Amsterdam to Sylt (Germany), 870km; total 8,625km
Bike touring, like life in general, sometimes throws you a nasty headwind. The persistent gust seem to revel in refusing your forward progress, sapping your strength and suffocating your spirit. There are few moments more discouraging than pedaling with all your juice, then glancing aside to see the grasses folding over backwards with the force of the angry air.
You can’t stop and patch it like a flat tire, or pull over and wait it out like the rain. You can swear at it, and call it all sorts of names (and believe us, we do), but it can’t hear you because it’s busy being so friggin’ loud. You can’t go over it, under it, or around it.
The only way to get to where you want to go is through.
We encountered a steady stream of these ferocious gales this week, as we cycled along the northern coasts of the Netherlands and Germany on the Wadden Sea. Friesland (reads like a McDonalds play structure but pronounced “Freezeland” - though we did come across some yummy patat with a variety of spicy mayo dips this week) is a vibrant cultural community spanning the whole coast from near Amsterdam to the German-Danish border, with its own language, multiple dialects and ubiquitous greeting. Both Dutch and Germans in these parts replace the usual Hallo with a very hearty Moin! (“Moyn”) or even more enthusiastic Moin Moin! depending on their mood and, we suppose, whether the vicious winds are in their face or at their back.
But Friesland, for all its thousands of towering modern windmills generating sustainable power, and beautiful traditional reed-thatched A-frame roofs, is unquestionably ruled by sheep. There are as many adorable fluffy muttons or more than we found in New Zealand, grazing and chewing and shitting on the bike path, so much so that some sections were legitimately slipping hazards. They’re truly very cool-looking animals, with their cuddly wool coats and curious slit-pupiled eyes. On occasion they would glance up from their gentle toil, unimpressed by us boring humans. Sometimes we’d engage in a conversation of bleats with a few talkative puffballs, and one even tried racing us for a hundred metres or so.
After a few days, however, the overwhelming cute factor was overtaken by annoyance at yet another sheep gate we had to awkwardly waddle through. Maybe Denmark will have more cows.
Like in life, though, if you put your head down and pedal hard into the unrelenting breeze, eventually you turn a corner and find smoother cycling beyond. But getting there takes some motivation - a little (or big) treat to look forward to, to convince your weary legs and psyche to push through.
And this week, we found a little motivation for each of us.
For Heron, it’s the sea - more specifically the waves that those winds whip up. The north of Holland (that province of the Netherlands often confused for the whole country) is a surfing hotspot, so we planned an off-day on the West Frisian island of Texel. The sprawling wheat fields and quaint brick-house hamlets provided the calm we all needed, and the long stretches of sand just beyond the grassy dunes provided a dream boarding experience - especially when Heron and Sitka’s early-morning lessons were led by the quintessential towering surfer dude Erik, owner of Surfschool Foamball who left life as a marketing professor to live his happy beach life.
Both boys bolstered their skills by bounds under Erik’s tutelage, starting to carve and pump and other words they would have never learned boarding with their bumbling dad who jammed his toe yet again.
Joce’s injured knee still prevents her from doing much more than cycling, so instead of joining on the surfboard she has been focused on unearthing unique places for us all to visit. On Texel, it was the Ecomare wildlife sanctuary with rescued seals and gannets, and a wealth of learning about the Wadden Sea - teeming with sea creatures we would have never otherwise met - that lies between this north coast of Europe and the string of islands bordering the open North Sea. A couple days later, it was the quirky bike bus across the Afsluitdijk - a 30-km-long engineering marvel that’s getting a centennial makeover with expansive wind and solar energy projects - and its fascinating history balancing protection of human spaces from flood and wildlife spaces for the future.
