More thoughts: Ottawa to North Bay

May 6 (Ottawa; letting go of the good things; urban planning; coyotes)

Leaving Ottawa was difficult because I was leaving behind a lot of positive vibes. As I’ve said before, I don’t find Ottawa as boring as other people sometimes do, but C did make it clearer to me why she’s not into it: it’s the spread. The green space is everywhere, and the city looks really nice – as a result of that and all sorts of other richly-endowed public landscaping projects – but it’s all very far apart. In the summer, it’s less of a problem, when you can bike between places. But in the cold months, taking the crappy, always-late bus system is apparently a drag. And everyone lives in these idyllic neighborhoods which, to me, strongly resemble suburbs, but which claim to be part of the city. So you’re on a tree-lined street 10 km from downtown, and someone says “Suburb!? No way, the suburbs are way further out!” The thing that bothered me was really as I was running into the city on these congested motorways, and there was this weird disjunction between the vast amounts of protected “green space” I was passing and the absence of people who weren’t in cars: so you get this feeling that all the green space is just for having the luxury of nice scenery out the car window, rather than some alternative, non-car-oriented urban planning. I guess it’s inevitable that, as I already have some interest in architecture and cities, it’s coming to the forefront in my mind as I traverse various roads which were not intended for me, and upon which I feel marginalized.

Along those lines, there was an anecdote I intended to relate earlier. As I was entering the city and trying to get my bearings, I asked one of the only people I saw on foot how to get to downtown. He gave me directions and said with a concerned look, “But it’s a long ways, you know?” I said, “I’ll manage!” and briefly explained what I was doing. This was kind of an older guy with an accent, and when he finally understood that I was traveling a long ways on foot, and that there was no child in the Chariot, he said, “Ah! So it is just for – an adventure? I’m sorry, it just is not every day that you meet an adventurer!” Sure, I’ll accept that as a way for people to process what I’m doing. I’ve come to realize that the concept of adventure is a sort of lingua franca which requires no excuse, even if it’s not really 100% accurate in terms of how I’m thinking about the trip. It is, nonetheless, an adventure.

So I guess what I’m saying is, Ottawa wanted it both ways: it has all this green space and nice park land, and also a lot of nice cycling/running paths (really, a LOT of them!), but all within an infrastructure that privileges and necessitates the car. Anyway, I left the city by taking the “Sentier des Voyageurs” along the Gatineau side of the Ottawa River, towards the west (for those non-Canadians reading: the Ottawa River divides Ontario from Quebec, and Gatineau is sort of the Quebecois mirror-image of Ottawa). This was an absolutely beautiful run on a beautiful day, with many Quebecers frolicking on the beach. It made me feel like Ottawa is a place I would go on vacation. And I guess in a way I did. After about 20 km I had to get back on a real road, so I was taking the 148-W for a long time… it could have been worse.

But there was no getting around the fact that I left Ottawa later than I should’ve (say, 3 pm, and walked with C until 4 or 4:30), so it was already getting dark and I hadn’t made it to Wyman. The “where am I going to sleep?” panic began to set in as I found myself running in near-dark on the highway for the first – but not the last – time. The Luskville Public Recreational Park seemed like a godsend… a bunch of sports fields and things by the side of the road, totally deserted, so I put on my headlamp and poked around for a few minutes before finding a very inconspicuous patch, about a quarter-mile back from the road, to pitch my tent. As soon as I had my tent set up (and I worked quickly & quietly), a cop car rolled up and I saw two cops with flashlights poking around. Eventually their lights shone on my tent and I figured the best thing would just be to be friendly and honest and say hello. When I explained the situation, these guys – who, I might add, spoke far better English than the Franco-cops in Montreal – were totally understanding and said it was no problem for me to camp there. They asked me a bunch of questions, but I think mostly just out of curiosity. So the lesson, for the second time, was that Quebec cops only suck and are only rude to English people in Montreal. “Are there bears around here?” I asked in parting, and the answer was “yes, and wolves sometimes, but mostly coyotes.” I felt the first of many surges of gratitude for the bear-proof food canister that Real gave me in Ottawa, planted at a safe distance from my campsite. That night, I heard a pack of coyotes in the distance, howling (the big ones) and making really funny/otherworldly yipping sounds (the little ones, I was later informed).

