Ottawa to Winnipeg, Day 2 West

Saturday morning of day 2, I’m up at 6:00, getting organised. The bike is soaked from the condensation of humid air on cool metal and vinyl, and I use a hotel towel to dry off the parts I need to either sit on or cover with bags. The Givis, tank bag, and fuel bag snick back into place easily. I check the tire pressures and find them 2-3 pounds low. No big deal but I want them perfect, and make a note to stop for air at the first gas station I see. There’s no sign of life in the motel office yet, but I paid up the night before, so I’m on my way, about 6:45.

I don’t need fuel, but I do need air so I’m looking for gas stations. The one in town isn’t open yet — I guess 7:00 (maybe even 8?) is their likely start time, so I head out on the highway. I’m about 100 Km from Sault Ste Marie, and plan that as my next stop for fuel, except for getting air somewhere.

The next 20 or 30 Km continue to be broad sweepers with long gentle hills, and trees in pretty close to the highway. No one is up yet, and I see neither cars nor signs of life in the occasional building that passes by. No open gas stations for air, either. After 30K or so, the land opens up. The sweepers fade away to an almost straight road, the hills get longer and lower, and the trees move back to the horizon, leaving me riding across rolling meadows reminding me of ranch land. At about the same time, the highway splits into a divided 4-lane, and freeway speeds.

So now I’m alone on a straight 4-lane highway through rolling meadows, cool morning air, and the remnants of a sunrise visible in my mirrors (when I crouch my shoulders out of the way, of course). The bike asks to be opened up a bit more and I agree. This has to be about as good as straight roads get, and I’m feeling very fresh, awake, and satisfied. I’m not sure how far this 4-lane goes — maybe 10-20 Km — then it merges back to two again. Odd, there was no feature (town, lake, etc.) at either the start or end of the 4-lane section; it just goes from apparently nowhere to apparently nowhere else. Probably something to do with township boundaries or something.

I know that I’m getting close to the Sault now, and there is the odd car here and there. Mainly coming toward me — people leaving the Sault for whatever reason. No one else in my direction, though. The road now runs alongside a channel of water, which I assume is the Ste. Marie river, on the left. It is perfectly still, broken only by the occasional ripple of a swimming bird or splash of a fish jumping to reach the fuzzy cloud of bugs that hovers just above the surface.

The GPS reminds me I’m about 10-15 Km from the city, and the land is getting quite civilized on either side, so I let me speed drop down to just above the limit. Sure enough, I soon pass by an early-morning radar trap 5-6 Km outside the city. Can’t be very good fishing on these deserted roads, but I bet the ones he does catch are big ones. I wave as I pass, glad to have slowed a few minutes ago.

Sault Ste. Marie is awake anyway, and the traffic picks up rather quickly as I enter the city proper. There’s a good bypass around downtown, and I recall some kind of major gas station at the other end of it, so that’s the destination. I pull off and shut down at 8:00, Km 808 from home, and about 100 today. Finally able to top up those missing 2-3 pounds from the tires. The tires are warm now, of course, and don’t read low. But I remember they were low when cold, so I add the missing pressure even though that is too much by current readings. Stretch and relax a bit, but I’m trying to live by the “separate gas and food stops” advice, so I suit up and move on. I remember that, in about 90 minutes, I’ll come to a little village at the bottom of a big hill with a gas station / restaurant and a pretty river in a gorge. I plan to stop there for breakfast.

After the Sault is where the road starts getting interesting & worth the whole trip: great surface & little traffic; broad sweepers and an occasional tighter turn up & down steep hills. Lake Superior is 100 metres to the left, and I’m either on level with it or, a few minutes later, well above it looking down over cliffs and through trees. The mix of hills, trees, clear sky, and vast blue water is stunning. I’m feeling mildly guilty for not stopping frequently to take pictures, but the ride is too much fun to interrupt & I have the return trip for that.

Up ahead (from hilltops) I can see the low cloud I remember from many trips. It covers the high hills, meaning you drive up into fog then down again into clear air. I wonder if I’ll experience that today? It certainly looks like it, and I always thought the effect eerie and beautiful.

At the bottom of the steep hill, the little village I was aiming for is Montreal River Harbour. I am remembering wrong. There is no gas station, no restaurant, and the pretty gorge is mired with a Hydro dam and wires. I’m disappointed with my failing memory, slightly hungry, and now worried about gas, as I’m about to enter Lake Superior Provincial park where I remember there is only one station. Thank god for the reserve I brought along.

