LAUGHING in the face of death is tough.
Screaming, swearing, shaking and almost peeing your pants instead is much easier.
Unlike the time I discovered I could burp the alphabet without vomiting, this wasn’t a fun lesson to learn.
But then cycling Canada’s Yellowhead Highway was about as far from fun as you could get.
Mere moments after launching down what’s got to be British Columbia’s most morbid stretch of bitumen a freight truck screamed by only to miss us by millimetres. An hour later a super-sized RV came so close us the wind suck all but knocked my off my bike and into a ditch.
We were terrified. But what could we do?
This 2000km-plus stretch of road runs from the shores of Prince Rupert, to the heaving sprawl of Prince George and after a week in our cosy Telkwa cabin about 350km of it still lay between us and the bloody end of it. We figured four days of solid cycling would see us off it but after four minutes I honestly wondered if we’d make it there alive.
We’d survived the chaos of Vietnam, cycled through the madness of Istanbul and even managed to dodge the drunk drivers of Kyrgyzstan who could buy vodka for less than water. But there’s nothing quite like a self-righteous truck driver with a hate for cyclists or a tunnel-visioned retiree with a set of wheels to rival a long-haul school bus to make you really sweat bullets.
For the next four days we cursed, cycled, camped, shrugged off frequent downpours and marvelled at the growing number of conservatives while trying to keep our sanity alive.
We dodged nutty racists, side-stepped offers of “literature” (the kind that comes in pamphlets with a biblical message on the front) and swerved from enormous trucks and RVs in a bid to get to Prince George in one, sane piece but by time the city limits struck we were done. Something had to give and we knew no matter what the highway was no longer an option. The only problem was what was left?
After a day of food, coffee and chats with our Warmshowers host Eric we’d managed to haul ourselves out of our black moods and even more importantly, make a decision. Rather than beeline south we’d yet again elongate our bloody endless Canadian adventure and strike for Jasper and Banff on as many logging roads as possible before pedalling south to Montana through Glacier National Park. We were chuffed. It was a solid route with some spectacular landscape rewards but as Murphy and his bloody law would have it a day later it all came crumbling down.
Throughout the summer some of the worst bush fires in history had destroyed thousands and thousands of acres of forest as well as towns and homes throughout British Columbia and Alberta and at the same time horrific fires raged across Montana, Idaho and even parts of California. All reports claimed only the first snow fall would truly quench them but as our proposed route was through high passes that shut in winter it seemed the only clear path ahead was down towards Vancouver and then along the Washington, Oregon and Californian coast.
For two extra days we sat in Prince George mulling our options, drinking coffee and watching the smoke sit like a haze across the city and after a million mental backflips we’d decided. We’d strike south for Williams Lake (down the dreaded Highway 97) then take the back roads to Whistler. From there we’d hit Vancouver Island and on to the Olympic Peninsula before pedalling south to California. Before a freak storm of flying sharks could screw up our plans we jumped back on our bikes and blasted our way south with the speed and enthusiasm of sloths.
After two days of very little we hit the big town of Williams Lake and a day after that we were finally on the old logging roads that would chop off over 120km of hellish highway.
The washboard paths snaked over ridges and along lakes making for some pretty bloody tough but beautiful riding that had us sweating and grinning. In our race south we’d begun to forget what bicycle touring was all about but suddenly this back country bush bash brought it all back. Enormous fields full of pines and yellow flowers turned the horizon into a kaleidoscope of colour while quaint old ranches took us back to another time.
By the second day we’d conquered just 50km in about five hours with the reward of a completely empty, free campsite complete with tables, a loo and a running stream. Overnight the temperature plummeted to -5 and by morning our tent resembled an icy igloo.
Summer had abruptly ended in this part of Canada and just as the Stark family predicted – winter was coming!
There was only 40km left until our bumpy road rejoined the highway but with almost 20km of washboard climbing ahead of us it was late afternoon when we stumbled across another free campsite, just 10km shy of the end.
We could have kept going (hell we probably should have) but the view over a blue lake, framed by snow capped peaks won us over! By this point we’d teamed up with a Spanish cyclist who, while quiet, had been a joy to pedal with until it all went backside up after he confessed loud people overwhelmed him while looking pointedly at me. It turned out he’d been cringing every time I opened my mouth so we decided to make his life a little easier and say adios!
The next day we trundled into little old Clinton – a tiny town with a proud ranching history and a seriously friendly and fun atmosphere that made you want to kick back, sip on a latte, and marvel at how tough life used to be.
We got so caught up chewing the fat with the locals that the day slipped away and suddenly it was too late to carry on (oh what a shame) so we sucked it up, stayed the night, and wondered if we’d ever reach the bloody end of the Great White North at this pitiful rate.
The next day, after lunch, we eventually left but our back road route towards the Sea to Sky highway ensured another small day ending with a camp next to a beautiful lake.
