Pull it together man, sure you’re cold and you might die of exposure. But on the bright side, you’ve still got one good eye.
It’s August – the dog days of summer – and my flesh is cooking beneath rivulets of sweat that sting my bloodshot eyes. I’m cutting firewood under a cloudless sky, it’s 33 degrees, and there isn’t a breath of wind when I hatch the scheme of riding a motorcycle to the farthest northern point in Ontario . . . in winter. My six days in the bush amidst the relentless torment of biting insects and sweltering heat has ignited desire for a crisp, cold, dry ride to a place that has never seen a motorcycle.
Back home, I poke around the shed, looking at my derelict database of bikes all piled up in a heap, and I cast a forlorn gaze on Agatha. She’s an ’02 KLR, maybe the only ride I own that has the slightest chance of bringing me back from such a ridiculous endeavour. In just one season, she’s helped me taste New Orleans mint juleps, Mississippi crawdads, Blue Ridge frog jam, Baltimore porter, Georgia peaches, and Tennessee sour mash. She’s run the Dacre rally, gone on a snowy Atikokan moose hunt and served daily commuter duty. I swear to you on a stack of ’70s Hustlers that I heard a soft, mechanical sigh when she realized that I had chosen her. Taking stock of my woefully inadequate equipment, I began a list to figure out what I was going to need to cover 7000 km on salt brine winter asphalt plus 1000 km of snowpack roads, muskeg and ice.
Fast forward to mid-February. As is my modus operandi, I left everything till the last minute, resulting in a frantic series of calls to Dualsport Plus for this, that and the other thing. Two days till send off, and Agatha’s collective existence is strewn about the living-room floor of the tiny, old semi-renovated church we live in. After hand screwing (not that) the last of nearly 800 Grip Studs into two sets of tires, I’m bleary eyed but ready . . . more or less.
A stiff, damp southerly pelts me with heavy wet flakes at zero hour. This becomes rain, then snow, then rain, then snow, until it settles into a full-on snowstorm from Sudbury to the Soo. Day two holds more promise. Minus twelve and mostly sunny all the way to Winnipeg. Loaded ridiculously top heavy, I struggle with crosswinds that vex me in my attempt to skirt the western side of Lake Winnipeg. My mobile cameo, projected on the roadside drifts, is only missing the iconic image of Granny perched up top on her rocking chair, knitting me a toque.
I misjudged how many studs I had left in my Kenda tires and dumped it on the ice. An Old Dutch delivery truck pulled up and the driver helped me return Agatha to her upright position and sent me off with a few bags of ketchup chips. I hate ketchup chips.
By the time I make Gillam, Manitoba, all the centre lugs of my rear tire are worn to the carcass, leaving precious few studs on the outside knobs; this results in more and more time spent horizontal. While I slither around the snow-packed streets looking for a spot to swap tires, a huge front-end loader pulls up beside me and a spritely fellow with an even more impressive soup strainer than mine declares, “You’re not from around here, eh?!” I just gawk. “Follow me!” I struggle to keep up as he pilots the loader with rally-car precision to the roadworks compound. AHHH . . . HEAT! Now, it’s not that I want to pick out curtains, but this makes Rodger, Gillam’s unofficial goodwill ambassador, my instant bro-mance.
“You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away.”
New mongo studded tires bring fresh confidence, although now I’d have to compensate for oily brakes – the result of puking fork seals and a blown-out rear shock. It’s –27°C, and with no idea what to expect (save a crescendo of doom forecast by others who have made this route by sled), I fumble my way down the Wapusk winter trail road. It only takes a couple kilometres for my sunken heart to realize, this ain’t no ice road. Sure, there are a few areas where small lakes and salt swamps level things out a bit, but for the most part this is a snowmobile trail, complete with invisible white ruts and holes large enough to swallow a pickup truck.
Underestimating the time I’d need to cover the first 200 km to the tiny hamlet of Shamattawa, Manitoba, I have no choice but to ride in the dark at minus 30 degrees. It is here that the cornea in my right eye freezes to my eyelid, which makes it even harder to keep things vertical for more than a few hundred metres at a time. Once in town, I stumble, half blind, into the Anglican Church and come to the terrible conclusion that I have interrupted a funeral service for a 14-year-old suicide victim. With my heart in my stomach, I pray for a time machine.
Long story short, I am offered a place to sleep at the Awasis Agency of Northern Manitoba (First Nations children’s aid) and slink out the next morning under the disapproving eye of the local constabulary and past a tanker truck that blew through an ice bridge. Three hundred more klicks of hell on snow passes before I make the salt ice on the western shore of Hudson Bay. Unless you hitch up the dogs, this is the farthest north you can go in Ontario. My gracious hosts in Fort Severn pass me a polar bear paw that was taken from an animal that, only days before, had terrorized the town and had to be put down.
Smiling sheepishly for their cameras, I inwardly feel heartsick over the loss of this majestic, noble creature. I’m told it was a young one, yet the paw is at least the size of my chest. I’ve reached the zenith, and must now go back whence I came. By the time I make Thompson, Manitoba, the second of my tire’s three plies is exposed. I spoon on another doughnut, but my inflationary issues don’t end there. Covering the distance between Red Lake and Blind River, I enjoy not one, but seven flats. Just to add injury to insult, a nasty cut from a minor get-off requires I do a little trailside stitch-up with a fishing hook and some eight-pound Trilene fishing line. Next time, I’m bringing Steri-Strips.
I feel creeping pangs of desperation, but I’m literally saved by Kevin and Gary, who open up Trail Side Sports in Espanola, Ontario, for me on a Sunday. They donate the only rubber that will fit. It’s an old, dried-up, offshore MX tire dug out from the deepest recesses of a shed. It immediately chunks off the centre knobs, but somehow gets me home. So in two weeks, I’ve covered 8000 km from 5°C and rain to –34°C in the dark. I’ve broke down and bled alone under a surreal night sky dancing with ribbons of pulsating colour. I’ve seen glorious beauty, epic tenacity and crushing loss. And all I want is to go back.