Polar Bear Pocono Putt

By: Chris Loynd
December 2002

Perhaps riding a motorcycle is like sex; it's more fun if you can do it different ways. Unwilling to give it up for three months, uh, motorcycling that is, I decided to find some excuse to get out this winter. And in exploring frosty motorcycling Kamasutra I found the Polar Bear Club.

A group of about 550 riders have decided they can't wait until spring either. So every Sunday from the end of October to the end of March they gather at a designated location in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania or New York. The club is simple yet organized. Anyone can join. All bikes are welcome. The Polar Bears started in 1977 and have grown every year. It’s not uncommon to find 300 bikes at the destination restaurant on a freezing cold day.

Scenic Overlook on Route 80 just before Delaware Water Gap. It's not that cold. Really!
 

Based out of American Motorcyclists Association District II in New Jersey, Polar Bear Rides are AMA Sanctioned "Grand Tours." As founder Bob Hartpence explained to me, AMA affiliation was desirable to cover liability concerns. The "tour" designation was required because to Bob's knowledge there is nothing else like the Polar Bear Club in the country. Calling them tours fit into AMA's closest category, but the rides are really destinations.

The Polar Bear ride concept is wonderfully simple. Every Sunday you can ride to the published destination. Get there by any route or method. There are no organized rides once you arrive. There are no organized routes to the destination. You can ride as a club or alone. You do not have to join the Polar Bears to participate. Just show up. You can even come in a car.

But if you want the coveted Polar Bear patch, you must ride your motorcycle and accumulate 30 points. You get two points for signing in at each destination, plus one point for every 100 miles round trip that you ride to get there. Sign-in is between 11:30 am and 1:30 pm. There are 22 Sunday destinations each season. Rack up 30 points and you get the patch (or a rocker for repeat bears). You also get into the end-of-season Polar Bear banquet for free.

Since the destinations are all a fair reach from home, I figure I have a good shot at the requisite 30 points. For example, my first ride netted five points: two for showing up and three more for the 300 miles round trip from Stratford. You are on your honor to calculate mileage from the most direct route.

My First Polar Bear Ride

For me, Schoch's Harley-Davidson in Snydersville, PA was the first destination that fit my schedule, my sense of my own riding limits and the weather. (Wish I'd found out about the Polar Bears earlier in autumn.) The dealership is just past Delaware Water Gap where Route 80 crosses from New Jersey into Pennsylvania. MapQuest said two hours 20 minutes. It took me a bit less than three hours one way.

Leaving Bridgeport Harley at 9:30 a.m. I shot down I-95 headed for I-287 and the Tappan Zee. Ever mindful for black ice and sand, the expressways were delightfully clear. I held the speedometer at a pretty steady New York metropolitan number the whole way.

By design, my first stop was the Darien rest area on I-95. A short 30 minutes, I figured it was a long enough stretch to see how my insulation was working. As I suspected, I made a few adjustments, tucking a few spots a little tighter and dialing up the thermostat just a bit more on my Harley heated gloves. I also planned my first stop to reflect for a few minutes on how I felt, contemplate how I was riding, and decide if this was truly as good an idea as I thought.

Before I left, I made a pact with myself that I was riding for fun. No heroism required. "If I'm cold by Stamford, I'll warm up with a cup of coffee then head back home," I told myself and my wife Cynthia. "I don't need to prove anything. I just want to see what it feels like."

Cynthia's used to such things. We lived in Milwaukee for a few years a few years back. We moved there in October. And before the boxes were unpacked we were both amazed to hear the local TV weatherman on the ten o'clock evening news say that with wind chill the outside temperature is 100 degrees BELOW zero. I started getting dressed. Cynthia considered me for a moment and asked the obvious, "You're going out?" I said, "Hey aren't you curious? A hundred degrees below zero. I want to see what it feels like."

Just 30 minutes into my Polar Bear ride I was quite comfortable. No serious wind leaks. My hands, chest and, surprisingly, toes were all toasty. My knees were cooler, but not uncomfortably cold. Traffic was light, the bike was running just fine, I decided to ride a little more.

