Sunday, 30 March 2008

On the signs of Spring

"Spring is here! Spring is here!
Life is skittles and Life is beer!"

From "Poisoning pigeons in the park" by Tom Lehrer

I was walking around the Plateau this afternoon in order to gather information about the possibilities at various bike shops. Bicycles are re-surfacing on the streets in more ways than one. People are starting to use their bikes, and indeed their trikes. I saw a pair of well wrapped toddlers pedaling down the sidewalk on tricycles. While I was waiting to speak with a sales clerk, the customer he was dealing with was saying that she would be on her bike in another few weeks, and there was a bustle about the shop that there hadn't been several weeks earlier. (Mind you, on that day one of the worst snow storms to hit Montréal in my lifetime had been happening.)

Another way bikes are re-surfacing could be seen as less desirable. The Plateau has a very high density of bike owners. At the same time, the buildings in the area have relatively little space to house bikes inside. This results in the habit of leaving bikes outside a lot. In summer, it is almost easier to park a car than to find a good spot to lock one's bike! However, it seems to me that too many people leave their bikes on the street in the winter. As a result of this, they get schmucked (to use a Margo-ism) by sidewalk plows. I saw a surprising number of bikes in various states of mangled still locked to posts. While some of them had been clunkers to begin with, others looked like they had been quite good.

Spring is arriving in Montreal along with worries about snowmelt flood worries. For my part, I am at my usual ponder for this time of year about when to start biking to work. For me, biking and snow don't mix. As there is a considerable quantity of the latter left, it will be a while before I start biking to work. However, how much of a while is important as it could be a little as two weeks and as much as four. This is relevant as I have to decide whether to buy a monthly bus pass for April or whether I should get by with weekly passes. Decisions, decisions.

"And maybe we'll do
In a squirrel or two,
While we're poisoning pigeons in the park.
We'll murder them all amid laughter and merriment.
Except for the few we take home to experiment."

From "Poisoning pigeons in the park" by Tom Lehrer

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

On calibrating the difficulty of routes

I spent Easter Weekend at my parents. During the time, I asked my father for his opinion of the topography of the Défi Métropolitain. I had previously observed that it was likely to be mostly flat using Google Earth, but I was hoping to get his confirmation of my assessment. I hadn't any real doubts about my judgment, but as my father is an almost entirely retired geologist (who spent much of his career in Quebec) he has a greater insight as to the geomorphology of the terrain, particularly when observed via satellite imagery such Google Earth. (He may not have written the book on remote sensing, but he was definitely involved in the editing.)

In any case, his assessment of the terrain was the same as mine: essentially flat. In process, he showed me the utility of the tilt perspective feature of Google Earth. Handy tool for getting an idea about the shape of the land.

While watching Grey's Anatomy this evening, I discovered another tool that has enabled me to calibrate my assessment of the routes I will take. I often read something light while watching a movie. Tonight, it was Vélo Québec's catalogue of organized tours for 2008. Included in the advertising copy are assessments of the difficulties of the tours on a scale from 1 to 5. The tours listed included both routes I have taken and those I plan to take. By comparing the ratings, I have been able to get a better idea of the ease of travel I will face. The short version is that much of the route I will be taking will be easier than Spain. Of course, I pretty much knew that already, however it is nice to have it confirmed. Then again, the cyclists in the catalogue are generally heavily spandex'ed types on racing bikes, rather than laden tourers.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

On yet another plan

The Trail Guide of the New Brunswick Trails Council arrived in the mail yesterday. It proved interesting in a way that I didn't expect. I had been hoping it would contain significant amounts of information about trails along the East Coast of New Brunswick. Alas, it didn't. It did detail a trail I hadn't known about from St-Quentin to Campbellton. This led me to come up with a new route for the trip, Plan 6. Instead of turning inland a little past Rimouski, I would now do so earlier at Rivière-du-Loup. In this way, I would take the Petit Témis interprovincial Linear Park (which is also part of the Trans-Canada Trail and the Route Verte) to Edmunston.

