What puts the thunder in Thunder Bay? Could be the industry, that noisy mess of intimidating machinery on the edge of town. Or, it may be a reference to the roar of Canadian mosquitoes. They snuck inside my tent, waited for me to jump inside, at least 30 mini bloodsuckers. It took 10 minutes of frantic headlamp waving and clapping to squash them. Leave just one alive and wake up the next day looking like a newly converted vampire consort. All around the tent netting, a thirsty crowd buzzed, centimeters from my head whenever I sat up inside my tent. To taunt them, I blew huffs of carbon dioxide at the mesh. “You like that, don’t you?”
The population of Thunder Bay is sizable – more than 100,000. Cities like this, I’m thankful for electronic devices. Zelda (my Garmin) put me on some small roads, a nice tour of lake front vacation houses and I could see little cabins and canoes and cute decks with fantastic views of the islands dotting the lake. There was one confusing point, when the road I was on ended in a private drive. The Garmin map showed the road going through but not in real life. I was about to backtrack when I spied a mossy path heading into the cedar tree forest. I’m not sure if Zelda meant for me to bump over logs in the forest, but that’s what I did and it led back on the pavement.
In Nipogan I pulled into the info center and found out that camping was only $10 at the Marina. Perfect! I rolled through town, noting the hardware store and coffee shop, and when I was nearly at the water, I spotted two loaded touring bikes leaning against trees in someone’s front yard. A skinny, tattooed young man waved at me. “Hello…!”
Turns out, the owners of the house used to run a B&B. They still enjoy taking in travelers. There were already three bike tourists camping out in the front yard. A pair of punk rockers riding west, and a bearded fellow heading east. The cyclist I’d met at a Minnesota gas station had left that morning. Our awesome hosts invited us all out to their camp, one of those delicious lakeside vacation spots with swimming beaches and saunas.
At camp, I ate a lot of fish. Really nice swimming-that-morning fish. Then I went in the sauna and jumped in the lake a few times. And helped out with the excessive cakes and cookies that seemed to be clogging up the picnic table. And played stick with the wet dog. Lake Superior camp life is a big thing out here. I guess you have to get that summer camp time in while the sun is out. Winter lasts a long time around here.
The next morning, I set off east with Patrick, the scruffy bearded guy from Winnipeg. Patrick is on a ride to raise money for a project to build a therapeutic homeless shelter. It’s called Journey Towards Heroes and Homes. His vision is to have tiny houses, greenhouses and food forests. Also he’s on a budget of $11 a day, which I can spend just on coffee and cookies. Patrick is super outgoing and attracts a lot of positive attention. I watched three people get inspired by his mission and hand over money and donuts. Maybe there’s something to this charity riding….
We camped at a park in Rossport, after eating some excellent cake at the Serendipity Cafe.
The highway turned hilly, plenty of big climbs on small shoulders with construction pushing the traffic down one lane occasionally. Around Terrace Bay, we split up as Patrick was wanting to get much farther than me that day. (Also, I was having a slight temper tantrum over not being able to find fuel for my stove. Turns out it has a different name here in Canada.) I made it as far as Neys Provincial Park, where camping was $36 a night! I ended up camping on the edge of a random dirt road, my tent pitched in the weeds at a funky angle, where mosquitoes breed in swarms.
The next day was another dazzling ride along the lake with beautiful views and some good climbs. I stopped early at Marathon, with some hosts that Patrick had hooked me up with. They had a sauna too! Amazing how two days riding and a night of bush camping makes you filthy all over again. I washed all my clothes and hung them up on the line in the backyard. Watching the Olympics on TV and falling into clean sheets that night was a sublime luxury. Clean sheets! No bugs!
The next day was a long ride, for me anyway. Rivers and small lakes around every corner. (No moose yet. I really want to see a moose.) The bike lane wasn’t as large as I’d like in some places. Plenty of motorcycles. It’s funny hearing leather bound Harley riders speaking French. I met another girl riding solo.
Natalie was from Thunder Bay, just finishing her Tour Around Lake Superior. She said she’d seen me back in Minnesota. A really good tip she gave me was some free camping at White River. I’d planned on stopping earlier but decided to push on when I heard that. At White River (BTW, birthplace of Winnie the Pooh. The real Winnie the Pooh, which was a baby black bear that ended up at an English zoo), I pulled into the park at the Info Center and set up my tent on the grass. RVs pulled in too, the free camping isn’t a secret.
I guess it was that afternoon that I started noticing a bump on my rear tire. I ignored it for awhile, hoping it might magically fix itself. At a tiny gas station, when I stopped to drink coffee, I finally took a look and saw the splitting rim that was rubbing my rear brake. I disconnected the brake and rode on.
Having no rear brake made the downhills even more exciting. The next day I got my first flat. As I was pushing to a turn-off to fix it, a highway service truck pulled over and the workers asked if I wanted a ride to Wawa. I sat in the back with Dominic and we talked about podcasts. He liked listening to Comedy Bang Bang so I told him about the time I met Reggie Watts in Seattle. They dropped me off next to a hotel in Wawa. (For some reason, I keep saying Wawa, Washington. Doesn’t that just roll off the tongue?) $100 for the last available room and that’s with a sweet discount. As if that wasn’t nice enough, the guy at the desk also called his friends who sometimes did bike repairs. They offered to sell me a rim. I’d sort of patched my rim together with Tenacious Tape. I didn’t want to pay for a low-end rim and then have to buy a new wheel at the next bike shop so I turned down their offer. That night a big thunderstorm rumbled through and I was very glad to be under a roof.
My patch job held all day the next day, over 80 miles, super awesome ride past Old Woman Bay, Dad Lake, Mom Lake, Baby Lake, countless gorgeous bodies of water. Around Montreal River Harbour, I found a deserted dirt road and pulled into the forest. That was really nice camping on the lake shore, all by myself on a tiny pretty path. I was a bit worried about bears so I hoisted all my food into a tree.
The next morning I rode about 10 miles before I got another flat. I pulled the tire off and saw where the crack had extended and pinched the tire again. I patched it again and rode on, feeling a distinct wobble. I was still 100 kilometers out from Sault Ste Marie and a highly recommended bike shop. I made it another 20 miles before the tire went flat again. As I pulled the bags off, a wild man named Andre on a fat tire bike rode up. He said he was the former owner of Vélorution, the bike shop I was aiming for, and would I like to come at his camp tonight? Oh, okay.
So, another sauna, and a cedar tent platform overlooking a gray pebble beach. Andre and his family took me out to dinner and gave me a ride into town the next morning. My new wheel cost $178. (Yeah, that’s a lot of cake! Anyone who wants to help out, head on over to that PayPal button on the side of my page. Thanks!) Vélorution is full of super happy bikey staff and fun gear with a dirt bike track in front and a little free campground in out back. I found Patrick camped out there, so we spent the day doing laundry and catching up.
After Sault Ste. Marie, I leave the shores of Lake Superior. It took me ten days of riding and hitching to get here from Thunder Bay. My shore ride in Minnesota was longer with that week-long break in lovely Grand Marais. I will miss this fat lake with all its rain clouds and pebbled beaches and ducks and cedar woods and pretty islands. And I still want to see a moose.