British Columbia
August 5, 2002
Lillooet, British Columbia, Canada
 
 
 

I’ve been hunkered down in Lillooet (rhymes with silhouette), B.C. A home away from home in a stalwart little cottage... Been here over a week now. A few days to complete some work. (Welcome to telecommuting.) A few days to let an injury heal. A few days of having my toothbrush on a shelf instead of in a drawstring bag. Sturdy shelter during a rainy week. Warm walls when there’s been snow in the mountains. Electricity. Phone. A kitchen with a cutting board shaped like a pig. All the comforts of home.

I don’t really have any sense of discomfort when I’m Out There, but I have to admit that it is easy to roll onto a bed at the end of a day. Easy to feed myself well with a refrigerator and four-burner stove. Easy to leave gear and clothes draped over the furniture rather than packing them up each morning.

It’s been a great lull in the adventure storm. I left San Juan Island on the afternoon ferry and arrived on Vancouver Island not quite sure of what to expect from Canadian Customs: Not too much.

“How long do you plan on staying?” Three months, I said. “Three months?” Yeah, I’m thinking of riding to Alaska, but I don’t know. It’s a long way. “Okay. Have a nice trip.”

I rode to Victoria along a nice rail-to-trails route and spent the night in a hostel bunk room with several victims of tuberculosis or some such -- three of them took turns coughing all night. The next night was in a different hostel, while my days were spent in the museum, tracking down some camping supplies, and getting the groove of the city. Nice city as cities go. A touch of European flair. Plentiful parks. Street performers along the inner harbor. A windswept seashore cliff with clear views of the islands I’d just come from.

I left the city behind on another stretch of rail trail and an ugly stretch of highway on my way North to Duncan. Near Duncan I stayed with my friend Doug who had come out to Hawaii with his bike this winter. My riding buddies and I had taken him out and tortured him on our Kona bike trails, and he’d been looking forward to making me suffer on his local trails. (This is a traditional mountain bike social exchange.)

We went for one ride with his daughters who are thirteen and ten years old, and already kicking some serious butt on the trails. The next day we rode some super sweet trails on Tzouhalem Mountain. Rode up a fire road to a great view of the bay below. Then hit some singletrack and did the twist and shout through the trees. Fast banked turns on tight lines of packed dirt. Some cool toys to play on. Narrow bridges and ramps. Fallen logs to ride the length of. And some scrappy drop-offs and launches that I decided not to ride -- my valor being only equal to my skill, which likes to keep me close to the ground. With my wheels, not my face.

Grateful for the kind hospitality of Doug, his wife, and his daughters, I rode Onward on a hot sunny morning. I filled my food bag, headed West, and almost immediately got misplaced. Thanks to a vague map, I ended up on the wrong side of the Cowichan River, which was a beautiful circumstance. Stumbled upon a section of the Trans-Canada Trail that was built on an old rail-line through thick forest above the river. Exactly the way I’d have come if I’d have had any idea that it was there

I crossed the river on a restored trestle and rode the old highway into the town of Lake Cowichan. I dillydallied over a late lunch. Swam in the cool, clear river. Then treated myself to a root beer float in a frosty mug. Roughing it.

By the time I rode out of town, it was after business hours for the businesses that weren’t boarded up. I rode along the South edge of the lake of Lake Cowichan, away from civilization as we know it, and into the Industrial Forest.

British Colombia seems to base a large portion of its economy -- and even much of its identity -- on logging. Logging is the process of dismantling a forest. As a guy who likes forest -- especially old interesting forest -- I have some trouble accepting the idea that it’s okay to take apart an old one, haul it away, and replace it with a homogeneous grove of planted trees. But as a guy who frequently takes shelter under wooden roofs, I’m not sure how wide I should open my mouth to complain.

