The journey begins...

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VANCOUVER & VANCOUVER ISLAND
 


9/16/2007  Scenic route to Vancouver

Highway 99 west to Vancouver is a well-known scenic route that passes through the popular ski resort of Whistler.  We were thrilled to see that the weather was better for this ride.  We were surprised to watch the landscape turn to a very dry, sandy scene with short bushes and few trees.  The deep canyons, carved by rivers set deep into the canyons, reminded us both of northeast Oklahoma and New Mexico.  It was not the landscape we were expecting.  Further along, modest houses that were built near the canyon cliffs looked frighteningly close to the edge.  I imagined someone innocently taking an evening stroll in the backyard and slipping into the abyss…yikes!  The road was carved through the mountains, providing fabulous views, although the road surface was not always the best.  It reminded Darren of our previous trip to Peru, although at much lower altitudes.  Traffic was heavier along this popular route.  Beyond the mountains there were many wooden bridges crossing small streams as the forest became greener and thick with moisture. 

We stopped for lunch as a rest stop along a river with picnic tables.  There was an old pulley cable with a bucket car over the river to transport gold miners to the other side of the river.  I was amazed to see that the river had spawning salmon – being so far from the ocean!  We expected the upcoming road construction as Vancouver prepared itself tp host the 2010 Olympics.  It was interesting to see native protest banners urging for a ban on the Olympics to recognize their land rights.  I have repeatedly noticed more positive relationships between white and native Canadians compared to those in the U.S., but I have not traveled extensively through the most heavily populated native lands in the U.S.  It appears that Canada has made considerable efforts toward reconciliation with native communities, but – as with all of these situations – wrongful historical deeds can never truly be righted. 

We were immersed in traffic as we entered Whistler – a strange sensation after traveling through small towns and forested roads for so long.  Whistler has been consistently ranked as the number one ski resort in North America offering ski adventures for at least six months of the year.  The tight, winding scenic road that Darren remembered from a business trip to this area in 2002 has been replaced by a four lane highway connecting the swanky ski resort to the city of Vancouver.  The scenery was still there, but it had lost much of its influence to the concrete barriers and busy traffic. 

For the first time on our journey, we had used the resources of Horizons Unlimited to request assistance with accommodation in Vancouver.  We were shocked at the flood of responses!  Within 48 hours we had received 4 offers for food and shelter in the city.  We chose to accept an offer based on location and navigated our way to the inner-city apartment of our host, Seth.  Vancouver holds a dramatic location between the lofty Coast Moutnians and expansive Pacific Ocean.  It is referred to as a modern, multi-cultural metropolis at the edge of rugged wilderness.  Riding through the downtown during rush hour was stressful, especially with so many areas under construction as the city installed a new subway along the street behind Seth’s apartment.  Seth was a great host and we appreciate his willingness to open his home to us. His wife was studying in Scotland during our visit, so we missed the opportunity to meet her personally.  We enjoyed dinner and stayed up late sharing motorbike stories and travel photos. 

