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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Triumphs and Tragedies: On the road from Saskatoon to Winnipeg, Part One (The Saskatchewan section)

Potash mine west of Lanigan, Saskatchewan

It’s approximately 500 miles (800 km) from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Winnipeg, Manitoba. This is the heart of the Canadian Prairies, so the land is primarily flat, with a few exceptions. And at this time of year, the wind primarily comes out of the west, which means a consistent tailwind for biking eastward. Since there wasn’t much between the two cities, the overriding goal was to get to Winnipeg as fast as possible.

So why was this segment of the trip, a section that lacked any of the mountain challenges of the first two months, the most challenging of this trip to date?

Besides the setbacks we faced on the road, the reason why I think it was due to our mental outlook. By mid-August I had hoped to be in northern Minnesota. We were a bit behind schedule, even though we don’t really have a “schedule", I was hoping to be further along by then. Now that the mountains were far behind us, the Prairies were an anti-climax. Besides hanging out with people in the bigger cities and places like Elk Island, there wasn’t much to stop for. We just wanted to “get through it" as fast as possible, which is never the right mindset to be in on a bike tour. 

And by this point, with flat land and a tailwind, we were hoping to just put in a bunch of 100 mile days. After pulling an 80 mile day followed by a 100 mile day getting into Edmonton, then an 85 mile day followed by a 92 mile day getting into Saskatoon, we realized this wasn’t going to be sustainable. We had to spend a day recovering, not a good thing to do if we were’nt having a rest day until Winnipeg. We realized we had to stick to 50-60 mile days, especially as the sun was setting earlier and earlier. Thankfully 60 mile days didn’t seem that tough anymore.

Anyways, I should just lay it out as it happened.

Sunday August 14th, 2011. Day 80 of the trip. Tim guided us through the suburban streets of Saskatoon to the very edge of town. We bid him adieu and hopped on Highway 16, the Yellowhead Route, eastward. The landscape quickly opened up into flat to rolling farmlands and occasional groves of aspen and birch. This would normally be a piece of cake, but we were faced with a stiff headwind, one of the few we’ve had through the Prairies. We barely hit 10 miles an hour even on the flats. As we departed from town late, the aim-to of Colonsay, a town about 40 miles away, didn’t look possible. At 8pm we pulled into a highway rest stop before the “town” of Elstow, just 30 miles out of town.

The rest area was an island of aspen and birch in a sea of farmland. It offered shelter from the wind. Could we camp here? We didn’t see anything indicating it was an official campground, but there was also no signs saying “No camping” or “No overnight use” like you would see in the States. The only other folks there were two motorcyclists. 
“Are you looking for a spot to camp?” they ask.
“There’s a real good spot right there.”
And there it was: a little hidden grassy spot in the trees. It even had a picnic bench!  Of course, there was the whole issue if it was kosher or not. April and I are not against stealth camping, but we rarely did it ourselves, preferring the facilities (but not necessarily the cost) of sanctioned campgrounds. But with the sun setting, there was no way we’d make it to the nearest official campground. If anyone showed up, we’d hope they’d be sympathetic or not.

The motorcyclists chatted with us for a little bit, even offering a bit of their whiskey to share. I don’t mind sharing a drink, but I was a bit leery of these guys drinking and then motorcycling back to the city.

Our biggest worry of the night, besides getting “caught” camping was thunderstorms. Listening to the weather band, we heard there was a Severe Thunderstorm Watch for areas to the east and south of us. We could see a lot of lightning in those directions, but it wasn’t moving towards us. After the storm we experienced at Elk Island, we were a bit stressed, especially since we were under trees that were some of the highest points around. Thankfully nothing happened. Nor did anyone come to kick us out of the camping spot, though I heard a car in the rest area around 3am.

Monday August 15, Day 81. It was a pretty uneventful day. The landscape was mostly open just like it was the day before and just like it will be for days to come. The main points of interest were the potash mines in the area. The tailings from the mines formed giant hills several hundred feet in elevation. They could be seen for miles. We had a bit of a headwind in the morning, but it shifted to a tailwind as the day progressed. We managed 65 miles without much effort. Our stay for the night was a Warmshowers couple in the teeny town of Jansen. We enjoyed their farming hospitality, as they fed us until our guts almost exploded. Pat and Howard lived in “town”, while Howard was a semi-retired farmer who still worked on the family farm. They grew the normal staple crops of the area-canola, wheat, lentils. Lentils? Yep, apparently some lentils can grow in this climate. Most of them are shipped overseas to Asia.

