I have to admit, when I was asked to cover The Bikers Reunion in New Liskeard for the third year in the row, I had to ask myself “What’s the point?” A hot, sweaty mess in the public campgrounds, into the wilds of Northern Ontario, with gangs of chromed-out Harleys and faux-tough bikers getting even sweatier in “tent city” was not my idea of a good time. And I’d been there twice before. My first year, in 2011, I got there late and hid in my RV with the AC on full blast. I walked around, but was pretty skeptical of the “refugee palace” where locals and bikers alike were “partying” on Canada Day. My second year, I had 24 hours with a photo and video crew to get to the bottom of the event that I’d dismissed the year before (follow this link for that story.) I’d ridden over from Sault Ste. Marie on Highway 64 (one of my favorite roads) with just enough time to sleep, miss the start of the first group ride, eat some deep fried pickles and head back to the Soo.
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Needless to say, I didn’t get too excited about attending a third year, but I did have a brand new BMW R1200RT on loan to ride, so I adjusted my attitude and saddled up for the five-hour ride. The ride up consisted of part of the Temiskaming Loop. From North Bay to Temiskaming Shores, it’s two hours of pristine natural bliss. A place so nice, we bought a family cottage there.
Our photographer and videographer picked up a deluxe RV from the good folks at Motorhome Travel. With every possible convenience, and parked in the thick of it, this was the perfect way to handle accommodations for this event – or any event for that matter. The tourism representative responsible for cajoling me into participating again rode up on my BMW F650GS, but I had the real and true pleasure of riding the R1200RT.
This article is all about the event. And, to be honest, much of the event is bikers in tents, and deep fried pickles and t-shirt sales, and beer and cover bands. And you know what? It’s pretty fun, the way the bikers and the local families mix. But it still wasn’t blowing my mind. On our first day we were introduced to France Gauthier who is the very charming co-chair of the organizing committee. She took the time to explain to us the significance of the event, and the pride she felt being part of this charity endeavor…but I still didn’t really get it.
We wandered around and saw lumberjack shows, reptile exhibits, handed out high-fives to hundreds of bikers, and barreled around tent city meeting dozens of guys and gals in black leather from all over North America, all here to have a great time. But the next day we discovered the real reason why Bikers Reunion is unlike any other charity event. It’s the Freedom Ride. This is a ride you have to experience to understand – I missed it two years running and had almost written off the whole event because of this. But this year I experienced it. It’s difficult to describe the wave of emotions that are in play as the bikes ride out of Temiskaming Shores, but I’ll make my best effort to share with you why exactly this event is so special. At the start, there 20 minutes of jockeying for position, with a solemn air to these preparations. Subtle looks are exchanged that become much more meaningful once you’ve been initiated.
More than motorcycles leave Temiskaming Shores and take over the Trans Canada Highway. This is Canada’s national highway, and it’s shut down for this event. Throughout the town people were lined up, cheering us on, holding signs that said “Thank You Bikers,” but still, I didn’t really get it…I know they raised over $100,000 for the local cancer unit the previous year, but why was everyone in the town out on their lawns waving and cheering? This doesn’t happen at other charity events I’ve attended. It wasn’t long before I found out. The only scheduled stop on the Freedom Ride is at the Temiskaming Hospital, the same hospital that all of the funds go to.
As this massive parade of bikes is compressed into the parking surrounding the building, they shut off their engines, and the same solemn atmosphere takes over. As the bikers walk into the hospital, they collect care packages and bouquets of flowers. And this is where the emotions began to hit me. Surrounded by these same riders we’d spent the last two days with, we walked into the hospital, and into the room of the cancer patients. The further we went, the more we could tell that everyone was warmly expecting us, in a genuine way that I…just don’t see that often. Big, bad bikers with shaved heads and leather vests hand roses and care packages to the frail but smiling patients. One woman was too overcome to go into the rooms, tears filling her eyes. We walked outside for a moment and someone patted me on the back and said “Thank you for coming.” For a moment I wondered if he’d seen my videos, and then I realized what was happening. The whole community here is sincerely grateful for each and every rider who attends. As any life touched by cancer touches a dozen more – friends, family, acquaintances who have to watch a loved one suffer, it became apparent that the Freedom Ride was not about some abstract notion of Freedom that motorcyclists ascribe to. But it was Freedom from pain and suffering, Freedom from feeling separated from the rest of your community. Who could feel isolated when there are hundreds of “big bad bikers” coming into your room and giving you flowers? This is what makes this event totally different than any charity event; the personal connection to the lives of the people the fundraising is for. You can see their passion for the event all year long on their Facebook Page. We rode through the town of Cobalt, notorious for the biggest signs and the most ardent fans (although I think the people of Earlton gave them a serious run for the money) and stopped on a back road while the rest of the group caught up. All the riders took off their helmets and jackets in the hot sun, and we looked at each other. Long, deep looks that acknowledged the real meaning of what we were doing there. And then we rode on, finishing the ride back in New Liskeard.
Later that day, on my ride home, I took the same detour I’d taken in 2012 – Highway 64 – and passed more than a few bikers heading south. As I waved to them, I couldn’t help but feel a little more connected to my fellow riders. This year the bikers raised $118,000 for the Temiskaming Hospital Cancer Care Program. And I am proud to have been a very small part of it. Thanks go out to BMW Motorrad Canada for the R1200RT, Motorhome Travel of Bolton, Ontario for the RV and the City of Temiskaming Shores.