I crossed the St. Marys River, a living, churning border between Michigan and Ontario, being tested by strong winds and on a bridge under construction. Cresting the top of the bridge, weaving around cones and bracing for the impatient cars, I left the United States behind. Then, letting gravity pick up my speed, I was carried into Canada. I was excited to enter new terrain, the monarch’s northern territory, and I biked with gusto into the world of loonies, kilometers, Tim Hortons, and bilingual signage. I was in Canada. I had biked there from Mexico.
It seemed almost unbelievable to finally have arrived. I reflected on what crossing two countries and arriving at a third looked like, a montage of small challenges and victories linked by uphills and downhills, headwinds and tailwinds; where a thousand turns connected me to monarchs and those fighting for them. A montage so full of haps (if that is a word), mishaps, and unforgettable miles that it felt like the 3.5 months it took to arrive had been stretched to fit more into each second. It was a montage of adventure, invited by simply striking out into the world and seeing what would happen. And the crazy part was that I wasn’t even half-way done. The range of stories could do nothing but grow, starting with my ride across Canada.
At the border, in the paved arms of the Ste. Sault Marie (affectionately called the Soo) I was grateful to have a plan. I had arrived 60 miles into the day and had been invited to stay with a friend who I had met at the monarch sanctuaries four months earlier. Val welcomed me to her house with pizza, a much needed shower, and a guest room with a frog theme. I hadn’t had a shower OR conversation beyond “I’m on a bike tour to follow the monarchs” since leaving Duluth and was happy to chat (and be clean!). The next day I headed east.
The Soo and Sudbury are connected by 200 miles of TransCanada highway and a zig zag bike route that meanders like a quiet stream alongside a noisy river. I downloaded the bike route maps and trusted them completely to lead me through Canada’s country, a patchwork of farms and wild. For two days, I couldn’t believe my luck. Quiet roads, literally dotted lines of paved and gravel sections, twisted through the quiet. The epitome of back roads. Mennonite farmers with smiles under wide brimmed hats and bonnets, passed me in horse-drawn buggies; a dozen questions on the tip of my waving hand. A skunk, gloriously alive, paused while it passed to investigate me with curious nose and wary eyes. Tangles of country homes, barns, farming equipment and time sat in piles along the road. And there was milkweed.
Seeing milkweed along the road always gives me both confirmation and hope. As long as there is milkweed I am on a decent route. As long as there is milkweed the monarchs stand a chance. I note with confidence of stretching milkweed, and take comfort in its familiar wave until reality kicks me in the face. On the second day in Canada I turned onto a stretch of road flanked by an even, short, green shoulder; manicured by a recent mow. The tops of all the wildflowers laid strewn about, still green, each plant in denial, still living without a future. I stopped to inspect the beheaded milkweed, and saw what I feared. On each plant I picked up, sat an egg or tiny caterpillar. Dozens and dozens of the next generation, seemingly unaware that their home had just been hacked. I told myself, without confidence, that the eggs could hatch and crawl to neighboring milkweed.
Then I started walking collecting each egg and finding a milkweed off the road to tuck the homeless leaves and developing monarchs into. Sixty eggs later, I knew that it was impossible to walk across Canada transplanting eggs. Instead I showed the eggs to a local on a porch swing and told him what we all must do: call our local municipalities and tell them to coordinate mowing efforts with the seasons. If this road had been mowed two weeks earlier, before monarchs had arrived, all those eggs would have been laid on the plants' new growth and been protected from bad timing. There are so many problems in the world and this doesn’t need to be one of them. This one is solvable.
The bike route I was following told me to cross the TransCanada highway and continue for another ten miles on back roads. Instead I hit the TransCanada, ignoring the off highway option. My heart needed a break from the slashed milkweed, and the highway, with a wide gravel shoulder, meant mowers hadn’t come through. Out of sight was my only therapy.
At first the TransCanada highway was tolerable. I could enjoy the added speed that comes from pavement, mellow grades, and turn-less navigation. But an hour in I was wishing back road options existed once again. The paved shoulder was starved, less than 8 inches to buffer the hurried cars and semis that blasted down the road. I braced for each passing car and ignored the views, focusing instead on the road ahead. There was no room for anything but a perfectly straight course and vigilance.
