5,000km on One Wheel for Climate Action! That's the journey Joseph Boutilier will be making across Canada during the Unity for the Climate campaign. Please view the full website or update your web browser for a better experience. Click here to do so.
A rather belated recap of my ongoing unicycle journey for climate action, continued from the last one. Currently on day 63: next recap coming soon!
Having rested an extra day in Creston, I was falling behind for an elementary school presentation in Cranbrook and a Defend Our Climate (national day of action) gathering and photo shoot in Fernie. The next day was a 40km cycle to Yahk. In order to be easy on my shin splint, I opted to leave the uni on the longer pedal set and take my time. Obstacles on the quiet route included roughed-up shoulders and another 18-wheeler accident and traffic back-up that I had to walk around. I had considered riding past Yahk to try and make up for lost time, but the sun was low in the sky by the time I arrived at the Hay U Ranch RV Resort. It’s just as well I didn’t push on, as I learned a fatal accident had blocked the highway completely for the rest of the day a few miles further down the road. Hay-U proprietor Greg kindly welcomed me into his home instead of camping, which let me set off early the next day without breaking camp.
The wooded edge of Yahk
I was supposed to arrive at the elementary school in Cranbrook by 1:30. While I expected I’d have to catch a ride at some point to make up for the lost time, I was secretly hoping I might be able to squeeze two days into one. But even with a 7am departure, getting 60kms to the edge of town in the allowed 6.5hrs was a stretch (for comparison, my average 40k/day usually takes till mid afternoon). I made it past my original destination of Moyie by noon, but opted to catch a ride the rest of the way, estimating a late arrival at my current pace.
Moyie Fire Hall
(It didn’t help that my phone was glitchily jumping between hours and I wasn’t confident it was actually noon: I attribute this to leaving Creston where there is no daylight savings, to an area my phone interpreted as PT with daylight savings, then crossing the boundary into Mountain Time, all in the span of a few minutes. Strangely, no one locally seemed to know or really care where the time-zone border was or really what time it was at all).
I promptly caught a ride and waited on the edge of town for the unofficial welcoming party of Ecole TM Roberts Elementary to greet me. Right on schedule, a veritable parade of excited kids on bicycles, scooters and foot charged towards me. I hopped back on my uni to meet them half-way up the street towards the school, and after brief introductions they led me in an animated procession towards the gym. Here, hundreds more gathered. After the relative solitude and quiet of the last few days, the energy and enthusiasm here was positively contagious.
I had dusted off some old slides earlier and tried to juice them up and make them ‘age appropriate’ in the days preceding, using my crummy drawing in place of sourced images (no internet). It was ‘sketchy’ to say the least, but luckily, the casual visuals and discussion points allowed for a lot of lively discussion and great questions, and some laughs to boot (shockingly, not all of them at my expense).
The students were fantastic; climate change was already well on their radar, but it was inspiring to see how the concern that mounted over the course of my presentation was immediately met with proactive solutions and a motivation for change. By the time I turned to the ‘solutions’ slides, a lot of the ideas had already been volunteered. Even the political points (which I tried to keep as brief and objective as possible) were met with focused, eager eyes and ears.
Like most encounters with our future generations, meeting with these kids in Cranbrook gave me a renewed hope for the future. If we can foster the optimistic spirit, caring and confidence of our young people as they grow and gradually inherit all facets of society, I’m sure they’ll make up for the extra challenges left in the wake of our inaction through their cooperation and ingenuity. Presenting at the school was a pleasure (thanks Brenda for organizing!); the faculty in attendance apologized for the overwhelming number of questions from the young crowd, but I actually enjoyed them most of all.
Unfortunately we had to cut Q_A short, but one question lingered in my mind long after I left. A young boy had quietly waited with a raised arm through several answers before someone caught my attention on his behalf; he looked concerned even under an oversized pair of sun glasses. “If we stopped all pollution right now,” he asked, “could we stop climate change?” I had answered to the best of my scientific knowledge; the concept of ‘locked in’ warming, the lag time on emissions and the uncertainties around natural chain reactions. Of course, I also tried to assure him that eventually, it would; it was possible. I heard in my own voice a cold, clinical, vague and unsatisfying answer. Truthful, but also lacking. I’m not sure exactly what I would have said in retrospect, except to follow up my answer by asking this young man for his perspective on the matter. I’m sure he would have shared a clearer vision for a world without pollution.
When the presentation wrapped up, it was still before 3pm and the weather was favourable. Feeling surprisingly energetic, I hedged my bets that I would be able to ride the distance I’d skipped from Moyie to properly complete the distance into Cranbrook; this would let me catch up a day and make it to Fernie in time for the 10th. I crossed the highway and put my thumb out. I recognized the occupants of first truck that stopped from the school. The unicycle didn’t fit among the kids and furniture in toe, but it was nice to get an extra kudos on the presentation.
Another pickup stopped a couple minutes later; an agriculturalist from the Gulf Islands was heading back to Creston after doing an urban farming workshop in Cranbrook. We discussed politics and how most young environmentalists have forsaken upper levels of government to focus on grassroots solutions, but also how political upsets like the election of Elizabeth May had, to a certain extent, staved off the worst of the disenfranchisement among young voters in our home communities. “Keep up the good fight,” were her parting words, to which I responded, “you too.”
Riding the road back into Cranbrook, it already seemed perfectly familiar. It made me reflect on how much of a routine I’d fallen into, even in the most unpredictable and outlandish of scenarios. This one-wheeled daily ritual was simply my commute; at the end was waiting a local reporter, perhaps a few supporters, some environmentalists, a campground and hopefully some hot coffee. I reminded myself to beware, not to let the ultimate destination and the ultimate goal slip from my mind as the miles ticked by. This isn’t just a job, I told myself, but an opportunity for change.
