THE #2 – Riding the Lake Superior
Trans-Canada Highway 17. 5 o’clock in the morning. Leaving Sault Ste. Marie on the dawn of the fourth day of a road trip around the great lakes in mid July and I’m ready for a strip of road known to be to motorcycles what the Sahara Desert can be to ill-equipped or ill-fated people.
The problem lies in the petrol. There are not enough places to fill up from point A to point B and many bikes simply run out of juice. On top of that, it’s a damn good distance to go in one day – from ‘The Sault’ (pronounced, the locals informed me, as ‘su’) to Thunder Bay, the next and most anticipated destination on my trip.
My record reading distance on maps thus far hasn’t been good. And travel by motorcycle, I’m learning as I work through my maiden voyage, takes longer than by auto.
My record at thinking things through and planning appropriately aren’t so good either. I generally keep a motto of ‘go get into a mess, then we’ll try to figure a way out.’ And yes, when I’m alone I do refer to myself as we.
I hadn’t thought about the idea that there might be large distances in the relative wilderness where there’s no chance of some jolly backwoods shop owner waiting for me to arrive so he or she can top off my tank and send me on my way with a smile, however toothless. But after a few stories from some locals around the gas stations in The Sault about picking up stranded bikers, I began contemplating a back-up gas can. Problem was, there’s no room to cram it in the backpack, my official passenger and only means of transporting cargo. So I set off.
Shortly after five in the morning and I’m on the road. I gassed up before leaving town, of course. The road was amazing; it was a densely tree-packed two lane highway with nary a soul on it. It’s logging and hunting country, and the only places of any human resemblance on the way are these one-stop lodges with rooms to rent, diners, wilderness access, souvenir shops, and gas stations, of course. I must have blown past two or three within the first 20 miles.
They’re cute. They’re quaint. And at 5:30 in the morning in July, they’re all but deserted. Still, the locals’ stories gave me a decent amount of worry. I didn’t know how far I could take the bike on a tank of gas. I just bought it a few months ago; it was my first motorcycle and of course the ‘I Need Gas’ light didn’t work. I had a date surfing some woman’s couch in Thunder Bay that night and I didn’t want to trouble her by forced rescheduling or spend what little money I had at some hotel, assuming I could find one. And I didn’t bring my camping gear, though I certainly will next time.
So even though I had only gone a bit over 20 miles, I figured it better fill up at the next place down the line. It came by within minutes. Actually, I flew right past it having to turn around. It was quiet all right. I parked my bike on the gravel near the gas tank – literally an above-ground tank hooked up to a pump. I went to the store – closed. I went to the diner – closed. I went to the office and knocked – closed. Oh, no. Here I was, stranded by my own need to get on the road at the crack of dawn. I guess it was time to shuttle on, the fates be damned. As I headed toward the bike, an older-middle-aged man in obvious pajamas came out of the office with a cup of coffee and walked to where I was. I’m not sure exactly what he said – I did have some trouble understanding a few people up there – but his face clearly spoke about the necessity of gas.
I apologized for waking him up and thanked him for helping me out. He didn’t seem too bothered by it, but he certainly wasn’t jumping for joy at the opportunity to turn on the tank and pump so I could gas up so early. When he saw I was riding a Triumph, we chatted briefly about the British bike manufacturer and my round-the-lakes trip. Perhaps he was of British origin himself.
I filled my tank – five whole dollars. I felt bad again that he went through all this trouble for five measly dollars. Again he didn’t seem too bothered, though. He must have been a good, kindred man. I went on my way and left him to wake up proper with the rising sun.
The first part of the ride was surrounded by forests. I only saw two other gas stations, both of them long since boarded up and out of business. It’s a quiet road in the off season, whenever the logging and hunting season up there starts. But the area’s silence helped it rank close to the most beautiful scenery I’ve had the joy to experience.
A moderate fog blanketed the bounding hills of the highway. A chill forced me to layer all my clothing. Every now and then I’d run a corner and I could see Lake Superior just off the road. There was no one else around. There must be 1,000 tiny lakes and ponds, each unique in its own right, butting against or damn near the pavement between The Sault and Thunder Bay. I wish I had a cameraman in that backpack too. The Trans-Canandian is, according to the website, the longest national highway in the world. I hit somewhere in the middle of it and after this trip, I’m itching to make a journey of the whole thing.
The bike kept rolling and the miles kept ticking; 50, 75, 90, 100 miles, and still no gas station. 105 and still going. 110 and still going. 115 and still going, though now my mind races equally fast. Worry sets in, but what could I do? The only option now is go till the tank runs dry. Remember, ‘go get into a mess, then we’ll try to figure a way out.’
Lucky for me that guy woke up and bothered the tank for my five dollars.
Around 120 miles, I finally came across another gas station. I almost laid that bike down on the gravel pulling into it so fast. Then I was helped by the nicest semi-toothless backwoods Canadian guy imaginable.
I later found out that I can run around 137 miles on a full tank but the gas scare for the trip was over. From there on out it was smooth sailing. Smooth, beautiful sailing.