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Have canoe, will travel

The old man on his way to the trash bin was obviously employed by the fast-food joint where we’d stopped for a coffee break. As he passed the space where my wife and I had parked our motorcycles, he paused to glance at the bikes. “Your machines?” he asked.
Paddling with the mountains at Jackson Lake.
Paddling with the mountains at Jackson Lake.Rolf Kraiker / Canoe & Kayak
/ Source: Canoe & Kayak Magazine

The old man on his way to the trash bin was obviously employed by the fast-food joint where we’d stopped for a coffee break. As he passed the space where my wife and I had parked our motorcycles, he paused to glance at the bikes. “Your machines?” he asked.

After a little idle discussion about the BMWs, he began to talk about the role that motorcycles had played in his life. I became envious as he described owning some collector bikes from the 1950s and ’60s, and our conversation shifted from that of awkward strangers to familiar friends.

The impromptu parking-lot meeting clarified the reason for my journey. For both of us, the motorcycle represented adventure and escape. I’d traveled extensively by bike in the 1970s, but gave it up to spend more time in my other escape vehicle of choice—a canoe. Once my wife, Debra, and I started a family, it seemed unlikely that there would be many opportunities to ride again. Now that our kids are older, the open road beckons once again, but it can’t replace a lifetime passion for paddling. As a compromise, we decided to take a journey across Canada and the United States to find out if it’s possible to combine the two activities.

There are a lot of similarities between paddling in vast wilderness and exploring the open road by motorcycle.

There’s not a lot of space to carry gear on a motorcycle. Finding something enjoyable to paddle yet small enough to carry on a bike was a challenge. We could have used a sidecar or trailer to carry the boats, but that would have hindered the sense of freedom that is part of the appeal.

All packed up with lots of places to go.
All packed up with lots of places to go.Rolf Kraiker

We settled on two collapsible Puffin boats made by Pakboats. We ordered the Puffins in an open configuration without spray decks to minimize size and weight, and chose four-part kayak paddles that when collapsed were small enough to fit across our bike seats. The little boats are made from the same tough skin used in whitewater rafts, covering an aluminum frame of shock-corded poles. It took only a few practice runs to become familiar with assembling the Puffins, and our first test paddle was more fun than we expected from something small enough to be carried on a bike.

When it comes to available space, a canoe seems like a warehouse in comparison to a motorcycle, so we had to be frugal and select only the camping gear we absolutely needed. Still, it was a pretty tight fit. Fortunately, the Puffins came in bags with enough room inside that we repacked them with extra gear. Eventually, everything fit in two neat packages that occupied the space where a passenger would normally sit. The only thing left to do was say good-bye to our kids and hit the open road.

Once we crossed the border into the United States and headed west on the interstate, we found ourselves sharing the road with a lot more motorcycles than we were expecting. Normally, bikers raise a hand in greeting to one another, but the practice soon became tedious because of the sheer volume of bikes sharing the road. A stop at a buffet restaurant later in the day eventually solved the mystery of the motorcycle multitudes. We’d chosen a window table to keep an eye on our bikes and noticed a group who stopped to check them out before coming inside. When they passed our table, they asked if we were going to the Sturgis bike rally. When they noticed the blank looks on our faces, they went on to describe the event. As it turned out, we’d be traveling through South Dakota, where Sturgis is located, right in the middle of the biggest bike rally in North America. That explained all the two-wheeled company we had on the interstate.

We’d been to the Dakotas several times in the past, and one of our first planned stops was to paddle some of the quiet little prairie ponds in the Badlands. As we approached Badlands National Park, there was an even greater increase in the number of bikes. Unlike our past experience in the park, when we’d quietly shared the road with a few motor homes, this time there was a nearly constant rumble of barely muffled motorcycle exhaust pipes. We gave up on our plan to spend time in the park and decided to head into Sturgis to see what all the fuss was about. Neither of us had been to a motorcycle rally before, and the experience was an eye-opener. Cars were virtually banned in the community, and the main street was lined four rows deep with motorcycles packed tighter than sardines. We found enough space among the 100,000 or so other machines to park ours and then wandered along the main street.

Everywhere, exotic machines glittered with chrome and wild paint jobs. Similarly, it seemed as if every square inch of skin exposed by the many bikers was decorated with elaborate tattoos. We’d encountered a lot of wildlife on canoe trips in the past, but those experiences didn’t prepare us for the wildlife in Sturgis. When a grandmotherly woman wearing nothing but a thong bikini and leather chaps passed us, we decided it was time to escape to the open road again.

Paddling with the mountains at Jackson Lake

There are a lot of similarities between paddling in vast wilderness and exploring the open road by motorcycle, yet there are significant differences as well. We soon determined that wildlife encounters are more predictable in a canoe. The pace of travel is slower, and it is a rare event to come upon an animal unexpectedly. In contrast, one morning a female black-tailed deer bolted across the road directly in front of us. Jamming on the brakes left enough room to avoid the animal, but it was a close call.

