1970 bike trip
The summer of 1970 seems so long ago but the reverberations of that year still ring in my head. We listened to the Hollies, Credence Clearwater Revival, the Moody Blues, the Rolling Stones but we picked Steppenwolf for our theme song, we desperately wanted to be ‘Born to be Wild’.
This was the year I turned sixteen. I raced out the door on my birthday to write my learners test. After successfully completing that exam I couldn’t wait to get home with the paper validation that would open up my riding future. I had spent the past year working at part-time jobs to raise the money to buy my older brothers bike from him and now finally I could ride it. He had moved up to a 1968 BSA 650 Thunderbolt. And so my first motorcycle would be a 1966 Suzuki 250 X-6 Hustler.
I began riding that bike before I had the license to go along with it, sneaking it out for late night rides around the neighbourhood. So by the time I turned 16, I was feeling pretty cocky. That attitude was tempered somewhat by the gravel burnout I mishandled on that first day of legal riding which resulted in me dumping the bike and scrapping my arm into a bloody mess.
Beginner’s mistakes behind me, my brother John and I began to plan for a ride that would become a journey which would connect us for a lifetime. With maps spread out and notepads filling up with lists, we planned for our great adventure, to ride from our home in Toronto across the Prairies to the West Coast and back again.
High school finally finished for the summer and it was time to go. So on a warm July 4th evening we were ready to depart. The entire day had been spent packing and repacking our minimal possessions and performing the final maintenance to our bikes. A friend, Geoff Maher was joining us on his Suzuki 500 Titan for the first few days riding and after an early dinner the three of us rode down my parent’s street in Scarborough, an east end suburb of Toronto and headed for Highway 400.
Our first destination was not far, just 128 miles to our uncle’s cottage. After leaving Toronto we headed north to Barrie where we stopped for tea and toast, what would be a staple to our diet on the trip. After topping up our gas tanks, which for me meant .75 cents worth of Sunoco premium, we rode up Highway 11 to Gravenhurst, then 169 to McTier and Bass Lake. We arrived just after dark and soon learned a lesson on parking the bikes. We had lined them up in a row on the lawn and first the heavy Titan pressed its side stand into the grass and collided with the smaller 250 that then knocked over the BSA into my Aunt’s Chrysler. Small pieces of wood were soon placed under the side stands, no real damage done except to our youthful pride.
We didn’t get far the next morning before mechanical difficulties stopped us. My bike was sputtering along and while I had cleaned the plugs twice since we left Toronto, it was widening the point gap that finally cured the problem. On our way north on Highway 69 we came upon an accident where two guys who had passed us earlier on a bike were now laid out on the road. Both of them badly injured after apparently clipping an oncoming car and trailer on a curve. We stopped and helped direct traffic until the police arrived, listening to one of them screaming as ragged flesh hung off his lower leg. Solemnly we carried on to French River where we found a campsite at Grundy Lake Provincial Park for $1.50, having only covered 100 miles. That night we lay under the stars and enjoyed the marvel of portable music via Geoff’s cassette deck.
With an early sunrise and a desire to get moving we packed up our Canadian Tire pup tent then at a Sunoco station I filled up the 250 with $1.30 worth of gas. Traveling into the grandeur of the Lake Superior region was fantastic. We stopped past Sault Ste. Marie at the halfway point of the TransCanada highway for photos. As we continued on the realization was sinking in just how big Ontario is. The bikes were running well and I even managed a sustained run at 70 mph late in the day, with the X-6 only putting our 29 bhp this was high speed cruising. We made it to White River where Geoff would be turning back and John and I would focus on our western goal.
During some time off in Whiter River we cleaned up the bikes and I discovered a missing spoke and several loose ones, no doubt a result of the accident I had been involved with in May when a GTO running a red light broadsided me. When we arrived in Thunder Bay that afternoon we located a Suzuki dealer who could do a repair job the next morning. We found a camping spot at Trowbridge Falls Campground and shared a site with a guy riding a Suzuki 500.
The wheel repair took an hour and a half cost me $9.50 plus a few extra spokes I bought just in case for .34 cents each. Saying farewell to the Sleeping Giant as the Isle Royale National Park is known as at Thunder Bay, we hit the road again. Not far out of town we stopped to look at Kakabeka Falls. Amazingly there were no fences and we walked out onto the rocky surface that the water flowed over before tumbling to the gorge below. We had a good days ride until late in the afternoon a near mishap occurred. John was in front heading into a corner when he saw a family of skunks crossing the road, so he jumped on the brakes but his army surplus pack had slid over the brake light and I didn’t realize he was braking. I followed around the curve and now saw the skunks. I applied all of the meager drum brakes’ stopping power and skidded to a stop where my bike stalled and I was left standing staring at the mother skunk now just feet away. Fortunately maternal instincts took over and we parted company.
