Monday, May 20, 2013

Canada (Part 1)

Canada. Seen by many as a wild country. A country where bears roam free and winters are extremely cold and long. A part of the earth that is covered in snow and ice for most of the year, where you need snow shoes and snow mobiles to get around. It's a country of extremes in more ways than one, where Wild Frontiers TV shows are recorded and people still live in huts made from moose skins... Or is it? We had just landed in Vancouver, British Columbia, and were about to find out just how different from the civilised world Canada really is.

The first thing we noticed in Vancouver was... rain! Nobody told us anything about rain. If we were to believe half the stories then we would be covered in snow, not rain. The lady that runs the campsite in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver, told us it rains 333 days a year there. We had to wait a while before Canadian Customs worked out that our motorcycles were not a terrorist bomb. When they were finally released, we found out quickly how much rain you can have in a day, when you're in Vancouver. We had it for 7 days in a row... I wasn't much of a city person before and Vancouver did nothing to change that. I was glad when we could finally ride away from it. 

As soon as we left Vancouver our image from Canada began to change. Behind us was a big city with high rise buildings, chaos and lots of traffic; in front of us a beautiful bay, snow capped mountains and wilderness. Magic. This is the Canada we had come to see, and it started straight out of Vancouver! Wow. Something else had changed too: the weather! It was dry, our smelling soaking wet jackets could finally dry a bit. We took the road to Squamish which runs along a beautiful bay and is well worth doing. Whistler, where the Winter Olympics were held not so long ago, was one of those moments where we realised where we were. We had seen the Winter Olympics on tv, now we were actually there!

We camped along a wild flowing river near the Nairn Falls, surrounded by rugged mountains, and found ourselves in a landscape where bears and moose would be right at 'home'. Coming from Australia we were sort of accustomed to snakes, spiders and crocodiles. We know how to handle ourselves in those kind of conditions, but this was new to us. The wild flowing river has icy green water, probably melted from the snow above. Quite a few trees have been dragged down the mountains surrounding us too. This is a harsh climate in winter; just looking around and 'reading' the landscape paints the picture, while we're not even halfway north of where we are going.
Further north we entered our first Indian territory, or First Nation as it's called here. The local sheriff is a First Nation too and by all accounts loves nothing better than catching gringos speeding... Indians, to me, means wigwams and totem poles. I know, it's ridiculous. I also had the impression they are a proud nation, proud of their heritage. Looking around me I unfortunately see only run down houses, junk everywhere, car wrecks in the gardens and drunken Indians in dirty clothes... Hardly anything to be proud of. 

Luckily the landscape more than makes up for it. We had the most amazing ride through pure wilderness. The only link to civilisation being the asphalt lint before us. Despite the dull overcast weather we still make a lot of photos. The road signs are worth mentioning too. We have seen quite a few 'weird' signs during previous travels like kangaroos, echidnas and wombats. Here we saw warnings for bears, deer, moose, coyotes and... wild horses! Mike saw his first prairie dog by the side of the road. At Cache Creek the scenery changes. The impressive ruggedness was replaced with a hundred million thousand pine trees. For days we saw nothing much but spindly trees. Trees who's shape and size are clearly formed by long and cold winters. 
Early in the morning we are woken up by the sound of one of the many open piped motorbikes around here. A massively overweight man is roaming the campsite looking for his equally overweight woman. She has the size of a beachwhale, but he still can't find her and thus rides his motorcycle all over the campground. Making as much noise as he can and waking everybody up. People like that give all motorcyclists a bad name. 
We get a very different visitor; a chipmunk. He seems shy at first, but we work out pretty quickly that he's not. It doesn't take long before he's on the table and stealing our food from the plates. Mike chases him with his camera for 30 minutes, before taking a beautiful shot of the chipmunk swearing at him!

Northern British Columbia can be a very isolated and at times boring place. We've had days when we saw nothing but trees, trees and more trees. Don't get me wrong trees can be beautiful things, but the trees up in northern British Columbia are anything but pretty. It seems to have it's effect on people too, like the park ranger that exploded when we walked our bikes under the roof of a big and very empty BBQ shelter to keep them out of the rain. The only other excitement of the day was an American Eagle being attacked by a crow. Quite fitting with the rest of the day we ended up at the dirtiest run down campground we had seen so far (near Vanderhoof). The shower base was a rusty steel plate... I laughed and went back to get some flip-flops (thongs) as the rust flakes were quite sharp too!
The next day we found that the Cassiar Highway was still flooded, had I mentioned the rain before? Reports were mixed on whether it was still fully flooded or one lane was open. As the alternative was a detour of 200 km, we decided to ask at the tourist information. They hadn't heard anything and looked it up at the computer. One lane appeared to be open so we continued. 

