By Bill MetzgerSo I bought an XLT Pro last year. The blurb on the Bike-On web page calls it “The ultimate choice for high-end racing, recreation or touring.” I’m too old for high-end racing, and even if I weren’t there’s no one in our town of 800 population to race with anyway; using the bike for recreation, well, of course I’m going to use it for that, but then there’s touring. Touring, you say? Touring?
I used to go touring back when I could ride a two-wheeler. My typical vacation consisted of a two-week bike ride of 600-900 miles, camping along the way and generally having an absolute ball. My present to myself for turning 40 was a six-week 2,000 miler. (It was either that or buy a red sports car and start dating 19-year-olds. I went with the bike ride.) But my last tour was in 1993. Steadily worsening MS-like symptoms gradually reduced the distance I was able to ride to the point where I rode my trusty old road bike 5 miles last year, all of which were in sheer terror. Then I learned about hand cycles and bought an XLT Pro. And started thinking about going touring again.
My wife Pam was all for it. We had met at a biking advocacy meeting and had ridden together until I couldn’t do it any more; she was thrilled about the idea of going touring again. So we got to thinking and planning.
What shook out was a trip down the St. Lawrence River valley from Cape Vincent, NY to Montreal. Why?
Once we determined where we were going, my wife the Internet Queen got to work. In no time we knew where we were going to stay and how long it was going to take to get us there. She started making reservations in April. We left in July with ample time to make ourselves crazy in between. She found a site www.hedney.comdone by a guy named Brian Hedney who had ridden from Toronto to Montreal and laid the whole thing out: roads, trails, attractions, and accommodations.
It became the bible for the trip. And we weren’t disappointed.
I had to outfit my bike for carrying equipment and at first tried designing a rack to carry panniers in the back. Didn’t work out, mostly due to time constraints on the part of THE machine shop that was going to do the work, although I have the design if you want to try it. A neighbor of ours offered to loan us her BOB trailer and I set about making it work. My other neighbor and I came up with a hitch that consisted of an inner tube, two U-bolts, a couple of carriage bolts and assorted nuts, washers and bushings. It worked like a champ - the trailer was easy to hitch and unhitch - and was the key to the success of the whole trip.
I took a couple of test rides, first with the trailer empty to see how it tracked, then loaded, and aside from trying to turn it around in a tight radius (not recommended), and backing (impossible without help) there was no problem. Bike and trailer measured 10’ 3” long, but once I was riding, I never noticed it. I have no idea what the whole thing weighed.
We loaded the trailer with tent, sleeping bags, air mattresses and various other camping stuff; Pam’s panniers held clothes, health and beauty aids, and various whatnots.
We were ready to go.
DAY ONE – IDYLLIC BEGINNING, HELLISH ENDWe arrived in Cape Vincent Sunday evening, found our motel, took a ride around the town and out to the Tibbetts Point lighthouse, which marks the beginning of the St. Lawrence River. Cape Vincent is a quiet, pretty Victorian-era resort town that would be quite fine to hole up in for an entire vacation. The ride along the river is lined with “second homes,” each of which could comfortably house our entire town and several nearby townships. The surrounding countryside is flat with miles of nicely-paved back roads. and there are plenty of services like motels, restaurants, stores and some real fine ice cream. We asked a local resident what it was like in the winter. He said it got to 35 below. Nice in the summer, though.
After a raucous thunderstorm Sunday evening, during which we were happily ensconced in the motel, we were up bright and early Monday morning. We didn’t leave til after 9 because Pam wanted to make sure it was okay to park the car behind the Chamber of Commerce office in town. It was. All you have to do is leave a note and it’s free. But it was a late start, which we came to regret.
The little ferry gives a fine, cheap and fast trip over to Wolfe Island. A few friendly words with the Canadian customs inspectors and we were on our way. The 7-mile ride across the island was, to say the least, idyllic. Two-lane blacktop road with virtually no traffic. We met a touring biker from Germany named Ino, or Eyeno, or something like that who had been riding through Canada for several months. His English hadn’t improved a lot, but we sort of got the idea.
