A Canadian Love Affair: British Columbia and Alberta Mountains (draft)(prairies soon)

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We stopped in Prince George to catch up on laundry and find a few small things at the hardware store. I’ve been wanting a wing-nut to make the job of putting the rear wheel back on after a flat tire; also a small hex wrench for the bike racks. You’d think you could buy a single wing nut or hex-wrench. But no. Every bike shop sold hex-wrenches in sets only. Not too helpful. Also, all the hardware stores are now chains and won’t sell you one of anything; it’s all packaged in scientifically determined quantities most likely to appeal to the average handyman. We found a hardware store in downtown Prince George that got me both, let us park Zippy inside, and generally made  us feel like hometown folk.

We also found a wonderful river front park, Fraser Fort George Park. There is a tiny steam train, real steam, that will take you for a ride along the river and around the park. There is a well designed museum full of history and science where Claire and I tried our hand at a virtual-reality shoot-em-up game, and didn’t do too bad.

Also in the park, is a burial ground for the original inhabitants of the area, who were moved so the Caucasian settlers could build their town at the confluence of two rivers. The first reference calls the act an “expropriation,” but later suggests the natives “sold” the land to settlers. “The Catholic Church and the Indian agent were instrumental in convincing the reluctant indigenous occupants to “sell.” There is still disagreement on that point. I’ll bet.

They were promised a burial ground on the site of their village, and that the “…ancestors  of the Nation be remembered with the greatest honor and respect. ”A few broken stones are set in concrete in the middle of a grassy field. They have strange markings that appeared to us to be either Greek or Arabic. We later learned the markings were a crude attempt by the missionaries to created a written language to match the native’s, so they could read the bible. They printed a bible in the language, the Carrier Bible, after the name they gave the natives. Most of the graves appear to be unmarked. One was so fresh as to have no vegetation growing on it, and was also unmarked. It gets a mowing now and again, nothing more. The language is mostly dead, and the people’s culture nearing death; raw deal if you ask me.

Claire saw a picture of three bicyclists on the front page of the Prince George newspaper. It seems they had just left to test part of the Trains Canada Trail, due for completion in the year 2,000.  She called and got Pat, the expedition’s leader’s wife, who met us for coffee, talked trails and travel, and rode to the edge of town with us in the rain.

We’ve been following Canada 16 since Prince Rupert. It is called the Yellowhead Highway, namesake of a mixed blood trapper with yellow hair, who pushed through the Fraser Valley while opening the fur trade. His French nickname was Tete Jaune. I like to imagine, as we ride beside the big Fraser, what it was like for him… I wonder how many cases of DEET he had along for these mosquitoes?

Along the Yellowhead, a pickup truck passed, driver wearing a cowboy hat, gave a Montana wave (now a BC wave) two fingers up in front of the rear-view mirror and then a deft flick of the wrist to the right. As with in the US, the further inland, the friendlier the people.

Boondocked the first night out of Prince George, taking particular care with hanging the food high with our new orange bear string, and far from the tent. We have been seeing black bear along the road, and Claire has rigged up a scavenged Budweiser can with a rock, hanging from our flagpole to warn them. I told her we should at least look for a Canadian beer can, but trash of any kind is hard to find along the roads in the interior of Canada.

The Deep Woods Off went on and we jumped into the tent as soon as possible; the mosquitoes swarmed at us from the nearby willows. Until sundown (after 10) their buzzing was so loud as to be unnerving. they blackened the underside of the fly above the netting in our tent. We could see they were agitated at the nearness of our warm blood. Wait until morning they said, wait until morning…

We were well out of sight of the road, and slept well; morning came soon and we struck camp quickly to beat the mosquitoes, with mixed success. We did a bit of scratching.

Later in the day, we ran from a storm for 30 clicks, and almost beat it. It did an end run around a mountain and sent us off the road and into the bushes to the waiting proboscis of a buzzing haze of mosquitoes. We stood in the rain a swatted mosquitoes and ate peanut butter on cabbage leaves. I  complained a bit too much for Claire’s taste (I’m the whiner), and she let me know about it. She’s right. I say my bitching is all about relieving stress, but she, rightly, doesn’t buy that. I’m working on it. I just needed a break from those blood sucking, itch producing, insanity mongers, and I might add, a little sunshine.

