Saskatchewant 09/06/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alberta, border, camping, canada, holidays, prairies, saskatchewan, wind
I knew it, I knew God would break out the smiting stick as soon as I said cycling in Alberta was easy.
From the moment I left Sylvan Lake, my bike was tilted at a 45 degree angle as a south wind howled across the parched prairie. It kicked dust and salt across the road from dried, cracked ponds, and by the time I stopped in Castor, my eyes were blazing red slits.
There I met a Lebanese guy named Salam who owned the local gas station and had a million and one questions about my trip.
“You camp, and the gear, it all goes in those little bags?”
“And your food, where is that?”
“Mostly here,” I said, shoving a thumb at my stomach.
He laughed and pointed out a place in town where I could camp for free. Before I set off he also turned me on to a backroads shortcut to Saskatoon that I never would have thought of on my own. Not bad for a town where I only wanted to fill up my water bottles.
The shortcut covered a pile of rolling hills and the wind was fierce, so the next day I was only able to get to Provost, not far from the Saskatchewan border. Still, for all the time I spent panting in the shade of the ditch, I wasn’t all that disappointed with myself.
There was no doubt I was chomping at the bit to get going the next morning, though, and the timing was perfect. The wind tapped me on the shoulder and kicked my butt down the highway for 189 km, all the way to Biggar, Saskatchewan.
As I was calling my folks from a payphone, I had my bike inspected by three kids with nothing better to do than hang out at Chester Fried Chicken on a Friday night. One of them, a freckled short-round with a swelled chest, seemed to have sticky fingers around my gear, but I gave him a pretty heavy hint that I had no problem busting a 12-year-old’s head.
We came to an understanding, and in the end the trio marched me to the campground in the dark. Along the way I heard about their exploits in drinking Vex and tipping over ballpark outhouses. Part of me wanted to weep for the human race, but the fact is none of us were angels when we were kids. They’ll come around.
The coyotes yelped all night, but the camping spot was a good one and I slept like a baby. The trip to Saskatoon was hassle free and besides a two-hour tiptoe through a ceiling-stack bookstore in Perdue, I made good time into the city.
I met up with my friend Carrie and her boyfriend Kent, whose family was in town to check out the Labour Day weekend fireworks. The house was insane, a crazy circus of people coming and going in every direction, but I enjoyed every second.
And the fireworks were amazing! Thousands of people crowded the parks and bridges by the river, oohing and ahhing as the sky lit up. It was a bit of a sensory overload for me – traffic signals are “big lights” these days – but I had a blast.
Now I’m off. Two more days and I’ll be in Regina. Crazy.
Under the orange-glow sky 09/01/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alberta, canada, edmonton, prairies, sylvan lake
Back on the Prairies, the honest-to-goodness flatlands, and I’m once again in the company of arrow-straight country roads and spectacular sunsets. It also means grain trucks, dust, wind and bugs zinging into my eyes, but hey, we can’t have it all.
The ride from Jasper has been easy, especially after being in the mountains for so long. As the trees thinned and foothills became farmland, I felt for the first time on the trip that I was in familiar territory.
It was just simple things – the smell of freshly cut hay, humming insects over a muddy slough, a faded hat pulled low as a farmer waved from a sputtering tractor. Even though I’m not home yet, they’ve already brought me back.
Still, there’s plenty of exploring left to do. I biked to Edmonton, and for the first time in my life I didn’t zip right through or wait glumly in the bus station. Instead I stayed with my friend and old roommate Gabe at his family’s house.
I was in a bit of a road trance my first night there, having nothing much to say and wondering only when the transitions from pavement to people will get easier. But by the second night Gabe and I were drinking Lucky Lager, laughing at awful Troma movies, and I felt like my old self again.
Between the delicious meals, wine and backyard apples at Gabe’s, it finally dawned on me that I’ll be back in Regina in just over a week. I’m stubborn enough that I was sure my bike and I would make it back one way or another, but I never stopped to consider what it would be like to stay in the Queen City again, if only briefly. The prospect actually makes me a bit nervous and I’m not sure why.
After saying goodbye to Gabe and his folks, I cut straight south to Sylvan Lake to visit my friend Sarah.
I cycled 172 km and didn’t arrive until after dark, so she was kind enough to meet me at the local Esso station and toss my bike in the back of her truck for the ride to her house.
The place is great, and besides a gigantic yellow lab named Max, I have it all to myself for the day. Life is good!
Halftrack trails 08/26/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alberta, bear, british columbia, canada, mcbride, mountains, rain
Bye bye British Columbia, hello Jasper. Gasper. The winding roads and serenity of the mountains are officially behind me, and I find myself in gift shop purgatory – a hub of zombie debit swipes and ascot-clad backpackers.
The detour to Jasper was a sort of litmus test to find if I wanted to make the journey south down the Icefields Parkway to Banff. I don’t.
To be honest, a good portion of my heart is still in British Columbia. The ride east on the Yellowhead was wonderful, a relaxing meander through sweeping valleys and lush farmland that smelled like home. It was so incident-free, in fact, that my mind wandered in every direction for hours. And, of course, that’s when something happens.
