Ottawa to Winnipeg, Day 3 West

Sunday, July 18. Up at 5:45, re-bag the bike, and check tires and oil. The tires are 2-3 pounds low again, and I resolve to find air right away, not drive for 3 hours like yesterday. Since I’m standing across the street from a 24-hour truck stop this shouldn’t be a problem. I also remember how cool it was yesterday morning, and I put the electric vest on right away, and right-side-out this time.

At 6:20 I’m away. Gas up at the truck stop across the street, then pull around to the side for air. Uh-oh, this is a problem. The fitting on the air hose involves a long brass tube with the Schraeder valve on the end. It’s so long that it interferes with the axle of the bike’s wheel, and there is no way to reach the tire valve at an angle that seals. This thing is meant for 4-foot-diameter truck tires, not the confined space inside a motorcycle wheel. I struggle with angles for a while, then give up and move on, resolving to get air at the first opportunity.

The land I’m driving through is still rugged, but it’s much heavier travelled — the roads are better engineered & many of the tight turns are long gone. Broad sweepers and gentle hills all the way to Thunder Bay. And, despite the early hour, there’s traffic — mainly trucks; I’m obviously approaching a major centre.

It’s actually cold. The vest is on and the warmth is a welcome glow I can feel coming in through my back and flowing through my body. I almost stop to change to heavier gloves, but I really don’t like their restriction of movement, and I keep on. I think the vest helps with cold hands, maybe by circulating warm blood or something. I smile, feeling like one of those old hot-water radiator heaters. “Gurgle, gurgle, hiss”, under my breath.

About 30 minutes later, there are two places where a bridge is being repaired, reducing the highway to one shared lane, and a temporary traffic light mediates the turns. It’s a long cycle — 3 or 4 minutes anyway. In both cases, I time my approach so I have to stop at the front of the line. This is a great chance to drop my feet to the ground and rest my legs without having to get off bike or road. I stay in 1st, ready to jump, until someone has stopped behind me, then drop to neutral to rest my clutch hand.

Thunder Bay comes up about an hour from Nippigon. I’ve been looking forward to pulling into a lookout I remember, overlooking the lake and the famous “sleeping giant”. (A rock formation on the horizon that looks like a man lying on his back; tourist information is ripe with old Indian legends, etc.) The lookout was renamed the “Terry Fox Lookout” the year Terry made his cross-country run, as this is about the spot where he was forced to cut the journey short.

The lookout turns out to be a bit of a letdown. A bank of trees has been allowed to grow across the front of the parking lot, and you can no longer see the lake or rocks from the lot — you must walk a footpath. It’s pretty, but there is no way to get a “beauty shot” with the bike in the foreground. Disappointed, I remount and move on.

A coffee would be nice, and I still need air. I remember there’s a bypass around Thunder Bay, not particularly well marked unless you know the highway number, and that the intersection includes a gas station and a doughnut shop. I pull into the doughnut shop at 7:30, park between the police cars, and lubricate the chain before going inside. The odd looks the Aerostich usually attracts are amplified slightly by the electric vest underneath. I’m expecting the usual comments about snowmobiles, but the locals keep their silence, and politely return my morning greetings. The warm coffee feels wonderful.

The gas station next door has no air pump. Next try will be the one at the other side of the bypass. I reach there in about 30 minutes; don’t need gas, so I immediately drive around back looking for the air hose. It’s another of the big truck-style ones, and doesn’t fit. Turning around, frustrated, I lose the wheels in the loose gravel, and drop the bike on the right side. The end of the right handlebar and the bottom of the right Givi pannier are the only parts that touch the ground — I’ve heard that Givis are great for saving your paint in a fall, and that’s certainly right. The only mark is a small scrape on the bottom of the right bag, not visible when the bike is upright. I’m embarrassed but no one seems to have seen me, as I’m behind the building.

Shaken and embarrassed, I get back on the road, still without air, and head West. I’m leaving Lake Superior behind now, and the rough hills fade into the distance behind me in my mirrors. The road straightens out and the hills fade away, until I’m on a line as straight as a ruler, with gentle hills rolling up and down about a kilometre apart. From the top of these I can see a long way, and there is no traffic at all. This doesn’t look like it will be very interesting for the next while, but I’m not tired yet, so I settle in and watch the grass and trees zip by.

