Sidehacking into History
Many motorcyclists consider freeway speed limits to be a barrier. On a Ural, they’re more like an accomplishment. But the thrill one feels at 75 mph on three wheels fades fast, and not much of life happens at that speed anyway. So less than a hundred miles of our 2,800-mile round-trip to the Niagara Peninsula took place on four-lane roads. Some of it didn’t even happen on pavement. Our destination: the Niagara battlefields of the War of 1812 where, two centuries ago, America tried to invade Canada on and off for about two years. It was a confusing conflict but it left its mark on both countries. Americans painted the First House white, started singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and were reminded “Don’t give up the ship!” Canadians were told to “Fight on brave York Volunteers,” won a famous battle thanks to Laura Secord and her fictional cow, and remained Canadian in spite of it all.
We start in Moorhead, Minnesota, on the North Dakota border and travel along Highway 34 through Smokey Hills State Forest. Minnesota is honeycombed with forest roads begging to be explored by anything comfortable in the dirt, so we take a side trip, but soon find ourselves on Highway 200 on our way through Chippewa National Forest heading toward the shipping center of Duluth. Much of the road is an alleyway of pines, and at one point we pull over in the shade to take a phone call.
It turns into a sober reminder that our freedom to go where we like is bought and paid for by people we hardly know. It’s the Family Readiness Coordinator of the 1-504 Parachute Infantry Regiment. She tells me my son’s platoon was ambushed in Ghanzi Province, Afghanistan. He’s not hurt, but there’s sad news about his squad leader. I can only wish you the best on your sweet journey down cool, shady roads to your rest, Staff Sgt. Fredsti. You’re a good man in the company of good men and we thank you.
Our next day is meant to take us most of the way to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where we’ll take the Badger across Lake Michigan, the last coal-fired ferry on the Great Lakes and a piece of carbon dioxide-belching history that’s being dragged into the 21st century by emissions standards. But first we stop to see the bizarre collection of fishing paraphernalia at the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward before moving on. Counties in Wisconsin identify their roads by letter rather than number. At first I thought this may be in an effort to limit counties to 26 roads, but you’ll find them with double and triple letters too, and most of them are a good bet for motorcycling. As straight as they look on a map, on the ground they bob and weave around lakes, trees, barns and farm animals. We take B, W, Z, S and, I think, sometimes Y. We have coffee and pie made from local berries and tasting of mum’s kitchen at the Crystal Café in Iola, and then we head to Manitowoc to board the ferry. At the time of our crossing, Lake Michigan is what mariners call “a bit lumpy.” Both my wife and I take Dramamine and the experience turns out to feel a little like a party I went to back in 1975. I can barely remember it, but I know it was better than driving through Chicago.
Finding a route through the lower peninsula of Michigan without skirting populated centers is difficult, but after a trek down Highway 10 from Ludington, we pick our way southwest past Saginaw and opt for a stretch of road that travels along the Tittabawassee River through an old residential suburb. Its upper-middle class America at its best, and my bug-splattered rig seems a bit out of place. But we become aware of a phenomenon that Ural riders know well. People notice us. Small children wave and we wave back. Old people in lawn chairs look up from the yard and smile. Men stop cutting their grass to kiss their wives. I’m a bad-ass biker no more. I’m a fat guy in goggles and I make everyone happy, if only for a moment.
We zigzag our way to Lake Huron and then down the shore to cross the border at Port Huron. Traffic is backed up over the bridge. It’s hotter than a preacher’s wife at an ice cream social. When I reach the top of the bridge, I shut down my Siberian mill and coast down to Canadian customs. We head toward London along a pretty bit of pavement called Confederation Road, put there long before the four-lane Interstate 402 made southern Ontario forget that it used to not be in such a hurry.
The next day, shortly after we leave our campsite, the pavement ends. The roads are drenched from yesterday’s downpour and the Ural thinks it’s back in Mother Russia. It makes a fast friend of every rut and peace with every pothole. The dirt road winds through farmland, misty tunnels of trees and past at least one horse and buggy tied up to a fencepost waiting to deliver baked goods to the neighbors. It’s easy to see why Americans wanted to invade this part of the world back in 1812. They were coming from Detroit and just needed a bit of sunshine, poor sods.
