Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Canada 2012 Day 13

Another radiant morning! The wind was strong and fresh during the
night, and dawn left a mantle of dew over everything, but the morning
was crisp and beautiful, and the sun promised to give us a warm day.
My first task, like I do every morning, was to heat water for coffee
and tea, but before I started I frowned upon my fickle stove, and
mused that after today I would no longer need it, and that perhaps it
would be best to leave it behind in PEI. Well, that little stove knew
what I was thinking, and felt panic at the idea of being left behind,
so it performed flawlessly throughout a complicated breakfast of
coffee and tea, a tortilla española, and another round of coffee.
Clearly it was trying to butter me up, but I felt little sympathy for
the miserable wretch, at least until I noticed that Annie had lost her
smug look of Schadenfreude. Hmm . . . maybe I will give the little guy
another try.  [The war of the stoves has now begun!]

We took a long walk along the Cavendish beach, basking in the sun and
feeling a little regret at the end of our fabulous adventure. We had
reached the end of the trip, and from here on all that was left to us
was to undo the traveled road and get back.

This time we biked back through Highway 13, under the same hellish
conditions but little affected by them anymore. After 20 km we came to
the town of Hunter River, where we stopped at a bakery for sugary
coffee, a chocolate chip muffin, and a lemon meringue tart. Never have
such a simple fare tasted better than on this sunny day, on the
terrace, and looking across the river unto a charming farm. We are at
peace with the world, and that may be the greatest gift this charming
island has bestowed upon us visitors. [TOTALLY!]

Right at Hunter River we picked up the main bike trail, with is lovely
gentle grades, and 24 km later we made our glorious entrance back in
Charlottetown. We went back to the Hostel of Red Gables, where this
time we get to stay in the small garret apartment. It is totally cute,
and a perfect place to end our tour of PEI. After getting settled we
did the mandatory visit to the Kosy Korner to start the return trip
with clean clothes, and indulged in a bit of souvenir shopping (Annie
got herself an Anne of Green Gables hat, with the corresponding red
hair tresses, to wear at school next Hat Day).

Today is Father’s Day, so Annie is celebrating me with a lobster
dinner, in small restaurant the hostel recommends (unfortunately
“lobster shacks” seem to be a thing of the past). I almost backed off
when I saw the price of the dish, but Annie held my hand and at the
end I totally enjoyed the signature dish of the island (still, next
time I am buying one alive and cooking it myself!).  [Ah - My H!]

Canada 2012 Day 12

The sun is up! And with its warmth it dispelled the nightmarish
memories of the previous day. We still had to contend with mosquitoes,
but by now we were deft hands at that, and managed to enjoy our
morning coffee and tea [I had a difficult time emerging from the
tent!], a hot shower (National Park Canadian campgrounds are very
reasonably priced at $25 for a tent site, and provide all the hot
water your heart may desire), and a romantic walk along the beach.

Breakfast was a bit more challenging, because the stove was in one of
its most cantankerous moods. Let me go back a bit and tell you that,
as we were planning this trip, Annie announced that she was going to
buy this hoity toidy campstove at REI, because “I could simply not
survive without it”. That rubbed me the wrong way, and I told her that
I had a perfectly good stove I had bought at a garage sale for a
dollar, and that was the one we were taking, and basta! My stove is
the tinniest thing in the world, since it is a simple burner that
screws on top of the propane cylinder we had bought in Montreal. Up to
this day it had behaved reasonably well, and I had cooked some fine
meals with it, but today it was possessed by the devil and it would
keep going off (the flame would just blow itself off, and I had to
relight it every few seconds). Trying to cook our breakfast was an
ordeal, and I used some very choice language as the main spice (f...,
f..., f...!, and f... a duck!, to mention but a few). And all along
Annie stared at me with her golden eyes, not saying a thing. Ah, but I
know what she was thinking! She was silently rubbing in the
infallibility of her expensive REI stove [I would NEVER do such a
thing!], which put me in an even fouler mood.  [‘tis true!]

Now, today the plan was to leisurely bike the length of the Green
Gables National Park, but looking at the map I noticed that the road
was not continuous. Rather, it was interrupted across the mouth of
every bay, so one would have to backtrack to the trunk road (Highway
6) every time. It made a lot more sense to follow Highway 6, which the
map showed to be a scenic highway, all the way from the east to the
west ends of the park. Well, it was a very scenic highway, but once
again there was no shoulder and we had to ride at the very edge of the
car lane, and the roller coaster topography was alive and well. You
might think that it would be fun to fly on the downside of the hills,
but I can assure you that the upside of the hills sucks out your
strength in no time whatsoever. As if this was not enough, a new
torture was added to our Calvary in the form of endless strings of
weekend motorcycle riders. Apparently the roller coaster topography of
the island attracts motorcycle clubs from all over the mainland, and
these weekend warriors revel in traveling in large packs, opening
their mufflers so everyone can hear the roar of their engines, and
scaring the living daylights out of innocent bicycle riders.

A delightful moment of peace came around 1 pm, when we reached the
small town of North Rustico and saw the placard for The Old Bakery
Shop. We have settled on bakeries as a great place to have a snack,
and this was one of the best we sampled. We ordered two cups of sweet
milk coffee, a meat pie (a delightfully flakey crust surrounding a
tasty stew of pulled pork), and a cherry turnover, and sat in the
veranda to admire the landscape. PEI is not about majestic landscapes,
but the sloping alfalfa or potato fields, the quaint farmhouses with
their copses of wood, and the bays extending their long arms unto the
land form a mosaic of quiet pastoral beauty. A very livable place

Finally, by 3:30 pm and quite hot and bothered, we reached the Green
Gables site, in the township of Cavendish, and just about 30 km from
our Stanhope campground. I should preface the following by saying that
as a girl Annie was (and still is) a great fan of the novel of Anne of
Green Gables and its sequels, so coming to see the place where the
novels were inspired was a very exciting moment for her. The author of
the books, Lucy Maud Montgomery, was born in the nearby town of New
London and later lived in Cavendish, but the House of Green Gables
actually belonged to cousins of her. The house and the grounds have
been recently restored (at some point the grounds had been razed and
covered with grass as part of a golf course), so the aficionados can
not only go through the house, but also see Mathew’s barn, or go for
walks along Lover’s Lane or the Haunted Forest. I remember only
vaguely the local of the story, and kept asking if Anne had ever gone
to Charlottetown, or had complained about the mosquitoes, until one of
the young docents looked at me very seriously and said “you know, Anne
was a fictional character”. So now I have to go back and read the
books, to see how much of the island did L.M. Montgomery portrayed in
her books.

Having satisfied Annie’s desires for being locus quo where her
childhood heroine had been, and having spent a few Canadian dollars in
the gift shop, (I must add – it was more heavenly than I had even
imagined! Exquisite – and I could have stayed forever!) we biked the
short distance to the campground. We were given the choice of a windy
site overlooking the beach, or a sheltered site in the woods, we
selected—based on past experience—the windy site and had an easy
afternoon pitching the tent, cooking dinner (with many more expletives
on my side and a very condescending look on Annie’s side), and
watching the sunset. Once again, life is good.  [No! Life was
absolutely amazingly delicious!  Together in such a little piece of
heaven!  Ah!  And NEVER have I seen such a beach camping site! Right
there on top of the mini dunes overlooking the beautiful water!]

