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A Winter Ride from Snow to Palm Trees

Author: Stephen Corke
Photo's: Stephen Corke
*Some photo's are clickable for larger versions

I was a newbie rider and only had one season and one long-haul ride to the Arctic Circle under my belt, so when winter neared I followed suit with my fellow bikers and parked my bike permanently for its hibernation. As the bed sheet settled over the bike and the garage door slowly lowered there was a sense of accomplishment and great memories, yet also uneasiness and a season that shouldn’t and couldn’t be finished yet?

Snow on the ground and over two months gone by without even thinking about motorbikes, my father started the ranting about moving my bike, a very large Suzuki V-Strom 650, out of his already crowded garage. I realized the bike had to be moved to my even smaller outdoor car shelter that was already occupied by my girlfriends car. I started watching the weather forecasts and road conditions, looking for an opening to ride my bike 7 km to my place along the now snow covered streets. I saw one or two days in each week where the road conditions were rideable. Checking the salt covered pavement with my rubber soled sneakers, I found much traction.

The spark was ignited in me and in mid-December my riding season was back in full force. I thought if I could ride 7 km in December why couldn’t I ride 2,900 km in February? With the new holiday ‘Family Day’ on Monday, February 16, 2009, I would only need to take four days off work to create a nine-day motorbike trip. And, I figured if I was planning on going south, I might as well ride to the southern most point of the United States, Key West, Florida, which would more than likely also be the hottest destination.

First thing first was to convince my father that I needed his garage a little longer for getting the bike back in ‘adventure riding’ shape. With a quick assessment, I made a mental note of what parts I needed and what extras I wanted for this trip. Since I had totaled both of my side cases during the summer Arctic Circle ride, I would need a cheap alternative for storing my gear. I didn’t have the cash available to fork out $600 for brand new side cases, so I went online and came upon two aluminum diamond tread tool boxes (24 x 8.25 x 10.25 in). They looked kind of like side cases so I ordered them for under $150. With a little trouble bolting them onto the side-case mounts and after sawing off the handles to stop any vibrating noise, I finally was in business for storing all my gear.

Next up, I had decided that since I would be freezing my butt off during this trip, I might as well be as comfortable as possible. I ordered a gel buffalo-haired seat and highway pegs and I must say my legs and butt thanked me for this afterward. A quick change of the oil, tightening of chain and clutch and it started to feel like it was summer again tinkering with the bike on the driveway. Except it wasn’t, instead there was an electric heater on high beside me and I could still see my breath.

Lastly I checked the treads on my tires and realized the front tire had to be replaced. Calling around and trying to order a motorbike tire during winter is not an easy task, I must admit. With much luck, Parker Bros said they could get me a new tire within the week and to bring the bike by on Saturday. I was pumped to think I would be back on the bike and riding again even though it was only going to be for a short 5 km to the shop.

Saturday came fast and when driving over to my folks place to grab the bike, I came to a depressing conclusion that the ice and snow on the road was not going to allow me to ride the bike to the shop. I was very disappointed and worried that this could be the same situation on my departure date in a couple of weeks. I tried not to think about it and shoveled the snow off the trailer and trailered the bike to the motorbike shop.

With a new front tire and the departure date only a week away, the nerves were kicking in and the excitement was building. And so were the jitters since the weather was stormy and friends were not very supportive about me doing this trip. The big question from everyone was “How are you going to ride to Key West Florida in the middle of winter when you can’t even ride your motorbike to the shop?” I didn’t have an answer for this, but I did have a feeling that kept pushing me forward.

Departure Day - Saturday February 14th, 2009

Coincidentally my departure date fell on Valentines Day. This was the first Valentines Day with my girlfriend Jenny, so in order to keep in the good books, I had purchased a dozen roses the day before and made her a beautiful creative card. And, on this card I wrote “11 roses for not just any girl; 1 rose rides to the Key’s to complete the dozen, come get it Babe!” I placed the 11 roses and card in our weight room, for Jenny to find later that day. I then slipped away into the 4:00 AM bitterly cold morning air and drove my car over to the folk’s place where my bike awaited my arrival.

Long underwear pants, a pair of socks, another pair of socks, jeans, rain pants, all weather motorbike pants, long underwear shirt, t-shirt, turtle neck, wool sweater, leather jacket, rain jacket, all weather cordura motorcycle jacket, wool neck guard, bandana, balaclava, thin gloves, deer skin mittens, heated insoles and summer motorcycle boots covered with a modified winter slipper to save some money.

