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Three Days in Motel K – No Way to Thunder Bay on Highway One

Some people say, “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” That’s irritating advice of course, especially when you’re trying to get someplace. Bill Gedye thought his BC-to-Ontario ride was perfectly planned—and then life got in the way on Highway One.

the motel K was a respite from the storm the sign on the side of the road

If the Good Lord’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise, we’ll be in Thunder Bay by early July, just in time for a family wedding. This had been my mantra during the months my buddy Bruce Carter and I prepped for the trip. We took a shakedown trip from Victoria to Parksville on Vancouver Island, BC to check out our camping gear as we planned to camp the whole way. I had my trusty 2006 Yamaha RSV hauling a homebuilt trailer that tails behind me like I don’t even know it’s there except when the cooler is empty—then it starts to wag, though a block of ice in the cooler settles it right down.

Bruce has gone all out and spent a ton of cash on this trip: sold his KLR for a 2009 Suzuki 1200 Bandit, new carbon fibre helmet, new touring jacket, CB radio with remote PTT, new Michelin Pilot II tires and new tank bag.

Normally, the prairies are HOT in the middle of summer. That blazing orb will melt your ice cream cone before you can get it to your lips. We left a day early to beat a rain forecast and rode over BC’s Coquihalla Highway to the town of Merritt in the Nicola Valley, south of Kamloops.

Here we peeled off the Coquihalla  so that we could take  in Nicola Valley’s Highway 5A and the historic 1908 Quilchena Hotel, complete with bullet holes in the bar and a square piano which had come around the Horn by sailing ship then up the Fraser canyon by riverboat and freight wagon. The rest of 5A looks like a piece of spaghetti thrown against the fridge with enough rolling elevation changes to keep you happy—like riding in Northern Ontario. It wanders by Nicola, Stump, Napier and Trapp Lakes where some of the best trout fishing in North America is evidenced by the number of aluminum boats and fish feeding bull’s eyes on the lake surface.

After an overnight stop in Kamloops, we picked up another buddy to join us and the next morning started out in cloudy weather with a chance of showers. The previous evening’s forecast for thunderstorms had not materialized but clouds and showers hung around the area. The wind was cool and it felt like fall had arrived. 

Near Vernon on the northern edge of the Okanagan, we got nailed with a wall of water like riding under a waterfall. I made the rookie mistake of staying in the wheel ruts, then felt the bike start to wander under me and realized I was hydroplaning. That was an attention getter! Okay, so ride the crown from now on.

The rain let up through Vernon as we set out through Coldwater toward the lush valley of Cherryville and the high meadows of the Monashee Mountains on Highway Six. The air smelled like green wet grass and pine trees. This highway seems like home to the entire North American deer population, so we had our deer whistles working like a Carter air siren in the London blitz.

Light rain followed us down to the Needles Ferry crossing over Arrow Lake; then it started to dry out as we hit the village of Nakusp, located on Upper Arrow Lake. This is when you debate removing the rain gear, knowing full well that will prove to be a mistake further down the road. 

Continuing on the meandering Highway Six, we passed dense green countryside and electric blue Summit Lake to New Denver, a late 19th century mining centre now known for its quaint museum in an old bank and numerous eclectic coffee shops which reflect the character of this West Kootenay region of the province.

At the village of New Denver (once called Eldorado City) we turned east on Highway 31A toward Kootenay Lake to motor through a valley dotted with abandoned mine sites, black/grey piles of tailings and the broken timbers of old head frames on both sides of the road. Too bad Bruce’s new radio had packed it in early or I could have given him a running commentary on this historic region. The roiling grey water of a glacier-fed stream parallels this road and on hot days feels like air conditioning.

As we neared Kootenay Lake, we reached the terminus of 31A at the town of Kaslo, and turned south on Highway 31 toward Balfour. With towering rock faces on one side of this mountain road and sheer drops on the other, it twists, winds and even switches back along Kootenay Lake. Just south of Ainsworth Hot Springs, we pulled into the Toad Rock Motorcycle Campground, which I judge to be the best of its kind in North America—and I’ve seen a lot of them over the years. 

The place was packed bike-to-bike with a group celebrating the life of a fallen rider, so we were placed beside Dave’s motorhome and his little mutt friend, Katie. I remember Dave from some years back when he returned to his campsite with a few pounds of dirt and grass crammed into his Gold Wing crash bars. Seems he was paying attention to Katie when he should have been watching the road and almost went over a 20-metre drop. Only the mud and grass of the ditch saved him and Katie from tumbling into a small canyon.

Next morning, we woke up to the splattering sound of rain on the tarp, so we knew that the magnificent camp breakfast of bacon, eggs, beans and good old Cajun blackened camp toast was just that—toast. I hate to pack up wet because it means that you have to unpack further down the road to dry things out when the sun finally shows its face. Our buddy Bob had no such worries since Toad Rock owner Mary Laird had installed him in a large tent with a bed, a proper floor and power for his iron lung. In a flash, he was off for home while Bruce and I folded things up as best we could under the tarp, suited up in rain gear and headed off toward the Balfour Ferry to cross Kootenay Lake. Once we arrived at Kootenay Bay on the other side of the lake, we picked up 3A which some say is the best road in BC, featuring Kootenay Lake vistas for nearly the entire route. Now the sun was out and it was starting to get hot. 

