It's barely even worth mentioning the ride from Virden to Brandon. It was about 70km along the Trans Canada Highway and 10km along an urban fork. The shoulder is pretty wide, and sealed, so it's not too awful on a bike. Well, it wasn't except for the 25km long section of construction, where there was alternately no shoulder, a soft shoulder, a bumpy and potholed shoulder, no lane markings, only one lane that i had to share with massive trucks, and so on. Even if i hadn't been stressed about my wheel giving out underneath me, that would've been a nerve-racking section. The rest was just a massive freeway through nowhere. Can't stop. No rest areas. No services. Just a few side roads leading to remote communities.
Entering Brandon was a shock to the system. It is still a small town, but it has suburbs and strip malls. It hasn't quite reached the critical mass where artists and hipsters moved in, so the downtown area is a bit dead, due to the usual small town mindset that downtown is "dangerous" and malls are more convenient. Downtown isn't really dangerous. There are some homeless. There is some graffiti. There is also a bike store whose mechanic fixed my bike, and an Ethiopian restaurant that gave me a delicious spread, and banks, and coffee shops, and traffic lights... It felt like real civilization again.
When i got my bike back i did half a city loop trail to test the wheel, then headed back to the motel where i treated myself by ordering in Latin American food, drinking a beer, and watching some YouTube.
This morning when i woke up it was raining. Again. It's rained every morning since Assiniboia and it fucking sucks. I headed out south, stopping in at Bulk Barn along the way to stock up on oats and various dried snacks that you can't get at regular grocery stores.
Then i cycled south all day, mostly with a westerly crosswind, although i could swear it changed to a headwind from time to time. It was brutal. And cold. The entire day it didn't get above 13 degrees Celsius. I put my gloves on after an hour or two, when i realized it was never going to heat up.
It's so fucking shit to cycle in this weather. I know, all the cycle nerds are like, no, that's perfect weather, you don't get sunburnt, you hardly drink any water, you can go twice as fast without worrying about overheating. But they're fucking wrong. The dampness makes every muscle and joint ache. The cold pierces your very soul and makes everything you do uncomfortable. It is the worst. This is exactly the weather i wanted to avoid by leaving Canada before autumn, and also leaving Canada before i reached the soggy, dewy, dismal Great Lakes/Canadian Shield area.
And don't get it twisted. This might be a "pothole prairie" according to the boffins, but it's basically a bunch of fucking (not so) great lakes. There is water everywhere. You can't go 10 feet off the side of the road without sinking into a bog. There are trees all over the place, and they're changing color. If you have ever been to the Great Lakes, or Ontario's cottage country, or the American midwest, or the American northeast, or pretty much anywhere in northern Europe, you have seen this all before. It's such a depressing landscape after the clean, dry, open beauty of the sagebrush steppe.
So, naturally what did i do but head straight for the heart of it. I must marinate myself in this miserable marshland. After a brief coffee break at Boissevain (the only place with services before the border) i headed into Turtle Mountain provincial park.
The official camping season is over here, so every campsite is vacant and the electric outlets and toilets are all turned off and locked up. Essentially i'm backcountry camping again. The lake water is not drinkable due manganese, but i have 3L of tap water, admittedly also of dubious quality. The only other people in the park are hunters, who i have not seen, but whose guns go off periodically. I am wearing my hi-vis and staying solidly on the trails to avoid getting my head blown off. I will not be making the trek out to the ski huts in this park.
Tomorrow i will cycle to the Peace Garden, which is a cross-border park between Manitoba and North Dakota. I think i should be able to visit and say hello to American soil without officially going through American border controls.
Then i will work my way up to Winnipeg to get a flight to Minneapolis. I very much doubt the American government is going to do shit about opening the land border on September 21. They just don't care about border communities, international families or cash strapped road travelers. Rich people can fly across and truck drivers carrying trade goods are allowed, and of course American citizens can now cross both ways, so why should any American politician care about us Canadian plebs who have been stuck unable to visit our neighbors for over 18 months?
It makes me so mad.
I can tell from the orange sky that there is a beautiful sunset, but i can't see it because there are trees in the way. I think there is a small chance of bears here, so i hung my food bag in one.
Hopefully i don't freeze to death overnight.
I got a surprisingly long and peaceful sleep. It's so nice being all alone, with no other people for miles around. Just in case, i slept in my beanie, puffy and gloves for maximum warmth. The wind was blowing hard all night long, and all the trees were shaking and rustling and occasionally dropping a shower of leaves and twigs on my tent. It was like sleeping by the ocean. Lovely.
Also, very fucking cold.
At least it's a dry cold.
This province is going to cost me a fortune. I am in a motel again, after trying and failing to find a fucking campsite. I cycled something like 130km, i don't even know.
