Heading into Calgary was a strange feeling. It felt like the last huge challenge of my trip was behind me, having crossed the Rocky Mountains. I’d hit the highest point on my trip and was leaving the bears and wolves behind for a while. But there was also a very palpable sense of sadness. My favourite moments from the whole trip have been in the mountains of British Columbia and the South Island of New Zealand. They are so unspoilt, wild and just a little bit dangerous. Knowing that I had no views of snow capped peaks or long exhilarating descents remaining, left me feeling just a little empty. Calgary itself was a great stop. I was lucky enough to have accommodation, courtesy of Lucy (who I had cycled with from San Francisco to Washington State), as her dad lives in Calgary during the week for work. On my arrival he cooked me a fantastic dinner before heading west to Victoria for the weekend. I was left with the house to myself for a couple of nights. I ate well, caught up on jobs and prepared for the next stretch; across the flat and seemingly endless Canadian Prairies.
The Prairies are the northern extension of the plains that cover the central part of the USA. To describe them as flat doesn’t quite do it justice. There were a few undulations, but essentially, there were no hills between me and the border between Manitoba and Ontario; 1500 km to the east. The common wisdom is that the prevailing winds on the Prairies blow from west to east in the summer on the Prairies. The winds can be staggering, with nothing to provide shelter. Unfortunately, it would turn out, that prevailing is just a generalisation.
I left Calgary in the late morning with no real idea of where I would be sleeping that night. I had two days to make The 294 km to Medicine Hat for a “Warmshowers” host, but had very little idea of what lay between. The day was fairly uneventful, with strong crosswinds and very little to see except for endless fields of cattle and crops. There were barely even any trees. It was approaching seven and having covered over 120 km, I was ready to stop for the evening. The town of Bassano was 10 km down the road but I didn’t know if there would be anywhere to sleep there. I came across about the only decent thicket of trees I had seen all afternoon. They were lining a road and didn’t seem to be on private land so I decided to make camp there for the night. I tucked my tent away and sorted dinner, before watching my first spectacular sunset of the Prairies, sat on the edge of a farmer’s field eating chocolate. This left me with just over 160 km to make it to Medicine Hat. Early on in the day I heard a strange noise and grinding coming from my left pedal. I paused to inspect it and as I twisted it, the whole body of the pedal came off in my hands. It could have been worse; at least the pedal hadn’t snapped clean off the bike. It could slide back onto the axle that it usually rotates around and I could pedal the bike, but I would have to hold it in place with my foot until I could get a new one. It certainly couldn’t be fixed. It was a very long, hot and windy day and having to keep the pedal on the bike manually meant that my leg began to hurt quite badly. The pedal really wanted to slip sideways and part company with the bike! I was battling cramp on the inside of my leg as I eventually made it into Medicine Hat. Thankfully I had a “Warmshowers” host for the night and Doug was just great. He cooked me a huge meal, put my washing on and gave me a great room and comfy bed to sleep in. He even showed me around the town and gave me a new pedal. What more could I ask for?
After a great breakfast I was out and truly onto the Prairies. They were flat and empty and the wind would decide whether I had a good or bad day. This was a not so great one. The wind was into my face but not too fierce to make cycling a real battle. I crossed the border into Saskatchewan and made it to Maple Creek by early evening where I found a campground and had my only night of paid accommodation until Winnipeg. I was up at half five the next morning. I had 134 km to get to Swift Current where I had another “Warmshowers” host. I had actually met Sheldon and his family on the road on my way into Medicine Hat as they stopped in their car to ask if I was “Luke” and give me some popcorn. The forecast was for strong headwinds and sure enough, by seven in the morning, the wind was blowing a gale right into my face. It resulted in a brutal day. I stopped at the only truck stop on my route for drinks and snacks but other than that, it was a day for putting my head down and pushing forward. I arrived in early evening exhausted. It is amazing how quickly your mood can change though. After a shower and a good meal, I was soon out in the garden playing football with Sheldon’s two sons. A great end to a very tough day.
The wind was if anything, even worse, as I left Swift Current. With a hard forecast, I was happy to give myself three days to cover the 270 km to Regina, including another “Warmshowers” night in Moose Jaw. I have heard of people covering the full distance from Swift Current to Regina in one day with a tail wind but this just wasn’t an option for me. For a stretch of this day, the wind was so bad that earlier in my trip, I would have just been in total despair. Thankfully, I have become much stronger both physically and mentally, so I put on a podcast and just kept going. It felt as though I was tackling an endless hill. Late in the afternoon I reached the tiny town of Chaplin. I asked in the grocery store if there was anywhere to camp and remarkably, they had a municipal campground which the kind lady said would be free to me with a small tent on a bike. There were toilets and power sockets so I was more than happy. One amazing feature of Chaplin, is that there are huge piles of salt all around the village. The nearby lakes are slightly saline and evaporate, leaving salt deposits which are then collected and sold. It was pretty remarkable to be able to walk on these huge salt piles. Next up was 90 km into Moose Jaw where I would be staying with Keri and her family. I got going early and despite yet more wind, was in Moose Jaw by early afternoon. I dropped my stuff a Keri’s and headed off to explore the town. There is a famous hotel in Moose Jaw that has a gigantic rooftop pool. The pool is filled with water directly from a nearby spring and it is hot and full of minerals. It is very similar to the waters found in Bath in the UK. Stepping in was actually just like stepping into a bath. I spent a wonderful afternoon relaxing, enjoying the waters and sleeping in the sun. It was a real treat.