After the storm passed, only a soft rain remained—a “she rain” to natives. We followed the Fraser River toward McBride. A train passed and the whistle in the rain, reminded me of my father, and of his wanting to travel in an RV, and not keeping his health long enough after retirement to do so. I think I’m doing it for him. Zippy is not the RV he would have chosen though. He was a motor man, steam, diesel or gasoline, he loved engines, and knew all about keeping them working smoothly. I have only to eat well, and lots, to keep Zippy’s motor running smoothly.

Into the McBride campground where we stayed, came two of the most beautiful young women I’ve ever seen. Selling cinnamon rolls, brownies, whole wheat bread, small pies from a cardboard box, they walk lightly and carry themselves erect. Both were wearing  the dress of the Mennonites: gingham print dresses with aprons of cotton, ribbon and lace; one dress white with tiny print, the other a seafoam green, high necks and pleated bodices, long and worn with heavy black leggings. With my eyes, I could feel the smooth surface, smell the hot starch under the iron, the skill being learned under the watchful eyes of a matriarch.

One wore a white skull-cap and the other twin tight pigtails. Their faces had no makeup, nor needed any, scrubbed with sweetness, powdered with purity, they glowed and held our eyes. Campers were drawn to them quietly from across the green lawns beside the Fraser. They came and bought, emptied the paperboard boxes the girls carried. They stood around just to be close, to be close to something they knew to be special.

Teen girls today who try to look like hookers, or Madonna, pale by comparison. The young men must see the deeper beauty there and be attracted to it, with only the lifestyle the girls represent as an impediment. But, perhaps, just perhaps, the reaction to total freedom, lack of direction and purpose begins, and their simple, structured and pure lifestyle (obviously healthy from their glow) will find favor with youth. Maybe, I think hopefully, knowing better. It took me to middle years to recognize true beauty in Claire.

Morning. A train whistle drifts across the rolling Fraser, bound for the Strait of Georgia.  Rain tattoos steadily on the tent fly, splats from the cottonwoods breaking the pattern from time to time. Claire nuzzles my shoulder blades, postponing the inevitable waking. A bird begins to sing from the nearby brush. A mosquito flutters past the tent door, others bustle about in our heat and carbon dioxide at the peak of the fly. Another day of rain, and mosquitoes when we stop for shelter.

I’m beginning to think half the water in North America is tied up in BC. Every click we cross another stream; mocha to clear, they drain into each other, lakes, finally the sea. Wetlands are everywhere, breeders of mosquitoes and trees, hydro power and irrigation. Wealth. If BC takes care of its water resource, they will indeed be wealthy forever.

I talked with a local man who knew that the Los Angeles water department, in its arrogance, had drawn up plans to dam most of BC and canal the water south to them; didn’t bother to ask BC. The man has a gun he says, and as long as he does, they won’t get his water.

Went through a road blowout from the heavy rains of a few days before. On the way down a long steep hill, trying to keep ahead of the pilot truck, our Swiss Army knife, the one that’s been with us for close to 16,000 miles of touring so far, bounced out of an unzipped pocked unbeknownst to us. The pilot truck driver stopped at the bottom to tell us it was on the road near the top of the hill; he didn’t know if it had been run over by the 20 or so vehicles behind. So. What to do. A storm we’d been keeping ahead of was gaining fast, it was a long hill and we didn’t know if we’d find a mangled knife or not. There was no choice, like the American flag we almost lost in Utah, we had been together much too long to abandon the knife. We unloaded the bike and rode very fast, it was almost fun, up the hill and found the knife, run over, but with little damage. Perhaps it even has a bit more character even than before, and stories to tell in the silverware drawer when it gets home.

Then the rain hit hard, half way through the slide repair. We must have been quite a sight, riding up a second steep hill, dripping rain from yellow ponchos, weak attempts at smiles, to the looks of amazement (or pity) from construction workers and waiting drivers. It can be fun making a tough impression, but we’d rather have been riding in sunshine.

Wide valley of the Fraser on the way to Tete Jaune (sounds like Dijon, as in mustard) Cache is a wide, classic U-shaped glacial valley, green with ranches and dairy farms with red roofs, cows with cowbells; Dutch names prevail.

Mountains rise high above all this, and sunburn threatens, for a change. We stopped at a store/cafe there, had a huge breakfast and long talk with the proprietor about everything from politics to pollution, before the climb to Mt. Robson.

Along the way we stopped at the Mount Terry Fox lookout. Terry Fox was the young man who attempted to run across Canada on an artificial leg (lost to cancer) to raise consciousness and money. He didn’t make it all the way, the cancer came back to claim him, but he captured the hearts of his nation, and had a beautiful mountain named after him. Tens of thousands stop here each year and many must be moved by his courage and message of hope. His message to me is: keep on keeping on, it’s the journey that matters, not the end.

