1600 km - Lake Superior Camping Adventure - Part I - Agawa Bay
Nobody wants to leave on a 3-day motorcycle camping trip feeling rushed. Yet that was the situation I found myself in on Friday, May 28, 2012 at 12 noon. There was even a brief period of time where I thought I might have to cancel the trip altogether. Too many things to do - too little time. The "mantra" of the new millenium, if you will. And I wanted to plan out some interesting stops along the way - to provide some substantive fodder for this report - but time ran out. All I could do was set off - take things as they came - and hope the report would write itself as the adventure naturally unfolded. Still, the prospect of taking my WR250R on its first long trip and camping excursion was both exciting and highly motivating. Why take the WR250R? Well, to be honest, I didn't have many choices as far as adventure riding mounts go. I had already taken my Honda CBR125R on a week long camping trip (see here: http://www.hondacbr125r.com/forum/showthread.php?t=5913
) and subjected its bigger brother - my Honda CBR250R to more of the same last year (see here: http://www.hondacbr250.com/showthread.php?t=159
). I guess I felt it was time to give the WR250R the same opportunity. There is something special about the WR. I see it each time I entertain guests at my place and my bikes sit in the driveway lonely and vying for attention. Invariably, most everyone gravitates towards the WR - like they have selective right hemisphere cortical damage that prevents them from consciously noticing my other bikes - hemispatial sportbike neglect
I believe is the neurodiagnostic term. Yes - there IS
something about the WR. I also wanted to bond with the bike. I felt like I had had a number of speed dating encounters with the WR, but never really had a chance to develop a more meaningful relationship with it. And what better excuse could there be to try out another collection of gear I had purchased online over the bleak and cold winter months - including a new Shorai battery (http://www.shoraipower.com
) and new waterproof Ortlieb saddlebags http://www.aerostich.com/ortlieb-dry-bag-saddlebags.html
and tailbag from Aerostitch http://www.aerostich.com/ortlieb-dry-bag-duffel-bags.html
. If that weren't enough, I also purchased a new tent - a Nemo Moki (http://www.campsaver.com/moki-tent-3-person-4-season
) described in my previous CBR250R trip report - that had me drooling and foaming at the mouth like a St. Bernard being teased with a freshly grilled T-bone steak while enduring a bout of late stage rabies. And perhaps most of all, I was excited to meet up with some adventure riders from the Northern Ontario section of the ADV rider forum and participate in their 5th annual NoFar Icebreaker - 2012 gathering near Echo Bay, Ontario. I had never attended previously, and promised myself that instead of merely reading about it online and clicking my Icon Tarmac boot heels together and wishing to be magically teleported there - I would make a commitment to ride there in person. No, I wouldn't let this little adventure riding event pass me by this time.
So there I was, prepping the WR250R for the trip, meticulously packing all of my gear in my saddles and tailbag, checking the oil and tire pressures, ruminating yet again and thumb-nailing through my mental lexicon of things I'd packed and all the things that still needed to be. Was I ready? Did I forget anything? Did I leave the cats enough food and water? Did I remember to give my friend a key to check on them? And far more pressing and urgent - would I be able to pull this trip off without a tankbag? I decided that I would just have to do without. Something I would later regret. It meant that I had to cram everything in the saddlebags and tailbag. This also meant that I would have to decide which items stayed and which were banished from my pack for good (like an infinitely more interesting version of "Survivor: Cook Islands"). There would be no room for food and drink on this trip. Heck, there was no room for even my sandals, and I wasted precious time debating how vital they were to the cause (Yes - this script is sounding more and more like a "Survivor" episode). I didn't fancy the thought of walking around in shorts, t-shirt, and bulky riding boots, so I attached them to the outside of my tailbag so they could flutter freely in the wind. A little bohemian for my liking, but I reasoned that they needed some airing out anyway, as they smelled remarkably like if a durian fruit and a brick of limburger cheese had a love child together.
Here is my 2009 WR250R fully loaded for travel, complete with Camp-time "Roll-A-Cot" and dangling vile-smelling sandals.