County Roads 3 and 4 make their way through ginseng fields, a crop easier on the conscience and pocketbooks of farmers who, until recently, grew tobacco. Eventually we come to River Road, which travels along the Grand River to Ohsweken, where we stop to visit the memorial for John Brant. He was a Mohawk chief who—along with John Norton—led Six Nations warriors allied with the British in many a battle. We continue down the River Road, keeping the river in sight until we leave it at Route 9 to enter wine country and make our way down the Niagara Escarpment on Mountain Road into the town of Grimsby, where I meet my brother on a BMW LT. Together we ride along rural King Street that winds up and down the escarpment, through vineyards and orchards, until we make our way to Port Dalhousie on Lake Ontario for lunch at the Kilt and Clover.
Niagara Falls draws 12 million tourists a year, mostly for the plumbing. For history buffs, picnickers and grade school classes, the main attraction is Queenston, where invading American troops were stopped in 1812 and General Isaac Brock took a musket ball for the team. But motorcyclists come for the 35 mile-long parkway that starts at Niagara-on-the-Lake and follows the Niagara River past the falls to Old Fort Erie. There are no opportunities for knee-dragging, but there’s a lot of tire kicking on weekends at Tim Horton’s coffee shop in Chippewa, and a good deal of easy, relaxed riding right alongside the river or through spectacular vineyards all along the escarpment. At any moment in your ride, you’ll be within 10 minutes of a winery tour or dinner on an estate terrace. We camp at Riverside Motel and Campground for several days, the only campground right on the parkway and full of very nice people with plastic geese and pinwheels in front of their RVs.
We stay in Niagara and do all the things hard-core riders are likely to do, including having little sandwiches at the MacFarlane House, the 1812 field hospital turned tea room; retracing the steps of Isaac Brock on Queenston Heights; having a Guinness at the Irish Harp in Niagara-on-the-Lake; attending a reenactment of the Battle of Frenchman’s Creek; and listening to a bagpipe choir end a fireworks display over Old Fort Erie with a rendition of “Amazing Grace” that would bring tears to a glass eye. We see a bumper sticker that says “The War of 1812—Been There, Won That.” You can get it with the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes. Enough said.
We return on different roads, beginning with Canborough Road out of Niagara Falls, which snakes along the side of the Niagara Escarpment through small towns that touch the Welland River from time to time. It turns into Highway 3, which, sadly, offers us only the rhythmic pounding of chiropractic-quality frost heaves. We turn south on Highway 19 and make our way down to Port Burwell and the near-perfect pavement that takes us along the shores of Lake Erie past wind farms and the last of the tobacco growers to the pretty port town of Port Stanley, which serves up the best freshwater perch you can buy anywhere. Outside Port Stanley, the road we choose turns to gravel and eventually to such loose and deep rock that I shift to 2WD for the first time since the forest roads of Minnesota.
We stop at the site near Thamesville where the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh was killed in 1813, then ride on to cross the St. Clair River on a ferry, chat with the border patrol about Urals, and head west along the shores of Lake St. Clair with marinas to our left and lowland wetlands to our right. We navigate around weekend traffic jams down small town roads like Romeo Plank, up Highway 33 to the resort town of Cheboygan, along the last bit of Lake Huron shoreline we’ll see, and then over the stunning Mackinaw Bridge into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
U.S. Highway 2 hugs the shoreline of Lake Michigan and gives plenty of opportunity to pull off the road, step across the sand and dangle your toes in the drink. We resist the temptation, and after a lunch of whitefish straight from the lake at the Bay View Inn, we continue our trek back to Minnesota. Highway 2 adds a passing lane now and again.
After a night at a national forest campground, we head northwest up Highway 69, alternating between gentle curves and stretches of baby-smooth pavement straighter than your maiden aunt Mary. We have Swedish pancakes at the Milltown Inn and we’re soon on Highway 2 and headed home.
By 1814, America had pretty much given up on the idea of annexing Canada. Some argued gasoline was too expensive up there anyway. Since then, there has been almost 200 years of peace between the two countries and many thousands of miles of great roads to ride. Peace has its benefits.
(This article Sidehacking into History: Minnesota to New York via Siberia was published in the September 2013 issue of Rider magazine.)