Canada C2C 2018
It had been a long time since I last experienced Canada in the summer. More than twenty years, in fact, and that had been on an RV holiday with my parents around Alberta and British Columbia. During the last few years, I had occasionally lingered in the Yukon to see spring start coming into its own, but had never endured from winter through to summer. For me, the Yukon was always a land of snow and ice. It was an overcast, moody day in the low twenties, when my partner, Nin, and I, gathered our bikes and other luggage and bundled them into a taxi from the airport into town.
Whitehorse was beautiful, of course, although the abundance of greenery was something that would take some getting used to. My ultra-endurance races had always brought me here in the winter. We only had a few days in town to get the bikes set up, make our final few purchases of food and equipment, and get ourselves onto the road headed south. I was grateful for the opportunity to see a handful of old friends, but it was all rushed and lacked the relaxed, carefree nature I had come to associate with time spent in the town. I am certainly grateful to everyone who made the time to meet up, and am sorry we did not have more time for more of the same. It always feels like home.
We cycled our heavily laden bikes steadily along the Alaska Highway for our journey south. Overcast, grey skies persisted into the first few days of the trip. The trees lining the roadside begged to be explored more intimately than we could manage on this trip, but as my eyes scoured the woods I pondered all the life that thrived within. We spent our first night at the Marsh Lake campground, still fairly close to town. The sun barely sank below the horizon, with a long-drawn out twilight making torchlight redundant.
On the second day I spotted a young grey wolf at the side of the road, staring at Nin so intently it did not seem to notice me until I had drawn up parallel to him. Had he spotted in her the same adorable features that I too so readily admired, was he curious as to the appearance of this lightweight Asian upon a bike on his patch of land, or was he licking his lips in contemplation of an easy meal? Well, though my dear Nin might be short of stature, she more than compensates with the magnitude of trouble and strife she regularly introduces into my world, and she would be more than a match for even a pack of young and enthusiastic wolves. The wolf took a brief sideways glance at me, turned his tail and disappeared silently into the woods. Nin had been oblivious to it all, but I was buoyed as sighting a wolf close by is an extremely rare treat. I have been close to dozens over the years, but they tend to lurk within the trees and out of view. Mostly we saw foxes, voles, squirrels and birds on our journey.
During the first week we reached Watson Lake and the southern border of the Yukon, after which we turned onto the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. We might have continued south along the Alaska Highway, but the strong recommendations from such friends as Murray and Glenn were enough to change our minds. The Cassiar was wilder, as we were told.
This, as it turned out, was entirely true. There was less traffic and we felt closer to nature. Early on I felt uncomfortably close to nature when we spotted a black bear with its head the size of a large beach ball, or possibly a space hopper, staring at me from the roadside. We were cycling uphill and not moving fast, whilst the bear was sat just next to the road as the slope fell away downhill, its enormous head the only thing to be seen.
During the next few seconds I was able to inform the bear quite calmly that we saw him and would simply love him to bits if he just carried on with his work of eating roots or whatever. I was simultaneously reassuring Nin we changed nothing and continued our steady cycle as if not reacting at all. She seemed disappointed not to be able to take a photo, as I had spotted her hand reach for her phone, but the key is not to induce in the bear any sense of heightened curiosity or defensiveness. Both are bad news for cyclists. The bear took my advice to heart and continued with his dinner quite philosophically. I was pleased with my calmness but this soon subsided as we reached safe distance and it could be replaced with a rush of excitement. Our first bear encounter, and the first of many to come.
Our first camp on the Cassiar was the best. The water at Boya Lake varied between aquamarine, turquoise and emerald green, altering colour and tone with location and sunlight. It was so beautiful that we took a day off there to really soak it all up. I enjoyed a few swims, and we hired a canoe for a paddle around the little islands. Whilst at Boya we made friends with a native of the land, Kris, and we enjoyed his company at a few spots along the Cassiar. He was a young lad recently graduated, with a good knowledge of natural resources, flora and fauna, and was what we can neatly call a good egg. The overcast and cooler days from the start of the expedition had been replaced by azure blue skies and temperatures above thirty degrees Celsius. Over the next couple of weeks it became hotter still, with the thermometer on my bike-mounted Suunto watch reporting it was forty-degrees.
Much of the trip was extremely pleasant. There were some gorgeous views to enjoy in the Yukon and then in British Columbia. Soon, after heading east from the Cassiar, we found ourselves in wildfire territory though. Indeed, for many weeks the air was pungent with the unmistakable smell of wood smoke as the forests burned. Hundreds of fires raged across BC and elsewhere. One morning we awoke not only to the intense smell of smoke, but to a layer of ash across the tent.
By this time Nin had abandoned steady progress with the bike for the speedier pace of a support car. She enjoyed her sleep, and progress had not been enough to guarantee reaching Vancouver within the time planned. My original schedule had called for two rest days per week (to allow for catching up with work), but we were proceeding without breaks. Battling the hills had detracted from her enjoyment of the riding, and with the Rockies ahead that was only to get worse. Either way was a loss: it was a shame for us to lose the constant company of one another, but she had not been enjoying the cycling as much as me either. This way she took all the kit and I was cycling about a hundred miles (160 km) a day, bringing us back on track and with space for time off and room for any technical difficulties. Mostly the problems were a few split inner tubes, which were typically repaired with only a moderate amount of blood and cursing. We would be reunited on the bikes again before the end.
I remember the supreme beauty of Jasper, Banff and Lake Louise from my youth, but now there was such a thick veil of smoke that the views eluded us. Indeed, for most of the way through the Rockies we had only the highways and smoke to see. It was a shame. One afternoon I felt somewhat hollow having passed an area of trails through 'ancient rainforest' only to soon after pass through areas of considerable logging. Ancient woodland just seemed to indicate woodland that had not yet been fucked over for profit, so far as I could tell. I like to image that some revel in the confined perfection, and see it as a calling to fight tooth and nail, to be more responsible with the wider landscape.
Highway restrictions prolonged the end of the trip, as we diverted our route to the town of Hope via smaller roads through ranch-lands. The low-lying hills, the grasses and hay bales brought new scenes to the expedition scenery. Unlike the farms that lined the highway further north, these were old and time-worn, sitting amidst vast swathes of land and offering a character to the landscape that was new and homely and welcome. I enjoyed those last few days. It even seemed that the smoke was not so bad, although it had not cleared so much as I had hoped, as the road brought us closer to the Pacific.
A treat in Hope was meeting a couple of First Nations chaps who had been making good of the salmon run. I breakfasted on a salmon head and quite enjoyed the experience, and was even given a jar of freshly caught salmon to carry me through to Vancouver. Nin was with me again on her bike for the last few days to the finish. The original endpoint was supposed to have been the border with the US, but now I had a new friend to visit, so decided to end the journey at the ferry terminal in Tsawwassen, en route to Vancouver Island.
The skies were clear on the island, and having spent a few days with Kris and his dad we were back on our bikes and headed south to Victoria, before returning to Vancouver for our journeys home. The wildfires had marred the journey for us, but any pity must be reserved for those who lost their homes in it all. The roads proved tough at times, but were always manageable. Sometimes an expedition is finished with feelings of satisfaction and an expedition well-had. This time I finished hungry to explore more on foot, on the trails, and when the views could be enjoyed in all their majesty without the clouds of smoke. Canada is beautiful and the Yukon proved to be the highlight of it all, as ever it is. The bikes were scarcely packed away before I was battling restless thoughts of how soon I might return for more.