Month: July 2014

Coast to Coast

~470km (~1370km total)

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July (17-) 18, 2014: (Skidegate -) Prince Rupert – Terrace, ~155km

The Northern Adventure, which, during the summer, travels between Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert, runs sometimes during the day and sometimes during the night. My Thursday departure meant that I would be taking the evening ferry. An overnight crossing.

I hadn’t planned on spending any time in Prince Rupert upon my arrival, and I knew I needed at least a little rest in order to ride the next morning. As soon as I boarded the boat, I searched for some small plot of ferry turf to call my own for the evening, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and pillow in hand.

Have you ever had an idea that seemed so good at the time but upon reflection seemed so stupid? I think my idea to sleep above-deck, away from people, was one of those ideas.

It was quite dark by the time the ferry departed, and I didn’t really have a good sense of the weather. I was probably just in a rush to escape the day, to perform some final gesture to signify the ending of one experience and the beginning of another. To bookend the last six days. Closure. I wandered as far away from others as I realistically could on a boat and found a spot just below the upper sun deck. Outside, but sheltered from above. The engines were loud, but they had a rhythmic consistency, and I knew that my brain would eventually filter out their cyclical drone. The boat gently rocked back and forth, and I eventually dosed.

Fast forward several hours. I woke up and heard rain. No problem, I was sheltered. I looked at the floor I was on. Water. Little streams of water running from port to starboard and back again. That gentle back and forth rocking was allowing the rain water, pounding away at the deck a few metres away, to make its way towards me. I was getting soaked! A mad scramble ensued as I tried to pick up everything and find real shelter. I ended up sleeping just inside, next to the top of the staircase leading to the sun deck.

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An ill-advised bedroom.

The rain hadn’t let up one bit when I arrived in Prince Rupert, and I slowly made preparation for the road ahead, hoping that, if I was slow enough, I might out-wait the weather.

5km down the road. Already soaked. Severe wind. I was already looking for a temporary reprieve. A chance to collect myself, pump myself up, dry myself off. McDonald’s. I sat in McDonald’s, slowly sipping coffee, looking out at the sheets of near-horizontal rain, thinking of the day ahead. I thought about how wet I already was, not 15 minutes into my ride. I wrung my gloves out. Water. I felt the inside of my waterproofs. Water. I squeezed my toes inside my shoes. Water. I just didn’t want to move, but I had to move. I needed this day on the road to clear my mind, to reaffirm myself. I downed the coffee and stepped into the weather and onto the bike.

The first three or so hours were miserable. The rain was relentless, and the wind was vicious. The road went up and down until finally levelling off along the banks of the Skeena River, where it stayed until reaching Terrace, my intended destination.

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Precipitous crags rising towards obscured peaks along the Skeena River.

The precipitation never truly stopped during the day, but it did settle down quite a bit. For the remainder of the day, it was nothing more than a consistent fine drizzle. The sky remained overcast, and the clouds hung low, obscuring all the surely majestic peaks that rose from the river valley. A very ho-hum day.

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A brief view of the coastal mountains as I neared Terrace. A shoulder this wide is a rarity.

I arrived in Terrace intending to find a place to wild camp, but the wind had picked up severely, and the clouds looked poised to dump another deluge. I thought of my options. There was a campsite nearby, but it would surely be overpriced (most are). I sat in McDonald’s, charging my phone and thinking… Warmshowers! Of course! I checked the warmshowers hospitality map and saw that there were several hosts available in Terrace. I quickly sent off messages to all three of them, hoping for a little luck. All three responded, and I was soon connected with Dave and Mary, an incredibly active couple with an impressive track record of athletic accomplishments. They fed me until I was stuffed, and I went to bed in the biggest bed I had been in since Parksville.

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Dave and Mary, my most excellent hosts. Thanks again for accepting a last minute request from a sopping wet cyclists.

July 19th, 2014: Terrace

Today was a day of reorganization.

GONE:

GoPro camera. I was hardly using the camera, and just knowing it was on there dramatically increased my paranoia about leaving my bike unattended. If I needed to film, I would use my camera.

Kombi Waterproof Mitts. Waterproof they are not, as evidenced by the amount of water I wrung out of them at the end of a single day in the rain. No thanks.

Canon 40/2.8 pancake lens. More often than not, I wanted to take more in, not less. The pancake lens on a full frame sensor would be a more sensible pairing, but I wasn’t about to invest in a new camera body.

Incredibly poorly made (though cheap) polarized sunglasses from Atmosphere. Not sure what I expected with hinges thinner than paperclips.

Old, cheap tripod. In truth, I didn’t want to get rid of this, but I forgot a crucial piece of it on Haida Gwaii (somewhere on the road, in fact), and I could not find a replacement anywhere.

NEW ARRIVALS:

Manfrotto tripod. A bit heavier, nearly the same size, but much better quality than the previous tripod. It wasn’t cheap, but it was a worthwhile investment (and one of very few options in Terrace).

Ryders Sunglasses. “They’ll get ya laid,” said the bike shop employee. “But are they polarized?” I responded.

REARRANGED:

Because I can’t seem to leave well enough alone, I swapped my front and rear panniers. I was significantly underusing the space of the larger rear panniers, and I thought of the upcoming service-free stretches where I would need to carry several days worth of food and decided that the bigger bags would be better served on the front rack. I now had to be very careful making sharp turns, as the bags sat incredibly low to the ground. A good look for the bike, I think.

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New look.

All of this fiddling about took more time than I expected, and, because it was still stormy in Terrace, I decided on spending one more night in town. Dave and Mary were not available for a second night, and so I connected with one of the hosts to whom I had reached out on the previous day, Cheryl. Cheryl and her family were more than happy to share their home and food with me. I also had the chance to play on their old piano, more of a reminder of how much I’ve forgotten than anything. Still, it was great to peruse through the old Royal Conservatory books.

Thank you, Cheryl and family, for your hosting! I am terribly sorry I forgot to get a photo!

July 20th, 2014: Terrace – Kitwanga, ~95km

Big day today, marked by my start along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, a road through some of the remotest areas of Northern BC. The highway’s southern terminus is in Kitimat, BC, and its northern terminus is at its junction with the Alaska Highway, just inside the Yukon Territories. The stretch from Terrace to Kitwanga coincides with the Yellowhead Highway (one which I had taken out of Prince Rupert, and ridden on in Haida Gwaii). About 90km northeast, the Stewart-Cassiar highway branches to the north, departing from the Yellowhead for good.