Hitting Canada’s back roads had saved our sanity – but they came with one big drawback that hit with gusto the following morning.
Big effing, steep gradients.
A mountain pass lay between us and the main road to Whistler and by 9.30am the following morning we sat at the bottom looking up. Five kilometres of 14 per cent washboard, gravel stood before us and after rationalising that it at least wasn’t for long we started pedalling. Fifty metres later we were off and pushing.
Half an hour (and one kilometre) after a car pulled up with three Portlandians. They were full of cheer and encouragement, relayed their own global adventures, and then offered us a place to stay when we reached their Oregon homeland. Two kilometres, several tantrums and about an hour of pushing later we found a little pile of rocks next to a goodie bag and a note. Inside was a packet of ginger cookies and two beers from our new Portland friends.
We nearly wept.
From the top the forest opened up to a sea of snow-capped peaks, yellow fields, and sweeping valleys. We hurtled down the bumpy track, startling a mamma bear and her two cubs, before being spat on the busy Highway 99. By mid afternoon we were a stone’s throw from Lillooet, hiding out in a trading store while the rain battered down. The temperature had plummeted and even locals were bundling up in enormous jackets while warning us that snow was due that night.
By time we reached the town we were cold, wet and freezing and it took little persuasion at all to track down a budget motel and escape the elements. I’d certainly camped in worse, hell we’d camped in a near blizzard in Kazakhstan. But when temptation is right in front of you it’s a hell of a lot harder to ignore.
The following morning it looked us though icing sugar had been sprinkled on the surrounding peaks but with the sun out it was nothing short of balmy. From Lillooet the road rose rapidly into the snowy mountains, climbing for a brutal 55km before jerking into a winding rollercoaster along the Sea to Sky Highway.
The first 15km snaked up 13 per cent gradient switchbacks, forcing us to sweat and swear for almost three and a half hours. We made it just 35km to a riverside camp spot where we were too tired to cook and instead curled up into our sleeping bags before 8pm.
The final 2okm of climbing the following morning was considerably easier and the reward was a 10km roaring descent into the Pemberton valley. Scott’s sister Kayla had arranged to meet us at a free camp site six kilometres down a bumpy dirt road and by 5.30pm we were tucking into a pot of lentils and soaking up the lake view.
Apparently some midges were enjoying the view of our exposed skin and by the following afternoon I was covered in angry, red lumps that itched as bad as bed bugs.
By time the pricy ski condos of posh resort town Whistler hit the horizon we felt exhausted and rattled from the unforgiving traffic hurtling down the highway and after spending a day hanging out with Kayla we felt the usual conflicting feelings of a need to get the hell out of there and a need to dawdle.
We compromised with setting off at lunch time and pushing out a pretty easy 60km. It should have been a stupidly easy 30km left to Horseshoe Bay’s ferry the following day but after 10 death defying kilometres on the narrow and insanely busy highway we pulled off to the side and weighed our options.
Glass littered the pitiful patch of shoulder, while cars, trucks and RVs screamed terrifyingly close to us on the cliff-hugging route. It should have been a spectacular ride but we were so focused on not dying it was tough to give the mega mountains more than a glance. Without so much as a second, guilt-ridden thought we threw our ideals to the wind and stuck our thumbs out for a lift. Five minutes later our wish was granted.
Twenty considerably easier minutes later we were spat out at the colourful ferry terminal but as our saviour drove away Scott realised we’d left our $400 GPS in her car. Shit.
We knew bugger all about her accept for the fact that she owned a dog and hated the money-grabbing medical system (so, half of Canada) and we realised the tough truth that we’d probably never see our beloved piece of kit again.
Still it was hard to be sad as the sun gleamed down on the vibrant port community and a couple of hours later we were aboard the ferry and en route to Nanaimo.
The plan was to hit up a series of bike shops as soon as we arrived (we’d been having a hell of a time finding replacement drive train parts for our very worn out pieces) but after a hilly, sweaty cycle around town we’d come up short and instead beelined to our hosts Kierstan and Denis’ house. This middle-aged couple would soon prove the soul salve we’d been looking for. They were eternally smiling, instantly welcoming and an absolute blast to be around and within minutes we felt as though we’d arrived at the home of long lost friends. The plan was to stay a day couple of nights and hopefully get our bloody bikes sorted but after meeting more dead ends we wound up staying four (I wasn’t sorry). In the end a bike shop in Victoria (the island’s capital city) came up trumps and we prepared to head down. Just 120km of cycling lay between us and the final bloody end of Canada and while I was sad to see this epic, colourful and largely spectacular country come to an end, it was time for a change.
Oregon’s coast was calling, California’s sunny beaches were tantalisingly close and the promise of so many new people and places made me want to rush off into the distance as fast as my pitifully slow legs would carry me.