Bikepacking Nelson: Roundabout the Rossland Range

June in the Kootenays. Longer days tease the trend of warmer weather, only if it’s not torrenting rain. Like the bears, we’re still stretching out after a winters’ hibernation. Hungry for something. Anything.

Here’s another round-trip from the door step. From Nelson, linking up established rail trail to Christina lake, forestry road to Rossland, then back again. Looping is great, but makes it hard to answer the question:

“Where are you going?”

Nowhere, really.

What’s in store?

  • Ascend the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) with stunning views of the Arrow Lakes – plus eerie tunnel sections
  • Follow the historic mining route high into the Rossland range and spend a night in one of BC’s true mountain towns
  • Grind on established gravel on the remote Pend Orielle river valley
  • Varied terrain with minimal pavement, plus a detour option that cuts out a huge elevation day
  • Camping options aplenty with covered shelters ever ~20km on the KVR and provincial/backcountry rec sites elsewhere

Lets forge on.

Though pedalling outbound from Nelson has quite familiar, I still can’t help but recognize something in this landscape that sets the stage for what is ahead. The clouds also chime in. Big, bellowing and black, they creep over the southern range. Invariably, it starts sleeting sideways about five minutes into the trip. ‘Junesoon’ says all you need to know about this month of the year.

Heading west out of town via Granite and Blewett road, you’ll eventually arrive the hamlet of Krestova, which is one of BC’s original settlements of Russian dissenters, the Doukhobors. Through it, Pass Creek road is our gateway into the Columbia River valley.

Don’t settle too deep into the backroad bliss, as it is sensory overload once dumped into the valley. The clatter of train cars at the near intermodal station overlay the hum of the main trucking route. In the background, the pump mill and hydro station churn away. Do your best to ignore the smoke stacks and slightly acrid air, instead appreciating the natural rock bluffs and grandeur of arrow lakes.

Ascension out of the Columbia Valley stokes incredible views. Compact gravel and well maintained trestle crossings over a 2% grade makes for easy riding all the way to the Paulson summit of 1,200 meters. The rain clouds begin to part, dancing shadows on the opposite side of the valley make the vistas.

A handful of tunnels make for a pretty unique, but slightly eerie, riding experience. One of which is about a kilometre long, guaranteeing a few panic stricken moments. Curving away from the entrance, the lights go out and a dense fog sets in. You might wonder, which Stephen King book are we in? Remember the headlamp.

Enjoy the gravity all the way to Christina lake. Sparse pines tower over blooming lupins near Texas creek – the makings of a great camp.

The birds are out in numbers, cheering on the sun as it touches down in the valley. It’s early, but already hot and muggy. Ahead lies two huge vertical pushes, one to access the Rossland-Cascade highway, and the other to exit it. In a future month (year?) when crossing the border is an option, there is a much more established, chip sealed and less hilly, route on the US side.

Rolling into Rossland, my priorities are in order: Ginger beer, chocolate bar, and a blender full of hummus. Angie and Gent have agreed to post me up in their sweet loft, but perhaps weren’t ready for the full-on fridge raid of a ravenous cycle tourist. Only true friends can see calorie cranky for what it is.

After a night around the campfire, a belly full of fresh bread, and Gents magnificent frittata for breakfast, the trails are calling.

Welcome to small resource town Canada (Trail, BC), where opinions on the racial divide that we’ve created are best spray painted on a minivan. Not pictured is the pickup truck with a confederate flag plastered to the back window. Wrong country, wrong era, just wrong, dude.

Hammering on your pedals is a good way to expel fellow countryman rage. Heading south with the flow of the Columbia River, you’ll meet sweeping views of the valley.

Cell service goes flat as you curve eastward on the Pend Orielle. Smooth pavement is laid like a red carpet for the first segment, with the duration between road maintenance ever increasing as you go deeper. Smooth concrete, broken concrete, graded gravel, then jeep track. On a bike, it’s that last one we’re always vying for.

This is too good. Doubt starts to rise. Like an accrued debt, these moments almost always come with a hefty payback. Sure enough, the smooth, scenic and established track suddenly double backs up the hill, leaving only a memory of a route ahead.

The dirt transitions into lush green, plus a minor swamp. Counting down the kilometres before exiting to the highway, the downed trees start adding up.

There are two bridge crossings that’ll make you question the cleats on your shoes.

Just as forecasted, thundershowers roll in from the south. Gale winds promote a crusher pace northward to Salmo, and the rain… keep things cool? The only thing missing for it to be a foot spa in my shoes are some bath salts.

Hopeful for smooth sailing from Salmo to Nelson, the condition of the Great North Trail surprised me. It seems to see a fair amount of motorized use. At this point in the day, hungry and slightly deprived of salt, I couldn’t help but relate the undulating, bumpy surface to that of a ruffles chips. What flavour, you ask? All dressed, all day.

After enduring an hour of seemingly pointless wrist jarring while paralleling the smooth highway, conditions start to improve. The trail continues to engage with the rushing Salmo river in a very exposed way, beauty at each bend.

It’s getting late, but the trail conditions ahead are known to be great. At the next vista, I pause to call a loved one. A true friend reminds you of who you really are, writes Vivek Murthy.

The real beauty of three days on the saddle is the time for overt self reflection, tossing thought bubbles up in the air that trail along like string balloons. With the fade of endorphins as I turn off the rail trail back into Nelson, they naturally settle back into place, ever so slightly rearranged.

Logistics and Notes

  • I saw three – bear sightings are guaranteed with the possibility of a grizz encounter
  • The Great North Rail Trail annual closure runs from May 1 to June 15 for bear migration – one would be wise to obey
  • Water: it is everywhere
  • Routing through the US from Laurier to Frontier on 4181 is a much friendlier cycling experience when the border is open
  • The mapped route follows the main route into Nelway, which is different than the sketchy bridge crossing route that you see pictured in this post. Don’t make my mistakes!
  • Ride elevation is about 4,300 m, contrary to RWGPS’s estimate

Backyard Bikepacking: Nelson, Kaslo, New Denver and Back Again.

Spring in the West Kootenays. It’s an experience to watch snow levels rise and life rapidly flourish and the colours of spring emerge. In the valley, May isn’t a month for getting up too high on two wheels, but where there’s an edge to dance…

We should dance.

Trip Hooks:

  • Low traffic highway sections backdropped by lush forest and granite outcroppings over Kootenay lake.
  • Experience stellar rail trail & wagon road travel, which a majority of this route is on
  • Loop-able with a variety of overnight options, with ability to cut/lengthen riding days to suit endurance levels
  • High mountain pass achievable exclusive of highway riding, topping out at 1,600m with views commensurate of effort

Go Local. Out of necessity, this is our travel ethos given the times. But constraints lead to creative thinking. For some, it’s a lot harder to turn the pages of the backroad mapbook than to hand over your visa to a guide company in the Chilcotins. It’s time to dig deeper to discover what could be just beyond the doorstep.

With a little frantic late night packing behind me, I take the doorstep bit to heart, clipping in and coasting away from the creature comforts.

This trip departs right out of Nelson proper, and while it is better than most cities, traffic is a factor. This is where we eat the frog, leaving the rest of the day feeling downhill-ish (note: there are definitely hills). From town, the ferry terminal is about ~30km away, and the space in between is likely to be the most traffic you’ll experience on this trip. Plan to ride in off hours, which is anytime except 7:30-9:00 in the morning.

Life in the Selkirk mountains has a different pace. On bike trips, it is can be hard to slow the intertia enough to really appreciate the sights, but here’s your encouragement to kick off the habit of taking pause. Keep an eye for Kokanee creek turnoff for a stretch and snack, and consider a few minute trek up the river to watch mossy granite boulders direct the glacial runoff, sights as powerful as the sound.

As the route curves northward, the view of Kootenay lake and the Purcell mountains become a fixture for the balance of the day. To split up the nearly overwhelming visuals, the Angry Hen in Kaslo serves up fine craft beer (and non-alc drinks) and the poutine truck at the gas station is said to be legendary. Or, like me, you can take to the beach and get the ramen out.

For night one, we’re aiming for Fry creek, a favourite camping spot among locals. But the black swan to appear later in the form of major windfall making for a gruelling ‘hike’ may make an already long day a little too long. My back twinges just thinking about it. Camping at Lost Ledges, or even in Kaslo are great alternatives for those looking to shorten things up.

On the way out, do me a favour and ignore the signpost reading Lakefront Trail. You might even reference your map and note the dotted line, That looks like a shortcut. Take it from the guy who spent a few hours running up against thick brush and volcanic head wall on the sandy shore (sorry about that, drivetrain): there is no shortcut.

Back to Kaslo, and up into the hills. The wagon road begins, establishing the historic mining route that once was. Traffic noise of the highway in parallel to be washed out by the rushing Kaslo river.

For early season travellers, submitting the pass means it is time to hop on the tarmac and weave down to valley bottom. But snow permitting, you could continue to climb on the old trail and potentially find camp above the pass.

