As I detailed in my last post, we’ve had a tough time leaving Edmonton. We had a false start on Thursday August 4th. We had all intentions of leaving in the afternoon, but first we had to do “errands”. As the day grew shorter and the end of errands were not in sight, I whispered to April, “I don’t think we’re going to make it tonight.” And we didn’t. But we got the errands done. So Friday, Friday we’ll leave right?
Friday started to feel like Thursday, as time ticked away and we weren’t ready to depart. But I was determined. Sure, it would have been nice to chat more with Mr. Raving Bike Fiend. But we had to get to Saskatoon! In any case, we needed to leave, so Keith could get on a plane to marry Donna next week. And so I wouldn’t horrify him with more scenarios like this:
“Oh, I didn’t see a chain tool in your tool bag.”
“That’s ‘cause I didn’t bring one”, I say.
“You didn’t? But what happens if you break your chain?”
“I hope I don’t. And I haven’t yet.”
This is true: I have never had a chain fail on me.*
“But what happens if you do?”
“I guess I’d stick out my thumb.”
The notion of this nearly sent Mr. Raving Bike Fiend into Anaphylactic shock. Keith is a Master Mechanic, and is known to carry with him at all times a tool kit that can fix 99% of things that can go wrong with a bike. He’s even carried a bottom bracket tool, which he used to fix a random stranger’s bike. The only thing he couldn’t do is repair a broken frame, but I feel if they made a welding torch compact enough to fit in a seat bag, he’d bring it. To him, hitch-hiking wouldn’t even be an option. He’d rather fall on his sword than deal with the shame.**
Me? I’m a pragmatist. I’ll fix what I can and get help for the rest.
With that exchange, Keith quickly stuffed a chain tool with spare links into my tool bag and pushed us down the road. A push is what we needed, as it was almost 6pm. Our goal for the night was Elk Island National Park, about 25 miles or so east of Edmonton. Through experience I learned the best approach is plan a short day when leaving a multi-day rest stop in a city, so we didn’t have to hurry out of town. But the late departure was pushing it, as we had maybe three hours of daylight left.
And push it we did. After some stressful riding on Hwy. 16, we limped to the gate of Elk Island right at sunset. But the 25 miles was just the distance to the gate, as the camping was another 8 miles up the road. So nothing left to do but push on some more, dodging the bison that herded near the entrance. Yes, bison. Elk Island is an aspen parkland biome mainly used as an animal preserve, and while there are some namesake elk in the park, it is renowned for its free-ranging herds of bison. It’s one of the few places left for them to run “wild”, so to speak. Both of the species native to North America, the wood and plains bison, can be found in the park.
It was pitch black by the time we got to Sandy Beach Campground. We quickly set up camp and got ready for sleeping. But before we retired, April made a discovery: “Look up! It’s the aurora!” Indeed, the dark skies (protected in the park by a Dark Skies Initiative) showed the colorful streakings of the aurora borealis. Earlier in the trip I suspected at our current latitude of 53 degrees north we’d be able to see some, but April didn’t think so. Guess I’m right! We stared at the skies for a good half-hour or so. I think it’s the first time I had seen them.
But nature had more in store for us. I awoke around 3:30 to constantly roaring thunder. There was a Severe Thunderstorm Watch for the area when we’d left Edmonton, so I expected the chance of something. It did roar for about an hour, enough that I thought it might skip us, tracking to the north or something. But it finally started to pour, for a good hour or so. The thunder got louder, and there were definitely lightning strikes nearby. But it started to die down after 5, so I fell back asleep.
But then I awoke again to more thunder around 7:30. I wondered if I should get up now, but decided to wait it out in the tent in case it started to pour again. And pour it did. Everything about this storm seemed worse than the first, rain, wind, lightning. Every time we thought it would let up, it got worse. I was praying that the tent would hold. And hoping there wouldn’t be big hail, a tornado, or a lighting strike on the tree that was directly above us. I powered up the Weather radio to find out. Nothing about tornados. Whew. And finally it started to die down, and then stop. It was safe enough to leave the tent around 9.