It's amazing what a difference a sunny day can make to my mood. It was very, very cold this morning, so i resolved to cycle in jeans for the first time this trip. All rugged up, i headed down to the border to visit the Peace Garden. You can enter and exit on your "own" side, or cross the border officially, but the park itself is a sort of no man's land where Canadians and Americans can hang out and camp overnight (!) and hike and share meals in one another's country, without officially making a crossing.
As you all know i think borders are dumb. Cycling around the Peace Garden, especially first thing in the morning, in autumn, during COVID, it was almost completely deserted. I looped around a nature trail and followed birds from one "side" to the other "side". There was no so-called Canada, there was no so-called United States of America, there was just me, and the animals, on Turtle Island. This is the freedom of movement that all people should enjoy everywhere. It's so absurd to draw an invisible line and tell people they aren't allowed to cross it. It violates the most basic of human rights, and yet some people unironically champion this tyranny, volunteering themselves to live in a prison. Utterly absurd.
somewhere over the rainbow / bluebirds fly
birds fly over the rainbow / why oh why can't i?
Of course, there is somewhat of a visible line in the Peace Garden - they have laid it out like a European palace garden, with a big, long symmetrical layout of fountains and flowerbeds and statues that run right along the 49th parallel. It's really quite beautiful, that sort of garden layout is very rare in North America. I spent a fairly blissful hour or two cycling around, then i grabbed a breakfast croissant and a coffee before heading back.
I was a little worried that i would need a COVID test to get back across the border, because technically even double-vaxxed Canadians also need to show a clean test to be able to skip the two week quarantine, but the border officer was pretty chill when i told him i just came down to the park for breakfast and a look-see. When he heard i camped at Turtle Mountain he suggested another nice place to overnight - William Lake.
I headed north along 10 back into Manitoba, and i gotta say that first 10km or so is a really nice ride/drive for anyone entering Canada, especially on a sunny autumn day. All the trees are changing colors, and that's all you can see on either side of the road. Some lakes. Ducks flying overhead. It's really pretty. Maybe this landscape will make a voyageur out of me yet.
Then i took the gravel road that the border officer suggested in the direction of William Lake, although i knew i wasn't planning to stay there overnight due to it being too close by. It was a great road. I zigged and zagged along the dirtiest of dirt roads - one was literally just a tractor trail in the middle of a muddy field - until i arrived at Killarney, which is a sort of lakeside resort town with a bunch of pricey-looking homes and a couple of RV campsites. I had been hoping that Manitoba was turning out to be the place where i could eat vegan again, or at least vegetarian, but it was not to be. Meaty McMeatface was on the menu, so i got a chicken fried steak.
God i fucking hate steak. It is literally the worst possible dish you could make with a dead animal. It's like. Here is the dead animal. Here is some fire. The end. What are we, fucking cavemen? It's like someone took a burger and said "you know what, burgers are too exotic, let's just take out all the things that could possibly add even the slightest hint of flavor, and leave the blandest bit of the whole dish, then charge people twice as much for it". What a fucking joke. Anyway, once upon a time someone introduced me to chicken fried steak, and it is brilliant. They take a steak, coat it in fried chicken batter, deep fry it, then smother it in mushroom gravy. The deep-frying destroys all the fat and gristle that is normally in a steak, so it becomes super tender, and the fried chicken batter makes it crispy and a tad spicy, then the gravy adds umami. It's basically an American version of Jägerschnitzel. By the time all of that is done, you could just as easily have put seitan inside the batter instead of a dead cow, and it'd taste just as good, but meat-eaters gonna meat-eat, am i right?
Anyway, chicken fried steak is great. All other steak is trash.
Then i kept biking. I had a problem that i could not find anywhere that had a campsite. Manitoba doesn't appear to be structured like southern Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan, where most little prairie towns have their own campsite for traveling workers and/or RVing grandparents to stay while visiting the kids. It has very dense clusters of campsites around lake-speckled holiday destinations, and then fucking nothing for a hundred miles. I feel like i almost cycled a hundred miles. I almost made it to the next holiday destination of Spruce Woods, but i was destroyed by the time i got to Glenboro, where Google said there would be a campsite but there was not. So i am in the motel.
There is a big camel here. There was a big turtle in Boissevain. I like big things. But i like campsites better.
I think i am going to try to loop up above Winnipeg this weekend to touch one of the big lakes and then come back down from the north, in the vague hope that if America opens their border i can just zoom south and not have to repeat the same section twice. In reality the border probably will not open and i will miss whatever wonders lie in store along the Red River, but whatever. Gives me something to visit for next time.
Yesterday i almost got stuck without a campsite again.
I woke to a very strong southerly, which wanted to blow me in the direction of the provincial park i couldn't quite make it to the night before. There is a trail in Spruce Woods that takes you to a micro-desert, a stretch of sand dunes in the middle of the prairie, but it's a 10km loop so hiking the trail would likely eat up half the day and leave me stuck camping in the park, which would feel like i didn't really get anywhere. I like to put a bit more distance between my start and end point each day.
