Day 66-73, 15- 22 Sept 08: the Cassiar and Yellowhead Highway. Contained bears, no more wildlife?
15th September 2008: Stewart to Bonus Lake, 81km
We could not resist George’s offer to bring us back to the Meziadin junction. Though the ride from Stewart is beautiful, loosing a day –of which half would be uphill non-stop- cycling a stretch we had already done did not appeal. George was happy to get put of town and spend some more time with us, so we put the bikes in the back of the pick-up and 50 minutes later we got dropped off at the exact same spot where we had left the Cassiar Highway a few days before. Back to business!
After all the bear-less hours in Hyder, we got a pleasant surprise. I stopped to pick up CAD $3 in change from the shoulder: our total is now up to about 9 dollars in change found along the road, somehow people literally throw money away… Ivana came up to me and asked if I had stopped for the bear. Bear? Which bear? I looked ahead and saw a large black spot on the side of the road. Damn, she was right, a huge black bear was strolling in the grass. We filmed a bit and tried to warn a passing car, but he did not decease any speed and nearly hit the poor bear as he was crossing the road…
We had planned to stop for lunch and a few minutes ahead we rested near a so-called ‘bear-container’. No it does not contain bears, though that would be funny (funny/interesting and funny/haha), but it is a strong trash container. These are useful in more ways than one: the lids cannot be opened by pear paws so bears cannot get to the trash and will not get used to human food remains. As the sticker on it says: ‘be bear aware, a fed bear is a dead bear’ as once a bear is used to human food, it will no longer be afraid of humans and will have to be hunted down.
The containers have another very useful feature: the backside can be opened and campers can place their food bag inside, next to the hanging plastic bags hat are inside as well. So the supplies are safe from bears and other scavengers, but outside the actual trashbag, so everything stays clean. The availability of a bear container was one of the most important reasons for us to stop at certain places along the highways of Canada & Alaska; even though most are on ‘no overnight camping’ rest areas, we rather be breaking a non-enforced law than attract and feed bears…
It was clear that we were getting into the last and warmer part of the Cassiar Highway. Not only were the glaciated and snowy peaks disappearing out of sight, but we also encountered new types of animals: small yellow and black-striped suicidal caterpillars (even though only a few cars pass the Cassiar per hour, it takes the critters longer to cross it) and some small garden snakes, though mostly in the flat and/or dead variety.
Ivana and I always use to joke that we are collecting airmiles when we are climbing yet another hill and Newton would probably kinda agree as basically we are gathering gravitational energy. The long sweet downhills we always refer to as ‘free miles’ , even though we were riding in Canada, which is a metric country. It was nice to see that after a day of collecting airmiles, we not only cashed in our accrued miles for some free miles, but we ended up at the aptly named hidden but beautiful ‘Bonus Lake’ rest area to top it off.
We cooked in the dark by the light of our headtorches, sitting on the floating jetty, protruding onto the lake, while the stars winked at us. After I discovered my favorite Sea-to-summit titanium folding spoon on the bottom of the lake (thanks Ivana) and managed to get it out we could enjoy our pasta.There were three other travellers who had met at a famous Couchsurfing house in Vancouver, bought a van together and travelled North. We shared a campfire together as well as some wine and beer, but most of all: the spirit of travelling.
16th September 2008: Bonus Lake – Kitwanga, 84km
We rolled quickly over the last hills of the Cassiar Highway and ended up in the small towns of Kitwancool & Kitwanga, with a lot of First nation history.
We felt relieved that we had finished the Cassiar Highway. It had been tough, physically, but maybe even more mentally. One more big part of our trip was now behind us.
Kitwanga is where we had to make a big decision: do we continue cycling and go East to Prince George and then later South to Vancouver, or do we go west to the ferry at Prince Rupert and skip 500km by taking a boat down to Vancouver Island? Many cyclists had had enough of the bad weather and the drians of the Cassiar and had already chosen the 2nd option and we were several months later than them..
Ivana had the idea that she still had not seen the ‘real Canada’ and her people and as we also felt that taking a Southbound ferry was undermining our goal to cycle from one end to another, we decided: we will go East and go all the way!
We had planned to continue cycling on the Yellowhead Highway a bit more, but we noticed a set of large totempoles. After wandering around, it was almost sunset and we asked a man who was standing in his garden if we could pitch our tent in his yard. Sure, no problem, we could come in as well and eat with him if we cooked! It turned out that our host was Roger A Johnson, an elder of the Gitsxan First nation. He told us about his work, being an interpreter between the different chiefs and the mining companies wanting to buy and mine the mountains. Just as Roger was talking about the disappearing of the original culture and language – he was one of the few that could still speak it- a few very white Jehovah witnesses came by and handed him a booklet. It was called something like “First nation News” and depicted on the cover was a traditional First nation burial. But the inside of the booklet just rambled on how the original cultures were nice, but in order to be really saved everybody had to let go of the uncivilized habits and go with the religious flow..
Meanwhile Ivana was making hamburgers for all of us and we ended up with a nice meal together. The next morning Roger was waving us goodbye, loudly shouting his trademark ‘Good Morning Canada!!’, went into the house and gave me a nice present: a Gitsxan flag, which I have been carrying on my bike ever since.
17 September 2008: Kitwanga – Smithers, 114km
We were now on the Yellowhead Highway, #16. There were houses and farms everywhere but also too many trucks and cars. The scenery was still outstanding, but quickly we both realized that we missed the Cassiar: the wilderness, the wildlife, the loneliness, the pain.
