By DOUG FIRBY
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, April 13, 2018
Waking up after a hard fall off his motorcycle on a frozen stretch of midwinter ice road near Churchill, Man., Oliver (Brokentooth) Solaro discovered his spare jerrycan of gasoline was drained and the engine was cold.
Maybe the trip to Churchill to deliver dog food wasn't such a brilliant idea, after all.
But Solaro, who turns 52 in May, has had more than a few hard falls in his life ("I have incessant issues with the laws of gravity"). A little tumble in the tundra wasn't about to stop his self-appointed mission to feed Churchill's sled dogs. He got back on his feet, restarted his bike, retied the sled and crawled back to pick up his second load of dog food.
Delivering 450 kilograms of dog food via motorcycle wasn't really going to save all of Churchill's dogs, but Solaro saw it as an important symbolic act. Since the rail line to Churchill was washed out by flooding in the spring of 2017, the cost of flying in basic goods has soared.
Transporting dog food to Churchill by air costs $140 a bag - a price so steep that owners are faced with the grim prospect of putting their animals down. Solaro says losing the dogs would be a devastating blow to a community that relies on sledding as a key tourism attraction.
"Churchill is such a beautiful, gorgeous town," says Solaro, who normally resides in the peaceful hamlet of Williamsford, near Owen Sound, Ont. "If [the rail line] isn't fixed soon, it'll die."
Solaro's love of winter motorcycling began about a decade ago, after he met Michelle, the woman he would later marry. In 2009, the pair prepared to try racing ski bikes in the annual 3,200-kilometre Cain's Quest snowmobile race in Labrador. But the couple were so ill prepared, he says, it was fortunate the race was cancelled that year.
"We wouldn't have made it past the first checkpoint."
In 2013, Solaro set out to be the first bike rider to try the 752-km Wapusk Trail between Gillam and Thompson, Man. - classified by Guinness World Records as the world's longest ice road - but turned back two-thirds of the way through when he ran out of time. He completed it on his second try in 2015.
When Solaro heard about Churchill's problems with getting affordable supplies, he decided to try to help the dogs. He persuaded motorcycle distributor Motorsports Canada to lend him a CCM GP450 and ATV company Camso to supply him with a conversion kit that includes tracks and runners.
"I brought the bike into the living room and ripped it to pieces," he says. Then, he "Frankensteined" the bike and track kit together, using his welding skills and spare bits of metal culled from around his house in Williamsford.
"I said to myself, 'I don't know if this is going to work,' " he says.
"I really didn't."
He arranged to meet a couple of friends with 4x4 trucks to meet at Gillam, Man., about 270 km south of Churchill where the road ends and the ice road begins.
The plan was for the trucks and the snow bike to deliver 450 kilograms of Inukshuk-brand dog food, donated by Corey Nutrition, of New Brunswick, to the hungry dogs of Churchill. But trouble developed quickly. The convoy had just made it past a remote outpost when the two trucks became hopelessly stuck, and Solaro's bike stopped running because it had water in the gasoline.
With a couple of days lost, his partners had run out of time, and had to head home.
"I was left with a bike that wouldn't start, and 1,000 pounds of dog food," he says.
Almost miraculously, he found a motorized skid-steer in storage, and got his bike back to the rail shed where he was able to drain the gas and get it started. But riding in -30 C temperatures was so severe, he often kept his head down, using only his GPS to guide him: "I fell down a lot."
Solaro's worst crash happened on the return trip after he dropped the first load. He ran into some lumber buried in the snow, and ended up with the sled on top of him. "I fell down really hard," he says. "It looked cataclysmic, but I recovered." He made a second run to Churchill, delivering the rest of the dog food.
The icy path to Churchill is a distant destination for a Torontoborn kid who grew up ripping around the hills of Caledon on a dirt bike. Motorcycles have been a part of Solaro's life since he got his first bike, a Kawasaki KV75, at the age of 12. Within weeks, he had cobbled together a ramp with some old barrels and planks, enabling him to jump his bike over his dad's Mercedes.
By the age of 16, he started motocross on a 125 cc motorcycle, and by the 1980s he apprenticed as a mechanic at Cycle World Superstore in downtown Toronto.
After his own cycle shop, Cycle Mississauga, closed in 1991, he moved to Brantford, Ont., with his young family and changed careers.
A decade later, after his first marriage ended, the bike bug bit him again, and he worked at a shop welding custom motorcycle frames in Bolton, Ont. Soon after, he met Michelle and moved to Williamsford to begin a new life.
Solaro has had a variety of adventures over the past decade, recorded faithfully on his Facebook pages here and here, which have earned him a road-warrior reputation in biking circles. At the recent Spring Motorcycle Show in Toronto, Canada Moto Guide magazine awarded the kilt-clad explorer the annual Eddy Award for being "an adventurous and inquisitive motorcyclist."
Solaro says every trip teaches him something, and the Churchill adventure was no exception.
"I learned snow bikes aren't really good at hauling freight," he chuckles. "But in the end, we did get it done."
At the same time, Solaro wishes Canadians had responded more quickly to Churchill's crisis.
"It's a bit disheartening to see how long it takes for people to respond to what's going on up there," he says. "The people of Churchill are just being left out in the cold."
With a dog named Bruce Springsteen for companionship, Oliver Solaro was certainly born to run a 450-kilogram load of dog food to the frozen reaches of northern Manitoba on his CCM GP450 fitted out with runners.
PHOTOS BY OLIVER (BROKENTOOTH) SOLARO