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500 Kilometers on Less than 50 Centimeters of Pavement: Kenora, ON to Thunder Bay, ON (590km/3720m)

Leaving Kenora, I agonized over whether to take Highway 17 to Thunder Bay or Highway 71 and 11. Jean-Paul, the WarmShowers host who I stayed with in Kenora, informed me that most of his guests took the more direct Highway 17, instead of the route I’d originally planned on: taking Highway 71 south to Fort Frances and then Highway 11 East to Thunder Bay. After some last-minute research, I decided on the latter, having read that it is more remote and less trafficked. 

Shortly after turning from Highway 17 onto Highway 71, I discovered how narrow the roads were. I didn’t expect them to stay that way for most of the five-day ride to Thunder Bay, but they did. The narrow roads layered on top of hilly terrain, without any significant initiation or conclusion like a grand view or long descent, required me to approach riding with a new awareness. 

Day 45: Kenora, ON to Mushie Bay, ON (125km/1030m)

Sunday 27 June 2021

I woke up at 8:00 a.m. expecting Jean-Paul, my Warm Showers host, to still be sleeping, based on what he’d said the night before. But, he was already up making coffee, croissants, and pancakes. While I packed, I smelled the bacon and eggs he was adding to the delicious bounty of breakfast food.

At 10:00 a.m., I left to return to the road, still unsure of whether to follow Highway 17 or turn south onto 71. My original plan had been to ride along Highway 17 through the Sioux Narrows and then turn East on Highway 11, but Jean-Paul told me that most of his guests took Highway 17. After some last-minute research which informed me that 71 and 11 would be more remote and less trafficked, I decided to take the more southern of the two. 

The roads were narrow—significantly narrower than I’d expected. I refused to backtrack, though, and hoped that the shoulder would widen as I continued. 

While I rode, I finished Jedidiah Jenkins’ most recent book, To Shake The Sleeping Self, about his cycle touring “journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and [his] quest to live a life with no regrets.” I picked it up because I wanted to know more about the adventure and because I had enjoyed the quality of the author’s voice when I heard Jenkins read an excerpt on the Rich Roll podcast. I was not expecting the narrative, which rebounded between his religious morals and sexuality, to be as engaging as it was. Jedidiah is gay but was raised in a very religious family, so there was a lot of conflict in his life which he hoped to find some clarity about during his cycle tour. And, ultimately, he did.

I was fascinated by the depth of his internal turmoil. Somehow, I’d overlooked Jedidiah’s struggles, stereotyping those who are gay as being outgoing, even bordering on promiscuous, and believing that this was a demonstration of the clarity they’d achieved in their sexuality. Perhaps this judgment was skewed by the fact that the most publicly facing gay figures in popular culture are likely also the most outgoing. Jenkins was the opposite, though, not having any sexual experiences until he was 28. 

The similarities in our search for personal clarity but differences in our personalities, gave me a new appreciation of my masculinity. His yearning to balance his religious and personal morals around sexuality was different from my own to balance intuitive and externally influenced beliefs around achievement, yet I felt a sense of comradery in our common search for a deeper understanding. Instead of being ashamed of masculine traits like assertiveness or decisiveness, because at an extreme men have inappropriately expressed them as aggression and belligerence, I’ve come to embrace those characteristics because of the unique power they give me as I embody my masculinity.

All too often, young men learn about “toxic masculinity” and do not examine, never mind embrace, their full personalities beyond the bounds of those words. The result is a tragic rejection of the personality traits that make them unique and able to contribute to society in a way people with more feminine energy cannot. 

Reconnecting with my assertiveness and decisiveness and drive to find meaning in my life have been impactful elements in the planning and experience of my cycle tour. They have made the trip mine. They have made the process of unashamedly turning a dream into something real—a valuable skill that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. 

As the day progressed and the sun started setting I began worrying about finding a spot to camp. Unlike other parts of the country, the sides of the road consisted largely of swamp, dense forest, and granite rock—nowhere that was particularly conducive to camping. It was 7:00 p.m. and I gave myself half an hour to find a spot to camp. Then, it was 7:30 and I gave myself a half-hour extension. Still, there was nothing. 

Eventually, I reached a rest stop on the opposite side of the road and was so tired, so ready to set up camp and crawl into my tent, that I decided I was willing to sleep in full sight of the highway. My worries about wild camping had dwindled away over the course of the trip, and in my sleepy state, I felt completely confident camping there.

Day 46: Mushie Bay, ON to Rainy Lake Lookout, ON (122km/589m)

Monday 28 June 2021

The following morning, I woke up at 7:00 a.m. and packed up my belongings. No one had bothered me or taken anything in the night, despite being so close to the road.