Cranbrook doesn’t have the best reputation for ‘curb appeal. (The most memorable highway welcome was the awkward juxtaposition of a prominently advertised ‘Adult Store’ in a rundown bungalow and a Christian bookstore next door with the slightly ominous moniker of ‘The Nails’). Turn off the main drag, though, and you’re rewarded with a rustic yet tidy, welcoming, city with a small-town feel. Greenery abound, beautiful, simple old buildings and yes, even bike paths, combine to give Cranbrook its proudly distinct and yet down-to-earth identity. I wish I could have explored the place more; after some 65km on the road plus the school presentation and rides to and from, I was exhausted and wary to exercise my shin anymore. Instead I ordered pizza into the municipal campsite where I pitched my modest tent in the centre of a ring of towering RVs. I watched hockey on my laptop while gnawing down pizza like a proper Canadian camper (minus the beer, for which my cravings went sadly unanswered).
Pizza, hockey, campng. Great way to wind down after a long ride.
The ride from Cranbrook to Jaffray, midway to Fernie, was mostly uneventful; the hills weren’t as bad as I expected with the exception of the final curve into town, which was cantered enough to draw me towards traffic like a boat fighting off the edge of a whirlpool. I walked the crest of the hill to take in the big city sites; across from an empty gravel lot, the centre of Jaffray is a tire shop, which doubles as a convenience store and campground and motel office. The quiet nature of the town and the surrounding forests was perfect for an early night and a good rest before another early departure to make my 1pm appointment in Fernie. The rainy weather, of course, cleared as soon as I arrived in Jaffray and began as soon as I left again. Each time the rain started to get on my nerves, I imagined it was wind instead and was quickly reminded to be thankful for my good fortune.
The road to Fernie: challenging, beautiful.
The first half of the ride into Fernie was equal parts visually stunning and challenging; the shoulders were entirely coated in several inches of gravel, disappearing into the roadway past stretches of cliff-side barriers, bridges and even a brief mountain tunnel. I wish I could have spent less time looking at the road and more at the crisp, pale marshes and twisty clusters of deciduous trees cupped in the palms of the rugged valleys beside the road. I tried not to stop much, but had to dismount a few times to admire the 360-degrees of mountain ranges iced in hearty slabs of fresh white powder. The road got progressively clearer and newer, and I didn’t need to walk more than a few feet until I arrived in downtown Fernie.
In Fernie I had enough time to grab lunch before meeting a small group of eco-conscious folks who were kind enough to greet me to mark the Defend Our Climate national day of action. We gathered outside the office of the Elk Valley Wildsight, chatted about local initiatives, the pitfalls of cap and trade policies and unicycles, before posing for a photo to share with other communities participating in the action. It was great to be able to express solidarity with others around the country protesting climate inaction despite being in such a relatively small community. I also thought of friends and family back home in Victoria, where a massive march of thousands was making its way from Beacon Hill to the BC Legislature, just blocks from where I started my journey, and I suddenly missed the invigorating spirit of widespread environmentalism that in many ways is unique to that community. Defend Our Climate perhaps wasn’t as publicized or reported-on this year as last, but it seems to have been every bit as well attended. To see pictures from coast to coast of people recognizing their incredible strength in numbers was inspiring, as usual, and I felt the long days required to make the modest Fernie event were well-spent. Especially true, since that’s where I met Danny.
'Hundred year floods' in Fernie are more common than you might think, and lots of land is only a few feet above the water line.
Danny invited me to stay with him and his wife Susan in the ‘suburbs’ of Fernie. A retired lawyer-turned-tree farmer who’s lived in Fernie for 40 years following a full youth of travel and adventure, it was great to talk to Dan and Susan about the unique wildlife in the area and the local challenges of climate change (the couple and their neighbours have experienced ‘hundred-year’ floods several times over the past couple decades.)
Dan’s tree farming was as much a hobby as a business, but not one he took lightly. As resilient as the tiny saplings that weathered frost burn, wind and oversaturation to continue a slow-but-steady ascent from his fields, Dan took every challenge as a learning experience and persisted to build out the farm. He’d forgone common mass-scale techniques to plant seeds from scratch, trying a variety of species from varying origins, hand-planting and manually watering, and it was neat to see the huge variety of trees that sprouted as a result. Regardless of the species, local varieties did much better than those from only a few miles away; a reminder of how sensitive and unique the local ecosystem really was.
The industrial outskirts of Sparwood.
I was warned of hills heading into Sparwood, but, like the rest of the rockies, the difficulty was underwhelming compared to previous passes. I arrived in Sparwood before 1 and, resting in preparation for the Crowsnest summit, spent the remainder of the day catching up on laundry and stocking up on groceries. The main road through Sparwood is sandwiched between a mall and a few franchise restraurants, but behind the mall, two roads lined with local small businesses curve down a hill towards a residential area thick with greenery. Aside from a few streams of smoke on the horizon, there was no evidence of the five prolific open-pit coal mining operations that support the majority of the town’s bread-winners. Still, the industrial roots of Sparwood were evident throughout; a drastic departure from the recreational tourism brand of nearby Fernie.
The compulsory puny-unicycle-beside-world’s-biggest-truck photo.
I stopped by the ‘world’s biggest truck’ on the edge of town, and asked a stranger to take my picture. Kevin snapped a pic and offered a local tour of the rig, including an abandoned iPhone hidden in an inaccessible arch below the wheel wells (a great tease no doubt offering hours of gymnastic practice for local kids). Kevin was a local cadet, who had also lived in Victoria; he also had a knack for unconventional transportation and was very intrigued by my rig. He shared his own ambitions for an epic self-powered journey; a roller-blade ride from Sparwood to Vancouver on Highway 3. I cringed at the thought of trying to roller blade past the miles of gravel I’d just encountered, but I could tell that if anyone had the guts and bravado to make it work, it would be someone like Kevin.
