Friday the 13th in Port Dover

Canada’s longest running biker rally is 38 years strong

Text: Dustin Woods
Photos: Dan Lim | The Moto Foto

The date Friday the 13th likely stirs up different images or emotions depending on who you are and where you’re from.

If you happen to be a motorcyclist living in Ontario, the date has become synonymous with the country’s longest running biker rally, rather than common superstitions or the Halloween horror film franchise.  

Unlike most events, which happen annually, the sleepy little lakeside town of Port Dover, Ontario, transforms into a bikers’ paradise every Friday the 13th – no matter the season. While the fair-weather events see far higher attendance than those that land in the dreary days of winter, some riders won’t be deterred no matter what the forecast holds. 

Back to the start

The event’s modest beginnings are foggy, and the tale is retold like folklore. The story allegedly began back in 1981, when local bike shop owner Chris Simons congregated with a group of riding buddies one night in November at what was then known as the Commercial Hotel. It happened to be Friday the 13th. As legend has it, they had such an epic night that they decided it had to be repeated the next time the fateful date rolled around. The next event was larger and more rambunctious – and the rest, as they say, is history. Last July, the attendance was roughly 140,000 – not an insignificant sum for a town with a population of 6,000 people.

Unless you’ve attended Daytona Beach, Sturgis or one of the big Harley® homecoming events, you’ve likely never seen this many motorcycles in one place. Police greet motorists at the town limits, letting attendees know they won’t tolerate any funny business before directing passenger vehicles to overflow lots to be shuttled into town. The town itself is limited to motorcycle traffic for the day. 

Open to all

The number of bikes on the road seems to increase exponentially as you approach the small Ontario community, even from hours away. Groups and individuals seamlessly settle into formation like flocks of geese migrating south for the winter. The event has put the town on the map, making it a destination for motorcyclists whenever they feel like going for a ride. 

Harleys make up the majority of bikes in attendance, but all moto enthusiasts are welcomed. Cruisers, choppers, café racers, crotch rockets, and even adventure bikes and trikes abound. There are even some tiny scooters and mopeds ridden in by people who have either a lot of confidence or a good sense of humour. Perhaps a little of both. 

This vast spectrum of two-wheeled transportation obviously lends itself to a diverse audience of riders, but it’s not just about the motorcycles. Attendees ride – or even drive – from all over to take part in the festivities and let their freak flag fly. It’s not just leather and denim here. Costumes are commonplace. It’s the light-hearted camaraderie and cool vibes from an animated cast of characters that keep people coming back year after year – as well as the excitement of not knowing what you’ll see next. One couple paraded around town dressed as life-sized blow-up dolls. And there’s always the anticipation of what festive regalia Thong Man will (or won’t) be wearing. Always a fan favourite, he’s become something of a mascot for the festivities. Regardless of the temperature, each and every Friday the 13th, the brazen and curiously tanned elderly gentleman wanders around town wearing little more than a banana hammock. Incorporating a different theme at each instalment, he’s been known to channel Cupid, a lifeguard and a leprechaun. Seeing him is something of a rite of passage, and it’s an image that cannot be unseen. 

Join the party

Beer gardens and bars are packed with partiers as early as Thursday, and the revelry carries on long after the sun goes down. HOG® chapters are well represented from around the province and beyond. Clare’s Harley-Davidson has been a fixture in Port Dover for years. They recently moved to a new location on Main Street with a larger footprint and more outdoor space, which were able to accommodate a Pin Stop, a Jumpstart riding simulator, a pop-up store and a selection of new models to sit on. 

The origins of PD13 are sometimes said to have involved outlaw elements, and these are still represented in small numbers at each event. But the majority of attendees are law-abiding motorcycle enthusiasts of all shapes and sizes. As Port Dover’s Friday the 13th event has grown, so too has the presence and involvement of the Ontario Provincial Police. Understandably. Put a hundred thousand people in a place with limited exits and add sunshine, booze and motorcycles, then mix thoroughly. It’s a recipe for mayhem. Changes for the 66th event in September included an amendment to parking locations and traffic flow.

The event is not without its opposition or challenges. Growing substantially over its 38 years, it remains a contentious, hotly debated event among the town’s residents. Whether disapproving of the noise or congestion, many try in vain to shut it down, or simply leave town. Others embrace the event with open arms for the opportunity it presents – charging attendees for bottled water or renting out their front lawns for parking or a place to pitch a tent for the night, as hotel accommodations are limited and booked up years in advance. 

Next up

The dates for both past and future events are displayed on the organizer’s website to help with planning. The next Friday the 13th falls in December 2019, followed by events in March and November 2020, so there won’t be one that lands in the summer until August 2021. 

While the congestion and daunting process to get in and out of town can be frustrating, you’d be hard pressed to find a more interesting place to end the week as a motorcycle enthusiast. Regardless of why or when you attend Friday the 13th in Port Dover, it is never dull.