9/17/2007 

Seth rose early to go to work, while Darren and I enjoyed sleeping late.  Darren’s cooling fan was still not working and he had diagnosed the problem to be in a switch.  Using the Internet, we located a Kawasaki shop in Burnaby - about 10 kilometers east of downtown Vancouver and the second largest center for employment in the area.  We decided to use public transportation to get there – taking it as an opportunity to see the city.  Walking out onto the city streets, the sounds and smells of a busy city invade our senses.  Vancouver is very much a people place where residents live and work within a small radius so that the downtown communities are always bustling with activity.  Crossing Cambie Street, we sat down for a Thai lunch before crossing the Cambie Bridge to walk into downtown. Walking across the Cambie Bridge toward downtown, there were great views of Telus World of Science under the shimmering silver geodesic dome.   Darren noticed the architecture of the high-rise buildings as similar to newer buildings in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia – with reflective siding and glossy balconies that mirror the mountains and seas that surround the city.  We rode the Skytrain out of downtown, but - upon the advice of a woman in an information center - we did not follow the directions I had gotten from the Internet.  Instead of exiting to take a 30 minute bus ride to the shop, we rode the train down to the next station to enjoy a short walk to our destination.  This plan would have worked out very well if the weather had cooperated with us…It was raining as we stepped off the train, but we had our rain jackets with us and an umbrella, so we carried on.  The rain poured harder and harder and even turned to small-sized hail that poured down our waterproof jackets and completely soaked our pants, socks and shoes by the time we reached our destination, nearly 30 minutes later.  This made the travel time to the shop equal to the bus route, but a whole lot wetter!  Darren collected the part and we hung around the store for a while, hoping to get a break in the weather as hail poured down onto the motorbikes displayed on the sidewalk in front of the shop.  We agreed to take the bus back and watched the weather improve as we returned to the downtown on the Skytrain.  Playing the role ‘stupid tourist’ on the final bus ride up Cambie Street successfully prevented us from having to purchase a second fare!

After cleaning ourselves up a bit, Seth returned home from a hard day at the office and we all headed to the home of Patrick and Danette.  Patrick and Danette were not only friends of Seth’s, but also one of the four offers of accommodation we had received from our post on Horizons Unlimited.  They had previously traveled 2-up through Europe on a BMW. They prepared an amazing feast of grilled salmon, including asparagus and sautéed peppers.  Patrick had actually caught the fish himself on a trip to the north shore of Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.  Throughout Canada and Alaska I have wished for a meal of fresh salmon and the hospitality around this dinner table could not have made it better.  Our only big regret of the evening was not getting a photograph!  It was an especially enjoyable evening sharing stories of motorcycle travel with laughter and new friends. 

9/18/2007

Darren woke with the feeling that he was coming down with a cold, so we decided to take it easy and hung around the apartment all morning.  We ventured out for lunch and returned for a short while before meeting up with another motorcycle traveler who had offered us assistance in Vancouver.  Peter was in the final weeks of preparing for his own motorcycle adventure to Tierra del Fuego – an impressive journey for a man of 66!  Although it must be said that we have found the bonds of age are continuously being defied by motorcyclist we meet on this trip.  Peter had lived in Canada for most of his life, but he was originally from Germany.  After some serious sharing of advice and tips on motorcycle travel, Peter took us on a whirlwind tour of Vancouver in his car. 

Vancouver is North America's busiest seaport, exporting more than 70 million tons of cardo from 20 specialized terminals.  The cruise ship terminal serves approximately a million passengers each year aboard luxury cruise ships heading for Alaska.  We first rode to Elizabeth Park where two former stone quarries that have been converted into a dramatic park boasting the inner city's highest elevation at only 515 feet, providing fantastic views over the city.  The park also houses the Bloedel Conservatory, a geodesic dome made of 1490 plexiglass bubbles that house 500 species and plant varieties with numerous exotic tropical birds.  Unfortunately this conservatory was closed due to a government worker strike - a common sight in British Columbia.   Next we rode through North America's third largest Chinatown (after San Francisco and New York) where we were welcomed into the community with an impressive showy gate spanning across the roadway.  Above the frantic activity of the streets hung ornamental street lamps, signs in Chinese characters and telephone booths with Pagoda-style roofs.  Amidst all the hubbub of the city, we rode slowly past the tranquil oasis of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden - a $5 million dollar Ming Dynasty replica built by artisans from Suxhou.  It is the first authentic classical Chinese garden built outside China.  Peter told us the story of the origins of False Creek.  Apparently early settlers believed the creek was the mouth of the Fraser River and when they discovered they had been mistaken, the saltwater inlet was forever known as False Creek.  The area stood for decades as an industrial area until renovations began in 1986 as the city hosted the World's Fair and is now booming with development.  We passed by the world's thinnest building - as recognized by Guinness Book of World Records.  North of downtown, we moved through the cobblestone streets and brick facades of Gastown, an area that echoed Vancouver's early days.  We passed by the statue of the area's founder 'Gassy' Jack Deighton and were amused by the colorful  street names -  such as Bloody Alley and Gaoler's Mews.  It was in this area that we stopped to see a popular tourist attraction, a steam-powered grandfather clock. 

