Northern Ontario

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By the time I got to the Ontario border I was lean and tanned and understood the rhythms of cycle touring. I had been on the road for nearly a month, but Northern Ontario had intimidated me more than any other stretch of the journey. I packed my passport with me from the beginning of the journey so that I would have the option of taking the alternate route that some x-Canada cyclists choose through the United States.

I had been told scary stories about the dangerous roads of Northern Ontario with heavy traffic, big trucks, bad pavement, and no shoulders. I’ve been told that the bugs were unbearable and that the stretches between towns were long and isolated. And then there are the significant hills around Lake Superior, like mini mountain passes. People told me about their friends who tried to bike across Canada but couldn’t make it through Northern Ontario. Since the very beginning in BC, I had feared Ontario. I knew if there was anywhere that would make me want to quit, it would be this 2,000 KM stretch.

But I’m stubborn, and I wanted my journey to truly be across Canada. So I went for it, starting with Kenora; another town that I probably would have never come across were it not for this trip, but one that left a lasting impression on my heart with its landscape of endless lakes.

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As I continued on to Dryden I watched a storm creep towards the highway. I tried to sprint the last 40 KMs but I was still 15 KM away from the town by the time the dark grey clouds were directly overhead. I had to choose between riding through the storm or stopping at a house on the side of the highway to ask if I could wait out the storm under the couple feet of roof overhang. I chose the latter. Little did I know that when I knocked on that door I would make friends that I still keep in touch with. Not only did they let me wait out the storm, but they invited me to stay for dinner, use their shower, and stay the night in their spare room. After dinner we got dressed up, went out for ice cream, and they took me on a tour of Dryden which included a suspension bridge that leads to nowhere. I was caught off guard and humbled by their kindness to an absolute stranger who appeared on their doorstep in the wake of a storm.

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About 40 KM past Dryden is where the paved shoulders on the highway end (there are, however, gravel shoulders that are slow and difficult to ride). I strongly suggest that anyone who rides this highway has a bike mirror, as mine literally saved my life on more than one occasion. It is a two lane highway and if traffic is going both ways, the vehicles have nowhere to move over and it is the cyclists’ responsibility to veer off the road into the gravel, as I did many times a day. At first I had a mirror that fitted on the bar end, but I didn’t like how I had to look so far down each time, so in Kenora I picked up a much better mirror.

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After a couple days of riding in Northern Ontario I started to realize that the things that made Ontario intimidating were also what made it incredibly rewarding. This stretch of the journey felt wild, yet brought an inner sense of peace. It was remote, but not beyond the reach of help if I needed it. While I had struggled to occupy my mind on the prairies, Northern Ontario was all forest, lakes, and wildlife. A bear ran across the highway about 100 m in front of me, almost causing a crash with an oncoming vehicle who managed to slam on their brakes in time to avoid disaster. I was conscious of keeping my food far from the tent, preferably hung high beyond the reach of bears.

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Because I had started at the beginning of July, I hadn’t come across many other cycle tourists. But the highway in Northern Ontario acts like a funnel for the cyclists who are all forced onto the same route. Luckily for me I came across a father/son x-Canada duo and spent a couple days cycling and camping with them.

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In my mind I divided Northern Ontario into two sections – Kenora to Thunder Bay, and Thunder Bay to Sault St. Marie. Before getting into Thunder Bay I crossed onto Eastern Standard time and over the Atlantic watershed. I even saw a logging truck on fire.

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Getting to Thunder Bay meant that I was approximately halfway through Northern Ontario, and certainly halfway across Canada. I got my first glimpse of Lake Superior from the harbour in Thunder Bay, and from that moment on I was enamoured with it.

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It would take a whole week of effort to get around this lake that felt more like an ocean. The next morning I decided to get up before dawn so that I could see the sunrise at the Terry Fox monument on the outskirts of the city. This is the place that he was force to end his ride, and it was a powerful moment in my trip.

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In my opinion, Lake Superior is the most underrated region of Canada. My days melted into a blur of beauty, always tempting me to stop cycling and explore. Shorelines and docks and sunsets on repeat.

