Road Trip 2019, Part 1, Chapter 4: Exploring Ontario

Day 22: Our last day in the Ontario Lake Country. We drive to Couchiching Park in Orillia to ride the Millennium Trail along the lakefront. The crowds are gathering on this holiday weekend, but we find a parking spot close to the trail and set off toward the Narrows between Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching. We picked this trail to ride because it is paved, and relatively flat.

Midge attack–the price of open-cockpit wind-in-the-face experience. [Photo by Judy]
Away from the waterfront parks, the foot traffic thins out, but, as we take the loop through Tudhope Park, we run into mating swarms of midges, the No-See-UM flies that appear in lake regions this time of year. We plow through the clouds of flies, so thick that they sound like popcorn hitting my jacket front at 15-20 km/hr. They are in my beard, in my eyes. My left eye is nearly blinded. We stop, but the flies are everywhere around us, so we continue on, away from the park, where we stop and de-midge, teasing the mangled fly bodies from my eyelashes, eyes, and beard.

A short distance away, the rail trail ends where the old railway swing bridge stands permanently open to let boat traffic pass between the lakes. The current is strong here. We watch boats cautiously thread their way through the narrow passage. On the other side of the narrows is the site of the wooden fish weirs that the local indigenous people used to catch fish for over 3000 years. We choose not to cross the busy Highway 12 bridge to check out the site, and turn back, this time avoiding the side trail through the midge swarms, though there are single midges everywhere.

We ride back through the park and onto the old railroad grade that climbs up the west shore of Lake Couchiching. At the end of the paved trail, we chat for a while with a resident of the housing development there, a woman about our age, out walking her dog. Traveling by bicycle makes it easier to connect with the local population, and we take advantage when we can. Soon, we head back down the trail to our truck.

Last week, we thought it fortunate that towns the size of Orillia (25000) have eateries that cater to vegetarian choices, having stopped at the Pita Pit, a chain ubiquitous in Canada and making some inroads in the northern U.S. Today, we find, only a block away from the Pita Pit, Shine, a local vegan restaurant. The food is exceptionally good, but, of course, about twice as much as the chain sandwich shop.

Day 23: We arise early and load out, having packed the evening before, to continue our travels. Our destination today is Bath, a small community on the north shore of Lake Ontario, between Toronto and Ottawa. On the way out, we loop around the north end of Lake Couchiching, stopping at a newly-opened Starbucks next to Weber’s Restaurant, a local west shore favorite. We had searched in vain for espresso in Orillia proper, making do with Tim Horton’s and the drip coffee at the condo.

We head east across Ontario, through farmland and lakes that look a lot like Northern Minnesota, stopping for lunch at the larger city of Peterborough. On this holiday Sunday, few shops are open, and the streets are nearly deserted. We find a Pita Pit in downtown Peterborough, then a Starbucks out on the edge of town. We stop at a Costco, intending to top off the fuel, but forget that Costco Canada only takes MasterCard, while Costco U.S. only takes Visa. So, a futile stop as our Visa-only wallet is rejected at the pump. We have plenty of fuel for the day, so continue on. The grocery in Bath is open, so we pick up a few supplies and check in to our AirB&B. Pat is a friendly host, and we have a full living area, bedroom, and bath to ourselves in the basement of their small and neatly appointed cottage.

Day 24: Intending to ride today, we dress in our bicycling clothing. Pat feeds us a breakfast of strawberry crepes, and we say our good-byes and drive a short distance to the city park, where we unload the bicycle. Bath is on the Great Lakes Shore Trail, but it’s an on-road trail, with bicycle icons painted on the narrow shoulder along Highway 33, the Loyalist Parkway. The area was settled after the American Revolution by colonists loyal to the British Crown, hence the name. We ride off into a stiff 20-km/hr headwind, hard pedaling, but the combined speed keeps the mosquitoes away. Unlike the midges, the mosquitoes do bite. We ride along the shore, past a grain terminal and a huge power plant complex that supplies most of eastern Ontario, turning around 11 km down the road at St. Paul’s Church in Sandhurst, which is merely a place name: there is no town.

The Escape of the Royal George, Lake Ontario 1812.

On the way back, the now tailwind makes riding easier, but the mosquitoes can fly 15 km/hr relative to the wind, so at anything less than 35 km/hr, they collect on our backs, hitching a ride. We stop once to check out a historical sign–the passage between Amherst Island and the Loyalist shore was the scene of an exciting cat-and-mouse chase between a British warship, the Royal George, and the American fleet in the War of 1812 (the Royal George escaped to Kingston Harbour, to the east). The hitchhiking mosquito swarm immediately seeks any unprotected skin, so we shoot a photo of the marker to read later and continue on.

We fuel up at the next town west, then join the press of holiday freeway traffic headed back to the city for a short way, turning off at Belleville to take the shore bike route at a more leisurely pace, enjoying the small towns along the route. We had intended to ride this on our bicycle, back in 2016, but had changed our plans before making it up the coast. This section has light traffic, but no shoulders, so we are glad we hadn’t followed through. Bringing the bike in the van makes it easy for us to ride where conditions are better and skip over the dicey parts.

Too soon, we are back on the freeway, trading a reliable 80-km/hr speed with 50-km/hr scenic strolls through the picturesque towns for the zero-to-100 and stop of the bumper-to-bumper holiday crush. It seems it may take us until after dark to reach the city, but after passing a major collision site (thankfully, on the eastbound lanes), the traffic resumes at a steady 90-105, and the GPS keeps us up to date on upcoming lane changes. Toronto holiday traffic seems a lot like everyday Los Angeles traffic, with the expressway and collector spanning 10-12 lanes across. Toronto is a sprawling city of 2.7 million, all of whom seemed to have gone somewhere else for the Victoria Day holiday and are all coming home at the same time.

