Month: June 2013

Southern Ontario

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Stephane rode with me out from Laval for about 40-50km, stopping when we reached a flooded portion of the trail near the river. Wise man. I assumed that the water couldn’t be more than 6 inches deep. I was wrong. The flooding came up to my bike’s axle (about 14 inches). I decided to tough it out, figuring that I would get more wet if I put my feet down to shuffle back and find a detour. As I navigated through the water, I hoped desperately that I wouldn’t run into a submerged pothole and take a spill. Fish were darting away from me, and I felt oddly out of place. I guess this was the result of the intense rain storms from the last several days.

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Not long after, I crossed the Ottawa river from Oka to Hudson. I had heard about the Prescott-Russell Recreational Trail and thought it would be a nice change of pace to head in to Ottawa on a stone dust trail, and it had an added bonus of being about 20km shorter than the highway alternatives. I checked google maps (which has turned out to be far more reliable than my GPS, which I now only use to keep statistics), and discovered there was a trailhead on the western outskirts of Rigaud. I was about to cross into Ontario, and I took a long breather here, reflecting on the countless memorable experiences during the last 750 or so km. 5 provinces, done. 5 to go.

I located the trail head and quickly realized that there was a disparity between what was advertised on the trail’s website and what I was experiencing. Rocks the size of baseballs thinly covered an old rail bed – not exactly ideal terrain for, well, anything. I persisted as long as my nerves allowed, but I soon became incredibly frustrated, feeling as though I was at the mercy of the trail, and I looked for an exit. I ended up crossing into Ontario through old farm roads, hardly the grand entrance I was expecting into Canada’s largest province.

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I gave the trail a second chance, deciding that the photos I had seen couldn’t have been a complete misrepresentation, and I soon arrived at one of the more developed entrances near St. Eugène. The trail was flat, straight, and, thankfully, rideable. Time for some actual progress! I headed about 15km to the next main road crossing at Vankleek Hill and decided I’d camp by the path for the evening after restocking at the local grocer. The town appeared to have been named literally, as it was situated at the top of a small yet not insignificant elevation just south of the trail.

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The next morning was brisk and beautiful. Also, windy. In fact, it was one of the windiest days in a while, and the combination of wind and the surprisingly inefficient stone dust trail made progress towards Ottawa abysmally slow. Eastern Ontario appeared to be mostly farmland, and I made my way through countless pastures occasionally inhabited by groups of bored animals.

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The trail ended. Abruptly. With a stop sign and no immediately apparent exit. Seriously? It was funny enough that I didn’t care. Ottawa was not far off now. I cut across some farmland to a main road and found myself on the outskirts of Ottawa’s industrial sector. Finally, some pavement. My pace quickened as I headed to my host’s apartment, and the final 15km breezed by, despite the gusty head winds.

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I spent a day in Ottawa, connecting with a friend from St John’s and learning a bit about the Parliament Buildings. The buildings were architectural marvels: there seemed to be no wall left barren of intricacies, from the immaculately shaped limestone in the Centre Block to the reverently sculpted shelves in the Library of Parliament.

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I met another tourist: Eden. She was about to go off on a solo tour and explore northern Quebec, and we both happened to be spending the day in Ottawa. Very cool girl with a very long ponytail.

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With the details of my route towards Toronto finalized, I headed south-west. Rain ended up being my constant companion, but that meant that I had the wind at my back, and I covered significant ground. I made it as far as Lyndhurst the first evening, receiving a welcome offer of hospitality from a local couple. The next day, after passing through Kingston, I came across some American bike tourists, and we continued on together to Bloomfield after we discovered common purpose in our final (temporary) destinations (Toronto).

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The bike shop I stayed at was a haven for long haul tourists. Behind the main building was an old car garage converted into a kitchen/bathroom/living room area with accommodation for up to 15 cyclists in various nooks and crannies around the space. Each bed had mosquito netting, which I gladly availed myself of.

