SASKATOON – Two retired Saskatchewan farmers biked from coast to coast this past summer. Rob and Nancy Howse also did it 37 years ago on their honeymoon.
Both trips started at the water’s edge in Victoria, B.C. and ended at Cape Spear in Newfoundland, which is the most easterly point in the country.
Although the reason why is hazy, both agree it was Rob’s idea for the newlyweds to attempt such an adventure after exchanging vows.
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“Rob got the idea when we were first married and we did this cross-Canada trip as our honeymoon in 1978,” said Nancy.
“We hadn’t seen much of the country. I bought my first 10-speed bike the fall before. We really had no idea what we were getting into but when you’re 20 or early 20s, you can do, with a little bit of determination, whatever you want,” said Rob.
“It helped that I had an uncle who laughed, scoffed at me, and said ‘you’ll never make it.’ That was probably the best encouragement I had.”
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After completing the more than four-month journey in 1978, Rob mailed his uncle a postcard from the east coast.
“And it turned out to be a fantastic journey,” said Rob.
But how romantic was it for the couple to bike across the country? Rob laughed when asked the question and conveyed that the “romance” was witnessing the infinite beauty of Canada with his wife, twice.
“All along the way, the sunshine coast of B.C., stopping and hiking to Berg Lake at Mount Robson, going through The Narrows in Manitoba, seeing the Gaspé Peninsula, Cape Breton Island … it was just all so. I’m sorry. I’m a little bit at loss of words. It was so thrilling, so wonderful and just my jaw drops at the awesomeness of this country,” said Rob.
“Some people think ‘oh that must have been so hard’ but it wasn’t. It was one big holiday really, for people who like doing that kind of stuff which we are,” said Nancy.
The honeymooners slept in a tent for all but two nights on their first journey. One of those was after a rainy day in Banff. Alta. and Rob said, jokingly, they decided to treat themselves.
The newlyweds made their home in Saskatoon and farmed for many years near Porcupine Plain, Sask. Meanwhile, the thrill of the open road burned bright in them.
“Even since 1978, we vowed when we finished [farming] that first trip, that someday we would do it again. But then we started farming, had a family and continued farming even as the family grew up. We could never figure out how to do a cross-Canada bicycle trip and farm at the same time,” said Rob.
“I thought, ‘if we’re going to do this trip, if we’re really going to do it, we have to rent the farm or sell it. I have to take a year off and we’re going to do the trip’ and when we let the word out that we wanted to rent it out. We wound up getting offers to buy it and reluctantly, I have to say, we sold it.”
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To prepare, the now grandparents trained for months and went on bike tours. The challenge, once again, was getting used to biking such long distances with all their camping gear.
“Really, to get in shape for something like that, you just have to start doing it. So we took it a little slow to begin with until we got used to it for a couple weeks or maybe a month, at our age it takes longer,” said Nancy.
“I wasn’t as cocky or sure of myself at age 61 as I was at age 24 … by the time we got to the half-way mark, we were feeling in pretty good shape, we’d learned the ropes of camping, we’d fine-tuned our skills, we’d survived way out into Ontario, I was pretty sure we’d make it,” said Rob.
This past summer’s trip started May 26 and concluded Oct. 5. The couple estimates they travelled approximately 12,120 kilometres.
The routes they took for each journey was not the same. The trek started and ended in the same place, but the travel enthusiasts tried out some new experiences along the way in 2015.
“Mostly, we tried to do a different way than the way we went before,” said Nancy.
“We tried to stay off the main highways as much as possible, because they’re just too busy and noisy and we didn’t enjoy them. Even though, they usually have room for a bicycle on the edge.”
“Cycling around the north shore of Lake Superior, I would say, is the quintessential Canadian experience for cycling and there’s no way we were going to take any different route through that area,” said Rob.
Thirty-five millimetre photos were used to capture their first trip but this time around a digital camera recorded their progress as Nancy, simultaneously, created an online blog on Facebook.
Besides a variety of vivid landscapes, Canada’s environment also had its challenges. Rob remembers being thrown a few curve balls along the way which included a heat wave in B.C., thick smoke from northern Saskatchewan wildfires and even the effects of Hurricane Joaquin as it grazed the Atlantic coast.
“We got hit by a hail storm on the road in Alberta. It snuck up behind us and it left the ditches white and there was no way to get off of the road, it left us frozen and drenched in about two minutes flat. We had helmets on but the hail stung the arms,” said Rob.
While camping in every province they made many friends; however, one encounter particularly stood out for them. It involved waking up around 3 a.m. in Quebec and peeking out the tent to come face to face with a skunk.
“I said [to the skunk], ‘I hung all the food up in a tree, there’s nothing of interest to you here you may as well leave’ but it wouldn’t leave. So it kind of went around behind some of my saddle bags that were stored under the tent,” said Rob.
“I slowly and carefully opened the zipper at the far side of the door and snuck out without trying to scare it. I got a long stick and I kind of reached under in kind of a sweep under the storage area, but I think it left while I was going to get the stick, so we we’re lucky.”
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Rob says they would love to do the cross-country trip again but they would much rather go back to the Maritimes next summer and see it in more detail.
“One of the hardest things on this trip, on the first trip too, was you’re in areas that are so beautiful and there’s hiking trails or there’s things to do, things to see, that you want to stay longer. But you have to average over 100 kilometres a day if you’re going to actually get across the country before the snow flies,” said Rob.
As incentive, the Howse’s left their bikes in Halifax.
“I consider myself very lucky to have had the chance to do it once and now even luckier that we’ve done it twice, it’s a pretty challenging trip, especially full-camping and taking full-gear along the way. I’m not sure it will ever happen again,” said Rob.
“I won’t say never.”
The Howse’s message to other travellers is that you don’t necessarily have to jet across the globe, there’s plenty of adventure just beyond your driveway.
“I’ve never felt more patriotic or privileged to live in Canada in all my life,” said Rob.
“I’ve seen a fair bit of Canada. Of course, there’s still lots I haven’t seen and I saw quite a few areas from this trip that I’ve never seen before but I repeat, it’s just a magnificent country.”