Canada the Ride: Part I

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Montreal, QC to Lethbridge, AB

Crossing the world’s second biggest country felt like a daunting task: more than 4000 miles through at least 6 climate zones, the inevitable rain, wind, and snow, and incredible stretches of solitude. This was certainly no “easing into” my journey around the world. But I had to start somewhere, so off to the Great White North I went with the hopes that succeeding would mean a great beginning rather than an end.

Once past the border, the ride to Montreal on HWY 10, was a pleasant jaunt through European looking country side – smaller farms, wooden fences, small groups of cows grazing peacefully. There was nothing breathtaking, but also nothing jarring like the sight of massive feedlots. On the approach to the city, I was quickly thrust back into the realities of city riding: the final 20 miles took almost as long as the ride from the border.

I spent only a day in Montreal, long enough to dry everything that was wet, which was everything I had. I was too eager to keep going and was already late for the couch surfing I had foolishly set up beforehand. I had lined up almost all of the couches I would need before even setting out from New York. I was too novice to know that plans inevitably change, that time takes on a different meaning on the road.

Canada The Ride Part 1 - ClapwayPhoto Courtesy

To those unfamiliar with this is an on-line community of over 3 million people across the globe who open their homes to travelers. It is free of cost, and full of gain. The people I have met from Couch surfing have been some of the most incredible in my life, and I am friends with a good number of them to this day. There is no better way to learn about a place, its people, history and culture, than by staying with people, not tourists, and learning from them. Using Couch surfing has changed my journey completely; using the website and becoming part of this community was the single best decision I have made so far.

At Montreal I hopped on what would become my guide for most of Canada: the Trans-Canada highway (TCH). This is Canada’s great artery. Though mostly not interesting, it does have its breathtaking stretches, and serves the invaluable purpose of bringing people to the smaller roads which lead to Canada’s great natural bounty.

At first, between Montreal and Ottawa, the TCH was as most interstates are in the U.S. – long, boring and riddled in traffic. But as you emerge from the ugliness which is city and suburb riding, the grandeur of lake country embraces you into its vast and glorious self.

I got off the TCH near Renfrew, and caught route 60 which cuts through Algonquin National park and heads straight for the shores of Lake Huron where it meets with the route 69 branch of the TCH. Most of this 300-mile day was spent cruising along the shores of small lakes and swaths of pine forest. The road had few straightaways, the weather was cool and conducive to riding, yet always threatening with ominous clouds in the distance.

Canada The Ride Part 1 - ClapwayPhoto Courtesy

The following day I began my ride along the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Superior on my way to Sault Ste. Marie. I started on the 69 and then joined the main branch of the TCH, highway 17, heading east. East of Thunder Bay the Trans Canada is a beautiful road that curves and hugs the landscape. Her wide, windy lanes beg for speed, but the earthly granite sculpture garden, the vaporous heavenly one, the silvery endless waves of the great lakes and the deep green waves of pine and fir, arrest the throttle and calm the growing adrenaline. Time has little meaning along this road. The 350 miles passed quickly, as they always do when you are surrounded by beauty. I wanted to stop frequently to just sit and stare at the great expanse of the lake, but night riding is cruel to the biker and the sky was no less threatening than before.

If it were possible, the road from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay was even more breathtaking:  450 miles of Lake Superior falling away into the horizon to the south, and endless forest, undulating on the wavy hills left by receding glaciers, to the north. The road was in exemplary condition: well-marked, smooth, free of debris and potholes, full of curves from 30mph to 80mph, with plenty of shoulder space and scenic outlooks to stop and gaze. The shore, with countless little, rocky beaches, begged for my tent.

As I approached Thunder Bay at dusk I was treated to a fiery performance of the sun’s battle with the cloud’s futile attempt to block its last hurrah. It was one of the most moving and memorable sunsets I have ever seen – the perfect end to 800 miles of awe-inspiring, lake country, riding.