At lunchtime I couldn’t believe my luck. A thick rain blasted from the sky at the exact moment I passed a countryside church with a perfect overhang for waiting out the weather. The body of the church blocked the wind and I was as protected as I could be. Dry and warm, I watched the rain fall. I was even able to wash my hands of bike chain gunk with a steady stream of water pouring like a faucet from the edges of the roof. I love these moments on the road, where needs are met by an idle or forgotten space. Bike touring makes you grateful for the small things, like rain collected from a roof to wash your hands. These small victories are never taken for granted, always celebrated, and not easily forgotten.
Bike touring makes you hypersensitive not just to good luck, but to mis-steps as well. As my focus shifted from watching the rain and to fixing lunch, I made a disturbing discovery. I no longer had four panniers. I stared at my bike, it seemed so unlikely that I figured what I saw couldn’t be. But after a minute there was no denying it, my rear pannier, stuffed to the brim with my cookware, food, and bike tools was missing. I ran through the last few hours. I couldn’t possibly imagine not noticing it falling off on a bump, and I hadn’t set my bike down in the last hour and a half. I would have to go back.
I started biking and two minutes in gave up on that idea. It could be 15 miles away. I couldn’t afford adding 30 miles (half a day) to my schedule. Next I tried hitchhiking, but the road was too fast and no one was interested in picking me up, especially now that the rain had forced me into my rain-gear. As my efforts failed, I imagined my pannier and a quarter of the stuff I needed picked up by a curious car, smashed by passing semis, or tumbling down the shoulder and out of view. I needed a new plan. That is why I walked up to a house and asked for a ride.
I picked the perfect house. The lady that answered, saw how worried I was and led me into her house. I was hungry and in a bit of a panic. My hunger intensified the crisis, as I imagined the effort it would take to replace everything, including my cook-pot, which was a gift, the only equipment I’ve taken on every adventure, and by now my most prized possession. I knew it was just a thing, but I didn’t want to lose it in such a foolish, careless way. Sensing my despair, the women assumed my predicament was much worse than it was. Her compassion made me feel silly and dramatic, so (of course) I started to cry. I was too old for this. I wanted to kick myself but instead I let her take care of me. She made me a sandwich, got me some water, and then we drove until we found my pannier. It was about 15 miles back, sitting just off the road, like an obedient dog waiting for my return. I concluded that it had fallen off when I had laid my bike down to gather milkweed, and I had biked off without looking back (beginner mistake), happily carrying on without noticing the change in weight or balance.
Back at my bike, with four panniers, I thanked the women who had saved me hours of biking and stress. I was exhausted from the drama, so I sat by my bike unwinding. As the sun dried the grass I was motivated, heading back onto the highway. Problem solved I laughed at my freak out and welcomed the good luck that led to solutions.
The good luck continued into the evening, when I found myself in a tiny sliver of public land (according to my map) only a bit before my daily mileage quota. It was still early enough to get my miles in, but the opportunity to camp on public land at the shore of Lake Huron seemed too good to pass up. I did hesitate a bit, but only because the shore was not exactly near the road, and a solid quarter mile bushwhack was in order. Still, I wanted to camp by the lake and so I dove into the thick forest pushing, pulling, dragging, yanking, sliding, hoisting, and lugging my bike through the woods, checking to make sure I was leaving nothing behind and fighting mosquitoes that ruled the dark, humid forest.
I only second-guessed my bushwhack-with-bike-to-lake decision once, but when I arrived at the rocky outcrop that overlooked the turbulent blue of a freshwater ocean, I was sold. Cut off from road noise and human sign, the world was mine. I walked from rock to rock, appreciating the painted sky, the vibrant horizon of islands, the carpet-covered rocks explored by adventurous tent caterpillars, and the vast lake rolling in blues. The black flies buzzed and bit, like guard dogs, but I didn’t mind. This was probably the best camp spot of the trip.
The adventurous tent caterpillars that I shared the shores with, were not specific to great lake views. They were everywhere. At first I stopped to help each one cross the road, but lamented that if I helped all of them I would never get anywhere. I switched to helping one every few miles when I’d stop to scratch the itch of curiosity that slowed me down and pulled me off my bike and into the ditches of the roads. For many folks these tent caterpillars are pests and nothing more. How boring their world is, to see only the nuisance in such beauty. I studied the gold flecks and emerald green swirls that painted each hairy caterpillar wandering bravely through the world.
By the time I made it to Sudbury I was ready for a break. And a break I would have, starting at Heather and Dave’s house, which sat like a country cottage in a buffer of vegetable gardens and aspens on an idyllic lake. Lohi Lake, a novelty for me, but one of many in Sudbury, was clear and cool. I enjoyed the view, deciding not to swim my first day because I had a house with a shower (which was beyond needed!).