I had to backtrack a couple klicks to the municipal campground in Sparwood; it was beautiful, but the walk to the back tent-zone upset my shin splint once more. Worse still, the internet wifi didn’t reach those far corners; no Stanley Cup on my laptop. Instead, I decided, I simply had no choice but to trek back to the nearest pub to catch the game. Inexplicably, I actually had to request that the bartender change the channel to watch the game. An odd experience for me as an exceptionally casual hockey fan in small-town Canada. It was the first chance I got to try the great craft beers of the Fernie Brewing Company, which made the walk worthwhile.
The Crowsnest Summit doesn’t feel like much of a summit. Great view, nonetheless!
The next day was my last BC summit: the Crowsnest Pass. I had no idea what to expect following widely-varying reviews, ranging from ‘no biggie’ to ‘you’ll have to walk it.’ I took it easy preparing for the worst, but the beautiful weather and wide shoulders let me keep my pace up. I was actually shocked to see the summit sign, seemingly before the day’s journey had even begun. In danger of sounding coy, but the Crowsnest was a breeze; definitely no walking required! The descent into Alberta was similarly relaxed; a friendly reward at the end of a beautiful, massive, mountainous and wildly diverse province.
1,100km later, it’s good-bye BC.
As I pulled in beside the ‘Welcome to Alberta’ sign for a snapshot, an 18-wheeler cruised by blasting a victory riff on his air-horn. One province down, four more to go.
With my cruelly persistent shin splint still prodding me at every peddle stroke, I decided to try and find somewhere to rest for a whole week as soon as I crossed the Alberta border. Of course I didn’t want to fall behind a week, but I also didn’t want to end up with a more serious injury like a stress fracture that could put the whole journey in jeopardy. I figured the smaller towns along the Crowsnest route would have cheaper accommodations than the more populous centres ahead and that the flat province would be a good way to ease back into riding after a week’s break (although the gentle rolling hills to Lethbridge weren’t ‘flat’ by prairie standard).
The stormy view from my window at the Cosmopolitan in Blairmore.
The Crowsnest – aside from being the name of a highway and a mountain pass – is also the moniker of a range of small, heritage communities along the Alberta border who amalgamated recently after years of gradual population decline, while maintaining their separate community identities and remaining viable with the help of nearby industries and increasing tourism. I stopped at the first town – Blaine – for lunch. I was just about to walk into a Mexican café when a janitor from the pub next door asked about the uni and ended up convincing me to eat instead at the place of his employment, where I was surprised to find a house-made veggie burger on the menu (and a good one at that!). Although a few businesses mark Blaine on the No. 3 highway, the old town, including the homes and some local businesses, are splayed out in a flat valley below the road.
The ‘Cos’: Home for a week.
Leaving my uni at the bar, I began to walk down into the old town towards the local hostel. A local bus was stopped on the side of the hill and the driver was chatting with a local on a bike; another fortuitous encounter. The cyclist worked at a motel in the next Crowsnest stop of Blairmore and advised me to forego the hostel (where there were no private dorms available and frequent band practices, the word was) for ‘The Cos’. The Cosmopolitan in Blairmore was an appropriately affordable local watering hole and inn; only slightly out of place among more trim and trendy small businesses on the quiet ‘downtown’ street that ran parallel to Highway 3 along the train tracks.
The Crowsnest River flows right through Blairmore.
More condensed and urban than Blaine, Blairmore was also a better stay for accessibility with minimal walking (despite the fact that myself and my uni stayed up two flights of stairs). After stocking up on groceries on the other side of town, I managed to remain frustratingly static throughout the week with only occasional treks downstairs to the nearby pizza/Thai food joint and the Stone’s Throw Café for coffee and breakfast. The Stone’s Throw had great coffee and a friendly atmosphere that helped keep my sanity in check as I watced the days slip by and my schedule fall behind more than it ever had. I kept myself busy writing a couple articles and starting to piece together the choppy clips of inaudible video I’d managed to nab from my uni during my month-and-one-week on the road. The proprietors of the Stone’s Throw helped put me in touch with the local press, while news quickly spread and strangers emerged who were interested in my mission.
Blairmore back-alley. There’s only one main street from East to West through town but several smaller routes are hidden away.
Principle Paul Pichurski organized a 20-minute Q_A for me at the local elementary school. Lauretta Legere offered use of her infrared heating light to potential expedite the mending of my shin, while her son Dan - a talented local photographer – took some portraits of me in front of the dramatic mountain backdrop on the West end of town.
The Cos from afar.
I was ever tempted to wander off the sunny main drag, where distant rocky vistas over and beyond the neighbouring train tracks and lush greenery looked clear and close enough to touch. Instead, I tread lightly on my shin for a short walk the other way (North) to visit the roaring creek that passed through the residential end of town. Here, I also saw campaign signs for the newly announced federal byelection; a reminder of the political undercurrents of the oil-rich surroundings and its stark contrast to my mission and the growing number of local supporters.
Despite the welcoming atmosphere and vibrant scenery, I was eager to restart my journey when my week’s worth of accommodation finally expired on Monday. Rusty as ever re-mounting on the quiet byway before merging back to the 3, I opted to leave the pedals spread out on the wider crank option despite the flat terrain to help stretch out my muscles and ease back into the rhythm of riding. Turning back on the highway, it was quickly clear that the rumoured ‘light switch’ analogy of the supposedly rapid transition from mountains to open prairies doesn’t apply to unicyclists. Instead, the fascinating limbo between wild rocky heights and clear valleys evolved. Dry grassy fields and charcoal-tinted trees surrounded rivers and cold wetlands at the foot of miniature mountains, formed half of windswept dirt and sand and half of fallen crumbs from the distant rocky mountains.
