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Lake Superior Circle Tour

If this trip isn’t on your travel bucket list, it should be

Story by Dustin Woods
Photos by Dustin Woods and Alexe Sawicki

Whenever and wherever riding enthusiasts congregate and discuss the best places to ride, the old standards like the Pacific Coast Highway, Cabot Trail and Deal’s Gap come up often. I recently started hearing about another one lately that had me intrigued - The Lake Superior Circle Tour. The subject of perhaps the most famous Canadian ballad of all time, Gordon Lightfoot’s song about an ill-fated ship named the Edmund Fitzgerald and its 29 crew members warns of the peril such a treacherous body of water can hold. Measuring 82,103 square kilometres, it is the largest fresh water lake in the world and reaches 1,333 feet at its deepest point. While she can be vengeful when angry when tormented, she is also the source of unparalleled beauty. Spanning thousands of kilometres through three states and one hell of a big province, I was most certainly interested but it would take some planning and most of all, time.  After booking a week’s vacation and a BMW K1600GTL a month in advance, I finally set off during the first week of July to enjoy some long days on the open road and warm nights by the water.

Motorcycles are kind of like girlfriends; Travelling together will tell you pretty quickly if you can live with them or not. From the time I swung a let over the big BMW I knew we would get along just fine. After a decent day of riding from Toronto to the Delta Hotel overlooking the water in Sault Ste. Marie, I was still lively enough to get into some trouble at Smokey’s with the members of a Beatles tribute band called Beatles Magic who were in town to headline Canada Day celebrations the following night at the Roberta Bondar Pavillion. For a relatively small northern city, The Soo offers up a pretty solid Saturday night we quickly found out.

The next morning, rather, early afternoon, I met up with the gang from the Ultimate Northern Ontario Roadtrip - a motley crew of characters looking to track down and document the best motorcycle roads in the province. They were bragging about some of the roads they had stumbled upon recently and wanted to show off so we bombed up Highway 556 to enjoy some entertaining turns before heading for lunch at the Voyagers Lodge and Cookhouse on Batchawana Bay. The reality is that you get unique views either way you travel around the lake but I decided to go counter-clockwise so I could meet up with the UNORT gang on their ride.
Having gotten through my first couple days of riding on various roads and conditions, it still hadn’t ceased to amaze me how truly well engineered the K1600 is. Weighing in at 321 kg (708 lbs), its proportions never felt bloated since the weight is distributed low and evenly. The 160hp DOHC 24 valve liquid cooled 1,649cc powerplent is the lightest and most compact in-line six cylinder motorcycle engine in mass production and 70 percent of the torque is available at 1,500 rpm. Outfitted in Royal Blue Metallic paint with matching saddlebags and a cavernous top case that are all quickly removable, lockable and weatherproof, the Big K seems to boast every amenity under the sun. A perfect travel companion.

The next stretch of road up to Wawa and my accommodations at the Best Northern Inn offered some of the most spectacular views I have ever witnessed in my life. The last two times I had passed over the north shore it had been teeming rain, so thankfully this time I was able to truly enjoy it. After a hearty breakfast at the Kinniwabi Pines restaurant right next door to the Inn and gassing up at Young’s General Store, I had ample time to test the GTL’s cruise control. It definitely came in handy on route to Aguasabon Falls and the Terry Fox monument in Thunder Bay. Perhaps the most intuitive cruise control of any vehicle I have ever piloted, the system helped me keep my speed in check on the long stretches of smooth tarmac that are free of street lights and traffic, but not OPP. The trip also gave me ample time to play with the Multi-Controller mounted on the left handgrip that allows you to scroll though an intuitive interface that not only provides information on tire pressure and fuel economy, but also allows the rider to quickly adjust ESA II (Electronic Suspension Adjustment) settings between Comfort, Normal and Sport on the go. Throttle response can also be adjusted to Rain, Road or Dynamic settings depending on weather and road conditions. It also allowed me to easily switch between my iPod and favourite satellite radio station, Classic Vinyl while I rode. Surprisingly I could actually hear the music wearing a full face helmet thanks to the power adjustable windscreen, which also deflected a fair number of stones and bugs that would have otherwise been caught by my new visor.

