Riding Through Canada (June 2004)
“Are you tough? If so, get out. I need buggers with intelligence”
—sign in first HQ of SBS
“We must not be too busy dreaming to forget to live”
“For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.”
— John Steinbeck
If the criteria for a ‘great’ city include – as I believe they should – mountains, ocean, parks, ethnic and cultural diversity and cricket pitches, then Vancouver is up there with the best. We rode out (or oot) past the green gem of Stanley Park, past the polished glass clean and quiet of the downtown, past sea-planes and cruise ships and yachts, and over the Lions Gate bridge and we pointed our noses north towards Alaska. The end of the Americas creeps ever closer.
‘We’ is me and David Elliott, my friend from school and university who vowed after we cycled through Central America in 1998 that if ever he was seen on a bike again then I had his permission to shoot him. He had had enough. But that is the beauty of miserable experiences: the rose-tinted glasses of time and, in his case, the shackles of a city desk, are sure to eventually persuade you that maybe it wasn’t so hard after all and – given enough time, work and soft living – that actually you would like to do the same miserable thing all over again! He has been victim to a few subtle jibes on these pages and so now has managed to blag three months off work to ride with me from Vancouver to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
After much procrastination two books have forced me to choose a name for my new bike. My list of ‘Potential Wives’ now includes Beryl Markham and Beryl Smeeton. Both are dead, which tends to complicate marriage plans, but at least I have a bike name now. Dave has named his bike ‘Buck’ after the dog in ‘Call of the Wild’ that was taken from a comfy city life and trained and hardened into a tough, northern working beast. We concluded the ceremony with a sprinkling of beer and got back on the road again.
As always, having company is a joy. We left town looking grizzly in huge fake tatoos (me: rose-entwined dagger, he: busty mermaid), began a three month beard growing contest, and signed ourselves up on www.hotornot.com to settle the dispute for good. Dave is not one to fall for my lifestyle of masochistic, puritanical ascetism. So I readily succumbed to a more lavish diet. I knew that it would not take long to gently twist his mentality to one of days filled with massive miles, so for the first few days on the road I eased off and relaxed and waited for his sinews to stiffen, for fitness to return and for him to forget about the ‘sweet, lazy life’ for a while. For a time I can enjoy the ease and comfort. McTouring, I call it.
But we rode every day for three tough weeks from Vancouver to Whitehorse through massive landscapes of lakes, rivers and trees. Even Google cannot tell me how many trees there are in Canada. I tried to calculate it myself, but got confused around a zillion. As I write this the Yukon sky is orange-grey and the sun a feeble disc, hidden in the smoke from forest fires feasting on half a million football fields worth of forest. The sheer enormity and emptiness of Canada thrills me. The Yukon alone is twice the size of Great Britain, yet its 30,000 inhabitants are less than you would find in Elland Road Stadium, Leeds on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
The ‘Sea to Sky’ Highway sounded painful but wasn’t, though a stonking 9 mile climb the next day certainly hurt. The road has been gently hilly, but the heatwave has been fierce: 37C makes for brutal riding and many streams and lakes brought blessed relief. Dancing meltwater streams, shining in the sun bubble and chortle their busy way. To leap in naked and come up laughing hard and throw back your head to howl in shocked delight at the burning cold is to feel like you will be young and alive for ever. Back on the silent bikes the horrible sweating would soon start again though.
Better even than the rivers and the long, light days is the wildlife of Canada. We have seen moose, deer and beaver dams, bald eagles, fox and coyote, and shy, impressive black bears. A mother and her two cubs grazed amongst dandelion clocks as we stood transfixed and delighted. We persevere with our fishing although our set-ups of line, hook and chewing gum paper lures have not yet tempted those shining bars of silver.
The undisputed worst part of Canada are the mosquitoes. Camping we stew in full waterproofs, gloves and head net, yet still clouds of evil hum round your head like dentist drills, teasing and torturing sharp as ‘sailors knives’. Waking in the morning your first sight is of a patient crowd of them sitting waiting on the tent. As my legs burn and I can taste my lungs and the hot sweat stings my eyes on a painful, slow hill climb, the mosquitoes are so uncaring as to still feast on me then; surely the worst possible addition to an already unpleasant scenario. A rotting, putrid moose lay decaying by the road, heaving with maggots. Yet we both agreed that we would rather lick that moose than stand naked as mosquito food at dusk.
Dave has been reading a book on Buddhism and for one impressive evening he did wonders for his karma by not killing a single mosquito. By the next day, however, full-on slaughter had resumed. It is awful. And locals delight in telling you that “this is nothing! Wait till you get up North….” Meanwhile the birds sing softly and the mountains shine on unperturbed. I leave you to imagine the delights of going to the toilet in the woods here in mosquito hell.
