Monday, June 24, 2013

Mississippi River Trail Maps and Route Tips

North 71 to Itasca State Park
Many cyclists have expressed interest in our route and asked us to share our experience.  Detailed daily route maps are outlined on the blog at the end of each day's summary.  The mileages may not be exact as the daily totals referenced on the blog include distances we travelled during side trips to stores, historic sites, viewpoints etc.

Cycle Tour Route Overview - Mississippi River Trail 

Natchez Trace Parkway
Based on the suggestion of another cyclist, we decided to try and navigate the trip without the use of GPS.  We relied on the old school map and compass.  Our intent was to interact with people along the way, and we discovered nothing is a better conversation ice breaker than 2 middle aged Canadian cyclists miles away from home standing on the roadside reviewing a map!  Although, we likely were lost more often than necessary and added numerous miles to our trip we would leave the GPS at home again!  Our fondest memories are of the people who stopped to help us when we were lost and needing help the most!

There are countless resources available on the web to help plan a cycle tour.  We found the following resources invaluable:

State Department Of Transportation county maps

     Illinois Bike Maps by County
     Wisconsin County Bike Maps

Warm Showers - even if you don't plan to stay with a warm showers host, email them and ask for route guidance.  We found they were always happy to help.

Local Knowledge - you can't beat it for the inside scoop on routes, history, camping spots, road closures, eateries ....and colourful characters!

Ste. Genevieve Moduc Ferry Crossing - Flash lights for Service


Detailed county maps were a huge help...especially when we were lost.  We had hoped to be able to pick these up at Visitor Centres along the way.  Unfortunately, we often arrived at the Centres during off hours.  We would suggest finding these maps prior to your trip.  These county maps were also valuable during the times we found errors on cue sheets and route maps.

Visitor Centre - Land Between Lakes, Tennessee
Don't discount old school navigation...the sun rises in the east, sets in the west and the compass points north.  During the many twists and turns of the mighty Mississippi River we found ourselves disoriented and had to  remind ourselves to look at the sun!


We discovered that road conditions varied by county.

Signage was often poor and we quickly learned that a change in road condition usually meant we had crossed a county line.   Road names and road numbers also changed by county and often the same road would have more than one name and/or number.  Additionally, often the back country roads weren't signed at all - so it was difficult to verify turns and keeping accurate mileage readings became crucial.

MRT sign and a Bike route sign....pure joy!
We were always thrilled and appreciative to be riding sections that were well signed!


Planning is important.  Having said that, we found being flexible, adaptable and willing to change our route based on our own interests and road/weather conditions brought us many of our thrills and most memorable experiences.

River Crossing

Happy Cycling!

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Friends and family encouraged us to write a blog during our trip as a way to keep in touch and share the adventure.  When we first started the blog, we thought it would be about places, the scenery and the history of the area.  Although this was a huge component of our trip we quickly came to realize that our blog or story was really about PEOPLE.

Parks Staff at St. Louis Arch 
This cycle tour has been a wonderful and possibly life changing experience, and the kindness and generosity of those we met has touched us deeply.  These interactions are reminders of how simple acts of kindness and thoughtfulness really do make a difference.  We were struck how often those who had the least to give, gave the most and they did so sincerely and genuinely.

We were constantly asked about the logistical details of our trip:
  • how many miles?
  • what do you eat?
  • how many calories a day do you take in and do you burn?
  • where do you stay?
  • how much weight are you carrying?
  • what is your average speed?
  • what cadence do you maintain?
  • what is your heart rate?
  • how did you train?
  • how long have you been cycling?
  • are you crazy?
Although, many cyclists will track and monitor this type of logistical data and find it important for training and goal setting, our experience taught us that in truth these numbers were often irrelevant.  Mother Nature frequently dictated our distance and speed by throwing head winds, tail winds, hills, cold, heat, humidity or extreme weather at us.  We encountered it all!  As we mentioned in our blog entries, we have always had a healthy respect for the forces of nature and this trip has only deepened that respect.

Can we out race the storm?
Why is the wind always against us?

How much weight to carry?  Simple - if your bike is too heavy for you to comfortably cycle, you need to ditch something!  It becomes a great lesson in setting priorities and we quickly realized what was important to us - CLEAN DRY SOCKS!  In all seriousness, it was a wonderful experience to be back to basics....2 bowls, 2 sporks, camp stove, tent, sleeping bag, foamies, clothes and an amazing cycling partner.  What else do you need?