An hour later, I wasn't so sure anymore. As I merged from I-287 onto Route 80 I was starting to wonder if I wanted to keep going or turn back. For one thing, I-287 after the Tappan Zee is a drag. Most of it is not very scenic. A lot of it runs through ugly man-made canyons of some kinda chain link fence filled with broken stone noise barriers. The road surface is beautiful. The traffic is light. But the ride is dull. And that dullness let the discomforts creep into my psyche. For another thing, the sun that started with me was now gone, replaced by those low, slate gray clouds that bespeak of snow. But Route 80 seemed like a destination, so I figured I would ride at least that far.

A short way up Route 80, and not really sure how far along I was in my journey, I truly needed a break. Just as my trip odometer neared 100 miles a Dunkin' Donuts logo appeared on those signs that indicate services at the next exit. What a hoot! I'll stop, warm up, abuse some caffeine and sucrose, then take a picture for my fellow HOGs who seem to include a Dunkin' Donuts on every run. Even though I had only been riding for about two hours, the break worked its magic. A small black coffee, cruller and scant 15 minutes were all I needed. I was again thoroughly warm, enthusiastic, optimistic and ready to ride.

Delightedly, I soon discovered I was actually a lot closer than I realized. Delaware Water Gap came up in less than 30 minutes after my second break. Just over the Delaware River bridge a large billboard announced I was only eight miles away from the Harley dealership. A little shout of triumph erupted inside my helmet, "Yeah! I did it."

Although it was not an official Bridgeport H.O.G. event, I still made the obligatory stop. This is mile 100 on the way out.
 

In no time at all, I arrived to a parking lot full of bikes of every description. There were plenty of Harleys, plus Gold Wings, Beemers, a few trikes and even a scooter and one of the new Triumphs. I noted that while most had windshields there were a few -- also Harleys -- that were full-in-the-wind like me.

Inside I found that Polar Bears are truly very warm. I signed my first log-in sheet and paid my $18 annual fee. I am now a Polar Bear Flight B. As I mulled around I struck up a few conversations. Everyone was very friendly and we had that instant bonding of folks who have shared an ordeal or met a challenge. This was less monochromatic than most motorcycle gatherings I've attended. There were plenty of us creaking in black leathers. But you also had men and women swishing in FirstGear and Aerostitch riding suits of various gray, blue and red hues. And everyone clumped, clumped, clumped across the floor in riding boots.

The dealership has its own, private Harley museum on its second floor, around the edges of a large room. In the center were long tables and chairs. Mrs. Schoch treated us to free split pea soup, chili con carne and coffee. The split pea soup alone was worth the ride. I had two helpings. Riders were sitting or standing and eating and talking and just walking around. I did a bit of all these, but was soon enough anxious to start back. My plan was to have the big Springer in the garage before the sun was completely down. And this time of year that's not so easy.

Why is it that the ride back always seems shorter? I stopped for a brief moment at a scenic overlook on I-80, eastbound now, where I asked a cager to take my picture (shown at the top of this article). I drew a lot of interest from my fellow travelers warmly ensconced in their heated automobiles. A few even left their cocoons to talk with me. The question on everyone's mind: "Are you cold?"

Schoch's Harley-Davidson. "Pocono Mountain High." 150 miles exactly on the trip O.D. Might make a nice destination ride next year. They have a small museum on the second floor with an impressive collection of vintage Harleys, even a H-D snowmobile.

My gas warning light blinked on shortly after I started up I-287. I made a quick stop, gas only, and was on my way again. Going back I opted to take the Merritt instead of I-95. I was a little worried about ice patches on the edge of the narrower lanes. But everything was still liquid. In every case there was always room in my travel lane to avoid the puddles.

One more stop was required. This time, the discomfort had more to do with the coffee and soup I drank back at Schoch's Harley, rather than the cold. I made it a quick stop. Didn't even take off my helmet. Just walked into the Greenwich rest stop on the Merritt in my “spaceman” suit.

