In the Spring of the this year I found myself with a minor crisis of conscience. I had three motocross bikes that all did the same thing and I actually felt kind of silly for having such overlap. I have the 1984 Vintage RM 250 that works great but I don't want to wear it out. I had the 2013 RM-Z 250 to ride rather than wearing out the the old bike and I have a 2001 RM 250 that I haphazardly restored over the winter last year. The '01 turned into a money-pit. I wanted it to be a trail bike but after all the work I did on it, it still was not ready for the woods- it needed even more money and I was scared to spend more.
What I think I would really like does not yet exist in the mainstream market. I want a lightweight electric motorcycle (LEM) to tear up my back yard with. I want great suspension and brakes, thrilling acceleration and top-speed does not much matter.
While riding at the motocross track in the Spring, I had a close call with a young fella who ran me over when I fell in a corner. He didn't completely run me over, but I did have a scrape on my back where his foot-peg hit me. He slowed down, looked back at me and took off again. It left me feeling vulnerable. I went into the season thinking I would do some races and make good use of my SandDelLee season's pass and in the end, I just found myself too busy to bother going back. I decided to focus my attention on another plan that was sure to bring me a great deal of satisfaction.
My brother Bernie who recently moved to BC, was spending what is likely to be his final summer in Pickle Lake, Ontario- a place that he refers to as the "centre of the universe". He and his wife Lynn have lived there for about 20-years as entrepreneurs and they have spent several years trying to get themselves out of business in an effort to retire. My plan was to go visit them, in Pickle, one last time and do some serious dirt-biking. Knowing this was an opportunity that may never happen again, I decided I needed a proper bike.
Call me old-fashioned, but I still love two-strokes and call me just old because I want electric start. I also desired a street-legal dirt bike so that I can drive down a road to get to a trail when required. That sounds like unobtainium in the dirt-bike world, but I heard tell of a loop-hole. If you buy a new Beta and take the NIVIS form into Service Ontario, they will give you a blue plate upon request. They don't ask if it burns premix. So I traded my RM-Z 250 in on a 2017 Beta 250 RR Racing that was a dealer demo.
I was very excited to go visit my brother and he was stoked to have me visit. He'd occasionally call or text me and ask if I am still coming and my reassurance seemed to relieve his anxiety. So how could this seemingly minor plan present anyone with anxiety you ask? Well, Pickle Lake is 1,981 KMs from where I live, a 22 hour drive if you don't stop. A person would have to be out of their mind to travel that distance, alone, just to spend a few days in the bush riding. Luckily, I just happen to be be crazy enough for just such an adventure but that is because I know the reward will make it all worthwhile.
Bernie is a former expert motocross racer that never lost his passion for the dirt. Even while flying airplanes all around the north, it is dirt bikes that occupies his thoughts more than anything. Motocross strikes some fear into his seemingly fearless disposition - "the penalty for failure is too high" he is often heard to say. Single-track riding is where he directed his passion for the sport and with the help of my brother Pat and his kids, they managed to create over 200KM of the best single-track you will find on this planet.
I packed up my little white car with tools and gear, hooked up my tiny Canadian Tire "kit-trailer", loaded my Beta and hit the road on August 19th. Feeling confident I had everything I needed, I realized I had left the spare tires for the trailer tucked comfortably in the shed. But not to worry, I can always pick one up on the way and besides, I did just install new tires and wheel bearings. I drove as far as I could on day-one and made it all the way to White River, Ontario where Winnie the Pooh was born. To keep my mind occupied I listened to Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 days"- The unabridged version on audiobook. It took me from Chalk River all the way to Wawa. The plan was to be in Thunder Bay the second night and stay with my cousin David. I would meet up with Lynn and head for Pickle on the morning of the 21st. This plan left me with plenty of time to stop in Nipigon and visit an old motocross friend who is also a generous supporter of my Rally for Rangers fundraising efforts.
I spent several hours with Seppo, his brother Paul and another old motocross friend from the Thunder Bay district. Seppo bought lunch, it was a great time and I made it to Thunder Bay while the day was still young.
In Thunder Bay I had a great time reconnecting with my cousin David and his family and Lynn who was on her way to Wabikimi park for a canoe trip.
Lynn loaded my car up with groceries to bring with me to Pickle- Grocery shopping in the town of Pickle Lake is expensive and often sketchy. I was on the road by 11AM and the final leg of the journey is 5 hours.
