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Improvisation

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How does one get themselves and their bicycle from latitude 68 to latitude 48? Preferably in a jiffy with the onset of winter imminent?

Well, there are many ways, some easy and some hard. When I first began sorting out the logistics of this trip, I concluded that there were two flights I would need to get home successfully: one from Inuvik to Dawson City, and one from Dawson City to Vancouver. With those in place, I was able to carry out all of the really exciting preparations without distraction. Purchasing those tickets was a mere triviality, one that I would deal with when the time came. Now, that time had come.

You dear reader, have surely already concluded that I did not choose this method. It somehow felt inappropriate, anticlimactic, and I just wasn’t ready to be sitting on an ordinary couch in a familiar room wistfully staring into a blank wall. Not yet.

So what happened?

September 1, 2014

Inuvik

I spent the day answering emails and messages. We went fishing on the Mackenzie River – a labyrinth of waterways, and I caught my first: a pike! The weather was just great. It was so sunny and dry. The late afternoon sunlight teased subtle shades of yellow from the tall grass on the riverbanks. Huge, dead trunks rested here and there, evidence of just how high the river delta rose during its peak performance. We saw Grizzly Bear footprints. Riding in the fishing boat, watching the world drift by like a diorama, it was a peaceful time.

He was born a ramblin' man.

Looking for bear paw prints.

The duct tape patch is more meaningful than any boy scout badge.

Scruffy gentleman.

It was hard to believe this area would all be flooded in half a year or so.

A thoughtful spot.

September 2, 2014

Inuvik – Dawson City

Early in the morning, Xavier and I started our search for a lift south. For that is what I (and he) had decided was the most interesting way back to paved roads and power lines. Once in Dawson City, where we would part ways, I would search for another ride further south, and he would continue west towards Anchorage, Alaska, a route that, incidentally, had him retracing many of the kilometres I had covered prior to our meeting.

Our first stop was the local campground, which was pretty much deserted. At the advice of a tourism agent, we put up notices at both the visitor’s centre and post office. Then we sat and waited, for what else could we do? While we sipped coffee at the Mackenzie Hotel, the waitress informed us that a friend of hers was also intending to head south today. The connection sounded promising, so I left my contact information with her, sharing an optimistic glance with Xavier. Meanwhile, we headed out to the highway to try hitchhiking. Again, no luck, but it was better than sitting and waiting.

After about an hour, we went back into town to check for messages. A lady working at another nearby hotel flagged us down, thinking that our departure from and reentrance into Inuvik were indicative of bike problems or injuries. Even after we assured her of our (and our bikes’) health, she insisted in inviting us into her hotel lobby where she offered us juice, cereal, and wifi.

A message came, and we had gotten our ride to Dawson. We were going to leave in a couple of hours. Sweet!

However, two hours turned into six, as our chauffeur could not seem to decide what he needed to prepare before leaving. Pack this. Pack that. Have a smoke. Drive to the gas station. Charge phone. Smoke. Eat some pasta. Smoke. Drive back to the gas station. Drive to the store. Drive back home for whatever. Would we ever leave??

Even when we finally did leave, it was painfully slow. Stop at a food truck. Smoke. Stop at Mackenzie River. Stop for phone calls. Smoke. About every 10th cigarette was a joint, by the way, and by the time we were out of town, I was feeling the beginnings of a contact high.

His white-knuckle driving couldn’t distract Xavier and I from the fact that there was snow in the Richardson Mountains. We had skirted winter by two or three days.

This was one of many smoke breaks...

Snow!

Near midnight we arrived at the Arctic Circle, where he proceeded to exit the vehicle and dump a giant bucket of ice water on himself while I filmed him. Those of you familiar with the “Ice Bucket Challenge” will know what this is about. For those of you unfamiliar, check this out. I couldn’t really fault his heart in all this, but I was beginning to seriously question his sanity. Now he had the shakes; whether it was from the cold or from the substances he continued to suck into his body, I’m not sure. More smoking. More joints. Faster driving. God help us.

At this point, the Northern Lights became visible for several hours, the first time I’d seen them since what seemed a lifetime ago on the Top of the World Highway.

At around 5am, we cruised into Dawson City, where he fortunately let us crash in the hotel he was sharing with his brother. I’m sure my legs were shaking when I finally stepped out of his truck for the last time. It was one of the sketchiest hitchhiking experiences I had ever had.

September 3, 2014

Dawson City

Because of our late arrival, I was out of commission until around noon. What finally brought me back to reality was the resonant chorus of two exceptional snorers.

Xavier and I gratefully paid $50 each for our ride from Inuvik, and then we headed for Alchemy, the coffee shop that was full of so much character. It was closed for winter-proofing, though. Ah yes, winter. It was a warm and slightly overcast day, and, even though we passed through a snowstorm on the Richardson Mountains just the previous evening, winter still seemed a far off and insignificant problem. Yet there were other telltales of summer’s close: a school bell ringing, a dramatic drop in tourism. It felt so weird to be revisiting a place we’d been only two weeks earlier. So much had happened since then, and now, back in Dawson, it was as if the entire Dempster experience were a dream. The modernity of this quaint heritage town felt alien.

While we sate having coffee, a gal approached us, fresh off of a bike ride from Whitehorse, looking to hitchhike to Anchorage, as the weather was getting too cold for her to continue. I saw Xavier light up at the thought of more company, and I considered joining them. It was so difficult to imagine heading back into the regular world. Maybe I could connect to the ferry line in Anchorage? I mulled it over and realized that I needed to head south, and quickly. The warm weather in southern BC would soon come to an end, and I didn’t want to miss it.

For the rest of the day, we were three instead of two. Krisztina joined us for lunch and a trip to the tourism info centre. She was currently staying with Dawson’s only Warmshowers host, and soon so too were Xavier and I. This was a real treat since we were going to be staying in a propane-heated cabin in a still-active gold mine.

Later in the cabin, I encouraged Krisztina to do the ride, to brave a bit of discomfort. I knew that, if I were in her position, I would feel very frustrated with myself if I were to succumb to the elements. But then, at what point does resolve become stupidity?

