Words | Cara Williams, Photos | Clay Dolan
During our first summer after making the permanent move to the Escarpment, I remember how excited my (then toddler) son Jasper would become when he heard the roar of motorcycles passing our Thornbury house. His little eyes wide with anticipation, he’d stand stock still until every last motorcyclist in the group rode gracefully past, often nodding their helmets in his direction. Seven years later the low rumble of bikes still brings a thrill to my heart, because to me, it’s the sound of summer on Georgian Bay
To the outsider, motorcycle culture may seem intimidating, and perhaps non-inclusive. But after spending a gorgeous early summer weekend touring the “Georgian Bay Loop” with the Blue Mountain Motorcycle Club (BMMC), I can personally attest, that this group at least, is quite the opposite. Comprised of professionals and hip retirees, this self described “dysfunctional” group is perhaps more akin to a rag-tag group of colourful characters and unlikely bad asses.
The first thing you should know about the BMMC is that anyone can join. The only prerequisite is having access to wheels. And although the preferred bike of choice is a Harley-Davidson, you’ll see the odd Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki in the mix. Of course, when your bike is in the minority it opens up the potential for ribbing and good-natured teasing, as Kevin Tateyama can attest—he recently traded in his Harley for a seriously sleek Honda.
“My new Honda is a GL1800 F6B. The Harley I sold was a FLHX Street Glide,” explains Kevin, who noted that Honda’s technology is what prompted him to make the switch. “Brand loyalty dies hard. As a former Harley guy, it was hard to make the move but I’m glad I did. Even my Harley pals are totally impressed with the Honda.”
The shortest distance between point A and point B may well be a straight line, but with Lake Huron to the west and Georgian Bay to the east, the twisty bends and rise and fall of the landscape, in this case, the scenic route is the more enjoyable option. The seemingly endless coastline of the Bruce Peninsula combines well surfaced roads free from city traffic with dramatic views of the Niagara Escarpment, rivers, orchards, villages and vineyards (as well as two national parks). And with no eight-lane highway to contend with, riders can truly experience the freedom of the “open road”. The Bruce Peninsula is perhaps the closest thing you’ll find to a motorcyclist’s nirvana.
Heading North from Owen Sound on Grey Road 1 we passed through Cobble Beach and continued east, skirting around Kemble Mountain through the picturesque village of Big Bay towards Wiarton. “When you ride, you experience the environment in a much different way that regular motorists,” remarks Suzie Wensley, Ontario Regional Director for Harley-Davidson and co-owner of Good Health Mart in Collingwood. Suzie and her husband John are celebrating 11 years of marriage, and riding Harley’s together is a passion they share. “John rides a Road Glide Special and I ride the largest bike Harley-Davidson makes, which is a Road Glide Ultra. This is unusual as normally the husband rides the larger bike while the wife rides the smaller bike. Not in our family.” As it turns out, I really like Suzie.
Our next stop was the Lion’s Head Inn, located in the charming village of Lion’s Head. In the traditional style of an English pub the Lion’s Head Inn, which dates back to 1879, serves chef prepared meals including fish & chips, prime rib dinners along with the best hamburgers on the Peninsula. Owners Audrey & Monty Brown run this popular watering hole year round, but see a bump in leather clad patronage with the arrival of warmer weather.
“The Lion’s Head Inn is very biker friendly,” explains Jim Kennedy from The Blue Mountains. “It’s one of our favourite stops along the peninsula, and the views of Lion’s Head Harbour are incredible. Plus they make great fish’n chips.”
The route from Lions Head to Tobermory took us straight up Highway 6 through Millers Lake. At the northernmost point of the Bruce Peninsula we skirted west around Big Tub Harbour and stopped for some refreshment at Bootlegger’s Cove Pub. Reminiscent of a time when merchant sailors used the harbour as safe-haven against storms, folklore abounds at the Bootlegger with tales of illegal moonshine stills, light-keepers and the unlucky few who were mysteriously “lost at sea”. Canada’s largest natural freshwater harbour, the crystal clear waters of Big Tub protect the ominous Sweepstakes ship wreckage, one of several famous shipwrecks in the Fathom Five National Marine Park. Situated approximately 50 yards from the head of the harbour at a depth of 20 feet, the 19th-century Great Lakes schooner is said to be picture perfect, as the hull remains intact.
Back through Tobermory sits Little Tub Harbour and the Tobermory Princess Hotel. Built around the turn of the century this picturesque historic landmark boasts amazing views of the fishing village shops, cafes and brew pubs, sits kitty-corner to the LCBO (good to know) and overlooks the MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry dock.
The Tobermory Princess is also the perfect jumping-off point to tour shipwrecks, lighthouses and the geological phenomenon that is Flowerpot Island. The 20 tastefully decorated rooms are furbished with Bruce Peninsula cedar furnishings, commissioned by a local craftsman for the Princess Hotel. Whether you are in Tobermory for a week of relaxation or just overnight to catch the ferry, the Princess is comfortable, quiet, clean and centrally located.