As is customary, I like to top off my tank at a service station before setting off down the road. This way I not only keep track of my fuel economy and range, but also make sure that I haven't forgotten my wallet or credit cards, so the attendant can hold me hostage closer to home if I can't pay for the fuel. At $1.49/litre (CND) for premium fuel (Yes, the WR250R requires premium) I feel like I am being held hostage anyway. It also gives me an opportunity to iron-out any bugs with the setup (e.g., load issues, re-fueling issues) closer to home. One thing I noticed immediately, was that the bike sat almost straight up on the kick-stand due to a lowering of the rear suspension (both stock lowering and Yamalink mods) I'd completed previously. This meant that I needed to find an appropriate surface for the kick-stand to sit - otherwise the bike might be vulnerable to falling over in the other direction. Obviously, I could simply have the stand shortened. However, one advantage that became apparent with this setup was that the bike displayed less of a tendency to "teeter" on the kick-stand when climbing on and off of it, like the bike was attempting a gymnastics head-stand with the kick-stand as the pivot point. I've experienced such teetering in the past with my CBR125R and CBR250R when carrying a full load of gear high up on the bikes, so I was pleased that the more upright orientation of the WR contributed some much needed stability to my setup. The service station attendant stared at the WR and commented "You don't see many of those around here". He was right. Until recently the price of a new WR250R in Canada was $7999. The Kawasaki KLX250S retails for $5899 and is relatively ubiquitous. I wonder why?
Here is a Google Maps image of my route for the day.
It wasn't long after joining Highway 17 East leaving Thunder Bay, Ontario that I realized the wind would be a formidable foe for this part of my journey. Strong headwinds and buffeting can make any motorcycle ride less comfortable, but on a WR250R weighing less than 300 lbs wet, the experience can be significantly more unsettling (like facing turbulence in light aircraft). Perhaps it is a combination of lightweight, height, and less than stellar aerodynamics - but my experience so far on the WR250R has been like no other bike I've ridden with respect to being bounced around by the wind, including my CBR125R and CBR250R which positively slip through the air like competently designed and programmed North Korean rockets. And the buffeting as I approached slower moving traffic tugged the WR's handlebars from side to side in a way that reminded me of the last thing I remembered as a youth just before ditching my tiny ballooned-tired, banana-seated CCM bicycle down a long steep hill after losing control of my wobbly handlebars and surfing along the asphalt on my ribcage to a lengthy stop in a posture that resembled a threatened scorpion with my legs and feet curved painfully over my arched back. My blood-soaked and tattered Canada '76 t-shirt looked like something Dr. David Banner would be proud to show-off after an ill-timed angry outburst. Such was my experience and the images flowing through my mind for the next 3 hours of riding.
Many would consider this a reflection of the "bad" experiences that await anyone riding a small displacement bike on the highway. "The open highway is no place for a small bike" they'd say. But much like airline turbulence, you get used to it. Like the experience of a rickety wooden roller coaster in contrast to a solid steel version for an ACE enthusiast - it becomes an endearing character trait - part of the experience. The WR ain't no Gold Wing. It is more like good old-fashioned "stick and rudder" flying that bored commercial airline pilots often wax longingly for. A true visceral riding experience - what riding used
to be - when smaller bikes were the norm in North America. And it is this kind of riding that reminded me of what I find so engaging about piloting small displacement bikes in general. I have to "work" for it. And it is a delicate dance that requires well-coordinated foot and hand work - lots of shifting gears, keeping the engine in the powerband, anticipating hills, tucking-in to eke out a little more speed - things that add character to any bike. These are the traits I knew would help me forge a lasting bond with the WR.
After re-fueling in Nipigon, Ontario I was looking forward to the views along the shoreline of the world's largest freshwater lake. Despite overcast skies, the views didn't disappoint. I never get tired of these unfolding panoramas.
This photo was taken at Kama Bay just north of Nipigon, ON.
People often ask "How is the WR250R out on the highway?" I think part of what they are really asking, aside from the aforementioned wind jostling, is "Does the WR250R have enough power to maintain highway speeds, and to pass slower moving vehicles quickly and safely?" The answer is "no". Not a chance. O.K. I'm completely $hitting you here.
Of course it does!!!
