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Biking from U of T to Niagara Falls

The best plan B
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The CN tower is like Toronto’s fingerprint — an icon that’s instantly recognizable. Living downtown, the CN tower is inescapable, and it’s hard to get lost when you can just look up and use it to reorient yourself. 

But when I looked over my shoulder on November 7, prior to Toronto’s new lockdown restrictions, the CN tower and the rest of Toronto’s skyline were gone. I was far away from the university — just me and my bike. Reading week was turning out great. 

My journey started at U of T’s front gate — the CN tower in full view. I had a burning desire to do something worthwhile during reading week, and a solo bike trip from Toronto to Niagara Falls fit the bill. Some say that reading week is for studying, and maybe I wish I had studied, but camping in my room doing online learning had left me eager for an adventure.

JESSE MCDOUGALL/THE VARSITY

At first, I planned to go with friends to the University of Toronto Outing Club cabin, which is a two-hour car ride from the city. Miraculously, it was all coming together, but prior to our departure, someone remembered their dental appointment, another had a job interview, and somebody’s grandparent had a stroke. That’s fair enough, but I was left stranded. This was the moment of truth, and it was up to me whether to give in or move forward. What did I do? I made a plan B. 

These days, transportation is restricted, but I figured nothing could stop me on my bike. Last summer, our neighbours unearthed a road bike from their garage to give to me. It was 20 years old. Nevertheless, I biked through Vermont and New York and rode it all around Toronto this fall. Suddenly Niagara Falls fell into my sight, and I was up to the challenge. 

Then, I packed. Two pannier bags fit above my bike’s back wheel, and I filled them with clothes, water, a cell phone battery, and even a book I thought I might read. But who was I kidding? Later, I realized that I even neglected to pack spare underwear or socks, but I didn’t mind. These are the virtues of travelling alone.

JESSE MCDOUGALL/THE VARSITY

I planned to stay in Airbnbs along the way — although I’d never gotten one before — and as luck would have it, a mutual friend named Rebecca offered me a place to stay in Hamilton. I figured everything would fall into place, and now all I had to do was pedal. 

I left U of T on the first day and coasted down Spadina Avenue toward Lake Ontario to meet the Martin Goodman Trail headed west. It was beautiful out and many people were walking beside the glistening water. Soon, I crossed the Humber Bay Arch Bridge into new territory and followed the winding path along the shore. Everyone seemed glad to be out in the sun, and I was free as a bird knowing that I just had to get from point A to B, but inbetween, I could do whatever I pleased.

JESSE MCDOUGALL/THE VARSITY

Later, I met a friend named Nick from a U of T Spanish class who had worked with me on a group project. We talked and biked, crunching over fall foliage, until we reached Oakville, where he had to turn back. Before splitting up, we ordered burgers, and I found it funny that after meeting over Quercus, we actually met in person. Making friends sure takes more effort than last year, but it’s possible. 

The sun was nearing the horizon, and I took off for Hamilton, playing some motivational tracks through my earbuds. Rows upon rows of suburbia blurred past, and before long, I got to Burlington. Swerving through evening traffic, I turned left onto a strip of land separating Lake Ontario from Hamilton Harbour. That night, people were out on the Waterfront Trail enjoying the warm beach and the night air, and that was when I looked back to see that Toronto had disappeared. It felt good, but I still had to get into Hamilton before dark.

JESSE MCDOUGALL/THE VARSITY

Rolling down Hamilton’s bumpy roads, I flicked on my front and rear bike lights to flash in the gathering dusk. Dim orange street lamps led me onward, and with a little determination, I found Rebecca’s address. The first day was over, and I was in a new city with only my bike and a single pair of socks. I didn’t know what tomorrow would bring, but this was one hell of a reading week.

On day two, I got up, thanked Rebecca profusely, and climbed on my bike with Niagara on my mind. Leaving Hamilton, I happened to stop beside some pear trees full of ripe fruit. After flinging my helmet to knock a few down, I ate one and stuffed several others into my bag on top of the unopened book. A benefit of spontaneous adventures is that everything feels unexpected. Elaborate plans can make a trip feel like a chore, and being surprised by these little pears added to my determination.

