For this year’s edition of the annual ice-up ride, I decided to explore a new (at least, to me) section of the North Saskatchewan River valley, the area beneath the Henday bridge close to the neighbourhood of Cameron Heights. I’ve often cycled along the paved path under the bridge and noticed a patchwork of trails near the shore and through the woods. And with the river water so low lately, I’ve noticed that there’s enough dry shoreline that a person with, say, a fat bike could probably ride for quite a while right next to—and occasionally into—the water. So that’s what I did on a recent sunny Sunday morning just before the first big dump of snow.
Riding shoreline, I discovered, entails a very particular kind of rambling--super-slow, constantly navigating around big rocks and ice-blobs, stopping occasionally to carry the bike over big boulders or across little (frozen) streamlets emptying into the river. It’s more like a roll-and-stroll or hike-a-bike than an actual ride. I probably only went about a kilometer before turning back. But I loved it. The sun was shining, the ice was doing its lazy, mesmerizing dance, and I was completely alone. It felt like a different world down there, a secret one, a beautiful one, with its own surprising soundtrack.
As any fisherman, goldpanner, or kid will tell you, being on the shore, at the convergence of water and land, is a very different experience from being just near it, up on a trail, no matter how close. The shore is where things happen: skipping stones, finding treasures, getting soakers. Alas, the signs of human intrusion are inescapable--the Safeway bags, Tim Hortons cups, and Budweiser bottles. But the shoreline has so much going on that it's easy forget, down there, if only for a few minutes, that you're in the city at all.
But the best part of being down along the water during ice-up is the sound. The chunks of ice floating downstream rub against each other and up against the ice forming along the shore, and in so doing, they make eerie scraping noises—deep, subterranean, scritchy sounds, surprisingly loud and difficult to isolate exactly. Like a ventriloquist throwing a voice, the amoebic river ice tosses its sound effects off into the distance somehow. I kept thinking that the fricitony sounds must be coming from some mysterious watercraft or some other extremely fat bicycle rolling behind me, as unlikely as either of those possibilities seemed. Numerous times I found myself looking around to see just where the sounds were coming from, even though I knew, on a rational level, that they could only be emanating from the slow-moving ice beside me.
On my way back to the car, I met a fellow (road) cyclist crossing the pedestrian bridge. As we rode side by each, we chatted about the glorious day and the late riding season. He commented, as so many still do, on the fat bike and expressed his curiosity about it. "I bet you can go all kinds of places on that thing," he said. I thought about telling him where I'd just been, but instead I just smiled and said, "You bet."