#13: rubbish

Last Friday several hundred dollars of our food and camping gear were mistakenly collected as garbage, crushed, and sent to landfill.

This was quite annoying.

Following advice we’d received previously on the trip from a park ranger employed by the Canadian government, we stored food in the back of the bear-proof bins that you find at picnic spots and campgrounds. Early in the morning the bin was emptied, and the bin-men took our stuff as well.

We went to the Goose Sanctuary just up the road from our campsite to ask the Manitoba Parks employee (Adam) for help in getting our stuff back.. Our explanation was met with laughter and disbelief, but also a willingness to help. He radioed around to find out who emptied the bins and whether our stuff had been found, then tried to extract information from me about who told us the advice in the first place, presumably so he could be disciplined.

I resisted the attempts to grass them up: it may have been awful advice but the giver was nice and was trying to help.

We sat in limbo in Rennie Hotel for an hour or so, eating breakfast and waiting for a call to let us know whether our stuff was in landfill or elsewhere.

We chose a window seat so we could see our bikes, feeling a higher baseline vigilance about our bikes and gear.

We mentally added up the value of what was taken.

Our toothpaste and brushes were in the bags too, so I felt self-conscious about that.

We tried not to think about the state of our 12 eggs.

No call came so we headed back to Adam, and he suggested going to the Manitoba Parks office just up the road. Here more calls were made, more disbelief was shown, and some sympathy was given (bordering on hinting that we were idiots for following the original advice: “I guess the best thing to do next time, would be to not keep your bags in the garbage”).

To clarify now: our stuff was not ‘in’ the garbage. It was in a separate section accessible only from the back of the bin, under the bag of rubbish.

After waiting a while we heard “oh yeah that load is gone, it’s been crushed already in the truck and sent to landfill” come through a radio receiver.

Crushed along with our hopes and dreams.

“What shall we do?” I asked Kristian.
“Keep riding our bikes”.

So we set off.

I felt annoyed for the first few miles. Then I realised that the cost and effort to resolve the situation is the same either way, so I may as well not be annoyed. The rest of the day was spent trying to reconcile that realisation with actual acceptance.

While we ate a multi-pack of cereal for lunch, a Manitoba Parks garbage truck pulled up. It was pretty light duty, to the point where recently added garbage would probably be salvageable. So I asked the lady driving it what she thought of the situation. She said the stuff would be somewhere in the back of a pick-up truck (“the big garbage trucks don’t empty the site you lost your stuff from”), or at the Jessica Lake recycling site, or on its way to the big disposal facility in Winnipeg. She seemed genuinely sorry for us and didn’t seem to think we were idiots, which was reassuring (“if I’d seen camping gear under the bin, I’d have left it there”).

Kristian and I debated what to do for a while. Detouring to Jessica Lake and trawling through the top-layer of landfill seemed a viable option to me considering the cost of the gear involved, but time was ticking. Every minute presumably meant more garbage being dumped on our stuff, and we weren’t sure how far away Jessica Lake was. Calling the operator from the payphone didn’t work, an entry in the phone book returned only robotic apologies, and there was
no wifi.

We relucatantly decided to bite the bullet and abandon our stuff.

This was also when we realised we’d lost the huile d’olive.

#12: the cabin at Catastrophe Lake

Our bikes were in the canvas shed, next to the sleds.

We slept in a guest cabin with its own cedar-lined sauna.

The outhouse next door had a solar light and a sink with water pumped up from the lake.

The pontoon dock, overlooked by a veranda, had 3 canoes and a speedboat.

A speedboat.

The speedboat had 8 coffee-cream leather seats, inbuilt speakers, and an array of intriguing dials.

“It’s the most comfortable thing, this boat”, Barny said. He was right. We were sitting in it as I wrote this.

Sam, Barny and Kristian planned a 40 minute swim across the lake, and I jokingly said I’d canoe alongside, offering morale support and/or paddle hits of ‘encouragement’. I was thrilled to find out this is actually a necessary role, as swimmers aren’t always visible to boats.

Near the veranda there is a shed full of life-jackets, water-skis, floats, paddles, cushions, parasols and other paraphernalia necessary for a good time waterside. There is a bar being built too, with an old boat next to it that will be buried vertically in the ground and the top half used as drinks shelves.

An old ornamental well nearby is awaiting conversion to a beer tub.

The beginnings of an Ewok-village inspired treehouse complex hangs in the trees above.

Stone plinths dot the shallow waters in the lake, and hand-made boats that were cast adrift dot the shores, in various states of repair.

Everywhere on this plot of land something well thought out and fun is built or being planned. It’s the coolest, most inviting place, owned by the coolest most inviting family.

The scenery is beautiful too. After a month in Canada it doesn’t hit you straight away just how beautiful it is, but if I cast my mind back to UK cities, the difference is astounding.