“We love staying at cool little motels and funky Inns,” explains Helen Kimble, real estate agent, grandmother and one of the most experienced riders in the group. “Somewhere we can park our bikes just outside our rooms and hang out together and rehash the ride.”
Minutes after checking into our rooms I heard voices in the street below and was invited onto my patio to hang with the group while they cleaned their bikes. Here I learned that hot metal and cold water don’t mesh and spraying your bike right after you’ve ridden for two hours is a rookie mistake you only make once. Basic physics teaches us that when hot, metal parts expand, returning to the same dimensions as they cool down. Sudden temperature changes may damage metal parts or their finish and fixing this can be quite costly. So, cleaning the windscreen (that is, if your bike has one) is a good way to pass the time while your engine cools. Beer also tastes good at this point in the day. “We’re really fun,” said Helen. “Until about 9pm.”
We caught the first sailing on the MS Chi-Cheemaun the next morning from Tobermory to South Baymouth, Manitoulin Island. The aptly named Chi-Cheemaun is the Ojibwe word for “Big Canoe” and operates from May to October each year. Motorcyclists enter the ferry at the front of the line: first on and first off. Tie downs are supplied by the ship’s crew to secure motorcycles to the ships deck.
The one hour, forty-five minute passage sails through Fathom Five Marine Park and alongside several wind-swept islands including Cove and Fitzwilliam Islands. Aboard the ship is an art gallery, cafeteria, boutique, children’s play area, relaxation deck and of course stunning, unobstructed views of Lake Huron to the port and Georgian Bay to the starboard. Throughout the summer season the MS Chi-Cheemaun hosts dinner and concert cruises, traditional storytelling and workshop with Falcon Migwans, Stargazer’s Delight Tour and Parks Canada Interpretations. New this year, in partnership with The Georgian Bay Folk Society “A Month of Sundays” will feature Canadian Recording artists paired with up and coming musicians to entertain passengers with unique collaborative musical workshops. I for one am looking forward to the 2nd annual Craft Brews Cruise, happening August 26. Beyond all of these events is the pure and simple pleasure and breathtaking views you’ll experience while sailing aboard the Chi-Cheemaun.
After setting sail breakfast was served by the friendly Chi-Cheemaun chef and culinary crew, which allowed me an opportunity to sit down with the BMMC and talk a bit of bike etiquette. It was here that Suzie Wensley clarified why the group calls themselves “dysfunctional”.
“We’re not a formally structured riding group, like a chapter, so in that way we’re dysfunctional. When you ride with an organized group, they ensure everyone knows the rules and regulations that the group adheres to. Whereas we sort of say, ‘yes we know the code’ and agree that safety is number one but we’re not so regimented. It’s not about point A to point B, it’s about enjoying the journey and trusting that whomever we are riding with on any given day is looking out for one another. We’re like a family. And like any family, when something goes wrong or someone unintentionally gets cut off, we address it then we let it go.” –Suzie Wensley.
Rebecca Penwell of Port Carling was a complete stranger to all but one rider before we set off from Thornbury the day before. Her good friend Steve Ramer invited her on the ride and she remarked that almost immediately she felt completely accepted by the other riders and trusted that they had her back both on and off the road. Perhaps if you have a vibrant imagination you’re now envisioning territorial biker gang stand-offs in the Chi-Cheemaun cafeteria, but what I witnessed when other motorcyclists approached us was a kinship and mutual respect, along with a child-like curiosity about bike parts, destination and choice in apparel. This respect continues on the road, with motorcyclists signalling to each other (regardless of whether they’re riding a Honda –wink wink). “It’s not just Harley riders waving at other Harley riders, it’s the common bond of the love of motorcycle riding and the passion of the road,” explains Steve Ramer.
Upon arriving at South Baymouth, the front row vantage point of the Chi-Cheemaun from inside the hull is unparalleled and because motorcyclists disembark ahead of cars, RVs and trucks, they hit the open road before the rest of the ferry traffic is even off the ship.
Manitoulin Island is the world’s largest freshwater Island, has more than a hundred inland lakes between its shores, and many of those lakes have islands within them. There are greater than two dozen small settlements and towns including seven First Nations Reserves spread out across 160 kilometres. The history of the island is fascinating with tales passed down from generation to generation about the Jesuits, the plague-like sickness they brought with them, and the subsequent period of 150 years (from 1650—1800) when the island was uninhabitable after it was “cleansed” via burning. Under the Bond Head Treaty of 1836, Manitoulin Island was declared to be a refuge where First Nations people could live free from the influences of white civilization. Under the MacDougall Treaty of 1862, the government divided the Island in order to accommodate non-Native settlement and as a result, several different Reserves were created. For many visitors today, Manitoulin Island is like going back to the good old days; small town friendly; chip wagons; ice cream cones; and of course picturesque waterfalls, pristine beaches and quaint lighthouses. One can also experience Manitoulin’s many First Nations workshops which explore the diversity of traditional arts, Aboriginal dance and lodge construction. These activities encourage us to learn more about the culture of the people of Manitoulin, their history and language, as well as an understanding of the contribution of the Aboriginal community to Canada’s history.
