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“It’s not far”

August 14th, 2013 | Posted by Dino in Canada | Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Day 56: Rivière du Loup to Rimouski

“It’s not far then.”

I glared. Not far for you, buddy.

This man, short, portly built with inset eyes and an annoying accent, had asked me how far it was to the Gaspe. How far? It’s a large peninsula, you idiot. That’s like asking far is it to the south west. I had initially taken him to be American because his manner so smoothly combined ignorance with self importance. I’m sorry to say he was actually from Ontario.

Once I had established that he meant how far is it from here (small picnic bench on rainy roadside 25km north east of Rivière du Loup), all the way around the peninsula along the coastal road and back to here, I told him it was “several hundred kilometres.”

“Where are we?” he asked. He had spread my provincial map across the picnic table and was now leaning over, studying it with purpose.

“We are here,” I said, pointing at the map, “and Rimouski – here – is 80km. So around the Gaspe will be several hundred kilometres.”

“Oh, it’s not far,” he said again.

“It’s several hundred kilometres,” I replied tersely, neglecting to tell him that it would take me the best part of a WEEK of cycling in a freezing headwind to get around.

It had just started raining again so I folded close my panniers while the man continued to pour over my map. He started writing notes on a post it. So far I had cycled 25km. The north easterly wind had picked up force, muffling my ears and struggling my slow progress. It was cold. Too cold. I was wearing my arm warmers and gilet. My buff was wrapped around my head but I was still cold. i had just cycled past a nature reserve famous for its shorebirds. I had been looking forward to stopping and taking out my monocular to enjoy the wildlife but today, punching into a bitter wind, I kept on glumly cycling. If I stopped I would only get too cold. And in this weather the birds are probably hiding.

“Oh, it’s not far,” he declared for the THIRD TIME.

My eyes narrowed into malevolent slits. You said that again and I will swipe you. The man wandered off.

I cycled. It was cold. It was raining. And there was a headwind. I cycled to Rimouski, that 80km-from-here place. It’s not far.

My foul weather mood was punctuated by only two moments of amusement on the road:

1. Celebrating the 6,000km mark on the cold, windy roadside by chomping on 6 squares of Kendal Mintcake that, yes, I have carried in my pannier for the last 6,000km.
2. Discovering what happens to a mini packet of Haribo when it is squished into a hot pannier bag for over 2 months. The single Haribo slug still tastes the delightful same.

I am now in a private hostel room drinking Earl Grey tea (thank you Clayton and Catherine) and a box of chocolate chip cookies.

Congealed Haribo slug

Congealed Haribo slug

Ottawa!

August 3rd, 2013 | Posted by Dino in Canada | Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Day 48: Shawville to Ottawa (96.6 km)

Famous last words: “I’ve never had a day of continuous rain.”

Last night I met Tina at the campground. She’s biking around Ontario and we stayed up late (ie 10.30pm!) chatting, barely visible to each other in the dull light of a single orange glow stick. She asked me how my tour had been so far.

“What’s the weather been like?” She asked.

Note to self: do not tempt fate by saying silly things like “I’ve never had a day of continuous day.”

In the night I was woken up by rain. The flaps of my tent were already flapped down so I just rolled over and was lulled back to sleep by the pat-pattering of rain on canvas.

In the morning I was woken up by the rain again. The pat-pattering had become louder. I peeked out through the zip. Oh. The sky was a bleak sea of grey. I dug out my waterproofs and crawled out. If ever there was a reason to get out of “bed” and step into the rain it was this: maple syrup and pancakes. Did I not tweet my wish for maple syrup and pancakes yesterday? God is clearly on twitter.

