U of R students cycle Canada: tandem style
by Curtis Dorosh and Lindsay Strass
This summer Lindsay and I journeyed from Tofino on Vancouver Island’s most western point, to St. Johns, Newfoundland. We encountered bears, wolves, and numerous moose and deer. Our accommodations included hard ground and harder ground under the shelter of a tent.
We covered ten provinces, seven capital cities and saw zero of Canada’s two prime ministers. We broke down, had our differences, we biked, we swam, we befriended many, we sun-burned, we froze, we hurt and we experienced Canada. We traveled an impressive 9000 km for 100 days, through two snow storms, hail, 100km/hr winds, and intense downpours. All of this happened on a tandem bike.
I woke up April 26 to the after-effects of a going-away party: family, friends, beer, hot wings and, oh, what a hangover. The temperature in Regina was a balmy 20 degrees Celsius at 8:00 a.m. Lindsay, my dad and I finished loading the Pathfinder and we were on our way to borrow a Santana tandem (2 person) bicycle from friends in Calgary. By lunch- time we found ourselves in a blizzard at Bassano. Sixty centimetres of white stuff would continue to hit Calgary for the rest of the day, marking their greatest snowfall ever. We were confined first to the snow-covered highway, stuck at a standstill, and then to a motel in Brooks, AB–much to our noses displeasure. Brooks is home to many feedlots, and they produce a smell that not even the locals have gotten used to.
Driving like mad night and day, we hit Vancouver and, more importantly, Horseshoe Bay. There was the ferry that would take us to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Our first obstacle: “How do we hook all this gear on the bike?” The first day of biking, April 29, saw us struggle 50 km into Nanoose Bay to visit family get a hot meal and a dry bed. We woke up early to brilliant sunshine and perfect riding conditions. The plan was to knock off an easy 130 km and camp near Port Alberni–ha ha. Nothing would come easy on this trip.
After a gruelling 84 km of intense pain we packed it in at Taylor Alm Provincial Park. The island was beautiful but the riding was tough. I wondered if Lindsay was pedalling back there. Too many hills, how were we going to make it? Every muscle hurt.
Day two, we rode 82 km to Ucluelet on the west side of the island. Spectacular terrain. We rode/pushed/walked up an 18 per cent grade and then came barrelling down the other side. For those not familiar with a tandem, it is momentum on wheels on down grades, a speed machine. Look out.
We were heading down hills at 80 km/hr with signs posted “Caution 40 km” and “Sharp Turn Ahead 30km.” What a rush–close your eyes back there and hang on.
In Ucluelet we met Sue, owner of A Snug Harbour Inn, a 5-star bed and breakfast. She generously offered us a room for a price we couldn’t refuse. A Snug Harbour had a hot tub, a two-person Jacuzzi tub, heated tiles, a fireplace, a spectacular view (www.awesomeview.com), breakfast of champions, and best of all, no setting up the tent. The nagging pain in our legs was numbed for the night. Tofino the next day was a pleasant 42 km ride past a gorgeous rain forest, Long Beach, first growth forest and limited population. Upon arriving we experienced sea kayaking and viewed beautiful bald eagles. We hitched a ride back to Port Alberni to avoid the gruesome stretch of highway (18 per cent grade) and made it back to the family at Nanoose Bay in the same day.
We spent five days in Vancouver during the Canuck Craze (Stanley Cup playoffs), saw more family, hospitality, great food, sights and sounds. We went to Stanley Park, the Aquarium, Capillano Bridge and the Granville Island Market. After gorging on market delicacies and having one too many beers, we saddled up to negotiate Vancouver rush- hour traffic at three in the afternoon.
Bicyclists in Vancouver are few and far between compared to the constant onslaught of traffic. Drivers treat you like an obstacle, similar to how farmers treat gophers in Saskatchewan. Lindsay waved our Canucks flag in a friendly universal gesture, and we made it through rush hour in one piece.