May 7 (alternate histories; do or die; rainy cemetery camping)

Oh yes, this was a very hot and sunny day. The first day that I fully realized the eastward-facing side of my body (i.e. my backside, and particularly my calves) would be especially susceptible to sunburn. In the afternoon, I took a long break in Shawville QC to avoid the hottest hours of the day. While snacking on deep-fried zucchini and Coors Light (the only beer on tap) in Hursty’s (“Hungry? Thirsty? Come to Hursty’s!”), I got into a conversation with Stanley & Edith Hogg, and 88 and 85 year-old couple that had been married for 65 years. They started as penpals during WW2 and only met after the war… after Stanley stormed the beach at Normandy and had lunch with Prince Philip. I did not insist on contradicting when Edith said she was certain there were no Americans at D-Day, only Canadians and Brits. After the war, Stanley & Edith moved 400 miles north of Quebec City to work in a mining settlement, then retired in Shawville, where Stanley did a lot of woodwork, including much of the restaurant we were sitting in. Edith was very loud and charismatic and did most of the talking, but when Stanley cut in, he told sad and improbable stories of deaths in the mines and in the war, souvenirs from a long and dangerous life. The waitress confirmed to me that yes, they usually eat at Hursty’s 3 times a day, and she’d heard all this before. Anyway, Shawville left me with a pretty good feeling.

The problem was, my long break meant I was going to be racing the sunset again. I looked closer to Cobden on the map, but soon realized it was “a bit of a hike” (a phrase I hear a lot). I must have run about 30k without stopping when I left Shawville around 6:30 and realized I could be in trouble. It was beginning to get dark when I got to Portage-du-Fort, and asked directions from a friendly older guy drinking a beer on his balcony. “Oh, yeah, just past those two hydroelectric plants, through the woods and those mountains, then you get on the Trans-Canadian.” The terrain suddenly became very scary as I passed the hydroelectric dams, with all these signs warning of sudden electrical death. With that and the sun going down and the suddenly impenetrable coniferous forest ahead of me, I went into what I call “do or die mode”: where I know that the time for futzing around with locals or taking walk breaks is over, and I simply have to run whether I have the energy or not. I was really booking it across the border to Ontario, but it was nearly entirely dark by the time I got to the TCH. To make matters worse, it started to rain.

I saw a cemetery by the side of the highway, and a side-road with a bit of forest. I knew I must be about 10k shy of Cobden, but this was probably my best bet for impromptu camping, so I took it. After running some 30k straight, I set up camp in the rain in a small copse of trees that materialized behind the graveyard, crouched down and ate a ton of peanut butter before stashing my food, got in the tent and stayed there ’til the morning. It rained all night.

May 8 (crappy rainy day; illegal reptiles; a happy ending)

Cobden to Pembroke should’ve been only 31 km, but this ended up being quite a bit more of a trial than that. First of all, I was 10k shy of Cobden, so I walked there to recover a bit from yesterday… still raining. Around 11 am I ate basically everything Shirley could cook in this tiny depanneur/restaurant on the eastern edge of town. I asked Shirley, “so, something like 31 km to Pembroke, right?” “Oh no, nothing like that, maybe more like 26,” she replied. “Just walk it, you’ll be there in two hours.” Whoa, lady, have you ever walked 26 kilometers in two hours? She must have noticed some shock on my face, because she said, “Oh, I don’t know your speed, maybe you could do it in just an hour.” This really got me thinking about how people these days have no concept of distance! I mean, half the time, people have no idea of the kilometrage and they just say “yeah, 10 or 15 minutes down the road” (by car), but here was a lady who thought I could walk 26 kilometers in an hour? Haile Gebrselassie couldn’t run it that fast, and neither could Usain Bolt. Possibly if they conceived some miraculous super-child, provided him with a high dosage of Adderall, and there were perfect weather conditions and a tailwind. But even then I’d consider it unlikely.

It rained nearly all day, so that was not a fun road to Pembroke at all. Worse still, Pembroke is one long-ass town! It’s oriented entirely along the Ottawa River, and its length is completely out of proportion to the population of 12,000. There’s just this gigantic strip mall along the highway, and a tiny joke of a downtown area. George and Heldgard, the wonderful hosts I was to stay with that night, lived at the other end of it. When I was dispirited, soaked to the bone and pushing the Chariot along a muddy shoulder, they came to my rescue, loading the Chariot into their car and taking it home – I ran the whole length of the Pembroke strip on my own, without the Chariot, a wonderful feeling after all those days of pushing, pushing… but gosh, that strip! I planned my course so that I would “pass through downtown Pembroke,” not knowing that if I had taken the highway route (1 km shorter), I’d probably have far nicer scenery! More on the strip when we get to North Bay, but it was an interesting insight into how a town evolved entirely around the twin demands of car culture and the desirability of “waterfront property”. The water is not working for anybody in a situation like this, it is simply there, being “valuable” in some abstract way. Businesses want to be on the water because that is supposed to be a thing. Weird.

