Lindsay’s Operation Muerto
Manitoba Trans Canada Trail Ride
1294 Kilometers in 5 Days, 10 hours and 2 minutes
(Lindsay Gauld, founder of Olympia Cycle & Ski now well into his 60’s and working as a part time bike courier in his retirement, recounts his most recent biking adventure)
I remembered cursing the organizer when I did the Trans Wisconsin ride several years ago and ended up wading through swamps and swearing that this wasn’t what a ride should be about. Now, here I was barely half an hour into a 1300 km journey and I was climbing through deadfall and wading through swamps. This time I had nobody to blame but myself as I had on my own decided that riding across Manitoba on the Trans Canada Trail would be a good idea.
I first considered riding the Manitoba portion of the TCT when I was unable to decide upon a route for the Operation Muerto Summer challenge. At about that time I did a presentation to the Trails Manitoba annual general meeting about my experience at this years Iditarod Ultra Invitational. There was a discussion about the ongoing work on sections of the trail in the province.
It piqued my interest and I talked to my wife Lynne and she gave me her blessing. I then contacted my friend Charlie Farrow from Duluth. We rode together for virtually the whole 4 days and 14 and ¾ hours that it took us to complete this year’s Iditarod. We are very compatible and Charlie is one of my favorite people with his humour and zest for life. Charlie was keen and we started to consider when we could make it work.
Lynne’s and my summer started to fill up quickly and I worked out two possible windows of time when I could have at least a week to complete the ride. Unfortunately, neither of those times worked out for Charlie. I was on my own for 1300 KMs.
I quickly needed to sort out my bike as I was really doing this by the seat of my pants. I’d ridden my Niner for the 380 mile Alexander race but had some issues as my Revelate gear from my Fatbak didn’t fit. I opted to ride my Ti fatback with a set of 29er wheels that Liam (Olympia shop mechanic) had built up for me. This let me use my Revelate frame bag, seat bag and handlebar sling. I figured to be out there at least 5 days so I needed to carry clothes for a range of conditions, a light sleeping bag and bivy and enough food to see me through some long stretches with no resupply. The setup was not unlike the Iditarod less the cold weather stuff.
My friend Al Dixon offered to take on the esteemed role as my Faithful Manservent in training. On Tuesday, July 2nd we drove from Winnipeg to Roblin, Manitoba. Roblin is a farming community about 60 kms south of the start of the trail at Duck Mountain Park on the Saskatchewan border. We were early and had decided to prepare for the ride by playing a pitiful round of golf. We’ll never be mistaken for serious golfers but we had fun.
The Harvest Moon Motel where we stayed was very comfortable and we slept well and rose early to have the continental breakfast and then headed north to the start. Al drove while I played with my GPS. It kept shutting down and I realized that I hadn’t put in new batteries since my 612 km ride at the Alexander event in Minnesota. I changed them up and solved the settings that can mystify a technical Luddite such as myself.
Day 1 – 15 hours and ( only ) 177kms
Al intended to ride with me for about an hour and then turn back to begin his journey back to Winnipeg. As we were about to head out, I came to the realization that my bike helmet was back in Winnipeg, along with my electrolyte capsules and my chain lube. We decided that when Al turned back , I would borrow his helmet. I’d been involved with the Where’s the Beach race over the weekend and it made for sensory overload for the organizational part of my brain. There was nothing to do but carry on.
As wee headed out we were quickly confronted with a long stretch of deadfall with large trees across the trail. We bushwacked along and eventually got through the worst of it. This was followed up by many swampy sections with the water being up almost to my waist at one point. For me, the tricky part was keeping the bike high enough to keep my clothing , food etc from getting soaked. We waded and occasionally rode for slightly over 2 hours, by which time we had covered about nine kilometers. It was a discouraging start.
We then had the passing of the helmet and Al turned back for the van on the highway and I carried on south on a gravel road.
The day was already hot, the wind was in my face and it seemed that every road had just been graded. It was a long day. I found myself stopping for a dinner at the town of Inglis after less than 100 km. It was early at about 5 pm but I hoped the wind would die down in the evening. I was hot and cramping, I had a sore seat from the heat so I thought a break might help to revive me.
