Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sept-Îles, QC: Clouds...Drizzle...Rain...

We celebrated crossing the 50th parallel by popping another spoke on my bike. I wobbled my way another 25 kilometers to Port-Cartier. We sprung for another Canadian souvenir and bought a new rim. Port -Cartier is neither a large or beautiful city, but the one bicycle store was able to set us up with a strong rim that was more round than the one I had.

Clouds escorted us to Port-Cartier, and drizzle kept us there for two days. We stayed at a municipal campground, which was both reasonably priced and nicely equipped with a recreation room. Set up with tables, a microwave oven, and steps away from the bathrooms, we made it our home for a couple of days. We became friendly with the other campers, since we were on the way to the "comfort stations".

Port-Cartier is an industrial town with a history of 50 years. It is gray and non-descript with block-style apartment buildings in the style of Soviet architecture. But it is situated at the mouth of the Rochers River, with a scenic cascade that has become a destination for salmon fisherman. For $60 a day they are allowed to fish in designated sectors in the park for limited time periods. We were told it is a popular place because it is both easily accessible and the city sprays for mosquitoes, so one can concentrate on casting rather than swatting.

As we sat in our adopted rec room, we checked the weather report and satellite images frequuently (read obsessively). Whatever wierd weather system was happening, it seemed to be confounding the forecasters,too, because the report changed every time we looked at it. But we did find a window, and were able to cycle the 60 miles to Sept-Iles.

Now Sept-Iles is a bigger industrial city, but equally deficient in the aesthetics department. But it does have a hostel that is big, funky, and warm. And we went out into the rain only when we wanted to.

From here we take a passenger ferry north to the border of Quebec and Labrador, our lauching point for the Maritime provinces. I remember our first day of cycling after we took the train to Kingston, and how three days of rest did not cure a pesky case of tendinitis, and how I shed a few tears at the prospect of not reaching where we are today under my own muscle power. But the combination of rest, stretching, ice, ibuprofen, massage, Leukotape, and a strong husband to draft have brought me back to 90+% and to this place. And a little rain can't spoil that.

Friday, June 26, 2009

L'Isle Verte, QC: Dreams Do Come True

When I was in high school, there were a group of acquaintances who were planning a bike trip to Colorado one summer. It was the first time I heard of people traveling by bicycle, and thought it would be something maybe I could do....someday.

When I turned 30, my circle of friends and co-workers were getting married and having children. I was singularly lonely with not a prospect of matrimony. Although the children part was not important, I did hope to have someone to grow old with...someday.

So the other day I found myself in Eastern Quebec, riding a bicycle loaded with everything I needed, pushing ahead into a mean headwind and in the rain. It was near noon, and a few hours of exposure and exertion makes one hungry. I had been thinking about bread for the last few kilometers. You need to understand that I have a bit of a preoccupation with bread -- carbohydrates are like to my body as gasoline is to an automobile. I love everything about bread -- the science, the kneading, the smell when it comes out of the oven, and eating it. And for a long time my wish was to have a true baguette, one made in the artisan style, like in France.

Too cold and wet to have the usual customary picnic lunch, we saw a sign pointing to a boulangerie/cafe in the next town. It was Sunday, so there was a chance they would not be open. But we walked in ten minutes before closing, dripping wet. The proprietor knew not a word of English, but our needs were obvious. We hung up our wet outer garments, sat down, and he served us soup, cheese, bread, and a hot tea. A sliced baguette came out in a basket, warm and fragrant. It was perfect.

So lunch was shared with the man I am growing old with, who selflessly lead the way into that headwind in the rain so I would not further strain my Achilles tendon, so we could keep on traveling this way for the next three months.

And I got my baguette, too.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Baie-Trinité, QC: Across One More Time

For the second time we ferried across the St Lawrence. The first time was a quickie 15 minutes from Quebec City to Lévis. This time it took a bit longer -- we are north enough to be in the Bay of the St Lawrence. Halfway through the 2 1/2 hour ride we could barely make out the hills on either the north or south shore.

