Saskatoon woman marking her 65th birthday by cycling every street, avenue, and crescent in the city (#bikingstories)
By Greg Basky
Joanne Cliff is on a mission. Three days each week, Cliff spends between two and five hours out on her maroon-colored Marin mountain bike, riding up and down Saskatoon’s streets and avenues, and rolling through the city’s crescents and cul de sacs. When she gets home, she pulls out a yellow highlighter pen and marks off the latest neighborhood she’s conquered on a huge map she purchased from the City of Saskatoon back in January.
Cliff, a retired switchboard operator for the former Saskatoon Health Region, turns 65 in late August. By then, she hopes to have achieved her goal of pedalling every residential roadway in the city. She was inspired by fellow Saskatonian Bruce Johnnson, who walked every street in the Bridge City — a quest that took him 4 years. “I like walking, but I love biking,” says Cliff. “I thought: wouldn’t this be a neat project to do for my 65th birthday — bike every street in the city.”
On April 17th, she set out from her home in Fairhaven and rode all around her own neighborhood. From there, she started to notch neighborhoods to the north of where she lives. Cliff’s timing was spot-on: car traffic was lighter because of the pandemic. “I thought to myself: this is something I can do by myself, keep isolated, and get some exercise instead of staying home and baking all the time.” She and her husband Danny had put on some pounds since the onset of COVID-10. “I thought maybe I’ll wear off some of that, and I just started working away at more neighborhoods…and I just got into it.” Those first few weeks, she was out on the road five days a week. She’s dialed things back a bit, now that she’s playing pickleball again.
Cliff isn’t taking any shortcuts either: she powers herself to and from every neighborhood — save for the 3 days thus far when her partner has come to pick her up. Nor is she relying on a GPS app to keep track of her mission. Joanne knows she’s logged 34 days of riding since she started in mid-April, but she has no idea how many kilometres she’s covered. “In hindsight, maybe I should have gone out and bought an odometer to keep track. But ya know, I just want to go out for fun and to have an adventure.”
Documenting her adventure in photos
When she sees something in a front yard that catches her eye, she stops to ask the homeowner for permission to snap a photo. That’s led to many interesting conversations with fascinating folks. Cliff says the Exhibition area in particular is a goldmine of great sights, starting with a fence that runs along St. Georges Avenue, just off Taylor: “There’s one yard that has the most amazing fence you’ll ever see in the city. It looks like a western town. He’s got a jail. He’s got the saddlery. It’s just amazing! Whoever built that, it’s just so creative, one of a kind.” Just around the corner from the western flavored fence is a house with massive planters in the shape of Canada Geese: “They’re huge. They take up the whole front yard.” Right across the street from the geese, there’s a little bench with frogs seated on it, reading books. “That whole neighborhood was so cool.”
Cliff says every neighborhood has its share of treasures, from the corner house in Lawson Heights with hundreds of statues of buddhas and gargoyles, to the yard in Mayfair dotted with small handbuilt weathervanes (“One was a school bus, another was Snoopy from Peanuts.”) and the home in Wildwood decorated with tree stumps carved into skulls. Her latest find? A home in College Park with what Cliff figures must be a thousand birdhouses in the backyard.
Joanne posts all the images from her two-wheeled travels to Facebook. “I have friends who moved to the United States from Saskatoon, and they’re just loving my pictures because they bring back memories for them.” A friend who lives in the States who’s never visited the city is appreciating the photos. Her husband’s relatives in Ontario have become big fans too. The Open Door Society is using her images in a powerpoint slide show, designed to introduce newcomers to the city’s many interesting sites.
Notching new neighborhoods takes time
Bagging older neighborhoods like Haultain or Holliston is easy, according to Cliff. “They’re all just rectangles. So you’re just going up and down, up and down. It doesn’t take long to do a neighborhood when you’re just going in a straight row.” Newer areas though, like Stonebridge, are time-consuming: “They’re so curvy with their Crescents, and then off the Crescent you have a Lane, and then you have a Way, and then you have a Common. You have all kinds of different streets off shooting. It takes a lot of backtracking to get all the streets.” Rosewood, for example, took her almost five hours to complete.
The challenges of cycling a city
Not surprisingly, cycling an entire city is not without its challenges…starting with this spring’s relentless winds. “It never fails. Whenever I bike home, I’m against the wind, no matter where I am, no matter what direction I go. The wind has really strengthened my legs, I must say.” She’s also been surprised by how much the weather can vary between different parts of the city. The other day when she left Fairhaven in shorts and a tank top, it was hot and sunny. By the time she got to Brighton, it was chilly and windy. At her next stop, east College Park, it was pouring rain and hailing. So she phoned home to her husband, to ask him to come pick her up. His response? “Funny. It’s not raining here. It’s still sunny and hot.’”
Joanne has only been chased by one dog: “It was this little tiny thing. It was pretty yappy and it tried to catch me but it couldn’t.” Last week she was nipped by a four-month-old puppy that she’d stopped to pet. She’s had a couple of flat tires, but thankfully she discovered them at home before she started riding. And she hasn’t had any mechanical problems with her trusty steed: “Touch wood!”
YXE rideability is variable, says Cliff
Saskatoon’s bikeability depends on where you live and where you’re trying to get to, according to Cliff. Fairhaven has a bike path that runs along Circle Drive that makes it easy for cyclists to access the South bridge. “I can bike to Sutherland in like 40 minutes. Once you hit the river, you just follow the trails and then cut through university, and you’re there.” Trying to get north on bike paths is another story though.
Joanne says some newer neighborhoods are better than others: “The Kensington area has some nice paths. Blairmore has some nice paths too.” However, Hampton has very narrow streets. “A lot of the new neighborhoods like Stonebridge, Brighton, the streets are so narrow that it’s not very safe to be biking. And there are no bike paths really.” But the older areas, like Queen Elizabeth, have nice wide streets. “Sure, the City builds bike paths through parks, but that doesn’t really help the commuter trying to ride to work.” Still, she’s optimistic that things are improving. Cliff attended the recent open house where planners talked about putting in new bike lanes along key routes on both sides of the river.
It’s no big thing
So what kind of response does Joanne get when people hear about her biking odyssey? “They think I’m crazy. A lot of people tell me they think it’s a neat idea, but that it’s not for them.” Her husband is very supportive. She has three grown children. Cliff is inspired by her oldest son, who doesn’t own a car and bikes year round. “He thinks it’s a neat thing that I’m doing. He’s kinda proud of me. But he bikes all year. I don’t.”
The prize is in sight
Joanne guesstimates she’s about two-thirds of the way through her mission, with just 11 neighborhoods left to explore. Silverwood is all she’s got left to ride on the west side. Last week, she checked off Lakeview, Lakeridge, Wildwood, and Montgomery. Cliff is working on areas east of Circle Drive East: She bagged Brighton June 13th. She’s done Briarwood and Rosewood. “It’s just the northeast sector, pretty much, that I’m going to be working on now.”
The modest Cliff isn’t too sure how she’ll feel when she marks off that final neighborhood with her highlighter. “It will definitely be an accomplishment, but it will be sad at the same time. I will have to find another challenge to work on.”