CANADA, 19th – 24th May 2018
Since Vancouver we had been cycling on Highway 99 that was rather busy with traffic. And it was not just any traffic, but characteristic Canadian traffic such as long trucks, 4×4’s, SUV’s, RV’s, jeeps, motorbikes, buses, 4×4’s with a double set of rear wheels and bus-motorhomes the latter often with a 4×4 car towed behind the bus to drive when the bus-motorhome was parked at a campground and sometimes even with a motorbike, boat or a bicycle on the back of the towed 4×4 to use when it got too boring with just a bus-motorhome and a 4×4 car. Sometimes a normal size car also passed by. The Canadians had lots of different vehicles and they were not afraid to use them. On the busy road I felt like we were being kept at a distance from the wild nature that was just beyond the road and I felt the wild nature would not just be more interesting and enjoyable with bears and other wild animals, but actually also safer than the road despite the mentioned bears. We were keen to leave the highway behind and get into the wild, undisturbed abundance of nature that Canada is famous for, and by fiddling with the map on my phone, we found our first option to do so. From Whistler we were heading for some gravel roads that would give us a couple of hundred kilometres alternative route to the next town of Lillooet.
Before leaving civilization behind we stocked up with five days of food in Pemberton, a little town that was rich in the authentic atmosphere that Whistler 30 kilometres down the road had lacked. Wooden villas in lush, neat gardens, a full notice board in the general shop, a hardware shop, liquor store and thrift shop, rustic cafes and bars along the main drive, men in leather cowboy boots, jeans and chequered shirts, a railway line running through the town centre with the occasional train of goods rumbling through stopping all traffic for several minutes, logging trucks pulling in at the gas station and a communal, open barn built in huge tree logs. This town made reality pair my imaginations (that to some extent were created by the good, old tv-series Twin Peaks that takes place in Washington State, US) to perfection.
In Pemberton we also got confirmation from the visitor centre that the roads were open after winter. Earlier that day we had already chatted with some local people who seemed a little apprehensive about our plan to cycle the so called High Line road which was a significant section of our route, and at the information centre this apprehension was enhanced.
”It’s a 4×4-only road, very bad conditions. I don’t know if you can cycle there, I guess it is possible but…”
”But is it open now? No snow or anything?”
”No snow, but it’s a very bad road. The drivers also drive very bad on the road. And you must be aware of bears too… But it sure is beautiful up there.”
”Bears? Beautiful! That sounds great!” we replied, maybe sounding a bit more confident than I felt inside. We were only just getting back in shape after our relaxed and luxurious weeks on the cruise ship, and I tried to remember the hardships we had been through previously on the trip for example on the Pamir Highway and imagined facing similar ones again. I felt a slight dread, but I also knew from these previous experiences, that most bad roads are worse anticipated than in reality and that the reward of being in places that are hard to get to usually makes it worth the effort.
The first 50 kilometres of our route on the backroads was actually not on a backroad at all, but a another relatively busy paved road into a little settlement called D’Arcy at Anderson Lake. Here we arrived by midday just as the sun broke through the grey and rainy morning skies and we were immediately stunned by the beauty of the lake. It was long and narrow with tall, raw cliffs rising high on both sides, reminding us a little of the fjords of Norway. A railway line ran along the shore making for a beautiful ride for the hundreds of containers that passed through every day, but the road ended here. Or, the only road option onwards was the High Line road, that seemingly had got its name because it followed the electrical pylons some hundred metres up the steep hills above the water. We looked up at it, maybe with a slight apprehension too now, and ate a good amount of cookies to fuel us for the ride. We knew it was going to be tough.
Warning signs of bad road conditions and 4×4-only welcomed us on the gravel road that quickly began climbing up the hills. At first at a gradient that was not mild, but at least doable, but after a few kilometres we found it impossible to pedal more than 50 metres up at a time and even more impossible to get back up on the bike on the steep, gravel slope. Instead I began pushing my bike up, but even this eventually became impossible to do alone and in the end we had to help each other push one bike up at the time for some hundred metres. This was harder than even the worst bits of the Wakhan Valley back in Tajikistan at 3,000+ metres altitude. There we had still been able to push our bikes up alone. And this was just the beginning. We looked at each other. Who was going to say it? Maybe it was too much for us.
A car carefully manoeuvred down the steep road towards us and the driver stopped to ask the relevant question if we were alright. Instead of directly answering the question we enquired him about the road onwards.
”It’s a very bad road” he said, ”lots of gravel and up and down”.
”But is it this steep all the time?”
”Oh yeah, there’s a lot more of this”
”Hmm… and what about the climb after the High Line road, Mission Mountain, how is that?”
”You’re gonna need some good sandwiches for that! But you can also take the train from the end of the lake to Lillooet. Good luck!”
