Rain, wind, sun and pie were on the plate for that first day on Highway 20 to Bella Coola. These things combined with copious amounts of climbing made for an ominous day balanced with sweet rewards. Pretty much everyone we met told us ‘it’s flat from here on out’ or even ‘it’s all downhill now’. A man at a lookout even said this to us when we could see clearly the descent from the vantage point and the climb that followed.
The names on the map looked like towns. Some of them we didn’t even notice when we passed through. Some did not even exist. There were, however, a few bakeries along the way. We’d heard about a stop early on that had excellent pie. It was a truck stop/cabin/craft store of sorts. It came at the perfect time with the cold rain starting to pour down. With the wind picking up, we parked the bikes on the wooden deck, and entered the joint.
The wall inside was painted with a huge mural of the region. It was like an old explorers map with the rivers, mountains, towns, roads and trails. We could see where we came from and where we were to go. I had some carrot cake that was unfortunately iced with Betty Crocker not cream cheese frosting. Peter, I think he had a cinnamon roll, but it wasn’t much to remember. We were happy nonetheless being out of the cold rain.
Old timers came in and an informal round table was formed. We listened to local politics and gossip. Soon enough it was time to leave and bear the elements. We wanted to reach Bull Canyon Provincial Park and the campground before the day ended.
The rain dissipated but the winds raged. The last stop before camp, a small grocery store, was a needed reprieve from the slog we’d just endured. A wicked headwind since the café bakery made the going not only slow but exhausting. Hunger ruled our choices and we left the store with all sorts of junk food. And beer.
I don’t think I’ve ever ridden into such a wind as those last few miles. It was like being in the wind tunnel again. Only we were trying to bridge the distance between where we pedaled and less than a mile up the road and the entrance to the camp, not get a better aerodynamic position on the bike. We had to laugh it was so hard. Almost impossible to move and inch forward on the road.
Finally we reached the entrance. We stood there, bent over our handlebars, laughing at the effort it took. Peter and I were both in full bonk mode. So we ate a snickers bar. Yes, fuel to ride the next 200 feet or so downhill to the pay station for the park. We were screwed. Who says bike touring is easy?!?
An icy rinse in the fast flowing glacial river next to our camp spot brought us back to life. Late day light shone delicately on the surrounding cliffs. Cliffs dotted with caves where the original inhabitants, the Native American Tribes, fought to keep their territorial land. They hid out high up, messing up any intruders wanting to stake their claim. Us, we just payed a camping fee to the BC Government.
A make shift anti-pasto plate (plate being a broken down cardboard cracker box) and a big beer served as appetizer. Never has a Budweiser tall boy tasted so good. Next up, a full mac and cheese meal, more chocolate, tea and finally, sleep. The camp was an oasis of green in the midst of a recent forest fire burn. Somehow, the camp had not been torched. We were tired but oh so happy to be horizontal.
Another day of rolling road took us to the little town we thought would be of interest. Tatla Lake had a general store, a hotel and, apparently, a campground. Sure, there was a motel as well, but we were on a bike tour. Pitching the tent was a chore but one we liked. Who wants to sleep in a bed who countless people have slept in (or done who knows what in!). We chose sleeping in the nylon dome, personal sleeping bag and all. Yes, dirt-bag mode was something we not only got used to, we loved.
So when we arrived mid-afternoon just as the general store was closing, getting in the front doors before the grumpy man running the joint locked the bolt, we wondered if this town was worth the stop after all. Campground? Apparently it was ‘up the hill’…maybe. Peter is a seasoned bush camper and I don’t ming going into stealth mode, but I had my heart and stomach set on a big burger at the Hotel in town. If we weren’t going to stay at the motel we certainly were going to eat there. A burger and a cold beer. There’s nothing like the hunger of riding all day on a loaded touring bike hunger. Fun.
The grump at the store turned out to be a gem. He was an old geezer with the best version of sarcasm we’d heard in some time. He’d yell at us from across the store ‘whadya want!’ and then proceed to tell us about the nice tomatoes he just got in. He pointed to the big blue hotel when we asked about the nonexistent campground. He said ‘just ask them over there, there’s lots of grass to pitch the tent.’
