2011: Around the Great Lakes

Our first serious trip: a two-weeker up and over the Great Lakes hooking back into Minnesota, crossing into Wisconsin and then Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before dropping down to the BMW Riders Association Rally in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. These rallies are like gatherings of family you’ve never met, but with whom you share a common interest.

I pour over Delorme atlases before every trip. I prefer them in the planning phase because they are incredibly detailed, and help me find out of the way gems that don’t even show up on most foldable maps.

After the rally we would drop down into southern Wisconsin to visit online friends in Janesville, then continue south to US 24 before turning east well clear of the chaos that is Chicago. Hwy 224 would nudge us up a bit, leaving us positioned to ride Pennsylvania’s Route 6 from west to east, stopping in Tioga to meet more online friends for the first time.

North to Ontario! (Days Three & Four)

We said our goodbyes the following morning, heading south at Charles’ urging to check out the Algonquin Provincial Park. We stopped at an auto parts store in Huntsville to replace a blown fuse which I installed while the parts manager gave Barley a tour of the warehouse that included several treats. We set off again, entered the park, and had a great time exploring a series of dirt roads in the backcountry. By noon we were heading for a small brewery on the north shore of Lake Erie. Unfortunately we had to pass through a tourist town along the way, with traffic so bad the bike started overheating. When rain clouds approached I realized the only way to keep Barley dry would have been to snap the solid cover into place, leaving him in complete darkness. Can’t do that to my dog, so we turned around and outran the storm. The plan was to cross back into the US and ride south to the Finger Lakes region of New York.

By the time we reached the Thousand Island border crossing the heat and humidity had reached epic proportions. The line of cars was long, and as we waited our turn in the heat I was worried about Barley. The bike was no problem; I simply turned off the engine and pushed the rig ahead, but the poor dog was in direct sunlight with no airflow. All I could do was offer him water and words of encouragement. As we sat there baking I resolved to visit a sail maker and figure out some way of giving him a bit of shade.

We eventually got through customs and were heading south when Barley gave me the look that told me it was time for a break under a shade tree. We exited the Interstate and pulled into a small town, got lunch at Subway, then drove across the street to a McDonald’s that had a shady park in back. The sidecar made a grinding sound and lurched to one side. Not good!

Not knowing what could have caused this, I called Hannigan Motorsports down in Kentucky. Dave K, one of their designers, helped me troubleshoot over the phone and we quickly concluded that the electric camber control had failed. The ECC allows the rider to adjust the camber, or angle of lean at the tub relative to the bike, to compensate for crowned roads, heavy crosswinds, etc. The rig was rideable, but would be very difficult to control. We turned east and limped toward home at a reduced speed.

As we passed through Fort Drum in the western Adirondacks I realized there was no way we were going to reach home before dark, and I definitely did not want to ride a crippled rig at night. I reached for the cell phone and called Tom and Kelli, a couple living near Saranac Lake with whom we had placed CJ, a rescued golden retriever, years earlier. “You’re both absolutely welcome to stop here,” said Tom. We altered course into the heart of the Adirondacks to visit our old canine friend and to cement a friendship with his humans.

Tom and Kelli opened their lakeside home to us, fed us, put us up in the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in, and sent us on our way in the morning with instructions for a shortcut only a local would know about. Their kindness was touching, as was the knowledge that CJ the Rescue had found love in a bit of Paradise.

2010: A shakedown cruise to North Bay, Ontario

A planned week long trip not far from home (just in case!) with no goal other than to visit some old friends, see some new places, and figure out what contingencies I had neglected to address.

Vermont to North Bay, Ontario

One of the goals of this trip was to see whether I liked following a carefully researched route that was uploaded into Captain Bligh, my Garmin GPS. The advantage is that using Google Earth and ride reports from other motorcyclists I can program particular roads into my Basecamp routing software, then simply follow the spoken directions Bluetoothed into my helmet speakers. No fumbling with a map, no struggle to read road signs that in Canada are often in French, and packing more fun and scenic variety into a route than I’d be likely to find on my own. The chief disadvantage would be the loss of some spontaneity, though I always had the option of cancelling the route.

GettingReady

We set off in the rain. It became heavier as the ferry docked on the New York side of Lake Champlain, and by the time we reached the town of Malone it was torrential! There was nothing for it but to zip closed the hatch in Barley’s new cockpit cover and press on with him in the dark.

The rain slacked off as we crossed the bridge at Ogdensburg, and by the time we pulled up at the Canadian Customs portal just a few scattered drops were falling. The Canadian agent was a pretty blonde woman with bright blue eyes. She peered at the sidecar as we approached, then broke into a positively radiant smile as she noticed Barley behind the windscreen. We had a great conversation about dogs. She had an elderly golden and was dealing with her decline; I had lost several good dogs in the past few years and the recent loss of Tadcaster, my five year old soul dog, was still very fresh. We chatted for a good ten minutes as the line backed up behind us. Not one driver honked impatiently, as they must have thought we were being put through the wringer. Finally, the young woman asked if I had any weapons then waved us on with her best wishes for a fun trip.