We rode up to the ferry landing just in time for a ride over to Kingston. It was getting warm. We picked up Route 2 about two blocks from the ferry dock and didn’t tarry in Kingston, a beautiful river/military/prison/college town. We were immediately met by a half-mile long hill up through the Royal Canadian Army barracks. I forgot the hill because the last time I rode it I was going the other way. The road had a nice shoulder, though, and there were plenty of other bikers on the road. Once up to the top, the road sort of leveled out and we were soon out into open country. There were as many bike riders on the road as there were cars. The ride was rolling; flat on top the plateau, then a drop to cross a stream, then a climb back up. For miles. (Or kilometers, now that we were in Canada.)
But the temperature was climbing up into the 90s. This was Canada, for crying out loud. It’s not supposed to get that hot here. And we didn’t pack any sun screen.
We stopped for a break at Grasse Point County Park, then pressed on into Gananoque. And traffic picked up. A lot. Gananoque is the official Canadian Thousand Islands Tourist Trappe. Lunatics driving everywhere on narrow streets. We stopped at the town park and I found a park bench to allow the blood to creep back into my legs and Pam took off in search of food. While she was gone, a nice young woman named Sarah rode into town pulling a BOB trailer like mine. I struck up a conversation. Turned out she was solo touring up into the Laurentians. Pam came back with sandwiches and Sarah took off.
The Hedney website talked about the Thousand Islands Parkway Trail and we found it right outside of town, just past the last junkarias. Huh. Some trail. What happened was, back when they built the Thousand Islands Parkway, they graded it for four lanes and only built two. It’s been that way since I was a kid. They built the trail on the unfinished side.
So here’s this asphalt bike trail, ostensibly along the river. Sounds great, right? Well, it ain’t. The Parkway is between the trail and the river and was mostly below the level of the paved road, so all those of us of the handcycle and recumbent persuasion could see was the shoulder and the underside of cars. Plus, there were big ruts, potholes and manhole covers in the trail. And where there was an intersecting road, the trail took a quick rise up to the road, crossed the road, then dropped quickly back down. Sort of a dipsy doodle kind of thing. Fun at an amusement park, but we didn’t find it amusing. We also didn’t see many other bikers on it.
We stopped at a convenience store for refreshment and the owner sat with us for a bit and told us the trail had been built by the telephone company, who had wanted the Parkway for a fiber optic cable right of way and, as a sweetener for the deal, promised to build a trail on top. Great idea, but they’ve never done any maintenance since.
So given the heat, the lousy trail and the fact that we were rapidly approaching a 50 mile day, we decided to stop at the first place that promised a night’s sleep. That proved to be an old motel outside of Mallorytown, owned by an equally old guy. The outside looked kind of run down, but turned out the room was quite nice. We were tired, sore and sunburned, but we made 49 miles – or 3.14159 kilometers – the first day. A record for me on a handbike. And pulling a trailer in the heat, yet.
DAY TWO – IT’S DOWN WIND ALL THE WAY
After sleeping the sleep of the dead, we were rolling about 8. We started out slogging along the same lousy trail, then Sarah cruised by us up on the road. There was no traffic on the Parkway at that hour – no shoulder either – and we said the hell with the trail and joined her. And we boogied on into Brockville. The wind had picked up during the night and it was cooler. We did the 15 miles into town in just over an hour. I felt like Lance freakin’ Armstrong. Emphasis on the armstrong.
We stopped in Brockville, where I found a bench on the main street and engaged in Canadian people watching and Pam went off to a grocery store for food and sunscreen. We had breakfast in the town park, and properly fed and basted we took off in high dudgeon. Lots of people riding bikes all over town. We cleared Brockville and cruised down Route 2 doing a steady 16-18 mph, or 3,000 kilometers an hour. We took a lunch break at Fort Wellington in Prescott with the fine foodstuffs Pam had procured in Brockville. Now this was touring!
We continued cruising through the afternoon with the fine tailwind holding and were in camp outside of Morrisburg by 4:00, having done another 49 miles, or 100,000 kilometers.