I had hoped to roll off at least 250 kms but my pace had me approaching Rossburn at about 11:30 at night. A storm was coming and the lightning was frighteningly close so I opted for the hotel and just got there before they closed. I had my sleeping bag and bivy sac but I was so hot and sticky from bug spray, suntan lotion and sweat that I felt that my life depended on my having a shower. A tough day to start but I hoped for better on the following day.
Day 2 – 291 kms in 19 ½ hours
I got up and on my way a few minutes after 5 am and hoped to go to the town of Sandy Lake for a breakfast. I had been on a rail trail from Russell except for a section where I took to the highway as I’d been told that some bridges were out. In the morning it was back on the trail and it was great. Rail lines are basically flat and the joy of being alone with no traffic is great.
I reached Sandy Lake and joined what seemed to be every man in the community at the small hotel for a generous breakfast. It was self serve coffee and I must have had 4 cups as every new guy that came in poured for himself and then made the rounds topping up everyone’s cup.
I phoned ahead and met up with my wife’s aunt Audrey and cousin Heather in Erickson. We had a brief visit and photo op and then I carried on toward Neepawa. The wind was mostly a crosswind but slightly behind me so I was making much better time. I had covered 132 kms by Neepawa and nipped into a Subway for a soup and sandwich. I had plenty of food but like to eat “normal “ food when possible.
After Neepawa, the wind was at my back and I made great time down to the Trans Canada Hwy and across to Carberry. After a brief stop to replenish my fluids, I carried on along the highway through Spruce Woods Provincial Park. After crossing the Assiniboine the route turns into Kiche Manitou campground.
At this point, there is a section of about 8 km of singletrack but I had a loaded bike and had already ridden for 230 km over about 14 hours so I decided to take a slightly longer road route. I reached the town of Cypress River at about 9 pm and had a late dinner in the bar. The people were very helpful and friendly and the proprietor Jim helped me plan out and phone ahead to arrange a stop in the town of Somerset. I knew I’d be in late so I gave my credit card and the women agreed to leave my room key on top of the air conditioning unit outside my room.
I missed a turn and got a bit lost as it got dark but finally stumbled onto Bruxxells, which was on the course. I had been there for a gravel grinder race so this helped me get my bearings. In some areas there are very few TCT trail signs so I tended to lose confidence in my route finding. After that, I had an uneventful ride into Somerset and found the hotel at 12:30 at night. I was 468 kms into the ride after 40 hours.
Day 3 – 232 kms in 14 ½ hours
I awoke feeling good and was ready to go a little after 6:30 am. The restaurant in the motel had coffee on but the woman said the grill was just turned on and it would be at least 20 minutes before any hot breakfasts would be available. I looked at my 10 year old guidebook and decided to go 12 kms and stop at the hotel in St Leon or 22 kms for the hotel in Altamont. In what is a fact of life for many small towns nowadays, neither were still open for business.
I ate a bit of food from my on bike rations and realized that I needed to go 70 kms to the town of Miami for my longed for hot breakfast. I arrived at about 10:45 am and ordered bacon and eggs with LOTS of hash browns. One strange happening is that the restaurant was full of women. It seems that the men in the small towns get the early shift and the women come mid morning. In any case, I again had many helpers keeping my coffee full.
I checked the route after Miami and realized that there were no places to stop until Altona, which was 116 kms ahead. I’m sure the trail is planned out with the idea that people will tackle small sections at a time. The idea of going that far on another very warm day without a break just didn’t work for me. I rerouted myself to go through Morden which was only about 30 kms past Miami for another food stop and resupply of Powerade. Without my electrolyte capsules, I was filling my bottles with electrolyte drink whenever there was an opportunity.
