I remember being 10 years old and having this strong desire to collect glass jars. I wanted to fill them with leaves and memorabilias gathered in nature from all the various places I visited with my family. Small pebbles and coloured sand from Havre Aubert in the Magdalen Islands or a tiny blueish mussel shell recovered from the lagoons of Québec’s North Shore region.

My idea was to collect small souvenirs to create enduring memories that I could share with my younger sister.


Over the years, while I’ve kept this same desire to create indelible memories, I’ve also come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for a moment to remain intact in space and time. The closest I can get to achieving this is by creating documentaries and relating my adventures, taking care to share the details of my encounters with people and incorporating images of the natural environment in which I found myself. I often feel touched or moved when I’m in large green spaces and need to give meaning to my discoveries. I do this by designing audiovisual projects that allow me to connect with my loved ones and share my passion for the outdoors.

Early last summer, I embarked on a journey that transcends this philosophy. I seized the moment and left the city for 30 days to live on the paths and roads that lay in front of me and my bike, a bright turquoise, Tour de France special edition Mercier single-speed from the 1980s. I have no concrete plans or raison d'être other than the desire to get to the end of something, to reach the West and stand in the shadow of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, which are as spectacular as their individual names: Andromeda, Dome, Athabasca.

Caroline Côté's vintage turquoise Mercier single-speed bicycle

 

As an anxious little girl from a big city, I will feel like the majestic peaks are sheltering me from the urban and social turmoil that I must leave behind for the time being. Farewell Montréal skyscrapers and hello Three Sisters, a trio of Alberta mountains that I intend to reach in a month’s time.

The departure

I frantically make sure my pannier isn’t too heavy for my bike rack. I barely had time to test my equipment before setting off on the morning of June 11 for an unknown road that I had only partially spotted during a road trip to Western Canada in my youth.

Caroline Côté on her bike, starting her journey to Alberta, fueled by HOLOS

Why leave the comfort of my little Saint-Henri apartment? That question often came up during the trip. Pedalling 130 km a day while carrying your tent, your food, and your sleeping bag causes pain, which can easily make us doubt our abilities and, on multiple occasions, make us want to call it quits and come home. I tell myself I’m doing this to sharpen my senses and try to have a more primitive way of life than the one I have in now. Truth be told I feel disconnected from my origins.I feel that moving away from an ancestral way of life prevents me from truly understanding the environment in which I live today. This trip will have me sleep under the stars, close my eyes in the company of crickets singing their nocturnal song, and wake up on the cool, dew-covered ground. All these experiences will bring me a lot closer to a rudimentary way of life and to feeling autonomous and free.

In my luggage:

  • Inner tubes and patches in case of mishaps
  • 1 waterproof bivouac bag and a sleeping bag
  • 2 waterproof bags
  • 1 book
  • 10 Holos lunches, a jar, and a spoon
  • Energy bars
  • 1 bamboo toothbrush
  • Eco-friendly soap for washing in lakes and rivers
  • 1 camera and a big lens
  • 1 survival lighter
  • 2 water bottles
  • 1 pair of shoes
  • 2 pairs of underwear
  • Smartwool Merino wool clothing (to avoid odours)
  • Arc’teryx Gore-Tex jacket
  • Some shorts and short-sleeved sweaters
  • 1 warm jacket
  • 1 pair of Julbo Rush sunglasses
  • 1 penknife
  • 1 Ledlenser headlamp
  • 1 Coros-Vertix odometer-altimeter watch
  • Cell phone charging battery
  • Sunscreen
  • 1 bug net for my head

I begin my westward journey by crossing the Jacques-Cartier Bridge accompanied by friends and family for the first kilometres despite the stormy weather. At the last minute, two Belgian photographers decided to join me for the whole journey. I feel blessed to share this experience with these two friends. The countdown begins, only 4,000 km to go!

Ontario

A sense of freedom overwhelms me as I leave my home province and find myself at the edge of the enormous landmass that is Ontario. Many people had advised me not to go, telling me that the wind generally blows west to east and that it would be "impossible" for me to complete this journey in the opposite direction. The first day tests my resolve as my two fellow travellers and I are quickly confronted with very strong headwinds. After only a few hours on our bikes, we understand that the project will be relentless. But I also realize that I will adjust to the rhythm of the elements and that I will be guided by my will to keep moving forward and not turn back.

