Saturday, 29 August 2015

We Cheated!

Location: Garfield, MN 56332, USA
From Fargo to Shakopee is about 250 miles and we'd planned to do this in four days originally, but with our impromptu day off in Fargo we wanted to try to do it in three so as to still arrive at Tory's on the Thursday as planned. It was cool and overcast as we left the city and the wind was mostly behind us. By lunch we were in Fergus Falls, the start of the Central Lakes Bike Trail which joins up with the Lake Wobegon Trail and goes for over 100 miles to just before St Cloud. We met an Australian lady who took our photo as she was the support vehicle for her son, Max, who was cycling across America in 5 weeks!

I'd woken that morning with a sore, scratchy throat so when it started to drizzle at lunchtime we looked for Warm Showers hosts as the prospect of rainy camping wasn't too appealing, plus the campgrounds were very expensive. There was a family with a place on Lake Ida, north of Garfield which was still another 40 miles away, but having done over 55 by lunch we were confident we could push on. We messaged them and hoped we'd find more wifi or a pay phone along the way. It was great to get on the trail, no traffic, no navigating, just paved railway grade perfection through the trees. Before long Max caught us up and the three of us rode together. Check his blog out here, its funny and well written and we get a mention!

He is travelling very differently to us. He's on a carbon road bike, with 2 water bottles and an under-seat tyre patching kit, a spare folding tyre and that's it. So he's moving fast and doing long days, which he has to if he's going to make it to the Atlantic by 3rd September. Needless to say that while riding with us slowed him down somewhat, it increased our pace by quite a bit. It was raining in earnest now and we raced along chatting about jobs and cycling and healthcare systems (Max is a doctor back in Australia). After a fruitless excursion for wifi or a phone into the town of Brandon Max let us use his phone for a wifi hotspot and there was the email we wanted to see - a very welcoming reply saying yes we could stay with the family. We were soon in Garfield and Max kindly let us use his phone again to ring our hosts who came to pick us up as the road to their house was very muddy. It had been great riding with Max, a change of conversation always makes the time go faster and in the dreary conditions that was a huge blessing.

While we waited for our lift we said goodbye to Max and he rode off to meet his Mum in Alexandria. We were soaked and cold (Max must have been freezing) and I was dreaming about getting thawed out in a lovely hot shower. It wasn't long before my dream came true and then we were sat with the family eating delicious homemade pizzas. By this point my immune system had been over-run with cold virus and Bonnie and Jeff kindly offered for us to stay a second night if we wanted as the weather was meant to be bad the next day too. Despite a good nights sleep in a wonderful bed I woke up feeling pretty dreadful and the weather looked deeply unappealing for riding so we decided to rest up. Bonnie made us an amazing pancake breakfast, then a wonderful soup for lunch and we lazed around on their sofas watching films and snoozing. I was feeling much better by the evening and after another excellent dinner we sat down to play a game of Settlers of Catan with Bonnie, Jeff and their two sons, Jefferson and Spencer.

The 95 mile day from Fargo had put us ahead of schedule, but the rest day had put us way back and we weren't going to be able to get to Tory's on Thursday since we'd have to ride 154 miles in one day, though the weird bit of me that constantly wants to push further was tempted, in all honesty it was highly unlikely especially as I was still a bit sick. But it seemed like a frustratingly short distance to have to do over 2 days, so we cheated. Bonnie offered to drive us a little further since she had to give us a lift down the muddy road anyway, so we got dropped off in Osakis and arranged with Tory for her to pick us up in Hanover, knocking our day's ride down to a manageable 98 miles.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Fargo; A True Story

Location: Fargo, ND, USA
This is a true story about Fargo. Ever since seeing the Coen Brothers film many years ago the place has always held a certain allure, though with it being stuck on the edge of North Dakota and not overly close to any famous attraction that I'm aware of I wasn't too sure I'd ever make it there. But that's the magic of the cycle detour, because here we were two days ride out of Winnipeg on our way to the fabled city. The wind had died down a smidge and switched to a westerly, sometime north-westerly which was a vast improvement on the previous day and the temperature had dropped significantly. Phil, our host, rode into Crookston with us and waved us on our way and after a short battle where the road turned west for a few miles we found ourselves in the excellently named Climax where we fuelled up on coffee and breakfast buns.

We rode down some great back roads with barely any traffic through endless fields of corn, wheat and soy. Before long we were into Moorhead, Fargo's twin city on the Minnesota side. We crossed the river hopeful for a North Dakota sign, but since the two cities have merged into one urban area there was nothing to welcome us to the tenth state of our trip.