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I received a severe reprimand on the care I was giving my bike, and I left them with a new sense of respect for my drivetrain. The next morning, after a gargantuan breakfast consisting of preserves, homemade waffles, yogurt, we all casually headed off towards Cobourg, about 90km west. The trip was relatively uneventful, though I did have to perform a bit of surgery on my rear brake for a problem that originated just before Ottawa but only now was causing me problems. Roadside maintenance is empowering.

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Once we reached Cobourg, I was reminded of one of the key differences between solo and group travelling: deciding on where to set up camp for the night. It’s easy to disappear into foliage when one only has to worry about one (green) bike and one (green) tent, but five bikes and three tents presents a bigger challenge. In the end, we casually waltzed into an RV park after hours and parked ourselves in an unassuming corner. We were fortunate to have entertainment for the evening, as a completely hammered dude spent most of the night rambling incoherently at a picnic table not far from our own.

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The next day we started early. I was planning to bike all the way into Toronto (~130km), whereas the Yankees intended to go as far as Oshawa (~80km) before taking a train into the heart of the city. About half an hour into the day, we went our separate ways, as the Super Bike Buddies realized that they had forgotten something back at the camp.

I opted to head off the #2 highway for a bit to see what Lakeshore Rd was all about. It sounded scenic. It wasn’t. Well, sometimes it was; it was mainly really hilly, and the quality of the road was significantly lower than that of the highway. After 30km or so of frustrating and exhausting perseverance, I took the nearest exit back to the #2 through Newcastle. I took a breather here at a small local bakery that had just opened (they had signs). Upon finding out it was my birthday (I bought cake) and learning more of my trip (I told her), the lady proceeded to spoil me with several sandwiches, cookies, and a salad. Happy Birthday!

I decided that I would gift myself with that train from Oshawa to downtown Toronto, as I continued to hear nightmarish stories about the non-existant shoulders, constant stop lights, and heavy congestion that only became worse the closer I got.

I had a connection to stay on a sailboat berthed off the Toronto Islands, but not before seeing a friend of mine for dinner downtown. Birthday dinner! Thank you, Rachel!

Birthday everything, it seemed, for when I finally arrived at Ward Island and headed down to a small beach before retiring on the boat, I bore witness to one of the best views I’ve had thus far: Toronto’s skyline. Wow. I’d seen photos, but they really fail to capture to energy of the futuristic cityscape, with its subtle glow and its immense proportions, both hopelessly overwhelming and instantly recognizable. I felt I could sit there forever enraptured by the distant electric hum and hypnotic brilliance of Canada’s largest city. The gently rippling water sent the reflective light cascading in imitative ecstasy, as even nature seemed to be paying homage to the sprawling metropolis.

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Then I got sick. For several days, it turns out. I was staying with another friend in the city, and a nasty stomach flu that left me very weak and unable to eat. I was practically bedridden. The weather also took a turn for the worse, so I didn’t feel I was missing too much.

I did manage to get to an awesome concert with the TSO and the hot little Asian soloist, Yuja Wang. It was so great to hear the orchestra, and for an hour and a half I felt lucky to be able sidestep back into the “regular” world and take in a piece of high society.

I knew I had to keep moving, as I was reuniting with a friend of mine in Waterloo, but I also knew I was too weak, so I took the bus. I felt (and still feel) a bit guilty about travelling 100km or so using GO Transit, but I reasoned that I was already on a significant tangent as is, coming down to Toronto, and so this was ultimately an inconsequential decision. Still…

The past week here has gone by quickly. Not as I expected, but still an immensely enjoyable experience. My friend and I were fortunate to be able to get out to Grand Bend, where we saw a sunset that seemed to never end, constantly changing in its hues and textures. As I waded out into the tropical looking expanse of Lake Huron and took in the vibrant and surreal colours, I was filled with a desperate and intractable yearning for adventure. At that moment, I knew with absolute certainly that this would not be my last tour. How else can such a vast expanse of land feel so intimate? I looked out into the empty horizon and knew that, in a short time, I would be somewhere beyond it, steadfastly pedalling on some distant road, cursing some inevitable headwind and rejoicing in some breathtaking vista.