 

 

Peter was a fabulous guide and we wish him all the best on his ride south.  Returning to Seth’s apartment, we had an early night in preparation for our departure in the morning. 

9/19/2007

We packed up early and left as Seth departed for work in the morning.  Our first order of business was to return to the motorbike shop in Burnaby.  In addition to needing a new chain and sprocket for Darren’s bike, his diagnosis of the cooling fan had not solved the problem.  The parts and service departments were remarkably friendly, helpful and reasonably priced. 

We finally got moving again and rode north along the highway to Horseshoe Bay, where we boarded our first large ferry.  The ferry crossing we took across the Yukon River in Dawson City could only carry about 8 cars – while this ferry was a massive ship capable of carrying 100’s of vehicles on multiple levels.  As motorcyclists, we are loaded first onto the ship and are the first to depart at our destination.  After securing the bikes, we climbed the stairs to the passenger section where there was a small cafeteria.  This ferry is the only way for motorists to travel along paved roads to the ‘Sunshine Coast’ north of Vancouver.  The Sunshine Coast is a 180 Kilometer stretch of roadway along the coast north of Vancouver named for its 2,400 hours of annual sunshine.     We arrived in Langdale, our destination, about 40 minutes later and continued north.  The scenery of the sea was refreshing and the roadway held some nice curves, but there was too much traffic and too many side roads to safely ride at higher speeds.  The area is populated by dream-seekers desiring a slower paced, coastal lifestyle surrounded with old growth forests and alpine peaks. While it is technically part of the mainland coast, the Sunshine Coast feels more like an island - since it is only reachable by ferry or air flight.   At Earl’s Cove we boarded our second ferry of the day, which took us to Saltery Bay.  Here the mossy rainforest drops from a sculpted shoreline into the Strait of Georgia and winds itself northward beneath the Coast Mountains. 

We finally made it to Powell River in the late afternoon.  Powell River is a young city, formally established in 2005, but has held a community since 1910, when the Powell River Company built a paper mill at the mouth of the world’s second shortest river.  It is a city that is proud of its accessibility and inclusion for those this developmental delays and physical disabilities, an accomplishment that was recognized as the city hosted the 2007 BC Disability Games.  We located a campground that was very close to the ferry terminal – since we planned to take the morning ferry to Vancouver Island.  Although the campground was beside the beach, we didn’t have enough time to enjoy the scenery before nightfall.  It is times like this that I miss the late daylight of Alaska and the Yukon!

9/20/2007

We planned to rise early to pack up leisurely before catching the ferry at 8:15am, but the alarm clock wasn’t properly set and we woke at 7:30!  I was surprised at our ability to get moving quickly when necessary – we are generally so slow!  We made it in time and spent the journey in conversation with another motorcyclist on a Harley.  Geographically Vancouver Island is situated less than twenty minutes by air from either Vancouver or Seattle and has the mildest climate in Canada.  After the ferry departed in Comox, we crossed over to Courtenay and headed north on 19A, the scenic seaside route that passes through small towns. It was consistently raining, windy and cold – an uncomfortable and dangerous ride.  Our plan was to ride west on Highway 28 to Gold River – a route that had been suggested by some of our new friends in Vancouver, but the rain became so miserably heavy that we stopped at a visitor’s center in Campbell River to take refuge.  We agreed that the weather was turning this rise into one in which we would be unable to see anything beyond the immediate roadway and not worth the efforts. As the rain continued to fall in sheets, we asked the attendants about the forecast and were told that it was predicted to rain for the next several days.  A couple of weeks earlier, Darren had made contact with a local motorcyclist on the website Adventure Rider who had offered accommodation on the Island.  We agreed to attempt to contact him for assistance. After leaving him a voicemail, we began researching other options.  It is a common problem trying to make contact with people without carrying a cell phone – since they cannot call you back.  We tried calling a second time and he answered.  Lee made arrangements with us to meet up in the late afternoon as we approached his home in Mill Bay – which was a few hours south from Campbell River.  As we ate our lunch in the visitor center we were approached by a local motorcyclist who was also into traveling.  He worked as the captain of the ferry that ran to Cortes Island – an interesting occupation.  We enjoyed a couple of hours conversation before finally gearing up for the ride south.  It had nearly stopped raining – although the skies remained overcast.  Near Parksville, the Oceanside route ends and the only path south is the expressway of Highway 19 to Nanaimo.  We exited into Nanaimo briefly where we were not impressed with the signs of poverty and drug problems.  Nanaimo is the second largest city on Vancouver Island and we had been told that it was a city with a history of drug problems – often reportedly related to the operations of the Hell’s Angels. 