The road continued along the Skeena for most of the day. I passed by countless fishermen along the pebbly shores, and, when the clouds occasionally lifted, I could see some of the impressive peaks that I had so missed on the ride into Terrace.

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Carving at a firefighters memorial along the Yellowhead/Stewart-Cassiar Highway.

Today, I had my first real sense of just how big Northern BC is. Not in the geographical sense, but in the way in which the landscape feels. Sometimes, a land may be full of grand features – impressive canyons or towering peaks – but, if the road is not constructed in a way that complements these features, they may go by unnoticed. Not so in BC. The towering, cascading peaks command attention wherever they are. Their disappearance into the clouds speaks to their profound size, and so, even in their absence, their presence is felt.

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The road to Kitwanga.

The highway northeast from Terrace is one constructed in gentle, gradual gestures. No hill is too severe, and no bend in the road is too abrupt. The river running directly left of me kept things from feeling too claustrophobic, and there was rarely a moment where I couldn’t see well off into the distance.

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One of the mountains ranges I wished to see more of coming out from Terrace. The Seven Sisters. No word if they’re related to the Three Sisters near Banff.

At a rest stop, I searched myself for that wild animal paranoia that had come over me a few times on Vancouver Island. I knew I was entering into an area with a far denser population of them, bears specifically. I had been seeing roadside droppings since hitting the Skeena River, and they were occurring at more frequent intervals as I headed towards Kitwanga. I searched myself for fear and found none. Perhaps the speed of the intermittent traffic – near light speed, I’m convinced – prevented any reasonably intelligent animal from spending too much time near the road? Any animal but a bike tourist, I guess. If there was any fear present, it was of the wandering-eyed tourist-motorists and their 10,000kg behemoth trailers. This was a good sign, because I could at least hear them coming.

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The Terminator is on the move, but he might be a while.

As I neared Kitwanga, I arrived at the Stewart-Cassiar junction. I slowed down (but not really, bike tourists are always travelling slowly) and took it all in: the small services station on the corner; the junction label; the signs showing distances to various northern BC communities; the distance to the Alaska Highway junction. This was an important moment, this simple left turn. The branching road looked so insignificant, so innocuous, as if it might peter off into a gravel road after no more than 5km, and then maybe dribble on for another 500m or so before being suffocated by the surrounding foliage. But it was an arrow, shot through the heart of Northern BC. I rolled my bike through the junction, and down the highway. The wind at my back for most of the day now crossed me. The vegetation crept closer to the road. The asphalt was rougher, the shoulder narrower. I took in the new sensations as the junction disappeared behind me.

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The Highway 37 Junction.

There was a free campsite in a park in Kitwanga – about 5km down the highway – but I ended up being offered a place to pitch my tent in the local RV park. Seems the Texas 4000 – a for-cancer supported bike tour with 70-odd members – was here one day earlier. I thought of my rest day in Terrace. The company would have been nice. Perhaps I could catch up to them?

July 21, 2014: Kitwanga – Stewart-Cassiar km-105, ~105km

I woke up early, afraid. I was completely safe, but it seemed every part of me wanted nothing more than to stay in the tent. I wasn’t afraid of any physical threat, but my mind had wandered 100s of kilometres down the highway and had returned to inform me that it was all the same. In that premonition, I was terrified. Of never-ending sameness. Of mind-numbing repetition. I tucked a little bit deeper into my sleeping bag and delayed the inevitable.

Mornings can be rough. I can’t even salvage my dignity through some modern distraction: gym, TV, internet. Each morning, I have to reinvent and reinvigorate myself. The greatest workout of the day occurs before I even step on the bike.

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Late morning sunshine along Highway 37.

Not too much interesting on the road for most of the day. It’s amazing how the landscape can be ever-evolving, yet, at the end of the day, be as monolithic as ever. Try as I might, I can’t remember a defining feature. Maybe a particularly dense bed of purple fireweed, or maybe a spacious plot of young birch trees?

Midday, the wind abruptly changed directions, and what had been a mild tailwind turned into a vicious headwind. It seemed a storm was on the way. I looked south and the sky was cooking up something special. I readied my rain jacket and plodded on. No sense in waiting for it to hit me. Soon the rain came. And came. And came. Fortunately, during this misery, three cycling tourists graced my path travelling south: two Germans, Wolfgang and Kris, and a solo Japanese man, “Tomo.” We didn’t talk much because of the weather and our language barriers, but it was nice to see others out there, suffering the elements.

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Kris (on the left) & Wolfgang, two comrades coming down from Whitehorse, I think.

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“Tomo,” he affectionately nicknamed himself. Happy as can be in the rain.

BIG EVENT

I stared down a straight stretch of road. A black shape was moving on the left shoulder. A bear. My first bear encounter! Ever, I think! I readied my whistle. I had mentally rehearsed many times what I might do in a situation like this, and my whistle was the first (and hopefully only) course of action. So I whistled. And kept whistling. I was getting dangerously close to the bear, and it still seemed to care little about my incessant tweeting. My thoughts turned to a story (joke?) of a bear stool come across with a little yellow whistle in it. No, that was grizzly bear poop, if anything. So I kept tweeting. I was maybe 10m from the bear now. Finally, at the last moment, the bear turned around, noticed me, and bolted off into the forest. Huh. Not how I was expecting the encounter to go, but I made it through. Perhaps the wind that was slowing me down also prevented my whistle from reaching the bear effectively? My thoughts now turned to observations of bears as timid, misunderstood creatures. Maybe they were closer to the truth. I cycled on, wary, but feeling a little more confident.

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More time for selfies once the rain stopped.

Just after km marker 105, I saw a pull-off on the opposite side of the road and followed it about 20m until it reached a small clearing. The ground was muddy and the bugs were something fierce, but the rain had temporarily let up, so I took the opportunity to set up my tent and keep my sleeping gear dry. I quickly donned my mosquito shirt and spent most of the evening pacing around goofily. Bugs tend to do that to me. The experience reminded me of my time in Northern Ontario, only with a greater variety of insects. Lucky me? I explored the area immediately around my campsite and found an empty firewood storage container and a makeshift toilet (complete with a roll of soggy toilet paper hanging off a nearby branch). How long had it been since this place was last used, I wondered.