Not only were we going north, we were also going higher and higher into the mountains and soon found ourselves riding just below the snow line. It was bitterly cold and grim but at the same time impressive. We prepared for a cold night at Seeley Lake, where we heard from neighbours who live in Dawson City that it was actually warmer in Alaska than it was here. Seeley Lake was also the place where we had the first flat tyre... A big nail had found it's way into my rear tyre. The toolkit worked fine, the hand pump I had bought not...!
Seeley Lake to Bell 2 is easy to describe; rain, rain and much much more rain. Along the way we stopped at a collection of totem poles in a First Nation village. The totem poles were nice to see, but the houses surrounding them the usual grubby lump. It's one of those moment that you're happy with a waterproof camera… yes, it still rained cats and dogs. The rain found it's way into my boots, jacket and gloves, boots that were supposed to be waterproof, as were the jacket and gloves. The boots took about 5 minutes to fill up, the jacket an hour and the gloves were soaked after 4 hrs (which is pretty good). At the end of the day my feet were so cold that I limped for an hour before I could walk again. Ah, the joys of motorcycling. Halfway the day we had a bigger problem, getting fuel! The first place on our map that was supposed to have it, was out of fuel. The second town about 80 km further had been out for months as well… This was going good. The third town on my map wasn't built yet...! I'm not kidding, it wasn't there and it wasn't even going to be a town but a roadhouse and hotel when it was finished. We had seriously hollow sounding tanks by then and were luckily allowed to fill up from the builders' own supply.

Bell 2 is a Lodge, called that way because it's located at the second bridge crossing over the Bell Irving river. As we were soaking wet, and because they have good looking cabins, we thought we'd skip camping for a night and have a cabin. Until we heard the price; $195,- for the simplest cabin for one night… We decided to put up the tent and saved $175,- It's one of those moments, when you're cold and it's raining, that you appreciate a good tent. Hilleberg tents can be pitched in the rain without getting wet inside. A hot shower and a hot hamburger warmed us up, and later it even stopped raining!
Mike offered very kindly to do the washing… which was somewhat suspicious. After an hour or so I pop my head in the laundry room to see if he's ok… he is! He found a motorcycle magazine and is reading it in his T-shirt in a steaming hot laundry room with all the windows closed. That's why he offered to do the laundry; he made his own sauna! 

Canadian mosquitos are big. Stealth-like bombers that attack merciless and continuously. They come out when it doesn't rain… which was when we were packing up in the morning. The second bridge over the Bell Irving river has a road surface made from metal grates. The bikes are weaving as you ride over them. Looking down is not a good idea if you fear heights, as you look straight through the grates on the river below! Great view. We stop for a couple of photos and see a black bear rummaging around. Totally not interested in us, for which I can't blame him. Only a couple of kilometres further a moose crosses the road just in front of Mike. They are big, especially that close up! The scenery is spectacular. The further north we go, the more rugged it gets. This is the land of bears, moose, eagles and… mosquitos. Distances between names on the map are massive and often not much more than a petrol station and a small shop. In between it's trees, rocks, mountains, wild flowing rivers and lots of it. Spectacular to see but at the same time also clearly unforgiving. It made us feel vulnerable but at the same time privileged to be here.

We've had two encounters with the law in Canada. The first one in Vancouver when a policeman asked Mike where the license plate was from, when he replied 'New Zealand' he got the thumbs up! The second happened here. I was taking a photo of a moose at the edge of a lake, his reflection in the still water, as a police car drives by. He drives off the road just in front of me and does a full donut…! Drives back towards me, opens his window and asks if I'm in trouble…? 'No, just taking a photo of that moose' I replied, 'Oh… okay' he closes the window and speeds back to where he came from. I look at the moose again but it's gone…

The weather is literally 4 seasons in a day and turned to hail while filling up the tanks. We cover the opening with our gloves to keep the water out and warm up inside the shop. It's run by an Indian lady who speaks somewhat English, but basically it's sign language. After a couple of attempts and no doubt silly looks on our part we worked out that; yes we could have a couple of hotdogs, but we have to make them ourselves… 
Camping that night is at a simple campground, pit toilet and no shower, but a beautiful spot. It's an old man's retirement solution. He had this block of land and made it into a campground. Simple and basic, but he does have WiFi internet… We're hundreds of miles away from anywhere, the internet is provided by a satellite dish hanging in a tree and a router with a plastic bucket over it to protect it from the rain. It works… A couple opposite to us are travelling the same route we are taking but do it somewhat more modern and in more comfort. They have heated gear and a Spot satellite gizmo.

The last days we've been riding through snow covered mountains and frozen landscapes. The lakes are mostly still frozen. It's freezing cold, literally. The winter stayed exceptionally long this year, so we are here too early to see it in comfort. At the same time the snow does present us with a magical landscape. It's a fortunate feeling, fortunate to be able to see this. They don't call it the Great Outdoors for nothing!

We're getting closer and closer to The Yukon. The closer we get the more cracks, potholes and frost damage we see on the road. Zig-zagging our way around potholes, frost heaves and gaps in the asphalt tests our riding skills and the suspension of the bikes to the full. I'm wondering if the Alaska Highway will be any better. We take the 'family snap' of ourselves and the bikes in front of the 'Welcome to the Yukon' sign when a South African couple turn up in their LandRover. Both in their 70s and just drove up from Argentina. If that isn't enough; they also drove from Cape Town to the Cape North in Norway. Some people have easy retirements and go fishing, others do this.

The fuelstop at the connection with the Alaska highway is closed. 'Back in 5 minutes' it said on the door. In Australia that could mean back tomorrow, here it's indeed 5 minutes. A lively old lady of a certain age operates the pump and does that in an easy going matter 'just fill up and tell me how much you put in there' she said. No connection between the pumps outside and the cash register, just an honesty system. We get our Canada and Yukon sticker there as well and she gives us a lot of tourist info and free maps while laughing so loud that we won't have any bears to worry about for miles :-)