For the past five years, the Saskatchewan section of the Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group has hit the road in summer for Geezers on Wheezers, a four-day riding event that is part history tour, part mechanical triage.
Geezers on Wheezers was hatched in 2000 as a simple idea. Old riders on old bikes touring at a pace slow enough to minimize breakage to both. Roads were carefully chosen to include interesting destinations, sparse traffic and their capacity to delight. Delving into the history of the west has also been an intentional facet of Geezers’ tours since the first one to the much-celebrated and storied Cypress Hills in 2001.
Last summer’s edition was Geezers on Wheezers No. 5, a four-day Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group sponsored ride that played out on the rolling prairies and beautiful parklands of central Saskatchewan, with historical highlights including visits to battle sites from the Metis rebellion of 1885. (To learn more about the Rebellion, read “Trail of Eighty-Five,” Aug. 2012).
We rode our bikes or trailered them in, 35 riders in all ranging from 20-something Geezer on Wheezers wannabes (as if), to those well into the 70s. We were old friends and new, mainly from Alberta and Saskatchewan, but some came from as far away as British Columbia Quebec, and the territory of Nunavut. The oldest iron in the group was a 1929 101 Indian Scout, but there were also bikes from factories such as AJS, Ariel, Armstrong, BMW, BSA, Ducati, Honda, Norton, Royal Enfield, Suzuki, Triumph, and Yamaha. Two of the Yamahas and a 1969 BSA Lightning had sidehacks attached. The newest was a 2010 Triumph Bonneville, which meant there was a represented 81-year spread in motorcycle technology.
We assembled in late July in the city of North Battleford, strategically located on the North Saskatchewan River. The town of Battleford was a fur-trading post back in the day, the site of an old Northwest Mounted Police fort, and once the capital of the North West Territories (1876 to 1883). It lies across the river from North Battleford, where we stayed for two nights.
With a whole day and change to spare, we poked around the two Battlefords visiting historic sites such as the grave of the great warchief Poundmaker; a museum in the town of Cutknife; the Western Development Museum and the restored original buildings of Fort Battleford. We also saw the works of Cree artist Allan Sapp, whose evocative paintings are inspired by the rural life he lived decades ago with his grandparents on the Red Pheasant Reserve in north-central Saskatchewan.
BUT BY TUESDAY AFTERNOON THE roads beckoned. Highway 378 that winds northeast toward the town of Spiritwood through the Thickwood Hills is spectacular. Truckers hauling local grain to market apparently curse it for its devious path and steep grades, the very reason we enjoyed it. One point of agreement with our cab-bound bros might be on the condition of the asphalt, with its whoops and potholes. If you want to ride Highway 378 don’t delay. Trucker’s complaints have registered with the authorities, and an impending reconstruction program will soon tame the curves and remove dozens of miles of length.
For some of us, one of the attractions of a Geezers tour is having the pleasure (no, seriously) of dealing with the inevitable breakdowns. Malfunctions are plain intriguing and, when looking back, provide some of the salt and vinegar on the French fries of experience—so to speak.
One of the pups on the ride, (okay, it was my son Jamie), observed that mechanical miseries seem to attract the old guys (OGs) like flies to a cow pie. We actively sought out younger riders last year so I guess a measure of minor impertinence was to be expected. One thing for sure, you can count on the people in this group to get your back, to lend a hand, or share tools and knowledge. Time-outs for bikes on the rescue trailer were few and mostly brief. Just a fluke? Nah, let’s chalk it up to typical old bodger’s roadside resourcefulness.
On the way to the initial rendezvous in North Battleford, Jamie and I had the pleasure of riding with a small crew forced to deal with a hot, seized Yamaha DT 400 and its failed oil pump. It was given temporary liquid cooling on the shoulder of Highway Four with a scavenged milk carton filled with algae and ditch water. Then, cocking it up on the sidestand and rocking the rear wheel in high gear freed it. With a shot of pre-mix oil (supplied by the owner of the ‘64 Suzuki T10 in the group) in the gas tank and some down the sparkplug hole, it fired right up and was happy as a clam for the rest of the tour.
Thanks to the group effort, it was still going strong at the Biggar Classic Motorcycle Rally a week later. Geezers just love this kind of stuff! Less so if it’s their bike.
Bamboo Shoots, a film production company from Saskatoon followed our entourage for a couple of days, filming the merriment and interviewing riders for a 12-minute segment that then aired on SaskTel’s Max TV system. Bamboo producer Juanita Tuntland’s introduction to motorcycling was documented for the film as she took her first-ever ride with retired RCMP officer Dave Martin aboard his pretty and aforementioned 101 Scout. As we struck out on backroads from a 1950s-style diner near the Petrofka Bridge crossing of the North Saskatchewan River, it was clear that no one could have asked for a better introduction to the joys of vintage biking.
That evening the group was treated to a memorable meal and a live production of W.O. Mitchell’s Jake and the Kid at the Station Arts Theatre in Rosthern. The performance was solid and Mitchell’s prairie themes, humour, and references to the Riel Rebellion of 1885 were bang-on appropriate.