Lying in my sleeping bag, reading (East of Eden, a gift from Cheryl in Terrace), I felt surprisingly relaxed. I think my first wild animal encounter helped me get in touch with reality a bit better. My imagination had previously been running wild with how an encounter might go, but now, it had come, and gone, I was none the worse for it. Even so, I hung my food well away from my tent, and hoped that there were no inviting odours that might set a curious bear snooping.

July 22, 2014: Stewart-Cassiar km-105 – Stewart, ~115km

Woke up and looked above. The sky had that portentous dark-grey colour to it, and so I hastily packed up my gear and put on my “waterproof” everything (the jacket was holding up quite well, actually). Waterproof clothing is also nice because it doubles as being mosquito proof, and in the morning’s mosquito aviary, I needed all the protection I could manage, even with the no-see-um shirt.

I pulled onto the road, leaned my bike on the concrete road barrier beside the highway, and brushed my teeth. Then, from down the road, a touring cyclist appeared. Max was also on his way north, to Denali National Park. We talked of our respective plans, and I learned that he was wavering about whether or not to take the ferry from Stewart-Hyder up to Alaska, or to cycle the rest of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. I weighed in with my thoughts, stoked at the idea of having a riding buddy for the remainder of the lonesome highway. We rode on together, and he decided to leave the decision unmade until the Meziadin Junction, where the 37 continues north and the 37a heads southwest into Stewart.

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Max, in Stewart, BC.

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The coastal mountains appear along the northwestern horizon as we head up the Stewart-Cassiar.

One of the only active logging sites along the highway.

One of the only active logging sites along the highway.

At the junction, we met another cyclist, Andrew from New Zealand, who was on his way down from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska (look it up…whoa). This was just another leg in his around the world cycling odyssey, and he was full of energy and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, he helped Max no further along in his decision making, but Max and I did decide on the detour into Stewart, regardless of whether or not he would take the ferry. The coastal mountains that had grown in size and prominence as they day went on proved too tempting to resist. The thought of spending the evening in a small coastal town in the mountains was an enticing one, and, as I made my way towards Stewart with Max well ahead of me, I decided that I would most likely spend the next day there.

Andrew, the around-the-world cyclist from New Zealand.

Andrew, the around-the-world cyclist from New Zealand.

The 37a was every bit what I expected it to be. The foothills soon transformed into looming granite peaks with waterfalls cascading down their overgrown slopes. It was truly a grand feeling, to be gliding down the road through scenery so impressive and so massive. The road passed by Bear Glacier, the first glacier that I’ve seen since I can remember, and its turquoise sheen and corrugated surface were mesmerizing. I felt as though I was receiving recompense for the dreary days along the Yellowhead.

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The mountainous view from the 37a.

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Bear Glacier in the background.

I saw two more bears on the road, though I was moving so quickly that I hardly had time to think about how I might react. Luckily, the first one knew exactly how to react to me, and it darted off as soon as it saw me. The second bear, a large black bear, didn’t notice me, but this wasn’t it was too busy eating. No, it was because of the vehicle, parked in the middle of the highway with its blinkers on (as if that would make a difference around a blind corner), its passengers snapping away with large cameras. This, I thought, was the real danger to cyclists. A bear startled due to its own distraction is one thing, but a bear startled due to vehicular obstruction of oncoming hazards is completely different. I was glad to be zipping down a hill at the time. Who knows how things would have played out if I were to have been heading in the opposite direction?

Arrived in Stewart, and I met Max, who sullenly exclaimed to me that there was no ferry, not in at least 10 years. I’m not sure why he hadn’t learned of this sooner, but at least his ignorance had brought him to Stewart, just next to the Alaska border, and to the Pacific Coast.

“You can camp anywhere you like in Stewart,” the lady working at the grocery store said, and so we set up our tents in the park next to the main road through town.

July 23, 2014: Stewart (and Hyder)

Max and I got up early to check out the bear-viewing area just across the border in Hyder, a mere 3km away. There was no customs person or border guard on the way into America (imagine that), but that’s probably because the town of Hyder boasted a population of less than 100. We didn’t see any bears, but we did manage to get Hyderized – a local ritual involving 151 proof Everclear – at around 11am.

"Enjoying" a shot of Everclear, 151 proof.

“Enjoying” a shot of Everclear, 151 proof.

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Heading into Hyder. Note the lack of border patrol.

It seems that Hyder has a stronger tourist appeal than Stewart. Its main diner, boasting homemade European style bread (which was excellent), was riddled with signed two-dollar bills, a since-retired Canadian currency. In fact, the entire community seemed more well kept, and even the abandoned shops had a look of careful preservation about them, as if there was a kind of reverence for the town’s history. Previously, Hyder had served as a port to many Canadian mines. In fact, it was to be named Portland City originally (being at the end of the Portland Canal), but the US postal service advised that there were already too many places with that designation. Gradually, as the mining diminished, so too did the town’s significance, until, after the Granduc mine about 30km north (and in Canada) shut down in 1984, it ceased to be a port to, well, anything. Still, it has a happy community, and, being the easternmost city in Alaska, it must be quite the novelty for travelling tourists of any sort.

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Hyder is honest about its community.

Stewart, on the other hand, appears to just exist in a kind of semi-dilapidated state. Its location is beautiful, with towering mountains all around, but there doesn’t seem to be as much effort put into preservation, or, at least, there isn’t as much effort put into advertising any preservation efforts that might be taking place. It seems like, during the mining boom, it was playing second fiddle to the more easily accessible Hyder, though it does have a now out of service air strip (not much good for transporting rocks, I’ll bet). Still, it is a welcoming community of slightly less than 500, and its 24-hour access free wifi speaks to me as a gesture geared towards foreigners looking for a brief reprieve on their way north or south. I never felt unwanted during my two nights spent camping in their park, even with an expensive RV park (with tenting space) nearby.

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Parked in beautiful Stewart, BC.

Max, unfortunately, could not stand to stay put for one day, and, after our Hyder experience, he headed on towards Bell 2. I tried to find a compromise, but he seemed intent on heading out. I was sorry to see him go. I had enjoyed our brief time riding together, and looked forward to perhaps running into him at some point further north.

