There's a place in Canada, an unmarked dirt road just north of William Lake, British Columbia, where earth and footsteps rarely collide. A maze of old logging roads stretches over an increasingly convex horizon, rolling over mountain and wood through hundreds of untouched miles. On a mountain bike, these grassy roads go on for days, deeper into the alpine wilderness until all remnants of human intervention grow old and decay.
At least that's how it seems. I only made it about six miles in, not even far enough to leave the crackling power lines that cut a line up and down steep hillsides. The power lines continued east, toward small towns far away from here. The adjacent roads are only accessed by maintenance vehicles - barely, if at all. There are no maps, no road signs, no tourists, no local bicycle club to maintain trails and install ramps and obstacles. These are roads in their purest form - the kind that lead to nowhere, that are rarely used, that are left to grow over and disappear into the wild green landscape. And I'm left alone to cycle over them until my legs quiver and my lungs gasp and burn, raising my head to catch a glimpse of a northern wilderness will no end.
We spent two days in a small campground up Blue Lake road, a random gravel road Geoff just happened upon after a day spent doing mundane chores in the town of William Lake. Tired and bored, we hoped to find a small open spot right off the main logging road. Instead, we found a shaded campsite next to a lake, with steam rolling across a perfect reflection of the mountainside. We cast fishing lines into the water and sat as the late evening sun slipped below the horizon. The fish weren't biting much. Surfacing trout made ripples in the still water as we sat in silence, our breath curling in the cold, calm air. In the shock of displacement from rush and traffic, I had nothing to think of besides the absurdity of florescent trout bait, nothing to feel besides the tightness of my frozen fingers wrapped around a fishing pole, and nothing to see besides the rippled reflection of an overcast sky. It is in these quiet moments that the world becomes sincere.
We left the site and set out northbound on highway 97, still learning how kilometers convert to miles, how liters convert to gallons, and how the cold bite of 0 degrees Celsius feels in May. We passed through Price George - our last major town until we get back to the U.S., still over a thousand miles away. There is quietness in the van as AM radio fades in and out from static to voices. Despite a consistent stream of trucks and RVs, this highway feels to me much like those soft, unnamed roads above Blue Lake - a road to get lost on, to disappear into, a road that leads to everywhere.
posted by Jill at 5:26 PM
Monday, May 19, 2003
As we roll away from heavy civilization we enter full-fledged bear country, the only aspect of this trip I feel confident in saying that we're all equally uncomfortable about. Yesterday Geoff and I had two direct encounters with bears on the road. We screamed right past one on our bikes, and when Geoff glanced to the right, a great black mound of fur whirled around and lumbered away. "Hey bear," he yelled. I didn't even look over because I thought he was joking. Less than five minutes later we saw another on the side of the road less than 500 feet away. We hit the brakes and stood there talking at it, until it walked away.
Neither time did a bear approach us, but neither time did it bolt away either. Bears are comfortable in this region - it's clear in the piles of feces strewn across the road, the tracks in the snow only 17 kilometers from here. Chris headed out on his bike several hours later and encountered one on the trail, much closer to camp. We talked of the ways life could end in a flash of claws, smothered by teeth and fur. Bears are an identifying part of this trip. We're not their neighbors, we don't know yet how to recognize recently placed tracks, feces or other indicators. Bears represent a great deal of the unknown, and we're afraid.
There are many things about traveling that place one outside their region of tolerance for the unknown. The lack of knowing where I will sleep each night and the fickleness of weather and water cause me an amount of anxiety. I hope and feel confident that those feelings will subside as I become more comfortable with homelessness and outdoor living. But then there are animals - bears, especially - whose whims and movements operate outside human decision and control. So we feel a great deal of discomfort at our powerlessness in a bear encounter. We can yell, walk backwards, and collapse in the fetal position on the ground. The outcome of the meeting is entirely up to the bear.
When you think about it, this fear of bears is just another hump to get over on our search for freedom. Fear of bears will prevent us from exploring new regions, from fishing in mountain rivers, from sleeping comfortably at night. And yet they're not even there, really. We're afraid of them because they're not with us. If they were, we would calculate our movements, observe theirs, and move on. If we had no prior fear, the only thing to instill it in us would be a direct attack - in actually, a slim chance at best. So this is my demon to destroy - fear of the unknown. It's a persistent demon, one that eyes me around every corner of life. There is no destroying it so I must learn to ignore it, just as I hope I can learn to ignore the gnawing fear of unseen bears.
