November 21, 2015
I’ll be honest, it feels awkward everytime we’re asked where we were last. “Flin Flon.” It just blurts out rather than actually being said. I’m acutely aware that people unfamiliar with Bobby Clarke’s hometown may think I’m having fun at their expense with an inside joke. That’s probably why I find myself tense when saying it – I’m waiting for a punch or some words. But they never come – everyone here know’s Flin Flon. “You’re a long way from home!” is often the response but we know that we’re just starting.
That’s the thing with travelling long distances overland. The more miles you cover the less “long” they seem. After our travels over the past two years, a few thousand kilometers into the remote areas north of the 54th parallel still somehow seem close to home. We know that’ll change and, if I’m to be honest, there’s a beautiful comfort in feeling close to home even when you’re far away.
But we are far from home and nothing is familiar. The town is quiet and feels like a remote town should feel. When we walk into places people look at us like we’re a bit alien but they’re friendly enough. Not too friendly mind you. But definitely not rude. After being at the motel for an extra day we’re starting to get a smile now and then and even a joke or two. It’s a good place to be.
There’s a stillness that comes with being an outsider and I wouldn’t change it for the world. We get to observe, focus on removing judgement, be patient, and of course listen. In time we’re either welcomed in or ignored. Both have happened and we’re at a point where we gladly accept both.
Our extra day in Flin Flon is mostly to catch up on writing and to walk about the town. There’s ample evidence to suggest the town has long since seen it’s heyday but you’d be hasty to think it’s dying. Fly-fishing tours, recreational boating and weddings seem to be filling up the hotels and putting dollars into the hands of local businesses. And for this part of the world that’s good news.
We decide on a route to take us south along the western border of Manitoba. The province is fractured by giant lakes that run north to south making west-east travel difficult. While the road north through eastern Saskatchewan is lined almost constantly with trees that hide the numerous lakes that dot our route, the way south reveals a stunning landscape that’s filled with a rare beauty.
As we weave our way towards Swan River the smell of smoke is getting stronger and the haze from the fires thickens. North of Le Pas we ride some packed gravel roads and feel the bikes move under us. Gravel is feeling more like fun than it ever has. After about 30km we rejoin the main road south, HWY 10, and the skies open up. They’ve been threatening to rain all day and we take it in stride – and after days of heat it’s a welcome friend.
We get the last room available in Swan River. It turns out we’re arriving on the opening day of the Manitoba Games – a provincial Olympics, if you will. They happen every two years – and this year they’re in Swan River. Every nook is filled with coaches strategizing and athletes sporting their team colors. There’s so much excitement in the town it’s palpable. The forecast calls for one more day of rain and we’ll be on our bikes in full rain-gear when both the soccer and baseball teams take to the field. It’s not ideal but from what I can see it doesn’t phase them in the least. In baseball, Team Central wins gold while Team Westman wins soccer.
Meanwhile, we’re a few hours into a continuous rain and we’re very content. The beauty of the north is now submitting to the plains of the south and suddenly our views are vast. Finally we begin eastward again and make it to Portage La Prairie before calling it a day. We’re noticing more signs in French now. It’s getting us excited for heading into Quebec but we still have plenty of days on the road before that happens.
Pulling into the Canad Inn, a man asks if we’d like to park in the hotel. I laugh thinking he’s joking but he’s not! Part of me is thankful and part of me wonders if Portage is really that sketchy. It doesn’t seem dodgy but if the locals think we should park indoors, who are we to argue?
We roll into the warehouse, grab a bite, are evacuated twice for a couple of fire alarms and then fall into a deep sleep. Perfect.
We head south around Winnipeg and I laugh at the fact that I’ve plotted a route to avoid it. When I was 18 or so, I toured in bands and had the second worst experience playing a show ever – at the Junkyard in Winnipeg. And, in retrospect, it really wasn’t so bad that I should *never* visit the city again. But this time it’s a pass. Maybe next time. I’m sure it’s a fine city.
The provincial border brings with it a huge change to the landscape. It’s actually a shock to the system. The roads desire to let inertia tear a straight line through the landscape yields to the great Laurentian Plateau whose age-old rock forces it to bob and weave it’s way east. Pressure in our hips as we ascend, lightness as we fall.
This part of Ontario feels familiar. It reminds us of the interior of BC – filled with empty buildings, small summer towns and a lush landscape. We roll into Crystal Lake Campground just west of Vermillion Bay and set-up camp. The grounds are close to empty with a small beach and it’s a beautiful spot to spend a couple of days to recharge.
We’re met at the campsite registration by it’s owner, Robin. He’s one of those men – a hard man on the outside and a softie on the inside. He’s hard working and undoubtedly tough. His eyes show a life fully lived but he still has room for people. I like him a lot.
I can’t even ask if he has a spot for us to stay – he’s already asking questions about the bikes! “Why are the pipes that color? I think you’re running pretty frickin’ rich. What’s going on with that suspension?” all the while, properly smoking his cigarette. We talk bikes for a bit before he shows us his AMF Harley Davidson golf cart that he’s picked up for hauling wood and garbage. It’s pretty sweet with only three wheels to bring danger back to golf!
A few minutes to the east in Vermillion Bay we grab dinner at Busters BBQ – a joint Nita’s read about which has been winning awards for years. It’s big winner is a blueberry BBQ sauce thats been featured on the Food Network’s “You Gotta Eat Here.” And I have to say, their ribs are *really* good.
We settle in for the night, fire burning and wait for the stars to make an appearance.
The next day we sit in front of the water and do almost nothing. It’s glorious day. That evening is spent chatting with Robin and his wife Liz before heading back to our camp. We cook up some camp food and notice a tick stuck in my leg. What a strange thing it is to see a little insect trying to bury his face in your flesh. Do not like. We jump into action and Nita pulls the little bugger from my leg, head and all. No bullseye on my leg around the bite means I probably don’t have Lymes Disease, which is a relief. Though that doesn’t immediately quell my paranoia :)
We’re up early and pack before the heat sets in again. The past few days have been ideal temperature-wise but today is going to be a scorcher. With the bikes loaded we head out over the grass and down the gravel lane. There’s no sign of Robin, but as we head down the highway an arm waving out of a white pick-up truck is reaching as high as it can go. An excellent wave goodbye from one of the best people we’ve met on the trip.