Monday, 12 October 2015

Trans-Canada

What a difference a day makes. This has seemed to be a running theme throughout this trip so far in more ways than I can even start to remember.
 
We've just reached the end of our first month on the road as I write this sitting on a very comfy sofa in Vancouver listening to the rain falling outside. It seems fall has finally caught up with us, although I can't complain; we really have had far better weather than we could ever have hoped for.
 
I'm aware that I've been extremely tardy in my writing since we left (part lack of energy, part very limited wifi, even larger part just enjoying the moment and not wanting to spend more time than I have to staring at a screen) so let me go back a little to where this trip began and fill you in.
After a week of catching up with people and making last minute preparations, we finally left Big Bay on a Thursday early in September and headed for the Tobermory ferry. It felt a little odd to finally be setting off after talking about it for so long but we caught the ferry by the skin of our teeth with barely 30 seconds to spare and we were on our way. All the things I'd thought might be problematic or hold us up turned out not to be, the biggest of which was registering my bike which turned out the be unbeliveably easy - walk into office, hand over driving licence, pay fee, get plates. Done in less than ten minutes.

 

Averaging around 6-7 hours riding a day we rode through so many places that after a few days on the road it was hard to remember what day it was or the order in which the previous days had played out. I should add here that Evan is writing a ride report on ADVRider so feel free to check that out for more about our day to day happenings: http://advrider.com/index.php?threads/out-from-under-the-dome.1089896/
 
Sitting on a bike alone with my thoughts for hours at a time was something I soon got used to. Watching the landscape change as we passed into each new province also brought a whole new range of intriguing place names - Sunshine, Happyland, Echo Lake, Porcupine Plain, Smoking Tent Creek - and helpful signs - 'Large vehicles require more room' in huge letters by the side of the road and 'No fish are kept on site between May to September' at salmon hatcheries which reminded me of the notices you see on the back of work vans about no tools being stored in them overnight. It also made me realise just how vast this beautiful country is.

 
 
In order to avoid crossing into the USA and thus starting the 90 day countdown on my Esta Visa Waiver we chose a route a little further north and stayed on Canadian soil, something that maybe in hindsight wasn't a good move, but meant that we were able to ride through some pretty remote countryside. It seemed somehow serendipitous to watch and hear the geese starting to migrate overhead, smiling to think we were doing exactly the same.
 
Always at the forefront of our minds was keeping an eye out for wildlife along the road, but we actually saw very little. Lots of deer, a black bear by the side of a remote road in the north of Manitoba and another on Vancouver Island, but no elk or moose, in fact the only animal I even came close to hitting was a rather agressive golden retriever that charged out of a front garden determined to take my bike down near Drumheller. Our only other close animal encounter was a herd of very enterprising deer stealing our dinner right off the table at a camping ground in Manitoba.

 



Gradually we honed the equipment we were carrying until we had a basic kit we were happy with. Our used tent we purchased before we left and had sent from Thunder Bay we ironically returned to a thrift store there after it proved to be a little too small to hold us and our luggage and the zip started to play up. We found another though, just after we'd given up looking, in an outdoor store we came across by chance while searching for pizza. Interestingly it had not only a porch but more 'handy pockets' than any other item of camping equipment we own. Maybe I'm odd, but I find it funny how many sales people feel this is a major selling point for tents, sleeping bags, etc.
 
We managed to find a whole list of bike bits we hadn't managed to track down along the way thanks mostly to Kijiji. A skid plate and crash bars for my bike, and even more importantly handlebar risers to solve the problem of an old shoulder injury that had been causing me some issues a week or so into the trip. We also seemed to happen upon the best bike shops to fit the bits we couldn't do ourselves. In Calgary this was only supposed to be a rear tire on Evan's bike, but ended up being a clutch lever, foot peg and turn signal too after he ditched his bike in four lanes of Saturday morning traffic on the way there. The biking community really does seem to come together when a problem needs to be solved.
 
The first part of the trip was fairly straightforward, a long slow slog on mostly highway. We were very aware that we were pushing our luck as far as the winter closing in and wanted to be through the mountains without getting caught in snowfall or sub zero temperatures. This didn't mean we didn't divert from the direct path though. In Manitoba we took an extra couple of days to detour north and take a road between two lakes, expecting some stunning views. Unfortunately all we saw for 1000km was trees and road, but it certainly gave us a sense of just how vast the areas between places can be. Several years ago I spent days at a festival trying to see a band called the Wilderness of Manitoba (eventually missing every set) and I can appreciate now just what they're referring to. On a plus point we did see a bear and it gave us the one and only opportunity we've had in a whole month to test our gear for waterproofness. The verdict? Not at all in the case of my cheap 'bone dry' boots, but extremely so as far as my Armr jacket was concerned.