Our time there was filled with new activities. We ‘tubed’, which is where you’re dragged behind a speedboat on an inflatable disc: a mix between wake-boarding and laying on an inflatable sofa. We paddle-boarded, we canoed, we kayaked. Kristian wake-boarded while I sat in the boat with a beer basking in the sun.

The cabin at Catastrophe Lake, where we spent two nights, definitely didn’t live up to its Murder Mystery-esque name.

It was wonderful.

#11: mustn’t grumble

We joined the Vancouver – Toronto train in Saskatoon.

Planned departure time: 0832
Time we arrived at the station: 0730
Revised departure time when we arrived at the station? 1359

You had plans? Fuck you.

Revised departure time: 1406

Diligent would-be passengers start arriving at 0745

Revised departure time: 1407

The counter staff crack flippant jokes.
I ask whether there’ll be delays between here and Winnipeg too. “Oh yeah. They’ve started construction on the bridge just past here which is the mainline, that’s gonna cause problems” – accompanied by hearty laughter.

Revised departure time: 1408

The station is Soviet, decrepit, bereft of facilities. “We’re going for an 80s thing here; there’s no wifi”.
The coffee machine is broken.
A neglected candy machine offers Chewz and Zingy Zaps to boost morale.
A banner says “Saskatoon is calling!”. My advice, in this early morning pre-caffeine state of mind? Don’t answer.

Revised departure time: 1409

Every passing minute adds another minute to the revised departure time and to the subsequent arrival time in Winnipeg, which has now moved from 8pm to 5am.
Every addition also adds to my suspicion that Saskatchewan is purgatory.

Revised departure time: 1415

I make camp-stove coffee outside the passenger station: 8km out of town, at the end of a long dusty road. An afterthought at the boundary of a sprawling yard of freight trains and cargo.

Revised departure time: 1407

We discuss what to do with the day.

Revised departure time: 1359

Are they deliberately shaving a few minutes off to make a 6 hour delay seem slightly less bad than a 6.25 hour one?

Revised departure time: 1418


The delay is at least an opportunity to check out downtown Saskatoon, which we didn’t think we’d have time to do.
We ride the dusty and potholed roads through outskirts (“has someone shelled these roads?”, Kristian asks). Debris and scrapyards gradually give way to tree-lined avenues.
The tourist information, library and riverside cycle path were closed, so we asked locals to point us in the direction of something interesting and headed that way.
We didn’t find anything, just a coffee shop on the one trendy stretch in town where we camped out for a couple of hours.

Back at the station later the revised departure time was 1330.
The train eventually left at 1639.

In the interim the jokes and wisecracks continued, but it became amusing rather than grating once we eased ourselves into the mood and relished the opportunity to participate in a real life farce.
Again: every passing minute added another minute to the revised departure time.
When the train rolled into the station all the passengers breathed a collective sigh of relief; when it rolled straight back out again, confusion immediately returned.
20 minutes later it rolled in again, backwards.
This wasn’t explained to us, but at this point we were at least allowed to board.

We overheard illuminating and fascinating things on board:

“There was a huge forest fire in B.C., a lot of trains are delayed”
“Via Rail have to rent use of the rails from the cargo company, so we have to wait for all the freight trains to pass before we can go”
“Large sections of the track are in disrepair because they’re owned by American companies who don’t want to fix them”
“They don’t give a shit about us out West – if you go East there’s wifi on the trains, they have new cars, and they run on time”
“There are no refunds for delays regardless how long they are”

And my favourite:

“It’s taken us 48 hours to get here from Vancouver”

If that last point is true, it’s taken the train half as long to get here as it’s taken us to cycle.

On board there is food, alcohol and a convivial atmosphere. A band set up in the dining car and played ad hoc folk. The glass observation dome in coach class gives full panoramic views of the prairies: a scenic taste of the more expensive classes in the carriages behind us.
There is a full moon blaring red ahead as I write this.
A glorious sunset just disappeared below the horizon behind.
We’ve clocked 140 miles in the 4 hours we’ve been on board, and the arrival time is getting pushed back and back and back.
If we continue this pace it will take a further 18 hours.
But it doesn’t feel so much like a problem anymore.

#10: Prairie Dodgin’

We are 140 miles into the Prairies. Here is some advice we received from well-wishers regarding this region:

“Honestly, I can’t think of anything worse [than cycling across]. Driving Saskatchewan was so unbelievably dull – it really is just straight flat road with nothing interesting in sight. I started to think I could see buildings in the distance. Turns out they were just wisps of clouds.”

“Cycling across Canada could be very very boring! By the time you reach Winnipeg [near the end of the Prairies] you’ll be pining for gradients and bends”

“Yeah to be honest, skip the prairies. You’ll get the enjoyment of seeing what they look like from the train without spending about 3 weeks cycling across flat land.”