Checking through emails, I discovered that I had been requested for an interview by a Korean school that I had applied to several weeks earlier. What a tricky thing to sort out, trying to organize a Skype interview on the road with progressively spottier wifi! Oh well, it made for some excitement, and the idea of exchanging emails, riding long kilometres, checking messages, etc. somehow felt exhilarating.

I spent the rest of the day updating my blog, talking with other travellers, chilling out on the shaded deck of the grocery store, drinking beer. Banff it wasn’t, but it just perfect the way it was.

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Haida Gwaii

July 10 – July 17, 2014: Haida Gwaii, ~250km

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I have known about the islands formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands for many years, but they didn’t mean anything to me until recently. Formerly, they were simply a shape on a map. An apparition beyond the horizon. I knew they were north of Vancouver Island, and I knew they were inhabited. That’s about it. In fact, I didn’t even know about their name change (which happened about four years ago, I believe) until I began to earnestly consider visiting them on my way north. They are an archipelago of about 150 islands, but the two principal landmasses are Graham Island to the north and Moresby Island below it. Graham Island carries the majority of the population in towns or reserves: Queen Charlotte City, Skidegate, Tlell, Port Clements, Masset, Old Massett, etc. Moresby Island’s main settlement is Sandspit on its northeastern tip.

I was bound for the northern island, as I have a friend who lives in Masset, the sibling of a friend whom I stayed with on my previous X-Canada trip, in fact.

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One of many pristine views from the Northern Expedition.

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Another.

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One more. With a tugboat.

Arrival

As I boarded the Northern Expedition at Port Hardy the previous morning, I had the early symptoms of a head cold. I was very fortunate to have met the folks I did at the rest area by the terminal, because they provided me with a couch to crash on in Prince Rupert, the Inside Passage route’s endpoint, and a temporary rest stop for me before one more ferry ride to the islands.

The next morning, my symptoms were worse, but I knew I had to make the connecting ferry, so I stumbled off the couch and onto my bike for a short but miserable ride down to the ferry terminal. I immediately took a room on board, hoping that the rest might prevent my symptoms from worsening.

No dice, but I did manage to sleep for the entire 8 hour ride. I was feeling quite delirious, and I knew I shouldn’t chance wild camping. I headed towards Queen Charlotte City – about 5km from the ferry terminal – and took a room in the first hotel I came across. The owner took pity and offered me a reduced rate. I quickly went to sleep in cold sweats. Welcome to Haida Gwaii.

Exploration

After a couple of nights in the hotel I was ready to get going. It’s never fun being sick in an unfamiliar place, and especially so given that I wanted to be out exploring this unfamiliar new land. Small hotel rooms are no place restless wanderers.

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An anti-Enbridge billboard in Queen Charlotte City. In the coming days, I would learn that the population was practically unanimous in its opposition to the pipeline project.

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Another collage, this one near Old Massett, a few kilometres from Masset.

The road from QCC to Tlell traces south then eastern coast of Graham Island. From there it heads inland to Port Clements on what is apparently the longest “perfectly straight” stretch of road in BC (quite the claim). From there, it winds its way just east of the Masset Inlet towards Masset.

I stayed in Masset for several days, and spent my final night in Haida Gwaii wild camping on East Beach with a new friend. I’ll share my thoughts of the island on a few topics.

The people

Coming to the island, I had a very narrow view of first nations’ culture, one defined by its simplified caricature pervasive in the tourist-friendly city of Victoria. I was hoping that my time on Haida Gwaii, a place where the Haida population accounts for around 45% of the total, would give a more human dimension to my many untenable assumptions.

Everyone I met, even briefly, was warm and engaging. What seemed most pervasive in the first nations (Haida) people was a great sense of humour. Upon arriving at a nondescript building, I asked a local if it was the liquor store. His response was “Ya saw me leaving it, didn’t ya?” I received smiles and friendly nods as I rode down the streets, and I never felt unsafe, even if I left my bike temporarily unattended and unlocked.

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Good advice any day of the week.

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Apparently my six days of sunshine on Haida Gwaii were a meteorological rarity.

The people here struck me as those searching for simplicity in life, or perhaps for something lost in the rapid development of civilization. If one wanted to truly be “off the grid,” this is the place for it. I sensed a purity of intention in them, a desire for an honest existence alongside nature, not at its expense. Homes were understated and unobtrusive, for the most part. Occasionally, I saw egregious, western homes with multi-car garages and souped-up SUVs, but these were infrequent enough to be more amusing than offensive.

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An intersection in Old Massett. Always interesting to see these cultural similarities.

The land

Haida Gwaii is understated in its presentation: the trees are shorter on average, often resembling bonsai due to the shallow topsoil near the road (and sometimes extending much further away from it); the mountain range that gives definition to the southern horizon is one of humble proportions, rising just over 1000m above the sea at its highest point (not small per se, but compared to the coastal mountains of BC whose greatest peak, Mount Waddington, reaches just over 4000m, a modest summit). In stark contrast are the impressive spectacles of North Beach – spanning at least 30km along the northern coast of Graham Island – and East Beach, lining nearly the entire eastern coast of the island. On a clear day, Alaska is visible to the north and mainland BC to the east.

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The road between Skidegate and Tlell, with the rocky silhouette of Moresby Island in the background.

Marshes, covered in water lilies, frequently appear along the roadside, especially inland. The presence of marshes would seem to speak against the potential for farming, but, near Tlell, there was clear evidence of an active farming community: large, fenced-in pastures, ploughing equipment, and a sign indicating a weekly farmers market.

The islands invited adventure and exploration. Little trails jutted into the forest from the main road, and the beachside shoulder was riddled with well-worn pullouts snaking away into private clearings by the surf. Off the main highway, on old logging access roads and trail beds, there was an unkempt ruggedness. While exploration felt encouraged, it was hardly offered up on a platter. I once went with some friends in search of a popular hike, Sleeping Beauty, only to spend most of the day in search of the trailhead instead, a sort of adventure in its own right.

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After a day spent getting lost while searching for the Sleeping Beauty hike, we were perfectly content (the beers may have helped a bit).

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A taste of home. Phillips Brewery, all the way up here! Double IPA for double the fun.

