Of Beasts and Burdens

an interesting encounter while bicycling Lake Superior

Julia Reid

Truly, a superior lake.
Truly, a superior lake.

During the summer of 2008, my husband and I moved back to the Midwest and set about bicycling around Lake Superior as a way of reconnecting with the land. We’d crossed the Canadian border on the evening before, and had just spent a sunny afternoon cruising along the shoreline near Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. 

Now, we aren’t usually the sort to fall for a gimmick but, with allure of a campsite situated directly below “the largest suspension bridge in Ontario,” we couldn’t resist deviating seven miles off course. Forty-five minutes and two miles of unpaved gravel later, we saw a black tar vista and realized that we’d been duped. Our holy grail turned out to be an RV park without a blade of grass in sight. The kicker: $35 per person to sleep on pavement, not including the $10 admission to the suspension bridge.

Traveling by bike, we found we were more vulnerable to mishaps and blunders, but were also more visible and approachable to the travelers and locals around us.

In a car, this would be a lesson learned, followed up with an air-conditioned return to the normal course of our journey. By bike, it meant we needed to make a snap decision about where to crash for the night. With our slim budget and sense of pride, we didn’t plan on staying, but with signs of a storm approaching, we knew we’d have to find a patch of earth nearby. Our main concern was steering clear of the local dump we’d passed a few miles back: our trip goal was to avoid all major predators that may be looking for an easy dinner.

To play it safe, we decided to beg for a spot to pitch our tent on from a nearby farmhouse. Knocking on the door, we were greeted by the vicious barks of two german shepherds and the suspicious gaze of a mousy, middle-aged woman. We explained our situation, and without a word, she gave us a quick once over and then pointed to the distant edge of her yard where, presumably, it was okay for us to stay for the night. We had just got in to our tent when the rain started. A midsummer thunderstorm quickly passed over and brought on the night. 

We hadn’t been in our tent but an hour when, all of a sudden, her dogs began howling, barking, and braying. Thinking we had brought on this distress, we started rethinking our decision to stay.  Fortunately, shortly after their antics began, they quieted down and we fell promptly asleep.

The next morning, we awoke to a nervous clatter outside our tent. Peeking out, we saw the woman setting out a pot of coffee and two mugs, a far cry from the hospitality she’d displayed the evening before. She apologized for waking us and for the previous evening. The dogs had just been put in their kennels for the night – about 100 feet from our tent – when a fully grown black bear showed up. Defending their territory, the dogs tried to drive the bear away, only to get so worked up that they leapt over the high kennels walls. Once out, the bear took advantage of the situation and clambered into the kennel to eat their food, which of course made the dogs even more furious. All the while, the woman could only watch helplessly inside, knowing that it was too dangerous to come get us or call for us to come inside. 

She offered up the coffee as a gesture of peace and asked us inside for breakfast. We were happy to accept and hours later found ourselves still chatting with this married woman and mother of five. Her husband had followed a job out to Alberta working in the oil sands the year before when the timber industry in Ontario went belly up. She spent solitary days in her rural home exercising to Jane Fonda, practicing piano, and taking her dogs on long walks.

Leaving her home that day, we returned to our course with a different understanding of what this trip would be. The land and the lake would come to serve as a beautiful backdrop to the people we’d meet. Traveling by bike, we found we were more vulnerable to mishaps and blunders, but were also more visible and approachable to the travelers and locals around us. This woman was early in the string of amazing folks who opened their doors to us along each of the 1,300 miles we biked.