The story - A great blue heron, a bear, and a butterfly: - CycleBlaze

The story

A day-by-day journal doesn’t exist as such.  What follows instead is a collection of observations and reflections from five days in the saddle, recorded as jottings along the way.

To offer a reader some chronological structure, particularly for the geographic transitions, the ride encompassed several phases: 

Day One was about 100 kms (some 6½ hours of riding) from my house in the west-central part of Ottawa, heading slightly southwest out of the city along a rail trail.  Then the route heads west, into the Highlands of Lanark County.  My stop for the first night is a campground just west of the hamlet of McDonald’s Corners.  Day Two was a ride of about 79 kms (5 ½ hrs-plus) through hilly country, a net climb of about 350 metres over umpteen rollers.  On Day Three, after an overnight at my friends’ house, I returned to the campground near McDonald’s Corners.  The “downhill” return leg took me just 5 hours.  On Day Four, I left the hill country after an hour or so, easing into agricultural lowland terrain. A gentle 75 kms took me to my campsite at Kilmarnock Lock on the Rideau Canal.  The run-in on Day Five followed the canal/river downstream from Kilmarnock to Merrickville, along the south bank of the river; recrossing it before Manotick, and into Ottawa from the south, some 80 kms in all.

Tweaking bike and gear:  Over the past winter and spring, I’ve done a weight-reduction program for the Raven: lighter front panniers, Altura Vortex, 30 ltrs and just 500 gms; and a carbon-fibre seat post & stem replacing the original alloy.  But, a lightweight Ergon FC3 Comp Gel saddle didn’t match my heavier 9-yr-old Brooks B17 for comfort, so the latter has returned to its customary spot.  My handlebar bag for this trip was a 7-ltr Axiom item, functional but nothing special – I was still awaiting delivery of an 11-litre Revelate Sweetroll, ordered late in 2020.  The net weight loss of the trick CF components was modest, maybe a couple of hundred grams.  The real “added lightness” came from the gear: The Altura panniers weigh nearly 1.5 kg less than the 32-litre Arkel Dolphins they replaced, and the Axiom handlebar bag weighs nearly a kilo less than its Arkel counterpart.

Osi the Raven, pre-departure
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The heat’n’humidty made my first day’s ride the toughest I can recall.  The first 75 kms or so were deceptively easy, pretty much flat along bike paths and a rail trail west out of Ottawa, with most of the morning well-shaded.  No matter: the temps had reached the high 20s before 9 AM and the humidex was already in the high 30s.  I kept myself well hydrated, drinking a litre of water an hour (with electrolyte tabs from ‘Straya, where they know about heat), and held to a steady but unhurried pace. 

For all that, by lunchtime my jersey was soaked with sweat, and a shady tree in front of a well-kept late-19th-century brick church offered a very welcome quiet spot for a nap:

Church and shady tree on Tennyson road
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A rider sees such churches throughout the region, typically brick wherever arable land supports a farming economy, and wooden frame buildings elsewhere, the latter usually painted white.

A mid-afternoon stop at the hamlet of Balderson, home of the justly famous cheese factory, allowed a refill of water and some high-end carbs to see me through the remaining 25 kms to my campground:

Triple lemon-and-lavender at Balderson
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Mark Binghamnothing beats ice cream in the heat!
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6 months ago

Last time through, in 2017 IIRC, that 25 kms was about 90 minutes’ ride up onto the edge of the Canadian Shield, the Lanark Highlands. These are hills, noticeable but not very strenuous, “highlands” only by comparison with the riverine lowlands I was leaving.  That was then, but this is now:  I remembered two hills leading into McDonald’s Corners, and when a couple in a pickup slowed down beside me on the first climb, asking if they were on the road to McDonald’s Corners, I said “Straight ahead, just a couple of kilometers or so.”  Not.  There were four hills, not two, and I was knackered when I reached the top of the last one, just on the edge of the settlement.

