A tour of the Niagara Peninsula: proof to the innocent that bicycle camping is actually fun.
When my friend Greg McConnell and I planned a bicycle-camping trip (my first ever) for Labour Day weekend, 1996, I was full of trepidation. he was full of confidence. "I won't even suggest that you might have trouble riding up the Niagara escarpment with twenty-five kilos of gear," he would announce, "because that would demeaning to you." Well thanks for the vote of confidence, dear, but ... Let me give you a brief outline of my cycling career: age 14: learn to ride (a very late bloomer). Age 21: not having actually ridden a bicycle in, oh, seven years, I borrow my cousin's and promptly get involved in a minor car accident. Age 24: after another four-year gap, I inherit a bicycle. During that summer I rode at least three times (for a total distance of ten kilometres). Age 25: start riding to work every day. The ride only takes about fifteen minutes, but I'm usually short of breath by the end, due to the fact that I spend most of the trip screaming at idiot cabbies. It is at this point in my cycling career that we decided to take a road trip. Notice that I had never been on a bicycle for more than fifteen minutes straight.
While investigating cookware for our trip, I came across the food section of the outdoor equipment catalogue. Let me say I was astounded. Ppesto pizza, quiche, key lime pie, shrimp newburg...
In the month leading up to our trip, I trained by continuing to ride to work. Occasionally we would ride out to the Danforth, a part of Toronto completely accessible by trail, and known for a plethora of Greek restaurants. once there, we would stuff ourselves with souvlaki and drink too many caesars. Our ride home was generally quite slow.
I think that, by now, I have proved that I had little if any experience with either bicycling or camping, let alone the two combined. Fortunately, the watchword for our trip was "memorable" as opposed to "free from tragedy."
Our trip was planned as a four-day jaunt over labour day weekend. The idea was to ride from toronto to Niagara Falls and back, taking in a show at the Shaw Festival along the way. We borrowed a fair amount of equipment; unfortunately we couldn't find front panniers which would attach to our mutant bicycles, so everything had to be carried on the back. This meant we were cramped for space, but at least it prevented us from taking along more crap than necessary. I carried the tent, sleeping bags, air mattresses, stove, fuel can, and candle lanterns. The fact that all of this fit into my back panniers, with the tent bungeed onto the rack, is a testament to the wonders of modern science. Greg carried the clothes, which we kept to a minimum: an extra pair of cycling shorts, socks and t-shirts, a warm pull-over and leggings for each of us, and a set of tourist clothes - a Hawaiian shirt and chinos for greg, two little sundresses for me, my sandals with the three-inch heels dangling merrily from the tent poles. With these disguises, we could pretend to be human if necessary.
There were doubters. A friend of mine looked at my map. She pointed to port credit, noting how much closer it is to downtown toronto than Niagara Falls is. "Look at how close Port Credit is in comparison," she said. "But you'd still have to be crazy to want to ride that far." I insisted that it would be fun, although on the inside my doubts were much greater than hers.
On the day of our departure we arose bright and early at, oh, ten or so, and had a nice big breakfast. By the time we managed to get everything packed and ready it was almost four. So we decided to cheat. We took a commuter Go train to Burlington to give ourselves a head start. Bicycles are allowed on go trains, but not at rush hour, so getting them on took a certain amount of subtlety on our parts, not an easy thing when you've got an extra twenty-five kilos of equipment on each beast. We managed to get on. We were not kicked off, although a couple of people scowled at us and it was announced over the PA, presumably for our benefit, that bicycles are not allowed on trains after four p.m.
Then we started actually riding.
There is a system of trails that runs (almost) non-stop from downtown Toronto to Stoney Creek, just west of Hamilton on the south shore of Lake Ontario. after the trails ran out, we moved to the north service road that runs alongside the Queen Eliabeth Way. It's relatively quiet, and every so often we could leave it and take the shore roads where they existed, often riding through residential subdivisions, where greg, ever the social butterfly, would wave and call out a cheery hello to everyone he saw. Also, there are convenient truck stops, should one feel the need for greasy food, which of course we did. The riding was pretty easy (our little computer told us that we were averaging 25 kmph), except for the fact that, not being used to covering any amount of distance, my hands started going numb, so we stopped relatively often to enjoy the view of the lake. Of course, this meant that we ran out of daylight. Our planned campground that night was at charles daley park, outside of St Catharines. By ten p.m., we were three short kilometres away and we ran out of road.
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