Memories

I don’t think I experienced the adventure here that some might come seeking – one filled with epic views, precarious hikes, or crashing waves, but I found, in littler moments, an equally memorable experience that I had difficulty relinquishing.

I remember tentatively wading over sea asparagus through rapidly rising tidal waters on the return from a meandering coastal hike (the Pesuta shipwreck).

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The Pesuta Shipwreck, or, what’s left of it. No idea where the rest of the wreck went.

I remember a conversation with a Haida argillite carver, Myles Edgars, in which he displayed with uninhibited enthusiasm his love for his craft, and his appreciation for simple pleasures, like the view of bears on the beach across the Masset Inlet. He asked that I find him a wife on Vancouver Island.

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Myles Edgars carving away a commissioned work. This man keeps his shop open until about 9:00pm, and he carves still later, until around 2:00am every night.

I remember looking to the horizon off the northern beach and seeing the distant, craggy coast of Alaska. I felt pulled towards them with an indescribable intensity: the pull of unfamiliar lands soon to be discovered.

I remember the pervasive presence of bald eagles, almost to the point of banality.

I remember seeing, on the beach, the cloven footprints of feral cows, descendants of free-range cattle left behind by earlier settlers. The hippy cows.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night on East Beach. A waning gibbous moon hanging low in the eastern sky lit up the night, yet the Milky Way was clearly visible directly overhead. I stood outside, naked, vulnerable. The ink black surface of Hecate Strait was placid, save for the gentle coaxing of the breeze. The sound of the water lapping against the shores was as tentative as that of the leaves rustling behind me. I was saturated with the minutia. I crawled back into the tent, my sleeping bag, transfixed.

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Meet Sam. Sam happily joined me on a long hike, a couple days of cycling, and a classic camping experience, s’mores and all. Thanks for giving me the pleasure of an adventure companion for a couple days, Sam.

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A final campsite on East Beach. Tucked away from the road traffic and complemented with an intact fire pit, this place was as ideal as they come. Nestled near the cliff with only the sky, the ocean, the sand, the grass, we were perfectly content.

Onward

These oddly specific experiences hardly scratch the surface of my time on Haida Gwaii, but they do stand out, more so on reflection. The whole that they were a part of is one I will cherish. and I wonder if the road ahead will ever satisfy me in the way that my six days on the islands have.

I suppose, on some level, I knew that this might happen. The fear born from leaving the comfort found in an extended stay is not new to me. Leaving Quebec City, QC and Waterloo, ON last year left me feeling similarly distraught. In times like this, I find it helpful to remember that, in the past, the fear was often short-lived.

Try as I might, however, I can’t stop thinking of past goodbyes, and not future hellos. Time to focus on the physical. Just turn the pedals. Rotate the wheels. Inch by inch. Minute by minute. A few more days. A few more cities. Somewhere down the road, I’ll regain my momentum.

But first, one more ferry ride.

The Rest of the Island

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July 5, 2014: Thetis Island – Parksville, ~70km

Late start today. Between a convoluted ferry schedule and unpredictable miserable weather, I didn’t hit the road until early afternoon. However, this was just fine by me. Mom was heading up to the camp that I had just left, and we were able to meet in Chemainus for lunch and a proper goodbye.

There’s something queer in casual conversations about big ambitions. As I sat there relaying my intentions regarding BC, the Yukon, Alaska, and the NT, I was struck by the inherent simplicity of my plan: cycle from place to place, eat a ton of food, and rest. That’s it. It was odd to think that what had taken at least several months of planning could be distilled into these basic ingredients. Often, I like to think that what I do on my bike requires something special, something that separates me from the herd. But no, it’s just a bike ride. Just a really long bike ride. Have you ridden your bike today?

Saying goodbye with mom was tough, and it certainly didn’t make for an enjoyable start to the day. I felt like I was on autopilot for the most part, and by the time I reached the northern end of Nanaimo, I was wondering what the hell I was doing. Every U-turn route seemed like an invitation back home and comfort with loved ones. What exactly was the point of all this nonsense anyway? The scenery was boring; the traffic was noisy. Lacking any external stimulation, I was starting to obsess over the minutia: were the aches and pains just regular aches and pains, or were they impending injuries? Was that click in the drivetrain every rotation a disaster waiting to happen? Was how I was feeling in this exact moment an indication of how I would feel in every moment for the remainder of the entire ride? Clearly, I was not in a good headspace. I hadn’t had a proper meal since breakfast, and I was miserable.

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The most beautiful city entrance sign to one of the most uninteresting cities. Don’t be fooled. You won’t miss much if you take the bypass highway around Nanaimo.

I pulled into a McDonald’s to chill out and readjust my frame of mind. Oh, and to scarf down a load of food. Not McDonald’s food, mind you, but I did make use of their facilities (the Golden Arches are a beacon to the road weary bike traveller, promising a comfortable, real seat and free wifi). Sitting on the pavement allowing my stormy mood to work itself out, I received a message from a friend of mine in Parksville complete with an invitation to stay for the evening should it be convenient for my schedule. Of course! Coming at the tail end of my extended sulk, this was just what I needed to hear. As I continued on towards Parksville, the clouds lifted. The wind was now at my back. I even met another bike tourist on the road. What was this sorcery? In that brief rest stop at Nanaimo’s city limits, I had come face to face with my strongest misgivings and shoved them aside, and now, either through some remarkably drastic change in perspective on my part, or through the inevitable upswing of a life carried out on the whims of the world, I was being given the gift of serendipity. Sometimes, relinquished, everything just falls into place.

My friend Kate and her mom were a blast to spend time with, and, even though I cut my intended distance short by at least 30km, I knew I had made the right decision. I had three more days to reach Port Hardy, 350km away, but I had cast aside enough baggage today. I felt as light as a feather.

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Meet Kate. Kate and her mom provided me with a private cottage in which to spend the evening.

July 6, 2014: Parksville – 10km past Campbell River, ~130km

I wanted to be on the road early. I in no way regretted my stop in Parksville, but it had put me behind schedule for another ferry crossing.

The route from Port Hardy up to Prince Rupert is considered to be more of a coastal excursion than purely a water taxi. As such, it is often a destination not only for those on extended commutes (what a horrible thought – a 14 hour ferry commute), but also for those looking to add a west coast cruise to their Canadian vacation. I was advised by a lady at BC Ferries to book a ticket “just in case” several days prior to departure, and now that I had done so I had no intention of missing my connection and rescheduling. Thus, I was again in the unfortunate predicament of riding with a deadline.