Half a bottle of water restored me, and I eased into Paul’s Creek Camp after a full 6½ hours of riding—an hour and a half more than the “standard”—and 6½ litres of water.

The campground brought forth an enjoyable extended conversation with my immediate neighbours—no surprise, really, but not always guaranteed.  This began when a 9-year-old boy rode up on his flash MTB to see who was this old bloke on a bike, and what sorta bike was it, sir, and where are you going?  So, I complimented him on his bike, and explained that mine carried all my camping gear, and didn’t have gears like his—mine were all in that round black box in the back wheel.  (Raised eyebrows and wide eyes.)  I was going, I said, to Denbigh—did he know where that was?  He nodded.  I then said, “I’m not going all the way to Denbigh, just to a small place nearby, to visit friends in Vennachar Junction.”  Sez he, “My grandpa’s from Vennachar!” And, “We’re having marshmallows round the fire after supper.  Can you come?  We’re just there,” he said, pointing to the trailer parked about 50 metres away.  I said I’d be happy to join them.

So it came to pass that I met Josh and Nicky, both in their mid-to-late 30s, and their two boys-with-bikes, aged 4 and 9.  Mum and Dad are both on staff at a Kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school about an hour’s drive southwest.  Both had grown up in small villages nearby, and we talked about teaching school in rural Ontario.  I explained that I’d grown up in farming country a little further west along Highway 7, and had also taught secondary school long ago and far away.  They were taking a weeklong family holiday before school reopened in early September.  And, they spoke about their uncertainty and anxiety about the health of their boys, being unsure of the vaccination status of families in their school district.  Of course, they knew Vennachar and its suburb, Vennachar Junction, because Nicky’s dad came from Vennachar.  She gave me her family name, and knew exactly where my friends lived.  I thanked them for their hospitality, and did so once more a couple of days later, when I shared a coffee with them after my trek into the hill country.

Family cemeteries appear from time to time along the roadside.  These usually date from the 19th century, sometimes from mid-century, sometimes earlier still.  Scottish names are common, such as Donaldson and Campbell, as are Scottish place names.  In many areas of rural Eastern Ontario, the first European settlers were veterans of Britain’s wars with France.  In the years after 1815, they and their families received a small land grant of a hundred acres or so, lured by the promise/rumour of arable land and even minerals.  A series of “colonization roads” runs north from the lakeshore and the St. Lawrence River into the high land of the Canadian Shield.  There were lots of trees, so the land had to be pretty good, surely?  And in exchange for your service, my good man, you will be ready to form a militia to deal with another invasion from the south.

The wealth proved to be, as contemporary bafflegab has it, “aspirational”.  There are pockets of arable land in the hill country, but they are few, shallow, and far between.  My friends’ farmhouse sits on 1300 beautiful acres of forest, marsh, rock, lake and stream, and the remains of fields cleared by immense toil nearly a century and a half ago.  Of the 1300 acres, just 75 are arable.  None of the fields cleared was big enough to justify buying a tractor for cultivation and harvest.

Al Purdy’s great poem, “The Country North of Belleville” (a town to the southwest, near the eastern end of Lake Ontario), says this about that:

Bush land scrub land –             

                    Cashel Township and Wollaston
Elzevir McClure and Dungannon
green lands of Weslemkoon Lake
where a man might have some

              opinion of what beauty
is and none deny him

                                    for miles –
Yet this is the country of defeat
where Sisyphus rolls a big stone
year after year up the ancient hills
picknicking glaciers have left strewn
with centuries’ rubble

                                    backbreaking days
                                    in the sun and rain
when realization seeps slow in the mind
without grandeur or self-deception in
                                              noble struggle
of being a fool –

The beauty is undeniable—and it’s not only in the landscape.  The glaciated land includes broad sweeps of marsh, and the next morning, as I rode north of the hamlet of Snow Road Station, a splendid great blue heron erupted, startled, from the thick boggy reeds just 25 metres to my right.  A few majestic strokes, and he was gone.  He was a big handsome fella, with a wingspan that must have been well over six feet.  (My own is just on 6 feet, and I’m wider through the shoulders than a heron – but his wings were longer than mine for sure, and a sight prettier too.)

