HALIFAX, Nova Scotia – The secret to stress-free travel is to keep logistics from getting complicated. So I kept the plan to leave the country simple: Canoe 300+ miles through the Adirondack Mountains, across Lake Champlain, upstream eastward through Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire into Maine. Then ride my bicycle to Edmundston, New Brunswick and catch an eastbound hotshot freight trains to Halifax, Nova Scotia where I’d booked a budget flight to Iceland which would be my launch pad to the Eurasian continent.
This plan was hatched after an earlier scheme to catch a ride on ex-French navy tug boat from Alaska to eastern Russia was frustrated by Soviet-esque red tape. So with a Russian visa burning a hole in my passport and having already quit the job in Alaska I’d have to go the other way to get to Mother Russia.
The three-week canoe trip was hardly uneventful: screaming mosquitoes, bloodthirsty leeches, breached dams and low-water were just some of the challenges in what proved to be a very enjoyable slog. I’d go into more detail here but these exploits will soon be made into a major motion picture to be released next spring.
So, after resting a couple of days in Maine, I shuttled a car to Fort Kent, Maine where the canoe trail ends and my intrepid friends would be taking out of the water.
From Fort Kent, I crossed the Saint John River to Clair, New Brunswick. After pedaling the 25 miles to Edmundston I had settled in the bushes to wait for one of two daily eastbound hotshot freight trains to take me to the Maritime province of Nova Scotia.
Having a bike in tow complicates things as there are very few kinds of rail cars that have enough room for both bike and rider. Trying to stay hidden as I have a history of running afoul Canadian National on this very route, I hunkered down in the rain just west of the yard. Dumb luck put me right in the path of some CN workers but one of them told me (in French, then English) to watch out because they’d be switching cars and didn’t want to run me over. I assured him I’d stay out of the way and they left me alone probably thinking I cut a pretty pathetic character in soaking wet rain gear bivouacked in the tall grass as the rain poured down.
After more than 10 hours of waiting along the tracks where I had long conversations with myself, I heard the rumble of a heavy train thundering up the Saint John River Valley. Trying to keep from hyperventilating from over-excitement I clutched the overloaded bike and got into position. A long, sleek train with stacked shipping containers – no doubt bound for the Port of Halifax – slid up the single-track and into the yard for a crew change. To my dismay most of the containers were on long rail cars that I find unsafe, exposed or uncomfortable to ride. Near the back of the train I spotted a lone 48-foot container known for having a large well that in past experience is perfect for bike-and-rider.
The train came to a halt and I checked my watch figuring I’d have about 10 minutes to clamor aboard. It’s a narrow stretch of track and the gravel was slick from the rain as I pushed the bike up toward the 48-foot container. I kept slipping but managed to reach the rail car. I tried to lift the bike but – and I knew this would happen – I wasn’t strong enough to lift it over my head with the pannier packs still attached. I started to unfasten the bags when I heard the train’s air brakes pressurize. It was ready to roll.
Somehow I managed to lift the bike high enough to pitch it over the side where it landed heavily into the well of the rail car. I soon followed landing hard on the cold steel floor. The train pulled and accelerated quickly through the twilight. I checked my watch: four minutes had passed since coming to a stop. Not much of a window-of-opportunity but just enough when you’ve waited 10 hours in the rain and don’t want to wait another 10 for the next eastbound.
The train moved quickly through the darkness barley slowing as we rushed past small Acadian towns. About six hours later we pulled into Moncton’s rail yard. The air went out of the train and I was sure I’d be stranded. The mosquitoes moved in to feed and I hid in the bottom of my sleeping bag. Two hours later we pulled out of the yard as dawn was beginning to break. A little more than six hours later the train was slowing to a crawl in the outskirts of Halifax. That’s where I dropped the bike overboard and landed next to it with a heavy thud so as not to end up behind a barbed-wire fence in the city’s port.
The past few days have been spent fine-tuning the bicycle for the trip around Iceland. The first order of business will be to try and put the bike back together and head north for a festival in the fishing town of Dalvik where this remote northern Iceandic town treats more than a hundred thousand people to a free fish buffet.
A lot of trouble for a free lunch? Hardly.