Opinion: First across Canada

Take a look out the window now and imagine that you’re setting off on a long motorcycle ride. Like, a really long ride, clear across the country. Imagine that you’re in Halifax and you’ll be heading west all the way to Vancouver, taking as long as you need. Pretty good, huh?

Now imagine that you’re Graham “Jimmy” Oates from the Isle of Man, and it’s July 21, 1928, and you’re sitting on your Ariel motorcycle with its back wheel and sidecar wheel in the water of a Halifax slipway. You’re shaking hands with the mayor and having your picture taken by the men from the newspapers. You’re about to be the first person to travel across Canada on rubber tires. It’s not been done before because, well, there aren’t always roads.

Mayor Gastonguay of Halifax sees off Jimmy Oates and  his Ariel, Toby, from the Atlantic Ocean.

“Had pictures taken. Bid Halifax bye-bye and started kicking the gravel again,” wrote Oates in his diary. “The roads were terrible and many times I had to lift my feet to prevent their being injured whilst crashing through the loose stones,” and this was the easy bit. You thought Zac had it rough this month in Labrador? His adventure was nothing compared to the Canada of less than a hundred years ago.

That part about being the first to travel on rubber tires is important, because Dr. Perry Doolittle, the founder of the CAA, had made the same trip three years earlier in a Model T Ford, but it was fitted with interchangeable steel wheels so it could be driven like a train on railway tracks. The railroad had covered the country since 1885, when the last spike was pounded in, but there was no continuous road until 1942. The only option above Lake Superior and in areas of the Rockies was to drive, or ride, on the rails – which is what Oates did, bumping along all the way.

Somewhere outside Winnipeg, Oates found a local beauty to pose with his motorcycle. No word as to whether she was impressed.

(Shameless plug: If you want to know more about these early adventurers, including the snobby Brit who almost made it in 1912 but fell out with his chauffeur, and the Canadian Brigadier who won a medal for the first drive by road in 1946, then read my book, Canada’s Road. It tells their stories alongside the story of the Trans-Canada Highway.)

I wrote earlier this month about the first riders to cross the United States, and about Mark Hunnibell who, at this time of writing, was still slogging across the country on his vintage Henderson. Canada was a different matter, though. More rugged and more remote, the earliest travellers had to duck into the U.S. to make it between the coasts.

Oates, however, was determined to be the first to actually make it under his own power and without turning himself into a train. He was a Manxman, blind in his left eye from a gas attack in the First World War, who wanted to promote Ariel motorcycles; he used a Sturgess sidecar, built in Hamilton, Ontario, to carry his supplies.

When he came to areas with no roads, he lifted the machine, named Toby, over and in-between the rails and carried on along the rail bed. It wasn’t easy.

Wedged between the rails, it was a bumpy ride on the railroad tracks with Toby.

“Graham suffered much bruising from the incessant crashing over the ties, and the bike gave clutch trouble, so it needed recorking many times through the trip,” writes Bill Snelling in his fascinating book, Aurora to Ariel – The motorcycling exploits of J. Graham Oates. “At one point, the railway dispatched a clerk to their local drugstore for a large bag of corks. This was sent through to Graham when the next train passed him. The exhaust pipes did not stand pounding the rails for long, and in no time they were flattened so Graham simply sawed them off leaving just short pipes pointing straight down to the ground.”

Good thing he wasn’t riding through Toronto this summer.

Mayor Taylor of Vancouver welcomes Oates and Toby to the West Coast.

It took Oates two months, until Sept. 22, to reach Vancouver, where the mayor met him and he dipped his wheel into the Pacific Ocean. It had been an almost impossibly rough journey – even where the roads existed on the prairie, they were so sticky with gumbo that he had to remove his mudguards.

Snelling’s book recounts the story in full, and tells of how Oates returned to Toronto to start the Overseas Motors dealership on Danforth Avenue. But he wasn’t done with challenging travel yet, and in September 1932, he set off again on another Ariel motorcycle from Montreal to Churchill, Manitoba, far north on the shore of Hudson Bay.

On the ride to Churchill, Oates fabricated a rear axle extension and a front wheel guide. It worked, sort of.

This time, he adapted the sidecar wheel to stick out wide enough so that the machine would actually ride on top of the rails, as Doolittle had done, though he used rubber tires and a guide system to keep them in place. Well, try to keep them in place.

“The attachment for running on the rails left a lot to be desired, and I had to redesign them as I proceeded,” he wrote in his diary. “The speed on the lines was regulated by my courage, and I had at all times to be ready in case the machine plunged off the rails. This happened on four or five occasions [that day] and I had then to ride miles on the sleepers until I came to a place where I could lift the machine back on the rails. Once I could not find a place so had to lift it on with the aid of a tree trunk.”

What kind of a nutbar would make a trip like this?

It took a special kind of person to ride across Canada, via Churchill, and especially back in 1932.

Oates reached Churchill in early October, in fiercely cold weather, and then loaded the bike onto a train to return south and continue on to Vancouver, cutting south through the U.S. to cross the Rockies. He was done with railway tracks. Three years later, he returned home to the U.K. where he stayed active with motorcycles and eventually died in 1972, aged 75.

Why should you need to know about Oates? Because he pioneered this country in his own way, not so long ago, and demonstrated that with enough stubbornness and sheer strength of will, you can achieve pretty much anything. And because that’s what Zac did this month on his little Yamaha, preparing it, fixing it, and pressing on through the challenges of Labrador to make a journey he’d long hoped to complete. More power to these dreamers – they make our world a better place.

One thought on “Opinion: First across Canada”

  1. What I love about these stories is not only do they predate adventure bikes by decades, but adventure gear as well. These guys didn’t have thousand dollar suits for each type of element. You made do with what you have and got on with it. These guys could grow a moustache overnight.

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