A little lower than the mosquitoes on the irritation register are the RVs. I have written in amazement before about these enormous monsters that tow big jeeps behind them. On the Cassiar and Alaska Highways it is hard to feel remote and adventurous when every beauty spot has an RV Park (“Cable TV! Gift Shop!”). Small towns exclaim their attractions: “World famous DoNuts!”, “World renowned giant igloo!”, “World’s largest fishing rod!”, “World’s largest wooden carved Mounted Policeman!” (I have honestly seen all these). Wherever you look are the shiny white, loud, lumbering, super-sized rear ends of RVs. Robert Service would certainly not approve.
One of the stickers on my bike says “Live like you’ll die tomorrow”. Dave regularly says that if he were to die tomorrow then today would certainly not be spent on the bike. I had to agree that hot beaches and fast women certainly make more sense.
We managed to find a TV in time for each of England’s matches in Euro 2004. Oh, the agony of being an England fan – 38 years of hurt now. Unfortunately I doubt that I will get to watch much of this year’s Tour de France. Lance is gunning for an unprecedented sixth victory and I wish I could urge him on. An inspiration for all the oft-stated reasons, I also admire him for the loyalty and gratitude he has shown to those who helped put him where he is today. It is a far cry from certain much less talented football players with no concept of pride, loyalty or gratitude who will, for a few quid and a sniff of glory, eagerly betray those who have lifted them up to where they are today.
Canadians are very friendly people, but I have to agree with the Americans that they do talk funny, ay! It is a pleasure to be surrounded by people who are like a cheerful, prosperous and educated version of home. To be north of my home for the first time on this journey, to enjoy a northern solstice and to be in the Yukon is exciting. ‘Yukon’ is one of those glorious sounding places – like ‘Patagonia’ or ‘Mongolia’ – that reek of adventure and big skies: ‘the freshness, the freedom, the farness’. We have crossed the Yukon River which ‘like threaded quicksilver, gleams to the eye’ and now, as the RVers often paint on the back of their convoys, it is ‘Alaska or Bust!’
THANK YOU for the sponsorship and support of these awesome, enthusiastic companies. I hope that I can repay your faith and support
The best quality down equipment in the world? Probably. www.featheredfriends.com
The best bike shop on the west coast? Probably. www.bikegallery.com
The most diverse camping company in the world? Probably. www.coleman.com
My last article produced a glut of replies, both of applause and rage. Thanks for all of them. If the ratio stays the same in November I will be delighted: even the Floridans could not miscount that! Here are a few points that came up a lot:
and, unlike Samuel Johnson, I am willing to love all mankind, including an American! America is a fantastic place, and what I wrote was, in my opinion, a way to strive for global acceptance and understanding which would benefit EVERYBODY.
the poems of Robert Service for a taste of the Yukon and virility!
High Endeavours; the life and adventures of Miles and Beryl Smeeton – Miles Clark
West with the Night – Beryl Markham
A COUPLE of websites:
Support a quest that defines ‘against the odds’ – www.wearyellow.com
A nice adventure: www.vancouvertomoscow.com (Hope you found the rocks by now, boys!)
I APOLOGISE to Seattle for the disastrous slideshow I held there. If it is any consolation, I have done several hundred presentations now, and yours was unique!
THANK YOU to Portland for an awesome turnout (and hangover)
AND IF YOU WANT to know what Canada is really about….. here it is from the mouth of Joe – a man on a beer ad:
I’m not a lumberjack,
or a fur trader…
and I don’t live in an igloo
or eat blubber, or own a dogsled…
and I don’t know Jimmy, Sally or Suzy from Canada,
although I’m certain they’re really, really nice.
I have a Prime Minister,
not a President.
I speak English and French,
and I pronounce it ABOUT,
NOT A BOOT.
I can proudly sew my country’s flag on my backpack.
I believe in peace keeping, NOT policing.
DIVERSITY, NOT assimilation,
AND THAT THE BEAVER IS A TRULY PROUD AND NOBLE ANIMAL.
A TOQUE IS A HAT,
A CHESTERFIELD IS A COUCH,
AND IT IS PRONOUCED ‘ZED’ NOT ‘ZEE’, ‘ZED’!
CANADA IS THE SECOND LARGEST LANDMASS!
THE FIRST NATION OF HOCKEY!
AND THE BEST PART OF NORTH AMERICA!
MY NAME IS JOE!
AND I AM CANADIAN!