Canada 2012 Day 11

The weather is so, so. Cloudy and a bit nippy, but the clouds are thin
and the sun could burst through them at any moment. Since we have to
wait until 5 pm to pick up our tent we can afford to go spend time at
the Kosy Korner Cafe, which is a mix of greasy spoon diner,
convenience store, and coin laundromat. It is the laundromat that we
are interested in, because Annie cannot shake off the habit of getting
her clothes 99.99% dry using a drier (she will learn the bitter
lesson, in Mexico and China, that sun-dried clothes are the norm
rather than the exception).  [Annie: NEVER! From now on Annie will
insert her comments to my narrative in square brackets]
Sometime around 10 am we finally got going, in a preliminary
exploration of the bicycle path recently inaugurated in PEI. The main
path runs lengthwise through the middle of this long island, along the
alignment of the old train, but there is a major “spur” connecting it
to Charlottetown, which is on the central-southern coast. We picked up
this spur in town, and biked the 9 km to the main path, and another 6
km to the east, before turning back. Not bad. Easy 30 km and we were
back in town by 2 pm.
We had some time to kill, so we took the time to visit the House of
the Confederation, where in 1867 representatives from Canada
(comprising all states from Ontario westward) and from the old Acadia
(Quebec, PEI, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and New Foundland) met to
first propose the idea of a confederation. A second meeting took place
in Quebec a year later, where the confederation was formally agreed
upon, and a draft of the constitution was written. One more year
elapsed and the representatives met again, in London, to approve and
adopt the final version of the constitution. Finally, on July 1 of
1871, the Queen formally recognized the confederation and its
constitution, and the Dominion of Canada made its debut as a
self-standing nation (but with the Governor General appointed by the
Queen as head of state).
Satiated with knowledge about Canadian history we retired to a very
British pub, to eat fish and chips and drink a Guinness. Very tasty
Finally 4 pm arrived, so we went to the hostel, picked up our
saddlebags, and pedaled to the bus station. Our friends from the train
were as good as their word, and as soon as the bus arrived we were
able to retrieve our tent and get on our way. Our plan was to pedal to
the north shore, to the eastern tip of the Green Gables National Park.
Now, I don’t want to point any fingers, and prefer to think that the
deception played on us was inadvertent, but the fact is that we were
sorely misled by the map of the island, which is printed in a small
piece of paper, with very large, easy to read symbols. Because they
are large, the symbol for the entrance cabin to the park is connected
to the bike path by a very small segment of highway 15, and is almost
side by side with the symbol for the Stanhope campground. We knew that
it was 9 km from Charlottetown to the bike path, so made the
reasonable assumption that another 10 km would bring us to the
campground. I was a bit worried about taking Highway 15, but the gal
at the bus station assured us that old roads had wide shoulders for
bicycles to ride.
Off we went, full of confidence and good cheer, even though the clouds
had not parted and the wind was freshening. Lo and behold, when we got
to Highway 15 we found not only a shoulder, but a well marked bike
path, which we tackled with such gusto as only abject ignorance can
provide. Remember I had mentioned the rolling hills of PEI? Well,
Highway 15 was laid straight as an arrow across the topographic grain
of the island, draping over the hills without any concession to the
realities of geography, so in no time our pleasure ride turned into a
veritable roller coaster. To complicate matters the wind turned into a
head wind, and the “wide shoulder” disappeared within a kilometer and
became a 10 cm wide white line (thank God that Canadian drivers are
very courteous and gave us as much space as possible). Oh well, we
could handle 10 km of such conditions. Ah yes, but is it only 10 km?
Much to our distress we found out that the notion of including
distances in the highway signs is all but unknown in PEI, so we kept
going, and going, and going, and the head wind kept getting stronger,
and stronger, and stronger. Finally, at the edge of our strength, and
after at least 20 km of roller coaster, we arrived to the park. It
must have been around 8 pm and we were bushed. Thank God the
campground was just by the entrance to the park. Or was it? Once again
they played the trick of showing the direction of the campground, but
giving no distance, so we kept going in what by this time had turned
into a gale, for kilometer after interminable kilometer. I had to keep
a close eye on Annie, who was doggedly hunched over her bike, ready to
keel over without a moment’s notice.  [True – I thought I would die!]
Finally, after 10 km within the park, we got to the campground, where
a friendly young woman rapidly assigned us a site in the woods, well
sheltered from the wind. Ah, peace and rest at last! But it was not to
be. Because it was sheltered from the wind the campsite had become the
meeting point of all mosquitoes within a 5 km radius, and they
hungrily assaulted us as soon as we had laid the backpacks down. Annie
had the brilliant idea of donning our rain suits to avoid the attack,
and properly suited we managed to erect our tent and thus create a
safe heaven for ourselves. I have no recollection of preparing dinner
that night (Annie thinks we just ate cheese and crackers, [and I sat
on top of the table so the little nasties would have less chance at
me].  We slept the sleep of the dead, having logged a good 70 km total
under rather challenging conditions.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Canada 2012 Day 10

Today was a travel day. We slept OK in the train, Annie across two seats and I sitting like a pharaoh, but also woke up real early because sunrise is at 4 am around here! I wish I could say that we saw lots of the beautiful landscape after that, but the truth is that we dozed in and out of consciousness all the way to our final destination, Moncton.

Unfortunately our tent didn’t come out of the train when we got there, but the train staff were very helpful, located it in the train, and will send it to us in Charlottetown tomorrow by 5 pm. No point getting upset about such a small thing, but we will have another death ride tomorrow after we pick it up, because we will have to go 30 km north before we hit the campground we want (but that is a story for tomorrow).

An hour after detraining we got picked up by the bus that will take us to the east shore of the province of New Brunswick, across the Confederation Bridge, and into the capital of Prince Edward Island (aka PEI), Charlottetown. We enjoyed the ride (again dozing on and off), but are now nervous because (a) the island is a lot bigger than we had assumed, and (b) the landscape is dominated by rolling hills, which means that for every down there is a following up. We are much better at flat ground.
Once in Charlottetown we easily found the hostel, in which we had booked the last two beds. It is in a beautiful Victorian house with red gables, and happens to be booked out because an adventure travel company, Moose Travels, is staying here tonight and they have saturated the small hostel. Still, it is a very welcoming place, so we went and bought the makings of a salad with fruit trimmings, clam and lobster chowder (which I made with the “famous” PEI potatoes), and delicious fish filets. We found out, however, that the supermarkets in PEI do not carry wine, and you have to go to the province-owned liquor store to buy booze. So we went there, and were both shocked by the prices in alcoholic beverages. The cheapest bottle of wine is $9, the average is probably $18, and many are priced at $30 plus. It is hard to maintain vices here in Canada!
Canada 2012 Day 9

We woke up to the sound of heavy rain falling on the eves of our little flat. This could put a serious cramp on our style! But being savvy travelers we rolled with the punch, and took the opportunity to stay for an extra hour in bed. It was the right thing to do, because after we had finished breakfast the storm had abated, and by the time we made it to the Naval Museum the sun was shining. The museum was fine, though nothing extraordinary, but the view of Quebec from the shore was brilliant (the rain had washed down whatever particulate matter that was on the air, and the atmosphere was crystal clear).

After visiting the museum we meandered through the lower Vieux Quebec, stopping at shops and taking many photographs. In one of the shops Annie saw fudge sausages hanging from the ceiling and we fell easy prey to the temptations of the candy store.

By this time the tourists were pouring out of their buses, so we haughtily turned our noses toward the upper Vieux Quebec, and concentrated our efforts in discovering new beautiful spots in the city that by now feels like home: The Convent of the Ursulines, the old buildings of the Leval University, the Anglican Cathedral, and the Museum of French-speaking America, to name but a few. Now and then we would turn a corner and come into a mob of school children, for many schools take advantage of the end of the school year to organize end-of-term trips to the provincial capital.

By noon time we were getting a bit tired, so we bought sandwiches, beer, and cider from a grocer, and came back to the hostel to have our lunch. At 1 pm we joined a tour led by one of the girls who worked at the hostel, to go see the citadel that keeps guard over the city. The French governor of Quebec had been pushing for construction of this fort for a long time, but the French king didn’t want to foot the bill, so when the big 1760 battle took place in the Plains of Abraham, adjacent to Quebec, the French lost to the British the Canadian coastal provinces. The Brits discussed the need for a fort, but nothing was done about it and the city was attacked by the Americans in 1778, as one of the military skirmishes of the Revolutionary War. More than ever the need for a fort became clear, but the treasury had no funds, and the city was once again attacked in 1812, during the American-English war. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and after that the fort was built (and Quebec was never again at risk, so the construction of the fort was completely superfluous; go figure).

Afterward we visited the Museum of French-speaking America, which is a bit weird in that to get to it you have to cross the chapel of Leval University. The chapel has been decommissioned (who has ever heard of a church being decommissioned?), so with altar in place, and sacred paintings and martyr relicts still hanging from the walls, it is now used for political events, marriage celebrations, or prom dances. It was really weird to see a set of musicians setting their instruments and speakers around the altar, ready to entertain a convention of heavy equipment manufacturers. But getting back to the museum, the displays were pretty good, but the poor Francophiles can do little more than pine for the loss of the French speaking populations in many parts of Canada and most of the United States (did you know that Detroit and Saint Louis were dominantly French-speaking in their early years?).

By this time I was sleepy and Annie was hungry. We compromised and went into a small restaurant where she could have a bowl (yes, a bowl rather than a cup) of hot chocolate with tons of mini-marshmallows and whipped cream, and some crepes with maple syrup, while I had a beer. On a nearby table were a woman and her young daughter, having a raclette early dinner. They attracted our attention on two counts. First, the 15 year old girl had the biggest beehive hairdo I have ever seen. Second was the fact that they were having raclette, which I assumed was unknown in the Americas. Consulting the menu I saw that it is an expensive dish, varying between 25 and 30 dollars per person, and they don’t even give you tortillas!