After spending so long to get through Northern Ontario we seemed to race across Manitoba. There was no helmet law there so we rode for a little while without them but it felt too strange and exposed and we gladly pulled our protection back on. Long straight sections of Highway 1 took us into Carlyle, Saskatchewan where we had hoped to stay with family friends. We were told by the RCMP that the people we were to stay with had moved. So we got a room in the CN hotel, rooms were $5 and the view outside was of a small town on Saturday where it seemed that drinking was the only activity. Concern for our bikes meant we hardly slept and at sunrise we were carrying our gear down to load up the bikes. By now the process of packing our bikes was simplified and performed efficiently without much thought.
We made it across another province and turned north at Swift Current on Highway 32 to ride through a string of tiny prairie towns, stopping in Abbey where our mother had grown up. Further down the road we reached our relative’s farm where we would stay for a couple of days enjoying the western hospitality and the splendor of the wide-open spaces.
At this point we had traveled 1978 miles and our butts were feeling it. With a normal cruising speed of 60 mph on the Suzuki we were not setting any speed records but we kept on going showing that what was missing in horsepower was being made up with determination. Every now and then John would take off to enjoy the additional power of the BSA’s 52 bhp and push it over 90 mph. I could only look on in envy and lay myself on the Suzuki’s gas tank and try to keep him in sight. But mile after mile without the benefit of any wind protection on the bikes or our open-faced helmets we persevered, cleaning the bugs off our faces and jackets when we stopped.
While on the farm another broken spoke was discovered and with no bike shops available we did the repair ourselves. Otherwise the bikes had held up well, the BSA was coasting along at these speeds. A ride into the local town of Lemsford caused some interest from the old farmers hanging around the one store in town. There we received the choice compliment from one weathered old guy who said, “those bikes are shinier than a hogs ass in the mud”.
We left Lemsford and rode down to Medicine Hat, stopped in a bike shop there to check prices on a new chain but decided the $12 they were asking was too steep. Once in Calgary we found a Suzuki dealer where I purchased a chain for $8.50 and installed it in the parking lot at the bike shop. At Calgary we had our first view of the Rocky Mountains, majestically poised as our next big challenge. We stayed in the city and saw the Calgary Stampede, soaking up some of the cowboy flavour; a beaded headband was my big purchase there.
The next day we were into the mountains and seeing spectacular vistas around every curve. After being awed by the incredible view of the green glacier fed waters of Lake Louise we stayed at a nearby campground. In the night the campground was filled with noise as a mother black bear with a couple of cubs came looking for easy food items. While campers jumped into their cars we moved into the covered cooking shelter and pulled our bikes across the two doorways into it and slept the rest of night in relative safety there.
Our day’s ride began with a detour to see Takkakaw Falls and on the way there two elk ran across the road in front of John. We also saw our first moose, standing belly deep in a pond munching away on the water plants. We stopped at the Great Divide for photos and generally took the ride at a more leisurely pace. For a couple of teenagers from Toronto being in this ancient mountain range was nearly overwhelming. In the late afternoon we were through Rogers Pass and watched the mountains retreat in our rearview mirrors. We rode into Revelstoke, found a good campsite and enjoyed an evening by a campfire talking about the amazing roads we had just ridden.
For breakfast we stopped in a small diner attached to a gas station, typical of our eating places. Inside there were another group, obviously on the road as well. We got talking to them and discovered they were members of the Canadian rock group, Edward Bear. This brief celebrity encounter pleased us both, especially the way they were impressed with what we were doing. Bellies full, egos boosted and gas tanks refueled, we were ready to go. Sticking with our TransCanada highway route we rode on through forest fires worried that the road might get shut down but eventually reaching Salmon Arm, then on to Kamloops, and then turning south at Cache Creek. We reached Hope near dinnertime and inspired by the proximity decided to push on to reach Vancouver. With the golden sunlight angling across the Fraser River we rode over the Port Mann Bridge and reached Vancouver just after dark, having ridden 412 miles that day. We made our way to North Vancouver and eventually found Capilano road, off the then under construction Upper Levels highway. A friend of John’s was staying in a basement suite near the private club she was lifeguarding at for the summer and we parked our bikes there. The landlady who lived upstairs would not allow us to sleep in the house so we carried our sleeping bags across the street to an empty lot and slept under the stars. We had done it. We had ridden 3220 miles in 16 days. Our final destination of Comox on Vancouver Island was within reach.
We spent the morning looking around Vancouver. The ride through Stanley Park was impressive to two first time visitors. After lunch we decided to catch the ferry to Nanaimo. The fare was $1 for passengers and $1.65 for the motorcycle. On the ride north we made a couple of stops to warm up with our staple of tea and toast for fifty cents and we were able to make it to Comox just after dark where we received a warm reception from an Aunt and Uncle.
After a couple of days rest we were ready to make the return trip. Another 3,000 plus miles later we drove back into our own driveway, having accomplished what we set out to do. Now we have families and responsibilities but we both still ride. So much of the adults we became were shaped on the road together that summer and in the process created a bond between us that is still strong three decades later.