The hill climbing away from the village is the one I remember. It must be a kilometer long and very steep. Every other vehicle is lumbering up the hill, getting a live demonstration of the power band concept. The GPZ loves this. I drop a gear or two just to be polite and we purr up the hill. The road now turns away from the lake, and our altitude increases as we leave it behind. Soon the water is lost behind the forest and hills. This feels like real wilderness now — the highway is a narrow clearing walled by forest on each side. The sweepers and hills are now determined entirely by where it was easy to plant the road — there are no villages or other features it needs to visit.

A passing sign announces I’m entering Lake Superior Provincial Park, but there are no other changes. It’s more a forest reserve than a traditional camp ground, I guess. I remember there is one, and only one, gas station somewhere in here, and I will certainly stop there. I need gas and my legs are sore after not stopping at Montreal River.

That bank of fog (where the road rises up into the low clouds) is closer now. On that last hill I could feel a chill and dampness, though I couldn’t see any noticeable change in the air. I remember my electric vest, and think I may need to dig it out at the next stop, as it may get chilly up here in the damp and cool air. I can always wear it without powering it on, which shouldn’t be too hot. Twenty minutes more and I’m in a fog/mist mix that is enough to dampen my visor & build up water droplets on the windscreen. The dampness is starting to make me feel chilled. Stop & zip up the suit vents, and resolve to put vest on at next chance. Already I’m warmer with the vents closed, and I’m grateful the ‘stich is waterproof against the mist.

Over the next hill a truck stop appears. As far as I know, the only one for miles. Pull in for coffee and stretch. It’s pretty simple fare. Serve-yourself cafeteria-style. The coffee is strong and hot, if not very good, and I add a tired-looking cellophane-wrapped muffin from a tray. It turns out the guy who takes my money isn’t an employee, but a regular customer. The employee eventually appears from somewhere and the customer says I’m OK. I waited too long for this break, so stretch it out, and gaze out the windows into the fog, noting how little traffic is going by.

As I suit up again for the next leg, I put the electric vest on. Still having trouble believing I should be doing this in summer, I follow advice I read somewhere and put it on inside out, to reduce the heat intensity somewhat. Within 5 minutes I’m in heavy mist. The vest is switched on and the mild warmth is just noticeable. Wondering if it’s really doing much, I switch it off and am shivering and uncomfortable within minutes. Wow, it’s on again and I have no more doubts.

Mist on the helmet visor is thick enough to cause vision problems. I can squeegee it off with the palm of my leather-covered hands. This works but it’s repetitive & boring, and gets tiresome quickly. Then I discover a nice trick by accident. I turn my head hard to the side to look down a passing dirt track and, when I turn back, that side of my visor is clear — the wind blast squeegeed it for me. Now I alternate techniques; sharp head turn one way, then the other, repeat every few minutes, then do a more thorough job with my hand.

Through the mist, the highway continues to be walled by forest and nothing else. There are no towns, no buildings, and no traffic. Add the moderate fog and I really feel isolated. Great conditions for thinking of a million things, none of which I can remember later. The time passes quickly and suddenly I’m out of the park, back around buildings, and at the town of Wawa. It’s off the road and up a hill, overlooked by the famous statue of a Canada Goose. I pull into town looking for gas. 11:00 AM and Km 1039 from home, 323 today.

Gassed up, I the pull into the tourist information parking lot by the goose, do a general check up, and lubricate the chain. I need to sit 10 minutes while the chain lube sets, so this is a good break. My friend from Ottawa and last night walks over from where they’re parked. No longer surprised at the coincidence, we have another quick chat, then he departs. There is also a big tour bus here, full of tourists speaking German. I say hi to few (I can say “good morning” and “beer please” in several languages, and use the former here) and take pictures for a number of couples on their cameras. They leave about 5 minutes before I do.

After Wawa the mist gradually clears, and at about 11:30 I find I can turn the vest off & not get cold. The hills are gentler here, but the forest to both sides is still deep. An hour later, the next town is White River, and I stop for lunch. (Again, my 10-Km-out policy has me passing a police cruiser at a legal speed.) The restaurant associated with the gas station is an A&W, good food, and a table near a window where I can watch my bike. I’ve parked it under a weathered touristy sign, painted like a giant thermometer and reading some absurdly low temperature like -70 degrees. I remember the sign used to say “Lowest recorded temperature in Canada” but that claim must be held elsewhere now. White River’s other claim to fame, I recall, is the place where the real bear named “Winnie” was captured, the one Winnie-the-Pooh is based on. (Winnie is short for Winnipeg, my destination and where he lived, so I feel a special bond. Barf.)

The German tour bus is also at the A&W, just packing to leave. They depart before I do but are stopped at the plastic Winnie-the-Pooh memorial when I ride by. After White River, still more desolate highway. The sweepers are different somehow. More up & down and less turning, and the trees are a bit smaller, and more dense. I have some idea they may be regrowth after a forest fire quite some time ago.

