Train to Start and from Finish

DSCN5999We began our prairie bike trip by taking the train from Vancouver to Jasper, and wrapped up our ride by taking the train from Sioux Lookout back to Vancouver. The journey to Jasper took about 24 hours, and we travelled in inexpensive coach seats. Even having reached our golden years, we can manage sitting up for a night. The return journey included three nights, however, so we sprang for comfortable upper berths with meals included.

Via Rail’s passenger service runs on the Canadian National track through Sioux Lookout. We felt we were doing well when our train – scheduled to arrive at midnight – arrived at 2:00 a.m.. Via’s passenger trains have lower priority than freight trains on the single track, and the trans-continental train is often hours or even days late.  After waiting in the near-deserted station with four other passengers, we wheeled our bikes to the baggage car – pedals removed – and handed them to careful attendants. Panniers in hand, we slipped into our berths in a hushed and dark sleeper car and in the morning we emerged as the “new”  passengers. Most other passengers had been aboard since Toronto.  The amenities and our fellow travellers made for a sociable and relaxing journey home.


As we neared the end of our journey, we were treated to views of the Fraser Canyon in morning light. We’ve taken the train from Vancouver  to Jasper twice previously, but both times we passed through the Fraser Canyon in the dark.  This time, it felt as if our home province was giving us a warm embrace as we returned.

At Central Station in Vancouver, we reassembled into cycling mode and began to ride home. Our loaded bikes must have stood out as as we rode along the Arbutus Greenway.  A commuter cyclist slowed to chat, and asked the natural question of where we’d been.

When we told him, he reacted to our reply with “Aren’t the prairies boring?”

Our answer was a heartfelt “no”.


See trip photos in a Flickr album.

The Last Few Cycling Days

2018/06/16: In Kenora
As we gave the old bones a recovery day, we strolled around Kenora in search of an SD card reader. In the queue for the Safeway checkout, we chanced to meet the only Warmshowers host in Kenora, and regretted not having searched Warmshowers as we approached the town. We are active Warmshowers hosts when at home in Vancouver, but we find it hard to use the system when we travel, since we find planning our arrival time with any accuracy is tricky.

2018/06/17: Vermilion Bay  97 km
Although we disagree with the cliché that “the Prairies are boring” – usually used by the incurious who’ve never travelled across them at a human pace – we began to find that riding across Canadian shield country could be a bit monotonous.  Does all that forest spoil the view? A black bear foraging at the roadside added a bit of excitement, and we ate our lunch in a spot carefully chosen for having enough air movement to keep mosquitoes away.


Canadian Shield

2018/06/18: Ojibway Provincial Park  125 km
Our Vermilion Bay motel included breakfast, and we chatted with a burly Minnesotan who was about to fly in to a fishing camp, as he does every summer. Signage along the road gives an indication of just how many fishing camps there are.

As we approached Dryden, forest gave way to grazing land, and we stopped at a shop that advertised “wool”. Here I purchased the wherewithal  to keep my fingers busy on the long train journey from Sioux Lookout back to Vancouver. In contrast to cold rain that had had us fully bundled up between Jasper and Edmonton, the weather was getting uncomfortably hot, so I draped a wet bandana under my helmet to protect my neck and ears from the sun’s blaze. Did you know that horse flies can keep up with a sweaty cyclist travelling at 25-35 kmh?

In Dryden, we ate our lunch outside Safeway as we eavesdropped on local lads who were graduating from high school and who would attend Lakehead University in Thunder Bay next year. We fortified ourselves with iced coffee before pedalling on.   Leaving the Trans-Canada, we turned north on highway 72 toward Sioux Lookout, and stopped to camp at Ojibway Provincial Park.

2018/06/09: Sioux Lookout 34 km
We knew we had a short day ahead; we had a leisurely breakfast and sat on the dock to finish our tea.


Morning tea at Ojibway Provincial Park

We entered Sioux Lookout and treated ourselves to lunch and cappuccinos at a cafe, before pedalling to meet family.


Winnipeg and Onward

2018/06/09: Minnedosa 108 km
Nine Finger Ranch did us well for down time on our second rest day. The main house is an architect-designed building located on a hilltop, with views all round; we watched weather fronts move through. We went for a short walk and worked on a 1000 piece jigsaw with our only fellow guest, a young woman travelling by motorcycle.

