28 Days on the Road Around Lake Superior
18 lessons learned while taking the long way around the biggest Great Lake
In 2004 the TV miniseries Long Way Round was released and totally changed the world’s perceptions about motorcycle trips. Were people doing insanely long trips before Long Way Round? Of course. But Long Way Round brought this idea to the whole world, not just motorcycle nuts.
People now imagined their first big motorcycle trip being crossing Asia, or riding all of Africa, instead of just making it to the end of the block safely. And it’s a great show. Tons of great moments, truly dramatic reality TV with great characters, images, story and sound.
But there’s one moment when Ewan McGregor pipes up, somewhere in Mongolia or Kazakhstan, and bemoans all of the things he’ll never see because they were in too much of a rush to get to the next place. And yes, they had it hella tough – Mongolia has about 60km of paved roads, and most of them are in the capital city.
And then he says “It doesn’t matter – all these places I never got to see – it was the journey and not the destination” or some such blather.
Now, I’m not like the average rider. Most people have to work. Traveling is my work, so I’m privileged. But I’m also someone who has made a habit, even before I had this job, even before I had a job, to drop everything and head out for monster trips.
So when I heard this, at first I thought, “Yeah. Yeah! YEAH!” because it helped me accept all the regret I had for the things I had missed from being late, behind, hungover, lost, lonely… or just in a mood to ride without stopping for whatever reason.
But then a few years later, I was riding my first real bike around Lake Superior. A lumbering Yamaha XS750. We got to our campsite around Neys Provincial Park and there was a section of mountains that had some of the best sweepers and scenery, but we were in a rush and I just didn’t get to enjoy it.
When we got to camp and started to set up, I said “screw it” and got on my bike and went back and redid the whole ride, all the way back to Marathon. Since then I’ve been saying “screw it – we need to go back” or “we need to slow down” or flat out “we need to stop” because I’m done with those regrets.
The point is that only when you have time to digest what is actually happening can you be present in the moment and gain from an experience – gain something deeper than bragging rights, that is.
1. Never Deny Yourself Anything in Life
First off, life is short; so when you’re going out on a trip of epic proportions, don’t skimp. Don’t have regrets right before you walk out the door. I selected the biggest, bestest, baddest bike for my trip – a BMW K1600 GTL. This might not be an option for most, but if you want the top of the line to make every moment that much more comfortable, without sacrificing any power or performance, well, the choices get pretty slim. And when you don’t deny yourself, so many possibilities open up. Of course this applies to so many things while on the road. Eat at the place you’ve heard so much about, talk to the people you think are interesting, find out what’s down the end of that lonely looking road – don’t deny yourself life.
2. American Snacks are Superior to Canadian Snacks
I know, this isn’t a major revelation, but follow me on this one. On my first day out of town, I stopped at the last service station before crossing into the USA at Sarnia (the bottom tip of Lake Huron) and filled up, grabbed a Gatorade and did the slow crawl across the bridge into the US. Once I got there, I stopped again for some water, somewhere up the coast of Lake Huron. But the range of salty, sugary and fatty snacks available, even at this small roadside stop in the middle of nowhere, blew my mind. I particularly liked the White Cheddar Cheeze-Its. But more importantly, it’s important to acknowledge that if you’re just trying to hit all the hyped up tourist things in an effort to make sure you didn’t miss anything, you’re going to miss plenty – like different types of tasty snacks, which are pretty essential to any road trip.
3. You Should Cross a Border at Some Point
It doesn’t have to be a country border, or even a provincial one, but people make a big deal about the ways in which their little section of land makes them different from people who live in a different section of land. Any epic road trip means you have to get outside what you know.
4. Don’t Plan Too Much
Is it a good idea to book hotels in advance in the height of tourism season? Yes! But it’s more fun when you just glide into a vintage motel at the side of the road whenever you get tired or just see stuff in the region you want to explore with a home base. After my first day, I found this super cheap hotel at the side of the interstate and explored Bay City in Michigan for the day, and was really intrigued by the city.
5. Keep Your Daily Miles Low
This is my own personal secret, and is a rebuff to all the iron butts out there. If you’re riding pavement, keeping your miles around 200 a day makes stopping, exploring, side trips, and basically everything good about a road trip possible. You don’t get road brain, or do too much damage to your skin, hearing, and sense of enjoyment of your motorcycle either.
6. Michigan is Amazing
Okay, so if I’d just taken the fastest route from Toronto to Thunder Bay through Michigan, I would have missed some incredible scenery on Lake Huron; the route I took up eschewed the interstates in favor of the county roads that followed immediately along the shores of the lake – and I wasn’t disappointed. Much of the land is taken up by vacation homes on stunning beaches, with plenty of boats and PWCs on mini dry docks just in front. But there’s a few rest stops with crazy beautiful views of Lake Huron.
7. The Southern Shores of Lake Superior are Pure Beauty
This was an even greater revelation, because every time I’d ridden Lake Superior was across the top – this was my first ride along the south coast and up the Keweenaw Peninsula to Copper Harbor. Not only is the landscape first rate, with otherworldly beaches and rocky outcroppings, but the roads were in great shape and pretty quiet for a July ride. There were more than a few times on this section of the ride where I stopped and said to myself that I could quite happily die there, the scenery was that lovely. Copper Harbor and the town of Marquette stood out as must-stop destinations here.