From Edmunston, I would travel by the roads that shadow the Trans-Canada Highway to St-Leonard. From St-Leonard, highway 17 would take me to St-Quentin and the start of the trail to Campbellton. From Campbellton, I would proceed as per Plan 5. The map for those of you who need it.
I did the math regarding the mileage of this route compared and came up with the fact that it would be about 15 km shorter than Plan 5. It would also feature at least 200 more kilometers of bike paths made from former rail beds than Plan 5.

Conversely, it would involve around 60 km on a provincial highway that features comparatively heavy logging traffic. If that wasn't enough, the terrain is said to be somewhat hilly.

I also have concerns about the St-Quentin Campbellton trail. While the guide I have describes it as not allowing motorized vehicles in summer, I have concerns about whether this is enforced given that much of the trail is in the middle of nowhere. As well the guide lists the surface as fine gravel, with some rough spots. It even warns that the trail is rougher in some of the back woods sections.

Finally, I am not sure I want to spend quite so much time on rail bed trails in the middle of nowhere. It could be a recipe for "trees, trees and, oh look, more trees." The Plan 5 route goes through more civilized country, including some very nice sections along the St-Lawrence.

For these reasons, I think that Plan 5 is still my default plan. However, Plan 6 is definitely an active and very viable alternative that I shall continue to investigate.

Monday, 17 March 2008

On the frustrations of waiting

Grrr. Vélo-Québec seems to be running slow on many things. I found today that the new edition of the Guide de la Route Verte will only be coming out in the middle of April. That probably means May. I want it now!

As well, I was poking around the Back Packers Canada website to see if there was anything of interest. Of the three hostels in Newfoundland listed on the site, one is in St-John's (no surprise but useless to me), one is going to open to in Deer Lake (potentially useful) and the last is in Norris Point, my destination and about the only place on this trip that I am pretty much guaranteed a bed for the night at this point!

Sunday, 16 March 2008

On the surprising utility of Vélo-Québec events

Vélo-Québec has finally posted the routes that the Tour de l'Île and the Défi Métropolitain will take this year. However, they have yet to post the Défi d'Acton Vale. Of course, one possible timing of the Newfoundland trip would prevent me from attending the latter event so question may be moot.

The Tour de l'Ïle route looks quite familiar, passing through the Lafarge quarry, of which I have written. It starts near the Olympic Stadium which is about 15 km from here by bike. In many ways this is quite a good thing as the tour is only 50 km this year. The 50 km plus the 15 km there and the 15 km back will make up a very nice 80 km. This is also good as much of the 15 km can be done on the Route Verte and will be the route I will be taking on my first day of the Newfoundland trip. I will thus be able to build up a little more of my mental map of the route.

In line with this idea, the Défi Métropolitain will be starting in Répentigny and heading North-ish away from Montreal before getting to Berthierville or Lanoraie from where it returns to Répentigny along the Saint-Lawrence River. This latter part should include a significant section of the very route I will be taking on the first day of the Newfoundland trip, albeit in reverse. This is very good news as I will not only build up the mental map, but I will also be able to mentally calibrate the information in my Guide de la Route Verte as it applies to rural settings. There will be, of course, the caveat that the Route Verte is made up of all lot of different bike paths and thus is relatively inconsistent. Still, this will be a golden opportunity.

Another golden opportunity will be the chance to test my stamina for long hauls over flat terrain. I took a look at the route using Google Earth this evening. My reading of the land the Défi will cross is that it consists of the flat Champlain seabed. Good for major mileage. My current intent is to do the maximum 144 km.

In other news, I went to MEC today to buy the products to keep my waterproof breathables in tip-top condition. This was partly inspired by the memory of the last day of the San Juan Islands trip.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

On the reason for which the biking season in Montreal won't begin anytime soon

I just spent about 5 hours shoveling snow off my roof along with two of my fellow condo owners. There was roughly a solid foot of snow up there, or, rather a foot of solid snow. This is my lawn afterwards.
That pile is roughly 7 feet high. Note the no-parking sign post that I usually lock my bike to. I think I have earned my Alexander Keith's Bad Scottish Accent (or BSA) India Pale Ale (IPA).

