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Vancouver cyclist recounts 1986 ride from Cochrane to Innisfail

Editor's note: The below is a submitted article from Vancouver resident Eric Sorila, who embarked on a bicycle trip from Cochrane to Innisfail in 1986. On the Way On May 10, 1986, a glorious sunrise shimmered over Vancouver B.C.

Editor's note: The below is a submitted article from Vancouver resident Eric Sorila, who embarked on a bicycle trip from Cochrane to Innisfail in 1986.

Alberta bound

On May 10, 1986, a glorious sunrise shimmered over Vancouver B.C.

I had just read two books on the Canadian Prairie: As For Me and My House (1941) by Sinclair Ross and W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind? (1947). As a west coaster, these books inspired me to learn more about the Canadian prairie. Shortly afterwards, I booked a trip to Alberta, with plans in my mind of completing an epic bicycle ride.

I packed an old CCM bicycle into a large cardboard box and took a 690-kilometre Air Canada flight to Calgary. My good friend from Finland, Hannu Ahonen, met me at Calgary's airport and drove me 35 kilometres west to Cochrane.

At that time, Cochrane was a ranching town of just 5,000 people with a promising future. Today the town – which was established in 1903 and named after a local rancher, Matthew Henry Cochrane – has a population of more than 34,000.

Back then, Cochrane was still very much a cowboy town. As much was confirmed by the life-sized bronze-statue of a man on his horse overlooking the town. Once we arrived, I thanked my friend Hannu and started pedalling. I was proud of my Canadian-made bicycle – CCM bicycles have been made in Toronto since 1899.

A cyclist was a strange sight in that landscape, but Alberta welcomed me with open arms. I was carrying a large old plate film camera and a Bible in my backpack. There was one more book in my pack. You would not guess which one!

As I began my quest, Highway 22 rolled ahead of me over hills and valleys. This terrain is known as the foothills of the Rockies. Downhill, a prairie wind whipped my cheeks and tousled what little hair I had left. Uphills had to be walked as my bicycle had no gears. That was when I noticed the enchanting prairie wildflowers growing by the roadside. Each strand of grass seemed to whisper in the summer breeze, “this is Alberta”.

Pushing my bike slowly up steep hills allowed me to soak in the scenery. Alberta grows so much canola, which is later made into oil and many other products. Ripe yellow canola fields are a sight to remember, like oceans of yellow swaying in the breeze.

Very few cars were on the road, reminding me that I was in pick-up truck country. Along the road, bird houses were nailed to fence posts. All kinds of birds flitted around these nests. Swallows, finches, yellow warblers and blue birds guarded their nests. Magpies – not common in Vancouver – showed up as well.

The magpies reminded me of a favourite Finnish author, Juhani Aho (1861-1921), whose book The Railroad was published in 1884. A  phrase at the beginning of the book states, “There is a magpie squatting on a tree top, head short and thick buried inside its feathers”.

The magpie was not in a hurry. Neither was I. Birdsong and sunshine on my back make the best travelling companions.

I travelled directly north. To my left, 75 kilometres away, rose the Rocky Mountains. They looked like the serrated edge of a lumberman’s saw.

Dusk descended on the prairie as I arrived in Cremona. The village started in 1906 with a blacksmith shop and a cheese factory. I was reminded of the town in Italy which carries the same name. There, Stradivarius (1644-1737) crafted some of the world’s finest and most famous violins. Some violinists still prefer a Stradivarius, though the price tag for one is an eye-popping $1 million dollars. There is no apparent connection between the Canadian Cremona and the Italian one, at least that I know of.

In the village centre, there was a light brown wooden hotel. I walked in, and the pleasant aroma from a sizzling hamburger steak in the restaurant kitchen beckoned me to eat. Following a hearty meal, I climbed up the wooden stairs to my room. It felt like a well-protected nest under an immense prairie sky.

I moved the chair to the window. After showering, I rested my weary feet on the windowsill. Pure bliss! I breathed the fresh air, absorbing the serene prairie landscape into my very being. Right here was the peaceful prairie atmosphere I came to search for. Slowly and silently, dusk fell over the immense prairie sky and I fell blissfully asleep in the wide bed.

Sweet Caroline

After breakfast the following morning, I soldiered on in the direction north, toward my final destination of Innisfail. The saying, “Sunny Alberta” proved to be true. The terrain levelled off and I pedalled hard, feeling like the king of the road. There was hardly any other traffic. Gas stations and cafes along the road provided occasional snacks, fuelling me forward.

On the second day of my journey, I pedalled 63 kilometres. I arrived in Caroline at dusk. In the middle of the village of about 400 houses, there was a large building. On the front was printed a slogan: “Kurt Browning Arena”. That was how I learned four-time world skating champion Kurt Browning came from this area.

I rented a room from an old wild-west type hotel. The manager was a pleasantly plump Polish lady who kindly welcomed me. There was a bar at street level. Since I‘m not a drinker, I ordered tomato juice and a meal. I didn't want to be weaving on the road the following day!

As in Cremona, I climbed up the stairs to my room after the meal. I knew the mountains were now 100 kilometres east, although I couldn't see them.

A snowy surprise

I didn't find beautiful scenery in the book I decided to read that evening. The book was Mein Kampf, written by Adolf Hitler during his stint in Landsberg Prison. It was not peaceful reading, but I finally fell asleep.

In the morning, I woke up and could not believe my eyes. It was May 15 and the ground was covered with a thick blanket of snow. About eight centimetres of snow had fallen overnight.

My journey temporarily halted, I rented the room for another night. Lacking winter clothes, I enjoyed the warmth of the hotel room with the disturbing book I had started reading the night before. To deal with snow during a mid-May bicycle trek was unexpected, but I was in no hurry.

By the following morning, the efficient Alberta road plows had cleared the fast-melting snow and I was on my way once more.

In Innisfail

I pedalled directly east. Snow-covered fields appeared as flat as a table top. Riding along Highway 54, I passed the quaint villages of Raven and Spruce view. At some point in the afternoon, I arrived in Innisfail, a town of 7,000 inhabitants located not far south from Red Deer. My destination was a stone’s throw away: my sister Mirjam and her husband’s farm on the outskirts of town.

It was wonderful to spend a few days with Mirjam, Vern and their three boys. I gave Christopher (the eldest) my bicycle and returned by Greyhound bus to my home in Vancouver, 1,080 kilometres away.

More than 35 years later, this 165-kilometre bicycle trip is still embedded in my memory. It was a trip that provided me the peaceful feeling of the prairie and the opportunity to see my sister! Sinclair Ross and W.O. Mitchell would have been pleased.

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