Tuesday August 16, Day 82. Still more mostly flat, with a little bit of rolling. And a stiff 20 m.p.h. tailwind. This was possibly the easiest, most effortless day of biking on the entire tour. We didn’t feel like we needed to pedal most of the time, the wind was that strong. The pattern for this part of Saskatchewan was a larger “town" of a couple thousand (where there would be a larger, but not great supermarket), with a few smaller towns of a couple hundred. The main point of interest other than a large lake (Quill Lake) was the small communities that were founded by Icelandic peoples during the beginning of the 20th century. The town of Elfros had a memorial. But that was it. The day went by amazingly fast. We covered 57 miles in just four hours (on the saddle), averaging 14 miles an hour. Our best average. We ended the day in the town of Foam Lake’s municipal campground. Many municipal campgrounds are pretty “meh”, but this one offered a secluded spot for us to camp. As the sun went down, I managed to spot a beaver in the brush gnawing away at a downed birch tree. Nature!

Wednesday August 17, Day 83. The day looked good. Sunny but not too hot, upper 70‘s F. 
A nice tailwind. And more flat, monotonous scenery all the way to Yorkton, about 60 miles to the east. No problem!

We were about 15 miles east of Foam Lake when April noticed a clicking, popping sound from the chain. I thought it might be derailleur issues, but when we inspected the chain, one link was clearly broken on one side. But not to worry! Remember the big deal about not carrying a chain tool from a previous post? We’ve got one now! So I handed April the tool.
“I don’t know how to use it.”
“But you were right there when Keith demonstrated it!”
“I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand chains.”
This frustrated me, mostly because this thrust me into a Traditional Gender Role. I would become The Boyfriend Fixing The Girlfriend’s Bicycle. Now April is good about fixing flats, and I don’t particularly mind doing things for her every once in awhile. But I hate being pushed into the role. This had already happened once, on Day One. When April’s stem was coming loose from her stem extension, it was assumed I would have the extra-long Allen wrench to fit down inside this Rube Goldbergesque contraption. Never mind that it wasn’t my bike, nor did I know how the stem plus extender “worked”, but I was supposed to have the tool.

I was also frustrated because I felt like all the talk about the chain tool over the last week jinxed me, but oh well.

So I got to work. Removing the bad link was easy. But the ease turned to frustration quickly. I tried to add a replacement link, but as I tried to tighten the one link, the other link next to it was coming loose. What the fuck was happening? I futzed around for several minutes, trying to get it right. But it kept on undoing itself.

I felt so incompetent. Despite the whole “Shawn is a moron for not bringing a chain tool on a cross-continental tour” nonsense, I have used a chain tool before, and have replaced a chain on one of my bikes once or twice. So theoretically it shouldn’t be a problem. But now, when it’s “do or die” time, I’m failing. Goddamit, I should be able to fix my girlfriend’s bike!

While trying to fix the chain, a driver going in the opposite direction stopped to see if he could offer assistance. While the gesture was nice, it broke my concentration. And the solution he offered: drive back to Foam Lake to either a farm or auto mechanic, because “they might have a chain” was not a feasible option. Not when I knew there was a bike shop in Yorkton. All this would do would lead to a couple hours wasted. No thanks. But what to do now?

The answer became obvious: hitch-hike. I didn’t want to futz with the uncooperative chain any longer. I know that it wasn’t so long ago that I had said that I was wary of getting rides on bike tours, but at this point I didn’t care. And I thought getting a ride shouldn’t be a problem, as I’ve never waited for more than 20 minutes any time I’ve needed to hitch on a bike tour in the past. This is farm country, right? Lots of trucks. Shouldn’t be a problem. It was almost two pm. We surmised it would take an hour of driving to get to Yorkton. If we could get picked up by 2:30, we could get to the bike shop around 3:30, out of the shop by 4, tops. Heck, we could go further east, get a jump on things, get closer to Winnipeg. No worries!

We waited almost 2 1/2 hours for a ride.

This wasn’t for the lack of traffic. Hwy. 16 is a busy road, and there were plenty of cars. Plenty of trucks, with beds wide open and space to fit us in the cab. After the umpteenth truck passed us without stopping, we started to curse every vehicle that went by. This. Shouldn’t. Be. That. Hard.