Posted by Jill on May 19, 2003
Friday, May 23, 2003
We have driven three weeks and found our way back to routine. Each day begins with as much uncertainty as the last, and yet we find ways to roll away the time in similar activities day after day. Mornings begin between 8 and 9 a.m., four hours after the sun first edges over the horizon. Geoff usually rises first, pulls out the stove, and whips up breakfast - a slight variation of eggs, potatoes, pancakes or oatmeal, usually in that order. Jen, Chris and I walk drowsily around camp, collecting our tents, sleeping bags, and chairs, and load them in the trailer. By 10:45 a.m. we're ready to roll, hitting the remote highway just as the heat of day sets in. The next few hours are filled with steady lines of scrubby hemlock and pavement, interspersed by frequent lakes, rivers and streams. After a while we go through a small town or RV stop, where advertisements for hamburgers and shakes remind us that we're hungry.
At about 1:30 p.m., we stop for lunch. Geoff, the most motivated to eat, gets out of the van and grabs green pepper, tomatoes, cheese, sprouts, lettuce, avocado and tuna. Jen cuts all the veggies up and we reluctantly arrange the food on bread - everyone, besides Geoff, is so, so sick of sandwiches.
Then we move again, lolled to complacency by food and sun, along the lonely road. Chris and Geoff take turns driving and playing pinball on Chris's laptop. I get carsick if I do anything; usually I stare out the window, half conscious, watching the thick landscape until my mind moves backwards. I rework the plotlines of random movies I've nearly forgotten, such as the Brady Bunch Movie, made back in 1995. Tarrah Hovey and I used to imitate the Sears scene on the wide steps of my high school, straining our voices as friends laughed below - "I think I'll go for a walk outside, the sunshine's calling my name, I hear you now." I remember the way Tarrah's eyes grew dark after she got pregnant, steeped in the youth we spent burning our ears out in all-ages clubs. I wonder where Tarrah lives now, what she's doing, if she ever sold her Caddy and moved to Las Vegas to become a blackjack dealer. I'm in the Yukon. Who would have ever known?
Around 5 p.m. we find the next Recreation Area, amazing free camping sites that seem to pop up once a day just as we need them. They sit on the banks of rivers or small lakes, richly wooded and equipped with table, outhouse and fire pit. Chris sets off to fish, and Geoff and I start dinner - pasta, burritos, fish and rice, or Indian food, usually in that order. We collect wood around camp and build a fire, where we eat and wear away the evening. Sometimes Geoff and I go out for a bike ride, as the sun approaches the horizon at extreme angles, casting an incandescent pink hue over snow-coated mountains. We head out along the shoreline to fish; Jen plays Solitaire at the picnic table. The day winds down with reading and talking by the campfire until the twilight deepens and dark creeps over the sky, nearly midnight and getting later every day. We think about moving north tomorrow, crawl into our tents, and slip into deep, dreamless sleep, the kind that relieves a starkly simple life.
posted by Jill at 1:06 PM
Sunday, May 18, 2003
I've hit that difficult point of this trip that I've hit with almost every long trip I've done in the past. It's usually about two weeks into my travels when I start to feel that I have no sense of home. For the first several days I just find myself off on an adventure but in my mind there's still whatever my home is at the time giving me comfort. Eventually though as a trip extends further into itself and further and further away from home I begin to lose the comfort of ever having had a home. This is where I'm at now. Eventually I end up finding my place here on the road as a new home, but there's always a short time like right now when I feel confused and lost. Shortly though I expect a really nice camp or a really relaxing hike or bike ride to move me enough closer to a comfort with what I'm doing here that this anxiety and confusion loses itself in the background. This is when the real happiness of traveling begins. At this point I can look at everything around me for exactly what it is and not for what my mood at the time is turning it in to. Soon my anxiety will be gone and we'd be nearly into Alaska and the days will just ease along as one relaxing moment after another.
A bit though about where we are: we have actually found one of the nicest camps of our trip yet tonight. A small lake in northern British Columbia is our setting. A campsite directly on the water with a stack of firewood enough to burn for a week. It's almost dark now but it's been this way for about 3 hours. The thing about daylight up here is that it takes a really long time to fully arrive and a really long time to fully disappear. Each day now we gain about 15 more minutes of light (5 from the approach of the solstice and 10 from our travels north and west). The long twilight makes cleaning up camp for the night much more relaxing than normal. The sun sets sometime in middle of dinner and yet we have three more hours to do dishes, build a fire, and pack all of our cooking stuff away and as odor free as possible. We're in the heart of bear country now but we've only seen bears while driving. 8 of them though! Almost everyday since arriving in Canada.