By 9:00am, I was stocked up with leftover chili and apple pie and raring to go. I was on my way into the temperamental weather. I was still basking in the afterglow of yesterday’s revelation, and I wanted to milk it for all of its worth.

I took the much less frequented but just as direct old island highway – 19a – until Campbell River where it merged with the main highway – 19 – as it headed towards Port Hardy. The clouds looked like they might be clearing as I left Parksville, but soon after, the skies opened up. At least this was a good opportunity to test out some of my rain gear.

Today ended up being pretty uneventful. The rain came. And went. And came again. And went again. I passed through many small, unincorporated communities. By midday, I was in Courtenay having lunch in a small park. Shortly after my arrival in the park, a small posse of teens paraded in with their hot-rodded import cars. This didn’t strike me as an especially Sunday-afternoon sort of thing to do (if the Fast and the Furious movies have taught me anything), but then I saw a some girls playing in a nearby baseball diamond and it all became crystal clear. The peacocks were on the prowl. Hopefully the peahens were a discriminating bunch.

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One of several oyster shacks along Fanny Bay, just south of Courtenay. Depending on the direction of the wind, you might know of their presence up to two kilometres before reaching them (they stink).

The 19a continued to snake along the coast as I neared Campbell River. I arrived in the “Salmon Capital of the World,” staked my claim on a bench outside Tim Horton’s for dinner, and chowed down on some chili. Today was the first day I felt a bit like a dirtbag. I asked the lady behind the counter for some extra butter servings; I shoved some salt and pepper packages into my pockets; I washed my dishes in the bathroom. One has to make due, right?

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My first official latitude crossing marked with a sign. Though the Inside Passage route would take me up several more degrees, this one felt especially significant, as it also marked the end of familiar territory on Vancouver Island.

As I was catching up with family on my phone, I reflected that this was as far north as I had ever been on Vancouver Island. For many years, I hadn’t even considered that Vancouver Island existed beyond Campbell River. Now, as the day was coming to a close, I knew that I was soon going to be puncturing that bubble of civilization that had defined my understanding of this place. Tomorrow, I was off into the real unknown. People had told me how drastically different the road would be north of here, but I could only imagine what they meant. How wild could this little island be?

The sun was setting. I headed out of town in search of a place to camp. Just past the Seymour Narrows viewpoint, I found an old logging road littered with evidence of a long since passed bush party. It was disgusting, but I continued investigating. A short ways down the road, there was a brief break in the forest wall. I peered in and discovered a flat section of loam suitable for pitching a tent.

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The Seymour Narrows and yours truly. Really should have been looking for a spot to camp at this time, but sometimes vanity just takes hold of me.

I crawled into my tent and only after settling down with my journal did I realize just how quiet the night had become. Birdcalls were less frequent, and only an occasional mysterious forest murmur broke through the night air. I won’t lie: I was feeling a little squirrelly at this time. I wasn’t used to bush camping, and in the twilight the woods took on a far more menacing appearance. I was barely 20ft from the side of the road, but I might as well have been in the middle of a jungle. I did my best to assuage my worries with rational thinking, but it took quite a while before complete exhaustion overwhelmed any feelings of vulnerability.

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Scary, looming forest at night. Disney-esque thicket in the morning.

July 7, 2014: 10km past Campbell River – Woss, ~115km 

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Getting closer.

A few tentative blinks. A quick survey of my surroundings. Tent. Sleeping bag. Pillow. I had made it through the evening. In the morning light, the forest that had the previous night seemed intent on swallowing me whole now looked to be nothing more than a roadside thicket. I chuckled at how unsettled I had felt. Even the blood from a botched mosquito bite stained onto my shirt had thrown me into fits of paranoia. The night was uneventful. Rational thought had prevailed, and I felt a little but more comfortable at the thought of many future nights in my tent alone in the wilderness.

I scarfed down some cookies for breakfast in order to get on the road quickly. I was soon climbing a steady hill that ended up lasting for about 15km. It was never steep enough to feel like an accomplishment, but it did slow my progress enough to make any thought of hitting the day’s target distance – ~120km – feel like a distant dream.

As the day wore on, the fog that had been hovering over the surrounding hills lifted and revealed a sunny and clear day. It wasn’t yet noon, and this was looking to be the hottest day of the trip so far. I soon entered into Sayward Valley, a picturesque community dotted with houses sporting well-kept lawns, gazebos, and impeccably maintained gardens. I certainly wasn’t expecting this kind of scenery north of Campbell River, but then I wasn’t really sure what I expected. All I had garnered from southern islanders was that it would be “different.”

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A tapped glacial river, somewhere between Campbell River and Sayward Junction. I would have certainly passed this by had I not been given advice by some Campbell River locals regarding this safe drinking water source, one for which many of them will make the trip out of town.

 

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Surprisingly quaint Sayward Valley.

The sun was now at its peak intensity, and the wind was unfortunately blowing directly against me through the narrow channel. After a grueling climb out of Sayward Valley, I found myself in an environment wholly removed from that which came before it. Vast forested hills rose directly from the roadside and tapered off in balding, craggy peaks. I felt like I was in the midst of the Rocky Mountains. I almost didn’t mind that my progress had slowed to a snail’s pace due to the headwind and challenging grades; every metre down the road revealed some new dimension to the ever-unfolding landscape. Occasionally, a snowy peak would drift in and out of view from behind some closer treed mounds. My sense of perspective, without a consistent horizon, was completely askew, and I was often struggling up downhills or coasting down uphills.

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One of the rare road grade warning signs in my favour.

Near Woss, I had an ambiguous yet unsettling encounter. I heard branches cracking off to my right in a pattern markedly removed from the rhythmic swaying and creaking of the wind-rustled trees. I glanced briefly away from the road and saw two eyes staring directly back at me. Now, these eyes were well concealed by the shadow of the forest, so I’m not sure exactly what I saw, but I was spooked. Shivers ran from my head to my toes, and I cycled on with a bit more urgency. I knew of cougars on the island. Or bears. Was I being pursued? Maybe it was residual paranoia from the previous evening, or maybe my survival instincts had shifted into overdrive. Either way, a feeling of complete nakedness and helplessness stayed with me for longer than I’d like to admit. So much for rational thought!