We left that store with fruits, vegetables, chips, sweets and unfortunately, no beer. No liquor in the store. Thankfully there was a small chain-linked fenced-in makeshift liquor store in the hotel. Apparently as long as it is separate from the store, restaurant, or café, it was legal. Funny seeing all the fenced in bottles of booze all over BC.
The proprietor of the hotel was a wisp of a woman. The German woman working the till said to ‘ask the boss’ when we asked about camping. The former came into the dining room and said ‘sure, over there, lots of room. ‘Only thing there’s no facilities, if you know what I mean, out there….lots of bushes but no bathroom. You two are more than welcome to use the washroom in here as long as we’re open.’
For ten bucks we pitched the tent on the hotel’s lawn, ate our snacks, rinsed off in the washroom as best as possible, sat around for awhile, then went for that burger and beer in the hotel.
Famous for the ‘home cooked fries’ we learned about when the cook, a rough young lady, came out of the kitchen to take orders spoke about, we were not disappointed with the massive basket of deep fried spuds. ‘I make them with potatoes. Real potatoes. None of those frozen white sticks people think are fries. These are home fries. The best you’ll have.’
We rolled out of that restaurant back to our tent some fifty feet away. And we weren’t on our bikes. We were stuffed. Before going to sleep that night we walked the road through town. The only road. The paved two-lane highway we’d pedaled three days straight. Walked right down the middle of the road. Highway 20 seemed to have a shut off time. Just as we liked it. What a cool little town. The very few vehicles that did pass us, or bikes, always came with a friendly hello or a wave.
Later that night, after falling asleep, we woke to the cook entertaining friends on the big blue hotel’s porch. She was talking chicken, how she stuffs chicken with a can of beer or something….and of course the fries. We didn’t sleep that much but learned some new recipes.
On we continued the next day to Anahim Lake. Hometown of Carey Price, goaltender of the Montréal Canadiens. I’m talking hockey for those of you non-Canadians out there. He’s pretty famous up in the Great White North, especially in hockey-mad Montréal. I’d always heard he was from the west. When we rolled into this little town I could hardly believe such a star athlete came from there. It was a rough place but not in a threatening way. A down and out man approached us asking for some change when we parked our bikes outside one of the two grocery stores in town. We were tired and wondering where, if anywhere, there was to camp in this town. Like I said, it was rough, not dangerous, but not necessarily a place I’d want to pitch the tent in the town park. We wondered if there were other options up the road.
After asking the proprietors of the store advice on where to go to camp, they suggested their back yard. They lived ‘just up the way, about ten kilometers.‘ We were tired and ten kilometers seemed far, but we were grateful for the invite. They drew a map that I proceeded to forget at the store. We had bought a bunch of groceries and they offered to bring them home for us. Lucky.
We not only had a place to pitch but were meeting locals. Peter and I both were curious about this remote place.
After doing a few forest loops we both tried to remember the directions given. No map, no good. Eventually, we found the place. It was right on Eagle Lake. What a spot. The mosquitoes were the biggest we’d seen and came in swarms. All the warnings of masses of bugs, ‘better bring your bug dope’ had never come to fruition until that day. Now the bugs started to really bug us. It was out of control.
Just as we wondered where we’d do our water bottle rinses, our new friends came out and suggested we come in and have a glass of wine, take hot showers, and join them for hot dogs and potato salad. We had so much food- beer and all- that we offered all sorts of concoctions we could add to the meal. There would be none of it. We were the guests and were not even allowed to do dishes after eating more than we should have. Refuse a third serving of homemade potato salad? Now that would be just plain rude.
We sat outside for awhile watching the ospreys dive bomb the lake, come back up for air with huge fish in their talons. It was the best live entertainment one could wish for. Amazing acrobatics on display.
The next morning when packing up, the rain began to fall. Not only did that, the temperature dropped faster than I could drink the bottomless cup of coffee in the warm log house kitchen. Our friends really didn’t want us to leave. We didn’t want to leave. It was getting so cold we wondered if it would turn to sleet and then snow.
