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…