I’ve developed a pretty good radar shield technique. When there’s some traffic, drop 5-10 KpH below the desired speed. Since my desired speed isn’t much faster than everyone goes, it’s only a matter of minutes until someone passes me. As soon as that happens, match their speed to stay a constant 500 metres back, then watch them for their (too late) reaction to passing radar. At least twice this sets up a vehicle in front to warn me of radar with brake lights. (Not that I’m speeding of course, just practising alertness.)

The highway is slowly looping back toward Lake Superior, and I get my first glimpse of the water just before the town of Marathon. This time my memories are accurate, there are gas stations and snacks here, and I pull off for gas & washrooms. It’s 2:00 PM at Km 1229 (513 today). I gas up but don’t eat, then lounge against the bike for a while, resting.

I can hear him coming before I see him; a beautiful red Triumph Sprint pulls in, gases, then comes over to chat. He’s heading West from Hamilton, and has followed the same route as I have today. (He is obviously riding harder, and would have passed me soon.) He remembers the mist and cold too, and he froze. His open face helmet and aviator goggles look a little incongruous against the low-slung sporty bike, but I say nothing other than words of sympathy. He found the mist blinding, and has been having problems with bugs in the face too.

As we chat, a 3rd red bike, a 900 Superhawk, roars in, coming from the West. He’s from somewhere local, just out for a day’s ride, and says he’s “almost at his turnaround point” to head back. Beautiful bike, and the 3 red machines make quite a set. The day has warmed up and the mist is gone, so I pack the vest away, suit up, and leave, wishing the other two guys well.

The scenery and road are spectacular again from Marathon West. It’s more rugged than the area near the Sault — higher hills, deeper cliffs, and the coast is carved into deep bays. I wonder if they qualify as fjords? The hills are steep and often end in fairly tight curves. This is the best part of the highway — everything I had hoped it would be.

Just before Terrace Bay, the two riders I met a while back pass me, about two minutes apart. The Triumph waves and wiggles good-naturedly. Superhawk passes me on the inside, which I find hard to understand considering there isn’t another vehicle for 10 minutes in either direction, and this rather upsets me. He didn’t scare me — saw him coming, but I’m finding it hard to believe he’d do that. What if I had moved to the right, thinking it was to make room for him? Having just been passed twice, I feel a strong urge to speed up. But I told myself I’m not in a hurry; I’m going the speed I wanted; and the Iron Butter advice (go slow to go fast) has served well. Grumble.

At Terrace Bay, I don’t need gas and I’m not hungry (and I remember the prices being very high in this town), but I stop at a tourist information stand for a bio break and a stretch. No one is there. Well, it’s starting to get late and I want to get to Schreiber or Nippigon for the night, so I press on.

Schreiber is a great little town, where I’ve enjoyed staying before. But it seems early (3:30), so I decide to give it another hour. Fabulous hills and curves west of town. The sun is now getting to the West and lighting the road more than the trees, creating deep shadows and a mysterious and forbidding effect. I am suddenly reminded of passages from Lord of Rings about the shadows under some of the ancient forests, and find myself reciting parts of the story as I ride. Something else is funny about the late afternoon light, but I can’t put my finger on it yet.

Now there’s a single headlight in rear mirror, and it gains rapidly. It’s an older GoldWing, riding 2-up, and they wave as they zoom past me. What the heck, let them radar screen and stretch the bike’s legs for a while — I let them get 1/2 Km ahead, then accelerate to keep that distance. They’re doing 140-160 through the sweepers — quite impressive two-up on a big bike. The GPZ loves it and purrs. 20 minutes of this and then I talk myself into slowing back to my standard speed (up a bit now to 115 after that shake-out). Minutes later I pass a radar trap; glad I’m not going 140, and I wonder how the ‘Wing evaded capture? I never see them again.

I arrive at Nippigon at 4:30, I’m tired, and I pull into a no-name motel across the highway from a big truck stop. It’s 4:30, and Km 1417 (701). After checking in, I give the bike a quick rinse. Those damn wasps quickly gather again, but don’t bother me. Red paint.

Dinner at the truck stop across the road. Thinking a soup and salad would be light, I order that. In a truck stop nothing is light, and I’m stuffed after eating a pail of soup and most of a good sized garden’s produce. By the time I get back across the street (6:30) the motel is full, and I’m seeing no-vacancy signs up and down the highway too. The early stop is a good stress-avoiding technique. Another early bedtime, and I pass out quickly.

On to Day 3


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