When I stood up to get on my bike, I wondered, for a moment, if I would have problems with my chafe. It hadn’t fully healed during my rest day in Kenora.  Maybe I would have to take another day or two off. I used the shammy cream I hadn’t had to use during the first half of my trip and hoped for the best. 

When I passed through Nestor Falls, I stopped at the gas station for coffee but forgot to refill my water. I realized it later in the day, but I obeyed the no-backtracking policy. It was more out of laziness than anything else, but I trusted that there would be other opportunities to refill down the road. 

Eventually, the map I’d made while sitting at my desk in Victoria led me left off of Highway 71 and onto a rural road, at the end of which a town was marked. Then it turned right. There was no town and no gas station. For the first time on my trip, I knocked on someone’s door. The man who answered was generous and offered to fill my large water bottle with filtered water. After leaving his driveway, the road I was following turned to gravel. I expected it to be worse than it was—bad like it had been in BC and Alberta. Instead of being loose and dusty, two ruts where cars drove were hard-packed and easy to ride on. When the rural connection ended and I was placed back on the main Highway—11 going east this time. I focussed and peddled cautiously along the narrow roads as cars swooshed by. 

I asked a friendly man at the next gas station where I stopped if there was good camping in or near Fort Frances/International Falls. He named a spot in the city, but also warned me to lock my things up because there was a theft and drug problem there. I decided to cycle past it before stopping for the night. 

Shortly after passing through the city, the highway crossed a long bridge and islands across Rainy Lake. I stopped at one where there was a boat launch and set up my tent for the evening. Before going to bed, I jumped in the lake and washed myself, hoping the irritated skin on my butt would feel better the following day.

Day 47: Rainy Lake Lookout, ON to Atikokan, ON (143km/859m)

Tuesday 29 June 2021

My tent is made of Nylon and the footprint for it is Tyvek. The interface between the two materials is very slippery. When my alarm went off at 7:00 a.m., it was obvious that my whole tent had slid a few feet down the rock I pitched it on, during the night. Luckily I hadn’t reached the lake. 

As I unzipped the tent door, I took note of the cloudy sky and was happy about the prospect of a cooler day. I packed up and was on the road by 8:30 a.m..

While I sat and drank coffee at the Great Bear Convenience Store only a few kilometers down the road, I enjoyed the absence of bugs that came with the sun. I agonized over the 100 kilometers/plus day I would have to put in on narrow, hilly roads. Riding in British Columbia was hilly; riding in the prairies was windy; in Ontario, it was a combination of both with flesh-eating bugs sprinkled on top.

Later in the day, when I was having a particularly difficult time, I wondered if more pressure in my tires would help my cause. I moved far into the gravel shoulder and pulled out my pump. 

An oncoming car slowed and the driver yelled from the window that he would pull up behind me and turn on his emergency flashers. When he pulled around, a man limped towards me. It was Ben. He was on his way back to Atikokan from Fort Frances where he had been scheduled for a surgery but opted out last minute because he wouldn’t have been able to drive home on painkillers. Ben was friendly and asked me if I needed anything after explaining that I’d scared him, being stopped on the shoulder after a blind corner. It was kind of him to wait until I got my tires pumped up. He invited me to stay at his home in Atikokan too, and we exchanged contact information. An invitation for a place to stay came at the right time because I needed something to motivate me to push through the remaining kilometers for the day. 

I arrived at Ben’s house in Atikokan at 9:00p.m. I looked for his house on the right where his car was parked and heard a joking “Simon, you’re late” from the other side of the road.  I recognized his subtle accent and slang as coming from Ghana. It was the same accent and slang one of my friends in Victoria, who was an international student from the same country, had.

Ben was in his yard watering his garden. He had an impressive array of fruits and vegetables growing in every corner of his front and back yard. After showing me around and allowing me to eat some of his strawberries, he invited me inside and showed me where I could sleep. 

We had a good conversation before I went to bed. Ben had a fascinating story, and I listened intently as he explained how he’d gotten from Liberia, where he studied medicine, to the States, where he’d worked at IBM and started a family, eventually moving to Atikokan where he lived now. He shared that he was born with two deformed legs and spent four years in a wheelchair after corrective surgery. Now he lives alone and spends a lot of time gardening. He travels regularly and supports his three successful children, two of whom are still studying at a University in Japan. I was impressed by his happiness and generosity despite the hardships he described. 