After putting the bike to rest for the night in the motorcycle parking area at the Victoria Inn, I grabbed a bite at the 5 Forks restaurant with my old highschool friend Kristen who I always meet up with on my way through T-Bay. After dinner we wandered down to the waterfront where I was shocked at how it has been transformed. Astonishing strides have been taken to reclaim the area with new docks, galleries, shops, restaurants and art installations that pay homage to the shipping heritage and native history of the region. Not to mention a significant investment to restore the old CN rail station to its former glory. Every local I talked to in the area had recommended Hoito Restaurant as a must-do for breakfast the next day, so naturally I had to see what all of the fuss was about. Renowned for their traditional Finnish pancakes, I’ve become a convert and am not alone judging by how busy it was.

If you are at all interested in learning more about the areas you visit or like to indulge in a little culture from time to time, or perhaps just want a place to walk around and rest your backside, the Fort William Historic Park is definitely worth a visit. Unsure of what to expect, the experience was literally like stepping back in time to 1815. Surrounded by trained actors in period-correct costumes providing re-enactments of various activities and customs of that era, I felt like I was piloting a time machine. The feeling of being out of place didn’t stop there as I crossed the border into Minnesota down highway 61 and found that I seemed to be the only rider wearing a helmet. As it turns out, helmets are optional for riders with a full license over 18 years old in all of the US states that surround Lake Superior; Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The spectacular views of the pristine shoreline were occasionally interrupted by quaint lakeside towns like Gran Marais where you can apparently find the World’s Best Donuts.

With plenty of daylight to spare before my check-in time in Duluth, I decided to stray West from the water off Highway 61 to scratch another item off my own bucket list by visiting Hibbing, Minnesota, the childhood town of one Robert Allen Zimmerman. You likely know him as Bob Dylan. While it offered less epic scenery, Highway 16 boasted miles of smooth, sweeping curves so remote I actually started to think something was wrong at one point when I didn’t seen another motorist for about 45 minutes. Looking exactly as they did when young Bobby was still terrorizing the town, his childhood home and Highschool aren’t much to write home about but it was interesting for this die-hard fan to see where he spent his formative years and played his first gig. Rolling into the Canal Park Lodge in Duluth, I gave the Beemer a quick detail in their exclusive motorcycle parking area and wandered down Canal Park Drive. Packed with people of all ages, the former industrial area was alive with bars, restaurants and coffee shops. The sight of a margarita the size of my head led me to the patio of Little Angie’s Cantina for a bite and a couple cocktails while I enjoyed being a fly on the wall in a strange city.

July 4th saw me riding to Bayfield, Wisconsin where I celebrated the independence of our neighbours to the south with fireworks and live music on the rooftop patio of the Bayfield Inn after an incredible dinner at Maggie’s. Each and every day I witnessed the landscape slowly but significantly change and the ride up highway 41 to the Keewanaw Mountain Lodge just outside Copper Harbour on the Upper Peninsula was no different. I’d run into a couple named Mike and Linda Henderson back in Duluth who were admiring the big Beemer and told me what to expect on highway 41 and highway 26 over to Eagle Harbour but nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced. Far and away the best stretch of road I have ever ridden, I dialed in the throttle and suspension setting making the K1600 feel more like a supersport than a grand touring machine.

Over the course of the trip I passed through so many interesting towns that I wish I’d had more time to enjoy like Calumet, a National Historic Landmark District and Marquette which features a funky downtown core right on the water, not to mention the Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, MI where I could have spent a week. As I closed in on the last miles along Superior, it transformed into an almost tropical turquoise with sandy beaches. Sitting at a picnic table enjoying a cold drink in the sunshine, a gentleman who pulled in on an Electra Glide was curious about my ‘German bike.’ Reminiscent of an American Keith Richards, Jack had travelled all the way from Orlando to circle the greatest of the great lakes and was wondering where the best place would be to crush a six’er with his old lady. Despite his complete disregard for safety and decorum, he said something that stuck with me, “No wonder they call it Lake Superior, this is some of the best scenery I’ve ever seen in my 30 years of riding!”