Having exhausted the touristic potential of this beautiful city, Annie and I prepared for our departure. We had to get on the bikes, go down to the ferry terminal, cross the St. Lawrence river, and then pedal 10 km to the train station in Charny. Well, we had a bit of a delay at the start, because we got separated. Fortunately we both think alike and met again on the way to the ferry. But then the ferry took forever to depart, and all of a sudden we were on a panic, thinking that we might miss our train. We landed at 7:45 pm on the Levis side of the river, and assuming two hours to get to the station that would be cutting it to close to the departure time of 9:55 pm. So we convinced ourselves that we had to pedal like bats out of hell, without breaks or photo stops. Well, by 8:30 pm we were in Charny, stopped for 10 minutes to buy munchies for the train, and by 9 pm we were at the train station, sweating profusely but on time!

We are now on the train, headed for the second part of our trip, in Prince Edward Island.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Canada 2012 Day 8

We took off by 8 am, much to the delight of Annie, who wanted to see me eat my words. I stand humbled, particularly since I wasted some of the new time getting a bit lost. It was a good getting loss, however, because we ended cutting across the hydroelectric project that provides Quebec with a good portion of their power. It is called Chutes de la Chaudiere, and is basically a dam that rises the level of the Chaudiere by 10 m, but still lets most of the water to cascade over the dam and over the natural obstacle formed by an upstream-dipping sequence of sandstones and limestones (they take some of the water and feed it to the hydroelectric turbines through a penstock, but most of the operation is underground). The result is a magnificent set of waterfalls, so we were happy with the detour.

We still had to bike a good 15 km on the opposite shore of the St. Lawrence River before we got to the ferry, directly opposite of the Vieux Quebec. This old part of the city has a striking and unforgettable aspect, with its fortifications, the Chateau Frontenac with its many turrets, and other copper-roofed buildings tightly clustered against the Chateau. The Chateau was never the residence of a distinguished personage. Rather, it was built in the late 1800’s by the railroad company, as a luxury hotel to attract tourism to this branch of the line (it worked very nicely, as plans go).

The Old Quebec is divided in two levels. The lower level is basically part of the flood plain of the St. Laurence, whereas the upper level is the top of the bluff that overlooks the river at this point (Quebec is a First Nations word for “the place where the river narrows”). From the standpoint of us cyclists this implied that we had to push the bikes up a very steep access to the ramparts, so by the time we came to the hostel at noon, we were very hot and sweaty. Once again we lucked out, and got a small Parisian flat on the third floor as our abode. Everything is cute about it: the fireplace, the wood floors, and the old fashion windows looking down two streets of Vieux Quebec.

After a quick shower we took off to enjoy our few ours as simple pedestrians, walking without fixed goals through this delightful and very European city. True, many streets are heavily geared toward pleasing the tourist, but the big hordes are not due for at least another two weeks, so we could window shop and gawk at our leisure. Slowly we made our way up to the battlefields and the fortifications of the Citadel, but decided to leave the serious business of visiting museums for tomorrow. Instead we enjoyed the park, ate ice cream, took photos, and eventually went back to the center of old town through the Promenade des Governeurs. This promenade is an impressive walkway, built hanging from the edge of the bluff, where you can get glorious views of the St. Lawrence, plus a lot of exercise going up and down the stairs.

Following Robin’s advice Annie decided to splurge in a good dinner, but we had to face the challenge of dozens fine restaurants to chose from. Finally we settled for Aux Ancienes Canadiens, a restaurant housed on a 1600’s old building (later we found out that it is included in most travel guides as a place to enjoy good Quebecois fare). The service was fantastic, and we enjoyed a “wild game” meat pie that is supposed to be a signature dish of old Quebec (the pie had bison, elk, boar, and something else meat, but of course you cannot tell the difference). I had a maple syrup pie for dessert that was absolutely delicious. We definitely recommend the place!

We went back to the hotel around 7 pm, to take a siesta, but promised we were going to get up at 8 am, to go for a walk and see the night lights. To our mild disappointment, when we got up (harder than we thought) it was raining. It was a mild rain to be sure, and a couple of pedestrians had nothing to fear from it, but to our other personas (the cyclists) it brought some concern. Hopefully the squall will be gone by tomorrow, because we have to bike a good 10 km to the train station in Cherny, where we will take the night train to Moncton. In any case, the night walk was pleasant, but the rain had scared away most of the people, so we missed on the zest of nighttime Quebec.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Canada 2012 Day 7

We did it! We started from Plessisville at our usual 10 am (someone I won’t mention will not be hurried) and by 4:30 pm we had cycled 72 km (42 miles)! Our plan was to take it easy and have our elevenses at Lyster (which we did, in the form of ice cream from the local eatery), then lunch in Dosquet (which again we did, with a picnic by the side of a bubbling stream, and then camp in Saint-Agapit (which we didn’t, because it was only 3 pm and we felt we could go farther.

So we pushed on to Saint-Ettienne, and from there to Saint-Redempteur, where we finally stopped at a supermarket to buy the fixings for dinner. We try to do our shopping just before we go to the camping place, because we have to lug the food with us, and that is no fun. Because we were staying in an unplanned place, I had not looked for campgrounds, but as always I got lots of help from the people around us. (But, being overfriendly, they always add additional info, and that makes it all the harder to understand the instructions. Note to self: When talking to foreign tourists keep it short and keep it simple.)

It has been a hot day, but now we are fairly close to Quebec, and plan to take off early (I shall report later if Herself sticks to the plan) so we can have an extra half day being tourists in Quebec.
Canada 2012 Day 6

TWEET TWEET TWAT TWEET . . . TWEET TWEET TWAT TWEET . . . What the hell? A noisy bird woke us up, reminding us that we had chosen to spend the night in the forest. The sun shines and, outside of the rough awakening, this promises to be a good day. By now we are lean, mean biking machines (and the road is straight and flat like a railroad track), so the first 25 kilometers went without a hitch.

We stopped at Victoriaville, a charming town with a strong European flavor. It is Sunday, so everybody is out on the park bicycling, walking, or playing petanque (the French word for Bacci ball). Unfortunately that means that most restaurants open only for lunch, from 11 am to 1 pm. It happened to be 1 pm, so we had doors closed on our noses, figuratively speaking, more than once. We finally found an open bistro, where we could seat on the sidewalk, enjoying a beer and an ice-cold cider, and lunching on very fine sandwiches. We also had a great chat with a local high school teacher, who greatly enjoyed contrasting the Canadian educational system with Annie.
We got to Plessisville at about 5:30 pm. We had booked a hotel for this night, and were grateful to dump our stuff on the floor and head for the shower. Unfortunately we overestimated the shops in this little town, because when we went to look for something to eat, around 7 pm, we drew a monstrous blank. So dinner was a can of dolmas (rice wrapped in grape leaves) and a bag of chips bought at the nearby gas station. Alas, you cannot win them all!
Canada 2012 Day 5

Here comes the sun, ta ra ra ra . . . We have enjoyed a day of perfect weather, so the horrors of the rainy day are now no more than a bad dream. We have also found our stride, and setting camp, breaking down camp, and riding 50 kilometers between stages seems perfectly normal by now. Let me see, I forgot to mention that we passed the night of Day 4 in Richmond. In the morning I made a delicious tortilla Española with an onion I had bought, and the French fries leftover from yesterday’s lunch (Annie is good to my ego because she is often pleasantly surprised by the tasty things I cook from the oddest combination of ingredients).

We left Richmond about 10 am, and were very favorably surprised by the fact that la Route Vert from here on follows the path of the old train line from Maine to Quebec. The state government simply tore off the tracks and filled the railroad bed with sand, thus developing a delightful path through old growth forest and agricultural fields, with very gentle grades. Annie really got jamming, and from there on I saw a lot of her cute little derriere as she biked unto the horizon.

Another pleasant surprise was the many rest stops that have been built along the road, some with porta-potties. If only they had water we would be squatting in one of them for the night (but of course they know this and do not add water to the services). We stopped in one of them for our elevenses, and I even treated myself to a little siesta.

Our next stop was Danville, where the town has converted the old train station into an ice cream parlor. The banana ice cream was to die for! We were there, enjoying our cones, when an older couple came to do conversation. It turns out their sone emigrated to California, and they visit him once a year, when they come from their month in Paris and before they take off for their month in Rome. There are some Canadians that must have quite a bit of money put aside for retirement, to judge from this one couple, the beautiful houses we keep seeing, and the abundances of posh RVs we see in the campgrounds.

The final push of the day brought us to Kingsey Falls, where we found a very nice campground. We had been attracted by the waterfalls implied by the name, but according to our informant the falls were in private property and could not be visited. They were right in the strict legal sense, but being dumb tourists we simply biked into the main facility of the Cascades Paper Company, and had a nice look at the falls. And then it struck me: The paper company (one of the biggest in the world, is not named after the Cascades in the northwestern United States, but after this very waterfalls (cascades means waterfalls in French).

