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The Fertile Banks of the St. Lawrence

14 Aug

Cycle touring is great because you often stay in rural places. Our St-Vallier hosts, Dany and Maïté, live in a part of town that’s not even connected to the town’s water supply. The house’s water comes from their well, but it’s not pleasant to drink because of a light sulphur odour. Many people purchase expensive filtration systems, but Dany and Maïté make trips to the nearby woods where there is a natural spring, and get their drinking water from there. Just what we needed after a full day of cycling in the sun!

Maïté has a beautiful vegetable garden in their backyard. She grows variety of veggies including some extra large and very tasty zucchinis. She was full of creative ideas for her garden.

Maïté figured out a three-stage compost system that’s suitable to their house. First, they collect the compost in a bin. Once the bin is full, usually after a year, they transfer it to a raised bed; this year, she planted some zucchinis and geraniums on it for aesthetic appeal. After another year, the ready compost goes into the garden.

The family does without a lawnmower. In the spring, they buy some rabbits and set the rabbit cage on the grass. Once that area has been ‘mowed’ they move the cage to the next area. In the fall, they eat the rabbits, although their 5-year-old son, Matéo, doesn’t know that yet, but is starting to catch on that the rabbits each year are different and it makes him sad.

They also do without herbicides for killing dandelions, and in the early summer their lawn turns bright yellow. Instead of stressing about it and working against nature, they enjoy it.

When you come to a small town on a weeknight, you don’t necessarily expect a beach party. But that’s what we found in Kamouraska. Our hosts, garlic growers from the nearby St-Germain, were celebrating a friend’s birthday, and we were invited!

At the afterparty, we talked to Jesse, who works for Greenpeace. He is cycling around Quebec with a colleague, encouraging people to get involved with Greenpeace. Many people have been very receptive and welcoming, he tells us. However, in Canada people are reluctant in having convesation about the environment: many of them have jobs in industries like mining or oil extraction that are damaging to the environment. So they feel a bit guilty or responsible and do not want to get themselves into a conversation where they will be blamed or accused.

One of the friends had recently butchered his goat, and some of its meat was roasting over the fire. Our conversation naturally turned to food. Jesse had grown up on an organic farm, where fresh, organic meat was a big part of his diet. When he moved away, he realized that grocery store meat is not nearly as good as what he had been eating all his life. He gradually learned to eat mostly vegetarian and stopped buying meat. But Jesse does not promote strict vegetarian diets: he likes to challenge vegans and vegetarians on their values. For example, can a vegetarian eat roadkill, which already died anyway, and is going to waste?

One day Jesse would like to learn to hunt. He says if people got their meat hunting, they would better understand the value and ecological context of the meat they were eating, and would adapt their diet accordingly.

Fruits and Vegetables du Terroir

10 Aug

After two culture filled rest days in Montreal,  we stayed with Cedric and Anika in Joliette. Cedric works at the farm market and gets fresh local vegetables, which we got to try in the form of tasty homemade quiche by Anika. The farm market is unusual because people order their food online. On pickup day, the farmers bring the requested goods to the market, and people come to pick up their orders. As Cedric explains, this helps the local economy and in particular, the local farmers.

What better way to get to a car race than on a bicycle? We arrived in Trois-Rivières just in time for the Grand Prix, and the sound of racing cars created a constant background noise during our stay. Our hosts, Sharon and André, were not very pleased with the route of the race track, as it passes between the seniors’ homes and the hospital.

In response to hearing about the Tour de Sustainability project, Sharon told us a story she read in the paper. In Drummondville, a couple decided to grow their own vegetables to start eating healthier food, and the only place sunny enough was their front yard. After a season’s worth of hard work, they set up a wonderful garden. But the municipality has a law requiring 30% of the front yard to be grass, so they were told to remove the garden and put back the lawn. The couple is fighting with the municipality for their garden, but the prospects are grim: the municipality is planning to introduce a law banning all vegetable gardens in front yards.

The story seemed to have gone viral, and a lot of our hosts had opinions about it. As Sharon and André said, the people who had vegetable gardens in their backyards sided with the couple: to them, a garden is a beautiful thing. But the others sided with the municipality. Dany, our St-Vallier host, suggested that the ridiculous law is due to conformist mindsets. To some people, it’s just important that everybody’s house and front yard should look the same.

Thanks to Anya’s parents, who came to visit for the long weekend, we were able to go sightseeing in various places along the north shore of the St. Lawrence. We saw Quebec City, Portneuf, and one of the oldest streets in North America.

We also enjoyed some of the produits du terroir (French for local food). For example, we discovered the ground cherry (cerise de terre) at a fruit stand, and found it very addictive. We also tried ground cherry liqueur, which was almost as delicious.

On The Green Path

5 Aug

The Ottawa River, or la Riviere des Outaouais, separates Quebec and Ontario. There is a beautiful cycle path along its shores, extending about 30 km on either side of the capital. We were fortunate to bike into Ottawa on Sunday morning, when several waterfront streets are also closed to cars and open to bikes.