September 4, 2014

Dawson City – Whitehorse

I woke up at 5:30 am. Amazingly, a kind lady at the tourism info centre in Dawson had worked out a ride to Whitehorse for me. Shelley was part of a ten-person team heading to Skagway to take part in a relay race from Skagway to Whitehorse. She graciously drove 15 km down the dirt road to Goldbottom Mine and picked me and my bike up.

As we drove down the Klondike Highway, I realized just how much better my detour had been. Perhaps vehicular travel dampened the effect of the Yukon wilderness?  No, I think the Klondike Highway was simply quite remote and generally less remarkable than the Alaska Highway. It was funny when we zoomed past the occasional truck stop at 100+km/hr. If I were cycling, those places would have been mandatory rests!

Shelley dropped me off at a bike store in Whitehorse where I could finally take care of my rear derailleur pulley, now worn down to a circle with barely discernible nubs. I also changed my pedals. My new gold platforms were quite stylish.

In the bike shop, I met Cathrine, a beautiful woman who’s bike was identical to mine: an olive green Surly LHT. She was on the brink of a long bike tour, possibly an indefinite one. Perhaps it was a personal reinvention, since her two kids were now completely independent. She was very friendly, and I was feeling confident, so I asked her if I could camp in her backyard. It turned out that she was a Warmshowers host! Now that was a coincidence. After she gave me her address, I went grocery shopping and email checking, both at places I’d done the same things at my last time through. Had it really only been a month? It felt like years. Travelling fills each day with richness. Even now, I am surprised by how serendipitous and life-affirming nearly every experience I’ve had has been. What a world.

I brought a bottle of wine to Cathrine’s place. Her house was in complete disarray, and I realized just how much truth there was in her earlier allusions towards upheaval and personal reinvention.

It felt a privilege to be in the presence of someone so committed to changing the course of her life. The moment of decisiveness can be such heady excitement, but the follow-through can be such drudgery. We are all here in the real world, caught up in strictures that we both acknowledge and ignore. Personal revelation requires us to scrutinize and disassemble them. This can hardly be considered glamourous work. So when I saw sprawl of papers, books, old furniture, etc. in Cathrine’s house, I didn’t just see an unruly mess. I saw the now irrelevant trappings of an old life lying in waste. It was beautiful.

September 5, 2014

Whitehorse – Skagway, 115km cycling, 70km hitchhiking

Cathrine was an unbelievable cook, and both dinner the previous night and breakfast this morning were fantastic. I departed her place with my panniers stuffed with leftovers and other goodies. It was pouring rain, but I had booked my ferry from Skagway to Prince Rupert. I’d learned that it’d been wet in Whitehorse for many days, and it didn’t look to be letting up soon. I couldn’t afford to wait it out.

Despite the downpour, I was in a great mood. Last time I had ridden this route, the wind had been so terrible. Today felt effortless. I put on some tunes and savoured the adventure of it all.

Not 20 km down the road, a car passed me and pulled over. It was my hosts from my first stop in Dawson! They had been in Whitehorse now for five days, delaying their trip down the Stewart-Cassiar because of the intense rainfall. Another improbable connection. When I told them of my intentions to shuttle down to Prince Rupert via the Alaska Marine Highway, they told me that they were thinking similarly because of how late in the season it was. Perhaps I would have company on the ferry?

I rode to Carcross without stopping, never ceasing to be amazed at just how much easier the road was without the wind. Well, not completely without: the rain let up for the last 20 km, and then of course the wind picked up. There was no winning with this highway.

Occasionally, when the clouds lifted, I would see a familiar hill or lake and be overcome with melancholy. Fall was now well underway here, and it was as if I were venturing into a sepia-saturated dream of my previous visit here. Summer, and with it my incredible ride into Northern Canada, was coming to a close. I was about to leave the Yukon Territories. Surely, this was but a “à bientôt,” not an “au revoir.”

My second Autumn.

Retracing my memories on the way to Carcross.

I arrived in Carcross early in the afternoon, stopping briefly at the massive lake nearby before heading to the visitor’s centre. The employees were all unfamiliar, but the were just as friendly as before. I was able to thaw my feet, charge my phone, and sip on warm black tea while I thought about where I would spend the night.

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A familiar scene.

I glanced at the weather forecast for Carcross/Skagway and shuddered: flood warnings for the surrounding area and wind gusts up to 70 km/hr. Carcross was already windy, and though it wasn’t raining at the moment, dark clouds loomed all around. I suddenly became worried about being stranded and missing my ferry, a feeling exacerbated by the ominous warnings of the tourism agents:

“It can get incredibly windy here.”

“This is the wettest summer on record.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Thanks guys…

With these thoughts in mind, I decided to try hitchhiking as close to Skagway as possible, riding into town a day early. I didn’t want to risk the entirety of White Pass in an onslaught of wind, rain, and fog. I had already ridden the route, so I didn’t feel too guilty in doing this.

Because of the previously mentioned relay race from Skagway to Whitehorse, traffic along the Southern Klondike Highway was plentiful, and I was picked up within an hour. They drove me as far as Fraser, about 12 km shy of the summit. As we reached the alpine boundary, I knew I was going to be in for it. The van was shaking in the wind, and nearby wisps of cloud slithered swiftly through the valley.

It took at least 90 exhausting minutes to reach the summit. It was some of the worst weather I had ever experienced. The wind was possibly stronger than forecasted in Skagway, and visibility dropped as I climbed into the clouds. Even my easiest gear seemed insufficient as I crawled along the shoulder. I was glad for my strong lights, and I hoped that drivers would be on the lookout for crazy cyclists.

When I finally started to descend, I was greeted by the strangest sight: runners, tons of them. Of course! The relay. They were dressed in wild costumes, some of them nearly naked. A nearly constant stream of support vehicles were following them up the pass, offering support and snapping photos.

Most of the runners ignored me, but a few offered smiles of solidarity. We were all a bit mad to be exposing ourselves to the elements in such atrocious conditions. Some of the support vehicles called out in support of me on their megaphones. It was quite dark at this point, and even the customs officer couldn’t keep a straight face when he saw this soaking wet cyclist waiting patiently in line to cross the border into Alaska.

