On a drizzly May 3rd morning Rachel Baldwin and I left Vancouver on heavily laden bikes heading east. During the next 11 weeks, I cycled 8000 km to St. John’s, Newfoundland through menacing tunnels in the Fraser canyon and fields of new potatoes in PEI. I would come to appreciate not only the diversity of Canada, but also the magical powers of Desitin. From tailwinds to headwinds and hypothermia to tan lines, bike touring is one good way to have an epic adventure!
I had dreamed of cycling across Canada for as long as I can remember and with no good reason not to, I decided to join Rachel three weeks before we left. We took an unconventional route through BC heading north up to Valemount. This proved to be a great decision as biking along the Yellowhead highway beside bears and lakes beats Rogers pass any day. Unfortunately, Rachel’s knee was not so happy with her new way of life and was causing her a lot of pain. After taking extra rest days and going slower with no improvements we opted to hang out in Valemount for a while. After three days with still no improvements and fearful of injuring it more, Rachel made the difficult decision to bus home from the greyhound station in Valemount. It was hard to see dreams shattered by a physical not mental limitation and it made me appreciate my body in a whole different way.
So after 8 days of cycling and with 7200 km more to go, it was now just me and Canada! On that first day on my own I crossed the BC-AB border and into Jasper. It felt great to reach the first big milestone, although standing at the ‘Welcome to Alberta’ sign without Rachel seemed a little bit like cheating.
With the temperatures going well below freezing and now without a stove (Rachel and I had been sharing one) I decided to stay in hostels along the Icefields parkway. I arrived at the Beauty Creek Wilderness Hostel at 7pm to find a large closed sign. After walking around and discovering that the door was unlocked I decided to stay anyway. It was when I was inside that I hear a “Hello?” It turns out that the hostel didn’t open for the season until the next day, but after seeing I was on a bike, the hostel manager Ben let me stay anyway. We spent the evening around an awesome fire awed by the sheer magnitude of our surroundings. I ended up spending the entire next day there as well going to secret waterfalls, learning to slackline and playing board games.
I had cycled the Icefields Parkway 10 years previously and I was shocked to see how far back the glacier had receded since then. I remember seeing the signs marking the glacier’s retreat, but as a 10 year old it had all seemed unreal and as if it would be a very long time until the next noticeable difference would be seen. The hill into the next valley was among the longest and fastest of the trip, and combined with sharp turns and pelting snow, made for one thrilling descent!
People asked me all the time if I was afraid wild camping on my own, which I did the majority of the time during the trip. My answer was no; out of the 45 days of wild camping, the only time I was given any problem was when it turned out I was in a National park. There was one particular night in Canmore, however, where I was camped near the Nordic centre behind some houses. I kept waking up to the sound of howling wolves that appeared to be getting closer. Although the next time I woke up it was morning! Whew.
I spent a few days in Calgary visiting some family friends, tuning up my bike, and chasing ducklings with Yara. I then headed off on the next leg of the journey, the prairies. The scenery changed immediately after leaving Calgary and I soon found myself farther east in Canada than I’d ever been before. Given the rather monotonous landscape, the prairies sure provided some excitement. I quickly found myself trying and failing to out-pedal a storm; with neither infrastructure nor trees for protection, I hid out in a port-a-potty for half an hour to escape the worst of it. I eventually came to the deserted town of Gleichen and set up camp in the first clump of trees I could find. It turned out be directly across from a police station and I was glad my tent was a camouflage colour!
The next day brought with it better times in the form of a south easterly wind. There were whole minutes at a time when I basically did not have to pedal. I made it all the way to Medicine Hat which turned out to be 204 km – the biggest day of the trip! It was in Medicine Hat where I first met Kieren, another cross-Canada cyclist. We would continue to play leap frog all the way to New Brunswick.
Ever since leaving Calgary my bike had been causing a lot more problems than before. About 100 km west of Swift Current my front derailleur cable snapped beside the brake hoods. Kieren soon caught up and helped me try to fix it. With no success I decided to take the plunge and hitchhike. My thumb was stuck out for all of two minutes before a pickup came and drove me right to the front door of the bike shop in Swift Current.