This ferry is a government-run operation, and the fare was cheap -- $14 each. This line is a major connection between shores, and runs all year round. We were told it sometimes gets stuck in the ice in winter, and passengers may need to wait five hours for an icebreaker to come up from Quebec City. We sat in comfortable airplane-type seating that faced a big screen TV broadcasting the Canadian version of Candid Camera. There was also a snack bar which had quite a line that formed. Many folks had the poutine, an odd Quebec speciality of fries topped with gravy and melted cheese curds. I had to have a Tums after just watching someone eat it.

Most of the passengers were crossing with their vehicles, which were parked on the lower deck so tight you could barely squeeze between them. There was an assortment of passenger cars, motor homes, and semi-trucks. And our two bikes.

As we approached the North Shore, we saw the heavily wooded steep hills, quite a contrast from the flat agricultural/industrial landscape we left on the other side.

We had only 50 kilometers to get to our campground, but they were hard-earned. Steep uphills and exhilarating downhills across forest landscape dotted with glacial lakes. The only wildlife we saw were the mosquitoes, midges, and biting black flies that swarmed around us whenever we stopped. We are both sporting itchy red welts as souvenirs.

The l'Islet-Caribou campground was perched on a sandy spit. It was a beautiful spot, and the mosquitoes thought so, too. We retreated to the blessed community room to cook dinner.

We shared the space with a large group of fellow campers with the same idea. They were a group of friends and family that lived in towns up and down the North Shore, and were gathered that weekend to celebrate the La Fête nationale du Québec holiday. They asked the usual questions at first -- where are we from, where are we going. Soon glasses of wine, chunks of cheese, and chocolate-chip cookies were offered. Collectively they could talk enough English to ask questions about our travels, like how many hours do we cycle a day and what do we eat. We showed them pictures of June Lake and photos on our netbook of our trip so far, and we talked about California and skiing and Canadian winters until bedtime. We were surrounded by some very warm and friendly people. They continued the fun around the campfire late into the night while we opted for sleep.

What a difference twelve hours make -- we woke up to dense hanging fog. The sunshine of the last few days was the last we would see for a while.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mantane, QC: Scenes from Bas-Saint-Laurent

There are two optimisims we live by (I made up that word, by the way) -- with every uphill there is a downhill, and after it rains the sun will shine. And it was blue skies for the two days from Saint-Simon to Mantane.

Below are a few images from those couple of days.

We followed a linear valley that paralleled the St Lawrence River. The topography is controlled by tilted beds of the northern extent of the Appalachian Mountains. Fog from the river began to spill over the ridge separating us from the coast as the morning wore on.

Unusual lighthouse at Pointe-au-Père, built in 1909. It is at this place that the St Lawrence narrows significantly, and skilled boat pilots were in residence on this promontory. They were ferried out to ships wanting to navigate the treacherous channel, where they would assist in a safe passage.

Cemetery and church in Sainte-Luce at dusk. The church was located directly on the banks of the St. Lawrence. The headstones became older as we walked from the outskirts of the cemetery to the sites next to the church, as far back as 1850.

Banded and twisted metamorphic rocks on the shore of the St Lawrence.

The sign outside a tiny cheese factory where we bought our protein for lunch. There were two women wearing white coats and hair nets working inside, wrapping disks of Camembert cheese. One stopped long enough to give us a sample, which was mighty tasty. Happy cows make for good cheese.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Rivière-du-Loup, QC: Rain and Rest

Our stretch of dry weather has ended. We woke up to drizzle and pedaled nearly 50 kilometers before lunch. We came upon this wonderful rest stop at just the right time. Before we even finished eating, it began to rain steadily. We stayed dry and managed wait it out a couple of hours doing crossword puzzles before going the final distance to our campground.

On our way to this spot we passed an old man cycling on an equally old bike, a creaky one speed with a rusted basket hanging from the handlebars. He was moving slow enough for us to overtake him on the flats, and we caught up with him just at the base of a hill. We gave him a friendly "Bon Jour" as we went by, assuming he was close to his destination and it would be the last we would see of him.