Showered, laundered, and catching up on emails with a cup of warm tea, I watched the rain fall and was beyond content. I was also beyond grateful. Heather and Dave were on a weekend canoe trip, so they had arranged for me to arrive before them, and like so many times on this trip, I was left humbled by the generosity, trust, and openness of people. And for me it was perfect. I had an evening to get some work done and when they arrived two days later we would have a feast, a sauna, and a catch up – not on lost times but for the first time.
Sudbury, I was told had a large Finnish population, which brought over a culture of saunas. I had never used a sauna of any kind, and couldn’t believe my luck when Dave began building the fire. As a greenhorn I was given the seat furthest (and thus coolest and mellowest) from the fire and expert instructions about the sauna experience. Once we were hot, we’d head to the lake, walking into the water, now refreshing rather than cold; melting lower and lower into the water as mosquitoes buzzed overhead. Once cold, it was back to the fiery sauna to warm back up and repeat. We jumped into the lake twice, Dave said three time is for the ultra-tough. Often when I bike tour, I like to stop and look around and ask myself ‘how did I get here?’ During my sauna rounds, I only had a vague idea of all the pieces that fit together to make this visit happen. This is the magic of traveling.
Saunas were not my only first in Sudbury, I also tried paddleboarding for the first time thanks to an invitation from Gary and Jane. They were friends of Heather and Dave and knew my hosts were out of town and that I would likely (and rightly) love a home-cooked meal. Their house also sat on a lake and between dinner and dessert we went for a lap on their paddleboards. Living in a land of lakes with long, cold winters, it was fun to see how people experience the outdoors in novel ways. So much of culture is in response to climate. As I swam in the cool but not cold waters I imagined a frozen lake glassy enough to skate on. I imagined the often overlooked potential of the less obvious choice.
Everyone I met in Sudbury seemed to overlook nothing. In fact their passion and motivation was a bit overwhelming at times. The circle I was carried by included doctors, teachers, scientists, and even an IMAX director, all fighting the good fight by investing their time and energy into their communities to build up both people and the environment. Their passions included helping refugees resettle and turning Sudbury from a wasteland into a thriving habitat. I could see their efforts as I biked through the green and swam in the clean.
The story I was told was that Sudbury had been mined until it resembled the moon. US astronauts had practiced landing on the wrecked rock, cast away by mines. Immigrants cried when they arrived to find their new homes in a sea of rock, blackened by acid rain and smelter emissions. Sudbury was barren and mostly unlivable. The lakes, dead, sat like sterile reminders of what our actions can lead to. Unlike climate change or microplastics, the threats were obvious, in-your-face reminders of a unbalanced environment.
Then folks took a stand. They fought death with science and innovation and passion. They balanced the acid in the lakes, planted seedlings, and slowly saw their efforts work. In a world where the environment only seems to get sicker and sicker, here was a success story of second chances. The people were proud of their efforts, though none seemed ready to call it a day. Everyone was telling the story, creating an oral history and ethos to carry into the future.
My stop was not only to learn from and enjoy such wonderful company, but it was also to share the story of the monarch with Sudbury. I was invited to present at a science center and at a public school. They were my first presentations in Canada and I felt fresh. I was excited to test out my “jokes” in a new country and discover the similarities and differences of each country's schools.
Mostly, the schools seemed to operate about the same. I checked in with the office, and was welcomed by all I saw. One teacher not only organized my trip to the school, but also found time to make me a lunch, buy me coffee, helped me replace my mosquito head net, and lead the kids in a fundraiser for my trip! Like in the US, the kids were courteous and curious, making sure I knew where I was going and asking the best questions. The ones that recognized me from my photos and videos did double takes before waving. The only difference I saw, on the surface, was that the kids ate lunch in their rooms. There were no school lunches or cafeterias. My mind was blown! Where did the tv show dramas take place?!
So Sudbury pulled out the stops and sent me on my way well rested, clean, caught up on emails, and with enough food to get me a hundred miles down the road. Unfortunately the road was a highway, the TransCanada highway and the only option for 215 miles. Luckily I was in a bit of hurry so I raced forward, letting the speeding cars rumble by. I wish all drivers had to bike at least once on the roads they drive, perhaps then they would understand that slowing down for a moment is worth the 20 seconds of lost time.