New Orleans skyline from across the Mississippi River
Paul Bunyan Trail - Minnesota
Hillman Ferry campsite check-in Land between Lakes, Kentucky

We never seemed to have enough and we often felt hungry....or has we liked to call it HANGRY - that point in time when hunger and anger intersect and your only focus is on refueling.  Because of our choice in routes, choosing to travel back roads, we were often grocery shopping in gas stations.  At times we felt we were on a fad diet of Snickers and Gatorade.  The upside to the hangries - when you do have the opportunity to feast, especially on fresh fruit and veggies, it tastes amazing and you appreciate each and every bite.  We discovered that when we were able to eat well, our cycling strength and moods improved dramatically.

Can't beat oatmeal!
It was an unsettling feeling when we ran out of water and obviously not part of the day's plan.  It shocked us how much water we drank, especially when we were battling the 3 H's -  heat, humidity and hills.  We were always extremely grateful to those who offered to refill our water bottles.  We were constantly reminded of how fortunate we are to live in a country where fresh, cold, clean water is plentiful.

The Economy
Our goal was to travel the back roads, as a way to avoid traffic but more importantly we sought out opportunities to meet local people and learn about their towns and history.  These small towns have really been hit hard by the economic recession and the impact of big box stores within driving distances.   We saw many stores, restaurants, and gas stations for lease, for sale or simply boarded up.  We felt quite sad as we passed these obvious signs of hardship.  However, the majority of people we met in the towns were positive and resilient.  They were often born and raised in the area and were determined to stay and work to bring the town back to life.  We were frequently shocked at the contrast between poverty and wealth that we witnessed along the way, and always touched by the generosity of those who appeared to have little material wealth.  Those who had the least to give always gave the most!

Being chased by dogs during a cycle tour is inevitable.  We discovered the likelihood of being chased increases dramatically when going uphill.  We tried everything to deter the dogs, including:

-sprinting (harder to do when going uphill with a fully loaded bike)
-slowing down
-smooth talking

The bottom line - nothing seemed to work. We learned to keep pedalling and hoped that the dog was fun loving, looking for a friend or would tire out before biting us.  We got to the point that as soon as we heard the first bark, we would pray for a fence, a leash or an owner who could control their pet!

The Blog
As we mentioned previously, we initially started our blog as a way to connect with family and friends.  Over the course of time, the blog has grown in scope.  Many other cyclists, bike enthusiasts, tourists and city tourism specialists have expressed interest in our route and experiences.  We were shocked to learn that we have thousands of page views to date and people from the following countries have been reading our blog:
  • Canada
  • United States
  • Russia
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • United Kingdom
  • Australia
  • France
  • South Korea
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Bulgaria
  • India
  • China
  • South Korea
  • India
  • Spain
  • Bulgaria
  • Uruguay
  • Japan
  • Israel
  • Ukraine
  • Malaysia
  • Portugal
  • Vietnam
  • Sweden
  • Brazil
  • Taiwan
  • Grenada
  • Poland
  • Indonesia
  • Nepal
  • Philippines
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Malta
  • Romania
  • Mexico
  • Mauritius
  • Belarus
  • Finland
  • Nepal
  • Belgium
  • Uzbekistan
  • Ukraine
  • Austria
  • Panama
  • Jordan
As our blog has taken on a life of it's own, we have been amazed and impressed by the willingness of the cycling community to share information and support each other.....whether you are planning a short day trip or a multi-country tour, people are willing to provide route information, tips and often places to stay.  We welcome the chance to support and encourage others to get out and ride!

Cypress Swamp - Natchez Trace

Random Thoughts

Things we missed:
  • the kids
  • fruit
  • veggies
  • fresh whole wheat multi-grain bread
  • ice
  • the Ocean and White Rock Beach
  • our kayaks
Things we didn't miss:
  • TV
  • cell phones
  • to do lists
  • detailed schedules
  • city hustle and noise
  • traffic
  • bills....although we know they will be waiting for us upon our return
  • email
  • world news - with the exception of the NHL playoffs
  • driving - especially paying for gas
Things that made us smile:
  • fresh blacktop
  • ice cold water
  • flat terrain - or LONG downhills
  • tailwinds
  • hot showers
  • trail markers
  • dedicated bike lanes
  • good directions and good signage
  • standing MOOs (we found that when we passed the cattle ranches, the cows would stand at attention and give us what we came to term a standing MOO)
Things that made us go "hmmmmm":
  • Exactly how many flavours of gatorade are there and how many different sizes of gatorade bottles?
  • How is that a bug can get between your eyeball and your sunglasses when you are going downhill at 30mph?
  • Why is that when you finally summit a hill after climbing for what feels like hours that on your last gasp for air a bumble bee will fly in your mouth?
  • Is the Piasa bird really a turkey vulture?
  • How fast is a mosey?
  • How far is down yonder?
  • Is "stay safe" a form of greeting or a warning?
  • Does Muddy Waters have a hidden meaning? or is it just muddy water?