But George and Heldgard did not live in the middle of all this noise: they lived outside of Pembroke, in a log cabin they built in Laurentian Township. What wonderful hosts, and just great people! Heldgard works with pottery, and specializes in these neat teacups with three-dimensional animals at the bottoms. It looked pretty tricky. She’s also a fantastic cook, and she was thrilled to see how much of her food I could eat. (Believe me, if there is one thing I am happy to do and truly capable of, it is that.) George is a retired military medic, but seems to do a lot of work for the Town Council – indeed, that night he was embroiled in setting/enforcing regulations for illegal reptiles as pets. “‘Hot packages,’ you know what those are? That’s their term for venomous snakes!” The reporter from the Cobden Sun who he brought over to the house to talk to me eventually turned the topic back to the reptile issue, which really seemed to be blowing up in the Pembroke area that evening. Apparently people will just buy these exotic reptiles as pets, but then get tired of them, and turn them loose in the Canadian wilderness. What is this life.

May 9 (bombs; research forest; digression on hospitality)

For the 50k from Pembroke to Deep River, I decided to switch shoes to my fivefingers, just to keep the old calves in shape. I trained in ultra-minimalist shoes (Merrells) all winter, so there is no reason I shouldn’t be able to wear them on the road now. This run was all right… after my warmup walk of 10k, I immediately got caught in a fierce hailstorm and heavy rains that lasted only about 15-20 minutes. I spent the rest of the day drying out in the sun, then getting rained on, etc. Passed the military bases along the TCH and a number of ominous signs on fences that said: “DANGER – THERE ARE BOMBS – THEY CAN KILL YOU!” Passed through the Petawawa Research Forest and saw some cool educational displays at their little info station. A chipmunk nibbled on my big toe as I ate Heldgard’s delicious baked goods. Later I took some side roads suggested by George. For a couple miles on a really rocky dirt road, I regretted my choice of footwear for the day, but it was all good.

My friend Kevin’s mom, Katharine, met me by bicycle just outside of Deep River, and brought me back to their house. Deep River’s a “nuclear town”, made up mostly for the nearby plant, but by now a pretty regular small town (except that it has its own symphony orchestra – very cool). Katharine, Kevin, and Kevin’s sister Emma were a great bunch to stay the night with, and very welcoming. The interesting thing about planning these homestays is, I’ve often just sent out huge mass messages, say, over facebook, etc. Thus, it’s entirely possible for me to end up staying with the families of people I’ve never known all that well in the first place – but perhaps should have? It was great catching up with Kevin after dinner over a dram of Dalmore, although “catching up” is a funny term to use because it was really the first time we’d had a prolonged conversation (despite a number of close friends in common, and the funny coincidence of being sort of de-facto-roommates when we were dating two girls who were roommates).

Having people to stay with along this portion of the route has been such a blessing. Besides a place to shower, a warm, dry bed for the night, and a lot of good food, they’ve really provided some of the only connection I’ve felt to other human beings on the trip. Yes, ultimately, one of the main motivations for doing this trip was the time I would get to spend alone – but, when you’re out there on the highway, battling strong winds and menacing traffic, and people don’t seem to exist so much as cars, it is really important to have that positive human contact every once in a while. The people who put me up for the night are really giving me the benefit of the doubt, when you think about it… I’m hard-pressed to give a concise, articulate description of why I’m doing this run, and yet there are people who will say, “well, if he’s doing it, I guess he’ll need all the help he can get.” I’m very grateful for that.

May 10 (ascending & descending, literally)

The road from Deep River to Mattawa was, as the Myerses had indicated, pretty darn hilly. I mean, serious inclines and declines, one after the other, the kind that are extreme enough to really disrupt running. In addition to that, the temperature dropped in a big way, so I was dealing with these hills in weather that was probably in the upper 40s (F), and on top of that the strongest headwind since the start of my trip. Only so much you can say about that kind of day. It started to clear at the end, and it was rather nice (though cold) weather when I camped at the Misty Morning Resort. (Liked the friendly owner and the beautiful view of the Ottawa River.) Very weird taking up one of the entire plots that would usually accommodate an RV, with just my one-man tent.

May 11 (a spontaneous kindness; excellent waters)

More of the same tough conditions, but at least there was no rain, and it was a bit warmer. My favorite incident from this day was passing through Deux-Rivieres. There was a guy crossing the street who said, hi, asked what I was doing, etc, and then: “Hey! Do you need water? ‘Cause like 14 miles down the highway there’s this pipe sticking out of the side of the road, with a sign that says ‘not recommended for drinking,’ just ’cause it hasn’t been tested, right? But that there’s the purest spring water around.” I was initially a little skeptical, but I said, yeah, sure, I will watch out for that. The thing is, I kind of needed water at that minute, and 14 miles is “a bit of a hike.” So I went down the road to this campground, hoping to refill my bottles somewhere more local, and I ran into this older big bald guy, smoking a cigar and chopping up wood in his white undershirt like some alternate-reality Mr. Clean. He said, sure, I could fill up my bottles at his house, and we started talking a bit. When he came back with the bottles filled, he had three “Schneider’s Lunch-Mates” (similar to “Lunchables”) with him that he just offered to me. An unexpected kindness. The funny part is, just as I was leaving, he basically repeated this whole spiel about awesome spring water coming out of a pipe marked “not recommended for drinking”, about 14 miles down the road. “A lot of the people around here get their drinking water from that pipe,” he said, and so I resolved that I had to fill all my bottles there.