My immediate fear of logging was of logging trucks. The rumors had proceeded them, of how they came out of nowhere, wide as the road. Of how they would crush me like a bug and careen off in a giant cloud of dust. Signs along the way warned me that the road I was traveling on was owned by the logging companies and to yield to trucks. I didn’t have to yield that day, since I was traveling late enough to be riding after trucking hours. (One of the joys of a late start and slow traveling.)

I camped that night in a snip of older forest along the shore of Lake Cowichan with another fear. Should I be hanging my food from a high branch to keep bears from being attracted to it and to me? Everything I’d read said to never keep food in your tent. But the bright twilight sky was turning into a bright starry night and I wasn’t planning on using my tent.

I was cooking supper with my little stove on the ground between the trees, out of the wind when the attack began. Not a bear, but a team of mice. I say “team” because they weren’t just a bunch of mice. One mouse appeared in front of me, got my attention and then made an easy few bounces toward my bread. I shouted at it, clapped my hands, and finally had to reach out and swat at it before it leapt just out of reach where it stayed until I threw a rock in its general direction. At that moment I heard a rustle behind me from inside my food bag where two mice were going for the granola. By the time I chased them off, the first one was heading back toward the bread. I only fell for this trick three or four times before I got my guard up and put away anything that wasn’t hot and cooking.

When my delicious prepackaged pasta dish was ready to eat, I moved away from there to a picnic table where I began to dine. I was immediately joined by another half-dozen fearless mice who were intent on sharing my meal. Having fallen for the old “herd him toward the picnic table” trick, I closed up all my food and ate my pasta while standing up, kicking toward any mice that came near my bags.

I wasn’t sure how big a chunk of turf a team of mice calls home, but hoping for the best, I piled everything back onto my bike and pushed it into the dark forest, away from the dim glow of night at the edge of the lake. I slept under the trees with my food by my head, one ear open for the sound of little monsters gnawing holes in my bags. All fear of bears forgotten.

In the morning -- after a sufficient time of sunning my sleeping bag and myself at the lakeshore beach -- I started out along logging roads that had turned to dust in the recent hot weather. I met Matt coming the other way on his bicycle. He was a dusty mess from long morning miles, but told me that the logging trucks were no problem since he could hear them coming. And, as I suspected, the trucks were only slightly dustier than the regular cars and trucks that passed now and then. He headed off toward Los Angeles, I headed off toward wherever I was going, and soon enough I was a dusty mess too.

My lunch break -- which is always kind of late -- got delayed even further while I waited to find a spot more scenic than the dusty vegetation at the side of a dusty road. At last I found it: a bridge over a beautiful tumble of water pouring out of a deep green pool. Ahh! The perfect remedy for a hot, dusty day. I took a quick dip in the river pool (It doesn’t take me long to be refreshed in water that cold.), ate my lunch, took pictures of the water and of the logging trucks knocking dust off the bridge, and happily wasted two hours.

By the time I was rolling again, the day was cooler. I was heading for the Outer Coast of Vancouver Island, which is the direction that the weather usually comes from. I guess it can be sunny at the coast, but that’s not the trend. All the moist air from over the Pacific Ocean runs into that coast, trips, and falls in rain. As I rode, it got cooler. And cloudier. And darker.

Darker may have been because the end of the day was getting close. I was looking forward to Panchena Bay where there was a little tent on my map, and thus hopefully a place to camp. I was zipping down a hill when I looked ahead and there was a bear in front of me. The bear saw me at about the same time. I hit the brakes and started flinging gravel. The bear dove through the tall grass and weeds on the side of the road and disappeared. My adrenaline kicked in about that time and I wasn’t really sure what else to do with it, so I started pedaling hard and heard the sound of the bear crashing through undergrowth on a parallel course with me. Or not quite parallel, because the crashing faded away until all I could hear were my tires on the dirt again.

When I had relaxed enough to reflect on the matter, I realized two things. One, that the bear had not been very cuddly -- had been, rather, long and rangy, and had looked very fast and strong. Two, that if all the bears I met were as interested in running away from me as that one, then I’d be fine.

