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O Canada
10,000 miles from coast to coast

by Bertrand Lemeunier

By the summer of 2006, it had been 5 years that I’d been in Montreal. Knowing of my desire to travel this vast nation of ours, my friend Claude Morissette asked me how I would do it. Jokingly, I answered “by bike”!

What was really just an off the cuff comment was given serious consideration just a few short days later.

I began by calculating the distance between Montreal and Vancouver; 4,500 km. As I researched this project my attraction to this nation’s provinces and territories grew and I decided that it should embrace the entire country, from coast to coast to coast.

As such, what began as a planned journey encompassing 4,500 km turned into one covering 7,500 then 13,000 and finally over 16,000 km! Once the adventure was firmly-rooted in my mind, I began to explore whether or not I was actually capable of such a feat. I thought three days of testing myself would be enough to reach a decision. The first day, I rode 50 km and felt quite comfortable. The next day, I doubled it to 100 km, the first time I had ever ridden this far. The third day, I pedalled what was to me an astounding 180 km! There was some back pain but I was convinced that I was perfectly capable of doing 16,000 km, even against prevailing winds and even if it was my first bicycle tour.

Just a few months before I had realized my first Canadian dream; publishing a book of photographs about Montreal entitled Français de Montréal. This coffee table book published at Les Editions La Presse was my first collaboration with my friend Eric Clement, a reporter at the Montreal French daily newspaper La Presse.

To me, the word “dream” is the most profound in the English language. In a quest for meaning beyond my personal dream, I joined forces with the Children’s Wish Foundation in order to raise funds for their cause. To help me in this, I had financial and material backing from several sponsors: DeVinci (my bike), Arkel (my panniers/baskets), VIA Rail Canada (Churchill visit for the polar bears) and Parks Canada.

From the date of inception to the day my journey was to begin, ten months had passed and on May the 11th midnight, trusty bicycle at my side, I am ready to go. My Montreal-St. John’s plane has just landed at the Newfoundland’s capital airport. I pick up my bike panniers (baskets) and my precious bicycle. Then, I head to the far eastern point in North America, the famous Cape Spear. I discover the lighthouse standing out in the dark. A fog horn is blowing to the boats at sea to take care approaching the island.

At this time, I don’t really understand how important this first pedal stroke is. Millions of them will follow, with hundreds of amazing encounters, everywhere in each province; Olympic Summer Games biker Albert Leblanc, famous sculptor from Regina Joe Fafard, Magdalen Island artist Arthure, Newfoundland savior of oil-stricken birds Stan Tobin, singer Heather Rankin, First woman Prime minister of Nunavut Eva Aariak. These are but a few of the amazing people I had the pleasure of meeting on this journey.

Along the way, you have to spend some time thinking about where and what to eat and drink and where to sleep. Rest was found in my tent, in a field on the side of the road, in a fisherman’s hut, behind a lighthouse, in a tepee, in the snow, on the water, and even in an igloo!

From the eastern coast of Canada to the famous Cabot Trail in Nova-Scotia, I’ve been astonished by the splendor of the landscapes, generous gifts of nature to this land.

This part of the country is very rich with large and beautiful coasts: water everywhere and always! What a pleasure to take a break and to walk along these large beaches where Lucie Maud Montgomery wrote her world-famous stories! What a delight to tour Gaspesia and Lake Superior, further west, the world’s largest freshwater lake.

What a joy to discover the vastness of the sky in the Prairies where, sometimes, I was only moving forward at 6 km/h because of the headwind. And the purity of the fields are rife with those famous cathedrals that are grain silos. Then one day, without warning, the horizon becomes perfectly straight. Demanding so much effort in the winter at minus 30 degrees Celsius, the Rockies, like an impenetrable wall appear, magnificent and glorious.

Each day, up hill and down dale, rain or shine, was a challenge. Added to this was the knee pain I’d been living with since the first few weeks. I still recall the: comment shouted from a woman in Percé, Québec., “You’re far from done, it’s all uphill !”

Nine months later, on the 3rd of February, 2008, my feet and my wheels are in the Pacific Ocean. To leave is one thing, but you also have to know how to come back. I decided to return east by plane, from the North.

Therefore, I decided to visit (without my bike hopefully) – the Great North where the soil is free of snow only one season in four, where northern lights dance in the sky, where nature is wild and fragile, and where life is a daily challenge.

Coming back from China in 1950, French photographer Henri Cartier- Bresson, said: “We thought the best way to travel was to do it slowly and living locally with the people.” And so this is how I too, chose to explore our great nation. These Canadians I met during my trip welcomed me, helped me, encouraged me and guided me. They were and are an inspiration, a real happiness.

This adventure was a solitary experience but it became meaningful thanks to theses people. Discovering new identities and new cultures is the genuine way to identify a country to its inhabitants, to a welcoming tradition and finally to a soul. This is why I decided not to stop the trip straight after the pied-a-terre (field trip on foot), but to go on with the self-edition of a book I realized finally three years after the first pedal stroke.

I asked my good friend Éric Clément from La Presse to help me produce the book and we launched it October, the 6th,, 2010. It is entitled O Canada, 10,000 miles from Coast to Coast and is our second collaboration, the first being Français de Montréal, a coffee table book published in 2005, at Les Editions La Presse.
This book expresses our profound love for Canada, this land which has welcomed us with open arms and is now our home.

Editor’s Note :
A 250 page bilingual book, O Canada, 10,000 miles from Coast to Coast shows the beauty of Canada, its most amazing and unique landscapes and introduces the reader to 30 Canadians, all of different origins and professions, whom Bertrand Lemeunier met on his trip and whom Éric Clément interviewed from Montreal by phone.
The book can be bought only by email, at www.bertrandlemeunier.com.