I have always been intrigued by geology, but I have learned that Poldi is an even larger sucker for it. In her research, she encountered a description of Ouimet Canyon, an unusual geologic feature, not fully understood, that shows exposed columns of basalt, and protects a sub-arctic ecosystem at its floor. And it was right here near Black Bay!
Except that the route to the park was closed for bridge repair, so we took the designated detour, a lengthy route through a network of gravel roads. Normally, motorcycles avoid such roads; the loose gravel is like riding on ball bearings, the usual counter-steering methods of leaning into turns becomes a hazardous guess of how much friction remains.
Thunder Bay is a great name for a city of 100,000, but the town itself was not attractive—it seemed spread out and industrial. We spent the morning seeking a 6mm Allen wrench to tighten my new mirror stalks. It took forever to locate the “Canadian Tire” store that everyone told us to go to (Canadian Tire is the equivalent of Home Depot in the U.S.). The gas pumps only permitted fixed amounts, the ATM would not take Poldi’s card, and making it all seem worse than it was, we had not had a proper dose of coffee that morning.
Eventually, completing our errands and planning our exit over lunch, we escaped to the outskirts of the city, to the Terry Fox memorial. Terry Fox was a teenager in 1980 who lost a leg to cancer, and then embarked on a trans-Canada run (on one prosthetic leg) to promote cancer research, making it to Thunder Bay before succumbing to his disease. He must have been quite an inspiration to the country because the memorial is a sculpture in a beautiful park with a commanding view of the land and lake.
We headed to Sleeping Giant, a Provincial Park on a long peninsula in Lake Superior. The Sleeping Giant is a landscape feature that shows the silhouette of a prone man. This seems like a place to come back to, with an enormous variety of hiking trails.
Although we had not really travelled very far from Thunder Bay, it had been many hours and we were still not conditioned for more than an hour of riding at a time—we quickly became stiff and sore. So by the time we arrived at Black Bay to the (miserable excuse for a) lakeshore cabin that we had booked, it no longer mattered. We were exhausted, and collapsed onto the too-soft bed, logging nearly a dozen hours of sleep by the next morning.
We learned that friends of ours, Diane Lund and Don Holzwarth, were vacationing along the North Shore and would be heading from Thunder Bay to Grand Marais at the same time that we were doing the opposite. We proposed to meet them somewhere in the middle for a picnic and/or hike, but alas, modern communications technology does not work in the wilderness. We sent a few electronic messages, and planned our picnic at Grand Portage for maximum likelihood of seeing each other in the visitor center parking lot, but it did not work out.
Nevertheless, we DID cross paths, on the Canadian highway segment to Thunder Bay. Or at least I think we did. While there are many cars and trucks bearing canoes and kayaks or trailering boats or campers, I suspect that the combination of carrying two Lake Superior-capable kayaks PLUS a Vistabule trailer was a signature belonging to our friends and only a very few other outdoor adventurers.
Traveling at a relative speed of 180 km/hr, there is not much time to scrutinize oncoming traffic, but I happened to notice such a vehicle while we were heading north on Ontario-61 near Neebing. Coincidentally, my GoPro camera was doing experimental recording and I managed to find a frame that captured the event!
As miserable as the weather was on our pre-trip ride to the start of the Circle Tour, it was simply spectacular on our first official full day on the road. The skies had cleared, and we left April early Monday morning, but not until after she insisted on fixing a hearty breakfast for us.
We stopped at the co-op in Grand Marais for sandwiches that we planned for a picnic at Grand Portage State Park, on the border with Canada. The ride was beautiful, the sun brilliant with the lake reflecting the sky’s unique crisp northern blue color. Our spirits resuscitated, we chattered on our helmet intercoms about the adventures ahead.
The first was to visit Pigeon Falls on the international border. Poldi had been there twenty years back, when it was just a rough trail through the woods to an overlook. Now there was a visitor center, picnic grounds, dog park, and the trails were paved, with guardrails even.
I did not recall ever being to Pigeon Falls, but as soon as it came within view, I recognized it. When I was ten, my family had taken a trip to northern Minnesota. I recall visiting a twin waterfall, which I understood to be “International Falls” because Canada was on the other side. I remember my blurry black and white photos from that trip that I had shot with my Brownie camera, but always thought they were taken at the city of International Falls MN. Now, five decades later, I know this is wrong; we were here at Grand Portage and the Pigeon River.
Like Niagara Falls, which also straddles the same international border, there is a “U.S. side” and a “Canadian side”. And sure enough, we could look across and see the overlooks on the other side of the river. And just like Niagara Falls, there is debate about which has the better view. We did not have time to explore the Canadian side, so we will have to remain silent on that topic. I know the U.S. side is spectacular; I’m guessing the Canadian side is as well.
The border crossing was only a quarter mile from the park. We headed to the customs check point, where we were the only vehicle. I was surprised, since the last time I had crossed into Canada was on my 50th birthday, and the traffic was backed up for miles. Of course that was in the years immediately following 9-11.
We were asked a few simple questions: “How long will you be in Canada”, “Do you have any alcohol or tobacco products?” “Do you know your license plate?” (I didn’t and had to move the bike to show it to him). The agent was a motorcyclist who had done the circle tour himself, so after showing him our passports, he wished us well and waved us on.