We left Vancouver, May 9, on the #1 Highway at 5:30 a.m. to avoid vehicle congestion. We hit the Port Mann Bridge with a large “NO bicycling” sign. A traffic cop at the head of the bridge told us: “I don’t know where you should be but you can’t ride here.” The worst two hours of the trip followed as the traffic director looked the other way and we walked, pushed and hauled the bike across the 2 foot-wide construction walkway. For comparison, our tandem, geared up, is nearly 3 feet wide.
Exhausted and nearly in tears at the other side, both police and RCMP met us. We made the morning traffic report. After talking our way out of the $250 (each) fine for going on the walkway, and convincing them we were not terrorists or on the bridge to jump off, as is usually the case, they provided a truck escort to Surrey and the #1A Highway.
The route travelling east from Vancouver on the #3 Highway followed by the 95A, 95, 93, and 1A, had the most summits of any more direct route to Calgary. Foolishly we chose the hard way. Paulson 1535 m, Sinclair Pass 1486 m, Baldy Mountain 2304 m, Allison Pass 1352 m to name just a few. Camping in BC was never a problem.
Most, if not all, parks were still closed for the season due to snow cover so we stayed for free, thus, keeping our frugal budget on track. We endured a tough ride into Cranbrook, where we were dumped on twice (snow) and then broke a derailleur cable as we pulled into town on May long weekend. Of course it was snowing, it was May long! Rick, the owner of Cranbrook’s only bike shop (there’s a business idea), gladly fixed us up and we were on the road again after only one day.
“Why is that car pulling a u-turn, and why is he blaring his horn? Oh look, bears, ahhhh!” We were in Kootenay National Park and had just pulled over at a picnic area for a snack, when the bears arrived.
I, of course, remained calm retrieving the camera to take photos; Lindsay, on the other hand, over-reacted. I got a little more than an earful as she pulled the camera away and we saddled up for our quick retreat.
Despite the harsh weather and extreme biking conditions on May 20 we cruised into Calgary for a few days of neglected bike maintenance (chain, tires, spares), collecting parts and tools that we should have had throughout BC, visiting friends, and getting some much needed R&R. It looked as though we would easily make it back to Regina in time for Lindsay’s scheduled dance recital (sarcastic “yah”). Leaving Calgary, we wrongly perceived that the hard part of the journey was over; that it was all downhill from here. Not to be!
We detoured off highway #1 to Drumheller and the Royal Tyrell Museum; although well out of the way, it was worth it. Nowhere else in Canada can you get “riding the dinosaur” pictures or cuddle up to a T-Rex.
A hail storm in Alberta threatened to take Bassano off the map and us with it. If you have seen the movie The Perfect Storm imagine it on the prairies as a biker. Nowhere to run, nowhere to ride, only our tent for salvation.
With warmer summer weather, mosquitoes were now posing a constant threat to our blood supply. I figure they get about a pint an hour of exposure. Luckily, this was in advance of the West Nile buzz.
We hit Regina, May 31, at 60 km/hr thanks largely to the 98 km/hr tail wind that tore the roof off “The Hideaway” on Victoria Avenue. Tail winds like that are so rare it was a shame we had to stop in the mid-afternoon because we were home.
We were on the road from Regina on June 9 into headwinds and rain.
We watched the New Jersey Devils beat the Ducks 2-0 in front of a crowd of 15 regulars at the Indian Head bar. Poor Ducks. Paved shoulders ended at the Manitoba border and wouldn’t start again until Newfoundland. Trust us, Saskatchewan highways aren’t the worst.
We found shelter one rainy day under a tree house on an acreage in Manitoba and woke the next morning to find ourselves helmet-less. The local dog of the land polished mine off (only 3 pieces were recovered) and left just enough of Lindsay’s to get by. Later that day in Brandon we purchased a new helmet, $80, ouch.
Next, we stayed with family in Winnipeg, where we met 30 relatives in two days. Ann, Peter, Darlene, Andrew, Elaine, Cheryl, etc–so confused. Then, it was off to Grand Beach for a day in the sun on one of Canada’s premier beaches. The thermometer hit 32 degrees, and the bikinis were out in full force–wow! Rennie, Manitoba was our last night in the province. Here we camped near a Canadian goose sanctuary. We discovered that geese are actually treasured in other provinces. I saw my first birth that night; the turtle was a little the audiences but we really enjoyed it.
