Day 41 – A Farewell to Lake Superior: Agawa to Sault Ste. Marie. Last night I sat out on the beach at the Agawa Bay Campground for an hour or so as the sun went down, reading, thinking, and watching the fish jump. I could see the path cut through the rocks and forest by the Highway far off across the bay to my right, the route I had taken earlier in the day (you can see the faint thin line running across this photo) and which had given me such a lovely view of Agawa Bay:
- Today’s Distance (miles/km): 85 /137
- Time in saddle: 7h
- Max/min temp (°c): 37°/9°
- Climb/descend (feet) : 3278 / 3174
- Calories used: 4441
- Cafe time: 2h
(Today was the last day riding around the shores of Lake Superior, so for the map I’ve unfolded all of last week’s rides)
Anyway, without really being aware of it, I started running through the day’s route backwards in my head. Suddenly my daze disappeared and I had a vivid image of the huge thread of roads which lead right back to a beach on an island in the Pacific at six in the morning. 41 days ago. I felt dizzy, like the moment in films when the camera seems to zoom in and out at the same time. I think I passed the actual halfway point a few days back, but for me it was this moment, like the watershed sign last week.
Another “halfway” sort of thought occurred to me at almost the same time, concerning the problem of grasping the scale of the Canadian landscape, particularly for Europeans (which I still think of myself as, whatever anyone voted). We see the beauty, the grandeur, the sweep of prairie or forest, of lake or mountain, or even the road itself, but we’re also disturbed by it, because essentially there’s no one in it. We’re not experienced at living and travelling in or just looking at this kind of isolation, and feel the need for signs of settlement where there are none, except for the road. This feeling may just come from choosing to make my journey by bicycle, but maybe I’m seeing it because the security and familiarity of my nice car have been removed. I’ve noticed that despite the inconvenience of construction work on the highway, I’m always reassured to know that people are around, greeting you with their stop signs, working on the road, resting, smoking, drinking from canteens, waving you off at the end. When the bare highway returns it can feel like barren miles for a while. Canada, away from its cities, feels to me like a ribbon of road which allows you to realise how utterly unimportant you are to its mighty landscapes.
After leaving the Park proper I found myself riding into the Superior Coastal Highlands, promising more great views but I think I heard my legs say “Right…”
There’s a great book by Robert Penn (who is also a keen woodsman, check out his superb website here) called “It’s All About the Bike”, which was followed up by a tv documentary by the same name, covering the building of a dream bike, travelling all over the world to buy each part direct from the maker and talking about their craft with each of them. It also takes a leisurely and fascinating journey through the history of the bicycle, and one point he makes is that it seems peculiar now that humans took so long to work out that leg muscles are the most efficient way for us to power machines. Why were we so wrapped up in using our hands? Endless designs exist for hand-turned pumps, masonry lifters, weapons of war, you name it, but nothing using leg-power for centuries. The perfection of the bicycle appeared almost fully-formed and has hardly changed since.
At a campground and cabins place where I stopped for coffee and a snack (and to use their wifi), I talked to the owner who told me about the history of his site. It was previously used as a barracks for workers on the highway, mainly Mennonites. He told me about storms out on the lake when the waves broke over the huge rock between the campground and the water (you can see the rock in the old photo below), the lake freezing over once or twice (he said 1996 beat everything), even though Superior is always the last to freeze because of its winds and currents which constantly stir the ice. He said the US side is quite different: “We got the scenery, they got the topsoil”.
The whole journey today was really an extended and affectionate farewell to Lake Superior. To get to Sault Ste. Marie, my next stop, I would be peeling off the lake and heading inland, and will hugely miss having it on my right shoulder, always ready with a fine view, a welcome breeze, or a much-needed cooling swim. It is so vast that it behaves and seems more like a sea than a lake. When I returned to the beach yesterday after swimming, there were large waves breaking on the shingle where previously I’d enjoyed a dead clam. It’s the largest freshwater lake in the world, and 10% of the earth’s surface freshwater is out there. The storms are legendary. One of the largest ships to ever sail this lake, the Edmund Fitzgerald, lies on the bottom with all hands (at it’s deepest, Lake Superior falls to over 400 metres depth). Spending a week in its company has been a privilege.
It seems that no matter where I’m headed there will be a stinker of a hill shortly before arriving. I stopped for lunch, and to phone ahead to book a table for supper in the Soo, at a great service area near Batchawana Bay (great name) – thanks for the photo Kim!
This is the view that presented itself afterwards – I climbed for over 3,000 feet today, and over 1,000 of them were hidden in this one, long hill. Coming the other way way I saw two cyclists. We shouted hellos and they warned me that there was a steep descent coming up. I did the same for them, but when I reached “their” descent I thought “Pah! Call that a hill?”
I spotted this on my way today – Susie’s Uncle Jerry (in TO, see you next week Jerry) and I have had a long-running debate over the many years we’ve known each other about the symphonies of Mahler, and my mission has been to try and persuade him to like them. He’s a huge Sibelius fan and just doesn’t get on with Mahler, as is the case with many orchestral colleagues of mine. The whole point of music is to enjoy what you listen to, and in my experience persuasion is not to the best route to that end. My case is not helped by this:
Once I’d found and checked into my hotel, I picked up messages, showered and changed, and headed out by cab to a restaurant I’d seen on a tv cookery show in Thunder Bay, “Low & Slow” BBQ, right beside the US border. The host was walking through the kitchen, peeking into the slow-cookers, talking to the happy customers and trying every dish, and I thought “If I can get there, I will”! Their speciality is a fantastic mixed BBQ meat platter, featured on the tv profile, with brisket, ribs, pulled pork, spiced sausage and chicken wings, all slow cooked for three hours and meant for two but they offer to pack it up, along with the great beans and homemade coleslaw (the skin-on fries, soused with sweet vinegar and reminding me of home, strangely had all disappeared), to take home if you can’t finish it. I sat outside in the warm evening and to be honest I could have finished it without any trouble after today’s cycling but was saving space for their superb chocolate cheesecake which is slow cooked for three hours in exactly the same way, and served with a spicy maple syrup.
Half an hour of coffee and listening to the live jazz band inside and I was starting to nod off, so I ordered another cab back to my hotel and collapsed. Free day tomorrow, as welcome as you can imagine, but what a week it’s been. Thanks, as ever, to all of you for your comments and support, and for keeping me company along the way. See you again soon! Bx