Wrapping up the Lake portion of my ride, I crossed back into Sault Ste. Marie and spent a couple hours kicking around the Canadian Bush Plane Heritage Centre before spending the last night of my epic journey at the Carolyn Beach Motor Inn located in Thesalon, Ontario. Sitting on the beach in a Muskoka chair with a nice single malt Scotch watching an incredible sunset, I reflected on my journey and realized that we all have bucket lists whether we’ve written them down or not but most of us will never complete them. If the Lake Superior Circle Tour isn’t on your list of bike trips, it should be. And if you are wondering when the best time is to start planning your trip is, there’s no time like the present.

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The Georgian Bay Circle Tour

Closer than expected, beyond your expectations
Story and photos by Dustin A. Woods

There is no more relaxing way to spend a vacation than taking a trip on motorcycle. Free from the distraction of e-mail, phone calls and various handheld devices that monopolize our time and attention, being at one with the open road allows time for reflection and refuge from the daily grind. How often do you see motorcycles parked outside of a therapist’s office? Exactly. Whether your first excursion of the season, or possibly ever, there are certain essentials that one should aim to achieve. The ideal first roadtrip shouldn’t be too ambitious but should still involve travelling a decent enough distance to get outside of your area code and comfort zone – the weekly ride to Starbucks doesn’t count.

Regardless of whether I camp or stay in a hotel, I always have a general idea of where I’ll be sleeping but leave plenty of flexibility for spontaneity and misadventure. I find doing a little research beforehand goes a long way to allowing you to learn about where to go and what to do. Unlike driving a car, you will be exposed to fatigue and the elements, so plan your itinerary and attire accordingly. Hope for the best but plan for the worst; that includes packing both raingear and sunscreen, a GPS or even a good old fashioned map, first-aid and tool kits. Better safe than sorry.

For my first trip of the season, I had a free weekend at my disposal, a 2012 Harley-Davidson Street Glide CVO and a full tank of gas. How much can you explore in between quitting time on Friday afternoon and role cal Monday morning? You’d be surprised. I did some sniffing around and found that Georgian Bay offers a surprisingly diverse selection of scenery and options for places to play and stay. It is a perfect distance because it is off the beaten path but won’t take long to get there and back. There is also plenty to keep you busy if you have more time to spend.

Being the summer solstice, I decided to take advantage of the longest day of the year by scoping out as many beaches as I could over the course of the weekend and had seen several interesting lighthouses and waterfalls I’d been told were worth a look. My goal for the first night was getting out of Toronto and ensuring I wasn’t under too much pressure to log serious miles the next day. I figured Parry Sound would be as good a spot as any and would be a big enough city to access fuel for both the bike and myself if I got there later than expected. I had stayed at the Bayside Inn several years ago when it first opened and not quite ready for prime time but it has improved by leaps and bounds to become a true diamond in the rough. After a long day of work and a few solid hours on the bike, a hot shower and one of the most comfortable beds I’ve slept on in recent memory were a Godsend. Being June, sunset didn’t occur until late in the evening so I had enough time to ride to Waubuno Beach to enjoy its colourful splendour.

The next morning I set off to check out Killbear Beach before heading North on Highway 69 to Sudbury. You wouldn’t think of such a city to top the list of beach destinations but both Bell Parks Beach and Moonlight Beach were well worth the trip. After enjoying a cold drink and some lunch, I headed west on Highway 17 then south on Highway 6 to Espanola, passing through the quaint little town of Little Current. A small town with a big heart, the main street was bustling with people out shopping, having patio drinks and even buskers entertaining passersby – something you would associate with the big city. Continuing south, the landscape abruptly changed as the smooth asphalt snaked through giant rock faces and pristine lakes one would associate with British Colombia. The scenery changed once again as I reached Providence Bay which seemed more reminiscent of the Hamptons than Ontario. Walking back to the bike after snapping pictures on the beach, a mother was trying to pull her son, who must have been five or six, away from staring at the gleaming Harley. I asked if he wanted to help me start the engine and his eyes grew as big as pie plates as he nodded enthusiastically. Asking his impatient mother’s permission, I propped him up on my lap and primed the engine, instructing him to hold the start button. As the 110 CI Screamin’ Eagle V-Twin sputtered and roared to life, he laughed and giggled maniacally, clapping his hands - a future rider no doubt. His mother seemed less impressed but I certainly made his day.