Our hotel is in the heart of the city, across the street from the Allan Gardens and Conservatory, which we intend to visit. Our van is too tall to fit in the hotel garage, but we’re allowed to leave it in the check-in lane, and the $35 parking fee is good for all day, so we will have time to explore the city core on foot before moving on.

Cora restaurant, a Canadian chain specializing in fancy fruit breakfast presentations.

Day 25 promises to be sunny and warm.  We walk to a nearby Cora restaurant, famous for their carved fruit breakfasts, and are not disappointed.  The presentation looks almost too good to eat.  We check out of the hotel, leaving our truck, and walk across the street to the Allan Gardens and Conservatory, enjoying the riot of color that comes with the spring displays. We’ve visited a number of botanical conservatories over the years: St. Paul, San Diego, Madison, and Victoria, to name a few.  Toronto’s is one of the best and most extensive.

Flatiron Building, Front Street, Toronto, ON, Canada

We continue our walk toward Old Town, on the aptly named Church Street, to Front Street, to ogle the Flatiron Building, a skinny brick wedge at a narrow fork in the streets where Front Street meets the grid.  Then, on to the St. Lawrence Market, a block-long two-story market place filled with butchers and bakers as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, and lots of ethnic eateries.  We sample pastries from a Polish-Russian bakery whose founder was pastry chef to Czar Nicolas, and lunch on vegetarian cabbage rolls from a Ukrainian deli.

Canada is the true melting pot of North America: accents from the old country are thick, and difficult to understand in cacophony of the huge labyrinthine market, forcing us to play the “I’m old and hard of hearing” card to get information repeated.  On the street, we walk alongside other pedestrians conversing in Arabic.  Families come in all combinations of shades and manner of dress.  Toronto streets are crisscrossed with trolley rails, on which zoom light-rail transit trains half a block long, and around which hordes of bicyclists navigate without crashing on the rails, darting in and about the cars and buses.

Reluctantly, we head the truck back down the streets we just walked, and onto the freeway, headed for Niagara Falls.  The Toronto Metro area sprawls along the west end of Lake Ontario, home to nearly 6 million people.  A new cluster of high-rise buildings appears at every twist of the freeway, until we reach St. Catherine’s.  Past the Skyway over the canal that carries shipping traffic around the Falls, we pull off at a shopping center to rest a bit before navigating our way into the tourist town of Niagara Falls, Ontario, where we settle in, resting up from our Toronto exploration and planning our activities for the morning.

Pano shot to get both falls in frame without ascending the Skylon Tower.

Day 26: Niagara Falls is, of course, the ultimate tourist trap.  Our “inexpensive” hotel brings sticker shock, with taxes, tourist fees, and parking nearly doubling the advertised room rate.  We walk to the nearby IHOP, a chain that has sewn up the restaurant contracts with most of the hotels downtown.  It is still under construction, so we head for another one we can see on the other side of our hotel…  We have a coupon for $15 off, which, of course, is limited to full breakfast items, all of which are inflated, so our breakfast costs a bit less than $40 with the coupon, for basic 2-egg/hashbrowns/toast and cream cheese crepes, which would be $20 USD at home ($28 CDN).

We walk down to the riverside drive for a view of the falls, which is spectacular from this vantage point.  We choose not to indulge in the Skylon Tower view, walk back to the truck, and head along the coast of Lake Huron toward London, our next stop.  It’s a relaxing day.  We drive the tunnel under the ship canal to get coffee at Tim Horton’s, then back under and to the lake shore to cross on a lift bridge next to the first set of locks, then along all the lakefront cottages as far as we can.

We lunch at an old-fashioned coffee shop in Port Dover, where prices are still single-digit for a decent lunch.  Of course, the veggie wrap is a salad in a wrap, no protein, as is the case with 20th-century ideas about vegetarians  as folks who only eat salads.  We pick up a couple of sinfully calorific bars at the nearby bakery and continue on.

Our destination in London is a conference center resort, the Ivey Spencer Leadership Centre, which we have reserved on our chain affiliation loyalty points, so we get the executive suite: the price is the same as for a regular room, $0.  The dining room takes non-conference diners as well, but we elect to munch from our stash, having used up our dining-out budget.  The WiFi at the Leadership Centre is awesomely fast, so Judy does her banking and I catch up on some video editing.

Port Huron, Michigan [Photo by Judy]
Day 27 starts with a bolt of lightning, a crash of thunder, and a wind-swept downpour as we sit down for breakfast.  But, by the time we finish our Internet duties and pack out, the rain has subsided to a few scattered squalls.  The wind is strong and gusty, buffeting us all the way across the border and through Michigan to Kalamazoo for the night.  Fuel prices are high, so we just add enough to get into Indiana.  As usual when we are traveling cross-country, we pick a budget motel in advance, having to exchange rooms after arrival to get one that is remotely tolerable.  Dinner is a walk down the street to Target for a few food items to supplement our dwindling stash.  The WiFi at the budget motel is slow and spotty.  Although our phones woke up again once we crossed the border, the cellular data at the motel isn’t any better than the WiFi.  So it goes, when we’re in a multi-day run to the next destination, which will be to visit our son and grandchildren in Madison for the U.S. holiday weekend.

Day 28 promises heavy weather for our run through Chicago to Madison.  We arise early and catch breakfast at a nearby Starbucks, glad to be done with the filthy motel.  We vow to be more careful in the future.  We are outfitted for camping, and it is the season.  Even if a campsite is as much or more than the cheap motels, at least we know our van is clean and free of pet smells, drugs, and other unidentifiable odors, and WiFi, if available is no worse.

We watch the fuel gauge and price signs along the freeway, stopping just into Indiana at a station that is 15 cents lower per gallon.  I-94 merges with I-90 and becomes a tollway.  It costs us $6.80 to get out of Indiana on a one-lane tollway that is undergoing massive repairs.  Illinois collects another $1.50 before dumping us onto the Ryan Expressway, which, at this hour in the morning, is a parking lot.