As soon as we'd decided to try to re-enter the States we'd contacted Alex to see if he'd be around. We met Alex in Sheffield back in 2011 when we hosted him and his friend Kyle through Couchsurfing and were excited to meet someone from Fargo. Luckily he was in town and kindly offered to host us at the flat he shares with his girlfriend, Kyla and their 6 month old son, William. They have a great spot right downtown and after dinner we went for a little stroll about town. Incredibly outside their building was a whole set load of people, cameras and props as they were shooting a commercial for North Dakota with the state's biggest star, Josh Duhamel (he's in the Transformers films). 

I think we inadvertently ruined a take by walking down the street (sorry) but weren't as disruptive as some of the other bystanders. One rather inebriated lady tried, unsuccessfully, to get Kyla to hand over her phone so she could get a photo with Mr Duhamel and then screamed 'Josh I want to get a picture' which he sportingly replied 'ok come over here and do it' then she screamed 'but I don't have a camera' so he shrugs and says 'not my problem'. We were all laughing and trying to make it obvious she was not with us. As an aside, Fargo is the drunk capital of the U.S. 

Following all that excitement we checked out the town some more. It has a really nice, funky vibe to it. There's cool places to eat and drink, a boutique hotel, friendly people, a good bike shop and a map showing the bike friendly routes around town. But, very sadly, they don't all talk like they do in the film, ya?! Nonetheless you have to love a city whose tag line is 'North of Normal'! We decided to take a rest day so we could spend more time exploring and hanging out with Alex, Kyla and William. So the next day after mooching about, having a few beers in the bier hall and not much else we went out for some of the best pizzas we've had at Rhombus Guys. 

It was so great to see Alex again and so nice to meet Kyla who is just lovely and totally messed with our preconceptions by not conforming to stereotypes; she was Miss North Dakota 2013 but currently works for Microsoft as a cloud business analyst. Boom! Love it! And William is a delightful, happy baby that I enjoyed cuddling immensely. Nevertheless we needed to keep moving as we were expected in Shakopee at another friend's house by the end of the week so we reluctantly bade farewell to Fargo and set off south east with no destination for the night in mind.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Getting Back to Detouring!

Location: Lancaster, MN 56735, USA
We realised we'd not really detoured for many a long mile so from Winnipeg we headed pretty much due south. This meant chancing our hand to see if they'd let us over the border into the U.S. again so we could take a route south of the Great Lakes on our way to Oshawa and Toronto. The route north of Lake Superior is meant to be beautiful but by all accounts a death trap for cyclists. Almost every Trans-Canada rider and a load of motorists had warned us about this stretch of road so avoiding it seemed a good plan, plus if we got into the States then our route could take us via a few old friends.

So after an awesome breakfast of French toast and bacon we said farewell to Claire and Richard and got on the road. Sadly the wind was in our faces the whole day so it was hot, sweaty work and required numerous cold drink stops which ultimately resulted in me needing to use a washroom (when in Canada, restroom in the U.S.) We'd just stopped for more cold drinks in Tolstoi and I asked the cashier if they had washrooms, no she replied, but there were public ones in the community park along with a water tap. Great stuff, we'll head there, have lunch, take advantage of the facilities before our border crossing attempt less than 10 miles away. Whilst the park itself was perfectly lovely the water tap said 'do not drink, untreated, unpotable' which was no big deal, we had a fair amount of water still. The 'washroom' on the other hand, well a picture tells a thousand words so I'll let the picture talk.

After our somewhat unsuccessful lunch stop we quickly found ourselves approaching the border. A sign welcomed us to the U.S. and since there was zero other traffic we made our way to the guards station with no need for queueing, quite a different story to our initial entry. He asked us a few questions, had to really stare at Tom & his passport photo to determine they were the same person and informed us our old ESTA had run out and we needed a new one at the cost of $6 each. We were directed into the building, paid the fee, had our fingerprints taken and retinas scanned and hey presto! We were back in!

Just down the road we were greeted with our first new state sign since Idaho. Hello Minnesota! The wind was still pushing against us but in no time we were in Lancaster where there was a campground and store. All we needed. The town tornado siren sounded but since it was very short lived we decided it was just a test. But when it did the same again at 10pm I woke Tom as I couldn't believe they'd test it so late. He told me to go back to sleep, but I was freaked out about what we'd do if there was a tornado and my head was filled with pictures of our tent and bikes being whisked away. I did eventually fall asleep, but the alarm went off at 5:15am and we were soon on the road again, bleary eyed and in search of wifi. We needed to let the Warm Showers host we'd contacted for tonight know we'd made it over the border and were on our way, but this was rural North Minnesota and I'm not sure wifi had made it up here. When we stopped for breakfast in Stephen a kind lady let us use her phone so we were able to leave a voicemail with our host since payphones also had not made it to this neck of the woods.