Doubling down on speed, taking advantage of a few cool days and reveling in the flat terrain that followed, I cleared Alberta in the next 6 days (bumping up my daily average from 40km to some 55).
An old abandoned building outside of Pincher Creek.
Pincher Creek is a nicely-sized place, with most of the amenities of a bigger city but the greenery, space and casual community presence that only smaller towns can maintain. My time there was unfortunately rushed; a quick stroll down the wide, quiet, evening streets of the village centre with a stop at the grocery store for dinner before following signs to the community campground. Only a few blocks from town on a residential street, the campground backs onto a sun-dappled park and popular walking trail; I selected a spot in the shade and set up my tent just before a light shower watered the dry wild grass around me. A family who had been rained on for the duration of their long-weekend vacation finally decided to pack it in, offering me the remainder of their food (free breakfast, huzzah!). Since I was so rushed, I skipped the usual ritual of bugging the local press, so I was pleasantly surprised when a reporter noticed me on the highway and gathered details for a story the next day.
The prairies have started.
I passed Brocket up the Crowsnest en route to Fort Macleod. Before descending into the quiet valley campground of Daisy May across the highway from town (where I’d generously been offered a free stay), I wandered downtown looking for a coffee shop where I could unwind and recharge my phone. Instead I was pleasantly surprised to find a bike shop, where complementary coffee and a plug were offered after I stocked up on anti-chafing cream. A lively conversation with a climate skeptic proceeded. I tried to keep my temper in check but was happy to move on after agreeing to disagree (and feeling like a failure for failing to make such an easy argument effective).
By the time I hit the street (intending only to walk) a small crowd had gathered and was eagerly waiting for me to demonstrate free mounting. With traffic pulling in and out of parking spots along the narrow central street, I wasn’t able to get on until strolling up to a free spot on the curb, only to have to get off again a couple blocks later when confronted by the first stop sign.
The highway splits on the Northern edge of Fort Macleod onto two one-way streets, skirting the condensed heritage buildings that make up the downtown area on one side and a drop into an open grassy valley on the other, with the occasional interruptions of large industrial lots. It strikes an unusual balance between service-detour and scenic small-town, with unconventional streets that obscure its modest scale.
The next day was a 50km ride into Lethbridge. After the first few km, I was cautiously optimistic that my right shin-splint had really healed; no pain, even when my body was crossed up and my feet bent to fight the crown of the road or squeeze through narrow construction zones while leaning against crosswinds. My joyous disbelief was brought crashing down when I attempted my second freemount of the day, only to make a hard land on my left foot that immediately sent a familiar pain through my ankle and shin. Yes, indeed, after a week of rest my pain had only transferred from one leg to the other.
Coalhurst. They had lemonade there, which is what really mattered.
As I gained on the city, the predictable farmlands were decorated with patches of lush trees and natural wetland and the scenic crossing of the winding Old Man River. A brief stop in Coalhurst was bliss; 5 minutes on the shady steps of the local grocery store while downing a chilled bottle of lemonade.
Scenic drive into Lethbridge. For the extra scenic drive, I guess you have to jump on a train.
The ride ended in the beautiful, surprisingly steep climb through the southwest Scenic Drive entrance into Lethbridge, passing the Helen Schuler Nature Reserve and climaxing in a swerving underpass below an imposing train trestle that seems to stretch to the end of the world. It was almost captivating enough to distract me from the growing pain emanating from my left ankle. When I finally slipped the seat out in front of me and landed on my own, wobbly legs, I felt I couldn’t ride another meter. (As it turned out, I had another two in me, coaxed out by a friendly photographer in town).
I was thankful to arrive in sunny Lethbridge after a tedious ride on a brand-new shin splint.
Walking through downtown Lethbridge, it was quickly clear that this would be by far the liveliest, trendiest and most ‘urban’ stop I would make in the province. While more flat, straight, and sunny than most BC towns, the shining brick walls, lovingly arranged storefront displays and quirky small businesses made me just a little reminiscent about the province I’d just left behind. I locked my uni to the first genuine bike-stand I’d seen in weeks which was knit-bombed in pastel yarn, and walked into an indie coffee shop to plug-in and connect with the local press. Before bouncing to another café to write, I caught up with the Lethbridge Herald and learned of fellow politically-motivated, eccentric-traveler Ted Musson, who is walking an extended 10,000km to Ottawa (doubling-back every day) to protest the robocall scandal, among other concerns. I would later meet Ted in Saskatchewan.
I also arranged a media spot with Global for the following morning before limping East through town to crash at the local Superlodge. After the interview portion of the meeting with Global reporter Teri Fikowski, she was kind enough to drive me back the extra distance I’d walked South from the highway, and filmed as I mounted on a service road and awkwardly floundered around the backroads of industrial Lethbridge looking for a way back onto the highway, before driving ahead to catch a few more shots of me riding.
Despite the heat and my brand-new shin splint, the remaining ride to Taber wasn’t nearly as grueling as the previous days’. Still, when I arrived I was sore and desperate for a shower and rest. With no billet and conflicting directions for a not-so-close campground, I reluctantly spent the dough on another motel at the end of the main drag. Only the big-box stores in the expansive, industrial town were open for my arrival, so I didn’t get a chance to visit any of the small businesses scattered throughout the semi-residential town roads, but I was impressed by how secluded the town felt only blocks from the highway despite the level, open landscape. My first dose of Chinese food was a welcome reintroduction to rice after a month-and-a-half of mostly-mediocre bread and potatoes as my main source of carbs; leftovers for tomorrow’s ‘breakfast’ was an added bonus.
There’s lots of grass in Grassy Lake, but not a lot of lake.