Chicago “rush hour” on the Dan Ryan. [Photo by Judy]
After an interminable time spent at less than bicycle speed through the outskirts of Chicago, we finally come up to normal traffic speed, except for the frequent stops to throw another $1.50 out the window to get to use the next 10 km of tollway.  We are running out of US cash and coinage, so we escape from the tollway system onto the blue highways, a much more pleasant tour through picturesque small towns.

As we cross the border into Wisconsin, another wave of thunderstorms assails us, a deluge that makes it difficult to see ahead.  We press on, since the storm is against us and we will be out of it sooner by continuing forward.  As the rain subsides, we see a distraught young woman, phone in hand, standing by her car, which is angled off the shoulder, the right front side partly submerged in the water-filled ditch.  Hydroplaning is a real danger when driving in heavy rain.  We have all-weather truck tires, and slowed during the deluge, enough to prevent hydroplaning, but fast enough to not be overtaken in poor visibility.

Vanilla Caramel Latte at the Firefly Coffeehouse, Oregon, Wisconsin [Photo by Judy]
The rain passes as we continue northwest on the old highways, which take us through the town of Oregon, where we stop at the Firefly Coffeehouse, a favorite when in this area visiting relatives.  Our son has moved closer to the city, but our grandchildren all went to school in Oregon, so we are familiar with the town.  Despite the bad weather and traffic congestion, we arrive west of Madison early, so we stop at a Ford dealer’s service shop we have used before, for a long-overdue oil change on our van.

Finally, we check in, at a decent motel we have stayed at before.  This time, our loyalty card gets us a multi-night discount, so we save our points for better-quality lodging on the road ahead.  The particular chain we have used for a quarter-century used to be reliably clean and well-appointed budget lodging, but we have had so many disappointing encounters in the last couple of years that we have decided to avoid them in the future unless we’ve been there before and know the condition beforehand.

Our son, who does organ transplant retrieval for the UM Madison Hospitals, has—as we have come to expect—been called out on a case, but is expected home early evening.  We had picked up a sandwich at the coffee shop, so a late evening dinner out is fine.  The evening is all too short, despite having gained an hour in the time zone change.  We retire to our hotel just before the rain is predicted to resume.

To be continued…


Road Trip 2019, Part 1, Chapter 3: on to Canada

Pretty River, Collingwood, Ontario

Day 15: time to move on.  We have the room for another day, but it’s an 18-hour drive to our next destination, so we check out and head toward Jackson, my old home town, for coffee.  The coffee shop on Main is supposed to open at 7:00, but it’s 7:20 and there are no lights on inside, so we continue to the Interstate and point the truck east.

This part of the country was buried under the Des Moines Lobe of the expanded polar ice cap during the last Ice Age,  flattened so the curve of the earth is distorted, making the eastern horizon farther away than it should be.  The rich farmland, the result of millennia of grassland transforming the glacial till into rich compost loam 2-3 meters thick, is like a sponge, holding the melt water until it saturates and the spring rain sits in the dips and hollows.  Everywhere, water stands in fields where corn and soybeans will be planted when the earth reappears.  The ditches beside the highway run in streams, showing which way the land slopes against the illusion of a flat earth.

Fairmont is the next town of any size.  We stop at the Hy-Vee supermarket’s Caribou Coffee kiosk.  I notice the Sentinel on the newsstand next to the checkout.  I delivered that newspaper the year I was 12, after school and through the summer.  My route was the southeast quadrant of our little town, from the State Street Bridge east and south, my first job.  I saved my earnings from that year, which kept me in paperback sci-fi short-story anthologies and cherry cokes from the soda fountain for the next year or two, after which my next job was summer field work for the seed corn company as a gender assignment technician, a fancy 21st-century term for pulling the tassels, the male part of the corn which contains the developing pollen, from the stalks destined to produce the hybird seed.  This was a common job in the 1950s and 1960s for teens in farm country.  We rode six across in baskets on the back of a high-frame tractor that pulled us through the corn.  Having gotten my full height at 14, I often got assigned to run behind the machine, catching the tassels missed by the others.  It was a brutal job, that paid $0.50 per hour, with a $0.10 bonus if you survived the 3-week season. When we got old enough to drive, my buddy Ray and I baled hay, mowed lawns, dug stumps, changed storm windows, whatever, to fund our simple needs in an age before computers and video games, and chip in a quarter’s worth of fuel to “drag” main street on Saturday nights looking for girls.  We never found any: they were too smart to hang out to be picked up by silly boys.

But, in this cold spring in another century, the corn fields lay empty, covered with stubble from the fall harvest, and the seed plant is gone, teen labor having been replaced by much more efficient robots.  Calculating our fuel burn and speculating on the variation in prices, we stop a bit farther down the road and fill up, before descending into the Mississippi River Valley, through the cliffs, leaving the plains behind.  We stop for lunch on the Wisconsin side, on the banks of the Great River, swollen with the spring runoff and heavy rains.  There, we leave the Interstate system, crossing Wisconsin through the cranberry bogs and timber country.  We’ve come this way before, in our journeys, but at different times of the year, so it is all new, the trees are just starting to leaf out.

Mississippi River, La Crosse, Wisconsin

We pass Oshkosh, home of the Experimental Aircraft Association, of which I have been a member for 40 years, in the faded dream of someday building my own personal aircraft, the partially finished wings of which gather dust in our cramped garage, while we do our “cranking and banking” on the bicycle.  We turn north toward Michigan.

Soon, we are in somewhat familiar territory, recognizing places we passed on our bicycle tour around the north end of Lake Michigan, six years before.  We refuel again just across the Michigan border, near where we had lunch on our bicycle trip and where a local bicyclist we had met on the road tracked us down to give us a bag of home-grown fruit.  In an hour and a half, we pass through memories of three days on the bicycle, noting where we had our tire blowout, the giant flamingo figures marking a driveway, where we stopped overnight, the bar where we spent an afternoon catching up on our blog and email through the only WiFi available.