Moving further south, we were surprised and relieved to find the weather much clearer – not exactly summer skies – but no more rain and the occasional glimpse of sunlight.  We met Lee at a Tim Horton’s in Mill Bay.  Tim Horton’s is a fast food/ coffee shop chain that was started by the former hockey star of the same name.  In addition to coffee and donuts, they sell soups and sandwiches and are absolutely loved by Canadians everywhere we went.  This was my first time entering one and although the donut was pretty good, my chai tea was not… I could imagine the soups and sandwiches to be quite tasty.  Lee arrived and escorted us to his home, which sat on the top of a hill and had an unbelievable view of the sea from the wrap-around front deck. 

Lee’s wife, Jeanie, ran a mini-spa on the lowest level of the home and also made wigs for cancer patients.  They fed us a wonderful steak dinner and we stayed up late drinking an alcoholic beverage called Extra.  It was referred to as cider, but tasted more like a non-alcoholic bubbly, fruity wine.  It was dangerously yummy and sold in a 2-liter bottle like a soft drink in the U.S.  It was a fun evening of laughing and sharing stories.

9/21/2007

We woke slowly and enjoyed some breakfast Jeanie had prepared before taking showers and preparing for the day’s ride.  The weather was good – although it always seemed to be overcast and threatening to rain.  We decided to take our chances and head north again to see more of the island.  We rode through Chemainus, known as the town of murals, which boasts 32 murals in their ‘outdoor art gallery’.  Nearly every building throughout the small community was ordained with murals depicting various elements of the town’s pioneer heritage, especially related to the native culture.  As we passed by the town of Ladysmith, I noticed the steep hills leading to the main street and thought that its’ residents must have a great view of the Georgia Strait from the hillside - later found it was named one of the ten prettiest towns in Canada. 

Back onto the expressway, we quickly passed Nanaimo again and took a cutoff route to Highway 4 that led us through the town of Coombs with a quaint pub and café.  Riding a short distance further, we stopped at Cathedral Grove, a lovely old growth cedar grove that are at least 800 years old – and protected from the huge logging industry of the island.  After a quick lunch on the roadside, we took a short walk among the massive old trees covered in green moss.  There were many fallen trees and signs to warn walkers to take cover quickly in strong winds.  We rode through Port Alberni, where the road became much quieter, and wondered over higher hills.  We searched unsuccessfully for a camping value, but found ourselves in a provincial park at Sprout Lake charging a ridiculous $18 for camping with vault toilets and no electricity.  I am sure we could have backcountry camped fro free if we had known where it was safe to go. 