So it was to our surprise that he wheeled up next to our gazebo just as the heavens let loose. He said a few sentences in French, and we responded in our standard "parlez vous Anglais?" He just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, and that was the end of that conversation. A few minutes later he pulls out a cell phone, makes a call, hangs up, and then goes over to to the other covered gazebo in the park. Fifteen minutes later up pulls a nice sedan, and the bicycle man and the woman driving the car load the bicycle in the trunk, and they take off on the rain-slicked road.

It was such an ironic scene. Here I was making up a story in mind of this old man that was a link to the rural Quebec past, maybe an old dairy farmer that milked cows by hand his whole life, living a simple country life without the need of modern distractions. And all he was probably doing was just getting some exercise and didn't like to get wet and had his wife get him so he could go home and watch the hockey game on cable.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

L'Islet-sur-Mer, QC: Sailing Along

Cycling down the road with four fully loaded panniers makes for quite a profile. Motorists notice us because we look like a motorcycle but we are going slow and hugging the right shoulder of the road. And another advantage of being a wide load is the panniers act like sails, catching a tailwind like the 30+ km/hr we have had the last three days, and pushing us so we barely need to pedal. Of course, it is a curse if it is a headwind, but the cycling gods have been good to us the last few days. The Achilles tendon, I am happy to report, is much improved. With the level terrain, tailwind, short days, and lots of ice and anti-inflammatories, we can still move forward and allow the tendinitis to heal.

We said goodbye to the skyline of Old Quebec City as we crossed the St Lawrence River on the ferry to the east shore. This is where the La Route Verte continues, and is gentler terrain than our originally planned route on the west side. It felt like we were starting our trip all over again.

After the train tickets, more nights than expected in hotels, and physical therapy, our bank account has been hemorrhaging money. Back to frugal travel and trying to stay on a $50/day budget. We have been a bit disappointed in the cost of campgrounds in Canada -- on this first night back camping we paid almost $30. It made no difference that we were in a tent -- no breaks for arriving by bike -- and we paid the same as someone with a van using electricity. At this campground showers cost extra. We went to the bathrooms to fill our water bottles and noticed a sign indicating not to drink the water. John inquired if this was just in the bathrooms or for all the spigots throughout the place, and was informed that the water was tested and exceeded drinking water standards for arsenic. We could buy bottled water if we wished. Geeze. We drank the melt water from the bag of ice we bought for treating my tendon instead.

The campground was nearly abandoned and very quiet. We did meet Louis and Helene, and we had a nice conversation. Helene bestowed us with homemade muffins full of cranberries, nuts and wheat germ to power us ahead. Thanks...they were delicious!

We made a brief stop at the harbor outside St Valliert. There we met Gerald, who greeted us enthusiastically with a barrage of French. Once he realized we did not understand a word, he switched over to perfect English and asked where we were from. California!-- are you Republicans? Our reply -- would you see a Republican bike touring? Politics established, he wanted to take us sailing right then and there. We demurred, not wanting to stall and lose our opportunity to sail with our bikes with the tailwind. But he insisted at least to buy us a coffee and introduce us to his genius boat builder friend. I wanted to take a picture of him, but he was a bit camera-shy. He had the lean chisled face of a French Canadian, not unlike the trio of wooden statues we saw along the side of the road. Except he smiled, and we will remember him for his warm Quebec hospitality.

We spent the night in L'Islet sur Mer in the transition zone between river and sea. The water is brackish and muddy from the turbulence of the interaction of river flow and tidal influence. Eel are harvested here, and the countryside dotted with the silos marking the many dairy farms in the area. We are now able to reliably buy artisan breads and cheeses produced locally, both might tasty.