The next day was another 58km of hot, flat, prairies to the small southeast Alberta town of Bow Island. I didn’t expect to see any services open in the midway town of Grassy Lake; although it was smaller even than I anticipated (marked by 3-4 sparse business fronts in a sea of open farmland), the community did have an open restaurant and my stomach was grumbling for some lunch. Dew Drop In was advertised as a Mexican restaurant, although the menu seemed, at most, half Mexican. My traditional cheese omelette was preceded with an appetizer of tortilla chips and accompanied by a Mexican soda, but the usual staples of beans and flatbread and hot sauce were nowhere to be found. The staff all seemed to be Mennonite, and I wondered if they had taken over a Mexican restaurant and repurposed it to their liking. It wasn’t until I got to Bow Island – dotted with multiple Mexican import stores and restaurants – that I learned that both communities supported a booming immigrant population of Mexican Mennonites. Mystery solved.
A mystery about the names – there being no Grassy Lake in Grassy Lake and no discernible Island in Bow Island – had a less-satisfactory explanation. Apparently the names were somehow, at some point, for some unknown reason, inexplicably mixed up. Regardless, both communities definitely stood out, with contradictions that did them no disservice; at once insular and friendly, proud of their accomplishments and outwardly humble.
A friendly pinto bean welcomes you into Bow Island, although it sounds like he could be replaced by a catty catnip any day now.
In Bow Island, I met the first cross-country cyclist that I came across. A girl from England who was making her way from Vancouver to Montreal, seeking part-time employment along the way. We both ended up at the municipal campground; a tidy square park a few blocks out of town. The camp host enthusiastically noted an impressive list of fruits and vegetables grown in surrounding farms, and proudly proclaimed the area’s acclamation for its prolific production of catnip.
The next morning I explored downtown Bow Island, happily located down an unassuming side street from the main highway (itself, deceivingly small and slow as it passed a couple local motels and the town’s smiling Pinto Bean mascot). Although tucked neatly away, Bow Island’s business community appeared far more healthy than many larger towns I’ve passed through, with vehicle and pedestrian traffic quickly crowding the dozens of humble storefronts before the stroke of 8am.
I stopped in the Rolling Pin Bakery _ Café for breakfast. It quickly became obvious this was a very popular spot…perhaps beyond the expectations or capacity of its managers. It was some 20 minutes before my order went out, and much longer for coffee let alone the meal, which came not-quite as ordered. I sympathized with the overworked young staff, though, and didn’t fuss, taking note of the cooler weather I was losing outside. The food was worth the wait, I decided as I cleaned my plate, before realizing there was another 10-minute line up to pay. In the lineup I got to talking with a group of other clients who kindly offered to take my tab after marveling at the ambition of my journey. It was a friendly farewell from a generous town. Although it was good to hit the road again, destination Medicine Hat, I knew I wouldn’t soon forget Bow Island and its charming eccentricities.
Still anxious to regain the time lost resting near the Alberta border, I opted for a shortcut to my billet just outside of Medicine Hat in Dunmore (southeast). The backroads avoided the hills and downtown traffic by rounding below the city. The downside was, I effectively skipped the second biggest Alberta destination on my journey. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly; no media, no meetings, and sadly no chance to explore the town. I determined the upside, though, was a fair compromise; it would save me nearly a day of travel time and allow me to get an early start on what I was warned would be a rather desolate introduction to the TransCanada Highway.
I didn’t have as much trouble getting back on schedule as I expected, but my Dunmore detour was still the right decision because the next day was the longest yet. My hosts kindly gave me access to their full kitchen before they left for the evening; I’m not much of a chef but it was refreshing to make my own homecooked meal for once. With a graciously prepared breakfast the next morning, local advice was bestowed upon me regarding the limited small towns dotted between Saskatchewan’s major cities, and my strategy for the province was thoughtfully scrutinized. “You’ll be in Saskatchewan by the end of the day,” I was told. I hoped this wasn’t true as I was planning to camp just before the border in Walsh. Instead, I ended up well over the border, almost 80km east of Medicine Hat.
The uncertainty about accommodations in Walsh were hardly inspiring; even a few kilometers prior in the tiny town of Irvine, nobody knew if the campground there was operational. Irvine, a picaresque, track-side town of older homes, an old brick hotel and a couple humble storefronts across from a shady municipal park, seemed like an ideal stop for an early lunch. Unfortunately the café there had no food whatsoever. I bought some snacks from the convenience store instead and ate in the park before proceeding on to Walsh. This was an even smaller community, gated on the highway by two gas stations; one included an attached diner, which was closed without explanation, while the other doubled as the campground office, which was also inexplicably closed. My fears were founded.
The Alberta tourism centre – the third open building in Walsh (where the staff seemed rather tired of providing information about Saskatchewan to Eastward-bound travelers instead of the intended opposite) – confirmed that there wasn’t another place to stay for a further 40km at the Eagle Valley Campground outside of Maple Creek, across the border. Exhausted, and a day ahead of schedule with another accommodation arranged for downtown Maple Creek, I finished the 80km day there and decided the 10km trek into town would be my only saddle-time the next day.
I reached the Saskatchewan border earlier than expected thanks to an unplanned 80km day.
A silver lining of the long day was meeting many other cyclists on the TransCanada; after well over a month of feeling like the only touring cyclist in Canada, I suddenly found myself sharing the wide shoulders with a range of cross-country pedallers. One in particular appeared shortly after the Walsh episode, and quickly put this minor hurdle – and my entire mission – into perspective. Derek had already been on the road for 18 months, having kicked off in the blustery English winter of 2013 for a global tour to raise funds for his own Cancer charity. Derek himself is terminally ill. His journey, he told me, was indefinite. Content to ride for his cause till his dying days, the man’s spirit and fortitude was awe-inspiring. As we rode side by side, Derek took a photo of me to share with his community and vice versa. As he bid farewell, I felt blessed for the encounter. A small reminder of the many dreams and amazing lives interwoven through this ever-reaching road.
Derek had already been on the road for 18-months when I met him.