One new thing we noticed that there were many field of cattle: a field with cows, a field with horses, a field with bears…
Wait. What? Yes, there were 3 bears in the field right beside us! They were eating the leftovers from the grain harvest and moved away as we came closer. It was wonderful to see these majestic animals roaming freely.
We spend a long time watching them, not feeling threatened at all by their presence at it seemed that this was mutual. When we got going again, the sun had dropped behind the glaciated mountains and after a long day and 114km of cycling, we entered the city of Smithers in the pitch black night.
It was a shock. Traffic Lights. KFC, Taco Bell, Mc Donald’s. More traffic lights. We were overwhelmed by the abundance of food and confused by the hectic city life, even though this would be considered a small town by North-American standards.. We called the number Willie Williams had given us in his home, a week ago, as we would like to meet his wife, who might be in town. His daughter answered and told us that not only Grace, but also Willie was in Smithers, and they were having a coffee in the ‘Tim Horton’. In the what? It appeared that Tim Horton is the Canadian version of Starbucks, but much more affordable and with delicious freshly baked muffins, bagels and sandwiches.
It was great to surprise Willy by riding up to the window with our bikes and talk with this great man again. He introduced us to his wonderful wife, whom we felt we had met before through his stories.
Moments later, a befriended couple joined our table and they invited us to stay in their house, up the hills. We were prepared to pitch our tent, but they invited us in and we had a comfortable night on the couch of the Hofsink family!
The next day we woke up to a beautiful day and rode back into town, to spend the day working at the local library. We stayed until it closed, which was after sunset and found ourselves to find a place to stay. We were still in shock by the neon, fastfood city life and ended up pitching our tent behind the local Boston Pizza, which had given us permission after serving us our dinner…
Day 70, 19 September 2008: Smithers to Houston, 70km.
Just when we headed out of the town of Smithers, a large pickup stopped next to us, with a big bearded man and a young girl leaning out.
‘Are you guys travelling around the world?’. That seemed a bit of a strange question, but in fact at least half true, so we stopped and said yes.
‘I am Paul and this is my daughter Jo. You have to come to Houston tonight! What would you like for dinner?’.
We tried to tell Paul that we had planned to pass Houston and cycle another 30km or so, but he would not take no for an answer.
‘Just take your time, here is the address, we will see you tonight!’.
It turned out that Paul had been cycling with his family for the past 30 years. He had a house full of bikes and a heart full of stories. He had hosted the South Africans Johan & Charmaine, whom we had met on the Cassiar. Their motorbike had broken down as as Paul is as big a fan of motorbikes as he is of bicycles and hosting new friends, he took care of them.
First we had some business to attend to: when leaving Kitwanga a few days before, Roger had asked us to check if his old friend “Oepie” was ok and send him his regards. When we found the gasstation that Roger had described, a cheerful man came up tro us. It did not take long that Oepie was Dutch-born and the next hour we spend talking about The Netherlands, British Columbia, while eating a real Dutch style richly-filled soup.
That night we arrived after a pleasant, sunny day of riding and had a great meal, cooked together. It was so nice to hear all of Paul’s stories and spend time in this bicycle haven and heaven. We simply could not leave the next morning, even though we had said goodbye to Paul as he left for an all day motorbike trip with his friends early in the morning. Ivana went on a tour of Houston with Jo and I spend the day catching up on work and emails and in the evening we enjoyed more stories and good food. We also got to use Paul’s well-stocked garage and finally cleaned our chains and Santos bikes…
Day 72/73: 20/21 September 2008: Houston to Vanderhoof via Burns Lake, 97 + 120km!
Our clean bikes raced over the Yellowhead highway, as the wind was in our back. Even with a late start, we still managed to ride over almost 100km of rolling road. We picked up our old habit of staying in rest areas (close to the No Overnight camping! sign), but this one was definitely the loudest so far, even though we were about 10km from the town of Burns lake. Not only was the traffic passing very close, but a large truck had its engine on all night (as the driver was sleeping here as well). To top it off, about every 30 minutes a huge and very loud rumbling turned into a deafening noise as the freight trains passed our tent, merely a few metres away…
One definite change since the quiet solitude of the Cassiar were the trains, the artery of British Columbia. For the next weeks, we would follow tracks, with usually hundreds of wagons linked together, filled with goods, grains, ore and other necessities for Western Life. It made shopping for our daily meals a lot cheaper though, as not everything had to be trucked in.
Another change was the disappearing of the forests, though we could smell them. Likely this is partly natural, as we were cycling on the Central Plateau, but looking at the dozens of logging and sawing mills and stacks and stacks of cut down trees, I suspect a large part is man-made as well.
Thanks to the friendly wind, we managed to have our longest day so far, even though there were numerous hills. After 120km we entered Vanderhoof, whose claim to fame was apparently that they were at BC’s geographical center. What impressed us much more were the friendly people we stayed with, the Himmelrights.
Though we had asked to camp in their garden, we ended up in their son’s room and had a great time with the family. It is always a pleasure to meet fellow travellers, whom you do not have to explain why you would want to see the world…
Just one more day from Prince George, then we finally can go South again! One thing that worried me is that the slight back pain I had the last few days, has grown worse and worse, to the point that I cannot lift my heaviest of Ortlieb bags without a grimace of pain on my face. Maybe it would be a good idea to see a doctor in Prince George. Or would it?
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