And even though there was plenty of trucks, the ride we finally got was in a car. Even though I had my doubts that we’d be able to fit everything inside (I was so frustrated at one point I almost had a tantrum and flung my bike to the side of the road), we managed to make it work. Our driver said that picking up hitch-hikers was illegal in Saskatchewan, which explained a lot. But couldn’t folks see the bikes, which would signify that we weren’t your “typical” hitchhikers? No, because many drivers would go out of their way to avoid us. They wouldn’t make eye contact and pass us in the opposite lane. Our ride almost didn’t see the bikes either.

By the time we got into Yorkton, it was just a little after 5, which I knew was when the bike shop closed. So much for pushing on. We got dropped off at the municipal campground at the edge of town, since we didn’t know what else to do. The camping set us back $20, and I don’t know if it was worth it. As I’ve said, municipal campgrounds are a crapshoot. This one did offer free showers,* but the setting left something to be desired. The tent spots were practically on top of each other with no privacy between them. And the spot was close enough to Hwy. 16 so that we heard the constant drone of traffic all night, occasionally interspersed with a freight train. And our drunk neighbors kept on singing the theme to “M.A.S.H” loudly.

After a meh night of sleeping, we packed up camp and walked bikes over to the bike shop, thankfully about a mile away. We were a bit worried about what we would find, as small town bike shops, much like municipal campgrounds, are a crapshoot. Would it be one of those situations where the mechanic is only there one day a week, and today ain’t the day? Or somehow they wouldn’t have the proper chain? Or we’d get a clueless kid who’s manning the shop for the day while their dad was away on errands?**and***and**** But luckily the shop (Bike Swim Run) was cool. The mechanic was there, and he was competent. April got a nice new Shimano chain installed in a few minutes. Now we were ready for more riding. And a new province to ride through.

*Much to April’s chagrin, the bathrooms were over-the-top with air fresheners. They put those Renuzit stick air freshners in EVERY SINGLE STALL IN THE BATHROOM.
**This was the case with the shop in Harrison, Idaho. I went in there in the hopes of getting a couple spare 5mm bolts for braze-ons. “I don’t think we have those. We just have basic bike stuff.” Like bicycle racks, which they stocked. So how does he mount them? 
***Or when we had to go to the camping/clothing/hunting/bike shop in Whitefish, Montana. April was having constant flats in the rear tire, so we hoped a tire liner would be helpful. “Tire liner? Do you mean rim tape?” Okay, let’s see if you have a thorn-resistant inner tube instead. “What’s that?” Ugh.
****This is the point where I see the appeal in the Keith “Raving Bike Fiend” Hallgren system of having an on the road tool kit/spare parts supply that can fix 99% of problems on the road. Or maybe like Coreen suggested we should just having a Raving Bike Fiend along with us.


  1. I can totally relate on the progress thing - and since I want to be back in Portland by early November, I'm not even sure if I'll make it all the way across the US. You two are doing great, though - it's all about the journey, and you're doing it! I look forward to swapping stories when we're all back in Portland.

    I tend to carry too much. I still don't have everything, though - I ended up buying a casette removal tool and chain whip, and I still can't use it to fix my most recent broken spoke because the crescent wrench I have isn't long enough to break the darn thing loose. The lockring is just too tight. (I hope to remedy that in Steamboat Springs)

    Wouldn't it be interesting if we end up at Brad & Kim's at the same time?

    Oh, I finally found another thorn-resistant tube in Rock Springs, and I'm going to put it on the front tire - the back tire has been bulletproof, and I really love those tubes, they're great for touring. Amazing how hard it is to find them in bike shops across the US.

    Keep on trucking! Still reading the blog, just don't have a lot of time to comment with trying to write mine, ride decent mileage, and still get some sleep! :-)

  2. Glad you made it across the prairies with some good tailwinds. I have been cycling on the prairies a few times where walking is faster than riding, and one really needs ski goggles to see properly into the wind...

  3. Welcome to that great bike unfriendly middle zone of the country.

    Sorry to hear about the chain fiasco and the boyfriend the fixer issue. As I recommended on day one - each of you should take on a role you do best - divide up the tasks and be the captain of it - repairs, setting up camp, shopping, route finding, etc. Just to minimize toes being stepped on or worse - forgetting a critical task and having to backtrack / or loosing something.

    Let us know if you need a set of thorn resistant tires mailed east to you.

    Let us know I'd you


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