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Story by Dustin A. Woods, Photos by Alexandra Sawicki and Dustin A. Woods
"Good afternoon Mr. Woods, welcome to the New Liskeard Holiday Inn Express, we understand that you'll be covering the Bikers Reunion event this weekend." There are people in my own office who don't know my name or what I do and yet Don here at the front desk seems to know exactly who I am and what I am doing here. Welcome to small town Northern Ontario, where complete strangers treat you like family, or neighbours at the very least. This kind of hospitality was not limited to our hosts at the hotel, but pretty much everywhere we went that weekend. Now in its 13th year, the Bikers Reunion is a unique event that attracts a different kind of rider. For starters, it takes place in New Liskeard which is a long way off the beaten path which immediately excludes your custom cruisers, sportbikes and fair-weather Nancies from making the trek. Located more than 500 kilometres North of Toronto, the lion's share of attendees rode into town on two-wheelers that were no stranger to long hauls like Gold Wings and Electra Glides, myself included.
Racking up over 1,300 kms over the course of the weekend, the 2011 CVO Ultra Classic Electra Glide was a faithful companion for the trip. Tipping the scales at a beefy 407 kg before fuel, gear and a passenger, the Black Ember and Rio Red CVO was arduous to navigate on congested city streets but was right at home on the open road.
Topping up the tank in Temagami as we approached the City of Temiskaming Shores area, I rowed through the gears, settling into sixth and enjoying the eager hum of the 110 cubic-inch Screamin' Eagle V-Twin as I stretched its legs, with my black leather riding boots resting comfortably on the highway pegs. The true appeal of Northern Ontario for any biker is the scarcity of street lights. Leaving the typical long weekend cottagers behind that drew out our exodus from the city, we were rewarded with seemingly endless asphalt that was free from traffic and construction. Clean, fresh air wafting into my helmet, I took in the stunning scenery as the sun set over the pristine landscape as we rolled into town.
After imbibing a couple well deserved frosty beverages with our meal, we headed into town to partake in the festivities, which included an epic fireworks display, a High Divers thrill show where stunt people were lit ablaze before diving from a tower into a pool of water and live music in the main tent. I've attended many a biker rally in my day and while I've never felt like I was in any sort of danger even when surrounded by one percenters, it never felt like getting shanked for stepping on the wrong foot was completely out of the question. While there was no shortage of leather and tattoos, the vibe at the Bikers Reunion was far closer to that of a county fair than Altamont. Daytime events were highlighted by a show and shine, strong man competition, demo rides from manufacturers like Yamaha, Ducati, Suzuki and Harley-Davidson who brought their latest offerings for attendees to experience firsthand out on the open road.
Visiting the area late last riding season, I enjoyed the local roads and welcoming locals immensely so was eager to return during the much publicized rally. While over 35,000 visitors were expected over the course of the weekend, another differentiating factor from most rallies was how easy it was to escape. Often overwhelmed by feelings of claustrophobia at events like Port Dover or Sturgis, I couldn't resist taking advantage of the beautiful weather and set out to experience more of the local roads just waiting to be discovered. The pinnacle of the event was the 120 km 'Freedom Ride,' named in memory of event organizer Barry Phippen's brother Terry who succumbed to Cancer. Onlookers lined the streets with flags and signs to salute the 20 km of motorcycles that made their way to the Temiskaming Hospital to deliver roses and care packages to patients. Also a tribute to the generosity of participants, $102,000 was raised for Temiskaming Hospital Cancer Care this year alone.
Another highlight of the excursion was joining up with the crazy cast of characters involved in the Ultimate Northern Ontario Road Trip. Consisting of 40 days, 40 nights and some 5,000 miles, their mission is to explore every major road in Northern Ontario by motorcycle while experiencing the local charm and culinary delicacies along the way. Exactly half-way through their journey when we met up with them, they took turns sharing stories of pristine beauty, vast wilderness, common encounters with various wildlife and unprecedented hospitality.
Setting the GPS for home, we were sad to leave but were touched by the many signs and homemade floats that thanked the visiting bikers for coming to their town. More often than not, townspeople lament such events for taking place in their backyard and head for the hills until it's over. There may be bigger events on the summer schedule, many of which are closer to home even, but one thing is for sure - the Bikers Reunion in New Liskeard is definitely not your typical biker rally.