Thursday, August 24, 2017

Parkway Cycling Adventure

Memories of a summer bike trip… I was inspired to find this older piece and post it after reading my friend Jane’s amazing saga of her and her husband’s cross-Canada cycle adventure.

There comes a time in every parent-child relationship when, despite a residual bond, not to mention good manners, the secret, mutual response to any proposed activity is, “Borrrring.” The mom suggests a nice cross-country ski outing – boring, thinks the kid. The 12-year-old suggests the hottest summer movie – all his friends loved it – boring, the adult is sure.

I felt I was up to the annual summer vacation challenge, and proposed an overnight bicycle trip. We would camp at Landon Bay, just east of Gananoque, Ontario, near the start of the Thousand Islands Parkway, leave our stuff in the tent or locked in the car, and cruise down the bike path that follows the St. Lawrence River almost to Brockville, about 35 kilometres away.

It was the pre-Internet days! I felt knew a bit about the area from reading a brochure about the cruise boat out of Gananoque. By the late 1800’s, the river had been a popular destination for visitors and those who built summer homes in the area. I envisioned a series of tourist camps and motels where we could stay overnight, before heading back the following morning. The idea was met with guarded enthusiasm by my son Tom.

On Day 1, we crawled out of the tent, had breakfast and set out. My bike would not fit in the back of my Nissan Micra circa 1988, so I had borrowed my brother-in-law’s Rocky Mountain model. It was so heavy I couldn’t even hold it up to get on by myself.

While I regularly did research for a living, I certainly came up short when planning our excursion. Although I didn’t realize the extent of my folly for a couple of hours.

The first leg of the trip was painless. It was a hot, sunny morning, and we were traveling light. Tom wore a small backpack containing pyjamas, toothbrushes, and a change of clothes for each of us. This trip pre-dated the current obsession with hydration, and accordingly I had a bike pack containing my wallet and keys, plus a few peanut butter sandwiches, some kiwi fruit and four drinking boxes. In fact, I think the water bottle had not yet been invented.

The bicycle path follows a utility right of way and is a spectacular ride. You get to stay right beside the river, gliding through people’s front yards, alongside farms and through long, tranquil stretches of fields and wetlands. I had imagined being able to stop periodically to rest or buy Popsicles, maybe grab a drink of water, and sure enough the variety store in Ivy Lea appeared ahead at the bottom of a nice, breezy hill about an hour into our ride. I should have seen that first hill as an omen.

As we carried on, I was astounded to discover that a bike trail adjacent to a huge river would have so many long hills of various pitches. It was grim. Tom began to keep score, Hills 4, Mom 2. If I had to dismount and walk in order to reach the peak, er, crest, I lost. It was clear that the rugged Canadian Shield reaches way down south in this part of Ontario, with fingers pointing straight at the St. Lawrence, creating a proper challenge for cyclists.

Gearing up and down, I pedaled along enthusiastically, taking in the scenery, watching for herons in the river’s coves and trying to keep up with Tom. I had begun the vacation with a case of viral laryngitis that was hanging on, and it was hard to make myself heard if we got too far apart. I had given Tom a bit of a talk about keeping within sight of each other, and checking every so often to see how the other person was doing. OK, he was 12, and ignored every word I said.

The kilometers rolled by, and the lactic acid in my legs seemed to be staying at bay, but I began to get a bit worried. I had pictured most of southern Ontario as built-up, commercialized and infested with tourists from here and the States. Instead, what I found was mile after mile of pristine and peaceful scenery, the indigo blue of the river, the heady perfume of millions of wildflowers, the trill of blackbirds, and the perfect summer sky above. No other people, very few cars.

About half way to Brockville, the land on the river side of the highway gave way to St. Lawrence Islands National Park –  shoreline, plus 21 islands, Canada’s smallest national park. Bathrooms, yes, concession stands, no. Hmmm. We had some more sandwiches and carried on.

Shortly before reaching the parklands, we had passed a beautiful resort called Caiger’s Country Inn. That’s more like it, I thought as we cruised by. I was sure we’d have our pick of accommodations long before we got to the end of the trail.

Suddenly we were there. Excited at reaching our goal, we took pictures of each other standing in front of the sign and forced ourselves to turn the bikes around. In the total absence of hotels, motels, cabins or camps, it was back to Caiger’s for us. Our saddle sores were torturing us, and we sang the “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’” song from City Slickers. Billy Crystal sure had it right. A little ride or two along the boardwalk in Toronto, or from home to work a few kilometers away, had done little to prepare me for the wilds of the St. Lawrence parkway.

I had reached the low point. I’d thought turning back at Brockville was the worst, but I was wrong. Now, the sun was blazing down, there wasn’t a tree in sight and even more worrying, neither was my son. We were part way though a long and deserted section of the Parkway, and ahead of me lay the eastern rise of Hill 12. I croaked miserably to see if Tom could hear me. What a joke. He was probably already lying by the pool at Caiger’s. What could I do? I took off and tried to get a bit of a run at the hill. I don’t know if it was the vision of the pool or the thought of a couple of cold beverages on the patio overlooking the St. Lawrence, but I carried on. After a while, I came upon Tom, lounging under a tree, and feeling righteous about actually waiting for me.

A short while later, we wheeled our bikes up to the lodge office, and parked them. I grabbed my wallet and we went in to book a room. Naturally, we got chatting to the woman at the front desk about our day. As we were about to leave, with the room key in hand, she added, “I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you two really smell…” I was mortified. Well, it had been a hot day. But then she continued, “Fantastic! Grass, sweet hay and flowers, whatever you’ve been riding though, it’s in your clothes or something.” We had a bit of a laugh and then headed for the pool and patio.

Caiger’s more than lived up to our fantasy. Beautiful river view, heron on site, wonderful food. We didn’t realize how luck we’d been until we set out to replicate our trip two years later – this time with reservations. We had to try four different days before we could book a room.

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