The traffic was interrupted by a few bouts of excitement. I tried poutine, a mountain of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy, for the first time. I met a vacationing family from Quebec who bought me lunch, helped me with my French, and sent me down the road with a bottle of wine. I biked with other bicycle tourists for a stint.
The TransCanada Highway is not only a funnel for all of Canada’s automobile traffic, but for the cyclist traffic too. Between Mexico and Canada, I’d seen just one other cycle tourist, a young man on his first ever tour with bags of every type, tied on in every way. We had both been surprised to see each other, and he had admitted that on his next tour he’d bring a lot less books. Now in Canada I was seeing cyclists every day. Many were headed west, but about once a day I’d get passed by bikers headed east. Most of the time I would forget their faces but remember their bikes; I’d forget their names but remember their stories. All of them were faster than me, but still we would leapfrog thanks to pit stops and scheduling.
Most of the time passing cycle tourists will stop to chat for a second, covering the mandatory questions of starting points and destinations while ranting about traffic and praising the food and hospitality. Even on the exact same road all of our stories and experiences are different, and it is fun to swap stories and talk candidly with folks immersed in the same challenges and rewards of bicycle travel. Talking with these other travelers it is obvious that even the exact same route leads to different stories for every rider.
And the strategies of bike touring are different with every rider. These differences are noted, but not important. When you are traveling by bike, the bike connects you whether you are camping and cooking or hotel-ing and restaurant-ing. This was certainly the case when I met Nick, Ryan, and Frank on the road.
Nick and Ryan were two guys around my age cycling with a style about as opposite as mine as possible while still being on a bike. Their bikes were bare bones and they lugged as little as possible. They were going for speed, and thrived on cranking out the miles uninterrupted. They spent most nights in hotels, ate at restaurants, and didn’t see the appeal in my approach of carrying too much and going really slow. And that was the cool part. Every one of us on the road has our own way of doing things. I would never want to sleep in a hotel every night or lose the flexibility of not carrying food and cooking supplies. I would never want to bike without breaks and miss out on my studies of roadside milkweed, my photo sessions of busy beavers, and my hourly stretch breaks and snack stops. At the risk of a cliché, you’ve got to bike your own bike ride.
Still, it was fun to share a few hours of adventuring together. Nick and Ryan had been cycling together and had been recently joined by an older cyclist, Frank, when I found the three of them gorging at a restaurant. I enjoyed talking with them, happy to not only escape the disastrous rain but also to chat with folks that could relate to my experiences. I was enjoying talking with cyclists so much that I took them up on their offer to share a hotel room, which for me seemed like the most normal thing in the world, but probably needs some explaining.
There is a world of cycling and hiking, full of culture and unwritten rules. It is beyond common to meet, travel together for an hour, a day, a week, or even longer, then part ways with no fanfare. Fellow travelers suss out each other, and once deemed a weary traveler, link up and share resources. This is done, not without hesitation, but with great understanding. No one can fake being on the road for weeks and being road-worn is a wonderful filter.
I have gone to such great lengths to explain my rationale for sharing a room with three near strangers because I suspect many will have the same reaction as the woman working the front desk of the hotel the next morning. She asked me what room I was in and I couldn’t remember the number. So she asked me who paid for the room and I only knew his first name. She looked at me with great contempt. I thought about explaining, but saw no reason this woman needed to know the story. I smiled and left. I promise I am not crazy.
I met a few other cyclists in the following days. In fact, hours after getting off the TransCanada, and celebrating with a giant sigh of relief, a cyclist on a recumbent caught up with me. We cycled into Quebec together and both of us were supremely happy to be on back roads again. We both carried gear for camping, though it was unclear if either of us wanted company for the night. The decision was made about an hour before sunset, when we passed an unofficial roadside park. Not only did it have picnic tables, plenty of camping spots, and a pit toilet, it also didn’t have any signs saying camping was not allowed. It seemed beyond perfect, we were both impressed and started setting up camp.
As he set up his hammock and prepared dinner I was thrown back into the routine of bike touring with other folks. Four months in, this is my longest solo adventure and I am enjoying the freedom of being in a group of one. I enjoy eating when I am hungry, camping wherever I please, not getting angry at other people's choices, not having to ask and gain consensus. Still, I do enjoy traveling in groups and it was fun to fall back to old times. Laughing at jokes, discussing the day, sharing food, and having the protective bubble of not being alone.
