May 31: Adventures in MontrealMay 31: Adventures in Montreal
[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on May 31, 2005] ]
Hello again. I've covered a lot of ground since I last wrote, so I'm going to leave out a lot of details and focus on telling stories which I hope will interest you.
I last wrote from Whitehall, New York, just south of the Adirondack mountains. Fortunately for me, Lake Champlain forms -- or rather, is formed by -- a pass through the mountains. Here's a brief natural history of the area: http://www.lakechamplaincommittee.org/learn/natural-history-lake-champl… . So when I say I went "over the mountains," what I really mean is that I went between them. Even so, there were several places were I had to climb 500 feet all at once, and once I had to climb fully 1000 feet. I guess you could say that was the "high point" of the trip... unfortunately the weather was such that I couldn't see much of anything!
I should mention that I rode all the way through New York on an official state bike route. New York has at least four of these, possibly five by now, and not only are they signed on the roads and mapped online, but the state will mail paper maps to anyone free of charge. The paper maps don't show campgrounds, so I still had to do some research on my own, but they do show the topography of the route, and that was very helpful... I didn't need to buy or photocopy any other maps of the state. I hope other states follow New York's example; it really makes bike touring much easier.
Anyhow... the weather was just awful all the way to Montreal: cold and rainy and very windy. I made such slow progress that I stopped several times to make sure my bearings weren't rusting, the brakes weren't dragging, the tires weren't low, and so on. In Keeseville, after crossing that 1000-foot pass, I got a motel for the third time in a week (a record I don't care to repeat), but it turned out to be the nicest place I've stayed in a long time... more like a guest suite in someone's home or a bed-and-breakfast than a cheap motel. Motels in New York, unlike anyplace else I've ever been, supply little envelopes as a not-so-subtle suggestion that you should leave a tip for the housekeeper, but this was the only place where I felt that was called for, because the room was just impeccable.
In Plattsburgh on Sunday the 23rd, I was studying my map when a pedestrian approached me and helped me figure out how to get through town. She turned out to be the coordinator of some local outdoorsy group, and she offered to buy me lunch, but I was anxious to get down the road and declined. I kicked myself for that decision for several rainy miles because there was noplace else to stop, let alone eat, but then I found a marvelous natural-foods store where I got a great deal on a fantastic sandwich, and they let me check my e-mail while I waited in vain for the rain to let up. By this time I was well into bilingual territory, so I evesdropped on some French conversations trying to get used to the sound even though I didn't understand a word.
The bike map showed Golden Hill State Park just south of the Canadian border, and I had verified that camping is allowed at that park, so I planned to stay there Sunday night. But when I got to the place, no one had heard of the park... turns out it's several hundred miles away, near Niagara Falls! (I've notified the map people of the error.) Fortunately there was a private campground not too far away. They don't get many tenters... in fact, I was the only transient in the place; everyone else lives in the campground permanently!
As you approach the Quebec border, signs are more and more bilingual, and more and more people speak French as their primary language. When you cross the border, English disappears altogether and doesn't resurface until you reach Montreal. I had been warned of this, since I don't speak any French, but I was pretty sure I knew the way to Montreal and wouldn't need to ask directions. I was wrong. To say that the rural Quebeqois are "provincial" would be cliche but also an understatement... I can sympathize with their not wanting to adopt the language and culture that surround them on all sides, but they ought to at least know that the town of Chambly is a few kilometers due east of Montreal (due north of where I crossed the border) and not, as several of them tried to tell me with dramatic gestures, far to the south! Fortunately, I was back on the plains where the rural roads follow a grid, so I just zigzagged northwest until I hit a highway that I recognized on my Montreal map, and I found my way into town from there.
I stayed three nights in the Alternative Hostel, one of more than a dozen in Montreal. It's a very nice place, beautifully decorated, well maintained, and centrally located. I went out Tuesday night to sample the city's fabled nightlife, but I'm not much of a nightlife person and was unimpressed. I did sample some crepes, though, and they were wonderful. If I could get crepes at one in the morning in Minneapolis, I might go out at night more often!
On Wednesday I went to Mont-Royal Park and the Biosphere. In addition to its rather unfocused exhibits about water, the Biosphere features a very nice exhibit about the life and works of Buckminster Fuller. One amusing irony: Fuller the futurist failed to predict that people would one day want to use radios inside his domes. The steel framework of the Biosphere effectively blocks all FM, TV, and cell-phone reception! [Of course, he intended the Biosphere to be a temporary structure, so futureproofing was never part of its design.]
Thursday I tried to get up and leave for Ottawa, but I had one of my disabling bouts of fatigue... I can't blame it on legumes this time, because I hadn't eaten any, unless the folks at Couche-Tard (an urban convenience store) slipped some into my cheese-and-pesto sandwich. When I tried to carry one of my heavy tubs down the hostel's four flights of metal stairs in my sock feet (not the brightest idea, but I wasn't thinking clearly), I slipped and fell down the stairs on my back with the tub on top of me. I scraped a patch on my back that I knew would rub against the back of my bike seat, so I decided I'd have to stay another day in Montreal. I went back to bed and had all my energy back by noon, so off I went to see more sights.
