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