Our next destination was Kakabeka Falls, perhaps 50 kilometers into Canada, approaching Thunder Bay. After a few missed turns we arrived and found it to be yet another spectacular display where it seems like the edge of a lake has been removed, and all the water is gushing out of it. This time we were able to view it from both sides and we can clearly state that “the Canadian side is better”.
Our Superior Circle Tour schedule has been refined and finalized, with each day’s destination carefully selected. Poldi is a wonderful travel agent, arranging and reserving a safe harbor for each night along the tour.
Our first day however, involves actually getting to the shores of Lake Superior from our home in Minneapolis, about 150 miles away. And our first night will be with Poldi’s sister April at her lakeshore cabin, another 100 or more miles along the north shore near Grand Marais. This total would make a brutal first day on a motorcycle for us, as unconditioned as we are for the iron-butt competition. So we made an alternate plan.
It turns out that our Go-trailer/camper also accommodates drive-on cargo. It tilts down to allow a motorcycle, or any other such vehicle, to drive up onto the trailer bed where it can be strapped into place and hauled to wherever! Our wherever is April’s basecamp home in Duluth, where we can unload the bike, leave the trailer in the driveway, and make an official start on our Lake Superior Circle Tour.
It seemed straightforward, so allocating a full hour in the morning to load the bike on the trailer should be more than enough, right? But the perversity of inanimate objects prevailed. The Go-trailer balked at being loaded, its elevator winch failing and the tilt feature not tilting. The self-loading ramp failed to self-load: I could drive the bike partway up, but could not get the rear wheel onto the trailer bed. Carefully manipulating this powerful 500-pound machine, climbing the 30-degree incline was too much for my self-preservation instincts. After a half-dozen failed attempts and with smoke issuing from the clutch, we abandoned the effort.
Fortunately, we had a plan-B: drive the full distance from Minneapolis to Grand Marais.
Unfortunately, we had burned our morning on plan-A.
Fortunately, the rain that was forecast was for later in the day.
Unfortunately, the forecast was wrong.
Our delayed start resulted in traveling along the storm front as it progressed from Duluth along the North Shore. When it wasn’t raining, it was blowing. We were relieved to finally arrive at April’s cabin where she took us in, dried us off, warmed us up, and celebrated our arrival with a glass of wine and a nice dinner.
About a year ago, with some reluctance, I put my motorcycle up for sale. I had acquired it more than a decade before as one of those midlife attempts to try and recapture the free wheeling spirit I remembered from college, when I had a small Honda motorcycle that I used mostly to commute to school.
My midlife motorcycle was a large touring bike, a BMW, and it offered an experience beyond just getting from point A to B in order to attend class or purchase groceries. It offered that open air riding experience only possible from a two-wheeled vehicle, whose balance and stability derives from the thrilling lean into the curves of the road.
Although I had imagined taking it on extended trips to remote roads in scenic places, the realities of life worked against those dreams. Instead, I found nice motorcycle-friendly roads closer to home and made many weekend afternoon excursions to enjoy them.
In recent years I have seen a degradation of driving skills displayed by the cars around me, primarily due to distractions of phones and screens. There has also been a decline in driver courtesy, possibly a side effect of the covid pandemic. In these same years, I also noticed that my ability to confidently maneuver the heavy touring bike has declined. I always felt that one should not own a bike that you can’t get back up should it fall, and I suspected that, while the bike was no heavier, my lifting strength is less than it once was.
All of these factors resulted in a growing feeling of insecurity, especially in traffic or at freeway speeds alongside other vehicles. While I always try to be in a defensive driving mindset, anticipating potentially hazardous situations with the flow of traffic, I was now bothered by thoughts of the possibilities of not surviving the ride. This really detracted from the unique pleasures of being on a motorcycle.
I decided to retire from motorcycle riding. I sold my bike to a BMW-riding pastor from Rochester who wanted the exact year and model I was offering. He would have preferred blue, but was happy with silver. I told him he looked good on that color.
And so, another life chapter ends. I’m sad to no longer be slipping into that natural fitting position on the saddle behind the fairing, feeling the vibration of a powerful engine, the thrill of acceleration, and leaning into the curves, but I recognize that this is the right time to move on, and I’m glad that someone else gets to enjoy the experience.
I did manage to have one extended motorcycle trip—The Lake Superior Circle Tour, and I was accompanied by my intrepid partner Poldi, riding pillion. I made a series of facebook updates at the time describing the adventures along the way, which I will be reprising here in the next series of posts. Some of you may recall them from three years back. Whether they are new to you or not, enjoy these recollections of a summer adventure during a time before covid.
I have written before about the treatment of family photos and other artifacts from previous generations. I recently re-encountered the collection of old 16mm home movies made by each of my grandfathers, which span a time range from the 1930s to the 1960s. I had sort of decided that I didn’t want to invest the time and expense of converting them to modern digital media just to look through them maybe once, wondering who these unknown people are, at events and places that have no particular meaning to me.
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to discard them, ending their life in some landfill. So I made a final effort to find someone who might actually be interested in them, perhaps as props for period theater productions, or as some old-timey footage to place in a modern film project. A google search did not find such uses, other than to mention that there is a market for old movies, without really listing many. But one suggestion was to check with local historical societies, who are sometimes interested in them for research and documentary purposes.