The population on either side of the Ottawa River is a mix of francophones and anglophones, not correlating with provincial boundaries. The Frenchies are a proud people and the ones living in Ontario have their own Franco-Ontarian flag. They certainly have reason for patriotism. Our Warm Showers host, Pierre, stunned us with a four-course dinner with a wine pairing for each course. C’est ça la belle vie!

Santé! We made it to Quebec, the land of poutine and bicycles. Canada’s belle province has a network of designated bike routes, called Routes Vertes, or green paths. Also, there is a designation for lodging and camping called Bienvenue Cyclistes (welcome cyclists) which essentially means that these places are bike-friendly; the campsites can always accommodate cyclists, even if they are fully booked!

 

That’s part of the Route Verte we took into Montreal. Our final stretch was along the Lachine canal, and by that point it was already dark. It seemed like everyone was enjoying the warm summer night: lots of people were out for a stroll, and we even passed by an outdoor cha-cha lesson.

It was an unusual time to be in Montreal: there were actually no festivals going on, except the fireworks, which are just like the ones in Vancouver. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying tourist classics such as street performances, cafes with patios, and cobblestone streets. Although we’ve been to Montreal before and visited the Notre Dame basilica, it was definitely worth seeing again.

Leaving the city, we passed through downtown and were overwhelmed by the cycle traffic: often we’d be waiting at a red light with several other cyclists. Many were riding bikes from Montreal’s famous bike share program, Bixi. A few had ridiculously large loads. Some rode cautiously but most rode like they owned the road, weaving back and forth in the traffic, passing each other and running red lights. (Disclaimer: Tour de Sustainability does not recommend running red lights just because you are riding a bicycle.)

Sunny Side Up

8 Jul

We’ve officially left the prairies. Instead of fields stretching to the horizon in every direction, we now travel on roads surrounded by trees on either side. The sky has become smaller. By force of a quickly formed habit we try to check the weather forecast by observing the clouds, but they are blocked, and we feel a little claustrophobic.

After doing 284 km in two days, a rest day was in order. Luckily for us, Maria’s parents flew in for the long weekend and made sure we relaxed to the max.

We stayed in a cabin right on Lake of the Woods, near Sioux Narrows Provincial Park. We swam in the lake, hiked the trails of the park, and picked mushrooms and wild strawberries. We also spotted a beaver in the area:

Well rested and fed, we got ambitious again. We rode 90km in the scorching heat to the town of Finland, where we stopped to eat. The host informed us that there would be Canada Day fireworks at 10pm in Fort Frances. Well, it was 7pm and with Fort Frances 60km away, we figured we could make it! We quickly settled up the bill and booked it. Full of partiotism we finally arrived at 10:30pm, just barely making the tail end of the fireworks.

We camped in the park in town and in the morning Anya received a gift from the heavens.

Bon appetit. We ate breakfast in the Chinese restaurant in Fort Frances. We would never have thought to go there but it was recommended by a local guy named Kasey. We randomly met in front of Safeway and he ended up joining us for breakfast. Upon hearing about our project, he told us about his dad, who wants his house to be the first in Fort Frances to go completely off the grid. He has already installed solar panels on his roof for electricity, and he has obtained a large cistern for collecting rainwater, which he will be hooking up to the house’s plumbing system shortly.

We spotted quite a few solar panels on our way to Fort Frances, and asked Kasey about them. Ontario has a program for subsidizing clean energy projects. This program pays owners of solar installations for the energy they generate. In particular, energy produced by residential rooftop solar installations is bought at a rate 8 times the cost of buying the same amount of electricity. As a result of the subsidy, many people have installed the panels. Many community-use places such as schools and municipal halls had the panels installed as well.

Breaking News from Manitoba

6 Jul

Apparently if you stop for a break in a small town for long enough you make it into the local paper!

The Fickle Heart of Canada

5 Jul

After biking 100km, what better way to spend the evening than to get a tour of Winnipeg – on bikes?! Yep! That’s what we did and we loved it. Our host, Aaron, told us he’d been a cycling tour guide in a past life. We got to see the architecture downtown, Assiniboine Park, the Flaming Trolleys band practicing in a square, a lone guy practicing banjo on his front porch, to name a few.

Aaron loves cooking so we fired up the BBQ and had an amazing dinner at his place. We talked about green construction, city planning, and green campuses. Since he is studying at the University of Manitoba, Aaron was angry that he was studying in a place that was doing so little in terms of sustainability compared to other universities. He started several initiatives, in particular a campus composting program and the Sustainable Campus Student Group, that provides students with learning and networking opportunities in the Green Building industry.

Initially, Aaron said, some people were reluctant to change and his initiatives were met with a lot of resistance. However, he saw things through until his goals were met, and those same people are now seeing that these initiatives were a good thing for everyone involved. He has also recently been recognized with an award from Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) for his strategic plan to green the University of Manitoba campus.