The wind was really blowing and consistently from the south. It was a hot, sweltering day and the wind was so remarkably hot and along with the effort of pedalling into a headwind we were both really feeling it and needed to take a number of breaks for cold drinks and to just get a few minutes shelter from the relentless buffeting of the wind. We finally arrived into Crookston at our hosts' house at 6:30, we'd been on the road for 12 hours and covered 80 miles. We downed beautiful cold iced tea, showered and did laundry.  After chatting with our host family we went to bed exhausted but happy that we weren't outside in the wind and away from the tornado siren. This had been our toughest day for a long time, but we'd made it. The scary part was that we had the same distance to do the next day to get to our friends in Fargo and if the wind was from the south again we didn't think we'd make it. 

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Friends From Decades Past

Location: Winnipeg, MB, Canada
On our way out of Moose Jaw we called by Mac the Moose, the town mascot, and then headed on to Regina. It was easy riding and we made it to the Provincial Capital by lunch time. We'd arranged to meet up with Joel and his family in town. I met Joel and his sister, Jericho, 14 years ago in Byron Bay and though he now lives in New Zealand with his lady and their twin boys they happened to be visiting his family in Regina so we took the opportunity for a long overdue catch up. We were lucky enough to catch a little of the Regina Folk Festival, wandering the busy park with its many stages and side streets bustling with food trucks.

Late afternoon we said our goodbyes and cycled the short distance to our Warm Showers host's. We were treated to the most incredible meal of the trip. Ron is an exceptional cook and had marinated and seasoned six different meats (chicken, beef, lamb, squid, liver and tripe) which we cooked ourselves on a Korean table-top barbecue and ate with carrots, rice and a selection of sauces. It was a lot of fun and utterly delicious. He then helped Tom adjust our eccentric bottom brackets on our bikes to tension the chains, an easy job, but made all the more doable with the right tools and the confidence that comes with attempting something like that with an experienced bike mechanic. 

From Regina to Winnipeg is just shy of 600km and we wanted to do it in four days, which was a fair push but with the favourable prairie conditions we thought achievable. The days were pretty long, but the stretch east of Regina is where it starts to get really flat and though we didn't have much of a tailwind the winds weren't against us. The first night we stayed in a little rest area, which was free, outside the town of Broadview and watched the sun disappear into a sky the colour of Turkish delight.

The next day we went through the excellently named Moosomin where we got some awesome second breakfast at a diner and then crossed into Manitoba. That night we camped at a fancy campground near Oak Lake which had a swimming pool we took advantage of to cool down. Our third day took us to Brandon, Manitoba's second city, where we had an excellent second breakfast of yogurt, fruit and half price peach and blueberry pie. We made it to the little town of MacGregor that evening, our third 150km day in row, and pitched up in the very affordable campground, took much needed showers and went in search of cold beer. The tent was swelteringly hot even with the flysheet off   but we ended up having to eat in there as the site was really mosquito infested.

In an attempt to beat the heat we were up at dawn the next day for our final push to Winnipeg. By the time we got to Portage La Prairie, about 25 miles, there were some dark and foreboding looking storm clouds gathering and we could see lightning off to the north. We decided to stop at the Tim Horton's and see what the weather had in store. All the friendly locals warned us that we were in for a big electrical storm with the possibility of 'damaging hail' so we decided to wait it out in Timmy's since being pelted with hail or hit by lightning are not high on our to do list. We ended up waiting for nearly 4 hours and though we didn't see any hail the rain was torrential, the wind howled and there was quite a light show so we were glad to have been inside. Just outside the town a car pulled into the shoulder in front of us and out hopped a bearded man wearing a black hat, great shirt and black trousers held up with braces. He flagged us down and asked us about our journey. We'd had the same thing happen that morning by a guy running 'an outreach program for cyclists' who'd then ignored me and proceeded to tell Tom only Jesus could save us and gave him a little leaflet. This time though the gentleman was a chatty Hutterite and we enjoyed a brief roadside conversation before he wished us well and we all went on our ways.

Unfortunately the wind had switched to a headwind, not ideal, and then made worse by a 15 mile stretch of roadwork leaving us a tiny, bad quality shoulder with fairly heavy traffic within very close proximity. We had to actually pull off the road for an oversized truck which actually couldn't get past us and on another occasion we were almost ran off the road by an RV whose driver was just useless. As hard as it was we were very glad to have done it after the storm passed not amidst a downpour.

We soon reached the outskirts of Winnipeg and raced through the miles of out-of-town shopping centres and strip malls, our first big city since Grande Prairie, and then into lush tree-lined residential streets that reminded us of Missoula, and found Claire and Richard's house without any trouble. Claire is the niece of my secondary school maths teacher and we'd last seen each other when I was 7 and she'd come to spend a year at The Small School, but when I contacted her to say we'd be in Winnipeg, her home town, she invited us to stay with them. They have a gorgeous house and despite us all being not far from strangers it felt like visiting old friends. It was so wonderful in fact that we decided to spend an extra day, a chance to rest the tendinitis in my Achilles I'd given myself by raising my seat too high, to check the city out a little and spend more time with our new old friends.