Both routes intersect at the start of the the Galena trail, which shepherds your descent with a smooth rolling surface and cable car crossing. Old Sandon road is another, slightly spicier option.

Note: as of May 17, 2020, a washout event occurred on the upper section of the trail. The cable car will likely remain closed until the trail is repaired, leaving a rather sketchy side-hill around the washout, and old Sandon road as the only means of access to New Denver.

New Denver has a small, but well stocked deli, including fresh apple fritters to fuel the last leg home. In the parking lot, I peel an avocado with my bare hands and devour it in three bites, where the fritters will entertain the taste buds over the next hundred kilometres.

There’s a brief section of well shouldered highway from here to Slocan, where the prize awaits.

Enter the Slocan rail trail, which provides a fast flowing surface for 50 kilometres. Run like the river, until the final push up into Blewett, then Granite road, which provides a soft-ish landing back into town (one big hill remains).

Riding past the Nelson courthouse and into the enveloping canopy of oak trees, the thought crossed my mind:

I could do that again.

Logistics and Notes

  • Don the bear spray in case of encounter with unruly locals (grizzly).
  • Out-and-back to fry creek can be cut to make this more accessible to novice riders, fitting comfortably in a three day weekend.
  • No shortage of drinking water access on this route if you bring a filter
  • Don’t shy away from rain, unless the forecast is predicting cats and dogs for a series of days. Intermittent rain can prove quite refreshing given the tropical temperatures of Kootenay summers.
  • My GPS tracked 3,700m of elevation for the trip, which excludes the upper Sandon wagon road. RWGPS’s estimate seems to be wrong.
  • Packing list and my setup to follow

Bikepacking Maine: Circling Mt. Katahdin

Should you turn around?

There is no set depth for when mud is considered ‘too deep’. When a fresh clearcut terminates kilometers of fast-travel fire-road, you long for a sign that says ‘easy way out’. Desire for assurance, plus avoidance of repeating the cost we’ve already sunk: what’s behind is known, and it ain’t pretty. Could things get better just around the corner? Forward movement, always teasing. Blind as it may be.

None of these thoughts are on the radar. It’s a cheerful morning. Ira Glass is on the radio and the bike rack loaded, two important parts of setting the mood for the few hour cruise north on the 95 towards Baxter State park, home of Mt. Katahdin. It’s early September and the colours of a New England fall are just beginning to surface.

The plan is to circle Maine’s tallest peak, looping back through Woods and Waters National Monument. A quest involving the rolling foothills butting up against the prominent granite outlier, and hopefully not too many mosquitos. The weapon: Salsa Fargo. Ammo? Burritos con salsa and chipotle cashew sauce – a lot of it.

Edible? Doesn’t matter – burritos are filling.

The overcast skies slowly lift and wheels locomote. The device goes to airplane mode and a subtle relief flys in. How far do we need to go to let ourselves of the hook?

Northbound, pavement transitions to hardpack gravel. At this point, there’s only one road for the next 50 miles. Fifty gradually undulating, smooth, and beautiful miles. It’s a weekday, there is not traffic. The old forestry road hugs the river, sounds of rushing water between heartbeats fills the ears.

The morning sun teases the fresh rain into mist, leaving a few rays to contrast the grey. All of it is a reminder of how the sensory experience changes on two wheels.

Three hours pass, or maybe it’s been four? The park roadway runs out, signalled by the waving ranger at the north gate. A few miles down the road, a left, right, and another left, coax the bull moose with sweet nothings to clear the path ahead. All that felt like a lot of adventure – it’s time to find camp.

Woods and Waters National Monument was designated a preserve in 2016 (Thanks Obama), so infrastructure and a sense of officialness is lacking. But without the typical parks improvements, you find a place less touched. As the route connects with the penobscot river, spectacular camping awaits.

A refreshing dip and serene place camp for the night

The sound of the rushing rapids successfully fends off the bears for the night. A wish, or hope, is all you really have from the incredibly exposed, yet surprisingly secure feeling from inside a small pup tent.

Oatmeal’s greatest lift? Sliced almonds and a hit of maple syrup. Natural sweetness compounds on the surroundings. Some things shouldn’t be refined. In the background, a thought flows in: this same water will pass the car in a few hours, and wheels roll downstream from here. Or so they should.

High on maple syrup bliss, it’s time to get rolling. Some of the route’s best riding awaits.

And some of the worst.

Plant lovers, err… rejoice?

After blowing past a key intersection, noticing the overgrowth, and a few hundred windswept trees blocking the old jeep track, the thought arises that this might not be the right way. The pace for the morning is now a quarter-rate of yesterdays gallop.  The rain starts to fall. Emotions a plenty, joy is not one of them.

Remarkably, the frequency of downed trees beins to lift. Confirmation bias tickled: turning around would have been foolish. The rain begins to fall a little heavier. At least there’s no more carrying the bike.

Active logging has just begun on this section just outside of the monument boundary. On a map, it appears as the logical route. impassable blockade of fallen trees, ultra-rough bushwacking through fresh upturned soil. Should have taken that turn.

Where theres heavy logging machinery, there are roads. The mud is deep, but the truck tracks point to a way out. Re-entering the park boundary, the brace for more “adventure”, slowly fades. Winding down, letting go, there’s still some ground to cover.

The rain has halted. It’s turned into a windless, sunny day. and this path leads straight to the safe haven of the car. Remembering the watermelon stashed within, the pace quickens. 

Logistics:

Park in Millinocket townsite, call local PD to confirm it is okay to leave vehicle overnight.

This loop is a fantastic way to get into bikepacking. Plenty of camping to add days and shorten the riding distances, or ride it out-and-back to stick to the nicely graded (and downhill on the return!) park road. If you’re riding it in two days, ensure you can cover a distance like this without a loaded bike.

Here’s the route via Gaia GPS: Day 1 & Day 2. Avoid active logging by following detour noted above.

Camping Suggestion Here

Water? Plenty, bring filter. I’m 100% sold on this water filter for Bikepacking.

My setup? Ski straps and dry sacs. Nothing fancy needed for this one.

Parting Note: A Salsa Fargo isn’t a budget bike, and isn’t necessary for this trip. A used or entry level mountain bike/gravel with 2” tires is more than adequate.

 

 

 

 

A Dry Run of the Green Mountain Gravel Grinder

Welcome to Vermont, where quaint but lively little hamlets dollop the landscape, and the day-to-day is centered around agriculture and the great outdoors. With a culture fit for recreationalists and a topography friendly to pedal-power, one might think it’d be the perfect place to stage a multi-day bikepacking adventure, and they would be right.

These aren’t original thoughts. Some time ago, the ‘Green Gountain Gravel Grinder’ made it’s debut on bikepacking.com. There are 240 miles and 11,000 ft of climbing that wind through northern Vermont’s scenic countryside, and manage to drop-in on sixteen craft breweries along the way.

Now, it’s called the green mountain state, but that’s really putting it in a box. Green is in the minority among foliage come late September, which is precisely when you should be out there riding this loop. It is a visual trip. The undulating terrain positions you perfectly to appreciate the bold colors of fall.

Fresh donuts and hot apple cider en-route. It’s okay to start salivating now.

Favourite Sections and Stops

East Warren community market. Overheard the most preverse conversation between kitchen staff that almost made me eject lunch out my nostrils. Come for the laughs, leave with full-ish belly and snacks fo the road. Don’t stuff yourself though… the Lincoln gap is just around the bend.

Bristol Cliffs Cafe, just a few hours from Burlington. The best tempeh burrito con homemade salsa one could wish for.

With bike paths like this ushering you into town, Burlington doesen’t feel like big city

Zabby & Elf’s Stone Soup. Fantastic buffet-style Jewish food in downtown Burlington. Get a slice of raspberry pie to go.

Just past the city limits of Burlington appears stellar single track

More singletrack following the Winooski river upstream from Burlington

Rolling up on a backwoods barbecue; VT style

The final hours; following ridge line towards Montpelier

The final, flowing descent into Vermonts’ capital

The Harder Bits

Soggy farm track while descending the Waitsfield gap. Not pictured: bridge-less creek crossing traversed five minutes before. Prepare to pucker.

North of Stowe felt pretty ‘out there’. This is the only section of riding where I didn’t have strong cell service (verizon). There was some uncertainty where my next water refill was coming from. Fortunately, you’ll emerge from the boonies to Highland St. Cafe for some great eats.

Stowe – take it all in. Including a few extra sandwiches.

North of Stowe. Lots of this!

Where to begin?

Burlington is the easy choice if travelling by plane, and you probably wouldn’t be the first to assemble a bike in the arrivals lobby. Driving in from New England, Montpelier was my jumping off point. Local police suggested the park and ride for undisturbed overnight parking, contrary to what the signs at the lot say. The small capital city of 8,000 people also hosts a superb co-op grocery store complete with a delicious hot buffet. Keep those calories front of mind.

