I’m packed for the return trip, with the same setup as before except for the addition of the tiny bicycle pump. My plan for the return trip is to force myself to take that fourth day, to be a little less sore. It’s early Wednesday morning (6:30) and I’m fresh, so I’m going to take the straight Trans-Canada East from Winnipeg rather than going back along 44. And, for a change of pace, I’ll turn South at Kenora, head down to Fort Frances, and take highway 11 to Thunder Bay instead of the dull stretch of 17 East from Dryden.
Eastbound, Day 1
Well, I’m set. It’s 6:45 AM July 28. I gassed up the night before and got the tire pressures right. Calling this Km 0 in my journal here. It’s a clear morning, not cool, and the air is fresh as I pull away, circle around the perimeter highway, and head East on #1. Again I feel like I’m driving over water as I move down the ruler-straight highway across the absolute flatness of the prairie. It’s early so there’s little traffic out here, and when there is I can see the head or tail lights miles before we pass.
The flat straight road lasts about an hour, then a tree line approaches as we climb up out of the lake bed of ancient lake Aggasis. A little way into the treed area a sign announces a rest stop, and I think it would be a good idea. It’s still early and cool and it turns out this rest stop is swarming with vicious Manitoba mosquitoes. They’re so bad I keep fully suited, helmet on, and visor down, run to and from the washroom, and hurry back onto the highway.
The rest of the trip to the Ontario border and on to Kenora is uneventful and passes quickly. I see maybe a dozen cars in total. I had no plans to stop in Kenora this time, but I need gas and plan to stop on the bypass. As I come out the other side of the bypass I’m finding it hard to believe there isn’t a single gas station on that route, and I’m about one tablespoon away from the reserve. I now backtrack into the city from the East and stop at the first gas station I see. It’s 9:16, Km 266 today. The 15 litres of gas will prove to be the most I take in a fill-up on this whole trip. Lubricate the chain and stretch a bit.
Just East of Kenora I turn South on highway 11, heading for Sioux Narrows and Fort Frances. Within minutes this highway feels quite different than the Trans-Canada did — narrower, older pavement, and a bit less travelled. As I go past a large swampy-looking area a deer grazing in the weeds looks up to watch me pass. The occasional glimpse of water goes by, but this road mainly twists gently over rolling hills through forest, until Sioux Narrows.
At Km 328, Sioux Narrows is a beautiful town, and I enjoy a great breakfast at lovely restaurant overlooking the narrows and boat launching. The waitress is quite apologetic that I am too late for the breakfast special, so my meal costs me a dollar more. Full and well-rested, I get back on the road about 10:30.
Another 150 Km of gentle hills and broad curves takes me out of the heavy forest to a more cleared and farmed region, and then into the town of Fort Frances, on the US-Canada border. I should have taken a quick break 30 minutes ago, so I’m a bit tired. It proves to be very difficult to follow highway 11 through town — the highway signs are hard to find and confusing, and the road takes several jogs where missing a sign leaves me on some residential dead-end. Frustrated, I eventually clear the town and stop for gas on the far East side. It’s 12:30 and Km 477.
East of Fort Frances the highway now heads due East and the first half hour is particularly interesting. The road goes over lots of water in a series of jumps involving bridges and islands and one long causeway. A strong cool breeze blows across the road and the lakes on both sides are very pretty. As I pull away from the water, it now feels very hot out, though. This road is obviously not used or maintained as much. Opposing traffic is rare and the asphalt is old with lots of patching. It occurs to me that cars probably consider this highway to be in bad shape, but on the bike I just pick a path between the bumps and it’s fine. The tar snakes are starting to feel like more of a problem, though, affecting my steering enough to cause some concern. I wonder if I might be developing the legendary steering head bearing problem, or maybe some tire wear? Probably just the road. The long deserted stretches and big sweepers encourage me to let my speed pick up, and we zip along at an enjoyable rate.
As I approach the turn-off for Atikokan, an hour an a half of high-speed riding has left me a bit tired and, I suddenly realise, hungry, as it’s now 2:00 and I haven’t had lunch. My map says Atikokan is a couple of Km off the highway, so I turn off when the intersection comes up. If the highway I’ve been on was in poor shape, the access road into Atikokan is terrible. However, it is at least under construction, so someone has decided to do the much-needed repaving. I take a quick tour through town to see what’s there, then come back to a gas station and hotel/restaurant right near the highway. I gas up at Km 630.
At the hotel/restaurant, I park next to a parked police car, being sure to put my little steel plate under the side stand so the bike doesn’t sink into the blistering hot asphalt and tip over onto the car. Most of the restaurant is closed, but a corner is open, all but one of the tables occupied by local folk, including the officer. Although the bike isn’t visible from here, I’m pretty obviously riding (‘stich and helmet) so we quickly end up discussing riding, weather, and road. I comment that I’ve enjoyed the ride from Fort Frances and that the roads were good (meaning I’m enjoying being on the roads and there’s little traffic). Considering the state of the road surface and the construction, and that a car would feel differently, this comment brings guffaws and further chat.
Back on the road again, my map says I’ll merge back with highway 17 in an hour and then be close to Thunder Bay. As I pass back into the Eastern time zone, suddenly it is 5:00 and not 4:00 and I realize I had better stop soon if I’m to get a room. Several signs for low-cost motels suggest a good hotel strip on the far side of Thunder Bay, near the highway, so that becomes my destination.
At the first motel I pull into, the parking lot is empty except for a red VFR. Nevertheless, all the rooms are booked, which looks like a bad sign. Better take the first alternative I can find. Across the street there’s a TraveLodge. Rooms available but only on the second floor. However, I’m tired and need something; plus the sign advertises an Irish pub in the motel, so this sounds fine. It’s Km 848 as I park.
I unpack, carry the bags up the stairs, and lubricate the chain, but I skip washing the bike as I don’t feel like lugging water down from the second floor. My Givi top case is latched poorly — not sealed and rattling as I remove it. Inside my room I empty it to inspect why. It turns out the red plastic button that activates the latch has a small piece broken off of it. I glue it back in place with the all-purpose goop in my tool set, but later find it didn’t take strongly enough, so I repack to reduce the load on this case and decide to live with it until I get home.
The sign out front didn’t mention that the Irish pub is just a good idea, and is still under construction. Across the street, however, I find a pizza restaurant and treat myself to a big meal and beers, then waddle back to my room stuffed and light headed, switch on the TV, and konk out. I resolve to sleep an hour later because I want to force this return trip into a 4-day affair rather than being tempted to do it in 3 again and getting exhausted.
On to Return Trip, Day 2