It’s been a while since the last official Canada Moto Guide tour. Founding Editor Rob Harris would try to organize something for the fall with a couple of contributors, but since Editor Mark took on the Big Chair in 2016, there’s been nothing.
Three years is too long, so this month, five of CMG’s finest zipped up their jackets, strapped on their helmets and tried to figure out the route to cottage country. Time to ride!
This was supposed to be a five-way comparison of naked street bikes, let rip to ride on the glorious winding roads of the Haliburton Highlands. The trouble with naked bikes, however, is that they’re naked, which makes it a challenge to carry large quantities of beer from the store back to the resort hotel that would be home base.
Fortunately, it was my job as CMG Editor Supremo to assign the motorcycles for this three-day trip, so I chose a Harley-Davidson Sport Glide from the press fleet as one of the bikes. It’s fast and powerful and has large saddle-bags – just the thing. I assigned it to Managing Editor Dustin Woods because he has a leather riding jacket that actually says “Harley-Davidson” on the back.
For myself, I chose the Honda CB1000R, because, well, duh. It’s fast and powerful and well-behaved, and it’s more comfortable for the “mature” rider. I slung a pair of soft saddlebags over the rear seat for some clothes and a pair of flimsy rain pants, and was all set.
And then, the Kawasaki Z900, because it’s a well-balanced naked bike that seems to do everything well. And the Triumph Speed Twin, because it looks lovely and brings a bit of retro class to the cottage-country line-up. And the Ducati Scrambler Café Racer because we needed a smaller bike for our hipster city contributor.
Which brings me to…
There were actually six of us, including Ryan Edwardson the photographer, who rode along on his own Triumph Thruxton. He has loud pipes – we always knew where he was.
We’d never ridden together as a group, so this was a learning experience for all of us. But especially for Matt Bubbers. Matt is the newbie – an experienced car driver, he’s only recently earned his motorcycle licence and still has just the Ontario M2 qualification. He owns a Suzuki DRZ400 and is keen to ride more, but freely admits he doesn’t know what he’s doing. We took him and the Ducati Scrambler under our wing, where we berated him mercilessly.
(Read Matt’s thoughts as a newbie on the ride here.)
Jeff Wilson left his brand-new Kawasaki Z900 at home to ride up on the Triumph Speed Twin, while Dean Edamura brought along the Z900 from Kawasaki’s fleet to compare to it. Dustin chugged up on the Harley and I rounded out everything on the Honda.
There’s no shortage of great riding in central and eastern Ontario. The challenge is to figure out which of the twisty lines on the map are wonderful roads, with smooth, well-cambered asphalt, and which are bumpy, frost-heaved, pot-holed wannabes.
Fortunately, we had a terrific place to call home at Sir Sam’s Inn on Eagle Lake, just north of Haliburton. Dustin scored us a couple of connected cabins on the water, which meant we could park the bikes right outside, sit on the deck and plot out a route for the next day. One of the cabins even had a luxurious bedroom suite attached, with a king-size bed – Dean was first to arrive and claimed it, with no respect for his elders. Damn you, Dean!
The road to Sir Sam’s is called Sir Sam’s Road, which makes sense, and it’s one of those twisting cottage roads that would be so much fun if there weren’t any driveways attached to it. This is one of the challenges of riding in cottage country: there are relaxed cottagers everywhere, meandering into town to collect groceries and booze and rubber patches and booze and hardware supplies and booze. We were wary of them on our way out to buy beer for the deck.
There are several roads in the area well-known to motorcyclists, but they’re in varying states of repair. Highway 507 between Catchacoma and Gooderham, for example, is so popular with sport bike riders that there’s a sign at its southern start, warning of the penalties of speeding. However, I rode it to reach Haliburton and the road is now bumpy and often ridged. The locals probably don’t mind because it slows down the yahoos, but 507 is no California canyon or Appalachian gem.
Similarly, we were recommended to ride Elephant Lake Road north of Wilberforce, but it too was choppy and chewed, presumably from the ravages of winter. It’s a lovely route for the sedate pace of a group of greybeard Harley deckers, pounding road tunes from their handlebar speakers, but frustrating and jarring for a posse of sportbikes with finely tuned suspensions.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other area roads in much better shape. You just have to ask around.
After much beer on the deck Monday evening at Sir Sam’s, we decided to ride to Wilno because that’s a popular stop for riders at the Tavern. Larry Tate and Richard Seck and some others had been there the previous week, so it only seemed right. We figured we’d get to Wilno and then decide how to get back again – wouldn’t want to overthink the day.
The proviso was to double-back as little as possible on the same roads, so our route would have to be a loop of some sort. There are any number of suggestions, many recommended by the Ride The Highlands tourism people. Matt, who lives in downtown Toronto, said he’d be lost without Siri or some other disembodied voice telling him directions, but fortunately some of us are old enough to know how to read a map. We’d ride to Wilno and figure it out from there.
