September 2006

Dancing on the Northern Borders

  Maine, Vermont, Quebec, Wisconsin, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchawan, North Dakota

Back and forth, back and forth; we’ve been visiting with the US and Canadian customs agents all summer long.  Mostly, they are very nice.  But don’t get confused and think its okay to bring citrus into the United States, or fresh beef or chicken.  No, no, no; it’s out the window they must go!  But Canada is happy to let you bring in anything you want—except alcohol or firearms.

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Our last message was sent from sunny Maine, in June.  We’ve stayed north ever since, mostly in the East.  We had hoped to see the northern New England states at a leisurely pace, and think we’ve  been quite successful.  After all, they really don’t cover a lot of ground, do they!  

We found Maine folks to be nicer than we had expected; they only sound gruff.  Bangor (pronounced Ban-gore) has a funky-funny museum called the Coles Land Transportation Museum, home to examples of every kind of hauling machine known to man.  Many of them dated to before wheels had rubber on them.  At least 30 different kinds of snowplows.  It would be easy to guffaw, but the museum takes itself very seriously, and has lots of interesting exhibits.  Included was a room devoted to the relationship between the people of Bangor and those of Lichtenstein, which was liberated by the air unit stationed in Bangor during World War II.  They still have strong ties.  Somehow, this museum seemed more honest than many we have seen.

Everywhere you go in this country you find things in people’s yards – decorative animals and such.  In Maine it’s bears – bears climbing trees.  Tres cute.

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One of our goals for the summer was bike riding in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  It was great!  We settled into a lovely campground outside Gorham, and rode the Notches to our hearts’ content.  Dixville Notch was a special treat; it’s the northernmost one, going through a lovely gap in the mountains and leading us to a ride down the Connecticut River.  Our time here, however, should be titled “Mostly cloudy, 50% chance of rain, T-storms in the afternoon.” And it did, a lot.  Three days running, we got soaked on our way home, within 6-8 miles of our campground.  But the countryside was green and lovely, with the streams overflowing; they have had a very wet year here.

And in case you were afraid we would miss out, yes oh yes one day we rode to Littleton and had breakfast in our favorite diner.  Didn’t have a cat along to take to the vet however.

Being concerned about all the rain, and thinking it might be nice to settle in a great spot in southern Quebec where it didn’t matter if it rained or not because we would have electricity, we headed across the border into Compton.  This is in the Eastern Cantons, south and east of Montreal.  We love this area, with its rolling hills and small family farms.  We said “bonjour les vaches,” grinned to each other, and settled in; waiting for the perfect sunsets the area is so known for.  And of course it didn’t rain, and we were able to ride around the countryside, enjoying the wheat and corn and all the dairy farms for which the area is famous.  We bought fresh strawberries beside the road, and raspberry pie (real French pie!), and tiny carrots pulled from the field beside the stand.  But we grimaced at the difference in the exchange rate.  When we were in Canada the first time, in 2002, the American dollar was worth $1.55; on this visit, only $1.11; ugh!  Canada is no longer a bargain vacation, particularly with the fuel costs being so high.  

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But no whining!  Just lots of good days, including a trip into Montreal.  Now this was a mixed bag.  We should have waited until we weren’t camped so far away (a couple of hours distant), and we should have prepared better.  Going into a big city is a major project for us; we were pretty well overwhelmed.  But it’s a great city, and we’ll go back again.  Coolest deal?  The huge Montreal Jazz Festival was in full swing, and that’s one big party!  We wandered around for a few hours seeing all the free stuff and people-watching.  

We bopped back across the border, and enjoyed more riding in New Hampshire and Vermont.  We were hanging around for the big BMW rally to be held outside Burlington in late July, so we just HAD to camp and ride in this beautiful countryside for a few weeks.  So sad.  The bright orange day lilies were in bloom everywhere, the streams were fuller than full, the mountains were all striped where the ski resort lifts ran, and the pancake houses were multitudinous (truism: if the syrup is famous, the pancakes will be good).  What’s not to like?  We are still saving Hanover, NH for another visit (the home of Dartmouth College, one of the biggies).  But we did ride on the Governor Mildrim Thomson Scenic Highway (which needs paving, gov).  Can you imagine naming a kid Mildrim?  Poor little tyke.

