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The origins of a bike-touring family (Part 1)

Posted by on May 29th, 2012 9 Comments

After realizing we wouldn’t be able to make it out to Boston due to time restrictions, we were pretty bummed. It wasn’t because we would be missing out on visiting that city, although we were interested in exploring its transit system and bike culture. We were disappointed because we wouldn’t be able to visit with our college friend Gabe, who now lives there with his wife and daughter. We haven’t seen or really even spoken to Gabe in over five years, but he plays an interesting role in our trip. Whether he knows it or not, he was instrumental in our decision to take this crazy adventure in the first place.

It started out a long time ago (okay, 10 years feels like forever sometimes). Reuben, Gabe and I all went to the same college in northwest Iowa. We noticed that Gabe was doing something unprecedented in this tiny Midwest town. He was riding his bike. Every day. 12 miles or more. And not for just for recreation – he was riding to his work and back – in all kinds of weather! He also did some bike overnights. He would pack his two small rear panniers with gear and ride to a campground 30 or 40 miles away, sleep there, and return the next day. I remember one night we drove out to meet him on one of these trips and were surprised that he did not want to take any of the extra food we had brought along. The self-sufficiency aspect of the trip was important to him and he didn’t want to use anything that he hadn’t brought along on his bike. It was all very interesting to me.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that this whole idea was more than interesting to Reuben – it was inspiring. He dug out his bike – which he had left to rust locked up outside of his dorm building and realized it wasn’t going to get him very far without some serious help. And he had no money to fix it. But later that year he had a crazy idea. We were heading out to his parent’s house in Des Moines one weekend, about 200 miles away, and he decided he wanted to borrow Gabe’s bike and ride there. He would leave a few days earlier than me, and I would meet him there by car and drive him back. I said ‘go ahead’ because I thought he’d have a terrible time and it would get this crazy dream of long-distance touring out of his head.

So he packed his bags and rode out late one morning. A few days later, as I was getting ready to head out in the car, I got a call from Reuben that I thought had confirmed my wishes. He was not doing well. He had biked 50 miles the first day and over 100 miles the second day in some of the hottest weather of the year. He was sleeping in town parks and wild-camping behind buildings. After listening to him, it didn’t sound like he was eating or drinking enough for the kind of mileage he was doing. He said he was tempted to call his parents to come pick him up – a thought that I encouraged. When I arrived in Des Moines I found out he had indeed called for a ride and his Grandparents were out picking him up 40 miles away. When they got back, he was a little embarrassed about the ordeal, but I laughed and joked with him about his ‘adventure’ and we moved on. Well, I moved on. Reuben, despite his poor planning and lack of bicycle travel knowledge, had the itch to do it ‘right’ – to amend what he had failed at. And despite the fact that he was a little dehydrated, underfed, and failed to make it to his destination – he had a surprisingly good time.

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Becoming a bike commuter

Well, we got married a year later and moved to Ontario after graduation. We couldn’t afford a second car, so we bought a bike for Reuben to get to his job, which was closer than mine. It was a 5km (3mi) commute each way and he biked every day that he could. A year later we moved a little further away, making his ride a hilly 10 km (6 miles), but we would now be close enough to my work that I could bike as well. We both turned into full-blown bike commuters and we loved it! Summer or winter, we were on our bikes. We were able to ride together for the first leg of the commute each morning and we were both able to shower and dress at our jobs. We took longer rides on the weekend just to explore the city. At this point, Reuben brought up his idea again – let’s go bike touring! I was a little more receptive this time around and agreed to a short trial trip – maybe if I went with him I could prove that I didn’t like it, and then he would give it a rest and let it go.

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Preparing lunch on our first bike tour

So Reuben planned the route and packed our bags and got everything ready. We arranged a ride up to Bracebridge, Ontario over a Summer long-weekend. The plan was for a three-day, two-night trip covering about 200km (120 miles) through some gorgeous cottage country. My front derailleur shifter broke after only 11 km into the trip and I thought the entire weekend was doomed. Despite the malfunction, and how afraid I was of the idea of wild camping, I had an absolute blast. In fact, we both had a fantastic time. As it turns out this was a point of no return for me – and it couldn’t have made Reuben happier.

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Waking up after a night of wild camping

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Our light loads

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Camping in the woods on the side of the road

We owe a big debt of thanks to Gabe (and Bob, Mic and Andy – a few other college friends who toyed around with bike touring and commuting). These people inspired us to use our bikes to actually get places. Without seeing someone first hand using their bike as their means of transport, we would have been intimidated to try. And we probably would have made the decision to do what everyone else does – to take out a loan and buy a second car when we moved to Hamilton. Thank you guys for opening up our eyes to a more sustainable, healthy and certainly a more fun way to get from point A to B.

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On one of our first tours

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Making adjustments for bike travel as a family

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It all seems pretty easy now!


Leave a comment
  1. James
    May 29, 2012 @ 2:45 pm #

    This post is beyond inspiring! I’ve been following your adventure for six months now, and I’m always excited when a new entry shows up in my RSS reader.

    Thanks for sharing so much of your lives and your journey.

  2. Aunt Judy
    May 29, 2012 @ 7:38 pm #

    What a great story. What does the future hold? What ever it is we are looking forward to hearing all about it. Yahoo Vander Kwaak’s!!

  3. Heather and Erik Carroll
    May 29, 2012 @ 7:48 pm #

    You guys are awesome! ‘Nuff said.

  4. Heidi VanderKwaak
    May 29, 2012 @ 9:30 pm #

    Heidi, I googled my name years ago and found out that we share names. I’ve followed your epic journey and have so enjoyed your posts. What an awesome family adventure. Your children are so fortunate! God Bless.

    • Heidi ( Twitter: )
      May 29, 2012 @ 10:42 pm #

      So we finally ‘meet’! If you live in Nova Scotia you are probably the sister of one of my co-workers at the City of Hamilton! I wonder if we’re somehow related… Thanks for following along!

  5. Wilma Ipema
    June 1, 2012 @ 11:19 pm #

    Welcome Home! So thankful that you had such a wonderful experience!
    I am sure you and your kids have many memories. I always read your posts with anticipation. Heidi, I believe you have your mom’s talent of making the reader feel very connected to the story!! Enjoy your time reconnecting with family and friends.

  6. Gus
    June 4, 2012 @ 6:07 am #

    Hi guys, great post! So awesome to see families getting out and doing what you’re doing. I found your blog because I’ve just got myself an xtracycle and am getting organised for the second child…

    Looks like you’re having a blast :-)

  7. The Martins
    June 4, 2012 @ 7:50 am #

    So glad your friend, Gabe, inspired you so that you could inspire us to become a cycling family!

  8. James @ Bike Rack Reviews ( Twitter: )
    June 21, 2012 @ 9:07 am #

    What a great and inspiring story. Love reading your posts!

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