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The hills I’d been warned of began in earnest east of Nipigon and continued until Sault St. Marie. But what surprised me was that I loved them. They were a challenge that I took seriously, but by the time I got to Terrace Bay I understood that I had exaggerated the perils of Northern Ontario in my mind. That is not to say that it wasn’t difficult terrain, but that I was better prepared than I had given myself credit and that it was precisely the difficulty that made it so wonderful.

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I will always contend that traveling by bike is the way to see Lake Superior from land. My bike and I could go places that cars couldn’t, like to beaches where the tiny parking lots were full, or down random trails off the highway where cars would never be able to noticed, let alone safely park. Lake Superior Provincial Park was stunning.

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I was genuinely sad when it was time to part ways with Lake Superior, even though it wasn’t rational. Next stop, Sault St. Marie where my bestie and her husband spent a day goofing around with me.

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Reaching Sault St. Marie felt like the end of Northern Ontario, though I know there is some contention as to where that boundary actually lies, and most would argue that it was still a long way off. But with the big box stores and the traffic, it felt like I was out of the wilderness and into populated Ontario. Though somewhat deflated after leaving the serenity of Lake Superior, I was getting closer to Ottawa where my friends awaited me. Each step of the journey had its own particular challenges: the steepness of the mountains, the flatness of the prairies, the isolation of northern Ontario, and the next challenge was the population density of southern Ontario.

Manitoba

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By the time I got to Manitoba it was the end of July. The bugs were about the same as Saskatchewan, which is to say annoying at best and relentless at worst. The people were unbelievably kind – this was a theme across my whole journey, but it was especially true of Manitoba. In the first town I stopped in a man would not rest until I accepted his twenty dollar bill, insisting that “dinner was on him tonight!”

Across Canada people had shown me unbelievable kindness, but I think one of the moments that stuck with me most happened in Brandon, MB. I was downtown and a fellow cyclist started a conversation with me. While we were chatting I made some superficial observations that made me think that maybe this man was of low socio-economic status. He made a joke and asked if I wanted a Manitoba flag for the back of my bike. Knowing that he didn’t have one, I played along and said that if he gave me one I’d wear it with pride. We parted ways and I went into the library and sat by the window where I could keep an eye on my locked bike. I noticed the man return and started looking up and down the street before getting close to my bike. Oh no, I thought, this is the part where I watch myself get robbed. He turned around and saw me sitting in the window. A huge smile broke across his face, which I thought was a weird reaction for someone that had just been caught red handed. Then he held up a plastic bag and took out a Winnipeg Jets hat and pointed to me, then the hat, then me again. He motioned me to come outside. What I had mistaken for scoping out the bike had been an effort to find me and give the hat to me personally, and when he could see me anywhere he went up to my bike to tuck it under one of the bungee cords. I felt so humbled. He was so excited to give me the hat, you could tell that this man understood the joy of giving. This will be my favourite hat for the rest of my days.

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By happy coincidence, friends from high school were at a family reunion in Portage la Prairie. They invited me to be an honourary family member for the day, and it was an honour indeed.

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When planning this trip I understood that, in all likelihood, I would be spending my 25th birthday alone in the middle of nowhere Northern Ontario. I dreaded this, and wondered if it would be one of the loneliest days, not just of the trip, but of my life. But because of a couple difficult weather systems that had slowed my pace, I was in Winnipeg on my birthday. And by coincidence, a friend that I had met in Quebec a decade earlier was home in Winnipeg and invited me to stay with her and her family and take a rest day on my birthday. I was so relieved.

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My friend and her husband spoiled me. We went to the Forks, and then to the Manitoba Museum where there was an exhibit about Terry Fox that I wanted to visit. My friend tipped off the news crew that was at the museum that I was on my own cross-Canada journey.

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After the museum, sushi for dinner!

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I felt so lucky to have shared this day with such good people. On the way home, I was overwhelmed with gratitude, thinking of how different this day could have been. When we arrived home, her family had a cards and cake and balloons waiting. My heart was overwhelmed. What was the most dreaded day of the trip was transformed into one of the most memorable birthdays of my life.

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Refreshed, I got back on the road the next day, passing the longitudinal centre of Canada and on to Ontario.

