One of my favourite parts of traveling is meeting new people and hearing their travel stories. My time in St. John’s was no different. I was staying at City Hostel in a 5-bed dorm room and I started chatting with one of the girls in my room named Alex Loewen (Blog:funincorporated.wordpress.com, Instagram:@maloew) a teacher from British Columbia. She had such an interesting story and I had so many questions that I asked her if I could interview her for the blog, as I knew so many other people would love to hear about her travels. What I was so fascinated about was that she’d spent the entire summer (83 days in total) cycling across Canada alone! It seemed (and still seems) so incredible to me! What an amazing adventure, read on to hear all about it!
AWA: When did you officially start the trip and when did you officially finish?
AWA: 83 days, wow! Why did you decide to bike across Canada?
Alex: I decided to bike across Canada because I was feeling uninspired. It was my first year in my career and I felt like now that university was over I could see the next 30 years in front of me – working nine to five and living for the weekend. I felt stifled. So to reclaim my freedom I decided to take a grand adventure.
AWA: How did you first come up with the idea, since you told me you weren’t much of a cyclist before this trip? Most people wanting to go on an adventure would go backpacking through Europe or Asia, not cycle across the second-largest country in the world!
Alex: I had two friends that I knew had done this trip, so talking to them was the spark. What appealed to me was that it was an adventure that didn’t require years of preparation in the sport (for example, you wouldn’t just decide you’re going to go mountaineering on a whim). I knew how to ride a bike and the rest I could learn online and along the way.
AWA: That’s true. How long did you spend preparing and what did you do to prepare?
Alex: I had the idea in March and a month later I committed to making the idea a plan. Most of my preparation was acquiring the gear and knowledge required for a journey like this. I spent a lot of time reading cycle touring blogs and shopping for gear online. I didn’t train for the trip beyond a day-long trial ride to get a taste for the rhythms of long distance biking. At the end of that day I thought to myself, “Yeah, I think I would like to do this for a summer.”
AWA: Wow (that word will be repeated a lot, lol). Before talking to you, I would have thought it required a lot of physical preparation, so it’s nice to know that really anyone can do it without a lot of training.
AWA: How much time was there between deciding to do it and actually leaving?
Alex: I decided to do the trip mid-April and left July 5. So 2.5 months.
AWA: That’s not a lot of time to prepare, especially when you’ve never done this type of trip before!
AWA: What are the main blogs you were reading to prepare, in case anyone else wants to do this kind of trip? What was the app you used so your parents could keep track of you?
Alex: Really useful blogs are reddit/bicycletouring and crazyguyonabike. These are forum/journal type websites where other people list their blogs of their own trips. bikingacrosscanda.ca was also a great source of specific information. Life 360 in the app we used.
AWA: Did you use a regular cell phone or a satellite phone? Were there ever times that you didn’t have service?
Alex: I used my normal cell phone. There were only a 2-3 places that I was truly ‘off the grid’ without reception, but most of the highways I traveled were relatively populated.
AWA: How much money did you save for the trip?
Alex: I saved about $3000 for the trip, which is less than I would have spent on living expenses normally. So it was actually cheaper to travel than to stay put this summer.
AWA: Wow, that’s cool. I’ve definitely never “saved” money while traveling, lol.
AWA: You decide to do this grand adventure and now it’s time to let your loved ones in on the plan. How did your family and friends react when you told them?
Alex: At first my family didn’t believe that I would do it. But then as I started to invest in a bike and the camping gear they realized that I was actually going to try. My parents didn’t want me to go alone, so to ease their anxieties I installed an app on my phone to share my location with them at all times. Throughout my journey they were very supportive. My dad even rode the first day with me. I had so much support from my friends in my life too. There wasn’t much time between my decision to do it and the beginning of my trip so I think most people found out over social media. People I hadn’t spoken to in almost a decade were reaching out online and encouraging me on my way.
AWA: That’s so cool that your dad joined you on your first day, what was it like to have him there with you?
Alex: Having my dad ride with me the first day was awesome. I wish he could have done the whole trip with me. Part of me was a little self conscious because I was still so inexperienced with my bike (my first day was the first time I ever used clipless pedals) and I wanted to prove to my dad that I would be able to handle this. But he was nothing but supportive on the first day through to the last.
