Last summer I enjoyed two adventures.
One was a self-supported bicycle tour around Lake Ontario while the other was a six day canoe trip though some of the southern areas of Algonquin Provincial park in Ontario. Both trips were amazing opportunities and now that they are behind me it seems natural to compare the two.
Both trips were similar from the standpoint of being self-supported and utilizing a hammock and other necessary camping gear. There were however numerous differences which I will point out here.
Cycling uses mainly your legs to propel you on your adventure while canoeing consists of lots of upper body work while paddling the canoe followed by a switch to leg work while portaging betweeen bodies of water (for those who haven't heard the word portage before, my translation is basically a steep, muddy, rocky and slippery trail though mosquito and black fly infested areas between two bodies of water).
The canoe trip featured five consecutive days of paddling and portaging with an average of three miles a day of portaging and 12 miles a day of paddling. The bicycle tour consisted of multiple 120+ km days also in a row.
Each day there were multiple opportunites to resupply food, call friends and investigate living historical sites like museums forts etc while riding the bike. The canoe trip had zero resupply opportunities in terms of stores etc. Not one telephone was sighted and in some of the more remote areas that we travelled through sightings of other people were few and far between despite the fact that it was the busy time for people to be in the park.
A canoe trip is an interesting study of contrasts as well. While paddling on the water a canoe seems to be able to almost effortlessly carry an incredible amount of weight. Once you reach the portage point of course then you are offered the opportunity to act as a human weight scale while you carry all that stuff to the next body of water.
Contrasting this with a bicycle tour we often over pack but seldom actually have to lift the overall weight up tricky inclines while being tormented by a million bugs. Head winds and hot days are often are biggest challenge leading to the occassional decision to mail some stuff back home.
Both trips improved physical fitness, provided opportunities to gain significant insight about yourself and ultimately proved to be a lot of fun.
So which is better?
Neither in my opinion. It's like comparing apples to oranges. Sure there are numerous similarities but they are both independant activities that are enjoyable and stand completely on their own merits.
Both provide numerous benefits while being complementary to each other. If I was looking for an opportunity to disappear into the woods for a period of time to escape from people then canoeing would be my choice. If I wanted to see the world, travel long distances and meet lots of people I believe that I would choose the bicycle. At the end of the day both are very enjoyable and fulfilling activities requiring their own unique skills and mindsets.
As an activity to help prepare you for a long bicycle tour it seems like a canoe trip is almost a perfect way to do it especially if you pack as similarily to a bicycle tour as possible (excluding the specialty stuff of course). The portages will help you stay focuesed on the overall weight of the stuff you carry as well as the realistic need for it. The portages usually involve hill climbing as well and this should help provide some leg toning. Paddling the canoe will help strengthen the arms and then just being out in the woods will go a long way towards getting you a nice break from day to day life so that when you return to civilization the memory should help motivate you prior to your next tour.
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