We followed the winding, coastal Highway 6 through Manitowaning and Sheguiandah to Little Current: the largest community on Manitoulin. “Petite Current” as it was known by the voyageurs, acted as a vital port-of-call for refuelling and re-supplying water traffic on the Great Lakes. Swift, strong currents of water run between the narrow passageway which connects the North Channel and Georgian Bay and the only land access to Manitoulin is via the Little Current Swing Bridge.
This one-lane crossing utilizes Manitoulin’s only stop-light. During the first fifteen minutes of each daylight hour during the spring, summer and fall, road traffic is halted in both direction and the bridge opens to permit marine traffic to pass. The view of the swing bridge is particularly spectacular from the pedestrian boardwalk located behind the Little Current Visitors Centre.
After a quick hop over to Gore Bay for ice cream (I say quick, but it is a very scenic 130KM round trip—a must-do for motorcyclists) the riders cleaned the bugs out of their teeth, traded their leather chaps and boots for shorts and sandals and we boarded North Channel Tours “Le Grand Héron” for a sunset dinner cruise. The 75’ trimaran style tour boat (floated on three large hulls) has a breadth of 30’ and at a top cruising speed of 8 knots. With her interior fully renovated, Le Grand Héron offers tour options to the public weekly to North Channel locations such as the Benjamin Islands, Baie Fine, and Killarney as well as private charters for special occasions.
We sailed due north towards the extraordinary La Cloche Mountains and alongside a dozen or so North Channel islands. Once moored in a sheltered cove reminiscent of a Group of Seven painting, Captain Chris Blodgett and his crew served up a hearty and delicious dinner to satisfy any scallywag. Afterwards the on-board bartenders “Brad and The Brittanies” turned up the music, and poured us a round of kamikaze shots (at the suggestion of BMMC’s veteran drink maker Sharon Penyige). We lounged on the upper deck, taking photos of the incredible sunset and reliving the trip while cruising the pristine waters and unforgettable scenery of the North Channel.
It was here I got the back-story on the BMMC. “The Blue Mountain Motorcycle Club founded by Dr. John McLean, a Navy veteran from WWII, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 87,” explained Nancy Dice, a retired grandparent with a penchant for motorcycles. “He was the driving force behind all of this,” added Dennis Dice, Nancy’s husband. “Every Sunday bikers would meet in the Jozo’s parking lot and pick a spot on a map. The rides would usually be around 120KM round trip, and would include stopping for breakfast or lunch. Everyone was welcome. We still meet at Jozo’s on Sundays, and the inclusivity that Dr. McLean advocated is still practiced.”
At this point, I had drunk the Kool-Aid as they say. And looking out at the windswept pines and smooth rocky islands I thought how lucky I was to have connected with this group and to experience the “Georgian Bay Loop” from a biker’s perspective. Their zest for life and joie de vivre is contagious and inspiring. For them, the experience of getting on their bikes is akin to going to church/meditating/practicing yoga. It’s a chance to let the worries of the world wash over their helmets and truly embrace being alive. “Cruising on a bike is different than driving a car,” said Brian Larkin. “In summer the smell of flowers fills your nostrils… you can smell the bay, the fresh cut grass and sometimes you can even smell the rain coming.” Sure, a June bug to the chin at 60 clicks will most likely dampen spirits, but that’s all part of the open road. I realized that in a roundabout way, aside from the 600 lbs of steel and chrome between their legs, these lucky few are connecting with nature. Brian’s t-shirt that evening read: “A hog’s breath is better than no breath at all”. I get it. Now.
Before you ask, the answer is no, I wasn’t riding a Harley (or even a Honda – but Kevin did let me sit on his) rather I was driving a Honda Ridgeline pick-up ahead of the crew and I regarded myself as the “pace car”, keeping an eye on the bikers in my rear-view mirror while photographer Clay Dolan pointed his long lens out the back capturing amazing photographic memories for this editorial. The morning after our sunset cruise we parted ways and the bikers, 17 in total, enjoyed a stunning ride, completing the Georgian Bay Loop passing Sudbury, then heading south down Highway 69 across the French River, past Pointe au Baril and Honey Harbour before turning right at Coldwater for the home stretch. I now find myself perusing motorcycle classifieds with my son Jasper, who wants to know when I’m going back on the road with the Blue Mountain Motorcycle Club. Who knows, maybe I’ll see them again at Jozo’s parking lot one of these Summer Sundays. |E|