We have good buddies in No. Hero, VT, in the middle of the Champlain Islands; we stopped for a few days during incredibly beautiful Vermont weather – bright skies, fluffy clouds, incredible sunsets on the water – and even got to enjoy an evening concert at one of the local vineyards.  This small area was very important in our battles with Britain; John Paul Jones became famous on Lake Champlain, and the area is not far north of Fort Ticonderoga, in New York.  

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But the BMW rally was approaching.  So we scurried along.  The rally was being held near Burlington, a very nice college town that is still small enough to feel cozy yet have traffic (sigh).  We had great pizza in nearby Winooski and strolled Burlington’s pedestrian-only historic downtown area.  

You always know when you are in Vermont:  health food co-ops abound, there’s no smoking (anywhere, apparently), everything is recycled, and there are no roadside signs on the highways.  We like to think of Vermont as a parallel universe…..  Of course all this comes with a price tag.  In talking with locals, we learned that there really is no industry in the state; 80% are self-employed, and they have some of the highest taxes in the nation.  Apparently there are two Vermonts, with two different ideas of the perfect future, mainstreamers vs. iconoclasts.  It will be very interesting to visit the state in another dozen years.

Still waiting for the rally, we spent several days in the northeastern part of the state, known as the Northeast Kingdom, and it quickly became our new favorite area.  The “Kingdom” is rural and quiet, dairy farms on the rolling hills, and lots of riding on dirt roads.  This is “old” Vermont; there is no tourism to speak of; the sign for Paddie’s Cantina says it is on the “outskirts” of No. Troy (all 10 buildings), to give you a sense of the area.  We were charmed.

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The big rally arrived just in the nick of time.  We needed to get Rick off the roads.  They are just soooo inviting when out on a sleek motorbike.  He had been stopped twice, ‘though thankfully not ticketed, for speeding, once in New Hampshire and once in Vermont.  It’s a good thing when they run a check on you, it’s only statewide!  So we stayed put for a bit, and enjoyed an amazing bike rally. BMW is a wonderful, professional organization, and they “give good rally.”  Plenty of vendors, 7,000 attendees’ worth of tires to kick, fun seminars on foreign countries where you can go on your bike (or theirs, of course); even the food was a cut above.  And a hot blues entertainer to boot.

Several hundred dollars lighter we finally fled the scene.  With the exception of our week in Quebec, we had been in VT-NH-ME for seven weeks. Time for new pastures.  But we went away with two thoughts:  first, this part of the country probably is the consistently best looking anywhere in the U.S.  We’ve found nowhere prettier (Rick says don’t forget Wisconsin).  And second, and even more important for our future on the road, we found we could be happy staying in a small area and investigating it thoroughly.  In the almost five years since we retired and flew the coop, we’ve always moved quickly and covered a lot of territory, and we know we cannot keep this up forever:  fuel is too expensive, and we’ll run out of “new” places to see.  We want to slow down some, staying longer and getting to know areas better.  And now we know we can.  

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But for now, onward and upward.  Back across the border again, this time entering through Ogdensburg, New York as we headed across Ontario’s thumb and back into Quebec Province.  Should we stop in Ottawa?  Coulda, shoulda… hmm, maybe next time.  We trekked straight north, into Quebec’s mining district, several hundred miles up-map.  These are the Laurentian Mountains, with lots of lakes, skiing, and camping.  And, ah, the French Canadians.  They really are a different breed of cat.  Stubborn and prideful, but individually very pleasant; always pleased when you try to speak their language, eh.  A strike against them:  Refusing to put up road signs in English to accompany their French, which is both maddening and confusing.  A veteran’s highway becomes a highway des anciens combattants (Rick doesn’t care to be called that!).  And their moose warning signs say “Prudence,” which is cute (and our new nickname for them) but not too instructive (but not as bad as “Originaux,” also for moose).  