I was cycling through the hills near Prince George as black clouds gathered behind me. They mushroomed all day, but since I was facing the sunshine, I didn’t think much of them. Then, in the early evening, Mother Nature pulled a hood over the sky and it sounded like bombs were dropping in the distance. Day became an eerie night and I pulled off onto an abandoned hiking trail as fast as I could. I scrambled to put up my tent, and just as I snapped the last pole together, gumball sized drops started falling and lightning lit up the sky. And the thunder! It boomed through the valley, through my guts, and I couldn’t help but think the next bolt was headed for my tent.
But it wasn’t. Something else was. As the storm slowly subsided, I heard a huge crash through the trees and seconds later a nose in constant suction was sniffing at my tent. I looked up to see a big black nose pressed against the fabric, inches from my own face. The animal then walked to my bike, knocked over my cook pot and then plowed back through the bushes. The next morning I found a huge pile of berry-bear shit next to my camp. And that was that.
Further east, in the Robson Valley, I came to a small town called McBride. It gave me a good vibe from the moment I cycled down Main Street, so I grabbed some supplies from the local market and headed to the Visitor’s Centre for some complimentary coffee refills. True, I don’t drink coffee, but I’m always in the mood for free.
Admittedly, though, I’ve developed a bit of a problem with crowds. I’ve spent so much time alone, in the middle of nowhere, that large groups of people pour glue on my shoes and make me clutch the wall. So I stood there, eyes widening, until a woman gave me a huge smile that must have rattled off the mugs behind me. I turned red and scuffed the floor with my toe.
“Can I buy you a coffee?”
The glue melted and I smiled back. I said I’d be happy to have a cup with she and her husband. I sat down and right away they asked me all about my trip. Where was I going? Where did I start? Where was I staying tonight? My reply to the last question wasn’t up to snuff, I think, and they invited me to stay at their acreage east of town. Juliann and Gerald were such genuinely warm people that I accepted right away and asked that they repeat directions to their place, which I promptly forgot after the door swung shut.
I’m not much good at details.
So, after five cups of coffee and an hour-long conversation with a local cedar farmer, I headed off for the road that starts with an “H”, second house on the right. Or left. And I made it! The road was Hinkelman and the cream house with green trim was just as wonderful as I imagined. It sat under a canopy of beautiful trees and right beside the back door was a candy-coloured garden with flowers I’ve never even seen before.
Jullian and Gerry were the most amazing hosts. I asked where I could set up my tent, and they winked and suggested the guest bedroom downstairs. This, after they stuffed me with delicious food, threw my clothes in the washer and me in the shower. And as I ran my fingers across the titles of Jullian’s book collection, I smiled, warm and content, and realized how lucky I’ve been on this trip. I’ve met so many wonderful people, so many generous souls, and in the end I guess that was the point. It makes all the difference in the world.
The next day, Jullian and Gerry drove me halfway up an alpine trail so I could climb Mount McBride. I squinted at the treeless peak and realized, once and for all, that the Prairie flats are permanently ingrained in my DNA. The idea of climbing an actual mountain was so foreign to me that I set off with a ham sandwich and a big smile – I figured that’s all I needed.
I got to the top of Mount McBride without any trouble. In fact, it was fun, and as I looked down at the snow on smaller peaks, I found that I was having the time of my life. I peered across the horizon and picked out another ridge, this one a towering rocky mass, and decided I was going to climb that one too.
If you’re looking at the picture above, the peak in question sits centre frame, just to the right of the sharp triangle outcropping. I almost made it, too.
As I made my way up the ridge, I came to a sheer rock face that was impossible to climb. I had to go around, so I shimmied down, and that’s where I slipped. Or rather, the rocks slipped. They disintegrated under my feet and on my back I slid about 20 meters down the mountain. The slope continued beneath me, the angle growing sharper, and then it dropped off, straight down to a rock pile far below.
I dug my fingers into the stones to try to climb back up, but every time I moved I only slipped further down. A few inches at a time, lower and lower, sliding to a free fall. I clutched the wall for about 20 minutes, talking to myself and trying to quell the panic rising in my throat. Eventually my arms started to shake, growing weak, and the time to climb out was now or never.
I couldn’t get any sort of grip, so I slowly pried a rock out of the mountain and put my fingers in the hole. Then my knee and then my foot. From there, I scaled a narrow outcropping back to a tiny perch where I could sit, dizzy and very scared. But the top of the ridge wasn’t far above, and when I made it there I got off the mountain as fast as humanly possible. Mount McBride, far below, seemed like a gift and solid ground a blessing.
Jullian asked me what was going through my mind as I clung to the mountain wall. Here it is: In Endako, BC, I saw a random sign beside the highway that said, “Prepare To Meet God.” Sliding down the rock face, inch by inch, I realized I wasn’t even sure what God looks like. All I knew was that I ain’t it.
Holy chow 06/10/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alberta, bus, canada, edmonton
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I’m sitting in the Edmonton bus depot. The computer keyboard is bolted down, it smells like an 80′s arcade and the public address is wailing “Can you Feel the Love Tonight” by Sir Elton. Luckily there’s an A&W on site, so I’ll drown out the bad sensations with a grease-shine Mozza Burger. Mmm mmm.
I’ve been on the bus for nine hours. I have 29 more to go. Sigh.