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Additional notes about Manitoba:

  • the highway between Winnipeg and the Ontario border is really tough with only a few inches of pavement between the rumble strips and the gravel. Also, very few services and the one I stopped at didn’t have potable water at the gas station. Stock up and be ready to be self sufficient until Kenora.
  • swampy ditches off the side of the highway makes for some gnarly bug habitat
  • Friendly Manitoba – the licence plates don’t exaggerate
  • free camping easy in small towns, similar situation to Saskatchewan

 

Saskatchewan

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I had gotten used to bugs at this point, or so I thought. At the end of a day of riding bugs would be in my teeth, down my shirt and sports bra, in the corners of my eyes, and speckled across my top like a windshield. Coming down a mountain pass I had a fly get stuck in my ear. To the distress of the fly and myself, it couldn’t escape because of the force of the wind pushing it back, and I didn’t dare take my hands of the bars at such speeds to get rid of it. So the fly buzzed madly in my ear for at least five minutes until I could slow down and help it on its way. In another instance I took a drink of my water bottle to discover that I had inadvertently squeezed an earwig who was living in the recessed cap into my mouth. Bugs are something you just get used to.

When things like this would happen I’d go through a checklist conversation with myself.

Freaking out me: AHHHH I’M FREAKING OUT.

Rational me: What’s wrong?

Freaking out me: There is a BUG in my EAR/MOUTH/FOOD/EYES/WATER BOTTLE.

Rational me: Are you hurt?

Freaking out me: No.

Rational me: Okay. Are you in danger?

Freaking out me: …. no.

Rational me: Okay. Are you uncomfortable?

Freaking out me: Well no duh. 

Rational me: So what are you going to do about it?

I had this conversation with myself countless times along the journey. Most of the time the conversations ended with me either telling myself to be comfortable with the uncomfortable or make small adjustments to make myself less uncomfortable. But no matter what, there are going to be moments of discomfort on a trip like this.

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It wasn’t until Saskatchewan that I started to understand that I’d actually been very fortunate in my encounters with bugs thus far. In Saskatchewan I started cycling on the Trans Canada Highway which begins to cut across some swamp land. Because of this I saw a lot of really cool looking birds, but it also was a breading ground for some pretty nasty bugs including horseflies.

It only took one horsefly bite for me to take the threat seriously. The pain of the bite took me so by surprise that I let out a Hollywood worthy woman cry (think Star Wars Episode II when Padme gets her back clawed by the space cat monster in the death arena.) and I nearly lost my balance on my bike. It had bitten through my cycling jersey on my back shoulder blade. I was so rattled by the experience that evading horseflies because my new obsession. They trumped every other fear I had about the road. All my other worries seemed hypothetical. Big transport trucks? People texting and driving? These were potential threats. Horseflies were certain.

I began hoping that the huge transport trucks that I dreaded would drive by so that their gusts would knock the horseflies off course. These fiendish creatures were the size of jelly beans and they struck hardest in the heat of the afternoon. Once the sun got behind me I could keep track of them because they cast a shadow on the pavement in front of me. Horseflies will chase you for kilometres, and they are impossible to outrun. One night I spent my precious phone battery and data trying to outsmart the horseflies instead of contacting my loved ones. My biggest advantage over them is that I am able to learn about them and outsmart them, I told myself. My research wasn’t encouraging. I learned that they could fly up to 145 km/hour -the fastest insect on the planet – so out running them wasn’t an option. What I did learn was that they favour swampy areas for breeding grounds, that the females are the nasty ones that bite, and that I might be bothered by them less by wearing light colour clothing that they have difficulty detecting and by avoiding the hottest part of the day.

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Alberta had given me a false sense of how long it takes to cycle the prairies. I assumed that because I got through Alberta so quickly, Saskatchewan would be the same. It wasn’t. It took 6 days, which might not seem like much, but Saskatchewan was a different kind of challenge. The stretches between towns seemed endless and barren. Towns on the map ended up hardly being towns at all (see above photograph of Parkbeg, SK). While BC challenged my fitness, the prairies challenged my mind. The flatness that I had been looking forward to became a curse of boredom. There would be days where I got off my bike after 6 hours of riding and feel like I hadn’t noticed anything.

