August 16th, 2013: Gibsons – Nanaimo, 10 km, 2 ferry rides
Four days is much too long of a break, especially when surrounded by family. I was comfortable. I had to move.
I started early. I was meeting my dad in Nanaimo for the day, and I didn’t want to arrive late in the afternoon, especially since he was driving an hour to meet me. One hour. That was all that separated me from the final destination. It seemed trivial, but cycling can make even the most trivial things special; I tried not to jade myself.
After a foggy ride across the Strait of Georgia, I landed on Vancouver Island. Nanaimo was a place I’d visited (and skipped visiting) many times, but it had been a while. I tried to view the city with fresh eyes.
Dad and I spent the day together. We watched a movie; we went to a beach; we went to a restaurant. Mostly, we just talked, which was great.
Before he left, he treated me to a local hostel. I was grateful. It felt a bit funny to say goodbye. I was so close to Victoria. So close to home.
August 17th, 2013: Nanaimo – Sproat Lake, 105 km
For the first time since leaving Thunder Bay, I was down. As I headed out of Nanaimo, everything felt ordinary. There was nothing to look forward to, because, if there was, I surely would have remembered it from a previous visit. The island was Old News, and I briefly questioned my decision to hit Tofino before Victoria.
I refocused. I kept pedalling. I chose to forget the island that I knew. This was a different place, because I was different. I was a restless wanderer, not a comfortable homebody. Vancouver Island was mine to rediscover.
I arrived in Port Alberni earlier than I expected. I guess being young and sitting impatiently in the backseat of a minivan can skew one’s perception of distance. I remembered P.A. being nestled deep within the backbone of the island, not 30 km from the coast. Maybe the island wasn’t so big. The road unravelled, my memories in tow.
I spotted a couple of promising parks along the shore of Sproat Lake, and I made my way there. 25 km later I arrived at a small beach a few hundred metres off the road. Even though there were homemade signs everywhere shaming would-be litterers, the area was rife with meal dregs and junk wrappers.
After a delicious meal with smoked salmon from a local reserve, I set up my tent and bathed in the lake. Since the equinox, this was the first evening I was aware of the deteriorating daylight hours. No matter. I was usually ready to pass out by 10 pm.
As darkness fell, the sounds of rustling leaves, curious creatures, and lapping waves filled the air. Silk clouds blanketed the sky as I tucked into my sleeping bag. I risked no fly on the tent, though there was a non-zero percent chance of rain. I wanted to be exposed to the nothingness of the night. I wanted to feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, insignificant. This was my last night alone. I wanted to feel alone.
August 18, 2013: Sproat Lake – Tofino, 105 km
The internal clock struck 5:45 am. Wide awake and ready. Breakfast. Wasps came to say good morning and goodbye.
It looked to rain. The sky had turned into a formless intimidating mass, and the air was thick with humidity. I knew the next 70 km of road was going to be hellish, but limited visibility on an already dangerous highway was an unexpected obstacle.
The weather was cold and damp, and the air was dense with rain drops suspended in time. The shoulder disappeared – completely – for many kms at a time, and the Pacific Rim Highway seemed to take the path of most resistance through the unforgiving terrain. Hill grades crept up to 18%, and I laughed at the thought of Northern Ontario being the most challenging part of Canada. I wished for an easier gear.
Just as I was beginning to get really sick of things, the road levelled, and I hit a tourism information centre. I stopped for poutine at the surf shop just around the corner. The worst was over. Tofino was a 33 km flat ride away. 33 000 m. 99 000 metric feet. 1 069 457 attoParsecs. Would the finish line crawl away from me as I approached it? Tsunami warning signs lined the shoulder, and I briefly imagined the world conspiring to prevent me from finishing. A perfectly orchestrated symphony of natural disasters. Scaly monsters invading from a portal in the Pacific Rim.
1.5 hours later, I finished the trip.
My friend Julia met me in Tofino. She was going to join me for the trip back to Victoria. We spent the night with friends of hers in town.
August 19, 2013: Tofino – Cameron Lake (with ferry), 69 km
After excellent morning pancakes, we headed off towards Ucluelet. The weather was beautiful, and spirits were high. I was now pointed in the right direction. Homeward bound. The gentle breeze whistled through my front rack. Gulls cried melancholically overhead.
I’m not a fan of riding on the same road more than once, especially when that road is the Pacific Rim Highway. Fortunately, Julia and I were going to take a 5 hour ferry ride from Ucluelet to Port Alberni. I hadn’t even known about this alternative route until recently.
The ferry was an incredibly memorable experience. The sun hung in the sky confidently. Whales crested. Great hills rose up out of the inlet, their coastal seams specked with virgin beaches. We projected ourselves onto every bank.