What shall we have for dinner . . . hmm, I think I will cook a picadillo.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Canada 2012 –Day 4

In every life a little rain shall fall. Today it was our turn. It started around midnight, and Annie woke up and sat bold upright. Rain! Her old nemesis. It seems that she spent many a camping night in a cheap REI tent (anything under $500 is sure to leak), soaking wet and chilled to the bone, so the mere sound of rain brings all sorts of frightful memories. I tried to reassure her: Nothing is going to happen. We are protected by the best K-Mart has to offer (in an expansive moment I bought the $34 tent, rather than the $24 tent), and I am here to comfort you. I thought my soothing words had helped (I immediately fell back asleep), but it was a sunken-eye (but dry) Annie who the shining rays of the sun woke up.

We had a lazy start to give the outside of the tent time to dry, drink coffee, take a shower, cook breakfast, and finally get on the road. We pedaled back to Sherbrooke and from there on we followed the shore of the Saint Francis River (named after Saint Francis Xavier, the founder of the Jesuites). Like many other of our rides it was a combination of fabulous river and forest views, and a tour worthy of Best Homes and Gardens. I don’t know how Canadians do it! A month ago they were under heavy snow, and today their gardens are beautifully manicured, cut with nail clippers, and every flower on its place.

This time I tried to follow the schedule we established in the Camino de Santiago, so we stopped for our elevenses (but there was no wine, so we contented ourselves with a cup of coffee and some yummy bread). Lunch was slightly delayed because we stopped under a friendly roof for half an hour, to let a squall of rain go by. Eventually we did get lunch, at a Rotisserie, where I finally had a beer, and we both had very generous serving of chicken. Eating out is, in my humble opinion, more expensive here than back home, but the serving portions are enormous. Annie had a chicken salad that, after she and I ate our fill, will be most of dinner tonight.

We got back on the trail, to complete today’s 50 kilometer ride. (By the way, I think I need to revise yesterday’s trek to 55 kilometers, and the distance between Montreal and Magog to 150 kilometers, based on a sign I saw near Sherbrooke). Everything went well, and we were but 1 km from the campground, when we had to take a detour to go to the Maxi supermarket (today’s dish is a stir-fry, with all the left over veggies from Annie’s monster salad, and a thin stake we bought at the supermarket). No sooner had we reached the Maxi parking lot when it started raining dogs and cats. We did our shopping and waited and waited, and in a lull we made a mad dash for the camping ground. It was only one kilometer away, but on top of a steep hill, and we had to be on foot pushing our heavy bikes when . . . kazoom . . . another thunder shower sweeps through and dumps buckets of rain on us. Well, we made it to the camp, and in another lull we set up the tent, but Annie was on the brink on bolting on me, headed back for the shining sun of the Central Valley!  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Canada 2012 –Day 3

Too much stuff! We just brought with us too much stuff, and it took us long hours to go through everything, discarding items that will have to stay behind in Montreal. We are coming back to the same hostel, and the folks here have agreed to look after our one suitcase, which is where all the discards are going to remain. Still, when we took off for the bus station at 6:30 am, we looked like two gypsies. We still had to pack the bikes in the luggage compartment of the bus, so we could not yet load them with the panniers, the sleeping bags, or the tent. Finally everything was in the belly of the bus, and we took off for Magog, about a 100 km southeast of Montreal, at 8:30 am.

The bus dropped us off in the Magog gas station, in the middle of nowhere, at about 10:30 am, and this is where the real outfitting happened. Miraculously everything found a place, but we are overloaded, and we will pay for it in energy. The first order of business was to found the town of Magog, so we asked and got an incomprehensible answer in Quebecois. Fortunately the answer was accompanied by a hand gesture and we knew which way to start, at about 11 am (so even though this is a full day in terms of kilometers to be covered (40 per day is the target), we were starting with at least 2 hours less than a normal biking day (in other words, a minimum day in teacher’s parlance).

Magog turned out to be a quaint small town, at the spilling end of Lake Memphremagog, which is the largest lake in the area, and the source of the Magog River. Today’s trek could indeed be described as following the valley of the Magog (with many small lakes and tributaries thrown in for good measure). I am sorry we didn’t stop to walk around Magog, but we were feeling pressed for time and pressed on.

We were now running parallel to Lake Magog (the second largest in the region), but we saw very little of it because the trail is surrounded by thick walls of verdant and luxurious vegetation. Talk about not being able to see the forest because of all the bloody trees. We were doing great, feeling powerful and enjoying the greenery, but unbeknownst to us the heavy load was zapping away our strength. By the time we had covered half the budgeted distance we were famished, and Annie was beginning to fell wobbly on the legs. Fortunately the path disgorged us right in front of the one restaurant in Deauville, and we were able to tame our hunger. Annie had a hamburger steak with a big mountain of fries (and for once in her life didn’t leave a scrap on the plate) and an orange juice, whereas I had a lobster burrito! It was very delicious, and a good omen for the culinary delights of this trip.

Back on the trail, we went for another 20 km along the west bank of the Magog River right into the town of Sherbrooke, where we planned to find a camping place to spend the night. It was only 4 pm, but we were tired and feeling the need for knowing where we were going to spend the night. A friendly tourist information person directed us to Ile-Marie Camping Ground, only a few kilometers up one of the tributaries of the Magog. We started but after a while I noticed that Annie was lagging behind. I waited for her and saw in her face the signs of terminal exhaustion. She needed to get out of the bike, and soon. Ten minutes later we were at the campground, quickly set the tent, and she laid down and passed out.

I took the opportunity to go pay the fee, admire the campground (it is in a very pretty little island in the middle Rivier Saint Francoise, and best of all is half empty (a great thing traveling at the very start of the tourist season, when all the facilities begin to open, but before the crowds come and the high season prices kick in). I also had to deal with the issue of provisions, so I got back on the bike and went back to town, to buy the makings of tonight dinner: Cheese, crackers and wine as an appetizer, vegetable bisque (out of a Campbell’s can), and spaghetti Alfredo with smoked roast beef. Tomorrow’s breakfast will consist of coffee and eggs.

Annie has revived, and the appetizer and a good washing, had brought back a sparkle to her eye. We did 40 km today, so I believe we can be rightfully proud of having accomplished a good deal for being hopelessly out of shape!
Canada 2012 –Day 2
We woke at 5:30 am, to streaming sun rays coming through the open window of our flat. Groan! Fortunately we managed to go to sleep again, and didn’t get up until a more civilized 7:30 am. We need to adjust our sleeping patterns to the tremendously long summer days of higher latitudes.

After a quick breakfast at the hostel we took to the streets, because there was much too see. First we walked down the Quartier Latin, which is where students like to hang out after a hard day at school. Of course it was nearly empty when we went through at 8 am, but we saw it later on the way back, and can attest that it is indeed a lively place. Afterward we turned west unto Rue Saint Catherine, well known for its shopping potential. Not to be left out of the fun, Annie took the opportunity of buying a new pair of hiking boots, because the ones she was wearing were hurting (they will be left behind at Montreal).

Our next stop was McGill University, which is as close to Hogwarts as you can expect anything to be. The different schools are housed in small castles set around a grassy square, where no doubt doubles the lacrosse and quiditch matches take place. The students were wearing their dress robes, but clearly flying brooms was not allowed while muggles were on the premises.

We had a delightful lunch in the terrace of a sandwich shop, where we both had baguettes with ham and brie cheese, and salads of artichokes, pasta, and cucumbers. It felt like we were in Paris!

In the afternoon we visited the underground city. This parallel universe is a vast system of modern catacombs below the downtown shopping district, where people escaping snow and rain can have the luxury of buying from the finest establishments, dining on pizza, or just taking their clothes to the dry cleaners. It was a glorious, sunny day outside, however, so after a while playing zombies we reached for the nearest exit, and came face to face with St. Patrick’s Basilica. This remarkably beautiful church was built between 1847 and 1885, to provide a place of spiritual solace for the many Irish that had by then immigrated to Canada. Another remarkable feature of this church is the Relicts Chapel, which includes tiny bits of memorabilia from a few dozen saints, a sliver from the crown of thorns, a replica nail of the cross (but a replica that touched one of the real nails), and a most prized bit of bone from St. Patrick himself.

Our wandering took us through Chinatown (which is quaint but …), and finally Montreal Vieux. As we learned when we visited the Archaeology Museum, before the arrival of the Europeans Montreal was a little Iraquoi village at the confluence of a small stream and the St. Lawrence River. When the French came in 1650 they first established a small trading post, then a fort in the mid 1660’s, and finally a settlement named Montreal (1750). In 1800 Montreal probably had no more than 9,000 inhabitants and was limited to the footprint they now call Montreal Vieux, but by 1850 the population had skyrocketed to 50,000, and from then on the city has been expanding unto the surrounding country side.