We set up camp at a gorgeous site along the river, with the tent cross wind and I did the sensible thing and took a nap. Pam puttered about doing camping things. The tent has a door on each side and we set it with the picnic table – every campsite has a picnic table – on my side and I could easily pick myself up and onto the bench. Of course, the usual civilians came by and asked the same questions I’ve heard ever since I’ve been touring: “where are you coming from, where are you going, how far did you ride today, what kind of bike is that, how many speeds does it have, I couldn’t ride a bike around the block, aren’t you afraid, what do you do when it rains…,” except for the “what kind of bike is that question,” the litany hasn’t changed in 25 years. And the new other biggie: “how’s come the back wheels point in like that?”
Here’s the thing. When you go bike touring, you automatically set yourself apart from the rest of the world and when you ride a hand cycle, you’re even farther apart. Only a miniscule number of people you’ll encounter on the road will ever understand it, let alone have a frame of reference to even ask a proper question. The good news on this route, though, is they see a lot of touring bikers – this is a prime cross-Canada route – and at least most of them aren’t surprised. Until they see a hand cycle, that is. Here you have a man who walks with crutches propelling himself through the countryside AND pulling a trailer. Imagine that. A guy I met in Pennsylvania before we started the trip said “I know what this is. This is your ‘no excuses’ bike.” Exactly.
An aside here. Everybody asks me how many speeds the bike has, as if that had some huge significance. I’ve started lying, depending on the audience. I’ve told people the bike has as many as 54 speeds and they nod knowingly. And when they ask about the wheels, I look back and scream, “Oh my god! My wheels are bent!”
DAY THREE – MORE OF THE SAME, BUT JUST AS NICE
After 100 miles, or 200,000 kilometers, and a successful night camping, we said to ourselves, “NOW we’re on vacation.” We rode through Morrisburg and found nothing where we could have breakfast til we got out on the main road where there was a Tim Horton’s, something of a cross between a Starbuck’s and a Wendy’s. A couple of bicycle types gathered around when we pulled in and looked over the equipment. An older woman with a French accent told us, “do not ride zee Long Sault (pronounced Soo) Parkway. Eet ees bumpety bumpety.” So of course we rode the Long Sault Parkway and aside from an expansion joint every 40 feet or so, it was wonderful.
For those of you who have ridden the Colonial Parkway from Jamestown to Yorktown, Virginia, the Long Sault is just like it: picnic areas, camping, lots of river access, no traffic, and nice scenery. The Parkway runs along the high spots of an area that was flooded when they built the Moses-Saunders power dam for the St. Lawrence Seaway.
She also told us to not ride zee trail around Cornwall because eet would be too narrow for my bike, which, based on her previous advice, we rode it anyway and found to be quite delightful and nowhere near too narrow..
We ate at Tim Hortons, blew by Upper Canada Village, which is probably quite nice, but not open that early, did the Long Sault Parkway, and got on the trail around Cornwall, a fine two-lane asphalt trail that takes you right through the town, along an old canal. Do Not cowboy on this trail. There are several blind tight turns on the east side of town, especially, that can get you in real trouble real fast if you’re not paying attention.
We also ran into Ino or Uno in Cornwall, the guy we met on Wolfe Island. His English still wasn’t any better, but he wasn’t that interested in talking to me anyway. All his attention was directed toward Pam. Not that I cared, mind you.
We made the mistake of staying on the trail through Cornwall and not going into downtown for lunch. We came out the east end of town and the only eating establishment we saw consisted of two little girls selling lemonade. We stopped and Pam went over and bought some. Nice to support the Children of Other Lands and all, but I was getting hungry, dammit.
We rode another couple of miles and were getting reallly testy foodwise when we came upon a restaurant called the Blue Anchor, with a large deck right on the water. Turned out to be the best meal we had the whole trip. And we met a couple from Pennsylvania.
A nice afternoon cruise on a no-traffic road, a stop at a Dairy Queen, another encounter – the last – with Eno or Ino and we made camp at a Provincial campground outside of Lancaster. Great view of the river – watching the moonrise was spectacular – and an excellent handicapped shower. We did 53 miles, or 437,982 kilometers.
We were starting to enjoy this.
DAY FOUR – THIS IS GONNA BE GREAT!
