What impact can come of a cub scout biking to the park? Not much you say? I beg to differ. Allow me to introduce James. James is a 9 yr old Cub Scout in who decided he wanted to ride his bike to Canada’s largest playground – The Giver Playground in Ottawa. So far this is all pretty normal stuff. Except that James lives in Whitby, Ontario – a whopping 450 km away from the swings and slides he wanted to play on.
Now if a 450 km bike ride doesn’t make you catch your breath a little lets add one more thing. James is Autistic and struggles in school, with friend making, and in social settings.
James got the idea of riding his bike to Ottawa around the end of July last summer. His Dad – who rode along with him – added on a fundraising component for the Grandview Childrens’ Centre in Oshawa where James is currently on a waitlist for services. The simple idea was that they would ride their bikes, and through GoFundMe, try to make $1500 for Grandview to help out local kids.
A week or so before setting out, they called the local radio station and asked the DJ to mention the ride. And from there the fire spread. Suddenly James was invited to interviews for national TV on two different networks, and in three different cities, to appear at AutoFest, to host a town “Movies in the Park” event. Before even leaving home, he had raised twice the goal money for the ride… and then the ride began.
When James set out from a local park, he was met by a bunch of local politicians and celebrities, his charity, and family members, and some strangers he didn’t even know. It was a cool morning, and he cranked our pedals alongside his MP as he headed off down a park trail and onto the journey.
About half an hour later James got onto the Waterfront trail and followed it east, tracing the Lake Ontario shoreline past Oshawa and Bowmanville, through ghost towns and apple orchards, finally ending the day in Port Hope. There we met a family whose grandchildren also struggle with Autism, and stayed at their home. They took James to visit the Fish Ladders in town and talked with him about what living in Port Hope is like, and what helping their grandchild was like. James camped in the backyard with Dad, and got up early the next morning to continue the adventure.
For his second day, James continued pedaling east. The first town he passed through was Cobourg, and there he stopped downtown to play a polar-bear piano, and to see some of the street art before getting back on the trail. He was surprised when just past town a family was standing on the road waiting for him and cheering! It was one of the families who had been part of building the Giver Playground! They had heard of his ride all the way in Cobourg, and came out to see James. They took some pictures, shared stories about building the playground, and wished James well as he continued on. It was pretty neat.
James kept going after that, aiming to be in Grafton in time for lunch. There his Scouter (we call him Scoward) had invited James to stop in for lunch at his camper. What a great surprise to see Scoward’s family waiting along the way – each one on their bikes. As James rode into the camp, Scoward’s kids rode with him, and escorted him right to the camper. There James had tacos with all kinds of fillings, and Scoward tuned up the bikes, pumped the tires, and made sure we were safe.
After lunch, James got pictures with a whole bunch of the campers at Scoward’s campground, and then he rode off with a whole bunch of campers following on their bikes. What fun! What was amazing though, was that Scoward kept on riding with James for the whole day – all the way from Grafton to Presquille Provincial Park where James was camping for the night.
At Presquille, James went to check in and was met by another surprise! A Grandview family was camped there, and had heard he was arriving that day. The family was waiting for James at the camp office when he arrived, and everyone was cheering for him and wanted pictures with him. As we paid for our camp site the family scampered off and decorated it with Autism puzzle pieces, posting the pictures to social media.
Before the tent was up, James had 4 dinner invitations from people in the park who were following his story and his ride across Ontario. It was pretty overwhelming – and you can imagine how proud James felt. James spent dinner with a Grandview Family, and learned about what challenges they faced, and how their family was growing.
The next morning James had to be up early. At 6:00 the radio station in Belleville called to talk about the ride and how great it was that James was doing this trip. We talked about how long of a day it was going to be – James had to go close to 100 km that day. And about how great it was that so many people were cheering James on. Then, after the radio station call – Scoward came back to camp with a hot breakfast for us, and to cheer James on, and tell him he’d be watching our ride all day.
We were still eating breakfast when another friend arrived. Dave had ridden bikes with James before – but just for a few hours, and he came today to be part of our longest day on the trail. so we gulped down our food, hopped on our bikes, and headed out.