Monday, 10 March 2008

On maps, anticipation and experience

I have a Michelin map of Spain on the wall beside my kitchen table. I put it there in order to familiarize myself with the geography of the country before last year's trip to Compostela, as much of my knowledge of the geography of the Iberian peninsula came from a combination of Asterix and Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels as high school geography in Quebec does not really cover Europe. I had just had the embarrassing experience of only finding out that the Columbia River did not empty in Puget Sound as I had thought, just before leaving with Chris and Margo for the Washington State trip in 2006. Very embarrassing for a former Génies en Herbe team member and someone who had crossed the Columbia river (admittedly more than 20 years earlier).

Getting back to the map of Spain, I had traced the approximate route we were going to take with a highlighter pen. I had looked at the names on the map and wondered what they would bring and what they would look like on the ground. I look at the map now and marvel at how very different it seems after having visited the places on it.

I don't need to hang a map of Eastern Canada on my wall as I am fairly familiar with the geography of Canada (my high school geography did cover it, albeit grudgingly). I have also visited a certain amount of it, especially Quebec City.

However, not by bike. Seeing the land from a car is a very different experience than by bike. I look at the maps of routes I will follow, and wonder: "What will it be like?" While the shape of much of the land is known to me, much more will be revealed to me. I know that the maps lie. All maps lie: it is necessary for them to do so in order to effectively convey information. (That was something I learnt in high school geography (thank you, Louis-Paul Perras)). So I try to build on their limited information and piece together a mental picture of what will be. Yet I know that it will be imperfect. That is the nature of anticipation.

That the mental picture will seem such tawdry thing compared to the real places is "the fragile beauty of experience" to quote an extraordinarily minor Canadian poet and playwright.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

On the luck of the draw

Despite (or possibly because of) the snowstorm yesterday, I went, as my father puts it, on a hunting and gathering expedition for items relating to the trip. I started with a couple of bike stores on the plateau. I was hoping to find better gloves for biking in the rain. Instead I came away with a some Sprintech handlebar mirrors. These you stick into the ends of your handlebars. I saw people with them at Vélo-Québec summer challenges. While I have generally avoided mirrors, these seemed a relatively non-intrusive way to look backwards. Of course, I will have to wait about a month before I can put them to the test: there was approximately 40 cm of snow dumped on the city yesterday alone. I think this is the snowiest winter I can remember since my first Quebec winter back in 1977-1978!

After the bike stores, I hit both Indigo and Chapters downtown. (For some reason, the two biggest anglo bookstores in Montreal are only a few blocks apart.) There I hit a jackpot of sorts. I could only find the P.E.I. Trans Canada Trail Guide, but it was only about $5.00! A steal at the price.

I suspect that new editions of these guides will be coming out shortly. Certainly, comparing the guide with the map from the Confederation Trail website, it appears, there are a few changes. However, the gist of the information should still be correct. Reading the guide, I think that I will not need to bring it with me, and rather rely on the information from the Confederation website, the trail guide handout and notes taken from the TCT guide. The TCT will also be useful as background reading.

Now if I can only make sure we stay well clear of anything Anne of Green Gables related... ;-)

Friday, 7 March 2008

On a new plan

I talked with Margo last night about her possible involvement. While they can't yet commit at this point, she did bring up a very interesting idea, one that must admit, I had completely ignored: going via Prince Edward Island.

Her idea was to take Confederation Bridge to P.E.I. and then the Northumberland ferry to Pictou. I was a bit skeptical about this, until I did a bit of research. This uncovered a number of very interesting facts. The first of which is that the government of P.E.I.'s tourism website is very good, especially for cyclists. The Confederation Trail network looks very promising and very well suited to our needs. Secondly, going via P.E.I would only add about 60 km of cycling (assuming a fairly direct route through P.E.I.) compared to the Nova Scotian route. Thirdly, none of us have ever been to P.E.I.