  • ....and last but not least......where should we go next?....our next kedge?

  • Wednesday, June 19, 2013

    Sailing, Sailing over the Ocean Blue - Victoria, BC

    Day 41 - Victoria Clipper - Seattle, Washington to Victoria, British Columbia

    Rob continued to be determined to never retrace steps so we were in a quandary on how to complete the last leg of our trip.  We brainstormed different route options and decided that a leg on the Victoria Clipper from Seattle to Victoria was the answer!

    We booked passage for 2 and reserved space for our bikes.   We had a few hours to spend in Seattle before our sailing of course, we decided to cycle.  Seattle has a fantastic bike path along the ocean front and we jumped at the chance to explore the City by bike.  We even managed to find a section of beach where we could dip our tires in the Pacific....our celebration of sorts!

    Tire dipping celebration - Pacific Ocean - Seattle

    Cruise ship terminal - Seattle, Washington

    View of the Space Needle from the Seattle bike path
    The Clipper is the way to travel between Seattle and is fast, the on board service is superb and the views are terrific!  

    Victoria Clipper boarding area

    Victoria clipper leaving downtown Seattle for Victoria

    Our plan was to disembark and cycle to visit with the A Team.  (our amazing family).  We patiently waited for our bikes, cleared customs and exited the building ......and then we got the SURPRISE of a lifetime.  Standing at the exit doors were our kids, Ian and Emma, Rob's folks, sister Nancy and brother-in law Paul.  I was so excited and thrilled that I was literally shaking.  Rumour has it that I let out a scream of joy, but I am convinced that I was calm, cool and collected!

    It was Father's Day and I can't imagine a better gift for Rob!  We hugged and laughed and hugged some more.  The A team put on the most amazing dinner as we celebrated Father's Day x 3, Emma's birthday, Marco's birthday, our trip and last but not least we celebrated our nephew Luc being certified as a Commercial pilot.  In fact, in order to pull off the surprise of the century, Luc flew Emma and Ian from Boundary Bay to Victoria.  Unfortunately, Adam and Marco weren't able to be with us due to work and school commitments, but we are sure they were there in spirit and we thought of them often.

    Welcome Back Party with Tourism Cafe team - Victoria, BC

    Giggle of the day:

    The giggles were plentiful that night and as we sat back and watched the gang chatting and laughing we reflected on our trip.  Being surrounded by family and laughter was the perfect end to our tour and a poignant reminder that .....there's no place like home!

    ......even if it is laundry day!

    Tuesday, June 18, 2013

    Are we there yet? - Seattle, Washington

    Day 39 and day 40 - Coast Starlight Line - Los Angeles, California to Seattle, Washington

    Union Station - Los Angeles

    The Amtrak Coast Starlight ride from Los Angeles to Seattle is absolutely breathtaking.  As we travelled out of Union Station in downtown Los Angeles we anxiously awaited our first glimpse of the ocean...and it was worth the wait!  There is something about the ocean that seems to call out to us and we quickly moved to the observation car to secure the best seat possible.  We rounded a turn as we approached Santa Barbara and there it was ... the glorious Pacific - white sand beaches, waves rolling in, surfers, beach volleyball, sandcastles and beachcombers!   Rob even saw a dolphin playing in the surf.  It literally brought a tear to my eye, as I felt we were home.  Our conversation quickly turned to kayaking as we longingly watched the miles of ocean roll by.

    View of the Pacific Ocean from the Coast Starlight

    We spent time with Jiapeng an international student from China, studying at Emporia State in Kansas.  Jiapeng was a delight to travel with as she brought such passion and enthusiasm!  She had a bright smile and a quick laugh....valuable traits for those on LONG train rides!

    Jiapeng and Jane in front of a private car attached to our train
    The ride was incredibly scenic...from ocean to the majestic forests of northern   California and Oregon..Mount Shasta.  A couple of volunteer interpreters joined us in Klamath Falls, Oregon and shared fascinating stories of the local history and natural surroundings.

    Although we had been behind schedule for much of the trip (to the disgust of the type A personalities on board) our conductor absolutely cranked up the engines for last leg from Portland to Seattle.  We arrived back at King Street station ahead of schedule and feeling like we had come full circle.  We anxiously awaited for our bikes to be unloaded and made our way to the Best Western hotel in Pioneer square.  This hotel is also a National Historic site, so it felt like the perfect and fitting place to bunk down for the night.

