What a year it’s been. To complain would be pointless. Besides, nobody would listen. We’re healthy, happy, have a roof over our heads, food aplenty and the freedom to go outside and play all we want, although I’m keenly aware it’s not been that kind of year for every one. Many people continue to suffer the results of this pandemic: loss of loved ones, loss of income or jobs, loss of connection to our friends and family, and the list goes on.
So as we gaze into the abyss of another pandemic year I’m starting to feel like Leonard Shelby, played by Guy Ritchie in Christopher Nolan’s thriller Memento. Shelby suffers from anterograde amnesia, a condition that doesn’t allow him to make new memories, causing him to have short term memory loss every 15 minutes. He uses an intricate system of Polaroids to piece his life back together.
I’ve been combing through my own photographs from the past year and have been reflecting on a few weeks we spent at the end of last summer when stringent restrictions from the spring had been lifted and we all cruised into a summer of staycations, dinners on patios with friends and family, living a carefree life without face masks. It was too good to last.
At the beginning of August, in the early morning light of a gorgeous summer day, we mount our loaded bikes and ride away from our Vancouver home. The neighbourhood is quiet as most people are still asleep.
We cross the Cambie Bridge and thread our way through downtown and Stanley Park, taking a break on the Lions Gate Bridge to look back at our beautiful city.
A couple of hours later in Horseshoe Bay we board the ferry bound for Nanaimo. We sit on deck and relax in the morning sun. Our journey has begun.
Once on the island we immediately have to change our planned route because of a forest fire on Green Mountain near the Nanaimo Lakes. No problem, there are many tracks and roads to choose from and we don’t really have much of an agenda except that we have to be in Port Hardy by a certain date to catch a ferry back to mainland.
We ride south from Nanaimo and finish the day’s ride at the Chemainus River Campground. The ferry ride and an impromptu visit with a friend in Nanaimo made for a long day. Tired from the ride and route finding, we make dinner in the dark and hit the sack soon after. Our main goal is to stay off the beaten path and follow gravel roads and tracks on this journey. It promises to be a good adventure.
We have ridden in this area of Vancouver Island before and decide to pick up the Cowichan Valley Trail despite there being a large wash-out on the trail and a closure sign but we read online it is passable and choose to take a chance.
There is a big hole where there was once a culvert under the railway trail but we easily get past it and arrive at Cowichan Lake a while later. It’s a hot afternoon and the town is throbbing with sun-baked visitors in bathing suits. Kids eating ice cream and people drinking beer on patios. It’s way too busy for us to even consider staying. Campgrounds are bursting at the seams and we continue west along the lake. We ride out to Gordon Bay to try our luck at the Provincial Park.
At the entry booth of the campground we are told, as expected, it is full. But the young woman manning the booth tells us she can’t turn us away because we’re on bicycles and offers us a place to camp in an overflow area or the handicap site near the entrance which she tells us has not been reserved and is available for the night. We gratefully accept, make camp and dive into the lake for a refreshing swim at the end of a long hot day.
It’s beginning to feel like we’ve left the hustle and bustle behind, despite the many people camped at Cowichan Lake’s forestry camp sites. All of them are full as people are taking full advantage of being outdoors with friends and family on staycations.
At the west end of the lake we talk to a guy running a road grader. We ask him about a couple of the tracks we are considering to get to Bamfield on the west coast, and he happily tells us what he knows. We take the main North Shore Road along the boundary of Nitinat River Provincial Park.
It’s another brutally hot day but the dense forest provides shade and relief. Water is readily available in many places and we fill our bottles regularly. There is an occasional vehicle on the road but they all slow down to a crawl as not to kick up too much dust. Thank you!
As we cross the Nitinat River bridge the unmistakable sound of air rushing from a tire stops me dead in my tracks. A sharp rock is embedded in my front tire and sealant squirts out as I pull the rock from the tire. I walk the bike to keep the tire rotating so the sealant can do its job but the hole is a bit too big.
We had planned to camp here anyway so it’s not a complete disaster but by the time we get down to the river on a rough track my tire is completely flat. This is a popular camping spot but there are only a couple of other people here. By late afternoon, we have the place to ourselves as day melts into night.
We happily wash the dust off in the river and relax in the warm evening. It’s our third day on the road and we’re more relaxed. It always takes a few days to get into the routine of life on the road. It’s been a busy summer working on our house so we are happy and grateful to be away from it for a while. Away from the city.
In the middle of March, 2020, when the reality of COVID-19 shut the world down, we were backcountry skiing with a group of friends, spending a week in blissful ignorance in a cabin high in the Cariboo Mountains. We returned home after that week to a world that had radically changed: businesses were closed, people worked from home and students received instruction online. The city felt like some post-apocalyptic scene where people were either gone or in hiding. Streets were quiet. Only essential stores were allowed to be open and nobody was getting haircuts.
Once we adjusted to this new reality of physical distancing and elbow bump greetings we wanted to put a positive spin on it by planning a bike trip from home in our own beautiful backyard. So often we get in the car or hop on a plane to go explore the world by bicycle and this new reality presented us with an opportunity to explore the world closer to home. It’s not that we haven’t done that before but this would be the first time we planned to ride away from home, returning six weeks later.
Our plan is to ride a loop from home, up Vancouver Island, cross back to the mainland at Bella Coola and ride south over the Chilcotin mountains to Goldbridge and through the Sea to Sky corridor back home to Vancouver. Along the way we will join up with another couple, friends who are on a similar journey.