Today we were continuing on the Waterfront trail – going from Presquille Park, through Prince Edward County, and then ending on the south shore of Hay Bay. James was hardly out of the park when he came to the Murray Canal Swing Bridge. Here the Bridge Master was just opening the bridge for the day. He let James put up the flag, and offered for James to swing the bridge when the next boat arrived. Too bad we had to keep going. It would have been a fun job.
In Prince Edward County the route took James onto the Millenium Trail – an old rail bed that makes a straight line across Prince Edward County. On his mountain bike, James thought that this trail was great – it was bumpy and bouncy with big rocks everywhere. But for Dad, it was dangerous. The bounces were making the pannier bags move around a lot, and things were starting to come apart. After about 5 km on the trail, the bags started to tear apart, and Dad made everyone go back on the road. In fact, it wasn’t long after getting back on the Loyalist Parkway that the pannier bags ripped apart altogether, their contents tumbling out onto the road.
Dad looked around, found a bungee cord on the side of the road, and tied things into a bundle the best he could, and then the three bikers rode very carefully into the next bike shop. There Dad paid for a set of Arkel panniers – really good ones that were guaranteed for life.
Back on the road, things were going pretty well. James’ had a chain fell off in a busy intersection – but he managed, and we rode a ferry – it was fun! And then exhausted after a long day, we arrived at our billet in Hay Bay.
Here we were camping in the back yard of a family with a Downs Syndrome child. The mom was a Cadet leader, and she was excited to host us. The boy taught James Chinese drumming – and together they drummed as loud as they could until the dishes rattled on the shelves. At bedtime, James and Dad camped next to a funky schoolbus the family had. It was super cool!
With the longest day of the ride done, James was feeling pretty good the next morning. Today we wanted to get an early start since James was switching from following the Waterfront Trail to following the Catarqui Trail. This meant he had to be on some busy roads around Napanee – and we didn’t want to be there in rush hour. James also had an interview with the Napanee Beaver newspaper, and had to be there after 9:00.
James made into Napanee a little early, so he got a snack at a corner store ad sat on a bench to eat. While munching, we saw another cycle tourist zip past – probably also trying to get through town before traffic picked up. James did his interview, and then we carried on back on the roads, aimed for Strathcona where the trail began.
A little ways out of town, we saw the other cycle tourist again! He had a flat tire and was struggling with his pump. Dad helped him get his pump working, and about that time a cousin drove up, cheering us on. A few minutes later James found the trail and started the ride through the woods.
Every trail tells a different story – and the Waterfront Trail had told the story of lakes and loyalists, but this trail told the story of the Canadian shield and the railroad. It went through forests and rough country. It was beautiful, but it was tough. It was great. While we zipped along the trail, James played “Star Wars” pretending he was on a speeder, fighting the Imperial forces. James ended the day in Sydenham where he was met by Scouters, Guiders, newspapers, and uncles and cousins – all wanting to share his story and hear about his adventure.
James was more than halfway to Ottawa now. And he could see his goals ahead. It was an exciting night! We spent it with a scouter and his family. They had so many fun “scout stories” to share, movies to watch, and great things to talk about. There was even a badge swap! The next morning, it was a slow goodbye as we headed out again.
James rejoined the Cataraqui Trail, heading east out of Sydenham, and crossing bridges and causeways across the lakes and streams. It was beautiful, and quiet, and perfect. Now it really felt like a Dad and a kid having a great adventure. And James could feel the care of so many people cheering him on, even though we were alone, and out of cell range. The Catarqui trail really embraced us. At its end though, for about 30 km, the trail changes from a forest railtrail into a grassy verge. Riding loaded bikes through the grass was very hard. After a while, all that kept us going was knowing there was hamburger restaurant at the end of the trail. James and I talked about what we were going to get for about 10 km.
But that wasn’t all that was at the end of the trail! There were friends too! A bunch of the kids who James had gone to babies and Moms stuff with back when he was super-tiny were waiting for us where the Cataraqui Trail ends in Smith’s Falls. They cheered for us and gave high fives and wanted to go play in the park! James and I agreed that we would do just that – after we got food!