Another tank of fuel and we’re finally back on Highway Three—the so-called Crowsnest Highway, tracking through the southern parts of BC and Alberta.  Headed east again through places with melodious names like Yahk and Moyie, we stopped in Cranbrook to search for a waterproof under jacket for Bruce, having discovered his new jacket was leaking.

motorcycles parked along side of the road because there is a storm coming

Pressing eastward over the Alberta border we passed the old coal mining ruins at Coleman and Blairmore and acres of windmills at Pincher Creek as the prairie landscape started to flatten before us and colours changed from deep green to a tawny carpet of grass. 

Finally rolling into Fort MacLeod and gassing up at the Petro Can, we noticed the adjacent motel and asked the attendant if it was a decent place. 

Well, old Bill followed us outside and informed us in Greek/English that there was a great place on Main Street he called the “Sensory Soo.” It was painted yellow was all we could really understand. Trouble is with Fort MacLeod, the main street isn’t called Main Street but we managed to bumble down 24th Street and found a yellow motel called the Century II—which is where we met Sam.

view from the saddle on highway one with grain elevators

One of the attractions of travel by bike is the amazing people you meet. Sam is one of them. He came from Korea five months ago and left with his family because he never heard his kids laugh—they seemed to study 24 hours a day. Now he runs the hotel with his laughing kids and his wife, Jean, who offered to do Bruce’s laundry and help dry out our gear. 

That night Sam asked us what kind of coffee we liked for the morning. Bruce suggested an Americano while I opted for a latte. When morning arrived so did a beaming Sam holding two coffees that even Starbucks could be proud of.

Finally eastbound on the Trans-Canada Highway from Lethbridge, the land flattened out and both sides of the highway were covered with an ocean of green broken up by lustrous yellow fields of canola. 

the big yamaha on the road pulling a trailer on highway one in the prairies

Approaching the Saskatchewan border, the sky started to look ominously grey and the wind picked up from the northwest. At one point, we rode under a microburst dropping out of what looked like a large wet sleeping bag. It looked like one of those things that will start rotating any time and we had nowhere to hide, so we ran for it. My little trailer wheels were not intended to rotate that fast, I’m sure.

This was just the beginning of the worst storm in Saskatchewan’s history, and we were riding straight into it. A driving wind and brief, intense showers finally persuaded us to seek shelter in the tourist information lean-to at Gull Lake. A wheezing procession of tanker trucks similar to septic pumpers made us wonder about the personal habits of the townspeople until we recognized oil-drilling logos.

Last time I was in Swift Current,  35 minutes east of Gull Lake, I rolled in on fumes. This time was much easier—a monsoon being the only immediate concern. Our room at the Motel K was cheap and clean with an adjacent pub where we caught some World Cup action while we waited three days for this storm of biblical proportions to blow itself out. Peeking out the drapes of the room, it looked at times like the hurricane videos you see on CNN. This is where we met Dennis Unrau, who overheard Bruce asking about the attractions in Swift Current, seeing as we were stuck there. We followed Dennis to his place and his collection of ancient farm machinery. The centerpiece was a 1942 Model D John Deere diesel tractor, sitting under a tarp like a green and yellow jewel.  He fired it up by hand spinning its huge cast iron external flywheel until the machine chugged to life. Then he proceeded to start every one of the individual of his other little farm engines for our own private demonstration. He personally nailed Swift Current on the map for us.

the motel k parking lot with the bikes loaded up

We heard that the Number One was closed due to flooding but couldn’t get any accurate information. CBC said it was open but Saskatchewan Highways confirmed it was closed though there were detours. We decided to ride further east and check out the situation for ourselves, since the storm had broken up and the sun had reappeared. The day we left town, 35 communities had declared a state of disaster—but that number would reach 57 by day’s end, as flooding overwhelmed the various prairie communities.

We got as far as Moose Jaw, 174 km east of Swift Current on Highway One. 

“You’ll never get through the detour on those things,” one driver told us at a truck stop café. “There’s water over the road and about three inches of mud in places.” That was enough to convince us. This was as far east as we were going. Medicine Hat, Alberta was where Bruce and I parted with me droning westward while he headed north. I was able to put on prodigious mileage on the return trip to Victoria, which took only another four days. 

The heat that we were expecting on the way out had arrived for the return trip so I had to use all my tricks I’ve learned over the years to stay cool: wrapping a wet bandana around my neck and soaking pant legs with water. I learned the hard way not to spray my face on a hot ride. Ever had a chapped face? It’s no fun the next day. Some 4,300 klicks later, I rolled up the driveway to my wife’s smiling face. Next day, I hopped aboard the bike to go see the gang downtown. It wouldn’t start. The fuel pump had kakked. How’s that for consideration? My good old ride had waited to expire till I got it back in the barn.

Go figure.

By Bill Gedye Canadian Biker Issue#310


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