Inching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I reasoned with myself that leaving at 6:30 a.m. (as I did) should get me through this delightful, 40 km stretch of highway before rush hour. Wrong. This is the Greater Toronto Area, and getting to my escape route north (Hwy 400) took me an hour and a half of clutching and foot-dragging.
My destination for the day was 950 kilometres and 12 hours distant, and my hope was to make it in daylight and avoid unnecessary contact with the large wildlife that I had received continuous warnings about.
Having uttered the requisite oaths and curses along the way, I finally made it Hwy 400, and the pace picked up quickly. With the tangled mass of Toronto shrinking in my mirrors, I relaxed and took deep breaths. This piece of road merges with the Trans-Canada Hwy 17 in no time at all, and then it’s a short drive to Wawa. Well, about 11 hours’ riding time, but who’s counting?
I’d just started a weeklong trip to explore a piece of Canada that I had never seen, the Algoma region of Ontario, to be capped off by representing Motorcycle Mojo with a booth at the Bikers Reunion event in New Liskeard, Ontario.
Even though it is the most populous province in Canada at almost 13 million, you quickly get an appreciation for the sheer size of this province and how much wilderness is within just a short drive from any urban centre. Traffic thinned considerably on the 300 km strip between Barrie and Sudbury, and my pace increased to make up for time lost earlier.
The largest city in Ontario (by land area), Sudbury is very popular as a cottage/camping destination, but most of the weekend revelers had made their collective way back to the
Big Smoke the day before. Since it was Monday, some of those folks were probably the same ones that I had tangled with on the busy mega-highways earlier in the day.
Beyond Sudbury, the scenery becomes more rugged, and gaps between pockets of civilization make one aware of the fuel-level indicator. A couple hundred kilometres later, I passed a road sign that caught my attention. Highway 129. I slowed down and debated taking a spin up it, but decided there would be time for that later.Entering the bustling town of Sault Ste. Marie after nine hours in the saddle, I decided it was time to stretch my legs and check out the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre (bushplane.com) located right on the waterfront in the downtown area. Since I am an airplane buff, this was an easy call to make, and the museum didn’t disappoint. With over 25 aircraft ranging from the tiny Bell 47D helicopter (similar to those seen in M*A*S*H*) to the huge Canadian-made CL 215 water bomber on display, I could have spent hours wandering around. There is access to the interiors of many of the planes and a 3D movie about the life of a water bomber, so this is also a great place to bring the kids. Well worth the $12 adult admission price.
However, 230 km still lay between me and the day’s destination, so I loaded myself back onto the Suzuki V-Strom Expedition and headed toward Wawa, where a hot meal and cold beer awaited me. I tried to make haste, but soon after leaving Sault Ste. Marie, the Trans-Canada Highway began to hug the shores of Lake Superior. The views were stunning, and I found myself turning the bike around frequently to get a second look at the scenes that continuously unfolded as I would crest a hill or round a corner. The clear skies and late afternoon sun combined with the deep blue of the lake and mountainous terrain painted a landscape that photos could never fully convey. As intoxicating as the views were, daylight was getting short, so I didn’t linger too long, especially since I would retrace the same route in reverse the next day. Thirteen hours after starting, tired but happy, I arrived at my first destination, the Wawa Motor Inn (wawamotorinn.ca). I had a rustic chalet booked, and since I was shacking up with four folks from the Ontario Tourism travelling road-show team, it gave us plenty of room for a very comfortable night, along with amenities, including high-speed wireless. We took advantage of the dining room and ordered a delicious meal, washed down by that cold beer I was so looking forward to. Returning to our chalet, I stood and looked at the 2012 V-Strom that brought me here. It was an excellent partner for this trip. In fact, it’s hard not to gush about it. My loaner bike came with the “Expedition” level trim, which includes several useful accessories and aluminum top box and panniers. It looks ready for business and didn’t disappoint.