On leaving, we attempted to make a quiet early departure, but the dogs didn’t let us. Flaps, the affable coon hound, bugled a piercing alarm which woke hosts Ilse and Tom. We took gravel roads for the first 20 km, then returned to prairie terrain and pavement till Minnedosa. Walking back to our motel after supper, we met Cindy, who led us on an evening walk to the heritage park and the bison compound.


Cycling in the early morning mist.


Ground squirrels abound

2018/06/10: Gladstone 71 km
The next day involved several caffeine stops to help us battle a rising headwind. It is the oldsters who approach us in cafes to ask how far we’ve come, and we saw that “Sunday Best” is still worn on Sundays in smaller prairie towns. We became the sole lodgers in a tiny motel, after telephoning the manager who came to make up a bed.

2018/06/11: Winnipeg 156 km
A tailwind helped us reach the outskirts of Winnipeg in unpleasant rain. We soon got onto an urban section of Trans Canada Trail which followed the Assiniboine River, and we were greeted by other cyclists.


Stopping to view the Manitoba Legislature on our way to our hotel.

We made our way to the Marlborough Hotel, which Chris had selected because it was historic and central. I usually leave the selection of accommodation to him, so I have no right to complain that he did not read the reviews this time. On arrival, we were getting vibes that the hotel operated differently than those we usually chose, but we were too tired to rethink things. Most of the other guests were forest fire evacuees from remote northern communities, or were in the city for medical treatment. It was an interesting experience for us to be a visible minority.

On the plus side for the Marlborough, I was happy to listen to an older couple speaking what was probably Cree at breakfast time. When sharing the elevator with two First Nations women, one of them asked us “Do you jog?” We were not in bike shorts, and did not have bikes with us. I think this meant we still stood out as relatively sporty. Another time, an older guy said “Hello white guys!” very amicably.

2018/06/13: In Winnipeg


Canadian Museum of Human Rights

We spent most of the day in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. It did not escape us that many of the abuses Canada stands guilty of had affected – and still affect – our fellow hotel guests.

2018/06/13: Ste. Anne 63 km
We checked out of the Marlborough and departed for Louis Riel’s House on fully loaded bikes. It wasn’t nearly as informative as NWMP post in Battleford, or the Batoche site that we’d done as a side trip by car from Saskatoon. We chatted to Judi from Seattle, before getting a start on the flat lands and straight roads to the east.


Louis Riel’s House


Métis bead work.

2018/06/14: Hadashville 60 km
There are a limited number of ways to break the final kilometres to Sioux Lookout into days that finish with indoor accommodation away from ticks, deer flies and black flies, so we dropped into a tiny motel run by a friendly Chinese woman. We had seen a Ukrainian Restaurant about 3 km earlier, which would have meant riding to windward again for food unlikely to conform to a cholesterol-reducing diet. When our Chinese hostess cheerfully offered “I make you dumplings!”, how could we refuse? After only a moment’s doubtful guilt on my part, we dove into large platters of pork and and cabbage dumplings. This is the only red meat that has passed my lips since my visit to a lipids specialist just before we set out. After three months cycling across China in 2009, we know our dumplings, and these were good ones!

2018/06/15: Kenora 116 km
We set out late as the tailwind was forecast to strengthen later in the day. The flat terrain began to roll as granite outcroppings appeared, and the transition from prairie to boreal forest unfolded.

After rescuing a western painted turtle who appeared to want to cross the road on her own, we arrived in Kenora, where we are taking a day off. Kenora sits on the shore of Lake of the Woods, a gorgeous expanse of water dotted with islands. Motor craft abound, yet I cannot see a single sail or paddle powered craft. What a waste.




Reaching Manitoba

2018/05/31-06/01: In Saskatoon
Some of the key events of the 1885 Northwest Resistance took place just NE of Saskatoon. The winds would have been in our faces, and our bodies were in need of rest, so we rented a car for the day and drove to Batoche, a National Historic site. After watching an informative film which explained this key part of Canada’s history, we walked to the church, rectory, and historic graveyard. Still digesting our impressions of the challenges of early Metis life, we stopped at Tourond’s Coulee in our way back to Saskatoon. This was the site of an early battle during the Resistance.


Church at Batoche


This plaque at Tourond’s Coulee is in Michif, the Metis language, and what I believe is Cree. A plaque on the other side of the cairn is in French and English.