Circling Georgian Bay on the west side involves crossing the main channel between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay on the Chi-Cheemaun ferry. I arrived early so killed some time watching boats go by and enjoyed some fresh fudge from the Wigwam Gift Shoppe, which I highly recommend. The 50 km ride from South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island to Tobermory on the tip of the Bruce Peninsula takes about two hours and travels between the islands of Fathom Five National Marine Park, and passes the Imperial Tower of the Cove Island Lighthouse making you feel as if you’ve travelled to Nova Scotia even though you are only hours away from the city. Chi-Cheemaun, which I discovered means “Big Canoe” in Ojibway, is large enough to carry 143 cars and 638 passengers. I had no idea how large this ‘big’ ferry was and was surprised to see a number of transport trucks emerge from its raised nose upon docking. Spots fill up quickly so if you plan on doing the same, book early.

Being fortunate enough to have travelled all over the world, I am always amazed at how beautiful and diverse my own province is. Another reason why I wanted to visit Tobermory was the Fathom Five National Marine Park, which offers crystal clear water, grottos, and fascinating rock formations known as “Rock Pillars” like Flowerpot Island, not to mention 22 shipwrecks. Once a bustling port, Big Tub Harbour is the deepest natural harbour in the Great Lakes which offered shelter during inclement weather. Old wooden schooners, freighters and tugboats from as early as the 1800s reside in their final resting places at various depths surprisingly intact due to the frigid temperatures and lack of Teredo Worms (termites of the sea) that don’t exist in fresh water. These eerie relics serve as reminders of a time when weather forecasting and navigation were far less sophisticated and effective than they are today.

Visiting the Big Tub Lighthouse helps tell the story of the area, which is rich with nautical history and geographical anomalies. I wandered up the road to have a nice dinner at Bootleggers Cove Pub on the deck overlooking the water as the sun went down. Gorgeous. I then checked in to the ‘Adventure Inn the Bruce’ where I’d be spending the night and was able to drive right up to my room. Before I could even ask, one of the proprietors walked over with a slab of wood for my kick-stand. She pointed at her own Honda Shadow at the back of the parking lot, acknowledging that her and her husband do a fair bit of bike travelling in the off season so they know what bikers are looking for in accommodations. They were right. The close proximity of my door to the bike was especially helpful the next morning as I retrieved my rain gear from the saddlebags in the pouring rain.

Thankfully the skies cleared as I made my way to the Bruce Peninsula National Park and Lion’s Head down to Sauble Beach. Not only is Lobby’s Beachfront Restaurant right on the beach, but they also have “Motorcycle Parking Only” signs out front – always good to see. Eager to experience more unique landscapes on my way home, I decided to weave through Thornbury, Collingwood and over to Wasaga Beach, which I learned is the largest fresh water beach in the world! Tossing the hefty Hog around twisty turns down to Flesherton, I could spend a week exploring all the backcountry roads but I reluctantly headed back into the city. Although I hadn’t been gone for long, I was truly shocked at the amount of traffic congestion and aggressive tendencies of drivers that I hadn’t had to deal with all weekend. It turns out it only took me two days to become acclimatized to the slower, more relaxing pace of life.

The Georgian Bay and Grey Bruce regions have much to offer the two-wheeled traveler; wide open roads, genuine hospitality, motorcycle-friendly accommodations and destinations as welcoming as they are diverse. Whether travelling alone or with a group, the area offers something for everyone. On your next adventure, take the time to discover the regions’ incredibly unique geographic landscapes and fascinating nautical history, you won’t be disappointed. It won’t take long to discover around the watercooler on Monday morning who had the most interesting weekend either.

