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Expeditions

Musicycle Tour 2007


by Derek Olive

Heading out of Keremeos BC

I remember sitting in 1997 in a stuffy gym locker room after having worked out, dreaming about cycling across Canada. At the time, I promised myself I would when I finished University; however, by 2006, as too many promises to ourselves are, this promise had become broken. Motivation sometimes arrives from a dark place. I found myself working at a job that had moved me further away from what I had hoped I would be than I ever thought possible. As I sat pondering my existence one fall morning, I became convinced that, before all remnants of my old self disappeared, I must do something extraordinary. If I didn’t, I knew I risked closing the door on a part of me that I was not willing to let go. Thus began the planning for a cross-Canada music/cycling trip.

I am a music composer by training, which essentially means I sit on my butt a lot and write music. In June 2006 I had released my first folk/jazz vocal CD and knew that the following summer would require a tour somewhere in Canada. Having been chair bound writing symphonies or music for the album for most of my young career, I had never had to deal with planning a music tour before. I had, however, cycled through many countries and was committed to demonstrating that music touring and sustainable transportation could be happy bedfellows.

Lethbridge and a COLD rain that will fall on me
While I admit that I have a car, I get around mostly by bike—even in the winter. There are days, however, when the cold weather and snowy roads make it too easy to justify driving. Every time I drive I ask myself, “Could I have done this in more sustainable way?” All too often, the answer is, “Yes,” and I continue to work towards the goal of 100% emissions-free transportation. The music/cycling tour brought me one pedal stroke closer to this goal.

After spending the winter of 2006/2007 planning, by April 2007 I had the Musicycle tour itinerary confirmed. The tour would be completed with a fellow musician (Johnny Eden), last four months, consist of 67 shows, require my carrying 160lbs worth of gear, and roll over 6500 km under human power. By the end of the tour, these numbers would look very different: no fellow musician, lasting less than four months, consisting of 55 shows, and rolling over 8151km under human power. The load never got any lighter…

White River, Ontario.
Home of the ORIGINAL Winnie Bear, with Kristin
The tour started in Powell River, British Columbia, which meant that I had to travel by train from Ottawa to get to my starting destination. The history of the railroad in Canada is interesting, to say the least. British Columbia was actually lured into confederation by Sir John A MacDonald with the promise that the railroad would be a reality ten years after Canada’s creation. After having taken the train across the country I understand why so many people balked at his promise; crossing Ontario alone takes some 30 hours by train, and then you have the long winding prairies and, of course, the mountainous peaks of Alberta and B.C. It is no wonder it took more than 10 years to create this rail system! Traveling through BC’s Fraser Valley had the steel wheels of the train cursing the sharp corners with squeals. Not even my imagination could bring to life the suffering that must have been endured to lay those tracks. Unforgiving cliffs that tumble into a raging river, coupled with accidental stumblings with nitro-glycerin, took many lives (most of them Chinese).

On the first official day of the tour, May 11 th, after having tested my fully loaded bicycle trailer that felt a little less stable than I would have liked, I wrote the first few lines to a new song in an effort to replace the fears of what lay ahead with some encouraging thoughts:

“Let the weight of the situation push you forward
Not be the burden that slows you down
There’s a bright star that warms my face
So may the west wind lead me home”

BC’s Gulf Islands are perfect for being seen by bicycle. The Sunshine Coast, with it’s rolling tunnels of trees and ocean breezes, left me with no regrets about starting the tour. Tucked away on Gabriola Island is a little place called Degnan Bay, and on that bay there is a cute little cabin, filled with the kind of hippie-types you might expect to find in a place like that. This was where I played my first House Concert. House concerts are exactly what they sound like: concerts in peoples’ houses. The setting is intimate; the audience, completely present while laughing and smiling at all the right places in the songs. It was a joy to be introduced to this type of venue.

Not enough time to enjoy Superior’s pleasures
Galiano Island brought one of many surprises on the tour, Tim Harvey. Tim had recently completed an around the world trip under human power. I had read about some of his adventures, and we spent a night sharing stories about our past cycling adventures over beers. Victoria and Vancouver gave the most fitting greeting they could offer: rain. With friends in abundance in both of these cities, however, I had more than enough to keep me warm and happy. I had completed my Masters in Vancouver in 2003 and was delighted to be back in this Lotus Land of ocean and mountains.

