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Raccoon Stew

22 Jul

Manitoulin, we are told, has been called the Saltspring Island of Ontario: it’s inhabited by artists and other interesting characters. We stayed with people whose goal is to live sustainably and self-sufficiently. They are growing their own food and getting their own energy from solar panels. Their methods are based on the permaculture system.

Our host and permaculture extraordinaire, Justin, explains that the first thing he needed to figure out was a water source for growing the food. He set up a solar powered pump to get water from the closest water source – Lake Huron.

Not too long ago, the perma-farm went completely off-grid. Justin describes cutting off the electricity as a liberating and powerful experience. The house has a composting loo, collects rainwater, and is powered by rooftop solar.

The perma-farm also has, or rather had, a lot of chickens. Recently, a raccoon mauled some 30 chickens. Retribution was in order. The clever furry guy was trapped and shot, but no part of him was wasted: the meat was cooked, the fat was separated and is to be made into soap – a Christmas present for mom, and the skin is being cured and will probably go towards some sort of fashion item. As for us, we did not pass up the unique opportunity and tasted the surprisingly delicious ‘coon meat.

 

Not all is lost. The remaining specimens are very athletic. One could say that natural selection has occurred.

The farm members are also very active in the community and hold educational programs on permaculture. They hold courses and workshops to pass along their skills and knowledge to others.

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Superior Swimming

17 Jul

Okay, I’ll just spit it out. All this biking is too hard, so we decided to fly to Mexico and enjoy the beautiful beaches.

Just kidding, that’s Bathtub Island. You can wade out to this place from the sandy shore, it’s not far at all. On the island there is a small, shallow pool filled by waves sloshing in over the edge, and because it is so small it gets as warm as a bathtub. We passed it on our way to Sault Sainte Marie, or as the locals call it, the Soo.

In the Soo, we stayed with David and Cayla. David is interested in the food security aspect of sustainability. One initiative he has worked with is the Penokean Hills Farms Co-op. The members are cattle farms looking to process and sell their product locally. The alternative is to ship the cows to southern Ontario or even to the USA, where the meat is processed and then shipped back for redistribution. This is not only inefficient but also reduces the freshness of the meat. With the co-op in place, the farmers are able to get a better price while delivering a superior product to the consumers.

Interestingly, Penokean Hills Farms sells their product mostly in bakeries. The meat shops prefer to sell the cheaper, lower quality meat instead. Since the Penokean Hills Farms meat is often frozen, it does not look as appealing on display. However, the co-op has strict rules: the cattle must be naturally raised, without antibiotics or hormones. You get what you pay for. As for us, we are mostly consumers of bread and cinnamon buns at the bakeries these days: the BBQ didn’t fit in our panniers.

Bargain Hunting

14 Jul

In Thunder Bay, we took a day off.

Maria needed some caffeine, which we found at a hole-in-the-wall place on a street undergoing construction that was simultaneously a coffee roasting house and a computer repair shop. The compact size of the shop prevents anyone from holding private conversations, so the owner and customers soon knew all about our cross-Canada trip and project. Tina, a customer, told us about her energy-efficient home: it faces south, with eaves to block the summer sun while letting in the winter sun, and solar panels on the roof (she mentioned the feed-in tariff program).

By necessity, we also explored the commercial wasteland part of Thunder Bay. People told us that Thunder Bay was once two towns, but urban sprawl filled in the gap with department stores and shopping centres. As we would find out later from Tony, a grocery store owner in Schreiber, Thunder Bay is the unofficial Walmart capital of Canada. It has the most profitable Walmart in Canada and, in fact, two more Walmarts are scheduled to open soon.

Apparently, people from the surrounding smaller communities flock to Thunder Bay to shop, because it’s cheaper and there is more selection. For a local shop owner like Tony, that’s bad news. He told us that people now use his grocery store like a corner store, only coming in for cigarettes and chips. There is low turnover for his products, so he can’t sell quickly spoiling items like fruit and vegetables anymore.

Our next stop was Nipigon, and we were prepared to spend the night with the bugs again. To boost our morale, we went to a cafe for dinner. We were shocked when the waitress asked, “Are you Anya and Maria?” It turned out we had sent her a couchsurfing request! Because there is literally no phone service anywhere around here, we didn’t get her text message. And that’s how we ended up couchsurfing with Al and Maria.

After dinner, Al gave us a tour of the town. Nipigon used to have a pulp mill, like many other towns in the area. But some years ago, the mill stopped making money and was shut down. More than half the town was out of work. To get their jobs back, the townspeople formed a cooperative and bought the mill. But only a year later, the mill burned down. Since then, Nipigon has tried to attract tourists by rebranding their town. The efforts went nowhere.

But tourism is picking up for a different reason. Al told us about the recently established marine conservation area reaching from Thunder Bay to Terrace Bay, with Nipigon right in the middle. Although the park does not have any special amenities yet, it has already attracted outdoor enthusiasts.

Since Al works for the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), we also talked about hunting laws. For most species, there are enough animals so that a license will be given to anyone who requests it. Moose are an exception.

In Ontario, moose hunting is done by lottery: applicants compete for a limited number of available licences, each permitting the owner to kill one animal. Unlike the regulations in Europe where you own any animal that comes onto your property, in Ontario the animals are owned by the people in the province. From Al’s perspective, Ontario’s system makes it easier to manage wildlife populations.

Let’s say you hit the jackpot: you got a licence and killed a moose. Legally you are not allowed to waste its meat. You are also not allowed to sell the meat. So hunters either share the meat with their neighbours and friends, or freeze it, or both.  Everyone who has tried it says that it is the best meat they’ve ever had. So it’s no wonder none of our hosts had any moose meat to share with us.

Here’s Anya saying hi to Henrietta. We don’t know who shot this one, but maybe it was the late Bill Young of Young’s General Store.

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:

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