One charming encounter we had was with the L’Heureux family, papa, mama, and grown daughter.  We had stopped in the campground where they were staying, trying to get some information about costs and services.  The family members welcomed us with open arms, insisting we come and sit down, while they practiced their English on us (and we our French on them).  It had been raining all day and we were obviously a new diversion.  We probably stayed an hour, chatting away and being amazed at this really cool bug swatter they had that was battery-operated and very efficient.  Available at El Tigre Geant.  “Heureux” means happy, and they certainly were; we almost stayed just to enjoy their company longer.  

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Bummer time: the area we were aiming for was pretty boring, even though there were lakes and trees.  And the biggest mosquitoes we’d seen all summer.  So after a few days we moved further west, through Rouyn-Noranda (for real) and across the border back into Ontario Province. We had missed the Black Fly Festival in Englehart, but that was okay by us; we were headed to see some friends in tiny Gowganda where they have a lovely home (and a cool pontoon boat) on a lake, and a bundle of neat friends who welcomed us into their group. Canadian hospitality at its best, including homemade raspberry tarts.  

Several pounds heavier we toddled off, heading back across the border.  By now we had come a fur piece west, and entered the States by way of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.  (Ontario is really huge,  ya know.)  We crossed through the Upper Peninsula, which is becoming less and less rural and isolated as more and more tourists start to enjoy it, and down into Wisconsin.  (Very good, you are remembering that we had just been there, in May; ah, well.)

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We had organized ourselves into a week in Door County that was to include a day trip to the Green Bay area for some service work on the bike (this is where we bought it in 2003).  Door County is very special. This is dairy country again (we really like cows) and there are plenty of quiet country roads to travel, syrup and cheese to buy, and my-o-my, cherry pie.  Beautiful weather interspersed with yet more rain (what a wet summer!), good riding, and we met Brian, the Birdman of Havegard.  We had wanted to buy a better bird feeder, and Brian was our man.  He had big ones, small ones, fancy and plain ones, and even the perfect one for us.  Everyone left satisfied.

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Door County, as we have described elsewhere, is the thumb on the hand that is Wisconsin.  That thumb sticks out in the beautiful blue of Lake Michigan; there are, needless to say, many boats on view.  We happened, one lucky day, on Sturgeon Bay’s annual antique and wooden boat show.  The boats were gorgeous and we had a good time talking with their creators.  We had never seen so much lovely wood and intricate carving all in one place before.

Current hit on the radio:  “She Thinks my Tractor’s Sexy”

We crossed the state of Wisconsin, seeing more corn than in Iowa, all of it ripe now that it was the first of August.  Into Minnesota, we made a quick stop outside Minneapolis then up the hill to Duluth for dinner at the Hacienda del Sol (awesome).  But we were headed back into Canada and not to be deterred.  Up along Lake Superior and across the border (Again?   Do we have to?) and along the north shore to – ta da – Red Rock, home of our favorite folk music festival.  We were returning to the scene of our 2003 visit, where we got to camp on the marina again (great sunsets), listen to Canada’s best, and visit with family and friends, both new and old.  This is also, as the sign proclaims, home of Heather Huston, the1987 world curling champion, and I even chatted with her a couple of times.

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Red Rock is very special to us.  Family enticed us here for our first visit, and we sure weren’t disappointed. The music is great, and is based on the same format the Winnipeg Folk Festival uses, if you have been there, with many stages at the same time in an informal milieu.  It’s in a beautiful location, right on the Lake.  And the town is special, too.  It’s a very small mill town, and everybody gets involved in the festival, from ticket-takers to security to clean-up to attendees.  In 2003 we made some friends here, and were delighted to renew their acquaintance. The Huston family; we met all the generations (see Heather, above), were invited in for meals and to use their computer, allowed to hold children in our laps (and get marvelous hugs), and were allowed out of town only after fervent promises to keep in touch and see them again soon.  Oh, and they wouldn’t let us walk home at night by ourselves because of the bears.  We can hardly wait to see them again.