The next two nights I camped in the misty rain at Panchena Bay in a campground run by the local band of First Nations people. The First Nations people are descended from the people who were living along this coast and throughout the Pacific Northwest when the Europeans came, claimed the land, and turned it into Canada. They seem to live some of the old ways, some of the new, within small designated scatterings of their former area of influence. The campground was clean, their office computerized, and they even had night security guards -- who didn’t seem to stop a group of testosterone-soaked camp rowdies from parting loudly until two in the morning.

Panchena Bay is at one end of the West Coast Trail which is a 5-8 day hiking adventure along the rugged, wet coast. I strolled down the muddy trail in the afternoon drizzle, among old Douglas Fir trees, cedars, hemlocks. Below the crowns of the massive trees there was a high space that seemed filled with a verticality of bark and mossy trunks. Below that, the riot of the forest floor, where ferns, moss, fungi and shade-loving young hemlock trees crowded onto the tumble of old tree-trunks, rotting and returning their energy to the next generation of forest.

It was very interesting to see the forest change as I went along. Here, only the dark rugged trunks of Douglas Fir. Further, mostly cedar, the grey bark blending with the mist. Then, perhaps, an open area where a tree had fallen, crowded with berry bushes, salal and young trees vying for the light.

I’d come here to see the coast, but with all the trees in the way, it was tough. At last I scrambled down a side “trail”, clinging to roots on a steep bank, and down to the open grey sky. The dark ocean surged against house-sized blocks of dark rock, swirled behind tree-topped towers as the edge of the land crumbled away into wind and drizzle. I stood and absorbed the feel of the wild coast, the massive forest behind me, the expanse of unknown ocean. Then, miles to go and darkness approaching, I turned and nearly ran back the way I had come, hop-scotching through muddy puddles and dodging the wet slap of ferns.

In the tiny coast town of Bamfield I boarded the Lady Rose, a small classic packet freighter and passenger ferry. I did not board easily, because my wide packs would barely fit between the rails of the gangway. I pushed and the deckhand pulled. Once my bike and I were aboard, everything was quite pleasant. The three-and-a-half hour journey on this small ship from the 1930’s was like a journey back to a slower time. My bike leaned against the rail, and I wandered all over the deck enjoying conversation with fellow passengers and the slowly changing view of the long Alberni Inlet. We stopped at a couple settlements and watched as freight was winched in or out of the hold. Talked to the captain in a wheelhouse filled with brass and wood. Went below to the warmth of the small cafe in the cabin, or stood on the deck as the rain of the coast dropped behind and the sky opened windows of blue above the steep wooded sides of the inlet.

In Port Alberni I disembarked with another push-pull, and rode up and over the hill, into more rain, and past the snowy peak of Mount Arrowsmith. I stopped along the way at Cathedral Grove, where a small piece of old-growth forest was ironically protected by a wooden fence. Then on to Coombs where I stopped at the famous (even I had heard of it) Goats on the Roof.

Having goats grazing on the sod-covered roof of a country market, ice cream stand, and bakery is a somewhat unusual marketing plan, but it seems to have worked. Perhaps even spawning the surrounding collection of tacky tourist shops and attractions. Goats or not, the food was good. I indulged in ice cream and fresh fruit and chocolaty baked goods. But the food was not my reason to be there. I was there to meet Annie, up from San Juan Island via ferry and her car.

We camped for the night and returned to Goats on the Roof in the morning for more fruit and sugar. Then took the afternoon ferry off Vancouver Island to the mainland, and drove straight into the thick gridlock of Friday afternoon North Vancouver (the City, not the Island) traffic. After creeping along for hours (days?) we made it over the bridge to Stanley Island where we picked up Grant and Janet -- friends, riding buddies, and the owners of the bike shop where I often work in Hawaii.

Grant and Janet had been riding around Washington and B.C. for a couple weeks. Had even ridden in the infamous Seattle to Portland ride. But they’d just sent their road bikes home because we were all headed to North to Whistler to do some mountain bike riding. Doug from Duncan was coming over to ride with us as well.