The next day the cyclist left long before me. (Not only did he wash his dishes better than I had ever seen me or my friends wash anything while camping, he was also motivated to get up early and pack up in the rain!) The rain was falling and I didn’t have anywhere to be. I would come to regret this a bit, but not then, warm and dry in my tent. The reason I would regret this, was not far away was a dairy farmer that was welcoming me to her house. I didn’t have cell service to know this, and by the time I checked my email I was not just soaked to the bone, but I was too far away to arrive before dark. Traffic and weather as they were, I had to camp an hour or so from her house.
The next day I wavered, should I keep going or take advantage of the offer of a place to stay. I decided to have a short day and pedaled to the dairy farm run by Margaret and her husband. Margaret filled the day with stories from her farm AND several wonderful meals. As much as I loved her hearty, healthy food, my favorite was homemade chocolate ice cream. It was beyond good!
Margaret also had a lawn that would make anyone rooting for the monarchs sing. The flowers stood strong in the rain and when the sun finally came out they seemed to celebrate, dancing with their newly visited shadows. And even though I didn’t want to leave the next day, I decided I needed too. I was just a day away from Ottawa and coincidentally a day away from Canada Day. It seemed like the timing was too perfect not to take advantage of the largest Canada Day celebration. I left Margaret’s house with a mission even if I didn’t have a plan.
The ride to Ottawa was pleasant and surprisingly uneventful. Bike route signs kept me off the main road as much as possible. Canadian flags hung wherever space permitted. I paused for a photoshoot of milkweed, though I saw no caterpillars. Since Kansas, the common milkweed, I’d been seeing alongside the roads had been budding, but because I kept heading north I had been running from the flowers for months. Now, as I turned and was headed back south, I ran headlong into the blooms and smells of flowering milkweed. For all the threats monarchs face, there is some good news: Milkweed is not only one of the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen, it has one of the most intoxicating delicious smells too. I count myself lucky to not have to convince people to plant some ugly, stinky plant in their gardens.
I made it to Ottawa as the rain tried to wash the city away. Several times I scoped out spots on the edge of the city to camp, but each time I was drawn to keep moving. I had no plan, but I trusted something will happen.
The firework show didsn’t start until 11pm (who starts a firework show at 11pm?!). I meandered through the crowd, a bit encumbered by my bike, but freer than the cars. Roads and bridges were closed and people fill the spaces between the buildings. Canadian flags and lightbulbs of red colored the city. I meandered until 10:15 when I fiound myself looking back at the city from one of the bridges. The river below separating Quebec and Ontario was filled with hundreds of anticipating boats, anchored in the current like cars at a drive-in movie. Even though I thought it would be awesome to be on the water, I was happy to have found a good view, high up on the bridge. I set up shop and waited.
The firework show was nice. I liked how the explosions changed the color of the water. Each boom of light highlit the smoke from explosions before. Without friends to ooh and aah over each sizzle of light, I instead pondered the craziness of humans. We had come together, thousands of us, to watch as people launched flying lights that rained down color, smoke, and ash. Twenty minutes later Canada Day was over and I followed the mass of people into the night. No one seemed to think the buildup and millions of dollars was a bit anticlimactic. I liked the randomness of seeing a Canadian fireworks show and smiled at the absurdity of biking out of the city at midnight, but it seemed like as good a time as any.
I ended up biking until 3 in the morning. Far from the grasps of the city I set up camp in this crazy perfect spot: a road blocked with boulders with a flat spot for my tent, fenced by wildflowers. I slept well.
In the morning I rode to my last spot in Canada (for now), a bed and breakfast run by Candy and Peter. They had invited me to stay free of charge and I found no possible reason not too!! When someone invites you to stay at a bed and breakfast you gotta say yes. Not only was I given a space to relax and get work done, I was also given a great little corner of Canada to explore. The B&B sits next to the St. Lawrence River, which I swam in once I had found some slack water. The B&B is also surrounded by a monarch waystation. It is a hybrid garden of ornamentals and natives and I think the balance is such a great example of the potential of our lawns. We don’t have to cut down our roses and forsake our geraniums, we just need to welcome natives and milkweed too. The balance found in the garden is also found in Peter and Candy. They don’t judge their neighbors for having so much green grass lawns, they just keep doing their thing and watch the movement spread and grow.
I think about their positive attitude as I bike to New York. Without breaks to rest and visit with monarch stewards I think I would probably be driven mad. Instead I am driven forward. Climbing another bridge, to cross another river border, this time I descend back into the United States, to New York, to the next leg.