Beautiful British Columbia

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In the early hours of sunrise along the Stikine River, British Columbia comes to life, and I forget about my travels through Canada altogether. In half slumber, I put myself in memory’s shoes. A dense fog covers the ground and sky. I can’t see to make a bearing, but very clear sounds penetrate the thick air. Loud ship horns take turns bellowing ominous warnings of unseen proximity. I hear a deep and resonating “hhhaaauuummm” before placing myself alongside the shipping channel of my childhood home. The fog still lingers, but a light catches my eye along the horizon. It starts dim, glows brightly, and then fades away. I see it again, and at the same time, another ship blasts through the silence.

New sounds claw away at my dream and drag me into my forgotten reality. A motor roars to life, and people shout unintelligibly through the noise. My eyes open, and I’m back alongside the Stikine. Engines across the river from camp rev excitedly, and people slam truck doors. I wake to loud music and slowly put the pieces of my dream together. I no longer hear ships in the fog or see the lighthouse of a distant island. Instead, these sounds and sights take the shape of cars driving across the bridge. Headlamps send shadows into the trees and draw dancing shapes along the inside of my tent. The ship horns of my dream come to life as cars traveling the distance of the bridge from far to near. Their tires pound loudly against its metal grated construction. A dozen or more people launch loud river boats across the river and play obnoxious music to boot. I crawl from my sleeping bag and dress knowing that sleep is over for the night. Outside, I watch the men cram tons of gear onto the decks of their heavy boats. They set off against the current in a might of sound as engines work double time to travel upstream. I turn to Ben’s tent as he opens the flap; we share a look of disgust at the noise.

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The air feels cold and misty. We’re camped only a hundred yards from the water inside a deep valley. Giant trees climb the steep mountains on our either side, and the morning is still too early to show us direct sunlight. I’m happy today is warmer than yesterday. We barely escaped the grasp of winter on our ride from Dawson City. Heading almost due south on the Cassiar will hopefully earn us warmer days and snowless nights. The noise across the river gets louder. I look up to see all the boats returning for another round of whatever it is they do. Some simply turn about and head back up river. Others tie up to the ramp and pull out. New boats launch and plow away against the current as the others did originally. This boat traffic confuses me.

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I glance about camp and look to start breakfast. Where Ben and Matty excel at dinner, I do so with morning fare. Last night, they made me promise to make pancakes for breakfast after I talked so highly of my morning meals. The secret to pancakes is butter and a two piece cook set with top and bottom skillet. Ben and Matty watch as I melt butter in the bottom skillet, pour in Krusteaze pancake batter, and wait. I set the stove to a low heat and watch for the cake to bubble. Once the bubbles stop bursting, I put the pre-buttered top skillet on and quickly flip the entire ensemble over. The cake goes back onto the stove, now upside down, and the now empty skillet is readied for the next cake. I’m limited to making one cake at a time, but each one is a meal within itself. The butter browns the pancakes beautifully, and the two-part cook set precludes the mess of a spatula. Perfecto!

The deal today is that we share meals. Ben and Matty tried to make pancakes earlier in their travels but ended up making a terrible mess instead. In the wake of the pancake disaster, they now eat one thing for breakfast — porridge. When Ben’s on breakfast duty, he serves up a hot meal like so. He boils an unmeasured amount of water and then adds an equally unknown amount of porridge — an oats, barley, bran, flax seed mixture. Next he throws in whatever fresh — or not so fresh — fruit survived the days before and then cooks the lot until it makes a mushy pot of slop look crunchy. Ben and Matty divide the dish between them, add too little sugar to make a difference, and chow it down. That’s breakfast. I eat on Ben’s porridge after sneaking in a sizable lump of my own brown sugar. It’s still too mushy for my like, but the extra roughage over plain oats adds an interesting texture. With a bit less cooking, butter, and a heap of sugar, I think Ben’s porridge is a winner!

We set out after striking camp and climb the steep trail to the road. Cars rumble across the bridge as we pull onto the tarmac and point our bikes south. Several steep switchbacks and windy turns lead us out of the valley. We regain the elevation of Dease Lake before dropping again into a beautiful valley of fall color. A forest of greens, yellows, and oranges blankets the rolling hills and valleys as we ride in and out of the clouds. I follow behind Ben as we ride past another lake. Golden leaves take flight behind his bike and whisk about the air as I ride through. The road gains elevation between snow capped mountains, and we find ourselves putting on warmer clothes.