“Once you’ve seen a few miles you’ve seen it all”

On Sunday we will get a train from Saskatoon to Winnipeg, allowing us to skip a few hundred miles of the Prairies.

It turns out the advice was accurate, especially the last bit. Fields upon fields upon fields are dissected by long, perfectly straight roads.

It’s beautiful, but a much more rustic and unpolished type of beauty than the mountains we’ve ridden through previously. A beauty with lower replay value, in that it doesn’t really vary from mile to mile (or even day to day).

Neither of us are too attached to the idea of “riding across” the whole of Canada, so skipping some miles by train in favour of having more time for the exciting miles later on isn’t a problem. Even despite being told “that’s cheating!” by one person we spoke to on the way.

It’s wonderful how much advice people give freely when we speak to them. We’re grateful for it all, but deciding which bits to heed and which to ignore is one of the practicalities of the road I enjoy most.

We were advised to avoid Calgary. “There is no cycle infrastructure into the city, just highways”. While painfully true, our time in Calgary was uniformly excellent, so we were glad to ignore this advice.

We were advised to avoid drinking water in the Prairies. Our first bottle refills in the Prairies tasted strongly like eggs, to the point of being undrinkable (both because of the flavour and because of genuine concerns for our well-being). We decided to follow this advice after initially forgetting it.

We were advised to avoid tunnels if we didn’t have lights. After putting our lights on in the first tunnel and finding basically the same levels of light inside as outside, we ignored this advice. Our temporary riding buddy Patrick went beyond the advice, avoiding tunnels altogether in favour of walking his bike over the treacherous mud tracks outside.

We were advised not to camp down the 5km dirt track. Advice immediately followed: we instead camped in the $20 mountain lodge with the hot tub, the terrace overlooking the mountains, and the kind and hospitable staff (if you’re reading this, hello and thanks again!).

We were advised to take Highway 550 after Bassano instead of carrying on along the 1, because this would trim about 20 miles off our ride to Dinosaur Provincial Park. I was very excited by this prospect, although it turns out Kristian knew about this route already. This type of advice is always more than welcome though: locals’ knowledge of roads and areas and shortcuts saves time and often leads to more scenic, less busy riding.

We were continuously advised to go to Edmonton instead of Calgary, mainly because the route follows the Icefields Parkway which is among the most beautiful roads in the world, but also because the train links are better. Despite my previous point about locals’ road knowledge, we ignored this advice because fun times were promised (and provided!) in Calgary.

Ignoring this advice guarantees me another trip to Canada in the future to cycle the Icefields Parkway.


#9: City life

It’s incredible how quickly you switch between rhythms and paces of life.

When  not cycling, the reality of the amount of free time we’ve given ourselves becomes apparent. Three months where the only structure imposed on us is from within. Distances, budgets, bed times.

Our three day stop in Calgary saw our relatively disciplined daily routines revert back to 2am bed times and too many beers. Our organised pannier set ups become unruly piles next to the sofa in our friend’s spare room. Wet tents and tarps weren’t hung out to dry until the final day.

And it was wonderful.

Yesterday seven of us inflated a ten man raft and floated 15 miles down the Bow River, which runs right through downtown Calgary. Five hours of cruising, navigating mini rapids, stopping at island beaches, and hurried life-jacket-equipping and beer-can-hiding when police motorboats approached.

A couple of evenings back we played frisbee in a park then sat beside (and eventually on a rock in the middle of) the river eating cheese, skimming stones and watching fish do their various things.

These events were interspersed with walks around the city, games, bars, playing music, meeting people.

Slotting temporarily into an established group of friends is a privilege, and I’m grateful for this opportunity. Everyone we’ve met in Calgary has been interesting, fun, kind, and willing to let two random dudes join in. Thank you Ben, Randi, John, Becca, Tim, Dave, Jenny, Jesse.

This ties into what I’ve written before about paying it forward: as more and more generosity is given to us, I get more excited about offering the same to visitors to wherever I’m living in the future.

Spending days off relaxing, eating good food, drinking beers and performing various leisure activities in or near the river has been fantastic, and a good reminder that it’s possible to relax too much. I had this realisation while chewing a piece of gum before bed rather than going downstairs to brush my teeth.

I did shave though, so facially I’m more presentable than I have been so far on the trip.

Today we get back on the bikes and head into the most rural part of our trip so far, which will include a night in “one of the richest dinosaur fossil locales in the world”, a night camping in an actual ghost town, and hundreds of flat, repetitive miles that we have been repeatedly urged to avoid.

Knowing the bike is outside, waiting to be loaded up with gear and to return us to days with some semblance of structure is a nice feeling.

But then so is sitting on a sofa, freshly showered, drinking coffee made with actual appliances, surrounded by guitars.