Lake Superior Circle Tour
If this trip isn't on your travel bucket list, it should be
Whenever and wherever riding enthusiasts congregate and discuss the best places to ride, the old standards like the Pacific Coast Highway, Cabot Trail and Deals Gap come up often. I recently started hearing about another one lately that had me intrigued - The Lake Superior Circle Tour.
Lake Superior is 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, 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 leg 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 Pavilion. For a relatively small northern city, The Soo offers up a pretty solid Saturday night fun, as 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 & 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 powerplant 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 high school 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 see another motorist for about 45 minutes. Looking exactly as they did when young Bobby was still terrorizing the town, his childhood home and high school 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.
For more information, visit: http://www.ridelakesuperior.com/.
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