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Through the clouds, the road plummets into a deep valley of giant pines. Carved through dense forest, the road looks of a tunnel at times. Signs on either side warn of avalanche and mud slides as we wind left and right around tight corners and over unnamed streams. I look to the GPS for guidance and realize that we’ve ridden into a massive gorge. An emerald green river appears through the trees in the valley below, and steep rocky cliffs jet up into the sky on either side. A fierce wind rips through the valley and catches us off guard. Our bikes take flight like bumble bees as cross winds change from left to right all the while the road turns this way and that. Trees block the gusts for a hundred meters, and then a clearing sends us back into the wild wind. I watch Ben and Matty ahead of me, hoping a sudden movement will warn of a gust. We ride like this for miles and finally exit the wind tunnel as the gorge widens at Bell 2. We stop for fuel and lunch at the lodge, utterly exhausted by the road behind, and plan our next move.

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Sipping coffee by an incredibly warm wood stove in the lodge, I watch and listen as Matty tries persuading Ben to ride to Stewart. Ben has his head set on making miles while Matty speaks of mountains, glaciers, and beautiful rivers. A ride to Stewart adds 120 miles to the trip but offers us a chance to visit Hyder and to see more of beautiful British Columbia along the way. I understand Ben’s position. We’ve seen mountains enough in the 2000 miles of Alaska and 1000 miles of Canada; to ride another 120 miles of the same sounds senseless. Matty begs to differ. The ride to Stewart stands to be the best of the province and unlike anything we’ve seen yet. And so we ride on, and when the road points west to Stewart, we take the exit and head west. Ben rides point and with haste, as if to make this the quickest and most detested detour of the week.

Immediately, I sense a change in climate. The rain we met at the top of the mountain pass now appears suspended in mid air. Like a spot-free rinse at the car wash in full on Matrix movie slow motion, every inch of me and my bike beads water in frame-by-frame detail as we descend. Ahead, everything looks of earth. Wet rocks glisten against the flat light, and millions of trees climb from every inch of ground into the sky. I turn my head every which way to take in the grandeur around me. It’s not enough that the sky pelts this valley with water. The mountains themselves, saturated beyond holding, spew rain of their own into the air. Too many waterfalls to count form a web of white against the black of the mountain faces. As the valley narrows, a raging river takes shape and carves a heavy presence alongside the road. Canyon walls assure its path on one side, but the road itself lives at the mercy of nature on the other. Together, river and road share precious space precariously close to each other, lose more than a thousand vertical feet, pass several behemoth glaciers, and dump into a new climate altogether. A cool mountain breeze that smelled of rich mulch and forest now lingers as a heavy, arid stench of rotting water. Bogs line the road as our elevation approaches zero and we ride into the town of Stewart.

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What started as a ride through the mountains has ended at sea level and the Portland Canal. Amid a torrent of rain falling from a sky full of clouds, Ben leads the way into town, and we find respite and free wifi at the general store. On the front deck, we eat lunch and discuss a new problem. On the way down the pass, Ben noticed shine from the center of his rear tire. For at least the last thirty miles, he’s ridden on steel carcass. As we sit in downtown Stewart with cell service and high-speed Internet access, Ben considers riding the sixty miles back to the Cassiar and then another 400 miles to Prince George with a tire worn almost to its air. The likelihood of finding a tire in Stewart is nil, Matty adds. Moreover, today is Saturday, the time is already past five o’clock, tomorrow is Sunday, and most bike shops are closed until Tuesday. Without a tire in stock, we’re looking at Friday as the earliest for a new tire in Prince George. Ben stares off into space. Matty plunks away on his laptop. And I munch on a very tasty loaf of cracked bread with butter and honey.

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The rain continues to pour harder and harder until we make the choice to stay overnight in Stewart. But first, our ride from the most northerly drivable road in Alaska is not complete without a visit to Hyder, Alaska. The road to Hyder follows the waterfront. Relics of some kind of commerce sit rotting in low tide and give off the most awfullest of smells. A simple sign welcomes us to Alaska and the United States. Not surprisingly, potholes adorn the streets of Hyder just as they do in the rest of Alaska. We motor through town before turning around next to a river and celebrating an unexpected feat — Hyder is the most southerly drivable road in Alaska. At the border, Canada asks us if we bought anything in Hyder including guns, alcohol, or explosives. Matty jokes to the officer that we only just crossed this border ten minutes ago, and maybe she heard the trumpeting of his bike. How are we to buy anything in Hyder anyway? The town looks destitute and closed. The liveliest building in all of Hyder is the bar. Certainly these questions are not suited for this crossing; residents of both towns must cross this imaginary line between countries several times a day for basic living.