After Vancouver and the beauty of the coastline, the tour turned eastwards, following the spine of the last ice age, the mountain ranges of interior B.C. As the rivers of asphalt followed the glacial-fed ones, the trick for me was not losing too much time stopping. Not because I needed a rest, but because the view demanded my attention and time to enjoy it. Following one of the highlight concerts of the tour at the Artist’s House B’n’B in Sicamous, I rolled eastward, passing the site of the Last Spike of the Transcontinental Rail Line that united Canada from coast to coast on November 7 th, 1885—four years after Sir John A’s promised end date.

The climb between Revelstoke and Golden, B.C., which rises 887 m in a mere 68.6 km., made me think of a saying I came up with on another of my cycling trips: everything that goes up must continue to go up…and up…and up—until you start seeing snow patches! The winding road through Glacier National Park took me to the top of Rogers Pass. Named after Major Albert Bowman Rogers, the CPR surveyor who found it in 1881, Rogers Pass still had snow, and the view at dusk when I arrived was glorious.

Whenever people talk about the Rocky Mountains, two places usually come up in conversation: Jasper and Banff. I have spent time hiking in both National Parks, and they are both nice. OK, they are more than nice—they are amazing. However, their beauty often eclipses other wonders found in the Rockies—for example, Field, B.C. Field is situated inside Yoho National Park. It is smaller than Banff and Jasper, so if you have in the “bigger is better” mentality, skip Field. However, for the rest of us, Field offers an unparalleled Rocky experience. Unlike the town sites of Jasper and Banff, it is not crawling with tourists because there simply isn’t room for many. And by some strange coincidence, Field boasts a large Quebecois population! My dream had come true—the Rockies and Quebec all rolled into one! Now if I could just import some good cheese and Montreal smoked meat…

A fun place to stay in South River, Ontario
Riding through the mountains of BC was daunting for me for one and only one reason: I knew eventually they would end and I would be left with the scar of their journey—the prairies. When you climb mountains on a bicycle, you know that eventually the incline ends at some glorious summit. The wind, however, knows no end. The sun-bleached road signs of the prairies are nothing more than sparks for your imagination to start you wondering; wondering what they can be telling you that you can’t all ready see in the distance. Saskatchewan is called the land of living skies; this makes sense when the weather, as it did when I cycled through, changes quickly from rain, to hail, to funnel clouds, to tornadoes, all in the course of one afternoon of cycling. When I saw the first funnel cloud, I did what any normal person would do—I took pictures. There was not much else I could have done anyhow; on the flat prairies, there is nowhere to hide.

Regina, I learned, was named “Pile of Bones” by Aboriginals in the area because of the large quantity of buffalo bones on the site—remainders of the days when First Nations and Métis people used to bring the bones to Regina to sell for 0.05¢ per ton to Europeans who made glue and fertilizer out of them. Apparently, mass slaughter didn’t pay much... The day out of Regina was punishing, the wind had no mercy and violently shook my bike, pushing me in every direction but the one I wanted to be going in. Normally I can averaged 20km/hour, but on that day, I was happy to do 12 km/hour. I went to bed tired, soar, having done 136km in 8.5 hours, and hopeful that the wind would change directions.

The next morning, the first thing to wake was my ears, valiantly trying to deduce which direction the wind was coming from. Once they awakened my brain, I popped my head out of the tent and, looking up at the tree tops, discovered, to my delight, that the wind had shifted. Fortunately, that day I would be a sailor not a cyclist! Leaving my campsite near Brandon, Manitoba, I descended into a small little valley, understanding, of course, that my senses were heightened by any rise or fall in the landscape, so I use the term “valley” loosely. I remember the moment of seeing that valley clearly, because it was then that I decided that I would continue on. I had all ready broken 200km that day and decided that I would see if I could break 300km that day. The long descent of a prairie sun lured me along; however, as long as a prairie sunset is, darkness eventually prevails. It was all most completely dark when I saw a dear leap across the road in front of me, and oddly as it may sound, I took this as a sign to continue on. When I finally pulled into a stranger’s driveway at 10:30pm, I had been riding for 11.5 hours and my speedometer read 301km! The kind folks whose door I knocked on offered me a hot chocolate without even missing a beat. I gratefully accepted, and, after good conversation over much needed hot chocolate, I set up camp and slept like the dead that night.