Finally in Skagway, I headed to the hostel, a decision I’d made about 10 numb fingers earlier. First though, I swung by the library, which was surprisingly still open. The same dude – Doug – was working, and he offered up a spare bedroom for the following evening.

The hostel, at $32/night, wasn’t cheap, but I had recently been reflecting on the sheer volume of generosity and hospitality I had received, from free hotels to free cabins. It felt right to give back. That said, I was glad it was only going to be for one night.

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The Final Frontier

~370km (~4460km total)

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Thursday, August 28

Eagle Plains Lodge – Rock River Campground, ~77km

I was awake just before six, well rested and rearing to go. I walked around the lodge, feeling incredibly privileged for what looked to be another beautiful day. The fog that clung to the valley floors was already beginning to clear, and the morning sun was just starting to creep over the sleepy RVs, tents, trucks, buildings, and bicycles.

Bob continued to be an incredible host. He made fresh coffee for us in the morning, along with several pieces of toast. He then filled our panniers with protein bars, energy goos, and cookies on the pretence that he “just didn’t need all that food.” If the brilliance of the northern autumn was nourishment for our senses, then encounters with people like Bob were nourishment for our souls. He was a man with transparent and honest face, uninhibited enthusiasm, and a genuine desire to be good to others.

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A shot of the gentlemen.

Eagle Plains Lodge sits atop of a long ridge that forms the southern border of the Eagle River valley. Beyond the river, the last hills of the Eagle Plain merge with the foothills of the mighty and ancient Richardson Mountains. Their beauty was simply beyond what I could have imagined, and when my eyes chased the Dempster as it snaked into and out of that valley before disappearing in the final remnants of the unglaciated plains, I felt so satisfied about what I had done and what I was about to do.

There was a sign on the highway warning of muddy roads ahead. No surprise, since it had rained for most of the previous night. The 8km descent to Eagle River was a treacherous one over loose gravel and mud. I rode the brakes the entire way down. The ascent out of the valley was similarly surfaced, and it must have taken at least an hour to finish.

But when we finally did summit, the fog was gone, the sky was clear, the sun was high in the sky, and the western wind kissed our faces. The Richardson Mountains now loomed even closer.

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Nearing the Richardson Mountains.

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No worse for wear.

More ups and downs for the next 20km or so, some big and some small. The road surface had significantly improved since we left the valley. Vast fields of blazing tundra covered most of the plain now, a sea of amber veined with magenta, auburn, and crimson.

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Nearing the Arctic Circle.

Just before click-post 406, we arrived at the Arctic Circle, where there was a rest area looking over the now prominent Richardsons. All that lay between us and their soft domed peaks was a sweeping valley of tundra that slowly gave way to scars of lichen as it rose. This was truly another world, an anachronism from prehistory. I mean, the world is of course very old, and each jagged crag and gaping fissure bears witness to its tumultuous and violent past, but this place just breathed it. Everything was unfamiliar and unscathed, as if left in a state of primordial preservation. It was a land wrought with mathematical purity and sculpted with supernatural precision. Welcome to The Arctic.

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Picnic time at the Arctic Circle.

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Posing.

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Surveying.

We followed the foothills for the next 40km until we reached the Rock River Campground, the last Yukon territorial park along the Dempster. We learned from another camper that we had just passed through the muddiest section of the road, yet for us it had been almost completely dry! Considering the stories we had been told by other travellers about the near impassability of this road at its worst, we had been incredibly lucky, not just today, but overall. I wondered: if I had left but one day earlier or later, would my ride have been different?

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Climbing out of a hole in the earth.

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A bit of perspective.

The campground shelter was yet another oasis. A swift river gurgled nearby, and the much taller spruces nestled around it and its valley were an effective shelter from the wind. We were two happy cyclists, dry and secure.

Friday, August 29

Rock River Campground – Fort McPherson, ~106km

Definitely a cold night. I pulled my food bag down off the bear-proof contraption from which it hung, and it was covered with frost. Nonetheless, cold nights are clear nights, and the morning, now well underway, had retained that clarity. There was not a cloud in the sky. It was time for another gorgeous day on the Dempster.

Xavier again set off 5-10 minutes before me. Once leaving the campground, I climbed out of the densely forested river valley and was soon back on the endless fields of tundra. I was approaching Wright Pass, the highway’s highest point through the Richardson Mountains. The land was so open, so spacious, that my sense of scale was obfuscated. The road was visible as far as I could see, a filament of silver among fields of gold.

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Nearly the entirety of Wright Pass.

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Time to stop for some glamour.

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Looking back down the ascent.

The ride to the summit was one of the more difficult climbs on the Dempster. The road was steep and unrelenting. Once I reached the top, my sense of satisfaction was mingled with confusion, for where was Xavier? I had not seen him in well over an hour, and I would typically pass him on ascents such as the one I’d just completed. I asked southbound travellers if they had seen any cyclists. Nope. So, he must have still been behind me…but how?

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No man’s land? Hanging out in between the two borders.

A northbound truck confirmed what I suspected: Xavier was behind me, about 15 minutes by car (at least an hour by bicycle). He had turned the wrong way out of the campsite! Though I was frustrated at having to wait for nearly two hours at the summit, I knew that he would be feeling pretty dumb, so I suppressed my annoyance by focusing on the sheer ridiculousness of my predicament. Here I was, alone on a mountain pass in the Arctic, exchanging messages with another cyclist by way of happenstance couriers. Several of the passing motorists had even offered me coffee to stay warm, and when Xavier finally did arrive, I was being treated to a sandwich in the back of a camper.

We still wanted to make it to Fort McPherson, some 86km away, so we wasted little time breaking during the next few hours of riding. Unfortunately, the road surface had immediately deteriorated once we had arrived into the Northwest Territories. What was previously hard-packed, dry mud was now loose, golfball sized gravel. Downhills were precarious, as my bike became highly unstable if I went too fast. Uphills weren’t much better, as even the mildest grade required me to drop into my easiest ring and crawl along slowly and deliberately.