History Lessons and Tunnel Tours

Location: Tunnels Of Moose Jaw, 18 Main Street North, Moose Jaw, SK S6H 3J6, Canada
If you read the feedback for our warmshowers host Glenda you will see mentioned the history of Canada lesson. What is interesting is that the history of the creation of the United States of America is such a huge part of the media that we watch or read that it seems to just creep into knowledge without us really having to learn about it.  However, the same cannot be said for Canadian history.  But one morning over breakfast Glenda went over the history of the country.  It was a fascinating history and in someways similar to the American history but with really important key differences that could go a long way to explaining the vast differences you get once you cross the border.

After the brief history lesson we headed into town to venture into the Tunnels of Moose Jaw.  The tunnels were built after a fire destroyed buildings on main street.  While the new brick buildings were getting built the building owners connected their basements to create an underground road connecting them all.  The tunnels that you go into on the Tunnels of Moose Jaw tours are not the original ones and are quite a bit larger, apparently, than the first incarnation.  The first tour we went on was "Passage to Fortune" telling the story of migrant workers from China working underground to get enough money to pay off a tax that they incurred as soon as they entered the country.  They mainly cleaned clothes and stoked boilers.  The tour was really informative and interesting.  Our tour guide switched between narrator and laundry matron, and while in this latter role spoke and treated us like the Chinese workers she was "employing".  We both really enjoyed the tour and learned so much about a period neither of us knew existed in Canada.  The tone of the tour was informative but also a bit apologetic; you really get the sense that this was once brushed under the carpet but now it's out they are sympathetic and understanding that this was an unacceptable dark stain on the nation.

After the Passage to Fortune we headed to "The Chicago Connection".  This was a completely different experience. First of all, I don't really know if they knew for sure if there was an Al Capone connection during Prohibition, it seems that when the heat got hot in Chicago Capone was said to get the train to the end of the line, and one of the train lines ended in Moose Jaw so a myth was created around it.  Anyway, true or not yes the tour was different.  The lesson we were part of seemed to be drama more than history but it was enjoyable all the same.  This time we were bootleggers looking to get some hooch to take back over to the States.  There was no narrator this time just actors taking us through the various rooms and passage ways.  With some awkward audience participation we learnt snippets about the gangs running liquor around Chicago and the maybe involvement of Moose Jaw.

The tunnels are well worth a visit if any of you are planning to get to Moose Jaw.  Passage to Fortune is much more an interesting history lesson into an underground world in the 19th Century where as The Chicago Connection is a frenetic, mad dash down through the romanticised underbelly of mob culture in the 20s.  If you find that you only have the time to go on one of the tours, in my opinion, I would say head to the "Passage to Fortune", it taught us about a period in time that neither Sophie or I really knew existed.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Friendly City

Location: Moose Jaw, SK, Canada
The ride from Morse to Moose Jaw was fairly easy going and really pretty. Gentle rolling hills of golden grasses reminded us of the Peak District back home but there was also the unfamiliar sight of salt marshes with their heaping piles that looked like dirty snow. It was hot with blazing sun and beautiful blue skies streaked with white clouds. We stopped for coffee and pastries in Chaplin which is just past a place called Uren, pronounced urine (?!) and for a cold drink in Mortlach where for some unfathomable reason they were flying the Welsh flag.

Before long we reached the outskirts of Moose Jaw and were super excited to see a lovely big sign welcoming us to 'The Friendly City'. A short ride down some extremely potholed streets brought us to Glenda's place. Glenda is on Warm Showers and we'd actually contacted her weeks previously as we intended to get some bike supplies posted to her, but we were excited to stay with her as we'd been recommended her by both Peter and the two Korean guys at Medicine Hat. She quickly made us feel right at home and soon after arriving we were sharing some delicious salads for lunch with Glenda, Chevonne and Larry.

We arrived on Monday and actually ended up staying until Saturday, which is a totally amazing and hospitable thing in itself, but Glenda really is a wonderful host and went out of her way to help us make the most of our stay in her home town. Because Moose Jaw is important to us Tom and I are both going to write about our time there. So I'm going to tell you about our visit to the Mineral Spa, the Casino and our meeting with the Mayor.

We'd contacted the Mayor's office prior to our visit to see if we could meet her and get a photo and they kindly obliged and set us up with an appointment at 11am on Wednesday. We debated whether Tom should get his hair cut and beard neatened up but did nothing in the end. Mayor Deb Higgins is Moose Jaw's first female mayor and she was down to earth and very interesting. Her assistant gave us a bunch of pin badges and the Mayor gave us a commemorative postcard. We sat in her office and talked for over half an hour, learning about the city and telling her about our trip. Then we went outside and got a photo taken by a reporter from the Times-Herald. After taking our leave from the Mayor we went for a coffee with the reporter and she interviewed us for an article which you can read here.