We camped beside the river and then rode (unloaded) up a trail beside a raging creek, so loud we couldn’t hear each other. It pounded close beside Zippy’s wheels and distracted me from steering; we turned back before disaster. Coming down, we yielded to some hikers, and enjoyed their looks of amazement at seeing a tandem on the trail.

We’re officially in the Rocky Mountains now. Yellow Canola blossoms and green boreal forests line the lower reaches, sub alpine fir, rocks and snow dominate the heights. All along the Yellowhead, red, orange and magenta Indian paintbrush has been thick as fireweed at home.

Icefields Parkway

The Icefields Parkway through Jasper and Banff National Parks were one of our (very few) goals on this trip. After the weather of the first nearly three weeks, we feared clouds and rain would hide the spectacular scenery we knew was there.

One the Icefields

Apparently we earned some good weather, because we had four glorious days of sun with just enough wind to help out with the mosquitoes. The mountains are impossibly rugged and high (just like the calendars), the valleys are deep and rounded by huge glaciers, now retreated to the heights, still visible in white and the aquamarine color only seen in glacial ice.

The mornings were cool, two degrees Celsius, and afternoons as warm as 33C  by Banff. Mostly we rode in shirtsleeves and had to worry about sunburn, but we often started mornings with three layers including our heavy lobster-claw mittens.

One campsite on the North Saskatchewan River falls in my top ten of all time wonderful places to sleep. The river, wide and braided in places, is blue/green, softened with the white of rock flour from the glaciers. The banks are mostly open meadows lined with sub alpine firs and white barked birch trees, first seen when we crossed the continental divide. The birch are something like aspen, but with smaller leaves, and the trunks have a distinctive gray slashes.

The river was warmer than the creeks and not unpleasant for a quick, much needed, bath. Our tent was but three meters away; the shoosh and burble of it washed away the noise of our tour-bus infested day.

Cliffs of a thousand meters rose on both sides, though not too close, and warmed with the lowering sun. Here in Jasper Park, they almost look like the buttes of Southern Utah or Northern Arizona; just replace the firs with juniper and add some red to the rock.

After sunset, a full moon rose between the ramparts, silhouetting the thin elegant sub alpine firs on a quicksilver river.

Our days were not long on the Parkway, averaging less than 100 clicks (62 miles), on the road by 8:30 am and off by 3 pm. Two long hills got us the usual sentiments of respect from the tourists, “I’m out of breath walking to the viewpoint from the bus!”

We stopped often for pictures and snacks and visited with other cyclists. We saw wildlife, a moose, elk and one brown bear, mule deer and lots of Clark’s nutcrackers.

There were many interpretive signs and we stopped for most of them. There is much geology to learn, or as I am want to do, surmise, and check the facts later; plant adaptations from the long winter, huge swaths of avalanche shattered trees to wonder at, and the varied and beautiful hues of the rivers of water and ice.

At one stop, our high point at 7,000 feet, I saw a bus with a sign, West Virginia Travelers. A native of West Virginia, I had to board the bus and see who was there. The first woman I talked to was from near to my Tornado home. “Why, I’m from Sod, you know Sod, up Alum Creek!” Indeed I do know Sod. Who could forget a place with a name like, Sod.

The really amazing thing is they got on that bus in Charleston, West Virginia, were going from here to somewhere in California, then who knows where else, and back to Charleston in, get this, 23 days! Those people, none of them under 70, are a whole lot tougher than we are. We could never survive that. They’re crazy. Now I know how most people see us. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Talking about travelers. I have come to the conclusion that Japan empties in the month of July, and most of the population comes to the Canadian Rockies on tour buses. They’re very friendly, though most don’t speak much English, and we speak no Japanese. At the stop where we saw the West Virginians, a crowd of Japanese gathered around Zippy talking rapidly, nodding and smiling and asking us questions in Japanese. We answered in English, nodded and smiled. It was an altogether satisfying communication; strange and funny and satisfying..

The cross-cultural opportunities are vast in a place where so many nationalities come. We parked Zippy outside the Icefield Centre while we partook of a buffet ($30 Canadian for two, they lost money). The Centre is where every tour-bus in North America stops. Zippy was parked right in front of the famous Columbia Icefield. He has a large American flag, and a smaller Canadian flag just below that, on a fishing pole/flag pole. There were Japanese and Australians, Brits and Germans, all using our flags in their compositions (rippling in a light breeze). Old Glory will wave proudly from many a video and slide presentation all around the world this winter.

