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The Motorbike Adventure

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

I've ridden bikes since I was young, in a time and place where parents thought more along the lines of survival of the fittest and, "we have two more if this one doesn't make it"
An old motorcycle stands in the middle of a dirt road. A covered bridge is in the distance.
Heavily modified 1979 Suzuki GN400. Sort of.

I could tell the bike was loaded heavily as I prepared to kick it to life on the gravel driveway in front of the house. The engine popped and rumbled briefly on the first try, and then silence. Another kick and it almost tipped over with the unfamiliar, top-heavy weight of the added baggage. The familiar bop bop bop of the big single-cylinder engine, now running steadily, made me smile. This was the first time I'd ever taken a bike on an adventure such as this. I was both nervous and excited at the thought of the many hundreds of kilometers of open road that lay in front of me.




I've ridden bikes since I was young. In a time and place where parents thought more along the lines of survival of the fittest and, "we have two more if this one doesn't make it". A time and place when laws about driving on roads at a certain age and with appropriate legal vehicles were more guidelines to be acquainted with rather than steadfast lawful arrangements.



John on the back of his antique motorbike in the boreal forest. He has a longbow across his lap and a bear fur quiver with arrows on his back.
Backcountry Adventures, vintage bike style. Photo by Anna Kuelken

My first and second motorbikes, a Yamaha DT100, and then Dad's Honda XR200, made many miles along dusty gravel roads and neighboring fields of stubble and dirt. Spring, Summer, Fall, and even Winter, it didn't matter. Ice and snow were simple challenges to staying upright, nothing more. This is where I learned to ride, those endless summer days around our farm. Drifting around corners of gravel and sand. Hang times that seemed to defy gravity on the big jumps. Hour after hour of exploring and launching and going way too fast. I am so grateful that I had this chance. I was so free back then. Bugs in my eyes, bruises, scrapes, and cuts from the days' jumps and wheelies and subsequent wipeouts. Those were grand days.


This day though, many decades later, as I motored wobbly down the loose gravel of our driveway, I was driving a similar vintage bike. A 1979 Suzuki GN400. Not a regular Suzuki street bike though, this bike, since I bought it as a project, has changed. A lot. It no longer resembles the street bike that came from the factory in any way whatsoever. The tires are off-road and knobby. The tank is an old '70s Honda fuel tank because the original was too rusted and dented to bother trying to save. The electrical is new, the suspension is raised and refurbished with BMW rear shocks that were the perfect height and resistance for this build. The seat and frame were chopped and re-welded into a configuration that made it better for hauling saddle bags and strapping fishing gear to a luggage rack. All of the original dash gauges and dials and fairings have been deleted. This bike is built for adventure, for getting into weird places, and it does just that, very well indeed. It has taken me several years to get the bike into this current condition. I ride it back and forth to town for errands and hauled it up to bear camp for an episode of From the Wild one year not long ago.

John is wearing a canvas cap and red handkerchief. His beard is long and speckled with white. He is looking up at the sky.
Ten days on the bike, fly fishing the rockies. Photo by Kevin Kossowan

For this most current trip, the plan was to meet Kevin, Mel, and May near Bragg Creek on Saturday afternoon. I was leaving on a Friday to give myself plenty of time. We were to meet in the parking lot at the trailhead and then spend the next four days hiking fifty-five kilometers into Tombstone Lake and back. A fly fishing trip with the purpose to record both From the Wild and Food Afield Podcast episodes.


At this point, however, I had no idea how far I could even ride on the crowded bike. With all of the gear and packs strapped to the back, I was basically sitting on the gas tank! It wasn't completely comfortable, and I didn't know if I could drive for an hour, or all day before it got painful and I had to stop for a break. The other unknown factor in this journey was fuel. Without a fuel gauge, I didn't know how far I could travel before the tank was dry. It turns out that this wasn't a problem at all. By the time I traveled every one hundred and twenty kilometers or so, I would need a break and a gas station would be relatively close. Because I know you are curious, the most I ever spent on fuel was nine dollars, and those are the July 2022 gasoline prices.


There are things, good and bad, that come up while driving a bike long distances. Things I had never considered before. Weather is a thing. As I left the farm, I had 421 km to go before I got to our meeting place at the trailhead. A whole bunch of weather can occur in that distance. The skies were clear and it was a hot Summer afternoon as I left Sturgeon County. However, at about the two-hundred-and-fifty-kilometer mark, a huge thunderstorm, black and foreboding, loomed in the distance. I appeared to be crossing west to east, right in the path of the highway I was on. I could hear the distant thunder over the roar of the engine and the wind through my helmet. I quickly decided to pull off the highway, through the ditch and tall grass, to get under a bridge that spanned the Clearwater River. Checking my phone, and a well-used weather app, I could see the prediction that the storm would cross well ahead of me to the south. I would wait there for an hour or so, like a troll under the bridge, and then continue on my journey.