That afternoon we spent a few hours soaking in the mineral waters of the Spa and reading and relaxing before making our way across the street to the Casino. Peter, who we'd donated our last few US dollars to his Indiegogo project which hadn't worked out, had very sweetly left us a little package of casino chips at Glenda's as he knew we'd be coming through. Our previous experience in Vegas was almost entirely on penny slots or roulette so we hit the roulette table as no one else was on it and we are utterly unaware of the rules and etiquette of anything else in there and didn't want to offend anyone or get ourselves in trouble. Within no time we lost all our money. Also based on our Vegas experience we ordered two beers assuming they'd be free, like in Vegas, but no they were extortionate. That is not how you keep people in a casino losing money on all the gambling!

We decided that we'd given the casino enough of our dough and headed back to Glenda's ambling through the streets to take in a few of the murals around town which Glenda had been pivotal in bringing about. They had even got the artist who'd been involved in the impressive murals we'd seen all the way back in Vancouver Island with Thor and they were part of the city's reinvention as a tourist destination and key to making the residents change how they felt about the place.

We really enjoyed our time in our namesake city. Obviously it helped having wonderful hosts who were a mine of local information and a lot of fun, but it was really nice to be in a little city with coffee shops and restaurants, cool stuff to look at and do, but with less of the tourist hype of somewhere like Banff. I also left Moose Jaw as the best manicured and pedicured cycle tourer on the circuit as Glenda treated me to a girly day with her and Chevonne when one of her other daughters cancelled at the last minute.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Joys and Frustrations of Wind

On the Prairies of Canada there is a prevailing wind. And that prevailing wind is a north westerly and it is the reason that most cycle tours head from Vancouver, over the Rockies and strike for Winnipeg. For months we have been told about these west winds that will blow us across the prairies in record time. When we woke up and got ready for our trip out of Medicine Hat the wind was blowing out of the west and it was fairly strong. We were excited to experience this awesome tail wind, but felt for the other Korean cyclists that had stayed with us as they were heading into the wind to Calgary.  Not wanting to miss out we packed up and left early. Sophie was talking about getting to Swift Current that was about 135 miles away, I thought that if the going was good we should try for Morse, a mad 185 mile day. If things went wrong we had looked up camp sites all along the road so we had other options too.

The morning went great, we sailed along and arrived at our first stop, the Tourist Information Centre in Walsh, before the centre had opened. So we pushed on to the border with Saskatchewan for the obligatory border crossing photo. Next we flew to another, but this time open, Tourist Info Centre to pick up a provincial road map. This one had all the towns on, a fairly standard thing, but with the addition of labeling the towns with campgrounds. This was gold for us, finding a place to camp can sometimes be a tricky thing. With our bottles full of cold water and the new map we hopped on the wind train once again and headed to Piapot to check out a saloon that had been suggested by a fellow cycle tourist, Peter (the chap we met in Port Angeles and then Victoria).

We arrived in Piapot at about 12:15, we had set off from Medicine Hat at 7:40 and in that time we had been pushed about 75 miles, it had been a brilliant morning. Unfortunately the saloon we had aimed for in Piapot was closed but we found some shade and ate our lunch. If the afternoon carried on the same way then the outlandish idea of getting to Morse might be possible. However, the unrelenting spitefulness of Mother Nature kicked in and that beautiful, helpful tail wind became a nasty, savage head wind. And there is a lesson here, one we've heard a few times but never really thought about; if there is a tail wind then do not stop, ride it until it turns on you. If we had ridden the tailwind for the 45 minutes we ate lunch we would have covered over 12 miles, unfortunately that same distance took us more than twice as long and they were much harder miles. We threw in the towel at Gull Lake after a 105 mile day, it had taken us the same time to cover the 30 miles after lunch as the 75 before. We felt dejected and despondent after the failed attempt, but we really shouldn't have, out of the 155 days on the road this was the 3rd furthest day we have done, it's a massive achievement.

The campground at Gull Lake was great. It was cheap, it had hot showers and a friendly camp host. We also shared a beer with a couple that had just bought a huge RV, one of those with hydraulic compartments that pull out to make it bigger inside. They were upset as one of the compartments didn't work but Sophie and I hardly noticed, it was still huge inside. We enjoyed the company and swapped stories but we were all pretty tired so we went our separate ways and headed to bed. The next morning we woke at the fair ungodly time of 5:30 as we had decided to try a new plan for the day. While we were at Jasper our warm showers host, Greg, had told us that generally in the morning there was next to no wind so he would get up early, ride a good distance then have breakfast. Then if the wind was good he would keep riding until he had ridden as far as he wanted or if the wind was not so good after breakfast he could either battle on or call it a day, but a least he had some miles under his belt. So breaking camp and being on the road by 6:30 we headed off to Swift Current for our morning feed. The riding was good but we underestimated the distance and ended up doing close to 35 miles on a couple of granola bars. But before not too long we found ourselves eating excellent breakfasts and drinking cups upon cups of coffee at the inaccurately named Modern Family Diner.

