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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.)

Spirited Randomness

30 Jun

Recently, Manitoba spent $5 million to change their old slogan — “Friendly Manitoba” — to something more stylish and modern. They came up with “Manitoba. Spirited energy.” From what we heard, people would not have been angry if they had an appreciation for the absurd. Anyway, we interpret the slogan thus:

When you’re on a long trip you often forget the day of the week. The next day was Sunday, and we remembered this only when we were unable to obtain any breakfast because everything was closed. We thought we’d just get to the next town, but were confronted with a strong headwind. So we cooked our leftovers on the side of the highway: red lentils with little pieces of ginger. Anya ate some of the remainders of our granola as well, sans yogurt. Oh, if only we could find an omelette:

That same day we met two westbound cyclists, Peter and Sara. They were very happy about the tailwind, but nevertheless they stopped to chat. They were interested to hear about our project. Peter told us about his interest in natural buildings. He hopes to build his own house one day and is looking into earthbag construction as a potential technique. To learn more, he had built an earthbag structure during his travels in Thailand. On their cycle tour, he planned to see some buildings constructed in this fashion in Alberta, and find out whether they are suitable for a more northern climate.

The demoralizing headwind continued all day, but we kept going. We stopped in Wawanesa, where we found The Schnitzel House, possibly the best schnitzel (and also cheesecake!) outside of Germany. The campground had been flooded last year, so it was still ‘closed’ but we camped there anyway.

Further on, there was more spirited randomness offered up by the province of Manitoba. The town of Holland, for example, is named after a postman who is of English descent but had the last name Holland.

And then there was the 10+ km of surplus train cars stretching on the way from Holland to St Claude. Besides blocking the vicious cross-wind, it made for some fun graffiti viewing.

Gambling with the Bears

25 Jun

Did we mention we love Couchsurfing? There aren’t too many couches in rural areas, but we found one en route to Winnipeg. It turned out to be our most unique Couchsurfing experience to date. Our host, Brennan, said that since his house was “too messy right now,” he’d get us a complimentary room at the Bear Claw Hotel, where he is the operations manager.

We thought it would be directly in Carlyle but it turned out to be another gruelling 10km, uphill and into the wind. As we pulled up beside the hotel, a lady waved us over: “Come eat!” We didn’t need to be asked twice! They were giving away “fish fry” (fish ‘n’ chips without the chips), in celebration of National Aboriginal Day (June 21).

We had the pleasure to talk to Edward, the general manager of Bear Claw Casino and Hotel, who told us the story of the establishment. Back in the 80’s the White Bear First Nations community was considered one of the highest crime rate locations in Canada. The unemployment was sky high at 98%. It was not a good place to live.

Today it is difficult to imagine that life could have been so different here just thirty years ago. We chatted with two girls working at the fish fry, who proudly talked about living on the reserve and the natural beauty of the area.

In the 90’s, the White Bear First Nations band was looking for ways to improve life on the reserve. After visiting with other First Nations south of the 49th parallel, they decided to open a gaming facility. Realizing that the provincial government had given away their gaming rights to the Western provinces, they challenged the province as those rights are actually federal juristiction. Though they faced tremendous challenges, they had strong support from the local communities. In 1996 they managed to regain their gaming rights and formed SIGA – Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Association.

Since its reopening in 1996, the casino has been very successful and has kept it as a goal to sustain the local communities. For the members of the White Bear community, the casino is an opportunity to work and get training. A portion of the casino’s profits go towards putting on community events such as National Aboriginal Day, or funding projects such as the Kenosee Lake playground.

They also support other First Nations communities: we discovered that they use really cool Mother Nature Essentials soaps and shampoos, made by a 100% Aboriginal owned business in Alberta, according to the label.

Nature Bugs Us

22 Jun

It’s that time of year again… tick season! Anya spotted them as we were doing some post-ride stretches at the campground. She alm0st couldn’t believe they were ticks because there were so many. We found about 5 on our “yoga mats” (actually just our sleeping mats) and brushed about as many off the tent exterior in the morning. The locals confirmed it: 2012 has seen record tick numbers.

To add to the fun, Maria’s front derailleur, having suffered from stiffness for some time now, had stopped working entirely:

Maria even woke up early to fix the problem herself but discovered that we had lost both our spare cables. Luckily in the prairies middle gear is often sufficient.

In the prairies you can see your dog run away for 3 days.

It wasn’t only the cables that were missing. Somewhere along the way, Maria had lost both her warm sweaters. Anya, lending Maria her down jacket for the evening, decided we’d do some clothes shopping in Regina.

We rode into Regina on the Trans Canada. Bad decision. On the stretch of highway past Moose Jaw, there was more roadkill than anywhere else so far on our journey. We saw four dead deer in just 80 km — compare that to zero dead deer in 2,000+km! Not to mention the increased number of the typical victims: birds and rodents. To spare our viewers, we will refrain ourselves from posting photographic evidence.

Our Regina connection is Maria’s family friend, Alex. He actually managed to feed us too much food! This is a most impressive feat of hospitality.  He also gave us a tour around town, and kept us entertained with philosophical conversations.

One thing we talked about is connection to nature. Having lived and worked both in large cities (like Vancouver) and small ones (like Regina), Alex can say that he prefers the smaller cities. Aside from the fact that it is easier to get from A to B in a smaller town, it is also often easier to access nature.

For Alex (and for us, actually!) being around nature is a way to get away from distractions, clear your mind and better understand yourself. Access to nature is important, but in large cities, it’s not always available.

