Born To Be Wild (At Least Once): Our Cross-Canadian Motorcycle Trip

We had a few long motorcycle trips under our belt in 1997 when my friend Bill and I came up with the idea of riding out to British Columbia and flying home.  It seemed like an ideal setup; my cousin in BC agreed to store the bikes, and Greyhound Air was providing inexpensive service between Hamilton and Kelowna.  The return leg of our round trip tickets could be used the following year to do the same trip backwards and bring the bikes home. Notice the use of the word “could”; some adventures are best left without attempting a sequel.

My newlywed wife Lynn and I tuned up our trusty Honda Silver Wing, and figured out where to tie on a tent and some sleeping bags. Bill could not bear to leave his machine behind a shed for a year so he purchased one just for the trip.  He went out and bought a 1980 Honda CB900 with a ten-speed transmission and aftermarket exhaust that made it sound like a Chevette without a muffler.  The fourth to complete our group was Dawn, who was doing some traveling, needed a ride to the west coast and thought the experience would be fun.  We all booked a week off work, and with our return flight on Sunday afternoon we had 9 days to get there.  It seemed like plenty of time, at the time.

Leaving our place in Hamilton on Friday afternoon, we were excited at the prospect of seeing the country and anticipating some great times and adventures.  It was long after dark by the time we rolled up to Bill’s family cottage near Tobermorey, but we managed to get up in time to catch to first daily run of the Chi-Cheemaun ferry.  Every motorcyclist should make this voyage at least once, somehow the context of a trip makes boats and motorcycles compliment each other perfectly.  We tied up below deck and sang the Love Boat song as Southern Ontario receded from sight.  After breakfast and a few strolls around the deck it was time to untie and join the stampede.  Manitoulin Island gets far less attention than it deserves from the ferry traffic, most of which charges off the boat on the quickest possible route to Iron Bridge and beyond.  This time we did too, Northern Ontario beckoned and the TransCanada stretched out ahead of us.

The Government of Ontario plays a cruel joke on travelers who use their provincial maps.  The Northern Ontario portion of the map is of a different scale than the Southern part so that vast distances look deceptively short.  Somewhere between Wawa and Dryden the shortcomings of our planning began to sink home as we realized how big Ontario actually is.  In addition to not truly grasping what we’d signed up for, our motorcycles could hardly have been more mismatched.  The wind buffeting over our un-faired Silver Wing limited our cruising speed to 110km/h at which point the motor was buzzing away at 6000rpm.  The really good thing about the Silver Wing was its range, over 300km before we hit reserve.  Bill’s CB900 had smooth four-cylinder power and better wind protection that made high speeds easy, but the small tank and thirsty engine limited the range to about 180km.  Bill had been cautioned about the scarcity of gas stations along our route.  He took this advice to heart and usually stopped at the first chance over 130km.  Subsequently whether we were moving or stopped, someone was getting frustrated over our lack of progress.

Dryden turned out to be a haven.  A friend had volunteered his parents’ house as a place to stay, and we had expected a floor to sleep on and little else.  On arrival we were flabbergasted to find that our hosts had gotten the good dishes out and put on a full dinner for four tired, rumpled and smelly people they had never met.  After an evening of great food and great company we headed off to comfy beds.  As far as we can tell Dryden has our nation’s friendliest people.

After reluctantly leaving the next morning I watched Dawn attempt to read the road map while at highway speed on the back of Bill’s bike.  She began carefully unfolding until the wind took over, finished the unfolding for her, and then ripped the map out of her hands.   The paper sailed past my head and was gone.  I braked to the side of the highway and looked back just in time to see our map speed by fully spread out on the front of an 18-wheeler!  It roared down the hill, around the corner and was gone again.  We gave chase and eventually recovered half the map at the side of the road, which turned out to be the half we needed.

Miles of muddy Ontario construction finally gave way to a divided four-lane highway at the Manitoba border, and reaching Portage La Prairie we camped out for the first time.  It rained, and here we learned that after all day on a motorcycle the last thing you want to do is sleep on the hard wet ground.  My normally cheery wife exploded with anger, her adventurous vacation had become a grueling ordeal.  Too much togetherness was not a good thing, and Bill and Dawn were not getting along either.  Barely acquaintances before the trip, they quickly found that they had little in common and by this point could hardly stand the sight of each other, which creates problems when you’re sharing a motorcycle.

Back on the road, our poky top speed and leisurely gas stops continued to be the greatest obstacles to covering ground.  By the time we filled up, checked oil, had bathroom breaks and snacks, located everyone and checked our route, pit stops were approaching half an hour.  This was definitely not to competition standards.  Bill was still learning the quirks of the CB900, which inexplicably used 2 liters of oil in one day, and not a drop for the rest of the trip.  On the bright side the bikes were otherwise trouble free and the weather was good.  Despite what some say, the prairies were actually quite pleasant to cross, the gently rolling terrain and unrestricted views a welcome change from endless rocks and trees.