Whistler is a Disney-esque ski town built from the ground up and designed to look like an actual village. Reminded me of some of the less charming ski towns back in Colorado. The attraction, though, is not the town, but the mountains all around. In winter, the skiing is supposed to be great. Even in summer, there are folks up high, skiing on the glaciers. But for many people, summer in Whistler is for mountain biking. Why? Because many people are lazy, I think.

The lift that takes skiers up the mountain in the winter takes bikers up the mountain in summer. I’ve seen these kinds of bikes and this kind of riding before, but I was astounded at the vast number of people buckling on armor, strapping on full-face helmets, loading multi-thousand dollar full suspension bikes onto the lift... Then bombing down a dusty gravel course of banked turns, jumps, and stunts -- right back into the lift line. Also surprised by how many of the riders were women.

Most of the riders didn’t seem to have the skills to match the terrain, and were stuttering down kind of slowly. One rider biffed in a cloud of dust and limped down to his friends, moaning and in pain, but apparently only suffering internal injuries. A few riders were doing justice to the course and were catching air and sweeping through the turns. Our little group stood with our mouths agape and watched. Except Doug, who was ready to join their fun.

We sent him up the lift for the day, with his big bike and his armor, while the four of us headed out of town the other way. We had a great ride. Nice stiff climb to some great views of the green valley, the lakes below, the grassy swaths of the ski runs opposite, the high snowy peaks above. We rode along the flank of the mountain on a rolling trail, then down steep switchbacks to a creek and waterfall. Back in the valley bottom, we rode a trail called A River Runs Through It, which featured: A river (duh) bridged by a narrow fortified log, plus all kinds of interesting ramps and tricks and toys. Even a teeter totter. Exactly the kind of constructed trail that B.C. is famous for, except that -- though it was narrow and tight and dicey in places -- none of it was very far off the ground. Which made it fun to play on with very little risk of permanent bodily harm.

Grant and I had a great time trying to ride the stunts, while Janet and Annie had fun riding the rest of it. It was so fun that we took Doug back there the next morning before he had to head home. Then the four of us picnicked and played frisbee in the park by the “beach” on Lake Alta. I busted out all my old college frisbee moves (I majored in frisbee my first year of college -- don’t tell my dad.) and ran and jumped and spun in the air. Which may have been why -- after Annie and Grant and Janet packed up and drove away to their own further adventures -- I noticed that my right achilles tendon was sore.

I stayed two more nights in Whistler, though away from the synthetic village and at a nice hostel on the the shore of Lake Alta. The next morning my bike broke while I was jumping it over some railroad tracks. A small part on an expensive rear deraileur. Luckily, I was able to find the small part in the junk deraileur bin at one of the local shops, and with some handy tool-work, the bike was ready to go again. I wasn’t sure that my body was ready to go. My tendon was still sore, despite an easy couple days. Nevertheless, I packed up and headed toward Pemberton.

Pemberton was hot. Not too far from Whistler and downhill all the way, it serves as a bedroom community for the Whistler service industry. And for those who want to be close to all the outdoor opportunities, but away from the price and plastic of the ski town. In The Bike Co, the owner John told me that nearby Spruce Lake had “The World’s Best Singletrack. Er... Some of the best.” I thought I should see that for myself, so -- after sitting out the hot part of the day in the shade drinking cool drinks -- I started to ride.

Spruce Lake is near Pemberton by car. On my bike it took me two days. I rode up the wide, flat bottom of the Lillooet River Valley, past hay meadows, potato patches, fields of oats. I turned right on dirt, crossed the river, and started up some steep switchbacks that climbed toward the snowy peaks that rimed the valley.

Eric and Jane were coming the other way on laden bikes. They were just finishing a long loop ride up Vancouver Island, by ferry across to Bella Coola, and then a net of forest roads from there to the gravel where our paths crossed. They gave me some good tips about which roads were best, where the drinking water was good, which towns had food, and where the scenery was worth the extra miles. They also gave me their more detailed map of the road I was riding on, which was very kind and more than helpful.