All of that changed, however, as the road straightened, as if by giant pliers, going westward from Thunder Bay. Manitoba, Saskatchewan and most of Alberta give the eye and soul nothing but bitter wind, endless fields, and what seemed like eternal flatness. Until the Rockies rise at the border of British Columbia, Canada becomes an endless prairie the second you leave the great watered mass of Ontario. Its winds sandblast your mind and leave it blank for the 1300 of straight miles across Big Farming’s backyard. In Saskatchewan I rode for a good 200 miles leaning my bike so far over to counter the cross winds, that had there been no wind I would have ridden in a giant circle for 4 hours. Not a thing to stir the imagination, the only landmarks were gas stations, and giant grain silos with Cargill signs reminding you of how long ago real farming ended. Whatever joy and impressions Quebec and Ontario may have left, the plains and prairies drained them and I felt as though I have forever trodden upon this listless, endless field. My only positive memories of those endless days of riding, is the time I spent couch surfing with wonderful people in Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Regina and Lethbridge.

It is on these stretches of empty, monotonous road, where we truly begin to face ourselves and the demons that have lain deep behind the veil of stimulation produced by city life. With nothing to inspire us, and no twisty roads to pump up our adrenaline, we retreat into the recesses of our minds. From here come our doubts and fears, and we begin to question our ability to go on, the wisdom of having begun such a journey, and so many memories of mistakes and regrets and losses come flooding to the surface. Thus I found myself on a bed in Regina, Saskatchewan, in pain from riding over 3000 miles in a little more than a week, and questioning everything. These are the true moments which test a person’s resolve to continue. Many people think that it is the difficulties which we encounter with riding or weather which make people turn back, but that is not the case. Difficulties, after they are overcome, are valuable lessons, and we feel pride in having succeeded. But when there has been nothing but a straight line of tarmac heading into the endless horizon for the last 3 days, it is our internal weakness which poses the greatest threat to our continuing. Thankfully I recognized this, said “screw the pain”, got on my steed and rode through another day and 450 miles of nothingness, knowing that I would end at the foot of the great Rocky Mountains.

I had planned on camping in the mountains, but neglected to set up a place to stay between there and Regina. My plans to camp in Cypress Hills Provincial Park were aborted due to yet another day of rain, so I continued on to Medicine Hat, Alberta. Before reaching Medicine Hat I had to pull over at a motel along the road, as I was freezing and starting to get wet from the endless rain. I asked the owner if I could use a room to take a hot shower – as that is the only way I could warm up. Surprisingly she said yes and gave me a towel and a key. It was yet another act of kindness from a stranger, which at that point I still felt was a rare thing to find; later on I would know better.

It was getting very late in the day by the time I reached Medicine Hat and as a last minute resort I went into a hotel to use a computer in order to try and find some people on I wrote a few last minute requests, and got back on the road full of hope – my goal was to only camp or stay in people’s homes while on this Journey, and I can gratefully say that I did not stay in a hotel once.

I began to ride west as the sun was setting behind the still distant Rockies. I had no idea where I would sleep that night or where I could pitch a tent since there were no campgrounds or parks on the way. All of a sudden, as the last rays of light disappeared beyond the horizon, my phone rang and a sweet voice on the other end told me I was more than welcome to stay in their home in Lethbridge, Alberta. Yet again, I found myself in need, and someone stepped up to make things right. This would prove to always be the case on the road – people will always step up to help a traveler. Kindness and generosity rarely shown to those close to them, is selflessly given to the weary wanderer (especially if he or she is on a motorcycle).

That phone call and stay in Lethbridge would prove to be quite fateful. From Lethbridge I ended up going to Glacier National Park in Montana with one of my hosts and his friend, meeting a wonderful girl who I would meet again in Oregon, witnessing mind-blowing natural beauty, and having my life threatened by moose, bear, rain and my own stupidity. But that story, Adventures in Glacier, will come later.

 (Next Post) Canada The Ride Part II >>