Thunder Bay marked our arrival at the Great Lakes. In the next week or so we would skirt the Canadian shores of both Lake Superior and Lake Huron, vast stretches of water that ran off south to the US. These lands brought us into areas that were hotly disputed between France and Britain for most of the 18thcentury as both colonies stretched further from their east-coast landing sites and on into the American continent. The reconstructed Fort William in Thunder Bay was a great place to soak in some period atmosphere of life on the frontier. French Voyageursjourneyed for months on end into the wilds of the west to trade baubles for beaver fur, which was in huge demand in Europe where it was used to make felt for the hat trade. At the end of each foray into the wilds, they met traders from the east and bartered their goods in the fort, which became a huge caravanserai, an event known as the Rendezvous. For a few weeks, the place turned into one big party town as deals were made and folk let off steam after their sojourns in the wilderness. Fort William was an outpost of the North West Company whose rivals, the Hudson’s Bay Company had an outpost not far away at Red River that threatened the livelihood of the Nor’Westers.
On arriving at the fort, a couple in period dress met us at the gate and enquired as to what year it was? When we said “2018…?”, we were assured that we were indeed mistaken as it is in fact 1816. So began a day of reenactment of events centred round a recent battle whereby the Hudson’s Bay Red River colony had been attacked and the Battle of Seven Oaks fought. The Nor’Westers included a lot of Metis, descendants of early French settlers who had intermarried with local tribes to the extent that they are recognised as one of the three indigenous peoples in Canada today (the others being the Inuit and the First Nation tribes like the Hurons, Iroquois etc). We met some of them and other characters from the period as we walked around the Fort, where all the talk was of the recent battle and the likely consequences. Although victorious at the battle, the North West Company was soon subsumed into the larger Hudson’s Bay group, who would become the world’s largest landowner holding over 15% of the entire North American continent. They still trade today in Canada as a chain of department stores.
The Fort William experience was very well done and made for an entertaining and informative day out. In contrast our ride on to the east continued as a monotone stretch of tree-lined road with very little of interest to see and with around a thousand miles left to ride until we reached Ottawa. Even the Great Lakes offered disappointing vistas with nary a Corniche or Riviera in sight, just blast-along straight roads through more trees that went on forever. Riding along, I passed some of the time speculating that the natives probably had thousands of words for describing trees, like the Inuit have for types of snow. The weather was mostly kind with long sunny days. We had one day of foul weather when we ran into a huge storm cell that spewed forth a rightful deluge that flooded the road and had us scuttling for an early halt into the comfort of a motel room. After three years on the road our waterproof clothing is more Andrex than Goretex having long ago given up any interest in water repellence and we approached the receptionist like a pair of drowned rats, sodden to the skin and dripping little puddles all over her nice clean foyer. Good old Canadian hospitality ignored our sorry state and welcomed us with a smile, a hot coffee and a nice clean room that we soon turned into a Chinese laundry to get everything dry.
The ennui of the trans-Canadian haul was enlivened the following day by a sick bike. We left the motel under clear skies and set off to ride to Sault Sainte Marie on Lake Huron. After about 80 miles we refueled and, on setting back out on the road, Maggie’s bike started surging and stalling. We immediately suspected dodgy petrol, or perhaps water in the petrol from yesterday’s downpour, although it was strange that my bike was unaffected. We limped about 100 miles to a place called Wawa, where we topped off the tank with a higher-grade fuel. Thinking our problem was now sorted, the bike stalled again outside of town and this time she just plain refused to start. I rode off to book into a campsite a few miles down the road and Maggie waited… A lovely guy called Steve showed up on a KLR 650 and gave her a fuel additive to displace any water as he’d had a similar problem once before. I returned in time to thank him and loaded all the kit off Maggie’s bike onto my own to get us to the campsite (this meeting would have a beautiful consequence as Steve insisted that when we get to Nova Scotia we must head to a place called Meat Cove and camp on the cliff-tops there, but more on that next time…). Now we were faced with a sick-bike haul & push for a couple of miles to reach the campsite. There was a big downhill section that I reckoned would cover half the distance but for the rest it was looking like time to get sweaty… In desperation I tried the bike one more time; she suddenly fired up, so I quickly jumped aboard and rode her coughing and spluttering all the way to the site. Anticipating a head-scratching afternoon stripping down fuel injectors and cleaning out fuel lines, I was delighted to quickly discover a broken side-stand switch, the cause of all our grief! The little locking tab had come undone and the switch was making an intermittent contact, causing the bike to surge and stall; a quick fix and a huge relief that it wasn’t something more serious.
