Montreal was our first experience of Canada and it set the bar very high for the rest of the country to live up to but so far it hasn’t disappointed. The one thing that we hadn’t really considered when we changed our route to cross here rather than ride directly to Toronto was that Canada has two official languages, English and French. Montreal is in Quebec province and Quebec is predominantly French speaking. In Montreal we were lucky in that most people were bilingual and would greet you with “Bonjour hi!” so whichever language you responded in they would continue with, which is an amazing skill that we are super jealous of! But since we chose to ride north out of the city, into the more rural parts of the province we noticed that English was used less and less. It was fun (for about a day) to try and remember our basic high school french but then we realised it had been about 15 years and we could barely recall anything/it had been replaced by Spanish. Being completely illiterate is something we’ve not experienced for a while, since Brazil where they spoke Portuguese and our Spanish vastly improved after 19 months in South America. It also turns out that if you speak Spanish in the french speaking world they don’t understand you as well as you might think! Still, we muddled through it with lots of pointing, smiling and Google translate but there was a sense of relief when we crossed back into English speaking Ontario.
So with a few weeks before our flight home we decided to see more of Canada and when there are purpose built cycle paths on old train lines out of the door it seems silly choosing to ride on the road. We wiggled our way out of Montreal city on dedicated cycle paths for 60km before joining the Petit Train de Nord route. The Petit Train would take us 200km north west through ski resorts, rivers and lush forests. The route passed through some cute rural towns such as Mont Tremblant and Mont Laurier before a short road section to the next cycle route, the Veloroute de Draveurs which brought us back south.
We spent 8 days riding between Montreal and Ottawa, riding an average of 70km a day, which was definitely taking it easy, enjoying the scenery, and we spent most of the time sleeping in the tent. We haven’t been camping as much in North America as we did in South America because campsites can be expensive, it’s not always easy to find wildcamping spots and the hospitality network is so good we can usually stay with a host. It was really nice getting back into the camp life routine, waking up as it gets light and going to bed as soon as it gets dark, and we stayed in both official campsites and wildcamped.
One camping experience stands out and if you follow us on social media (@unscriptedride on Facebook and Instagram if you don’t) you will have seen the photo of our tent pitched under a shelter on a lakeside deck. Looks lovely but not a discreet wildcamping spot as it was right next to the trail. Well we hadn’t pitched the tent there at the start of the night, choosing a spot in the woods about 100m off the trail and hidden from passers by. (We needn’t have worried about being hidden as we saw nobody else on the trail that night or next day, but we didn’t know that at the time). Ben was sound asleep and Steph was just drifting off when she heard an animal stamping around outside. It was slow, big and clumsy sounding, so when Steph rolled over on her mat it made the strangest noise and moved a short distance away still making the weird noise. By this point Ben had woken up and we both lay deathly still on our camping mats, not wanting to startle the animal more than we already had. After about five minutes it galloped away, still making it’s strange noise and we gave it another five minutes before picking the tent up with everything inside and relocating to the fenced-in deck. We didn’t know what it was at this point but deduced it was probably a moose and since trying to recreate the sound and describing it to people have confirmed that it was, indeed, a moose. (For anyone interested, the noise was like a cross between a horse exhaling and an elephant trumpet. If you ask nicely and maybe buy us a drink when we get home, we might do our best nighttime startled moose impression for you!)
In 8 days of cycling we had two Warmshowers hosts, one at the beginning and one at the end of the ride. Sylvain and Suyapa hosted us 80km outside of Montreal, shared delicious vegan tacos with us and we tried a glass of the typical Québécois tipple, ‘Coureur de Bois’ which is a Canadian whisky with maple syrup. As over 70% of the world’s maple syrup comes from Canada and then 90% of Canada’s maple syrup comes from Quebec, it’s something they are really proud of, using it in everything and the Canadians even have a national reserve just incase there is a maple syrup shortage! Neither of us particularly like whisky but the maple syrup whisky was delicious.
Alex, Colin and their son, Isaac kindly offered to host us 80km north of Ottawa which was a relief after a week of riding and camping. Having somewhere indoors, a meal with fresh vegetables and salad (not just rice!) and other like minded people to talk to was so greatly appreciated. They were actually off on an 8 day canoe trip the next day, which is short by their standards, but spent the afternoon and evening with us, showing us their lake where we could swim and hanging out. When hearing that we hadn’t anywhere organised to stay the next day, which happened to be a long weekend so most people were away, they got in touch with their friends and asked if anyone was able to host us for a night. Mykal replied saying that he was home and willing to have some guests, so we cycled the short distance through Gatineau Park to Chelsea on some fun cross country skiing/cycling trails to our new friend’s home.
