I have been living vicariously through the blogs of others, and dreaming of someday trying one of the Summer Challenges, or Actif Epica, but doubted if I would ever get the chance. Living in SW Ontario, with few gravel roads, made the idea of a ride like this seem impossible. This year, however, I was coming to Winnipeg to visit my daughter, and watch some FIFA women’s soccer, so I had 3 days between games to ride some gravel. I would not be able to train for the summer like I would have liked, and could not pick a time when the weather looked favorable, so just had to rely on some luck. My goals for the trip were: to try some bike-packing, to see and experience a totally different part of our wonderful country, and lastly, if possible, to complete the challenge.

In my part of Ontario you can not go more than about 1/2 km at most between houses or farms, even on the few gravel roads you can find, and villages and stores are all close by. I ended up badgering Ian Hall incessantly about routes and logistics, since it all seemed so foreign. I poured over the maps I could find, and stole a preliminary route that Hal Loewen had on RidewithGPS to get me started.

I did the route “backwards” so that I might go through the more interesting scenery first, in case I didn’t make it all the way. I know that others will do the route in half the time, but I also wanted a chance to camp and soak up some of the scenery.

My start was delayed as a violent thunderstorm rolled through Morden, but I was able to sneak between storms, avoiding most of the rain, and all of the lightning. IMG_0140

I wasn’t sure what kind of roads to expect, so was pleasantly surprised at how good the roads were. I was so excited as I experienced things that I didn’t see in my part of the country: miles of road without a bend, endless horizons, gophers, magpies, mallards and pintails exploding from every little puddle along the side of the road. I rode about 20 km before there was a turn in the road and had to stop to take a picture of it!

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I saw the first of what turned out to be several signs out in the middle of no-where. Not sure what they are about. And then a church in the middle of no-where as well.

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The riding was easy and soon I was into a wind-farm area. I stopped to take a picture and the weight of my bike caught me off guard and I dropped it. Just after this I found that I couldn’t shift off my small front gear – could be a lot of spinning over the next couple of days. After playing around with it over the next 10 km or so something seemed to pop and it worked again. I must be a mechanical marvel! I did realize at this time though, that after cleaning off my drive train before shipping my bike to Winnipeg I hadn’t oiled it again. No wonder everything down below seemed to be so noisy and angry. Fortunately I wasn’t that far from Somerset where I had a coffee and then the kind folks at the NAPA store oiled up my chain for me. It seemed much happier after that.

During my short stop in Somerset the wind totally changed direction and now was coming straight from the north, blowing at the 35 to 40 km/hr speeds predicted. I also was now finding a lot of fresh gravel and some hills. Time to just put my head down and work.

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I was surprised to get to the intersection of 2 highways and find that they were both gravel roads.

IMG_0171I even saw another bend in the road! And a crop circle?

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I had planned on a big meal in Holland before the final push to Spruce Lake, but when I got to the village I found that the Hotel/Restaurant was for sale and closed. In the mini-mart I did get a prepackaged sub that would have to do me until I could make my supper.

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I stopped at a stream to soak my head and shirt to cool off . Heaven!IMG_0194a

My throat was becoming more and more sore from breathing the gravel dust as I struggled against the headwind. A cold beer would go well now.

On reaching Spruce Woods I made my way into the campsite and dumped most of my gear and had a little break, reflecting on the fact that only 5 vehicles had passed me over the course of 140 km -amazing! I headed out to find the Jack Fish cabin, planning on taking an access road that I had seen on the map and skipping most of the trails. After wasting a lot of time and energy I ended up at a dead end and had to back track and make it to the start of the trail system. IMG_0201IMG_0210a

I was expecting some nice hardpack single or double track trails, but found something more like the rough at a golf course with tire tracks in it. I found riding through the 3 to 6 inch grass sucked the energy out of me, and the grass hid branches and gopher holes, so I was longing for a full suspension bike. Many of the hills were damp sand that had been recently chewed up by vehicles, requiring pushing the bike up most inclines.

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The view from the lookout was very nice, and I kept thinking that when the grass dried out somewhat, and if I were less tired, this could be a fun ride.

IMG_0211aExpecting to travel much less distance I had foolishly started out with minimal water, and no food. Long before I got to the end of the trail my water was gone and I was feeling very tired. I finally made it to the cabin, and fortunately still had my Life Straw with me and was able to get a wonderful drink from the little stream by the cabin.

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It was getting dark and I still had 20 km of trail to cover, and I had bonked long ago. I found that even on the good parts of the trail I could only ride about 200 – 300 metres without feeling exhausted. I had to push my bike most of the way, but to make up time I rode every downhill portion, but in the darkness that was overtaking me I couldn’t see the trail well, and many times almost bounced over the handle bars. After a bit of exertion I had to lean on the bike to get my breath, and when I closed my eyes I was seeing strange lights. I just wanted to lie down and sleep, but the mosquitoes kept me going. A few times I lost the trail, but fortunately found it again quickly. Several times I wondered if the black spot along the trail up ahead was a bear or just a shadow. I have never felt so depleted in my life. Ten hours of riding with no calorie intake had caught up with me. About 3 km from the end of the trail I started to see a lot of fire-flies along the trail. Somehow their cheerful glow encouraged me and before too long I was at the end of the trail. Arriving at the trail head at the same time ( 12:30 am) was my support person Scott, very worried about me. He was about to call a ranger to start a search if I didn’t arrive soon. Although he offered to load my bike and take me to the campsite I figured that I could manage the 12 km, since it was only road cycling – just need to keep the peddles turning.