While I've never explored its top speed, various online magazines indicate that it is capable of achieving 90 mph (145 km/hr). Considering that dyno results from these same online publications show the WR producing 25-27 hp at the rear wheel (about 30-31 hp at the crank), this places the WR's output on even ground with a Ninja 250R - yet it has one less cylinder, weighs 75 lbs less, and produces significantly more torque. Moreover, virtually all the highways I travel on have speed limits of 90km/hr (56 mph), and such speeds really place little strain on the overachieving WR's engine. But such explanations rarely placate the naysayers. Just when I think I am through answering questions, I often get one final query: "How about riding on expressways and interstate highways?" My response is usually blunt and deliberate, yet strangely calm as the aneurysm prepares to burst and flood my cranium - "Who in their right mind would ever want to ride any motorcycle on an Interstate highway when there are so many wonderful scenic routes just waiting to be explored nearby?" It is like insisting to the maitre d' of a fine restaurant that your AAA prime rib beef be cooked "well done". The outcome is a hunk of beef that has the consistency and taste of tough, dry, overcooked hamburger - it completely wastes the experience. No gustatory delight whatsoever. With that said, the WR can maintain 112 kph (70 mph) all day long with enough reserve left to pass. Not sure why you'd want to do that though. You see so much more when riding slower and obtain better fuel economy too. Maybe that's why most everyone I've ever ridden with on larger bikes ride slower than that. They don't feel a need to ride faster. It isn't a time trial, and they aren't riding for FedEx. Yet this question gets asked time and time again. Even when helpful forum members continually set the record straight - people keep asking. Like they just don't believe it.
Below is a view from a favourite rest area about 25 kms East of Nipigon, ON. While there I met up with some American riders who passed me at Kama Bay when I had stopped there to take the above photo. They were completing the circle route of Lake Superior and were impressed by the ruggedness of the north shore. One lamented how the south part of the route through the U.S. was rather flat and uninspiring. I asked them if they had been camping at all on their trip and one of them responded "Yes - we've been camping out at the Hiltons" which we all chuckled over. One fellow asked me if I had ridden along Hwy 622 that runs north from Atikokan, ON (west of Thunder Bay, ON) connecting Hwy 11 from the south to Hwy 17, 130 kms to the north. At first I wasn't sure what he was asking, as he pronounced Atikokan in a way I never thought could be humanly possible using phonemes native to the English language. Much like the first time I saw David Letterman try to pronounce "Saskatchewan" on Late Night. I thought he was having a stroke. I informed him that I had driven the route by car, but not on a motorcycle. He added that he thought it would be a great road to ride the WR250R on. Hmmm. The speed limit of that highway is 80 km/hr (50 mph). What was he getting at? His recommendation wouldn't be the last time someone had suggested this route as being "suitable" for the WR on this trip. As we were making our way to the parking area, a guy on a Harley was arriving and beneath the roar of his pipes one of the group comically exclaimed to everyone within ear-shot "Oh No - not one of them!!" and we all shared another laugh. They seemed like a good bunch of guys and I wished them the best. I would later see them again when re-fueling at the Shell station in Terrace, Bay, ON.
Scenic rest area about 25 km (15 miles) east of the town of Nipigon, ON along Hwy 17.
Coming down one of the long climbs along the north shore of Lake Superior. In the distance is St. Ignace Island and the profile of broad shouldered Mt. St. Ignace which towers more than 380 m (1250 ft above Lake Superior). Enjoying mild weather while riding around Lake Superior on a motorcycle in May is unusual. However, this time out - the weather was surprisingly cooperative, hovering in the low to mid 20C's (upper 70F) for most of the day. Quite mild for this time of year.
When I stopped along Hwy 17 at Marathon, ON to re-fuel, the service station attendant showed interest in the WR. "How much does it cost?" he asked. "About $7000 in Canada" I replied. I added, "It's expensive. But it has a host of high quality components, is fuel-injected, and has more power than your average 250cc single". He told me that in his native Philippines he rode a Honda XRM (Cub) motorcycle that was extremely fuel efficient. He hoped to buy a dual-sport in Canada in the near future.