I ran into Chris Huebner and his father in the Tim Hortons in Morden. Chris is the godfather of the Fort Garry Bike club and one of our fastest cyclecross racers. It was nice to connect with a Winnipeg friend. After checking my guidebook, I headed straight south out of Morden to reconnect with the trail near the Tinker Creek area. After a while there was a rider coming towards me on the trail and it turned out to be James Reimer of Tinker Creek. He had followed my Spot track and met up to ride me through his home area. He advised (or I chose to hear it that way) that I not ride the singletrack with my fully loaded bike. We rode along and he took my camera and took a number of pictures of me. We stopped at his store and I had a very welcome ice cold Coke.
After heading out from there, he escorted me and pointed me off on the road to Reinland where there was a convenience store to replenish my fluid supply. Alas, said store had burned down several years earlier. At this point, I had a little over 40 kms to Altona and had been careful enough that I was fine for fluids so there was nothing to do but carry on. It turned out to be a longish 40 km as I hit a lot of recently graded roads which were loose and slow but I found myself in the Altona Co-op grocery at 5 pm. I was at 176 kms for the day at this point.
I was almost exactly at the halfway point of the ride after 57 hours. I needed to decide whether finishing in a hard 5 days was something I wanted to shoot for or I could opt for a slightly more relaxed pace and finish at some point on the 6th day. Emerson was 56 kms away after which it was another 67 kms to St Malo. It was still so hot and I was so sticky that I still felt the need to stop where I could have a shower. I would see how this leg went and then make up my mind.
I headed south on a nice rail trail from Altona to Gretna and then got on the berm that is on the Canadian side of the international border. Although it is undefended, the long grass would be enough to prevent most illegal border crossings. After struggling along for 3 miles and stopping twice to remove grass that had wrapped itself around my gears I decided to go one mile north and follow the parallel road to Emerson.
Somewhere along this stretch I came to realize that Emerson would be my finishing point for the night. There were several reasons for this. Besides the fatigue from three days of riding in the heat and a tender seat that could use a break, I had a desire to see the Crow wing trail in daylight as I’d seen some video of the trail and wanted to enjoy the views as I rode along.
I got there a little before 9 pm and got the last room at the motel. I asked about where I might get a meal and the woman told me that there was a Chinese food place but she was pretty sure it closed at 9. They had an assortment of foods that you could heat in your microwave in the room. I opted for lasagna as well as a chicken pot pie. I must have looked suitably pitiful as she offered to heat them up for me.
I also realized that there would be nothing open in the morning so I got 2 subs to heat up with the coffee, which was available in the room. They were listed as being ham, cheese and bologna but I have to say that I’m still looking for the ham and cheese. One really can’t be my body is a temple kind of person on something like this. (more on that later)
Day 4 – 208 kms in 14 hours
I had heard from my friend Cory Pratt and he and Charles Burchill were planning on meeting me in St Malo for the ride to Winnipeg. I got on my way at 6:30 am as I’d said I would be in St Malo at 10:30. It was a new experience for me to be eating two bologna subs with my morning coffee at 5:30 am. You do what you have to.
I decided not to follow the berm along the border for the first 12 kms as my experience the day before in the long grass had convinced me to take a parallel road 1 mile north of the border. I went through the village of Ridgeville where my guide said there was a restaurant. I think it might be open at some times but I was glad I’d had the subs as it wasn’t open at 8 in the morning.
At this point I’d been on good gravel roads and even though I was facing a bit of a headwind, I was well ahead of schedule to arrive in St Malo. This changed as I headed east on a trail that followed the Roseau River. The trail was very well marked and had been mowed fairly recently but it was still in large part a series of farm fields which were rough and furrowed. My average speed dropped quickly.
At some point the river became a bit of a gorge,which gave some lovely views. I finally came to the Senkiw swinging bridge. It is the oldest swinging bridge in the province and was used by children to get to school in past years. The bridge is narrow and the steps up from the south side and it was all I could do get my bike up without unloading all my gear.
After following the trail out to an east – west road I followed the arrows to turn north towards St Malo. I must have missed a turn as I proceeded north for about 10 kms and finally came to a paved highway. I thought it was a side road, # 217 but when a car came up behind me and I asked the woman told me that it was Hwy 59. I followed it into St Malo and arrived about 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
I had told Cory I’d be at a restaurant and to look for my bike out front. I got to the Chicken Chef and there were about 10 road bikes out front. It was the Mennonites in Tights group from Steinbach and they invited me to join them for breakfast.
