Ottawa to Winnipeg, Winnipeg & Southern Manitoba

The next few days are spent in Winnipeg, visiting with family and friends and resting. One day, I take the bike to a Kawi dealer in Headingley, just West of the city, for its 15,000 Km checkup. I also purchased a tiny bicycle pump from a local sports shop. It is small enough to fit easily in my luggage, and adds air to the tires at about 1 pound pressure per 10 strokes of the pump. This should be sufficient for those morning pressure touch-ups, and avoid another search for an air hose in Northern Ontario.

Riding and driving around Winnipeg, I see many bikes. Most are cruisers, a few older standards, and almost no sport or touring bikes. I’m surprised at the lack of protective gear I see on the average rider. Bare chests and bare legs are common, as are sandals, and I actually see one guy riding in just shorts — including bare feet. I note about 1/2 of the riders aren’t wearing helmets, and I ask a police relative about this. Apparently there’s a loophole in the helmet law, allowing one to get a doctor’s note saying you shouldn’t wear a helmet because of a variety of medical conditions; and apparently there are places to get such a note with minimal effort. No wonder my Winnipeg relatives have such a strong impression about motorcycle safety — there must be a much higher proportion of serious injuries or fatalities among the accidents here.

After a few days of visiting and recovery, I’m starting to get itchy to ride somewhere. Looking over the map, there are few roads with any turns at all, little less twisty, for 100 Km in any direction. This is, after all, the prairies. I decide to go for scenery instead. Gradually a plan comes together — I’ll head West on the trans-Canada, enjoy the flat prairie for a while, then turn South near Carberry, where I remember a forested area and Canada’s only desert outside the Arctic. Head down into Southern Manitoba then double back through some of the smaller communities down there. Should take most of a day.

I head out in the morning, with only the panniers and tank bag, and lightly packed. Even knowing it was coming, I am immediately awestruck by the openness and flatness of the prairies West of Winnipeg. I almost imagine I can see the curvature of the Earth as the horizon spreads out on all sides. The highway is a divided 4-lane, 100 KpH, and absolutely straight and flat. Straight ahead the road recedes until the two sides of the highway merge into a point.

Boredom is a major cause of traffic accidents out here, and the highway department does what it can to break up the monotony. A sign announcing a coming commemorative plaque goes by, and I pull off to see what it is. Something about the first marker peg for the geographic survey of this part of the country. A little while later, an “odometer test zone” consists of signs marking 10 carefully-measured kilometers. (The GPZ odometer and speedometer are about 3% conservative, a fact the GPS has confirmed long before this.)

A thin strip appears on the horizon ahead and eventually moves close. It’s a line of trees following the bank of the meandering Assiniboine River. The only place where trees, river, and highway come together for dozens of miles so, of course, there is a campground here. I remember driving out here with my parents, as a child, for weekend camping, swimming in the muddy brown water of the river and picking tent caterpillars out of the fry-pan (where they would fall when the heat startled them out of the overhanging branches).

Half an hour further and I am at the city of Portage La Prairie (pronounced around here with no French accent at all). A bypass takes me around the city, and I then pull into a little roadside rest stop for a stretch and drink. I had planned to continue on to Carberry along the trans-Canada from here, but the map tells me there is a little secondary road just ahead that parallels the highway, and I head for it. It turns out to be more interesting, a paved path through shoulder-high grass on either side, and the occasional little clump of trees.

The air is alive with big dragonflies feeding on the plentiful Manitoba mosquitoes. I hear many of them impacting on the bike, and get the occasional anatomy lesson as one explodes on my visor. They’re massive enough that the upswept air off the bike’s windscreen is only partially effective at throwing them over my head. After a while they are so thick that I adopt a racer crouch, staying down more in the wind shadow behind the screen. Now I can hear them pinging off the top of my helmet, but at least I don’t have to watch. My mind composes a Haiku.

Crouched behind the screen
I hear the pings of insects
striking my helmet. 

Finally I arrive at the town of Carberry and gas up, at today’s mileage of 162 Km. I spend quite some time with the station’s squeegee sponge and clean the splunge off my visor, helmet, and the front of the bike. The attendant chats, commenting that he really likes the rich red colour of the bike (as do I).