I don’t want to make it seem like I hated Saskatchewan. I loved the feeling of endless sky. The smell of canola is so embedded in my mind that every time I smell it now, I smile. The sunrises and sunsets were boundless. The people were absolutely lovely. I don’t have any photos of Moose Jaw, but it was one of the coolest little cities I’ve ever been to. It’s like this oasis of urban in a desert of farmland. In my opinion, Moose Jaw is one of the most underrated cities in Canada and can fly completely under the radar (a quality that attracted gangsters like Al Capone for bootlegging operations). If you take this route I recommend visiting the Tunnels of Moose Jaw where you can visit the tunnels under the city that were once used to smuggle booze, but have since been turned into a tourist attraction.

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Additional notes about Saskatchewan:

  • religious influence becomes more prominent with road side signs with biblical references and restaurant decor.
  • free camping so easy – every small town seems to have an outdoor pool and a ball diamond. Pay for a swim, use the showers, and then camp behind the dugout.
  • if you’re not into free camping, almost every small town has a municipal campground that charges approximately $10.
  • the sun is absolutely scorching – my bike computer read 42 C one day
  • pick up a free map at the tourist information centre to avoid draining your phone battery to navigate

Next up, Manitoba.

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Alberta

After what felt like two weeks of pedalling uphill, I was looking forward to the vast flatness of the Prairies. The ‘Welcome to Alberta’ sign was a milestone of the trip – it was then I started to realize that I was going to cycle farther than I had ever driven on any road trip.

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Despite the blue sky in the photo, in a couple hours the weather would strike with a vengeance. Not only was there your typical rain-lightening-thunder combination, but there was a government-issued tornado warning in place and the forecast called for hail. With only my tent for shelter, I was feeling very vulnerable. Hail can be dangerous on a bike in the prairies; hail can vary in size and often there is nowhere to take cover. Even worse were my visions of being pulled up into the atmosphere like the opening scene of The Wizard of Oz with trees and livestock whirling around with me and my bike (which is funny because in that film Judy Garland actually does see a woman riding her bike in the tornado). I made it as far as Blairmore before the rain started.

By happy coincidence, that day my grandparents who live in Southern Alberta were driving from Vancouver after their Alaskan cruise, and they were driving the same route as me. They had mercy on me and picked me up in Blairmore and drove me home with them to Cardston where I wouldn’t have to worry about things like golf ball-sized hail and tornadoes.

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Being able to see both sets of Grandparents on my trip was a special memory for me. I had family to see and stay with for the rest of Alberta. But after that? No accommodation arrangements until Ottawa.

Concerned about breaking my line, I asked to be dropped off where I had been picked up. My grandfather graciously obliged and he drove me an hour back to Balirmore to maintain the integrity of my ride. That day was one of my favourites of the whole trip. As I cycled the Rockies became the foothills and the foothills became the prairies. A tail wind picked up and started to push me. I was flying! On average my cycling speed is 20km/h with loaded bike on relatively flat terrain. That day I was cycling at 40 km/h and I was elated.

And a note to prospective cyclists: be very careful with wind on the Alberta foothills and the Cypress hills in Saskatchewan – if there is a tailwind you can go faster than coming down off the mountain passes. My fastest speed of the whole trip was 70km/hour coming down the coulees in Alberta. And the wind was coming from a slight angle, pushing me close to the lane of traffic. Be careful! A crash at those speeds could be comparable to a motorcycle accident.

I’ll never forget the feeling of pausing on top of a bridge with a train passing underneath destined for the West; my eyes traced the train back to the mountains that stood tall and indomitable. At once I felt totally invincible and insignificant. I had traveled across mountain ranges, because of and in spite of my own strength. I’ll never forget that moment.

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The tailwind helped me reach my biggest day yet and I arrived in Lethbridge where family and friends greeted me. It was in Lethbridge that I took my first rest day (finally… I really should have taken one when I needed it halfway through BC but I was too worried about losing time). While I took 2 weeks to get through my first province, it only took me 2.5 days to cycle across Alberta, and I was lucky to have family to stay with each night.

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Additional notes about Alberta:

  • the province with the best pavement – well maintained and shoulders as wide as an additional lane of traffic on HWY 3.
  • gas prices so low you wished you were driving instead of riding
  • two short – only 2.5 days of riding from border to border
  • and yet, within that short window, 2 major thunderstorms
  • stayed on Crowsnest HWY 3 until Medicine Hat and then the Trans-Canada HWY 1
  • I gained 5 lbs since the beginning of the trip, but could tell that my body was becoming well adapted to the task of cycling all day

British Columbia

There is no easy way out of Vancouver. I chose to cycle Crowsnest HWY 3. But no matter what route you choose, the mountains challenge each highway with tall passes and each cyclist with narrow shoulders and steep grades.