Getting “up” at 9 am was going to be a problem. The aim-to for the night was Vermilion, about 100 miles away. I had lined up a Warmshowers host there. This would be a tough goal for such a late start. As it was, we didn’t even leave the campground until around 11:30 am, and were delayed from leaving the main gate by another half-hour, as a gaggle of bison blocked the way out. Approaching bison on a bike is never a good idea, and the blockers were male, who were supposedly aggressive during mating season. Which is August. We had to wait it out a bit, and managed to pass by them when a phalanx of passing vehicles provided “protection” from them.
Thankfully conditions improved after leaving the park. The road mostly flat, the wind at our backs, the sky clear. Still, it would have been nice to have a chance to stop at the Ukranian Heritage Centre at the park’s exit if we had the time (and money). Even with the ample conditions meaning we were moving at a good clip, we were still behind. We had only gone about 45 miles by the time we arrived in Vegreville (home of the world’s largest Pysanka, or Ukranian Easter Egg) at it was after 4 pm. I realized that getting to Vermilion by dark was a lost cause, so I texted our host Keith in Vermilion (not to be confused with Keith in Edmonton) to let him know we wouldn’t make it tonight. “I can pick you up” was his response.
We thought about this for a moment. I don’t really like the idea of getting rides on a bike tour. We did it four times so far (not counting using transit to get into Seattle or Vancouver, BC). All these born out of necessity: outside Vancouver, Wash. due to April’s handlebar failure; into Spokane because April’s shoulders were killing her and we had over ten miles to go; on US 2 near Marias Pass due to road construction; and into Banff due to severe weather. I couldn’t consider being “behind schedule” to be a necessity. This veered too much into cheating territory, and once you let one cheat slide, you invite the possibility of future cheats. Next thing you know you’re hitch-hiking the whole way to Minneapolis. But then we considered our options: there really wasn’t much of anything between here and Vermilion except a couple small towns and a few camping options. We’d either have to pay for camping or find an appropriate stealth camping spot, which seemed a bit hard with the endless fields. Staying in Vermilion would be free, and it would be indoors. So we decided to ride a few more hours and then get picked up.
After a respectable 70 mile day, we made it to the town of Innisfree at 7:30pm and called Keith. He got there in about a half hour. Keith was an English gentleman and an Anglican priest who lived on an acreage north of town. Originally the plan was to put us up in the church, but instead we would stay in the small apartment behind a store he and his wife owned in town. On the brief ride to town we talked a little about bike touring. He talked a little about his rural house, completely off the grid. The storm that had hit us in the morn grew stronger as it moved east, and by the time it hit Vermilion it produced damaging hail that wiped out part of his garden. Looks like we had missed the worst. (When we reached Lloydminster the next night, the storm indeed spawn a tornado.)
We talked a little with Keith and his wife, and they left us to our own devices. It was nice to have our own space that wasn’t a tent, even if it was just for a night. Because of this, we ended up sleeping longer than we should have on Sunday. And by the time we did get going, the steely skies opened up. It rained fairly steadily for most of the day. And there wasn’t much to look at or stop for, as we were in full-on prairie territory. Pretty much all of the land was being used for agricultural purposes, whether growing canola or wheat or the occasional ranch. The topography was fairly flat with some rolling hills.
We intended to do a respectable amount of riding this day, as Saskatoon was still about 200 miles away and we wanted to get there as fast as possible. Plus, there was really nothing to stop for on the way. But the rain thwarted our plans, plus a flat that I got, the second actual puncture flat I’ve gotten on the trip. By the time we got into Lloydminster late in the afternoon, we were wet and demoralized, and the rain wasn’t going to let up. Taking a break at Tim Hortons,*** we weighed our options. We had only gone about 35 miles. Lloydminster had a campground in the city, and beyond that was more small towns and farms. We didn’t know what our options would be once we left town and were in Saskatchewan, as I didn’t have appropriate info for that province yet. So we opted to camp in Lloydminster. This would leave us with 170 miles to Saskatoon, which we hoped to do in the next two days.