Day 48: Atikokan, ON to Sabaua, ON (143km/867m)

Wednesday 30 June 2021

In the morning, Ben offered me coffee and cooked us a delicious meal before I left for the road again. As I was leaving, he tried to send me off with some strawberries, but I didn’t have a spot on my bike where they wouldn’t get squashed. We agreed that we’d cross paths again in life, and I got back on Highway 11 towards Thunder Bay. 

It was another difficult day. I left late, so it got hot quickly. At the first gas station I passed, I pulled over happily to sit in the shade for a few minutes. In her own mothering way, the woman behind the counter told me that she’d give me water if I agreed to stay in touch with my mom. I called my mom while I sat and ate and told her about the progress of my trip. 

When I returned to the road I was disappointed to find out that there was no flat ground ahead of me. The hills seemed to taunt me, always sending me up and down, and never-ending.

That evening, I was scheduled to talk to Courtney about the possibility of driving back with her from Toronto. It was difficult but pushed hard to make it to Shabaqua, my final destination for the night, before calling her. She explained what she wanted to see during the road trip she was planning, leaving me with some considerations for my trip back to B.C.

After getting off the phone, I pulled into a private driveway that connected me to a house I’d passed with a big sign saying “Shabaqua Lodging”. A couple had put a bunkhouse on their property which they rented out to essential workers in that area. Exhausted, I offered to pay them $10 to set up my tent on their lawn. They accepted.

I made two portions of food for dinner and struggled to set my tent up and hang my food as the sunset and the mosquitos stung my face and the black flies chewed on my legs. My food bags hung a meter-and-a-half off the ground, almost perfectly nose height for a black bear. I couldn’t get them any higher; I was too tired and too irritated, so I crawled into my tent and went to bed.

Day 49: Shabaqua, ON to Thunder Bay, ON 🍁 (57km/375m)

Thursday 1 July 2021

I woke up at 8:00 a.m. in a wet tent. It had rained shortly before I arrived the night before, and the cold air drew all the moisture to the walls of my shelter. I packed up slowly, waiting for my tent to dry. It never did. When my bike was loaded, I went over to the main building for a coffee I’d been offered the night before. 

After exchanging a few pleasant words, I returned to the highway. Shabaqua marked the point where Highway 11 joins Highway 17 before entering Thunder Bay. I had less than 60 kilometers to ride before arriving. It was also Canada Day, and I looked forward to some rest and celebration.

A few days earlier, I’d made arrangements to stay with Annie, a WarmShowers host in Thunder Bay, so I updated her on my progress, saying I would be arriving in the early afternoon. She confirmed that she was still able to host me. 

As I rode, I enjoyed the lighter load of having less than 100 kilometers in front of me. I made a few stops along the way and arrived on Lake Superior at about 2:30. Passing Hillcrest Park, I turned left down the street where Annie lived and pulled up to the gate that enclosed her backyard. She greeted me warmly and showed me where I could store my bike, before helping me carry my things inside to the guest room. 

Once I got settled, we took out Annie’s “Buddy Bike”, a tandem bike where the riders sit side-by-side instead of one in front of the other. The final stop on the tour, after looping down to the water, was a stop at Merla May’s for ice cream. There, I had the best ice cream I’ve ever had and I won’t disclose the flavor, because I believe there is money to be made with it.

When we returned to the house, I got settled in the comfortable guest room and proceeded to research when the Canada Day fireworks would be. I discovered that they’d been canceled due to COVID, and the recent unearthing of residential school mass graves. It seemed appropriate.

I went to bed instead, content to be getting some rest.

Day 50: Rest Day in Thunder Bay, ON

Friday 2 July 2021

I slept in for an extra hour. It was appreciated, especially considering I’d entered the Eastern Standard Time Zone a day earlier. 

When I woke up, I finished taking a few notes about the previous day. Afterward, Annie and I had coffee. 

I spent the rest of my morning doing some writing for the blog while I waited for Fresh Air to open. Fresh Air is a bike shop Annie recommended when I said I wanted my spokes tensioned. I figured that having them re-adjusted after a 600-kilometer break-in period would help me avoid cracked rims again by making sure stresses are as evenly distributed between spokes as possible. During my say in Kenora, I had discovered that my laptop charger was no longer working, so I stopped by BestBuy to pick up a new up on my way there.

After dropping my bike off, I walked back to the house and picked up groceries for bean quesadillas. Annie made us dinner when I returned with the ingredients and we went for a short walk afterward before going to bed. I shifted my attention to editing a video I’d filmed on my birthday before sleeping. 

