Bikers Reunion©2007


(an enhanced version was published in Canadian Biker Magazine, November, 2007)

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 The Bikers Reunion in the northern Ontario town of New Liskeard got its humble start in 1999 when Barry Phippen decided to celebrate twenty years in the sign making business.

“I started with an Open House at my shop where we had displays of the history of our business, and I invited 20 bikes over to show them off while we were flipping burgers for cancer. It wasn’t to be a Bikers Reunion at that time and we missed a few years, but the demand for us to put on another event just grew and grew. From that start it has evolved into the reunion as we know it today,” Barry explained.

And what a reunion it has become! In 2004 the first official Bikers Reunion was staged at the local fair grounds as a community event in conjunction with the New Liskeard Summer Festival, the purpose being to celebrate the thrill of motorcycle riding and to raise money for the cancer care unit of the Temiskaming General Hospital. It was held on the July 1st long weekend. $45,000 was raised.

77-year old Keith Gummo was there in 2004 and every year since. Last year he convinced my husband, Jim, and me to make the 472-kilometer trek with him. Despite some bad weather that sent many people packing, it was such a great family-oriented event that we had to return. This year Keith had exchanged his Goldwing for a new Honda ST1300 and we were on our Yamaha Venture When we arrived at the registration table on Thursday afternoon, it was apparent by the number of bikers already there that the gathering was going to be bigger than ever. I was amazed by the community support, evident from the sponsor banners that lined the roads into town, and hung on the walls of nearly every business establishment.

At the campsite, members of the Ottawa Vulcan Riders Club volunteered their reasons for having traveled so far, other than to have some fun. Len told me he was there in memory of his father who’d died of prostate cancer. Brothers Denis and Roger were also there in memory of their father who’d succumbed to cancer in 2004. Dani was thinking of her mother, Denise, who has been in remission from thyroid cancer for fifteen years. They would add these names to the Memory Board.

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Friday morning began with a ride on the “Shower Shuttle” to the nearby Pool and Fitness Centre and the Arena, where use of their showers had been donated. Two newly constructed covered wagons fitted with bench seats and pulled by John Deer tractors made the circle every ten minutes from 6:30 am to 4:00 pm daily.

That afternoon we joined the Early Bird Ride to Elk Lake, escorted by two OPP officers. With lights flashing, they stopped us in the middle of the highway to don our rain gear when a torrential downpour suddenly hit. Unfortunately, many riders who were unprepared turned around. For the occupants of the 40 bikes that braved the trip, hot coffee, hot dogs and burgers were waiting at the local Legion. Among the riders was Biker TV’s Heather Ireland. We enjoyed an interesting two-hour tour of the Domtar/Liskeard sawmill before a sunnier return ride along some nice biking roads.

Back at the fair grounds, we watched riders as young as six maneuver dirt bikes around barrels, sand flying, in the Motocross Olympics. A few horseback riders even got in on the challenge. In the evening, while enjoying a drink in the beer garden under a massive tent, people of all ages, both bikers and locals, listened to one of the talented live bands that entertained all weekend. Some even made use of the dance floor.

Despite persistent rain on Saturday, a crowd cheered for the entrants in the Strong Man Competition. The sky cleared long enough for a Show and Shine that featured thirty-five bikes, including one dubbed a Yam-da-har, a 2006 Yamaha Silverado that had been customized with Honda Goldwing top trunk, backrest and saddle bags, and a Harley bat wing faring. Several times each day members of the Free-Style Motocross Thrill Show had observers holding their breath as they did hand stands and back-flips on their bikes while sixty feet up in the air.

In Vendors Alley we met Trillium Muir, the recently crowned World’s Fastest Woman on an open wheeled motorcycle. She was surprisingly quiet, and unassuming for a girl who, in North Carolina in May, had clocked 350.76 km/h on a Suzuki GSX-R1300 Hayabusa. Her boyfriend and owner of the bike, Jody Leveille, enthusiastically displayed the machine to the inquisitive crowd.

The highlight each year is the Sunday afternoon Terry Phippen Memorial Freedom Ride, a scenic tour of the North Country and its towns, with a stop at the Temiskaming Hospital where bikers give out roses and care packages to every nurse and patient. This year the site and sound of over 700 bikes pulling into the hospital parking lot brought goose bumps and tears to both participants and recipients. Signs of thanks greeted us at the entrance. Young volunteers handed out cups of water; others carried signs to let us know when the ride would leave again.

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Along the entire 120 km route men, women and children were out to greet the parade of bikes. As we descended the hill into downtown Cobalt, two people dressed in red and white stood on a house roof holding a huge sign, and waving. “THANK YOU BIKERS” was written in large red letters on the white billboard.