THE RIDE – THE LOWS
The breakfasts at Sir Sam’s are really good, so we didn’t leave until the crack of 11 on Tuesday morning. Apparently, somebody had been snoring loudly in our cabin the night before – loud enough to keep people awake until late. I don’t know who it was, but when I woke up my mouth was really dry, so I must have been yelling at the inconsiderate snorer in my sleep. (It’s too bad Dean didn’t accord me the respect I deserve and offer up the self-contained suite, which might have kept down the volume of my yelling.)
We went over the rules of group riding, including hand signals and lane positioning, and then set off in a fairly tight group. Even experienced riders need a refresher – or usually, a confirmation – of what various expectations are among the group. These days, Bluetooth and intercoms are doing away with a lot of this old fogey stuff, but it’s still good to go over the basics for when your communicator batteries fail.
(Read Dustin’s story on correct group riding here.)
We rode our assigned bikes into Haliburton for gas because nobody else was as clever as me, and nobody else had filled up the night before. While they were getting fuel – I didn’t need to, hah! – I tried to chat with the cop in the unmarked Ford Explorer who was also buying gas. He was pleasant enough but not particularly talkative. I wondered if he’d be more talkative in an hour or so, somewhere down the highway.
Then we swapped bikes, as we’d continue to do every hour or so through the day. I rode the Scrambler at the front because I’m most familiar with the roads, and I can read a map. Dean rode behind me, and then everyone else was behind Dean. The rule was that you’re responsible for watching out for the person behind you in your mirrors, and to not let that person slip too far behind. Dean quickly forgot this and we surged ahead, aiming for Wilberforce and the much ballyhooed Elephant Lake Road.
Elephant Lake Road was a disappointment, though, thanks to its bumpiness on its curves. We did stop somewhere along the way for Ryan to set up a photo shoot, but he was unhappy with the position of the sun so we gave it up as a bad job till later. In truth, he was probably also just as unhappy with all the bugs feeding from him as he squatted in the bush, sweaty and burned, waiting for us to roar past, knees skimming just a foot or so above the asphalt.
Elephant Lake Road became Peterson Road and took us into Maynooth, where Dustin’s favourite butter tarts bakery had closed up shop, much to his disappointment. We pressed northeast on the well-travelled Hwy. 62, smooth and wide, but Jeff was now riding the Honda and complained that it was already down to its reserve gas tank. He must have been riding it really carelessly to use up that much fuel. We avoided the cutoff over to Wilno because we had to find the closest gas station. Honestly, Jeff really should have planned ahead better.
THE RIDE – THE HIGHS
Fortunately, right opposite the Barry’s Bay gas station was a restaurant with a wonderful outside patio, so we elected to forget about Wilno and eat there instead. It’s a good thing I filled the Honda when I did with the exact amount of fuel I did, otherwise we’d never have found the Ash Grove Inn with its welcoming patio.
Our RideTheHighlands map, which was on paper in my pocket and on everyone else’s phones, recommended we head west toward Algonquin Park and then turn south just before the park gate at Madawaska. This way, we’d ride a Figure 8 route that crossed back through Maynooth and down to Bancroft. And the road south from Madawaska, Hwy. 523, was to my mind the best road of the day.
Again, I rode in front, now on the Z900 with Dean behind on the Honda and then Dustin behind him on the Triumph. We rode more quickly, pushing toward the limit of what we hoped our cop friend in Haliburton would consider forgiveable. Jeff, now on the Scrambler, stayed back with Ryan and Matt, who was losing his Harley virginity. The smooth road curved and swooped through the trees, swooped and curved with nary a driveway or sideroad along its 35 kilometres. We passed a couple of cars. Nobody passed us.
At the end, we gathered near Maynooth, rescued a roadside turtle, swapped bikes again, and rode to Bancroft for ice cream. And fresh beer supplies, which filled the Harley’s bags on the final road west to Haliburton and Sir Sam’s.
AT THE END OF IT ALL
We ended the day as everybody should on a road trip: a fine meal (with local craft beer!) in the hotel restaurant, then more beer around an outdoor fire by the lake, swatting at the occasional bug while making new friends in the dim light of the flames. Snoring was apparently subdued that night, and after another mid-morning start, we each departed for home.
I headed back south with Matt toward Peterborough, taking Hwy. 507, which seemed a better road now that I was riding at Matt’s slower pace. We were relaxed and comfortable, and Matt was far more at ease with the Ducati. The Honda and Kawaskai had each shown him the potential power of a motorcycle and he was comfortable with the smaller 800cc of the Scrambler engine.
It’s rides like these that will help make anyone a better motorcyclist. The social camaraderie; the lessons learned from the experience of others, no matter your own experience; the distance beneath your boots; the understanding of what’s needed to make the ride exactly what you want it to be. You don’t get that with cars. In a car, you’re on your own, just perhaps following another car. On a bike, you’re part of a group, slotted into position to create a greater whole. Maybe that’s not for you, but if it is, you can find it, like we did, in the Ontario Highlands.
And next year? Yes, we want to do it again next year. Same hotel, same roads, same everything. Except maybe next year, riders will get to choose their own bikes. Maybe there’ll be less whinging if they do.