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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4 comments

  1. reads like an adventure novel. love all the detail especially to do with history as it gives a sense of personality to the places you visit. once again I am struck by what a great writer you are and how you could combine your trips into a very enjoyable book.
    hope the next leg of your journey brings you many more magical moments! All of us at home think of you daily and look forward to hearing from you at your next stop!

    Mom

  2. Hi Joe – this is Daisy Philtron, a touring cyclist you met on Vancouver Island. You tell great stories, and I am glad you are surviving the bears on the Cassiar. If it’s any comfort, it rained all but one of the days we were on that road. Maybe it’s just a rainy rainy place. Happy riding.

    1. Hello Daisy, I remember you and your partner well! You were some of the first tourists I met on my ride. I also saw that you made it to Tofino; that’s awesome. I stopped by there on my last tour. Neat little town. Hope you enjoyed the rest of your time on Vancouver Island. I’m just about to leave Whitehorse now. Northern Canada awaits. Cheers!

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