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Mosquitoes Gone Wild

13 Jul

To say that there are a lot of lakes in northwestern Ontario would be an understatement. The area is dotted with fishing and hunting resorts, which attract many visitors from the States. Riding along the highway, we see at least one lake every half hour. The abundant water provides habitat for moose, deer, beaver, brook trout, and walleye (also known as pickerel), but you are more likely to notice the mosquitoes.

It just so happens that it’s peak mosquito season right now.

We left Fort Frances pretty late and had to wait out a sudden and intense thunderstorm at one of the fishing resorts, so we cycled only 75km that day, and set up camp in Mine Centre. The campground was populated with perhaps 4 or 5 RVs, and one couple had a huge net set up, where they were eating their dinner. We scoffed at this luxury item.

As soon as we put the water on for dinner, however, we were viciously attacked. The bugs were so bad that we could barely stop to stir the pasta, despite being totally smeared with our heavy-duty insect repellent. We instantly became very efficient in packing up all our things, preparing to move into the tent. We took precautions such as only opening the inner entrance once the outer entrance was closed, and were doing very well, until we had to transport the dinner from the vestibule into the tent. At that point a cloud of mosquitoes invaded our tent. For the next twenty minutes we had our work cut out for us, destroying the intruders: at first just clapping at random would kill a mosquito. Once that was done, we could still hear the hungry swarm outside, buzzing like a high-voltage power line.

The other problem we ran into was the heat. The following day it was so intense that we stopped to swim three times, and went again at sunset. We also decided on an extra-early start for the day after. Maria went for a morning dip and we packed up camp in record time: we were cycling by 6am.

We were a little frustrated with the constant uphill and slow pace, but then we found the explanation.

If you are fascinated what happens on the other side, well here is your answer:

One neat thing about this sign is that the rocks used for it all contain amethysts, which are plentiful in the area.

From Quetico North to Shabaqua is a 100km stretch of nothing – in terms of people and services. As we cycled towards lunch we imagined the culinary delights Shabaqua might hold. Perhaps there would even be several restaurants to choose from! Not seeing much of a town center, we followed the first sign we saw, which included the phrase, “Home Cooking.” The lady there was a little surprised to see visitors: summer is her slow season, as she caters to mine workers. She said she would “check what was in the fridge.” We came inside not really knowing what to expect, but remember, in the wintertime this lady feeds 30 hungry guys three meals a day! We got large fruit smoothies, salad, a baked potato and sizable chicken breast each, homemade bread, cheese, coffee, homemade desserts, and wifi.

Being connected has never been tougher than here in northwestern Ontario. The hills make for spotty phone networks. As for internet, the lady told us she had to have a satellite dish installed, and they charge her an insane amount per month. We have no idea how a household (as opposed to a lodge) can afford internet around here. But that’s what life out here is all about, right? Connecting with nature, rather than connecting to the internet.

Zen Beneath the Living Skies

19 Jun

Gathering our Zen for cycling through the Province of the Living Skies.

We’ve crossed another border. Though we were told we’d need a lot of zen to get us through the tedium of prairie scenery in Saskatchewan, we are actually enjoying its rolling hills (nope… it’s not really flat) and varied avian life.


I imagine these prairies some 65 million years ago: wetlands covered in lush vegetation and crawling with extraordinary creatures. Today, Saskatchewan thrives on their remains: we pass a sign for a museum containing a T. rex skeleton; the prehistoric plants have become oil deposits.

There are only a few larger towns on our way, but they do have campgrounds! This one has a tropical theme.

Can’t afford an all-inclusive in Mexico? No problem!

Where there are towns there’s couchsurfing. We landed a couch at Emily’s in Swift Current. Emily gets a lot of couch requests from cyclists: we are now on the main route for transcontinental tours. She was interested in Tour de Sustainability, and shared her own perspective with us.

Some time ago, Emily saw a presentation by the Otesha Project, and was inspired to make changes in her life to reduce waste. It’s ridiculous, she says, how many things are thrown out so that the owners can keep up with the latest and greatest. Emily loves garage sales and thrift shops; there, she can get treasures for cheap and use them again instead of them ending up in the landfill.

Mining on the Continental Divide

7 Jun

Passing through the Rockies, I thought of the waterways we followed on our way: the Fraser, the Similkameen, the Kettle, the Kootenay, Boundary Creek, the Moyie, the Kootenay again… Highways often follow rivers, probably because the water has sought out the path of least resistance. Now, we’ve reached the mountain range where all these rivers begin.

Our last night in BC was in Fernie: outdoor activity hub and mining town. We couchsurfed with Lia, who is from Toronto and is doing an internship at Teck, a mining company. This is no coincidence: Fernie is in Coal Valley after all.

Moving towards sustainability for a mining operation is a vast topic. Lia mentioned that mining companies are talking about sustainable business practices more and more. Yes, there are many concerns with mining; but people want the materials it provides. So in reality, a large part of the issue is the increasing consumer demand.

