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