Day 16 starts in Escanaba, the gateway to the Upper Peninsula, with frost on the windscreen.  We drive back south 3 km to a newly-opened Starbucks, past the grocery we stopped at six years ago, now empty, victim of the new mega-Walmart in the next block.  Headed back north again, we retrace our bicycle tour in reverse along US 2,  always amazed: we look at each other and say, “We rode how far that day?”  We pass the tiny 7-room motel outside which I replaced a broken spoke in the morning fog, and stop for water and other supplies at a grocery where we had lunch on our longest tour day.  Soon, we leave US 2 and head north on state highways to Sault-Ste-Marie, where we top off the tank with $2.80 USD/gallon fuel before crossing into Canada on the spectacular international toll bridge, under which the Great Lakes shipping travel flows.

It’s early morning on Mother’s Day; there’s only one car ahead of us at the Canadian customs checkpoint.  Getting into Canada is as routine as paying the toll at the U.S. side of the bridge, and we soon wind our way through Sault-Ste-Marie, Ontario and out onto highway 17.  Like most of rural Canada, the next few hundred kilometers are sparsely populated.  We pass through a few tiny communities, then turn off at the lakeside town of Thessalon for a quick lunch at the beach on Lake Huron, supplemented with fare from the local grocery.

The terrain changes near Sudbury, rugged and rocky, with deep wooded canyons hiding rivers and lakes.  The highway skirts the city, so we only see glimpses of outlying housing.  The highway turns to intermittent 4-lane, with impressive construction going on to complete the divided highway transformation, cutting through massive rock formations.  Again, we calculate the fuel burn, deciding to get fuel at one of the First Nations stops, where the price is under $1.30 CDN/liter ($3.63 USD/gallon, with currency exchange rate).

Near our destination, the GPS directs us down dead-end country lanes.  We criss-cross the side of the mountain several times before finally it finds a route where the roads actually go through, taking us the back way through what was a golf community, but the would-be links lay rough and fallow, testimony to the glut of golf courses developed in the ’90s and ’00s for retirees like my cousin Jack in Iowa, who want to live in a pastoral setting but don’t have the time or inclination to play golf.  The resort is full, and expanding, as is the neighborhood of houses whose occupants bought for the green space and proximity to winter skiing and summer mountain biking, or to golf on nearby links that have survived the boom and bust. It’s cold, and the rain starts as we check in.  But, a check of the weather shows it might be good bicycling weather later in the week, so we settle in, after an exhausting two days drive, covering  nearly 1800 km (1100 miles).

Day 17 is cold and pouring rain, all day.  We follow the GPS on more back roads, eventually ending up on the freeway at the outskirts of Barrie, a booming city of 136,000 sprawling on the south shore of Lake Simcoe, where we hope to ride our bicycle when the weather clears.  A trip to MEC, Mountain Equipment Cooperative, the Canadian counterpart to REI in the States, for maps yields not only the maps we were looking for, but some bicycle clothing for me, on clearance.  I have to admit that everything wears out eventually, despite the fact I still wear jerseys I have had for nearly 40 years, though they don’t fit well anymore and have some chain tracks and holes.  Sometimes I think I spend more for bicycle-specific clothing than I do for everyday clothing: much of the latter I now find at thrift shops for a few cents on the dollar of what they cost new.

One of the reasons we like to visit Canada is for the diversity.  A city the size of Barrie is big enough to sustain vegetarian specialties, and a Google search pays off.   We find Copper Branch, a chain of vegan fast food restaurants.  We order the power bowls, not noticing there are two sizes, so we get the large, plus hot tea, since we also failed to notice they advertised espresso at the far right of the menu board.  We mostly eat out of groceries while traveling, especially in the U.S., where meat finds its way into every menu item, and because restaurants have become increasingly unaffordable on our fixed income.  However, one must seek out new experiences when on vacation.  Even though the bill comes to $50 CDN for lunch, it is less than the cost of half a tank of fuel, and we’ve filled the tank many times to get here, so we chow down with gusto.  Judy calls for a to-go box, so dinner is free, for her, and I’m good for a light snack later.

Day 18: Although the forecast called for rain, it sputters into an intermittent mist that dissipates as the temperature rises above 10 C at last, when 20 is closer to normal this time of year.  We head into Orillia, a small city of 36,000, to check out the paved bike trails.  The maps we got cover mostly gravel trails: the ones we’ve seen from the road are soft and muddy with the spring rains.  The map we didn’t get would have shown us a paved rail trail farther west, along Victoria Bay on Lake Huron.  We plan on that for tomorrow.  Meanwhile, we do a little shopping, look over the paved bike trail, which is thick with mosquitoes, even this early and cold, and surrounded by mine fields of goose droppings.  We may ride anyway, later in the week.

Orillia is not quite as cosmopolitan as Barrie, but the Pita Pit is a reliable source of vegetarian fare.  There is no Starbucks here, and we don’t hunt for espresso, so we succumb to that Canadian staple coffee and donut shop, Tim Horton’s.  Not bad for brewed coffee, actually, and the biscuits are less fattening than Starbucks scones.  Our last stop is for a new portable hard drive, on sale at Staples.  We’ve run our new dashcam, and accumulating close to 100 GB on a long day on the road.  We’ve simply run out of space, and compressing a day’s footage to 60 GB by converting to MP4 format takes two days, so it’s a losing battle.  The GST nearly wipes out the exchange rate, but it’s still less after tax than the list price, on sale.  It’s a wabi-sabi thing, like the initially overpriced microSD cards we’ve bought at liquidation prices at Shopko stores across the country, which end up at a cost we can accept, in obsolete sizes that fit our low-end dashcam, also on sale.  We now have enough of those for a full day’s camera run and have enough storage to offload them without format conversion.   Probably 90% of the footage will end up on the cutting room floor, but for now, we have the freedom to collect our travels, but not the time to edit out the boring parts (and the part where we were fiddling with the navigation and ran a red light—it just changed, so no cross traffic, but still, that sort of thing can get you deported and banned.