Derek Olive, Parliament Buildings, Ottawa.
Photo: John W. MacDonald
As suddenly as the prairies began, they ended. A few trees appeared sporadically somewhere around the eastern edge of Manitoba and suddenly there was a wall of them—and that wall didn’t end for days. With the trees quickly came the official welcoming committee of northern Ontario—the swarming bugs of summer. After feeding the bugs for a few days, I arrived in Thunder Bay, which was my first introduction to what would be some of the most beautiful stretch of country I cycled across. Lake Superior is a truly magnificent wonder—a lake which is actually an inland ocean and one that should be on every Canadian’s list of places to see. Parts of Superior are almost tropical in nature, with beaches and crystal clear water that leave you guessing how far down the bottom really is. Thunder Bay also brought with it some long awaited company; my partner Kristin would join me for the next 2 weeks of cycling. Following Hwy. 17 from Thunder Bay to Wawa, I played a house concert on the shores of Superior that I will never forget. In the gathering room of my gracious hosts at Naturally Superior Adventures, the setting sun provided the perfect visual as I played one of my instrumental guitar pieces.

Toronto saw the joining of two very Canadian projects: my cross-Canada Musicycle tour and Jowi Taylor’s Six String Nation Guitar. The guitar was built from some 64 pieces of Canadiana, such as Pierre Trudeau's canoe paddles, Paul Henderson's hockey stick, the Golden Spruce, and the St. Boniface museum where Louis Riel went to school. Jowi and I had been trying to link up for over three months, and when he asked me to play the guitar at a house concert in Toronto, I was overjoyed. Hearing Jowi tell his stories of collecting the pieces for the guitar and re-telling the stories people have told him as he has toured the guitar around Canada brought tears to my eyes.

Continuing east, I came to the nation’s capital, and the place where all my planning for this tour had commenced. Ottawa has a bad rap for being a bureaucrat’s town, but after having lived there for a year, I know this reputation is somewhat undeserved. With bike paths that are cleared in the winter, a vibrant music scene, and Gatineau Park just across the bridge, it is a town for artists and athletes, not just the suits.

Nova Scotia: Home for a rest
Riding from Ottawa to Montreal, I was reminded of my first cycling trip I took when I was 21 (over 10 years ago now). I had ridden from Montreal to Algonquin Park, meeting friends for a week long canoe trip through the lakes of Algonquin. Having thousands of kilometers in my legs since then, the ride this time seemed much easier. The memories of this first trip cajoled me on towards my home town, Montreal. When I crossed the bridge onto the island of Montreal and rode into Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue (my home town), I was cheering out loud! I had ridden 6700km to get there, and waiting for me was a long awaited treat—the best poutine in the world. The first thing I did, even before going to visit my father, was fuel up on this healthy treat on the boardwalk in downtown Ste-Anne’s. I played a fun concert in Montreal where I was happily reunited with friends and family I had not seen in over three months.

Quebec City to Halifax was a tough slog, as I was sick, the weather was horrible, and, being eager to finish the tour, I had set myself a tough pace. By the time I arrived in Halifax, my singing voice was reduced to something resembling a Darth Vader impersonation, and I longed to be settled in a place where I did not have to unpack my things for many days to come. I played a small house concert to conclude the tour, packed my bike into a box, climbed back onto the train, and returned to Montreal. Shortly there after, I hopped a plane to my new home in northern Quebec.

Surrounded with snow in Waskaganish, a Cree community on the James Bay, I find myself in a town with no paved roads, where people quickly know who you are. The familiarity of faces and the slower pace of life has been a welcomed respite from the constant motion I was in during the Musicycle tour. In the works is a new album about Canada in which I will put to words my new understanding of how history has shaped me and my country. My interest in history has always hailed from the same place—having touched some part of it, which I felt fortunate to have done lots of this past spring and summer. The Musicycle tour afforded me the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the vastness and beauty of the Canadian landscape. It also provided a new hunger to better understand the relationship between this vastness, our history as a country, and our definition of what it means to be Canadian.

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