The Biodome, not to be confused with the Biosphere, is an ecological zoo similar to the rainforest exhibits at many zoos around the world: rather than display one or two species in isolation, they strive to put a whole ecosystem together in one climate-controlled room. The rainforest and polar exhibits couldn't compare to the award-winning ones at the Omaha Zoo, but I was mainly interested in the St. Lawrence Valley exhibits, so I could learn about where I was going. I was most impressed by the diving ducks... totally ordinary looking brown ducks that would suddenly dip under the surface and swim about 25 feet down to the bottom of their tank, ignoring the fish, root around in the gravel for up to a minute, then rocket back to the surface in a stream of bubbles and emerge -- totally dry. Other hostellers were equally impressed: "You went to the Biodome? Did you see the ducks?!!"
When I was in Pittsburgh, I got to talking with Daniel about the Star Wars prequels. Daniel is a big fan of the original movies, but he said the dialogue in the prequels is so bad, it would be a blessing to watch them in a language you couldn't understand. There was a theater right next to the Biodome, so I decided to put it to the test! I watched "Revenge of the Sith" in French and understood about a dozen words, but I didn't let them distract me from the pretty pictures and music. When I told the ticket clerk what I was doing, she said she'd seen the movie in both English and French, and she preferred English, in which she isn't fluent!
I rode from Montreal to Ottawa on a bike route I'd found on the Web... basically just following the Ottawa River as closely as possible. There were hundreds of other cyclists on the road. Unlike in New York, this time whenever I strayed from the route, I hit gravel and hills! Also lots of French speakers, even though by this time I was on the Ontario side of the river. My back healed reasonably well, considering that, in the rain, and pressed against the back of the bike seat, my wet bandage and shirt kept sticking to the scab and peeling it off.
I rode like crazy Sunday morning to get to church in Ottawa, because my friend Leela, who's a student minister, was speaking. I missed the first half of the service but was just in time for the sermon, which was excellent and well worth the extra exertion. I didn't announce myself to the congregation, but somehow word got around, and all sorts of people wanted to talk with me about my trip. One couple invited me to stay at their house, which is two days' ride down the road.
If you look at my master map you'll see that I have a long distance to cover in this final month but no more scheduled stops... Now that I'm on the home stretch and will have plenty of thinking time, I welcome any questions you may have about the trip as a whole. (Some of you have sent such questions already; I've been saving them.) Just reply to this message, and I'll think them over as I ride through Ontario and send my responses when I get to Michigan! Happy trails! --Ben
To Crown PointTo Crown Point
In addition to the mountains, I had to contend with a stiff headwind all day, but I made reasonably good time. Lake Champlain looks to me like an artificial lake, long and narrow with steep shores and little evidence that the water level ever deviates, but apparently it was here when the first European explorers arrived.
I passed through the town of Ticonderoga, which has a living-history fort and a beautiful waterfall and a rich history and a lot of motels attesting to tourist traffic. It also has a paper mill. I sincerely hope the wind doesn't shift overnight!
I was planning to stay at a state campground down the road from Crown Point, but Crown Point has an inexpensive city campground, so I decided to stay there instead. It won't add more than about 2 miles to tomorrow's ride.
To Keeseville, NYTo Keeseville, NY
The mountain pass I had to face today was daunting enough, but I woke to cold, wind, and rain as well. I had a pretty miserable morning. My front wheel started making ominous noises around lunchtime, so after lunch I worked it over ... though if the rain keeps up as forecast, I'll be doing that every day!
It was slow going all day; I finally started ascending after 3:00, and it was after 5 by the time I reached the "summit" -- the high point of the pass. I wish I could say the view was great, but between the forest and the clouds there wasn't much visibility.
Each time the rain stopped, I toyed with the idea of camping tonight, but when I didn't see any sign for the campground I was aiming for, I decided to heck with it and got a motel. It's probably the nicest hotel I've stayed in in the past year, and the price is very reasonable.
To Rouses Point, NYTo Rouses Point, NY
I woke in the night with the realization that I'd forgotten to take an enzyme pill with my dinner of lentil soup... just what I need on a cold, rainy afternoon, I thought: fatigue and despair! But I lucked out and didn't have a reaction.
The day was plenty cold and rainy, though. The rain started as I was leaving Plattsburgh around noon, having run some errands there. I met a woman who's active in an outdoorsy group and invited me to coffee, but I was anxious to get down the road, so I declined. I kicked myself for that for several miles as I failed to find another place to eat lunch and get in out of the rain, but then I found a natural-foods store where I had the best sandwich I've had in ages, and they let me get my e-mail as well.
My map showed Golden Hill State Park just south of the Canadian border, and I had gone to the park's Web site to verify that it allowed camping, so that was my destination for the night. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the park isn't anywhere near there... in fact, it's hundreds of miles away, near Niagara Falls! So I backtracked to a private campground and got a great deal.