And there are beautiful sunsets, too.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Montreal to Quebec City, QC: The Achilles Express Part 2

On our list of places we wish to bike someday are locations such as New Zealand, France, and Chile. And also La Route Verte between Montreal and Quebec City. We thought we would check that one off the list on this journey, but we it was not to be. We traveled in three and a half hours by train what would have been four days by bike. All in an effort to allow my sore Achilles tendon to heal. But those ViaRail seats are way more comfortable than a bike seat, anyway.

We disembarked in the fading light of late evening, and pedaled from the train station to Laval University in the magical light of dusk. The bike trail skirted the narrow space between the St Lawrence River and steep cliffs with the Old Town portion of Quebec City looming above us. With no inexpensive camping nearby, we decided try something different and stay in the residence hall at Laval University for $60 a night. Upon arrival we got our room key and pointed to the building we were to stay in -- on the third floor. We pushed our loaded bikes through the hallways at ground level until a kind student pointed us to the elevator, an antiquated manual thing with a sliding accordion-style grated door, and buttons that need to be held down continuously to call the elevator or to lift it to the desired level. Having never lived in the dormitories in college, and in fact, never visited one, I did not know what to expect. Our room was impeccably clean and well maintained, with a sink in the room and just steps away from a shared bathroom. But I would describe it as spartan at best. An nice English gentleman we met who was also staying on our floor for a brief stay was a bit harsher -- he said he stayed in a hotel in Russia in 1972 that was only slightly worse than this.

The materials we read about Quebec City in preparation for this trip were almost gushing in their descriptions of the city. It is the only walled city in North America, and claimed to be the most European on this as well. We took the bus into the Old Town of our first morning and headed to the highest floor attainable by non-guests of the Chateau Frontenac. The hotel is a landmark, perched on a high point with sweeping views of the river and the Old town below. If I could only remember to buy those lottery tickets, we might be able to afford a room there. But the view out a 14th floor window was free.

We walked the town as morning went into afternoon. The city was teeming with tourists. Although the setting and the buildings were most impressive, we were turned off by the multitude of souvenir shops and restaurants all trying to get a bit of that tourist revenue. Our feeling was that this the Old Town is a place that exists for tourists, and not where locals go about their daily business. We walked the streets and and the perimeter on the old wall, but one day was enough.

We tootled around on our bikes on short excursions for the next two days. We had a most enjoyable afternoon in the Musée national des beaux-arts duQuébec . The collection of art from all periods of Canadian history is well presented. The museum is housed in two buildings, one of which is a former prison. Special exhibits are presented on the walls of small cells (not unlike our dorm room). Some would say viewing modern art is like being incarcerated. The tulips outside were so beautiful, I just had to share a picture of them.

After eight days of rest, and another intense physical therapy session, I feel ready to start cycling again. But we are changing our style -- short days of 50 kilometers and long afternoons to rest, stretch and ice. All part of this Save the Tendon Campaign -- ongoing for another three months...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Five Days in Montreal

If you have extra time, and you have a nice place to stay, and you need time to heal an injury, Montreal is a wonderful place to be. The few days we gained by taking the train from Toronto to Kingston extended our planned stay in Montreal. The first order of business was to schedule a physical therapy appointment at the McGill University Sport Medicine Clinic for treatment of my Achilles tendonitis. We slipped right in for a morning appointment and we headed right over a few blocks to the clinic. My therapist Amelie evaluated my leg, layed her healing hands upon me, bathed me in warm whirlpools and cooled me off with ice, ran ultrasound waves and electrical currents through me, educated me on stretching, and advised me to take it easy. We visited my healing angel two more times for treatment, an investment to try and salvage the cycling part of this trip.

Montreal is a city alive with activity. From our base station in the heart of the downtown red light district, we could venture out in any direction to explore the many neighborhoods. Fortunately, it is a very small and tame red light district. Ironically, within two blocks south is a fancy shopping mall, two blocks east is Chinatown, and north is the Latin District full of restaurants and shops, and west the subway and McGill University. Our hotel was over 100 years old, and well restored, clean and comfortable. The entrance was sometimes obscured by people gathered looking in the window of the sex toy shop next door or on the way to the tattoo parlor. But we liked our room with the original distressed floors, high ceilings, and brick walls.