Evenings are times of rest and joy. Happy to have completed an impressive number of kilometres, my trip mates and I head to the grocery store in search of calories. I figure we ingest an average of 4,000 to 5,000 calories each day. Which is a lot of food. We carry some food with us and complete our menus with nuts, pasta, and fresh fruit from small markets in the towns where we stop along the way.

Setting up camp is very quick; the longest part is finding a suitable and flat patch of grass to pitch a tent and you're done. On long days when we’re out of energy, we settle for the first place our eyes fall on. On more energetic days, we look for a site near a pretty river, for example.

Caroline Côté and friends enjoying the shores of Ontario

I try to take rest stops away from the road where we spend 90% of our time. The Trans-Canada Highway is noisy and unattractive for a cycle tourist, but it’s a faster and more direct option than the back roads and trails often recommended by Google Maps, which aren’t well suited to my road bike tires.

The Canadian, the train that crosses the country, heaves a heavy sigh with each arrival in town, be it in Ottawa, Winnipeg, or elsewhere. Despite the noisy disturbance, it reminds me that we’re not the only ones crossing the country. I will come to consider the train as an ally in central Canada’s prairies as it will become one of the few distractions along endless kilometres of field-lined roads that make up more than half of the route.

The daily routine is pretty straightforward on an expedition like this one:

  • 5 a.m.: time to get up despite the desire to linger in your sleeping bag
  • 5:10 to 5:25 a.m.: prepare breakfast
  • 5:25 to 6:10 a.m.: discuss the winds, the weather, and the route with your trip mates while enjoying a good cup of coffee
  • 6:10 to 6:45 a.m.: break camp and prepare to leave
  • 6:45 a.m.: hit the road
  • 6:45 a.m. to noon: ride 60 to 100 km, taking breaks every 10 or 20 km, depending on the severity of the conditions
  • Noon: midday break, usually in a town or at a gas station
  • 1 to 5 p.m.: pedal some more
  • 5 to 6 p.m.: purchase food for dinner, search for a suitable place to camp
  • 6 to 8 p.m.: personal time ( blog, calls, emails)
  • 8 p.m.: bedtime despite the sun still up

Breakfast is my favourite time of day on this kind of trip, as well as on the occasional winter expedition. As my adventure partners lie in the arms of Morpheus and the day is just settling in, I take advantage of this moment and do a daily meditation practice. Meanwhile, water is boiling on the camp stove as I stay warm in my cozy bag. I create space in my head and only allow in positive thoughts to prepare for a day that might be filled with challenges. I try to visualize the ways in which I will approach difficult situations.

Caroline Côté preparing a HOLOS super breakfast

The water takes a few minutes to heat up. I pour it into the small bowls filled with the contents of a Holos lunch bag, adding a few dates, bananas, or apples. When I'm lucky enough to find almond milk, I mix it in the night before so I can leave quickly the following morning and eat during breaks. Hot or cold, it’s a tasty delight. When I know I'll rack up a lot of elevation gain in a short period of time, I take along two servings. That suits me perfectly: I get to have lunch twice in the same day.

The Ontario landscape is a novelty for me and my eyes get to take in some unique scenery. Ottawa charms me with its neatly laid-out bike paths and impressive monuments. Stopping in a city of this size to stock up on food is always a welcome occasion. The breathtaking roads of the Great Lakes are a must see. The effect of arriving by bike and being so close to the water gives me the impression of being in the Caribbean, except on the very cold day when I reached Old Woman Bay and had to wear all my warm clothes. The atmosphere there must be wonderful on blue-bird days, but when I visited, the clouds and fog gace the place an aura of mystery.

What an honor to witness the deployment of all kinds of meteorological phenomena on this new territory I am discovering, amidst a thousand lakes and rivers. Being the biggest province that I would cross on my trip, Ontario was my host for about half of the adventure.