It’s great staying with Warmshowers hosts because they have often used the site themselves so are repaying the hospitality that they’ve received, but Mykal and his family hadn’t done this before and it’s always incredible when people like this open their houses to us. He was actually a student at a school over in BC, staying at his mum’s house with his sister too, but she was equally as happy to have us over as he was. We had a nice evening sharing a meal, swapping travel stories and trying to play table tennis before another great nights sleep in a real bed and an easy ride into Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, the following day.
Despite the last couple of days of our Montreal to Ottawa loop being fairly short riding days we were still very glad to arrive in Ottawa to have a couple of days off. It was a beautiful day as we cycled our last miles in Quebec, into Gatineau, and across the Ottawa river into Ontario province and the capital itself. As we had become accustomed to the ride into the city was predominantly on excellent bike paths, so we took some time to ride around downtown when we arrived.
Brian and Anne had offered to host us for a couple of days while we were in town and their house was just a short ride from the city centre. We were greeted with a cold beer, dinner cooking on the bbq, and the prospect of some rest days which was possibly the best thing ever after 8 days of riding to get there.
Ottawa turned out to be a really interesting city, and it felt more familiar than we expected. The Canadian capital has a whole host of similarities to London in the way that it is the seat of government for the country. Parliament Hill draws big crowds each summer morning when the changing of the guard happens there, a ceremony that is just like the one that happens outside Buckingham Palace. It felt like home away from home.
The main Parliament building is closed for the next 10 years while some restoration works happen, but the 2 chambers of government have been relocated to other buildings in the vicinity. There are free tours you can join to go and see the chambers and learn how government works in Canada… turns out it’s pretty much the same as the UK. We were shown around the Senate (essentially the House of Lords) which is now housed in the old train station building and the House of Commons which is now in the courtyard of west block on Parliament Hill. West block was previously just offices, without any space big enough for a parliamentary chamber, so they put it outside in the courtyard and built a complicated roof structure that ties in to the original building. Both chambers are very reminiscent of home, even down to the colours they use for the decor.
As well as the changing of the guard each morning, Parliament Hill is lit up each night in summer with a light show. We had expected just a fun show with some music, but it actually turned out to be the story of Canada and its history projected onto the face of the main parliament building. Knowing almost nothing about Canadian history we were really impressed and sat enthralled throughout the half hour show that ended with the Canadian national anthem, which plenty of people proudly sang along with.
We had packed a lot into our 2 rest days in Ottawa and we could happily have stayed a few more days, but our return to the UK was imminently approaching and with several hundred miles still to cycle we had to move on. Toronto was our final destination, but on the way we had the chance to experience a typically Canadian summer tradition and spend a couple of nights at a cottage in the Rideau lakes region, or ‘cottage country’. This was all through our friend Henry who we originally met in Bolivia, over a year ago! Being from near Toronto we had arranged to meet up once we arrived in the city, but when he invited us to join him and his family at their annual cottage retreat (which happened to be between Ottawa and Toronto) we jumped at the chance.
Without too much of a detour from our planned route we found ourselves in a secluded area of the Rideau lakes at the cottages that Henry’s family rent each summer. They’ve been having a family gathering there for the last 18 years! We felt super lucky to be invited along and it turned out to be an absolutely perfect rest day. It was great to catch up with Henry after so long, and to meet his family.
Cottage life was pretty awesome. With a pristine lake to swim in, canoe on, or lounge beside and nothing better to do than kick back and relax we made the most of another day off and did just that. There was no internet or phone signal, and a strict no TV rule (though apparently it was turned on in 2012 for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics) which really made it feel like an escape from real life – not that our real life is particularly arduous at the moment!
Again, we could happily have stayed much longer to enjoy some more cottage life but our flights weren’t getting any further away so more progress had to be made. Leaving the lakes region we dropped back down to the flatlands of the Canadian Shield before we reached the shores of Lake Ontario which we would follow all the way to Toronto. Even though the route was flat and mostly paved the persistent headwind made things tougher going than expected. Thankfully a couple of great Warmshowers hosts took us in a long the way. After a night with Rick and KT in their funky bike shop/cyclist refuge, where there also happened to be 2 French and 1 Canadian cyclists, and a night with Linda and Mark in their beautiful lakeside house we arrived in Newcastle where we would catch up with a friend of Steph’s from her time spent in New Zealand. Despite the fact that 7 years had passed since Steph last saw Jacqui, she and her husband Derek welcomed us like old friends.
We spent 2 super relaxing days with Jacqui and Derek resting our legs and organising our upcoming time in Toronto, including scoping out bike shops to get packaging for our bikes ready for the flight home. We did also get to try out some stand-up paddling on Lake Ontario. It was a cool little fitness bootcamp that incorporated some paddling, all while the sun set in the background. It was great fun and a totally beautiful setting, we can definitely see the appeal of living on the lake.
So now there is only a week left until we fly back to the UK! We have a couple of days riding left and some time to visit Toronto, but the trip is definitely nearing its conclusion. Our thoughts on Toronto and the wrap up of this adventure will be in the next blog, which will be coming at you from back home!
Ben & Steph