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Yet the rest of Ontario broods north of here, like a monster waiting to swallow me up. It’s nearly 1800km until I cross into Manitoba, and every time I glance at the map I shudder as I look at Highway 17 crawling remotely along the coast of Lake Superior up to Thunder Bay and then darting off into the middle of nowhere until the border.

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The tour goes north.

“When I go biking, I repeat a mantra of the day’s sensations:  bright sun, blue sky, warm breeze, blue jay’s call, ice melting and so on.  This helps me transcend the traffic, ignore the clamorings of work, leave all the mind theaters behind and focus on nature instead.  I still must abide by the rules of the road, of biking, of gravity.  But I am mentally far away from civilization.  The world is breaking someone else’s heart.”

-Diane Ackerman

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A Tale of Two Cities

A bike tour has no ideal. There is no way in which it is supposed to unfold, and there are no things that must happen for it to be considered a “bike touring experience.” This is something which I think I am slowly coming to terms with, especially as I enter and exit bigger cities.

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Quebec’s tourism industry is thriving, and I found it a bit overwhelming trying to decide what my “must do’s” of this stop were. Thankfully, the weather was awful for my entire visit, and so I was forced to improvise, and improvisation is wonderful.

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Nearly every day I spent with my friend and her family started like this:

Eventually, we would decide to do something, and as the four days I spent there unfolded, I fell in love with the randomness.

I snuck into the upper floors of Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. This was silly, but so much fun. I love the idea of getting lost inside big buildings. There’s adventure in it, and attempting to navigate the convoluted logic of hotel labyrinths brings a childlike sense of wonder to the ceremonious and dressed up architecture.

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I sat in a car and listened to the heavy rain. I could do this for hours. It’s no secret that I love the rain, but I especially love it from the confines of an impromptu fortress. It’s incessant rapping becomes as comforting as a heartbeat, and its consistency like that of an old friend. Rain would be the perfect weather if it wasn’t so wet.

It can be really hard to write about staying in a city. When on the move, there’s the constant change of scenery, and events are so matter-of-fact that the trip practically writes itself. I cherished my time in QC, but for so many reasons that I can’t put into words. Everything would seem so mundane and trivial, and I can’t betray my affection for my memories by trying to extract every last detail from them.

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After many goodbyes and sincere promises for future reconnections, I was on my way again towards Trois-Rivières. This time, I switched to the north side of the river onto highway 132, as it’d been recommended as the more scenic route. However, it quickly moved inland enough to put the St Lawrence out of view, and I took the first opportunity I could to get a bit closer by one of the many side roads along the shore. Some words of caution: when you see a road zig-zagging on a map, there’s a good chance that it indicates steep hills, and on one of my scenic detours, I encountered my first (and hopefully last) 26% grade climb, 10% more than anything I’d seen up to that point. Exhausting.

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True to form, the northern road was a treat, being mostly flat (save for that easily avoidable nonsense at the beginning) and relatively free of traffic. I encountered mostly beautiful farmland on the stretch between Quebec City and Trois-Rivières. The 125km day passed by uneventfully, but the relaxed cycling allowed the expansive and serene landscape to fill my heart as I reflected on the many great moments I had in QC.

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A friend of mine in St John’s gave me a connection in T-R, and so I spent the night in a comfortable bed, my fifth night in such comfortable accommodations. The couple I stayed with were very kind, and fed me generously. They also packed a lunch for me the next day! This gesture stuck with me; for a brief moment, I felt like a young boy heading off to school, not a grown man travelling across the continent.