AWA: You’re very lucky to have people that were so supportive and encouraging. What did the support from family and friends (including ones you hadn’t spoken to in years) mean to you? Did it help you along the way?
Alex: The overwhelming support was far greater than I anticipated. I expected it from my loved ones, but all of the sudden I felt like I had been elevated to a celebrity status; everyone wanted to talk to me, help me, encourage me. I realized that people were interested and watching, and that if I gave up, everyone would know. The support kept me accountable. It kept at bay the inevitable loneliness of spending so much time alone. And it was really rewarding to see how my journey was a positive influence for more than myself.
AWA: How was your trip a positive influence on others?
Alex: My influence extended to the people that followed my journey on social media and people who I met along the way. I had so much encouragement and positive messages from people thanking me for sharing my journey. If anyone wants to read what I posted they can check out my daily updates on Instagram (@maloew). It’s been weeks since the end of my journey and I still have people coming up to me and telling me that they were inspired by my ride.
AWA: What an amazing feeling that must be, to know you’ve inspired others.
AWA: How were the first few days of the trip?
Alex: The first few days were among the most memorable, and looking back at them, I see myself as a foolish and stubborn woman who didn’t really know what she was doing but was going to try anyways. There is no easy route out of Vancouver, and the mountain passes were beyond challenging to a novice cyclist packing 50 lbs of gear on a bike. There were days that I cycled 6 hours uphill. It made me seriously question what I was getting myself into, thinking that if I was struggling with the first couple of days, what will the rest of the summer be like? But my body adapted quickly and by the time I was through BC the most challenging terrain was behind me.
AWA: Phew, that sounds exhausting, 6 hours uphill! What was a typical day like?
Alex: Get up at dawn, take down camp and pack my bike, have a little breakfast, and get on the road without delay. Cycle until there is a dinner for second breakfast. Aim to have 60 KM in before 10 AM, before the bugs, traffic, and heat are at their worst. Break for lunch. Cycle another 20 – 40km and then nap in the shade of a tree. Cycle another 20 – 40km to a town for the night. I would aim to be done cycling around 4 so I could check out the town, restock provisions, eat, scout out a place to sleep before it got dark, and take time to write in my journal, call my loved ones, and read. It is a simple but satisfying routine.
AWA: You mentioned earlier that your body adapted quickly, what changes have you seen in your body?
Alex: After the two weeks of mountain climbing in BC I could feel that endurance was lengthening and my core was strengthening. When I weighed myself for the first time in Alberta I had actually gained 5 lbs. Then over the course of the trip I lost 20 lbs.
AWA: Did you do any kind of stretching before or after you cycled for the day? Did you use any pain relievers?
Alex: I really should have stretched more. Often at the end of each day I was so exhausted that even stretching seemed like a huge chore. So when I would wake up it felt like I could hardly bend. It’s funny how you can have the discipline to ride 120 KM/day but not be able to force yourself to stretch. I did carry Advil with me which helped when the mountains took a toll on my knees and when PMS struck hard.
AWA: Lol, I’m the same way, I always tell myself that I will start stretching more regularly when working out and then I can’t be bothered and I regret it the next day, yet repeat the cycle over!
AWA: What kind of stuff did you pack?
Alex: I packed the minimum. The heaviest things were the camping supplies (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, stove and propane) and food. I had two pairs of cycling shorts and jerseys, one ‘normal’ outfit to wear on rest days or if I wanted to eat at a pub after riding. Even bringing a book to read made me feel guilty for the unnecessary weight. But it really teaches you that you can be content with almost nothing (another principle I’m trying to apply to my post cross-Canada life)!
AWA: Yeah, I remember you saying that if you were buying food and trying to choose between two kinds, you would choose the one that weighed the least!
AWA: Did you ever have to start a fire for warmth?
Alex: Never started a fire while on the road. Fire wood was a hassle to find and carry. Plus it really was never too cold, until it was late September in Atlantic Canada. But even then, I just wore more layers instead.
AWA: I get that, I did the layer thing while traveling in Europe because I didn’t want the hassle of carrying a winter jacket with me for 3 months, when I’d only really need it for maybe 2 or 3 weeks.
AWA: Since you were doing a lot of camping, how did you wash your clothes?
Alex: I would stop at laundromats along the way. I was surprised at how many small towns had laundromats! And I actually looked forward to this chore because it gave me a time to just relax, look over my maps, and feel productive without doing very much.