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2011 Harley-Davidson Softail Convertible CVO - Review

Story and photos by Dustin A. Woods

Over the course of my time with the 2011 Softail Convertible CVO, I was approached many times by curious onlookers that would admire the bike and inquire as to what model it was. After responding, I was inevitably asked, “Isn’t every motorcycle a convertible?” To be fair, it’s a valid question. After all, how many motorcycles have you ever seen with a roof? In this case, the term convertible refers to the fact that this Softail CVO can easily be transformed from a custom tourer to a custom cruiser in mere minutes. For those who may be on the fence over which kind of model to purchase next and aren’t a fan of compromise, this split personality Softail was introduced in 2010 to be the best of both worlds.

The Convertible CVO has a unique fairing that can be attached or detached in two shakes of a lambs tail. Remove the side saddlebags and back rest and presto chango, you're ready to go cruising. Heading out on a long trip? Simply reattach the two pins that keep the fairing in place, click the saddlebags back on and hit the open road. Cruise control is also standard, which most owners will never bother with but can be a Godsend on a long journey. One of the benefits of Harley baggers is the fact that they include a kick-ass sound system that allows you to enjoy your favourite tunes if for some unknown reason you happen to grow weary of the V-Twin symphony booming from between your thighs. Being a removable unit, it would be too complicated to outfit the Convertible with a permanent stereo, but it does house a simpler two speaker system with 20 watts per channel along with an auxiliary input and pocket for an MP3 player. Volume can be adjusted by hitting the + and – buttons on the inside of the front fairing but if you want to change songs on your Harley iPod, it requires pulling over and shuffling through playlists on the MP3 player so you better make sure you choose your riding music carefully. You’ve been warned.

CVO, for those who may be unfamiliar, stands for Custom Vehicle Operations, a limited production program that adds acres of chrome, accessories that are unavailable on the standard lineup of bikes and flashy paint schemes like that of the Roman Gold  with Burnished Copper Graphics of my tester. This also included the Convertible’s leather seat, complete with alligator inserts. Sinking into this handsome saddle is an easy proposition for those who may be inseam impaired as it sits at a lowly 665mm (26.2-inches) – even shorter than the Fat Boy Lo.

Thumb the starter button and the twin cam Screamin’ Eagle V-Twin coughs and sputters before roaring to life and settling into that familiar idle with which Harley has become synonymous. Keyless ignition means never having to fumble for the keys. Leave the fob in your pocket and forget about it. Harley is also famous for torque, and the 110 cubic inch powerplant churns out 110 ft-lbs at 3,000 rpm. Certainly nothing to scoff at, however its running weight tips the scales at a portly 354.3kg (781 lbs) so don’t expect to pass too many gas stations on a long journey if your hand is enthusiastic on the throttle.

While the removable fairing isn’t nearly as heavy and cumbersome as that of a Street Glide, it does add weight to the front end and also does more to disrupt oncoming air rather than make friends with it once reaching highway speeds. The ape hanger handlebars are more comfortable than they look and definitely add to the custom look but aren’t ideal for carving corners, nor are the floorboards that I scuffed after about 10 minutes on the bike.

Thanks to the booming air-cooled, fuel-injected 45-degree V-Twin and six-speed transmission, the Convertible CVO is a blast to ride but definitely isn’t purpose-built for speed. But then again, that isn’t really the point, is it? Like most Hogs, it feels most at home when cruising boulevards or smooth two-lane blacktop. Visually similar to the "hardtail" choppers of years gone by, this Softail features a hidden shock under the chassis to soften the frost heaves and potholes of our sadly neglected roadways. Reeling in that power wasn’t a revelation but braking was actually better than expected, thanks to the four piston calipers grabbing up front, two piston calipers in the rear and ABS as standard equipment. Another set of discs could be added but it would be a shame to overshadow the 18-inch chrome StingerTM custom cast aluminum wheels.

Tipping the register at $32,739, the Convertible CVO certainly isn’t cheap but those who were previously considering the possibility of adding another steed to their stable can take solace in the fact that is it essentially two motorcycles in one.

