bike trip 1Tuesday, June 11
Meaford, Ontario

The Elephant, Chapter VI: Big Chute

Leaving Toronto isn't what I really feel like doing. I'm not an East-ender, and all that Scarborough, Pickering, and beyond territory always seems unfamiliar. Besides, there are friends, movies, places to eat. There's transit. So much to do. After almost a week of vacationing during my vacation, I strained against the gravitational pull of good old Toronto. But go I must. Down by the waterfront trail, lake levels have risen. I get to the bridge across the Rouge River, and the pathway leading up to the bridge is way under the water. A curving, 'S' line of the tops of the boulder blocks that line the path are all that remains, and so, to get over the bridge, you have to step on these plates of stone which protrude a mere inch above the water. There's a single file of cyclists. I have my extra heavy rig and, two stepping stones from the end, the back of the bike slides off the rock, into the rushing Rouge. It's a freak out moment, and I'm unable to balance, lift the rear wheel out of the water and get to the higher ground. A man is there, suddenly, somehow, and he grabs the bars. He pulls, I lift, luckily I don't fall in, and I get across to the ramp up the bridge. I've had a mini climate change near catastrophe. I thank this man profusely. He's just saved my bike and maybe me. Once I get to eastern Oshawa, some green space starts to open up in the urban mass, and I find a field, a hill by the railroad, and spend the night close to the tracks. I like to camp near the tracks because of the thrill and fear factor of loud trains roaring by so close in the night. Maybe it's a hobo thing. A sniffing neighbourhood dog wakes me up at 5:36 am and it's back on the trip 2

This day, it's the push to Peterborough. Dear cousins live there, and on this day, I find hills like I haven't seen all trip. But I choose quiet concession lines and enjoy the lack of cars. It's a beautiful day. From Newcastle, I go through Garden Hill, Bailieboro, and find my way into the P-dot. Elaine and Dennis are there, with Thomas the dog, and surprise, it's my sister Leslie, from previous chapters, who once again arrives to share in the merry-making. We are treated to Elaine's slide show of the recent trip to France. She was in Paris when Notre Dame burned. The pictures from the morning after show incredibly dense crowds of people gathered around the site of the destruction. It looks more real in the slide show, for some reason, than any of the pictures I'd seen from the news..

After a couple days of fun, it's time for the last leg. My friend Kevin has knowledge of the wilds around the Severn waterway, and we'd chatted about meeting in Swift Rapids, to boat down the Severn River from lift lock to lift lock, and hook up with roads that otherwise wouldn't connect. The day before, I get a bit lazy, and I text Kevin, trying to steer the plan to something easier, but he's all good to go, so we decide to rendezvous

in Swift Rapids. I wonder what it will be like putting my bike in a boat. I wonder what kind of boat Kevin has.

There's an excellent section of the Trans Canada Trail from Peterborough to Lindsay. Part way along, a fellow cyclist catches up to me and escorts me into Lindsay. He's Jim McIntosh, retired 9 years ago from firefighting in Scarborough. We talk as we ride, and he gets me to the bike shop, where I get a map for the rest of the route. Nice people at the Lindsay bike store, down to Earth. Then, a beer on the patio of the Olympia restaurant, and much later, after sundown, I pull into Orillia, and find another flooded bit of shoreline to swing in the hammock over the gentle waves of Lake Couchiching. I've seen so many trees waist deep in water on this trip, and I hope they're going to be okay.

bike trip 3Next day, I head up the daunting Swift Rapids road, which continues northward from the Carlyon Line, and signs say No Exit, Use At Your Own Risk, Unassumed Road...and I steel myself for a challenging 10 miles of remote uninhabited bush road which crawls over high hills and is full of ruts, rocks, and sand. After a long slow toil up this dead end path, I emerge into civilization. Here I am in Swift Rapids. Lift lock, hydro generating station, and vital node along the Trent-Severn waterway, I find a little park, nice washrooms, and friendly lift lock staff. I tell one young woman that I'm here to meet my friend who's going to take me by boat down to the next lock. "What kind of boat does he have?" she asks. I just shrug and say "I don't know. I just hope it's not just some canoe!" She chuckles, "Well, there's some guy down there who just pulled up in a canoe..." I go over to the seven-storey high lock gates. There's Kevin, and there's his 15' Coleman canoe.

We greet, shake hands, and I ask him if he's ever done this before. Behind him, I can see the churning eddies at the bottom of the lift and the generating station. "Uhh, no" he says. I say "Kevin, you know, tipping and losing the bike in the water and absolutely not an option here". He says, "Oh, my canoe's not tippy. But we better just keep to the right of this moving water. There will be more moving water, though..."