And no problem finding a place to eat -- there are over 6000 restaurants in the city, of any price range and ethnic variety you desire. I kept checking Chowhound for options. We ate well on Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Middle Eastern, and a vegan buffet. We went one night to a vegetarian buffet that charges by the ounce. In the pursuit of carbohydrates we skipped breakfast one morning and left the hotel early and hit the subway. It was raining when we got off, and we we walked in the wetness to Fairmont Bagels, the oldest bagel factory in Montreal. We expected perhaps a bakery with tables coffee, but when we entered the shop it was crammed with racks of bagels and sacks of flour. Behind the counter the various stages of bagel production were ongoing -- dough being mixed, someone stoking the fire in the wood-burning oven, a guy wearing an iPod and forming bagels by hand from a huge hump of dough in an efficient and mechanical way that comes from the practice of forming thousands of bagels. There was barely room to turn around in the entrance, so we took our liitle warm paper bag with our purchase and walked to the coffee bar down the block and ate our bagels with a cappuccino and looked out the window at the rain coming down. And we repeated the adventure again two days later to visit the other bagel factory in the city, minus the rain . Also all handmade and baked in a brick oven, we preferred St Viatuer, which tended to have a more chewy texture like a classic bagel. But I would walk an hour again for either one, anytime.

We walked the city every one of our five days, taking a different route every day. We visited the botanical gardens, Old Montreal, and did most of the 33 kilometers of the underground city. The contrast of the old and the new was everywhere throughout the downtown. Overheard conversations were generally in French, sometimes in English, and sometimes both. The city has a definite European feel, and it was nice being a regular, anonymous tourist without a fully loaded bike to attract attention. And staying in a hotel when it is raining, sleeping late, and having clean sheets and towels every day ain't too bad, either...oh, oh, John, better get back on the bikes, quick.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Upper Canada, ON: Green and Blue

It took us five days to get from Kingston to Montreal. The cycle gods blessed us with glorious blue skies, flat terrain, and a good tailwind. It almost made me forget about my aching Achilles.

The shore of the Great Lakes have been traded for the shore of the St Lawrence River. We did a slight diversion out of Kingston and rode the free (for bikes) ferry to Howe Island. We rode the length along the only paved route going north, passing farms and fields and incredible summer homes with perfect grass and blooming flowers.

Canada geese are everywhere along the shoreline. For my West Coast friends who are not familiar with the bird, they eat lots of grass and waddle in large groups or fly in v-formation. And their cylindrical droppings are definitely much larger than one would expect in proportion to the size of the bird. Maybe it is all that grass fiber. In any case, dodging droppings on a bike trail is a skill required by any cyclist touring in these northern regions. Pairs of adult birds are accompanied often by their young, who follow closely in line wherever the parent goes.

On bright days like we had, the contrast of the blue water, the green grass and trees, and blue skies is almost too much to absorb. Park areas line the banks of the river, inviting one to sit for a while and just take it in.

Until we came here, I never really knew the difference between the St Lawrence River and the St Lawrence Seaway. But we have seen the locks and the dams and learned of "lost villages" that were submerged when the channel was deepened in the 1950's so large ships could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.

We spent most of one day visiting Upper Canada Village, a living historical museum where buildings were relocated prior to the flooding. The village represents life circa 1860, and has a working sawmill, grain mill, bakery, farm, and various other industries of the time. These types of museums interest us very much, since it demonstrates the true way of life for the common people of the time.

By far our favorite presentation was the bakery. We followed the smell of fresh bread from a couple hundred meters away. Inside the bakery when we arrived, they were pulling out the morning batch of 100 loaves baked in a brick oven. The baker was mixing up the afternoon batch of another 100 loaves of whole wheat bread. When I said to the baker that I could smell them from a mile away, he quipped back that he did not know he smelled that bad!