8. There is NOTHING WRONG With Stopping for Photos – Even if it is a Selfie
Photography is not just a way of remembering where you’ve been, but it’s a reflection of your thoughts, feelings, mood and so much more. Taking photographs is essential to any road trip. Of course it’s important to put the camera down sometimes and experience things directly, but it’s as important to capture moments to share with friends and family, and to remind yourself just how awesome life on the road can be when you’re back at home.
9. Get Off the Dang Bike Once in a While
I know not all of you are going to heed my low-mileage lesson, but here’s a couple examples of why you need to get off the bike and explore a bit, by foot. I’m not talking about doing a big hike or anything, but just stop and watch the world go round, rather than trying to go round it. Try stopping at the Split Rock Lighthouse, and more specifically, appreciate the lenses on the actual light in the building. This site is impeccably preserved, and one of the keepers is actually a rider himself. It’ll take you 30 minutes to get a very cursory look, but you won’t regret it.
10. You Will Still Miss Things
No matter what you do, there will be places and things that pass you by – that you find out too late, miss the right turn off, or just decide to keep riding past for whatever reason. This happens. Don’t get down on yourself, but rather, heed the wisdom of lesson 11.
11. Go Back to Places you Missed or Didn’t Get To Enjoy Fully the First Time
The second time I rode through Northwestern Ontario I stopped in a little town called Ignace, and we searched for a cheap motel to sleep at close to the highway. Not seeing anything immediately, we saw this cool vintage looking sign for the Lone Pine Motel. I was beat from not listening to my own advice – we’d done over 450 miles that day and I just needed to lie down. When we got to the Lone Pine Motel, we discovered a paradise. Imagine a place where when you walked out your motel door, it opened up onto a big beautiful northern lake with a nice beach. But I was so beat that I laid down and didn’t get up until it was time to leave. I hardly enjoyed my stay – so this trip I stayed there for two days – went swimming, made meals there, and just sat and soaked up the ambience. If only their wifi was a bit stronger…
12. Do it All!
If you’re putting together an itinerary, put literally everything you can think of that’s interesting on it. A while back I pledged that one day I would be able to say I’d ridden every paved road in Ontario. I’m still not there, but every year I cross one or two of the more remote ones off – and it always pays off. This trip I added Highway 622 North from Atikokan to my itinerary, even though it added a day to my overall itinerary. I didn’t regret it; there are very few highways like this left in our world – wide open, good pavement, and no traffic (except for the occasional deer). Times like these make things like speedometers and fuel gauges disappear off your radar and before you know it, you’re soaring with the eagles (they have those here too).
13. Put Another Trip Inside Your Trip
Halfway through this trip I stopped for a week in Kenora, on Lake of the Woods, an incredible body of water that connects Manitoba, Ontario and Minnesota. I spent a week exploring the waterways there with a few friends and then got back on the bike, recharged, and ready to tackle another two weeks on the road. In fact, I didn’t even ride the bike around town, so I felt extra excited to take off again.
14. Buy and Collect Stuff! Possessions aren’t Evil Unless They Own You
One of my most cherished possessions is a round ball of iron ore that the tourism clerk gave me at the info desk just outside of Marquette. It’s a round lump of reddish metal and feels like extremely compacted dirt, and every time I see it, I can recall that whole section of the trip really clearly. And lots of people say “well there isn’t much space on a bike.” Make space. Trust me.
15. You Might Get Tired or Bored Sometimes
This is inevitable, but there will be long stretches where nothing is happening. The scenery could get dull, or it’s a place you know too well. The stores and restaurants might be uninspiring. The road could be straight and flat and there might be traffic. These things will happen. Being bored is actually a blessing though; without it, excitement, relief, joy, exuberance – they would all be much less sweet when they finally came back.
16. Visit Friends
When you’re on a big trip, the chances are pretty high that you’ll be riding through some place where you know someone. And while it might seem like the kind of thing that will slow you down and keep you from reaching your destination, I think this should be part of your destination. Connecting with strangers is great, but these relationships are tenuous. When you spend time with a friend, it works to restore your feeling of home and lets you keep going. I was lucky enough to connect with my pal Paul Pepe in Thunder Bay and talk shop for an afternoon, and all was right in the world again. I even got to ride with him for a bit!
17. But Travel Alone Sometimes
An essential part of the epic road trip is aloneness. I’m not talking about loneliness, but I am most definitely talking about spending some of the trip alone. And with huge trips, this is often pretty easy to arrange.
18. Know When to Head Home
There comes a point in really long trips where you start to imagine what life would be like if you just never stopped riding. You just kept going and never went back. That you sent your friends or parents over to your old crumbling apartment to push all your useless junk into a dumpster somewhere and just… kept… riding.
But this is against the most important lesson of all – that you cannot have the sweet without the sour. And you shouldn’t want to. A life made up only of highs is actually just an incredibly boring plateau. And I’m not saying that home life is a low either – it’s just the contrast to a life of constant movement. And without that, you’ll never fully appreciate the freedom of the road.
When you do get home and you’ve had a great meal with family or friends, a couple of drinks and, maybe most importantly, a long shower, you need to gather all of the things, tangible and otherwise, you’ve accumulated on your trip into one pile. Maybe you kept a diary, or just did some tweeting or Instagramming. Maybe you took pictures on film, or made short movies on your phone. Maybe you have dozens of receipts showing all the dates and times you were in different places (and reminding you of those sweet sweet White Cheddar Cheeze-Its) and a couple pieces of rock or tiny jars or bags of sand. Maybe you have pamphlets or postcards. Whatever it is, let yourself descend into a too-recent nostalgia and maybe, just maybe, these new memories will lead you to a lifetime of lessons learned on the road.
More by Mike Jacobs