Speaking of fuel economy - how economical is the WR250R out on the highway? Running a stock (13T) countershaft sprocket and a 47T rear end (stock is 43T), my observed fuel economy while traveling about 104 km/hr (65 mph) (GPS) fell between 60-65 mpg (50-54 mpg U.S.) with full gear. So at highway speeds, the WR250R is reasonably fuel efficient too for a dual-sport. And with my aftermarket IMS 3.1 gallon tank, I could ride a comfortable 200kms (125 miles) before needing to re-fuel. I never stretched it out that far though, because I quickly discovered that my Corbin saddle just wasn't very comfortable for more than 1 hour of solid riding (and yes, I mean solid
) - unless you are J-Lo. The term aptly describes how plush that saddle isn't. Then again, I prefer to stop, stretch, rest, and take photos at least every hour, so the ass cramping nature of the thinly disguised leather-clad park bench I was sitting on really didn't put a crimp into my plans. I will to try out the stock saddle again, now that my WR has been lowered.
The next photo was taken along Hwy 17 just after the Little Pic River bridge looking toward Premier Mountain and Ney's Provincial Park just west of Marathon, Ontario. I have never stayed at Neys, but hope to tent there this summer on another motorcycle trip. It seems that whenever I've informally polled travelers who claim "frequent visitor" status at Ontario's provincial parks, Neys is one place that they consistently identify as their favourite. It is also the site of a former WWII prisoner of war camp.
Hwy 17 moves inland from Lake Superior after leaving Marathon and winding toward White River about 90kms (56 miles) further east. I noticed that the wind improved considerably away from the big lake too - and this led to some very comfortable riding along this corridor. About 50 kms (30 miles) before reaching Wawa, near Obatanga Provincial Park, the weather started to change for the worse, and I knew that my waterproof Ortlieb luggage would soon be put to the test. It started to rain hard. What I didn't expect was heavy thunder and lightning in the distance. I reasoned that if it got worse, I could take shelter in Wawa, where I would re-fuel, eat supper, and stay the night if necessary. Arriving in Wawa I was greeted by several ominous lightning flashes and thunder claps that set-off car alarms nearby. I re-fueled and waited out the storm while inside the local Subway restaurant.
Within the hour, the storm let up considerably and I could make out some clear skies so I hopped back on the WR250R and made my way toward my intended destination for the evening - Agawa Bay. The photo below was snapped just south of Wawa at Old Woman Bay, a popular picnic area for travelers.
Every turn in the road seemed to unveil another panoramic view and photo opportunity. Having the highway virtually to myself, it was easy and safe to pull off the roadway and snap a few shots like the one below.
Katherine Cove is one of those special gems that quickly catch your eye when riding by. Yes - the blackflies were out in full force. And they have this uncanny ability to squeeze into your helmet just in front of your ears that is particularly annoying and distracting. This would be a quick stop.
If you want to see a video of Katherine Cove I shot while feeding the blackflies, click the following link:
Katherine Cove video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mllq9PeLbfk
Here is a photo taken near a scenic lookout along Hwy 17 above Agawa Bay. The Algoma Central Rail's Agawa Canyon Train Tour stops in the canyon nearby (see: http://www.agawacanyontourtrain.com/content/gallery/index.html?sid=1
). The taller hills in the distance are in the vicinity of Montreal River Harbour and rise over 345 m (1130 ft) above Lake Superior. It is one of the longer climbs heading west on Hwy 17. In the winter it is not uncommon to see transport trucks stranded on the Montreal River hill - unable to climb the grade in a snow storm.
Below is another photo overlooking Agawa Bay and my destination for the evening - the Agawa Bay campground section of Lake Superior Provincial Park. The park and beach are located just out of the frame in the photo below.
I arrived at the Agawa Bay campground about 7:30PM. This early in the year (outside of peak season) it is rare to find anyone occupying the gatehouse. Visitors are required to self-register. So I examined a park map and rode through the campsites. My goal was to camp in the 300's section at the far end of the park, right along the beautiful sandy beach. It would afford plenty of privacy and provide a spectacular backdrop to my home for the evening. As it turns out, the entrance to the 300's section was closed. So I took the first site nearby that offered some great views of Lake Superior - site #147. I was pleasantly surprised to discover after I had set up my tent that I was only a stone throw away from a modern comfort station with flush toilets and hot showers. As you can see from the photo below, this section of the park doesn't offer the most privacy between campsites. This ended up being a non-issue anyway, as there were few campers at this time of year.