As a chemical engineer, Lia is well informed about the health risks from various substances used in mining processes. Exposure to these substances on the job is something she’d like to avoid as much as possible. Diamond mining, she said, has a much cleaner process than coal mining; she says she’d prefer to work in a diamond mine in the long term.

A co-worker pointed out to her that diamond mining leads to human rights issues — “blood diamonds.” Lia argues that since carcinogens are used in coal production, downstream it also costs lives. For example, the coal is sold to factories in China that spew the pollution from burning the coal into a city’s air and water without any filter system, increasing risk of cancer for the citizens.

But Fernie is not just a mining town!

Hosmer Tavern

Ah, Fernie culture.

Lia, accustomed to city life, has sought out refined things like Fernie’s fancy cheese store and the best looseleaf tea in town. She also told us about Fernie Arts Co-op. The members are local artists, pooling resources to rent retail space and taking turns volunteering to work in the shop. We went to see the art and found some really amazing stuff. I don’t mean to diss culture in Vancouver, but the VAG should take a hint.

Sparwood – the last town before the BC-Alberta border, Lia said, had nothing to offer. However, we found this:

It’s the world’s biggest truck! If you stand six grizzly bears on each other’s shoulders they will equal its height! Come one, come all to Sparwood, to experience the mining magic.

Change is in the Air

3 Jun

On day 14, we awoke to the pitter-patter of rain on the tent, and I thought:

…well, that was useless.

After that it turned sunny for a while, and we pleasantly pedaled in the sunshine, but around 7pm it suddently started pouring. Within 10 minutes it went from sunshine to heavy rain to hail. Then the lightning and thunder rolled in. Luckily a rest area was conveniently around the bend where we waited out the storm. And in this part of town (or country), you don’t need to wait very long for the weather to change.

Speaking of time, we actually crossed into the mountain time zone:

Also we passed our millennium mark – 1000km. We deal in metric here, not like these people:

Escape from the KVR Trail

29 May

Since last summer I’ve had this idea that it would be so awesome to cycle the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) trail. The trip never got organized but now that we were going through the Okanagan on bicycles, I was going to make sure we didn’t miss it. So in Naramata we got on the KVR headed for the renowned Myra Canyon. It sounded great: a steady 2% grade uphill, off the highway, with trestles, tunnels, and beautiful scenery.

Not gonna lie — it was worth the trouble! But it was slow going: we reached Chute Lake (~30km from the start) in five hours. Chute Lake Resort serves food, and we were probably its best customers that day: we ate a burger and a giant slice of apple pie each. The people on dirt bikes hadn’t worked up an appetite at all: they just came in for beers.

The KVR is really rocky and bumpy, and actually is more suited for mountain bikes. At one point there was a puddle so deep we had to take our panniers off and walk the bikes across. We made a unanimous decision to get on the highway as soon as we could after seeing the canyon. But a connecting road was not available, so we camped at Hydraulic Lake.

The few roads that do cross the KVR are logging roads in moderate to poor condition. The following day we were still looking for escape routes, until at one point we decided to just take that sketchy logging road forking to the left — couldn’t be that much worse than the trail. Luckily the highway was downhill from the KVR. The sketchy road ended here:

After the KVR, Highway 33 was a big pile of downhill fun! We scanned the roadside for restaurant signs, but there was nothing up until Beaverdell, where we saw an entire two signs! Wow! Choice! Actually, when we got into town we found the second restaurant had closed, and only It’s Mom’s Good Food roadside burger stand was open. (It really is good food!)

Beaverdell, population 400, is a town just off the KVR trail. We talked to Howie, who coaches the girls’ baseball team in town, as well as the lady who runs It’s Mom’s Good Food. They told us that just a few years ago the town would get hundreds of cyclists coming through. But ever since the local keeper of the trail passed away, they’ve heard more and more complaints about trail quality, and the number of cyclists has been dropping. The town’s businesses aren’t doing as well as they did. At the general store, we got another angle on this problem: the motorized dirt bikes and ATVs using the trail are smashing it up quite a bit more so than the bikes, making it harder to maintain.

As Howie said, the good news is that there is a solution: the townspeople can start maintaining the trail. It would be hard to organize, and there doesn’t seem to be very much funding for such a project. But it’s been done. So stay tuned: maybe Beaverdell will put itself back on the map as the town for a stopover when you’re cycling the KVR.

Rain, Snow, Hills, and Bears

23 May

In our silly culture we have this idea of ‘conquering’ mountains, nature, and so on. That is total bunk. One can’t ‘conquer’ nature; one can only be spared. In the past few days the BC wilderness has been reminding us of this fact nonstop.

How rainy did it get? Well, on Day 2 it was so wet that Maria’s leather saddle transferred its protective coating to Maria’s waterproof pants. 19 mm of rain came down that day.