I wandered over to Tina’s picnic bench with my French press (translation: cafetière). While Tina rustled up some of Aunt Jemima’s finest, I cut open a new bag of fresh coffee. We may be in a public park, we may not have washed in days, it may be pouring with rain but we can still eat breakfast like it’s Christmas morning.*

Tina making pancakes

Tina making pancakes

It was still raining. In fact, the rain seemed to have got wetter. I wandered back to my tent to discover, uh-oh, I had left one of my bike shoes poking out the tent all night. It was now soaked. Well, I guess they will both be that wet soon, I thought, wringing out the drenched sock which had resided in the shoe overnight.

I rolled up half a pond of water in my tent, clipped on my panniers and merrily cycled off with splashing tyres. It might be raining, but I had 95 kilometres of bike path to look forward to. The route verte (green route) is a huge bike trail that stretches all the way across Quebec. I would join it only a few hundred metres from my campground and only have to leave the bike trails again for a few hundred metres in Ottawa. After all this time cycling on highways it was bliss. Even the strengthening rain couldn’t dampen my spirits.

By 2pm I reached the outskirts of Gatineau and stopped by the beach for lunch. The beach was deserted save for a lone seagull eyeing me suspiciously. The snack kiosk was empty of customers. The only people in sight were a laughing group playing on the Ottawa river. Some were in motor boats, a few were on windsurfers, the majority were in kayaks and a few were out of their kayaks and squealing in the water. I imagine those in the water were equally as dry as those on it.

I watched the water folk splashing around while I munched my daily allowance of avocado and crackers. Munching cracker number one I could see the buildings on the far side of the river. But by cracker four the clouds rolled in again. Ontario disappeared in a damp, grey fog as the river met directly with the sky.

Back on the trail I enjoyed a wonderful final 30km to Ottawa. The bike trail was smooth, clean, signposted and surprisingly empty except for a handful of very keen folks skating along with ski poles (off season cross country skiers, I assume.) I couldn’t stop smiling as the familiar view of Ottawa rolled into view. Parliament! The Rideau canal! Yes, i was soaked like a drowned rat but I was dreaming of the hot shower and warm bed that awaited me.

Glorious bike path to the capital. Note roof of Parliament poking through the trees.

Glorious bike path to the capital. Note roof of Parliament poking through the trees.

On cue, as I rolled into downtown Ottawa, the clouds parted to reveal a warm blue sky. The sun warmed my prune-like, waterlogged skin and dried my drenched clothes.

Ottawa!

Ottawa!

I still had time to nip to Byward Market to get some beavertail. Beavertail is what you might call a local delicacy, although it is anything but delicate. It is deep fat fried cake-like pastry smeared in any number of artery-blocking toppings. I ordered one and demolished it. The dripping butter tasted so, so good. So I ordered another. I was tempted to go for a third but figured it might ruin my dinner.

Maple butter beavertail. A Canada delicacy.

Maple butter beavertail. A Canada delicacy.

Fuelled by beavertail, I pedalled alongside the Rideau canal to the house of my lovely hosts, Dale and Natalie. The sun was now shining enough that I needed to peel off my wet jacket and stick on my silly sunglasses. Because, after all, it never rains continuously for a whole day.

*in the Rock house we eat Canadian pancakes for breakfast on Christmas morning.

Dreaming of England

July 21st, 2013 | Posted by Dino in Canada | Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Day 40: Whitefish Falls to Tobermory (97.5 km)

Darkness. Then brilliant white light, the stunning silhouette of the trees. And darkness again.

I’ve never seen a heat storm before. We were standing outside our tents in the dry, warm evening, wearing just our pjs (or what passes for pjs while cycle-touring). The dramatic interplay of light and dark, white and night was awesome. But it was also bed time so I crept back inside my tent to sleep.

Then the storm came overhead. It wasn’t just heat any more. Rain as powerful as bullets fired against the side of my tent, battered by the wind. I felt like I was on a sailing boat: quickly I set to work shutting the hatches of my tent, closing zips, checking my kit bags were sealed and safely inside. There was no need for a head torch – the lightning itself exploded light across the tent. The thunder roared like a line of canons firing into the night sky. Then a booming crack of thunder, right above our damp, tiny tents, exploded like dynamite. Oh no, why did I camp near a tree.

