FORT KENT, Maine — When it comes to racing, the word “winner” has never been attached to my name. At least not until quite recently.
After five days of bicycling in northern Quebec as part of the “Amazing Race for Travel Media,” organized by the province’s tourism department, I’d somehow managed to pedal my way to first place.
Believe me, no one was more surprised than I, especially given the fact one of the other writers taking part in the trip is a former member of the Canadian Women’s Cycling Team.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, “The Amazing Race” is a long-running CBS reality show in which teams of two race around the globe taking part in location-related challenges along the way in an attempt to win a million dollars.
It’s a show I watch with varying degrees of regularity, unlike my friend Kim who has never missed a single episode in the production’s 20 seasons.
In fact, she’s such a fan not only has Kim applied multiple times to be a contestant, she is in constant training for it by, as she puts it, “waking up every day and treating everything that happens like it’s a challenge in ‘The Amazing Race.’”
Now, while I do not approach that level of commitment, I did feel somewhat prepared for the challenges of the Quebec tourism version of the event.
Our race started on the shores of Lac St. Jean in the Saguenay region of Quebec, about 300 miles north of the Maine border.
The goal of the trip was to introduce members of the media to the Veloroute des Bleuets, a 267-kilometer dedicated, paved bicycle path around Lac St. Jean.
On the CBS “Amazing Race,” contestants circumnavigate the globe participating in challenges related to specific geographic locations and cultures.
We, on the other hand, were limited to circumnavigating the lake and participating in Saguenay region-related challenges.
That area of northern Quebec is known for its blueberries. In fact, in the province its residents are known as “bleuets.”
So the first challenge was to see who could gather the most berries over the course of our first day of cycling. We were handed baggies and sent on our ways.
As the three of us contestants pedaled along, it turned out as the lone Mainer I was uniquely adept at spotting fruit-bearing blueberry bushes off the trail.
Baggies in hand, we commenced to picking and all was going well until the writer from Seattle noticed the former Canadian women’s cycling pro had chosen to pick right over a very active anthill.
To say she retreated from the berry patch at a world record pace worthy of a pro cyclist would be a major understatement.
“I wondered why the elastic sleeves on my jersey felt like they were pinching all of a sudden,” she said as she stripped off as many pieces of clothing as she could while remaining decent. “It must have been the ants biting me!”
Together we slapped and brushed scores of the insects off her as she announced the small handful of berries she had managed to gather before the ants attacked were more than enough.
We continued on the Veloroute meeting other challenges which included sampling local goodies, chatting with regional cheese makers and informing ourselves on local points of interest.
Thankfully our host, Nancy Donnelly of Tourism Quebec, did not dream up any challenges for the night we spent camping at the Zoo Sauvage de St-Felicien just off the Veloroute, where the humans are in cages or protected vehicles and the four-legged animals are allowed to wander around in their natural habitats.
Our group actually spent the night at the zoo as part of its “Sleeping with the Caribou” package where guests sleep in a large enclosed area with the zoo’s resident herd of caribou in a sort of boreal-esque Jurassic Park atmosphere.
Over the next several days we pedaled or boated our way along and over Lac St.-Jean exploring First Nations’ art centers, ghost towns and roadside eateries.
At each stop Donnelly had given us instructions on challenges as part of our race.
Perhaps her most creative was reserved for Roberval, Quebec, which each summer hosts the “Traversee internationale du lac St-Jean,” a 32-kilometer swim marathon across the lake.
Our challenge was to locate the starting point of the marathon and, while wearing special swim caps and goggles supplied by Donnelly, entice a local resident to take our pictures.
Luckily, the starting point for the Traversee is right off the bike path and very clearly marked and right next to it was a large, brick building which I thought was the town’s tourism office.
Figuring it would be easy enough to convince a tourism employee to snap some goofy pics of some travel writers, I walked inside in search of a willing photographer.
Trouble was, the building did not house the tourism office. I’m not really sure what it housed other than several community rooms all but one of which was empty.
Following the sound of voices I stumbled upon what only could have been a regular meeting of the senior citizens’ club.
As I walked in, decked out in bright cycling clothing, about three dozen pairs of eyes looked up from knitting, quilting, card playing and some sort of indoor shuffleboard game.
Knitting needles stopped mid-stitch, cards went unturned and a lone puck glided across the small shuffleboard lane and came to a stop. Then they all politely listened as I did my best to explain who I was and what I was doing in my very limited French.
Fortunately, “The Amazing Race” seems to be a universal concept and between that and some creative sign language I was able to convince one of the group to come outside and take our pictures.
And who knows? Maybe it was the fact I was able to communicate the challenge to a group of French-speaking Canadians that put me over the top for the points to win our petit “Amazing Race.”
On the CBS version participants win large cash prizes or trips to exotic locations for coming in first at each leg of the race. The team who wins the entire race claims a million dollars.
Tourism Quebec does not have that kind of budget, but I was more than happy with my snazzy certificate and bottle of blueberry wine.
And if you are reading this, CBS producers, keep in mind you have a heck of an “Amazing Race” team right here in northern Maine.
With Kim’s 11-year study of the television series and my own recent experience, not only would we make great TV, I bet we’d be a shoo-in for that million dollars.
Just as long as there were no ants.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.