And so we finally made it into Ottawa, the Canadian capital city. Not a place I knew a lot about but I suspected it was one of those made up capitals, like Canberra in Australia – put in some neutral middle ground between English Toronto and French Quebec. So, entering with minimal expectations and looking to pass on through after a day or so, we found a delightful, stylish city in a beautiful location at the confluence of two major rivers. The site of the Canadian capital was selected by Queen Victoria who, looking at a map of the area, plonked her finger at an obscure spot on the map, picking a small lumber town in the middle of nowhere and said ‘Jasus Albert, sure thon spot there’ll do nicely’ (or she would have said, had she been Irish). There was a massive disagreement by local politicians and the Governor General wrote that he was being exiled to the wilderness. But the Queen’s mind was made up and was not for negotiation and soon a massive city grew up on the site, which turned out to be an ideal location.
On a quiet Sunday we parked up the bikes in downtown to stroll around the tomb of the unknown warrior, the Parliament buildings and through the city into the Byward Market area, a bustling, bubbling mix of art, craft and veggie marketstalls. The greeting in the shops and stalls was a lovely lilting ‘Bonjour-Hi!” denoting that this is the capital of a country that speaks two major languages. The World Cup Final was on; France v’s Croatia (the games showed live here during the late-morning / early afternoon) and a festoon of tricolours showed the local sympathy and jazzed up the place even more. We spent another day in Ottawa at the splendid Canadian Museum of History, where we learned the story of Canada from the early beginnings of the First Nation people, the arrival of the Europeans, the war between the British and the French for North America and the subsequent history of the provinces that make up Canada as we know it today including the more recent attempts of the Québécois to secede from the nation, which fortunately for Canada were unsuccessful.
The strife between the British and French in North America is an interesting story. Both countries established colonies in the New World, the French around Quebec and the British in New England. The French were mainly content to send explorers out into the wilds, the Voyageurs, with an emphasis on trade and barter for the lucrative furs for markets back home while the British went more or less straight into land clearance and settlement but with everyone pushing west all the while. By the latter part of the 18thCentury the French were moving down the great rivers into the American hinterlands and, realising the need to stop British expansion to the west, planned to build a series of fortress / trading posts down the rivers, essentially fencing off any further British forays across the continent. That, plus the eternal conflict between the two nations at home, spilled into war, which the French ultimately lost when General Wolfe captured their colonial capital at Quebec in 1757. The struggle for North America ended formally at the Treaty of Paris on November 3rd, 1762 whereby France agreed to surrender Canada and all of its former North American territories east of the Mississippi River to Britain, except New Orleans. France also regained most of the sugar islands in the Caribbean that had been seized by Britain during the war.
The French colonists had remained staunchly loyal to France, merely seeing themselves as Frenchmen on trading missions overseas whereas the British colonists, by the virtue that they were clearing lands for new settlement, soon began to see themselves as ‘Americans’ and started demanding more control of their lives from London’s interference and taxation. Of course it all led to revolution and independence, the Americans aided and abetted by French ships and troops keen for revenge after their recent reversals on the continent. These plans soon backfired as the victorious French troops returned home after the USA was birthed, imbued with the fervour of liberté et égalité and the French Revolution was born, resulting in the downfall of the monarchy.
From Ottawa, a day’s ride took us on into Quebec province, where we took a little river ferry from Hudson to Oka and moved from New World America to Old World France, the houses in Oka having a decidedly northern French style to them. It didn’t last too long as we were soon on a superfast highway that dropped us right into the vast metropolis of Montreal. The GPS decided that the fastest route was straight through the maelstrom of motorways that slice and dice the city, which of course was anything but fast and more of a slow crawl through a shock of traffic on mangled road surfaces to boot. But the reward at the end of the day was a great little roost called ‘Camping De la Joie’ just outside Quebec City.
The campsite ran a shuttle service into town so we had a beautiful day strolling inside the walls of old Quebec, a myriad of narrow cobblestone streets lined with houses and dwellings all with a decidedly Gallic façade. A boardwalk by the sumptuous Fairmont Chateau Hotel gave excellent views over the mighty St Lawrence River and our promenade was enlivened by colourful street entertainers and musicians. We looked out over the Plains of Abraham, scene of Wolfe’s decisive battle and now a landscape garden. We blew the expenses on a nice lunch sampling local Poutine, a dish of chipped potatoes and shredded duck served with cheese curds in a rich gravy sauce in a shady estaminet and all too soon it was time for the shuttle back to the campsite. It felt like a day off the bikes, a mini-holiday full of culture in this most beautiful of North American cities. For sure the days of our trip are now numbered but before it all ends there is one final area to explore; the Maritimes…
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Bonjour, Hi!