The car took off and we sat down to think. We knew we could make it through if we really had to, but how long would it take and would it actually be worth the effort, because it really was a lot of effort? Looking again at the map showing the elevation on my phone we thought we saw that the gradient was worst where we were now, and so we decided to continue to what looked like the top of the climb, again pushing one bike together for some hundred metres until the gradient flattened so much so we could cycle again. It was still steep uphill, but what a great feeling to actually be able to pedal up! I already felt more confident again, and when another car stopped and this driver told us that we had made it up the worst part and that it was a beautiful road, we were sure we had made the right decision.
Soon the road flattened out and became more of a normal gravel road with occasional ups and downs. We were high up now, so sometimes we got magnificent views over the lake and mountains, other times we were absorbed in the cool forest listening to bird song and flies buzzing. Only a few cars passed us. This was what we had been after, what a great adventure it was.
Then the road dropped steep down to a bridge across a river and went steep up again on the other side. The gravel was lose and rocky, and soon we were pushing one bike together again. But now we knew that it was worth all the effort. Soon after we came to a little flat opening in the trees from where we had another great lake view and this we decided would be our campsite for the night. On the site were some old fir trees with the most incredibly bright green moss that grew all the way up the almost black tree trunks and I looked at this little artwork of nature’s right until Chris suggested, as these fine fir trees obviously had dropped a fair amount of very fine pine cones, a Pine Cone War. Woah, had it been a loooooong time since we last had a Pine Cone War!?! I think the last one was back in England! Certainly it was high time for another one. We could not cycle around the rather rocky campsite, but we would just run instead and still get different points for hits on the body or head, and so helmets were required. We were just about to put on the helmets and start the war, when a man came walking along the road. I quickly held the helmet casually in my hand as if I was just like moving it or something, not like I had been just about to run around with a bicycle helmet on throwing pine cones after my boyfriend. How silly that would have looked!
As we went over to talk with him, I saw he looked like another of nature’s artworks with long black hair and a bushy beard that had, hold on, three different colours. Black, brown and grey. His dog, that was following along had two different coloured eyes too. The man had been down at the lake fishing, he showed us the one big catch he had made and told us that it was going to be his dinner. He and some other people had moved up in a cabin here to live far away from the towns and traffic out in the wild, where he told us they frequently saw both wolves and bears. I was full of questions about how they made it work living up here, but he had other things on his mind.
”No fire, heh?!” he asked in an almost commanding way and we assured him we had no plans of making a camp fire. The warm sunny weather we had enjoyed for more than a week (except a little shower the previous night) unfortunately also made the risk of wild fires much higher, and last year there had been some big ones in British Columbia. This guy was obviously concerned.
”How are you doing cycling on this road?” he asked, and we told him about our struggles, but the rewards were so obvious. “We were warned about moving up here because of the road.” he said, ”it has a bad reputation. People kill themselves on it, they lose control on the steep gravel.” I could easily imagine it and was suddenly very happy that I was just cycling, at least that was not the problem we had on the High Line road.
After the man and his dog went to cook the fish, we thought it was better to just do normal camping things than playing Pine Cone Wars, like putting up the tent and cook dinner, in case more people would come by. The view of the lake and the snowy mountains in the distance was enough to entertain us anyway. The next morning we were being woken up by two horses that roamed around freely but seemingly were being fed at our camp spot and now came around to munch on some hay that was laid on the ground. Over the night we had forgot our fear of looking silly to possible passers and we resumed the preparations for the great war. We changed the rules so it was more like Capture-The-Flag-While-Not-Being-Hit-By-A-Pine-Cone, so we didn’t need to wear helmets, and we played a couple of dramatic games (which I won, as far as I remember) running around the rocky, uneven campground. I got scared however that we would fall and hurt ourselves, so we changed the game again, so that we only from restricted areas, where we could hide behind either the tent or a little monument on the site, should try to hit the other with the pine cones we could reach from our limited area. It was fun, and I think I won again, didn’t I Chris?
Having exhausted the possibilities for any kind of Pine Cone War there was now no other way but to get back cycling on the infamous High Line road. A few more steep climbs awaited us and Chris did some great photography work taking pictures of me struggling up with a scenic background. See for yourselves!
Despite the hard work, I was really enjoying the High Line road. It really was very, very beautiful and quiet, and actually the hard work was partly what made it a special place that we would not forget any time soon. I felt like we could do anything now, and I was sure we didn’t need no train the rest of the way to Lillooet as the man in the car had suggested.
As we eventually began descending at the end of Anderson Lake Chris suddenly stopped ahead of me and pointed up ahead.
”A sheep!?” he said.
”No Chris, I think it is a bear.”