Problem was we knew our days were numbered on the tour. We had flights to catch in a few weeks to Labrador. After calculating the distance from Vancouver, or north, from Prince Rupert, we knew there were some massive miles to cover. We still had no idea how we’d get north or south from Bella Coola. That, and it was our anniversary, number twelve. Peter and I both like doing something epic when it’s a day to celebrate.
‘The Hill’ is an infamous swath of road etched into the mountain. Way back to the time of World War I, the residents of Bella Coola asked the government to build a road from their isolated community of Bella Coola to Anahim Lake. That request was denied, as were many more pleas over the next 30 years. Finally, in 1952, the exasperated citizens decided to build their own road. Local businesses paid the surveying and construction crews. It took a year, and in the fall of 1953, Freedom Road — a simple, rough cat track from Anahim Lake to Hagensborg — was officially opened.
The result: a ridiculous road that people drive for adventure. Sure, locals use it for commuting and connecting, but for tourists it was like stepping into the fearful unknown. For us, it was a freezing cold plunge into road real estate we could not see because of the fog.
We decided to roll, rain or snow. We figured the ride up the pass to ‘The Hill’ wouldn’t be so bad. It’s always warmer going uphill. It was the descent we were worried about. The drop was so steep there’d be no way to pedal. We’d be riding the brakes most likely, freezing our asses off.
A wet foggy haze enveloped us as we shivered our way down the mountain pass. When we finally made it to the bottom, the bikes were caked with wet, slimy mud. We both convulsed with cold. Pulled right into the closed ‘because of bears’ camp/picnic area and brewed hot chocolate, coffee, tea. Copious cups were drunk before the shivering stopped. We changed into what dry clothes we had.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been so filthy. Maybe up on the Dempster Highway in the North, another dirt stretch we toured lasting 800kms. We dipped our bikes in the creek, getting as much of the fine wet dirt off, hoping to save the drive trains of the bike from erosion. We still had another 50kms to ride into Bella Coola.
The clouds parted and sun began to shine. We pedaled along to the end of the road. Bella Coola, the place that intrigued us for days, was becoming real. Massive glaciers topped rugged peaks to the left and right. Rivers flowed along the road. A small grizzly bear walked the road ahead of us. Eagles soared, osprey rode the jet stream, hawks hovered above. It was a nature loving paradise.
In 1894 a group of Norwegian settlers moved to the Bella Coola Valley from Minnesota and other U.S. states that were suffering from a recession. Most were farmers and tradesmen and they settled around Hagen Christensen´s store. The community later became known as Hagensborg.
We pulled into Hagensborg late afternoon. There was an Inn a few hundred meters up the road, new and with a restaurant. We chose to camp and use our money for food. Lots of food.
It was time for our anniversary celebration and we felt we’d earned the meal. Wild Bella Coola salmon met local produce cooked to perfection. A bottle of wine and sweet mango cheesecake desert made our day. Back at the campground, we passed out in exhaustion. It took only five days to ride to Bella Coola and we needed a break. A day off. Or two.
We decided to stay awhile in the nicest, cleanest and perhaps most scenic campground either of us had seen. What a place to relax. Only thing was we still hadn’t made it to Bella Coola proper. After two days in Hagensburg, we wondered if we ever would.
Getting out of Bella Coola proved more difficult than we anticipated. There were no ferries north until ten days; the ferry south took us to Vancouver Island where we’d have to ride a traffic filled 500kms to the next ferry south. Not only did that sound like crap riding we had no time to add another 500kms onto the trip. Our Labrador departure grew closer by the minute.
I called about a flight down to Vancouver and discovered it was reasonable. Not only that, it left in two days, we could bring bikes on board without boxes, and free at that. Sounded like a deal so we made the bookings.
Lounging on the elevated patio along the Bella Coola River relaxed us. We couldn’t get enough of just chilling out. Fatigue hovered the entire trip and our bodies and minds shut down with a few days off.
We managed a little ride to pick thimble berries and check out an old growth Cedar forest someone told us about. Walking through the ancient forest of giants left us both giddy. I was filled with awe looking up at the massive trees. Eight feet wide seemed big to me for a tree. Thankfully these sagacious beauties were protected, not chopped.