Classic, colourful architecture to be ogled

Clockwise is the suggested loop, but aside from two sections, the direction of travel isn’t important. The Lincoln gap is a steep no matter the approach. The more concerning bit is the section considered ‘unrideabe’ called the Waitsfield gap; Clockwise it is a slow, rough, and brakey descent on jeep track, ascending from the other side would not be pedalable.

Cold, misty mornings.

Crossing one of Vermont’s many covered bridges. Fun fact, an uncovered bridge would rot out within 10-15 years of construction, where covered bridges could last up to 50.

Running Dry

Since there’s no scarcity of water on this route, I’m hinting at the booze. Mixing a physical endeavour with alcohol isn’t appealing to me, so this was a sober ride. This enabled cutting off some of the elective, out-of-the-way brewery stops, and ultimately compressed the suggested 5 days into 3 days of riding.

On the straight and narrow

What to pack

As a chronic over-preparer, my bike was on the heavier side. Three days of freeze dried dinners, plus oatmeal for breakfast, and 1000 cal/day of snacks was overkill. I ate less than half the food I brought. There is no shortage of little markets, cafes, brewpubs, to fill up on en route. Please send me a note if you’d like to see the packing list.

Being self-sufficient for some meals allows you to get further out to the prized camping spots.

Where to stay

Plenty of options for wild camping or leave the tent at home and BnB it. If you are camping, planning ahead isn’t really necessary as good spots will tend to present themselves along the route. Respect private property, leave no trace.

A quiet forested nook along the route

When to go

The month of September is prime time for the foliage and lack of bugs, but watch the forecast for rain and temperature swings. I began the ride on Sept 28 when the nights just touched freezing. On the second morning, I wore every layer of clothing that I’d brought and still had ice blocks for feet. Brrrrrrrr.

Rolling fast through the hills near Stowe.

Riding Conditions

The terrain is 95% hardpack dirt road. Highway gravel, they call it. Virtually no rolling resistance even with fairly knobby tires (WTB Ranger). The balance is a blend of city pathway (Burlington), and then some fun ATV/Jeep track that will serve as a nice change of pace during the trip. The 3″ tires on my Fargo were overkill, but I’d still recommend a bike with 35-40 cc tires at minimum.

Remember, you don’t need the fanciest bike, bags or gear to make this trip happen. The GMGG is a great starting-off point for anyone looking to adventure on two wheels.

Other Details

Here’s the GPS track showing how the route was staged. I’d do it again!

Day 1 – Day 2 – Day 3

Thinking about this trip, or looking for more details? I’d be happy to hear from you. Get in touch via the comments below.

A Contemplative Walk Through the US Holocaust Museum

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. -Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl’s wrote about his experience of the Holocaust, first in a labour camp, then eventually Auschwitz, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Horrific yet insightful, Viktor builds on a number of topics in his first-hand account. Do human beings die when we lose our will to live, even though we may not be physically dead? If suffering is unavoidable, how does one cope with it?

The Holocaust happened, we know this. But why, and how? If you asked me this question a month ago, it was because Hitler a bad, deluded man, and through opportune circumstances rose to power and exerted his fascist will on the world. Concise, but closed off. This view doesn’t go beneath the surface.

Portraits of those who lived in the town of Eishyshok, which once had a population of over 3,500 Jews. None live there today. Photo: abpan.com

There isn’t a two-sentence summary that can be made without being disingenuous. There are very good people in this world, and there are also very bad people. But it is not so black and white – it’s a spectrum. Was this event a coordination of a few very evil persons, or was it an effort of many, slightly evil people?

The first body of text you find at the US Holocaust museum in Washington DC: “This museum is not an answer; it is a question”

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Interior light wells separate the exhibits. with the atrium ceiling escalating in pitch from one end to the other. Names of cities and villages taken by Germany during the occupation are engraved in the glass of one side of the building. The other holds the names of the people who were taken.

Antisemitism has been going on for centuries, having been known as “the longest hatred”. Documentation on some of the first antisemitic texts dates back to 279 BCE, and attitudes towards Jews has escalated, and calmed, within various regions and their political regimes ever since.

An Escalation

Enter Germany post-WWI. Sanctions and monetary reparations placed on Germany at the terminus of the war have put it in a dire state. It is well understood that state of the economy plays significantly on how a society will behave. The promise of the NSDAP (Nazi) party: Economic prosperity, scientific progress, and a deepening of German values. If you are trying to provide for your family in a period of extreme depression, would these points hit home with you?

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Defining a responsible party (or group), and placing blame of the current situation is a well entrenched human response. Post war, propaganda flourished. This municipally-raised sign literally translates to “The Jews are our misfortune”. At the time, it was popular belief that Jewish people has infiltrated their society and were responsible for exploiting and repressing the Aryan race.

Though discrimination was surging, Jewish sentiment remained rational. The majority of those remained thought that the times were simply a phase and could not last. The law, and order of a developed society would prevail. Wrongs would be righted, things would be just.

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By 1933’s, enacted law rejected Jewish civil service in any form. Doctors, lawyers, professors, stripped of any influence through their work and condemned to poverty. A self inflicted strike, given that of the 38 Nobel prizes awarded to Germans between 1905-1936, fourteen prize winners were Jewish.

Some Jews sought refuge in other countries, but no nation extended open arms. Many relocated to Scandinavia and the Netherlands, a move which would prove fatal when Germany took control of these regions during the war. Canada’s position on accepting refugees was “none is too many”, a book was later published under the same title.

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By the mid 1930’s, any person with more than one Jewish grandparent would have to seek governmental approval to marry someone with German blood. This chart of the Nuremberg Race Laws visualizes the policies to prevent racial mixing.

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Torah, the Hebrew bible, can take a year or more to draft by a highly trained scribe. Still today, they are hand written in irreversible ink, any errors could result in a do-over of several days of work. Here, they found desecrated in the streets after a notable pogrom (violent riot), ‘The Night of Broken Glass’, Photos depict the before & after of a nearby synagogue, which was nearly leveled by mob. There was now precedent for the future violence against Jews.

The Solution

Germany marches on Austria in the spring of 1938, annexing it within a month. By this time the following year it will do the same to Czechoslovakia, then move on Poland; the event which triggers war between Britain and Germany. Germany continues to advance in all directions, setting up Ghettos along the way. These camps began as a segregative tool as early as 1933, but their function horrifically evolved as wartime ensued. Over 40,000 were tallied by the end of the war.

The following years have been recounted in depth, and need not repeating here. These are emotionally difficult steps to retrace, but it is a necessary journey to understand what the capacity for hate can culminate to.

We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses

We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers

From Prague, Paris, and Amsterdam

And because we are only made of fabric and leather

And not of blood and flesh

Each one of us avoided the hellfire

-Moshe Szulsztein

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At arrival to some camps, subjects would be removed of their shoes, clothing, and even hair – items that would find utility elsewhere. Human hair was sold in 40 pound bales to manufacturers of mattresses and pillows.

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Two windows. This is an original transport car used for resettlement to concentration camps. One particular train was loaded with over 4,000 people, standing room only. The journey would last three days. No food, no water. One third of the passengers would survive the trip.

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The clandestine photographs of new arrivals is harrowing. Images of families, mothers with their children, in moments of confusion and displacement before marching into gas chambers disguised as showers.

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Prisoners allotted to labour camps would be given a tattoo on their arm, this number that would replace their name. These four Greek men survived the labour camps, but continue to wear this reminder. Work will set you free, they were told.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

-Martin Niemoller

By the end of the war, the population of Jews would be reduced from 17 million (1939) to 11 million (1945). Today, the global Jewish population rests at 14.5 million.

Today, tomorrow

“There is no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear”. – Hans Rosling

We know what can happen in a polarized society during austere times. To draw on the lessons learned of the extremes, can we better navigate what comes next?

Today, regardless of which side of the political spectrum one sits, we all seem to be taking more extreme views. Controversial issues and political discussions quickly dissolve from rational debate and escalate into emotional arguments.

This recent article suggests that one in four Canadians “hate” their political opposites, believing that people who don’t vote like them are their enemies. My left leaning friends reading this might be thinking that “those conservative schmucks would behave like that!”, but the data suggests that this sentiment is equally numbered on both ends of the political spectrum.

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When a polarized government represents polarized populations, not much progress can be made. And if this is where we sit in times of relative wealth and economic success, could an extended recession bring out the worst in us?

In his book Factfulness, Hans Rosling digs into how our worldview has been distorted by the rise of new media, which preys on our reactionary and erroneous nature, providing guidance on how to separate fact from fiction when forming our opinions.

Today, Life expectancy around the globe is increasing, impoverished populations are decreasing, the gender gap is nearly closed. There is no doubt that terrible circumstances still exist for women, people of colour, people in poverty or enduring political conflict. But the regions where the majority of the population live, it might actually be the best time to be alive.

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If reliance on petroleum products will continue (hint: it will), could pipelines be safer and more efficient than current transport methods? First-hand experience of Measles is no longer, are vaccines really necessary? Surveilling terrorist cells is good for our society, but at what cost to our personal privacy?

There is no malicious intent in rejecting these notions, it is simply people who are fearful. They are scared of their regional environment being decimated, their child succumbing to illness, private matters becoming public. People looking out for their own.