And it was a tiny and miserable looking little bear. Its fur was almost grey and it was so skinny that only the shape of the head really convinced us that it was a bear. It was definitely not the kind of bear I had hoped to see, but how sorry I felt for the little fellow. We looked at it for a while as it grassed by the side of the road, then we talked loudly to it and rang our bells. It looked up at us, not scared, nor like it cared much about us, but it soon let us pass by disappearing back up into the forest. We were so excited to have seen our first bear, and when we later consulted our animal-expert-friend Google, we concluded it had been a young grizzly bear, like a teenager, out on its own for the first time after having been nursed by its mum for two or three years. A rough time in life, I hoped it would grow big and strong and brown over the summer.
Coming down from the High Line road we rolled through the little settlement Seton Portage. Although it was a place that was hard to get to, there was both a hotel and a pub, quite a few holiday homes and a first nation neighbourhood,and I liked the atmosphere here too. From Seton Portage we had to climb over another smaller hill to get to a hydroelectric station where water from an upper lake was lead via tunnels through the mountain down to Seton lake creating electricity on its way. There was no tunnel for us though, and the forested mountain rose steep and intimidating over our heads.
We found a little park and had some good sandwiches as the man in the car on High Line road had advised us to, then it was time to get started. Three big, pink crucifixes welcomed as the ascending began and from then on it was 900 metres up over nine kilometres on gravel. At first I was strong and fast and in the zone leaving Chris behind me, but half way up all my energy was gone. We had already climbed quite a bit that day, and struggled on the even steeper climbs on the High Line road the day before and it was only a week since we had started cycling again after two weeks of lying in a bed and eating in a buffet. I was just not fit enough for this, but I knew there was only one way up. “Keep pedalling” I thought over and over again, measuring every 50 and 100 metres I pedalled up until I had to stop and rest my poor legs. It was a long way to the top, but when you keep going you will always make it in the end, and so we did. What a relief when the resistance in the pedals suddenly eased. A steep descend on the other side brought us down to the upper lake, Carpenter Lake, and here we were lucky to find another lakeside campsite hidden from the road. A perfect place to spend the night, and it seemed like everything came together so perfectly, so that it somehow felt like we were meant to be there.
We divided the last 60 kilometres to Lillooet into one and a half days of cycling to give ourselves some rest upon the previous days’ challenges and because we were in no rush to get back onto the highway. As we had crossed over Mission Mountain the vegetation had become much more sparse and the landscape more open. The road was much gentler now, still with only very little traffic and it went through scenic settings of either deep river valleys or wide grass plains high up above the river that cut through the cliffs below. Long breaks when we could find some shade, a puncture, a wash in a stream, early camping and sleeping in filled out the days and only reluctantly we made it into Lillooet the next day to refill our panniers with food and check up on the world using the wifi at the library.
On our way out of Lillooet we stopped to read the many information boards that are to be found in almost every place in British Columbia explaining the history of the towns, the culture of the first nation people and the characteristics of the nature. I loved the information boards. On this one we could read that the route we had come had been a major one during the Gold Rush in the 1850´s where Lillooet had been a main destination with several gold mines developing in the area. And at the bottom we found a little sentence, that very well described our previous days’ experiences on the High Line road: ”… be warned, despite being one of the oldest gazetted roads in British Columbia, it’s been described as more of an adventure than a road.”
While reading these information boards a first nation girl on a bicycle stopped to talk with us and added to our information about the place by guiding us in what to look out for on our way out of town like washed out traditional fishing stations on the river and good viewpoints over the valley. The local people we had met so far showed a genuine appreciation and respect for the places they lived that I found admirable and inspiring.
Soon we were back on the highway getting hurried along by the speed of the passing traffic as the road slowly climbed up through vast, treeless valleys. It was a very different, but beautiful scenery in the soft light from the setting sun. But a cloud of smoke grew thicker and thicker over the valley and a roadworker we talked with said that a wild fire must have started somewhere near. Later a ranger stopped in her car asking us if we had seen the fire. Something was going on, but yet no one knew what and where. It was a worrying situation to camp in, but it was getting dark and we could not keep cycling on the highway. There were fences all along the road, so it was not easy to find a place to go, but when we saw some fields being sprayed by water cannons, we thought that was the safest place we could be and we luckily found that the gates through the fences right next to the fields were open so we could make our way down the grassland next to the wet fields. The smoke seemed thick and as I since I was a child have been terrified by the thought of being caught in a fire while sleeping, I did not like the situation at all, and thought I would lie outside the tent all night to watch the situation develop. Chris however got me convinced that there was only very, very slight chances that the fire could get to us, and as the smoke seemed to clear a little before we went to bed I managed to sleep through the night.