When we hit a nice camp like this one we usually decide right away that we'd spend a couple nights. We've decided that already about this place so tonight we go to bed thinking of where we're going to go for a bike ride tomorrow and what we're going to enjoy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On layover days we can just go to bed late, sleep in, and not worry about motivating much at all in the morning, unless of course we decide individually that we want to. A few days ago when we layed over at a place called Blue Lake I got up at 5:00 a.m. to try my luck at fishing. We had caught two large rainbow trout the night before so I figured that the morning would produce even better luck. Turned out I was wrong, but when 7:00 rolled around I gave up on my morning fishing and just crawled back in bed and slept for a couple more hours. Tonight we're on the shores of Jigsaw Lake. The fishing here doesn't seem all that great but maybe I’ll try my luck here at 5:00 am tomorrow? Or maybe I'll just sleep in until 10:00. It's really nice though to go to bed knowing that I have this freedom and total lack of responsibility about the day to come.
Posted by Geoff on May 18, 2003
Friday, May 23, 2003
We make our way north and west slowly but continually. We've left behind British Columbia and welcomed The Yukon Territory. The daylight hours have grown in length past the point of curiosity and excitement and onto disbelief and sometimes annoyance. Light on the horizon has extended all the way up through midnight with sunset coming now at about 11:15 pm. This leaves for a long time throughout the evening to do whatever we might want to do that requires daylight, but it also makes getting to sleep early really tough. I find myself staying up now about 15 minutes later each day than the day before, this coinciding exactly with the amount of daylight that we are gaining each day. As of now this hasn't presented much of a problem, but I wonder what exactly will happen to my biological clock in a few more weeks when it's still light at 2:00 or 3:00 am.
Tomorrow we'll reach Whitehorse, Yukon. The largest city in this area by a long shot. The entire territory (which is larger than any state besides Alaska) has only 31,000 people with 20,000 of them living in Whitehorse. When we leave Whitehorse we will leave the Alaska highway and head north toward Dawson, and then over the Yukon river and on into Alaska. We just began following the Alaska highway yesterday at the end of British Columbia route #37, but to leave the highway and head north on route #2 will be a very welcome change. The Alaska highway looks nothing like a highway?in comparison to where we began this trip, but in comparison to where we've come and where we've traveled over the past week from Prince George it seems too loaded with development and traffic. By this I mean that we now pass by another vehicle every 10 or 15 minutes, a small cafe gas station every hour or two, and a small town once a day, but as compared to our past several days this is just too much it somehow seems. Slowly here there has become something comforting about knowing that we're out in middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from much of anything other than water, soil, plants, and animals. Here now though, only 30 miles out of Whitehorse this comfort is temporarily gone. Instead now we think of things like going to a library or stopping to see a movie; free tour at the Yukon Brewery and checking out the local bike shops for information about area trails. Comfort still, just in a different way I guess.
For whatever reason our bear sightings have stopped completely for about 2 days, but not before we had a 24 hour period in which we saw 7 bears! 2 of these 7 bears I saw while I was biking at Jigsaw Lake. Jill and I went for a late morning ride one day and after riding 14 km out a gravel road we decided it was time to head back to camp for some lunch. All the way along our ride out I was watching around every corner for bears - figured we'd be a lot safer if we saw them as soon as they saw us, or hopefully even sooner. Now though we were heading back, we had already traveled the same route and it seemed as though we had likely scared off any bears that may have been hanging out along the road. I know this isn't a very logical way of thinking considering where we were and how many bears we had seen in the previous few days up to this point, but I must say that this was what I was thinking as we headed back. And then about 3 minutes into our return ride this was still what I was thinking when suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw something big and black moving in the grass on the side of the road about 10 feet ahead of where I was riding. By the time I realized it was a bear I was right beside it, and then past it in another instant. It all happened so fast that I never really had time to get scared. At least not until we came around the next corner and saw another bear several hundred feet up ahead on a hill above the road. This bear spotted us about the same time that we spotted it and ran back into the trees as soon as we yelled some things in its direction. And so now then I have become very good at biking without my eyes always on my front tire and the path I intend for it to take down the road or trail, seems as though there are more important things to watch out for.