Something doesn’t feel right in the right handlebar (which hit the ground when I dropped). I pull off in a passing school yard and check. Sure enough, the ThrottleMeister has become loose — it doesn’t tighten enough to hold the throttle firmly, even when turned all the way. It seems still to be mounted firmly and I can find no other problems, so I move on — will fix the ThrottleMeister next time I stop.

9:10. The division between Eastern and Central standard time zones comes up. There’s a commemorative sign in a small park, with washrooms, so I pull in to rest. The German tour bus is there, and many of them recognise the bike from back at Wawa, smile their amusement that we’re road partners. I set the clock back an hour, to 8:10. It’s good to have another hour added to my day, but I also realise my body will tire at its own rate — it doesn’t understand time zones. Ah, the light seemed funny last night because I was so close to the edge of the time zone, I was getting light almost an hour off of what I’m used to. Jet lag on a GPZ.

Moving on, the road tracks straight across a lightly forested area, with even the hills now fading away. It’s not flat like the prairies, but is very flat and straight after the conditions around the lake. I amuse myself by playing with my speed and gearing. My legs are getting sore already, which is not a good sign at 8:30 in the morning. I can’t figure out where to put them for a change of position — moving my feet around on the pegs seems the only option. I certainly understand the attraction in highway pegs. Hmmm, I experiment with putting my feet forward on the bike, resting them on various protruding bits of fairing or engine. It’s a relief, but feels insecure and unsafe, so I soon quit.

Just before 9:00 the little village of Upsala comes by, so I stop for gas. Km 1658 from home, 241 today. Stretch, moan, wash bugs off visor and headlight, and move on. After another 100 Km of virtually straight highway, almost deserted, I smile as I pass English River, although the joke is gone. There used to be a dozen or more signs leading up to it, announcing “60 Km to English River”, “50 Km to English River”, etc. Then after the town, which consists of two buildings, a sign said “Looking for English River? That was it!” Cute. Anyway, the signs are gone, and the town is a bit more built up now. Maybe half a dozen buildings, one of which is a resort motel on the shore of the little lake. I briefly think about stopping for a bite, but I’m not quite hungry yet. Ten minutes later I decide that was a mistake — I’m hungry. Also the loose ThrottleMeister has been on my mind and is annoying me; time to stop for a longer break.

That would be Ignace, the next town, at Km 1767 / 350. The gas station on the highway has a restaurant with a huge breakfast special and great coffee. After a leisurely break, I walk out and wave to the now-familiar German tour bus, pull some tools from under the seat, and disassemble the ThrottleMeister. It seems undamaged, it’s just loose. Removing one of the internal shims tightens it properly. It would be interesting to find out exactly what the fall did to it, but there is no clue. The garage mechanic shows me where their air hose is, but I frown disappointment — it’s the truck kind again. I explain my frown to the mechanic and let him try to fit the thing in, as he clearly thinks I’m nuts. I’m not, and it’s time to move on.

After Ignace, the land changes again — the trees disappear, and the road now passes through rolling meadows that look like they’ve been cultivated some time in the past but are now wild. Here and there a small farm is surrounded by still-cultivated land. Cash crops and the odd small herd of cows. The feeling is that the woods and wild lands are still there, just out of sight beyond the strip of farmland that borders the highway. My legs are seriously aching and it’s only mid-morning; this is going to affect my distance today.

Speaking of distance, however, it’s becoming apparent that I’m farther West than I expected to be when initially planning this trip. I was thinking of a night in Dryden, or maybe Kenora, but the pungent odour of a pulp and paper mill tells me I’m getting to Dryden now, and it’s not noon yet. Travelling on holidays as a child, this odour was always the source of in-car jokes, and I used to think it was horrible. Either it’s a lot better now or I’m just no longer reacting strongly. But it’s certainly distinctive. About 10 Km from town I slow to near the posted limit, and a couple of Km later I wave to the radar car as I pass.

