Ride for the Breath of Life 2020

There is a normal rhythm to the Edmonton Ride for the Breath of Life (especially when you are bunking with the ride organizers).

Let’s do this!

The day starts early. The alarm goes off at a pretty unacceptable 6am. Time for a shower and a coffee and a last minute check of the supplies (and a double-check of the condiments and salads, right, Shannon?) and we’re on the road by 7am. A very full day ensues, and by the time all is said, done, toted and packed away, you’re arriving back home at about 5pm. Just in time for the cocktail hour.

In between there is check-in (and catch up). A poker rally (which is an enormously fun way to entice additional donations from the riders). The ride, with several stops at supporting business along the way. At the end, a barbecue lunch at one of the many community halls in rural Alberta, usually somewhere in the vicinity of Pigeon Lake. Overall, it is a day of community, support and celebration. The people that are there care, and they care a lot. It’s not at all unusual to have members of the community who aren’t in the ride still show up at the launch to wave us off, and be there to greet us at the hall as we ride in.

In terms of overall length of day, my ride this year was remarkably similar. In all of the details, it varies considerably.

2020 is the fifteenth anniversary of the Ride for the Breath of Life for cystic fibrosis. It’s a significant event in the CF community year, and normally raises about $30,000 for research. Most people that participate in the ride are part of the CF community. They have family members with CF, partners with CF or they have CF themselves.

They are a close-knit community. They know each other, support each other, help each other. They celebrate the successes together, and they mourn the losses together. They are a community I have come to know, and they’ve in turn come to know and welcome me. I started my involvement as “friend of Abe” and now I’m just Mark.

I’ve been participating in the Edmonton ride for more than a decade (my first ride was in 2006 or 2007) and have participated in more than ten of them (including every one since the tenth anniversary ride in 2015). Given the milestone, I was looking forward once again to this year’s ride. My ride usually starts the day before, flying to Calgary, borrowing a bike, riding to Edmonton, doing the ride, and then reversing my steps.

With the pandemic this year, things didn’t play out quite this way. March should have been prime organizing season for the ride. Most of the fundraising happens in the final weeks of May and the early part of June. Given the general prohibition on gathering, and the complicating factor that CF is a respiratory disease and many in the CF community are also immuno-compromised, and any form of community activity can be filed under the category of “Not Really A Good Idea At All.”

The dedicated and the die hard.

Note the bikes practicing physical distancing.

The Edmonton CF team decided to stage the ride anyway, but to make it virtual. People could ride on the ride date, or any other day in June. A small group of intrepid adventurers still got together on the planned Edmonton ride day, and rode the traditional route. The rest of us are creating our own rides, on our own routes, in support of what remains an incredibly important but often less-visible cause.

My ride was on Sunday, 28 June. Actually, my ride was going to be the Saturday, but impending thunderstorms resulted in a slight postponement; score one for the advantages of virtual rides. I had plotted a route some weeks prior, that would take me to Tobermory—at the tip of the Bruce peninsula—and back to my home near Woodstock. Total round trip was roughly 600 kms. A long ride, but not an undo-able one. I’ve done longer before, and I no doubt will again.

An early start saw me riding through the farmlands of Perth County. It’s a gorgeous landscape, and at 7:30am it was a very empty landscape. Apart from the Mennonites on their way to Sunday service, and a handful of suicidal squirrels that I nonetheless missed, the roads were astonishingly empty for the first couple of hours.

One of my rules of riding that I adopted a while ago (and has resulted in discovering some amazing roads I wouldn’t otherwise have known about) is to “go where the GPS tells me.” It knows to avoid motorways, and otherwise opts for the fastest route. That starts as a usually reasonable path at the start, but the more I miss a turn and it is forced to recalculate, the more remote and isolated the roads it seems to find. I interpret this a form of technological passive-aggression, more than a consequence of Ontario’s odd and highly illogical rural grid system.

Made it! Covid hair and helmet hair are a dangerous combination.