OVER THE FOUR DAYS OF THE TOUR from the Battlefords our roads had taken us to Spiritwood and Shell Lake, south past dozens of small lakes and the Muskeg Lake First Nation to Blaine Lake, and then on to Waldheim. From there we turned north to Rosthern, past Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nations, and on to Duck Lake where we caught the St. Laurent Ferry to cross the South Saskatchewan River. It’s not well known outside provincial borders, but a fleet of 12 separate ferries provides crossings of the South and North Saskatchewan at various, often historically significant, locations.
After the short ferry sailing, we followed the gravel of Grid Road 225 along the river to Batoche National Historic Site where the first shots of the Riel Rebellion were fired in 1885. The Metis considered this settlement their riverside Garden of Eden, and when it came under siege by government forces, they defended it fiercely. But many of the Metis fighters were old men with no more than nails and rocks for ammunition by the last day of battle. As the Metis positions were overrun, 93-year-old Joseph Oullette was bayonetted to death, as he lay in his rifle pit, unwilling and unable to retreat with his companions.
Sadly, we learned that cutbacks to national parks and historic sites may mean programs and guided tours such as the one we enjoyed at Batoche, which was led by a descendent of those “rebels” from 1885, will evaporate.
The bad news was the same at Fort Battleford, where young staff in Northwest Mounted Police gear, dazzled us with a stirring cannon demonstration in the parade square. More cuts coming here and a self-guided visitor’s pamphlets will be a pinched and miserable substitute for the first class tour of the fort given us by the engaging Parks Canada people. No paper brochure could ever match the impression made by scarlet uniforms and the bark of a half-pound of black powder fired from a field gun.
CLOUDS WERE BUILDING IN THE west, but after touring Batoche some sought out the battle site of Tourond’s Coulee down the scenic, graveled Fish Creek Road that tracks further south along the river. The evening before, my rusty old 1946 AJS single had sooted a plug so I was riding the Tariel, a sweet Triumph/Ariel Colt bobber on loan from fellow Geezers, and Biggar Classic Bike Rally organizer John Bennett. Jamie was on our 1940 military Norton when the only rain of the trip hit with a vengeance as the two of us returned to pavement, heading for the tour windup banquet at historic Seager Wheeler Farm.
Established in 1890 by English immigrant and famous pioneering farmer Seager Wheeler, the heritage farm is now a part of the Canadian family of National Historic Sites. (www.seagerwheelerfarm.org) Again with the budget cuts. The word was that staff is presently seeking donations from the public to allow them to reverse the forced closure of the facilities’ tearoom.
With no front fender, the distributor on the Triumph TRW engine in the Tariel soon shorted. Jamie rode off on the Norton 16H for rescue (to no avail), while I managed to dry out the wet ignition between rain episodes and had the bike running by the time he returned.
My son had been eying the bobber all week, so we swapped bikes—bad timing for him. Another shot of rain down the road, and the TRW power plant soon fizzled again. So, with his clutch hand, Jamie grabbed hold of the stock of the (deactivated) Sten gun strapped to the side of the old army bike, and I towed him the last mile.
Damp and somewhat bedraggled with the lifeless Tariel in tow, we made an inglorious entrance wobbling side-by-side in the drizzle into the Seager Wheeler farmyard. It may be due to a shared masochistic old bike rider’s gene but for the pair of us this finale to the ride was textbook Geezers on Wheezers-type entertainment—good enough to put silly grins on our faces. Fitting fare that would certainly cement memories of the 2012 tour.
With good food on the table and the late afternoon rain belting down outside the cozy old 1908 farmhouse, our band of backroad connoisseurs was in good cheer. After dinner the singers in our company entertained us with songs from the 1800s. Another of our organizers (and fellow CB writer) Rick Epp, did a stellar job as emcee and handed out the award plaques—all works of art featuring halved and polished pistons, done by CVMG member Dennis Dyck.
Bruce Ulmer received the award for the Geezer who went above and beyond to lend a helping hand. Because of an old motorcycle related injury he no longer rides, but drove our rescue truck and trailer and kept track of us well.
Larry Johnston got the Hard Luck Award for the ongoing gas tank leaks on his 1979 Honda CM185. In true Geezer’s fashion he persisted though, and after several roadside experiments with various compounds and plugging techniques, succeeded in staunching the flow.
It was no surprise to anyone that when we did the math it confirmed Dave Martin with his 1929 Indian 101 Scout as the eldest rider/bike combo. The total is over 150 years of righteous experience “goin’ down the road” for the pair.
Tammy Nighswander got a double honourable mention for being the youngest as well as the only female bike rider this year. She also got the award for having ridden the furthest to the rally— from Airdrie, Alberta on her 2010 Triumph Bonneville to Erskine, Alberta where she joined her dad for the rest of the trip. She said she might have a hard time explaining to her boyfriend back home how she won the “Super-Butt” trophy at a motorcycle rally for old geezers on wheezers!
By Doug Bone (Canadian Biker, July 2013)