The storm passed, and only a small spattering of rain fell anywhere near me. The highway in the distance ahead though was steaming and puddled. Mist from my tires wetted my boots and pant legs and felt cool. It was getting later in the afternoon now, so I decided to stop in at a little motel in the next town. I would grab some supper at the diner nearby and then watch a movie and get to bed early. Good plan. The movie was "Always", one of my favourites. I slept well, my belly filled with roadside diner comfort food and a beer.

 

The good things that come from motorcycle travel are interesting and unexpected. The very first pleasant surprise to hit me was the smell. Different fragrances are everywhere when you ride a bike, and they hit me nearly constantly as I sped across the prairies. Someone mowing grass, cutting hay, a canola field in bloom, or a campfire. Someone had just spread cedar wood chips in their yard. Lovely. Slowly thumping through a small town there would suddenly be the unmistakable smell of a drier sheet tumbling in someone's laundry or deep fry grease from the local restaurant. It was all so comforting and familiar, and completely surprising.


Usually, about the time when I was comfortable and relaxed, with a smile under my wind-blown beard, a bee or some other large insect would smack me in the cheek at one hundred kilometers per hour. All of the loveliness disappeared in an instant, accompanied by a loud expletive. The sting would subside eventually. The joy would return, and the whole cycle began again. Actually, the odd insect didn't bother me too much. It was only when two or three hit me in quick succession that I would yell out some form of profanity. A large insect hitting your face at high speed hurts, man!


It is difficult to properly communicate these unexpected experiences. It is a wide range of all of the feelings between joy and hardship, beauty and discomfort, inconvenience and happy happenstance. I loved all of it.


"...remember that at this point in history, the cultural conscience, especially that of a twelve-year-old, was not too far removed from Evil Knievel on the Wide World of Sports."

Another interesting issue with bike travel is that the kilometers, and time that it takes to cover them, don't seem to follow the same relativity that occurs in a car. The wind and smells and bee smacks, along with dodging the ribbons of sloppy goo that fill the asphalt cracks seem to make time go by faster. Four hours in a car seem like six without all the sensory triggers that go along with cross-country motorcycle trips. Those same hours go by so much faster on the bike. Again, lovely.


 

A picture looking through the handle bars of a motorcycle. Ahead, in the distance, are the Rocky Mountains.
My first glimpse of the Rockies on the way to a favourite trout stream.

The next day, Saturday morning, I woke leisurely, made some really, truly lousy motel coffee, showered, and began loading up the bike. I was refreshed and happy. There were only two and a half hours of travel to get to the designated meeting spot at the trailhead. May, Mel, and Kevin on the other hand wouldn't be there for four or five hours. I could take my time. Perfect.


As I was cinching the luggage onto the bike in front of my room, two men approached me, smiles on their faces. This was my first encounter with another interesting aspect of motorcycle travel, especially on a vintage bike. They wanted to see the bike. They wanted to hear about the bike and ask questions, and most of all they wanted to listen to it as I drove off. From that point on, at pretty much every place I stopped, folks would come over, introduce themselves, and ask if they could take a picture of me and the bike. It was joyful to meet so many people and share some fun with them. My record for photos at one stop was four, at the Bragg Creek Shell station on a Saturday afternoon. The next time I make this trip, I'll be loaded up with Food Afield Podcast stickers to hand out!


Shortly after leaving the little motel and showing off with a loud "braaap" as I left the parking lot, the adventure took a sudden downturn. After I finished filling the gas tank in Sundre, perhaps forty-five minutes down the road from the motel, I did up the strap on my helmet and prepared to be on my way once more. I stomped down on the Kickstarter, and it gave way sharply and fell to the ground. At this time, I can also mention that this particular model of bike does not have an electric starter as an option.


It was a very hot day by now, and in full, protective bike apparel, all I could do was strip down and push the bike into the shade offered by a nearby building to assess the damage. The metal on the kick lever had broken. Almost half of the circle of steel that slid onto the engine shaft was gone. I fit it back on with the help of a parking lot rock. Enough of the fitting grabbed onto the shaft that I could manage to get it started. That was the second last time I ever used that kick starter.