Never have I taken so long to get dressed. I looked like a marshmallow man to say the least and felt like a furnace. I knew the sweat dripping down my forehead and back was not going to feel good once I hit the road. The outside temperature was at minus 8 degrees Celsius, not to mention an unimaginable windchill that would be created once I got on the highway. I was trying not to think about the cold to come. Instead I was extremely relieved that it wasn’t snowing in Toronto and the roads were relatively clear of ice. The stars were shining bright overhead, yet I had thanked the Heavens slightly too soon.

Turning on the computer and viewing the online weather forecast for the Great Lakes region it showed that Windsor and Erie were currently being dumped on with snow! This was now cutting off two of my preferred routes, the I-75 South and the I-79 South. I was not impressed. Both of these routes would have allowed me to cross the Appalachian mountain range in the southern warmer States and been the safest way of travel on a motorbike. Looking over the weather map I finally saw a route that was relatively clear skies with only 20% chance of flurries. Good enough for me! The route was to the Niagara/Buffalo border, southeast through New York to Pennsylvania, south to the I-95 in Virginia, then continuing along the I-95 south to Florida. The only worry of this way was the un-maintained farm roads in New York, not to mention I would be entering the Appalachian mountain range in the northern state of Pennsylvania and inevitably be exposed to colder, icier conditions.

I had come this far and was not turning back now. I put the rose in my jacket pocket and swung my leg over my motorbike. Turning the key the engine ignited instantly as if it had never been in a winter sleep. As the automatic garage door opened, I twisted the throttle and the bike shot out of its resting place and back onto the open road. The exhaust fumes trailed behind with a distinctive nature. It was as though all my worries and tensions had dissipated now that I was riding again. The residential streets were quiet with everyone still sleeping in their warm beds and a feeling of calmness over took me, yet this was short lived.

80, 90, 100, 110, 120 KM/H, I merged onto the highway and was quickly going to see if my many layers of clothing would hold up to the freezing air ripping into me. A heart stopping stream of wind shot through to my neck and up across my face. I couldn’t say that I wasn’t expecting this to a certain extent, yet it really caught me off guard. I estimated that there was ‘only’ 1,000 km of riding before I was above the freezing mark, so I didn’t have time to complain.

As the sun came up over the horizon I arrived at the Canada/USA border just outside of Buffalo. There was a short line-up of vehicles, with many eyes looking at me in shock and wonder. Riding up to the border station, the officer said he needed to check his vision because he hadn’t seen a motorbike in over three months. I laughed and said “You probably won’t see one for another two months.” With a quick explanation of where I was headed, the officer let me pass with a sarcastic “Good luck!”

After almost two hours of riding, I pulled over to call Jenny and let her know I was still breathing and now in the United States. I had to remove my helmet and mittens to use my cell phone. This was a big mistake… The winter air took advantage of my exposed head and ate away at any body heat that I was still producing. The sweat from earlier that morning had made my clothes damp, which now was further stripping me of any warmth I still latched on to. (I know you're thinking, that I brought this on myself.)

Needless to say it was a short conversation with a quick “Hi, I’m alive” and a reminder for Jenny to check the weight room. I put away my cell phone and instantly put back on my helmet and mittens in hopes this would stop me from shivering. Having my legs around the warm engine again made me realize I wasn’t going to be able to stop and site see very much the first day of riding. My objective now was a very determined one; Ride Hard, Ride Long and Ride Fast! I needed to escape the winter temperatures as fast as possible, for I knew my body was now in a constant battle to keep warm.

Glancing westbound I noticed the storm system that had been forecasted and was somewhat relieved to know that every second that passed I rode further away. Following my GPS unit I came upon a variety of two-lane farm roads that meandered throughout a now hilly landscape. While this was the ‘fastest route’ I was starting to question if this was the smartest route. Hay mixed with snow was dragged onto the road where tractors had pulled out from their driveways. Over a foot of snow was less then six feet from either side of my motorbike. I was riding south, yet there was an accumulation of much more snow the further I rode into the state of New York.

Gripping my bike tightly with both hands and legs, the tree line came to an end and the question of, ‘why was I doing this trip?’ got answered. For as long as my eyes could see in all directions were rolling open fields, glazed with a thick layer of powdery untouched snow. Shooting up from the virgin snow were several large motionless windmills that looked surprisingly native to the land. For this moment my intense captivation overshadowed any doubts I was still having about the trip and fueled my mind to press on.