Day 51: Blog-Writing Catchup Day in Thunder Bay, ON

Saturday 3 July 2021

Similar to the previous day, I started my second one in Thunder Bay with a coffee with Annie shortly after waking up at 8:00 a.m. I was expecting to receive a spare part in the mail. It was a rack-mountable through-axle from Old Man Mountain that would give me alternative mounting points to the eyelets that had torn out of my fork leaving Manitoba. 

After writing an email trying to appeal for an early start to an honors thesis when I returned to UVic, I checked the tracking information for my package. It was delayed. Because it was being delivered to a PO box, FedEx had handed it over to Canada Post and it was expected six days later than the originally anticipated arrival date. I suggested having it forwarded to another location to Annie, but she invited me to stay until it arrived. 

I revised a draft of Stage 4: Canmore, AB to Kindersley, SK before going to the Home Depot with Annie to pick up some materials for projects she was working on. When we returned, I formatted and published the blog post.

Then, it was time for Merla Mae’s again. We’d be meeting up with Annie’s boyfriend, Wesley. Back at the house, we met Paul, another cycle tourist who would be staying the night at Annie’s. We chatted for a while before I sent my blog post out to the subscribers and went to bed. 

Day 52: Waiting for Spare Part in Thunder Bay, ON

Sunday 4 July 2021

I spend my Sunday, for the most part, the way I’d spent Friday and Saturday with Annie: journaling, coffee, writing. Instead of finishing the draft of this blog post, I decided to finish editing my first YouTube video. It proved to be as much work as working on the blog. 

In the afternoon, Annie and I went over to Wes’ house to see if he needed any help with the work he was doing. He didn’t. On our way home, we made a detour to get a better view of “The Sleeping Giant”, a rock formation that looks like, well, a sleeping giant from Thunder Bay. Once we arrived home, I called my younger brother Ben, who helped me publish the video I’d been editing. 

Annie and I watched the Cheese Champions on Netflix and then went to bed.

Day 53: Waiting for Spare Part in Thunder Bay, ON

Monday 5 July 2021

By my fourth day in Thunder Bay, I was getting restless but I chose to embrace the rest. Annie and I took the Buddy Bike out again and ran some errands. When we got back home, I organized my belongings in anticipation of returning to my tour.

At 5:30, p.m. I took over Annie’s shift on the Salvation Army Food Van. It has been in the back of my head to volunteer at a soup kitchen for some time. I even remember visualizing volunteering in different cities during my tour. Now was my opportunity. 

I enjoyed the experience. It was rewarding to know that I can have a small but positive impact on someone who does not have the knowledge or the resources to get themselves out of a difficult situation.

I felt particularly lucky to have a delicious meal with Annie and Wes when I returned.

Day 54: Waiting for Spare Part in Thunder Bay, ON

Tuesday 6 July 2021

The day my part was scheduled to arrive was finally here. 

Shortly before lunch, Annie and I went out to run a few more errands. I decided that I would like to cook Annie and Wes a german-themed dinner to thank them for their hospitality, so I bought ingredients for schnitzel while we were out. Back at home, I checked the tracking of my part and saw that it was ready for pick-up, so I made my way over to the PO Box where I would get it. 

When I got back to Annie’s and got it installed, it was time to start cooking. I was nearly finished when Wes arrived from work, and they both said they enjoyed it.

The five days I spent on the road were challenging, but the people I met during stage eight of my trip made up for it. 

The width of the shoulder of the road through the first part of Ontario was alarmingly narrow, especially with all of Canada’s commercial traffic rushing past. I still don’t know if it would have been wiser to take Highway 17 over 71 and 11; however, I made it and had an adventure doing it. 

Ben in Atikokan and Annie in Thunder Bay’s generosity was notable. Both of them went above and beyond accommodating me and making sure I had everything I needed to have a successful journey through the rest of Ontario and into Quebec.

Gratitudes

I’d like to express my thanks, during the eighth stage of my trip, to

  • Jean-Paul, my WarmShowers host in Kenora who not only let me stay at his place for two nights but who also donated $20 to support my blog and cycle tour,
  • Ben, who stopped to ensure I was safe and invited me to stay at his place in Atikokan, 
  • Annie who kindly hosted me Thunder Bay and extended the invite to accommodate my delayed mail, and,
  • of course, all my friends and family for their sustained support.

Statistics

  • Total Distance: 3947km
  • Total Elevation: 21936m
  • Wild Animals: Black Bear (×4), Brown Bear (×1), Deer Tick (×1), Elk (× many), BigHorn Sheep (× many), Coyote (× many), Bison (× many), Beaver (× 2)
  • Warm Showers: 12

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