9/22/2007

The ride west along Highway 4 had beautiful scenery and great curves, although the road surface could have been better.  There was constant traffic in both directions, as this was the only paved route reaching the two west coast cities of Ucluelet and Tofino.  The forest became impassibly thick along the roadside with plants weaved together in a tight tangle of impenetrable root and ivy.  Passing Kennedy Lake, we knew we were very close to the west coast.  We stopped at a visitor center to the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, a stretch of protected land that is a part of a world biosphere reserve.  Of course they wanted visitors to purchase a park pass to enjoy the facilities within the reserve, but could not restrict entry through the park because it encompassed the only paved road to the town of Tofino.  We chose to ride south first through the town of Ucluelet to the end of a peninsula and the lighthouse maintained by the Canadian coastguard.  The view was nice, but restricted by the low clouds.  It was a very rocky coastline where the ocean seemed capable of horrendous acts of violence.  Looking out from the lighthouse, it was strange to think that that next major piece of land would be Japan.  We rode back to the center of town where we had lengthy conversations with a few locals before spoiling ourselves at a little café for lunch. 

Riding north again, we entered the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.  The roadway was well maintained and traffic was moderate.  We passed quickly along the route to Tofino.  As we rode beyond the reserve, there were numerous large resorts, smaller bed and breakfasts, and a couple of campgrounds.  Tofino overlooks Clayoquot Sound, which is an area that was designated British Columbia's first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.  It is surrounded by old growth forests, white sand beaches and the Pacific Ocean.  Tofino was a cute touristy town with a strong surfer culture.  It is the only place on the West Coast of Canada where you can find long-board surfers riding the waves year-round.  This is an interesting scene for me, while Darren, being raised near the ocean and surfing, found it less amusing.  We stopped at a café to attempt to use the Internet, but our dying laptop refused to cooperate – finalizing our decision to purchase a replacement once we returned to the U.S.  After a quick walk along the harbor, we rode back into the reserve. 

The reserve spans 130 kilometers of coastland and includes Long Beach, named for its 10 kilometer stretch of smooth white  sand.  The sound of the waves, the smell of the fresh sea air, and the tingle of the salty breeze invaded our senses and begged us to stay longer.  We decided to camp at Green Point, the only campground within the reserve.  The forest surrounding us was remarkable and unlike any I have ever seen.  The trees were very tall and covered in a green moss.  The forest floor was composed less of soil than of the remains of mossy, fallen trees – leaving a ground that looks green, unstable and dangerous.  It reminded us both of the forest scenes from the Star Wars film ‘Return of the Jedi’.  Walking along the trail to the beach, the forest walls were a weave of ivy and thick underbrush about 4 feet high where one could not possibly walk off the path.  On the beach the sun was beginning to set in the sky and the waves were flat, so all the surfers had finished up for the day.  A few other tourists also walked along quietly, respecting the value of the natural beauty that surrounded them.  It was almost dark when we returned to our campsite for dinner.  After eating, Darren was struggling to create a fire from limbs we had collected (we were unwilling to pay $6 for a bundle of wood when a friendly RV camper noticed his efforts and donated an armload of dry firewood – a much appreciated gesture as the evening had become quite cold. 

9/23/2007

Knowing the weather was forecasting rain, we were relieved to wake up to a dry campsite and quickly packed up to retrace the only paved road leading east.  Once we were on the road, it didn’t take very long for the rain to catch up with us.  It was cold and gloomy when we reached Port Alberni.  We stopped at a Tim Horton’s to try out their soup and sandwiches – which was just the comfort food we had been craving.  The rain cleared as we continued east on Highway 4 to Highway 19 south past Nanaimo, quickly riding through the charming main streets of Ladysmith and Chemainus.  Vancouver Island had left a very positive impression on me as a beautiful place to live with great outdoor activities and friendly locals – and close to both Vancouver and Seattle.  Although our first impressions of Nanaimo weren’t great, I hoped to find Victoria to be a clean, friendly city. 