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In the midst of the Richardsons.

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Winding through the east-northeastern boundary of the mountains.

At last, we exited the Richardsons and descended into the Mackenzie Lowlands. The tundra was now behind us, and in its place was a light forest of spruce and bitch. Our sunny day looked to be rapidly coming to a close, as ominous rain clouds now dotted the sky.

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Not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, my tires, which up until this point had felt unnecessarily robust, came into their own. I dropped the pressure down to about 30psi (from 70psi), and cycled as if I were on pavement.

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Descending onto the lowlands.

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Uh oh: trouble brewing up ahead (and behind, as it turned out).

We crossed the Peel River on a cable-powered ferry. At this point, the thunderheads were amalgamating into something large and fierce. It was only a matter of time until we were in the midst of them, but for the moment, we were dry.

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Midway Lake: empty for nearly the entire year, save for a few days at the beginning of August, when an annual music festival takes place.

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Looking back.

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Thunderheads continued to develop.

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No avoiding them.

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Packing up after the Peel River crossing. The sky was now dark nearly all around us.

The final 12km into Fort McPherson were a painfully slow battle against a menacing headwind. Once we arrived, we found everything closed, all the more frustrating due to the fact that we had pushed for the town solely to resupply.

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Not the most reassuring sign.

There was a community centre in town that was open, and we were allowed to prepare our dinner there, a good thing, too, because the sky was now churning. After dinner, we realized that we were in a bit of a fix. The storm was now on the brink of whatever it was preparing to unleash. Not a drop, flake, or stone had fallen, but the sky teemed with inevitability. Camping within the town was impractical, as there were mischievous kids roaming the streets whom I’d learned from other travellers couldn’t resist antagonizing strangers such as ourselves. Camping outside of town was no longer viable, as the cloud cover had hastened the night’s onset, and we needed to stay close to resupply the next day.

At a loss, I asked a local radio host, on air from within the community centre, if there was any nearby shelter in which a couple of cyclists might take refuge. She made a few phone calls and informed us that we could stay in a nearby church. Wow!

Just as the rain started coming down, we arrived at the church. A boarding teacher was also living there, but he had not been informed about our arrival. I can only imagine his confusion and anxiety at discovering two hooded strangers frantically jiggling his doorknob under the cover of darkness.

Once he learned who we were and what we were doing, he completely warmed up to us, offering full use of the church facilities and pantries. Dalweet was from Ethiopia and was teaching math and science at the local school, and he was happy to share with us what the church was sharing with him.

Sheets of rain ripped across the church, rattling off the windows and roof in a riotous din. It was a real squall. We had again found ourselves with fantastic luck and timing.

August 30, 2014

Fort McPherson – Rengleng River Pullout, ~92km

It continued to rain all morning, but we had fortunately been given permission to stay in the church as long as we needed. We hung around for a while before hunting around town for a wifi connection, still not forthcoming.

We lucked out at the local inn, where the lady running the place gave us wifi access and some complimentary coffee. These random acts of kindness were becoming so frequent that we were starting to make jokes about where we might next encounter them.

It wasn’t until 1pm that we left town. The rain was nearly gone, and, though I had misgivings about riding in the cold and unpredictable weather, Xavier wanted to push on and ideally make it to Inuvik the following day. Tsiigehtchik, 57km away, was our initial plan, and, although it initially seemed a conservative goal, it soon looked to be a surety, because the entire stretch of road between Fort McPherson and Tsiigehchik was a soupy mess of fine coarse gravel, requiring frequent cleaning stops in order to avoid complete drivetrain destruction. Every now and then, a larger pebble would work its way into the chain or between the cassette cogs, and I could almost feel it grinding away at the drivetrain with each rotation of the pedals.

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Nearing the Mackenzie River/Arctic Red River confluence, between which is nestled Tsiigehtchik, directly ahead, a small community we ultimately passed by. Dempster North lies across the river just out of the frame to the left.

A ferry at Mackenzie River operated on a  counterclockwise triangular route encompassing Dempster South (our location), Tsiigehtchik, and Dempster North. When we arrived, the ferry was berthed at Dempster North, and Xavier had to wave his French/Canadian flag for a good 15 minutes before the operator finally noticed us.

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Trying to grab the ferries attention.

One of the ferry crewmen let us sit in a small crew cabin just off the car deck for two rotations of the route, giving us an opportunity to warm up (my feet were numb) and make some food. Oh…he also gave us some coffee! It turns out he knew the teacher whom we stayed with in Fort McPherson, a coincidence not so uncommon up here, where the entire population sometimes felt like one big community.

Feeling energized, we decided to do another 34km late in the day. Now well into the delta, the road was often perfectly straight and flat for long stretches, reminding me of many roads through the prairies. Boring for some, perhaps, but I was briefly transported to another time, another tour, and a flood of good memories washed over me.

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After not riding for 30-40 minutes on the ferry, hills like this are a welcome sight. Summiting them will warm up even the chilliest cyclist.

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Northern prairies.

The penultimate day of a tour is often the best one, I’ve discovered. Life is still just the road. “Normal” routine and duties haven’t yet become a reality, and blissful recollection doesn’t feel like a selfish indulgence. Of course, I wasn’t even close to that reality. I still had to get home. Even so, with one more “official” day on the road, I allowed myself a personal pleasure: I imagined that the ride might never end, that perhaps the Dempster Highway had a secret extension, either west to the northern limit of the Rocky Mountains; north into the Arctic archipelago over impossibly large bridges; or east into Nunavut, Canada’s largest and least populated territory.

A few turns of the road later and I was out of my reverie. We had reached Rengleng River. Time to camp! There were maybe five other vehicles already there. Before we knew it, we were sitting around the campfire having beers and stir fry with locals from Inuvik taking advantage of the season’s final long weekend. Serendipity on a cold night on the cusp of winter.