Probably the most frustrating thing about the pseudo-encounter was the lack of validation. I had no idea what peered out from the trees. It could have been a deer for all I knew. I had seen many in the previous days. Without confirmation, my fears remained steadfastly tied to my own insecurities about the unknown. But this was ultimately good thing. I now knew the source of the problem, and I had to deal with it. I continued to bolster up my confidence with the stories of countless successful tours I had read about in the months leading up to my departure. The path was well worn, at least for now.

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The Rocky Mountains feeling is strong through here.

Meanwhile, several kilometres back, a deer was surely grazing contently at the roadside in ignorant bliss.

Just after arriving in Woss, I met two French cyclists who had been travelling from Campbell River, just as I had. A local guided us down a gravel road towards the local (free) campsite on Woss Lake, and as we shared dinner, I learned that this was one of the last days of their fifty-odd day tour up from Nevada. Seeing their camaraderie, I could tell that their shared experiences on the road would be ones that they would not soon forget, and I missed the earlier company of my dad.

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Meet Greg and Vincent, two superhuman tourists on their way up from Nevada, I think, and on the last days of their 50-odd day tour.

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Electric car charging station in Woss, a town of about 200 people. Didn’t see any Teslas, though.

We managed to get a warm fire going and were soon retired to our tents. My first day into northern Vancouver Island was over, and it was sure to be mostly downhill as I headed towards the coast yet again.

July 8, 2014: Woss – Port Hardy, ~110km

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The gravel road heading from Woss Lake campground, a free campsite about 5km from Woss.

Pot filled. Stove unfolded. Flame lit. Water boiled. Oatmeal poured. As Parisian and Quebecois snores resonated through the campsite, I quietly prepared breakfast with a calculated routine of high efficiency. This routine had been honed during the Great Mosquito War of 2013, a time when prolonged exposure to the endless droves was a sure ticket to insanity. What can one do in the midst of such apocalyptic swarms but find shelter and hunker down? Unfortunately, I still had to eat (preferably hot, cooked food), and so I had developed a method of meal preparation that minimized my exposure to the bloodsuckers. The routine had been cemented through countless repetitions, and now I knew of no other way. I was a bit rusty, but my arms went almost effortlessly through the motions.

My camping mates were just waking up as I put away the last of my gear sprawl. Their plan was to head as far as Port McNeill, whereas I was heading about 40km further, to Port Hardy, to await my ferry to Prince Rupert. With this in mind, I set off just as they were waking up, though I had a sneaking suspicion that they would catch up with me at some point.  Their slight and muscly builds, skinny tires, and minimalist gear led me to believe that they were a speedy duo.

About an hour into my ride, the wind was again in full force. So much for an easy morning. As I sat on a roadside barrier munching on an apple and contemplating the suffering the day would bring, my new friends rounded the corner. We ended up riding together to Port McNeill, taking turns drafting each other. My earlier suspicion proved to be true, and they were indeed remarkably quick. It took all of my effort to keep up with them, though I tried to assuage my ego with equipment related justifications.

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You don’t have to tell me twice. Also, see that kilometre marker? Those occurred every 2km, as well as every 5km, so a 10km section of road would have progress indicators at 0, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10. As you can imagine, it made the slog against the headwind feel even slower. Sometimes, it’s best to be able to zone out.

Both of them took a shot at riding my bike and confirmed its status as a veritable pig, though they were quicker on it than I. Was I carrying too much? I mentally parsed through my equipment. Everything seemed necessary, essential even. Well, maybe not everything. That GoPro camera? That second camera lens? Those three books (one being hardcover)? Perhaps I could skim a little when I reached Prince Rupert.

Just outside of Port McNeill, we ran into a pair of friendly cycle tourists on their way south from Alaska. The Philtrons sported Surly Long Haul Truckers and a full complement of Ortlieb waterproof bags, much like my own. The similarities between their gear choices and my own were almost humourous, right down to the identical placement of the same brand of air pump (down the backside of the seat tube, in the small gap just before the rear fender). One of them was completing their doctoral thesis en route, and they were carrying not one but two laptops. I thought of my misgivings about my gear. Maybe I wasn’t travelling as excessively loaded as my time with my French friends had led me to believe. We cycle tourists all carry with us an individually crafted road ethos, and I suppose mine demanded a modicum of comfort. I would shed a few odds and ends in Prince Rupert, though.

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A view looking out to the west coast of British Columbia, near Port Hardy.

The wind looked to be even more relentless as the road continued near the coast towards Port Hardy, but with the thought of a relaxing ferry ride and a completed island traverse thoroughly cemented, I bid my brief cycling companions adieu in Port McNeill and headed back up the hill and onto the highway towards to finish off the day.

The road northwest was far from straight, but no matter what direction I was directed, the wind did its best to ensure that I earned every inch of my crawl along the pavement. I couldn’t wait to head inland for the majority of the remaining tour, though that hardly guaranteed anything. Several hard-fought hours later, I arrived in Port Hardy…and then I backpedaled out of town about 10km towards the ferry terminal. What a curious layout.

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By now you must be quite familiar with the rump of my bike. Sexy, eh?

As I neared the berth, I spotted another tent on the side of the road in a small rest area reserved for ferry patrons. It was getting quite dark, and this was all the confirmation I needed to plop down my belongings set up my own abode. The tent belonged to a posse also taking the Inside Passage.  They were all very friendly, and I soon learned that we all shared a thirst for adventure and a love of road trips. They had many epic adventures between the four of them. I welcomed the company at the end of a long and difficult day, and we chatted the night away waiting for the Northern Expedition to arrive.

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The Northern Expedition arriving just out of Port Hardy.

Vancouver Island was now complete, but my adventures along the coast of BC were far from over. In two days time, I would arrive on Haida Gwaii.

 

 

Family Matters

July 3, 2014: Victoria – Port Renfrew, ~105km

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I hadn’t slept much the previous night. My bike was packed and sitting in the garage. I had been ready to go for the better part of two weeks, but now, on the morning of departure, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had forgotten something. Bear spray? Check. Water purification chemicals? Check. Bug spray? Check…etc. No, I wasn’t missing anything essential. Perhaps others who have gone on extended travels can relate? It’s as if the mind knows what the body is about to endure, and it sends its pleas the only way it knows how: by instilling doubt.

