Okay, I know it’s winter and I should be writing about snowy adventures. Unfortunately because of work and life, this winter has been a bit lacking in the way of adventure. So instead, I’m going to write about something that’s been sitting on the back burner for a while.
I spent a week on Prince Edward Island with my family last August. Amidst the typical family vacation stuff, I planned a day of gravel road riding on the famous red roads of PEI (the red color comes from a high concentration of iron oxide in the soil). The idea was to use the Confederation Trail as a springboard for some excellent gravel road riding. The Confederation Trail is a 435 kilometer multi-use trail built on rail lines that were abandoned in 1989 (learn more here). It runs the length of PEI and features several offshoots into every region of the island. Since it was a railway, its grade never gets steeper than 2%. While this is nice for most folks, I like to have some challenging climbing and descending on my dirt road rides. I was going to ride east on the Confederation Trail from our rental cottage in Saint Peters Bay and peel off onto some red gravel roads for some more adventurous loops.
I spent the night before my ride poring over the satellite imagery of the area. I came up with a route that would bag me about 100 kilometers, good training for some upcoming big rides. The weather forecast was excellent, so I was excited to head out the next morning.
I bombed down the hill into Saint Peters Bay the next morning and headed up the Confederation Trail. As railway bike trails go, the Confederation is truly outstanding. Its packed stone dust surface is impeccably maintained. While I rode a cycle-cross bike with knobby tires, you could get away with a road bike with wider tires if you are a good bike handler and kept an eye out for soft spots. Every few miles there are benches or picnic tables under canopies that all seem brand new. The grass along the trail is even mowed down nice and neat. It would be perfect for a mellow family outing with a nice packed lunch. But I didn’t want mellow. I wanted a long, hard ride on a route I was a little unsure of. After a few miles heading east I came across my first turn onto the gravel.
The road was wide, relatively even and, best of all, completely devoid of vehicle traffic. I cruised past acre after acre of potato fields. An astonishing fact I learned was that although geographically tiny, 25% of Canada’s potatoes are grown on PEI. That’s a lot of potatoes. Eventually the potatoes petered out and I came into a forest. I knew a right turn was coming up but it was a bit of a surprise that it looked like this:
As I tentatively ventured down this road, it became rougher and rougher. I wondered if it might fizzle out altogether. The satellite imagery had shown it cutting through the forest and eventually connecting back up with the Confederation Trail. I figured “what the hell” and kept going. It got quite rutted and crossed a few small streams that required a dismount. The further I went, more vegetation encroached upon and grew in the middle of the “road”. Clearly, this was not a commuter route.
What struck me most was the absolute silence of the woods. I felt vulnerable being out in this remote spot alone wearing nothing more than a little lycra. I had to be careful not to crash in a rut, an injury out there by myself could be a serious problem. But the promise of a little adventure, risk and uncertainty raised my level of focus. Gone were the concerns, festering anxieties and stress of everyday life. Instead, I felt aware and mindful of the task at hand. If only I could bottle that feeling and take a hit of it while sitting in my drab cubicle at work, where my mind typically goes from wondering just what shade of shit-brown is on the wall to why the guy on the other side will never shut the f**k up.
Eventually I came across a pickup truck with a young lad standing by it. He worked for the local county as a forester and was out doing some kind of survey. He was very surprised to see me out there in the middle of nowhere. He had driven in the same way as me so he didn’t know if the way forward went anywhere or not. He was super-friendly and we chatted a bit before I pedaled away from the swarm of mosquitoes that had gathered.
Sure enough, within a couple miles I came across the bike trail. I hung a left and continued east. Ahead I did a few more scenic gravel road loops before getting back onto the Confederation Trail. Along the way I met a father and teenage daughter who had been riding the trail all the way from its western terminus in Tignish, over 400 kilometers away. They were doing a “credit card” tour, carrying a minimal amount of gear and staying at B&B’s every night. I thought it was awesome. They were almost done with their epic journey.
I reached the end of the trail at the Elmira Railway Museum. I wasn’t that much interested in the contents of the museum but they had a little snack bar where I could get some water and salty treats. I then headed back, re-tracing my route all the way to Saint Peters Bay. As I approached our rented cottage, the bike’s odometer hit 100 kilometers. Not a bad day’s work. Only 5 or 6 cars had passed me the entire day, mostly in the bustling metropolis of Saint Peters Bay. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get back to PEI, but if I do, there will definitely be more than one day of gravel road riding on the agenda.