Nobody told us about the mountains. They told us that there were places along Canada’s north shore where we might not be able to find groceries for a few days at a time, and they told us there were no bike shops in the 770 or so kilometers between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, and they told us about the apple fritters at Batchawana Bay and the great bike shop called Vélorution that you can camp behind in the Sault. But we didn’t hear about the most salient part of our Ontario section until we were coming up on the town of Nipigon, population 1,700, northernmost town on the lake. There, after a hard day of riding on sporadically paved shoulder on a concurrency of both Trans-Canadian Highways alongside every truck going from one Canadian coast to the other, a gremlin suddenly overtook me on a bicycle, cutting sharp turns on the roadway and grinning enormously.
He pulled even with me and Maria, and introduced himself as Brent, from Ottawa; he told us about how he’d been biking around Canada for four months now, after doing it for seven months last year and then working at a Subway in a little town in British Columbia. Since getting going this year, he’d ridden the Cassiar Highway up to the Yukon, pedaled around Alaska and the Yukon for a while, and eventually gone all the way up to Tuktoyaktuk on the freshly completed Inuvik–Tuktoyaktuk Highway, Canada’s first road to the Arctic Ocean that isn’t an ice road. He wasn’t the only biker on the ITH; a seventy-year-old guy was riding it too, and ruthlessly pushing Brent to keep up with him, which kept Brent from giving up all those times he was about to: “Well, now I kinda have to, don’t I?” Bringing up the rear was another guy, who refused to keep more than 40 PSI of air in his tires for some reason, and would get annoyed when anyone suggested he ride with better pressure, and would roll into camp four hours after Brent and the other guy, exhausted to the point of collapse.
But along the Trans-Canada, Brent hadn’t had much company for a while, so he spent the night with us next to the Nipigon River, which is the largest single river that feeds Lake Superior, draining the enormous caribou-flocked Lake Nipigon just north of us. We picked up another friend too that night, Willy, a German hitchhiker, who was surprised by how many other Germans he’d met in Canada, and seemed relieved to spend time with an actual Canadian and some Statesiders. A chilly breeze sent us all into our thick layers and we spent the evening talking around a fire built with wood someone had left behind. It was the campground’s last night of the season, and no one even came around to charge us for the pleasure of staying there.
In the morning Brent parted ways from our group, going up Highway 11 on the northern route, through dense wilderness, while we went down 17 to stick to the lake shore. As we rode to our goodbye point, we mentioned the hills that had kicked our asses the previous day, and he told us there’d be more of them. “B.C. has mountains—Ontario has mountains too, and you’re going to be in them.”
With those encouraging words we set off across the rest of the north shore. In our high-viz, visited by plenty of trucks, we cranked out those kilometers each day, sometimes up to ninety, sometimes only sixty or so, depending on how thoroughly the mountains were defeating us. Always they took their toll. But we got to see the Lake from points high and low, on top of cliffs and looking up at cliffs. A couple days ago we stopped to walk down to the bottom of a cliff, Agawa Rock, and pick along a narrow shelf at its bottom to look at paintings left by the Anishinaabe anywhere from 150 to 400 years ago—Mishibizhiw (the Giant Lynx, manifestation of the spirit of Gichi-Gami itself), people in canoes, caribou, snakes, all in an indelible red paint made from ochre and sturgeon isinglass, stuff that lasts as long as the rock it’s painted on, still visible after centuries of storm waves, ice, and snow hurled at it.
I’ve met people along the way. In White River—the town where, in 1914, a trapper sold a bear to an infantryman, who went on to name her Winnie after Winnipeg where he came from, and train her for the troops on their long voyage to the European theater of World War I, and finally sell her to the London Zoo, where A.A. Milne brought his son Christopher Robin to see her—I met a retired bike mechanic and railroad welder. He didn’t have the right freewheel puller for us to replace my broken spoke, but we did sit in his house and talk for a while about the railroad, all the people he’s seen come through White River with a broken spoke on the back wheel, and the state of Canada and of the world. In Pic River, a First Nation, we stayed with Doug, a retired schoolteacher, who brought us to the mouth of the Pic, where its muddy water mixes with Lake Superior’s clear water amid a giant sand dune covered in tenacious shore grass crisscrossed with trails where people have gone down to the beach to have fires and talk since time immemorial. Every time he comes here, he told us, he feels an energy, and with a strong wind whipping up tall whitecaps and blowing the chill of the water into our faces, I had to agree.
Back on our first day in Canada, we got recommendations for places to stay all along the north shore from a guy named Frank, who’s been hosting passing-through cyclists at his house since the ’90s, and has ridden across Canada and around the lake himself. Everywhere he pointed us (including Doug’s house) was great. But I think our favorite place was one we found ourselves, in Lake Superior Provincial Park, along the eastern shore. Exhausted after a day of even harsher mountains than usual, we found a park map with some inconspicuous red triangles indicating campsites along the shore. When we got to the first one, just past a stream called Coldwater River, we discovered our unassuming red triangle was in fact a mile-long beach curving out of sight under the gaze of a sheer cliff, and we had it all to ourselves for the night. The water was oneirically clear and the rocks striped with offhanded miracles of art. Cedars clung impossibly to the rocks at the edge of the beach and the sun shot hazy rays through clouds over a green island. We slept well.
Last night we made it to Sault Ste. Marie, only to find Vélorution closed for Sunday, but luckily an employee came by on his off day to work on his own bike, and gave us the bathroom code and permission to shower and set up camp and just generally take care of ourselves any way we needed. Today we’re having our first rest day since Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, which was ten days ago just after we got into the country. I got that broken spoke fixed and I’ve had time to get a new pen, replace my ripped-ass old shorts, and sit down to write this in the library. It was only a couple days ago, as we reached our limits of raggedness, that we realized how much we needed this day, and it’s been mighty good. Tomorrow we cross into the US and the UP, where I’m told the terrain is flatter. I’m almost disappointed. But there’s plenty more to see before we close this circle.
Oh, and those apple fritters in Batchawana Bay were fantastic.