So now it’s mid-August.  We have decided we are heading toward our “home” park in Rapid City, SD, where we will spend several weeks – but not just yet.  We want to be there about Labor Day weekend.  And other goals are speaking out to us.  When we look at our map of North America, there is a large gap across Canada (picture a hockey player missing his two front teeth).  We’ve never been to Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or the Northwest Territories.  Well, the NWT will have to wait, but Manitoba and Saskatchewan are issuing a siren call that cannot be ignored.  So off we went to MB and SA.

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Piece o’cake, right?  Just keep moving west.  And that’s what we did.  There’s a great road along Lake Superior and then across the southern edge of northwest Ontario, Highway 11.  We followed it, and then cut up to Hwy 17 along Hwy 622 (as if you cared), one of the nicest and quietest roads around.  Then we hit 17 and rejoined the world of roadside signs, truck stops, and too many folks.  But it was okay; we stopped in Dryden for a picture of Max the Moose, now 44 years old; and the scenery was lovely, and soon we were in Manitoba.  

Manitoba is a very interesting province.  We were told it has a very stable economy, much more so than the others in central and western Canada.  It doesn’t have the ups and downs of other provinces because it is very diversified; it will never be as prosperous, but also is much less likely to suffer recession.  We spent several very happy days in the southern belt, where most of the action is.

The southeastern corner is quite nice, with lakes and woods and camping galore; very rural.  We stopped to visit some neat folks we had met in Mexico last winter.  They live in a quiet area here on 60 acres that edge a nice stream; this is rural enough that they keep bees but have to have them surrounded by an electric fence to keep the bears out, and have stopped growing corn because they couldn’t (keep them away).  It was a lovely place, they filled us with great food and delightful conversation, and we made vows to see each other in Mexico this coming winter.  We were having such a nice evening with them that we stayed almost until midnight.  Riding back to our campground, out in the wilderness, Rick was kept very busy watching out for deer and other assorted critters.  Lucky me, though, I got to keep an eye on the sky, and was treated to my first view of aurora borealis, the Northern Lights.  It was very exciting for us, even though we were sure that it would get more dramatic later in the fall.  Rick stopped the bike and we stood and watched it together; it was a very special experience.

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And then on to Winnipeg, a very nice capital with lots of history in a great setting.  And a ring road that actually is still outside the city.  We wandered around, took in a game at the lovely downtown ballpark of the Goldeyes (it’s a fish), their unaffiliated minor league team.  Now we were really out on the prairie, with beautiful rolling hills, large fields of sunflowers shining up at us, and harvested hay drying everywhere.  Still lots of wheat yet to be cut.  A city to visit again, perhaps including some time at the Winnipeg Folk Music Festival if we choose to come in July.

While we were in town we were able to become further acquainted with some very interesting folks whom we had met at Red Rock.  We really enjoy them, and would like to see more of them, soon.  They have a nice home right along the Red River. It was such a beautiful, warm day and we sat down by the water; we found it hard to remember how nasty the winters are here.  But then Linda and Doug started talking about cross-country skiing on the river every winter and we were believers.  

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We were interested in visiting more of Manitoba, and the province includes a couple of intriguing national parks.  We started out at Riding Mountain NP, in a boreal forest, not too far from Winnipeg.  And there we ran into a situation that wouldn’t concern most folks.  We ended up (by choice) in a campground 20 miles down a gravel road.  Not only were we completely deluged with dust, but in order to see any of the rest of the park (including the largest herd of bison in Canada) we had to take the bike over those same miles – twice; not a good plan under the best of circumstances.  So we did some hard thinking.  It was becoming apparent that wandering through the parks in Manitoba was going to be over gravel roads; this is okay for cars, but not so swell for bikes.  We really wanted to go into northern Manitoba to see the country there, but more and more of the roads we wanted to travel over were gravel on the map.  So we bailed.  No Flin Flon (in northern Manitoba) or Prince Albert NP (in northern Saskatchewan) this year.  We will see that country one day, but not with our current choices of wheels.