As I gas up in town, it’s 11:45 AM, Km 1876 / 459. Finally, this station is targeted at city traffic not transport trucks, and they have a standard air hose fitting, though there is about a 10-minute wait before I can park close enough to use it. I’m drawing this break out, sore, so I don’t mind. As I’m lounging against the bike, a guy about my age on an ancient Harley (what’s the model with the “elephant nose” front — an old FLH?) comes in beside me and we chat. He’s also west bound. He’s going farther than me — returning from Montreal & bound for Calgary; is on no schedule, making shorter days than I am & will get there eventually. He also subscribes to the “no point in speeding” concept. He tells me he had a breakdown on the way East, some distance East of here and had to get a lift back, have parts shipped around, etc. I note the cover over his points is sealed with Duct tape — very versatile. We have a great talk, both tired, both interested in one another’s bikes and in riding; this is what we love.

As we talk, a big full-dress Harley, 2-up, also pulls in to the pumps. The driver won’t make eye contact, little less speak to me. While he’s inside I stroll by, say high to the passenger and compliment the bike. She sneaks a quick smile. Walk back over to my bike; my buddy on the FLH gives a “hey what can you do” kind of shrug. Sheesh. He waves and pulls away while I’m still getting organised. I decide to take some advice from the mailing list, and take a Tylenol, then head out about 12:30. A few Km out of Dryden, rolling hills let me see I’m overtaking the FLH. I hang back a while, not wanting to blast pass and seem a showoff. I can’t keep this up for long, though, and I gently overtake and pass, with a friendly final wave from the other rider. I’m sure he made it to Calgary, slower than me but likely less sore and just as happy.

Memory serves correctly now, and the road West of Dryden gets interesting again. It’s been repaved recently and is pretty twisty all the way to Kenora. The hills aren’t as drastic as along the shore of Lake Superior, but it’s enough to be entertaining. 20 minutes later, it gradually dawns on me that all the trees, as far as I can see, are the same species and all are exactly the same size. Now I remember about 18 years ago a devastating forest fire destroyed this area — thousands of acres — and for the next couple of years it was like driving through a war zone. This is second nature for nature, though. These trees are Jack Pines, which are the first thing to regrow after a fire (something to do with heat being involved in germinating the seeds, I think) and they’re all the same size because they were all born at the same time.

About 1:30 I reach the Kenora bypass, but instead turn onto 17-A, which runs through town, thinking of lunch and rest. I used to dislike driving through Kenora and long for a bypass. The streets were badly laid out and in bad shape and the town had a run-down feeling. Now that there’s a bypass, the town has done a major refit and it’s a pleasant drive. Having to earn the tourist’s attention, rather than having a captive audience, has done wonders.

The trouble is I’m still not very hungry after that big breakfast in Ignace. Also the ache in my legs has dulled a bit (maybe the Tylenol working). Before I know it I’m through town and haven’t bothered stopping. Kenora was another place I thought I might stop for the night, but it’s only 2:00. I know it’s only 2 hours to Winnipeg, so I push on. West of Kenora the secondary highway gets silly — there is about 25 Km of 50 KpH speed limit through some township. The highway is beautiful and deserted and there are no homes or sidewalks near the road. What is this speed limit for? Strangely, most of the traffic does obey the limit, and so do I. I beep and wave as I pass the German tour bus in a visitor centre just off the highway. I doubt they hear me or care, but I’m snickering over our continued journey together.

West of Kenora the road continues twisty & hilly, with Lake of the Woods peeking through on the left. A campground/trailer park flashes by — Pye’s or something like that. The glimpse was amazing — it looked like a complete city of trailers, but camp-style ones, not the mobile homes in “real” trailer parks. They somehow create the impression they’ve been in those spots for years, not a drop-in-for-night thing. Mobile cottages might be the right term. As I leave Lake of the Woods behind, the road condition is deteriorating, and my aches are returning.

After another 15 minutes of bumps and aches, a sign announces the Manitoba border. Three days of riding have taken me almost completely across Ontario. When I pass into Manitoba, the road immediately improves, to fresh smooth pavement, the speed limit rises to 100 KpH, and we split to a 4-lane highway. After a Km or two, a large tourist and rest area comes up on the right, and I pull in. Many cars and RVs are parked here, but no other bikes. It’s 2:30, Km 2070 / 658.