We’re let through without much pause after answering her questions. Back in Stewart, I lead the way to the town’s campground. We’re greeted with a “closed for the season” sign just as another deluge of water releases from the clouds. A pavilion catches my eye in the corner of the camp, and I all but plead with the guys that we stay beneath it. I threaten to pull my bike under its roof, but the concrete pad only offers us room for our three tents and the existing tables.

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Dark descends on Stewart as we empty our bikes and make camp under the pavilion. Notwithstanding Ben’s tire problem, we are all three full of spirit tonight. Outside, it rains like it should never rain. The roads flow with streams in search of ground, but the ground, too saturated to accept more rain, puddles the water into giant pools. Pools run into pools, and soon everything looks of a giant lake. I have half a mind to search for dinner in the road — for a confused salmon that took a wrong turn. Beneath the pavilion, we couldn’t be happier. Wet riding gear hangs from the trusses, and three tents sit dry with the promise a very restful night of sleep.

While we cook dinner and during a lull in the rain, a man greets us from the shadows of dark. We look fast thinking twice about our choice of free camp for the evening but are assured of no trouble by Tony. He tells of watching us ride into town during the monsoon of the day and thinking to himself that we poor bastards chose a heck of a time to visit. He swears left and right about the rain and laughs for our good fortune at finding such an unlikely shelter. We share the very same conversation three times before Tony promises us fish for breakfast and disappears into the dark just as fast as he came. I stare at Ben and Matty without words. Fresh salmon for breakfast, a roof over my head — my visit to Stewart is now the highlight of Canada.

The rain continues through the night and into the morning. I wake in time to catch the shadowy figure of a man walking away from the river with a full bag in one hand and a fishing rod in the other. The bag looks of trash, but rain obscures its true contents. I smile to myself as I think of Tony’s promise the night before. As the figure disappears down the street, a yawn reminds me of the morning’s first priority — coffee. I’m the only one awake this early but won’t let that keep me from my coffee. The jet stove roars loudly as I step away to take in the rain and the beauty of British Columbia. Above, the tree canopy gives way to a low ceiling of clouds. A gray sky offers light but hides the very tops of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. In a moment of weakness, I miss Alaska. This amazing landscape reminds me of Girdwood and the snowy winter camping trips I took with my brother into the trails behind Alyeska Ski Resort. We’d sneak away from the parking lot and make our winter camp in the trees for a long weekend of cheap accommodations and days on the slopes. We’d drive the streets of Girdwood feeling like mice in a maze of ice. Towering walls of snow hid one street from another, and people carved paths for driveways and the occasional sidewalk. These streets of Stewart must see their fair share of snow too. I imagine this place in a few months with snow piles taller than the houses and tunnels linking homes to driveways. Like Girdwood, the trucks that drive around town will tell of the season’s snowfall in the feet of white that cap their roofs. No one will bother to shovel where snow will simply accumulate again. I shake the snow from my mind and think back to the rain. Having just barely escaped winter in the Yukon, I shouldn’t be longing for it.

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When the rain lets up, a blue and white field of ice comes to view. It looms over the tiny town, threatening to lose its grip and come crashing to the street. Movement catches my attention at street level. Where the shadowy figure of a man walked away in the rain earlier, I see Tony walking towards me with a beer in one hand and his promise made good in the other. He flops a freshly cleaned salmon onto the table just as Ben and Matty rise from their tents. We must look like city boys standing in awe at the fish. I shake Tony’s hand and thank him profusely before he leaves and wishes us luck on our journey. I look to Ben and Matty, the table, and then to Tony as he disappears down the street. The kindest man in all of Canada lives here in this tiny corner of the world, and we are lucky enough to have met him.

Matty poses with the salmon and inadvertently volunteers to whack it up. Ben wants to cook a filet, but I have my mind set on a blackened salmon steak. I take the thick cut from Matty and douse both sides in Cajun spice before throwing it into a hot pan. A slick of butter sizzles and pops around the edges of the flesh, sending conflicting aromas of Louisiana and Alaska steaming into the pavilion. Soon, troubles of the road fade away. We forget the drama of Ben’s naked rear tire. The terrible distance we must travel to Prince George seems more manageable. The rain takes on a calming appeal. Salmon for breakfast makes everything better, and we owe this spike in spirits to Tony. We thank you!