Having learned our lesson about camping, we checked into a comfortable hotel in Regina just as the hotel across the street caught fire.  As sirens screamed and smoke rolled up from the roof, the flashing sign out front continued to advertise non-smoking rooms.  “I bet they’re all smoking now”, Bill said.  The next morning Bill wasn’t feeling well and slept in.  This gave us time to dry Manitoba’s water out of the camping gear and wash Ontario’s dirt off the bikes.  Underway about noon, we were falling behind schedule but still hoped to be in Calgary that night.  The rest of the day went by in a blur and we crossed the Alberta border with a mood of grim determination.

Gassing up about 2 hours out of Calgary, Bill was showing signs of exhaustion, and we inquired about local accommodation.  The attendant told us that the next town down the road had a hotel.  Bill figured he could drive the half hour so we paid up and headed out.  Arriving at the town, we realized that the aforementioned establishment was actually a tavern and had not been used as a hotel proper for some time.  Bill by this point was shaking and incoherent so we really had a problem on our hands, particularly since the entire town appeared to be drunk at 8pm on a Wednesday night.  We considered our two choices; we could either check Bill into the local RCMP detachment (the only safe location in town) or try to make Strathmore where there were actual hotels.

Lynn had only recently gotten her motorcycle beginners license and was justifiably nervous at the helm of a fully loaded touring bike with a very ill passenger.  Dawn weighed less, but Lynn wanted to take Bill with her if she crashed.  So that she wouldn’t have to balance at stop intersections I rode ahead on Bill’s cycle and waved her through.  Pulling back onto the TransCanada we were treated to a spectacular prairie sunset, but this did little to ease our apprehension as we rode on into the gathering darkness.  After an hour that seemed like an eternity we arrived in Strathmore.  Lynn managed to dock the SilverWing without incident and we carried off the barely conscious Bill.  Once in the hotel the ladies let me know in no uncertain terms that I was in charge of my shivering, drooling friend and left the room.  I stripped him to his skivvies, stuffed him into a hot bath and held the bucket for him while he was sick.  Once put in a bed he slept motionless for 12 hours and to this day remembers little of the entire incident.

The next morning was a turning point.  We had bottomed out and there was nowhere to go but up.  Bill made a quick recovery and by afternoon we were winding our way into the Rockies.  After so many days and so many mishaps, finally we had arrived.   The SilverWing struggled a bit under the uphill grades and stiff headwind, but the fresh air and beautiful views made us all glad we had brought motorcycles.  Camping out for the next two nights, we found it sufficiently chilly that we didn’t have to undress from our riding gear to sleep.  Time was short, but we made some scenic side trips and in places drove by snow at the side of the road.  Lynn took pictures from the back of the speeding cycle, and got a couple of good shots of sights that lasted but a few seconds.  In what seemed like no time at all we had crested Rogers Pass and began the long downhill trip towards our destination in the Okanagan Valley.

Finishing a great traveling day we pulled into the Hot Springs Resort where we had made reservations.  All day we had dreamed of basking in the hot springs, so it was a major disappointment to find out that our hot spring was an artificially heated and salted pool.  We soon got over our disappointment, as it was just the thing for our sore bodies.   The campground was conveniently located right next to the main CPR line, and straining freight trains thundered by our tents all night.  It may have been a hint to take the train next time.  We staggered out bleary eyed in the morning for a beautiful but brief hike in Glacier National Park before getting back on the road.

Saturday evening we arrived in Kelowna, 9 days and 4500km after we started.  The bikes were stashed behind the shed and covered.  My cousin and his family were gracious hosts and didn’t ask too many questions about what had happened.  First thing in the morning Dawn struck out for the bus station on foot, I don’t think she could get away from us fast enough.  The trip home was a lot quicker and less tiring thanks to Greyhound Airlines, and once again western Canada was laid out for our viewing.  I didn’t think I’d ever be able to top Bill for illness, but the following week I came down with mononucleosis and was mostly unconscious for a full month.

Understandably, the following year nobody had any enthusiasm for completing the second half of the adventure, so the bikes were shipped back east and eventually sold.  Bill and I went on to better motorcycles and more successful trips.   Lynn remained my wife but developed a knee-jerk response of “No!” to my motorcycle trip ideas.  For our 10th wedding anniversary she planned a very pleasant trip.  It was to Cuba, and there were no motorcycles involved.  Greyhound Airlines went out of business within a year.  As for Dawn, we never saw her again so I’m not sure if she fully recovered.

Even as it turned out, seeing a big part of our beautiful country by motorcycle was still an awesome experience.  I would recommend a cross-country journey to any Canadian motorcyclist, just remember that when your motorcycle trip goes bad you may not have fun, or even go home with your health.

Regardless of what happened we still have the experience, and we can retell the stories and share a laugh with good friends and family, this makes the whole thing worthwhile.