The last three hundred KMs of the trip from Ignace to Pickle is a long lonely drive on chip'n seal pavement. It is a little hard on tires, especially tiny 8" trailer tires. It turns out I was a little overconfident regarding the spare tire situation. I had a chance to buy one near the Sault but didn't and with 40 KMs to go, I blew a tire. Lucky for me, I was within cell range. I called Bernie and he was there in 30 minutes flat. We loaded the trailer and the bike into the back of his truck and made the last half hour of the trip together.
The flat tire did pose a small problem. In Pickle Lake, supplies are limited so before we even got to Bernie and Lynn's place on the river, we stopped at the garage and ordered new wheels from Stephen. I didn't want to use 8" wheels again, so we placed an order for 13" wheels which also means we would need to manufacture some fenders. For the days that passed, we stayed on top of the trailer restoration project. Bernie commandeered his friend Graham to fabricate the fenders and because the tires were going to take too long to get, Stephen gave me the wheels off his boat trailer. The trailer was ready to roll in time for the journey home and provided a good excuse to stay for an extra few days.
The flat tire was a minor annoyance and was surprisingly affordable. Because Bernie is my brother, my money was no good to Graham. With big wheels, the trailer presented no more issues and the trip home, although long, was uneventful.
We arrived at the base camp at about 5PM. They have a nice piece of property on the river with few hundred acres of pristine wilderness which is part of the endless wilderness that is Northern Ontario. Bernie and Lynn call this part of the world "the last frontier", and when you get there, you know exactly what they mean. They are well equipped here with all the creature comforts of modern man. If you fire up the generator, the Internet comes on. There is hot and cold running water, an outdoor shower, laundry facilities in the yurt, an outhouse, a deck and a screened-in porch.
I used that first evening to do some bike maintenance. My Beta was sold to me "as is" and while it only had a single season of riding on it, it was a tough season and the fellow that rode it knew nothing about maintenance and proper setup. I took off the forks and cleaned the seals, adjusted the power-valve, set the suspension to stock, changed the oil, cleaned the filter and she was ready to ride. Upon inspection, we discovered a flat tire on Bernie's bike. This is a common occurrence for Bernie, he has a about a dozen spare inner tubes and he is pretty good at dealing with the hateful task of repair.
We had dinner, talked, reminisced, bench-raced and got to bed early. The next morning we got ready to ride. Having given plenty of notice of my visit, Bernie had plenty of time to get the trails ready. If you have been involved with any kind of trail maintenance, you will know how quickly Mother Nature can reroute your path. Bernie goes out nearly every day with his chainsaw for trail maintenance and that routine didn't change upon my arrival. After breakfast, we loaded the chainsaw and dogs into the truck and we cleared off a trail that hadn't been used this year. This first day we cleared about 1 KM which reestablished a connection between a couple other trails and it only took us an hour. Afterward we we drove back to base put on our gear and fired up the bikes.
Immediately upon departure, the fun began. One might think that riding with your 61-year-old brother might present a guy with a manageable pace. Not so! Bernie is the guide, so he rides ahead and if I am not riding right on his rear wheel, he will will disappear with just a few seconds of riding. I am no slouch on a bike either, I can usually do an admirable job of keeping pace with most, but keeping pace with Bernie is more challenging than anybody I have ridden with. As long as I can see him, I can keep up, but if I make one mistake and let him get a ahead by a few seconds, there is no regaining the lost ground.
The first day we stayed on the trail system closest to home. They are fast and rhythmic and there is no shortage of technical challenge. I think what makes this area so great is the terrain of Northern Ontario. It is virgin forest in the far north. The trees are smaller so there is no logging industry here at all. The ground cover is moss so should you fall off, the landing is usually soft. With 5 days of riding, I didn't find myself testing just how soft, we both mostly stayed on two wheels the entire time except for a few minor incidents.
When driving around this area in your car, you get the impression that this part of the world is rather flat, but when you get off-road, you find challenge and elevation-change and plenty of it. I have been fortunate enough to have ridden in a variety of different locals; Arizona, Atikokan, British Columbia, Ottawa and Quebec and I can say without hesitation, that the trails Bernie, his friends and family have made up in the North country are second to none. Is it better than Calabogie? Well that depends on what you like. If you like trails with no topsoil and miles of boulders, Calabogie is way better. If you like to go fast and have a complete workout while utilizing every skill you have nurtured, Pickle Lake is the place for that. If you like riding and coming upon beautiful vistas overlooking lakes or mountains, BC and Calabogie have more to offer but Pickle Lake is remarkably beautiful and starkly different.