To MontrealTo Montreal
The bike map said that after crossing the border into Canada, I could continue north on Quebec highway 223 "and the Chambly Canal towpath into Montreal." I asked the border guard, and he confirmed that if I followed 223, I'd see signs for the towpath in about 25 miles.
After about 5 miles, I saw a sign for a bike path, and then there was a whole lot of nothing: no towns, no gas stations, just farmhouses. I had counted on not asking directions, since I don't know any French, but as soon as I saw someone outdoors I did ask... and the folks I asked said Chambly was quite a ways *south*... in fact, one insisted it was in the States! I couldn't believe it, but it was all I had to go on, since I had no map.
So I struck off on the comfortable Euclidian grid of the Great Plains. I figured if I meandered northwest, I'd eventually hit a major highway that showed up on my Montreal map, and then I'd know where I was!
And so I did, in the town of Napierville: Trans-Canada highway 15, off-limits to bikes. A guy at a gas station who spoke more English than most told me I could follow nearby QC-217 all the way to Montreal, but I was skeptical... I finally found a gas station that sold maps, and I found that QC-217 would drop me in a sort of dead-ends-land south of town, so I had to follow a more complicated route instead...
But long story short, I made it, and it didn't rain on me today, and the hostel is by far the nicest I've ever seen. I rested up in the evening before heading out to see the fabled nightlife.
Montreal - BiosphereMontreal - Biosphere
I'm kind of stunned because I just learned I have to leave tomorrow morning instead of Friday. Fortunately I did most of the things I wanted to do today, but still it's a bummer.
This morning I biked up Mont-Royal for the view. The mountain is taller than all the buildings in the city below, and it took me 20 minutes just to coast back down! It's a popular spot.
From there I biked to the Biosphere, which is not to be confused with Biosphere 2 in Arizona; it has more in common with Spaceship Earth at Epcot. It's the world's largest geodesic dome, built as the American pavilion for the Expo '67. Buckminster Fuller designed it to be disassembled, but Canadian safety specs required it to be welded, so it was left in place. In 1976 its acrylic outer covering caught fire, but the geodesic skeleton remained standing until 1995, when it was reopened as a "museum of water." The exhibits are a little vague, but the tribute to "Bucky" Fuller's life and works is nice, and the main attraction is the sphere itself.
As farsighted a futurist as Bucky was, he didn't foresee that one day people would try to use cell phones inside his geodesic domes... the steel framework effectively blocks the signal!
I was planning to see the Biodôme -- which is more like Biosphere 2 -- tomorrow, but it'll have to wait for another time.
Montreal - BiodômeMontreal - Biodôme
I had a lot of trouble getting out of bed this morning, as if I were reacting to something in yesterday's lunch. When I started carrying my gear downstairs, I slipped and fell down the stairs on my back, scraping it painfully. I decided I was in no condition to travel... e-mailed Leela to say I'd be late, paid for another night, and went back to bed.
By noon I was feeling better and went to the Biodome, which is an ecological zoo similar to the award-winning one in Omaha. Four different ecosystems are presented with the animals and plants all mixed in together, rather than in separate cages. I was particularly impressed by the ducks (native to this area) that could dive 25 feet deep for over a minute!
Back in Pittsburgh, Daniel had remarked that the dialogue in the Star Wars prequels is so bad, watching them dubbed in a language one didn't understand might be an improvement. There was a theater right next to the Biodome, so I figured, what the heck? I saw Revenge of the Sith in French. I understood about a dozen words in the whole thing, but I didn't let them distract me from the pretty scenery and costumes and music and special effects. When I told the ticket clerk what I was doing, she said she had seen the film in both French and English and preferred English -- in which she's not fluent.
To Camping PeanutTo Camping Peanut
I decided to see how far I could go today, to improve my chances of getting to church on time tomorrow morning. The weather was beautiful, and easy to appreciate after days of rain.
I stuck to the bike route I'd printed from the Internet as much as possible, though I missed a turn at one point and went at least 5 km off course. I didn't wind up stopping for lunch, so fatigue set in around 3. I bought an Ottawa map, and when I got within range I decided to take a shortcut to one of the campgrounds. The shortcut turned out to be gravel, and very hilly, so it may have actually slowed me down, but it got me where I was going. I called ahead to Leela and she said not to sweat it, but I'll try my best to get there on time anyway.
To OttawaTo Ottawa
I got up at dusk this morning and braved the morning fog to make it to church on time. I thought I was going to make it when I reached the Ottawa River Parkway trail, but it was longer than it looked on the map, and Leela's church was on the far side of town. I was exactly half an hour late for the start of the service, but just in time for the sermon.
Leela did a terrific job incorporating the story of Krishna into the difficulties the church has been having (without specifically alluding to them) and calling for more emotionality in their worship. I didn't formally announce my presence, but somehow the word got around, and a couple who live two days' ride down the road invited me to stay with them.
Leela and I loaded my trailer into the back of her car, and I met her at her apartment, which is just a few blocks from Parliament. Once I'd decompressed and showered, she took me out for poutine, which is a traditional Quebeqois meal of french fries with gravy and cheese curds -- very satisfying.