A few days earlier, we had visited the Northwest Mounted Police Post in Battleford, where we glimpsed the early days of the European settlement of Rupert’s Land from a different viewpoint.  “Rupert’s Land” refers to the vast area of what is now mostly in Canada, and where the Hudson’s Bay Company held a commercial monopoly from 1670 to 1870. We bought our National Parks passes here.

2018/06/02:  Lanigan 130 km
Before reaching Lanigan, we saw various box or tent-like structures, placed in fields. We wondered what they might be. Lanigan is home to a large potash mine, and we  at the associated interpretive centre which had agricultural information as well. I learned that the structures we’d seen probably housed prepupae of alfalfa leafcutter bees which are essential to good pollination and seed setting for alfalfa crops. I was told that Saskatchewan produces the bees for export to other areas where alfalfa is grown, but have yet to learn more about how the production is done.


Blue structures in fields

2018/06/03:  Foam Lake 119 km Airstream Today we must have moved from the central to the Mississippi bird migration flyway.  We began to see new bird species, including herons and American white pelicans. They must have had wet weather recently, because at times our road seemed like a narrow dry strip across vast expanses of shallow water. Further along was the expanse of Quill Lake, an internationally important area for bird life.


American white pelicans on Quill Lake

At the campground in Foam Lake, we arrived 10 minutes before my cousin Jane and her husband Jean, who had been driving eastward from near Montreal towing their brand new Airstream trailer.  One might call this an unlikely encounter, but in these days of smartphones, you can organize nearly anything.  We had sociable and delicious evening, and were the first to test their Airstream guest quarters.


Cousins and their spouses



Different types of rolling stock

2018/06/04:  Foam Lake 1 km Motel
Having been struck by some sort of illness, and with winds howling from the east, we moved a short distance from the campground to a motel, where we both caught up on sleep and made our way to the much needed laundromat.

2018/06/05:  Langenburg 170 km
Within minutes of setting out, we met our first westbound touring cyclist. We compared notes on weather websites, and invited the  enterprising German lass to stay with us when she reached Vancouver.  The wind had helped her cover over 200 km the day before. It’s a good thing we eastbound travellers had stayed put.

We were going easily at a good clip, and rolled out 170 km before stopping at a motel in Langenburg, where we heated the food intended as a camp meal in the microwave before dropping into bed.

2018/06/06:  Nine Finger Ranch, Rossburn MB, 86 km


We’ve seen several foxes

We crossed into Manitoba, and reset our watches for the second time since Jasper before hurtling downward into a coulee and climbing slowly up the other side. We had a second breakfast in Russell, and did a major grocery shop in Rossburn, before turning onto smaller roads toward Nine Finger Ranch. This is part of Hostelling International, but also offers trail rides into Riding Mountain National Park. A group of Grade 5 and 6 students from Thompson, one of the more northerly towns in Manitoba, is visiting here. I’ve been priveleged to sit in with them with a talk given by an archeologist, and was happy to go on a short ride with them when there was a spare horse.

The terrain is starting to change, and the land is more forested. We are no longer on the prairies.


Prairie Potholes

2018/05/24:  Tofield 69 km
2018/05/25:  Wainwright 148 km
2018/05/26:  Marsden 72 km
2018/05/27:  Battleford 115 km
2018/05/28:  North Battleford 11 km
2018/05/29:  Langham 108 km
2018/05/30:  Saskatoon 36 km


Highway 14 near Edmonton, next corner 143km ahead

Since leaving Edmonton, we have taken mainly the 14 and 40 highways, although our back roads route out of Edmonton included about 6 km of gravel. This has taken us across the prairie on a reasonably minor road. Stops at gas stations for drinks and snack food has lead to interesting interactions with the locals.

The prairie had surprises for me. Firstly the roads are not straight, despite looking that way on the map; lakes and valleys disturb the surveyors’ desire for straight lines. Secondly, there DSCN5583are lots of ponds, called sloughs by the locals. These are formed in prairie potholes which are depressions left at the retreat of the last ice age.  These host a surprising diversity of our feathered friends. I have made a selection of our snap shots of these that I append below.

I include only birds that are not very familiar to Margo or to me. We live in Vancouver, Canada which is in a different migration flyway , so it is not surprising we see a different mixture of birds. I assume that most of these birds do not overwinter on the Canadian prairies as it is very cold here in the winter, and hence they are migratory birds.










P.S. We invite all enthusiastic twitchers to help with identification!