JESSE MCDOUGALL/THE VARSITY

Outside of Hamilton, I turned onto North Service Road, an exceptionally boring road stretching to the horizon. I’ve found podcasts great for cycling, and Rebecca had recommended one the night before. The perfect antidote for a solitary bicycle ride is a seven-part podcast with hour-long episodes, and I ripped right through that one.

Thirty kilometres later, I passed an outdoor flea market with antiques and used toys. An older man peered at Persian rugs laying in the grass, and a kid dug through a box of Legos. Everywhere, people were searching for something old that they could repurpose, and I glanced back to my old bike leaning against a billboard. That bike came from deep in my neighbour’s garage, and right then, it had carried me 100 kilometres from Toronto without complaining. Plus, I got it for a lot less than the price of those Persian rugs. Thankful for my secondhand ride, I got back onto North Service Road and kept on.

JESSE MCDOUGALL/THE VARSITY

My podcast was getting intense as I crossed Twelve Mile Creek into St. Catharines, but I switched it off to find the Airbnb. The room I rented was simple, and after checking in that afternoon, I flopped onto the bed, wondering if I had it in me to get up and bike to Niagara. To reduce weight, I unloaded non-essential gear from my bags and left St. Catharines for Niagara Falls. 

But suddenly, after only two miles, I felt my back tire jolt and deflate. Scrambling beside the road, I replaced the tube, only to find that my hand pump was dysfunctional, and I spent 45 minutes knocking on doors asking to borrow a bike pump. All the momentum I’d gathered melted into a puddle around me, and I slowly walked my bike all the way back to my room. It was going to take more than a flat tire for this to become the reading week that I almost saw Niagara Falls. 

On Monday morning, Liberty! Bicycles opened, and I was at the door gesturing to be let in. The shop was empty, but I met Kurt, who recognized my Toronto bike shop stickers. He drew me a map to Niagara, and I bought a new pump just in case. The night before, I’d felt alone walking my bike back, but now I had an ally and travelling alone doesn’t really mean you’ll be alone. The people you’ll meet are just as friendly as those back home, and Kurt even gave me a sticker as proof. 

Niagara Falls was getting closer every minute as I biked down an empty road with vineyards on either side. The road got wider, and as I reached the top of a long hill, I saw a city shrouded in a faint mist. I was nearly there! Speeding through the streets, I finally heard the thundering sound of Niagara Falls.

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I was relieved to get to Niagara Falls at last, but it was freaking cool, too. Green water rushed over the precipice and erupted into a rainbow from the gorge. Plus, I had a great sense of accomplishment knowing that the plan I had dreamed up had actually worked! Thoughts of school assignments were pushed to the far corners of my mind, and I could finally feel the cool mist billowing up from Niagara Falls. 

Fulfilled and happy, I made for Hamilton via the wonderful North Service Road, my triumph at Niagara pushing me onward. Lonely-looking tail lights passed me in the twilight, but I was perfectly happy keeping myself company. It was dark as I pulled into Hamilton, and going to sleep, I found that I wanted to see the familiar Toronto skyline again.

JESSE MCDOUGALL/THE VARSITY

I woke up to an empty house, as Rebecca had gone to work, and packed my bags while I looked over my photos from the day before. They told a story that I’d set my mind to something and done it — setbacks and all. With that in mind, I climbed on my bike and got the heck out of Hamilton. 

Hours later, I could see the CN tower if I squinted, and soon I was back on familiar ground. The many kilometres I’d covered and that demoralizing flat tire fell back into the past as I rounded the corner toward the university. At last, I stopped in front of University College and my journey was over. The reading week dream was a dream no longer.

JESSE MCDOUGALL/THE VARSITY

These days, people are finding themselves separated from others, and I’m here to tell you that solo adventures are just as rewarding as any other. It really doesn’t matter where you go, who you go with, or how you get there. Regardless, you’ll feel more confident and courageous the moment you get home. This winter break, no adventure is too small, and if you travel alone, no one can laugh at you for forgetting extra underwear.

JESSE MCDOUGALL/THE VARSITY

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