Like I said, I did this ride some 20 years previously. During the course of this trip I was amazed at how little I remembered of it. But the big thing I did remember was the campground and fruit stand at Pointe des Cascades, last stop before Montreal. Where you could pitch your tent right on the river and go to sleep looking at the Montreal skyline. Where you could buy cheese and grapes and wine and a baguette and amazing sausage and eat it while sitting at a picnic table overlooking said skyline.
Oh boy, I told Pam that morning as we set off. This is gonna be great. We rode the few miles across the border into Quebec and stopped at a pathetic convenience store where Pam bought some food-like substances that we halfheartedly pretended to eat and enjoy. Of course, a mile down the road, we came across a nice-looking local restaurant. But we had already eaten, sort of.
No matter, I told her. We’re not that far from Pointe des Cascades where the best fruit stand in the world is. This is really gonna be great. We also had our first encounter with the Route Verte, the Quebec network bike trails. It was disconcerting at first, because both lanes of the bike trail were on the same side of the highway and we were riding against traffic on the outside lane. But that only lasted a couple of miles til the trail took us through a subdivision, then through a woods. More cruising with no traffic, two lanes, blacktop, and every now and then a road crossing. All new in the last 20 years.
We got to the beginning of what I remembered as a fine road along another abandoned canal that still held water. Beautiful stonework and rows of Lombardy poplar trees – a touch of old Europe. The road and canal were still there, but now there was a trail on the opposite bank from the road. Still more delightful riding and we were getting closer to Pointe des Cascades. Ah, the cheese. Ah, the baguette.
So in we ride. Pointe des Cascades is the head of a canal that bypassed a series of rapids in the St. Lawrence before the Seaway was built. Three locks, now inoperable, lowered boats to the river. There is indeed still a park still there, and the lady directed us to our campsite. No camping on the river any more, but you can camp right on the canal. Oh, well. Nice view of the other trailer campground across the canal. Not much of a skyline, but hey.
So we went up to the greatest fruit stand in the world. Except it wasn’t there. Just another pathetic convenience store that sold pathetically crappy packaged foods. We rode around town and I finally found what used to be the greatest fruit stand in the world, now used by a mechanic as his garage. Goodbye baguette and the grapes. Goodbye stunning view. Hello crappy packaged junk food and trailers across the canal. I kept telling her, bike touring is an adventure. Sometimes you don’t win. A baguette sure would have been tasty, tho.
But the breeze had held all day and the camping was pleasant enough along the canal.
We wound up doing 32 miles or 98.6 kilometers.
DAY FIVE – TRIUMPHAL ENTRY
We had been following the printout Pam made from hedney.com, who we were now referring to as Smedley, and he led us into the suburban big box four lane hell of Dorion. There were shoulders on the road and all, but this was morning rush hour and the Quebecers are a tough bunch. But the nastiness only lasted about two miles. We crossed the bridge into Isle Perrot (named, of course, for Ross), and followed Smedley away from the traffic. We had breakfast at another Tim Hortons, and found our way across another bridge onto the island of Montreal. A word about this bridge. There’s a ramp leading down off of it that does a 180 degree turn halfway down. Coming down the ramp, I couldn’t see the end, so I really rode the brakes. Good thing. You can negotiate the turn on a handcycle pulling a trailer at about 2 miles an hour.Or less.
But now we were on the island of Montreal and on the home stretch. We rode through the posh suburbs of St. Anne and were riding through Baie d’ Urfe (no idea how to pronounce it) maybe 10 miles from downtown Montreal. Posh suburbs, lousy road full of potholes. I heard the familiar crack of what sounds like a .22 rifle being fired. First and only flat of the trip. We rode over to a bus stop where I could slide off the bike and sit on the concrete slab while I fixed the tire. My front wheel, of course. My greasy dirty front wheel. So there we were, working on the bike as buses slowed down for us and rich people in Mercedes drove by and pretended not to see us.
