Eastwards and Far
Cycling across Canada, coast-to-coast
Skim for pretty pictures; read for three months of beauty, camaraderie, hospitality, and humanity.
My friend Kristian and I cycled across Canada in summer 2017. Vancouver to St John’s. The usual.
4472 miles, 92 days, and 10 provinces later, my desire to see Canada isn’t satisfied. It’s now bolstered by knowledge that the country is more vast and varied than I’d imagined. To an almost absurd degree.
I never felt ready enough for the line we were drawing on the map, nor the accompanying lines on the elevation profile. Kristian’s detailed training schedule was held back by injury (“you should be OK to ride 12 miles soon!”, his physio told him a few weeks before we set off). Mine never existed. I entrusted my physical well-being to a gung-ho sense of adventure, and my future self to an exciting array of aches and twinges.
Our only planned training was a 25-mile jolly in the Peak District, whose rugged landscape we felt would best match Canada. What actually took place was a nightmare, aborted after 12 miles as my gears disintegrated, whistled, and refused to do what they were told, dropping five or six at a time at random intervals and requiring manual reset.
We exchanged a grim look at the side of the road, silently wondering what we’d got ourselves into, before being picked up from a petrol station. Our disgraced bikes spent the night locked to a fence.
So, some sense of apprehension accompanied the start of the ride. Further whistling and bad behaviour from my gears on the second morning didn’t help my confidence, although a healthy glug of motor oil all over the mechanism did put the problem permanently to bed. Then a 15-mile hill out of Hope, B.C., also on the second day, nearly broke both of us. My first lingering memory of the trip was stopping in the hard shoulder half way up the hill, sweaty, greasy, and tired, cramming peanuts into myself despite being uncomfortably full already, just to squeeze a bit more energy into my pathetic muscles.
And to those of you who know the hills, it wasn’t even the longer and rowdier Coquihala.
Before flying out I’d been telling concerned family and friends that “the first month will be training for the second two”, which turned out to be true. Once you get into the rhythm of things, through the various rites of passage like peanut cramming and tasting your own sweat as it runs down your face, and accept carrying everything you need to survive up hills with just your legs, it gets easier. The apprehension fades. You realise that you are a viable cyclist and that you will make it to the other side of this enormous country.
Or, “think you can, think you can’t, know you will!” —a serendipitous heckle which perfectly captured this feeling, supplied by a passing driver as we slogged up another beefy hill.
Other riders — and there were so many more than expected — contributed to the feeling of settling in. They were everywhere on the spectrums of physical preparation, professionalism, equipment suitability, and ride magnitude. We met svelte athletes averaging 100 miles each day, we met riders in their 70s creaking across the country, and we met a solo psychonaut meandering gently across with occasional rest days in the woods to take hallucinogens and commune with nature. We saw premier Ortlieb pannier set-ups on top-of-the-range touring bikes, and we saw busted up junkers with panniers hand-made from cat litter boxes.
With each encounter you revise your position on each spectrum and realise that you’re not at the bottom of any of them, and that even if you were, you’d still be succeeding.
Gradual absorption into a disparate community of people doing various iterations on the same ride was a privilege. Hearing about someone experiencing the same things as you — struggling up the same hill, enjoying the same gas station forecourt snack break — leads to automatic camaraderie. Riding buddies change the group dynamic for an hour, a day, a week. And there’s nothing as surreal as starting to tell a story about your experience, only for the person you’re telling it to to jump up in recognition and say “wow, that was you guys!”. Word travels quickly on the road: Chinese Whispers to educate, inform, and entertain.
We rode, as most do, east from Vancouver. The intersection of Homer and West Hastings is the first point recorded on my GPS, rather than the official oceanside spot most riders choose. There was no ceremonial dunking of our tyres in the water.
Beyond offers to stay with friends in Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Quebec City, and wanting to see Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Cabot Trail, our onward route was essentially arbitrary. We’d looked at maps and read forums and Reddit threads, then we duplicated a cross-Canada ride from RideWithGPS, tweaked it to include the places mentioned above, and loaded it into the GPS.
