November 21, 2015
There’s something about the first day. Perhaps it’s the inevitable poor sleep the night before, perhaps it’s the nerves. In “Long Way Round” Charlie Boorman drops his bike twice before leaving London. When we rode out of NYC in 2010 our friend cuddled up with a deer on Skyline Drive (everyone was fine). On our way to our wedding in 2011 the first day was completely uneventful much to our relief.
I was counting ourselves lucky and hoping for more uneventful first days. After the marathon of visits, living with family and last-minute bike prep, Nita and I were looking forward to open roads and couple of great nights camping in the prairies – specifically Dinosaur Provincial Park. We find it takes us a while to settle into a rhythm – the bags are never packed quite right and our minds need to adjust to “just being.” Especially after all the planning.
Still, three turns out of the Le’s home and Nita comes on over the headset. “There’s a strange clanging.” Now, I’m no mechanic, but clanging is rarely good. After pulling over and fiddling Nita’s believes the new GoPro mount is hitting a panel. I think perhaps we both just wanted to believe it, so we continued on.
The sun is getting higher in the sky and the temperature is getting well into the 30°C’s when Nita comes on again. “The clanging is happening again but only when I use the clutch.” Thinking the pull on the aftermarket clutch-lever is too short I ask her to move it out further and she does. It seems to make a difference to the noise and the performance of the bike – it seems less sluggish.
The prairies are rolling by and we’re beginning to settle into the ride. The smells of the canola fields are filling our helmets and the bright yellow is set beautifully against the stark blue sky. This is exactly what we’re hoping for. A beautiful prairie day.
The temperature is rising again. Now at a hot 38°C we pull into Bassano for a quick fill. “Liquid just shot up onto my visor!” Nita’s bike is not happy. A quick look and I see a little liquid on the fairing but no leaks and a test of her brakes seems fine. We chat with two great guys who are heading to Medicine Hat – one on a KLR and the other on a BMW. They’ve got big smiles and are enjoying their day on the bikes.
The heat is stifling and we’re ready to get rolling. Back on the bikes for about 10km and, as we turn to head north, Nita comes on again, this time more anxious. “I’m covered in liquid – somethings shooting up from the front of the bike!” We pull over at the corner of the intersection and are completely exposed to the heat. As I get closer, she is indeed covered in fluid. Her brakes look fine but the coolant tank is covered.
We strip off the front fairing, check the brake lines to be sure and decide it’s her coolant tank spewing hot coolant everywhere. And not downward – it’s shooting it a foot into the air and onto Nitas visor. Damn. We clean up the bike and press on the last 30km to Dinosaur Provincial Park with a rag stuffed onto the top of the bottle.
Pulling into the park we’re greeted by a stunning view. The flat of the prairie gives in to huge hidden canyon filled with hoodoos. You could ride past this on the highway and never know it was there yet standing in front of it, it seems to stretch out forever. We drop down into the canyon and the heat continues to rise and we notice a new friend joining us – about a million mosquitos.
Setting up camp is an exercise in controlling our body temperature and practicing mosquito kung-fu. Spray, spray, unpack, set-up, wipe away sweat, spray wiped area, unpack. And repeat. Still, soon enough camp is set and we’re sufficiently slathered in Deet to repel a small percentage of the mozzies.
These little guys are relentless. Not only are we covered in chemicals, we have a coil going whose cloud only seems to add to their enjoyment of the amusement park we’ve put together for them. In and out of the cloud they fly only to land on us – completely ignoring the manufacturers guarantee of “6 hours of protection.”
Still, we cool off, eat some dinner and finally began to relax. We pour some drinks, pull out the Haynes manual check Nita’s bike over. When I take the cap off of the coolant tank I’m immediately struck by how full it is. Whoever had done the PDI at Blackfoot had filled the coolant to the top of the cap – almost a half-cup more fluid than should be in there. We drain off the excess with a straw and cup and hope that it will do the trick. And it does!
That night we sleep very well under the stars. Tomorrow would be a new day.
We wake up, pack the gear and set out to Saskatoon. Nita’s bike is due for her 20k service and we’re looking forward to a little respite from the heat. We head northeast on some beautiful backroads and some nice gravel tracks. Once again day two is turning into the day-one we’d hoped for. The sun was hot but cooler than the previous day and the roads, while not winding by any stretch of the imagination, are very satisfying. The prairies unroll in front of us and the pavement trades-off with gravel to provide some fun.
Soon enough we pull into Kindersley, Saskatchewan where we rest our heads for the night. Saskatoon was less than two hours away and we’d get into the shop with lots of time to explore the city.
Up early, we make a straight shot to Saskatoon. We know that we’d have to get the bikes in early if we had any hope of having them looked at without an appointment. I’d called the day before and Devin had mentioned that they had prior appointments but would try to fit us in. We check into a hotel down by the river and are immediately impressed by how green the city is. The folks we meet are kind and the area just feels alive. If i’m honest, we’re totally surprised by how cool Saskatoon is – it reminds me a little of Austin.
We zip up to FFun Motorsports and meet up with Devin who kindly gets our bikes in right away. After going over the issues and relinquishing the keys we head back into the city for a walkabout.
We spend an extra day in Saskatoon while the bike is being fixed, and to be honest we’re glad. A morning walk along the river and some time spent at the Mendel Art Gallery provides a nice distraction – not to mention a reprieve from the heat that has made an impressive return. Still, we’re excited to get going again and the next morning we pick up the bikes, and set out north towards Flin Flon.
The highway north is empty. An hour from Saskatoon we have much of the road to ourselves – only to be disturbed by the occasional pick-up truck that zips past us. The air is thick with dragonflies – the kind that I remember from my childhood. Not the small ones that seem to rarely float around Calgary, but rather giant ones with the brightest blue bodies. We ride through clouds of them and I’m taken right back to the hottest summer days growing up on the prairies.
Forest fires by Buffalo Narrows create a thick haze on parts of the drive and the air smells of burning wood. The heat has died down and settled in at a nice 30°C and the mosquitos have been replaced by swarms of horseflies that create a little tornado around us as we slow down. The horror.
We stop for lunch in Smeaton, SK at Grand Ma-Meals and chat with an amazing man in his 90’s who used to race hill-climbers back in the day. His face becomes increasingly animated as he tells us about riding his converted Indian up ditch-banks and hills. He loves bikes. The food is good and chatting with the locals is a great way to recharge.
We’re really enjoying the day – the landscape is changing. The prairies are a thing of the past and the road is lined by trees that seem stunted and somehow magical. The only things taller are claw-like remnants of trees that have died. It’s as if nature can only support a tree of a certain height here. The road starts to undulate and rocks have started forming. Soon it almost feels as though it’s a low-alpine forest. Only shorter.
We stop here and there to investigate campsites but decide to push on to Flin Flon, especially after passing a Grizzly that was wandering roadside. It’s one of the more northern cities in Manitoba and definitely feels remote. After driving through town we settle into the Prospector Inn and share stories of the day over some well deserved drinks at the Copper Kettle, all the while fighting sleep.
We don’t last long.