The Best Ways to Travel

Story by Rolf Kraiker// Photos by Rolf Kraiker
November 1 2008

The old man cleaning out the garbage containers in the parking lot was obviously employed by the fast food joint where we’d stopped for a morning coffee break. As he neared the receptacle where my wife and I had parked our motorcycles, he paused to glance at the bikes. “Your machines?” he asked.

After a little idle discussion about the BMWs, he began to talk about the role motorcycles had played in his life. I became envious as he described owning some of the most unique and collectible motorcycles of the 50s and 60s and the tone of our conversation shifted from awkward strangers to familiar friends. With a little sadness in his voice, he told us he’d only recently sold his last motorcycle—one he’d had since new in 1979. He couldn’t bear to have it around anymore as it brought back too many fond memories of the time he’d shared on it with his wife who had recently passed away.

The impromptu parking lot meeting with this old-timer clarified for me the reason for our journey. For both him and for me, the motorcycle represented adventure and escape. I’d travelled extensively by bike in the 70s, but gave it up to spend more time in my other escape vehicle of choice – a canoe. Once we started a family it seemed unlikely that I’d have the chance to ride again. Now that our kids are older, it’s opened up an opportunity to explore the open road on two wheels again, but it’s hard to give up a lifetime passion for paddling. With my wife Debra, I planned to set out on a journey of exploration across Canada and the US to find out if it’s possible to combine the two.

There’s not a lot of space to carry gear on motorcycles and finding a way to get something enjoyable to paddle, yet small enough to carry on a bike was a challenge. We could have used a sidecar or trailer to carry the boats, but that would have hindered the sense of freedom that is part of the appeal of travelling on two wheels, so we looked for a different solution. We settled on a couple of 10.5-foot long Puffin boats made by Pakboat in New Hampshire. These little canoes along with the four-part paddles collapsed into a package small enough to fit across the passenger seats.

There are a lot of similarities between paddling in vast wilderness and exploring the open road by motorcycle, yet there are significant differences. We soon determined that wildlife encounters are more predictable in canoe travel. The pace of travel is slower and it is a rare event to come upon an animal unexpectedly. That’s not always the case on a bike. We were reminded of that in heart stopping fashion one morning as a female black-tailed deer bolted across the road directly in front of us. Jamming on the brakes left enough room to avoid the animal, but her fawn wasn’t far behind. Fortunately, the youngster wasn’t as sure of the wisdom of mom’s decision and turned around at the last minute. Deadly encounters with deer are an unlikely event paddling, but it was a close call for us on the bikes.

Modern life tends to dull the senses and wilderness trips tend to reawaken them. The world is filled with sounds and smells that are often ignored in the city, but after some time in the wild you become acutely aware of them. A slight rustle means nothing in the comfort of your bed at home but could rouse you from a deep sleep if it happens outside the tent. The constant whistle of wind in a helmet on the road makes hearing all but impossible, but there’s compensation for that in the heightened awareness of smell. After a while we could almost tell which state we were in by the smell of the flowers. You become more aware of smells canoeing, but certainly not to the extent you do on the bike. Changes in wind might bring the acrid smell of a distant forest fire when getting out of your tent in the morning on a canoe trip, but it doesn’t compare to the sense of running into a wall of smell that you get on the open road on a bike.

Travelling through the mountains of Wyoming reminded us of how exposed to the elements you feel on a canoe trip. Looking out the windshield of a car means you miss the changes in temperature and climate as you climb and drop in elevation, but on a motorcycle your body almost tingles in response to the changes as you move from valley to hilltop. It’s like that on a canoe trip, except your body has days to adjust to the changes instead of minutes. Climbing through one of the passes in Yellowstone we encountered snow that made it hard to operate the hand controls on the bikes as the cold seeped through our gloves. We pressed on knowing there’d be a chance we could warm up once we got to the lake. Dense steam rolling across the road signaled our entry into the area of active geysers. Stopping in one of the parking lots we toured one of the more interesting stops. Small vent holes along the walking paths gave us a chance to temporarily warm our hands, but the moisture from the steam cooled them off almost as quickly once we started walking again. Later at the lake, we assembled the Puffins and paddled over to an area of active geysers. The journey was very similar to our trip down the mountain and we could feel the temperatures of the water change through the bottom of the boats as we neared the area where hot water from the geysers was mixing with the cold of the mountain lake. Placing our hands on the soft fabric of the boat bottom soon dispelled any of the lingering effects of cold we’d subjected them to on the trip down the mountain.