Victoria is known as an active city, with opportunities for cyclist, scuba-divers, boaters, kite-flying, windsurfing, and much more.  It is a haven for bohemian artists, boasting the highest number of artists per capita in Canada and being unofficially referred to as the ‘BoHo’ capital of British Columbia.  As BC’s capital city, it is also the hub of provincial politics.  It is a city that is very proud of its’ British origins while boasting of the blending of European and Asian culture.  By the mid-1840’s the British had established themselves in Fort Victoria and when the gold rush began in the 1850’s, the city became a starting point for European and Asian miners.  The Inner Harbour of Downtown Victoria was lovely as we rode across the Johnson Street Bridge toward the downtown travel info-center located along the waterfront.  On a small island of grass in the center of the intersection, a violinist dressed in a Darth Vader costume played to the amusement of nearby tourists.  We gathered some information and set off to find one of the two local hostels.  This is the first hostel we have used on our journey. 

Ocean Island on Pandora Avenue was able to give us accommodation in the last available double bed in a dorm room occupied by 2 bunk beds.  The hostel was quite large, with four stories accommodating about 200 beds with a large community kitchen, lounge and pub on the main floor.  On the street outside, we immediately noticed the overwhelming number of homeless people asking for money or simply watching us from the sidewalks.  We obtained a map from the hostel of parking garages and set off to find a safe place for the bikes.  Unbelievably, the first 2 parkades we visited would not allow motorcycles to park there – and the attendant could not give us any reason for the ban.  We finally located a place for them about 3 blocks from the hostel.  

As we walked around Victoria, we were continually disappointed at the number of beggars and drug-induced street kids on every block.  As we walked closer to the harbor among some of the more expensive restaurants and pubs that cater to tourists, there seemed to be a few less vagrants.  We almost had dinner at an expensive Indian restaurant, but thanks to the slow service to take our order, we thought better of it and left.  As it began to rain, we found ourselves at a cheap pizza shop where teens and young adults were hanging out.  It was horribly food!  There was a young blonde guy, about 20 years old, who was very high on some drug, probably meth, in front of the shop talking to himself and anyone who happened to walk past.  We quickly made our way back to the hostel, glad to be out of the cold rain and among other travelers. 

We spent the evening at the hostel pub, feeling a bit old for the crowd, but happy to know we were only 2 floors below our bed for the night.  We spent some time chatting with Travis and Fiona, a couple from Darwin (Australia) who were riding bicycles down the Pacific Coast.  They had spent a few months cycling in Laos before coming to North America and would be headed back to Darwin after reaching Mexico.  It was quite late when we quietly crawled into our bed – trying to be respectful of our dorm-mates. The noise of the city street below came through the open window next to the bed so clearly that it was as if we were sleeping on the sidewalk.  The room was small, stuffy and hot, so we tried to keep the window open for ventilation.  After a few hours of struggling for sleep, Darren asked me to close the window.  In a half-sleep, I tried to carefully control the window as it slammed down across the finger knuckles on my left hand, leaving me curled in misery on the bed clutching my hand in tears. 

9/24/2007  AM

It was a miserably night, but luckily my hand was only bruised.  When the alarm clock sounded at 8:30am neither of us had actually gotten much sleep, but we were forced to quietly remove our things from the room, retrieve the motorbikes from the parkade and load up to leave.  While I checked out of the hostel, I overheard the staff warning other visitors about a needle exchange room for heroine users that was located only a block away – explaining some of the problems we had seen on the streets.  As the bikes were parked in front of the hostel on the street, a Westalia hippie-van pulled up and nearly back into Darren, who had to jump out of the way.  Darren approached the driver and told him that he almost hit him and he should be more careful.  The driver was rude and argumentative and said, “Okay, I’ll fix that” and reversed his van again – this time actually knocking Darren’s bike.  Darren couldn’t believe this guy!  He was remarkably restrained as he moved his bike to another spot, finished our packing and we rode out of the downtown.  We were glad to be away from Victoria…

We wanted to catch the ferry from Sidney to Anacortes, Washington, which departed at 11am, but required passengers to clear customs before boarding.  It was about a 45 minute ride from Victoria to Sidney through busy morning traffic in the suburbs.  After our evening in the downtown, we were glad to be heading off the island.


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