This route led us through the convoluted back alleys of Vancouver, past garages, over pot-holes, and parallel to smoother, straighter roads. We ditched it fairly early on in favour of paper maps —the more authentic way to navigate — with “Western Canada” being the first. It showed such a huge amount of space. Famous names like Banff and Whistler jumped out of the page, as did the enormous distances between them. Far more tangible on a physical map on a Canadian roadside than on a computer screen in the UK.
West to east brought me dread in the form of the Rocky Mountains, but in retrospect I’m glad we tackled them first. Their passes were gentler than expected with sensible gradients whereas the eastern hills, in Newfoundland and the Cabot Trail, were so much more intense. I think they would’ve broken us (or at least me) at the beginning. By the time we climbed those, our chiselled leg muscles laughed at the gradients and relished the opportunity the 6kmph average speed gave us to soak up the scenery.
West to east also appealed more than the opposite because of intel that the prevailing wind would be in our favour, although I’m still not convinced this wasn’t some elaborate prank to trick naive first-time cross-Canada riders. In the one section where wind direction really matters (the long, flat, seemingly infinite Prairies), we were buffeted by a constant headwind and our average speed dropped below where it had been during some of the uphill sections in the Rockies. Attempts at a two-man peloton reduced the tedium of the wind somewhat, but riding beside each other and chatting was better for morale.
As the days and miles accrued the sense of scale of the ride and country became ever more tangible. With hours between towns and days without junctions, active navigation becomes minimal. Rough calculations of percentages covered occupy your mind on the saddle — “45 miles is probably about 1% of the ride”, “after a week at this pace we’ll have done around 8%”. Hypotheticals become actuals, and each hill climbed and day completed builds your confidence. There is an ever-increasing sense of achievement.
Maps became more granular after Western Canada. “Eastern Canada” was never available, instead only individual provinces were mapped beyond Winnipeg. We spent the same amount of time traversing Ontario as we did British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba combined. Early on we were told that B.C. is three times the size of Germany, and that Quebec is three times the size of France. All stark reminders that Canada is truly enormous, and that any ride will only show you a small glimpse of it.
At the same time, I remember being surprised how early on in time and mileage we hit the longitudinal centre of the country. It was in the fourth week, and I remember thinking how the following nine would have to be so much more winding. Other half ways — time zone, planned mileage, the Atlantic Watershed where water flows toward the Atlantic than the Pacific — provided interesting and sometimes abstract milestones.
Throughout the ride we were guided by free and beautiful accommodation, in that order of priority. A fear of bears and an unexpected need to wean ourselves off of creature comforts (read: showers, reliable toilet access) meant that we paid for a lot of campsites in B.C., but by the time we were in the swing of things we camped everywhere. Lake shores, leisure centres, playgrounds, picnic areas, gardens (with permission), scratty patches of woodland, mosquito breeding grounds, and everything in between.
We operated in a grey area defined by a combination of knowledge that you could camp on Crown Land but not knowing where it was, asking people for permission and assuming they had authority to provide it, and gauging where we’d be able to get away with it. One consistent factor was not camping anywhere that would interfere with people using the land or risk permission for access to be revoked for other people, although we began to ignore No Camping signs later in the trip when it became apparent that people had been camping at these places unhassled.
Our grey area led to zero problems with being moved on, offending people, or getting hassled while we slept. Testament again to the size of Canada (most of the time you’re so remote that no one sees you) and the kindness of its citizens (when they do, they don’t care much).
The only problem we encountered was hundreds of dollars of our gear being sent to landfill after we followed the advice of a well-meaning but poorly informed park ranger. He told us that putting your food bags in the section underneath the bin bag at the back of the bear-proof bins was a safe and permitted way to deter bears, without having to go through the farce of suspending your gear up a tree. But the garbage collectors didn’t agree. Instead they took our bags of food, stoves, and utensils, irretrievably, to the dump.
This is the story that has resonated most when recounting the trip to friends and families. Understandable, but each round of gently mocking questions still adds salt to the wound.