We retraced our route of the previous year as far as Smith Falls, found a hotel and then a dog-friendly restaurant, turned in early and slept all night.

Up early as was our custom, we took a different and very scenic route northwest to the Algonquin Provincial Park, headed west to Huntsville with a couple of breaks along the way, then north to North Bay to visit our friends.

Anouk_Pups

The entire family was happily exhausted. Anouk, their Bernese Mountain Dog, had given birth to a litter of pups that night, finishing up in the wee hours of the morning. The pups were beautiful, hardly as big as their mother’s paw, squirming and squeaking as they jockeyed for a nipple.

Bear and venison sausage was the entrée for the night. Some conversation followed, but my hosts were slurring their words and clearly crying out for bed. I feigned exhaustion and turned in early, freeing them to get much needed sleep.

OntarioHay

Being from the country we tend to rise early, so by six in the morning we were on our way again. By back roads we headed north, avoiding the city traffic of Ottawa, then turned west onto the Trans-Canada Highway. It was a fairly straight and largely level route with excellent pavement, fairly decent scenery and an almost total absence of billboards. That’s a plus in my book!

NorthBay

After a few hours my GPS (named Captain Bligh after that exceptional navigator) announced that we should leave the highway in favor of a secondary road, and then a series of dirt roads. These instructions were not anticipated, but I had plenty of time so blindly followed the route transmitted into my helmet speakers via the wonder of Bluetooth. I figured if we got lost it was at least a pleasant place to be; besides, we had camping gear and enough food for a week. But Captain Bligh knew where we were, and expertly guided us to our friends’ rural home without any drama.

We had a fun visit with Charles and Charlotte, their children, dogs, chickens and rabbits. Charles and sons were avid hunters, so dinner that night was goose baked to perfection, with dessert made with raspberries we had picked in forest clearings behind their home. Yum!

Road2Charlotte

Barley got along with their two dogs – Maia, the mother of one of our other goldens; and Anouk, a Bernese Mountain Dog with oodles of personality – but didn’t really interact with them. Instead, he was hunting garter snakes along their stone retaining wall. Hunting is Barley’s form of recreation. While I carry toys for him, he is good for only a couple of retrieves before his nose guides him to a scent trail and the ball is forgotten, the hunt on. Sure enough, within half an hour he had found and killed a snake.

END OF TRIP

How to Train Your Dragon : Barley

To say I trained Barley to ride would be a gross exaggeration. He took to it from the start, and tolerated my ignorance of the art of setting up a sidecar in a manner befitting the sort of travel he envisioned for himself. Sort of.

I understood the basics. The Look meant it was time for a break. The Look with a paw on my thigh meant it was REALLY time for a break! The Look coupled with walking in place while barking meant, “If you don’t pull over right this instant I’ll pee on your sleeping bag!”

I also understood from the start that he is a hunter. His prey drive was highly developed even as a puppy. He stalked birds and frogs and mice. At the age of ten weeks he attacked a duck sitting on her nest near the edge of our pond. Two weeks later he went after a full-grown bull moose crossing our meadow; he survived only because the moose was completely unimpressed by the snarls of one so tiny.

So he was initially tethered when he began riding with me at the age of three. It turned out to be a sound idea, as he lunged after small animals several times. Because his lunges affected the balance of the sidecar, I became a very conservative driver. No flying the sidecar, for I was worried that an ill-timed lunge after a squirrel might flip us. That’s not to say I was a sedate sidecarist, just that I made it a point to keep all three tires on the ground.

To give Barley more room for longer trips I removed the sidecar’s seat, replacing it with a thick slab of foam topped by a dog bed. That pleased him no end, but also marked the portion of the hack he considered his turf. Sacrosanct, no less. Anything impinging upon his turf was fair game. I lost a couple of flashlights and a nice camp stove – he just picked them up, gave me the evil eye, and pitched them over the side – before I learned to redistribute the load properly.

Because much of our riding is on gravel roads, poor Barley was often bounced around like the ball in the bottom of a can of spray paint. I eventually replaced the dog bed with a memory foam version from Orvis.com, which was a huge improvement. I also stopped tethering him while we were in motion after he promised to stop lunging after small animals. With no tether to tangle his legs he was able to stretch out and sleep more.

We were traveling in upstate New York late in his first riding season when the large coffee I had that morning required release. I pulled over at a gas station. Like many modern gas stations, however, it was coupled with a convenience store. The restrooms were inside. There was also food inside, which meant dogs were not allowed. Barley at that time had been trained to remain with me, always. There was no leaving him behind as he would struggle to free himself, then come looking for me. Desperate as only a middle aged man can be in that circumstance, I returned to the rig, emptied a large internal frame backpack, stuffed Barley into the main compartment, and wore that seventy-five pound dog into the restroom.

