When he lost his beloved grandmother on March 30, Jason Ellis found himself in the same situation as many others early on in the COVID-19 pandemic: How does one share memories of a loved one when public gatherings are not allowed?

Remembering the life she lived and her tireless spirit, this summer Ellis and his wife Marilyne have embarked on a 1,940 kilometre bicycle journey in memory of Katherina ‘Katie’ Ellis, in order to raise funds and awareness for the Canadian Women’s Foundation. Their Wheels of Strength 1940 bicycling challenge started on May 14 and the young Chute-a-Blondeau couple has been out on their bikes almost daily ever since, cycling through Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec a kilometre at a time – having already completed more than 1,200 kilometres towards their goal of honoring Katie’s birth year of 1940.

“When my grandmother died, I really wanted to do something that celebrated her life and we came up with the idea of doing a series of bike rides over the summer,” says Jason, noting the pandemic prevented a celebration of life ceremony from being held in his grandmother’s hometown of Guelph, Ontario. “What defined her was being a powerful woman who really did things very differently – especially 50 years ago when she did things that were not even thought of for women, so that is why we decided to to something to raise awareness for the Canadian Women’s Foundation.”

The CWF supports diverse women and girls across Canada, who face distinct barriers which require distinct solutions, including those who identify as women, girls, trans, genderqueer, non-binary, and 2SLGBTQI+. All donations raised by the Ellis’ Wheels of Strength 1940 project will go to the foundation’s Tireless Together Fund, which supports vulnerable women and girls affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Donations can be made through the project’s Facebook page, which also provides regular updates on their travels.

Jason and Marilyne Ellis have been living in Chute-a-Blondeau for just over a year – previously splitting their time between school in Quebec City and spending the summers living with Jason’s grandmother in Guelph during the summer. Both are avid cyclists and have previous fund-raising experience, including a round-trip journey between Quebec City and Toronto which raised $5,000 for the Canadian Breast Cancer Society in 2015-2016, while both were still students. That ride was in memory of their mothers, whom each lost to cancer at a young age.

While full-time employment has cut into the free time they had as students, the young couple was determined to do some sort of project for Katie – known as ‘Oma’ to her grandchildren – which would celebrate her life-long spirit and determination.

“She just always had a massive taste for adventure,” her grandson recalls fondly. “She left Germany at age 19 by herself to move to Canada at a time when international travel wasn’t where it is today. She had three children, but she kept her life moving forward.”

Wife Marilyne, who got to know her husband’s grandmother very well while the couple lived in Katie’s basement, says ‘Oma’ was an inspiration other women who knew her, working throughout her life while raising three children and rising to the level of an executive in the printing business.

“She worked as a mom, which was almost unheard of back then,” Marilyne enthuses. “She wasn’t a single mom – she had a husband – but she didn’t want to just be a mom, she wanted to be herself too.”

It was when after husband John passed in 2002 that Katie Ellis realized perhaps her greatest achievements, deciding to fulfill a desire to continue her education and returned to school at the University of Guelph. She graduated twice, first with a Bachelor of Arts and followed it up by obtaining a Master’s Degree in English in 2014.

“Her age meant nothing – graduating with a Bachelor’s at age 71 and then a Master’s at 74,” admires Ellis, of his grandmother’s late-in-life accomplishments. “I think it’s so important that others realize that if they’re in the senior years and they want to do something awesome, they can.”

As regulations from the COVID-19 pandemic discourage long-distance trips and straying far from home, the Ellis’ have been taking local rides several times a week of up to 100 kilometres per trip, with nearby Voyageur Provincial Park as one of their favorite destinations. They say the beauty of Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec gives them more than enough to see and are so impressed by the people and region that they are now looking to purchase a home in the area.

The Wheels of Strength cycling challenge will conclude on Sept. 13, which would have been Katherina’s 80th birthday. Marilyne and Jason plan to have a final ride for the project in her honor and a small ceremony with just the two of them. A larger celebration of life will be held later for all of her friends and family when the time is right.

“We will still have a ceremony, but it’s tough now because she was born in Germany and we have family (all over the world) who would all want to come, but right now with the border closed they can’t,” said Marilyne Ellis. “But we still need closure on our end and in our hearts.”

Above: Marilyne and Jason Ellis cycle near their home in Chute-a-Blondeau as part of their Wheels for Strength 1940 cycling challenge. Photo by Reid Masson

Stopping for a break on a 100 km day.

Katherina ‘Katie’ Ellis completed her Masters degree at the age of 74