The Nitinat River is low in August as it meanders through a forest of Douglas fir and western hemlock. This is a birthplace of salmon and steelhead trout. It is quintessential west coast rain forest and home to black bears and Roosevelt elk, indigenous to Vancouver Island.
I get to work on my tire. The sealant has partially plugged the hole but it still leaks. I insert a plug and pump the tire back up. The sealant bubbles out but eventually forms a barrier around the plug inside the tire and air stops leaking out. I will have to monitor the tire over the next few days. To save weight, we decided not to bring a spare tire on this trip. As darkness settles over our riverside camp, I quietly wonder if that was a good decision.
The next morning, my tire still has air. The coffee tastes good and we’re ready to continue our journey west in this amazing place. I think about my mom. It’s her 79th birthday today. I will call her at the end of the day when we hope to be in Bamfield.
When you ride along the road through this forest you can’t really see how the landscape is scarred with clearcuts. Not long ago, Vancouver Island was covered with old growth cedar and fir. Only pockets of this ecosystem remain, yet, the remnants of this dwindling old growth forest continue to be logged. It’s only taken us a few generations to decimate a forest that rivals the amazon in biodiversity. I wonder about it out loud with Jan as we push the pedals of our bikes, moving slowly westward, discussing the merits and problems of logging and road building.
By mid afternoon, we arrive at Pachena Beach, the northern terminus of the West Coast Trail. The campground, normally full of hikers and beachgoers is deserted. The local First Nation in Anacla closed the trail and camp site in the spring as the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the world. In a smart and preventative measure, they closed the community to outsiders in an effort to keep the virus out.
During the planning of this trip we were conscious of the fact that people in small, remote communities might not be all that welcoming to outsiders like they normally are, for obvious reasons. We made sure to be as independent as possible and not depend on getting supplies in some of the places where we might normally buy them. We sent food ahead to some locations and we stocked up in larger towns and cities so we wouldn’t need to enter stores in the smaller ones. Virus numbers remained low in British Columbia through the summer, especially beyond the Lower Mainland, enabling people to travel and explore their own backyard.
We ride the length of Pachena beach as the surf crashes on shore and the wind blows us along the hard sand exposed by an ebbing tide. We love it. It would be so nice to camp here but, alas, we can not, and ride the last six kilometres into Bamfield.
We get a water taxi ride across the inlet to the west side of town so we can go to Brady’s Beach to camp, as suggested by a motorist who stopped to talk to us the previous day at the Nitinat River bridge. It’s quiet in Bamfield and Brady’s Beach is nearly deserted. I call my mom to wish her a happy birthday and tell her about our first few days on the road.
The weather changes and we spend a drizzly day off walking the beach, reading and napping in the tent, whiling away the hours. It’s a wet west coast day and we have fully moved into slow-travel mode now. It’s glorious.
The sun has returned as we break camp the next morning but it’s chilly in the shade on the beach. We warm up quickly pushing our bikes up the brutally steep track from Brady’s Beach to get back to town where we await the arrival of the Lady Rose, a small coastal freighter that services outlying communities from her home base in Port Alberni and serves as a passenger ferry.
We booked passage on the Lady Rose weeks earlier to get to Port Alberni by boat rather than ride the long, dusty road along the east side of the inlet. It’s a lovely day cruise with about 50 other people, some who were already on board for a round trip and others who, like us, boarded in Bamfield.
We sit on deck in the sun and chat with a couple of women who each live in their own travel trailer in the Parksville area. They tell us their stories about how and why they decided to live in a trailer on Vancouver Island. They tell us about the freedom they feel because they can easily move some other place with everything they own. We totally get it. We’ve lived out of a few bike bags for months at a time not worrying about where to eat or sleep. We can do that anywhere. It’s the beauty of cycle touring or bike packing or whatever you want to call it. We’re a little like cycling hoboes, an idea I’ve liked for a long time, although we spring for some five star accommodation occasionally. Because we can.
The captain stops the boat when a whale surfaces nearby. It surfaces again at regular intervals as it continues its journey in search of food. Perhaps it’s searching for other whales. Who knows. Their lives are so hidden from us. We only get glimpses of these magnificent beasts when they surface to breathe or when they breach.
I will never forget a drizzly summer afternoon on Long Beach near Tofino when a humpback came out of the water. It’s the size of a city bus lurching skyward from the depths momentarily freezing as it reaches apogee before crashing back into the ocean sending huge waves in all directions. Or the whale and calf we saw, on that same trip, in cow bay on Flores Island, just bobbing in the swell near the surface. We were standing on a rocky outcrop looking down on them. It’s such a privilege to encounter these giants.
It’s early evening by the time we land in Port Alberni. We are the last ones off with our bikes and we ride to the Save-On to get groceries for the next few days before meeting an old friend at a local brewery for a bite to eat and catch up on our lives. Susie and Cyril have lived in Port Alberni for many years. She’s the editor of the local paper and he’s a flight instructor. Susie and I worked together at a newspaper in Alberta in what now seems a lifetime ago. After more than 25 years as a news photographer I retired from that business in 2012 but Susie has stuck with it and found a home in Port Alberni. It’s great to catch up over a beer and some food.
As darkness falls, we ride to the McLean Mill Historic Park camp site where we are the only campers. We have a shower and escape the mosquitoes by quickly retreating to the tent. The first leg of our journey is behind us and we are keen to discover central and northern Vancouver Island in the coming days.