06. 9-1-11 Canada: The Ride, Part II

Lethbridge, AB to Vancouver Island, BC

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From Lethbridge I took HWY 3 west to HWY 22 north, before connecting with the TCH west into Banff National Park. The road was no longer straight, in fact a straightaway of more than a couple of miles would not come again for a very long time. As I climbed ever higher into the Rockies, my little 4-cilynder Honda made no complaints regarding altitude (I wish I could say the same of my KLR). With every passing mile the landscape became more arresting. By the time I reached Lakes Louise and Moraine in Banff National Park, I found it difficult to ride more than a quarter mile without wanting to stop and stare at the majestic granite peaks, turquoise and jade colored lakes and rivers, and ancient, quickly disappearing, glaciers. The silt from glaciers turns many of the rivers a milky jade color. No matter how many shades of green and blue you have seen, it is shocking to witness a river of milk. I spent the first night with a friend of a friend in Canmore and got a scary taste of a ski resort town out of season. I then continued north on highway 93 (Icefields Parkway) into Jasper National Park. The roads of the parks are very well preserved and twisty, lending them an irresistible draw to go fast, but just like the TCH around the Great Lakes, that is impossible to do without missing everything. So I continued north slowly, stopping often, until I found a cozy spot, opposite a glacier, for the night. As the wind howled from the slopes of the surrounding mountains, there was little my sleeping bag and tent could do to defend against the sub-zero cold which blew through the campsite. I shivered and couldn’t fall asleep – it was one of the coldest nights of my life. But my fortitude was rewarded when I met two other riders at that camp site – they are my good friends to this day. The following day brought more riding through this granite heaven which also helped make up for the sleepless night. I kept itching to go fast, I would lean on the throttle for a minute or so and just as my adrenaline would begin to surge, the road would open onto a valley and wildflower strewn field with a babbling branch of a river passing through, which would inevitably arrest my ride.

DSC_0233-1 (600x399)Thankfully there was plenty more excellent riding to come. Once the Rockies start in western Alberta, the mountainscape doesn’t end until you hit water at the far end of British Columbia. The next day I went as far north as the town of Jasper before turning around and heading south on 93, and again west on the Trans Canada into British Columbia (BC). This is one of single best tracks of riding I’ve ever done. Between HWY 93 where it meets HWY 1 (TCH) and Kamloops, BC, you pass the heart of the Rockies, numerous national parks, and slowly descend into the foothills and valleys below. While in the Rockies the 4 lane tarmacs are of impeccable quality and the curves large enough where you can easily go 40-60mph on some, and an exhilarating 80mph on others. The road begs for you to scrape pegs, overloaded steed or not. The scenery is no less beautiful than on HWY 93, but after so much temptation I could not help but open the throttle up full…

45mph speed limit – check.
60mph actual riding speed – check.
Back and abs tight, slight forward lean, arms loose, hands tight, big breath in, slow exhale… go!
Road curving right, position on far left of lane, the road falling away 1000 ft off the sheer face of the cliff, weight on left foot, leaning right into the turn, breath, throttle back – 65mph.
Leaning closer to the ground, right hand pushing the bar away, ass lifting off, adrenaline spiking, breath, neck tight, head up – looking for the end of the curve – 70mph.
Still can’t see the end of the curve, body off the bike entirely – getting closer and closer to the ground, breath, leaning on the throttle – 75mph.
Still no end in sight, heartbeat matching the trance in the eardrum – 100bpm…110bpm…120bpm, breath, knee almost to the ground – 80mph.
Face burning, the flush of adrenaline soaking me, beads of sweat running into my eyes, the sparks flying as the right peg scars the blacktop, I see the end of the turn, breath, almost there, throttle back, on the far right of the lane, stone wall of the cliff barely a meter away – it too is soaked from the tiny waterfalls covering its face, breath, throttle – 85mph.
G-forces subsiding, slowly sliding back onto the seat, pushing the bar back to the right, heart growing lighter, snow covered peaks revealing beyond – draped with skirts of pine, the sun slowly disappearing beyond a mass of granite… road curving left, speed – check, breath…

By the time you reach Kamloops, BC you are essentially in a giant valley between the Rockies and Coastal ranges. It is flatter, but the roads continue to stick to natural rises and falls of the earth as well as the shores of rivers, so the excellent riding continues. So much of the eerie rivers, with islets and bits of fog, reminded me of the western part of Scotland: big, rocky hills on one side of the road, the shares of misty rivers and lakes on the other.DSC_0322-1 (600x399)

Once you are down from the Rockies, and well into the Coastal range, the roads are lined with fruit stalls and dairies. You can pass one or two, but eventually their omni-presence becomes too enticing to not stop. The dairies are filled with local cheeses, milk, chocolate milk, and ice cream! The fruit stalls are also replete with the bounty of British Columbia, most notably – peaches. When in season, the right kind of peach can be the size of your face, but, unlike other fruit, the size only adds to the juiciness, sweetness and flavor. I have eaten many excellent meals in my life, but I still remember vividly the peach I had by the side of the road in BC… and now my mouth is watering.