The Village sells the bread in their store, and we picked up a loaf on our way out along with some cheddar cheese made there, too. We savored the pair with dinner. Unfortunately, another one of those pesky raccoons nabbed the cheese from the bag overnight at the campground and disappeared into the woods with no trace. Hope he enjoyed it as much as we did.

We followed the trace of a couple canals abandoned when the Seaway was created. The canal banks have been transformed into wonderful dedicated bike paths. Below is a section of the St Lawrence Recreational Path along the old Cornwall Canal.

On the fifth day we crossed the Ontario-Quebec border. It was immediately like entering a new country. Road signs and overheard conversations were now in French. Most people are bilingual, but the English is often twinged with a distinct accent.

Our last stretch into Montreal followed the Lachine Canal right into the city. As we got closer, there were an exceptional number of cyclists, even for a Sunday. Many of the cyclists were wearing bibs with a race logo, or funny hats. By the time we reached the city we learned that we were enveloped in the 25th annual Tour de I'lie -- "tour of the island" -- a fun ride that circles the island of which a large part of Montreal occupies. Pretty soon we became part of the flow of the 30,000 participants. We were like trout in a stream that took us along the blocked-off streets right to the hotel in Old Montreal where we had reservatons. We checked in and lugged our bikes and gear up two flights of stairs (no elevator in the 100+ year-old builoding). We could see the constant stream of cyclists from our window down below for the next few hours. What a nice escorted entrance into Montreal!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Toronto to Kingston, ON: The Achilles Express

So we made it to Toronto to my cousin Anita's house for three days of talking, sightseeing, and entirely too much food and wine. We last visited Anita ten years ago, so we had lots to catch up. And the fact we have similar social and political viewpoints allowed us to indulge in long discussions of what is going on in this world. And after a bottle of wine we also came up with plenty of solutions to the world's problems, too. Anita zipped us around the city in her really cool black Honda Fit to visit with my Onkel Heinz at his assisted living facility, to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Distillery District, and dinner parties with her fun bunch of friends. She even made fresh pasta on our last night and, as you can see, food, friends, and wine make for happy faces.

We took an extra day in Toronto in hopes of a quick recovery for my sore Achilles tendon. We also took the ViaRail from Toronto to Kingston to reduce some kilometers and to buy some time for rest days. We rode the subway to Union Station in Toronto. Bikes are allowed on the subway after rush hour, and we barely got noticed with our fully loaded bikes, as is customary subway etiquette of pretending not to notice the unusual.

Kingston is a university town on the shore of Lake Ontario known as the "limestone city" because of the use of the local stone in much of the building construction.

There are no campgrounds in Kingston, so after leaving the train station we wheeled over to one of the hostels we found on the internet. The doorbell elicited no response, so we were standing outside pondering our next move. A very fit commuter cyclist came up to us to ask, as has happened so many times before, where we are from and where we are going. He offered to make a few calls to see if we could camp in the closed municipal campground. No luck, but he then offered to let us pitch our tent in his backyard for the night. We said, sure, and the next thing we know we were a trio of bikers winding our way through town.

Hal is a very avid cyclist, as evidenced by the multitude of bikes stored in his garage and basement. We cooked our dinner on his generous deck while he went off to a meeting of the local cycling club. Later, we talked cycling and travel until evening turned to night.

We were lucky to arrive in Kingston during the Kingston Cycling Week, a celebration of everything on human-powered wheels. Kingston Velo Club's contribution to the event was to host a Roll-In Breakfast -- free calories and caffeine to anyone on a bike. Since we qualified, we packed up our gear and rolled right in. It was like a party. The other members of the club welcomed us like we were one of them, asked about our trip, compared gear, and generally were outstanding hosts. It was a hub of activity -- there are lots of cyclists in town on their way to work or school, and the velo club reeled them in like fish on a line. These are fun people -- their brochure says their bike rides often end up at a local donut emporium. The local paper even was there, and the article the next day quoted Hal and John and was accompanied by our picture with Hal, our new cycling friend.

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