I stuck in my ear plugs and tried to catch some sleep in the midst of the warzone of weather. Nonetheless I was awoken again in the night by the rain lashing on the tent. But in the morning, thankfully, my little green tent had withstood the test of the storm.

In the morning it was calm. My tent was covered in slugs. The trees, the grass, everywhere was all wet so there was nowhere to hang out my tent to dry. I tried as much as I could to flap and shake off the remaining slugs. But sadly and glumly I packed a wet tent.

My knickers and sports bra which I had worn to go swimming in yesterday had been “drying overnight” on Monty. Both were now soaking wet again. I strapped them onto the back of my bike so they could dry off as I cycled along. Off we set on the road south to Manitoulin island. For a moment I was enjoying myself and anticipating the scenic views of the island.

Oh, except then the rain came.

Again it felt like being on a boat, zipping up the flaps of my jacket and trying, in vain, to stay dry as the rain lashed down like pellets. Cycling felt okay to begin with but I soon began to struggle. I was zapped for energy. Usually this problem is fixed by eating a protein bar but on this occasion I was just so, so tired..

Cycling over the swing bridge to Manitoulin island I tried to appreciate the damp views of the rocky coastline. Its a real shame that the weather was so bad as I was looking forward to seeing the island. Jutting out into the north of Lake Huron, Manitoulin is the largest fresh water island in the world. Hay bales lay in the fields, wild grasses intruded into the road, mauve clouds loomed overhead bringing rain, then drizzle, then rain again. And of course there was a headwind. My average speed slipped slower and slower.

I stopped in a lay-by and ate a few mouthfuls of leftover chilli while sheltering in the public washroom. (Why has hanging out in washrooms had to become such a feature of this trip?) I hoped the refuelling would boost my energy but after such a broken night’s sleep I was too tired to push. My eyelids slowly flickered shut. I pushed a few pedal strokes, trying to keep my eyes open. The hills ascended. The wind pushed against me. A dead cat lay on the side of the road. It started raining again. Goose pimples appeared on my skin as the wind blew the cold rain off. My socks and gloves were soaked. My hands had turned to prunes and the skin felt sore as I gripped tightly on the wet handlebars.

Yes, this was the lowest I have felt all summer. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine that I wasn’t here. I tried to imagine to that I was playing Settlers with Seb and Ruth while drinking hot chocolate in our new flat. I tried to imagine that instead of being soaked through in unwashed Lycra I was wearing my soft, warm koala onesie. I opened my eyes: it was still raining.

I stopped to eat M&Ms. My hands felt too numb and weak to open the packet. i tried ripping the corner with my mouth. The packet burst open and a handful of M&Ms fell into the wet gravel. I could have cried. From that spot on I stopped every 8 kilometres to eat a handful of M&Ms. Those chocolate peanuts saved me.

Inch by inch, M&M by M&M, I crawled slowly towards the ferry port. With only a few kilometres to go to South Baymouth (and almost none of my family-sized pack of chocolate peanuts left) it stopped raining and the sun almost came out. I noticed a public beach with a nice, dry spot to sit and a railing. So after laying out my tent to dry on the railing, I lay my exhausted body in the shade of the flapping fly and snoozed.

The quick sleep gave me the energy to cycle to the ferry port. The small town of South Baymouth reminds me of coastal England. Gulls circled over the numerous signs for icecream and fish and chips. Waves rolled and crashes slowly on the grey rocks. The only thing missing was a sunburnt woman wearing an unflattering strappy top and bald man drinking beer.

It was nice that it reminded me of England as today, in the rain, cold, exhaustion etc, I had moments of really wishing I was not so far from home. On the ferry to Tobermory I feel asleep. And probably dreamt of England.