There are two ways out of Kamloops if you are heading for Vancouver: Big Highway 5, which goes south and enters Vancouver from the east; and the longer, smaller and more breathtaking highway 99 (linked by highway 97 to Kamloops). You can guess which one I took.

HWY 99 enters the coastal range, and slowly meanders along the mountain passes, valleys, lakes, national parks and more fruit stalls. I want to say it is some of the best riding you can do in North America, but honestly, riding anywhere in BC is going to make you wish you were a motorcycle gypsy. There simply are no straightaways, it is a province of twisty roads and mountains, most of which are in excellent shape which allows you to take turns faster than what might be recommended. By the time I passed the world famous Squamish, Blackcomb and Whistler (you haven’t skied until you have skied there), I was right back on the western shores of Scotland as HWY 99 began to skirt the Howe Sound, on the way south to Horseshoe Bay and Vancouver.

It was some of the best riding I have ever done. There was, however, a slight detour, to avoid construction, which strained me and my Magna a little more than we liked. Waiting for a road to re-open, another biker, on a DR, pulled up next to me and said he knew a short-cut around the construction. Because I am generally impatient I agreed even though he said it would be a little off-road. “A little off-road” turned out to be a heavily rutted single track which soon brought my bike and me to our knees. The stranger having ridden ahead was of no help as I struggled to lift the heavily burdened beast back to a vertical position. The ruts and slick mud and grass did not help, but, as often is the case when one is alone, I managed to get her back up. The rest of the ride was hairy, but I stayed up and eventually managed to get back to pavement.

DSC_0342 (600x399)With Vancouver came traffic and the general annoyances of riding through a city. However, as every person you will ever meet will attest, it is simply too wonderful a city to stay angry. The people are great, the food is excellent, and the nature is unparalled.

My fondest memory of Vancouver is Stanley Park - a proper rain forest, which faces the waters of the Strait of Georgia. It was there, with new friends form Couch surfing, that I decided to tip back a bottle of vino and watch the sun set for 3 hours, while lying on the beach, surrounded by bikes, boats, someone blowing bubbles, and the slowly changing vista of colorful sky, water, islands, hills, and container ships the size of cities lighting up in the growing darkness. I spent the next few days taking in the food, the positivity and the expense, before hopping a ferry to Vancouver Island to complete my trek across Canada.

From Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo: the ferry slides across the calm, teeming with whales, waters of the strait. I spent a few pleasant hours gazing at the tranquility of islands, fishermen, sail boats and dolphins.

On Vancouver Island I hopped on highway 19 heading north before taking highway 4 west.  HWY 4 is a wonderfully curvy road which passes a number of lakes – each more enticing than the other. It was hard not to stop, pitch a tent and find a fishing pole with which to lounge away days and days on the shore. But I continued forward, taking care not to slip on the ever present moistness of the road. BC is many things, dry it is not.  After traversing the Island, HWY 4 turns back north and becomes the Pacific Rim Highway, which ends at the Western Terminus of the Trans-Canada Highway in Tofino.  It was a cold ride along the shore, but that did not detract from the stark beauty of pine forest set against a steel gray sky, with the tumultuous crash of waves ever present on the rocky coast.DSC_0383 (600x399)

I went into Tofino to find the end of the TCH, then found a nice place to camp with some friends I had made in Jasper a couple of weeks back.  We enjoyed some of nature’s stimulants and contemplated the risk of being mauled by the prowling wild cat somewhere in our park. The following day we spent walking along the beach, climbing rocks, and listening to the song of the sea. It is one of those activities which I find never gets old – watching and listening to the ocean. The rhythm is soothing and almost regular. The crash of waves reminds you of the immense force contained in the ocean, the sight of the endless horizon frees dreams of sailing on the open sea, the smell of salt, the great sensation of being surrounded by water with no land in sight – freedom.

I was not prepared for the constant cold and wet, so the following day I headed back south to Victoria and the ferry to Anacortes in Washington. I repeated the ride of a few days before, but continued south into Sydney (just north of Victoria). I again found kind people who gave me a roof and a delicious meal – friends of someone with whom I stayed in Winnipeg. It is true that the more you travel, the smaller the world becomes, the more interlinked your life becomes with humanity as a whole, and the more likely are you to find help the further you go.

The next day I set off to the terminal at Sydney to catch the ferry to Anacortes. I spent a few hours writing in the beauty which is the crossing into Washington, past countless islands, yachts, schooners and whales. It was the perfect end to the unforgettable 4000 mile crossing of the world’s second largest country. Without pause I can easily say that this is a place to which I wish to return. The roads are impeccable, the natural wonders are the stuff of dreams… and I still have dreams of that peach.

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05. 8-21-11 Canada: The Ride, Part I
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