This rest is a long one. I lubricate the chain and then, while it sets, drink lots of water, go into the tourist area, get a map, re-apply sun screen, and generally stretch. The Manitoba map confirms something I had in mind — Highway #1 from here to Winnipeg is straight and flat, and will be uninteresting at the end of a long day. In a few Km, on the other hand, I can turn toward West Hawk Lake and pick up highway 44, which looks very twisty, and goes through some towns slightly to the North-East of Winnipeg. There is also a chance to change from the twisty to a straight road through a national forest reserve, which also sounds like it might be interesting. I resolve to head for #44. Also I need gas and assume the town of West Hawk may offer the most convenient place to get some.

As I pack up to move on, I remember the kidney belt I brought with me. I haven’t been wearing it, and it hasn’t helped my aches at all sitting in the tank bag. I put it on now and snug it up, climb on the bike, and move out. The belt feels great, like there’s something behind me I can lean back into. I shouldn’t have waited until I was tired and sore, and I resolve to wear it from the start of days from now on.

Moving on, I soon come to the exit for West Hawk. Surprise, the highway passes through a provincial park, and there is a gate admission fee. Today, however, the nice park ranger lady tells me admission is free, so I wave and pass on. A few Km ahead is the town, and a gas station sits right at the main intersection. I pull in, and have to wait a few minutes before I can get by a Winnebago to the pumps. There is a group of 6 big touring bikes off to the side. 4 wings, a voyager, and a Harley, all riding 2-up, and we have a great chat. They’re on a day trip from Winnipeg, and this is their standard route. The highway I’m about to go on is the only twisty one for hundreds of Km (a good sign) so it’s a standard bike destination. A bit rough and a bit twisty for some of them, they say. One of the ‘wings has a stuffed monkey glued on to the top case, facing backward and waving. I wish this easy-going and friendly group well, and move on.

Highway 44 is amazing. It’s among the twistyest I’ve been on, comparable to the back roads around Calabogie back home. Unfortunately the road surface is very poor — it looks like it hasn’t been repaved for ten to fifteen years and even the asphalt patches are ancient. The amazing thing is, considering the condition, the speed is still posted at 100 KpH. There are very few cars, and this is a fabulous ride; the first time on the trip I have to seriously think about corner entry speed and path. Serious fun.

According to plan, this lasts about an hour. I think I’d like to see what that “national forest reserve” is, so I turn south and then west onto the highway shown on the map. It turns out to be a disappointment — the road is ruler-straight, small trees some distance back, and the odd town built around an intersection. I’m tired and I’m not enjoying looking at the nothingness. I am getting tired and bored, and there is no one around to see me, so I experiment by standing up on the pegs. Waves of relief run up and down my legs and back. Suddenly, this becomes a frequent habit and I berate myself for not having tried it earlier so I could use it for the last 3 days.

After about half an hour of this lonely straight road, I arrive at the boundary of Winnipeg, nicely marked by the Perimeter Highway that circles the city. I need the West end, so I head clockwise around the perimeter. Wow, is it bumpy! The pavement is heaved in gentle waves whose wavelength is related in some important way to the speed I want to go. If I go too slow or too fast it’s comfortable but at my normal speed I’m being thrown up and down terribly. Grudgingly, I slow down to find a point where the oscillation isn’t a harmonic of my speed, and the ride smooths out.

Winnipeg is surrounded on all sides by prairie, and it’s a weird feeling to be able to see the entire city skyline even though I must be 30 or 40 Km away from it. In the other direction the land flows out forever, entirely flat. It’s about a 45 minute ride around the big semicircle of the perimeter highway, then I enter Winnipeg from the west, head up Portage avenue and to my final destination. I arrive at 4:30 PM, at Km 2304 for the trip and 887 today. It’s been a long day and my legs and shoulders are sore, but I have a huge grin.

I remove the saddlebags and give the bike a quick wash down. The wasps are back thick and I have to shoo them away to wash the bike. Yuck, cleaning layers of bugs out of the radiator is a nuisance and pretty gross. As I finish this ugly job it occurs to me that the wasps were probably attracted by the dead bugs layered on the front of the bike, not by the colour. Maybe next time I’ll see what they do with the carcasses before washing the bike down.

After a couple of glasses of water, I settle back with a cold beer in hand, smile still stuck on my face, and try to describe to my non-riding family and relatives what a joy the last three days have been.

On to Around Manitoba


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