CANADA, 10th – 18th May 2018
Little, vague lights from the anchored ships in the bay shimmered in the dark mirror of still water as we watched the Celebrity Millennium navigate through the narrow strait of Burrard Inlet at dawn on the last morning of our voyage across the Pacific. More than the city of Vancouver, nature dominated the shores. Ranges of mountains covered in forest and with rims of white snow at the top rose to the north, and to the south we passed the lush woods of the Stanley Park peninsular so close that it almost felt like we could reach out and touch the leaves of the trees. The slim metal pillars of the old, green Lion’s Gate Bridge that spans the strait seemed to lift the narrow road construction up over our heads just high enough for our gigantic vessel to slip under. A shared gasp sounded from the passengers on the deck. As the ship cornered Stanley Park the skyline of Vancouver appeared, another forest it was, this one made of tall, modern buildings. The towers of metal and glossy glass reflected the grey skies of the early morning and underneath the shining buildings I saw green trees along every one of the clean streets and boulevards. As I looked closer there were even a few trees simply growing on the buildings themselves. A few early cyclists rushed along the harbour, but the streets were still empty and quiet. In the air however, there was a buzz of little seaplanes and helicopters taking off at a regular frequency, letting the people of the city quickly and easily reach the islands outside of it.
At 6.00am the city was just waking up, wet, fresh and new, or so it was to me, as it was the first time I laid eyes upon it and on the North American continent. However, it was the second time I had dreamed about arriving here, and as the first time had failed in 2016 and I had had to retreat back to Denmark to fight the mean amoebas in my eye, I now had a silent sense of victory and relief in finally arriving here together with Chris two years later.
Over the last two weeks the waves of the Pacfic had rocked us gently, but firmly into the comfortable cocoon of life on board a cruise ship, and it was a bit of a shock to burst out of it again as well-fed, disorientated butterflies almost too heavy and weary to take off. With our lovely cruise companions Jack and Barbara we waved goodbye to the friends we had made onboard and got ourselves aquainted with riding our heavy bikes again. Slowly and weaving from side to side we rolled along the harbour on well-designated bike paths with our eyes, ears and minds wide open. Two weeks at sea had taken us from Asia to North America and many things seemed and felt so different here, but at the same time more familiar. Clean, wealthy and healthy in appearance, it was hard not to feel comfortable here.
We hugged Jack and Barbara goodbye as we were going to stay with Chris’s friend Gabi at the other side of the city whereas Jack and Barbara would be heading towards Vancouver Island already the next day. Our ride to Gabi brought us on bike paths through one park after the other, interrupted by little beaches where huge, old tree trunks were layed out for benches. As we reached the Kitsilano neighbourhood where Gabi lived charming, wooden villas painted in pleasent colours peaked out behind flowering bushes and huge, old trees in their freshest bloom. I began to get a feeling that this was a modern version of paradise (however a paradise that only those with enough money could go to).
Gabi is an old friend of Chris since the time they worked together as treeplanters back in 2011 and I was glad to finally meet her. She made us feel at home in the cute house that she shared with two girlfriends and it was not just us feeling at home there. Several friends of the girls constantly came and went, stayed overnight and laughed and talked over shared dinners during the weekend. They came from all over the Americas, and so not only English, but also Spanish, Portuguese and French (as Gabi and her housemate were from Quebec) were spoken all around me, and I found myself wonderfully thrown directly into the first realisations of the cultural layers and strings that connects this vast continent.
As fascinated I was by them they were of us and our journey, and when the question of how we had met each other came up again and again, Gabi took it upon herself to retell our story under shorter and shorter challenging time limits while Chris and I could sit back and laugh and relax.
We also spent a good part of the weekend cruising around the bicycle friendly city to run the errands that would get us ready to begin our ride through the Americas. We had kept our winter tires as spares, but they would be of no use to us anymore. Since they were still in good condition we hoped to sell them or at least give them to someone who could make use of them, but after having visited four places we didn’t even have success at giving them away for free to a second hand sports equipment shop with a huge bike section. They didn’t get enough snow in Vancouver so no one used these tires, and instead we kept them to see if we would find a good new home for them further up in the mountains. We had more luck getting ourselves some nice and new second hand t-shirts in bright colours (of course). I chose a yellow one that in red letters said ‘GLAD’ at the back. In Danish it means ‘happy’ and therefore I liked it a lot, but in Canada ‘GLAD’ is a brand of bin bags and so wearing the t-shirt I was really advertising for these or simply looking like a cycling city cleaner. Chris also found a great orange t-shirt that at the front said: ‘OUI JE PARLE FRANCAIS’ which was another completely fake advert as he as a true Brit only speaks his own language (and a little bit of Danish). Despite these rather deluding messages we were very happy with our purchases.