The likelihood of finding myself in a similar situation during a future ride was fairly high, so that biological need drove an urgent training goal.

The sidecar became his crate, his place of safety. Nothing bad ever happened in the tub. He was never scolded or punished in the sidecar. He was fed and watered in or near the rig. There were always a couple of toys inside. The goal was to make it the place he ran to, his haven when frightened or uncertain.

It worked, and I can now relieve myself with dignity.

ON TO OUR ADVENTURES

Our Sidecar

Choosing a Sidecar

I first saw the sidecar that would be mine at the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America rally in Johnson City, Tennessee. It was attached to a 2007 BMW R1200GS, a virtual twin to the bike I already owned. This meant I already had the tools needed to wrench on it, already knew how to perform routine maintenance on the bike. The Hannigan sidecar was a sleek fiberglass affair painted a bright metallic yellow with the bike painted to match. The design included a clamshell lid with a high rim that, to my mind, was more dog safe than the traditional hacks with the step-through tub.

Barley and Tadcaster checking out this strange new crate

I returned to Vermont with sidecars on my mind. I investigated other brands, but while I found them attractive I always came back to the sleek lines of the Hannigan. A year later the gently used rig from Tennessee went up for sale. I put a deposit on it immediately. The dealer asked to use it one last time as a static display at the Americade Rally in Lake George, New York. Bonus for me! Americade was just a few hours away from my home, while the Hannigan factory was located in far away western Kentucky; I quickly agreed to meet Dave and Ruth Ann Hannigan at their motel as the rally was wrapping up.

The plan was to enjoy a leisurely trip in perfect weather, with me taking to the feel of piloting a sidecar as naturally as I’d done with motorcycles four decades before. The reality was a harrowing ride home in driving rain, herding a rig that seemed intent on ignoring my efforts to stay in my lane, leaving me wondering if I could turn around and get my money back! Puddles at the side of the road seemed to pull me toward the drainage ditch, roadway debris was difficult to avoid with an extra wheel to worry about, wind and crowning of the pavement seemed to require an awful lot of strength to compensate for, and steering was about as easy as doing figure eights in an antique truck with flat tires up front.

But after a hundred miles or so the sun came out, the wind dropped off, and I began to sense a very different type of thrill. It wasn’t fast, it didn’t lean, handling was not effortless, but there was a certain coolness to navigating the roads of Vermont in a vehicle so different!

Thus was born the crap-eating grin.

There were no sidecar classes in New England, and the thought of driving my new rig one thousand miles to learn how to drive it properly didn’t sound like a very good plan. I figured by the time I arrived at the class I’d be pretty good. So I bought The Yellow Book, a sidecarist’s bible, studied the lessons and practiced endlessly in the parking lot of our local high school. When I felt fairly proficient I convinced my wife to don her helmet and ride with me, but it didn’t work out.

I found her screams somewhat distracting.

It was time to train the dogs to ride with me. I had four goldens at the time. My hope was that Tadcaster, who had just been diagnosed with an aggressive variant of lymphoma, would take to it like a fish to water and we’d have one adventure together before I lost him. But even though Tadcaster loved riding with me on our ATV, he was terrified of this rig. I tried Tulliver next. While he was comfortable on the dog bed, the moment the clamshell lid was closed he would try to claw his way out. Not good. Next came an abortive attempt to convince 18 month old Kazoo that this was a real treat, but at that age he had zero interest in anything he couldn’t eat or hump. That left Barley, the runt of the pack and my last hope.

“Hey, Barley! Wanna go for a ride?” I asked, kneeling next to the rig holding the lid up. He jumped right in and sat facing forward behind the windshield like a natural. I clipped him in and closed the lid while he smiled happily. I started the engine – no change. I slipped into gear and pulled slowly forward to the edge of the driveway; he looked at me and wagged. I pulled out onto our dirt road intending to check our mailbox at the start of the pavement a quarter mile down the hill. Barley did just fine, peering ahead to look at the world with interest, noting every bird and rodent along the way, so I kept going. We passed the nearby Trapp Family Lodge where tourists pointed and took his picture, introducing him to celebrity.

He did just fine.

Looking a tad worried with the clamshell closed

For the next couple of months we did training rides every day. They were short at first, with frequent stops for treats or play. Rural Vermont is extremely dog friendly, and many merchants keep treats behind the counter. Barley quickly memorized the good spots and gave me the evil eye if I passed any one of them. “There’s bacon in that building you just passed. HELLO!”

The cancer took Tadcaster in early Spring. He took with him a mountain of joy. Barley felt it too, as Tadders had been his constant playmate. We needed to recharge, he and I, so set off on our first multi-day trip, a trial run of sorts to iron out the bugs and find our shared rhythm of the road.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON

BARLEY’S SIDECAR ADVENTURES