The glaciers’ legacy is everywhere, starkly visible in the numerous sand and gravel pits near the road.  The retreating glaciers left a huge array of eskers in their wake, and these now furnish sand and gravel for road construction, concrete, fill, and the like.  The beauty of the Shield brings a lot of cottagers from wealthier parts, too, and their presence sustains a sizeable portion of the regional economy.  The sand-and-gravel industry in turn offers resident families some compensation for the unfulfilled long-ago promise of agricultural and mineral wealth.

Alongside the occasional heron and the more frequent sand and gravel enterprises, a cyclist sees far too many beer cans.  Molson’s Canadian seems to be the industrial lager of choice, with a sprinkling of Bud Light.  No craft beer here, mate -- this is chainsaw and pickup country.  Hence too, the bane of cyclists—of this one, anyway: the ¾-tonne pickup is the default form of motorized transport, it seems, with the ubiquitous and iniquitous Ford 150 the weapon of choice.  Bulky, noisy, driven far too fast, some were obviously working trucks, as their logos, scrapes and dirt would testify.  And the others, often flaunting custom paintwork, flared fenders and twin exhausts?  Well, a man’s gotta have what a man’s gotta have…

On the other hand, not everyone uses a honkin’ big truck:

Not everyone uses a honkin' great truck: float plane at the dock, Mississippi River
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A cyclist feels the glaciation in the form of rollers, wave after bloody wave of them.  The sweaty entry to McDonald’s Corners (see above) is an understated version of what lies ahead.  To my considerable relief, the ride to my friends’ place near Denbigh was higher and a little cooler and drier than the soggy’n’strenuous first day.  That said, my Rohloff’s low first gear (15.3 gear-inches) got a proper workout: I reckon I used it some 15-20 times in the 60 kms between Snow Road Station and Vennachar.  The “uphill” side of the rollers was usually noticeably longer than the “downhill” side.  There was only one long-ish climb, by my estimation some 2 kms up Mallory Hill.  (That Mallory?  No-one could tell me.)  The uphill side of Mallory had a 1st-gear spell of some 500-plus metres, but most of the other rollers required 1st for no more than the final couple of hundred metres or so.

(By comparison, in my 2016 tour in the Rockies and Cascadia, I used my 1st gear just 4 times in 2300 kms, on three mountain passes in Alberta and one in Washington State.  I used my low gear to cover the final kilometre of the three high passes in Alberta; on the one in Washington, for only 200 metres or so. The climbs in the western mountains were often 25 – 30 kms in length, but at generally easier gradients.)

Wildflowers along the roadside verges accompany a rider to the top of the climbs, their colours restrained rather than dramatic:

Roadside wildflowers near the end of a climb
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On another hilltop, cultivated glads from a nearby valley field offer a bright splash of colour:

Glads upon a hilltop
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More sombre details in the photo show the ever-present granite poking through thin and sandy soil, with a modest frame house and weathered split-rail cedar fence in the background.

Nearing my friends’ place near Denbigh, I passed several patches of tarmac wet from recent showers.  Just my luck that it never rained on me.  Noticeable—even remarkable--at the higher elevations was the lush tree cover.  As I cycled along the dirt road to their farmhouse, the rich green canopy of maples, ironwood and beech covered the road entirely with deep shade.  In the Ottawa Valley, by comparison, after a very dry spring, any trees that haven’t been watered are showing signs of stress—shrivelled foliage, often starting to turn well before the end of August.  My friends told me that during July and August, they’d had standard-issue African highveldt summer rains: the clouds would build up over the course of the day, and on most afternoons about 4 PM, they’d get a downpour lasting half an hour or more.  Sure enough, at 4:30, half an hour after my arrival, we had an hour’s drenching rain.  This cooled everything off, but it also spiked our plans for a celebratory swim in the lake not far from the house.

