A German world traveller has ended up on Salt Spring while he waits for the border with the United States to reopen and the continuation of a journey that will ultimately encompass much of two continents.
André Baumgarten recently completed a six-month cycling trip from London, Ont., back east to Cap Gaspé and then west all the way to B.C.’s coast. With plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, Baumgarten had originally hoped to end the Canadian portion in Vancouver before heading to Seattle, hiking through the United States into Mexico, and then starting a trip through South America. The pandemic may have stopped him short for now, but Baumgarten is happy to have enjoyed the ride so far.
“In the end I was actually kind of happy that it didn’t work out because then I could spend more time on the trail in Canada,” Baumgarten told the Driftwood. “I never could have made that in four months, which was my timeline. So now I did it in six months — and I skipped the whole Maritimes.”
An environmental engineer by training, Baumgarten has been travelling the world for the past seven years doing many other types of jobs through the working holiday visa program, which is available in many nations for people up to age 31. Canada has a special arrangement with Germany that issues such visas up to age 35, a feature that took Baumgarten to Ontario for a year of work in a winery and then a kombucha brewery. While there he came across an online posting by someone who wanted to do a cross-Canada road trip, with a map of his route attached.
“I said, ‘That’s actually a nice idea just to see the country a little bit,’” Baumgarten said, noting that although he was living and working in Canada, he hadn’t seen anything beyond London. Before his work visa expired he ordered a touring bike and made plans to come back to Canada with a tourist visa on the way to his trek of the Pacific Crest Trail and beyond. He spent time in between in Iceland, where he worked on a farm for two months while plotting his route through the Americas.
“So I had it all nicely planned, but then the pandemic hit and so the PCT kind of got cancelled,” he said, explaining hiking there was discouraged because of the wish to protect isolated communities along the ridge line. There were also bush fires in the region, so he decided to take more time on the Canadian leg.
COVID-19 restrictions changed some of his plans, but without having a job or anywhere to live in his home country, Baumgarten decided to go ahead with his 2020 cycling trip despite the pandemic. Much of his travel was accomplished during the time when restrictions were lighter.
“I had this discussion with myself whether to do it or not, and I came to to the conclusion to do it. And it went well,” Baumgarten said. “I appreciated having more time to explore Canada. “It’s huge — I underestimated that.”
Discovering The Great Trail — previously known as the Trans Canada Trail — helped provide much of the route. Baumgarten usually took side roads for some sections that are only passable by hikers.
“The only real dangerous highway that no cyclist can really avoid is around the Great Lakes. It’s pretty much from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay. There is actually no secondary road there,” Baumgarten observed.
Hitting the mountains starting at the Rockies could have posed a challenge to some weary legs, but in B.C. The Great Trail mainly follows old railway lines.
“At least the inclination was penetrable; it was never more than two per cent. You don’t have the steep passes that you have if you are following the Trans Canada Highway,” Baumgarten said.
On the other hand, the ties and rails have been removed but the former railroad’s surface has not been improved, so the loose gravel bed can be extremely hard to navigate. Some sections were so bad that Baumgarten was inspired to send his notes and video footage to the non-profit organization that oversees the trail in Montreal, and he has offered to work with them to suggest improvements.
“I also want to make this trail better for other Canadians or maybe other tourists who might intend to cycle it as well,” he said.
Baumgarten spent many of his nights camping near the trail, choosing sites near water where he could bathe. He also used warmshowers.org, a free hospitality platform created by and for touring cyclists. In that case he would contact hosts a few days before he expected to arrive in a community and ask whether they could take him.
“That worked astonishingly quite well, even though it was the pandemic year. It was actually pretty cool,” he said, adding some people told him they couldn’t host at that time, but many were still willing to do so with some precautions.
He pointed out long-distance cyclists are kind of self-isolating anyway. He often went a week to 10 days without meeting anyone.
“I’m aware of the risk and I try to avoid contact as much as possible,” he said. “But if people in the bigger cities are willing to host me, that’s okay.”
The Great Trail purposefully intends to connect Canadians and communities and is routed to goes through towns and smaller communities, so Baumgarten got to see a good swath of Canadian life in addition to the countryside. He also took some detours that took him far off the straighter path on the advice of people he met along the way — going back to the Gaspé and along the eastern Great Lakes instead of cutting across Ontario from London, for example, and travelling far south of Calgary and the route over the Rockies to visit Drumheller.
“I’m really happy I did those detours. That’s actually what makes my tour so special, especially for me,” Baumgarten said. “It’s not like I want to establish a new record, going east to west. I really took my time in order to get the most out of this trip: meeting locals, seeing special places, and changing myself, being on that trail.”
Having finished his cross-country ride at the end of November, Baumgarten did a side tour of the Sunshine Coast and the Gulf Islands. He arrived on Salt Spring just before Christmas and is currently volunteering on a farm in exchange for accommodation. When he departs again depends somewhat on the border situation and when non-essential travel can once again cross.
Baumgarten is putting together a slide show about his trip and posting content to YouTube. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to get the links. He can also be heard discussing his trip on the online show Eh! Canada Travel at www.ehcanadatravel.com/blog/#talkshow.