As if that were not enough work, Aaron also coordinates a weekly farmer’s market in Winnipeg. He said his strategy was to make the market hip and connect it to the local community. He invited local bands to come and play and said that the number of people coming to the market almost doubled from one year to the next.

It was difficult to leave Winnipeg with its hipster cafes and music scene, but we had to move on. Before we knew it, we were officially halfway through the country.

On our way to Falcon Lake we came across a fruit stand. Ah, fruit! Perhaps it is from Ontario? Nope… it’s from California and sometimes from BC. Money is no object for most of the customers, so it makes it worthwhile to truck in fruit from distant parts of the globe and pose as a peddler of local produce. The only local thing we found was the honey, and the Saskatoon jam. We purchased both items.

With a strong wind blowing at our backs, the 158km to Falcon Lake was a breeze. Our Falcon Lake host, Eric, welcomed us with tasty smoothies, a dip in the lake and yummy vegetarian dinner: quinoa buckwheat salad with broccoli, cheese, fresh basil, and an olive-balsamic dressing.

We got to spend the night in a spacious screened porch. The porch is constructed using trees from the backyard, but the most notable part is the ceiling: an intricate tangle of tree roots forms an integral part of its structure. The roots are from a huge tree from Eric’s yard, uprooted during a storm. Eric’s brother designed the porch to showcase the impressive stump.

Eric’s dad asked Maria whether she wears a bicycle helmet. Bike helmet laws are a hot topic in Manitoba: there is talk of making helmets mandatory. In BC, this is already the case, but bike helmet laws are also a hot topic there, because Vancouver is setting up a bike share program, and some people are concerned about how the current helmet laws will affect its success. Bicycle helmet laws are not a clear-cut issue: there is much controversy about it.

Of course, some people will still choose to wear a helmet even if they are not legally bound to do so. As for Maria, she’s decided to try the helmet-free lifestyle in the provinces where it’s legal.

It’s a Hutterite Life

2 Jul

When we chose to set up camp in St. Claude, we had no idea what was in store for us. We rolled into town and were just trying to find the campground on the giant map, when a man wearing dress shoes and also riding a bicycle caught up with us. It turned out that he wanted to offer us a place to stay for the night! That’s how we met Robert and Josiane from St. Claude, and through them we met a lot of other amazing people.

Robert is a high school teacher. In the past decade or so, he has been teaching over an interactive television system to students from several Hutterite colonies. There are actually several hundreds of such colonies in Canada and we probably passed some, but as Robert wisely says, if you aren’t looking for it you won’t see it. Who are the Hutterites? We were able to see for ourselves.

Hutterites live communally: they share work and money, and they eat and pray together. The colony sustains its members spiritually and physically. In addition, Hutterites often help surrounding communities: for example, some are trained in first aid and emergency response, and will often be the first ones on a scene of emergency. It was really interesting to see the benefits and challenges of this radically different way of life.

Robert took us to two different colonies, where we saw the eating area, kitchen, chapel, school, some new homes under constuction, and a car repair shop. A common misconception about the Hutterites is that they shun new technologies. On the contrary: they have pretty much the latest and greatest in farming machinery, computers, industrial-grade ovens and breadmakers, fridges, washing machines… everything they need. Some members are talented carpenters, electricians, or general do-it-yourselfers, and everything is done in-house. And we mean everything: from repairing electrical appliances to building entire houses, complete with cabinets, electricity, and plumbing — all top notch quality. (Anya had never seen such a clean car repair workshop in her life! And working in construction she has seen more than a few.)

Hutterites have a lot of opportunities for learning various skills and trades, and sampling a wide variety of jobs. Rotating responsibilities and sharing the work assignments is encouraged. In the colonies we visited, everyone can complete high school, and beyond that there are opportunities for becoming certified in various trades. Sometimes, they will send a member of the colony to earn a university degree. As for work, they get their first small jobs at 15 (adulthood) and can move around between working in the field, building constuction, helping in the machine shop, or at the school. They can really find the work that fits, and if they prove themselves to be trustworthy, can take on greater responsibilities.

While no one on a Hutterite colony has any personal funds, there is money for exchanging goods with the outside world. Hutterites are shrewd businessmen: once the needs of the colony have been met, all surplus goods can be sold. One can often see them selling produce at farmers’ markets. Each colony may specialize in its own area. Some colonies have a big production of grain feed, henhouses, or pig and cattle farms — just a few examples.

In this form of society there are no medical bills that can’t be paid, no unemployment, no mortgages, no hunger and no homelessness. Changing careers is easy, and education doesn’t cost anything. Want to be a Hutterite? Sorry, they do not usually accept new members: you must be born into the colony.

As if that were not enough information for one day, Robert also took us on a tour of St. Claude’s dairy museum, where we got our brains wired with more interesting stuff:

And also a tour of the highway ditch to get us acquainted with the local flora:

These are lady slippers, which are wild orchids that are sometimes dug up to be transplanted to a garden, but the survival rate is low. That’s why no one will tell you where to find them! (Unless you are on a bicycle and certainly aren’t going to take one away.)

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