 
 
Otherwise we've been ridiculously lucky with the weather. I can count the number of hours we've ridden in rain on one hand and for only two days did we decide to stay where we were rather than spend a day riding in the wet. Admittedly, we were camped at a place with hot pools at the time so it wasn't any hardship.
 
The further west we've come the more the long straight roads give way to winding mountain roads and the slower our progress has become. That's fine though, it's what this trip is all about. From the time we entered BC we've found ourselves zig zagging north and then south through beautiful mountain passes and snaking roads, exploring logging tracks and gravel roads, something that has been a steep learning curve for me with my minimal experience. My bike, a Vstrom 650, is a little heavier than I'd ideally have liked, especially with luggage added, but I like it. It didn't take me long to lay it down for the first time - the balance with the boxes added caught me unawares in a gravel car park and I had to let it go. On another occasion I missed a change down to first gear on a particularly steep uphill hairpin, instead putting the bike in neutral by accident and toppled off into the ditch. Luckily, as Evan was some way ahead of me on a road that wasn't easy to stop and turn around on, a kindly truck driver stopped and helped me pick it up and I was on my way again. I guess all those years of riding (and falling off) horses when I was a kid had some lasting benefit.
 
As with any trip, it's all about the people you cross paths with along the way that make it what it is and this has been no exception thus far. A side shoot of an adventure bike forum we've been reading for some time is something called 'Tentspace'. I guess the easiest way to describe it is cross between Couchsurfing and the Warm Showers networks, but for bikers. It's an extensive network of riders, conveniently tagged on google maps, who offer space for those on trips to pitch their tent, have a shower and perhaps borrow some tools. Find someone near where you want to stop for the night and send them a message. In some cases, as with Couchsurfing, you meet people who go above and beyond in the most unexpected ways. Our first tentspace encounter was with Scott in Cochrane, a little north east of Calgary. He replied to my message to say 'sure, come and stay'. He added that they were just on their way back from a camping trip and they had some other friends staying so it'd be busy, best make it late afternoon and so we headed over. It turned out that the reason for their additional guests was that they'd just got married that day!
 
Our next tentspace hook up was in Peachland, BC with Mike and his wife Odette. Upon arrival we were made to feel incredibly welcome and Mike advised us that they had plans to head to Vancouver for the weekend but that we were very welcome to stay and make ourselves at home for a few days. As if that wasn't already more than enough, he offered us a comfy bed in a downstairs appartment as an alternative to our soggy tent and invited us to join them for dinner. What followed was a fantastic few days, being able to catch up with everything, dry stuff, do laundry and most importantly ride through the beautiful Okanagan wine region and out towards the desert-like terrain of Greenwood and Osoyoos without having to carry all our luggage with us. Still there when they returned we shared another dinner and when we left Mike rode with us for most of the day, showing us back routes and dirt roads we wouldn't have found by ourselves (sorry for holding you both up, I'll get the hang of it eventually!). And that is what these trips are all about - meeting interesting people, sharing stories and enjoying good company.




 
 
When we parted company with Mike we continued on our way to Lillooette to meet up with a riding buddy of his at a free campground provided by BC Hydro. He suggested a steep, windy gravel road with stunning views that we should take the following day and again sparked the debate that is never far from the surface that smaller enduro bikes might be the way to go for the rest of the trip.
Our plan for our last few days in Canada before crossing into the US was to spend them on Vancouver Island. I wasn't really sure what to expect of it - everyone I've ever met seems to agree that it's a magical place, but my first impressions were that whilst it's a nice place, it's very much like anywhere else in BC. We spent a night in a RV park near Nanaimo, another at a surf camp near Tofino. The latter proved a sleepless night for Evan at least (despite having free use of a hot tub and sauna) after we saw our second bear of the trip crossing the road right by the entrance to the camp.
 
We spent a further night camped in the grounds of a very enterprising motel in Port Alberni and then happened upon a cute little German run campsite on the outskirts of Victoria. The owner had the usual German dry sense of humour - when asked if he has been back to visit Germany recently he replied 'There was a war on when I was last there'. We decided to stay a couple of nights allowing Evan time for a trip down memory lane in the city and to relax for a couple of days before our crossing into the States. Of all the places we spent time on the Island, Victoria was probably my favourite. For a city it had a similar feel to Toronto about it. It's a place I'd like to revisit some day.
At the campground we discovered our site neighbours, Keith and Di, were from Collingwood so we shared some beers and stories and this resulted in them very kindly offering to take some things back to Ontario for us to save us posting them. They also kindly leant us their truck to go and get groceries for dinner and the following morning brought us coffee when they returned from their Tim's run. The kindness, generosity and trust of strangers when you're travelling never ceases to amaze me.