About 15 minutes later (yes, I carry spare tubes and a tire when I’m touring), we were rolling again along the bike route into town surrounded by other bikers, who mostly blew by us at ungodly speeds, but just about always greeted us. We picked up a trail in Dorval and rode it the rest of the way to downtown Montreal. On the trail, we met another hand cyclist coming the opposite direction, the only one we met on the trip. Nice guy, of course. We stopped and compared notes for a bit, but bike traffic on the trail was just too heavy. I would have enjoyed riding with him.
Pam and I rode slowly the last few miles (or many kilometers), just soaking up the ambiance of the park, the trail, and the Lachine Canal that the trail is built along. And finally, we were there.
We got off the trail at Rue de la Montagne, and rode triumphantly up the hill to the Hotel de la Montagne, waving regally at our adoring public. After five days of living on the road, we were ready for first class, and this place certainly was. Two bathrooms, each as big as our back yard, a bed as big as a volleyball court and a balcony with a fine view of downtown. While Pam went in and made the necessary arrangements, I sat outside with the bikes and people watched. I gotta tell you – those Montrealers are an elegant bunch.
Dinner at a little Italian restaurant around the corner and early to bed. While we were at the restaurant, a heavy thunderstorm hit, but we were sleeping inside tonight. Who cared. We had ridden 36 miles, or 225.8 kilometers.
DAY SIX – FIVE DAYS OUT, THREE HOURS BACK
The hotel was only two blocks from the railroad station and I knew from experience that you could ride your bike right into the concourse. I used to ride it out. When we rode up to the baggage counter, the girl at the window took one look at me with the trailer – all 10’ 3” of me – and Pam on her recumbent and said “uh oh.”
Once we demonstrated that the whole shebang did in fact come apart, she looked quite relieved. They loaded everything on baggage carts and we went off to explore the station, Pam pushing me in a wheelchair. We ate a place that offered “dejeunners,” whatever they were. Well, them dejeunners sure were tasty and all, but they looked suspiciously like muffins and orange juice.
And it was time for the train.
On account of I was in a wheelchair, we got to board first, and we bribed the baggage man who was pushing me to take us up to the front of the train. I wanted to get a look at the engine, but I also wanted to see how they were treating the bikes. Fine, as it turned out.
We rode in a comfortable air conditioned coach and cruised on by some of the very trails and bridges we had biked just the day before. Out into the countryside, the railroad runs through some very unpopulated country. Highlight of the trip for me was seeing an eagles’ nest built on a telephone pole just a few feet from the railroad. I saw two young eagles sticking their very large heads out of the nest.
And then we were back in Kingston. Or, more properly, at the station way the hell outside of Kingston. We delayed the train a bit in unloading, but Pam helped the baggage agent, much to her relief. Don’t think she had ever seen a handcycle or a recumbent before. She was going to load all our stuff in a van to take back to the station from the front of the train. Pam took care of the whole thing and once again avoided an international incident.
We got everything back together and asked directions on how to get into town and the ferry. Turned out that we were maybe three miles from town, but we wound up riding six. It didn’t matter, though, because we got to see more of Kingston. There was some sort of festival going on and we rode through a bit of it and soaked up local color. We had about an hour’s wait for the ferry and amused ourselves by talking to a family who lived about a half an hour away from us.
Then we were back on Wolfe Island and seven sad miles away the other ferry. When we got off the first ferry, I noticed a dark cloud off to the right of us that looked like it was going to go behind us. Except that it kept getting closer. We were in sight of the ferry when it let loose – the only time we got rained on while on the road. Pam said it was Canada crying because it was sad to see us go.
Back in the states, we were greeted by large men in combat uniforms carrying very big guns. Pam told me not to tell them my name was Mahmoud or use a fake accent. So I didn’t. I’m not a terrorist or anything, but those guys made me feel like I might be one.
Our first tour was over. We wound up riding 231 miles or 3.5 million kilometers.
Last week, Pam brought home a baguette loaf, a brick of Canadian Black Diamond white sharp cheddar cheese, a summer sausage, a bunch of grapes and a bottle of white wine. “This is gonna be great,” she said. We got out the maps and the pictures and my logbook and talked about where we’d been and where we’re going next year. Yes, we’re going again next year. The only thing was, she wouldn’t let me cut up the bread, meat and cheese and eat it with my pocket knife. But sometimes you just have to make allowances.