Farming in the Wind

21 Jun

According to statistics, about half of Canada’s farmland is in Saskatchewan.  Sure enough, most towns along the railway have a grain elevator.

Through Couchsurfing, we had the opportunity to stay with Henry and Vivian, who live on a farm. They grow most of their food on a tennis court sized piece of land: potatoes, rhubarb, gooseberries, cilantro, squash, onions, and lots more. When they visit their children in the city, they are surprised at each other’s grocery bills. Henry and Vivian eat mostly what they grow; their kids might pay as much in a day as they do in a month.

Henry took us to see the lake near their property. The lake is home to many birds, first and foremost to Saskatchewan’s provincial bird, the mosquito. However there are also pelicans, gulls, curlews, blackbirds, and more. Henry and Vivian are surrounded by lovely scenery: “On a long weekend, people will rush to a park for camping, but we have the best camping in the world right here,” Henry says. Judge for yourself:

 

From the lake, you can see a big wind farm, Centennial Wind Power Facility. There are about 80 wind turbines on that farm and each turbine can power a town the size of Swift Current. We asked Henry why there aren’t more of them, and he said another one of even bigger capacity is planned to be built nearby, in Chaplin. With the amount of wind in the flat lands, it is really a no brainer for Saskatchewan. Check out this windstorm that we were lucky enough to sit out in a cafe:

Exploring Alberta Along the Trans Canada

17 Jun

On our way through the flatlands of Alberta, we caught up with Frank, a lone cyclist with his belongings stashed in four panniers on an extended rear rack. Frank is from Salmon Arm, BC, but cycles east every summer for work, living on the cheap out of a tent. This time he was cycling to Medicine Hat. How’s that for a work commute?!

We stopped in Bassano for lunch at a place called Bakafe (a bakery and a café, see?). Rose, the owner, was ultra nice to us and we talked for a while. At her café, Rose serves fresh, homemade products with no preservatives whenever possible. And it’s delicious!

Rose was surprised that we had taken the detour into the town. In the 1980s, before the Trans-Canada was re-routed 2km north, Bassano was directly on the highway. Back then, a lot more visitors would come through; nowadays business is slow, except on rodeo days. Rose talked about the challenges of keeping the younger crowd busy in such a small, remote town: some are very active in the community, but others turn to drinking for entertainment. The Bakafe is one of the only places in town that does not serve alcohol.

Heading further east the next day we noticed a darker patch of sky behind us. We hoped it would go away, but it kept getting closer and making thundery noises. In this sparsely-populated region with towns at least 30km apart, and considering half the towns don’t even have a café, we were very lucky. We reached Suffield only 10 minutes before the rain started, and waited out the worst of the storm in the town’s only diner, adjacent to the town’s only gas station. Here we ran into two cool crazy guys from Quebec: a rollerblader and a longboarder, making their way east on their own wheels and by hitch-hiking.

Once the storm quieted down a bit, we set out for Medicine Hat, where we had a couchsurf set up.

The Couchsurfing scene in Medicine Hat is awesome! We were slightly overwhelmed by the amazing response to our surfing requests. Nicole, the host who won us over, told us that she really has to be on the ball to snatch couchsurfers coming through town. There is a fierce competition between the hosts in town to get surfers on their couches.

We Have a Beef with our “Rest” Days

14 Jun

We arrived in Calgary by following Google Maps cycling directions (which are in beta, the app warned us). The directions took us on a 15-km gravelly road through First Nations land. Despite the huge NO TRESPASSING sign, nobody kicked us out although Maria was very worried.

Incidentally, Maria’s tire had gone flat again, and we had to stop a few more times to inflate it. As we later found out, the culprit was the other half of the staple-like thing that caused the first flat.

After that, Google took us onto a network of amazing off-street bike trails extending along the shores of the Bow and Elbow rivers. The paths are divided into two bike lanes (one in each direction) and are in perfect shape with not even one crack in the pavement. We heard these paths get the snow cleared off in the winter and many people continue to ride year-round. Go Calgary!

(Sorry, no time for editing. Just wanted to show you the awesomeness of Calgary bike paths. Fast forward when you get bored.)

In general, Calgary has a great bike route network with on- and off-street cycle paths covering much of the city. From what we saw, lots of people were on bikes, with many velo-connoisseurs on high-end road and racing speed machines.

It’s thunderstorm season, and although we were originally planning to stay in Calgary for only a couple of days, we decided to take a few extra days to avoid foul weather. So our dear Calgary friend, Katia, took us on a CONS (Calgary Outdoor NutS) trip to Dewar Creek Hot Springs (yes, back in BC). After a series of spectacular failures we finally ended up in some hot springs, although we had to settle for Fairmont, a resort-style hot spring.

Spectacular failure #3: unexpectedly high snow cover on trail.

Once a hot spring gets commercialized like that I don’t know how “natural” you can call it, for me it feels as natural as bottled water. The energy required to run the resort is probably an order of magnitude greater than the benefit of using naturally heated hot spring water. Nonetheless, Fairmont is doing their best and they did provide us with some much needed relaxation, so no complaints there.

We also talked to the trip organizer, Trevor, about his perspective on sustainability. He brought up the issue of diet. “If everybody ate like I do right now,” Trevor admits, “there wouldn’t be enough food in the world.” He doesn’t eat most grains for health reasons, and therefore ends up eating a lot of meat. Since Trevor grew up on a cattle farm in Saskatchewan, he certainly knows his steak, and how resource-intensive it is to produce. Even taking the eating local philosophy into account and the abundance of cows in Alberta, meat intensive diet is not sustainable.

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