I had a nice visit and a plentiful feed and shortly after they left, Cory and Charles appeared. They had headed out of town on the trail and we missed each other when I missed the turn and took 59. No big damage.
We headed out on the route for the Actif Epica, the winter race from St Malo to Winnipeg, which they both have competed in. Not too far north of St Malo, we met up with Pete McAdams. Pete lives on the Chrystal springs colony and had ridden backwards on the course to meet up with us. It was great to have company. We had even more company in St Pierre as we met up with Andrea Tetrault. She was out for a ride and planned to intersect with us. Andrea has the Winnipeg Cycle Chick blog and she did a quick “interview” as we visited before heading north.
The Crow Wing is a mixture of a bit of asphalt, lots of gravel and a fair amount of mud roads. We moved along well and had a quick stop for a fluid break at Niverville. I had a slight issue as I caught my wheel on the edge of a rut on a mud road and fell on my side. I had a slight scape on my left leg and arm. This was mostly caused by my sloppiness due to the 80+ hours I’d been traveling. I was would be staying at home this evening so I could whatever bandaging I required.
Shortly after Niverville, Pete headed back home. I appreciated his company. We headed through St Adolphe and into the city by way of the bridge over the floodway and in through St Norbert. In Fort Richmond, Charles headed home but not before checking on my plans for the morning.
Cory and I headed north to the east end of the Harte trail at which point he headed home to St James and I headed out the trail to the perimeter. That was tough as I was close to home and it didn’t seem make sense to be heading in the wrong direction when I was looking to get a nice rest in my own bed. I finally made it home at 8:30 after a relatively short 14 hour day. I really want to thank Cory, Charles, Pete and Andrea for sharing their time with me. It made for a very pleasant day.
Day 5 – 264 kms in 15 ¾ hours
I had some work to do on my bike when I arrived at home. I decided to put a set of bar ends that turn in more to create a more aero riding position. I also added my other bottle case to the handlebars and took the cage on the bottom of the downtube off. It had proved to be a problem for carrying my bike as it was right where I wanted to grab under the bike. Both of those changes worked out for the better so I’ll note that for future rides. I did the changes as soon as I got home which ate into my resting time but I still had a good sleep in my own bed.
Jason Carter and Charles Burchill were at my house and ready to join me at shortly after 5 am and we headed out on the Marconi trail and then over to the new trail on the floodway at the town of Birds Hill. This trail runs all the way from St Mary’s Rd on the south end of the city all the way to Lockport and is a great addition to the local cycling options.
Charles turned off at Birds Hill Park and Jason and I continued across the river and up to Selkirk where we stopped for some breakfast. I then headed out on my own and went north and over the infamous “bridge to nowhere”. At this point, there is really no definitive TCT route up to Grand Beach so I decided on a zig zag route staying on the west side of Hwy 59 up to Beaconia. According to my guide book, I could then follow a rail trail up to grand Beach but it turns out there are garden sheds, car ports and various other obstacles so I rode on a parallel road up to Grand Marais. At this point, I’d covered about 130 kms so I stopped for a quick lunch. Some of my stops were actually an excuse to see and talk to people but some normal food was always welcome.
I went north on an old rail trail as far as Belair and then over to hwy 59 and north to Hwy 11. There is no TCT trail for this stretch and it had also been a long time since I’d seen any TCT signs. I went along hwy 11 to Pine Falls. At this point, there was supposed to be a road/trail on the north side of the river going to Great Falls. I saw no signs but crossed over the dam looking for the route. Again, there were no signs. I didn’t want to end up going the wrong way as I’d done about 190 kms and still had 70 to go so I went back across the dam and followed the highway to Great Falls.
There was one sign near the dam in Great Falls and I had to cut through a Hydro storage yard to end up on the trail which followed a dike and then a hydro corridor. This section went well for the next 20 kms at which point I crossed the Winnipeg River on hwy 313 and went east and then south for 15 km to the Pinawa dam provincial park. The trail past here is fun and I scooted along until I arrived at the beautiful suspension bridge and then onto the road for the last 3 or 4 kms to Pinawa.