I also met a couple on the road from Hope who had heard about my journey there before their departure and were awaiting our encounter. We shared dinner at the restaurant of the Eagle Vallley Campground and discussed the many eccentric ways that motivated individuals choose to tackle cross-country treks under their own power. The only common thread seems to include a personal stubbornness; an unwavering goal bound by self-imposed rules and the mental resilience to stick with it against all odds and usually against any semblance of common sense.
The jungle-inspired Eagle Valley campsite is 10km north of Maple Creek.
I was excited for my introduction to Maple Creek the next day. Little did I know I would also get a unique tour of the ranch lands, farms and wildlife on the edge of the Cypress Hills that would give me a whole new appreciation for the nature of Saskatchewan.
To be continued.
A recap of my ongoing unicycle journey for climate action, continued from the last recap.
Snow lines the roads around the Paulson Summit; the next day flurries marked our descent.
Donning wet shoes over plastic-bagged feet, layered in a heap of (mostly dirty) laundry, and hiding my hands in my sleeves (gloves also still-soaked), it was time to for Cam and I to hit the road after cresting the wintery Paulson summit and spending the night in an empty ski cabin. We still had many miles to go before descending the plateau and breaking clear of the high-altitude bubble of alpine weather. The roads were now slushy, with a fresh coat of white stuff falling as we rode; I was suddenly all the more grateful for the newly-equipped knobby from Bob of Wildways.
Cam needed to head back Vancouver for other travel connections, and opted to carpool back to Grand Forks for a Grayhound after cycling through the worst of the flurries. Bidding him farewell, I continued along the gradual descent, marveling at how the snow thinned and disappeared as quickly as it had started in a haze of fine rain and fog.
By the time I reached Castlegar, I was wet to the bone. Sheltering in the local Timmies with a cup of coffee was a welcome improvement, but I badly needed somewhere I could properly warm-up and dry-off, so I splurged on two nights in a recommended motel. As per usual, I spent my days contacting future connections and the local media and mapping out my next week. Sleeping was also part of the plan, which was achieved with mediocre success.
A short detour to Mountain FM was a great way to see Castlegar.
A visit to the local rock station, Mountain FM, for their morning show took me past the big-box highway stops that collectively form the bustling new town to reveal a stretch of hidden greenspace proliferating from the river, along with the humble industrial roots of the town’s economy and a residential and retail area with more than a couple empty storefronts. Although I didn’t get to talk to anyone about the town’s history, this section had the markings of a pedestrian centre forced into an early retirement by booming franchises and evolving highways hyper-focused on rapid travel. Still, without the heritage or recreational tourist aspirations of other towns along Route 3 in spite of its beautiful surroundings, Castlegar possessed a frank, contemporary energy and honesty that justifiably inspired its own brand of local pride. The sun shone just long enough for the kick off of the local Spring Fling festivities, but the rain didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits.
Many bridges offer awesome vistas of the Kootenay River.
Kootenay River Kampground had earlier offered me a free night of camping at just West of Castlegar, and I took them up as a kickstart to my ride to Nelson the next day. By now a bait-and-tease cycle of glowing warmth and frigid rain had morphed into lasting sun with crisp blue skies. Closed within a horsehoe of towering camper trailers and RVs, the site is an oasis of simple landscaped gardens and cherry blossom trees beside a natural rock garden and field of chives that descend into the rushing Kootenay River. Canadian Geese watched me suspiciously as I rolled in and set up camp. Without the sun overhead, the frost came out at the crack of dawn, chilling the dew inside my tent and waking me in a frigid, miniature rainfall. I couldn’t go back to sleep but rested for another few hours before breaking camp at 5.
The Kootenay River Kampground is a beautiful spot, right beside the river.
I tried to adjust the pedals to the shorter crank-length for the shallow rolling hills into Nelson but found them locked tight; Bob in Christina, armed with an actual pedal wrench, had tightened them properly; a scenario ironically not compatible with my limited resources of a borrowed alan-wrench multitool and a miniature adjustable wrench. I decided the extra exercise might not be bad for me, anyways, and hit the road with the pedals unchanged. I didn’t get far; a narrow bridge awaited less than a kilometre away, followed by two merging lanes on my right side. After a lot of walking and waiting, I finally mounted again and found the 3A increasingly inviting as it passed through Thrums and hugged close to the Kootenay River.
Riding alongside (and over) the Kootenay River was a pleasure, although the highway wasn’t always especially cycle-friendly.
I was more than bored with my dwindling food stock of BBQd peanuts with a side of peanut butter, so I was pleasantly surprised to see the inviting Thrums Market and Deli was open; after gnawing down a breakfast sandwich, I took advantage of the facilities and emerged to find a few staff and strangers leaning out the window, puzzling over my unicycle. I admitted to being the owner and found myself in lively conversation as I packed to leave; a granoala bar was donated for the road and I felt well rejuvenated for the remainder of the 40km. There were more services than I expected along the photogenic route, which departed only briefly from the riverside to make room for lush pastures and playful cottage homes. A series of dams and logging sites stood as reminders of the industrial backbone and resources of the area and its similarity to most communities in BC, despite the unique beauty and its popularity with tourists.
The last leg of the journey didn’t go so well. On one particularly curvy and cantered stretch of road, the shoulder was a mangled mess of broken asphalt and rocks. I shoulder-checked before merging into the main lane, aware that the line of sight from behind was adequate for anyone behind to slow if necessary. A pickup did appear behind, and considerately slowed its pace for all of the 3-4 seconds it took for me to pass the broken shoulder and get off the road. A driver coming in the opposite direction, although not endangered or obstructed in any way, was apparently so indignant at my gall to ride a unicycle on the highway that they felt compelled to blast their horn as they passed. I didn’t think much of it at the time; I’ve spent enough time on the road to know that there’s a complexity of emotions that might trigger drivers to lash out and it’s usually best not to react at all. I like to give the rare irritant the benefit of the doubt, that perhaps they’re more concerned about my safety than they are angered at a perception of inconvenience. (For the record, if you’re concerned about my safety, blasting your horn unexpectedly while racing by me is generally not the best method of expressing it).