The rest of the ride to Morse was fairly standard, it was very hot but generally just a normal ride. We rolled into Morse in the early afternoon and headed to the  grocery store to pick up a bottle of ice cold chocolate milk (physio's tell me it's the best after sports recovery drink). While we chug down the cocoa infused cow juice a guy asks us about our tyres. He asks us in a North Eastern accent (as in THE North East in England). This is interesting because A) Morse is a very small town in rural Canada and B) he hasn't spotted mine. We chat for a bit and he invites us round to his house for tea (the meal not the in-a-cup kind) of egg and chips; a northern classic.  The three of us have a good evening setting the world to rights, enjoying home cooked chips and watching The Rock.  With our destination set for Moose Jaw we rise early and enjoy the great hospitality of Richard once again with a fantastic omelette for breakfast and cups of tea.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Bizarre Place Names? You've Come to the Right Place...

Location: Medicine Hat, AB, Canada
Having made the most of the complimentary breakfast at the motel we left Pincher Creek. With the wind mostly behind us we had a speedy start to the day, but shortly after crossing Highway 3 we hit the gravel road that would take us to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump. It was hard packed to begin with and with the help of the wind we were still going a good pace. Unfortunately the gravel got a lot deeper and looser and our progress slowed. There wasn't much traffic on the road, but we did have one incident with a deranged old bat of a driver who very nearly rear ended me. I shouted a warning to Tom and we both made it to the side of the road and out of her path, but I do wonder if she was aware of us at all.

All told it was about a 20 mile stretch of gravel road, most of it loose and hard work on a bike and we were thrilled when we made it back on to the asphalt with the wind firmly at our backs. The buffalo jump is a fantastic and interesting site with a uniquely designed building built into the cliff side housing most of the exhibition, though obviously you can also go and see the jump site itself and the kill site on the prairie below.

There is a vast amount of info on the site, but very basically, it was one of many buffalo jumps used by the Aboriginal people here to drive buffalo over the edge of the cliff and enable them to kill many animals at once. The site had been in use for over 6000 years and required much coordination between different groups, but enabled them to devote more time to culture and arts, apparently, whilst providing them with almost all they needed to survive the harsh winters. Interestingly the name Head-Smashed-In refers to a story about this buffalo jump in which a youth wanted to hide on the cliff face and watch the buffalo falling past him, but so many buffalo fell that he was caught in the carnage and they found him with his head smashed in. I'd always guessed it was due to the state of the Buffalo's heads.

It was a fascinating stop for us and we really enjoyed the detour here, so thanks goes to our uni friend, Sarah, for the excellent suggestion. The wind was still at our back for the short ride to Fort Macleod where we'd be camping. After setting up the tent on the upmost luxury of grass we walked to town for some food supplies. It was a sort of Wild West type town, but nice, and now we were out of bear country we enjoyed eating dinner in the tent! The next day it was a short ride to Lethbridge where we'd arranged to stay with a Warm Showers host so arriving around lunch time we decided to picnic in the park and spend a lazy afternoon lying about reading in the sun. It was great. And Tom bought me a 1kg bag of Peanut M&Ms which are my absolute favourite and an amazing 'chocolate bomb' cake for a belated extra birthday treat.

Our hosts, Kim and Tim, lived across from the park and we spent a lovely evening eating burgers and talking cycle touring with them. They had lots of tales of family tours and were thoroughly interesting people. We rode the next morning with Tim on his daily commute across the bike unfriendly city and boy were we glad for a guide! We might still be stuck in Lethbridge now otherwise.  We made it back onto Highway 3 and made good time towards Medicine Hat where we'd arranged another WS host. This stretch of land and road were incredibly flat. We had lunch in Bow Island, the home of Pinto MacBean - the worlds largest pinto bean, and passed through some wonderfully named places like Readymade and Seven Persons, and through some places with dubious claims to fame, like Burdett 'Canada's First Irrigation Pivot'. 

