Have bikes, will travel

bikesThis Hintonburg family is pressing ‘pause’ on their Ottawa lives, taking their children out of the classroom, and embarking on the cycling trip of a lifetime, writes Sonia Mendes.

The Heffernan-Wilker family is definitely on a roll.

Hintonburg resident Kathleen Wilker and her husband, Derek Heffernan – along with their children, Anna Sierra and Jasper – are avid cyclists. So avid, in fact, that they recently decided to hit “pause” on their Ottawa lives and spend an entire year pedalling around Europe and Cuba.

“I think I’m the most excited about us spending more time together,” Wilker said in an interview just weeks before their Aug. 1 departure. “We lead busy lives here, and sometimes it seems we don’t have time to really connect from day to day – so it’s nice to open up a little.”

Their bikes disassembled and packed in suitcases, the family’s itinerary began with a bus ride to Montreal, to connect with their flight to Amsterdam.

From there, the bike route will extend to the north of the Netherlands. They will then pedal down the coast to Belgium, France and Spain, before spending the remainder of their year in Cuba.

“A friend of ours works for the Netherlands embassy here in Ottawa – so he gave us the lowdown on the geography and history,” said Wilker. “That was a huge help with our planning.”

Beyond plans for their time in the Netherlands and a basic chronology of countries to explore, however, Wilker said they have not planned the trip in intricate detail.

“I think people are surprised that our itinerary is not more set,” said Wilker, adding she and Heffernan feel it best to stay flexible about how much time they will spend in each location, gauging the mood and energy level of their kids along the way.

“Derek and I have both travelled quite extensively in our lives and had different experiences.

“We’re both aware that if it’s not working as we’d hoped, we might need to take a break from cycling – perhaps even live for a short time in one place to recharge.”

As the transportation program coordinator at EnviroCentre – Ottawa’s go-to source for services and programs that promote energy conservation and environmental health – cycling is a way of life for Wilker.

And it seems her philosophy is contagious. Considering their young ages, 12-year-old Anna Sierra and nine-year-old Jasper are quite experienced with long cycling trips.

Last year, the Heffernan-Wilker family cycled from Cornwall to Toronto, with Jasper riding behind his dad on a tandem bike. They took several days to complete the distance, camping along the way and biking from 50 to nearly 100 kilometres per day.

“It worked so well for every single one of us,” said Wilker, adding that Heffernan, a history teacher, took the opportunity to talk to them about the War of 1812. She recalled how the kids were easily pleased with the mostly mundane scenery and their little stops along the way.

“Castles and windmills are going to be a whole lot better than the highway and parking lots,” she laughed.

Wilker plans to limit their daily mileage – logging no more than 50 km daily – to keep the kids from getting fatigued, and to have lots of time to explore.

Despite the excitement about their upcoming adventures, Wilker acknowledged that the kids had some apprehensions, too – and they were talking through them as a family.

“Anna Sierra has been totally over the moon about the whole trip, but then we took some of her friends on a camping trip for her 12th birthday and she started to worry about being away from them for a year,” said Wilker.

“I was kind of waiting for that to happen; she’s definitely had a few little moments.”

Jasper, on the other hand, really likes his regular routine, said Wilker. He also doesn’t have a lot of experience with international travel.

“He was a bit concerned about how much biking would be involved,” she said. Fortunately, the tandem bike goes a long way toward solving that issue, since Jasper can rely on his dad to take over the bulk of the pedalling when he feels tired.

As for taking the kids out of school for a year, Wilker and Heffernan are confident their own experiences abroad will serve them well.

“We’re really not nervous about that at all,” said Wilker. “We did go talk to their teachers and they were super supportive.”

Growing up, Wilker herself spent a year living in Cambridge, England, and another year living in India. While she recalls there being some gaps upon her returns to Canada, she feels those experiences give her a good foundation to guide the kids through a transition back into the Canadian school system next year.

“It’s a little bit of a pause, and a change and then you get back into it.”

Anna Sierra’s Grade 6 teacher recommended an online math text, so Wilker plans to download it and help her daughter stay abreast of the Grade 7 curriculum.

Both kids – and their parents – will be blogging about their experiences at www.bikingwithkids
adventure.wordpress.com. Jasper will also be connecting with his classmates via Skype, in an effort to maintain a social connection with the school.

But the bulk of the kids’ learning will come from their real-life experiences – and their own independent study.

“We’ve downloaded some apps for Spanish – DuoLingo is a great one,” said Wilker. “They’re really excited to learn another language.”

Wilker is confident that her children will learn just as much – if not more – in their year outside of the classroom. This smiling, easygoing mom is poised to focus on a year of guiding her kids through what will surely be the trip of a lifetime.

“I think we don’t always give ourselves permission to acknowledge that we’re really good parents,” she said.

“I think we forget that we’re so good at parenting and teaching, especially when we only see each other when we’re tired – but we’re the experts.”