My wife asked me why Bernie spends all this time and effort on trail maintenance when this is likely his last year? In fact, this was the tail end of his final year. Once I left, most of his time went toward packing up the trailers and getting ready to leave. But this is how he rolls. I suppose these trails are a kind of legacy for him. He has spent years building them and mentoring some local kids to hopefully take over once he is gone. Dirt bike enthusiasts that take on work in the area have all ridden with Bernie and with any luck, some of these trails will survive and help keep the local kids engaged in something positive. The trails are also used by cross country skiers in the winter, many people have come to appreciate them. Even the wildlife take advantage of these trails.
While cutting our new trail, Bernie cut into a tree that housed a hornet's nest. He was ahead cutting trail so I was the sap that took the attack. I got stung on the neck two or three times and we ran away clear. I knew we would be breaking this trail in later in the day and I was hoping they would be less pissed-off by then. The hornets were actually in a pretty technical spot, we had left some slippery debris behind and later found some killer logs buried in the moss. The first pass through, Bernie made it no problem while I, still feeling the lingering bee-venom in my neck, was concentrating on not struggling at the hornet's nest. Bernie has a saying: "you can never get enough of what you don't want." So guess where I stalled my bike? That's right, inches from the nemesis. Lucky for me, the Beta has electric start and I was able to get up and running before they realized just who was in the vicinity. The next pass through this trail we went the opposite direction and the hornets presented no problem at all, it was the buried log that brought drama. The log ran just off-parallel from where the trail went and it would fight you and occasionally win. Each time through, the trail become more worn-in, so we would ride with just a bit more vigor. About the third pass through, that log refused to give ground to Bernie and it sent him into a barrel-roll onto the moss and brush below. We stopped, taunted those angry hornets and removed that killer log. Problem solved. By day five, that little trail was becoming a favorite place. Even though I never knew where the hell I was. There is so much great single-track around Pickle Lake that even after five days of riding, it mostly remained unfamiliar to me.
Prior to my arrival, Bernie put together a lap for us to do. It was a section of single-track and other terrain that would take about fifteen or twenty minutes to circulate. It included both technical and easy flowing single track, some high-speed sand runs, a big jump and several passes through"the hole". When you enter the hole from the graveyard side, it is treacherous. You ride on the side of the slope and make a couple switchbacks before descending at a pitch so steep you wonder how the hell you will ever get back up. But you don't go back up the way you came, that would be a sign of weakness! The way back up has no trail yet. It is just a wall of moss, trees and stumps with a small shelf about half way up. It really doesn't appear possible to do but once the old man on the KTM roosts his way to the top, one is left with little choice but to follow. I did make it up out of the hole several times without issue, but if you don't keep your speed up and instead try to "lug it", you won't make it. One time when approaching the top in the "lug it" mode, I twisted the throttle and set the Beta free. I did a summersault back and the bike sailed away, nearly making the solo trip to the top without me before cartwheeling back down again. Ahhh, good times. Bernie said it was just the kind of maneuver our brother Pat also likes to use. There is no getting stuck in the hole though, the opposite side from the graveyard is a series of easy-out trails that were also part of the lap.
While I had my nose buried in my phone, Bernie found a can of white spray-paint and set to work painting the new fenders on my trailer. He even found some stickers to decorate them with. One of the stickers came from my decal kit. It had my "81" number on it and my name as well. A few weeks ago I went riding in Perth, Ontario and when I arrived at the track I noticed that a steel plate from the fender had fallen off and I had this terrible feeling. What if it fell off and hit the car behind me on the 407? Well, at least it had my name on it. I think I will have to swap out Graham's fenders for something a bit more permanent.
Sometimes in life you just have to do something that most people would never do. This was a crazy long drive, but worth every bit of it. The riding was fantastic and spending so much time with my brother was beyond special. Bernie introduced me motorcycle riding when I was about 4 years old. One of the memories that I have is that he took me over the cabin hill on the Honda 50 and on the way back, we crashed. I suffered some bruising and minor abrasions but obviously the joy of riding with my big brother more than made up for the bruises and abrasions. Had these been my first ever bruises, perhaps I would have taken a different attitude, but as the youngest and clumsiest of five active siblings living in (and outside) of a small northern town, I was likely seldom without bruises. My first motorcycle-inflicted injuries were just more injuries. Bernie does not remember this incident, so perhaps it is one of those invented memories or perhaps he has forgotten all about it. One thing I know for sure is that I have been riding motorcycles in the dirt with Bernie for fifty years and I still love it and my Brothers and Sister too!