I left the snow behind in my side mirrors as I rode into the state of Pennsylvania and the heart of the Appalachian mountain range. I passed many signs warning that the, ‘Road May Ice in Winter’, which further intensified my focus and awareness of my surroundings. Even though I was now riding south the outside temperature had decreased significantly as a result of the elevation I was gaining, along with the sun hiding behind clouds. Lakes, rivers and waterfalls were all frozen solid.

Mentally and physically at this point I was in bad shape. My toes and fingers had gone from painfully cold to now just numb. The heated insoles had only worked for the first two hours of riding. I was constantly wiping away frost building up on the inside of my helmet visor, caused from my warm breath meeting the freezing air. One mistake or one misjudgment would be catastrophic. There was not much of a safety net on these roads, with only a small guardrail separating me from a rocky cliff.

After many hours of riding I started to notice the mountainous landscape leveling. In the distance I could see an opening in the sky where the sun was shining through, encouraging me to keep riding. Every few kilometers I would feel pockets of warm air masses and this occurrence was getting more frequent the further I rode. Almost at the exact moment that I left the Appalachians, the sun struck my face and the temperature was instantly a few degrees warmer. It was like getting a reward for completing the most difficult part of my journey.

I was now in the state of Virginia and on the I-95 south riding fast. To make better time and keep my legs warm from the engine, I stayed on my bike when fueling up. Checking my side mirror I couldn’t help but smile. A blue sport bike came roaring up my left side, overtaking me and disappeared into the traffic ahead. This was the first motorbike I had seen on the journey and I knew it was not going to be the last.

At around 5 PM I decided to grab a bite and pulled over at a rest stop. As a result of my intense determination to get south fast, I had not eaten anything since 4 AM and I was starting to feel the effects of it. Checking my side cases I got out my dinner; a granola bar and banana. It wasn’t much but it was all I needed to keep me going. There was about an hour left of sunlight and I was not one for riding in an unfamiliar place during the dark, so the pit stop didn’t last long.

My body was in no shape to be camping and luckily my grandfather’s place was only about a 4-hour ride away, in North Carolina, so I pushed forward as the sun set over the pine trees. The thought of a warm bed filled my mind as the temperature began to drop as the darkness came. Going through the motions I road into the night. Frequently looking down at the GPS mounted on my tank bag and watching the kilometers decrease to the final destination for my first day of riding. 300 km, 200 km, 100 km, 0 km, the GPS unit voiced out “You Have Reached Your Destination.”

Pulling into my Grandfathers gravel driveway in Pinehurst, NC was such a relief and victory. I had rode 1,409 km that day and it was the most exhausting and painful day of my motorbiking career. My grandfather was very welcoming even with my surprise arrival and set me up with a much-appreciated warm plate of food and a very comfortable bed. I was fairly certain I had the first signs of hypothermia as I was having much trouble focusing and being coherent. My body ached form head to toe, I was mentally drained and the painful thought of getting on my bike tomorrow quickly faded away as I fell into a deep sleep.

Day 2 - Sunday February 15th, 2009

Morning came fast and I had slept in slightly longer then I would have liked, yet I knew I had needed a good sleep. There was a lot of riding to do today and thankfully it was a beautiful sunny day, and around 8 degrees Celsius outside! With the smell of the pine needles in the air, the birds chirping, and the cherry blossoms in full bloom, I completely forgot about how much pain I was in the previous night. It was like I had fast tracked through winter right into spring. I jammed my all weather motorbike jacket and pants into my back case, and stuffed my winter slippers and mittens into my knapsack. It was great! And finally what I like to call, good riding weather. Saying goodbye to my Grandfather with many thanks, I took off towards South Carolina.

Not far into the day I met some locals at the gas station that were curious about my bike and they felt it was a little too early in the season to bring out their bikes. I smiled and said this weather felt like heaven to me. For the first time on this journey many bugs started splattering on my windshield. I normally would find this to be a nuisance, yet this time I rather enjoyed witnessing it and knowing that the winter weather was behind me.

I road fast alongside farmers fields that were green with new life, saw much wildlife scurrying from the roadside, and shortly re-connected back onto the I-95 south. I had no time to enjoy the sun since I was running behind schedule, so I was riding over-time through South Carolina along the fast interstate. While the landscape was rather flat, the vegetation around me was starting to change

My stomach started to grumble so I pulled over just north of the Florida border. I parked the bike outside of Denny’s and took out the sandwiches my Grandfather had kindly made for me. Enjoying the warmth and homemade lunch, I looked over and saw something that was truly uplifting. A palm tree! I had done it; a winter ride from snow to palm trees. This was the first sign of the tropical climate to come and was a very motivating sight to see.