AWA: You don’t often hear someone say they were looking forward to doing laundry, lol.
AWA: And where would you shower?
Alex: I had some very kind hosts along the way, both through my personal connections and ones made on warmshowers.org. Usually I would be indoors once or twice a week when I would shower. Along the prairies in July I noticed that almost every small town along the Trans Canada Highway had an outdoor public pool. I’d pay for the admission to the pool just to use the showers.
AWA: What a great idea!
AWA: 3 months of cycling 100-140km almost every day , did you ever have any equipment malfunctions?
Alex: I didn’t have too many equipment break downs. I had the normal flat tires and such. On Prince Edward Island a cable snapped that shifted the gears so my 30 speed bike became a 3 speed bike. It was at this point that I really realized how hilly PEI is!
AWA: Oh man, that would really suck! Of course it happened in a more hilly area, lol.
AWA: What did you do on rainy days? Did you take a rest day? Or cycle in the rain?
Alex: On rainy days I still pushed on, usually travelling a shorter distance. I kept a close eye on the weather radar that predicts rainfall and some days I could time my riding before or after the rain. But in September that became unavoidable and I spent several days in the rain.
AWA: That must’ve made for some very cold, miserable days.
AWA: Speaking of rest days, did you stop anywhere along the way?
Alex: I took some rest days along the way to check out the sights. One of my rest days was in Winnipeg! I went to the Forks and the Manitoba Museum to rest, sight see, and celebrate my birthday! Other rest days were in Lethbridge, Kenora, Thunder Bay, Ottawa, and Quebec City.
AWA: As a proud Winnipegger, it makes me so happy that you spent your birthday in my city!
AWA: Did you cycle mainly on trails or on main roads?
Alex: Because of my bike I stayed primarily on pavement. I tried out the TCT (Trans Canada Trail) here and there but trails are a lot slower than pavement.
AWA: How did you navigate on your journey? Did you have a physical map with you or use the gps on your phone?
Alex: Each time I got to the next province I would go to the visitors centre and pick up a paper map. This came in handy when trying to calculate daily distances and rest stops and jotting down notes from locals. I also relied a lot on my phone for trying to find specific addresses.
AWA: How were you able to charge your phone and any electronics you had?
Alex: I kept my electronics charged with a external battery. It looks a bit like a little metal brick and it would power my phone for three complete charges. I would plug it in at restaurants and overnight when I slept indoors.
AWA: So why do the trip alone? Did you ask anyone to do the trip with you or had you decided from the beginning that you would go alone?
Alex: Originally I planned on doing this with my childhood friend, but because of personal circumstances in her life she was not able to drop everything and go on a crazy bike trip with only 2 months notice. Originally she was committed before she realized that it wasn’t realistic. She had even bought a bike and everything. I was already invested too so when she decided not to go I was already set on the idea and was going to go anyways.
AWA: That’s too bad that she wasn’t able to join you, I’m sure she was disappointed. But good for you for deciding to go ahead and do it alone. A lot of people would’ve just given up.
AWA. How hard was it mentally to do the trip alone? Because unlike backpacking where you can expect to meet people in hostels, etc…., you really were mostly alone.
Alex: There were lonely times, but it was not a lonely trip. Sometimes the mental struggle was knowing how much more was ahead of you, especially when things weren’t going well. I didn’t find that I was really focused on the finish line, which probably helped.
AWA: Kind of like the one day at a time philosophy in rehab. Much easier to accomplish something if you break it down into smaller segments.
AWA: So traveling alone is hard enough, but it’s always a bit scarier when you’re a female traveling solo. What was it like for you cycling alone as a woman?
Alex: Traveling alone as a woman had some perks and some disadvantages. People are more likely to help out a female cyclist (as some of my male cycling friends readily pointed out when I told them that someone paid for my breakfast or let me stay in their spare room). So there were times where I got special treatment because no one perceived me as a threat. But not being threatening also meant that I felt more vulnerable. Overall, I think Canada was the perfect place for a woman to try out cycle touring. It wasn’t foreign enough to ever feel like I couldn’t find help if I needed it.
AWA: I see what you mean, definitely pros and cons to being a solo female traveller.
AWA: What kind of wildlife did you encounter while you cycled?