On a side note, this guy suspected, as do I, that the train tracks running parallel to the TCH all along the Ottawa River (Canadian Pacific Railroad, but no longer used), are getting torn up sooner rather than later, and probably turned into cycling paths. I say… cool by me, wish it was already done.

This day I didn’t make it to Mattawa, but camped, probably illegally, in a really perfect spot just off Highway 17 on Klock’s Road. An obviously neglected trail/path, leading quickly to a clearing surrounded by trees… ideal. It was still pretty early when I set up camp at 7, so I read Murakami (“Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”) on my Kindle ’til the lights went out. Funny reading on such an artificial device, but depending on natural light, and doing it in the wilderness in your tent. The one thing that wasn’t ideal about this campsite was that the bugs were REAL bad.

May 12 (the coziness of the tent; the luxury of the motel)

I hit the snooze button so many times on my cell alarm, even though I’d gone to bed around 9. I must have gotten a solid 10.5 hours of sleep, which means I’m getting good at sleeping in the tent. Incidentally, I love texting people on my cell phone when I’m all cozily set up in my tent for the night, if there’s coverage. Anyway, my first stop had to be Mattawa, which was about 15k further than where I’d camped, but I knew I must be close to that magical spring about which I’d heard so much. Sure enough, there it was, by a sign marked “Bastien Creek.” You could tell people used this pipe because somebody had put a wooden pallet down by it, to stand on, and there was this big, suggestive “not recommended for drinking” sign right above it. Ironic, because I guess the very presence of that sign suggests that a number of people do recommend it for drinking purposes (otherwise, why bother with the sign by a lowly pipe sticking out of the side of the road?) I filled one bottle to start with, and sure enough, it was probably the best water I’d tasted on the trip so far. Every town really has had very different water for quite some time. So I filled all the bottles at Bastien Creek, and I’ve got no regrets.

The hills and the headwind had taken a lot out of me, and I was feeling weak, physically and mentally. When I saw a road sign for the Voyageur Inn in Mattawa (“$40 a night”, and apparently attached to a restaurant that specialized in Tandoori cuisine?) I kind of wanted to just spend the day in Mattawa and resign myself to being a day behind. When I got there, it turned out to be false advertising: all rooms at least $60/night plus taxes, and nothing cheaper in town. So I loitered in the town a bit: bought groceries, hung out at the library, and ate lunch at “The Moon” (the cafe where Mattawa’s hipsters hang out… all two of them), and eventually I just hit the road for Bonfield, or whatever.

The hills calmed down and the weather wasn’t bad. All the same, I wasn’t seeing any great places to camp, and I was still feeling pretty weak. I was proud to have gotten back on schedule, but I was really feeling like it might be time for the ultimate indulgence, a motel night. There were two campgrounds along the way (well, not really along the way: I took a 4 km detour on faith, to check them out), and they turned me away when I refused to pay $20 or more for the privilege of putting down my one-man tent for the night and not even getting showers or services because the campground wasn’t “really open” yet. $25 a night just to pitch my tent on your grass? Yeah right! I’ve done that for free about 10 times already on this trip, and it hasn’t been a problem! So I felt a bit testy about having taken the detour for such a lousy thing, and it was getting dark again. I’d lost the lead time I had on sunset, the time I had dreamed of using to read some more Murakami in my tent, possibly texting people and having a couple swigs from my flask of scotch. A lady told me there was a motel about 7 km down the road, and I went into intense do-or-die mode as an incredibly gorgeous sunset occurred. I got to The Dinner Bell motel & restaurant just as it got dark, haggled briefly, and took a room.

The luxury of having a motel room for the night, even a cheap one, is incredible. This was only the second time (Plantagenet was the other), but both times I really felt like, even though it was an expense so large relative to all my others that it couldn’t possibly be justified, it was entirely justified by the feeling of comfort, luxury, freedom and happiness it so briefly gave me.

I can’t afford the time to write any more right now! It’s late and there’s so much to do! But I’m glad I got a lot of this down, because not only do I like keeping other people updated, but there’s a lot I just haven’t written down, and past a week it becomes difficult to remember. Just so you know, the way I write these entries is just to sit down and go. I hardly ever edit anything and I just let it roll, so I hope it’s not too slapdash, but that’s the way it’s got to be right now! I’m in North Bay, so there’s a whole day unaccounted for here, but I’ll get to it.

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~ by edmundmilly on May 13, 2012.

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