As we didn’t have any deadlines ahead of us for the first time since we began this trip more than one year before, we were not in any rush to begin cycling again. The weather was perfect and what was better to do than chilling at the beaches and playing volleyball with Gabi and her friends. Some beaches were busy with hip city people, others more relaxed and the most beautiful and peaceful one was hidden from the road by a slopy forest with a long, steep staircase to get you there which perhaps would keep some people from coming here. That it was an optional-clothing beach (meaning you could be naked if you liked) maybe also kept it more quiet – or not, I don’t know…
I was getting along with Gabi very well, and one day she said wondering: ”I always thought Chris was quite a different type of person from me and that it was why he could travel like he does. But you don’t seem so different from me, and you travel like him too…” And she was right, I felt very familiar with the way Gabi and her friends lived, it was how I used to live back in Denmark mixing work and studies with lots of social time, and it was probably how I would still be living had I not met Chris almost four years before. The days in Vancouver somehow stirred me up and reminded me of things I had stored away. Gabi touched exactly upon the split I had felt in myself ever since I began this lifestyle between a simultaneous longing for travelling and for close relations with friends and family at home. Two things that are not always easy to satisfy at once.
However, after a long and fun weekend we found it was time to take advantage of the still amazing weather and start our ride up the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler. On our way out of Vancouver we circulated Stanley Park, a lovely and popular forested peninsular with a one-way path for cyclists and pedestrians running all the way around it. Riding our loaded bikes we got quite a lot of attention from the fellow path users, as the Canadians seem to find it very natural to start a conversation with strangers or just throw a comment at you like: ”You guys are loaded!” to which we simply don’t know what to reply. Our t-shirts also gave us some rather awkward comments (”Oh are you cleaners?” or just something said to Chris in French). Others asked us enthusiastic questions about our journey and we explained again and again and again, and I didn’t grow tired of it yet even though Gabi was not there to answer the questions for us anymore.
We stopped at a little beach on the northshore having crossed Lion’s Gate Bridge and made ourselves sandwiches with whole grain bread and fresh vegetables and barbeque flavoured peanuts (we so enjoyed shopping in a western supermarket again) before we went for a cooling dip in the sea. Obviously, we could only agree with yet another stranger who passed by and commented: ”This is paradise, isn’t it?”
Once we left the central parts of Vancouver things got a bit less paradisic as we rode up and down steep little hills on a narrow, winding road with cars frequently blasting past. One thing I quickly came to not like about Canada was the size and type of cars. At least half of them (so it seemed to me) were twice the size of the cars in Europe and Asia, roaring 4×4 monsters with huge motors and lots of empty space inside and at the back trunk. So much space, so much power, it felt overly excessive. I guess the winter weather, mountains and many gravel roads into the wilderness of Canada makes these cars necessary to some extent, but their dominance of the roads made the bicycle friendliness of the roads drop drastically.
Except from that, the ride out of Vancouver was stunning. The highway followed the coastline with great views of the Howe Sounds where fjords and mountainous islands intertwine and it all glistened in the afternoon sun. Canada was surely making a magnificent first impression. After 60 kilometres we found it was time to end the first day back on the bikes and we camped near the highway with a great view of the mountains and the fjord. Camping in Canada we now had to be aware of both bears and the many restrictions on wild camping, so we were careful to not pitch the tent till it got dark and we packed away our food panniers in the forest a good way away from the tent.
The next day the feeling of not having anywhere we needed to be at any time ahead began to affect all of our motions. We were in no hurry to get up, no hurry to get going and had no reason not to stop at every tempting lake for a swim, no reason not to stroll up to every designated waterfall along the road, stop and gaze at the impressive rock formation called The Chief outside of Squamish or inform ourselves with information boards (finally in English so we could understand) that either educated us in characteristics of the nature and forests around us or the history, traditions and culture of the first nation people who had inhabited the mountains and forests long before British Columbia was founded. The scenery was beautiful too as we ascended slowly up through mountain valleys where one snowcapped mountain after the other appeared in the horizon. We stopped every two-three or five kilometres to take it all in and only slowly got back on the bikes again. This was the way of cycling we had been longing so for when we were rushing through China, South Korea and Japan, and a perfect place to do so. But it actually took me a little while to get used to it and start enjoying it. The feeling of aiming to get to the next town, of getting into the rhythm of cycling 50 or 80 kilometres and getting into the flow of the traffic were experiences seemingly embedded deep in my brain, somehow waiting to be activated again, as if it was the only way of travelling by bike that I knew. And at the same time the thought of doing this again did not excite me at all, I didn’t really want to do it again, the thought of the long ride down the Americas worried me more than excited me, and I was worried that my motivation for cycle touring had been worn too thin by our Asian challenges. To my surprise, slowing down was not as easy as I had thought.