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This well-organized event wound down on Sunday evening with a draw for a new Yamaha Roadliner. Dave Wilson from Waverly, Ontario was the lucky winner. Four bikers from Grand Prairie Alberta earned the prize for longest distance ridden. A fantastic display of fireworks followed the announcement that $80,000 had been raised. Barry and his committee were already making plans for 2008. I’ll be there. Will you?

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Never too Old to Learn


(published in Cycle Canada, November/December, 2006)

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My first experience on a motorcycle was at age 46. I had never before had the opportunity, and indeed would never have even considered the possibility a few years earlier.  But my life had been turned upside down by divorce and I was picking up the pieces, learning to experience life with more enthusiasm.  When my new partner, Leo, asked if I’d like to go for a ride on his bike, I jumped at the chance.  To my surprise, I loved it!

Four years later I was standing next to a much smaller bike, on a military base parking lot with twenty other people, all there to complete the course that would give us a licence to ride.  Ages and genders varied.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the majority were closer to my age, rather than much younger.  My presence was partly because my partner’s health was failing and I wanted to learn how to handle the bike in an emergency; but it was the encouragement from my daughter, Ann, that had brought the musings to reality.

“Don’t you remember the day I got a ride home from school on the back of a motorcycle?  You forbid me to ride on a motorbike again as long I lived under your roof,” she reminded me, when she heard that I now enjoyed riding myself.

“I said that?” It’s amazing how memory fails with age!

For my 50th birthday present she gave me the chance to take the Beginner Motorcycle Course.  How could I refuse? How difficult could it be?  Having ridden a bicycle since I was a child I knew how to balance on two wheels, and I had acquired the skill of shifting gears when I learned to drive a standard car.

So there I was, a middle-aged woman with grown children, standing on the threshold of another new adventure.   After three hours of in-class instruction the night before, we had been issued the 150 cc bikes that would be ours for the rest of the weekend.

The first step was to take it off the kickstand.  I straddled my petite 5’6” frame over the saddle, put my weight on my right foot, and pushed my left foot against the stand.  Before I could bat an eye the bike was on its side, and I was scurrying to get out of its way!  I wasn’t off to a very good start.  With the help of a fellow classmate, I quickly got the bike back up on its wheels, ready for the next assignment.  We spent most of the morning riding across the parking lot, powered only by the pushing efforts of our assigned partners.  Before we could hear the engines humming we had to learn how to balance, steer, and brake.  The autumn sun was warm, making me sweat in my black leather jacket and gauntlets, and a full-face helmet. My mouth was dry.  Was it caused by the heat, or by fear?

By the lunch break I was confident enough to move on to the next stage, or so I thought.

When we climbed back onto the bikes, we were told to follow the instructor across the street to a larger lot. Once there, we would be playing a game of follow the leader, turning along the laid out paths.  I started my bike up, pulled in the clutch, kicked it into first gear, and gave the throttle a turn.  The bike leaped forward, then stopped.  I tried again. That time I kept it going.  I followed the crowd across the street and around the perimeter of the lot.  The bike sped up, then slowed down, up and down.  I was not feeling as comfortable with this as I had expected.

After further instructions we started off again, but this time we had to follow smaller circles and figure eights.  I was still having difficulty controlling the throttle and now it was making me really nervous.  As we headed into the first circle I gripped the handles, pushing on the left and pulling on the right like we’d been instructed. Suddenly I found myself shooting far across the lot, my instructor calling to me to come back! When I finally relaxed my grip, I succeeded in slowing down and turned back to join the circle once more, but I was soon off in another direction.  Now it was getting really embarrassing. I struggled all afternoon.  Finally five o’clock came and we were dismissed for the day.  My instructors told me that if I arrived 15 or 20 minutes early the next morning, one of them would work with me. At that point I didn’t think I would ever return.   When I got home, exhausted, I just wanted to go to bed.  I told Leo that I didn’t want to go back, but he reminded me that, because it had been a gift, I should at least complete the course.  I knew he was right, but how could I face another day of humiliation?

The next morning I dragged myself out of bed to arrive a little earlier than the others.  My instructor gave me tips on how to better control my bike, and then led me around the track and through the figure eights.  Maybe the good night’s sleep had renewed my confidence, I don’t know, but we were both relieved that, by the time the rest of the class arrived, I was managing the bike on my own within the paths set out. We spent the rest of the morning practicing the maneuvers, learning how to make quick turns to avoid sudden challenges (the challenge being an instructor standing directly in our path and giving us a signal as to which way to turn at the very last minute!), and how to stop quickly.  By the time we were put through the test in the afternoon, I was able to keep up.  At the end of the day, when the test results were given out, I held my breath. My worries were unfounded.  I wasn’t at the top of the class, but I had finished with a pass, and that was all I needed for now.  Whether or not I would ride a bike again was something I wasn’t going to think about until spring.

Today I have a bike of my own, but I have to admit that you’ll find me more often riding on the back of my partner’s bike where I can relax and enjoy the scenery.