A pediatrician friend has a simple policy on handling parents’ who don’t believe their children need to be vaccinated: they are not worthy of her care. So, these parents will shop around for another healthcare provider who will either turn a blind eye to their stance, or potentially encourage their behavior. Conflict and disagreement dodged at the expense of furthering a public health crisis.

As our mass media sources continue to successfully capture our attention by promoting content that incites a reaction, being strong agreement or opposition, we need to be vigilant. But we also need compassion and patience with those who might not have the same capacity.

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 Crossing the Brooklyn bridge into New York City: A place proving that big ideas, money, and differences can all coexist.

Listen to understand, ask questions from a compassionate angle without a judgmental tone. The easiest way to disarming a concrete conviction might be asking someone how they came to that way of thinking.

Remember, no one person is in charge of changing minds, we all have to make up our own. But a gentle nudge back to the center, back to the facts and reality, is progress. With this, feverish, fringe ideas cannot gain momentum.

Curious for more? Here’s what I drew on for this post:

US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Taking in the exhibits fully will run 4-5 hours, and following it with a few hours of quiet time are recommended.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Factfulness by Hans Rosling

If This is a Man by Primo Levi

Other Resources:

Hans Rosling: How not to be ignorant about the world (Ted Talk)

The Holocaust Explained

‘Facing History’ – A deeper dive into the Holocaust

Schindler’s List – currently holding #6 of IMDB’s All Time Films.

 

 

Cycling Portugal: An Opposing Experience

How could riding a bike on one side of an imaginary line differ much from the other? Same continent, similar language, familiar eats. This is where my hopes, expectations, rest as I cycle along the cruisy coast from Vigo towards the Portuguese border.

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Following the coast from Vigo (Spain) to the border. Vigo is the natural starting point for cycling the Portuguese coast.

You hop the ferry at the border, and keep on spinning. It’s tempting to speak Spanish in the gaps of your Portuguese, but you will get a hard, confused look in return. Aside from the language, those initial expectations are realized. Things haven’t really changed.

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First night. Spectacular camp.

But then, they do. The air is clean, but open burning fills sections of roadside with smoke. The water isn’t drinkable by local’s standards. Sharing the road with traffic seems much harder.

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Vibrancy found all around this old port in North Portugal.

I’ve written previously in a long form, journal format, which felt natural when the going was good. Most days held something great to share; a section of beautiful country road, a friendly encounter, an incredible viewpoint to pitch a tent and watch the waves roll in.

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Bike lanes and board walks make up most of the coastal cycling route through North Portugal.

But I can’t showcase this country in the same way. Cycling through Portugal was, at times, very enjoyable. But the sentiments that the country left with me are less than positive. Consecutive days of a soggy, physically drained, and demoralized existence have tinted my view into a darker light.

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Beautiful tiling found exploring Porto at night – A UNESCO world heritage city.

Visiting in an unseasonably rainy/stormy fall was a huge amplifier; sunshine makes good days better or hard days more tolerable, but bad cycling conditions and harsh weather can turns things bleak. Shorter daylight hours mean less time for gear to dry out, too.

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Wrong bike for this route, in this weather.

My unique experiences and weather complications aside – I’m conflicted. When trying to generalize the country, everything and it’s exact opposite seems to hold true. Portugal is a contradiction. People are very rich, and very poor. Some incredibly friendly, others not so much. The roads and infrastructure for biking is incredible in certain regions, and terrible in others. There is long periods of world-class surfing, and stretches of windblown mush.

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Thorny cacti along a beautiful section riding through a natural preserve.

Cycling with traffic sucks, but there isn’t much of it.

In Spain, it’s the law to give a 1.5 metres of passing breadth between your vehicle and the outer cyclist. Vehicles have to slow and wait for a safe opportunity to pass, even while riding double wide.

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Cork trees lining the scenic Algarve route

You shouldn’t expect the same courtesy in Portugal. Time to get your money’s worth out of that bike mirror. Right out of the gate it was obvious that little care or consideration is given to other users of the road.

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Cruising on the seaside thanks to some beautifully constructed boardwalks

But given that most of the route is on dedicated bike path, trail, or secondary roadway, your time spent at risk of drivers is minimized. However, some sections of riding with traffic are mandatory and one must heed caution.

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No traffic here.

The best route, and the worst.

Eurovelo, an associated network of cycling routes in Europe, has established the coastal Portuguese route and provides great, turn-by-turn, detail about the duration and length of riding segments, sightseeing and destinations along the way.

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The safety of a bike lane leaves your attention to the surroundings

In the North, the route magnificently sticks to paved, dedicated bike lane for a majority of the riding, including unique sections of boardwalk riding, connected by a few short and bumpy cobblestone bits. Some days were spent never having to interact with traffic.

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They start you off small

When you hit Peniche, things change greatly. The bike lanes are sparse and poorly implemented. Secondary highways or roads have no shoulder. Some sections, where there is an absence of a safe roadway, it seems as if the route just follows logging roads, some in very poor condition, and some even active.

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For the big stuff that comes later. (Off-route)

Riding on hardpack dirt can be quite enjoyable, but the quality of these roads varies greatly. Smooth, cruisy hardpack es bueno. Rutted, washed out, and thick mud no es bueno.

30 kilometers of teeth chattering not-so-goodness in Dunas de Mira park.

Accommodation

Affordable accommodation outside of the city centers can be difficult to find. Portugal, despite having the lowest minimum wage in all of the European Union, has adjusted it’s pricing to better reflect the budgets of visiting tourists. AirBnB is still the ultimate tool for finding an abode on the fly, but I came to expect that they would cost about 50% more than the going rate in North Spain. There are campsites along the route, however most of them looked super run down and dingy, and a majority of them close after the summer season is over.

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Porto

On a trip of this nature, you’re usually looking for more nature. With large stretches of park and unoccupied shorefront (it’s all slowly eroding!), the free-camping scene is incredible. I used an app called park4night to scout options ahead, but as you cruise along many non established options will present themselves – many of them only suitable for two wheels. It is difficult for us creatures to give up the travel itinerary, but you’ll be greatly rewarded if you stock up on water and supplies and just see where you end up.

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A gem just north of the popular surfing town of Peniche.

Beautiful urban centres; a challenge by bike.

The cities of Porto and Lisbon are must-visit destinations in Portugal, but are not well suited to cyclists. The streets heading into Porto quickly narrow and busy with traffic, and even Eurovelo recommends taking the commuter train to access Lisbon from the west.

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Lisboa

This might not be a huge detail with a small touring rig, but my setup resulted in a pretty embarrassing encounter with a handicap turnstile at the metro station. Compared to riding in cities like Bilbao or Barcelona, Portugal’s city riding was very stressful.

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This thing is kinda heavy

Surfing; World class, or nada.

In my fourteen days of cycling down the coast, I did not catch a wave. The country is at the mercy of whatever the Atlantic offers, and during my time there it was wind, rain, and no good surf. There are exceptional spots near Sintra/Peniche centrally, and Sagres in the south, where multiple orientations of beachfront mean options for different wind and swell directions. The rest of the coast is extremely exposed, so good conditions are left up to chance.

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Twenty surfers compete for the peak in the Algarve

People are well off, and not so much.

Manicured lawns and tin shacks. Maserati’s and clunkers. Golf resorts and roadside garbage dumps. There are stark contrasts everywhere. Some beachfront locations have been built up with brand new condos at one end of the street, with completely neglected structures on the other side.

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Beauty, to some.

It seems that the areas touched by potential tourists have received the majority of any funding. We’ve heard the pitch before – new resort brings jobs, stability, money to a region. But with the strong arm of developers, potential corruption, and poor municipal planning, this scheme leaves communities without the appropriate funds to improve infrastructure for the people who actually live there. You see this impact in both rural and urban areas.

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A fisherman overlooks the bluffs north of Sagres.

Would I go back to Portugal for a bike tour? The North: yes. The South… maybe not. The raw beauty, structured pathways, and culture of the north is definitely enticing. The touristy vibe, poor cycling conditions, and sheer number of golf resorts in the south doesn’t draw me to return.

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Hitching a ferry ride back to Spain

Biking Logistics

  • Public access to water or showers is limited, and it’s drink-ability is questionable. Be prepared to buy and haul bottled water.
  • Free camping is the way to go, but beware of the season.
  • Vehicle theft is common at most parking, and especially surfing areas – you’ll get good at stashing your gear out of sight. I had to politely ask someone to not go into my tent while I was standing thirty feet away.
  • Dining out on the road can be challenging with a siesta from 2:30 to 7:00 at most establishments.
  • Downloadable files for the route can be found on Eurovelo
  • Google Maps Summary:  900 KM/5,100M
  • Recommended number of days is 18 by Eurovelo, not including rest. I think this is reasonable given the type of terrain you will be riding.

