We hadn’t been up to Canada since Covid so we thought we’d take a trip up to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario for some biking, kayaking and wine tasting.
I can remember back when you didn’t even need a passport to cross the Canadian border but it hasn’t been that way for a long time. Since Covid you also need to go online and register on the ARRIVECAN system. Fortunately I looked this up before hand, saving us an embarrassing incident at the border. It’s pretty painless. You go online, register your passport and Covid vaccination status. Only took a few minutes. When you cross the border they scan the barcode that the app spits out.
Canada’s loss rate from Covid is less than half what ours is so I don’t blame them for not wanted a bunch of dirty furriners spreading disease around.
Once that was done we loaded up our trusty 2009 Audi A4 Avant aka “the Barbie fun wagon” with our tandem bike and inflatable kayak. It’s about a 7 hour drive from Columbus Ohio up to Ontario if you go via I-90 through Buffalo.
Since the last time we drove up there they have replaced the toll booths on the New York Thruway (I-90) with cameras that read your license plate. I registered with them online and finally got the bill a month later. For a while there I was afraid I might be a fugitive from the state of New York.
We crossed the border near Buffalo and headed up to St. Catharines, where we had a vacation rental waiting. I’ve never had any trouble crossing into Canada. The only times I’ve gotten attitude from a border guard is on the way back into the US.
In case you’ve never been there, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a cute, touristy little town that sits on the Canadian side of the Niagara River where it empties into Lake Ontario. Being nestled between lake Erie and Lake Ontario tempers the climate enough for the Niagara region to have a large wine industry.
We like to stay in nearby St Catharines because it’s less touristy and also more affordable. We were able to rent a nice house in St Catharines for the price of a hotel room. Our hosts were a very nice couple named Brian and Richard and their dog Arlo. Arlo and I quickly became best buddies, but I suspect he likes everyone.
We’ve had mixed results with vacation rentals and Bed-and-Breakfast but I’d say the positives outweigh the negatives. This was definitely one of the nicer ones we’ve rented.
On a previous Ontario trip we had booked what looked like a really nice Bed-and-Breakfast out in the wine country. When we arrived they told us “we’re putting you in the annex”.
Turned out the annex was a couple miles down a country road and on top of a bar. But it gets better. The bar had a live band that played until well after midnight. Right under our room. Then the heater in the room went out sometime around 3:00 AM on a chilly fall day in Ontario. The next morning the owners got to see my “bad side”. Fortunately that has been our only truly bad B&B experience.
(Narrator’s voice) The only bad one so far…..
The first day we planned to ride down to Niagara Falls, repeating a ride we had done five years prior. It’s a pretty easy 15 miles from Niagara-on-the-Lake down to the falls, mostly on bike path. There’s one pretty good climb where you cross the Niagara Escarpment but it maxes out at 7.5% and we’ve done worse.
I have never visited the American side of Niagara Falls. I have always been told that it’s, shall we say, past its prime. The Canadian side is nice but it’s a huge tourist trap.
We decided to take the roads on the way back north because the bike path was pretty bumpy and everywhere it crossed a drainage ditch it had a narrow bridge that was hard to navigate on a tandem.
Day 2 was supposed to be kayak day and of course it was raining that morning. We went into town and played tourist until the rain let up in the early afternoon. “We dragged this thing all the way here and we’re putting it in the water dammit.”
The story behind the inflatable kayak is that we wanted a kayak but live in a condo with limited storage space. The inflatable type seemed like a good option. Folds up into a duffle bag and doesn’t take up much room in our garage. With an electric pump we can set it up in about 15 minutes.
Good ones aren’t cheap, but the good ones are real kayaks and not beach toys. Not the kind of thing you’d want to take down the rapids but great for lakes and calm rivers.
We had hoped to take the kayak on the Niagara River to make up for our unsuccessful attempt 5 years prior. Long story short - 5 years ago our previous inflatable kayak sprung a leak, cutting our excursion short. Fortunately we’d splurged on a good one that had two floatation chambers and could stay afloat on just one in a pinch. We made it back to shore without having to practice my USAF water survival training.
Unfortunately on this trip we couldn’t find a decent place to put in on the Niagara River. If anyone lives in that area and knows a good spot that doesn’t require a 4x4 to get to I’m all ears.
Instead we headed over to Martindale Pond, which is just west of St Catharines. The launch point was a bit muddy but we got the kayak in the water and paddled around a bit. Got to see a Bald Eagle so it was worth the trouble.
Day three the weather was perfect and we planned another bike ride. This time we started at the Welland Canal, went south along the bike path and then worked out way onto the roads through the wine country. Eventually we made a big loop up to Niagara-on-the-Lake and then back through the vineyards to St. Catharines. After stopping to sample some of the local Cabernet Franc, with is probably the best thing they make up here.
We hated to leave St Catharines because our hosts were so nice and we really liked where we were staying. We made sure to check out some real estate in case we have to flee the country in a few years during the Greene/Boebert administration.
We hadn’t been to Toronto since pre-pandemic so we had planned a long weekend there before heading back to the States. I booked us a nice room at a hotel on the waterfront (rhymes with restin’) at an exorbitant price. I think there was a music festival that weekend, but then there’s always something like that going on in Toronto.