After our four-day hike into Tombstone Lake and back, the kickstart level completely fell apart and the old bike had to be push-started in the parking lot. A few folks milling about were perhaps more than mildly entertained as Kevin and I ran as fast as we could, the bike held in front of us, fully loaded with camping and fly fishing gear. I gripped the clutch tightly with the old Suzuki in second gear, frantically hopped on, and released the clutch as I "bumped" down onto the seat. Nothing but a skidding tire. After a couple of tries of this, the engine suddenly burst to life. Luckily, I was not unfamiliar with this method of starting a motorcycle. This was in fact the predominant way that I started my bike as a kid. I had outgrown my little starter bike, a one hundred cc engine, and Dad had agreed I could use his. I was maybe 12 at this time. It was way too big for me, I could hardly balance it at a standstill. The tiptoes of my feet were all that stopped me from crumbling to the ground in a heap, a large amount of metal on top of me.


From the garage of my childhood farmhouse, I would roll down the driveway towards the gravel county road. Any other nearby hill would work if I was somewhere other than the house. I was so small and light that it was next to impossible to kick down hard enough to get the two hundred cc engine started back up. But bump-starting was easy, second gear, pop the clutch, hit the gas, and go! Good memories, many wipeouts, and numerous near-death experiences. Please remember that at this point in history, the cultural conscience, especially that of a twelve-year-old, was not too far removed from Evil Knievel on the Wide World of Sports. We did things back then that went way beyond the radical idea of drinking from a garden hose. I didn't die, and I learned a lot about physics and mechanics...human and machine.

The broken kickstarter.

The entire rest of this current trip after that point was spent bump-starting the motor. Each time I had to stop for whatever reason, I needed to be cognizant of any nearby elevations that could help me establish the momentum to get the motorbike restarted. Luckily, at the camp of our second stop on the fly fishing adventure, there was a good hill that rolled down into the campsite. That start, after a few days of fishing, was relatively easy although it still took a couple of tries and a good push from Kevin. I was on my way home.


 


At one point, approximately three-quarters of the way home, knowing that I would be getting low on oil (faulty breather tube) I stopped on the edge of a large hill. I had decided from the start to be sure to take all of the secondary highways for the entire trip. I wanted to avoid traffic and the constant pressure to be at the speed limit. The highway here had no shoulder to speak of, but nobody was coming in either direction, and I felt I had time to shut the engine off and get some oil into the gearbox. I finished adding oil and got myself re-dressed. Gloves, helmet, jacket, second gear...start pushing. The hill quickly took over and I felt confident that I could jump on and let gravity take control. As I vaulted over the packs of luggage to mount the bike, my leg caught on a waterproof bag. I lost my balance and fell. The bike fell one way, towards the ditch. I rolled the other, out into the lane of traffic. And yes, by now there was traffic. I wasn't really in danger. I'm making it sound worse than it was. But I began laughing. Laughing hard enough that it made it difficult to pick the bike up. Cars and trucks were now roaring past (thanks for the concern and even a moderate slow down...not). I was trying in vain to pick up my bike and gear and get things straightened out. I finally managed to get back into the seat, sweaty, oil-stained, and now covered in dust and road debris, the bike and I rolled down the hill, upright this time. The clutch let go and the engine roared back to life. I began to laugh again.


The last two hours of the trip home went according to plan. As I crunched back up the gravelly driveway of our farm Cindy met me and almost immediately began to laugh.

John sits dishevelled and dirty on his vintage motorcycle after a long trip.
10 days of hiking, fly fishing, and long distance riding...and I made it home.

She had her phone out of course. My Son Garreth came out of the house too. The rumble of the bike alerted everyone to my arrival. Cindy snapped her photo and Garreth told me I looked like Davey Jones from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. All was right with the world and I was home. A very successful trip in every measurable way. It was only at this point in the trip that I relaxed. I didn't have to concern myself with breakdowns, or oil and gas. I wasn't worried about my driving ability, or other people's driving abilities. I made it!


Traveling on a vintage bike is fun but in a more intense respect. This will not be my last adventure on this bike. It has struck a chord with me. It made me feel like I was a kid again, at least a little bit. But most of all, it forced me to live by my wits for a few days. I had no assets in my mode of travel except my experience, and my knowledge of something that I built with my own two hands. My memories of activities earlier in my life came back to me and were useful. It isn't really a big deal I suppose, but the fact remains that my life is a little more fulfilled having made this journey on this bike. I am already longing for another one-hundred-kilometer-per-hour grasshopper smack to the face.


Listen to the motorbike adventure episode from the summer. of '22 below.


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