A casual bystander can be forgiven for thinking 72-year-old Elizabeth Verhagen needed help carrying her bicycle up the stairs to her motel room during her visit to Stettler, but that forgiveness doesn’t mean the spry septengenarian from Edmonton is going to accept help.
The lightweight Apollo touring bicycle, acquired in the early ’80s through the trade of some artwork, is no problem for Verhagen to lift — and she’s been doing that now for more than three decades.
Since 1976, she has cycled all over Alberta, and despite — and perhaps in spite of — her advancing age, has kept up the long-distance, pedal-powered trips.
Early in August, Verhagen cycled through Stettler as part of an 850-km trip that took her from Edmonton south near to Drumheller, through the rolling valleys and striated coulees that make up the heart of Alberta. What makes Verhagen particularly unique, besides the long-distance cycling trips in her seventh decade, is that she stops to draw or paint her surroundings.
“Alberta’s small towns are one of the province’s hidden treasures,” she explained. “You miss so much of it when you drive through quickly. I really like cycling because I can stop and enjoy the places I go to.”
Those stops may be a bit often than when she started long-distance cycling 40 years ago, and the rests between days of cycling may be a bit longer, but until she can’t cycle, Verhagen said she will keep going.
During her trip through Stettler, Verhagen said she could see growth. The last time she cycled through the community was in the early 1980s, on her way through to Drumheller.
“I didn’t stop and paint then,” she said. “But I can see the changes.”
She said the industrial growth on the outskirts of town and the increasing businesses are good to see, but she’s especially thrilled that the community’s downtown has remained intact.
“You still have that sense of a small western Canadian community when you go through the downtowns,” she said. “That’s really important.”
Verhagen immigrated to Canada from Holland when she was 10, along with her family.
“Everyone used bikes to get around,” she noted. “I remember biking to school when I was six or seven (years old).”
That love of cycling followed her to Canada, where she kept pedalling around in Edmonton. It wasn’t until the mid-’70s, though, that she opted for long-distance cycling.
“I just love it,” she said by way of explanation. “Seeing the communities, the people, Alberta’s beautiful countryside, the mountains — I just love it all.”
Her trips have taken her over the southern Alberta badlands and its mountain ranges to the northern river valleys.
“One of my longest trips was to Dawson,” Verhagen recalled. “That was a long trip.”
Cycling up mountainsides doesn’t give her any pause, either, since, “once you’re in shape, you just put the bike in a low gear and let it do the work.”
Her continued health into her seventh decade is something she attributes in part to her enjoyment of cycling, as it’s kept her fit and athletic through the decades.
When Verhagen first began touring Alberta on her bike, she’d pack up everything she needed. Food, water, tent, painting supplies and camera were but some of the large pack she’d be hauling around with her on her hundred-plus kilometre trips.
“I used to stop and set up my paints and just start painting,” she recalled.
The awkwardness of the paints, and all of the supplies painting required, led Verhagen to switch to drawing and sketching as her primary form of cycling artwork, though she is still known to paint a landscape or town as she goes through, now and then.
“When I stopped in Stettler, I sketched on my cycling notebook,” Verhagen explained. “That’s why there’s lines. Normally I have a sketch book, but I didn’t that day.”
She keeps detailed notes along with her sketches, noting the date, location and times she goes through the communities. She also keeps other records of her journeys, from maps that show her routes, hotel and motel registration tickets, and the many photographs she takes while on the road.
“All of this sounds almost impossible,” Verhagen admitted. “I made my living doing this, sometimes working part-time, sometimes full-time, but always cycling and always creating art. I’m glad I’m still able to do it at my age.”
To learn more about Verhagen, and see more of her art, visit www.elizabethverhagen.ca.