Yeah, that’s right. We were lucky to get a great couchsurf at Nat’s place in Hope for that evening. Nat, who used to work at the Visitor Info Centre, advised against cycling the Kettle Valley trail out of Hope, for two reasons: there might be snow at the 1340m high point, and the trail has not been maintained since winter, so washouts were possible. Therefore, we would take Hwy 3 to Manning Park on Day 3, and continue down to Princeton on Day 4.

So on Day 3 we hit our first Big Hill Climb: from Hope (elevation 42m) to Allison Pass (elevation 1342m). Our average speed that day dropped to 10km/h. After the first hill of the day (a 7% grade) we thought we were tired, but then we had to redefine ‘tired’ for ourselves as the day wore on. We had a late start — 12:30pm — and only reached the summit of Allison Pass by 7:30pm. At that point we had a little party and got moving because, man, it was getting cold, and sure enough there were snow patches all over.

Allison Pass Party!

Oh, we also saw some bears, just off the road. Here’s the first one:

Passing cars started warning us well in advance. First they warned about a bear in the middle of the road, then a bear to the side, and then a long silence — we thought he was gone. But eventually we climbed the hill all the way to the bear.

It’s not all bad: that evening, when we finally reached Manning Park Resort, we soaked in the hot tub — a well deserved rest.

A Test Spoke

19 May

Tomorrow we start our tour, and our focus is shifting from packing to ‘spokes’,  our catchy word for ‘conversations about sustainability.’  The spokes are going to make our travels so much richer because we’ll have an extra reason to talk to people we meet.

Last weekend we had a test spoke with our friend Anna Tikina, who has done a few sustainability-related projects at UBC Faculty of Forestry. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

At home, Anna works on reducing her family’s environmental impact; often this results in financial savings as well. For example they’ve upgraded the insulation of their house envelope and set up heat recirculation for their fireplace to save energy on heating. They also have a compost bin in the yard to reduce landfill waste. Anna has a personal philosophy of small trade-offs: as she puts it, “I turn off the lights so I don’t feel bad about taking long showers”.

In her teaching, Anna finds that to reach to her students she needs to tell them something they care about. So when she was teaching a course on sustainability to MBA students, she centered the discussion around financial returns. That way, she said, the students are be more likely to adopt sustainable practices for their future businesses.

All in all our test spoke went very well. It was really easy to talk to Anna about sustainability because she is very knowledgeable on the topic and was interested to talk to us. How will we manage with our future spokes? Stay tuned!

Camera Geeks Unite!

15 May

I choose to believe there are nerds and gear-heads like myself among our readers. I spent a fair bit of time reading product reviews and pursuing Craigslist to assemble our A/V equipment. Here are the fruit of my labours.

Continue reading

Well Spoke-n: What Are We Talking About?

26 Apr

As we talk about our upcoming journey, we get a lot of questions. How many km is that? What’s your route? How long will it take? Are you taking a tent? Are you out of your mind?

Today I was asked a much more interesting question: How do you get people to start talking to you about sustainability?

This is a most excellent question. If we learn to do this, then we will have, in some measure, succeeded.

On our journey we are going to meet a lot of people. They might be fellow cyclists or fellow campers. They might be campground hosts or couchsurfing hosts. They might be vendors at roadside food stands or cafe staff and owners. They might be bike shop staff. They might be community residents curious about our bikes loaded with a large amount of luggage.

Notably, these people are likely to be ‘regular people’, not necessarily having any particular inclination to think about complex sustainability concepts.

To approach each person we will let conversation happen organically, and if people want to comment on-the-record, we will film it. Perhaps they will ask us about our project, and we will be happy to elaborate. Or perhaps we will start talking about tangible things that the person deals with on a daily basis and bring it to the spotlight in terms of moving towards sustainability.

For instance, we would come across a food stand beside the road. The vendor would be selling local fruits. We would ask him how he got his fruit to be so tasty. He’d tell us how he came up with a recipe for a natural fertilizer that does magic in his orchard. He started doing this because it was good business — to care for his soil and his crops — but his actions made his farming more sustainable. By avoiding synthetic compounds used in generic fertilizers, he also keeps his family, farm animals, and the surrounding ecosystem healthy.

And here is what our conversations will NOT look like:

Do you have a burning question for us? Post a comment!

Projecting Change

21 Apr

As we prepare for our journey, we are enjoying the plethora of amazing environmental initiatives taking place in Vancouver, our departure city.

This week we attended the Projecting Change Film Festival. Its focus is documentary films about environmental and social issues. Some inspiring movies we saw were “World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements“, “In Organic We Trust” and “Urbanized” and we recommend them all.

We also attended a workshop about documentary filmmaking, held for the first time at Projecting Change. We experienced information overload. (In a good way.) There were four speakers talking about crowd-funding, marketing, storytelling, and interactive media. If you’re jealous and want some information overload for yourself, check out Waterlife, an interactive media piece about water.

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