Highlights of out tour through Montreal Vieux included the Basilica of Notre Dame (established in the late 1660’s, but rebuilt and enlarged in the early 1800’s). It is a beautiful spiritual tribute to Mary, and has played an important role in the development of this handsome city.

We were dragging a bit by this time, so we headed to the river front, where we found a charming sidewalk café, where I enjoyed a cold beer, and Annie OD on sugar with a “castor tail” covered with caramel and apple slices. The café turned out to be almost in front of the Archaeology Museum, where the visit is largely a below-street-level tour of the foundations, walls, and water conveyance structures of old Montreal. A very fine museum that every visitor should see!

We needed to get back to the hostel, both because we were tired and because we had arranged for the purchase and delivery of two bicycles at 7 pm. We thus followed the waterfront, and then attempted to cut through Montreal Vieux by the shortest route. Unfortunately it was not the most expeditious route, because Annie saw a street fire-breathing performer, and had us stop to see. Next thing I know I am up in front, imitating a stomping lion to the accompaniment of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, and Annie is almost peeing with laughter. She got some good footage of my performance, which I know she will be happy to show you when you ask.

We did get back to the hotel with half hour to spare, so we went to our little flat, opened a bottle of wine, and sat in our very own balcony enjoying the experience of being in a most charming French city.

Our last hurrah was the purchase of two bikes, from Stephan Lapointe, a bike enthusiast who makes a living selling bikes via the internet. You go to his website, where all his bikes are photographed, chose what you like, give him a call to discuss your choices (he knows the land better than you, so there is a good chance he will recommend a different bike based on your height, expertise level, and route to be traveled), settle the deal, and then wait patiently until he brings the bike to the hotel in his “Velobus”. Once he got to us he promptly installed the seats we had brought with us, adjusted the height of the seat, changed one tire that was less than perfect, collected his money (only $130 for each bike!), and … voila … we are now the proud owners of two reliable bikes on which to pursue our adventure!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Canada 2012 Day 1

We woke early in the morning, and Jake took us to the airport bright and early (he learned to drive from his “Parnelli Jones” mom, so my knuckles were a bit blanched by the time we made it to the airport, at 7:15. Our flight was not departing until noon, so Annie and I had a long airport wait. We checked in our luggage and proceeded to do all the silly things you do in an airport while waiting: We went round and round in the red line of the airtram, people-watching and admiring a glorious sunrise over San Francisco Bay. Then we did the same thing with the blue line airtram.

Tired at last, we went back to the international terminal, where we killed another hour visiting the store of the SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), which has very cool stuff. We reflected on how nice it is not to have any space left in your luggage, because you can window shop to your heart’s content. Finally, on the way to the security checkout we saw an arrow pointing toward the Aviation Museum. It turned out to be a little known jewel within the airport: The architects recreated the original SFO terminal, with its 1930’s arches and marble floors, and a fascinating display of the history of Pan Am, the first truly international airline. Their first airplanes were the three seaboats known as the Clippers, of which the China Clipper was by far the most famous. The China Clipper did the route San Francisco to Hawaii, to Midway Island, to Wake Island, to Guam, to Manila, to Hong Kong. Passengers traveled in high style, and the ticket was only $10,000. We know this because the desk was covered by a sweet old lady, who was an air hostess in the glory years of Pan Am, and she told us all about flying in the age of luxury. She didn’t fly the Clippers, but she flew routes 1 and 2 in a Douglass and a 707, which had a very decadent lounge class. Route 1 flew east around the world (economy class from New York to London was about $1,500), whereas Route 2 flew west around the world! Can you imagine?

Our own flight took off shortly after noon (3 pm in Montreal) and landed amid rain at 8:30 pm. Rats! Well, by the time we went through immigration and customs, got money out of the ATM, and found the right bus to downtown the rain had eased into a drizzle, and when we reached la Gare d’Autocars (bus depot) in the heart of downtown the sky was dry. We walked four blocks to our hostel, which turned out to be another jewel (Auberge Alexandrie, 1750 Amherst, (514) 525-9420). The lobby was a typical youth hostel lobby, with kids from all the world playing drums, sending e-mails, or just chatting. Our gracious host, Hernan, was from Chile and received us like his two long lost siblings. To Annie’s delight our “room” turned out to be a small flat in the third floor, with a fully appointed kitchen and bathroom, and a charming art nouveau living room with a balcony (she tells me she has always wanted to have the experience of living in an urban flat in Paris, and this was as close as anyone could wish).
By now it was 11:30 pm, and we were famished, so following Hernan’s instructions we walked a few blocks to the Gay Village, where we found a small Moroccan restaurant, where we dined in style on a steaming couscous vegetarienne and a clay pot of vegetables and lamb sausage, while our three hosts fuzzed about us, explaining the customs of their native Tunisia. Never have I been served in a friendlier way!
Canada 2012 Day 0

Not much to report. We spent the best part of the day marking time at work, then running errands at high speed (Annie screeched into the driveway and ducked, and a few seconds later a string of screaming patrol cars went by), and finally driving to Castro Valley, to have dinner with Jake and Katie (Annie’s son and daughter-in-law). Katie treated us to an eat-as-I-bake collection of artisan pizzas, we laughed a lot, and with difficulty went to sleep thinking on the coming adventure.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

2012 and back to Canada!

Canada 2012 Day -1

Annie and I are getting ready to go adventuring in Canada. Specifically, this trip will see us biking from Montreal to Quebec City, taking the train to Prince Edward Island, and finally biking for four days around this island, which is famous as the locale where the novel “Anne of Green Gables” unfolds. Today is packing day. This is a challenge on any old day, but is particularly taxing today because we have to keep the amount to a volume and weight that we can carry in the two bicycles that we are buying in Montreal.

Let me see, on general terms the plan is:

   June 6 – Noon flight to Montreal, where we will arrive by 9 pm.
   June 7 – Day in Montreal getting ready. We have already arranged to buy two city bikes from a local bike dealer, who will bring them to our hostel by 7 pm.
   June 8 – Bus to Magog, where we will start our bike ride, following the Sherbrook to Quebec City branch of La Route Vert. We chose this route because it follows the old railroad lines (now refurbished as bike paths) and we don’t have to contend with car traffic.
   June 12 – Arrive in Quebec City
   June 13 – Day in Quebec City and night train to Moncton
   June 14 – Arrive in Moncton and bridge crossing to Prince Edward Island
   June 18 – End of bike ride in Prince Edward Island. Night train from Moncton to Montreal
   June 19 – Morning arrival to Montreal. Day in Montreal (hopefully selling back the bikes to recover some of the expense)
   June 20 – Morning flight back to San Francisco
Not bad as plans go, but we will have to say what the good Lord has to say about it. For starters, I think He plans to shower us during the first week of the trip!
Day 12. Biking tour around Vancouver

I may need to eat my words, for Vancouver is indeed a beautiful city, particularly from the perspective of a bicycle rider, who everywhere can find dedicated paths. I started going up (north) to downtown, and then down (still north) to the wharf in Burrard Inlet. From there I followed the seawall west for a few kilometers, sharing the way with skaters and joggers. The seawall path eventually brings you to Stanley Park, which is the pride and joy of the city. It is the tip of a small peninsula that juts into the inlet to separate English Bay to the west from the Burrard Inlet to the east. It is also one of the most pleasant urban parks that I have ever seen.

The first attraction is the totem poles area, which I vaguely remember from 30 years ago. Most of the totem poles have been replaced since that time, as they deteriorate rather quickly under the rainy weather. Totem poles are not deities, but rather the equivalent to a coat of arms of the different First Nations. I remember my dad brought home a miniature of one from Ontario 50 years ago, to the endless fascination of me and my brother, so I went back to my youth and spent a good hour staring at the carvings and reading the legends associated to them. Orcas and grizzlies are among the most common motifs, but with patience one can see samples of the whole mythology of the First Nations.

Then I went to the aquarium, which is indeed a fine collection and beautifully displayed. It was overrun with school children (apparently the kids here are still at school), and with young mothers pushing increasingly bigger strollers (nowadays they are more command centers than a way of carrying a child). They have a nice collection of beluga whales, which is a small, white whale without a dorsal fin. They live in the Arctic, and presumably the lack of a dorsal fin (and the ability to turn their necks left and right) is an adaptation to be able to navigate under floating ice.

The third “attraction” is the path that goes along the base of the cliffs. You almost feel that you are riding on the water, and it affords a great view of English Bay.

After visiting the aquarium I had a craving for fish, so I went looking for lunch and found the best fish and chips place ever. For a flat fee you could eat all the fish you wanted, so I am afraid I made quite the little pig of myself. It had been sometime since I had enjoyed fish so much.