After a pleasant evening with some family friends in Swift Current, I was soon faced with a day that created a whole new definition of cold for me. Temperatures plummeted in the entire region and I later heard that it snowed a bit further west of where I was. Pelting rain and a headwind made for slow progress and with nowhere to stop I just continued on. It was an odd feeling being so close to people yet feeling completely isolated and as if I was on a different planet. I was so exhausted and cold that I wanted to collapse onto the side of the road and drift off to somewhere warmer. I began getting delirious and I was about to hitchhike when I was reunited with Kieren whose mum was coming from Moose Jaw to pick her up. I began a very painful thawing out process in a warm van drinking hot chocolate!
I found out after spending a few hours huddled in a Tim Horton’s that my mum’s friend’s daughter’s friend’s grandparents live in Moose Jaw. My dripping self was welcomed into their home with open arms. I waited out the poor weather another day in Moose Jaw with Ruby and Dave showing me all around the town.
After Regina I veered north of HWY 1 through lakes Manitoba and Winnipeg. This route was slower and bumpier, but was a nice change of pace from the trans-Canada. Outside of Dauphin, Manitoba, I ended up taking the wrong route – this was frustrating at the time because it meant I bypassed Dauphin Lake and Rainbow Provincial Park. It turned out to be a great mistake to make in the end, however, because it meant I opened up a guidebook I had been lugging along. In this book, I read about a town named Ochre River with a small church that had been converted into a coffee shop. Jess and her daughter Taliah had completely renovated the church into this amazing little coffee shop that has become the focal point of the town. They come out every summer from Winnipeg to run it. I showed them the guidebook with the little paragraph about them and they were blown away by the idea that they were in a book. During my three hour stay I learned all about running a ranch from Jack, the rancher, and I ended up staying the night in Jess and Taliah’s little cabin across the street.
I welcomed the hills and trees in Ontario with great gusto. The prairies turned out to be much harder than I’d ever imagined. When you have a hill, you have a goal to get to the top and then have the joy of riding down. Headwinds, however, are simply unrelenting.
Everyone had warned me of the supposedly terrible highways in Northwestern Ontario; there must have been a recent big construction push, however, because the road most of the way until Thunder Bay was very smooth with a wide shoulder. The stories about bugs, on the other hand, were well-founded. One particular morning in Ignace I woke up with a cauliflower ear even though I spent the evening being an exterminator.
In Nipigon, a town just passed Thunder Bay, I ran into a group of five Québécois for the third time who were cycling from Vancouver to Quebec. They had recently finished their degree together at Laval University and were cycling from Vancouver back to the University. We camped together in the backyard of a local Nipigon police officer and I ended up cycling with them for the next 5 days until Sault Ste. Marie. It was great fun cycling with others and it was wonderful to see how a group with different speeds can be so cohesive. I also had the bonus of having my own private French teachers! Thank you Véro, Marina, Marie, Stef and Matt for being so encouraging!
In Sault Ste. Marie we came to the famous bike shop, Velórution. The owner, André has a camping area set up in the back for cycle tourists to camp for free; it is even equipped with a shower and washroom that you can access via a combination lock. There were two cyclists heading west, as well as a French cyclist Thomas, so together there were nine of us surrounding the shop. With staff from the shop, we sat under the awning telling tales about all the places bikes had taken us. André outdid everyone, recounting stories about various wandering travellers including people who had ridden across Canada on homemade contraptions, bmx bikes and even a mule!
The road steadily worsened after Sudbury to Ottawa and there were quite a few sections with no shoulder whatsoever. I stayed in the Jail hostel in Ottawa and my cell mate would be none other than Kieren, a total coincidence! After touring the capital for an afternoon I crossed the Ottawa River and officially entered my 6th province.
Cyclists are not allowed on any of the major highways throughout Quebec, so I ended up cycling beside the St. Lawrence all the way from Montreal to Mont-Joli. It was beautiful cycling through all the little villages on smaller roads. After Lachute, I detoured into Montreal to visit a friend I’d last seen in Vancouver. Even though the suburbs of Montreal are tricky to navigate on a bike, it was pretty neat pedalling right up to Keegan’s front door in downtown Montreal!
I arrived in Quebec City on the same day as the group I’d cycled with earlier, who had taken a different route from Sault Ste. Marie. After they attended a big welcoming party at the university, I met up with them and ended up staying in the city for two nights.
