The airport security agent lingered on my helmet bag. “I’m just trying to decide whether to hassle you,” she said without smiling. “You rode here on a motorcycle?”
“No, ma’am, but I’ll need gear at my destination.”
“You’re flying somewhere to ride a motorcycle? Where?”
“Right. Please remove all objects from your pockets….”
My helmet and I passed muster, and before long I was flying west on a bucket-list trip for my 50th birthday. In a few hours, by the curb outside arrivals, I met Dale for the first time. On an Internet rider forum we both frequent, I had grown to admire his sophistication with words; it didn’t surprise me to learn that he was an English professor. When the opportunity arose to connect in person, Dale offered to share his insights, developed over several decades, on a tour of the Pacific Northwest.
He also offered the key to his Blackbird.
When introduced in 1996, Honda’s CBR1100XX Super Blackbird was the fastest production motorcycle on the planet. Dale’s well-kept example is from 1999, the first year with fuel injection. He set it up for sport touring with soft luggage, heated grips, cruise control and a convex windscreen, and I was eager to savor southern BC’s varied landscapes aboard this open-class legend.
We boarded a ferry in Anacortes, Washington, bound for Sidney on Vancouver Island. Dale chose the scenic run through the San Juan Islands where sights included beautiful waterfront homes, distant snowcapped mountains through broken cloud cover and the picturesque port town of Friday Harbor.
One thing I learned researching my first-ever trip to British Columbia is to keep the Vancouvers straight. There’s Vancouver Island. There’s also the City of Vancouver, but that’s on the mainland. To further complicate things, the State of Washington has its own City of Vancouver, down south near Oregon. All were named for British Royal Navy Captain George Vancouver who commanded an expedition of the Pacific Northwest in the 1790s.
Vancouver Island is the largest island on the west coast of North America and the largest Pacific island east of New Zealand. The population is concentrated around Victoria, the provincial capital. Our plans involved riding away from population centers, but this beautiful city—which has been described as more English than England–was hard to resist.
Our visit downtown revealed double-decker buses, horse-drawn carriages and historic Parliament buildings. The ivy-covered Empress Hotel offered a proper high tea to people dressed more appropriately than we were. Instead, we rode to the Inner Harbour boardwalk and dined on halibut with French fries, among the best “fish and chips” dishes I’ve had anywhere. Victoria is also known as the “City of Gardens” and the English-style Butchart Gardens in nearby Brentwood Bay were captivating, even for crusty long-distance motorcyclists.
To escape crowds, we headed for the island’s interior. It’s largely uninhabited and few roads pass through, but in the south one that does is Pacific Marine Road. At Duncan, we turned west on Highway 18 and at Lake Cowichan followed signs for Port Renfrew. Stands of tall timber were punctuated by occasional clear cuts, evidence that these were managed forestlands. The forest’s deep green was a rich complement to a varied gray sky. The Blackbird was an eager partner around tight curves and across narrow bridges, but prudent restraint was in order as rain had been falling all day, little surprise in this temperate rain forest.
Port Renfrew was noted on the map, but it was more of an outpost than a town. Had I known, I’d have planned my gas stops better. The Blackbird’s range is 100 miles less than my ST1300 and we had to consult with locals twice to locate the area’s only source of gasoline. It was at a marina on a reservation, and it wasn’t on the GPS. Luckily the marina store was staffed, the trailer-mounted “gas station” had fuel for sale and the merchant took American cash. Amazingly, the price was the same as I paid in the city the day before.
Port Renfrew is near the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, so many major shipwrecks occurred here that these waters became known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. Regrettably, we had to pass on a side trip to see for ourselves at Botanical Beach. Getting there required hiking a wilderness trail that would be challenging even with the right gear and good conditions, and we had neither.
The hard rain let up as we wound our way southeast on Highway 14, the scenic West Coast Road. Firs obscured much of the ocean view but a deep breath confirmed that salt water was nearby. As sunshine and blue skies prevailed, this winding shore road unfolded rapidly. It was amazing to realize the Blackbird held more than 100 mph in reserve.