I rode onward and got to thinking that I should have asked them about the bear issue. What did they do with their food at night? How careful did I need to be? I’ve heard that you should cook a quarter mile away from where you camp and to not sleep in the clothes you cook in. I didn’t have that many clothes. I’ve heard other advice to simply not camp where others camp and to keep your food by your head. I had to let circumstances choose for me.

It took me three hours and about a gallon of water to get up the switchbacks to the top of The Hurley. The hours I used were from 7 to 10. The water came straight from the stream. It was almost black dark by the time I got past the steep forest to a place flat enough to camp. I followed a trace of trail off the road to a dry spot amid a marshy area. Thousands of mosquitoes joined me for dinner. I dipped more water straight from the stream and drank it, something I haven’t done in Colorado since the 70s. Something I felt a little uncomfortable doing. But everyone I’d asked about the availability of water to filter had looked at me kind of funny. They just drank it out of the stream. Not any old stream, with a cow pasture above, or a horse trail beside it. But anywhere the melted snow ran right down the hillside into the forest, crystal and cold. Plenty water like that on The Hurley.

I cooked a good thirty feet from where I slept, I wore the same clothes, and --lacking a tree big enough to hold my food a bear’s-arm out of reach -- I slept on the ground under the stars and moon with my food by my head.

In the morning I was still there. So was my food. No claw marks in anything. My achilles tendon was a little more sore, but I didn’t think that had anything to do with bears. I ate breakfast The mosquitoes and black flies chased me out of camp.

The road followed the stream, which grew quickly as little tributaries spilled down to join it from high snow fields and blue glacier ice. Orange-red paintbrush, blue lupines, red columbines and other wildflowers lined the road and filled open places. Any time I stopped to enjoy the scenery, black flies carted off small bits of me.

It was hot by early afternoon when I arrived in Gold Bridge, population 47. The happening place seemed to be a little trailer with an awning where I sat and ate lunch and creamsicle ice cream (for heat-regulation purposes). Road signage and my map were only mediocre, so I got a couple different opinions of the best way to get to the Spruce Lake trailhead. The way I chose took me way downhill and then back up on a rough, steep gravel road. It was hot and I was whimpering and complaining to myself a little bit. Plus I had to ask directions a couple more times from passing cars. “You can’t miss it.” I missed it twice, got back on track. When I finally made it to the camp at the trailhead, the sun was close to setting and my achilles was aching.

The camp spot was just across a walking bridge over the frothy tumult of Gun Creek, which looked to me like a river. As I rinsed off the dust and sweat of the day, I let my sore heel soak in the cold water until it was slightly numb. For dinner I shared a picnic table with three young ladies who had ditched their menfolk and driven up for a couple days of riding. We had a polite conversation, but I’m not exactly sure what any of us said, since the roar of the river made it necessary to shout to be misunderstood. They were, however, kind enough to allow me to keep my food bag in their truck as proof against bears.

In the morning, one of the ladies shouted to me that she had seen a huge bear snuffling around outside her tent in the night. Which made me glad I had set my tent up a little way away from the main camping area. And also glad that I hadn’t kept my food by my head. Of course if a bear had decided to tear down my tent and eat the meat off my bones, I wouldn’t have heard a thing over the crashing river.

The morning sky was bright and sunny. I packed my lunch, raincoat, and camera rode out of camp, away from the ladies and their coffee, and up the trail toward Spruce Lake. I was almost immediately surprised by how much walking and how little riding I was able to do on The Worlds Best Singletrack. Singletrack is a term used by mountain bikers to describe the thin line of travel that a hiker would call a trail. I expected that The Worlds Best Singletrack would be, well, ridable. This however was not the case. I was willing to forgive the occasional section of unavoidably steep or rocky terrain, but even the regular pieces of trail -- the easy sections -- were difficult. Primarily because they had been pummeled into a trough of dust by horses and cyclists during the recent dry weather.