 
 
It was at this point that things turned a little pear-shaped. The night before we intended to cross the US border between Victoria and Port Angeles by ferry I had some very strange dreams. This is unusual for me because regardless of what my dreams are about I very rarely remember them when I wake up. On this occasion though I woke several times during the night to the realisation that we were still in the tent and it was still dark and a sense of relief that the series of dreams I had that night weren't real. In each one we were at US border control and the officers there were refusing us entry on the basis of ridiculous things. First it was that they were not allowing motorcycles across that day, only amphibious vehicles and no amount of pointing at all the cars boarding the boat would sway them. The next time it was because our bikes were the wrong colour for that day. Ridiculous, stupid reasons, but they were rude, dismissive, thoroughly enjoying the distress they were causing by asserting their power and there was no reasoning with them.
 
Over coffee that following morning I told Evan about these dreams and we laughed about them before packing up our things and heading for the ferry. At the port we bought our tickets and waited in line and eventually they asked us to go and clear customs. Evan went in first and I waited outside. And I waited. And waited. After about half an hour I started to get a little concerned but I rationalised that because we were going on an open ended trip and had few plans they were probably being a little more thorough with their questions. When I was eventually called in the woman asked if I was travelling alone and when I confirmed that I wasn't she barked at me to wait outside. At this point I knew something wasn't right. I'd already been asked to go and move the bikes from the lineup to allow those behind to proceed and eventually the guy in charge of loading apologetically told me that they couldn't wait any longer, the ferry had to leave.
 
Long story short, it seems that despite the fact that Evan has travelled in and out of the US with no problems many times over the years, a 25 years old mischief charge that he committed when he was a kid had shown up on his record and they were refusing him entry. To make the issue even more ridiculous he had received a pardon for the said offence and therefore official records of the charge no longer exist. Nonetheless they were adamant that he would not be crossing the border and we had no choice but to leave. Interestingly we weren't the only ones turned away that day, there were several more including a woman in tears who was turned away with her two teenage sons after taking six weeks off from her job to visit family. She said she didn't understand why they seemed to take such delight in turning her away and why they had to be so rude. Obviously the notices that state you will always be treated with respect by border control officers don't count for much.
 
The rest of the day we spent visiting the RCMP, city police and calling anyone we could think of to try and get a copy of a record that no longer exists, but it started to become clear very quickly that there was no quick solution to this issue. If US border control say no then the answer is no. The only solution to the problem it appears is for him to apply for an official waiver which takes months to complete at a cost of many hundreds of dollars in application fees. We'd hit a totally unexpected brick wall and the options were very slim. Suddenly the $20 bribes at the borders of countries further south in the Americas seemed a far more sensible way of dealing with issues. As we rode towards the ferry back to the mainland that afternoon, the signs along the highway said it all 'US border and road to 1 Hope'. If I had a sharpie I'd have been very tempted to add 'or no hope'.
 
Luckily I have a lovely friend in Vancouver, Laura, and she and her roomie Monica stepped in and offered a place for us to stay for a few nights while we tried to work out our next move and that's where we find ourselves now. Over the last few days we've racked our brains to try and find ways to move the bikes to Mexico - fly them, ship them, get someone else to ride Evan's bike down - but everything is either prohibitively expensive or not possible due to import restrictions. In short, we're screwed.
 
Or at least our original trip plan is. The next thing we had to decide was whether the best option was to postpone the whole thing, store the bikes somewhere, go home and work and pick the whole thing up when the lengthy waiver process was complete. Or adapt and find a different way to continue. Neither of us were keen on the former option so we're working on a new plan. The more we've talked, the more it has become clear that this could actually be a positive thing. We've talked many times about only needing the bikes we have for the cross-Canada part of the trip and that they might not be the ideal bikes for the areas further south so maybe parting company with them now isn't such a bad thing after all. A shame in some ways because I really have grown to like the bike, but I can't help feeling smaller and lighter will be better.
 
So our plan now (as far as we have one) is this - store the bikes we have until the spring (or sell them if someone makes a good enough offer, but I'm not holding my breath in a country where the riding season is all but over for the year), fly to Mexico (which we can't do for two weeks for a sensible price, so we have some time to figure things out), make our way to Guatemala, learn Spanish, buy smaller, lighter enduro bikes (which apparently we can do fairly easily down there) and carry on. Who knows, maybe this will become the trip we originally envisaged.
 
The quote on the bathroom wall where we're currently staying says 'Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith'. I think that's pretty fitting right now.
 
Lots more photos... https://www.flickr.com/photos/notatree/albums