After lunch I biked over the Burrard Bridge, and went to visit the Maritime Museum. The center piece of this museum is the RCMP St. Roch (pronounced St. Rock), a vessel that belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police from 1930 to 1960, and which was commissioned to serve the outposts of the RCMP in the northern territories. In 1943, The Vancouver-based vessel was sent to Halifax, Nova Scotis, thus becoming the second vessel to go through the northwest passage (the first one was Roald Amundsen in the 1930’s in the tiny Gjoa), and the first one to make it from west to east. The following year, 1944, the St. Roch once again went through the northwest passage to return to its home port, and a few years later it went south to the Panama Canal, and from there up to Halifax, thus becoming the first vessel to circumnavigate North America!

The St. Roch is now in dry dock inside the museum, lovingly restored, and is a tribute to the determination of the Royal Canadian Mountain Police to be a beneficial presence in arctic Canada.

Tomorrow I go back home, to scramble and get ready for a week of Field Geology in the desert of California (the Poleta folds). It is going to be superhot and miserable, and will make the Canadian Rockies be but a dream. I am glad I had this dream though. I find Canadians to be delightful, friendly people, and I find their country marvelous and spectacular. I think next I will tackle biking from Montreal to Quebec City along the Saint Lawrence River, and then taking the train from Quebec City to Halifax, to bike along the Atlantic Coast. I’ll let you know.
Day 9. Back to Athabasca Falls 

Parting is sorrowful, but when you leave at 6 am there is no one to be sorrowful with, so I just took off, with the idea that I would go slowly and take many breaks and short walks to make the way back more enjoyable. Truly the morning hours are the best to admire the beauty of the peaks around me, just as the sun kisses for the first time their snow shrouds. The only disappointing part is that I have seen very few animals, and as is now an old joke I keep hoping for my first sighting of a bear. I should add that the last three days I have had perfect weather, overcast for the long bike rides and shining sun for the hikes. Today there is not a single cloud on the sky, so after the cool of the morning it is going to get hot, hot, hot.

My first planned hike was a long one, starting at a ranger station about 15 km from Beauty Creek. I figured I would bike into the parking lot of the station, leave the bike there, and then hike the 6 miles to the crest of the ridge to oversee Lac Maligne. So I turn into the deserted parking lot, and I see a golden shadow moving between the bushes. It is my bear! Yes, my very own bear, and a grizzly to boot! I of course kept a healthy distance between us, but the bear seemed unconcerned about my presence, happy to pluck the berries from the decorative bushes the ranger station has planted. It is quite something to see such a rippling mass of muscle delicately pulling one branch down, to nibble on the tiny fruits. He also stopped from time to time to dig out a grub, or to lick at the decorative stones (maybe seeking some salt). I am delighted to have seen my first bear, but you won’t be surprised to know that I decided to skip the hike I had planned.

I did take a hike later that day, trying to remind myself that if I had not met a bear in 30 years, then there was little chance I would meet a second bear that day (but then again, I have never met a cougar neither). Fortune smiles on the bold, however, and I was rewarded by a sighting of a Canadian Rockies Mountain Goat.

The way back was a lot easier than I had expected, largely because I am going down in elevation and there is more downhill pedaling than uphill trudging. I made it to the hostel by 4 pm, dined on the charity of others (hopefully for the last time this trip), and will spend the afternoon reading at my heart’s content.

Day 10. Back to Jasper

I started on my way back to Jasper at 6:30 am, fully confident I could make it there by 11 am at the latest. Since the train does not leave until 2:30 pm I was going to have plenty of time to wash clothes at a Laundromat, and maybe have a nice lunch (pizza or Chinese?). Now, so far I have been biking on the shoulder of the Promenade des champs de glace (the Icefields Highway), which is very beautiful, has acceptable grades, and makes for easy cycling. But there was something gnawing at my heart about following a man-made road. Here I am, in the ultimate wilderness, and I am always going on a paved road.

A little devil whispered in my ear to the effect that I had time, so why not try a little cross country trekking? My map showed a trail coming off Wabasso Lake, and an outline suggested further detail in the close-up map on the other side. Yes, there it was, and according to the markings it was only 10 miles to the 15 miles I would have to roll on the highway. So there I go, bound for adventure, only to find the most grueling, challenging goat path one could imagine. I pushed on confident on the knowledge that I had a good five hours ahead of me, and even walking I could cover 10 km in less than three hours. The trail went on and on, wearing me down and consuming minutes. How far can the fork in the road be? The map said less than 2 km, but by my reckoning I must had gone at least five. Then I realized that the inset map did not show the whole trail, and that I was much farther away than I had thought. I panicked a bit, but was not ready to go back. Gritting my teeth I pushed onward, afraid I might miss the train.

Mind you, the trail I had taken is beautiful, and I had great views of lakes nested deep in alpine valleys, snow clad peaks, and endless Canadian forest. My brave bike took a lot of punishment, but never let me down, flying down the rough steep slopes and nimbly bouncing by my side on the uphills.

Finally, near the verge of exhaustion I sighted the bridge that would take me over the Athabasca River and unto Jasper. The trail hung precariously on top of the cliff carved by the river, which roared furiously 20 m below me. On the uphill side the slope was very steep, leaving little room to maneuver. Cautiously I decided to walk this last half kilometer, because the smallest slip could have tossed me into the drink. Concentrated as I was on keeping to the narrow trail, it was only in the last moment that I saw the black bear coming opposite to me down the trail. I think he was as surprised as I was, for we both froze in place. Then I started, basso fortissimo, a nervous rendition of The Bear Song (The other day, I met a bear, out in the woods . . .) and the bear took off, straight up the steep hill. I managed to fumble my camera out of its holster, and have the photo to prove it!

Yes, I did make it to Jasper, but just on the nick of time. It was with a grateful sigh that I loaded the bike on the train, definitely ready for a comfortable ride in the train. I now turn from an adventurer to a tourist, and will drag my adieu to the wonderful Canadian Rockies for several hours. We should be in Vancouver tomorrow by 9 am.  

Reflecting about the trip, I would recommend the following route: Fly to Vancouver with your own bike, or rent/buy a bike in Vancouver. Make sure you have panniers to carry all that food you won’t be able to buy in the high mountains. Shop in Vancouver to avoid usury prices. Take the bus to Banff (8 hours; the bike may need to be in a box). Spend 6 to 8 days biking slowly from Banff to Jasper. Make reservations at the youth hostels well in advance, because they get full in the summer. Finally, take the train back from Jasper to Vancouver, and from there fly back home.

Day 11. Vancouver

We are crossing the equivalent to the Central Valley, after 14 hours of descent from the mountains. The views were spectacular, but the real theme of the descent was water. There is so much water here! The smallest waterfall is a wondrous sight, the lakes go on for miles and miles, and the rivers are among the widest and swiftest I have ever beheld. No shortage of fresh water in Canada, eh!? 

Vancouver, which is a beautiful city, welcomed me with open arms and fantastic sunny weather. I may argue that Quebec City is in close competition for the title of the prettiest Canadian city, but there is no question that the embayments of the peninsula where Vancouver has been developed give it an inviting maritime character, not unlike that of San Francisco or Seattle.

The first thing I discovered is that it is bike friendly place, with gentle slopes and all sorts of parks and biking paths. Despite being Wednesday one can see lots of people jogging, biking, or walking their dogs.

I wasted $15 visiting the Science Museum, which is not as extensive or interesting as the Exploratorium, but then had a good time walking the streets of Chinatown. I had lunch there: Jellyfish! I think it is the tendrils that get cooked (boiled probably), and are afterward served cold with sesame seeds and a chili sauce. Interesting, chewy texture, but I don’t think I have to try it again.

Afterward I biked to my hostel, where I got a single room (feels positively luxurious) where I could dump all my stuff and chill down for a bit. I am beginning to be quite tired of my heavy backpack. Later I went for a walk to Granville Island, which is a place devoted to the arts, wholesome food, and sports. The food part is dominated by a very large farmers market (again, not unlike the Kleine Markthalle in Frankfurt) and fancy restaurants. The sport part is dominated by water sports and cycling. Finally, half of the island is devoted to artists’ ateliers, theaters, and galleries. I am very impressed to see how committed to the arts Canadians are.

Finally, being that it is Wednesday and the Stanley Cup is being played, I sat through the fourth game of the Vancouver Canucks against the Boston Bruins. It was not pretty for the Canucks, who lost 0 to 4, but gave me an excuse to go out and see all of Granville Avenue turned into a swarming mass of subdued Canucks enthusiasts. No one was “sad”, because the series is who wins more games in a seven game series, and right now each team has two wins each. It should make for a nail-biting final three games!
Day 6. Edmonton to Jasper to Athabasca Falls

Four o’clock in the morning and I am up, chomping at the bit to get on the train and resume my trip. But for all my hurrying up the train took its sweet time to come to the station, and it must have been 8:30 am before we got started. I dozed a bit at the beginning of the trip, but half an hour later we were already going to pine forest and crossing deep river canyons. So I was glued to the window for four hours waiting to see the high Rockies. Unfortunately it was raining, and the clouds obscured the distant mountain profiles (and I was having nightmare thoughts about biking in the rain). Finally, when I was ready to give up, the sky cleared up and monstrous peaks appeared all around us. They were all I had ever expected of the Rockies, with chalkboard examples of folds and thrust faults, neatly highlighted by the leftover snow.

