It's Big, It's Empty and it's Good to be Home
July 1, 2011 Timmins ON

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The Motherland
I'm back, baby!

Some say it's the coldest summer we 'ever had. But I just call it the warmest winter."
- Man in front of the general store in Sioux Narrows on a chilly day at the end of June

Pine needles and creosote. The smell hit me shortly after arriving to Ontario, while bicycling south on Highway 71 between Kenora and Fort Frances. A brisk morning wind rushed over the treetops and into my face, a wind carrying something familar and comforting. To call it a smell doesn't really do it justice. Almost a spirit, really. Something that rushes past the olefactories and goes right to a hidden corner of the brain where long forgotten memories are stored. Ah, Pine needles and creosote.

It may only be the middle of June, but the sun is strong enough to warm the forest floor and lift a breath of warm air through the white pines. It blows over the lake, around the smooth granite rocks and over old railway tracks - or perhaps past a telephone pole or two - and there you have it, an invisible spirit that carries the scent of summer. To any Ontario kid that spent months looking out at the bitter cold from the windows of a stuffy classroom - or perhaps a full grown adult in an office - this is the smell of freedom and happiness.

The Last Town of Manitoba
Rennie tells it like it is

A combination of the natural and the downright carcinogenic, it's a smell that conjures up images of camping and canoeing, bug bites and outhouses, bannock bread and campfire smores. It was the first thing you would smell when you stepped off the bus to summer camp, and it's still the last thing you smell before hopping into the car to drive back to the city after a long weekend in the great outdoors. Every time I smell it, I remember the summer our family rented a cottage up north in Canadian Shield country. I must have been 5 years old. I think there were some stairs made from old rail ties in the basement - hence the creosote - and the pines surrounded the lake. I remember curling up in a hammock next to Dad, the pine needles scattered on the ground around us. We spent the days roaring around the lake in a motorboat or hurling lawn darts at eachother, but these memories are fuzzy at best. The smell, however, is as vivid in my memory as though it were just last summer.

It's the essence of Ontario. Without it the province just wouldn't be the same. Yes, I may be on my bike 1300 kilometres from where I grew up, but I'm home. Some cultures may have the smell of Momma's tomato sauce to make them nostalgic, but in this case, my home cooking is from Mother Nature... and petroleum distillates.

Graphic Lake
The first lake of many

Although I'm taking a beeline across the top of Northern Ontario, this is still a 1600 kilometre journey between the prairies and the border of Quebec. This is Canada's most populous province, but you'd never guess it - for the next 12 days or so, I encountered only one city with a population larger than 100,000 (Thunder Bay) and rode my bicycle for stretches between 50 to 100 kilometres without encountering services or supplies - and at one point about 1000 kilometres between bike shops.

With your destiny in your hands and pedals under your feet, there is little to do but push onward, relying on the most complicated piece of macheriny you'll ever own - your body - to power you across the great green ocean of Ontario. In fact, this part of the journey reminds me of being at sea. The road rolls like massive waves, stretched to the horizon between you and your faraway destination. Painfully slow ascents are followed by frustratingly short downhill coasting. Then it's up once again, and the top of the next hill reveals another one waiting beyond. No flying fish here however - just an entourage of horseflies buzzing around your head, waiting for a chance to swoop in and take a nibble. Like the ocean, there is no giving up out here; where exactly would you go if you did?

Stealth Camping
Typical "wild camping" site, which is how I camp about 50% of the time. Wish List: A camo-coloured tent fly!

This is the first time in my journey that I have seen other touring cyclists on the road since leaving BC. I have met about 8 in total, all riding along the Trans Canada Highway. Only a few of them are traveling from coast to coast, and even fewer were alone. One thing strikes me about all of us; we're all a little nerdy. There aren't too many 'cool cats' out here getting dirty and greasy. In all my travels, there has always been a wide variety of demographics, but it seems this time - women or men, old or young, clean shaven or yeti-like - we all have a slight aura of nerd about us. Could it be the hours of spent in quiet contemplation, staring at maps, sewing our underwear and degreasing our chains for fun? Or are we simply the type of people content to leave behind a summer of drinking and partying in exchange for the opportunity to visit towns whose claims to fames are giant fibreglass fish and monsterous Muskoka chairs by the highway? I tend to think if you weren't a nerd going in, you'll certainly be one coming out.

"Well, do it while you're young!"
- Some person in some town which shall remain nameless

The old adage that you all know I loath ("Do it while you're young") might be at least a little true in this form of travel. Though strangely, people are saying it less often to me this time around!

While you don't necessarily need to have the knees of a 20 year old, it certainly helps to have the "discomfort tolerance" of one. Along the way, you're bound to get cold and wet. You're bound to go hungry and you're bound to be bitten by a thousand nasty insects. Your sleeping bag is going to be soaked all the way through at some point, and your sandwich is going to end up tasting like chain grease somehow. As I get older, I find my patience for such things is getting shorter, even though after 6 weeks I've come to accept many of these hardships as a rite of passage. The adage should be Do it while you're young at heart. If you can accept that the only thing to eat within 100 kilometres is greasy fries and chocolate milk and that awful smell is in fact you, then age becomes irrelevant.

"Sure hon, you can camp out in the parking lot. Just try not to get run over by the bus."
- Walmart Customer Service, Timmins Ontario

With over 5000 kilometres complete since leaving Victoria in early May, I am now entering Northern Quebec, ready to bike south towards Montreal and reconnect with the Trans Canada Trail. See you on the trail!

Could it be?! Trees!
Celebrate Good Times!
First night in Ontario = bucket of rice and some bubbly
Word of the Day
Atikokan to Thunder Bay
Boggy and Buggy!
Does this mean it's all downhill from here?
Must be some good steak!
Could it be?! Rocks!
Welcome to Lake Superior Country
Long Hill out of Nipigon
Some top notch rocks and trees
The beat goes on and on
Terrace Bay
Beach Party.. for one
Lake Superior
Sunset over Terrace Bay
When will it end?!
Black Bear
Ursus americanus.
See Bear Run! Run Bear Run!
The Big Empty
Not much further now, I think
Camped in the Walmart Parking Lot
Say hello to the #901 bus!
This does not qualify as Stealth Camping
Happy Canada Day!
Bumpy roads caused me to lose the flag shortly thereafter
Onward to Quebec!
The final stretch to the Quebec border.. but no "Bienvenue a Quebec" sign? What's up with that?!