The mini-fridge in our unit freezes everything until we figure out the settings, but, wabi-sabi, we’re limiting our expenses by eating out of the grocery, most meals, and put up with it.  So it goes: we’re still adventuring, but we’re old and slow, and can only keep up the pace a few hours a day.  Having gotten the CPU loading problem solved and with WiFi in our room, we can focus on blogging and editing bicycle video footage.

Day 19: Bike Ride Day!  After looking over the bike trail maps, we are reluctant to ride on the gravel trails, since it has been so wet this month.  The Tay Shore Trail, from Waubaushene to Midland, is paved, so we head up highway 12, park at a sports field next to a fire station, check out the Esso convenience store across the street, and head down 600 meters of gravel to the paved trail.  It’s cold, with a headwind, but the trail is well-maintained and relatively level.  The motor-vehicle traps at the intersections are tricky to negotiate with the long and wide tandem, since they can’t be negotiated straight-on, but soon become routine.

Victoria Harbour, Ontario, riding in the rain on the Trans-Canada Trail.

As we approach Midland, the black clouds that have grown darker the last hour let loose.  We shelter in a tented picnic area at Sainte Marie of the Hurons, a historic fort recreation, and take a short snack and water break.  The rain seems here to stay, so we continue west past the official end of the trail at Sainte Marie Park, and part way around Midland Bay before retracing our route, in sometimes heavy rain, back to the east end of the paved trail, stopping at Foodland in Victoria Harbor for more bike fuel, and at Waubaushene Beach for photo ops.  At 39 km, it’s our longest tandem ride this year, and our first ride in rain in a long time.

Day 20 promises to be variable weather and also a bit cold, so we declare a van-exploring day to check out other bicycling possibilities.  We drive west to highway 26 and north to Collingwood, Meaford, and Owen Sound.  The rail trails along highway 26 are gravel: Owen Sound is interesting, at the head of the eponymous body of water.  Besides being scenic, it is the home town of Billy Bishop, Canada’s great World War I air ace, with 72 victories claimed.  He was RCAF Air Marshal during World War II. The airports in Owen Sound and Toronto are named after him.

Kelso Park, Owen Sound, Ontario

On the way back, we find a “Discount Thursday” deal at a petrol station in Thornbury, taking on 100 liters at $1.199, the lowest price we’ve seen in Canada in years, while the average price this week is $1.272.  The rain returned as we arrived back at our condo.

Day 21: after raining most of the night, the day dawns foggy and cloudy, but promises to be hospitable for outdoor activity by noon.  In late morning, we suit up for cycling and, after consulting the array of bike route maps we’ve collected, head for Wasaga Beach.  Scoping out the loop route around the dunes, we’re glad we chose the more residential route along the beach: the loop route goes through town, where there is much road construction on the busy highway.  Wasaga Beach is famous for its long stretches of sandy beaches.  Like the sandy beaches on the Pacific Coast in Washington and Oregon, and the east side of Lake Michigan, the beaches front a series of sand dunes extended up to two kilometers inland and a 100 meters high or more, covered with oak and scrub.

After an interminable stop-and-go creep through the construction and crossing the river that parallels the beach, we find the YMCA parking lot, break out the bicycle, and head westward along the beach road toward Collingwood.  At the one beach access among the cottages, we stop and watch kite surfers in the cold wind.  It’s the Friday before a three-day weekend (Victoria Day is Monday), so traffic along the beach cottage access is heavy, with lots of stop signs.  We don’t much like road riding anymore, but it’s preferable to soft gravel.

Sunset Point, Collingwood, Ontario

The beach road soon dumps us out on a major arterial, but the shoulder is adequate.  A few kilometers into the city limits of Collingwood, the route finally veers off to residential streets, a narrow foot bridge across the Batteaux River, and a few more kilometers before putting us on the sidewalk on the busy Hwy 26 freeway.  Our erstwhile stoker almost declares a No-Fun Day, but I insist that the inconvenience and headwinds will be worth it.  We dismount and cross with the pedestrian lights, bumping along on the narrow concrete sidewalks until we cross the Pretty River and turn off toward Sunset Point Park.  We exit the park on a narrow gravel trail almost inundated by the high water and wind-whipped waves, which brings us out on Main Street, then out on Heritage Drive on the spit that shelters Collingwood Harbour.  We had driven to the Millennium Park at the end of the spit yesterday, and the wind was in our faces on the coarse gravel trail, so we stop instead at the small park next to the Yacht Club before retracing our route back to the truck, a much faster ride with the wind at our backs and the temperature up in the teens (Celsius), for a 32-km ride.  The traffic is heavy on our drive back to the condo, as the city folk head for the beaches on the opening weekend of the summer. Though it is still unseasonably cold, the weekend promises warmer weather, along with the inevitable thunderstorms.

We have another day yet in the Lake Country before heading east to explore the north shore of Lake Erie,  but the three weeks we’ve spent on the road so far have been interesting: we’ve done most of the things we planned, though we had to work around the cold and rainy weather and pick different routes to ride, and discovered places we didn’t have on our list.  Since leaving home, we’ve ridden 217 km  (134 miles) on our bicycle, more than our tandem mileage for the previous four months.

To be continued…


Road Trip 2019, Part 1, chapter 2

Day 9: Mitchell, SD to Spirit Lake, IA. Not a long drive, but the rain that has chased us all week comes and goes. We stop in Sioux Falls for fuel, our fifth fill-up since leaving home and our most expensive category so far. We decide to head south, taking Highway 18 this time: we’ve been across Iowa Highway 9 before. The rain catches us at when the route jogs north or south. We’ve traveled this area before, headed for the Starbucks kiosk in the Hy-Vee supermarket in Spencer, and restocking the groceries for our stay a short way north, on the west shore of Lake Okoboji, the gem of the Iowa Great Lakes.