The lesson here is that The Worlds Best Singletrack is a seasonal thing. If I had arrived after slightly more moist weather, the trails probably would have been fine. If, on the other hand, I had arrived in February, the trails would have been even less ridable on account of being under many feet of snow. So I did the best with the dust that I had been given and had a great day.

The trail chased the creek up the valley and through the forest. Then it climbed up through aspen trees and out into wide alpine meadows filled with flowers. Soon I was following it up a high ridge overlooking the lake, skipping over the vibrant colors and watching the dazzling drip of snow clad mountains spill from a sky of brightest blue. At each new viewpoint there seemed to be the promise of another higher one. Dazzled by the sweet smell of blossoms, I pedaled or pushed up the steep mountainside through my trough of deep wallowing dust.

All this rugged use was making my heel very sore. And at the rate it was getting sore, I wasn’t exactly sure that I’d even make it back to camp. Which almost kept me from riding just a few tough miles further to some splendid views. (But not quite.) At last, I turned around -- maybe because of my injury, but maybe because the sun was slanting off toward the horizon. I rode down, down through the warm light of the meadows. Down between the white bars of aspen-tree trunks. Down into the dark pine forest, past fresh bear tracks in the dust, and down, down the river trail toward camp.

All this down was easy on my riding muscles, but didn’t seem to be easy on my achilles tendon, which was getting more and more sore. When I had to push through big dust puddles or rocky sections, my limp was pronounced. I began to have wild fantasies in which the three ladies at camp were all massage therapists, nurses, or orthopedic surgeons. I even had practical fantasies in which they let me have some ibuprofen.

When I limped back into camp, the ladies had packed up and gone -- apparently afraid that the bear would return. They’d left my food bag with some hikers who taught me to hang it from the bridge over the water where the smell would be swept away, and where any bear trying to get to it would be swept away as well.

The next day was an unplanned day off. All I did was hang out in the sun, read, write, eat. And limp to the river to “ice” my heel in the cold water. I took my last three ibuoprofen. I smashed the flies that were biting me and took photos of their bloody fangs. I sang at the top of my lungs, which was nowhere near as loud as the river. At the end of the day I couldn’t tell if my heel felt any better, because it mostly felt cold and numb from the water. But it was still swollen. Still sore. And I was still limping severely, though probably just for dramatic effect.

After my day of rest, I only had enough food for one more day. At the end of the day I’d have to be somewhere. The nearest town in the direction I was going was over a hill and 60 miles. But there was Gold Bridge, back the way I’d come, which wasn’t much of a town, but where I could get something to eat. It was also uphill almost all the way back.

I decided to try the 60 miles. I stuck a stack of leaves behind my lower heel to keep the pressure of my shoe off my swollen tendon, then I took off. I hadn’t ridden more than thirty feet when I stopped and ate a couple big handfuls of fresh raspberries from the bushes along the road. I rode up out of the valley nice and easy, making sure I didn’t dig in hard or put other undue strain on my heel. I passed fresh bear tracks in the dust of the road and hoped I wouldn’t have to run. I got to the paved main road and only had 50 miles left to go. My heel didn’t seem to feel any worse, so I kept on going. Mile after easy mile.

I stopped to soak my foot in a couple streams along the way. Rode long miles along Carpenter Lake while osprey flew past. Rode through a canyon with huge vertical rock walls. Rode out of the dense high mountain pine and into a drier land of ponderosa pine and sagebrush. Rode past First Nations men fixing their fish-drying racks for the upcoming salmon runs.

When at last I rode into Lillooet (rhymes with silhouette), past horseback riders, past empty shops, past old high-octane 8-cylinder cars, past hard worked old men and provocative teenagers, past the New Beginnings Thrift Shop and on down to where the main street bent like a hockey stick... I was ready for a warm shower and a comfortable bed.
 

 

 



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