I was left with just under 90 km into Regina and I got up and on the road pretty early to beat the forecast storms. The wind had changed so helped me make Regina before lunch. I would be staying with Gord, another host from “Warmshowers”. He wasn’t home from work so I stopped in at McDonald’s for lunch and access to wifi. The storm hit hard so I ended up there until the early evening when the rain stopped and I could make it to Gord’s house. He was unbelievably generous and cooked a great dinner whilst sharing stories of his cycle through the Yukon and up to the Arctic. The next day was Saturday and I would be meeting up with Andrew, who’s parents I stayed with in New Zealand. It would be seven years since I had last seen him, when his school came on a rugby tour to the UK. He is working on a farm outside Regina for the summer and I would be going to stay with him and his girlfriend Gabby. We met in the centre of Regina and took in a show before heading to a bar for a couple of beers and dinner. It was great to see them and to hang out with people of my own age. I would be spending a second night with Gord before heading out to stay with them in Montmartre on Sunday. It was about 93 km to their place (just outside Regina!) and the going was flat with a tailwind. I covered the distance in a little over three hours.
The town of Montmartre is small, but busy, and even has a replica Eiffel Tower in the centre. I would end up staying three nights but the highlight was undoubtedly our fishing trip on the Sunday evening. The weather was perfect, with a spectacular sunset. We both caught some fish, but my Pike won the day, and we took a couple of the bigger ones home to cook for dinner. The rest of my time there was spent sleeping, catching up on jobs and bike maintenance as well as a little softball. It was awesome to stay with them and I’m very grateful to them for putting me up. I owe the Wilks family quite a few nights of accommodation!
Leaving Montmartre, I comfortably covered more than 160 km thanks to a good tailwind and despite a late start. It was easy going but it is hard to describe the monotony of the scenery. It was just so flat and empty. I’m very thankful for music and podcasts. I reached the town of Maryfield just before the grocery store closed and was delighted to find a Lions Campground complete with a shower. My evening was really made when Maria, a neighbour to the campground, invited me in for coffee and pudding, and an evening with her family. It was awesome to have some company and I really enjoyed chatting to her and the kids. I waited to meet her husband Miles, who had been working a very long day on his farm, before retiring contentedly to bed. On waking, I was greeted by two young boys charging across the campground to invite me in for breakfast. I got scrambled eggs and banana muffins, plus some fresh fruit. This sent me on my way feeling very well fed and I happily set off to cover about 140 km into Manitoba and the town of Brandon. I was meant to be staying with Judy but unfortunately she had been called out of town. Very kindly she had still offered me the use of her yard for camping, so I found myself able to pitch my tent in the centre of town for nothing. I took a shower under the hose and made the most of staying in a town by getting pizza and spending the evening in a cafe. This was especially useful as I didn’t have access to any toilet facilities.
I had about 200 km left to Winnipeg which essentially marked the end of the Prairies. I was fantastically excited to get away from the mind numbing boredom of the landscape. I had found it very mentally and physically draining, constantly battling the wind and with barely anything to occupy my mind. I intended to camp in Portage La Prairie, about 125 km away. There was a “Warmshowers” host a bit further on but I didn’t feel like travelling that far and had left it too late to contact them anyway. As usual, the cycling was uneventful, but at least the wind was helping slightly. I made Portage by about four o’clock and made my way to the address of a campground I had found. It turned out to be a city block. I was very confused. I called the campground and they informed that I was at their postal address so google maps shows them as there. I pointed out that it might be useful to highlight this issue if they know it’s a problem but I don’t think they will take my advice! They were situated 15 km east of town so I got back on my bike and set off. I would see if I could find a nice free spot and if not I would camp there. As I was leaving town, I was overtaken by a couple on road bikes and asked if I had heard of “Warmshowers”. It turns out that they were the hosts in the area and their house was just before the camp. I was invited into their incredible home in the woods and spent a great evening relaxing and drinking beer with Marv, Darlene and their family. What an amazing stroke of luck!
I had a fairly decent lie in followed by a big Saturday morning breakfast of eggs and bacon with plenty of orange juice and coffee. I couldn’t have been happier as I got on the road to Winnipeg. The traffic was very heavy but I made it to the city with no problems and found the hostel, where I would be staying for a couple of nights. I was simply delighted to be done with the Prairies. I was so drained by the monotony. I had covered nearly 1400 km in two weeks and was very ready for a break. There had been barely any features of interest the whole way across. Some of the sunsets were spectacular but that really was about the only highlight. That is, except for the people I had met. I was amazingly grateful for the hosts roughly every other night. Their generosity really kept me going. It was another challenge beaten and another milestone passed. Next up was Northern Ontario; compared to the Prairies this would be easy. Or so I thought!