    We watch nervously as our bikes are unloaded from the train

    We found some delicious Chinese food and hit the sack!  We have another 2 days of travel before we get home and with luck we will make it in time to celebrate Emma's 19th birthday!

    Best Western Pioneer Square - Seattle

    Giggle of the day:

    We were seated directly in front of a first grader travelling across country with his Grammy.  They were on their way to Seattle to pick up her grand daughter and then were planning to train across country to New York City.  (very, brave Grammy)  The little man kept us in stitches with stories of what he was planning to be when he grew up - the President, a basketball player, a train conductor and a teacher - a MUSIC teacher.  We were serenaded on an hourly basis to the sound of him singing..."stand proud...stand strong!"  Let's just say he has our vote for President!

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    Amtrak Coast Starlight Train

    Sunday, June 16, 2013

    The Long and Winding Road - Amtrak - Sunset Line

    Day 37 and 38 - Amtrak -Sunset Limited - New Orleans, Louisiana to Los Angeles, California

    We arrived at the Amtrak station excited to be crossing the southern states by train.  We all know the saying...."the best laid plans...."  Well, never a truer word has been spoken.  Last night, there was a train derailment and a bridge had been damaged near Beaumont,  which meant our travel across the Bayou by train, was now an exciting 7 hour bus ride to Houston, Texas.  To say people were NOT happy is an understatement.

    Our bike boxes loaded onto the bus....this side up?

    We loaded our buses and were delighted to discover that an older lady on our bus had taken control.  Miss Carol, as she liked to be called,  was a tiny, little thing with a POWERFUL spirit and quickly set down the ground rules, and I quote:

    You are now MY people so here are the rules:

    -No one gets off the bus.  We ain't losing anyone.
    -No number twos in the bathroom.  Only number ones.  We ain't having a stinky bus.
    -Keep my floor clean
    -If you are a smoker, this is a good time to quit because NO ONE GETS OFF THE BUS!!!!!

    We arrived at the Amtrak station in Houston and several passengers had to handle more bad news.  The air conditioner in the First Class cabins was broken and passengers with these tickets were being downgraded to coach.  Tempers flared and the 3 hour wait to board the train became a study in human nature.  The majority of people handled the bus situation and wait well and we shared laughs with numerous fellow passengers, but there are always a few that adversity seems to bring out the worst in.  I was glad that we were able to see the humour and enjoy the wait.

    Passengers disembark bus and wait for train in Houston

    At last - we board the train!
    The day ended on a high as we arrived early in San Antonio....GO SPURS!  Our fanastic Amtrak attendant Cindy encouraged us to head over to the River Walk.  We had a 3 hour rest stop, so we spent the time exploring downtown San Antonio.  It was a beautiful midnight walk and a terrific way to stretch out before heading back to the train.

    Sunset Station - San Antonia, Texas
    It was fun to watch the landscape change as we began to cross Texas, New Mexico and venture in to California.  This train line has been running for 125 years, and we learned about the history of the Wild West and how often this train had been robbed.  We spent time in the observation car, which has been coined the schoolhouse, as people in the car share their knowledge (real and imagined knowledge) about the area.

    Word in the schoolhouse was that if you were quick, you could get off the train in El Paso and find a lady who sold the best burritos in the State.  Sure enough...there she was and we swear almost every passenger disembarked the train to purchase the homemade burritos.

    Brisk Burrito sales in El Paso
     As we continued on the route followed the Rio Grande along the Mexican border.  We laughed as kids on the train were so excited to see Mexico. 

    View of Mexico from the train
    Our stop in Tucson gave us enough time to venture in to town.  We found a little sports bar and enjoyed a nibble while watching the first half of the Spurs - Heat NBA final.

    The Ritchey Hotel

    Before heading to bed we visited the observation car and enjoyed a cocktail as we watched the sun set.  Our last morning treated us to views of countless windmill farms in the Palm Desert area.  

    Wind Farm
    We are several hours behind schedule and our fingers are crossed that our connection to the Starlight line will be successful!......if not, we may need a couple of days in Disneyland to regroup? 

    Union Station - Los Angeles

    Giggle of the day:

    Our bus sergeant major, Miss Carol, finished her rules speech with this line:  "I don't want any complaining, you just thank The Lord for what you got!".....and we DID!

    Miss Carol delivers lunch

    We thought riding a bike 80 miles, uphill, against a head wind, without water was hard......ironically our muscles were stiffer when we got off the  bus!

    AMTRAK New Orleans to Los Angeles

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