Northern Ontario is the land of black flies, mosquitoes and lakes. Bike trouble two days outside of Thunder Bay left us with only three speeds to negotiate 300 km, we somehow managed. Thunder Bay brought our first sight of Lake Superior, which was one of the most enjoyable stretches of the entire country.
Thunder Bay’s other attraction, the Terry Fox Memorial, left us humbled. Day two at Lake Superior we met up with Stuart, an Australian who was also cycling across Canada. We had a blast together, camping on Australian-like beaches and swimming at every stop. Swimming in Lake Superior is not for the faint- hearted, and why it is called a lake and not the more fitting title “ocean” I cannot say. In short, Superior is big, blue and cold, with gorgeous beaches and some seriously hilly surroundings.
Although we met dozens of cyclists through Ontario and Quebec, we also encountered walkers. Mark the walker, a crazy English fellow, was carrying all of his equipment and walking across Canada. When we met him near Terrace Bay, Ontario he couldn’t wait for the prairies, poor lost British boy.
We didn’t have the heart to tell him what was awaiting him. Mark is currently, as of September 20, in Saskatoon, and he plans to walk to Calgary before continuing his cross-Canada journey next spring.
Another cross-country keener was Arnie. Arnie just turned 70 this year and is riding from Vancouver to Niagara Falls for the fourth time. He cycles 200 to 250 km/day; by contrast, our longest day of the trip was 190 km.
Throughout our trip we relied repeatedly on our extended family and friends. Many times distant cousins and even total strangers offered room and board and a needed break from tenting throughout Ontario. Riding into Toronto was not as bad as we expected. It has an excellent trail network which, with help, we followed through the thriving metropolis. We loved the city and saw it all, including the spectacular Niagara Falls, and a winery at Niagara on the Lake, and we revisited the 16th century enjoying Shakespeare in the park and toured the Hockey Hall of Fame. I was in my glory with the likes of Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe, but it was just their pictures and jerseys of course. We watched in agony as Roy Halladay outduelled Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox, only to see the Jays lose 2-1 in the twelfth inning. And as for SARS, what SARS? The city was fully operational during our stay.
The first week in July saw us in Kingston, Ontario, where we stayed with Roy Barraclough. Roy, who is 79, offered to ride out and meet us outside of Kingston. Roy rode up on his road/racing bike, which he has tried to ride every day for the last 20 plus years, and we could barely keep up. He has cycled an impressive 125,000 miles since retiring; that’s more than five times around the world! We were humbled again.
“Parler vous Anglais?” No! It wasn’t quite that bad, but we learned too late that struggling with our non-existent French would have gotten us a friendlier response. Quebecers have a province all of their own. The Gaspe Peninsula was some of the nicest scenery and cycling in all of Canada. The Gaspe is a great Canadian destination that I would highly recommend visiting in the fall.
On the outskirts of Montreal, one of Canada’s largest metropolitan areas, we found ourselves utterly lost at a payphone. Montreal does not allow drivers to turn right on red lights because too many cyclists and pedestrians have been run over. I had just spoken with my cousin in the city, and we were at least a five hour ride from her place, with dark approaching. Two small-town prairie kids were getting very worried about being out on Montreal’s streets at night. Just then, our saviours arrived. Ray and Ester, on bikes (total strangers), rode us back to their house and after a large family dinner, and after a swim in their pool, we slept soundly in the luxurious guest room. Unexpected kindness by Canadians was endless throughout the trip and very much cherished.
The third week of July, after nearly three months of cycling, saw us cross from Quebec to New Brunswick. Being back to the comfort of the English language was reassuring. At a grocery store just outside of Bathurst, I pulled out my wallet to pay for groceries , only to discover my CIBC card gone. I had left it in Quebec. Imagine being thousands of miles from home with $25 in your pocket. After a restless sleep at a ball diamond just outside Bathurst, we headed to the CIBC bright and early. They were very obliging and we were on the road again in 20 minutes flat. On the subject of flat, yes, we encountered many flats (16) and various different break downs, obstacles, road repairs, and difficulties but none quite as gut wrenching as losing our card.