The guidebook mentioned a B and B as well as a motel in town and I opted to check out the motel as it said there was a restaurant attached to it. I got there at about 8:45 and got a room and asked how late the restaurant was open. Turns out it burned down a number of years ago. The woman mentioned that the golf club had the only restaurant in town so I headed over there immediately. I got there as they had just shut off the grill and my disappointment must have shown as the waitress/cook/manager volunteered that the deep fryer was still hot. Dinner was a double order of chicken fingers and fries as well as 2 beers. Not exactly the dinner of champions but my friend Charlie would approve of the beer.
Day 6 – 138 kms in 9 ½ hours
I was now at 1161 kms with only 140 to go. The golf course opened at 6:30 am for coffee while the grill heated up so I arrived about then and had a leisurely breakfast. At about 7:30, I phoned my friend Don Ewing and asked if he’d like to join me for a ride and he quickly agreed. Don is an old xc ski buddy and we had a nice ride along the dike along the edge of Natalie Lake over to the dam at Seven Sisters. I should mention that the stretch of trail in both directions from Pinawa is perhaps the best – marked trail in the whole province.
Don turned around at Seven Sisters and headed back and I headed along the southern dike going east along the edge of the lake. At this point, I was back into a stretch with absolutely no signage and I ended up on a stretch where the trail was gradually getting less clear. I finally came upon some guys with earth moving equipment and asked them if I was on the TCT trail. He pointed me along and I ended up headin northeast on a new road heading north but just east enough to allow me to believe it was correct. After about 3 kms, I came upon a grader and he told me that I was going the wrong way and in fact heading for the new Tim Horton’s camp. I backtracked and ended up back on highway 307 for the next 12 -15 kms to lake Dorothy.
Once I was in the Whiteshell Provincial Park, the TCT signage began again and was quite good. Some stretches were excellent and most of the time it stayed fairly close to the highway. At Betula Lake, I grabbed some food at a convenience store and topped up my fluids. At this point I had 75 kms to go. It was a warm day again and the bugs were bad in the bush. To make matters worse, my bug spray ran out. I opted for alternately riding on the trail and then the highway whenever I felt that I was sacrificing too much blood. I got some bug spray at Brereton and then followed a nice stretch of trail into Rennie.
I went to the ranger station in Rennie and asked where the start of the Centennial trail was. The ranger told me that it was really a rugged hiking trail and not recommended for cycling. He said I would be walking significant portions. That had little appea; so I opted for the highway as far as Caddy Lake at which point I hit nice section of trail into the townsite at West Hawk lake.
From there the trail is the old Trans Canada highway out to the border. This is a road I know well from many road races out that way when I was starting cycling back in the late 60’s. The hills seem to have grown. I made it to the border at 6:32in the evening for a total time of 5 days 10 hours and 2 minutes. My wife Lynne had driven out and I cleaned up and changed and we had a nice meal in the town before driving home.
Recap of the trail and my experience.
The TCT in Manitoba has a wide range of conditions and since it is maintained by volunteers the signage and maintenance varies greatly across the province. I had a 10 year old guidebook and I wasn’t obsessed with staying on the exact route. There were stretches that I chose to avoid some singletrack as I was alone with a loaded bike. I’m sure I’d enjoy going back and checking them out on day rides but I chose caution on this effort. Overall, the trail gives a nice look at out province and I’d recommend riding it in parts or all at once as suits your needs.
My favorite sections were the rail trail from Russell to Neepawa, the Crow Wing trail and the Border to Beaches trail although stretches of it definitely were short on signage. The stretch from Selkirk to Grand Beach is presently somewhat vague but there is great potential as the old rail line to Grand Beach is abandoned and would make a fun and historically significant route. Here’s hoping on that.
I met some great folks along the way at my various stops and virtually all lived up the friendly Manitoba name. I wish Charlie could have joined me but maybe on the Divide ride if that ever comes to fruition.