by Rolf Kraiker

Story first appeared in December 2005 issue

Read more about Rolf’s Adventures at his

The old man on his way to the trash bin was obviously employed by the fast-food joint where we'd stopped for a coffee break. As he passed the space where my wife and I had parked our motorcycles, he paused to glance at the bikes. "Your machines?" he asked.

After a little idle discussion about the BMWs, he began to talk about the role that motorcycles had played in his life. I became envious as he described owning some collector bikes from the 1950s and '60s, and our conversation shifted from that of awkward strangers to familiar friends.

The impromptu parking-lot meeting clarified the reason for my journey. For both of us, the motorcycle represented adventure and escape. I'd traveled extensively by bike in the 1970s, but gave it up to spend more time in my other escape vehicle of choice—a canoe. Once my wife, Debra, and I started a family, it seemed unlikely that there would be many opportunities to ride again. Now that our kids are older, the open road beckons once again, but it can't replace a lifetime passion for paddling. As a compromise, we decided to take a journey across Canada and the United States to find out if it's possible to combine the two activities.

There are a lot of similarities between paddling in vast wilderness and exploring the open road by motorcycle

There's not a lot of space to carry gear on a motorcycle. Finding something enjoyable to paddle yet small enough to carry on a bike was a challenge. We could have used a sidecar or trailer to carry the boats, but that would have hindered the sense of freedom that is part of the appeal.

We settled on two collapsible Puffin boats made by Pakboats. We ordered the Puffins in an open configuration without spray decks to minimize size and weight, and chose four-part kayak paddles that when collapsed were small enough to fit across our bike seats. The little boats are made from the same tough skin used in whitewater rafts, covering an aluminum frame of shock-corded poles.
It took only a few practice runs to become familiar with assembling the Puffins, and our first test paddle was more fun than we expected from something small enough to be carried on a bike.

When it comes to available space, a canoe seems like a warehouse in comparison to a motorcycle, so we had to be frugal and select only the camping gear we absolutely needed. Still, it was a pretty tight fit. Fortunately, the Puffins came in bags with enough room inside that we repacked them with extra gear. Eventually, everything fit in two neat packages that occupied the space where a passenger would normally sit. The only thing left to do was say good-bye to our kids and hit the open road.

Once we crossed the border into the United States and headed west on the interstate, we found ourselves sharing the road with a lot more motorcycles than we were expecting. Normally, bikers raise a hand in greeting to one another, but the practice soon became tedious because of the sheer volume of bikes sharing the road. A stop at a buffet restaurant later in the day eventually solved the mystery of the motorcycle multitudes. We'd chosen a window table to keep an eye on our bikes and noticed a group who stopped to check them out before coming inside. When they passed our table, they asked if we were going to the Sturgis bike rally. When they noticed the blank looks on our faces, they went on to describe the event. As it turned out, we'd be traveling through South Dakota, where Sturgis is located, right in the middle of the biggest bike rally in North America. That explained all the two-wheeled company we had on the interstate.

We'd been to the Dakotas several times in the past, and one of our first planned stops was to paddle some of the quiet little prairie ponds in the Badlands. As we approached Badlands National Park, there was an even greater increase in the number of bikes. Unlike our past experience in the park, when we'd quietly shared the road with a few motor homes, this time there was a nearly constant rumble of barely muffled motorcycle exhaust pipes. We gave up on our plan to spend time in the park and decided to head into Sturgis to see what all the fuss was about. Neither of us had been to a motorcycle rally before, and the experience was an eye-opener. Cars were virtually banned in the community, and the main street was lined four rows deep with motorcycles packed tighter than sardines. We found enough space among the 100,000 or so other machines to park ours and then wandered along the main street.