The weather was unseasonably crisp when we departed Cobourg around 9 am on Saturday. Nine degrees wasn’t too bad with the extra liner in my jacket for upper body warmth, a pair of rain pants over my jeans to keep the wind off the legs, and the heated grips on the Kawasaki Versys 1000 cranked up. The sun did its best to burn off the chill. The destination was a winding dirt road almost three hours away, but I think our minds had already been there for days.
There were three of us on this ride, almost three years to the day since CMG’s founding editor Rob Harris was killed on that dirt road. Editor Mark was riding a 2019 BMW 1250GS, and his friend Andrew was riding his 2008 Honda XL1000V Varadero. They made this ride two years ago. I was on a 2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000, and our bikes were all well suited for the roads ahead.
The road was surprisingly twisty between our start and the first stop for breakfast in Bewdley. Poorly paved, gravel-strewn backroads made for a combination of fun and pucker that would set the tone for the whole trip. Rhino’s Roadhouse welcomed us with eggs and peameal bacon on the shore of beautiful Rice Lake, where we discussed bikes, Bluetooth and battery-powered Hogs. And Rob.
Rob Harris founded Toronto Motorcycle Guide in 1994 as a printed publication, and it grew through several names to become today’s online Canada Moto Guide.
Rob loved motorcycles but he loved his family more. See here to read more about Rob’s life.
From Bewdley, we travelled the south shore of Rice Lake, headed for the river crossing at Hastings, north to Norwood, then a short traverse of Highway 7 to Marmora. Beyond Marmora, the rough, snaking back roads wound through the countryside, past long convoys of side-by-sides, thankfully all going the opposite direction. On to Highway 62 for a straight stretch north, we came to the road we had all been waiting for: Old Hastings.
The entrance off 62 immediately bent sharp to the right, under the trees, as if to hide the secrets beyond. The road was unpaved: a mix of hard-packed dirt, gravel, and some sandy sections thrown in for good measure. At first it was fairly straight, but bobbed up and down with the natural terrain, a natural roller-coaster shooting through the forest.
Farther along, the up and down became mixed with sharp twists and turns, and the surface turned even more loose and rough. The street-oriented tires on the Versys acquitted themselves surprisingly well, and the suspension smoothed out all but the harshest potholes, of which there were plenty. A heavy, street-oriented adventure bike may not have been the best weapon for Old Hastings, but most bikes better suited to it would be less adept at getting there as quickly and comfortably. Every dip and hill felt like it could take the bike airborne if taken fast enough, every corner seemed blind. Occasional low spots shot through swampy areas, with one overflowing across the road, making me happy I was wearing my rain pants.
Countless twists, turns, ups and downs later, we arrived at the spot. The road was uncharacteristically straight, but rose high enough, then fell sharp enough, to obscure a significant portion of the rest of the road ahead. A short flat section continues after the sharp hill before rising again into the trees. On the approach to the hill, it was easy to see what happened. By a one-in-a-million chance, a pickup truck was approaching, obscured on the other side of the hill, timed horribly. The narrow road looked completely clear, until it wasn’t. Rob was probably riding closer to the centre of the road instead of off to one side, and the worst happened.
We stopped, as planned, to pay our respects and do a little housekeeping at Rob’s memorial beside the road. Mark made sure the two crosses there were still planted firmly and promptly broke the arm off one of them. [It was a very CMG moment. I’ll come back up asap to fix it. -Ed.] After some pictures, some discussion about that ghastly day, we packed back up and rode on. Lunchtime had long passed and we wanted to get home to waiting family.
It was only a few short kilometres past our stop that Old Hastings met Highway 620. Heading back west into Coe Hill looking for food and finding nothing open, we continued on to Apsley and the Apsley Inn and Restaurant. I’ve been in this exact same diner so many times, but in countless other small towns in Ontario, with its menu of burgers and chicken fingers, glass-doored Coke refrigerator humming in the corner. Mark pulled out his map, a curious type of paper tablet that requires no electricity but requires buying a new one to get updates. We were a little off our planned route but the (manually) recalculated way home looked interesting.
Mark and I switched bikes for the last leg, and Andrew, on his Honda, went on his own way just past Apsley. The BMW R1250GS, while similar to the Versys in concept, felt totally different: higher bars, lower seat, less wind protection, and the hottest heated grips I’d ever sampled, a bonus as the temps were dropping. Turning left off Hwy. 28 at Woodview, we entered the small slice of heaven called Northey’s Bay Road. Carving past the cottages on Upper Stony Lake, Northey’s rivaled Old Hastings for satisfaction, but with smooth pavement and higher average speeds. At the other end, as we came to a stop to turn onto Country Road 6, I vowed to return to Northey’s as soon as possible.
The home stretch brought us back through Hastings on our way down to Mark’s home in Cobourg. There would only be the occasional bend in the road to break up the monotony of wind-swept farmer’s fields and slow traffic back into town. The sun was dropping, taking temperatures with it, and legs started dangling off footpegs, looking for a bit of relief. A memorable ride on some competent machinery, visor full of bugs, and bodies ready for a beer and a couch.
Back home that evening, after showering off the dust of the day, I stopped to appreciate what Rob could not, that horrible day in 2016 – coming home. I was able to kiss my wife and hug my two sons, and the ride made me appreciate those moments more. One, maybe two seconds in time difference, and Rob would have passed that truck safely and arrived at Highway 620 only a few minutes later, and I would not be writing this.
Rob Harris died three years ago today. His wife Courtney now lives in Ontario with their two daughters, Cate, 11, and Chloe, 10. Rob is missed every moment of every day.