August 31, 2014

Rengleng River Pullout – Inuvik, ~94km

Cold morning. It took about 45 minutes of cycling to warm up my hands (even with gloves). For some reason, I was in a hurry. I listened to music, for only the third time on this tour, to help pass the morning more quickly. I remembered this feeling from other restless days. Even thought the distance was easily manageable, I couldn’t help thinking of the constant click posts, steadfast reminders of how little or how far I’d travelled. It didn’t help that the terrain was unremarkable. There were no distractions or interjections to break the day into digestible chunks. Just endless road and forest. A few turns, some small hills. Boring.

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Boring? Sometimes, it’s all relative.

We stopped for lunch about 60km into the day at a territorial campground. Their shelters were even nicer than those in Yukon campgrounds, though I imagine that it would have been far more difficult to discreetly camp in them, as all NWT parks thus far had had a full-time gate attendant.

Lunch was a light and silly affair. Our spirits were high, and the smallest incident drove us to fits of unrestrained laughter. Only 34km remained. We were going to make it. Conquer the Dempster. Our optimism was now iron-clad. 34km. Doable in any circumstances. And the sun was coming out. We were going to finish in stye.

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Inuvik lies just over that distant hill.

10km out of town, the ~725km of unpaved road gave way to asphalt. What a luxury! Only a few more turns now. A few more hills…

We arrived in Inuvik and spent some time setting up good photos at the “End of the Dempster” poster board. The first person to greet us was ironically from Pennsylvania, and his thick accent and drunken behaviour were a hilarious surprise. Welcome to the northern limit of road access in Canada!

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Finish line!

The second person to greet was also from away: a Calgary gal who just moved to Inuvik for work. In fact, she had also just completed a X-Canada bike tour this summer (though she had traversed the longitudes).

In Inuvik, we connected with a friend of Xavier’s for a place to crash. Of course Xavier would have a friend from France who just so happened to be volunteering in Inuvik! One final serendipitous coincidence to conclude his and my travels together. We all went out for celebratory beers at a local dive. Suddenly, life was ordinary again. We were just a few more blokes having a few beers in a ubiquitous establishment. Why wasn’t Inuvik remarkable? Perhaps it was a town cursed with the romantic allure of its location, and no matter what it offered, it wouldn’t be able to live up to the anticipation that its eight day approach generated. Perhaps a journey like ours along the Dempster was simply utilitarian for many, and the magic of our ride wasn’t some intrinsic property of the route.

I guess the most challenging of finishing a Big Ride is coming to terms with the “ordinaryness” of life off the bike, not being constantly saturated with the richness of the undiscovered. The ride was not six hours old, and I was already feeling suffocated by the day-to-day realities of the lives of others.

Yet the ride wasn’t over. Not yet. I still had to get home. Somehow.

Yukon, ho!

~665km (~2035km total)

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July 24, 2014: Stewart – Bell 2, ~160km

Up early in the morning, yet on the road late. I spent the dawn hours dawdling, as I’ve noticed I have the habit of doing. I wandered around the town looking for some sort of distraction, even though I knew I had a big day ahead.

Bell 2 appears on the official (read: pricy) map of BC as a small yellow dot, a mark that the legend defines as a settlement of 500 or less people. What I should know about this map now is that this dot is often used as a general indication of some collection of services, whether or not there is a community built around them. In the case of Bell 2, the “services” are a giant lodge, complete with a helipad and helicopters for more affluent tourists. The cyclist-relevant services are a fridge stocked full of generic saran-wrapped foods and canned drinks, a free public washroom, and breakfast and lunch buffets that would make a dietician blush. I’m not sure which of these tugged at me strongest, but I had made up my mind that Bell 2 would be my destination for the day. Maybe I just wanted some conversations to cap off the ride.

The ride back up 37a towards the Meziadin Junction was a breeze, literally. I hadn’t experienced such a tailwind in some time. The idea that I was, for the most part, gaining elevation as I left the Pacific Coast was distant. I cruised by the scenery, only realizing how much I remembered from the ride in when reintroduced to it on the way out. It was truly gorgeous, and I was grateful to be riding it twice.

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One last look at Bear Glacier.

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Swiss cyclists on their way towards Stewart.

I arrived at the junction and couldn’t resist editing the blog just a bit since there was available wifi in the construction zone close by. I do this so many times, often with little things: consistent formatting, subtle rewordings, etc. I often wonder if, when two people who have read my blog have a conversation about it (it’s the dream of every writer, I’m sure, amateur or professional, to have his words talked about, even if in derision), they will discover some crucial aspect of their respective interpretations, some little nicety (a subtle rewording perhaps) that struck a resonant chord with either of them, differing so wildly that it were almost as if they read two separate accounts.

It was now around 1pm, and I had about 90km to go. This was good. A manageable haul to finish off what would be my longest ride of the tour yet if successful. Just past the junction, the road started climbing and climbing. For nearly 20km, I was trending upwards, with only the occasional dramatic plunge to a creek crossing (always paid for and then some with an equally steep yet twice as long ascension back to the average grade) to break up the onslaught. And it was getting hot. I no longer feared rain, but the black flies and horse flies swarmed around me during my slow, predictable pace.

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Two women on their way from Anchorage. The gal in the foreground had the most decked out bike I’ve seen so far, complete with a carbon fibre belt drive.

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Japanese woman also on her way from Anchorage.

There was a marked change in the landscape today. My long climb eventually placed me on some sort of plateau, and I was able to see well into the distance in every direction. I had wondered if my departure from the coastal mountains of Stewart might be the end of such vistas, but I was decisively proven wrong. To the west, the low foothills nudged up gently from vast, flat carpets of spruce forest. Further west, they nudged higher. And further, higher still. Up, up until they eclipsed the tree line, revealing not the gruff, stress fractured granite peaks of the previous coastal crags, but a more ferrous, dirty horizon, full of pleasing geometry and subtle watercolours. A landscape not of violent collisions and concessions, but of agreements and accommodations. Balance, symmetry. Occasionally, forest valleys would extend further, between two massifs, far west towards the coast, and then suddenly an austere, snowy peak would rise, disconnected from the landscape, impossibly far away and impossibly large.

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The subdued mountains along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. From this distance, the brown slopes looked like tilled soil.