I started my 83 day long journey in White Rock, British Columbia. The reasons I chose this point of departure were both pragmatic and sentimental: White Rock allowed me to start at the ocean where I could dip my rear tire into the Pacific to begin my journey and it would avoid the intimidating urban sprawl of Vancouver. This place was also the setting of childhood summer days spent chasing and being chased by the tide. It is the most familiar face of the ocean to me.

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On my first day, 5 July 2016, I was flanked by my father and my childhood best friend, Shoshana. My mother drove us to the beach and we rode back in the rain. For the next three days Shoshana joined me as we started east on the Crowsnest Highway 3 until we parted ways in Manning Park. Together we climbed our first mountain pass, an unforgiving and unrelenting 80 kilometre climb up to Allison Pass. It was only day 3, but this was the biggest elevation gain of the whole trip. And we did it in the rain.

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The evening that Shoshana’s husband picked her up and drove her back was one of the loneliest nights of the trip. I’m truly alone now. I didn’t let myself linger on the thought, but it was unavoidable as I tucked into my tent and tried to sleep through a thunderstorm, alone in the dark. From Manning Park I continued over Sunday Pass and into the Okanagan with the rain as my traveling companion. Sunday Pass was much more manageable than Alison Pass the previous day. With the Cascade mountain range behind me, I was starting to believe I was capable beyond my expectations and that this trip was not just a whim that I would abandon after a few weeks like almost every other hobby I’ve ever tried. What had been a once-and-future dream was being experienced and was already becoming part of the past.

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I soon learned that mountain towns tend to be built in valleys that afford a natural protection from the harsh elements. On a bike this meant that it was often a climb into and out of towns. The best example of this is the town of Osoyoos where you climb Ritcher Pass to descend into town and Anarchist Mountain to leave it. I arrived in Osoyoos in the afternoon but didn’t have the energy to bike up another mountain in the mid-30 degree heat. So I asked a farmer if I could pitch my tent in his orchard. After assessing me as a low risk tenant, he not only acquiesced, but upgraded me to the cool, empty fruit warehouse where there was an old couch and plenty of room to dry out my rain soaked tent. He brought his family to meet me and gave me the best cherries I’ve ever tasted.

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BC was the stage for several of the hardest days of my whole trip. The day I left Osoyoos I cycled 140 KM over two mountain passes – Anarachist and Eholt – to Grand Forks where my grandparents were eager to spoil me. I met a man at the Osoyoos lookout named Ron. He told me that I was going to have hard days, but that I was going to finish my trip. He was more sure of it than I was.

“You’re going to have at least 15 days where you want to give up,” he said, “but you won’t give up.”

I don’t know how he decided on that number, but it became a mental measuring tape for me. If I had 15 brutal, awful, cry-on-the-phone-to-your-loved-ones, make-you-want-to-quit kind of days I would allow myself to consider ending the misery, but until I reached that quota, quitting was not an option.

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On all the family road trips we’ve done along this highway to visit my grandparents, never had I thought I would bike from my door to theirs.

The day from Grand Forks to Castlegar was one of those days that Ron prophesied would come. Paulson Pass was probably my hardest day of the trip. It felt like the mountain would never end. People had warned me of the “hill” but failed to mention that it lasted for 60 KM. It rained on me for some of the day. Near the top of the pass I felt like I just had absolutely nothing left. I pulled to the side and tucked behind a cement barrier and laid down in the gravel. I slept for over an hour like that. Eventually I mustered the courage to continue. On the way down the mountain the rain started again. I was  miserable and angry and cold. When I made it into Castlegar I had some trouble finding the address of the lovely parents of my first college roommate where I was staying the night. My bike and I stand out like a sore thumb; a friendly couple noticed I was struggling and helped me find the house I was going to (incidentally, the house was not on Google Maps). They happened to be going out to the pub for some live music and I invited myself along, eager to devour the biggest burger I could get my hands on. My new friends and my kind hosts helped redeem one of the worst riding days of the entire trip with their good company and generosity.