“Wow, look at that bridge!” Prince Edward Island’s Confederation Bridge spans 12.9 km, the longest in the world, designed to cross an ice-filled waterway. The bridge also accommodates water deeper than 200 feet. As no walkers or bikes were allowed a cyclist’s shuttle van transported us across free of charge. Upon arriving in Prince Edward Island we were now in the middle of a downpour. Luckily, we were rescued again by strangers, Homer, Barb and their grandson Cameron. We were grateful for them putting us up in their guest room and feeding us a nice meal.
PEI is wonderful; we visited the site of the Charlottetown Accord and marvelled at beautiful golf courses and red beaches. The entire province is covered in red, clay-like dirt. We spent too little time there and cannot wait to get back.
The Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia boasts Canada’s steepest gradients. No signs were posted to verify this, but after hours of riding/walking up them I feel I am an expert on gradients. Not only were we walking up, but also crawling down.
We fine-dined on lobster and garlic butter our second night on the trail, scrump-diddly-umptious! The lobster was courtesy of Joe, a lobster fisherman whose lawn we camped on as well. Picture a prairie boy attacking a whole lobster with a primitive fork and spoon. What a mess; the lobster claws drew blood, but I got the last laugh.
The food wasn’t always that good. Our worst meal came in Shediak New Brunswick where we ran out of propane and were forced to dine on half-cooked Kraft Dinner to satisfy our constant hunger.
At the end of July we planned to take the ferry to Port aux Basques and ride across the island of Newfoundland (1000 km) to St. John’s the capital. The more direct, sane route would have been the 18- hour Argentia ferry, riding 130 km to St. John’s. However we chose a six hour ferry ride to Port aux Basques that left this flatlander very seasick. After the initial 800 passenger rush off the ferry, traffic in Newfoundland is rare.
The rest of Canada could also take a lesson on highway construction–at times, shoulders were 8 feet wide and the main highway was mostly divided. It felt like Newfoundland felt like it would go on forever. The dominant rock-barren scenery accompanied with a non-existent population left an eerie feeling of isolation. After the hustle and bustle of the rest of Canada we loved the change of pace.
One woman repeatedly told us not to tell the rest of Canada how special Newfoundland is, “Keep it our secret,” she said. Icebergs, moose, natural springs, overly friendly islanders, and deafening silence left a lasting impression on us.
“We did it!” Whoosh. We had hit St. John’s hard enough to cause yet another flat tire. We couldn’t have cared–sheer ecstasy took over. We then spent five days in St. John’s at Memorial University. St. John’s is full of attractions including: interesting dialect, Cape Spear (North America’s most eastern point), and Signal Hill, the point of Marconi’s first Trans-Atlantic wireless signal.
Together with four other cross- Canada cyclists, we celebrated our vast achievements at many pubs on George Street, which boasts over 30 bars on three levels. After leaving Newfoundland we hitched a ride to Halifax as we had no intention of riding a bike for quite sometime. We spent ten days with friends enjoying the beautiful Harbour City. Our flight back home left Halifax on August 19.
When we started out we had no idea what we would encounter, riding an 11 foot long, 3 foot wide bike for roughly 100 days. We didn’t know that finding a free camp spot could be so difficult or sometimes as easy as just asking. We had no idea the Maritimes had mountains or that Ontario had ass-kicking black flies. We had never ridden a bike more than 150 km, let alone a tandem that weighed in excess of 500 pounds fully loaded.
We didn’t know that they says, “My love,” constantly in Newfoundland, or that “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi” means will you sleep with me in French. We didn’t know a lot about our homeland, Canada, but we learned.
Biking across Canada was a trip of a lifetime. In hindsight I cannot think of anything I would have rather done this summer. Canadians are a special kind of people and I hope we stay that way. A huge thank you goes out to everyone who helped, hoped, worried and cheered us on this amazing cross-country adventure.
The last thought I have in writing this is, “What’s up next?”