 

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Inside a fishing/trapping/hunting cabin just off the highway. All of the walls looked like this one. The cabin was tucked away around several bends down an inconspicuous gravel road, so word must get around among travellers about this place.

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A meadow, forest, and snowy peak. One of my last views of the coastal mountains until Skagway, AK.

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Indecisive weather often makes for great views, as in this case. The rain ultimately moved to the northwest.

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The great open road.

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Fireweed, spruce, and lush mountains. Common sights along the Stewart-Cassiar.

As I neared Bell 2, I ran into J-P (I would rather abbreviate his Italian name than spell it incorrectly), an older tourist also heading up to Inuvik. He was straddling his bike and talking to some young travellers, wearing a raincoat, underwear, and not much else. We reintroduced ourselves, having met previously in Stewart the day before. He seemed mighty impressed by my achievement, a distance that took him two days. Then again, he was twice my age, and his bike, I’m convinced, weighed nearly twice as much.

We ended up camping together across the river from the lodge in a gravel pit, and I soon learned that J-P was a bit of a bike touring legend. This was his fourth trip to Inuvik, though his first time along the Stewart-Cassiar. He had travelled on highways that only just barely existed: in northern Quebec (like, really northern, just east of Hudson Bay), Labrador, as well as all of their offshoots into the wilderness. He spent his time off the bike working for IBM and perusing through satellite images, exploring new frontiers and new possibilities.

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J-P, an eccentric and accomplished touring cyclist. Who needs pants, anyways?

He was loud, outspoken, and a real hoot to spend the evening with. He shared with me some of his 50-odd day’s worth of freeze dried food, so I decided to pass on the expensive buffet at the Bell 2 Lodge. I watched with amusement as he paced around the gravel pit, assessing the rocks, the grade, the water run-off potential, searching for the perfect place to pitch his tent. This man knew exactly what he was doing, and I felt pretty awesome whenever he made a favourable observation towards any piece of gear I carried. I figured that we wouldn’t be riding together much the next day (if at all), so I chatted with him well into the evening. When at last I retired to my tent, he was only just preparing dinner. He lived at his own, comfortable pace, riding well into the evening and sleeping until near noon most days. He was an eccentric and adventurous man, comfortable in his own skin (and sometimes, only in it).

Intermittent rain pattered against my tent fly as I unwound inside and reflected on the day. I had seen seven bears, each of the encounters being as uneventful as can be. I had met seven other cyclotourists, and I was camping with another. The scenery had undergone profound transformations. What would tomorrow bring?

July 25, 2014: Bell 2 – Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park, ~120km

I was awake at 7. It was cold and damp, and it looked to rain. I had planned on making breakfast with my own stock, but after cleaning up in the lodge bathroom, the warmth of the dining hall and the $15 buffet proved too irresistible. Plus, they had wifi, and though I had failed to convince them to let me use it the previous evening (it was only for guests), I thought I might try my luck with a different staff member this morning.

I stuffed myself with sausage links, pancakes with strawberries, fried potatoes, croissants, and several cups of black coffee. I was determined to get my money’s worth. With a little pathetic pleading, – “my parents need to know I’m alive!” – I was able to obtain wifi access, but I was surprised how stingy they were. I guess satellite-based Internet access is low bandwidth and can be quite temperamental.

Back across the bridge, J-P was not even out of his tent. It was now nearly 11am, and I was ready to hit the road. Leaving turned out to be difficult. Every time I would say goodbye, he would start off on a tangential story with some ultimate piece of wisdom at the end of it. If it were a particularly strong anecdote, he would pause, look off into the distance as if addressing the whole world, and raise his voice, filling the gravel pit as if it were an amphitheatre. Amusing as he was, I was quickly becoming irritated, probably more due to my own procrastination than at his extended pontification. Either way, Kinaskan Lake, my intended destination, was about 120km away, and the day was already well underway. I inched my way closer and closer the highway, stopping briefly in polite gestures of acknowledgement. Finally, we said true goodbyes, and I hurried away before any more inspiration took hold of him.

I followed the river early on. The weather couldn’t make up its mind. The damp road spoke of rain nearby, but it was sunny over me. This indecisiveness in the weather had become a common thing since I left Terrace.

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Rain?

Soon, the road left the river and climbed for many kilometres until I reached a rest stop near an air strip in the middle of nowhere. Most times when I stopped at these rest areas, another traveller would come by soon after – car, camper, motorhome, or otherwise – and we would share brief stories, the wheres and the whats, the conventional travelling script. Soon after I arrived, I saw a car, and began anticipating the conversation, readying my script. But the girl hopped out, warily glanced my way, and said nothing. Weird. Usually, I at least get a “hello.” Her hatchback sped off, and a trucker pulled in not long after. He was coming south, and I queried him of the road ahead.

“Any cyclists?”

“No. Lots of hills though.”

“Probably mountains, eh?”

“It’s pretty flat for a while.”

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Mobile washing machine.

Well, shit. My mood took a turn for the worse.The day looked to have nothing in it that made the previous day so memorable. It didn’t help that the weather was yet again being incredibly fickle. Too hot for a rain jacket, yet too cold for anything else when the wind gusted. I quickly withdrew into my mind, maybe trying to wring something positive out of an old memory, trying to salvage the day. To knead the past into the present.

The trucker was at least partially right. The road kept climbing. The going was slow, and with no real shoulder since Bell 2, the ridiculously fast drivers whipped by me impatiently and possessively. At least I could hear them well in advance. My world shrank to a 20ft sphere surrounding my bike. I rarely looked up from the ground. I tried to focus on the present, on my surroundings, but all I saw was negative: garbage on the roadside, potholes, road kill.

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Constant climbing.

Finally, I reached Burrage Hill, complete with an elevation profile of the coming road. Maybe it was seeing the next seven or so kilometres laid out, but something changed within me. The hill was important enough to name, so it snapped me back into the present. The challenge looked to be significant, requiring more than just a passive cyclist. Bring it on. I summited and was treated with the most incredible 25km of road so far.