Came for the photos? I’ll leave these here…

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How to Not Ride a Bike Through Northern Spain, With a Surfboard

Each day, the sun is further delayed pushing into the eastern sky. With the horizon line high above the beach shore, you won’t feel direct light until around nine. I’m a fan of rising with the sun, but maybe that’s just an excuse for sleeping in through the productive morning hours. But the days of waking at four in the morning to study (and thumb twiddle) before work are long gone. Welcoming change, adapting to a new rhythm or circumstance, sets the tone for what comes next.

Missed part 1? Find it here

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Among the other old stuff, a Dad appears in his natural environment

The journey picks up in Santander (Central-Northern Spain) where my father made a connecting flight on the way home from a work trip. I dance the “floss” in airport arrivals; he pretends to not know me. We explore caves and sample fresh seafood that the region is known for. Observing structures and traditions, those which have withstood so much time. Lesson learned; our time is limited, but trying to force meaningful conversation is no way to have some.

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Talk to the hand, kid… No wait, he’s waving!

Sometimes I look at others’ parental relation and see the green grass; a well cultivated connection, a special bond. A dynamic of ment(or/tee), of dependence and independence, love and compassion – qualities that have changed with time, introduced and removed, maybe more than once. There should be no deluision that relationships aren’t hard and complicated.

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Searching for metaphors among tall pines

If you find yourself passing through, the contemporary art museum, conveniently located next to the ferry dock from Somo (the boat you came in on), is well worth the visit. There’s tapas, and excellent food and wine to be found in the old district. We ordered a rib dish from a recommended restaurant, “Canadis”, from the share plate menu. For twelve euros, this would likely stand as a 2 person entrée for $30-40 back home. In Spain, the quality of food, portions and overall dining experience in general has been excellent.

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Exploring the grounds of Palace Magdalena; a walkable oasis in the middle of the city

Travelling in the area necessitates a visit to the Picos de Europa National Park. We sent off one morning to visit the Rue de Cares (Cares Route), which promotes epic vistas from within a canyon, the sheer rock faces vaulting directly upwards.

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This is 12 kilometres one-way hike with the option to taxi or bus shuttle back to your car for a hefty price. If the 24 kilometres (~450m elevation gain) is a too big a day to make the round trip, I would recommend hiking to the 8-kilometer mark and turning around.

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Blistered and a bit tired, we made it to the 11km marker, but would have been content with returning earlier – at that distance, 6 hours of hiking, with plenty of rest stops and photo ops.

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“Do something cool!”

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We spent our final day together on a coastal tour; exploring the breakwaters of small bayside villages, and walking cobblestone streets in Santillana Del Mar.

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and then finding paradise:

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Just beyond the ridge, San Vincent de la Barquera sits on a tidal lagoon, protected by Playa de Meron, wedged between grassy headlands. Moments after checking into Camping la Rosal, I run into Fabo who has the warmest, welcoming – and dare I say – fabulous smile. The guy was simply radiating happiness, and he wasn’t the only one.

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The Relaxation Ranch – Camping la Rosal

Perfectly positioned, smack dab in the middle of the north coast, just far enough west to receive sizable swells from the Atlantic, but east enough to maintain a comfortable water temperature, the province of Cantabria attracts surfers from all over Europe. The feeling of welcome is abundant, traveler to traveler – though the hint of Scandinavia in my blood might help accelerate the camaraderie.

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I’ll do the dishes tonight. No, my turn!

I set up camp on a shaded plateau next to some vacant camper vans, say goodbye to papa, and head for the water. There are so many people out, but so much coastline and waves to be had. I smile for the next ninety minutes. Spaghetti armed and stiff-cheeked, I return to meet my Dutch neighbours, in whose camping spot I’ve accidentally pitched the tent. Instead of spatting over who’s in who’s spot (I’m 100% in the wrong), we talk about what card game we will play tonight.

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Skip Bo – the game that unites nations. Ester, Joost & Hanneke

It’s hard to keep track of time here. As if the middle ages were absolved – we’re all back behaving like kids. Playing in the waves, on the beach, from morning until supper time, rounding up to warm meal, and sleep that comes easy. If I had to pick and choose one place to spend an entire visit to Spain – San Vincent would be it.

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Playa Oyambre, just around the corner. “Is there something in my teeth?” – Joost

Four (five?) days pass before the idea of cruising west is motioned. I notice the bike rack on Ester’s van, but wait for the invitation of a ride. It comes, I accept. It’s been almost a week off the saddle, what’s another few days? I’m not sure this is even a bike trip anymore.

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Catching a lift

We set out late the following morning. The hour drive from San Vincent to Playa de Vega turns into a most-of-the-day affair.

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Inviting streets

There’s plenty to see on the way there; dramatic cliffbands hosting what was apparently a hot spring? Felt pretty cold to us!

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Where there isn’t pristine beach, it’s a lot of this

Spain’s smallest beach featuring an offshore goat habitat, quaint villages by the numbers.

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Pictured in the back right, goat island has yet to become a thriving tourist hotspot

There are a lot of Germans here. They presume that if you’re white, you know how to speak German. I held eye contact with a gentleman for a good thirty seconds while he spoke at me, nodding along to his harsh syllables, before responding casually in English. They’re kinda like the Americans of Europe. Super powerful, aware of the status.

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Presumptive? Maybe. Certain; they have cool cars!

We turn off the secondary highway and wind towards the coast, following the river that has already negotiated a fair route through the prohibitive landscape.

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Through narrow streets, passing small abodes stacked on rock pillars, we arrive. Playa. De. Vega.

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A long, consistent beach break, with a hotspot peak on the right-hand side. It works on all tides, and with average daily temperatures above 25 degrees for the next few days, it’s going to work just fine for us.

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Water rushing below the red rock headland flanking the beach

The vibe here is comfortable with fresh drinking water and shower just off the beach, and despite no official camping or overnight parking during these “winter months” when we visited, there are plenty of nooks and cranny’s to set up camp. The surrounding property owner, easily identified by his big smile, strolled past most days and paid no mind; we gave him a bottle of wine for not hassling us.

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Mornin’ neighbours!

Time in the water is refreshing, fun, easy surfing. I have my best session to-date here, a fast gunning left with a dozen little accelerating turns along the face. The time in-between is relaxing; stretching, reading, writing, chatting. The pull to wind down is mas fuerte.

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A change in weather motivates packing up, and carrying on. That, and my somewhat forgotten objective of biking around this section of continent, now to be done over a dwindling number of days.

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“How’s the gas mileage on that thing?” – Nobody

I say goodbye to, what feels like, my European family. My wet tent is a heavy load and legs have become unfamiliar with their principal duty.

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Things maintained; things let go

It is long push from Playa de Vega to Verdicio; or feelings so. The side effects of a hurricane rocking the Portuguese coast have made it to this latitude. The unrelenting headwinds, periodic rain, and unfriendly encounters are all taking their toll.

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A tranquil cruise through orchards before entering the big smoke

Crossing the provincial boundary into Asturias feels different from the Spain I’ve seen so far. There are much fewer public water fountains outside of the big city, the houses have large, uninviting concrete walls and steel gates. For sale signs, vacant, deleterious facades. Appliances, mattress stores, bathroom and kitchen fixtures taking the prominence of retail frontage. Attention focused on building ones comfortable nest, depriving it elsewhere.

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Asturians like their cider poured from a great height. Same goes for their water!

The cars seem to pass a little closer. Friendly smiles become a rarity, someone laughs at my spanish when ordering a tortilla and sandwich to go. Is it all that unwelcoming, or could it simply be a swing from absolute comfort with newfound friends, to the lone mode of travel?

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Solo

It’s becoming clear that passing through the city centres can add an unwanted degree of stress. There usually aren’t great options for entering and exiting beside the highway (Bilbao is a great exception to this). Gijon and Aviles have very industrial economies; you will mingle with big, big trucks. If I were to repeat the journey, I would aim to skip certain urban sections via the cheap and accessible rail options that exist en route.

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Google maps, 99% reliable. Out of touch with this recent detour resulting in another hour of challenging cycling in Gijon

Just as the going seems like the going is a bit rough, the the end destination of Verdicio delivers magnificently.

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No showers, shops, or access to water outside of the busy season – but if you come prepared, it’s definitely a spot worth spending a day or two

The wind dies down, but waves don’t materialize in the morning. Onward!

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Beyond the industrial city of Aviles, the cycling is absolutely incredible. The freeway high above spans the entire valley, while the old road cuts through beautiful country, winding up, down and around.

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This overpass turns a fifteen minute drive into a fifteen second one. Efficient, sure. But do you really want to miss this?

Some hills – moderate climbs, get you up high with great panoramic vistas looking over the ocean below. And of course the elevation earns you a thrill of speed as you coast along moss-lined embankments and lush foliage.

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One hour elapses; one car passes

A fellow cyclist and I match pace – Juan (OG ‘Sean’) is following the Camino del Norte route. He’s done a few pilgrimages by foot but, now pushing into his older years with a bum knee, has taken to the bike. We talk in Spanglish, repairing my sentences as we go, but hold a great conversation for about ten kilometers.

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Get it, Juan!