When I got to Jasper, at 2 pm, I was totally ready to start my adventure. So much so that I barely took a look at Main Street (kind of quaint), asked for the way out, and got pedaling. Jasper is in a valley, so the start was not strenuous at all. I needed to cover 32 km to get to the hostel at Athabasca Falls, and since it was reasonably early I had no doubt I could easily reach this goal. It is wonderful how fast you can move on a bike! Walking at a good pace I can walk about 4 km in an hour, but with the bike you can easily make 10 km per hour, so after a while you feel that you are flying. And then the scale of the whole valley overwhelmed me. Here is a nice, long stretch of rock, and there is that snowy peak toward the end. An hour later you are still in the same stretch of the valley, and the snowy peak has grown into a mountain of gargantuan proportions. For the first time I realized that my idea of biking across the triple divide in three and a half days was pure folly.

I stuck to it, however, biking up the gentle upgrades and pushing the bike on foot in the steep ones, all the time looking for some sign that I was getting any closer to my destination. Again, this is not like the “caminos de Galicia”, where there is a town every 10 km, and a place to drink a glass of vino tinto every 5 km. Oh no, this is the most imposing, stark, and interminable wilderness ever, and I didn’t even have the encouragement of mile markers to keep me on task.

Finally, after three and a half hours of biking I came across the blessed sign for Athabasca Falls, and a few minutes later I was entering the hostel, happy in the knowledge that this was not the day in which I would have to rough it in the wilderness. Well, the hostel is pretty rough, with no running water, but in every other respect is an island of warmth and friendliness. I was counting on being able to buy some food at the hostel (cup of noodles or something of the sort) but the hosteller sadly informed that he had nothing to sell, and no, there were no stores between Jasper and Banff. After he had a chuckle at my expense he turned to his buddy and asked if he might find something for me to eat in the “Free Food” bin that is found at every hostel. “Sure, we will make sure you don’t go hungry.”

With that promise still ringing in my ears I went for a walk, to admire the Athabasca Falls. The Athabasca River is a wide, mountain stream, perfect for canoeing, except that at this point it encounters a ledge of the Gog Quartzite, an incredibly hard rock that will not give way to the river. So the river is forced into a narrow gorge, where it hurls all its fury against the hard rocks. Past this stretch the river widens again into a broad, meandering stream, much frequented by fishing grizzly bears. Interestingly, below the falls there are all sorts of fishes, but above the falls there is only one type. Clearly the falls are a major barrier to the colonization efforts of salmon and rainbow trout, but how did the lonely species of red trout made it up the falls?

When I got back to the hostel, a tall young man accosted me and asked if I was the man who needed something to eat. Yes, I acknowledged in some surprise. Well, here, I made some pasta carbonara, and here is some salad. Then another young man came and offered me a pack of ground beef, and some cold cuts, and these two girls offered some rolls. I was overwhelmed by their generosity and friendliness, and had a fabulous dinner. It must be my reward for feeding my young people when they come study at my home :)

Day 7. Athabasca Falls to Beauty Creek

Today is my big day! I have looked at the map carefully and have the option of going to the Beauty Creek hostel (60 km) or the Mosquito Creek hostel (90 km). Hmm . . . Beauty Creek or Mosquito Creek? To judge by the name I believe my best bet is Beauty Creek. OK, so 60 km it is, which at an average of 10 km per hour should take me 6 to 7 hours. My new friend Gabriel treated me to an excellent breakfast of eggs and ham, topped by a cup of coffee, and by 7 am I am on my bike, full of energy and determination. The road is incredibly beautiful, surrounded as it is by majestic peaks clad in snow, and barring a couple of long ups and downs it has a fairly gentle gradient. Unfortunately my bottom has some disagreement with the narrow bike seat, and after 30 kilometers I am feeling very sharply every little bump in the road.

I stopped at the one resort to be found between the two hostels, innocently thinking I might be able to buy some camping food. Nada! I could buy a measly and horrendously overpriced sandwich, but there is no hiking food for sale. Come on, surely there is a fortune to be made selling granola bars, trail mix, and beef jerky to the passing tourists? So I have to continue as a mendicant, hoping a good soul will feed me at Beauty Creek hostel.

The last half of the trip was painful. For one thing, the slopes are getting steeper, and for other the road bumps are getting bigger (or is it that my derriere is getting more sensitive?). I was told a grizzly bear has been sighted around here, so I must be cautious. Still, it is easy to forget these small discomforts by casting my gaze over the fabulous landscape.

I finally made it to Beauty Creek, at about 4 pm. As the name implies, this rustic hostel is perched along the bank of a beautiful river, the Sunwapta River, which downstream merges with the Chaba River to form the Athabasca River. I arrived there at the same time as another cyclist, Kiko from Barcelona, and together we said to hello to Jordan from Australia, who was going to be my gracious host that night. Jordan turned out to be an angel in disguise, who reached into his own supplies to provide me with a pasta dinner, after which we sat companionably by the campfire, shooting the breeze. We were later joined by Nicholas and Caroline, a French couple, and by Roger a Brit-now-Canadian, so it was a very enjoyable early evening.

Day 8. Les Champs de Glace

I woke up early, and had time to consider my plans before I jumped out of bed. The idea of reaching Banff was nonsensical, first because I still had the hardest climb ahead, to the edge of the Columbia Icefield, and because Banff is 180 miles (not kilometers) from Banff, which means I would still have to cover 200 km in two days. Having settled that point to my satisfaction, I decided to abandon my bike for the day, hitch a ride up to the champ de glace (icefield in French, which I think sounds a lot more interesting), hike around there, and then hitch a ride back to Beauty Creek. I was mulling on this plan, sipping coffee around the campfire at 6 am, when Roger came out of his room, ready to go. Last night he had mentioned something about heading for the icefield, so I asked him if he would give me a ride, he said yes, and we were off!

Roger turned out to be the perfect companion for this trip. He is a Cartography professor at Prince George University, is into remote sensing, and for the last few years has been mapping the retreat of the Canadian glaciers (or at least some of them, since there are several thousand glaciers in the Canadian Rockies). So, he was a wealth of information on what to see and what to do. Imagine the Columbia Icefield as a giant pile of ice cream sitting atop a knot of mountains, with strands slowly oozing down the different valleys. These strands would be the independent glaciers being fed by the icefield. It is these strands that have been retreating since the end of the Little Ice Age, in 1844. The better known of these glaciers is the Athabasca Glacier, which is the one visited by most tourists, and since folks have been around since 1844, there are plenty of maps and photographs to show where the toe of the glacier was in 1844, 1880, 1890, 1900 . . . and so on. I had my photograph taken at the place the glacier stood in 1982, when Faby and I visited the area 30 years ago. At the often spoken rate of 20 m per year the toe of the current glacier should have been 600 m away. Alas, it was less than 200 m, so no, the rate of glacier retreat has not accelerated in the last few years, the claims of global warming enthusiasts notwithstanding.

After a thoroughly invigorating walk and discussion about the ways of glaciers, Roger suggested a hike up to Parker’s Ridge, from which a fabulous view of the Saskatchewan Glacier can be enjoyed. It is only 2.5 km to the top, so it should have been a 2 hours walk at most. It took us 4 hours! The trail was covered in snow, and we intrepid galciologists had to wade in soft snow down to our butts for the best part of the way. It was worth it, though, for we had the best view of this little-visited glacier, which is at least three times as long as the Athabasca and is better “framed” by wooded slopes. We paid a dear price for our adventuring, however, for we got very cold, our feet went numb, and I developed a rosy snow burn all over my legs (foolishly, I was wearing shorts for this outing).

Our last hurrah was a visit to the Bridal Veil Falls (yes, just like in Yosemite), followed by a tasty but expensive lunch at the Icefields Visitor Center. Food and booze are generally more expensive in Canada than in the US, but in this faraway location the prices are pure highway robbery. Still, we enjoyed our lunch together and cemented a friendship that I hope we maintain for years to come. Roger works with satellite images for his mapping project, and I intend to pick his brain as Tonya and I embark in our remote sensing of the oceans project.

I thought I was going to hitch a ride back, but it turns out I misunderstood, and Roger was backtracking north in order to go to his town of Prince George, so he dropped me off at the door of the hostel, where I was looking forward to a relaxing afternoon.