Congregation of cyclists

July 20th, 2013 | Posted by Dino in Canada | Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Day 39: Blind River to Whitefish Falls (127.5 km)

I woke up to the sound of rain pattering on my tent. Oh well, I thought, turning over to catch another half an hour’s sleep. Oh eek, I thought, a second later jumping out the tent in just my underwear to rescue my bike shorts that had been left outside overnight to “dry” on Monty.

I found the Wanderers curled up in the washroom eating breakfast. This has become something of a feature of the trip: rainy mornings hiding in washrooms. The only plus side of the rain was that it wasn’t so hot. We’ve had a couple of really, really hot (over 30 degree ) days. It’s been tough to cycle in. The recent heat has also caused heat rash on my bottom. Specially, on the spots where bum meets leg meets saddle. Signs of it first emerged a couple of days ago. First I was a bit perplexed because it doesn’t look or feel like normal cyclist’s chafe. But it hurts. It feels like I am sitting on a stone. I climb out the saddle and sit down again, trying to find a more comfortable spot but it soon gets sore again. It made for an uncomfortable day’s riding all day.

After a very large coffee in Tim Hortons with Kat we set off cycling along muggy, drizzly highway. There isn’t much to say about the scenery today. Mostly just undulating hills, lots more traffic, a thin shoulder, some trees, some signposts, an overcast sky etc.

While cycling in northern Ontario I’ve been thinking of the plentiful wild camping opportunities. I feel like I should wild camp on this trip. Riding with Kat she told me the experiences of two guys who wild camped in Canada. Here’s why Kat is not about to wild camp in Ontario…

Reason #1: Kat met a man cycling across Canada west who decided to wild camp. He had left an apple in his tent. In the middle of the night a bear sniffed him out, swiped his claw through the canvas, grabbed the apple, starred the man down and slumped off into the forest. Eek.

Reason #2: Kat met another man cycling across Canada who decided to wild camp in the Middle of Nowhere. He was located miles from anywhere, hidden away in the forest, invisible from the road. In the middle of the night he was woken up by the violent shaking of his tent. He unzipped his tent to find a homeless man. “What are you doing?” The camper exclaimed. “I couldn’t open the zip,” the homeless man replied. Without further explanation he wandered off into the forest.

Oh. So maybe I won’t wild camp.

After 100km of riding I turned right off the highway towards Manitoulin island. I arrived in the town of Espanola and headed to one of the town’s 3 grocery stores to pick up supplies. Somewhere between the chicken and the fruit I bumped into the Wanderers. Then near the potatoes I saw Kat again. Outside, packing up Monty, I spotted another two cyclists who came over to chat. They are a slightly eccentric American duo cycling from Seattle to Boston. And then, just as I was packed, a small family cycling across Canada from Vancouver with their 10 year old son rolled in.

That’s right: 5pm on a Thursday outside a grocery store in a small town in northern Ontario gathered a total of 9 trans continental cyclists. It’s a small world.

The cyclists hang out

The cyclists hang out

Out of Espanola the landscape quickly changed again. It was hot, very hot. and the air smelt of wet grassland and salt. Suddenly it was very hilly. I rued the large amount of groceries I’d purchased as I pushed down into my lowest gears.

Headed towards Manitoulin the landscape become hilly and beautiful again

Headed towards Manitoulin the landscape become hilly and beautiful again

After a long day on the road the Wanderers and I swung into the campground. It was an odd sort of place.

“Is there a shower?” I asked.
“Only a cold shower,” the lady replied, “or you can just swim in the river. I think there’s an inflatable dinosaur down at the waterfront and you are welcome to make use of that.”
“And where is the washroom?”
“It’s in the stone building. Or you can just bag your loo paper and go wherever.”
Erm… Thanks.

I didn’t make use of the inflatable dinosaur, but I did go for a swim in the river. Some Canada geese were floating downstream, the light was lower in the sky, a number of coloured boats were lined up on the grassy banks on either side. It reminded me for a minute of swimming in the Thames.