The search for local produce and a wheel repair for Peter took us to a local farm. It used to be a bike shop and the owner seemed curious to have two bike tourists in town. He dropped his shovel and baskets, leaving the morning chores to trew Peter’s wheel.
We talked and learned of the history of town, how young people were moving in, cutting trails for mountain biking, local organic farms were opening…he was trying to sell us on the Bella Coola Valley because we told him we weren’t quite yet sold on the Canadian Rockies. He took so much time that the carrots, beets and cherries he needed to pick hadn’t even begun. We had nothing to do so offered to volunteer.
Peter and I filled baskets with bundles ready for the road side stand after a rinse from the garden hose. It was the most beautiful garden we’d been in. Our host farmer/mechanic/outdoor enthusiast seemed thrilled to have two hard workers. We ate sandwiches with his veggies, cheese and homemade bread from his daughter, packed a bunch of delicious goods into our paniers and left for the campground. A fun day off and an interesting one, too. We both decided though we loved the surroundings, it might be a little too isolated considering the amount I travel. But beautiful, indeed.
The day before we flew south we finally made it into Bella Coola. Checking out the town took not much pedaling. It did take about 45 minutes to ride to town, though. We hoped to meet up with a friend of the woman who gave us the suggestion of Bella Coola in the first place. By chance, this very man drove by us on the road.
Peter and I were sitting on a bench in town when he approached. Unfortunately, I had just received a phone call from my Mom in Winnipeg. My Father had been really ill. He had advanced dementia and took a turn for the worst. My Dad was a really proud man and when I heard the news he’d been taken from his home by the public trustee, likely never to go home again, I was crushed. This news came back in June and I went home to see him immediately. I’m so grateful I did because it was the last time I would see my Dad. There’s no turning back when dementia sets in. It’s downhill but the pace of the decline is what’s not know. It can change overnight.
I sat there and cried on the bench and this man, the friend of our friend, approached. Somehow, I got it together to say hi. He invited Peter and I for dinner and then offered to show us some sacred, special petroglyphs. Peter looked at me and I said yes, why not.
When he left I cried again. I realized I couldn’t take the offer of friendship, food and sharing because I would just be crying all night. All I could think about was my Dad and that he never would want to live like this. We called and regretfully canceled. Peter explained my state of mind. Of course, he understood.
I talked to my Mom again and she said that I should do what I felt best. She told me the reality of the situation, that it could go on for weeks or months, or days. Nobody knew. I was so torn. Do I go home again or keep riding?
Peter supported any decision I felt I needed to make. I thought about it a lot and realized my Dad would want me to keep pedaling. He really understood and appreciated the life Peter and I led. That we sometimes lived in our tent on trips like this for a month here and there made him pretty happy. I knew if I went home there would be nothing I could do. As hard as it was, I chose to keep going. I guess I thought I could go back in a few weeks, that it wasn’t that bad. I’m still not sure about the decision I made.
The next day we flew down to Vancouver. Our bikes were stuffed into the back storage compartment of the little plane. The flight was spectacular. Floating over a sea of granite and glaciers made me think of my Dad. I wished he could see what I was seeing. I wished he knew who he was. I wished the misery he was in would end. Yet I didn’t want him to be gone.
Next up, Vancouver. Westward bound was our path. The worst part was riding from the Richmond Airport. Navigating through the big city left us anxious. I googled the best route and wrote on a piece of paper some rough directions.
Passing by the Richmond Olympic Oval on my touring bike, then the apartment building where I had a unit for a few years leading into my last Winter Olympic Games was hilarious. I thought about that marvelous time in 2010 not just for not just athletes like me, but our entire nation, and couldn’t be further away from that time or place or person. Yet there I was, happy and content. Grateful for all the memories. Satisfied and fulfilled by where I’d been since and who I was at present.
More on this later. More on the multiple breakdowns, massive miles, difficult times, hope, inspiration, barfing in Nelson, BC, epic dirt road climbs, being run out of town in Kimberley and the massive miles we rode taking us back home to Canmore.