I grew up just over the state line, in Minnesota. As a teenager, my buddy and I would drive down to Arnolds Park, an amusement park and namesake town on the south shore of Lake Okoboji, just to watch how people with money spent theirs. Of course, we did have to explain to our parents why we were two hours late coming home from Boy Scouts. I don’t think I spent a dime at Iowa’s playground then, and haven’t since we have passed through several times in this decade, including three years ago when we stopped by on a late Sunday afternoon with our 15-year-old grandson. He declared the wooden roller coaster a death trap. But, it’s been a popular tradition for generations of Iowans, since 1927.

Day 11: The rains came again, with a vengeance. Flooding is a big problem in the midwest. Although we think the bumps are hills, the region is relatively flat, the ground is saturated from the winter snowmelt, and the rains run off into the shallow river valleys, where the rivers spread out and up to make things miserable for residents and travelers.

Our resort only offers complimentary WiFi in the lobby, so we have made our daily pilgrimage to the main building to connect the computers to the Internet. We have our phones, but two weeks on the road have depleted our data plan for the month already. We have resigned ourselves to bumping up our plan, but still have three weeks before it rolls over, so prudence is still required.

Day 11: It is still cold in the Midwest, but the rain has subsided for now, so this is our big ride day. Two years ago, we camped in our van near the lake and rode our bicycle around, counter-clockwise on the Iowa Great Lakes Trail, missing a few kilometers due to a blown tire and a Good Samaritans’ lift to the bike shop in the town of Okoboji.  We set off around the lake, clockwise this time,  After it warmed up a bit, we headed north on the paved concrete bike trail, clockwise around the lake this time. The trail switches to the west side of IA-86, diving under through a tunnel which is, thankfully, dry. A few miles later, past farms and a golf course, it dives back under the highway to end in a residential area of RV parks and beach cottages. The route follows the roads around the north end of the lake, resuming as an off-road trail through the prairie and a nature preserve before crossing US 71 at a traffic light. So far, the trail has been rolling, but soon turns south onto a rail-trail that takes us into the town of Okoboji, swinging out to follow US 71 through town. The route signs take us through a beach condo parking lot and across the bridge between the east and west arms of the lake to the town of Arnolds Park. The trail turns left at the town cemetery to wind around Minnewashta Lake, crossing a bridge between Minnewashta and Lower Gar Lake. The trail soon dumps us back on a road, headed west. We climb a long hill, past—as we later discover—my cousin Jack’s house, cross US 71, and wind around the south end of Lake Okoboji through the West Okoboji beachfront, then out to follow Highway 86 north past where our 2017 ride ended in a tire blowout, then through the hills, prairie, farms, and fens on the west side of the lake.  No issues this time. We get in the full 33.4 km circumnavigation of the lake. It seemed a bit more hilly this early in the season, but we managed to make it up all the bumps on our wheels.

Day 12: Rain, lots of it, and door-hinge-busting wind. Our plan of the day takes us to Rabab’s for lunch, a  newly renamed (formerly Chick’s) bistro on US-71 on a spur of the bike trail just north of where we crossed yesterday. It’s a few weeks ahead of the tourist season in the Iowa Great Lakes, so many businesses aren’t open at all, and those that cater to the locals off-season are only open two or three days a week. The place is crowded, as the outside patio seating is rocking back and forth in the gusty deluge. Unlike the usual midwest fare that gives you a choice of one or all three main locally-grown food animals, liberally seasoned with bacon, the menu serves up big-city hipster dishes like avocado toast and “southwest” salads, topped with egg, of course. Someone has to eat all these farm products…

After lunch, we visit the nearby nature center, which we had ridden past the previous day. By some fortune, our visit is between hands-on sessions for toddlers and pre-schoolers, so we wade through the piles of confetti and wend our way around tiny tables covered with plates of prairie humus (aka plain old dirt) and wildflower seeds to look at the tanks of turtles, cases of small-animal skeletons, and lifelike examples of local fauna preserved with the taxidermist’s art. Hands-on children’s exhibits are fun for adults, too, as we stroke pelts of badger, fox, coyote, and other beasts we only see in fleeting moments on the bike trails.

Day 13: Another blustery day. Thanks to social media, we are informed that my cousin Jack Parkins—who I thought was in Arizona, having lost track of him 20 years ago—was living nearby, In fact, as noted, we had ridden past his Iowa house on Tuesday, where he and Sue spend summers, when not at their Arizona residence.  We meet them for lunch and a pleasant afternoon catching up on a lifetime. Jack, who is six years older, had taught at Mankato State College in Minnesota before becoming a snowbird and settling in a retirement home in the summer playground we all grew up in. As elderly folks do, we compared health and medications, finding—being close relatives—we have a lot in common. Reluctantly, we cut our visit all too short, as we had a dinner date across the border in Minnesota, with 98-year-old Aunt Jo, my mother’s sister-in-law, and cousin Cathy and her husband Bill. We hadn’t expected to see Bill this trip, but his planned activity of the day, relocating game bird stocks, was cancelled because of the bird-walking weather. Apparently, the wild game I remember as being so abundant in my youth now are reared in pens like fish and the fields stocked to satisfy the demands of 21st-century hunters and fishermen.

Pizza, BBQ, and “Coney” (hot dog slathered in BBQ) night at the veterans club, with the usual choice of Chicken, Pork, Beef, or all three, the quintessential Minnesota comfort food, presented its usual dilemma for the strict vegetarian, so dinner for me was a heavily salted soft pretzel dipped in chipotle seasoned liquid nacho cheese, which made a reasonable substitute for the yellow mustard I remember from my years in New Jersey, back in the 1970s. But, we had a good visit. It’s Aunt Jo’s weekly night out, and we had a good visit, holding our own against the boisterous crowd of younger folks (Jackson High School Class of ’65, still wild at 72) behind us, and the bar did have a few bottles of Guinness to satisfy us aged western hipsters who don’t drink “beer you can see through.”  But, it was great seeing everyone this trip.

