Monday, August 20, 2007

The Boys' Big Adventure

The challenge: take the weekend and ride our motorcycles around the perimeter of Lake Superior.

(The motorcycle club Intrepidity on its inaugural ride)

This is not an original idea, I know. There are signs everywhere around Lakes Superior and Michigan labeling roads as part of the "circle tour," but in spite of being an avid rider for over 30 years (and despite having ridden on most of the roads surrounding the lake) I have never gone all the way around. And this year it lodged in my mind as something I was going to accomplish. Like the proverbial mountain, it was just something that needed doing.

Luckily I found a couple other gluttons for keister punishment who bought into the challenge. This cast of characters included one of my Louisville crash pad roommates, who came over from his home in Michigan, and my next door neighbor. We very nearly roped our own Jeffy into the excursion, but we weren't quite able to accommodate all our schedules. As it was, we assembled a pretty diverse trio of bikes, and Jeffy's Pacific Coast would have been another manufacturer and another design / engineering direction. My own Buell Ulysses is much discussed here, and my neighbor has a new BMW R1200GS, which is kind of the established king of the hill of large dual-purpose bikes. My friend Tim doesn't have a bike of his own, so he rode a rented bike from Harley Davidson of Appleton (which, surprisingly, has an impressive list of big bikes for rent and was able to accommodate him on short notice).

We decided that, picturesque as rural Wisconsin is, our ride would really begin at Lake Superior and Duluth (we can ride around WI anytime). And so we took the best and fastest four-lane roads we could to that point, scenery be damned. After a late lunch next to the old lift bridge at Grandma's in Duluth, we headed off to the Northeast along Highway 61 which closely tracks Lake Superior's North shore for a good three hours. By day's end we found ourselves in Thunder Bay, Ontario, having covered 540 miles. We were all a little stiff, but none the worse for the wear, and we found a hotel (after a meandering tour of the festering Red Light District that appears to be a large part of Thunder Bay) and a good dinner before turning in.

Day two covered the 500 miles between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, and included the more spectacular and remote parts of the route which make it famous. The Canadian shore of Superior is often sheer and rocky, and there are numerous little coves and islands which make for really fantastic vistas. Our one complaint was that we didn't think we had the time to stop and photograph things, since we needed to be home by mid-Sunday and we weren't really sure what progress we would make on any given day. So we oohed and aahed from the solitary confinement of our helmets and kept plugging. We did make a few stops, but as with all pictures of mountains, the photos don't really do any justice at all to the spectacle. I guess you'll have to trust me. It was really cool.

Day three was the trip home, but our exact route was unsettled until that morning. The original plan was to head South from Sault Ste. Marie over the Mackinac bridge and follow the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan down to Muskegon and take the ferry across to Milwaukee. Thence, Northward to Appleton for another 500 mile day. But this (awesome) plan was thwarted by the ferry being oversold. We needed to book space in advance, but the final plan came together only at the end. Barring that option, we debated crossing the Mackinac bridge and exploring the fabulous little seaside towns of Harbor Springs and Petosky and Charlevoix before reversing course. But we decided in the end that we would have covered nearly 1,400 miles by the time we got home even without these little towns, and so we opted to leave these for the next ride. So after a detour to visit an abandoned Air Force base in the middle of the Michigan woods where I had been based a decade ago in my early airline career, we headed South to the bridge and just before crossing we veered West on Highway 2 across the Northern coast of the Green Bay and South to home.

We had no adventures to report, and no mechanical breakdowns or challenges of any kind to spice up our experience. (But a solitary rider who had a mechanical problem along the North shore could be in a world of hurt.)

We had a field day--or I did, anyway--teasing Tim about his rented Harley Heritage Softtail. It ended up working just fine, in spite of seeming as though it were assembled from the parts bin at John Deere, circa 1961 (at which point it would already have been "retro"). Upon close inspection, the bike is a slave in its every particular to its retro fashion statement, as I expected. It has not one iota of performance aspiration about it--something which no doubt contributes to its suitability for a rental fleet, since you'd have to work quite hard to get in trouble with it, whereas my Buell will bite the hand of the unsuspecting--and it weighs a full 300 pounds more than my Ulysses, yet has no ground clearance and laughably bad brakes. The big 96 cubic inch motor has loads of torque, but much of that is masked by its massive weight. But it wasn't uncomfortable on the road for long miles, and it dutifully produced its signature WWII soundtrack without complaint. And after all, the ride's the thing, and the Harley had the key advantage of being available.

I don't know if it's a proximity-to-Wisconsin thing or what, but however disillusioned I am about the Harley ethos, I'd guess that over 80% of the bikes we saw on our circumnavigation--and we saw quite a lot--were Harleys of one stripe or another. I know from experience that this is not the case in New York or California, but Harley seems to have cornered the market along the North Shore. Well, good for them. At least a lot of us were out in the beautiful weather taking in one of North America's most spectacular drives.

Anyway, just a few photos:

(A typical vista on the Canadian side)

(Quite new GS with all the trimmings)

(My trusty Ulysses)

(The new 1957--er, 2007 Heritage Softtail. Tassles are extra)

(The Beach at Old Woman Bay)

(A bridge too far)


green_canary said...

I am hesitant to admit this, but I was unaware that the lake was so large. I mean, I knew it was that big, but I didn't KNOW it was that big. You know?

wunelle said...

Yeah, until I measured the distance on Google Pedometer I didn't think there were 1,500 miles to the endeavor. My butt now tells me otherwise!

Dzesika said...

Oh, that is just the most idyllic thing *ever*. Love it!

Joshua said...

A short list of jealousy:

Your bike
Your haircut
This trip.

wunelle said...

Well, my haircut I can arrange for you with little difficulty!

As for the bike, I think the Ulysses and I are practically having a love affair. My enthusiasm continues to redouble, such that I can't think of any other bike at any realistic price point that I would take over another Ulysses. For the first time, I'm contemplating, when it comes time to replace it, just hanging onto it and getting a second bike.

Erik Buell has hit on maybe the perfect combination of super-responsive, rideable chassis, super-fat powerband, good long-term comfort, careful and refined implementation, and a delicious dash of hooliganism. Now for 2008 he's continued to make improvements, with the Rotax motor soon to come, I imagine. But I'm quite crazy (evidently) with THIS bike, never mind what's in the pipeline.

Are you still looking to replace the Virago?

Joshua said...

I think I am always "looking" but until that right thing strikes me, that is all it will be. I don't get to ride as much as I would like, let alone enough to justify the purchase.