I buy food, wine, and descend a very steep, like, failing-brakes-lead-to-a-disaster steep, road. Always arrive to the beach with wine, and you’ll be sure to make friends.

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Drafting to compensate for wine weight

Playa Otur is tonight’s destination – I meet another lovely Dutch couple there who offer tasty pancakes; the bottle pays immediate dividends.

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Not Otur, but to give you the idea – these little gems are everywhere

We try and surf in the morning, but it’s a sloppy and choppy mess. Big waves with quick closeouts, a bit too exciting. Joost thinks the next bay over will be good given the conditions, and suggests it would be cruel to make me bike up the big hill to get there. I am obliged for the ride.

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Full of pancakes, Joost and Maika provide a lift up the hill dubbed ‘Steepy McSteep’ and on to the next beach

Playa Frexulfre. We arrive to the complete opposite of what we were experiencing at Otur – big, but long period, slow breaking waves. It’s not long before I have my wetsuit back on, and charge down the pine-lined pathway to the beach. From the perspective down low, the faces are huge. Things always look easier from above… lesser so from shore, and become very real once you’re in the water water. I see waves breaking way out back, left shoulders stacking up with no one around. The surfers have concentrated to the right side of the bay for the medium sized swell on the inside. I strategize to be far away from the herd.

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I stretch, finger tips to toes, half lift, and back down. Once in the water I realize the responsible party for the crowding isn’t the party at all – it’s the current. From shore to the back left, it’s a constant struggle. A slight wind chop, and not so slight closeout sets that blanket the entire bay with aerated foam. Eventually, I’m where I want to be.

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Intently positioned can beat being the tallest tree

Minutes go by, ten, maybe more? Everyone seems to be comfortable with being on the opposite side of the bay, and I start to wonder if my judgement is off.

Not a moment later, I see the pulse of the ocean rise in the far distance – lines eclipsing fishing boats far offshore. The first wave breaks a twenty meters out, and I paddle out hard to clear the shoulder. Just as I crest over the first wave, I see that the second is even bigger.

Digging in hard, directing my board down the line. It peaks at the perfect moment. I point the nose to shore, tuck my chin, and give the final three strokes that my arms can muster. Without awareness of the steps involved, I’m suddenly standing. The drop is slow to initiate, but when it goes the speed is immense. My balance is found on the first turn; I draw a slow and long carve. I reach for my turning point, then rotate my torso counter clockwise rapidly to cut back down the face. Repeat. Again, again, and again. The eventually wave walls up; I point it straight and step on the gas, cutting back up and over just before it closes out. My board slows, sinks, as I raise my arms in the air, yelling to the sky.

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After teasing Kai about his three-sizes-too-large wetsuit and the joys of not freezing to death each time you venture into the water, he ran off in the early morning and bought a new one

Crossing the Galician boundary was a simple and relaxing cycle, sticking to coastal and country roads with minimal elevation change.

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Virina & Ilka, two rad driftwood-collecting chicks from Germany.

After thorougly perusing Cathedrals Beach en-route, I rolled towards Foz, and into the comfort of an AirBnB for the evening. Thirty minutes after arrival, the sky began falling – the largest raindrops I’ve seen on the continent. It is great to be sleeping under the stars, but I’m ever thankful for this roof tonight.

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A sampling of Cathedrals Beach – plenty to see beyond the tour bus zone

The morning following my restful AirBnB stay has all my gadgets charged, and gear dry, but my energy levels are nearing the lower limits. Homesickness. The moodiness of the weather. The winds have risen, goodbye to the warm convection of sun on land, replaced with cold Atlantic air.

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A rolling bundle of very wet gear. I wonder if waterproofing with slate rock would be better?

West of Foz is a gentle cruise following the coastal highway, but I soon leave the flatlands behind, straining my neck upwards to see the horizon line. It’s like you’ve never seen a hill before… I vye to make it to Ericera for the night, and push on to make it happen. Soon enough, I’m close, but something’s not adding up. 16 more kilometres and, 650 metres of elevation? We must be cycling up a black diamond run at Lake Louise.

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Blown out, but beautiful. A pine backed forest, nestled down in it’s own separate reality. The gale force winds continue into the morning, removing the chance of a quality, or safe, session out in the water. Back to reality, starting with one big hilly climb out on cold muscles.

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Relief from the sun, and a downward slope

Today’s destination is Doninos. Not to be confused with the tasty pizza chain, Doninos serves up ultra consistent surf due to the right-hand reef, and sheltered configuration of the beach protecting it from anything northerly or from the east.

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But first, we must get there. And for the first time on this trip, I seriously doubt Google’s competency to help with the matter. For the most part, I believe the software works by suggesting actual roadways that a vehicle with cameras has driven on and recognized a) and off highway road with shoulder or b) something with a bike lane.

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Not a road, Google.

In absence of that, it just looks at the satellite image identifies any parting in the trees as a potential route. Goat path? Sure, that’ll work. Some of the detours are welcomed, others make you wonder if the machines have turned on us.

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Thankful for this detour

Doninos is an excellent spot to stake out for a few days. Good facilities, including a bar overlooking main reef. Opting to rest the legs for a day, but try to surf. I come out of the water humbled, spooked from being held down by a big set.

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The ocean doesn’t know how good of a surfer you are

My muscles are tense, joints becoming pained. Each day has felt like an absolute all-out endeavor. Trying to keep up with the caloric output, but can’t seem to manage on snacks alone. I can almost feel the couscous running through my veins. Restaurants are hard to patronize – siestas being a great concept but can you please open up I’m really hungry gracias. Most establishments don’t reopen for dinner until eight or nine o’clock.

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Chill out, man. But I’m pushing it because time is running out. I have plans to meet Manya in Southern Spain in just over two weeks. There’s a lot of distance to cover between here and there; namely a country called Portugal. My mind runs wild on the various permutations of how the upcoming days will be spent, and the terrifying amount of cycling to be done.

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For the days where you want to hide from the world, or just hide from your bike, there’s this.

A quick dip in the ocean, walk along the cliff-side, and a call home to a loved one – things are better. Or maybe nothing has changed. The pause just serves as emotional damage control, a recoup, and a fresh look at things.

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Back on the road, cruising in the westfalia, somewhere between Playa de Vega and San Vincent, I had a moment with myself. It was a realization that this trip has been the greatest of my life, which almost brought me to tears. In that moment, nothing was going as planned. The feelings came from embracing a random series of events, fluid and dynamic as they were.

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Why can we so hard ourselves when we deviate from the plan? Plans should change. Think about it; during the planning stage, you know almost nothing about your destination, it’s environment or culture, with no possible foresight to the opportunities that will present themselves. It would be tragic if plans didn’t change.

There is no accolade should I do this by bike. There is no need for unnecessary suffering, no reasonable gain to be had while edging closer to an injury.

I’m getting a car. I’m going surfing.

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Playa Nemina. A way’s off the biking route.

Galicia opens up when you swap out the human power. The numerous double-digit gradient roads are no longer an obstacle; they are a scenic drive.

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An evening of work behind the bluffs of Playa Traba

The “hurry up” factor quiets in the back of my mind. The stomach grumbling from down below is soothed; I can finally afford to carry a glass jar of peanut butter.

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A, well rested, self portrait

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The O Facho de Donon Overlook

I cut 200 kilometers, and 2,500 meters of elevation gain, off my journey. I’m proud of it. Not for shying away from the challenge, but for putting pride in the back seat, and being open to doing things a different way. A previous version of myself would have rode every last meter at the expense of my body, and the enjoyment of what ultimately is a vacation.

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I drop the car off in Vigo. The last airport, and natural starting/ending place for any bike tour, concluding the trip through Northern Spain, some by bike, with a surfboard.

Unless of course, you’re following along into Portugal…

Trip Details

Bike Route Taken (Approximate)   ~60km omitted by car out of Santander

Car Route Taken (Approximate)

Recommended Segment Duration: 18-24 days, including rest. Or 24 days to… as many as you want if you’re having a nice time. Trying to do it in 12 does not end well.

How to Ride a Bike Through Northern Spain, With a Surfboard.

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Overlooking Zarautz, Basque Country

It is fall, but the weather of Northern Spain wouldn’t like to admit it. Sure, the leaves are in the process of falling and new colours emergent, but the air is rich with warmth, and saline humidity. The sun gradually arcs through the southern sky, casting rays through the less-than-lush trees surrounding my primitive campsite, in which I’m currently sitting on my two-foot wide surfboard sleeve. Without any back support or cushion from the, it just served as a seating area and dining table, and now as an office desk and chair. ‘Spartan’ is a word gaining a little too much popularity in our culture, but so very appropriate in these circumstances

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I’m on tour – this time with a bike, light-ish saddlebags, a surfboard, at a lot of pent up energy from the sedentary month past. Starting in Bilbao, which hosts Spain’s northernmost regional airport, my plan is to follow the coast, counter-clockwise, through Portugal and southern Spain, completing somewhere in France or Italy. This is the first chapter of the journey.