Day  14 dawned cold, but clear.  After it warmed up a bit, we suited up and headed for a trailhead, Kiwanis Park in Spirit Lake, and headed north on the Iowa Great Lakes Trail, a rolling and sometimes winding trail that is partly on the road around the west side of Spirit Lake (the body of water).  Across from Minnewakan State Park at the north end of the lake, we cross into Minnesota on the Jackson County Trail, which follows the roads and then meanders along the creek between Loon Lake and Spirit Lake.  We stop at Loon Lake for a snack and to enjoy Loon and Pearl Lakes at Brown County Park.  When I was in Boy Scouts, 60-65 years ago, our troop spent at least a week each summer on the east shore of Loon Lake, where a farmer had graciously let use his lakefront.After our snack stop, Judy’s saddle fell off the bike, 16 km from the car.  Fortunately, all the parts were intact; one of the seat rail clamp screws had loosened and fell out while we were stopped on the paved trail.  Out came the tool kit and the repair was quick and successful.   The trip back was much more enjoyable than pushing a broken bike would have been. We chatted briefly with another grandfatherly cyclist we met at the top of the steepest hill while stopped for a scenery view.

Back at the condo, we started packing for the next stage of our road trip, destination Orillia, Ontario, beginning our third week on the road.

To be continued…

Road Trip 2019 Part 1, chapter 1

Despite being on a budget–truly beginning to realize what living on a fixed income in an inflationary economy means–we have big plans for 2019.  We did postpone our usual annual trip to the Southwest this winter, because we planned to attend the biennial weaving conference in our own Pacific Northwest.  However, since the conference this year is in Prince George, BC, 1000 km to the north, that event is part of a major road trip, which will be Part 2.

Part 1 is the result of our upgrade to our vacation shares a couple of years ago, which netted us, as a bonus incentive, two “free” weeks in the RCI vacation network.   Collecting on “free” means being at the whim of the sponsor: we found few resorts and time slots where we could use the coupons, where and when we were willing and able to go.  So, here in the suddenly blustery end of April, we find ourselves headed east, for a week in Iowa, followed by a week in Ontario, north of Toronto.  We visited the area in Iowa in 2017, close to the Minnesota border near where I grew up, and we did enjoy the bicycling and being close enough to visit relatives still in the area.

The Canadian part is a compromise: we have on our bucket list plans to visit Eastern Canada, Ontario, Quebec. and the Maritime Provinces, so this gets us at least a consolation prize in that category,  We don’t have time to explore, but will at least get a taste of what the eastern half has to offer.

Our first day on the road, we realized that winter is not done with us yet, running into hail and snow over Snoqualmie Pass.  Our plans to camp in Idaho to go bicycling got derailed a bit as the forecast was for freezing temperatures, and we experienced high winds all the way across Washington, settling in for the night at a motel in Coeur d’Alene, where, indeed, it did freeze overnight.

Day 2 dawned very cold, below freezing. But, with promise of lower wind and mid-morning temps in the middle single-digits (Celsius), we set off from Coeur d’Alene after coffee and fuel (under $0.80USD/liter!), we set out over Fourth of July Pass into the Silver Valley, with hopes of being able to ride another segment of the elusive Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes.

After considering options, we decided to just go ahead with Plan A (or Plan B, I forget which) and park at the Pine Creek Trailhead near Pinehurst and ride west until we couldn’t take the cold anymore. Despite being rewarded with great river views, 7.5 km was the frostbite limit today. We turned around at Milepost 44 and headed back, deciding not to stop at the famous Snake Pit bar and café at Edaville, but just press on back to the truck.

Eschewing the ambiance of the Snake Pit, we had lunch out of the shopping bag in the Walmart parking lot in Smelterville, cruised Wallace, and headed over Lookout Pass for an early evening in St. Regis, Montana.

During our grocery stop at Walmart, a new toy stuck to us: a dashcam for the truck.  It was “only” $25.  Of course, we updated the 8GB memory chip with a 32GB chip from our camera stash, but then needed yet another memory stick to hold all the output until we can review and edit it.  Most of the clips will be thrown away, we assume, but the sheer volume of data makes it impossible to review and edit in real time while traveling.  Hoping to include some windscreen scenery to add to our bicycling video travelogue.   Converting the AVI format to MP4 reduces the size of the storage required, but the first run took nearly 20 hours.

Wall decor at Liquid Planet’s main store on Higgins Avenue in the heart of Missoula, a few blocks from the headquarters of the Adventure Cycling Association, and 50 km south of the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas, one of the largest Buddhist shrines in North America.

The morning of Day 3, we packed out to frost on the windscreen and headed for Missoula, where we indulged in coffee at Liquid Planet, lunch at Good Food Store, and a trip to the Bicycle Hangar for a new kickstand for our bicycle, all familiar haunts from when we lived in the area and from previous visits.  The bicycle repairs were necessitated by the old kickstand falling off the bike when we unloaded it at the trailhead the previous day, the threads stripped after six years of heavy use and a slightly short bolt.  I hit up Montana Ace Hardware for a new bolt the right length, while Judy checked out the Book Exchange nearby, where we still had an open account.

We paused in our travels for a couple of days, visiting with friends in the Bitterroot Valley, staying with our longtime quilting friend Connie in Florence.  Visiting Hamilton to catch up with Theresa, a bead artist friend, netted us a chance encounter with another quilter and lunch at the Cherry Street Cafe, with an awesome crêpe and a mug of coffee from next-door Zaxan coffee roasters, meeting the new (to us) owner of the Cafe, finding out she once lived near us in Washington.  Alas, we did not get any dashcam views of the Bitterroots, having left our new dashcam back at our host’s house.