And so we spent a fantastic afternoon playing at the park in Smith’s Falls and eating burgers. In fact James was still playing when Uncle Steve arrived from Ottawa. He drove all the way to tell James two things. First, how proud he was of him, and second, that a pizza place had heard about our ride and was offering all the free pizza we wanted!!
James ordered TWO PIZZAS!!! and we ate most of it! That night we camped at the Old Sly Lockstation on the Rideau Canal. We met some teenagers who were spending the summer kayaking up and down the canal and camping at the locks. It sounded like they were having a great adventure as well!
The next morning James biked into Merrickville and had an amazing breakfast of waffles with whipped cream and syrup and everything else. But it was cool and windy, and the air has an uncomfortable moisture in it. James wore his windbreaker, but his hands were cold even with gloves on, and he wasn’t very happy as we followed the Rideau Canal toward Ottawa.
As a matter of fact, when we reached the “Greater City of Ottawa” sign, James was really, really sad. He wanted to cry. It was tough now. We stopped at the next playground for a break, and had a granola bar. We talked about all the people cheering us on and how we needed to keep going. We talked about how close we were. Finally, we decided that what we really needed was a hot chocolate. So James rode again, looking for a place to get a drink.
That place turned out to be “The Swan on the Rideau”. It was a good restaurant for a lunch stop anyways, and when we got there lots of other people were already there eating. We ordered lunch and Hot Chocolate and started talking about our day. Two old guys at the next table – they looked like Farmers, dressed in work clothes with big meaty hands – over heard us.
One of them asked James if he heard right – that we had started our day in Smith’s Falls, and were riding bikes. James said “yeah” – then told him that we were really riding our bikes from Whitby. The farmers were shocked. And the more James talked with them, the more shocked they got. By the time we were done lunch, James felt like a hero, and was ready to conquer ANYTHING!
We rode the rest of the way to Barrhaven as if the weather didn’t matter, James feeling like a superhero all the way. Those farmers may never know how much good they did by just talking with James.
In Barrhaven we stayed with a family who were working so hard to make everything just right. Their boy was a big fan of TMNT, so he and James played and watched the Turtles all night while the parents talked and had fun. This was our last night on the trail, and staying with these folks was great. The next morning we slept in a little since we only had about 15 km to go. Then we set off to find the Giver Playground.
It was still cold and uncomfortable when we left Barrhaven, but James didn’t care very much. We stopped at a playground for a break – but it was pointless – James wanted to get to THE playground. We stopped at a school where teachers were setting up classrooms for the fall start to school, and the secretary let us come inside to warmup – then she shared treats and water with us.
Then we rode some more. A funny thing happened that day though. As James counted down the kilometers to the Giver Playground, his pedalling got faster and faster. normally he would slow through the day, but today he sped up. Then he started whooping and shouting. Then he was bouncing in his seat and riding the fastest he had on the whole ride.
When we came to the park entrance James was totally nuts! Down the trail he could see fire trucks and police, TV crews and friends, a whole crowd was there cheering for him as he came into the park. Mom had surprised us by getting time off work. Grandma and Grandpa were there. People who had followed his whole ride on Twitter and Facebook came to cheer him on. And even Prime Minister Trudeau tweeted out congratulations.
After all the finish line hub-bub settled down, and James had gifts and medals and awards, James spent the whole day playing at the Giver Playground. It was full of kids just like him who had come to share his day. It was amazing. But not just for James.
This ride raised over $10,800 for Grandview Childrens’ Centre. It allowed us to talk about Autism to all of Canada. And most importantly, it showed how people helping – with backyard camps, dinners, and coming out to ride bikes, can make a success out of something as simple as a kid and a dad riding their bikes to the park.
In fact this ride was such a success that James is doing it again in 2018. This time to a different destination and with a different route. But we’re hoping that it goes just as well. And we’re hoping that the roller coaster at the end is AWESOME!
CouncilWhitby Area, 12th Whitby Pack