My campsite for the evening at Agawa Bay campground. My minimalist setup and WR250R pack mule.
So how did my new Ortlieb bags fare? Did they handle the wind, rain, and elements? When I opened the bags to remove my gear, I was pleased to discover that everything was bone dry. I love the notion of never having to put rain-covers on my saddlebags ever again. One less thing to deal with out on the road. These bags should serve me well. And the bags were quite stable on the bike too. However, because the bags are soft, I felt a need to tighten the load at each stop to ensure everything remained secure. Attaching the bags to the bike wasn't an issue, as there are extra straps and connectors that allow for lots of mounting options. One area of concern though was heat from my exhaust. I have resisted replacing my stock exhaust with an FMF pipe in order to retain the stock heat shield and use soft saddlebags that fit snugly against it. While there is heat resistant material attached to each saddlebag, I noticed one area where some minor melting of the material had taken place. I suppose this may have happened when I was re-tightening the straps at a rest stop and failed to realize that part of the bag had come too close to the un-protected part of the exhaust. While only slight cosmetic damage was noticeable - I made a mental note to pay more attention to this in the future.
It was evident that it had rained at the park throughout the day. So when I began organizing my gear and setting up the tent, I anticipated having to contend with more blackflies. My previous blood donation at Katherine Cove served as ample warning that these critters would be waiting for me - and they were. Fortunately, I now had easy access to my insect repellent. I think when Karl Malden said "Don't leave home without it" I believe he was referring to insect repellent in May at Agawa Bay Provincial Park.
For a brief experience of what the view in front of my campsite looked like, and a sense of the soothing soundtrack lullaby I would experience throughout the night, click on the following link to see a video I shot on the beach.
Agawa Bay campsite and Lake Superior wave action http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZShKILBdcrk
The photo below is what I witnessed shortly after setting up my home for the evening. What a way to cap off a long, satisfying day of riding. It took me 7.5 hrs to travel 570 km (356 miles) on the WR250R, with plenty of stops in between. A nice unhurried pace.
As the sun was setting and I was gazing over the big lake, I knew I had to take another shot across the beach.
So what do you do in the evening to pass the time when adventure riding on the WR250R? Umm. Not much. Particularly with my minimalist setup. I do carry a Blackberry when I travel. But strangely, I never use it at other times when home. I was able to get a signal from the park so I called my best friend Paul and chatted about my day as an excuse to ask him if he had checked on the cats yet, then I called my dad and chatted about my ride and about my adventure so far, and then finally called my girlfriend - and simply enjoyed just hearing her voice. As Burton Cummings sang in "Timeless Love"....."It feels good even missin' ya". It is amazing how riding alone for even one day reminds you of the little things you cherish and why they should never be taken for granted.
Now that I've reached my sentimentality quotient for Part I of this report - what else was left? I had absolutely nothing to do. I simply had no room for even a book. It was a beautiful evening, likely about 15 C (60F) with a light, warm wind. But there was a fire ban in effect, so no open campfires this night. If I had been riding with a friend, we would have sipped on some scotch and recounted the day's events to consolidate the images in our respective memories. But there was nobody else. Not even a neighbor to steal a drink from, as I didn't have room for alcohol on this trip either. So I stepped into the tent, sat on the cot, and then crawled into my sleeping bag. I then placed my headlamp in the netting up above, turned it on and (I'm embarrassed to admit it) satisfied my voracious appetite for stimulation (O.K. - not what you might be thinking here.....) by reading through the Agawa Bay campsite map and pamphlet. I figured that I could at least call 911 if I noticed myself engaging in any other - more unusual behaviour. Yes - I was actually excited to read through the park guide cover to cover. Then I fell asleep at around 10:30PM, probably the earliest I've fallen asleep in 5 years. Heck, there was no reason to stay up later. The fresh air, and sound of wind and waves slapping against the shoreline contributed to such a deep and satisfying sleep. No sound from any other campers. I think everyone appreciated how perfect that night was and were probably all retiring early too.
What would the next day bring? Stay tuned for Part II - In Search of Mishipeshu