The touring capabilities of Kawasaki’s big Vulcans are already well-documented. But does the new Kawasaki Vucan 900LT live up to the family’s well-deserved reputation? John Molony travels back in time for that answer.
IT is surprising how quickly the hustle and bustle of the booming Okanagan disappears as you leave the narrow valley that splits British Columbia near the middle. I learned this after picking up a Kawasaki Vulcan 900LT at Valley Moto Sport in Kelowna to ride into the neighbouring Kootenay region of British Columbia on roads seldom used by me, or anyone else for that matter. The destination was the Slocan Valley, a remote spot existing in direct contrast to the real estate maelstrom that is the Okanagan valley, though it’s positioned only a couple hours away.
On paper the Kawasaki Vulcan is a good choice for the ride. Without the bulk of the big Vulcan Nomad 1600 the 900LT promised to be easier to navigate through the many twists that lay ahead. The 900 weighs in at 594 pounds (270 kilograms) dry as opposed to 770 (350) for the big bike, but still comes equipped with a windscreen, leather saddlebags, two-tone paint and floor boards.
After riding a much different bike, Suzuki’s B-King, six hours from Victoria to get to Kelowna, the broad seat and pullback bars of the Vulcan seemed like a comfortable and relaxed place to spend the remainder of the day. The Kawasaki Vulcan 900LT certainly has the good looks and dimensions of its larger sibling, but retails at only $10,499, which is one of the reasons the middleweight segment has become such a competitive arena. Middleweight for a 903cc seems a misnomer for those of us who have been riding for years—it doesn’t seem so long ago that 903cc would have represented a large motorcycle. It has only been with the advent of the monster cruisers of the past 10 years that a 903cc displacement has been relegated to middleweight status.
HIGHWAY SIX LEAVES THE OKANAGAN VALLEY IN VERNON. The first and only town on this part of the route is Lumby, which signals the end of civilization for the next 120 kilometres and the transition point between the Okanagan and the Kootenays. It is a quiet place that has to yet to be touched by the real estate expansion that reaches from the US border up to Vernon along Highway 97. A few miles further is the village of Cherryville, where I discovered the school, community hall and, oddly enough, the golf course. But the rest of the town seems to be hidden away somewhere else. Beyond Cherryville, if you can find it, Hwy Six is quiet and rough, retaining the profile of what was once a prospector’s ore wagon trail through the mountains. Not that the scenery isn’t enjoyable, but it consists of dark forests and steep valley walls that come down to the very edge of the road. Again, in direct contrast to the gentle sage-covered slopes, flowery orchards and lush vineyards of the Okanagan. A few lakes are visible but it is not until the descent into Needles and the Arrow Lakes that there are any panoramic vistas. The lack of vista is more than compensated though by the need to keep your eyes on the road as it twists, turns, dips and climbs through these narrow valleys. It has to be one of the most sustainingly windy roads in the province. With the exception of tractor trailers hauling wood chips, it seems that the only the purpose of the trip is enjoyment as the road really doesn’t lead anywhere—which kind of makes it the perfect motorcycle road.
The Vulcan wasn’t nimble in this environment, but it did answer the call. However, steep grades or passing maneuvers required one, if not two, downshifts, which was surprising considering this is a fuel-injected 903cc cruiser with four valves per cylinder. I was expecting a crisper and more immediate response to throttle inputs, but it appeared no matter the rpm there was a lag while the motor built up a head of steam. Once the bike had momentum on it’s side it was rolling, but up until that point there was a delay. I found myself riding in fourth gear to allow for the best throttle response. The transmission is a five-speed connected to a belt drive through a heel and toe shifter. While shifting was called for often, the mechanism is light and easy. Braking is achieved with a single 300mm disc up front and a 270 mm disc in the rear. Dive was only moderate with heavy use and the bike slowed predictably.
The range on the tank of fuel appeared by my calculations and occasional nervousness to be around 275 km before the fuel light comes on signifying the 20-litre tank is running low. The gauge on the test bike seemed to take a long time to drop to half, then drop precipitously to the quarter-tank mark before resuming its slow decline.