Memories of Sweet Times


(published in The Country Connections Magazine, No. 53, Winter/Spring, 2007)

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The weathered old wooden sugarshack is barely visible through the swirls of smoke and steam that drift from the iron smoke stack on the roof.  The sweet aroma of maple hangs in the air. My two girls, Sarah and Ann, run up the path that winds through the forest of maple trees, their black rubber boots splashing through the puddles.  Three-year-old Brendan is less in a hurry to reach the shack.  His attention is drawn to the sap buckets hanging on the trees.  He’s already learned how to lift a half-full bucket from its hook below the spoil, and tip it up to his lips to drink the sweet nectar. But the bucket he’s chosen has only a cup of sap in the bottom.  He tips it up so high that his head disappears inside and only his little round body, dressed in a red nylon splash suit and rubber boots, remains visible.  He reminds me of Winnie the Pooh with his head stuck in the honey pot.

We reach the door of the sugar shack and push it open.  It takes a moment to adjust to the near darkness. Sunlight dances in streams through the spaces between the blackened wall boards. Uncle Ray is leaning over the flat metal pans that are suspended on an iron frame above the firebox.  He has one foot propped up on the stonewall, next to an old sludge bucket. With a flat metal scoop on a long wooden handle, he reaches over the dark liquid in the pan and skims off the foam that is forming on the top.  He adds that to the bucket by his foot.

There’s a rough wooden bench along one wall where guests can sit. Behind it, large pieces of box-board have been mounted.  We each search for a cooled piece of coal near the fire and add our names and the date to this “guest book” that has been there for decades.  New pieces are added as space becomes scarce.

Uncle Ray moves to the front of the box and slides up the battered piece of tin to reveal a pile of red coals. He carries over an armload of split wood and adds them to the fire.  The wood crackles and the flames jump.  The sap in the pan above begins to bubble.  He replaces the tin cover to contain the fire, and then returns his attention to the pans.

There are two large pans, each about four feet long and three feet wide. The fire is built directly under the front pan.  As the sap in that pan boils and evaporates, cooler sap from the back pan is scooped up in a ladle, and transferred to the front pan. The ladle is devised from another sap bucket with a wooden handle. Grey metal milk cans are lined up along the wall. They contain more sap that will be added to the back pan as its contents diminish.

More buckets sit on a table on the opposite wall.  White cotton cloths are draped inside them and secured with wooden clothespins.  When the big tin thermometer tells Ray that the sap has reached the temperature to become syrup, he takes a sample on a soup spoon and lets it cool for a bit. Then he turns the spoon to let the liquid slide around.  If it leaves a nice film on the spoon, he tastes it.  Once he’s given it his approval, he pours the syrup into the lined buckets. The cloths strain out any sediments to make the syrup clear and smooth.

“I’ve brought Johnny Cake, Uncle Ray,” I say and he grins.  “I’ve got fresh maple syrup to pour over it,” he replies with a chuckle.

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He reminds me of Winnie-the-Pooh with his head stuck in the honey pot.

By now there are several aunts, uncles and cousins crowding around, all on a Sunday afternoon outing to the sugar bush.  I cut the cornmeal cake and serve it on plates.  Ray adds a ladle of warm syrup to each.

When we’ve all eaten, it’s time to load up the wagon with empty milk cans, gathering pails and the one big gathering tank.  Ray stays and tends the fire while the rest of us head out to harvest the day’s sap. Many of us manage to squeeze into the wagon, slumped between milk cans and pails.

“Don’t sit on the milk cans. We’ll never get the lids off,” Ray calls out to us.

We all hold on tight as the battered red farm tractor pulls us over the bumpy track towards the lower bush. When it stops, we clamber out with our pails and make our way through the maze of buckets that are now overflowing with the clear liquid. I place my pail along side a bucket, holding the tin lid up with one finger, and tip the bucket until its contents pour into my pail. If the sap has run well, I’ll only be able to empty two or three buckets before carrying my pail back to the wagon to be emptied into the gathering tank.

Soon the ping, ping of sap dripping into the now empty buckets can be heard behind us. It takes nearly an hour to gather all the sap from the 300 buckets that have been hung.

Back at the sugar shack the liquid treasure is unloaded. Ray has filled cans and bottles with the thick sweet liquid, ready for distribution. It was a good run so someone will have to tend the fire all night to keep the sap boiling.  Between Ray and his nephews, it will be done out of love for the tradition.

It’s the 1970’s and most area maple syrup producers, as a labour saving measure, have installed plastic pipelines to carry the sap directly to the large, modern sugar-houses.  But they’ve become commercial enterprises.   Ours is a family affair.  We make enough syrup to provide the extended family with all we need. Any excess is sold to long-standing customers who prefer the taste of maple syrup made the old fashioned way.