When I arrived at the campsite I was stumbling and shaking –  a great combination of hypoglycemia and hypothermia – the temperature had plummeted  since I had headed out. Two dollars for a 6 minute hot shower felt like the best investment that I had ever made. After getting my tent set up I had a hot meal, picked off some ticks, and at 2 am fell asleep before my head hit my mattress.

Birds singing woke me at 5:45 but I lay in bed till 6 and then slowly loosened up and was on the road at 9.

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Other than a lot of fresh gravel the ride was straight forward, with my previous day’s exhaustion behind me. I enjoyed the stretches along waterfowl conservation areas.

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I ran into trouble entering Ninette. My route was to follow what appeared on the maps to be a good road just north of HWY 23. Just after I turned on to this road it ended in a farmyard. I had a lengthy but enjoyable conversation with the owner who told me that the road ended there, and did not continue on the other side of the farm either. We poured over my map, but he couldn’t come up with a suggestion to get to Ninette other than the highway. Perhaps with a 6 mile detour to the south, but he wasn’t sure if one of the roads on the route existed either. I decided that although it may disqualify me from the challenge that I would have to follow the shoulder of the highway for a couple of miles. Dodging large clumps of broken asphalt while riding through the deep gravel chewed up by large machinery along the shoulder made me wish for another gravel road.

When I stopped for lunch I found that with my throat now even more swollen and sore I couldn’t swallow anything solid, so had to make a slurry of hamburger and milkshake to get it down. Still tasted good though!

When I got to Boissevain I found that I had lost the map for the next part of my trip, but as I turned around from taking a picture of the largest purple martin colony I have ever seen, a lovely woman asked me where I was going. When I said Turtle Mountain, she replied “Are you doing that challenge?” I was so shocked that a random person that I would meet had heard about it. She drew me a map to get me to the park and gave me her phone number in case I ran into trouble. We then went into the Sawmill Tea and Coffee shop across the road, where her son worked. He had ridden the West Main Trail a couple of weeks ago. He let me know that although the trail was closed, it was ride-able, other than some fallen trees to climb over. Without his input I do not know what I would have done. An elderly historian in the store overheard us and pulled up maps on his laptop to help even more. What a wonderful example of small town friendliness! Also a great place to stop for gelato, fresh baked goods, and a drink.IMG_0242IMG_0241a

In the park again I dropped most of my load and headed out to look for the West Main Cabin. This time, however, I made sure I had lots of water and some food.

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I did manage to take a wrong turn and ended up fording a very muddy spot before ending up at a dead end with an oil derrick.

IMG_0248aBack on the trail I found it to be everything Epinette Creek was not – hard packed, fast and flowing. A delight to ride at high speed. Besides a few fallen trees the biggest obstacle to watch for were the 6 turtles I passed, laying their eggs in the sandy gravel of the trail.

IMG_0256aI was worried about being on the wrong trail, or missing the cabin, but a sign pointed to the rough trail to the cabin.

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Back in camp for a very quick shower in the icy water of the “solar shower”, a dehydrated meal and off to bed before 11 tonight.

My last day was just the long push east. Near the park I rode some lovely “Dry Weather Roads” just covered in deer, moose, and coyote tracks.

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Not long after passing Lena I once again found a road that looked great on the map but ended in a farmyard. I was able to go farther on a rough farm road and met up with another north/south road.When I pulled my map out of my jersey I found that the combination of sweat and friction had destroyed the part of the map where I was trying to find a new route.

IMG_0300I managed to make my way through and had lunch in Cartwright, enjoying conversation with some of the locals (You are doing WHAT? WHY?)

Most of the day was spent with my head down cycling. The scenery didn’t change a lot.

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My left clip was now not releasing very well from the pedal, but other than something bothering the edge of my right eye it was smooth riding. I enjoyed the change in scenery near Pembina Valley and the park with the picnic area.

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The climb up out of the Pembina Valley humbled me. It was a lot of walking my bike, interspersed with mopping up sweat and panting heavily. So much for coming from hilly Ontario and conquering flat Manitoba!

As I got into Morden I was greeted by a T intersection where I slowed to a crawl while I tried to figure out which way to go. As I finally stopped I went to put my foot down, and couldn’t unclip. After going down with a crash I had a bruised shoulder, bruised elbow, bruised knee, and worst of all, a badly bruised ego! I rode the last mile to my end point and got my picture. (The bike without the engine is mine.)

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While waiting for some food I became more annoyed by whatever was stuck at the edge of my eye. I finally got my fingernails on it and ripped it off, to find that it was a tick attached to the inside of my upper eyelid. Manitoba trying to send me home with a souvenir.

Things I learned:

Never set out without some food, and enough water!

Do something different about electronics. My Garmin died before the end of the first day, and I only had enough battery on my phone for some pictures and emergency phone if I needed it.  I could have used some GPS help, or at least the ability to know how far I had travelled from my last know location, since so many roads are  not marked. I had thought that I would be able to get quick charges in camp washrooms, and restaurants, but these didn’t work out.

Manitoba is a wonderful province with wonderful friendly people. I can’t wait to come back and do another ride.

Thanks to the organisers for the challenge. Thanks to Scott McCullough for taking time off work and doing a camping trip in the same general area. Even though we didn’t see much of each other on the trip it was reassuring to have someone in the province that I could call if an emergency arose. A special thanks to Ian Hall for his encouragement and patience answering all my questions.