I turn south on provincial highway #5 as planned. Soon I’m skirting the edge of, then just inside, a sparse forest. The trees are few and far between because there is little soil here. In fact, they are growing out of sand dunes. Somewhere just to my right is the Carberry Desert and, even here, I’m hearing windblown sand sizzling my helmet. The highway goes straight south, with the occasional jog every 20 Km or so. The jogs are a chance to lean into a turn, twice, then back to perfectly straight again.

There are no other vehicles at all, so I open the bike up a bit and zoom along for a while, enjoying the speed and air. Finally, I start to come back into signs of life — the odd farm and vehicle — and slow to turn onto highway #3 eastbound, in the southernmost part of Manitoba. Shortly after turning East, I find a roadside stop and pull in to lubricate the chain and rest. I’m at Km 332 from Winnipeg. A guy in a pickup truck, waiting to be picked up by a golfing buddy, chats about a bike he used to have.

Heading east again, the road S-curves a bit to the North and then, up ahead, there is something on the horizon that looks like a hill. As it approaches, I see I’m not dreaming — it is a hill. Some kind of ridge or escarpment, the only raised point of land for hundreds of Km, and a village underneath. Put a hill in Manitoba and people will come to ski on it, so there is a ski lodge and a lift system going up the side. The road has to curve around a couple of times to get through the pass in the escarpment. Sure enough, there are several bikes coming from the other direction. A hill and a curve is quite an attraction around here.

Thirty minutes farther East and I’m getting a bit stiff. Stop for gas in the town of Morden, at Km 376. Then I push the bike from the pumps into the shade and sit on a bench sipping water. A young fellow, looking to be just old enough to drive, ogles the bike and wants to know how fast it will go. I answer honestly — I don’t know.

The road is now on a Northbound jog, which the map says will last 30 minutes or so. Unexpectedly, there is a ferocious cross-wind coming from my left, from the West. It must have built up for the last hour or two while I was riding due East, so I didn’t notice it. It is strong enough that I must lean well into it, and then correct in the odd still spot. Add the gust from passing transport trucks and it’s a handful, and I’m tired.

In the next town, an Ice Cream sign tempts me to pull into a convenience store lot. I get a big sloppy cone, which tries to melt all over me before I can enjoy it, and lean in the shade. A big Kawi cruiser is parked next to me and I chat with the rider. He complains his tires are shot (cupped — I can see it from here) after only a few hundred Km, although he maintains them properly, keeps the pressure correct, etc. I agree that a few hundred Km is not normal wear and that he should seek warranty support. After a bit, he looks at my bike and asks if I “like those belly-riders?” I haven’t heard that term before and have a good laugh. (I decline to mention he’s the one whose belly rests on the gas tank.) We finish up our chat and ice creams, then head in opposite directions.

The rest of the ride back to Winnipeg is uneventful and passes quickly. Total distance for this day trip was just 509 Km. The bugs are thicker than ever before on the bike, especially dragonfly parts, as I get ready to clean it up. I remember my theory about the wasps eating the bugs, and try something new. With a light spray of water, I get the dead bug carcasses nice and moist again, then put the bike outside in the sun. Within minutes it is swarming with wasps, and I watch in fascination as they carry away parts of dragonflies 2-3 times their own size, while others gather around bug splatters and feed directly on the guts. In a few hours the bugs are practically cleaned off, and washing the road grime away is less disgusting. What great little helpers, I won’t be annoyed at the wasps again.

My stay in Winnipeg lasted several more days, but no more riding until the night before my departure, when I fueled up and then got packed to head home.

On to Return Trip, Day 1


One Comment

  1. jason arseneault

    I set out to learn about manitoba’s seatbelt and helmet laws (just moved here from new brunswick) and ended up reading your article. It properly conveyed that feeling of freedom common to motorcycling. Ive been doing it in the dirt for years, but a nice road trip story sure makes me want a streetbike. Ill have one someday, so see ya on the road. I cant wait to enjoy alberta, sask and mb’s prarie roads on a bike, and sample my east coast’s twisty, treelined backroads.

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