So i resolved to head east, with three potential exit points to the north if i couldn't take the wind - all leading up to the Trans Canada Highway and passing nothing along the way.
And Manitoba really is a whole bunch of nothing. People say Saskatchewan is the most boring province, but i think Manitoba is worse. At least in Saskatchewan (well, southwestern Saskatchewan) each town has a bit of character. There are no services, sure, but the towns have amusing names and when there is a town with a diner or a grocery store, it feels special, like an oasis. You have to go inside and check it out because who knows when you'll see another one? But in southeastern Saskatchewan and even moreso in Manitoba the towns are just depressing. There is more stuff in them, but there is nothing unique or interesting. No surprise Dutch snacks or that one obscure brand of soda that one farmer really likes. Nothing like the Okanagan fruit stands where you'll find a wealth of local culinary delights. Manitoba is renowned across Canada for their rye bread, but do you think anywhere here sells fresh local bread? Of course not. The shops aren't destinations to explore, they are just utilitarian setups with the most generic, boring, bland, production line groceries that you will find everywhere in North America. It's like you aren't even traveling at all, there is so little regional identity.
And it's thoroughly disappointing because the land between the towns is so depressing too, you'd hope the rest stops would be better.
Manitoba fucking stinks. It stinks in the way that makes farmers very happy because the soil is presumably rather fertile, but in a way that makes cycling through it unpleasant. It's just an endless fetid agricultural stench of cowshit and compost and standing pools of water and oozing, festering, fermenting organic matter. And then you pass these towns with fantastically optimistic names that reference the great European cities or evoke an image of charming villages in the Pyrenees, but when you get there they're all just the same prefab units plonked in a grid selling fertilizer and Kit Kats and Coca-Cola.
I stopped at Treherne to get lunch. Manitoba does have these unique businesses called drive-ins (often named XYZ Drive Inn), which are prefab units with a window on the side where you can order burgers and soft serve icecream. I imagine it's sort of like what McDonalds and other fast food franchises were like in the 1950s. There is no eating in. If you're lucky there's a picnic table, but most people order then eat in their cars. I've stopped at a few but their menus tend to be burgers, fries and icecream - period - so i kept going. This one was fancy enough to have a vege burger and sweet potato fries, though, so i ordered them and enjoyed my first vege burger since leaving BC. It was just a fast food burger, but not killing a cow for my lunch tasted glorious.
I managed to push on to the very last turnoff where i could ride the tailwind north directly into Portage la Prairie. Portage is a reasonable-sized town on the Trans Canada Highway which i had identified as a possible backup stop in case nearby campsites didn't pan out. Because the "nearby" campsites were all over 20km away and several reviews mentioned arriving after the season was over (i.e. now) and finding them closed up.
Fucking, i get why RVers spend most of their time in the west. Legal camping is so much more difficult east of the Missouri. Not being able to camp in every town, not having rec sites and public land all over the place where you can set up for a night, having to pre-book everything and not just walk in, it suddenly becomes really stressful trying to figure out where you are going to sleep. And if RVers are stressed, it is an order of magnitude worse for bike tourers. Worst case an RVer can just drive a few hours to the next town with a Walmart and stay in the parking lot overnight. For a cycle tourist that town might be two days ride away, and sleeping in or near a parking lot would get them moved along for vagrancy anyway. It seems that outside of the west, people are actively hostile to travelers. They want us all packed away in remote little campsites that have "seasons" so you can't even stay there after some arbitrary point in the year. It's awful, and really makes me rethink my vague notion of cycling to Florida.
Anyway, i scoured websites and called around, then hung out in a parking lot waiting. Finally got a call back from a campsite at Delta Beach. I had to pay with credit card because of course i did. Then i cycled up there.
And it was totally worth it. Delta Beach is a small holiday home slash camping community on the shore of Lake Manitoba, nestled in protected wetlands that are full of birds right now. This is where all the bogs and marshes that i complain about finally make sense to me. Wetlands that actually lead out to the sea, or a great lake where you can't see the other side it's so vast, this is a logical wetland. When you break through all the reeds there is a "beach" (more like mudflats) and water as far as the eye can see. It's huge, it's epic, and it's the best thing that could've happened to my day.
I pitched my tent and ate some dinner then took a long walk along the beach. In bare feet. At sunset. Finally getting a bit of that Florida feeling.
The wind howled all night, but the weather was warm. It's still howling and i haven't gotten out of my sleeping bag yet. At 7am sharp the shooting started. It sounds like a warzone out there. Fly, little duckies, fly for your lives!
Today i will head east. I'm practically already in Winnipeg but i want to try stretch it out one more day.
