Canada’s prairies have plenty of big sky and sprawling fields of wheat and canola as far as the eye can see.
What they don’t have much of is water and shade.
This week has been a record-setting heat wave, and it has been a potentially dangerous for the ConnecTour bicyclists on a tour across the country. On Tuesday, we struck out from Hanna by 6:30 a.m., trying to beat the intense mid-day sun. The first two hours were golden, and we set a lively pace, but by late morning the merciless sun was taking its toll. No amount of hydration seemed to be adequate for the environment we were bravely soldiering through.
We had travelled roughly 80 kilometres by the time we arrived in the little hamlet of Chinook, Alberta – a once-thriving town that is now home to 11 households – and we took shelter beside the community hall. Allison and I were the first to arrive, and we found a municipal water supply that would dispense 55 gallons of water for one loonie. That was a deal that was too good to resist, and we refilled our bottles with the cool gift of life.
As the others arrived, we found the shady side of the community hall and laid out lunch. A couple of us, suffering from physical and heat exhaustion, laid down and passed out for a few minutes of respite. In turns out, grabbing that nap was a fortuitous move.
As we were preparing to remount our bicycles for another 30-kilometre ride to the next town, we were approached by a Jeep Liberty. Out hopped Hank Gunderson, with a bag of ice in one hand and a dozen bottles of water in the other.
“Are you folks all right?” he asked, as we approached us. “You scared me there.”
He said he had seen a couple of us laying on the ground and feared the worst – that a couple of us had experienced heat stroke. He was coming over to see what he could do.
Such unexpected generosity is what makes this ride so exceptional.
We took Hank’s water with thanks, but he wasn’t satisfied. He insisted that we stop by his house so we could cool off under the garden hose, before we continued our ride.
That’s when neighbour Rick Brown stepped in. You’re not really planning to head back out into this heat, he asked. “I’ve got a great campsite back here.” It turns out he also had a backyard pool, and was more than happy to share a few drinks and burgers over the barbie.
We looked at the thermometer above the pool. It read 39 C. It didn’t take us long to decide our ride for the day was done.
On a long-distance ride, it is always possible to get caught in the “need-to” agenda. We need to be in Kindersley by Thursday. We need to stay on the schedule.
But common sense also tells you that you need to listen to your bodies and not push them beyond safe limits. We took Rick up on his generous offer and pitched our tent under some shady trees for the night. There, we learned about his career in the military, what brought him to Chinook – a hamlet that is a long way from anywhere – and how people who live in small towns learn that every neighbour is their friend.
When it’s minus 40 and the power goes out – as it often does here – neighbours make sure you’ve got a warm place to stay until it comes back on. And that can be a long time.
When strangers show up, and they look like they’re overheated, you welcome them into your home. It’s what caring people do.
Canada Day is about to be upon us. Somehow, I feel like what we have experienced here says so much more about Canada than some ceremony on Parliament Hill. I’m falling love with this country all over again.