By now I was comfortably cool. Parts were toasty warm. Other body parts were on the cooler side, but not cold, well not terribly cold. Besides, since this was the return trip I now knew exactly where I was, could calculate how much longer to home, was anxious to get there. Discouragement was easily replaced with confidence. I rolled into my driveway around 4:00 p.m. not the least bit worse for any wear. But I didn't put the bike away just yet.

I let it cool in the driveway while I went in and made myself a hot chocolate. A bit later, now in the dark, I heeded Stan's warning and washed the Springer from top to bottom. I rinsed with lots of water, then soaped, then rinsed a lot more. You KNOW you're a Harley rider when you spend all day on the bike and then another hour washing it! I did the best I could to clean and dry my bike. Then I rolled it into the garage, onto its winter plywood base, and plugged in the battery tender. Then, and only then, did I finally take off the boots and warm my toes next to our coal stove. This time I put a little something extra in the hot chocolate. I was warm, thoroughly warm, relaxed and savoring my small victory.

Gauging from the crust on my helmet's face shield, I did pick up plenty of salt dust. Well if the bike's chrome still pits, it is a price I am willing to pay. I bought a Harley to ride it. Surely it is a wonderful bonus if the bike looks good. Even so, a good ride is more important to me than beauty. Ah, but I lapse again into sexual metaphors.

Finally, fully warm. Want to join me on the next Polar Bear ride? We meet at Dunkin' Donuts just off I-95, Exit 30, Stratford, CT. E-mail me to get on the list for departure times: chris@influentialcom.com
 

Interested?

Anyone reading this is welcome to join me on my next Polar Bear ride. For most rides we meet at the Dunkin' Donuts nearest Bridgeport Harley, I-95, Exit 30, Lordship Blvd. and Honeyspot Rd. The Polar Bears ride every Sunday from the last weekend in October to the last weekend in March, sometimes into April. You can find everything you need to know on the Polar Bear website: www.PolarBearGrandTour.com  Send me an e-mail and I will put you on the departure time distribution list: chris@influentialcom.com Or see my Polar Bear Blog: http://www.influentialcom.com/polar_bear_blog.htm

Epilogue

The uncertainty of my first ride, described above, made it the most exciting. That was December 2002. For much of the first season I rode alone. Slowly my enthusiasm infected other Connecticut riders and now we have a good sized group of regulars.

My favorite Polar Bear experience so far was getting caught in a snow squall coming across the Tappan Zee Bridge. I had stopped to warm up at the last rest stop on the Garden State. Mild and scattered flurries were falling when I walked into the building. Not 15 minutes later it was snowing pretty hard. So I’m out in the parking lot dragging my boot across the pavement to see if it’s just wet or icy. Nope, looks like it’s just wet. I decide to go.

Meanwhile, this guy walks up to me while I’m out there in the parking lot in my “spaceman” suit getting ready. “You riding a motorcycle?” he asked. “Yea. The snow isn’t sticking yet,” I replied. “My God that’s crusty!” he blurted, then hurried on inside.

Well now that I’m “crusty” I figure I gotta go. The road stayed wet. But I was colder than the road so the snow started building up on me. Visibility dropped and I kept wiping away the snow building up on my helmet visor. Plus the cold snow made the visor fog, so I had to ride with it cracked open a bit. Up and over the Tappan Zee Bridge was the worst. By the time I rolled off of I-287 onto I-95, it was back to flurries. The road never got more slippery than it does in a summer rain. But the bike and I were covered in snow.

Meanwhile I'll be looking for that elusive combination of a free Sunday, when the weather is tolerable with a Polar Bear destination not much more than three hours distant. At the end of the season there's a Polar Bear banquet and a seminar on "How to Store Your Bike for the Summer." Hope you can join us. Otherwise, see you in the Spring!

Chris Loynd

Read my Polar Bear Blog