Another day in Canada

July 11th, 2013 | Posted by Dino in Canada | Uncategorized - (1 Comments)

Day 31: Kashabowie to Thunder Bay (126km)

Another day I wake up when my alarm goes off and get up when the sun heats up my little tent so that I begin to wilt like a pot plant in a polythene bag. Another morning I stretch during breakfast. Ooh that feels stiff ( pirisformis, quads and hamstrings). I worry that my back is becoming increasingly wonky due – my old back injury is flaring up again.

Another day I pack up, shuffling around drinking the dregs of the coffee while waiting for the fly of my tent to dry out as it blows from a nearby tree branch.

Another morning we are about to set off and then are interrupted by “The Conversation”. You know how it goes…

“Where you ladies headed to?”

We all look round at each other. Who’s going to do it this time? Then “and where did you start? Where you headed to today?” A few exclamations of surprise, followed by comments on the road ahead and other cyclists seen in last 2 weeks, polished off with well wishes and a goodbye. Don’t get me wrong, I like telling people about the trip. I just wish the selection of questions asked could be mixed up a bit.

Another day we set off to pedal 30km before devouring protein bars for Second Breakfast.

More cycling. More sunshine. More water sipped on the move. More photos snapped

Another time zone crossed. Whoop whoop. Another merge onto a highway. More trucks, fewer rocks. Still the same deep green forest all around. The verge is lined with wildflowers: orange, yellow and white speckles like flecks of acrylic paint.

Another wildlife spot – two wolves (or where they coyotes?) run across the road. Minutes later they run back the other way in quick pursuit of some unseen prey. Another unrecognisable species of grouse sits, still as a statue, by the roadside, its body well camouflaged amongst the tall grasses. A fox runs across the road.

Another day we see bikes stopped on the shoulder ahead of us. It’s Stan and Shirley again. We hadn’t seen them since Swift Current and stop to hear their tales of the road (Stan has crashed twice due to trucks not giving them enough space on the main highway- I am so, so glad we took highway 71)

Another day the darkening clouds gather, threatening rain and thunder. We can hear before we stop the ferocious crash of water: the rusty water of Kakabeka Falls crashes violently over the rocks. The noise is as impressive as it is daunting. The clouds grow darker.

Another day we cycle 33km non stop in pouring rain. We are overtaken by lumber trucks, smelling the wet wood as it splashes past. Another day of wet socks, wet cleats. Water dripping down the neck of my jacket. Tanned thighs covered in rain drops. Another day we cycle through construction (translation: road works) and swear out loud at the idiot who squeezes past us dangerously close only to meet us again at the red light.

Another day we roll into a bike shop. More talk of gears, brake pads, tyres, cables. More protein bars purchased. More food greedily devoured after another 100km on the road.

And in the darkening fog we cycle to the campground. It’s closed. So we park in nearby park. Rain. Darkness. Slapping canvas of the tent, trees buffeted by the wind. Rain. Ache. Sleep.

Tomorrow it begins again.

Another day in Canada.

The deluge

July 7th, 2013 | Posted by Dino in Canada | Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Day 29: Fort Frances to Atikokan (153.5km)

This is a nightmare.

I am cycling alone in bear country. The rain is pouring and pouring. I have cycled 100km already. I still have 50km to go. There is nothing, nobody here. I ring my bell, I call out loud to scare off the bears. And so I can hear a human voice.

The sky flashes. I count the pedal strokes. 7, 8, 9…The thunder rumbles. I remember that awful moment coming out of Calgary. Don’t ride in thunderstorms. But what else can I do right now? I scan the roadside for possible wild camping spots. Yet the thought of sitting in a tent in this weather is equally terrifying. I just want to get there. I pedal as fast as I can.

There are kilometres I don’t remember. I just kept pedalling. The lightning stopped and soon I realised that I had not heard thunder for a while. How long, how far I don’t know. It was still raining.