Part of my aim when riding and writing is to experience and share the things that you can’t find on Google. Condensing the entire ride into one account is impossible and would be tedious to read, and an adjective-laden description of one of Canada’s infinite landscapes, probably involving a lake or a forest or a majestic rock face, would capture only a fraction of the actual beauty.
In terms of sections, though, I believe the claims that the Cabot Trail is one of the most beautiful cycling roads in the world. Other less famous routes like the Acadian Trail and the Huron Waterfront Path guide cyclists through especially picturesque parts of their region — through verdant farmland, past Hamish processions, and along beautiful maritime coastlines.
But the unexpected beauty on nondescript sections was my favourite. The Old Hedley Road from Princeton to Keremeos. The Highway 100 from Argentia to the Trans-Canada. Government Road just after Sault St Marie — especially from the Big Dollar to Bruce. The hills down into Old Woman Bay and St-Fabian-Sur-Mer. The coast road in Prince Edward Island National Park. Just a few of many breath-taking roads we rode.
Conversations with well-wishers gave flavour and depth to the places we saw. Did you know that Calgary has the biggest urban sprawl of any city in North America, for example? Or that Winnie the Pooh was created in White River, Ontario? Or that in Gentilly, Quebec they carve giant pumpkins and race them down the river once a year? Sometimes with outboard motors attached..!
The opportunity to view aspects of lives and places that are mundane for the people living them from a vantage point of novelty is appealing. Riding through a country is a succession of never-agains as you whisk yourself in one direction through other people’s lives. Moments like waiting outside a rural gas station while the staff finish a robbery simulation, or watching a beaver swim a tour of its lake, or chatting to a roadworker whose job it is to hold a stop-go sign for twelve hours at a time. Normals which were so alien to us.
The thread that ran through our ride was generosity and kindness. Everything else changed in some way: the scenery, weather, terrain, accents, slang, opinions on Trudeau, opinions on the English, mottos on license plates, whether people used miles or kilometres, the times and places you could buy beer, amount of tax on transactions, the layout and frequency of road construction.
But everywhere people were kind. Everywhere people stopped to say hello; to ask about our ride and to share stories of similar adventures they’d had in the past or their ambitious future plans. Everywhere people were happy to answer questions, to give directions, and to help us with whatever random errand we needed to complete that day (“do you know if that water is safe to drink? Do you know where the nearest hardware store is? Do you know which bar does the best poutine?”).
Then, after being rural and novel for so long, the possibility of anonymity during rest days in cities was simultaneously welcome and unsettling. I often took to keeping my helmet on in stores and stations and similar, just to increase the chances of speaking with somebody (until Quebec, when the conversation dried up as our lack of confidence in French translated to closed body language). In cities the bike and helmet stayed indoors. Being able to ‘switch off’ instant communication channels with complete strangers just through changing your headware was completely surreal.
Newfoundland brought conversation whether we were with our bikes or not, and regardless of our facial expressions and body language. One day we’d experienced such a prolonged rigmarole trying to find accommodation that I really wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone, yet everyone gave me a hearty hello and made me feel like a complete curmudgeon.
I wonder how many Canadians truly appreciate what a varied and beautiful country they live in. We were told, many times, that “you’ve probably seen more of Canada than most Canadians!”. Including by a friend who has never left Toronto other than to travel abroad.
Sitting at home in the UK and thinking back on the ride, it feels incredible that pointing your bike in a direction and turning your legs millions of times can overcome injuries, lack of training, temperamental bike parts, threats of murderous wildlife, attempts by geology to be as vertical as possible, headwinds, tail-ends of hurricanes, and an inconceivable amount of mosquitoes.
But we did it. As did hundreds of other people that summer, apparently. And as could you any year.
My biggest sense that I’d achieved something special came after returning home — after the plane ride home had condensed the time accordion of the trip and given me the feeling that I’d never left. I was listening to a quiz show on the radio. “Name as many Canadian provinces as you can” prompted the host, with each point counting toward winning some curio.
“Ooh, no sorry!”
The contestant received two paltry points while I rattled off all 10 and basked in fond memories of cycling them all.