It was 6:00am, and, after a quick breakfast and an understated goodbye, I was off. Or rather, we were off. I had invited my dad to join me for a portion of the trip, and he was going to accompany me as far as Thetis Island via Port Renfrew. I was grateful for the company.

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Two handsome men looking forward to a long day on the road.

We slowly made our way south-west on Highway 14, the West Coast Road. The weather was sunny and brisk, and, aside from the rush hour traffic, it was a pleasant ride. Dad wanted to make it to Jordan River by noon, and so we only stopped briefly in Sooke.

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Dad kept the pace.

Past Sooke, the traffic diminished significantly, and the hills became a bit steeper and a bit longer. Though we were following the coast, the ocean was obstructed for the most part by a thin veil of trees. Occasionally, the road would dip down to sea level, and we would pass hamlets overlooking wild, rocky beaches. This wasn’t the first time I had ridden by these roadside villages, and, though I don’t often think about retirement, I couldn’t help but imagine myself living out the rest of my days in one of the quaint little cottages. But this was no time to be thinking about a sedentary life…

There was supposed to be a restaurant in Jordan River, and, as we neared the coastal settlement, dad reminded me of this more and more frequently. Even road signs indicated as such. Once we arrived, we discovered that there was indeed a restaurant. A closed restaurant. After finding a rest area in the lee of an outcropping of trees next to the ocean, we settled for one of my finer creations: pasta with peanut butter. Not exactly a five course meal, but it was a good chance to see if the stove was working properly (it was), and an even better chance to see just how far I could stretch my dad’s taste buds.

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Dad staring off into the horizon, mentally preparing himself for a bowl of pasta with peanut butter.

On towards Port Renfrew the road became wilder, with long, steep grades, blind corners, and reckless drivers. There was a mild yet not insignificant headwind to boot. We persevered, and were rewarded with a long, winding downhill into Port Renfrew. With huge grins on our faces, we stumbled towards a restaurant down by the marina. This one was open!

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On the road between Jordan River and Port Renfrew, we encountered a surprisingly large and modern bridge. The approach to the bridge was also unexpected, a long, straight hill reminiscent of those I had come across in Northern Ontario.

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Olympic Peninsula in the background. Two bozos in the foreground.

 

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We made it! Not pictured: the black flies that made this photo more difficult than it looks.

Since Port Renfrew was an active fishing community during the summer as well as a gateway to the West Coast Trail, the restaurant patronage was an eclectic mix, from sun-kissed fisherman regaling one another with tales of “the one that got away” to grimy hikers bonding over ups and downs shared on the trail.

One particular table stood out. Sitting at it were four young, male hikers who had all “assumed the position” and were fastidiously staring into their phones. During the entire duration our visits at the restaurant overlapped, they didn’t say one word to each other. Dad suggested that this was probably because they had been spending every night for the past week or so in each others’ company and were probably out of things to say. While that may be the case, I still found the sight a bit depressing, but perhaps that was because of its ubiquitousness in our culture.

With contented, full bellies, we headed towards the fishing lodge where we were to spend the night. The lodge caretaker was a kindly old fisherman/hunter who gave us some moose pepperoni along with the keys to our shack. We started to doze as the Wimbledon semi-final match broadcast through the CRT sitting atop the fridge, and, after briefly going over what the next leg had in store for us, we called it a night.

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Our residence at Gallaugher’s Fish Camp.

July 4, 2014: Port Renfrew – Thetis Island, ~100km

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Another early morning. Today’s ride took us across Vancouver Island via a recently paved yet still active logging access road. We knew that the hills would be, on average, more difficult than those of yesterday, and, having a ferry to catch at 5:00pm, we didn’t want to cut things to closely. I really don’t like having hard deadlines like this, but we were heading to a camp/resort on Thetis Island, one which served dinner at 6:00pm.

The first 15km were surprisingly flat, given that we were heading inland fairly directly. It was a beautiful and effortless way to start the day. On the right, through the trees, we could make out ponds and marshlands. Aside from birdsong, there was hardly a sound, though the occasional vehicle that passed by seemed to be travelling at about twice the posted speed limit.

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Young, morbid tree.

Once we connected with the access road, the terrain changed abruptly and we were soon climbing some good grades. Even though this was still an active logging road, there was the occasional campsite along the side. Lizard Lake, for example. After about 25km of ups and downs (predominantly ups) culminating in a wicked set of switchbacks, we hit what we presumed to be the “summit” of this road. After a short break, we continued on. Turns out we were correct with our presumption, and we were able to sit back and coast for a change as the road brought us lower and lower.

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Dad squaring off with a logging truck.

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A brief stop at Lizard Lake.

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Dad powering past the clearcuts.

The views also opened up. We were able to take in huge vistas of mountainous Vancouver Island forest. As was to be expected, given the nature of this road, there were also vast clearcut wastelands. This was pretty unsightly, but there were saplings jutting up between the rows of dead stumps, an indication that there was at least some mind for sustainability behind the seemingly excessive destruction.

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We didn’t pay much attention to the road signs in these parts.

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Dad in pursuit.

There had only been a light covering of clouds for most of the morning, but by the time we stopped for lunch in Lake Cowichan, rain looked inevitable. After a quick lunch, we continued down the road towards Highway 19, the main island highway. By the time we reached it, the rain was now coming down in earnest. It wasn’t a big deal, because this final stretch of the ride was easy compared to the hilly terrain of earlier. We soon arrived in Chemainus and relaxed with a couple of subpar Americanos (I can’t believe I wrote that. I never used to be able to tell the difference between certain types of coffee. Now, I have an opinion).

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Recovering from the logging roads.

A short ferry ride later, we were being served dinner. We made it!

Somehow, I managed to find the energy to play floor hockey for several hours with many old friends from my dad’s church. Spending time with this community was in many ways like putting on an old shoe. This church and its congregation had been a regular part of my life for many years. However, I hadn’t been religious for many years, and so the old shoe had a few barbs in it. Regardless, it was a pleasure to spend time with so many genuinely kind and supportive people, and I was sad that I wasn’t able to stay for the entire weekend.

Tomorrow, I would head out on my own.

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Thanks for the ride, dad. It was great to be able to share this couple of days on the road with you.