But we did slow down. Our first day of 60 kilometres came to stand as a record for quite a while. With our many stops we managed to cycle as little as 20 or 30 kilometres per day although we didn’t stop to camp until it got dark around 9pm. Despite this slow pace we caught up with a young cycle touring couple that we had spotted in Squamish the previous night. Noelli and Coco had only just started their first ever cycling trip from Vancouver the same day as us and were all clean, curious and making new experiences. We were excited to meet other cyclists and had a good chat with them, but although we were going the same way, they soon got ahead of us and we never managed to catch up with them again.
After three days of cycling we reached the Whistler area which hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010 and is popular for recreational outdoor activities like skiing, hiking and mountain biking around the mountains, lakes and forests in the area. Cycling on the highway we kept feeling we didn’t get real close to the wild nature around us, so we locked the bikes in the forest and went for a day hike up to Cheakamus Lake. A long ride up a gravel road ended in a walking trail to the lake, and here we finally found ourselves right in the middle of wild, old nature untouched by humans. Tree trunks of immense dimensions stood like giant’s legs and reached high up into the green roof above us. Other old giants had fallen to the ground where they now laid decomposing, providing shelter and nutrition for new generations of trees and so young trees were growing right out of the old ones, sometimes in spectacular ways. All sorts of leaves and moss, young plants and streams filled in the space between the old giants with an abundance of details. There was vegetation in all different stages altogether creating a living, natural cosmos that so many places in the world has long lost. I had never seen trees that big and being surrounded by these several hundred year old creatures filled me with awe. The motivation for travelling that I had lacked for a while rushed through me again. Reaching the lake that lay peaceful and clear with snowy mountains peaks behind it and sharing our peanuts with a little chipmunk only added to that feeling. Canada’s vast, wild nature was something new and exciting to me that I wanted to explore more, and the only way to do this was to take time to be here and get away from the buzz and speed of the highway.
After the hike we cycled through Whistler, an area full of more picturesque lakes, extremely liveable (and expensive) houses overlooking these lakes and a good network of cycle paths to get around on. We were heading for a forest by Lost Lake for camping when a couple on bikes stopped to chat. They were Chinese and although they had lived the last twenty years in Canada we could, with our very recent experiences from that country, tell straight away and it brought back many memories in my mind. But they were also cyclists, and Jin, the husband, was about to start his first long cycle tour cycling across Canada just a few days later. With our slow pace we thought he would easily catch us up, so we expected we would meet again. Jin and Jay cycled with us to the lake while we chatted away about cycle touring and China. They emphasized that if we needed any help, internet or a shower we were welcome at their house, the only thing they didn’t offer was a place to camp, and since this was really all we needed as it was beginning to get dark, they left us by the lake to finish off the day with some quick pasta before camping. Not long after however, they returned bringing us two cups of coffee and a bag of fruit. Their kindness and interest was another spark in my returning love for our way of living and travelling.
It was almost completely dark when we cycled the last kilometres through the thick forest around Lost Lake to find the opening in the trees where Chris had camped two years before. Cycling like this in the dark was not the smartest thing to do when there were signs everywhere warning about there being bears in the area. Whistler is a corridor for black bears, they pass through the town itself in their search for food and are a very common sight there, and although the black bears are not as aggressive as the bigger Grizzly bear, surprising one at the cycle path in the dark could be fatal. So I rang my little Japanese bell as loud as I could and on Chris’s request sang every ABBA song I could remember to his and the bears great pleasure. Without any bear encounters we got ourselves settled in the tent and had a peaceful night.
We spent the next day using the facilities in Whistler, a town that to me felt more like a rootless attraction park than a village where people lived their lives, and the people actually living there were of course living off the tourism industry. A group of cheerful outdoor guides and mountain bike riders asked us to sit down for a coffee in the sun and tell our story, always hungry for adventure tales to spice up the day. Together with our story we gave them two of our three winter tires hoping they would be getting some Canadian snow and ice to tackle the following season. After some hours in the library we returned to Lost Lake for a third time (we also had breakfast there) since we liked the place so much. We swam in the lake, played with our new yellow smiley-ball called Smiley and had a cold shower in the outdoor, public showers. We were planning to live completely outdoors in this country as the cost of accommodation was beyond our budget, and we were in the right place to do so. And we really had time to do everything we wished and to do it with no rush and now I really began to get it.
When we finally left Whistler it was late afternoon and when we reached a free camping area an hour later, we stopped for an early nights camping, because it had chairs and well, we were in no rush. We had finally managed to slow down and now it was time to enjoy it!
Vancouver – Whistler
197 kilometres cycled