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Why come here? Spanish, Portuguese, Basque, Catalan, French, Italian – I know none of them! It’s been an active goal of mine for some time to pick up a second language, even if only basic comprehension and conversation. After many botched preguntas (questions), much mumbling, and blank-faced sweaty palmed moments with shopkeepers, the goal has become an essential action. The combination of language, culture, food, surfing, and a slightly sore buttocks, cumulates to a dynamic trip that has me excited.

You might also be wondering; surfboard, on a bike? Confusion comes to most who ask about the trip, so not to worry.

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This is a Ho, Stevie! Board rack. It attaches to the seatpost of any bike, tightens with a basic allen tool, and allows you to fold it inwards when not in use. There were a few options out there, but valuable for money and reputation of the vendor sold me. $80 is like on tank of expensive European gas, which gets you to the surf spot a few times. The same amount of money to put a board on your bike… and go as far as your legs will take you? I signed up for the latter.

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Light, ish. Stacked just like the anticipation with any trip preparations.

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Suddenly, you arrive.

After two days of settling in to the foreign lands, sampling Pinxtos (pronounced ‘Pinchos’, which are the basque’ian version of tapas), and appreciating/chuckling at the beauty and obscurity of the artwork at the Guggenheim, I departed Bilbao heading southeast out of the river valley and towards Zarautz. Hopeful to find a used surfboard (Segundo manos tablas de surf) on arrival, and stoked to contrast the heat on the asphalt with the crispness of the Atlantic waters.

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Fixtures outside of the Guggenheim, Bilbao.

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The first few hours of pedaling were an experience. The roads are nice, the people pass wide, but how on earth does one adapt a presta valve to a gas station pump? Twenty minutes later and some duct tape jiggery had me back on route.

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Northern Spain is thought of a hilly, but the national highways which are prefixed with an “N”, (e.g N-634) follow the contours gently and aren’t highly trafficked routes. That being said, it’s not dead flat either. From Bilbao to Zarautz, I clocked about 1,200 metres of gain over 110 KM. Unlike cycling in the Canadian Rockies, where you must cross high mountain passes through a singular 800M+ and multi-hour grind, the most prominent climb on this day lasted about 200 metres, which is much more manageable.

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After cresting the pass out of the Durango mountain valley, I took a short break to admire the path just taken, and reflect on mountain life, and mountain people, back home. An older Spanish gentleman, strutting with his shirt off, was marching down his driveway in my direction. Pedro and I struck up a conversation, which led to a farm tour, apple cider tasting, freshly picked vegetables from the garden, and review of some dining chairs that is father made with phenomenal wood joinery (think no nails or fasteners) over 70 years ago. I’m not sure how the chairs came into the mix, but I think he was excited to have a guest and I was happy to listen.

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Pedro tried to give me more tomatoes, but I explained the weight situation and we settled on five.

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The beaches of Deba; The first look at big blue.

Hours, and many awe-inspiring coastal vistas later, I’d arrived in Zarautz. Completely spent after a nine-hour day of biking in the heat. Unfortunately, the campground in town where I planned to stay was closed. Fortunately, there was another one just a mere fifteen minutes away! Unfortunately, that fifteen minutes of riding was all uphill, 12% grade, sustained. After moments of contemplating a yard sale on the roadside to lighten the load, I gathered my remaining fumes and made it happen.

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The wave machine is on in Zarautz. Time to find a board!

Enter Marc. Marc struck up a conversation when I pulled up next to his site. There was no car present, just his small, olive green tent and a reflective surfboard bag. He’d made the trip out on a night bus from Barcelona (pronounced properly, Bar-tha-lona), followed by a short taxi to the campground from town. He makes this trip pretty often, whenever the forecast for waves looks good, he says. Marc, at 23, runs his own small technology company, able to work from anywhere. Still living frugally and in a minimalist fashion, but Marc is rich in flexibility, and the option to choose where he puts his time. In my eyes, he is a very wealthy man.

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The result of narrow timing between conference call and mid tide

San Sebastian is a hotspot for tourism, with swank hotels, plenty of shopping and pinxto bars as far as the eye can see. We opted to take the train from Zarauth for 2.50 euro, which gets you in to the bustle, and planned on getting out of there once we had our fun.

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Surfing in Zarautz is really good when the waves are on; I stayed until the wind shifted, and then put the wind to my back. Marc and I said our goodbyes – this won’t be the last time he enters the story.

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Going oeste (west). The general plan was to stick to the coastline, avoiding only the most rugged sections of road. Fortunately, there weren’t many.

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Every five to ten kilometers, you’ll roll into something like this.

From Zarauth to Deba, incredible coastal touring, with one big push inland. From there, the road to Lekeitio is a asphalt feat of engineering. it Not a new road, but fluctuates so little in elevation. Most of the valley “dips” are bridged, leaving you high and enjoying a panoramic view of the coastline, with the waves crashing far below.

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Morning light as some spear fishermen get suited

If you keep your eyes open, you’ll notice a few areas suitable for random camping. While it’s nice to have a shower and some basic comforts of a facility, sometimes the solitude and remoteness of being out there on your own can nurture the spirit in a unique way.

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Water. It’s nice, to swim in, to shower, and especially to drink. In my past tours I’ve always struggled with the balancing act of packing water. Carry too much, you’ll burn out from the sheer weight of it, and a very bruised ego when you ride past a fountain while carrying a cumbersome five litres. Carry to little, and you can get very thirsty, very quickly. It’s worth mentioning that Spain seems to have no shortage of public water fountains in every small village or town, usually separated by a maximum of thirty minutes of riding. You don’t need to haul water – I just fill my bottles whenever I’m running low, and bring a collapsible hydration bag to fill when setting up for the night (like THIS).

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The road to Mundaka; more of the same with one beautiful section of inland riding through small villas. Mundaka itself hosts some of the world’s most incredible left-handed breaks, and also a quaint, affordable campground with clean and modern facilities. While the tide and swell conditions weren’t excellent, I still had a few pleasant waves before some evening brainstorming for a new business project.

 

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Winding upwards high above the coastline

Rain. That morning I nearly vaulted out of my bivy bag after few droplets touched  down. What is this!? I was expecting summer conditions, no exceptions, Spain! The momentary droplets ceased, but were definitely foreshadowing for the rain event later that afternoon, which was a spontaneous, zero warning, downpour. By the time I could say “let me take shelter under this branch…”, I’d been soaked, through and through.

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Does this look like it’s something out of Game of Thrones?  Probably because it is! Gaztelugatxeko Doniene, west of Mundaka. Say that three times quick…

 

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Waves painting perpendicular lines to the vertical shale

The sun always seems brighter after the storm passes; it is the exact same, but our appreciation for it changes. Feeling grateful, I cruised through country farmland, enjoying low grade hills and valleys, mooing at cows along the way, on separate and dedicated bike lane for most of the ride to Sopelana.

It’s been over a year since I’ve caught a wave. Twelve months of atrophy to the latent surfing muscles, which seem to be so unique to the activity. Your core can work great holding a plank for minutes on end, but as soon as it’s asked to work in a new way, like arcing the back slightly upward off the surfboard for paddling, it gives out. It takes time to get your head back up, physically and figuratively. Sopelana had great waves, about head height with a fourteen second period, but I felt short in my paddling strength. I watched as the face of many good waves slowly crept beyond my ability to catch them.

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La Playa de Sopelana; stormy evening before clean lines in the morning.

I still have post trauma from cycling through big cities in North America. Usually, you’re entering on a primary or secondary arterial roadway, which might go from two lanes to six in a hurry. Concrete barriers pop-up all around you, traffic gets wild, the shoulder narrows, things can get pretty frightening. If you’ve toured before, you know the feeling. But in Spain, that fear seems to be irrational. Cruising out of Sopelana and through northern Bilbao, you are met with the most incredible inner-city, dedicated bike paths, plus an ultra-cool gondola ride that shaves off an unnecessary ten extra kilometers. Bravo, Bilbao.

Cruising through a city of 350,000+ residents without ever having to contend with an automobile is goood deal!

My father plans to visit me in Santander for a few days as a layover for his business trip. I’ve decided to push my way through a hilly region to Laraedo, specifically a lesser-known surfing beach on the north end called Barria.

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It’s hard to ride past a panaderia without grabbing a baguette or chapatas for snacking later…

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A typical lunch or snack on the road. Jamon (1-2 euro), Brie (2 euro), Aguacade (.50 euro) on fresh bread (1 euro). With the convenience of so many little stores, and the affordability of everything, eating well on the road has never been so easy.

A trend is developing; the campground in Barria closed. Twenty five degree and sunny doesn’t count as Summer to the Spaniards. That’s quite alright though, because I found this instead:

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Keep these gems sparkling! Do not leave trash or any signs of human waste when camping on public property.

This place is a dream. And I’m not the only lucid one, a handful of van lifers are relaxing in the parking lot when I arrive. There’s bathroom facilities, surf showers, and endless miles of beach to walk when the surf isn’t up. The swell has dropped down to a manageable waist height, which has me hooting and hollering throughout the morning. I’m remembering what it is to love surfing, again.