The next morning the smoke had vanished, but as we stopped further up the road at a first nation settlement to get water a worker there told us that the fire had been detected at a place we knew very well, by Anderson Lake on the High Line road. It was a shocking thought to think about if it had started when we were there, because it was not a place we quickly could have got out of, and with great sympathy I thought about the little bear we had seen there and the man with the three-coloured beard, so concerned about exactly wild fires and for good reason I understood now. Hearing about a wild fire taking place in a place that we had seen, smelled and sensed, made me realise the horror of the destruction much more vivid than I usually do when I hear about wild fires – or other disasters in the media. And I think that identification and empathy is something important to learn from travelling.
Around midday we reached Pavillion Lake, a specially clear and blue mountain lake that called for a refreshing (and cold) swim. Continuing around the lake we stopped to read some very interesting information boards that explained how there in this particular lake was found microbial fossils that represented some of the earliest life on earth. The fragile structures that looked a bit like dead corals were being studied by NASA as a part of the search for life on other planets. At the same time first nation people of this area held the lake as a particular sacred place, and there surely was a special feeling about this blue lake.
A long descent from the lake brought us down to a bigger highway that was not much fun to cycle on. At least not until I saw a big goat with huge curly horns standing right next to it. It stood still as a rock and for some seconds I actually thought it was a rock statue like I had seen them in Tajikistan. But as I approached it jumped right up in the air and over the 1.5 metre high wire fence that lined the highway, then lazily walked up on the rocky hillside. It was a bighorn sheep and it was a fantastic sight.
The little town Cache Creek was only ten kilometres down the highway, and here we retreated to a park and found some shade under a big tree, rather disappointed that the public pool that the park also featured was not open. How perfect another swim would be on such a hot day! Instead we went to the library, and while parking our bikes outside a woman in her car stopped to talk to us. She was excited to see bicycle travellers as she herself was planning and preparing her first trip with her husband. We talked with Marianne for a little while, then went into the library, where she soon came back to invite us to come and camp in her garden. Although our plan had been to leave Cache Creek in the afternoon, we could easily change our minds for this alternative plan: going for a swim in the public pool when it opened at 6pm and accepting Marianne’s invitation for the night.
Obviously the free, public pool was a popular attraction for the local kids in Cache Creek on such a hot day and there was a lively atmosphere there. Chris immediately spotted an opportunity for new experiences when we saw the two diving boards at the pool. First we both jumped in from the one-metre board, just a careful little jump, but what a nice little fizz it gave in stomach to bounce off the board and into the cool water with a great splash. Some young boys made our cautious dives look completely amateurish as they ran off the board making flips and somersaults into the water. It looked like so much fun! Then the lifeguards opened the three-metre board and Chris, who never had jumped off a diving board in his 33-year long life had to have a go. I was not especially keen as I had already gone through the nerve-racking experience of crawling up the steps and walking out the slim board looking at the bottom of the pool far down and somehow find that it is better to get it over with and jump than stand up there too long. Now I just enjoyed to see my lovely man going through exactly the same experience and come out of the water with a big smile on his face going for the board one more time and one more time again.
Refreshed and unusually clean we could now cycle the few hundred metres to Marianne’s address, which actually was not her’s but her mum’s. Piece by piece Marianne revealed the events that had changed her and people in Cache Creeks lives when a wild fire at uncontrollable speed had caught the town the previous summer. Marianne and her husband had lost their home together with many other people, and most citizens had been evacuated for several weeks while the fire fighters gained control over the fire. Afterwards she and her husband had lived in her mum’s house. Her stories about how people had come together helping each other and how it felt to lose your home and almost all of your belongings to a fire made a deep impression on me. Marianne had an inspiring view on the dramatic event though, saying that really it had freed her from the material burdens of things she had been attached to, it had made her appreciate her life more and given her the opportunity to start over again. And one of the things she felt inspired to do was to go travelling on a bicycle. So her and her husband were gathering equipment and doing all kinds of research for their first trip they would undertake during this summer on some old railway trails in southern British Columbia. As a part of their preparation Marianne experimented with dehydrating food and she asked us to try out her experiments giving us bags of strange looking powder and miniature vegetables that by adding some water would become tasty meals of mashed potato, polenta, pasta sauce and coleslaw.
I was moved by our meeting with Marianne, her story and her way of dealing with such a traumatic and life changing experience and it gave me an insight into some of the circumstances life out here in the big, wild nature also included. And once again I was humbled by the hospitality and generosity from the people of the world.
In this context we would also like to say thank you for the many invitations we have recieved from you readers in North America since we arrived here. It is heartwarming to feel your genuine interest and care for us, and we’re sorry we can’t make our way around to all of you. But we really appreciate it, thank you so much!
Whistler – Lillooet – Cache Creek
Distance cycled: 271 kilometres