The rain and the open road

Wayne Hamm recounts his drive through the not-so-boring Prairies and a particularly memorable storm

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Sunset in Manitoba

The sun sets on these Manitoba roads. — Wayne Hamm

Webster's dictionary defines a prairie as "a large tract of grassland, destitute of trees." Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are designated as Prairie Provinces and I have heard many comments indicating how boring it is to drive through them. Often it is one’s state of mind that defines what one sees. The Prairies are very diverse; there are flat tracts of land, there are lakes, there are rolling hills, there are forests and there is wildlife. You just need to look.

I chose to head east along the roads less travelled, into Saskatchewan via Cold Lake, Alberta, and Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. A few days before my departure, I had a pleasant surprise and had to make a small change to my plans. A close friend of mine, Bill Horne, knew of my planned adventure—and he arranged to accompany me out of Alberta.

July 29 was a beautiful start to a road trip that has changed me forever. Bill and I headed northeasterly to Cold Lake. I was treated to the sight and sweet smells of acres and acres of the bright yellow flowers of canola fields. I enjoyed smelling fresh cut grass and dry hay being harvested and passing by small lakes, rolling hills and forests lining the roadways. We entered Saskatchewan via Cold Lake. Before this trip I had never heard of Highway 55; in hindsight, I now know that its name, The Northern Woods and Water Route, is fitting. Off we went into the wilderness, passing communities with names like Flying Dust, Green Lake and Big River. We were in the middle of nowhere and traffic was almost nonexistent. I found it very enjoyable and relaxing.

The uniqueness of motorcycling comes in part due to the personal experience. I cannot comment as to exactly what Bill experienced; we were supposed to part ways in Cold Lake but he stayed with me until Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, 400 kilometres further. I am going to go out on a limb because of that and say he saw something he liked. We shared a motel, chatted over an early breakfast and parted ways with a handshake. 

On July 30 I headed east, wanting to go as far north as the roads would allow. This would lead me to Smeaton, Saskatchewan, and Highway 106 North. This roadway dictates that if you have room in your gas tank, don't pass a gas stop. The route is an outdoorsy man's paradise; it is littered with lakes, surrounded by forest, and is isolated with sparse amounts of traffic. While driving, something caught my attention in the ditch—two huge brown birds, so big that I initially suspected them to be deer on the move.  I stopped at one of the outfitting companies along the route and inquired about the birds’ identity; I was told they were likely Sandhill Cranes.

Approximately 10 minutes west of Ponton, Manitoba, it was time to get off the road. I chose a microwave tower site to pitch my tent. I was caught off guard by the horrific mosquitos, and I had to bathe in repellent. My evening was as quiet as a whisper and very restful. I read for a time.

On July 31 I awoke at 5 a.m. to the sound of chirping birds. I planned to travel 810 kilometres from Ponton, Manitoba, to Kenora, Ontario. I smothered myself in mosquito repellent before getting out of the tent. Riding in the early morning is enjoyable and my day looked promising. I stopped in Ponton, where the highway splits northward to Thompson and southward towards Winnipeg. I filled my gas tank and headed south. The sun was out as I headed south and I was smiling to myself.

As I neared Lake Winnipeg, I could see that in the distance the sky to the southwest was hockey puck-black. I have out-ridden or avoided storms before and it had been no big deal. As a precaution, I suited up with all my gear and headed off. I knew I had around 400 kilometres to make to get past Lake Winnipeg. The storm hit me with little warning. Foolishly, I took the time to take a quick picture and then hunker down and hold on. The rain was driving and blinding; the wind came from the west and stirred up the rain into a swirling tornado-like funnel. There was brilliant lightning and I could literally feel the thunder in my chest. In the middle of  the storm it began to hail—I was truly horrified! I was reminded of working in Edmonton in the late 1980s after a day now called Black Friday. I was involved in search and recovery after a tornado killed many and brought Edmonton, a city of 600,000 at the time, to its knees.

The road was narrow with gravel shoulders. I knew the gravel shoulder would be my foe and I had to stop on the lane I was travelling, knowing that if another vehicle was behind me, I would surely be hit. The rain worked its way around my visor and visibility was almost zero. Still, I had to stop on the road before I hit the ditch. I braked quickly and almost came to a complete stop.

Driving through the storm was like I just awoke from a bad dream. In hindsight, I would guess it lasted mere seconds, but it was uplifting when it ended. I pulled over as soon as the road would allow and took a few minutes. As I stood there, I recalled watching the weather channel for the month prior to my trip. I watched with interest about a phenomena called a micro-burst. A bit of research after the fact revealed that, yes, I had found one.

The sun came out within the hour, but I will never forget that deluge. I continued south and avoided Winnipeg, riding through Whiteshell Provincial Park on a road made for motorcycling. I came out at West Hawk Lake, a few minutes from the Ontario border. The traffic was light and it was scenic, windy and relaxing. It poured on me again in Kenora as I was pitching my tent—twice in one day! I was 2,300 kilometres from home and feeling discouraged, frustrated and disappointed, while also questioning my vacation plans. I went to bed wet and was soon to be faced with two huge provinces, Ontario and Quebec.

Check back next month for Wayne Hamm's tales of Ontario and Quebec

Wayne Hamm's trip was sponsored by Riverside Honda


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