudbury this weekend (tomorrow) so maybe there’s a gathering or a pre-ride in North Bay today. There must be 50 bikes, in groups of 5-10, with the groups separated by 1/2-Km gaps interspersed with other traffic. Nice formation. I wave faithfully to each group and notice it’s usually returned by the end rider in each group. My theory: these guys aren’t outlaws, and enjoy waving to fellow riders as much as I do. But only the last guy in a pack can safely do so without his fellow riders catching him at it. I ride on, with a big smile.

Halfway between North Bay and Sudbury, the town of Sturgeon Falls is a strip of buildings lining the ruler-straight highway. Gas up at a convenient station; I’m pretty close to the reserve. It’s 11:30, and Kilo 390. Even after the gas break, I can feel that I’m getting stiff and my legs are starting to ache.

On the long stretch to Sudbury the ThrottleMeister really comes into its own. On curvy or hilly roads the constant throttle adjustments limit its usefulness but here on this straight dull highway it’s a joy. I quickly realize the value of one feature: the ability to control the throttle tension. Rather than locking it solid, I adjust so it just holds, and find I can now move the throttle up or down, and it stays where I put it; this is great for fine-tuning my speed. Being able to let go the throttle relaxes my hand & wrist, of course, but I’m also quit surprised at the refreshing feeling that my whole body gets at the change of posture. It’s also fun to wave to other riders with my right hand — often gets a double-take.

I’m getting closer to Sudbury. Off to the sides are the numerous strange little hills, that I think have been built up by the dozens of years of mine tailings being dumped. They may be a natural formation, but they seem too out of place for that to be likely. I remember, years ago, when nothing grew here because of the pollution from the mines, so these hills were bare rock and slag, and how foreign the whole area looked. I recall hearing that some of the landing equipment for the Apollo moon flights was tested on this strange and rugged terrain, and wonder if it’s true or an urban legend. Now, in any case, the pollution is being scrubbed and these weird hills are covered with grass and young trees.

I no longer go through Sudbury — the highway leads naturally into a bypass that sweeps ‘way to the south of the city. The only sign of the city is the set of huge smoke stacks from the smelters off to the right. It’s getting past noon and, though I’m not hungry, I feel obliged to eat, and I’d certainly like a stretch. I remember an exit from the bypass that leads to a lane of restaurants, and plan to take that. But my memory has failed me again, and I find I’ve cleared Sudbury without turning. I really want to stop, so I take the next exit. It turns out this is provincial highway #55, and leads to a little town, Lively, West of Sudbury, where I quickly find a Tim Horton’s and pull in for a break. I park the bike and do a quick chain-wax, feeling a little odd as I imagine people inside are watching. It’s 12:53 PM, and I’m now at Km 500 exactly. Make this break a long one, with an iced coffee in the shade.

Refreshed, I head out again, doubling back to the bypass and then continuing around the city and then West. As the highway resumes, it becomes a divided 4-lane for about 20 Km, marked at 100 KpH. Traffic is really moving here — more like 120, so I open the bike up and let it purr. We’re both enjoying this. Big looping sweepers and very gently rolling hills, on new clean pavement. I play with the roll-on power a bit, and am amazed again how low down the bike is capable of going and still pull hard. After a while, highway 55 flies by on the left, so I realize I could have continued West from the Tim Horton’s without having to double back, and would have come out here. Oh well, I would have missed this high-speed run; maybe next time.

After 20 K or so the road returns to 2 lanes. Traffic has thinned out and what’s left slows down. 4-lane highways and plentiful passing lanes have been the death of basic passing skills, so I quickly overtake a gaggle of cars bunched up behind a slow-moving RV. I let one or two openings go by, trying to give the cars in front of me every chance. No one moves. Next opening and I’m by the lot, grinning wildly.

An exit for Espanola goes by — just an intersection with a gas station. I don’t need a break or gas right now, but I remember Espanola is a pretty town, a bit off the highway. Maybe I’ll stop in there on the way home. I also let the town of Spanish go by, but my legs are starting to ache and I think I’m ready for another break. A little sign announces a picnic area in a few Km so I watch for that and pull in. 2:30, at Km 621.

It turns out to be beautiful. A wooded area on the shores of the Serpent River, and near the Serpent River First Nation. It’s shady and dark under the tall thick pines, with a smooth gravel road that crunches under the wheels. I park in a deeply shaded spot to let the bike cool and stretch out on a picnic table. I can hear the water churning through rapids on the other side of the trees; it’s relaxing, as is the slight mist that’s being thrown into the air. I make this break a long one, drink a lot of water, and wash my face and hands with more. It’s refreshing, but I must admit I’m getting tired and the ache in the tops of my legs won’t go away. I wasn’t sure how far I’d go today, so I now set my tentative objective as Thessalon, a small town about 100 Km further. I remember it having a nice little motel with a good restaurant and rooms on the shore of lake Huron. There are a couple of other towns between here and there too, in case I really get fried.

Now that I’ve admitted I’m tired it builds up quickly and the last hour passes more slowly. I stop halfway, Blind River, for gas and a final stretch. My new found habit of slowing 10 Km outside town limits saves me as I roll through a radar trap at an apparently acceptable few K over the posted speed.

When I finally reach Thessalon I’m genuinely tired, and convinced I’m going no further today. The town is off the highway, and I enter from the east and promptly get lost. The motel I’m looking for is on the far West edge and it’s much less easy than I expected to drive through town, as the roads are in all directions, following the contour of the lake shore. Eventually I find the right road, pass through town, and find the motel — Carolyn Beach (highly recommended). I’m at Km 716 for the day as I pull up in front of the office.

There are three other bikes in front of the motel, with the riders just coming out as I dismount. A BMW K-series, a ‘wing, and a late model big Kawi. The riders are heading for Chicago, which is home, making some kind of big loop through this area. I mention that I was in Chicago yesterday, but neglect to mention I flew there on a last-minute business day-trip from Ottawa. They aren’t particularly talkative and I’m tired, so I bid them good trip & they depart.

I get a small motel room around the back. I can park the bike right in front of my room, and my window looks out over a little bay on Lake Huron. It’s stifling hot now. Rooms aren’t air conditioned in this motel, but the windows allow a good breeze through. After taking the Givi bags off and in, I use my collapsible vinyl bucket to give my bike a quick wash down, just to get the road grime off. There are wasps swarming around the bike — this has happened before and I assume the bright red paint attracts them — and they make me a bit nervous, but we don’t bother one another.

I’ve always remembered this place as having a good restaurant, and I walk back to that now. As I enter, my name is called. Sitting at a table near the window is a good friend of mine from Ottawa with his family. Both our jaws drop in amazement at the coincidence, and we have a pleasant dinner together. They are also heading west, though not as far as I am. This is a meal stop only — they’re staying the night 100 Km farther West, in the Sault, so it really was an unlikely coincidence that had us here at the same time.

By the time we finish and they are off the sun is getting low. I wander the rocky beach, throw some stones into the water to stretch, and admire my bike resting over there next to my room.

Back in my room, I recline on the bed to rest for a few minutes, planning to hop up in a moment to organise some things, watch some TV, etc. Hah. I’m asleep in seconds, and wake up around midnight only to set an alarm and crawl the rest of the way into bed.

On to Day 2

1 comment

  1. Hello Richard! thanks so much for posting this. I’m planning on doing the same trip the end of July, by car though. It was just so awesome to read your anecdotal account. Now I’m really excited! I do love a road trip.

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