Once again Jordan saved me from starvation, and we were settling down to a quiet talk when a most interesting newcomer came in. Nice young man, whose name I never caught, carrying a bicycle saddle bag. He was on a bicycle journey from Anchorage, Alaska, to Panama City, Panama! Solo, and carrying with him repair tools and spare parts, food for a week, tent, sleeping bag, and clothes (a total of 50 kg), he was going at an average rate of 150 km per day! Throw in a day or rest here and there, and he was planning to cover the 8,000 km distance in about two months. Crazy, isn’t it? Ah, but the allure of adventure . . .
Day 3. Edmonton

I slept like a baby, woke up as early as usual, and remained prone until a shadow crossed the window. Wow, we were going through hills! Not mountains, mind you, but after a day of flatness I was ready to take notice of even the smallest undulations in the topography.

We made it to Edmonton around 7:30 am, and right away I asked if it would be possible to resume the trip the following day. No, so sorry, the next passenger train doesn’t run until three days from now. Rats, I am stuck in this industrial city for three days. I could tell at a glance that the station was in the middle of nowhere, a long way from civilization. So I broke down and rented a car, figuring that at least I could go driving around the country side. I toyed with the idea of going to Calgary, but that is 350 km away.

Instead I headed east, to visit the Elk Island National Park, which has some reputation as a great place to see buffalo, elk, and moose. This is glaciated terrain, underlain by outwash deposit where big hunks of ice melted into kettle lakes. It is popular with the big herbivores because pasture is always green around the kettle lakes. Lo and behold, as soon as I got there I saw some big bison bulls, munching on grass or rolling in the dirt (they “dig” dirt holes very similar to those where Girl likes to rest. I had read somewhere a sign advising not to get to close to the buffalo, because they can charge, so I kept my distance while admiring their massive bulk. I also saw a cow moose along the road, but never got to see a bull.

I wanted to stretch my legs, so I chose a 10 km loop and went for a stroll. Along the way I saw some very fresh bison “cakes”, and lots of tufts of their brown pelt. I was wondering what I would do if I were to come face to face with one of them when, just around a bend, I met the biggest, meanest-looking bull you can imagine. My gracious goodness, he was enormous! Needless to say I stopped dead on my tracks, staring at his little porcine eyes. There was determination in those eyes, and something told me this was one stare-down I was not going to win. So I graciously turned around, made a wide detour through the brush, and continued in my merry way.

Later I went to a living history museum (not unlike the Hessen Museum), that seeks to preserve the heritage of the many Ukranian immigrants who came to settle in Alberta between 1890 and 1930. The Canadian government was encouraging settlement of the west, and offered quarter section lands to European farmers who wanted to escape poverty. Of course they had the idea that all these immigrants would be scattered through the land, and would turn into loyal subjects of the English crown (Canada became its own country sometime around 1860, but they were very much committed to being members of the British Commonwealth). But the Ukranian immigrants wanted to be together, so they all came to Alberta, and for the longest time they remained Ukranians, living in Ukranian villages, and speaking the Ukranian language. Now of course they are well integrated into modern Canada, but in the 1970’s the provincial government figured that this was a part of Canadian history that had to be preserved. So they started collecting buildings from all over Alberta and they have moved it into a museum village, where docents dress the part and the time and try to recreate for the visitors the experience of going back to the 1920’s. Very, very neat.

I came in good time to my hostel, in a lively part Edmonton, where I cooked myself dinner, just in time to catch a local artist who came to entertain the many hostel guests. It is a big hostel, and is pretty packed, so I was happy I had made advanced reservations. This will be home for the next three days.

Day 4. Old Edmonton

Today I did three things. The first one was a visit to Fort Edmonton Park, another living history museum/park (clearly Canadians enjoy re-living history). The park is by the river that runs through the middle of the city (the Saskatchewan river), and of course they are bums and did not open until 10 am. What will a tourist do with himself at 8 am then? Well, the least I could do was to take a brisk walk along the river, enjoy the riparian forest, and speculate about the geology I could see spectacularly displayed on the opposite bank. There seemed to be two units here, so I made the reasonable assumption that the upper unit must be the outwash plain deposits of the Ice Age. But what was below them? It was lighter in color and seemed crudely stratified, so I took a guess and assigned them to the Mesozoic (later, at the Royal Alberta Museum I learned that I had been right, and they were fluvial Cretaceous deposits that have yielded excellent specimens of the herbivore dinosaur Edmontosaurus).

Once they finally opened the park I found it was organized into four distinct areas. The first one was the 1850-1885 time period, when Edmonton was a fur trading post of the Hudson Bay Company. They have reconstructed the fort that doubled as trading post, with all sorts of workshops (blacksmith, cooper, and carpenter to mention but a few). The second area spans 1805 to 1891, when Edmonton was a bucolic little town still conducting fur trade with the First Nations. For this they have brought to site complete buildings. My favorite display was the fur packing outfit, which not only had pelts by the hundreds, but also a huge press that was used to compact the pelts into square, tight bales for ease of transport. Each bale weighted 180 pounds!

The next time period was from 1892 to 1914, when the railroad finally reached Edmonton and the area became inundated by settlers and immigrants. There were so many people that contractors could not build houses fast enough, so vast tent cities sprouted around the old city, where a young, white collar couple might have to live for a couple of years before they could settle down in a regular wooden house. It was a time of great prosperity, only slightly slowed down by World War I, because Canada became a major grain producer to support the British war efforts.

Once the war ended in 1918 Edmonton went through a depression, because now it was producing too much grain and the price plunged to rock bottom. But they recovered fast enough, and in the last section (1914-1929) there were all sorts of improvements such as inexpensive automobiles, cable cars, drugstores, hotels, and even Alberta’s first mosque! Prosperity ended with the Great Depression in 1929, but the museum mercifully spares us the details of those harsh times.

The second thing I did was visit the Royal Alberta Museum, which was dedicated by Queen Elizabeth herself (funny ol’ Dominion of Canada, ey?). It is a combination of natural history museum (cool taxidermy of Canadian fauna, a spectacular display of minerals, and a skeleton of Edmontosaurus) and ethnographic museum. The latter part is really well done, and I enjoyed immersing myself in the details of the long relation between the First Nations and the European settlers. The relation was mostly to the detriment of the natives (they seem to prefer “native” or “aboriginal” over being called “indians”), who surprisingly took it in stride and only rarely made war on the invaders (the war tribes seemed to have remained in what now is the US and northern Mexico). Lots of cool artifacts and pieces of native art, including an excellent display on the construction of tepees and the symbology often used to decorate them.

The third thing I did was to go to Zellers (the local version of Wal-Mart) to buy a bike. It is a nice, pink, girl bike (only a self-assured man would ride a pink bike) with 26-inch tires and 10 speeds, and it will be my expeditionary vehicle to move along the crest of the Rockies. Unfortunately I am not as well prepared as I was for Spain, and will have to bike longer distances between hostels, but now that I have chosen this course of action I look forward to a great trip. I will take the bike with me on the train to Jasper, try to get from Jasper to Banff in three days (about 50 km per day), and will then abandon my pink spaceship there so I can get back to Jasper in the shuttle (unfortunately the shuttle will not carry the bike back). Tomorrow I will test my new wheels with a long ride along the shores of the Saskatchewan River!

Day 5. A lovely bike ride

I must apologize to Edmonton, which so far I have regarded as an industrial/commercial city that did not have much to offer to the tourist. They have the most satisfying network of parks and trails along the Saskatchewan River, which afford the tourist plenty of pretty views of the river and the city, and the student of human nature a kaleidoscope of Canadian society.

I started around 7:30 am, anxious to test my new bike (which proved in all respects to be a trustworthy vehicle), and of course only met old, morning people, just like me. The trails may not be “los caminos de Galicia”, but they are wooded, pleasant, and reasonably flat. Well, they are flat between steep hikes to the top of the river bluff (about 300 feet above the level of the river), and precipitous descents from the bluff to the edge of the water. Keep in mind I was embarking on a round trip, so every exhilarating descent turned into a Calvary on the way back.

As the day progressed I saw the cute girls going for a jog, then the daredevils of both sexes trying to beat their own speed record, the university students going to an exam, and lots and lots of dog walkers. There were Beagles and Saint Bernard’s, Dobermans and Chihuahuas, Retrievers (none as cute as Girl) and Scotties, German Shepherds and Rotties, Spud McKenzies and Boxers, and many more. I really got the feeling that Canadians like their dogs!

Well, there and back was something like 50 km, and I did it in under 7 hours. Admittedly this was in relatively flat terrain, but I figure that with 12 hours of daylight I can do 50 km per day in the mountains.

I went shopping at the end of the day, and got a spare inner tube, a can of inflating goo, a Swizz Army knife, and a helmet. I am ready for adventure!

P.S. I may be incommunicado for the next four days, so please be patient with the next installment.