On one of only two long steep climbs, we were the object of attention of a group of tourists at a pullout. We were in our lowest gear going about five clicks, when one of the men, speaking loudly in French, ran up beside and began to push us up the hill. I shifted up two gears and accepted his help, what the heck. I soon realized he was playing Tour de France (the most famous of bicycle races), giving one of his countrymen some help up the famous Alps D’Huez stage of the race. All his friends clapped and cheered; we waved and set off to catch the yellow jersey, just ahead.

Our first morning south of Jasper, we were caught and passed on a slight hill by a very fit looking woman on an unloaded bike. She said hello. On the downhill we passed her in typical tandem style. Hello again. On the uphill she passed again, and we on the downhill, “We have an unfair advantage on the downhills.” I said to her. “We could be doing this all the day,” she said with a slight but noticeable French accent, and a shining smile.

Later we stopped to take off and repack clothes and several riders, also unloaded, passed us. We wondered if they were part of one of the commercial groups we are accustomed to seeing in parks. The riders carry maybe a jacket and a snack and everything else is carried by a “sag” vehicle. Usually they arrive at a hotel, B&B or campground with everything taken care of. We have never done one of these trips; they cost $1500 US a trip or more, per week, and we can travel five or six weeks on that. But, someday we may try one.

At the top of a long hill we saw the group gathered on the other side of a bridge over a deep gorge and creek. We needed privacy for the usual reasons, stopped short of them and went our own way, Claire under the bridge and I into the woods, making our usual bear noises, “Hi bear! Nice bear!” We noticed some of the group waving at us and then one of them riding toward us yelling something. I finished and came back to see what he wanted.

“There was a bear on this bridge not 30 seconds before you came around that corner,” he pointed, “and he went over the hill right here!”

By now Claire was out from under the bridge and the group was gathered around us. We had not surprised the bear (or would it be the other way around), and now they wanted to find out where we had been and where we were going, the usual road bonding between cyclists.

They were a group, most of whom work for the same hotel in Calgary. I first thought it was a sort of do-it-yourself Outward Bound, but it proved to be just a holiday.

We were to see them, or their sag, several times each day as we progressed and gradually got to know them:

Francisco, manager of the Calgary hotel and organizer of the trip, is from Mexico and has the accent, softened by years in Canada. He has intense eyes, a black mustache and easy pleasant manner. With him was Marilyn, who took it upon herself to make us feel welcome always.

Francisco’s friends Cathy and Michael, are a doctor and attorney respectively; married three years and very much the love-birds, they were teased a bit and didn’t seem to mind. We got them to try Zippy one day (unloaded) and they are definitely on for a tandem, before long. They had tried one before and had a negative experience, but Zippy made them feel secure and in control. Good boy.

Steve is Francisco’s friend, and the kind of guy you probably had in your high school class or fraternity. He was the one who was always stirring things up, planning the next party or prank, joking and laughing, full of energy.

Sibyl, the youngest, tall with short hair, a generation-X with ready laughter and lots of enthusiasm.

Andre, the sophisticated expatriate Swiss who had a French mother and German father and grew up in the Italian part of Switzerland and came to Canada by way of South Africa and the U.S.

Ann, head of customer relations for the Calgary hotel, has not been an active person, and is happy to be meeting the physical demands of the trip, and pleased to find herself mixing outside of business and enjoying it so much.

Marcelle, the woman who kept passing us, is the wife of the international hotel chain president. She is the kind of woman equally comfortable at an elegant dinner party and sleeping in communal bunkhouse with her mostly new friends. Young looking for her age, she’s a grandmother, she’s confident without makeup or designer clothes.

We generally kept their pace and stayed at campgrounds very close to the hostels they had reserved. We visited for coffee one morning, and were guests for a dinner their last night, prepared with creativity and presented with elegant humor by Francisco and Steve, using leftovers, and requiring consumption of the remaining wine.

Steve baked bananas in the campfire and then smothered them with a Baileys Irish Cream and chocolate sauce. All their dinners were gourmet; they were the talk of the hostel circuit, the next hostel down the Parkway always knew to expect elaborate meal preparation.

They were ready to go home. After spending just one full evening with them, Claire and I decided we couldn’t keep up their pace of riding and partying for long.