Halfway

Fifteen days in, I reach the halfway point of my journey and will soon be leaving Ontario. There is a large sign on the Trans-Canada Highway, near Thunder Bay, indicating the point from where all rivers flow north to the Arctic Ocean. I see it as a strong symbol telling me that this is not the end of the expedition and that what I am leaving behind is now a thing of the past. I spend this day, a pivotal moment in my odyssey, to reflect on the kind of person I want to be in the future. Am I truly aligned with what I want to become or do I let myself be distracted by the daily hubbub of urban events, which in mean so little to me. How do I convey a clear message to my community when I am unable to listen to myself and truly determine who I want to be? All these questions remain unanswered and I only have partial answers on this day, June 25, at the halfway point.

Caroline Côté contemplating Ontario's splendour

Standing on the Laurentian—or Northern—Divide where the waters separate, more than 1,700 km from home, I recognize that I need to identify my core values, to figure out what drives me. I realize that’s why I care about this particular place at this very moment. Summer solstice has just passed and the days will soon start to get shorter. I will have to make room to accommodate certain responses that will naturally integrate with the person I will become in the coming days, as I cycle along rivers that follow my journey westward.

The Prairies

What an incredible feeling to reach Manitoba, similar to what I experienced when I crossed the Saskatchewan border. I feel like I’m crossing into a new country every time, even though nothing really changes on the highway. Since the gas stations where I’ll get provisions over the last few days of my adventure are more or less far from each other, I plan my route based on where I plan to stop for breaks and to refuel. The small convenience stores along the highway are often the only place where I can eat and quickly become a main attraction. I have to change my eating philosophy and begin “absorbing stuff to keep riding and eating as much as possible.” I unfortunately can't find any fresh produce, organic or not. Chocolate cookies and energy bars, as well as a few goodies, work well to help you regain your rhythm after each break.

Caroline Côté and friends discovering the Canadian Prairies landscape

Gas stations also sometimes provide essential services like showering, filling my water bottles, and even washing my clothes. This type of establishment is often very welcoming to frequent travelers. As I sit at the picnic table near this kind of business to eat my lunch, I often wonder whether the “locals” also dine at the gas stations. Sometimes it's just that over a hundred miles away. I notice that several grocery stores have closed their doors in recent years. Children in villages abandon their birthplace and follow their families to urban centers. There are only a few inhabitants left in these remote towns. Healthy eating must be quite a challenge in this kind of environment where roadside fast food restaurants and gas stations are the only option.

I enjoy stopping in these little oases of diverse products. These pauses become more frequent towards the end of the trip. My body is a little tired. Understandably so since I haven’t allowed it a single day off since leaving Montréal.

The foothills

The vast fields of canola flowers and cattle pastures finally give way to hills that quietly start dotting the scenery. Calgary wakes me out of my lethargy; the big city stands out from the rest of the plains that I’ve been riding through for the last few days. 

Alberta's foothills marks the transition between the Prairies and the Rockies

The Bow River, turquoise and pure carries me for the last magnificent miles to my destination: the town of Banff.It is a privilege for me to be here. I feel quite small next to the cathedrals of pine trees that border the paths leading to this fabulous place. Day 32, I sit on the quiet terrace of a cafe and finally relax by the icy lakes formed by the Wenkchemna glacier, which I will soon visit. Soothed and smiling, I am lulled by a passing breeze that sweeps my hair. I recall all the memories I have collected since I started my westward journey a month ago.

The majestic Canadian Rockies, Caroline Côté's destination

They are precious, yet I want to let them drift into the wind because I feel free and want to own nothing, not even memories. I am now looking ahead. The barista who hands me my flat white notices my bike with the worn panniers and asks where I’m coming from.I tell him that it’s a long story; does he really have time to listen?

Epilogue

In the vicinity of Canmore, 4 days after having arrived out west It happens on the approach trail to the mountain I’m about to climb: the heart rate monitor on my wristwatch warns me that my heart rate has increased over the last mile. Did I have to come this far to feel this? I believe this is what I was looking for all along: becoming aware of my heartbeat, which is like a stream’s flow, constant and determined.

Caroline Côté reflecting on the journey she lived crossing Canada on her bike

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Caroline Côté

Adventure filmmaker and Endurance Athlete in complex environments.

caroline-cote.com