The more I think about it, the more I think it is a good idea. I will therefore call this plan 5. In addition, I think this is now the default plan. For those of you who want a visual representation, here is plan 5 in all its glory:
Thank you Margo for your good idea.

In other news, my sister will be coming here at the end of April. I plan on giving her my duffle bag to take back to Norris Point with her to pre-position the bag for the trip home.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

On visibility and grumbling about politicians

I had a weird experience the other day. I was asked when I was going to start biking again. That wasn't the weird bit. The weird bit was that the person asking me was a pharmacist who was refilling my prescription. I didn't think I was that memorable. After all the pharmacy in question was in a decent-sized, downtown shopping mall. On the other hand, come September I will have been living and biking in this part of Montreal for ten years.

In a previous post, I mentioned my antipathy towards the Bloc Québécois. My reasons were reinforced by a leaflet from them that I found in my mailbox this evening. It outlined the six priorities of the party. Number one was to bail out the forestry and manufacturing sectors (estimated cost $5.5 billion). Number six was to undertake a true 180 degree turn for the environment (estimated cost $1 billion). Evidently, they though the public's attention span was short enough that no one would notice that goals one and six were largely contradictory.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

On updates

I have just spent an hour or so update and correcting some of my previous posts. In addition, I have some updates on things mentioned earlier.

After writing my leap day post about the the possibility of a train from Montreal to Sherbrooke (among other things), I wrote an e-mail to the Montreal Gazette endorsing the idea while leaving out my reservations about the effectiveness of its BQ support. I was pleased to see that it was published on Monday. I was further amused by the fact my Mother knew about the letter. A neighbour of my parents had been reading a letter about the recent controversy about very lousy bagels being sold as Montreal-style in Hamilton (the neighbour runs a very good grocery store and takes her bagels seriously) and had noticed my letter. She pointed it out to my Mother.

I had supper with the cousin whom Margo and I thought might be interested in joining the expedition from Quebec City onwards on Sunday night. Alas, he doesn't think he is up to our standards.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

On the possible routes and companions

I was speaking with Margo last night about the trip. Among other things, she wanted a better idea of which routes I was thinking of taking. I had been thinking of including a map at some point. Her question led me to finally doing it. Consequently, I will show the possible routes I could take. I couldn't find a nice map off the web which showed the full route in sufficient detail. I did find a map that displayed Quebec City and Newfoundland in suitable detail. As the route from Montreal to Quebec City is the same for all of my possible plans, the following maps ignore that portion. I hope they are sufficiently readable. Also, the portion of the route in red indicates by bike and the green, by ferry. Please bear in mind, that these are only rough depictions of the routes.

Referring back to an earlier post, this would be considered the currently envisaged route, that of plan 1. This route goes via the eastern shore of New Brunswick and the ferry from North Sydney. In Plan 2, I would go by bike to Rimouski and then take the ferry to Blanc Sablon. From near Blanc Sablon, I would take a ferry to the northern extreme of Newfoundland and cycle south to Norris Point.
In what I shall now dub Plan 3, I would go down the western side of New Brunswick, eventually getting to St-John, New Brunswick. From there, I would take a ferry to Digby, Nova Scotia. I would then proceed to North Sydney to catch the ferry to Newfoundland. This plan would involve staying with a pair of uncles on my father's side in Berwick Nova Scotia.
Plan 4 is something of a compromise of Plans 1 and 3. I would enter New Brunswick via Edmundston as in Plan 3 but would cycle to Nova Scotia rather than take the ferry.
So there you have it, a graphic representation of what I would like to do. Of these plans, Plan 1 is the only one under serious consideration at this point in time.

What is under serious consideration at the current time is the presence of Margo and Chris. (Yay!) It turns out that Chris has a physics conference in Quebec City in mid-June. We are currently exploring the possibility of me cycling to Quebec City by myself where I would rendez-vous with them. While this plan may involve some seriously baroque juggling of luggage and bikes, we can work it out. There is also an idea to have a cousin join us for a certain portion of the trip along the Lower Saint-Lawrence.