The 460km-long island off the British Columbia coast of Canada was originally called Quadra’s and Vancouver’s Island. Named so, after the Spanish commander of the Nootka Sound settlement and the British naval captain George Vancouver, who once served under Captain James Cook, at friendly negotiations in 1792. But when in the 19th century Spanish influence on the island diminished, the name Vancouver Island stuck.
And it was following friendly negotiations 219 years later via email between Swedish cyclist Lars Bengtsson and myself, the British counterpart, that we decided to fly to Vancouver to begin another bike ride.
We had of course met before, in Morocco in October 2009 and been through some African adventures together before parting ways 5 months later in Burkina Faso.
It is on Vancouver Island that I have spent the best part of my first 3 weeks in Canada.
We were staying with friends in Victoria. A modest home in a quiet suburb. Friday night we had bbq and beers. Saturday morning we cycled down the driveway. A pleasant day for a ride. Except this was not just a leisurely weekend morning ride. Well, it was. But it continued for the next six days. And our bikes were loaded up for life on the road (or a few months at least). Camping, hiking and rafting gear. Bear spray and sunscreen. Porridge oats and chocolate bars.
Before Saturday, I’d had a great couple of weeks visiting the best spots in the area and even managed a little warm-up ride from Whistler to Vancouver. Staying with Annie and Wardy was great. But the open road beckoned and I looked forward to the highs and lows ahead.
Amazingly I didn’t forget anything. Unlike our earlier roadtrip to go surfing in Tofino, where Annie nearly forgot the tent and then did forget the duvet (who goes camping with a duvet by the way?!) For my second time surfing, I managed to catch a few waves and succeeded Clare to title of ‘most impressive wipeout’, during which my knee twisted and twinged but managed to ignore until the third day of cycling up the island, when I thought The Greater Divide ride might not even get started. But everything popped back into place and now I’m waiting for a ferry from Port Hardy to begin the next part of the ride.
But first, back to the island…
The ride along cycle paths to the Brentwood Bay ferry was pleasant and the short crossing much more enjoyable than the busy highway would have been. From Mill Bay though it was noisy riding along the hard shoulder with plenty of ups and downs through for and cedar forest and straight through the towns of Duncan, Ladysmith and Nanaimo.
The first night camping in woodland was what wild camping should be like. No mosquitoes. Just a young deer with white spots on it’s hind which quietly walked up to our camp area, watched us without fear, nibbled at some bark and then gaily hopped off, all four feet clearing the ground simultaneously, down a narrow path that it must wander daily.
North of Campbell river on the 50th parallel are the same hills thick with evergreens, occasional dead trunks rising like bones, whitened by years of sunlight, and rocky creeks with crystal clear, ice cold water flowing towards the strait.
The difference is, less people.
And less traffic.
Although there are plenty of logging trucks rumbling relentlessly along and holiday-goers packed to the hilt with enough supplies to see out the winter although in reality are on a late summer vacation.
Indeed, outside of Victoria, the island’s main industries are logging, fishing and tourism. The only other options to today’s youth being to work behind a Subway or liquor store counter.
We stopped at and restocked at small towns with little more than a gas station or general store at their centre.
But where there are less people, there is more wildlife. Eagles fly overhead and deer graze by the roadside. There are bears too. Black bears. I’ve seen two now.
After a week of wild camping, we are now well drilled in bear safety. Which among other things, includes cooking away from the tent, not washing your hair with strong smelling shampoo just yards from where you plan to sleep and always carrying your can of bear spray (and not a bottle of coke which is a similar size and shape but is better to drink than scare off bears with) in your trousers pocket like John Wayne with a gun in his holster.
The further north we went the more waves and smiles from passersby. And although most of my time has been spent in the company of Lars, there are a couple of islanders we have met several times that are surely worth a note.
First there is PAT. On the fourth consecutive day of seeing him, he introduced himself as Pat. Other than that we know little about him. Always in navy blue trousers and a yellow mac, he was for the first three encounters collecting garbage from the roadside. Each day further down the road on which we were travelling. The fourth day he was waiting outside the cafe we were heading to for breakfast in Port Hardy. A cheerful, grey-moustached chap he would wave and offer a few friendly words each time.
Then there was the smiling Indian. He never told us his name but on first seeing us pull up on our bikes and begin to lock them, he said he would keep an eye on them. From then on, we saw him several times over the two days we spent relaxing in Port Hardy. He would always say a few friendly words mumbled with a thick drawl and a wide smile. He had always lived in the town, had looked after his mother when his 3 other brothers had left town. He said there was nothing left for him to do now, but to “just keep on smilin’ an bein’ friendly”. Well that seems to me a good way to get on through life so I wished him well as he slowly shuffled off, wooden carved walking stick in hand, to another spot in town to make another person smile. There being little else to do in the town.
It finally came time to cycle round to the ferry terminal where we boarded the Queen of Chilliwack, a Norwegian-built boat, that now transports locals and a few tourists from the north of Vancouver Island up along the Discovery Coast.
From Bella Coola we are taking the Chilcotin highway towards Williams Lake and then on to Jasper and Banff in the Rockies.
According to Wikipedia, the highway ‘includes a 9 km (5.6 mi) section with grades of up to 18% (about 1 in 6). The road is winding, in some places only wide enough for one vehicle, and in many places bordered on one side by cliffs and on the other side by a drop of hundreds of meters (many hundreds of feet) unprotected by guardrails. Tourists who have driven to Bella Coola from Williams Lake have been known to refuse to drive back and have had to be taken out by boat or float plane. We shall be starting in Bella Coola and so our only way is up…
For more photos from the Island ride, see this blog post.