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Hills with names always make me a little nervous.

Immediately to my left, the forest dropped away into a valley. My eyes swept over that valley, tree by tree, until it rose into ferrous peaks similar to those I had seen yesterday. Mountains were one thing, but the sheer space, the openness of the place, gave a sense of scale not found so far on the trip. I searched through the landscape, inspecting every crevasse, every subtle shadow, resolving the depth, trying to comprehend the world around me. In some places, I could see at least 50km away, and yet it wasn’t via some disjunct peak thrusting out of the formless horizon. It was through continuity. A vast blanket of greenery connected every feature of the land, from the smallest hillock to the largest prominence.

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A roller coaster ride. Beautiful scenery in every direction.

To say that I was moved would be an understatement. I had never before been so profoundly affected by a landscape. Accompanying the sheer natural beauty of the place was the overpowering sense that I had somehow earned it. Some part of me had been yearning for this, whatever this was, and emotions welled up until I was completely overcome with joy. I would stare away, checking my course along the road, and then I would stare back, and the entire process would repeat, starting deep within my belly, spreading out to my shoulders and hips, down my arms and legs, into each finger, each toe. An extended frisson. “Let this land fill you up,” a friend of mine had said on my last bike tour. Finally, I understood what she meant.

I saw seven bears today: three young boys, and a mother with three cubs. In the latter case, the mother didn’t seem to pay me any heed, whereas the cubs stood on their hind legs to get a good look as I passed. I didn’t sense aggression in any of the encounters, but I didn’t feel like pushing my luck for a few photos.

I finally arrived at Kinaskan Provincial Park – free for cyclists! There were hardly any bugs, and each site was impeccably maintained. I washed myself off in the lake and retired to my sleeping bag after conversing briefly with my camping neighbours. Loons called. Fish jumped for flies and plopped back into the lake. Otherwise, not a sound. No mosquito buzz. No cars.

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Camping at Kinaskan Lake.

July 26, 2014: Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park – Dease Lake, ~125km

It was a brisk morning. The sky was overcast, but the air was crisp and fresh. I donned all of my layers: bike shorts, long johns, convertibles, t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, fleece, and jacket. It was probably overkill, but this felt like a good opportunity to see how effective my layering was in colder weather. Surely the weather would warm later in the afternoon, but who’s to say how long that would take, and, if the previous days were any indication, the sky would throw fits of indecisiveness before settling into whatever it felt strongest.

“Don’t forget to look back,” the park operator had said before bidding me goodnight the previous evening. Today I would be heading inland, well away from the coastal mountains, and climbing as I went. The view behind me was supposed to be astonishing. The peaks receding into the southwest horizon would give me a strong sense of accomplishment as I neared the Stikine River valley, and, after it, Gnat Pass, the only major pass I was to encounter before entering the Yukon Territories. At about 1250m, Gnat Pass wasn’t exactly a quad-buster, but I didn’t want to take its challenge lightly.

Aside from the constant climbing, it was a pretty uneventful ride early on. The morning seemed to belong to smaller creatures: squirrels playing chicken on the road, swallows patrolling their nests, caterpillars shimmying along the shoulder. I suppose they were all trying to get their daily errands out of the way before the bigger creatures staked their territorial claims.

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Testy road workers along the highway.

I stopped just outside of Iskut in a cafe to warm up. The lady running the place, I learned, was from Watson Lake, my next intended day off. Upon hearing of my trouble finding a place to perform a Skype interview there, she offered up her house, currently occupied by her daughter. What a fortunat stop Iskut turned out to be! Sometimes it amazes me how the haphazard decisions made along the road, like an impulsive decision to break for coffee early in the day, can coalesce into an arrangement as good as anything organized in advance.

 

Looking back towards Kinaskan Lake.

Climbing away from The Kinaskan Lake valley.

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Clearly someone made a mistake laying this km marker. I must have been bored, because I found it hilarious.

The climb towards Gnat Pass turned out to be pretty mellow. The first five kilometres ascended steeply, but the road then settled into a milder grade. I crested several false summits before finally arriving at the true pass. As I made my way through the highlands, I came across a farm, smack in the middle of nowhere. Horses were grazing in pastures surrounded by protective forests, and, further away from the road, a lovingly maintained house sat near Gnat Lake. A nearby stream made its way leisurely through rich fields of wild grass. The entire property felt displaced from the environment around it. Here was someone’s little dream, on the top of a small mountain.

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Horses grazing near Gnat Pass. There’s even an old pickup on the property.

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Finally reaching the summit, the highest point on my route until the Top of the World Highway, in Alaska/YT.

About 2km from Dease Lake, two mutts approached me on the road. They were barking with exuberance. I stopped, observing their reaction. They continued to approach me, albeit slightly less aggressively. I looked around. No cars. I picked up a stone and chucked it across their noses. That seemed to do the trick, and they bounded away in search of the stone amongst the shoulder shrubs, nipping at each other as they went.

Dease Lake was practical if a little underwhelming, being the only major service stop along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. All of its conveniences were spread out along a service road running parallel to the highway: a grocery store, restaurant, gas station, and tourist shop. It was very pragmatic. Vehicles of any size could pull in and pull out without much fuss. Parking lots were large, unstructured, and pocked with potholes that could swallow a careless cyclist whole. I carefully meandered around the shops, looking for god knows what, and eventually ended up in the restaurant, lured by the promise of “free” wifi. Little did I know that I had only just beaten the evening rush, and I was soon kicked out so that others could take my seat.

I continued to wander around, and as I neared a local hotel, a motorcyclist approached me.

“You ok?”

“I think so, yeah. Just searching for an internet connection.”

“Well, you need anything, just let us know,” and he pointed to a group of bikers that he was preparing to have dinner with.

This was a very kind offer from a complete stranger, and as we continued chatting, I learned that he and every member of his motorcycle touring gang had passed me at some point during the day. I was the only touring cyclist they had seen on the road, and now here I was, in the flesh. They were very curious as to what kind of crazy man would ride the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (at the time I didn’t feel like mentioning just how many cyclists I had seen on the road), and what began as a gesture of support turned into an invitation to (a second) dinner and a free hotel room.