Appearing large and bulky all bagged up, it is quite light and feels well balanced on the road. I appreciated the roominess of the cockpit and superb seat. To my astonishment (not being an iron-butt type), after my day’s ride of 950 km, I felt tired but not sore, and could have easily kept going. Even with cruising speeds that were supplemental to the posted limit, the range of over 400 km per tank was likewise appreciated. To improve on an already great bike, I would consider including some available optional extras to enhance its all-weather usefulness, such as heated grips and a 12-volt accessory socket. I would also tick off the box for the optional centre stand. When racking up the miles this bike is capable of, the stand will make routine maintenance such as chain-lubing that much easier. Being an early riser, I snuck out while the others were sleeping to take a quick spin around the neighbourhood. Finding a sign pointing to something called Magpie Falls, I took the three-kilometre dirt road to see what it was all about. Rounding a corner, I surprised a group of about a dozen great blue herons, which briskly took off (well, with as much briskness as these big birds could muster). I didn’t even know they congregated in flocks. Still pondering this, I turned another corner and there were the falls, and here I was, all alone to enjoy them. A lucky find, and I just sat and looked at them till rumblings told me it was time to fuel up for the long day ahead.
Retracing my route of the previous afternoon, I took the time to stop at the well-prepared (read “motorcycle-friendly”) parking lots and to enjoy the beaches along the way, including Katherine Cove, Old Woman Bay and Pancake Bay, some sandy, some rocky, all gorgeous. Today, there was no rush and I whiled away the hours taking in the very different views at each point. Eventually, with the sun fading, I made my way back to Sault Ste. Marie for a night’s stay at Algoma’s Water Tower Inn (watertowerinn.com). It was a comfortable hotel with a spa and fitness room which probably would have done me some good, but after a few refreshments, I was ready to hit the sack and get rested up for a big following day. Normally, I sleep like the dead, but the thought of the next day’s attraction kept entering my mind, sort of like Christmas to a kid, which hampered my log-sawing efforts.
The King’s Highway 129. I’d been looking forward to trying this stretch of road since Mike Jacobs of Ontario Tourism told me about it back in January. Finally, here I was, ready to see how it compared to its legendary namesake on the Tennessee/North Carolina border, U.S. Highway 129 – also known as the Tail of the Dragon – which I rode and loved a few years back. Ontario’s Hwy 129 is listed as one of the loneliest of the King’s Highways, with just 300 vehicles per day using its 225 km length. Good, that’s fine by me. The first 60 km or so offers pretty scenery and sweeping corners. A very enjoyable ride indeed – not the stuff of legends, but I still had my hopes up. Quickly, the terrain changed as we got near the Mississagi River. A description that I found of the next 20 km stretch of road is very accurate, listing it as being narrow with many sharp curves and restricted visibility.
Along with this brief was the warning that even though the posted speed is 80 km/h, reduced speed is highly recommended. So is this length of 129 comparable to the fabled US Route 129? Well, yes and no. This stretch is tricky, especially some of the elevation changes (let’s call them “drops”) and I loved it. It was not the manic thrust and parry, throttle on, throttle off needed to ride the Dragon, but it was still hugely entertaining. Making it more of a challenge is the stunning scenery accompanying you through this canyon of lush evergreens and granite mountains snug against the Mississagi River. It can take your breath away, but it’s best to keep your eyes on the road ahead. I would recommend planning to take this portion a couple of times at different paces — once to enjoy the road and once to enjoy the scenery. To make things even more exciting, one should keep in mind that logging trucks driven by motivated owners also use this road.
It was in this section that Mike and I found a remote uphill rocky and muddy trail, and we wanted to see what lay beyond the short sightline into the woods. Successfully plowing through for a few hundred yards while standing on the pegs was excitement enough, though, and we decided to turn around and get back to the road before we found ourselves going over a cliff. As capable as the bike is, I might suggest another optional extra for the V-Strom. Perhaps a bash plate would be a good idea if the plan is to go exploring off the beaten trail. Corner handling on these tricky roads was similarly well within the V-Strom’s capabilities. The Strom stands on Bridgestone Battlewing tires, which on paper are a compromise for on- and off-road riding, and I found that they complemented the V-Strom’s light handling with grip that extended right to the edge of the tire, to the point of dragging a foot peg. Considering the Strom’s substantial ground clearance, that’s saying something. Exhausted but jubilant, we headed back the way we came to our accommodations at the popular tourist destination of St Joseph’s Island and the Hilton Beach Inn (hiltonbeachinn.ca) with its picturesque views of the marina and North Channel. This was a great place to get refreshed, and with only steps from my room to the hopping bar and grill, that’s exactly what I did. It was a great way to wrap my last night in Ontario’s Algoma region, but I had to pack up and make the seven-hour journey east to the Bikers Reunion in New Liskeard. I don’t think I will wait too long to head back, though. With local folks filling my ears with, “You think it’s pretty now? You should see the unbelievable fall colours!”, I am already planning my last big ride of the year. For more information on the Algoma area, please visit ridealgoma.com