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I was back in the Kootenays now! And after two very challenging days, I needed a change of pace. Rather than continuing on HWY 3 and riding Kootenay Pass – the highest paved pass in BC –  I rode half a day (50 KM) to Nelson. Then I took the ferry from Balfour to Crawford Bay and rode around Kootenay Lake to Creston.

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While this is a much less direct route, I do not regret it in the slightest. The ferry ride is free of charge (supposedly the longest free scenic ferry crossing in the world) and simply beautiful.

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I took my time going around the lake, splitting one day of riding into two and staying the night in Lockhart Creek Provincial Park. Some cyclists avoid bodies of water because they can be prone to wind, but I have to say that nearly every single one of my favourite spots across Canada were by the water.

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Compared to the rest of BC, the stretch between Creston to Sparwood is “flat” (meaning there are no significant mountain passes to cycle up all day, but there are still hills of course).

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Crowsnest Pass lies on the border between BC and Alberta and was my path across the Rocky Mountains. It was my final challenge separating me from my next province.

Somewhere between the Cascades and the Rockies I became comfortable with telling strangers that I was going to bike across Canada. No longer did I worry that I was incapable. I was mentally preparing myself for another hard day to traverse the last mountain pass. As the pavement started to bend upwards I geared down and focused on not looking too far ahead. It turns out Crowsnest Pass wasn’t at all what I expected. With less than an hour cycling uphill I had reached the summit. The real struggle was the battling the fierce headwind which is typical of this pass (just look at how the wind has pushed the sign marking the summit).

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It took two weeks from the ocean to the Alberta. While I was climbing mountain passes I was still focused on and intimidated by the thought of northern Ontario. I brought my passport with me in case I decided to bypass norther Ontario in favour of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan (as many x-Canada cyclists do). Looking back now, British Columbia was definitely the most challenging terrain and some of the poorest roads and longest stretches between towns. Maybe because I am from British Columbia and have driven this highway I wasn’t as anxious about it as I was Northern Ontario. I’m glad I started with the hardest part first so it wasn’t always looming in the back of my mind. And it also helped that I didn’t realize how challenging it would be; in that way, ignorance was bliss. I look back now and I can’t believe I wasn’t more prepared. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but the worst terrain was already behind me.

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Trial Ride: Trout Lake to Kaslo

I am preparing for a summer of cycling across Canada after I finish my teaching contract at the end of June. I’ve been researching and making preparations since March. And as I write this I have 28 days on my countdown.

I pour over ever piece of information that I can get my hands on, but the most important piece of information I was missing was some real time on my bike. So yesterday I cycled from Trout Lake to Kaslo with two friends. 111 KM over 8.5 hours climbing 2,348 m.

This was a really good test ride. I like the way my bike feels and handles. Hills were a challenge, but totally manageable. The hardest part was probably the heat in the afternoon on the hills coming into Kaslo. We could see the waves radiating off the pavement and needed to take breaks in the shade between climbs. I probably drank close 7 litres of water yesterday.

I was fortunate to have the pleasure of meeting two new friends this weekend – one who rode with us and one who was our support personnel/chef extraordinaire/cheerleader. I really enjoy new people. I hope that I have the pleasure of adding many new friends into my life this summer on the road.

Some things I learned from the trial ride:

  • need to buy biking gloves or develop callouses ASAP
  • early to bed, early to rise is going to be my motto this summer
  • bike shorts look goofy, but feel AMAZING
  • I’m not sure I want to do this journey alone; I really enjoy riding with others
  • I want to spend my whole summer doing this
6:00 AM departure
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Biking through the mountains

 

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Lesson learned: wear sunscreen

I definitely think I’ll have more fun on this trip if I go with people. So if you’re interested in coming along for the journey, or just part of it, let me know.

T-34 Days

34 days until I dip my rear tire in the Pacific ocean and start my journey eastwards across the country to the Atlantic under my own power.

Preparations are in full swing. My evenings are consumed with touring forums, gear reviews, maintenance tutorials, and maps. My bedtime stories have now become blogs written by people who have done this journey. Every day I’m going over my budgets and routes and gear lists, making adjustments as I come across new information.

After months of research and window shopping, I finally found the bike over the weekend. The Opus Legato 2013. I got it on sale at Cyclepath in Kelowna. Isn’t it a beauty?

Now that I have my bike, I’m fully invested. There’s no going back now.