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So what’s in Saskatchewan, you ask, and what all did you see?  Well, with our change of plan not to head north, way north, we decided to just scuttle across the southeastern corner of Saskatchewan, turn left, and duck back across the border into the Dakotas. Well, let’s see.  Good old Saskatchewan looks a lot like Manitoba, for starters.  Flat rolling prairie and quiet little communities. But prettier than we had expected.  We ducked quickly through Esterhazy, the potash capital of the world, found a quiet spot for the night so we could legitimize our visit to the province, and then south we went.  This is a very nice area, full of the ever-present patterns of harvesting.  We passed through the town of Shesheep (why not Ewe?), took yet another picture of the wonderful grain silos that break the flat horizon, then watched as our road turned to gravel for about 25 miles and then back to asphalt again.  

About 100 miles north of the border the land began to change and become drier; there were fewer crops and more cattle, and also some oil wells.  The small towns looked smaller and further between, but they still were filled with charm.  It was late August; we passed a tiny high school with a sign out in front that had been there since June:  “Dudes, have a cool summer.  See you in the fall……The Dude Abides.”  We were heartened to see that teenagers in rural Canada had apparently discovered The Big Lebowski, and we could hardly wait to see this great Cohen brothers movie again.  

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Well, and back into the States.  It’s a combination of sadness and gladness each time we cross back in from Canada, this time even more so, knowing we wouldn’t be back again this year.  The sadness?  We thoroughly enjoy the Canadian people, all of them.  They seem less jaded, more excited.  Their jokes are more wholesome.  The produce in the smaller stores seems to come from closer to home and there are lots of farmers markets.  Mostly, outside the cities, the land is just very rural and seems to hearken back to an earlier time in all the best ways.

But also happy to be back.  Our phone works again; fuel costs are (a little bit) more reasonable.  Roads in general are better, or at least more of them are paved; and after covering lots of miles the past month or so, Rick was ready to settle in somewhere and just be for awhile.

We had one final place to visit this summer: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, south of Watford City, ND.  We have ridden through it twice before without having a chance to stop, but this time we stayed for four days.  It was wonderful.  This area is a combination of prairie and badlands, with the Little Missouri River flowing through it.  Very isolated and desolate, but beautiful.  There is a large herd of bison here, along with beautiful rock formations and incredible vistas from on top of the ridges.  We stayed in a lovely campground in the middle of cottonwood trees.  It had an open meadow in the middle, and the bison would come through to graze…..and roll in the dust bowls they had made for themselves…..about 30 of them one morning, about 10 feet from us.  The Bison Abide.  Absolutely incredible.

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We finally left and wandered down into South Dakota, where we remain.  We are ensconced in our favorite campground, south of Rapid City, SD, on the edge of the Black Hills.  We expect to be here until mid-October, if you are wandering around and want to come see us.  Here we have full hookups, great wi-fi, and full digital phone service.

It has been a lovely summer, if somewhat less adventurous than usual.  Dancing on the border has its charms.  But now we are starting to look further south, toward Mexico.  Our current thinking is to stay here until late October, then head for another border, a warmer one.  If all goes well, we intend to be in Mexico for about four months, emerging in time to attend a daughter’s wedding in Los Angeles on St. Patrick’s Day.

Our days are shorter and cooler now, and some of the trees are beginning to turn beautiful colors.  We hope you are enjoying something similar.  Best wishes from both of us.  We’d love to hear from you.

Rick and Kathy, border-dancers extraordinaire 

See more photos from Canada in 2006

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018