After a long and comforting evening conversation, a restorative night’s sleep in delightfully cool temperatures, and a relaxed morning, I retraced my previous day’s ride up into the hills.  The temperatures had eased, and I was fresh, but the real accelerator was the “downhill” rollers:  now, I whizzed down yesterday’s steep climbs, and covered many of my day’s short climbs in the Rohloff’s high register.

And then there was a bear.  In mid-afternoon, coasting down a gentle grade in 14th, I crossed the route of the old Kingston and Pembroke railway, a.k.a. the “K and P” (and to its long-suffering customers, the “Kick and Push”), now an occasional rail trail.  Its causeway, veering away from the road to my right, enclosed another sweep of marshy terrain.  About 150 metres ahead of me, a huge black dog—spooked by my Rohloff’s freewheel? by the oncoming SUV?—charged up and out of the marsh, towards me and across the road at a steep angle, then up an embankment and into the bush.  The “dog” was a young black bear—big, but a yearling at most—running faster than any bear I’d ever seen. (Full disclosure:  None of the ten-or-a-dozen bears I've seen in the wild was running.  All of them were ambling, eating, or standing and sniffing.)  The poor creature looked terrified.  Tongue hanging out and ribs heaving, it missed by a whisker a collision with the SUV that would surely have severely injured it, or worse.  The driver jammed on the brakes and slowed just enough. ‘Twas a close-run thing indeed.

The transition from the hill country to the arable lands near the Rideau River is marked and rapid. An hour’s ride eastwards from my campsite takes me to the edge of the Lanark Highlands, and from there, it’s no more than 10 kms to arable farmland.  A roadside sign tells motorists that this is an “Active Farming Area” and a tractor icon advises caution.  Shortly, fields of maize begin to appear; most crops seem healthy, despite the reduced rainfall in much of the Valley.  A few kms further, and I cross Hwy 7, west of the small town of Perth.  The #7 snakes westward from here along the edge of the Shield, the traditional marker between “agriculture is possible” terrain south of the highway, and the land of forest, rock, marsh and lake to the north.

My route takes me around the western edge of Perth, and then along its southern side, to lunch at the exemplary Picnic Café, just off County Road #10.  From there, County Road #1 leads south and then east from Perth to and across the Rideau River, with its associated locks and bridges of the Rideau Canal system.

And then, the butterfly:  After crossing the river, the cycle route turns eastwards onto some 35 kms of quiet back roads, which will lead me to the Kilmarnock Lock, and my camp for the night.  I turned off CR #1 and found myself in a lightly wooded area south of the river, with a few old farmhouses, some new upmarket dwellings, and almost no motor traffic.  I was dawdling along, and—lo!—found one of those moments of sheer magic: a big Monarch butterfly appeared from the greenery to my right, swooped in front of me, and then angled, fluttered, and danced beside my left elbow for some 20 or 30 seconds.  Its wingspan was fully the breadth of the back of my hand, and it fair took my breath away.  We see these beautiful insects infrequently now—only occasionally, and never in the clusters I remember from a childhood on the farm more than sixty years ago—so to see one so large and at such close quarters is a rare privilege indeed. 

A few kms later I made a simple navigational error – a loss of concentration? can hardly blame a butterfly for that, you dimwit – and found myself on a busy secondary highway heading into Smiths Falls, a small town on the river/canal, and exactly where I didn’t want to be.  But I reoriented myself readily enough, and the extra 20 minutes or so mattered little in a day of 80 kms across gentle terrain.

Kilmarnock Lock is a pretty, quiet spot, just past the locally-famous Kilmarnock Orchard.

Kilmarnock lock, from downstream
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It has a swing bridge across the canal, so I didn’t have to hoist my laden bike across the usual walkway above the sluice gates.  And, its picnic area includes a stand of widely-spaced mature cedars with a thick bed of grass among them.  There, I pitched my tent.