The bike fits in pretty well, even though the wheels protrude off the side. I start estimating how much of my rig will float like a balloon and how much will sink like an anchor and which side will win. I put on a life jacket with grave commitment, and we paddle off. This is the most extreme aspect of my bike tripping life, I'm figuring, and we pass many cottages, some small and old, many huge and ostentatious. Kevin gestures to the right bank as we're paddling. "Those cottages go for maybe two, two-fifty, whereas those on the left are a million. There's no road access on the right". And I think, as I float down this channel, which I have never seen before, and decide that this is the exact boundary between southern and northern Ontario, and I'm glad that my route is taking me through here. It's fun to paddle and not pedal, and to be with a travelling mate. There's a stiff headwind, and frequent powerboats that serve up wake, that we have to turn into and bob through, and I watch my bike rise and fall with the gunwales. So far, so good. After about 6 kilometres, we near Severn Falls, and I hear shrieking, laughter, girl's voices mixing with the wind in the trees. We pull around a bend and I see cabins, docks, a little Riverside restaurant, and I just want to stop but we're only

halfway. On a deck right by the water, there's quite a sight. At least eight young bikini-clad women (girls? I don't know, I didn't look for very long) but they're having a veritable bikini party, playing beer pong and laughing and drinking. One says to Kevin "Want to join us?" but we keep paddling. We're not stopping at this scene, which is like something evocative of, but opposite to, Apocalypse Now.

Another hour or two of paddling brings us to Big Chute lift lock. We've floated now 12 km and I'm glad to see our camping destination. It's already been a tiring day. Kevin, who has roots in this area, tells me that the Big Chute lift is unique because it's a big rail-cart design. This is another wonder that I've never seen. Lift locks. Amazing things. We camp on some Crown and nearby, and I realize I'm sunburned and heat exhausted. Kevin's the consummate woodsman and camper. We start setting up our hammocks, and I see his "Skeeter Beater" brand of gear and I feel hammock envy. His has a side zipper, where mine has a velcro closure underneath. His has a larger tarp. And his hammock is camouflage. We drink cider that Kevin brought and pretty soon I need to crash. But it's so fun to be adventuring with a friend. Sleep, and then breakfast, coffee and a short paddle across the channel will reunite me with roads that can lead me to Awenda park and finally, the curve of Nottawasaga Bay and Meaford, to close the Elephant.

In the morning as we leave camp, Kevin carves a kindling splint, by carefully split-peeling curls of wood on a hardwood wedge. He leaves the kindling impaled in the black coals of the fire pit, for the next campers. When we get across to the Big Chute side, he runs the seven kilometres back to his car, while I wait, sitting comfortably against a tree, pondering these last 40 days...

All that remains of my adventure is to get from here to Awenda, camp a couple nights and ride the "victory stretch" to Meaford, and another bike trip will be in the can. As compensation for this tough excursion up through remote forest to rushing waters, down the Severn, bike in a canoe, Kevin is going to shuttle me to some place where I can buy him lunch, as a token of appreciation for the guided section of the trip. We decide that Midland would be a good place, and we find a Boston Pizza. Eventually, my bike gets reassembled from having to be shrunk down to fit in Kevin's car and we say our farewells. Awenda awaits, and then home.

Cycling trips are in my blood. As the world creeps ever more steadily towards a kind of sel-collapse, I savour the pure simplicity of my bike-borne adventures. It seems silly to think that I'm making a difference by being the one of a small few on the road who push their own vehicle. As I get older, I think it's more habit that motivates me. I want to ride all day, and camp by night, enjoying food and drink and the outdoors. As I ride, news events unfold. It seems everything is going in the wrong direction. It seems everyone has given up and we're all just coasting to the end now. Most of the people I've met on this trip have been extremely kind. My only accident while riding was getting slapped in the face by a branch on the cycling trail. I'm fine, but it seems like everyone knows we're in trouble. Maybe that's where a lot of the kindness I've sensed on this trip has come from. Water levels seem dangerously high while some places have constant elephant

Temperatures are out of whack. It's too wet everywhere, or it's weirdly cold, while our Western friends are already burning up. Today I read a meme that some scientific group posted "Enjoy the next twenty years." I'm sensing that people are starting to get that message.

The Elephant took me 42 days -- 29 of which were riding days, and 13 with some of the best people I've ever met. In two weeks, brother Greg arrives, and it's back on the road again for some weeks.

This time though, no stories. Got to do more watercolours.

D. Robinson




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