Alex: I saw some wildlife, but less than I expected. I saw a bear in northern Ontario. A moose in Newfoundland. Foxes, eagles, and a whole bunch of really cool birds across the prairies. There were nights where I heard wolves howling. Unfortunately the wildlife included a lot of rotting road kill that I had to get past. There is no way to describe that stench.
AWA: Omg, I never even thought of the roadkill, that must’ve been horrible!!! Yeah, I’m okay with not knowing how that smells, lol.
AWA: Were there any scary moments during your trip?
Alex: There were plenty of scary moments! Camping in the dark alone. Transport trucks speeding past you on the highway. Deer flies chasing you. Fear of people texting and driving. Wolves howling at night. Strangers following you. Running out of water in a heat wave. The fear of being alone with only your thoughts all day every day. Not knowing where you’ll sleep each night. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of getting robbed, Seeing a bear run across the highway in front of you. And fear of failing to reach your goal when everyone at home is watching you. But what is an adventure without fear? I only feel confident in making decisions if they scare me and force me out of my comfort zone.
AWA: That’s a great attitude to have, so many people are afraid to do things out of their comfort zone!
AWA: What did you do when you ran out of water in the heat wave?
Alex: When I ran out of water I had just crossed the Manitoba/Ontario border. There really isn’t very much for services between Winnipeg and Kenora, and even the places I did stop didn’t have potable water. I should have just bit the bullet and paid for a couple of bottles, but I hate paying for water and I was on a budget. I was planning on making it to Kenora in one day but the sun set before I got there and I set up camp on the border. I had to use most of my remaining water to cook my dehydrated camp meal that I kept with me in case of emergencies. When I went to bed that night I had a weird dizzy feeling, kind of similar to feeling drunk, but didn’t think much of it. Looking back now I recognize that I was probably dehydrated. The next day I had to make it to Kenora before there were any services. It was a hot day, and I still had roughly 50 KM to go without water. So I just kept riding. Eventually I came across a truck weigh scale. Luckily it was open and the attendants were very kind. They let me refill all my bottles. I was lucky to have come across them.
AWA: How very stubborn of you, lol, and kind of dangerous, you could’ve been very sick! I can’t really chastise you too much though, because I tend to do the same thing. I also hate paying for water and contributing to the plastic floating in the oceans.
AWA: So I take it you didn’t bring any kind of water filtration system with you?
Alex: I brought a SteriPen UV light water filtration system. I didn’t end up using it once though! Still, it afforded me a sense of security. I brought 4 water bottles with me, but only really used 2 because gas stations were frequent.
AWA: You also mentioned strangers following you, did that actually happen?
Alex: Yeah, there was a time that a guy asked me out for coffee to which I politely declined. He wouldn’t leave me alone until I became agitated. We were in a shopping mall in Nova Scotia and I decided to lock my bike up and kill some time in the grocery store, hoping that he would be gone by the time I returned to my bike. But instead he just sat at the table and waited for me. I was pretty worried. I packed up my groceries and adjusted my mirror to see if he was following me. With him being on foot I was able to lose him quickly.
AWA: That is incredibly scary, I’m so glad you were able to get out of the situation safely. Unfortunately, this is an all-too common occurrence for females, whether you’re alone or not. That recently happened to a friend and me in Amsterdam.
AWA: Did you ever want to give up? Or come close to it? Or had days where you really thought you might not be able to finish?
Alex: There were certainly days that I didn’t want to continue. At the beginning the mountain ranges scared me and I thought that I had gotten myself in way over my head. I met a man at a rest stop in the mountains. I told him that I had a really hard day yesterday and he told me that I was going to have 15 days like that between now and the end of my trip. I don’t know why or how he determined that number, but that conversation anchored my perspective in the sense that it prepared me for hard days, but that they wouldn’t break me. I promised myself that if I had more than 15 days where I wanted to seriously just give up and end it, then I would consider it, but until I hit that number giving up wasn’t an option. So I never got to the point where I thought I was going to give up, but I did have days where I needed to stop and just say, “that’s enough for today, we’ll try again tomorrow.”
AWA: Wow, how amazing to have had a conversation with a stranger at the start of your trip that completely shaped how you faced the obstacles in your journey and helped you to push through those challenging days and not give up.
AWA: You gave yourself an out at 15 hard days, how many hard days did you actually have?
