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Friday, August 26, 2011

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

Gilbert, mascot of Gilbert Plains, Manitoba

Last time I left you it was Thursday August 18, Day 84. We had just obtained a new chain for April’s bike in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, the last town of note before crossing into Manitoba. The day promised to be a good one. Not only was the flat landscape going to continue, but we were getting off of busy Highway 16, the Yellowhead Route. While this meant we lost the enormous 8 foot paved shoulder we’ve had up to this point, getting only a 2 foot shoulder in consolation, but the traffic dropped dramatically. We just had to contend with local traffic for a change. And miniscule towns--we thought we saw some small ones so far, but Hwy 10 east of Yorkton takes the cake.

And about 40 miles later, there it was--Manitoba. A new province, and one that offered some change of scenery. As soon as we crossed, we dropped dramatically down a couple hundred feet to the Lake of the Prairies Valley. This was the biggest hill we’d been down for weeks. But of course we had to go back up the other side, a steep 8% grade. This was the fist time I’d used the granny gear (except for the steep hills along the river in Edmonton) since Icefields Parkway!

The change of scenery was welcome, but we still had trepidations about the new province. For Manitoba is cursed by bike tourers near and far for their gravel shoulders. I had heard about it for awhile. But what hit it home for me was when we were at Tim and Amanda’s in Saskatoon. We watched the documentary Rubber Side Down, about two guys who toured across Canada in 2008 to raise funds and awareness for Chron’s Disease. Upon entering Manitoba on the Trans-Canada Highway, they heard that two cycle tourists had just died on the Trans-Canada, hit from behind because they were riding in the lane to avoid the shoulder. It scared them so much that they stuck to the gravel side roads (and in this neck of the woods, EVERY side road is gravel) to avoid it. Hearing about the tragedy, April and I were scared as well. At least we were avoiding the Trans-Canada Highway, well, at least mowst of it.

Riding into Roblin, Hwy 5* did indeed have a gravel shoulder. But traffic was light so riding in the lane wasn’t a problem. It won’t be bad as long as it stays this way, I thought. In Roblin we stayed in one of the nicest, if not THE nicest,** municipal campgrounds of the tour. We set up tent on a small rise above a pond, with only one RV as a neighbor. The showers--and firewood--were free. And the camp office doubled as an ice cream palour! All this for $10!

We set out east again in the morning (Friday August 19). As the countryside was rolling, this was some of the most captivating scenery we had seen in a long time. The shoulder was still 6 or so feet of gravel (with small paved sections thrown in just to confuse us) but the traffic still light. The ride to the small town of Grandview, where we had a snack, was pleasant.

After Grandview the sweet turned to sour. The road flattened out again. The gravel shoulder remained. And now the traffic increased, so much so that I was looking in my helmet mirror more than I wanted. It was probably during one of those mirror checks that I accidentally traveled into the crap shoulder. I managed to find a line that was relatively clear for a bit, but I wanted to get back out onto the paved lane. Rather than be smart about it and stop, I tried to get out of the gravel without slowing. My front wheel caught a drift right at the edge of the pavement, I went down on the pavement--hard.

I quickly got up. I hurt, but nothing felt broken, nor was I bleeding. I managed to hit myself in the ribs as I landed on my hand there, which made me worry for a sec. The bike looked fine. Nothing was damaged, except my dignity. Especially since a couple cars saw me fall. After giving myself a break for a couple, I got back on. Now I was riding more cautiously than I had before. This whole gravel business shook me more than I wanted to admit. And we still had a while to go before we were out of Manitoba.

Thankfully our place to stay was an oasis in a endless landscape of flat fields. Our warmshowers host, Brian, lived in six wooded acres on the outskirts of the town of Dauphin on the Vermilion River. The house he lived in he had built himself. Not only that, but he had built a separate cabin that had a sauna! Unfortunately it wasn’t finished yet. We enjoyed his hospitality; he fed us well and entertained us with stories about his bike touring experiences. 

I awoke Saturday with a feeling of trepidation and excitement. The excitement was for Riding Mountain National Park, which we would soon be entering. Riding Mountain lies on the Manitoba Escarpment, a glacially created feature where the landscape rises 500-1000 feet above the flat prairie. The “mountain” was clearly visible in the past day of riding. But trepidation stemmed from the fall. I wasn’t looking forward to more gravel shoulders.

The couple miles getting out of Dauphin were a bit hairy, but the traffic decreased upon entering the park. Wheat fields gave way to forested slopes, and we spent several miles climbing to the top of the ridge. Some of the grades were 8%, but I hoped the “pay-off” would be worth it. Unfortunately there was no pay off. No grand vistas of the flat lands below, just trees on the sides of the road. There would be an occasional lake or swamp, breaks in the wall of trees. But mostly trees it was. At least we had a shallow but paved shoulder, and a break from farm land.