Around 7:30pm, we arrived in Port Alberni. During my trip to Tofino, I had spotted some promising “campsites” along Cameron lake, about 30 km out of town, and so we prepared for a bit of night riding. The ride up Alberni summit was longer from the west, since we started exactly at sea level, and it was more than an hour before we reached the top. The final remnants of daylight lingered on the horizon as the moon affixed itself in the firmament.
We arrived at the lake well into the night, and prepared a surprisingly successful thai peanut dish in our headlamp-lit waterfront kitchen. We set the tent up on the beach, and just as things were winding down, a park ranger came by and booted us. Oh no! I had been on a roll since Blind River, ON. Oh well.
We relocated to a construction road several km away. Without trees, the sky was incredibly bright with moonlight. Sleep came swiftly enough, though I couldn’t help but feel like the construction zone mere metres from our tent was still quite active.
August 20th, 2013: Cameron Lake – Ladysmith, 90 km
Just as we were putting away the tent, a construction truck rolled up. The driver seemed more perplexed than pissed at our chosen domicile. Another close call, since he usually arrived an hour earlier. We headed back to our First Choice to make breakfast and go for a quick swim.
Back by Marble Canyon lake in between Cache Creek and Lillooet, I met a couple who were revisiting the site of their first honeymoon, 50 years earlier. When we parted ways, they gave me contact information and an offer to stay with them should I ever pass through Ladysmith. That’s where we were heading, and so I reached out, successfully.
When we finally arrived at Rod and Delana Sword’s home, we were blown away. The place was immaculate, inside and out. Their property sat on the very tip of a peninsula just across a small inlet from Ladysmith. They had a private beach which faced southeast, giving a clear view of Thetis Island and, behind it, Saltspring Island.
We were treated to an excellent dinner with excellent conversation. Rod and Delana had christened their home “Forever House,” because it was the home they intended to spend the rest of their lives in. They had been moving regularly since they were married – 21 times in 50 odd years – and they felt that this place deserved a title which carried with it the significance that they felt in finally being grounded.
Rod had spent many years with the Royal Canadian Air Force, and we actually shared some common ground in our adventures: in 1976, he piloted a jet in the first coast-to-coast non-stop flight by a Canadian fighter pilot. His trip took 4.5 hours. 4.5 hours out from Cape Spear, I had yet to leave the Avalon Peninsula. Could I fit a jet engine on my bike?
After a steam shower (w0w), some down time on the private beach, and a delicious dessert featuring blueberries from a nearby farm, we retired into a gorgeous guest room. I told Julia that the two days we had been travelling thus far had been remarkably representative of my experience across the country: ferries, mountains, camping, hospitality, night riding, etc. I was happy that she was getting the works, and I secretly hoped that she was getting addicted.
August 21, 2013: Ladysmith – Victoria, 100 km
Our gracious hosts treated us to a wonderful and hearty breakfast and gave us lunches to go. Rod had a friend with the newspaper in Ladysmith, and he suggested that I do an interview with them on my way through. Why not, I thought. I loved sharing my story, and I had become quite efficient at distilling what I thought was the essence of my journey.
As we were leaving Ladysmith, I got a call from a radio station in Duncan, BC, asking for a radio interview. This was a surprise. My 10 minute interview turned into a 30 second feel-good puff piece. It was pretty funny to hear what parts of my interview were deemed “radio worthy,” but I was grateful that I was intended as a reprieve from the heavier news items.
We left Duncan on the Cowichan Valley Trail. The trail website promised multiple trestles and modest former-railway grades as it approached the Malahat pass. Unfortunately, the trail was in pretty rough shape, and we were soon searching for any road that would take us back to the highway.
We opted to take a ferry from Mill Bay to Brentwood Bay on the Saanich peninsula instead of climbing the Malahat as we were now a little bit pressed for time. Another ferry read. What a treat!
Brentwood Bay was only 23 km from the end of the Trans-Canada-Highway. Maybe 1.5 hours of cycling. 1.5 hours until I was done. One Disney movie.
As we approached more familiar territory, I started sending messages to my parents indicating street intersections. Even though I wasn’t feeling it, I knew this would make my arrival more exciting. After 4 months of riding my bike, I realized that there was no joy in finishing, just a gentle feeling of satisfaction, as if this day, just like any other on the road, was coming to an end. I started instinctively looking for spots to pitch my tent, even though I knew I had a roof waiting for me.
I expected Victoria to look different. Maybe I wanted to be entering a different city. Any city but the last one. Where was the adventure in familiarity?
The answer was within me, within the countless lessons I learned while trying to assimilate all that was good about this incredible country: adventure is about perspective. Victoria didn’t have to be old hat. There was so much I didn’t know about the place of my birth. Maybe the next adventure was in unexplored alleys, down long-forgotten boulevards, new paths over old hills. Maybe I’ll be ok.