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We decide to leave the amazing hospitality of Stewart and close the miles between us and a replacement tire for Ben. The sooner we order a new tire in Prince George, the sooner we fix Ben’s anxiety issues. We pack camp beneath the pavilion, return the tables to their original positions, and head out of town. The weather treats us well and turns dry for the long climb. I keep a slow pace as we ride pass the waterfront and retrace our path between the steep mountain cliffs and winding river. A cool and refreshing scent of forest and rock fills my nose, the sewer smell of rotting earth ebbs. Again, water droplets collect on my face shield and then race away to either side. Ben babies his rear tire for the most part. Matty and I stop for photos when the sun makes an occasional appearance between clouds. I’m taken aback by the color and beauty as we ride south. Every yellow and orange makes an appearance. Browns and reds show true and bright. The valley takes my breath away.

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I finally find a service station with a map of British Columbia at Kitwanga — half way through the province. Every business along the Cassiar has said no when I asked for a map, offering me a map of the Yukon instead. Ben, Matty, and I gaze over the five dollar map outside when a group of Harley riders honk as they ride past. We must look a mess compared to these beautifully chromed bikes adorned in all sorts of ambient street lighting and shiny fairings. Matty’s bike holds its panniers with shock cords and nylon line. Ben’s bike looks true, but it hides surprises well. On the road, my bike moves with the agility of an aircraft carrier. Sitting still as it does now, it threatens to topple on its side.

Miles and miles tick away on the odometer. Ben continues to nurse his tire. Our 60-mph pace lets me take in the scenery. Highway 16 takes us east towards Prince George through rolling hills of farmland. Fields of grain line each side of the highway. I watch horses and cows graze in the afternoon light. Steam rises from their backsides and the grass about them. Bales of straw dot the empty fields. Despite Tony’s soothsaying of more hellfire rain, the skies have opened to amazing mountain views. We roll through Smithers as dark nears and decide to ride out of town for camp. The next I know, we’re in Telkwa and even further away from the remote wilderness of Canada that is so conducive to roadside camping. Private property and trespassing signs forbid our entrance at every side road that at first glance looks inviting. The sky darkens as Ben slows and turns down a dirt road. A fence refuses our intrusion on both sides, but we find an open field of mowed grass near the end and position ourselves as far out of the way as possible lest our host come knocking in the night. After another round of Tony’s catch for dinner, we idle through our evening chores and each call the day finished.

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Storm clouds catch up to us in the morning. We ran from snow in the Yukon. Here, we run from the rain. As I open my ears and eyes to a very wet Monday, I long for the covered pavilion in Stewart. The outer tent sheds rainwater with ease, but it collects condensation on the inside while I sleep. And if I pack the inner and outer tents together, I find myself with a wet house come evening. Rain just adds another step to my daily routine. While breakfast water boils, I carefully zip shut the inner tent and detach it for dry storage in a duffel. Tonight, I’ll reverse the steps while cooking dinner and sleep better for the added effort. I offer Ben my stove when I hear him stir. He jokes of needing to keep me around now because they used the last of their fuel to cook dinner last night. His wry sense of humor needs encouragement if not time to grow on me. I sure hope it’s not for the promise of a hot meal that they keep me around.

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I count farm fields instead of seconds on the road to Prince George. Gone are the forests of northern British Columbia. Cows, horses, straw, hay, and clear cut forests demarcate towns and people now. Giant trucks hauling empty trailers drive west, and others overloaded with spruce drive east. More trucks pass with hoofed meat mooing to the sound of the road. I picture this valley with the forests of northern British Columbia and cringe at each truck full of the next stick frame house that passes. I count the better half of a subdivision, enough grain to feed a starving country, a fleet of horsepower, and a ship load of hamburgers by the time we stop for lunch in Fraser Lake.

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It’s late afternoon when we reach Prince George. Every motorcycle shop in town is closed except for the Harley dealership. Ben tries his luck asking the Harley girls behind the counter to find him a BMW tire. The tire’s odd size and shape mean they must order it from Calgary. Sarah says it won’t come for days and suspects that the Honda shop next door will fair no better. Not wanting to commit to a $200 tire, Ben decides we revisit the issue in the morning. As we leave the Harley shop, I complement Ben on doing his part for the environment and running his tire clear past its rubber, steel, and to the air. After all, most people throw perfectly inflated tires away, and here Ben rides with only a Nylon ply for a safety net. Way to go, Ben! Jokes aside, we each know the tire won’t withstand a skidding stop and thus ride carefully through town in search of Matty’s metal worker. The thought of a quiet bike sends Matty into fits once he bargains a new brace. The smith promises Matty a new bracket fashioned after the broken original by lunchtime tomorrow.