Alex: I would say there were at least 5 brutally hard days where I just didn’t want to go on, which is only 6% of the journey, so that really isn’t that bad!
AWA: 5 out of 83 isn’t too bad at all!
AWA: So what was your favourite part?
Alex: It’s hard to choose just one, but I really enjoyed the rhythm of living outside. It made me feel so connected to the world around me because I noticed everything – a slight shift in the wind, a little change in the road’s gradient, the clouds and how they foreshadowed the future. I was a part of everything around me, and it made me feel so grounded, humble, and alive.
AWA: That sounds incredible. And what was your least favourite part?
Alex: There were plenty of challenges, but I’m not sure which one was the worst part, mostly because responding to the unforeseen challenges was one of the thrills of this kind of trip. But if I had to choose one, I would say setting up my tent alone in the dark. That always gave me a fear-of-the-unknown kind of discomfort. Being alone on this trip in general was a difficult part, but I wouldn’t say it was my least favourite because I learned a lot about myself in the process.
AWA: Yeah, putting up a tent in the dark doesn’t sound like fun. But what a great answer about the challenge of being alone on your trip.
AWA: You mentioned how you only feel confident making a decision if it scares you and forces you out of your comfort zone, what other things have you done that have scared you?
Alex: Since I was 16 I was keen to go new places, but I first started pushing my comfort zone when I took a study abroad year in England in my 3rd year of university. From there I traveled around Europe, at times by myself. After that I traveled to India which was certainly out of my comfort zone. Just before my trip I moved to a small town alone, which was also very unfamiliar to me. I like pushing the limits and seeing how I respond.
AWA: That’s a great way to live your life, always pushing yourself to try new and scary things. I can’t wait to see where else it takes you.
AWA: What have you gained from this experience?
Alex: It’s been two months since the end of my trip and I am still discovering new things that this experience has given me. Perhaps the most significant one is that when I look into the future, I have the confidence to dream, and to dream BIG. Cycling across Canada seemed impossible, but I taught myself that it wasn’t. Now when I look into the future I now see impossibilities as potential opportunities.
AWA: What advice would you give to someone considering a similar trip?
Alex: Enjoy the journey! Don’t get too caught up in the statistics game where you stress out about putting a certain number of kilometers behind you. And document it! A trip like this changes a person, and it is easy to think that because you are in your own country that you don’t need to try to capture the journey the same way you would on a trip abroad, but no matter where you go and what you do, memories fade. Keeping a record will keep the journey alive for you and allow you to share it with others for years to come.
AWA: I do the same, I always write down what I’ve done, where I’ve been and with who. I love reading old journal entries/email or blog updates and remembering adventures I’d forgotten I’d had.
AWA: If you had the chance, would you do it again?
Alex: In a heartbeat. I’d love to do this trip each summer as a guide with a tour company!
AWA: Are there any companies that offer that kind of experience?
Alex: There are companies out there that will support your tour with designated places to camp, prepared meals, and they’ll transport all of your gear so you don’t have to ride with it. I haven’t done too much research about these companies. I’m thinking of working at a bike shop so I can get some training on bike repairs and maintenance and then be a tour guide/bike technician. Best summer job ever?!
AWA: Probably not MY ideal summer job, but it sounds like it’s right up your alley, lol!
AWA: Is there anything you would do differently next time?
Alex: Next time I would like to try to do a bit more preparation on the social media front. I had the attention of my own circles but I think it would have been interesting to share it beyond who I know. We see so much across all types of media about the negative. After a while you begin to accept that the examples we see in the news are a proportional representation of real life. But that isn’t really the case. Most people are good people, or at least harmless. I think if you have an authentic message and people’s attention, you should use it to spread positivity.
AWA: That’s a great idea! I will totally follow you.
AWA: Lastly, any ideas for you next big trip?
Alex: I’m playing around with the idea of doing a continent each summer until I circumvent the globe by bike. So right now I’m seriously considering doing a Europe trip next summer.
AWA: Now that would be really cool. I might even consider joining you for part of it, I always did want to cycle across the Netherlands!
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all my questions and sharing your journey with me, I couldn’t have asked for a better first interview. I look forward to hearing/reading about your next adventures! If you want to know more about Alex’s trip (and future trips), check out her blog at funincorporated.wordpress.com and/or follow her on instagram at @maloew