My route up was the more direct one. A confluence of quiet traffic, not much being open in the towns I passed through, and my enjoying the early morning ride meant that I only stopped once briefly to fill up with gas. Apart from that, I headed straight through to Tobermory, arriving at 11:00am. A little more than 3.5 hours for a convoluted 300kms of backroads was pretty good time. As the day warmed up and people emerged to enjoy the summer Sunday sun, I planned on a more leisurely and relaxed return trip.

A charming little coffee stop for a break.

Tobermory. A gorgeous little corner of the world.

Tobermory was a hive of activity. It’s a popular summer destination at the very tip of the Bruce peninsula. It’s one of the most popular dive spots in Ontario, as well as attracting boaters, campers, hikers and tourists. Fathom Five National Marine Park was the first declared national park in Canada that is underwater, not on land. I managed to find a coffee and a quiet and shaded bench to enjoy it on while I contemplated the remainder of my ride.

Off the beaten track. Where great motorcycling roads live.

There is only one main highway in and out of the Bruce peninsula. Highway 6 runs all the way from Hamilton at the eastern tip of Lake Ontario all the way to Tobermory at the northern tip of southwest Ontario. If you are going to the Bruce, you are taking Highway 6 to do it. It was quiet when I came up in the morning, but would be filling up rapidly as I set out again at midday. My alternative route was a meander to Owen Sound, first taking County Road 9 through Lion’s Head to Wiarton, and then Grey Road 1, a gorgeous road around an unnamed southern peninsula that juts into Georgian Bay. (It may, of course, actually have a name and I just don’t know it; what I do know is that in the heart of it is the “Slough of Despond” which is one of my favourite-ever names for a body of water).

Mark in his happy place.

For motorcyclists, the general criteria for a good road is “remote, circuitous, windy and empty.” County Roads 9 and 1 absolutely fit the bill. They are absolutely stunning roads, and the scenery is incredible. Judging by the houses along them, the real estate prices are probably also stunning, but I was just passing through. Mostly.

A gorgeous spot to stop for a picnic lunch.

At an intersection of Grey Road 1 and itself, I found an amazing stopping place called the Kemble Women’s Institute Lookout, at the top of an escarpment that looks out over Georgian Bay all the way to Owen Sound. It’s a delightful picnic area with an unusual sculpture, and a fascinating story. A stone table is set for tea, and a plaque recognizes the oldest still-operating Women’s Institute in the world, and its founder, Clara Gardner.

Landscape with tea.

Dedicated to the longest serving Women’s Institute in the world.

Unfortunately, all great roads need to end somewhere. Grey Road 1 took me to Owen Sound. From there, I reconnected with Highway 6, heading south through Durham, Mount Forest and Fergus until Guelph. From there it was time to head east, through Kitchener and back towards Woodstock. I arrived home just before 5:00pm, just like on so many rides past. My total distance was 626.5 kms.

Getting closer to home now.

This year’s ride was unquestionably different. I missed the community and the camaraderie of the Edmonton ride. There are faces that I expect and hope to see every year, and that I missed this year. But it was a great ride and a glorious day. I was happy to contribute to an incredible cause, and I’m stunned and grateful for the support I’ve received.

In a difficult and challenging year, the ride has done astonishingly well. Overall, the Edmonton ride has raised more than $25,000. My team, who ride for Abe’s daughter, Erica, have together contributed more than $17,000 of that, and today sit at 97% of our overall goal. As I write this, I have the support of more 47 amazing people who have collectively contributed a total of $3,467.30.

And done.

Thank you to everyone that supported me. It means a huge amount to me, to Abe and Erica, to the Edmonton ride, and to the whole CF community. I was the one riding the motorcycle, but it is all of you that made it possible and worthwhile.

A ride to the edge of the world and back.

One Comment to “Ride for the Breath of Life 2020”

  1. Jim Duggan says:

    Thank you for sharing your story Mark. Looks like you had an amazing trip through a part of Ontario many of us westerners do not get to see, and, for a wonderful purpose!

Leave a Comment