Arriving in Toronto on a Friday afternoon was when things started to go south in a hurry. First off, the city has had a big growth spurt in recent years and it’s a mess of construction and traffic. Much worse than I remember from previous visits.
When we pulled up to the hotel it was a zoo. I think they were hosting a convention (because of course) and the parking valet was beside himself. He told me they didn’t have any more oversize parking spots and they didn’t have any place to store our tandem bike even if we took it off the roof. I would have taken it up to the room but no way was it going to fit in an elevator.
Accepting defeat, I let him send me to a surface parking lot next door. This was mistake #1.
Now as I tell this, keep in mind that in aviation we like to talk about a “chain of events”. Usually there are several points at which the chain of events can be broken, preventing an unfortunate result.
I sent Mrs. Kong up to the room with our luggage (mistake #2) while I took the car and navigated the construction to the parking lot next door.
The attendant told me they were rented out for an event and not taking any cars over the weekend. He suggested I go next door to a parking garage. I pointed to the bike on the roof and asked about fitting into a parking garage. He assured me “a truck will fit in there”. I believed him (mistake #3).
Well, you can probably see where this is going by now. In my defense, I knew the bike was on the roof and I swear I thought I had clearance. It was a steep ramp going down to the parking garage which made the entrance look taller than it was. Plus there was a car behind me and I let myself get in a hurry (mistake #4) and the rest was a horrible sound of metal hitting concrete.
In the Air Force we used to say: one “oh shit!” cancels a hundred “attaboys!”.
In one massive screw up I managed to trash our beloved Co-motion tandem and our trusty Barbie fun-wagon.
The lady in the car behind me said she yelled “stop” but of course I didn’t hear it with my windows up. Being a polite Canadian she probably never thought to use her horn. (In New York and Boston they learn to use the horn before they learn how to start the car.)
As you can see from the picture, the tandem carrier tore lose from the roof rail and the whole assembly pivoted back, hitting the tailgate and buckling the roof of the car. At the same time the roof rack came lose from the rails and moved about six inches back.
Now I’m sitting there with a tandem bike rocking back and forth like a seesaw while the parking garage attendant yells at me to get off his ramp. I managed to restrain myself which is why I’m not writing this from a Canadian jail.
I managed to back the whole mess back up the ramp and pull off to the side to assess the damage. Roof rack is trashed, bike looks bad but is probably fixable (it was). Car is definitely damaged. Oh well, if you’re going to screw up might as well do a proper job of it.
A “helpful” postal worker said “Careful eh! You could lose your bike!” I shot laser beams from my eyes and disintegrated him. Well, not really, but I would have if I could. That last thing I need at this point is someone telling me what in idiot I am. Trust me, I know.
After a couple frantic calls I managed to get Mrs. Kong to walk over from the hotel. No way could I do this by myself.
First order of business was to get the tandem carrier re-attached to the roof rack. Four bungee cords and a cable lock would be sufficient to get us home. Then we had to heave the bike off the roof so we could move the whole roof rack and cargo carrier assembly back to its proper place. Finally the bike had to go back on top.
The tandem has a steel frame so the damage was limited to scratches on the fork. The handlebars and brake levers had been pushed out of alignment, the headset felt loose and I didn’t have the proper tools with me to fix any of this. Bike was definitely out of commission for the rest of the trip. (I was able to fix it once we got home).
So now that damage control had been accomplished we still had the problem of no place to park. We made our way back to the hotel and I explained our dilemma to the first management looking type I could find. They found a spot for the car out front of the hotel, where it stayed. Any thoughts of riding the tandem or using the kayak in Toronto were out the window.
I was so upset at this point I momentarily gave thought to calling the whole thing off and just going home but my better judgement prevailed. We’re here, the room’s paid for already, might as well make the best of it.
Toronto is mostly like a large American city minus all the guns. It has a nice lakefront and big theater scene. Parking can (obviously) be a problem as there are frequently festivals, concerts and sporting events — especially in the summer months.
Expect to pay big city prices, but the exchange rate helps at the moment.
With our tandem out of commission we ended up renting bikes for a day. The bike paths downtown are pretty crowded but if you head east away from the city you can get a good ride out to the Lake Ontario beaches.
If you haven’t been to the St. Lawrence Market it’s one of the best public markets in North America. Get a pea-meal bacon sandwich from the Carousel Bakery. It will change your life.
Epilogue — I took the car to a body shop when we got home. Cost to repair would have been over $5000 for a car that is worth maybe $3500 at this point (2009 with 100,000+ miles).
I now have a new “airport car” and Mrs. Kong is enjoying the 2020 Mercedes E450 wagon I found her. Truth be told we had been talking about getting one for some time now and this was just the excuse we needed. Plus the local dealer actually had one, which you almost never see in the Midwest. Most of these cars seem to live in New England.
I don’t know why people buy SUVs when they could have one of these for the same price as a Chevy Suburban. Carries just as much, drives like a sport sedan and will eat your (stock) 1960’s muscle car for lunch. Sure, it can’t go off road but odds are the Chevy Suburban hasn’t either. But station wagons are “uncool” because the Boomers parents drove them, so Americans don’t buy them.
Despite the “incident” we still had a good trip. As I like to say “A valuable lesson was learned that day.”