THE NEEDLES-FARQUIER FERRY MARKS THE REENTRY INTO SOME semblance of civilization as traffic crosses the Arrow Lakes on a seven-minute free ride. Standing on the ferry looking up the lake, a fellow motorcyclist told me he had come here simply to escape Vancouver at the first break in the weather and was now spending a few days on roads he had never ridden before. There are several routes across British Columbia of course, but no specific reason had previously ever called him to ride Hwy Six out of Vernon. This seemed an appropriate time to do so. He bought out his camera as the view before us was stunning and said, “I’ll take a picture and send it to Canadian Biker. They like that sort of thing.” A coincidence as I hadn’t mentioned the magazine.
The ferry docks at Fauquier, from where it is a 57-km ride to Nakusp before the road turns south into the Slocan Valley, which has a history rich enough to make that reason enough for a visit. The region’s heyday was at the turn of the 20th century when silver was discovered in deposits up and down the valley. The two small villages near the middle of the lake, Silverton and New Denver, in name alone testify to the optimism and prosperity that at one time gripped the valley. Sandon, a ghost town a few miles outside New Denver, was once home to 5,000 people and close to 30 hotels and saloons—what you might expect to see in a mining town at the turn of the century—but there was also a newspaper, a bowling alley, hospital and a curling rink. However, by the 1980s, there was only one resident left in town and most of the structures had washed away, fallen down or been scavenged.
New Denver and Silverton, however, survive today with several hundred residents and many historic buildings and artefacts intact. The “downtown” area of New Denver still boasts a few commercial buildings from the boom years, including the Bank of Montreal which operated until 1969.
I PULLED INTO NEW DENVER LOOKING FOR A PLACE TO STAY later into the evening and was surprised to see eight motorcycles and a BRP Spyder already parked at the only hotel in town and even more surprised to see a copy of Canadian Biker along with several other publications on the check-in desk. The Valhalla Inn has found catering to motorcyclists to be a profitable sideline as the roads in the area are becoming renown for their excellence. The next morning over breakfast we all discussed our destinations for the day and while all the other riders had arrived here on the way to somewhere else, they knew to take a detour through this valley. Some were headed for Montana, another to Banff, while I was headed back to Victoria. The proprietress of the hotel, who was also our waitress for breakfast, said people here do a little of everything for a living: forestry, mining, tourism. Some, she said, were so struck by the rugged beauty of the area that they struggled with a decision: should they retire to the Slocan later, or move here now to get away from the pressure of the big city? Some did make an early move only to realize that they had become too far removed from their former busy urban lives, separated now by geography, attitudes and miles.
For the hotel though, business is brisk as the rooms and restaurant are filled by motorcyclists in the summer, snowmobilers in the winter.
A sombre aspect of the Slocan revolves around its last population boom in the 1940s, when thousands of Japanese Canadians were interned here as “enemy aliens” during the Second World War. Many of these Canadian citizens were moved out of Vancouver and the coastal areas and brought to camps in the valley. Faced with the region’s isolation there was no need for guards or compounds and the internees were left to govern themselves within the confines of the valley. There is an interpretative centre and memorial to these internees in New Denver.
The road down the valley hugs the eastern shore of the lake, or rather the eastern slope of the lake. As steep as the valley is, the road must wind higher and higher, providing intermittent and stunning views of the lake below and the rocky peaks across the water. At the south end of Slocan Lake is the village of Slocan, which seems to be the busiest of the three main villages with an active sawmill and a tugboat working booms down the lake. The valley experience ends where the Slocan river meets the larger Kootenay River. The touring options begin again at that intersection as it is east to Nelson and the Kootenay Lakes, or west to Castlegar and Columbia River. The choice is yours as the distance to either town is the same.
AFTER 24 HOURS AND A GOOD 1,000 KM ON THE ROAD, THE 900LT proved to be a comfortable mount. While not overly impressive in terms of power, it has a compliant suspension and enough wind and road protection to make it effortless, which is what you want for casual relaxed cruising. In terms of the “odd factor,” the handsome saddlebags have interior labels warning that loads are limited to five pounds each. That’s not much for a touring bike, and thankfully I was traveling light. There’s no statement from the factory explaining the rather unsatisfactory cargo capacity of the saddlebags but, idiosyncrasy aside, for the price, the Vulcan 900LT is a polished “middleweight” cruiser that offers the styling and comfort, if not the power, of its larger stablemates.
Riding the Slocan Valley on the Kawasaki Vulcan 900LT was a chance to “ride back in time” as the expression goes. There are few places in western Canada that peaked 100 years ago and are still viable destinations, yet it is time, not progress, that is slowly erasing the Slocan’s history. A laid-back leisurely cruise on the 900LT just seemed to fit those surroundings.