posted by Geoff at 1:12 PM
Sunday, May 25, 2003
Well, i never would have guessed it but Whitehorse, Yukon has some of the greatest biking trails you could ever hope to find. yesterday we rode about 9 miles after 10 pm, and then today we left our camp on the outside of town and we've been riding now for 4 1/2 hours -21 miles so far. almost all entirely on trail. so many trails that we've passed up as well. after a stop here in downtown at the library we're going to head back out on the trail. looks like we'll be riding over 30 miles today, and there's so much daylight now that we're going to achieve this even though we didn't get started until after noon. the plan is to take off to the north toward Dawson tomorrow but as nice as whitehorse has been we may just end up staying a bit longer.
posted by Geoff at 6:00 PM
Tuesday, May 27, 2003
Whitehorse came and went in a blur. We spent two days in the capital of the Yukon and it felt like a few hours. On day two we rolled out of camp on our bikes and descended toward town on a thickly woven network of trails that cut through the surrounding woods. In these places my inattention shines through. Scrub pine and poplar trees quickly fill the background and trails shoot off in all directions. So proud, so rabid are the people of Whitehorse about outdoor living that you could follow these trails for days and never backtrack. They stretch into the northern wilderness until there’s nowhere left to go. The people of Whitehorse know them well. In less than a mile, I’m lost.
Such was my state as I moved alone across the trails of Miles Canyon, the gentle hills above the Yukon River. We split up to explore our own paths, and I was inattentively trying to follow a cross-country ski trail marked “blue.” As I moved through the thick woods, I noticed that the blue squares nailed to random trees were now green. Damn. I had veered onto another trail somehow. Backtracking now would make me late for my planned meeting time, so I had to hope the loop continued. I cycled forward, surrounded by walls of bush and pine. Foresight is lost in the forest. I was lost. I moved faster and the trail began to climb. My legs strained and lungs burned but I shifted to a higher gear and pounded the crank. The trail taunted me, leading me up steep inclines only to drop me into a creek bed, and then back up again, up the rock-covered path that was leading me nowhere – definitely not back to the river, to my friends. I stopped, for a moment, to turn my bike around when I noticed the clearing in the trees ahead. I mounted again, and struggled toward the top until a blast of wind hit me square in the face. I raised my head to a sweeping view of the tiny town of Whitehorse, the quiet blue of the Yukon, and the deep green universe the surrounded us all. Powerful gusts of arctic air pounded the ridge and I raised my arms to cool my wander-weary body. I was no longer lost.
I headed down the trail ahead, which sure enough lead back to the blue signs and eventually the parking area. Chris, Geoff and I then worked our way along a shoreline trail to Whitehorse for a cyclist’s view of the town. The most notable part of our Whitehorse experience has been the people we’ve met, all longtime residents intensely proud of the place they live. I met, only for five minutes, Philippe, the backyard bicycle repairman who happily works for locals and generally dislikes tourists. He worked and talked quickly, and his lanky body darted around the thin corridor of his homemade repair shop as we asked him questions. In the time it took him to grab a new rim and tire for Jen (the original fell off the rack), Philippe developed an entire construction plan for rigging up a small motor and alternator to a bicycle crank for the purpose of charging a laptop battery, in his mind an insane but completely viable contraption.
We also met the Slovakian homeless guy, whose origins were actually unclear, but as far as we understood came from Slovakia and traveled throughout the world before settling in the Yukon. The words sputtered out of his mouth in wet garbles; we were lucky to understand 20 percent of what he said. But we smiled and laughed, and with a wild-eyed zeal he told us how we could make money in Dawson City fighting fires. “Just show up,” he said over and over. “They’ll let you work. Just go and they’ll put you to work.” As his indecipherable words flailed about a girl climbed a tree to free a kite. Clinging to a flimsy limb more than 30 feet above the ground, she lifted a large log to the very top of the tree, where the red kite flapped violently in the wind. After three attempts she pulled it down to the whistling and clapping of nearby spectators. There’s really nothing to say about the people of Whitehorse, except that they’re real.
After a quick tour of the brewery we headed north again. The tour guide impressed us with tales of clear arctic water and cans that are filled and closed by hand. Chris and Jen got wrapped up in the stories of the friendly marketing guy and ended up buying a few cases. Geoff and I are well stocked in Pepsi, content as we work our way though the land of the midnight sun.