Off the bike and into the lake.
Off the bike and into the lake.Rolf Kraiker

Modern life tends to dull the senses, while wilderness trips reawaken them. The world is filled with sounds and smells that are often ignored in the city, but after a short time in the wild you become acutely aware of them. A slight rustle that means nothing from the comfort of your bed at home can easily rouse you from a deep sleep when it happens outside your tent. The constant whistle of the wind in your helmet makes hearing all but impossible, but there’s compensation for that in the heightened awareness of smell. After a while we could almost tell which state we were in by the scent of the flowers. You become more aware of smells while canoeing, but not to the extent that you do on a bike. Traveling through Wyoming, we were as exposed to the elements as on a canoe trip. Inside a car you miss the change in climate at elevation, but on a motorcycle your body tingles in response to the temperature fluctuations as you climb from valley bottom to mountain pass. It’s like that on a canoe trip, too, except your body has days to adjust to the changes instead of minutes. Nearing Yellowstone National Park, we encountered a mountain snow shower, and the cold seeping through our gloves made it hard to operate the hand controls on the bikes. We pressed on, knowing there’d be a chance to warm up once we got to Yellowstone Lake.

At the lake, we assembled the Puffins and paddled to an area of active geysers. The journey was very similar to our trip through the mountains. We could feel the temperature of the water change through the bottom of the boats as we neared the area where hot water from the geysers mixed with the cold of the mountain lake. Placing our hands on the bottom of our boats soon dispelled any lingering cold in our fingers from the snowy trip across the mountains. This was the first time we assembled the Puffins in a parking area, and it established a pattern for the rest of the trip. Folks started watching as soon as we opened the packs on the back of our bikes. As the boats began to take shape, a small crowd gathered and the most curious would start asking questions. It always took us twice as long to assemble the boats as it should have, simply to answer them all. Nearly every time we stopped, there were people who wanted to talk about bikes, or boats, or both.

One interesting problem we hadn’t expected to encounter was the dilemma posed by roads in river valleys. Most of the canoe trips we’ve done have been in trackless wilderness, but in most of the West, the best place to put a highway is usually right next to a river. We were often torn between doing a shuttle so we could enjoy the river by paddling, or staying on our motorcycles to enjoy the twists and turns of the road alongside the river. Since the view wasn’t much different in either case, we often chose to stick to the road.

We sometimes debated whether to boat or bike along the rivers, but there was never any doubt once we encountered some of the small mountain lakes that demanded to be paddled. Lassen Volcanic National Park in California was a highlight of the trip. Negotiating the park’s twisty, narrow roads on the bikes was a white-knuckle challenge, with cliffs on the left and drop-offs with no guardrails on the right, but the mountain lakes at the top were worth it. Reaching the Pacific marked the midway point of our trip, and we wanted to do a celebratory paddle. Traveling the coastal highway among the redwood forests was a treat, but every place we stopped along the coast of both California and Oregon the surf was crashing, and we never found a spot sheltered enough to feel comfortable launching the open boats. Reluctantly, we gave up on the idea and turned around to start heading back east.

For almost an entire day, we were at the mercy of the weather. Hour after hour, we watched in our side mirrors as a solid wall of dark clouds built up in the west. Strangely, the open expanse of desert reminded me of canoeing in the arctic, but unlike canoes, our motorcycles enabled us to stay ahead of the weather. Each time we stopped for gas, the storm would catch up, then we’d ride through rain showers for a bit until we got back in front of the storm. The clouds grew more ominous, and often there was no sign of shelter.

Then, unexpectedly, the road made a 90-degree turn to the south. We were now traveling at a right angle to the storm, and it quickly caught up with us. Though the road was arrow straight, our bikes were heeled over hard to compensate for the strong wind. Sudden gusts made it difficult to control the bikes, and it felt like a wild canoe ride through whirlpools and eddies. Just when it seemed that we would have to pull over and shelter under a tarp, the road made another 90-degree bend back to the east. Opening the throttles, we arrived at the next community minutes ahead of the storm and stopped at the first restaurant we saw. The waitress apologized, saying there’d be a slight delay before she could seat us. We told her not to worry, that we were in no hurry to go. From the comfort of the restaurant, we watched the storm pass through. By the time we were ready to leave, the rain had stopped and there were patches of blue sky. Oh to have that option on a windswept arctic plain.

Buffalo in Yellowstone...

There’s always a bittersweet feeling as the end of a trip nears, counterbalanced by the comfort of returning home. During our last days of travel, the jet stream seemed to lock a weather pattern into place, and strong winds sped our progress east. We’d intended to paddle the Pictured Rocks in Lake Superior, but our first glimpse of the lake made it clear that it would be just as foolhardy as paddling the Pacific.

With a dark sense of dejection, we stopped at a restaurant to warm our spirits over a cup of coffee and consider other options. We decided to press on, and it wasn’t long before we crossed the border back into our home province of Ontario. As if we were being welcomed home, the dark clouds lifted, the wind abated, and dazzling sunshine soon appeared. With the sudden change in our fortunes just three hours from home, we pulled off the highway to paddle one of our favorite places—Killarney Provincial Park.

After a 9,000-mile round-trip in search of prime paddling destinations, it seemed ironic to be launching virtually in our own backyard. Nevertheless, Killarney’s glacier-polished rocks rising from the sparkling blue waters of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay rivaled the scenery of any destination we’d visited elsewhere on our trip. We didn’t really need the reminder, but the turn of events made it clear that the key to enjoying travel by either bike or canoe is not dissimilar: it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.

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