I did have a cursory consideration of that incident later when an RCMP officer passed me twice and then parked ahead of me as I dismounted to cross the bridge over the river just west of town. Indeed, someone (I can guess who) had called in to report that a unicyclist was obstructing traffic on the highway. I didn’t bother trying to argue that it might have been a different unicyclist, but instead pointed out the obvious: that I was riding on the shoulder wherever possible and walking when the only safe means of passage. The officer was thankfully not only reasonable and sympathetic, but also supportive. After providing my ID and merging back onto the highway with exceptional caution under his watchful gaze, I realized that I was running late for a 1:30 lunch meeting with a supporter from the Citizen’s Climate Lobby.
Between hills, google glitches and a nagging shin splint, navigating Nelson was a challenge. Awesome city, though!
Entering town, it quickly became clear that the plethora of hills – let alone stop signs and lights – in Nelson made it a particularly non-unicycle-centric town (no surprise, then, I didn’t meet any fellow unicyclists there). Walking most of the way, I was relieved when I finally reached the destination 15 minutes after the fact…according to Google Maps. The problem was, the addresses in front of me didn’t correspond at all with the address on my phone. Technology had failed me, and it was about to fail me again. As I switched to my phone to call the contact, it unexpectedly died despite the quarter-battery readout. I trekked back through town trying to find somewhere to plug it in, wasting a bevy of time locking my uni outside a big-box Safeway with a tacked-on Starbucks (no plugs), before continuing on.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that I’d managed to give myself a shin splint; increasingly painful and awkward. Long and boring story shorter, it was after 3 by the time my phone was charged enough to apologize for never showing up for lunch. I couldn’t get through to my billet for the night and wasted a few more hours in a greasy fast-food joint where there was finally an accessible outlet (but, alas, no wi-fi). After all that, it felt like my Nelson experience could only get better, and thankfully it did. My billet phoned me and promptly picked me, driving me to a beautiful house up a remote mountain road, bursting with the creativity of its 3 music-producing and visual-artist inhabitants.
A geodesic greenhouse in the garden of my first Nelson billet.
Although I felt somewhat antsy after already waiting in Castlegar for two full days, I decided Nelson would be as good a place as any to spend the remainder of my time and get back on schedule, while letting the spring weather catch up and my shin splint (partially) heal. I’m glad I did. As Kootenay Co-Op Radio host Anthony put it after our on-air chat a couple days later, it was fortuitous for me to stop in a “health-centric” (not to mention eco and cycle-friendly) town while briefly out-of-commission. Although my billet was somewhat out of town, it was the perfect spot to update internet side of the campaign and plan for the days ahead while unwinding in the presence of likeminded creatives, a massive garden, backwood trails and a stunning geodesic greenhouse.
The days of rest also allowed me to participate in the 24hr Fast For the Climate event of May 1. Since COP19, participants of this global movement have been fasting on the first day of each month; this one was significant, marking the official launch of FastForTheClimate.org. I also spent the day running some errands, getting a new tube (having lost the first one mysteriously in Osoyoos) and some help adjusting my pedals at a local bike shop, and talking to the local press.
Although the location of my initial billet was perfect for laying low and taking in the scenery, I decided to take up an offer closer to town for the third night to allow me to leave early on Friday, May 2 for Kootenay Lake and beyond, heeding local advice to avoid the Kootenay Pass by taking the winding 3A. My second gracious Nelson billet was only minutes from town, but I’d been warned they were also up a hill. ‘Hill’ is such a broad term, isn’t it? It was only when I arrived at the bottom of Cedar St. that I realized it was the steepest street in all Nelson (and by far the steepest street I’d come across). Steep enough that, where sidewalks existed, they were in fact stairs. I didn’t even try to ride; knowing 8-9% grades were about my limit for sustained riding, it wasn’t until I was at the top of the hill that signs declared that the grade here exceeded 15%. Getting to and from my hosts probably didn’t help my lingering shin splint any but the warm welcome I received was well worth it.
Cedar Street: More than twice as steep as any other I’ve come across. Hmm, I think I’ll walk.
I set off early following a warm breakfast for Crawford Bay. Although I’d originally only planned to cycle to Balfour, the Crawford Bay Inn had kindly offered to host me that night. The weather was beyond perfect on day one of the 3A; I hate to pick favourites, but with the exception of the pain that came unexpectedly shooting back to my shin after a few klicks, this was the single most enjoyable stretch of the journey since leaving ‘the rock’. My original concern about 3A was the complete lack of shoulders, with white lines skirting the edge of blasted rock on one side and the water’s edge on the other. Despite this, the highway is deceivingly welcoming for self-powered travellers, with plenty of rest stops and signs cautioning drivers to watch out for bicycles (and…other things). In fact, with no shoulders, it was nice to have an excuse to take advantage of the invariably clearer and smoother roadway without fear of someone calling the RCMP about it.
Felt like spring at Kootenay Lake…at first.
Best of all, though, were the sights and smells reaching towards the road from a scenic scramble of terrain, equally diverse in natural beauty and cultural influence alike. Every hill crest and corner would reveal a different self-contained landscape, each of which could normally only exist miles – and not meters – apart. A summery rural paradise dominated by overgrown hobby farms; weeping willows and white arbors marking dusty dirt roads down to the deep waters of the navy blue lake. Then, an impressive Mediterranean red rock wall climbing up the hillside, scattered with water wheels; rich clay surrounding modern architecture thoughtfully planted on plateaus of the hillside, gazing across pale sandy beaches and shallow, turquoise waters. Then back to rugged west-coast wilderness with scraggly firs precariously leaning over scarred, charcoal-shaded rocks and white ripples of the stirring water. I wish I’d taken more photos over this stretch of road, following the west arm to the north shore of the sparkling lake, but I was so focused on the road and mesmerized by the sights that my camera was mostly an afterthought.