This was the first time we had used the boats; people could watch in a parking area and it established a pattern for the rest of the trip. Curious eyes would focus in our direction as we opened the packs on the back of our bikes. As the boats began to take shape, the more curious would come over to ask questions either about the boats, bikes or both, and it would always take at least twice as long to assemble the boats as it should have.

Lassen Volcanic Park in California stood out as a highlight of the trip. Negotiating the twisty, narrow roads on the bikes was a white-knuckle challenge with cliffs on the left and guardrail-less drop-offs on the right, but the mountain lakes at the top were worth it. Once on the lakes in the Puffins, we were soon reminded of the same type of distorted scale of landscape that you find when paddling in the arctic. We would set out across the apparently small lake, only to realize its true size once underway.

The midway point for our trip was to be highlighted with a paddle in the Pacific Ocean after which we’d head north for a bit before retracing our steps back home, but that was not to be.

Travelling by motorcycle along the coastal highway among the huge redwood forests was a treat for the eyes, but in every place we stopped along the coast of California and Oregon the surf was crashing against the shore and we couldn’t find a place sheltered enough to feel comfortable launching the open boats, so we gave up on the idea. Reluctantly, we headed east again, feeling much like the child who’s been eyeing that big present under the tree only to be disappointed on Christmas morning when he discovers it was actually for someone else.

At the mercy of the weather.

For hours on end now, we’d been watching a solid wall of dark clouds build on the west as we travelled east. The open expanse of desert easily reminds one of travel by canoe in the arctic, only the motorcycles let us stay ahead of the weather. Each time we’d stop for gas, the rain would catch up to us and we would endure light showers until we travelled down the road a bit. Before too long, the storm clouds were becoming more ominous and there was no sign of shelter in sight. Just as it appears we’re ahead of the storm, the road makes a 90-degree turn not on our map. Progress becomes difficult now that the storm is catching up from our right. Though the road is arrow straight, our bikes are heeled over as if in a turn to compensate for the wind. Sudden gusts make us fight for control of the bikes and it feels like the wild ride in a canoe when you hit strong whirlpools in an eddy. Just as it becomes apparent that we’ll have to pull over and shelter under a tarp, the road makes another 90-degree turn to the left and we open the throttles as the wind belts into our backs. We arrive at the next community minutes ahead of the storm and stop at the first restaurant we see. From the comfort of a booth, we watch as the storm passes through, leaving patchy blue sky in time for us to remount the bikes. Oh, to have that option on a windswept arctic plain.

Once homeward bound, there’s always a bittersweet feeling of loss at the trip’s end that’s counterbalanced by the comfort of returning home. The jet stream seemed to have firmly locked a weather pattern in place and strong winds seemed to want to speed our progress most of the way east. We chose to abandon any attempt to launch the canoes and decided to press on covering more distance on our bikes. It wasn’t long before we crossed the border and headed back into the familiar turf of Ontario where we live. As if sensing our joy at returning home, the dark clouds lifted and were replaced by dazzling sunshine and blue sky. The wind that had been driving us east seemed satisfied with the job it had done and abated. With the sudden change in our fortunes, we reconsidered our options and just a scant three hours from home, we pulled off the highway to spend time in one of our favourite Ontario destinations, Killarney Provincial Park. After a 14,000 kilometre round trip of exploration in search of prime paddling destinations, it seemed odd to find ourselves virtually in our back yard drifting past glacier polished rocks rising sheer from sparkling blue waters that rivaled the scenery of any destination we’d stopped at during the time we were gone. We didn’t really need the reminder, but the turn of events made it clear that key to enjoying travel by bike is not dissimilar to travel by canoe; it’s the journey not the destination that’s important.


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