Our host, Doug, welcomed us with a selection of beautifully cold drinks, chips and salsa and the smell of a wonderful curry for dinner. We had a lovely evening being shown around a bit of Medicine Hat, including the old Medalta Pottery and exchanging stories over a delicious dinner. We'd planned a rest day the next day and although we'd intended to head back around the city for some sightseeing I think I was suffering from a bit of dehydration since I was feeling queasy and tired so I went back to bed and Tom pottered on with some bike maintenance and other odd jobs. Two Korean cyclists, Jay and Kyle, arrived that evening and the five of us sat around chatting until it was time for bed.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Wet Weather, Bad Moods and a Birthday

Location: Crowsnest Pass, AB, Canada
Those of you who know me from home know that I like birthdays and that usually I try to string mine out as long as I can. It's not the presents, I just like an excuse to celebrate with as many friends, family members and random others as I can. So the thought of a birthday on the trip was a strange one; no one but Tom to enlist in the festivities, no gifts, no cards, no idea what the road had in store or what the town of Pincher Creek would offer us at the end of the day. We awoke in the Provincial Park just outside Fernie early, packed up as quietly as possible, so as not to wake Amy and Hamish, and left without breakfast with the idea we'd get something in Fernie town. On the short ride into town Tom and I managed to fall out. Despite talking about my birthday previously and me telling Tom that I didn't expect him to get me anything, the only gift we'd talked about was us both getting new socks for cycling as all of ours are holey at best, but I think subconsciously I was expecting him to surprise me with something as he's always been great with stuff on other birthdays. So when I didn't awake to a tent full of balloons (I'm joking, but you get the idea) I got into a grump and didn't vocalise this well.

Tom was still feeling low. While the Icefields Parkway and riding with friends had been brilliant he was still having a tough time and me having a go at him for not doing something I'd told him I was fine with him not doing was neither fair or helpful. So after talking this through and me apologising for being a dufus we went looking for a breakfast establishment which we found in Big Bang Bagels. After some tasty breakfast bagels, coffees and a smoothie we left to buy some socks. Outside the bagel place a lovely Californian dude I'm guessing must have been in his fifties came and chatted to us. He was doing the Great Divide but was currently stuck in Fernie due to bike trouble. He wished us well and wandered off. Sadly none of Fernie's shops were open yet so we left without socks.

In a somewhat fairly momentous turn about I have gone from fearing hills, as I talked about in the post Hill Dread, to actually enjoying them now so it was with some excitement that we rode along as we'd get to climb out of the Rockies for the last time. The riding was easy and we past through the town of Sparwood and then stopped for morning break at an info pull out that told us that we were stood on the site of two old mining towns, Michel and Natal, which had been torn down and the residents moved to Sparwood. It was strange, there was no trace of these places and it had only happened 10-20 years ago. Two other touring cyclists arrived and we chatted with them for a while, they were heading into the States and through many of the places we'd ridden so we were excited for them. We said our goodbyes eager to get going as the climb was now upon us.

Well I can't tell you how disappointed I was when in a matter of minutes we reached the summit. I hadn't had to change lower than my 8th gear. This was not the glorious achievement I'd hoped for. Nonetheless here we were and very soon we'd be crossing back into Alberta for the first time by bike. The welcome to Alberta sign was HUGE and luckily there was a trucker there to take our pic.

We rode on, watching as ominous looking clouds gathered over the mountain tops, we'd hoped to make it to Coleman for lunch where we'd been told we could indulge in cinnamon buns, but with the bad weather imminent we decided to stop instead at the Crowsnest Pass visitor info. As we pulled under the cover of their porch the rain and hail began in earnest. We ate our lunch and spoke to the nice ladies about roads and motels in Pincher Creek and when they found out it was my birthday they surprised us with ice cream! Mine even had a candle and they sang me 'Happy Birthday'.

We couldn't stay there all day so even though the rain hadn't stopped, thankfully the hail had, we put on our jackets and got back on the road. The next two hours were pretty miserable. The rain was pouring, it was really cold, visibility was low and I got engulfed in a wave of road water when a vehicle passed at a particularly bad spot. We passed Frank Slide, the site of Canada's deadliest landslide. The evidence is all around you, it's scary how big it is, but we decided against calling in at the visitor centre as it wasn't a very cheery birthday activity.

Not long after we were out of the mountains, the weather improved and we got a tailwind. We dried out, warmed up and before long we were arriving in Pincher Creek. We checked into the Super 8 motel and while I skyped my sister, Reanna, Tom got showered. When it came to my turn in the shower I wasn't as successful. I don't know how it happened really, but I slipped and fell backwards, out of the bath tub and landed on my back on the floor. Tom came running in and found me wrapped in the shower curtain where I landed, with my head between the toilet and the sink. A few inches one way or the other and I'm pretty sure 34 would have been my last birthday. Luckily I was just a bit bruised so I finished my shower and we went into town in search of somewhere for dinner. We opted for burgers and beer and after dinner made a beeline for the grocery store for dessert. Ice cream (Ben & Jerry's 'If I Had A Million Flavours') and cookies to make ice cream sandwiches with. Walking back to the motel we got our first beautiful prairie sunset, then we sat in our room, feasting on pudding and listening to The Now Show. Not a bad end to the day at all!