Campsite among the cedars at Kilmarnock
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Shelter assured, I had a welcome half-hour swim above the lock, and followed that with 50 minutes of yoga to work out the kinks of the day.  I made my usual one-pot meal, and checked in with my sweetie at home, a day’s ride hence.

Navigational brain-cramp aside, after four days of riding, I realized that I’d found myself in the rhythm of touring – just in time to close out my mini-tour the next day.  Ah well – at least I had a restful night’s sleep amidst the cedars.

The run-in to Ottawa the next day took me over roads I know and (in the rural areas) enjoy: along the north bank of the Rideau River to the pretty village of Merrickville, and a bang-up breakfast of eggs Florentine at the Main Street Restaurant; and then, along the quiet River Road on the south bank, before re-crossing to the north side of the Rideau.  Then, towards Ottawa via the hamlet of Kars, I found a shady spot for lunch under a tree beside yet another old brick church.  Reloading my water bottles in Manotick, another village incorporated into metropolitan Ottawa, this time on its south side.  And finally, steeling myself for an hour’s ride on the (thankfully) broad and newly paved shoulder of Prince of Wales Drive, a busy north-south arterial road.

I knew I’d face an antithesis of my butterfly moment, but I wasn’t fully prepared for the utter bloody awfulness of 2 minutes spent at the junction of Prince of Wales and Hunt Club West: watching/hearing/smelling 26 lanes of traffic (12 N-S in two directions, 14 E-W ditto, with dedicated left-turning lanes), all of it—or so it seemed—SUVs, pickups, dump trucks, and semis; and did I mention the wretched F150s?  Climate crisis, you say??  What’s that, and wozzit got to do with me??  Thinks I:  Here we are in The Urban Century, and this is the best that Canada’s capital can do??  I can manage the traffic  (the bike lane helps, it must be said); it’s the waves of existential despair that trouble me.

Happily, the human brain has a remarkable ability to blot out Crud, even Extreme Crud; and the ugly image of all that motor traffic has receded. 

But that great blue heron, the bear, and the butterfly, bless ‘em all, remain vivid in my memory.

-- This is for Richard and Kate, with love and friendship, and my thanks for your wonderful hospitality over the years. --

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Kathleen JonesWhat a nice ride. And I had no idea there was a Mississippi River in Ontario. Good to know.
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1 year ago
John SaxbyThanks, Kathleen, glad you enjoyed it! "Mississippi" just means "Big river", as Johnny Cash acknowledges in his song. (The spelling has been anglicized.) 'Course, "big" varies a lot. This Mississippi is nowhere near as big as the Ottawa by any measure. It's a gentle, peaceful river for the most part.
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1 year ago
Gregory GarceauHi John,

As a guy who lives in a Mississippi River town (U.S. version), I too had no idea there was another one.

I've seen a number of bears in the wild, but never when I've been cycling. I'm jealous.
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1 year ago
John SaxbyThanks, Greg. I reckon "your" Mississippi is rather more famous than ours. But no matter -- come visit sometime, and you can see for yourself. Ours is a tributary of the Ottawa, flowing E and a little N to its confluence, is nowhere near the Gulf of Mexico, and until now rarely gets clobbered by hurricanes.

Bears are shy creatures, to be sure. Oddly enough, I've now seen two black bears while cycling (both in these parts) and one grizzly (in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, in 2016).

The fellow I saw on this mini-tour was running very fast indeed, but--full disclosure--I had never seen a bear running before this one. All the others were ambling, or just standing still.

I have seen a leopard running very fast -- away from me -- but that's another story.
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1 year ago
Mark BinghamThis is a beautifully written journal which clearly shows the love you feel about a wonderful place. Thanks for sharing.
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6 months ago
John SaxbyTo Mark BinghamThank you, Mark, for your kind words. We are privileged to live in this land of water, rock, forest and field. I'm always slightly astonished to find such peaceful spots, as well. One of the delightful things about cycle-touring in otherwise familiar terrain, is that the pace of the bike allows me to see (and feel!) well-known landscapes in a wholly different light.
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6 months ago