Riding further and further south I noticed more and more palm trees. I entered into Florida without even realizing it, due to the rainy weather I was encountering. Florida was supposed to be the sunshine state of America, yet it kept raining. But I wasn’t complaining, I would prefer rain any day over snow.

The roads were wet and the night came fast. I was not willing to pitch a tent in a dark wet campsite, so I pulled off the I-95 and into a motel. I was 200 km from Miami and I had rode 1,007 km today. My body needed a bed. I was too comfortable last night to have anything but the same for tonight; especially knowing I would be tenting the entire time in Key West, Florida. I fell asleep in a great mood, knowing I’d be picking Jenny up from the Key West airport tomorrow evening.

Day 3 - Monday February 16th, 2009

I woke up early not even needing my cell phone alarm. It was around 20 degrees Celsius this morning and gorgeous. The clouds had blown over during the night and most of the puddles had evaporated. There was no need to wear any of my winter riding gear today. With my back and side cases already completely full, I had to bungee the remainder of my winter gear to my passenger seat. It felt like summer had arrived. It was a day to take in and enjoy.

Riding onto the Florida Turnpike I came across the first tolls of the journey and reluctantly paid. I had my sunglasses on and my visor up as I anxiously rode on in anticipation of seeing the Ocean. There were palm trees in every direction as I pulled over to check my tire pressure. When I had left Toronto, I had the tire pressure low for better traction on the winter roads. I thought since I was in Florida it would be a good time to increase the pressure to limit the tread loss on the hot asphalt. When I checked the back and front tire pressure I was somewhat stumped. Both tires had increased in pressure by about 5 PSI. How could this be? Well, now I know the answer, so let me explain. When traveling from a really cold to really hot place the air expands and increases the PSI. I’m guessing most of you already knew this, but for me at the time, it was really weird.

I felt like I was on the last lap of the trip as I entered into the north end of the Florida Key’s. There were many bikers on the road now and to my surprise not wearing helmets. I saw that Jenny had text messaged me a few hours prior from Toronto airport. It read ‘I’m at the Airport! Yah! See you soon babe!’ Just to clarify I’m ‘babe’. Everything was starting to come together, yet I had little time to daydream.

I was extremely hot and had to take off even more clothes to minimize the sweating. I loved what felt like 30 degree Celsius weather. And I hate to use this word, but it was AWESOME! I was only a couple hours from Key West. I could smell the ocean before I could see it. But when I rode the bike over the first bridge into the Key’s and saw the Gulf of Mexico to my right and the Atlantic Ocean to my left, I was amazed. The sun reflecting off the salt water producing so many variations and mixes of deep blues and greens that even for myself, though colour blind, was still very impressive. There were shark and crocodile crossing signs along with many very exotic looking birds. I was in the heart of the Florida Keys and enjoying every minute of it.

When I crossed the Seven Mile Bridge with open Ocean on either side of me, I couldn’t help thinking about the scene from ‘True Lies’ with Arnold yelling ‘The Bridge is OUT!!!’ I lost track of how many motorbikes I was seeing now, with most waving or nodding to me with a sign of acceptance. I was almost there and I was doing mini squats on my foot pegs to give my behind a break. There was no time to relax yet, for I had to pick Jenny up at the Key West airport.

I arrived at Boyd’s Campground, Key West Florida one hour before Jenny’s arrival time, and to modestly put it, I was feeling good. Today was a shorter yet very memorable ride of 455 km. The campsite was 5 feet from the ocean and had a million dollar view. Almost from the second I had parked the bike, my camping neighbour was offering me a fresh piece of mahi-mahi that he had caught fishing early that day. I couldn’t have asked for a better setting to finish my journey.

With little time to spare I set up my small two-person tent and took off to the Airport, only a short ride away. I was outside Key West airport waiting for Jenny to arrive and I don’t know why but I was a little nervous. I got out the now withered looking rose and had it ready to give Jenny.

Before I knew it, Jenny was walking out of the airport and I was running over to her.

I had anticipated this one moment for so long and once it occurred time stood still. It was a kiss that was the perfect conclusion to a trip that was so tiring, so painful, so freaking cold, so much work, so mentally strenuous, and finally so satisfying in so many different ways. And yes, she loved the rose and I scored many points.

After a well earned three day vacation in Key West, Jenny flew back to Toronto and I made the return ride back home. A snowstorm throughout the upper States and southern Ontario forced me to store my bike in Knoxville, Tennessee and take a bus back, where I now am eagerly planning my next ride.

Vegas anyone?

Thankfully I videotaped the ride and posted it to view online at otherwise nobody would have believed me.

Cheers & Safe Riding,