Ferries between Vancouver Island and the mainland are frequent and convenient. Though our plan to ride away from major population areas continued, the City of Vancouver beckoned. We stopped for a view of the skyline along the harbor, and then worked our way through downtown. At a square surrounded by flagpoles, each with a Maple Leaf at rest in the calm, a blackbird perched like a living finial. Was it sizing up its namesake Honda below?
In Stanley Park, sunshine was providing ideal conditions for two outdoor events: a cricket match and a wedding. The bowlers and batsmen were busy, but a group of bridesmaids said hello as they walked to their photo op by the water. I lingered by a display of totem poles and read the detailed descriptions of their symbolism to gain some insight into the First Nation cultures of the Pacific Northwest.
Dale led us across historic Lions Gate Bridge and continued north on British Columbia Highway 99, the Sea to Sky Highway. This road used to be known colloquially as “death highway” due to a treacherous history of rockslides. Cars had been crushed by falling boulders and smashed down the cliffs into Howe Sound. A blockage in 1990 required tourists stranded in Whistler to be evacuated by boats and helicopters.
In advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics, the road received a major upgrade to better connect the venues of Vancouver and Whistler, 75 miles apart. The result? Motorcycle nirvana. This warm Saturday afternoon found many riders enjoying the curves and testing their luck with speed enforcement. Stunning scenery was all around, but atop the Blackbird my focus was fixed on snaking asphalt. What a hoot! As we gained elevation, the landscape transitioned to the snowcapped mountains that helped make Whistler a world-class destination for winter sports.
Our friends Seppo and Pirjo offered to put us up overnight in Whistler, and that evening the town was alive in the aftermath of a Tough Mudder event, where participants trekked across a brutal, mud-laden, 10-mile obstacle course and raised funds for the Wounded Warrior Project. Crowds of fit, yet tired, people walked the Village Stroll proudly sporting “Tough Mudder Finisher” shirts.
Morning found us back on Highway 99 continuing northeast to the Pemberton Valley. The section of 99 called Duffey Lake Road has sweepers and hairpins and elevation changes galore. A young rider on a sportbike couldn’t seem to pull away from the ’bird and eventually waved us around. We wore grins under our helmets all the way to Lillooet. The landscape transitioned again, from the deep green of fir into the paler greens of pine and sagebrush. Our plan to ride Highway 12 south along the Fraser River was sidetracked by a landslide. It’s for unexpected times like these that I carry paper maps. We rerouted to Cache Creek and then wound down 97C through Highland Valley. This detour was twisty fun and by Merritt we were back on our intended route.
In Princeton, we happened upon a great piece of roadside British Columbia: a T33 jet mounted on a pole and dedicated to Air Cadet Squadron 217. I pulled over to get a photograph of two birds together. I positioned the Blackbird at just the right angle and readied my camera, but then the angle was different. A breeze revealed that the plane was a weather vane. With winds light and variable, I took photos as the plane rotated through a range of positions.
Another landslide figured into our ride later that afternoon. Along the Similkameen River west of Keremeos, traffic on Highway 3 was suddenly at full stop. Motorists were already out of their cars and walking around when we pulled up. Word had filtered back from those farther on that a slide brought down power lines and started a brush fire. An alternate route would add hours to our day’s ride, so we decided to wait it out. A traveler from Alberta took advantage of a captive audience and pulled out his bagpipes. Two young men from Québec joined in, playing a conga and a jaw harp.
The music stopped when brake lights ahead signaled cars were getting ready to move. A few clicks up the road, firefighters had controlled the blaze enough that one lane was opened. Dale and I continued on this scenic stretch of Highway 3 to the border crossing at Osoyoos, and one more encounter with security. I handed the border guard my passport.
“Your bike looks fast,” she said.
Actually it’s his bike, ma’am, but yes, it’s fast. You could say it flies.”
Such was the flight of the Blackbird.
(This article Flight of the Blackbird was published in the July 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)