Our intention was to camp in the townsite of Wasagaming, on the south entrance of the park. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road, so we were hoping that the campground wouldn’t be crowded. As we closed in on the town, we realized what folly that was, especially on the second-to-last Saturday of August. In the town itself was a free concert, with people (and cars) spilling out everywhere. And then it got worse. We entered the sprawling Wasagaming campground (over 500 sites) to find that the cheapest site was $27.50 a night. Yipes! We decided to first check out the grounds, in the hopes we might find someone to share a campsite (and costs) with.*** 

We were glad we checked out things, because it would have been a night of hell if we stayed there. The campground was covered with DOUCHEBAGS. This is no minor exaggeration. Row after row of “bros” blasting music, drinking booze even though there was an alcohol ban in effect.**** People stared at us. One guy yelled at me because in his drunken state he thought my helmet light was a “webcam”.***** We were actually scared. 

We paused at a quiet corner and discussed our options. There would no way we’d get sleep, between the noise from the douchebags and the concert and worrying whether these drunk morons would fuck with us, or our bikes, in the night. There was no way we were staying here. But where to go? Consulting the Manitoba camping guide, it looked like there was a campground in the town three miles south of here. We decided to chance it, and got out of Dodge in the fading daylight.
We got into Onanole but couldn’t find a campground. But then I saw the business that would be our salvation: a used bookstore/coffee shop with art strewn everywhere. And it was still open! I had a good feeling about the place, and figured they might be able to offer some help. We walked in and asked the staff, explained our situation, and asked if they knew where the campground was. “Oh, that’s about five kilometers down a gravel road.” Sigh. “But you know, you can just camp in the grass behind the store.” Salvation!

The shop was so nice. They even made sure that we were properly fed before they had to close it down for the night. I’d like to say we even got a great night’s sleep, but the drunk 19 year olds hootin’ and hollerin’ at the bar down the street prevented that. (To their credit, the shop did warn us about that.) When we awoke on Sunday morning, after eating and getting ready, we tried to figure out What To Do Next.

We were really, really itching to get to Winnipeg as fast as possible. But it was still about three days away by bike. And every option sucked. Either we could head south and get onto Hwy. 16, which would be 2 lanes, gravel shoulders, and busy, or ride further south to Hwy. 1, which would be 4 lanes, gravel shoulders, and busier. There was also the option of riding even further south to Hwy. 2, which is supposedly quieter than the other two, but would add a lot more distance on things. I was in no mood to deal with gravel shoulders and busy highways anymore. I wanted out as fast as possible. So we decided that we would take the least busy routing to the town of Neepawa on Hwy 16, about 45 miles away, and hitch.

Now I know how I’ve expressed dislike for hitch-hiking as an easy way out on a bike tour. (And our previous experience outside of Yorkton still left a bitter taste in my mouth.) But at this point I was desperate for an easy way out. I was getting tired of the Prairies. I was genuinely concerned for our safety if we rode the busy highway into Winnipeg. And I just wanted to get this segment of the trip over as fast as possible. If it meant cheating a little bit, so be it. I was being pragmatic. I didn’t feel like it would do us any good to “suffer” the gravel shoulders and high traffic for two more days, just because I was being a purist.

Of course we still had some riding to do. The ten miles on Hwy 10 south from Onanole to Erickson were hell. No shoulder again, and lots of traffic leaving the park. All the douchebags of the previous night. Yes, we got honked at a few times.

Things improved somewhat after Erickson. We thought we might have found salvation in the form of a rail-trail that would lead all the way to Neepawa. But the elation was short-lived as we realized the trail wasn’t improved. They simply removed the tracks, ties, and ballast, leaving a primitive rutted surface. The couple miles we rode on it gave us some nice views and got us away from the traffic, but we were only doing 6-8 miles an hour over rough terrain. So we got onto one of the few paved secondary highways in this area. The traffic was low, the country was scenic and rolly, but the wind was at our faces most of the time. We had a good descent into the flat land of central Manitoba (the ancient bed of Lake Aggasiz) and more riding on flat Hwy 5 to get us to Neepawa around 6:30pm. After eating, we tried to hitch at the edge of town on Hwy 16. No luck. Dejected, we limped into the town campground (rating: meh) for the night.

Luckily it only took a half hour of waiting on Monday morning to get the perfect ride: A cool young woman driving a big truck all the way to Winipeg. Plenty of space for our shit, our bikes, and us. Brooke was a Brit via France who was working on a farm outside Dauphin. Not a local, which leads us to believe locals don’t pick up hitch-hikers in these parts. Brooke has been bumming around for a while, and told tales of hitching as well. She recounted how hard it was for her, a young white woman, to even get a ride in these parts in January, with snow piled high and -40 temps.****** She was going through some tough times and liked having someone to keep her company for the couple hour ride into Winnipeg. And it was good for us to not have to worry about awkward conversation in the truck.

She dropped us off in Winnipeg in the mid-afternoon. It’s April’s first time, but I have been here once before, eight years ago. The last visit wasn’t that good. Here’s hoping this one will be better.

*Saskatchewan Hwy 10 turns into Manitoba Hwy 5 at the border. Yeah, I know. Confusing.
**Of course there were some drawbacks, like half the sites were flooded, no real place to wash dishes, and the shower room could use a bench. But these are minor quibbles.
***This is something that I’ve heard some tourers do, along with the asking farmers to camp on their land.
****Apparently there are some weekends during the summer (mostly holiday weekends) that attract a lot of partying in certain national parks, hence the ban.
*****Actually many people think this, whether drunk or not. But try to explain this to a drunk person.
******C or F, what does it matter? It’s fucking cold out!

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