Day 5 dawned cold, below freezing, time to move on.  We spent half the morning visiting and packing.  We said our farewells and headed north to Missoula.  We stopped again at The Good Food Store, where we chose the Wok Bowls.  We got an insanely huge amount of food for not much money, enough to qualify as a Buddhist monk’s daily begging bowl meal.  Judy got a box for half of hers.

A stop at Costco to take on another 85 liters of petrol, as we were eastbound, leaving Missoula in early afternoon.  We stopped at the truck stop in Rocker, where Judy found a stretch head band to protect her ears on our next bike ride, having discovered that winter was still upon us.

Butte showed us a scattering of snow on the slopes of the Rockies, but the road was dry as we climbed over Homestake Pass.  Of course, we stopped at the Wheat Montana bakery before making our way to the Missouri Headwaters State Park for the night, intending to ride the paved bike trail to Three Forks in the morning.

Day 6: we woke at dawn, dry camped at Missouri Headwaters State Park, with the overnight temperature near freezing.  We were cozy in the van, though.  After dining on stiff cinnamon rolls we bought at Wheat Montana the evening before, we settled our tab with the camp ranger, unloaded the bicycle, and headed off in the crisp, cold morning on the Legacy Trail toward Three Forks, with the thought of coffee.  The trail was one of the great ones, following the Montana Rail Link tracks under I-90, then around several ponds adjoining the Headwaters Golf Course, where the off-road bike trail stopped.  We picked our way through the neighborhoods rather than ride the arterial, eventually riding down Main Street.

Judy declared it too cold to get coffee and then back on the bike, so we headed through the neighborhoods on the shortest route back to the trail, where we were treated by flocks of little yellow-breasted birds fleeing the trail in front of us, as we passed a flock of white pelicans swimming close to shore, sheltered from the wind, which, for us, was a tail wind to push us back to camp. where we packed up and drove to the Remuda Coffee Shop, where we had passed on our bike shortly before.

With our bicycling goal for Montana this trip out-of-the-way, we headed east, pushed by the wind, stopping for fuel and lunch in Billings, then south through the Crow reservation to US212 and east through the Northern Cheyenne, cutting across a corner of Wyoming into South Dakota.  We skirted black rain clouds the entire day, with the mist occasionally dipping close enough to the ground to use the wipers, coming out into sun at the South Dakota border.  Our quest for low-cost lodging took us to a motel that shall remain unnamed: the key card machine wasn’t working, so the manager let us into the room and we took turns shuttling our belongings in and out.  The WiFi had good signal and bandwidth, though.

Canyon Lake, along the Rapids Creek Trail. the sign behind the information plaque shows the high water mark in the 1972 flood. We managed to outrun the rain clouds in the distance on an 8-km sprint back to the truck.

Day 7 found us at the Green Bean for coffee and breakfast in Belle Fourche (Bel-FOOSH, as we discovered after mispronouncing it for years), after which we headed to Rapid City to ride the Rapids Creek bike trail.  The day started off sunny and cool, which turned stormy and cold as we reached the west end of the trail, so we charged at full speed (which is not much, for us) back to the truck, getting the bike put away and us inside before the rain came.

We had planned to ride the entire trail, but 17 km was a bit over half.  We looked at the weather forecast and decided to try the rest the next day.  To fill up the rest of the afternoon, we visited the  South Dakota Air Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base nearby, before checking in at yet another budget less-than-camping-fee motel, where we found it necessary to change rooms after being assailed by unidentifiable and disagreeable odors on opening the door.  The upper floors were at least tolerable, and the breakfast was acceptable.  Thinking of camping…

On the Rapids Creek Trail. The underpass under the bridge ahead was closed due to high water, but drivers were courteous where we had to cross roads along the trail.

Day 8: A sunny day!  We packed out, changed into our bicycling kits, and headed back to the creek trail.  On a sunny Saturday morning (May the Fourth be With You, for Star Wars fans), the trail was busy.  The National Guard was out in force, some jogging with heavy packs, most just sauntering along, in the guise of weekend training hikes.  Bicycles, moms and at least one dad with strollers, dog walkers, some elderly with electric scooters or bikes and trailers, an assortment of mountain bikes and road bikes, and kids on bikes wobbling along.  And, of course, the usual cityscape assortment of homeless, addicts, and pushers.  At one point, we had to detour around an aid car, apparently summoned for an overdose victim on the bridge in front of the Civic Center.  We put in another 16km, by taking alternate loops and side paths, plus a short section of yesterday’s ride before packing it in.

“Destiny,” a 15-meter-high statue at the rest stop overlooking the Missouri River at Chamberlain, South Dakota.  The northern plains indigenous people learned to make quilts from the European settlers, to replace hide robes after the bison had been hunted to near-extinction..  The six-point star pattern is now traditional for ceremonial quilts.

Bike stowed, we headed to the nearest Starbucks, which, due to a mass call-in of sunny-day sickness, was only serving drive-up customers.  Bah! Off to another near our motel, refuel at Safeway to get the discount, and off on the freeway to Mitchell, home of the one and only (should we be glad?) Corn Palace.  We thought about camping, but the tent spaces were soggy, and the regular campsites were nearly as expensive as motels, so we opted for one of the last motel rooms in town–graduation at the local college this weekend.  This time, the budget motel was very clean, and for the extra $10 we get breakfast and fast WiFi.

The “One and Only” Corn Palace, in Mitchell, South Dakota, a large auditorium decorated inside and out with murals made entirely of ears of corn and corn stalks, in natural colors.
The murals are changed every year. This year’s theme is South Dakota military contributions, to celebrate the christening this year of SSN 790, USS South Dakota.

One more day on the road and we hunker down for the next five days before again heading east.  So far, we’ve gotten in a few bike rides–short, but, then, we’ve had long drives before or after, along with unseasonable cold and the usual spring rains.  To be continued…