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I had made a warmshowers connection in Laval – just above Montreal – and I headed off late the next morning optimistic about making the next 150km stretch in a day. The wind had other plans for me, though, and by the 85km mark, I was spent, and I started surveyed the sides of the road for a suitable camping spot.

I ran into a couple of gals who were just heading out from Montreal on a 3 month tour of Quebec! They had impressive bikes, and I asked them far too many questions about their gear. We ended up camping together behind some hedges on some nicely trimmed lawn in Berthierville, and as I viewed our site from a distance to see just how visible we were, I was glad that for the colour our tents.

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Kept lawns and tended to hedges meant that we had to get moving quite early, as we knew that it wouldn’t be long before maintenance staff started rolling in. Sure enough, as we prepared breakfast across the road, we saw vehicle after vehicle enter the large gardens. If we were slightly lazier, we surely would have been spotted.

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After breakfast, we went our separate ways, and I headed towards Montreal in no particular hurry, since the day had barely even begun, and I had a mere 85km until my destination. The weather was restless, and I couldn’t decide just how waterproof I wanted to be. All of its indecisiveness vanished as I entered the giant island of Montreal, though, and conditions were generally wet and miserable for the final 25km of riding. Nearly all of the roads had designated bike paths, but their conditions were quite rough, and I spent plenty of time and energy dodging the numerous potholes and cracks.

I finally arrived in Laval and connected with my host family, who lived just across the bridge from Montreal. They’re a family of four who’ve done some big bike touring, and it was great to talk about our many common experiences while on (or off) the road. I declared that I would bake cookies for them in appreciation of their hospitality. However, that is a skill that has seemingly been sacrificed in the service of my tour; I’m happy to report that no one was harmed in the consumption of those “cookies.”

Montreal has been an significantly different experience than Quebec City. Due mostly to ominous forecasts, I’ve spent four days here, as in QC. That’s where the parallels end, though. To be honest, I’ve felt the sheer size of Montreal to be quite overwhelming. I don’t think I’d ever want to live in a big city. I feel too insignificant. I guess on some scale, we’re all insignificant, but it’s nice not to be reminded of it all the time. I found that the constant streams of unfamiliar faces left me feeling a bit isolated.

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I must have walked 20km on my first day in Montreal, with no less than 5 of those km being to try a true Montreal-style bagel. Definitely worth it. In fact, I was impressed with every restaurant I tried. A friend of mine connected me with some local peeps on Thursday, and I took my bike out on the town to find them. Carting my bike around with me as we went around the more populated areas renewed some of the charm of being a bike tourist. The bike, even unladen, was often a conversation piece, and I’m sure I was wearing a big silly grin whenever I had the opportunity to go into the details of my journey.

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Itching to dance, I got out to take some swing classes on Friday, down at a highly recommended place called Cat’s Corner. So much fun! The entire place was a sweaty mess due to the high heat and humidity, but no one cared.

My host family has been incredibly generous and flexible with their time, as my departure date has changed twice now, but tomorrow, I will head off towards Ottawa, no matter what the conditions. The desire to move is strong, and I can’t wait to be on the road again. Hopefully the skies have purged themselves sufficiently enough to give me a relatively fuss-free trip, but the frequent spectacular thunder and lightning storms during the last couple of days have assured me that, even if the conditions are less than ideal, I’ll have something cool to look at.

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On the last night of my stay in Laval, another warmshowers bike tourist showed up! Martin is from Switzlerland, and he just finished biking up from New York City. It’s quite funny that we’re both at the same house at the same time. Soon, he’ll be off to Quebec, and I’m a little bit jealous of the tail wind that he’ll inevitably be riding with.

Oh…I finally gave my bike a much needed upgrade:

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Kudos to Dave Conroy for the fork-mounted water bottle holder idea. If bike touring has any staple, it’s cock sauce. Bonus: it can double as short-range bear spray in a pinch. I think.

Catch ya later!