Lloydminster is an...interesting town. Since it was the largest town since Edmonton, it had big box stores galore. And it holds the title of Canada’s “border” city, as it straddles the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan. Unlike other border towns that sit on one side of the line, Lloydminster is in BOTH provinces as one city. We paused at the monument that delineates the border. Our third province of the tour. This also meant we’d be crossing into Central time from Mountain, but to make it all the more confusing, Saskatchewan doesn’t celebrate Daylight Savings Time, so it was the same time as Mountain.****
The campground was pretty unexciting, basically a place where RVs can park. Methinks many of the people in the RVs are working on the oilfields. (Stealth camping looks more appealing by the day. Now if there was somewhere to stealth camp in this area...) The main perks to this campground was the spotty free wifi, and a covered picnic shelter. We set up the tent and then spent the rest of our time under the shelter.
The weather was perfect when we woke up Monday morning. Sunny, not too hot. As promised, the landscape flattened out in Saskatchewan. Nothing to do but ride, and ride we did. We paused quickly in small towns,promptly forgetting their names upon departure. We had a brief ten minute rainshower in the afternoon. And we made it to Battleford, 85 miles from Lloydminster, right at nightfall. After stopping for food, we quickly set up camp, showered, and crashed for the night.
Since it was so dark when we arrived, we didn’t realize that the campground was right on the edge of Fort Battleford National Historic Site. And we had the Parks Canada annual pass, it was “free” to get in, so what the hey? The fort was used in the later part of the 19th Century, and was built to “protect” the Anglo-Canadians from the natives. Many people took refuge there during a particular war that happened in the 1880's. Now it is a collection of buildings surrounded by a wood wall. There was barely anyone visiting, so we mostly talked to the historical re-enactors who seemed a tad bored.
The rest of the day was ride, ride, ride. The landscape was still pretty flat, though there were two hills getting out of the North Saskatchewan River valley. It was still hard though, as we didn’t have as much energy as we wanted and there was not a lot of visual stimulus. The mind was left to wander.
About 20 miles outside of Saskatoon, as the sun was going down, we met Tim, who would be our host for Saskatoon. This was the first time I had actually met Tim face-to-face, though we’ve “known” each other since the late ‘90‘s, as we traded mini-comics “back in the day”. He met us on his Yuba Mundo, which he uses to haul around his kids, Keira and Finnegan. Just like Keith in Edmonton, it was good having a local “pilot” us into town, as he got us off of busy Hwy. 16 just as it got totally dark. We navigated the streets of Saskatoon and finally reached Tim and Amanda’s house around 11pm, 92 miles later. Exhausted, we devoured pizza and pie, showered, and crashed. Five days and we made it!
*I never said I was the smartest bicycle tourist.
**The other exchange that hastened my departure was regarding routing out of the city. Keith suggested a route that primarily used a busy road sans bike lanes or any special bicycling provisions. He can be regarded as somewhat of a “vehicular cyclist”, not out of fealty to the belief system promoted by the late John Forrester, but out of practical necessity since Edmonton lacks bike lanes and all that business. After a week of riding on multi-laned boulevards, I was getting sick of it, so I enquired about using a route on a quieter neighborhood street a block off the busy one. He looked at me as if I were speaking Swahili.
***Stopping at Canadian donut-coffee chain Tim Hortons has become one of our guilty pleasures on this trip. I’m addicted to their “iced coffee”. I don’t know how much actual coffee is in it, but it’s more like sweet liquid crack.
****If you ever want to hear an earful, ask someone from an area that doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time what they think about all that business.