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The last remaining business of the day is that of accommodation. A failed attempt finding camp by my GPS sends us on a wild chase south of town into the industrialized side of Prince George as if we were headed to Vancouver. I shrug an “I don’t know” to Ben and Matty and stop to show that we’ve arrived at our destination — according to the GPS — even though this area looks nothing of a campground. I vow to ask directions and step inside a card lock fuel station. The attendant waves us all in and insists we stay for directions and a telling of the weather. The husky man looks clean and professional. His office is tidy, well kept, and organized. A plaque on the wall reminds everyone to “serve like a champion.” When he laughs at our feigned insistence that his fuel station must very well be a campground because the GPS says so, we all carry on for a good while. He tells us of a campground just over the hill while loading the week’s forecast in a new browser tab. The attendant finishes by saying that sunshine and blue sky promise to welcome us to Prince George for many days. He sends us on our way with directions to Sintich RV Park and a hope for safe travels. You, sir, serve like a champion!

Through another Canadian roadworks project and over the hill, we arrive at the RV park and pull into the office. Matty still can’t dismount his bike without help; that help usually comes from Ben. I careen myself around to look at the two kindly waiting for me to ask our host about camping. Matty sits back against his duffel like a rabbit on its haunches. Ben fiddles with an mp3 player of some sort. Taking the cue, I hop right off and jump up the steps in full gear to ask the cost of accommodations. Inside, I meet Barb, and she signs us for a single camp despite our being three tents and three motorbikes. We’re welcomed to stay as long as we like, use the showers, enjoy the wireless Internet, and lounge in the common room for the low cost of $24 a night. Spread three ways, this camp will be our cheapest and most luxurious stay yet.

We drop our gear and pitch the tents well before nightfall — a rare occurrence traveling with Ben and Matty. Hunger growls loudly between us as we vow to put a good meal in our bellies for the effort. As we ride north back into town, I take notice of this community Prince George. The city sprawls in four directions from a center and around the converging Nechako and Fraser rivers. It serves as an over populated four way stop between Prince Rupert to the west, Fort St. John to the north, Vancouver to the south, and Jasper to the east. College students live here to study at UNBC. Prince George also processes timber harvested in surrounding areas.

Matty directs us to “Save-On-Foods & more.” The supermarket anchors a mall of a dozen retail outlets selling clothes, coffee, and — yes — more. Inside, the store resembles most other bargain food stores we’ve shopped whilst touring Canada. The clear difference at this store is the huge savings card holders save on foods — and more. I reckon we can keep several dollars to ourselves by applying for a card. At the service desk, a kind lady hands me the materials I need to save on foods — and more. With that, we check out and smile at our having fleeced the store as transients. Our budgets already pressed by the night’s accommodations and food, Ben and I beg of as Matty finds himself caught in the grasp of a nearby cafe. We ride back to camp as two with the sun setting over Prince George.

The beauty of it seizes me from all other thoughts. I’ve never seen a more remarkable display of reds, pinks, and oranges across a sky. Clouds glow brightly in all imaginable shapes and patterns, radiate brightly from the west, and grow dark and blue to my back. I set off with my camera only to find a more amazing display pitched against the darkening mountains to the east. In all the glory of a painter’s pallet, a wide swath of color rises from the ground, contrasted greatly by the darkened sky, and arches overhead before emptying itself into the intense radiance of the sunset. I stop to capture as much of the display as possible before losing it to the night.

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I ride back to camp with an energy undulating in my veins. Powered by the good feelings of travel, adventure, and now dry weather, I’m eager to enjoy the days ahead with my traveling companions. Tonight, we cook pork chops on the front porch of the showers building. We each eat well and relax even better. Showers shed a week of cold and ache from our wretched bodies. Together, we welcome ourselves to Prince George and speak highly of the chores ahead. We’ll make the best of our down time by repairing our bikes, touring about the city, and otherwise catching up on the world outside. Mostly, I look forward to sleeping, waking, and sleeping again in the same spot. With excited but tired thoughts of what’s to come, I close my eyes and find respite in much needed sleep.

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Brian

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