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Hanging out with the Brazilian motorcycle gang. Half-cut at this point.

What a luxurious evening it was! I took a BATH, then a shower. I slept in a bed at least three times as large as my sleeping pad. I browsed trashy TV on the satellite connection. Was I still on a bike tour?

July 27, 2014: Dease Lake – Jade City, ~115km

I stayed in the hotel until 11am, check-out time. I was determined to squeeze as much out of my free hotel room as possible.

The road out of Dease Lake was rougher than I was used to on this highway. Heading away from the lake I travelled over a 10km section of gravel, and when I finally hit chipseal again, it felt as smooth as butter.

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Riding along Dease Lake late in the morning.

I have been very lucky with storms since leaving Terrace. Most of the time, they are moving north with me, but I always seem to be riding beside them or following them. Occasionally, a dark gray cloud will span the entire northern horizon, only to dissipate as I get closer. Today was no different, and though I wore my rain jacket just in case, I always managed to stay away from the full force of the weather systems.

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Stormy weather just down the road.

An uneventful day today. I felt like I was changing climates. The air was noticeably dryer, and the landscape more stretched out. Trees didn’t grow as high on the surrounding hills, and the yellowing grass along the side of the road suggested a more arid environment. There was very little traffic on the road, a vehicle passing me once every five or ten minutes. In the long intervals of windless silence, I found I could tune my ears to tinier sounds, like crickets, cicadas, or bumblebees.

The surface of the road was noticeably rougher, even after the gravel ended. Gone were any attempts at traffic demarcation. I had as much of the road to myself as I wanted, and no shoulder marking to suggest that I might be overstepping my bounds. The road, stripped to its bare essentials, added a great deal to the feeling of isolation I was already experiencing with the significantly reduced traffic.

I risked drinking the water (untreated) from a fast moving creek once again. I find that small gestures like these make me feel good, regardless of their apparent irresponsibility. I think it’s trust, kind of like how I don’t bother wearing my bear whistle around my neck anymore (rest easy, I still carry it close by, just not at the ready). I’ve lowered my defenses just a little in a gesture of solidarity with the untamed community. Wild animals don’t seem to be interested in me, and maybe, just maybe, they accept my intent to pass through their land respectfully and unceremoniously. And I appreciate that, and I feel like trusting the crystal clear water flowing through the land is the best way I can show that. Maybe I should make a sign?

DEAR WILD CREATURES, THANK YOU FOR NOT PARTAKING OF MEALS ON WHEELS. LET’S SHARE A DRINK. MEET ME DOWN BY THE RIVER, BUT MAYBE STAY ON THE OTHER SIDE?

It’s obnoxious, really. Treating my water shouldn’t detract from my experience on the road one bit, aside from possibly adding the inconvenience of having to wait for the chemicals to react completely. Yet, when I take that first hesitant sip, swoosh it around in my mouth a bit, and finally commit to swallowing it, I feel a growing confidence is my ability to assess the land and its resources. I am able to see the world for what it is and act accordingly. And maybe, if I can, others can as well, and there is still a place for man in the uncivilized world. A place of instinctive purity, if that even exists.

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One of the Cassiar Mountain peaks, close to Jade City.

I made it as far as Jade City today, nothing more than two shops sitting off the highway on either side, one a restaurant and the other a jade store. The shops straddled a nearby junction that headed about 10km northwest towards Cassiar, a now abandoned and disassembled town (and the place from which the highway received half its name). There were some free campsites just off the main property with picnic benches and not much else. I wasn’t complaining.

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Hopeful mosquitos.

 

Shortly after I had dinner and packed it in for the day, a huge downpour swept over the land. For the first time since leaving Victoria, I worried about my tent’s climate rating (three season), but it performed admirably, my home away from home.

July 28, 2014: Jade City – Watson Lake, ~145km

I was standing in the Jade store, warming up and checking emails, when I heard behind me, “Hey Rose! I’m just going upstairs for a few minutes. There’s a guy in here drinking a free coffee and using the free wifi.”

I turned and looked at her. She looked at me.

“[Rose] is just helping the paying customers outside.”

…and with that, it was time to leave.

I powered through the first 70km. There was little wind, and I was motivated by the thought that I would be leaving BC today, and, more importantly, finishing off the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. BC feels almost too big to comprehend in its entirety. Departing my home province feels abstract, like border crossings usually do. I look back on my passage through BC and I automatically break it up: Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, etc. This highway, too, feels like a piece separate from the others, but it has been the biggest one so far, and, unless I’m mistaken, the biggest one until I reach the Dempster Highway. In many ways, I liken this highway to the stretch of Highway 17 around Lake Superior in Northern Ontario, from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay. On the map, they both looked remote and daunting. Motorists spoke with unease about their traffic, wild animals, and challenging terrain. But they were both incredible experiences, full of the kind of serendipity that gets under your skin and cements itself in your consciousness: life-affirming and soul-enriching.

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Looking east from the highway, about 60km out from the YT border.

I usually try and ignore road signs until I’m about to conclude a day. Today, when I saw southbound signs, I turned back and look at the names on the signs, places I only recently visited: Dease Lake, Stewart, Kitwanga. Each name brought back a flood of memories, some directly linked to the towns and many more from the endless expanses of road between them.

Near the border of the Yukon Territories, the road passed through a recent forest fire (in 2011). The smell of burnt wood was still in the air, and scorched pine trunks stacked to the horizon. A real wasteland, but beautiful in its own way. The road got progressively worse, almost as if the road engineers stopped caring as they connected with the Alaska Highway at Junction 37. It became a twisting mess of potholes, blind corners, and ridiculous grades. Hardly a pleasant way to finish things off.

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Forest fire remains.

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A final look south to British Columbia.

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Junction 37, where the Stewart-Cassiar Highway terminates at the Alaska Highway.

I cycled about 25km east towards Watson Lake. I had arrived in time for my interview the next day, and I had a place to stay. I realized early in the evening how exhausted I was, and I was looking forward to a day off.

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.

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.