Snow and studs: The highs and lows of winter riding

CMG: You’re best-known for the trip in the short film AKA Brokentooth, but that wasn’t your first time down the ice roads. When did it all start?

Oliver Solaro: 2013  was the year I made my first attempt going down the world’s longest ice road, which is the Wapusk Trail (752 km. long—Ed.). Unfortunately, because of time constraints, the farthest I could go down that road was two-thirds of the way, which would have been Fort Severn.

CMG: What gave you that idea in 2013?

OS: It actually started off a couple of years before that, when I had made this harebrained scheme of racing snowbikes against snowmobiles in the Cain’s Quest race in Labrador. Of course, it didn’t work  … It might be different now, but at that time we were using a snow track kit that didn’t stand a chance. We would have been dead before the first checkpoint. But lucky for me the race got canceled because it was too warm.

So I didn’t know what to do with these snowbikes so I said okay, let’s take it it out there somewhere north and do something cross country with it. As it turned out, they weren’t really capable of deep snow cross-country riding. So I thought, okay, well let’s get a KLR, let’s stud it up and see how far we can go down the ice roads. Ice road truckers do it, why can’t you do it on a motorcycle?

CMG: You certainly found out the answer to that.

OS: The whole thing was an experiment right from Day 1. I’d never ridden a motorcycle with studs, I had no idea what it was going to take to start it at those temperatures, I had no idea what the conditions would be like. I literally rolled the dice on this thing. I just bought two separate sets of tires, one with very low profile street studs and then when I got to Gillam, Manitoba, I spooned on a set of motocross tires with half-inch carbide picks.

I will tell you this: Unless it’s loose snow, the tires that I was running with the carbide picks ran like a cat on a carpet. You will not get this kind of traction on asphalt.

CMG: Beside those tires, what other modifications did you make to the KLR on your first trip?

OS: On the first trip, it was a bit “Learn it as you go along,” and I discovered I was going to need a second battery. I ended up just zip-tying it to the frame rails on one side of the bike and then ran some extra wires. That allowed me to start the bike with booster cables, because everything was out in the open in case I needed it. I also realized even if you can spin the engine fast enough, at about minus-27 to minus-30, the KLR doesn’t have enough fuel pulled by the choke to get it running. So I bought a $25 snowmobile primer kit and plumbed it inline with the fuel line, and punched a hole in the intake manifold, and gave it two or three squirts of gas and with the second battery, that would work down to about minus-33.

Now, once I get down into the minus-40s, even that’s not enough. Extra fuel and dual batteries won’t start a KLR, and that’s where I drilled a hole in the airbox and gave it a shot of ether.

Now the CCM (Solaro’s current project is based on a CCM GP450—Ed.), other than a second battery, requires nothing. It will start reliably down to minus-40 and beyond.

CMG: So all the modifications you’ve done is add the battery and add the track kit?

OS: Yes, and heated grips, and that’s the only things I’ve had to do on the CCM.

CMG: That’s impressive.

OS: I don’t know if it’s an open loop or closed loop fuel injection system, but it’s part of the benefit of having fuel injection on a motorcycle, that they will reliably start and run at these temperatures.

CMG: What’s the lowest point that you’ve hit on one of your expeditions?

OS: I would have to say it would be the time I accidentally stumbled into the funeral of a young girl who had committed suicide on one of the reserves. That was a combination of just getting off the trail after riding about four-and-a-half hours with a frozen cornea, and then blindly stumbling my way into that church and stupidly interrupting a funeral without realizing it.

When I actually bumped into that impossibly small grey coffin, and I could see the shapes slowly starting to form and my eyes were getting used to the light, I just wanted the earth to swallow me up, I wanted to go back in time, I wanted to disappear. I had to cosmically atone for being such an idiot.

CMG: But the people there were quite gracious to you, right?

OS: Unbelievably so. This dumbass stumbles into this funeral, and … I don’t think I would have been so gracious if somebody had done that to my family, but they were unbelievably gracious. They took my hand, they understood that I was a lost, scared wandering traveler who had no idea what he had just stumbled into. They took me aside, and they fed me hot coffee and sandwiches and gave me a place to sleep and they didn’t so much as ask me why.

CMG: Do you think that comes with the territory of learning to survive up north?

OS: I will say this, strange as this may seem, what you hear from the news doesn’t actually reflect what goes on in a lot of reserves. People take care of each other. They have to. These communities are so small and so tight-knit that when they can, they do everything possible. Nobody asked for any money, nobody asked for anything. Most of the time, they’re not even worried about your name. They’re just good honest souls.

CMG: What was the highest point you’ve hit in your expeditions? 

OS: My moment of greatest elation was when I saw the polar bear tracks around my bike, where there were none less than two minutes prior, when I actually got on that bike, and it started, and I wailed out of there and I was making a good solid 80 miles an hour on the ice road, knowing I still had my hide attached.

CMG: What is the one piece of advice you’d give to any other person foolish enough  who wanted to ride the ice roads?

OS: Don’t go as unprepared as I did. Don’t take chances. The threat, the danger, the consequences are real and they’re not to be taken lightly. It may seem that what I do is haphazard and lighthearted and goofy, but behind it all, there actually is preparation, there is engineering, there is forethought, and I do go into it knowing full well what the consequences can be. Nothing happens fast out there. When you go to decide what your next move is, you need to decide beyond what that move is. You need to decide what you’re going to do after that because something as simple as just turning on or off your ignition can have a mountain of consequences if things don’t go right. So before you turn that key, know what’s going to happen over the next two hours.

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