Monday, August 23, 2010

5700 miles on a motorcycle...

Thursday afternoon I returned from a 5700 mile motorcycle trip accross southern Canada, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota.  I have made the trek before many times, finding myself in the Black Hills during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.  Over the years I have improved my route and come close to perfecting my packing, and clothing.  This year I took several important steps to improve the trip further and I believe my approach is finally at a point where it is worth writing about.  You can judge for yourself if it is worth reading about.  I make no promise.

The key improvement I made this year is to slow down the pace.  I have been making the trip out to Sturgis almost every year since 2001.  In years past I wanted to get to South Dakota as fast as possible, covering the 1800 miles of interstates on one occasion in less than two days.  Crossing the bulk of America in under two days on a motorcycle is a fantastic experience and I highly recommend that everyone who can attempt it.  It requires a sturdy motorcycle, focussed determination, and a good bladder!  One reward is maximal time available to spend in the beautiful Black Hills.  Returning under the same time frame is also possible, but makes the journey home tiring, and something to be endured, not enjoyed.  The fast pace, therefore, once tried does not capture my imagination, and thus a long series of general improvements over the fast method has been experimented with.

The first major improvement requires examination of a globe.  One thing I love about cross country motorcycle tours is the fact that the scope is such that a globe is required to appreciate it.  A straight line -- actually a curve over the globe -- drawn from my home in Massachusetts to western South Dakota goes through the Great Lakes.  A slower, longer route travels north of the lakes, through Canada, and this northern route was attractive to me imediately upon completion of my first trip.  Going south of the lakes, and going fast, involves travelling interstate 90, the mass pike, all the way through Chicago and beyond to exit 32 in South Dakota. 

Travelling north of the lakes adds 600 miles to the journey.  The Canadian portion of the route travels the trans-canadian highway, rte 17.  This is the only major east-west route, shared by truckers and bicyclists.  It is a two lane, undivided highway.  The surface allows fast travel, but slows to 50 kilometers per hour through many small towns.  It must be scary as hell on a bicycle, but I've seen dozens of cyclists riding the road anyway.  By any measure the traffic is more calm than on the southern route through Cleveland, Toledo, Gary, and Chicago.  At times the views are spectacular, at other times monotonous.  Also, there are a number of desirable places to camp along the road. 

The north shore of Lake Superior, stretching from Sault Ste Marie, Ontario (on the border with Michigan) to Thunder Bay ontario (not far from Northern Minnesota) is the best part of the ride.  One has to be careful of moose on the road, even during the day.  I have never seen a moose on this stretch but I have heard of a motorcyclist hitting a moose and being killed the day before I travelled it.  Anywhere along almost all the roads I travel would be risky in the dark due to moose and deer. Risk of animal encounters aside, the nearly 400 miles of road between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay are spectacular.  The north shore of Lake Superior is unspoiled.  Most stretches are uninhabited, no houses, no villages, no boats on the water. 

Reentry into the USA is done one of two ways.  Either into Grand Marais, Minnesota, which is on the shore of the lake, or to the west through International Falls.  Both options are beautiful, each in it's way.  The road from Thunder Bay to International falls is 200 miles across near tundra like forest.  At one point a sign reads that all streams in this area drain into the arctic ocean.  It feels very far north, though the road is within 50 miles of the southern border of Canada.  There is one place to fill up along the road in the town of Atikokan.  My motorcycle has a maximum range of roughly 200 miles, so filling up at this station is not an option.  However the first time I went accross the road I opted to skip the fill up, since the station is 4 miles off the main road.  Figuring something more convenient would turn up I went on, but I got nervous 30 miles further along after having seen not one business of any kind aside from a few lonesome signs for fishing camps.  I doubled back all the way to Atikokan, and was glad I did since there wasn't one gas station the rest of that segment until I was at the US border.

Reentry has gotten more and more difficult since 9/11/2001.  A drivers license was all that was needed, but at this stage a federal ID, such as a passport, is required.  Check carefully before wandering into Canada.  Canada only needs to see a drivers license to let you in.

This trip I dropped into Grand Marais, had my bike stripped and searched, and was left wondering if I would recieve the same treatment.  I didn't.  But it was wise to have allotted a few hours for the crossing.  It took nearly two.

Travelling at a slower pace allowed me to take a detour to Hibbing MN on my way south.  Hibbing is the childhood home of Bob Dylan, and my wife requested a T-shirt, if one were available, from Hibbing.  If you are ever in Hibbing, stop at Zimmy's restaurant on the main street.  Zimmy's is the central location for Dylan gossip.  Apparently he hasn't been back since he left in the late 1950s!  Yet they sell t-shirts!  The street he grew up on has been renamed Bob Dylan Street. It was a touching side trip, since I planned to see Bob Dylan play in Sturgis.  There is no fast way to Hibbing Minnesota.

I spent that night in Cloquet MN, which is on the outskirts of Duluth.  Duluth is thriving industrial city on the south western tip of Lake Superior.  It is a confluence of rail road yards and shipping yards.  Many iron ore mines in northern MN send their freight out on ships.  Duluth happens to be the home of Aerostich, which makes goretex motorcycling suits.  I use such a suit and it has increased the comforts of my travels imeasurably.  I had planned to mail order the suit, but they suggested coming to the factory store for a fitting if at all possible.  I did this last year, in 2008.  Strangely, I have now been through Duluth three times all together, and I am willing to state that many of the best routes to and from South Dakota should go through Duluth.  It has taken all 7 of my sturgis journeys to learn this.  I will be back in Duluth as soon as possible.

One key improvement made for this trip was the visiting of family on the way out and the way back.  My wife's first cousin lives in Minneapolis, and we rendezvoused there to visit him for two nights.  It was a memorable encounter, and allowed me to sleep in a bed after a week of camping out!  After te two days I set off for South Dakota, and made it in a day and a half, without rushing.

The return journey was equally interesting, but I will leave that for a second post.  This journey out was the best I have ever taken simply because I slowed the pace.  It will be possible to improve the trip even more by slowing the pace even more.  More side trips.  More stops.  That is what I have finally learned regarding the journey from Massachusetts to South Dakkota: go through Duluth!

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