Empties, sunniest, sandiest beach I’ve ever been to at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park.
After a friendly visit with a member of the Kootenay Lake Chamber of Commerce and a coffee fill-up at a small convenience store, I stopped for a picnic lunch at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park. I was shocked to find the massive parking lot virtually empty, and the sprawling sandy beach likewise silent despite the sunny weather. I was even tempted to wade in the water before I rested long enough to realize how cool it actually was. I arrived well in advance of the 3:50 ferry departure at Balfour harbour where I enjoyed an iced Americano and chatted with a couple bikers and some backpackers; the first real spring travelers outside of RVs that I’d seen.
I’d been warned that there was a massive hill coming off the ferry on the other end, so I changed my pedals back to the longer crank option while waiting for the vehicle traffic to depart. Despite the change, I still had to walk…not up the hill, but after it, exhausted and with my shin splint back in full force.
I was delighted to meet the friendly owners of the Crawford Bay Inn; a quiet, tidy little hotel that was bright and airy inside. It was only when I limped down to the local pub for dinner (ok, and for a Stanley Cup playoff) that the full gravity of my nagging injury hit me. If the splint didn’t heal soon, I risked getting stranded on the next unrideable pass. And while I was getting better at hills, gravel and all known obstacles, most days still included at least one bridge, tunnel, detour, left-turn or construction zone that required me to dismount for at least a kilometer.
Day 2 on Kootenay Lake: Not quite so sunny anymore.
Being relatively isolated at the top of Kootenay Lake, I had little choice but to continue riding another two days the remaining 76km southeast to Creston. My discomfort was exacerbated by a sudden turn in weather; the scenery remained majestic as ever, but now in a pallet of dusty greens and mossy grays; drenched stone and sinking clouds. The worst of the rain held off the first day but when I arrived at Lockheart Creek Provincial Park – the only place to stop overnight – the humidity was thick and threatening enough that I opted to rent a neighbouring cabin instead of camping.
The establishment was just opening for the season, but the supportive cable team on sight changed their workflow to set me up with the hockey game. I reveled in the remaining hours of dryness, draping clothes all throughout the cabin while watching the Anaheim Ducks handily beat the LA Kings until the TV cut out with 1 minute to go (only days later was I confused to learn the Kings won, having scored an equalizer with 7 seconds left and winning in OT).
It felt like the sun was about to set at noon; brooding rain clouds over East Kootenay Lake.
Rain was pounding on the roof the next morning, but I knew if I waited for it to pass I might be paying for a few extra nights; there was no break in sight. Within 10km on the road, my rain coat was soaked through, not to mention my tights and shoes. My shin splint was also acting up. The vast expanse of misty water and faint mountain silhouettes was alluring and gorgeous, but seemed painfully static as the hours wore by. A brief pause from the downpour was granted to me during a moment of sunshine that lit up the vibrant grasslands of Kootenay Landing through a sliver of blue sky. But it was raining harder than ever by the time I turned onto Lower Wynndel Road on the advice of a stranger to avoid the last hill into Creston.
My clothes swelled with water, wilted from my body, my feet sloshed around in the buckets that my shoes had become. Massive puddles formed all over the edge of the road and my glasses became blurred by the waterfall tumbling from the visor of my helmet. A driver turned around to offer me a ride into town, but I was already so soaked, and so close to town that I was determined to ride across the virtual finish line to the Downtowner Motor Inn in Creston that had offered a free stay for the night.
Dramatic change in scenery (and weather) just pass Kootenay Landing.
Unfortunately I didn’t realize that Lower Wynndel merged with the 3, not the 3A, nor that the connecting 21 South connected back with Canyon St. in downtown Creston. The few signs that existed didn’t help any, mentioning every town in the region except the one that was a less than 2km away. After a miserable 30 minutes backtracking and hedging my bets on the 3 then 3A, I finally stopped at A_W for a sanity check. I was, indeed, going the right way, but the last couple klicks were uphill, cresting at a traffic light. Not compelled to mount again and try to time the light, I limped the remainder with breaks in between, my shin splint punishing me mercilessly for the deed. A hot shower and dry sheets made the whole thing worth it.
Sun or storm? Melodramatic weather in Creston just couldn’t make up its mind. The promised thunder and lightning was a no-show.
I opted to stay an extra night at the Downtowner and to visit the local hospital the next day to see if anything could be done about my shin. After the prerequisite 5 hour wait, a doctor noted a visible swelling that I had not; she prescribed me some meds and told me to rest for at least one more day, and in a couple days to rub a golf ball up and down my shin until it healed. Yeah right, I thought, like I’m going to go out and just magically find a golf ball halfway to Cranbrook; one was fortuitously waiting for me at a campsite a few days later.
The anti-inflammatory meds helped, too, and I took advantage of a free stay at the Pair-A-Dice RV and Campground nearby for an additional day of rest. Other stops in Creston included a couple cafes for my mandatory dose of coffee, a free dinner at ABC Country (thanks Sierra!) where I also received an unexpected donation (thanks Christine!) and a chat with a local reporter. During this time, the skies rolled through a commanding slideshow of threatening heavy blue skies and pale overcast, while the sun blazed beneath across the jumbled rows of empty heritage mills and polished colourful storefronts.
The shin splint that had started bothering me a week prior was far from gone; what if it was a bigger problem? Who gets shin splints from cycling, anyways? What if it never went away? I tried not to let these thoughts invade my focus on the journey and campaign at hand. I still had a long way to go.
To be continued…