Torquey Sceamin’ Eagle 110CI V-Twin
Custom tourer or custom cruiser? Buy one, get both.
Paint scheme worthy of a show bike

Prepare to scuff the floorboards
Not exactly a fuel miser

2011 Ducati Monster 796 Review

Beauty of a Beast

Story by Dustin A. Woods, Photos by Matt Ball and Dustin A. Woods

The tale of Goldilocks is the most immediate and obvious comparison to draw upon when considering Ducati’s Monster line-up. For some, the power and proportions of the entry-level Monster 696 may be just too diminutive, while the big-bore 1100 may be too intimidating in size, stature or insurance premiums. Thankfully the legendary Italian motorcycle manufacturer also makes the Monster 796. The fact that Ducati offers three versatile yet unique Monsters is likely why you can’t swing a premium leather man satchel in Toronto without hitting three of them. The Monster has become somewhat of an urban icon, but does it live up to the mystique and hype? Most definitely.

When searching out your next bike, you may question how much power you want and how much you actually need. Sure it may seem appealing to choose a supersport that can outrun a fighter jet as your next ride, but naked middleweights have many attractive attributes that make them an ideal addition to your garage. Most bikes are exceptional at one particular kind of riding, but can fall short when outside their niche. Enter the Monster 796, a well-balanced middleweight that allows for a comfortable upright riding position that does double duty as wholly gratifying transportation and an artistic masterpiece. When immobile, it could easily be welcomed as a permanent fixture of an art gallery. Thumb the starter button and the air-cooled L-twin engine barks to life before settling into an off-kilter idle emitting a sound from the massive twin pipes that is both menacing and exotic.

The 803cc mill has a torquey powerband that provides more than adequate acceleration under normal conditions but literally transforms as it approaches its maximum torque of 58 ft-lbs at 6,250 rpm. A peak of 87 hp at 8,250 rpmmay not seem like a revelation, but the fact that the 796 tips the scales at only 167 kg (169 kg with optional ABS) means that its power-to-weight ratio is certainly nothing to scoff at. Incorporated into the tubular trellis frame, the fuel-injected powerplantpairs to a six-speed gearbox through a hydraulic slipper clutch. Gear changes are smooth as butter and finding neutral was never an issue when coming to a halt at a long stoplight. One thing that did take some getting used to however, was just how much attention this bike gets around town. Mind you, the standard issue Ducati red paint certainly didn’t help.

Never twitchy or unmanageable, this Monster’s power delivery is complimented by impressive handling and an exceptional braking prowess. While the seating position is relatively neutral, the handlebars are situated slightly forward and the pegs slightly aft. This makes the versatile Monster comfortable enough for long hauls but happy to accommodate aggressive riding. Suspension duties are handled by non-adjustable 43-mm Showa forks up front and a progressive Sachs monoshock that is preload and rebound-adjustable in the rear that allows 148mm of rear suspension travel.

Perhaps the only manner in which one could slow down the Monster 796 faster would be to equip an anchor on board. The front wheel gets four-piston 320mm Brembo brakes, while the rear wheel gets a two-piston, 245 mm single disc setup. Equipped with optional ABS, the MSRP of my tester rang in at $11,995 before taxes and freight. The system can easily be disengaged but I opted to leave it on due to the single-digit temperatures and variable precipitation that week. The system did activate a couple times during spirited riding but never felt overly intrusive or jarring which let the 17-inch Pirelli Diablo Rossos to their job.

Everything about this medium-sized Monster seamlessly combines form and function. The single-sided swingarm is not only a fetching design, but it is also lighter than the traditional double setup found on the 696, for instance. The sculpted plastic covering the 15L fuel tank (13.5 for ABS version) is aerodynamic and comfortable for my six foot frame to straddle but also exhibits subtle styling elements that evoke a unique view from every angle.

Several tweaks have been made for 2011, mostly in the ergonomics department. The lightweight aluminum handlebar is almost an inch higher, while the seat is 9.9mm lower. Four-way-adjustable hand levers were added which were welcome additions and the seat was re-shaped for increased rider comfort.

Amateurs who don’t have much experience with riding who are looking to make their first big purchase are often worried about how soon they will out-grow the bike they may be financing for several years. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as an inaugural purchase, the 796 wouldn’t scare off beginners and I can’t imagine any of the experienced riders I know growing tired of such a bike anytime soon. For those finicky riders who can’t seem to find a balance of style, size and substance, the Monster 796 might be just right.

Intoxicating sound
Combination of form and function

Cranky at low rpm
Digital speedometer could be easier to read