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Exploring nearby caves at low tide.

Three days later, I’m ready to leave Barria and meet Papa in Santander. After a few hours of riding west, there’s a ferry that will take you from Somo directly into downtown, skipping fifteen kilometres of skirting around the city’s peninsula. Somo’s got great waves too, plus a killer donair in the heart of town.

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This is everything I have.

The passion is off the shelf, and the layer of dust removed. The feelings of excitement, the and joy of being in the water again has been fully granted. There’s a groove you can hit on a trip like this, once comfortable with the simplistic routine and enjoying having a bit less. Surfing, attempting a new language, a uncertainly with travel – all become easy, almost natural, when you’re alright with being no good for a little while.

Part 2 coming soon.

Trip Details

Bike Route Taken (Approximate)

Recommended Segment Duration: 8-10 days, including rest.

Perusing Mt. Wooley & Diadem in a Thunder Storm

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It’s summer in the Canadian Rockies. For most, it’s an experience of warm temperatures, long days exploring alpine lakes and scenic vistas, and meeting other happy travelers on extended vacations.

While it would be nice to join the majority on what sounds like a pleasant adventure, I seem to have gotten caught up in a peculiar group of friends, with different ideas of what “fun” is.

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John, talking with his hands.

John suggested we take a stab at two 11,000’ peaks up near the Columbia Icefields during a clearing in his busy schedule, and though I tried to make myself sound busy with important matters to boost my own stature, I eventually relented and admitted that I’m as free as a bird, and we can do whatever he wants.

Mt. Woolley and Mt. Diadem are a unique in the sense that they share the same col, a one-two combo of climbing one, descending the 1000’ back to the col, and then summiting the other. Two tall mountains in one day – the dream of any conceited climber.

The journey began at the 12km pull off, just north of the Columbia Icefields Visitor Centre. Fifty paces, then plunge into thigh-deep, flipping cold glacial waters that is the Sunwapta river. We brought extra shoes to sacrifice to the wet, but John seemed to have forgotten his shirt at home.

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The shallowest, and most glamorous segment

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Crouching people, hidden ciders

Trekking up Woolley Creek for the next 4 hours on the approach to our bivy was scenic and uneventful. The air, the sights, sounds offered by the rushing water were all welcomed – except for the small flock of mosquitoes swarming behind both of us until we reached treeline.

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A handful of bivy sites exist at the upper section of the creek, right before the glacial pond. I think it is safe to say that reservations aren’t required.

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We awoke at 3:30 the following morning. For breakfast; kick ass overnight oats that still managed to be delicious without having a full “night” to soak. We geared up and carried on, with visions of summit fuzzy peaches hitting our tastebuds with a heightened sense of sweet and sour at altitude.

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Que the U2

Thunderstorms have a funny way being somewhere in the forecast, but usually inconsistent in their time of arrival and intensity. Well, hopefully you can read into what happened next.

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A quick change

At first, there was some rain. Then, a lot more rain. Then, the rain came in from the side. At this point, I’m not really sure my $900 gore-tex jacket is really all that waterproof, and just as I think “Well, it can’t get much wo-“, a debilitating crack of lightning struck the peak of Mt. Woolley just a few hundred metres to our west.

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Our pants were less water resistant

DSC07829As we expeditiously made our way down, I couldn’t help but reflect on why we were here in the first place. Was it to summit a mountain, or was it to spend a few days of quality time off the grid, with a balance of solitude and the company of a good friend? Peak optional.

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“We’re going the wrong way!” – John, probably

Back at camp, we retired our wet wares, and enjoyed glints of sunshine obscured by traces of the storm system driving its way east. After a heavy siesta, 9:30 to 3:30, we enjoyed some bocce around the bivy site, making use of various obstacles, pools, and small shrubs to create a sort of high-altitude desolate mini golf. Would definitely play again.

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The rain returned with ferocity. At 3:00 the following morning, it was still going strong with a the calming pitter patter on the nylon fly. With little motivation from either of us to make breakfast and harness-up in the pouring rain, we snoozed on. Sometimes a little push from a friend is good, but I was happy we unspokenly on the same page for this one.

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In many ways this mountaineering trip, which are usually characterized by a shortage of everything by the end – food, sleep, physical stamina, flipped into more into more of a moderate hike with a bunch of unnecessary glacier gear. For me, it serves as a nice reminder: You don’t need to go all out, all the time. We didn’t do anything “epic”, and I still had a blast.

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Venture on!

Sean

Thirty to Three

Life has been good lately and I find myself trying to pin the source. Surely, there must be a source which we can pin, then attempt to emulate, only to fall frustratingly into the trap of deconstructing things that cannot be taken apart.

Can you relate?

Casting rays at dawn. We can see the light but not feel warmth. A little repositioning is all that is needed.

Last year I put thirty-thousand kilometres on my sprinter van in a pretty narrow travel window of about five months. Five times thirty days, divided by thirty thousand…. 200 kilometres a day? If i’m averaging 50 kph, thats four hours each day.

Driving was my part time job.

Off the clock, Zion National Park UT.

You’re thinking, no, Sean, you entitled son-of-a, Driving through national parks and land reserves, taking in epic sunrises, casually strolling to the next destination in a comfortable fashion does not constitute work. Well, you might be right, but allow me to further gripe.

Mother nature has the ultimate daily rituals, Salt Lake City UT

Last fall road tripping stirred a range of emotions, from deeply uncomfortable to pure contentment. The contentment comes and goes easy, but the discomfort much more difficult to shed. I’d arrive at some revered destination; Moab to bike, Red Rocks to climb, Trestles to surf, with expectations so high as I hopped out of my van and suited up, literally vibrating in the process. When something is so built up in your mind, variance from the expected can surface as a negative.

No variance on the 5.fun “Skyline”, Gallatin Canyon MT

Not up to expectations? well, that’s disappointing. And while it feels like you have been slighted by a place, it is hard to make the argument that a salient dot on a map can cause this strife. Disappointment, locational anxiety, coupled with a sensitive ego results is some form of offended feeling. What do insecure people usually do when they get offended?

They run. Queue the long drive…

Golden hour in Jackson, WY. Sublime location, but a lonely night. Zipping in-and-out of town without adequate social time has it’s drawbacks.

Noticing the pattern, and having repeated it myself several times, I can assuredly report back that nothing changes. The unsettled feeling that comes with this form of travel will remain. Neil Gaiman couldn’t have said it better; “Wherever you go, you have to take yourself with you.”

Failing to lean in, explore and resolve this discomfort will only result more of the same. Why do I set these lofty expectations, and why am I so hard on myself when they fall short?

Where hot and cold meet, Yellowstone WY.

Recently I was chatting with a friend about travel by bike. He raised the issue of something we can call “destination hopping”, described as if a trip or journey are discreet points on a map, with nothing to be experienced in between.

He shared that he wouldn’t visit an unfamiliar country again unless it was by bicycle touring. From there, stories emerged of going to place X to see Y and Z, but the most memorable and culturally rich experiences came from the unplanned, impromptu stops in small villages and towns.

Trying to create order from harvest, Southern AB.

And then there’s the pace, one mode resembling something of a slow-iv-drip, compared to an epinephrine injection. After a long driving session, I feel exhausted. Overloaded by visual sensations while the body feels restless, plus the standard disdain for other drivers who may have been following you just a bit too closely.

Now, bike touring isn’t for everyone, but maybe we can take the mindset of one and apply it into the conventional forms of travel?

Sundown in Jackson, WY.

Less moving time, more doing time. There is beauty everywhere. There are things to do, and company to enjoy. This doesn’t require a momentous uproot-and-go approach. The itinerary based, gotta-make-the-most-of-it approach applies blinders to everything you do. Plan to do less and watch the time fill itself.

Simple pleasures of sandy feet in Pacific Beach, CA

Maybe the unsettled feeling comes from the unnatural state of moving thorough so much country at such a rapid pace. As if our subconscious knows it’s wrong to go on some whirlwind drive-a-thon to chase something we saw in a magazine, when pulling off on side road and going for a walk in the woods would provide just as much enrichment to our lives.

Be mindful of the others on that walk…. Yellowstone, WY.

Grinding sucks, period. Through work, an education, a road trip, all forms will result in the query “why am I doing this?”. It has been said, many of times, that what we’re here to experience is a journey, not a destination. I’ve been learning to love the process, even when it is hard, in hopes that the hard moments make one appreciate when times aren’t.

I don’t have the best history of taking my own advice, but these are points I’ve been working hard on. The last two months have been nothing short of an incredible adventure; ample social time with friends new and old, physical challenging with human-powered efforts to reach summits and stashes (of powder, y’know?), and time for self care in all departments. All the these things are what I thought van life to be, but only now am I realizing that they have pretty much nothing to do with the van.

My odometer shows about 3,000 km.

“Puff Daddy” in Rogers Pass, BC. Photo: Phil Tomlinson (www.mountainwagon.com)

I’m sticking with this new motto: less moving, more doing.

S