Goodbye My Friends

Location: Skookumchuck, BC V0B, Canada
Before the end of this post Sophie and I will have said goodbye to two group of friends we have met along the way.  The first couple, Barbara and Matthias, we waved our fond farewells at the campground in Radium Hot Springs.  They headed back west towards Vancouver along the Kettle Valley Railroad as we planned our day at the hot springs.  With the waving done the four of us, Roz, Sophie, Stan and I headed along the 2km path to the hot springs we had passed the previous day as we raced down from the Continental Divide. The path was rugged in parts but before long we  were floating in the naturally heated, mineral water that was the reward to the long ride we had done the previous day.

As with all rest days, when we got back from the hot springs we had tasks to do so we headed into town to find free WiFi, groceries and white gas for our stove.  The hunt for WiFi is usually a tourist information centre, followed by a library and finally a cafĂ© if all else fails.  Unfortunately the library was closed but we did manage to find the visitors centre and placed ourselves in a back room to work on our blog, contact future warm showers hosts and do some route planning.  While Sophie sat with out little netbook I went in search of groceries and stove fuel.  The main supermarket was next door so groceries weren't a problem, however white gas proved much more difficult.  The last option I had was to visit the gas station that we knew to be not the most helpful from the previous night.  I found the metal tin of gas but was completely and utterly surprised at the ridiculous price but without any option I paid, left and went to find Sophie to head back up the hill to our tent.

The next morning we headed out early with our destination planned as the delightfully named Skookumchuck.  Our first break of the day was at Invermere where we found one of the best bakeries we have been to.  The Invermere Bakery was exactly what we wanted from our first rest stop.  Their baked goods were incredibly tasty and cheap, and their coffee was hot and caffeinated.  We bought a few items from the day old bin and aimed for the back roads down past Fairmont Hot Springs.  As we left Invermere the wind started and before long we were battling a fairly fierce headwind.  After a long hard slog back to the main highway the four of us decided to have our lunch outside of a gas station.  With the winds getting stronger, the temperature dropping and huge, dark clouds rolling in Roz commented that it'd be nice for the storm to hit while we had lunch so that the winds would have died down and the cycling would be more fun.  Wish granted.  As we ate the heavens opened and the roads turned to rivers.  As we ate our granola bars for pudding we watched as the clouds dispersed and the wind vanished. Perfect timing.

This respite didn't last for too long and before long we were battling both the wind and the rain so Sophie and I ducked into another gas station for cover.  When we decided it wasn't going to change we headed out one last time to Skookumchuck.  Thankfully the weather turned more enjoyable as we rolled into the campsite and we were able to set the tents up in the dry. It was nice to get to the campground early since this would be the last night the four of us would spend together but before too long we were once again getting ready for the early start in the morning and preparing for bed.

The campground also had a motel attached and one of the rooms was occupied by Darwin and Penni.  They were two motorcyclists that were having a week long ride around the area before heading back home to near Calgary.  They were great to talk to in the morning and were wracking their brains to think of a way we could get across the Prairies quicker.  They too described that whole stretch of Canada as a boring, flat area of nothingness.  Unable to figure out a solution we asked them to take a photo of the four of us and we all said our goodbyes.  Since Sophie and I rode faster than Roz and Stan we weren't sure if we'd meet again as we headed to Fernie as they were planning on camping at Jaffray.

The riding was nice along the back roads and we stopped for break at Fort Steele.  Fort Steele is a heritage town from the 1890s.  Staff were in fancy dress and Union Jacks were flying.  Inside we found cinnamon buns and hot coffee and as Sophie and I were eating in walk Stan and Roz.  After the brief stop we again say our goodbyes and carry on.  Same thing happens at Jaffray but this time Stan and Roz look for a place to camp as we head further on towards Fernie.  The last stretch to Fernie was pretty but the roads were really busy and we were just looking forward to arriving.  On the outskirts of town we spot the sign to the provincial camp ground but try our luck in town.

We do spot some cycle tourists who are doing the Great Divide cycle tour.  This is the world's longest off-road mountain bike route from Banff to Mexico; it's pretty hard core compared to what were are doing.  They are planning to head to the campground after pizza but we are hopeful of kind locals to take us in (it's Sophie's birthday tomorrow after all), but as a plan B set up a meet at the provincial campground if all else fails.  All else did fail, there was one moment when we thought a kind local would take us in but that never happened so we headed to meet the couple from New Zealand, Hamish and Amy.

We ended up in the overflow sites which was a gravel pit with two picnic tables.  The ranger had commented that these two tables represented two separate sites and each site was $29, but as we were cyclists there was a discount and since we were sharing it would only be $24.  This seemed pretty steep especially if you saw the state of the area that we were told to set the tents up in, but this was a misunderstanding on our parts and it was $12 for each pitch for cyclists but since we were going to share it took it down to $6 a couple; a positive end to the day.