I crossed over to the south side of the St. Lawrence on the Quebec-Levis ferry and remained on this side throughout the rest of Quebec. One particular evening, I was passing through Sayabec when I noticed two other cyclists stopped at a casse-croûte (a little snack bar that usually sells poutine). It was getting dark, so Robin, Andrea, and I, were hurriedly trying to find somewhere to camp when we came across a wedge of trees beside a little creek in someone’s field. We camped right there and made spaghetti over a fire like true vagabonds. The next day, we were looking for a grocery store in Amqui, when we came across a bakery/microbrewery. Inside, Robin discovered some long lost childhood friends who were in a band called the Irish Bastards. They had played in this microbrewery the night before, and came back for breakfast. What better excuse for a stop! So we stayed and casually ate bread and cheese for four hours. After cycling through the beautiful Matapedia valley with Robin and Andrea, we split ways again so they could head up to Gaspé, and I, to New Brunswick.
The next big milestone was reaching Cape Jourimain and the Confederation Bridge. Bikes aren’t allowed on the bridge, but there is a shuttle bus hooked up to a trailer that can carry 10 bikes. Back in Calgary, I learned that the neighbours of the family friends I stayed with live in PEI for half the year. They told me to call them when I made it out, so after a short cycle from Charlottetown, I headed down Point Prim road. I had a remarkable afternoon exploring and soaking up the area with Phyllis and Danny. Phyllis grew up on this road so I learned a lot about the history of the area; I saw Phyllis’ one room schoolhouse, visited the old Point Prim Lighthouse, and combed the beach for sea glass. For dinner, we ate freshly picked new potatoes from a neighbouring field. This day showed me how even at the slow pace of a bike, you miss so much of what a place has to offer unless you really stop and spend some time with locals.
I took the ferry back to the mainland and cycled through Nova Scotia to Cape Breton Island. Of all the visitor centres I camped behind, the one in St. Peter’s was by far the greatest; I slept on a porch with the sound of waves beneath the floorboards. My goal for the next day was to get to North Sydney and catch the 4:00 pm ferry to Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland. Unfortunately, the 50 km east of St. Peter’s consisted of endless short, but steeply graded hills. I eventually resolved myself to take the night ferry instead. Luckily, the ferry was being held for a sound truck for Aerosmith, who were playing in Grand Falls-Windsor the next day. The captain and attendants let me on even though I was way past the deadline. So at approximately 11 pm on July 13th I set foot in my tenth and final province.
I woke up in a soggy wetland area below the visitor centre in Port aux Basques and would not see clear skies again until the final day heading into St. John’s. The 50 km east of Deer Lake were so wet that in a span of two hours 4 different vehicles stopped and asked if I wanted a ride. That’s a big deal since motorists are usually in a tunnel vision mindset. It was nice to know that driver’s knew I existed. Even though it was wet, it was not cold like in Chaplin, so it was pretty easy to turn down the offers. Although I did accept a chocolate bar! That kitkat was, and will remain, the best chocolate bar in all eternity.
Apart from the rain, Newfoundland is a great place for road biking. With almost 900 km of uninterrupted road (with good shoulders and some nice hills) I’m surprised I only saw two other cyclists the entire time.
I spent the final night in Arnold’s cove in a motel, drying out my soggy soggy gear after a particularly wet night in Terra Nova National Park. As this was a National Park, I didn’t want to be visible, so I ventured off the road into dense forest. The rain returned with a vengeance overnight, resulting in an interesting wake up. Clear skies, combined with a lot of downhill, made for a bittersweet final day into St. John’s.
I met another cross-Canada cyclist in St. John’s who gave me the low down on where to get a bike box and all the things to do in St. John’s. I also met up with fellow VOCer, Andrew Primavera! I was disconnected with regard to the internet the entire trip except for a few library visits and visitor centre stops. I just happened to discover through a computer at the hostel that Andrew was in St. John’s for a cool search and rescue job based out of Terra Nova.
I began this journey without too many expectations, just an eagerness for adventure. I came to learn a lot about myself and by the end it had become a sort of odyssey. Unfortunately, this trip did not satisfy my yearning for adventure. Rather, it gave me a lot of time to think and filled me with hundreds of more trip ideas. Fortunately, it provided me with the confidence to now go out and do all these things without letting excuses stop me.
I would like to give a big thank-you to everyone who helped me along the way whether you opened up your homes, cabins, backyards, or just gave me a mighty thumbs up!
Side note: I highly recommend Hutchinson UrbanTour tires. I wore all the way through the rubber without a single flat!
This bike was stolen outside the War Memorial gym on September 12th between 6 and 8 pm so keep your eyes peeled for any dubious looking red MEC 1971’s! Serial number is F101213145.