I made it to the Red River! I like the symmetry. I started at the Thompson River (flows into the Fraser), and spent some time at the Shuswap River (flows into the Thompson). I also passed the Okanagan River (flows into the Columbia) and the Similkameen (flows into the Okanagan). Then i followed the Kettle River and Elk River, which both flow into the Kootenay River and then the Columbia. Then, across the Rockies, i mostly skipped the Saskatchewan watershed and jumped straight to the Milk River (flows into the Missouri), before tacking back up to the Souris River, which flows into the Assiniboine, which flows into the Red River and on to Lake Winnipeg and the Hudson Bay.
It wasn't a great ride. The wind was with me all the way, but the stretch from Delta Beach to Stonewall was unsatisfying. (Obviously once i saw Stonewall on the map, i had to go there. I'm still pretty damn gay, even though i don't have sex any more.) Delta to Warren was gravel all the way, but it wasn't a friendly gravel. The road itself was fine, but the half dozen cars or so that passed all seemed to resent me being there. I was beeped twice along the road - not a "hi, you nifty biker" kind of a beep, but a long "get the fuck out of my way" beep, both times when i was already pulled about as far into the shoulder as i could go without sinking into quicksand.
Minnesota nice is definitely not the name of the game in Manitoba. I really feel unwelcome in a lot of places, like i'm a hassle just by being there. It probably doesn't help the impression having cycled through Portage la Prairie, which for miles around was festooned with PPC (Canadian far-right political party) signs. And in town, i even saw a cell of PPC activists who had dressed up their children in political gear to go campaigning with them. It was like the Westboro Baptist Church. Mom's all like "ugh, now i have to go to a birthday party where everyone is vaccinated, can you believe it?"
There were no smiles and waves from the drivers on the road, so i was looking forward to getting back to a town - Warren. Except Warren is the creepiest town i have visited yet, and that's saying a lot given how many ghost towns i have cycled through. It's like they've tried as hard as possible to make sure that no roads actually go into or get out of the town. The highway just stops with a "road closed" sign and barriers to stop you going into town. I guess you're supposed to go up and around on the 6 highway bypass, but there is literally a perfectly good dirt road there that at the very least could be open to cyclists and hikers. So i ignored the signs and went around the barriers into town.
And it's a weird town. Real Stepford-like. All these perfect little houses with green front lawns, and a nicely manicured park, with trees, and a basketball court, and all that good suburban stuff. But... no shops. The gas station was closed. The grocery store was shut down for good. The drive-in was closed because Sunday. I ate a handful of corn nuts and dates and resolved to press on to Stonewall for lunch. Then i tried to leave the town the other way, by following a different road back to the highway... and that one was blocked off too! Road closed! What the fuck! They wanted me to detour way the fuck out of town to the north just to leave it to the south. What is this insanity!? I ended up bushwhacking my way across the grass next to the railroad tracks just to get to the road i wanted to get to the first place, and left that cursed town behind.
Stonewall was also a bit odd. It does have a reasonable downtown, but all of the restaurants were closed, bar three (!) Chinese restaurants, which were all take-out only. For fuck's sake. Then, suddenly, i saw something miraculous: Palestinian Café. What on Earth is a Palestinian Café? I don't know, but i do know i definitely wanted to eat there. I was dreaming of fresh hummus and strong coffee. I made a beeline for the place, crossing some wires and passing some dudes in hi-vis, maybe they were construction workers?
No. They were film crew. There is no Palestinian Café. It was a set, and i had just crashed it. That's the second time i accidentally crashed a set looking for decent food on this journey. Just goes to show that the movies present a better version of the world than reality, in case we didn't already know that.
Anyway, just when i was about to give up and get fucking Tim Hortons, i found a drive-in. And they had a vege burger. So i ate the vege burger, then went to explore the quarry park. You see, Stonewall, Manitoba is so-named because of the limestone quarry that used to be there. Turned out the park was really fun and cute, there was a little limestone block cartoon character explaining to the kids (and kids-at-heart) what all the ruins and geological features and rewilded flora were. It was awesome.
After that brief detour, i zoomed on to Selkirk, which feels more like "real" civilization. It seems to be an exurb of Winnipeg, but it has a large campsite by the river, and that's where i am now, typing this up. It also has a big catfish, because apparently it is the world capital of catfish. I am going to go for a walk around dinnertime and try to find whatever the Canadian version of a cajun catfish sandwich is. I better find one, or i will be very disappointed.
Tomorrow is the election. I will probably head into Winnipeg and get a motel for a few days. Tuesday the Americans will surely announce that they're still not allowing Canadians across their land border. Thursday i could fly to Minneapolis, which gives me a day to pack my bike and get a COVID test and eat some decent big city food. Or maybe Saturday. Both days have relatively cheap direct flights. In either case, it's time for me to follow the birds south.