Our bubbly little Sitka, meanwhile, is always scouring brochure racks for the next big thrill - and this week he discovered the great north-European kabelpark near Bremerhaven. On the small lake of Spadener See, you can waterski or wakeboard around a kilometre-long circuit, tugged not by boat but by a giant cable system similar to a ski-lift. Of course, Sitka and Heron caught on after a brief lesson and were soon switching beginner skis for advanced wakeboards (Heron even asked about the jumps and rails, but those required a few more hours of practice), and Ed overcame some childhood water-ski trauma to finally stand on both feet, hooting joyously five times around until his triceps ached. But after five face-plants, several gallons of involuntarily consumed lake water and a bruised shin, he gave up on wakeboarding until the next kabelpark already earmarked in Denmark.
In addition to failing gloriously at sports his sons thrive with, Ed’s headwind-busting treats are baked goods (German bakeries make American portion sizes look positively puny) and the prospect of not having to shop for groceries or wash supper dishes for a night. So one late afternoon, as we rushed for the last ferry from Wischhafen to Gluckstadt, his cyclemates noted how tired he was and plotted an inside overnight with delivery pizza - plus dibs for Ed on first shower (!) - to treat the family workhorse to a little break from headwinds literal and figurative.
To make these motivating treats happen, and still cycle over 100km per day on this section, we had to do some improvising that didn’t always alleviate the misery. One morning after leaving an exquisitely simple and peaceful campground in Holwert, we decided to take advantage of a brief tailwind and accelerate to catch a ferry to Emden that we’d previously written off. (Some ferries along this stretch of coast that would give a little shortcut around a big bay or long inlet operate only a few days a week, and seemingly never on our schedule.) We called ahead to the first campground we found in the port city, and were told to camp “wherever” if we arrived after 6pm - we could pay in the morning.
“There is the tent space,” assured a merry batch of 50-something Germans who greeted us, excited to meet their first Canadians.
They gestured at the only patch of green in a parking lot of motorhomes on the side of a road next to Emden’s pleasure-boat harbour.
“Hey, it’s a place to rest our heads for the night,” Ed tried to buoy the souring mood that got worse when we found the bathrooms cost 50 cents per entry. Our super-friendly neighbours helped, as did a scenic campstove dinner on the water’s edge with English and French pop hits blaring from the bars across the bay.
But after nightfall these urban Germans get rowdy. Under a nearby floodlight we hadn’t spotted earlier, our little street between the campervans became a main thoroughfare for over-revved mopeds, mufflerless motorcycles and souped-up dragsters tearing through at all hours. There were twenty minutes of fireworks at 11pm, and at 4:43 Ed had to drag himself out of his cozy sleeping bag to ask a crew of drunk 20-somethings to kindly turn down the German death metal they were sharing feet from our tent.
“Oh ja, sorry sorry,” said the dude with the speakers.
“My friend,” reasoned a straggler, “it’s Saturday.”
“Actually now it’s Sonntag,” muttered Ed.
“It’s the weekend,” unplussed. “We are Germans. We HAVE to.”
Have to what was never exactly clear. Then, at 7am sharp, came the chorus of morning church bells. A perfect storm of sleep deprivation.
Our spontaneity did, however, land us with a swanky rest day on Sylt, Germany’s jet-set destination island just across from the Danish border, accessible only by train (even the car drivers have to pile on a railway car to cross the narrow causeway). We each had our motivators satisfied on this three-weeks-to-go mini-splurge: Heron surfed twice on the idyllic sandy beach, Joce found an international pro windsurfing competition to watch live, Sitka - well, Sitka has been napping and reading books all day in pure bliss - and Ed has left the meal-making to the others (Joce concocts tofu stirfry wraps, Heron whips up French toast and veggie omelettes, and Sitka opens the bags of chips) and the dishwashing to a machine.
On our last night, we wandered the beachfront among a brilliantly clever and funky “silent disco”: dozens of revellers bopping and grooving up a storm with special headphones that channeled the DJ’s beats directly to their eardrums - the other evening beachgoers out for a stroll or having a pint at the pop-up bar happily undisturbed by the dance party in their midst. (Maybe they could experiment with “silent all-night church bells” someday soon.) The sunset over the North Sea horizon was serenely perfect.
And just like that, all the bluster of the last ten days is a distant memory.