394km Vegreville to North Battleford
They say the winds blow from west to east in Canada. Cyclist after cyclist told us this. “It’s just the way things are,” they said. With this knowledge in hand, our trip towards Saskatoon had begun with the expectation of nothing less than tailwinds.
Fools. What fools. Both them and us.
Murphy’s Law says that when you’re primed for a good push from behind you’ll get a face full of wind instead and that’s exactly what we got not long after leaving Vegreville. We put it down to the same meteorological phenomena that creates the bi-directional opposing headwind – a veritable gale which blows toward the cyclist both on the way out and the way home.
No matter which way the road turned (and yes, it does curve occasionally out here on the plains), the wind seemed to be working against us. Still, at least it was sunny and we plodded along towards North Battleford at a steady 13km an hour.
Along the way we met Stephen, on his way home by bike to Ottawa after tree planting in the far north. Maybe he’d go as far as Moncton, he told us, before announcing that to get there in time for an August wedding he’d need to do 150-180km a day. Our jaws dropped at his ambitious and slightly foolhardy target but we wished him good luck and waved as he sped away to Lloydminster. He needed those tailwinds more than we did.
Our pace was, as usual, far more relaxed. In Innisfree we hooked up with Keith, a local minister and fellow cycling fanatic who rode with us to his home in Vermilion, treated us to milkshakes and an evening of chatter with new friends as the sun went down. Lashburn was marked by ice creams from the general store and our first night of Canadian free camping in a field of waist-high grass and wild roses just outside of town.
Just down the road in Maidstone, Friedel picked through some slimy produce at the supermarket, trying to find something edible, while Andrew chatted with a local man. “Great you’ve got the wind behind you,” he said. Andrew pointed out we were going east. “Oh. Well at least you’re ahead of the rain,” he replied, ever the optimist.
Our next stop was the nearly deserted municipal campground for a shower. We planned on taking one each but then had to make other plans when we opened our change purse to discover just enough coins for one shower. We aren’t telling who snuck into which bathroom! Our covert mission went unnoticed by the man mowing the lawn.
All cleaned up and on the road again, we ran into Stephen for a second time not long after Maidstone. His energetic efforts had earned him a strained knee and he looked to be in a fair bit of pain, pedaling a few strokes, then coasting and pedaling again. We felt bad, tried to give a few words of encouragement, offered to let him draft behind us and then left him to get on with it. It’s a tough road out there alone and with an injured knee but he didn’t seem to want much company.
We were the opposite: grateful for the wide shoulders that let us chat the day away, riding side by side, with only a few bright yellow canola fields to distract our gaze from the busy highway and the omnipresent headwinds. There were no shops and few villages. The only business of note was one dodgy bar filled with drunks, framed by a sidewalk covered in broken glass.
It was incentive to push on and so we did until we spotted another good camping spot, just outside North Battleford. We rationed out the last of our water to make pancakes and a stirfry for supper and went to bed, knowing the next morning we’d have to bike into town to get breakfast. We had just enough to drink but not nearly enough to cook porridge with. We hoped at least for cloudy skies but instead we got rain, which added to the headwinds to make a miserable 20km into town.
Soaked and cold, we stopped at the police station to ask directions to the nearest Tim Hortons. The friendly officers were only too happy to point us down the right road and heads turned as we dripped our way inside the packed coffee shop a few minutes later and ordered our morning pick-me-up. Two mugs of hot coffee have never felt so good.