The birds had stopped singing. The rain has drowned out every other sound save for the rattle of raindrop on the tarmac, the splashing of Monty’s wheels and the soft metallic hiss of his disc brakes.

I saw a sign up ahead for a fishing resort with a campground 1km off the road. With 38km to Atikokan I decided it was worth a try. I stopped at the roadside to collect rocks and rubbish and write “Dino” with an arrow point left on the roadside – my sign to the Wanderers so they knew where I’d gone. When I leapt down the verge to collect the rocks a swarm of mosquitoes swirled around me biting at every spot of available flesh.

Approaching the fishing ground my heart sank slightly. The brown wooden cabins looked somewhat derelict. There was no sign of life save for the mosquitoes that gathered on my face and legs. Nervously I entered the green house labelled as “office & store”. Inside it was dark. The only light came from a small square front window which cast a gloomy light over the small, ramshackle front desk. Fishing maps and an old manual till sat on the desk. At the back of the room a limbless bear hide lay on a dusty table, the jaws of the dead animal hanging open and gormless with lifeless terror. A deer head was mounted above a few shelves, empty save for a few old tins of beans and a single jar of mayonnaise. I could hear the noise of a television from behind the closed door that stood behind the desk. I rang the bell. Nothing. I rang the bell again and called out again. The door creaked open and a shaft of light entered the gloom.

“Hello?” I called again apprehensively.

I looked down the doorway and saw a small cat. It eyed me suspiciously, took a furtive step forwards and then backed away. The door closed. I rang the bell. Again the door creaked, the cat crept a step out, eyed my suspiciously and backed away. Nothing.

I walked outside and surveyed the pouring rain. I approached the nearest cabin, wondering that if perhaps it was unlocked I could rest there for a while.

“Can I help you?” A voice came from the cabin. Behind the wire mesh of the window I could just about make our a tall figure, with long hair and thick beard. I asked him if he ran the place. “Sort of,” he replied mysteriously.

“I was cycling to Atikokan but then the rain and thunder started,” I began. At this point the kind stranger usually apologies for the weather and the bugs and ushers the feeble, soaked cyclist into the indoors. I stood outside in the rain.

“It’s not supposed to thunderstorm again,” the man replied matter of factly. “Just heavy rain.”

Oh. “Are you not open then?”

“No, not really.” He turned away into the darkness

I was relieved that I could leave. The place was freaking me out. But it also meant I still had 38km to ride in the rain. Back on the highway the Wanderers had caught up with me. It was comforting to see their outline, like two horsemen side by side, in the distance behind.

When I reach 18km to go I know I will make it. 18km is the distance of my commute home from work. However dark, cold, wet and windy it has been I have always, always managed to cycle home. I am not in Ontario, I said to myself. I am just cycling home. I am turning off onto the Sustrans route, I am passing Danish camp, then climbing over the bypass.

The last 4km felt like the longest of the day. We were all looking a little worse for wear. My fingers had turned white and prune-like in the rain. My feet squelched in the socks and shoes that hadn’t never dried over since yesterday’s thunderstorm dash (note: merino socks are still warm even when completely and utterly drenched).

The Wanderers sought out the cheapest motel in Atikokan. I needed only one thing: hot pizza. We found the pizza (not without meeting a very odd man on the street who offered to buy us “two drinks each”… But something about his weird face and stumbling manner made us politely decline). And enjoyed an 18″ pizza washed down with beer. We were sat at the window of the restaurant. The curve of the setting sun was just visible underneath a sea of thick, dark clouds. To entertain us four teenagers cycled back and forth in front of the window trying to catch our attention. They glared, they waved like the queen, they got off and carried their bikes under their arms like a pile of important documents, they cycled backwards (okay, that one was quite impressive). There is clearly nothing to do in this town.

Tomorrow is a rest day. Thank goodness. After 7 hours and 40 minutes on the bike I am so tired and my muscles feel ridiculous. We must rest well for on Monday we need to cycle 178km (!) to Kakabeka Falls.